Belarus, a country sometimes referred to as “The Last Dictatorship in Europe” (Although Putin might have something to say about that), is not somewhere that jumps in to peoples minds as a tourist destination. The city was practically leveled during the Second world war and was rebuilt to the finest Stalinist standard featuring huge public buildings, a grand railway station and wide boulevards crisscrossing their way throughout the capital.
Another reason few people from Britain visit Belarus is due to the brutal visa fees (Around £150 for a 30 day visa) and the lack of indirect flights. In a previous post (Belarus on a Budget) I discussed taking advantage of the countries 48 hour transit visa to get yourself a day in capital and decided I’d do a follow up on what you can actually see in the city in that time.
First things first we disembarked our train in the Central station at about 7 am. I’d been anticipating that the Belorussian border inspection during the night would’ve been worse than it was but all in all it was fairly quick and efficient. Due to a bit of a mix-up with our rail tickets only being redeemable in Russia we had to purchase new ones in Minsk central station first thing.
It was at this point that I learnt that Belorussians like to queue pretty much chest to back with the person in front and behind. I left about a 2 foot gap between myself and the person in front and an elderly woman walked up and squeezed in in front of me. I said “Pazhalsta” (Sorry/Excuse Me/Please) and was met with a confused expression and then noticed the passport the woman was holding was old enough to have Stalin on the cover and thought I’d cut her some slack.
Most of what there is to see in Minsk is built down a long central avenue. We walked past the main administration building with it’s large statue of Lenin, the KGB building (That’s right, state security are still called the KGB in Belarus) and down towards the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK’s assassins former Minsk abode, his primary residence during his defection to the Soviet Union, is not really consider a tourist site and most likely has someone living in it, however, you can still see it from the outside on the corner of Kamunistychnaya Vulitsa.
We occupied most of the rest of our day visiting Minsk’s main art museum and it’s main old soviet style department store where I purchased a cheesy Belarus fridge magnet. I’d also heard that the Ballet in Minsk is very affordable and thought that if I was ever going to give ballet a go I would when it cost £4 a ticket.
The inside of the Opera house was spectacular and the rest of the audience were dressed up in their best, leaving me feeling a bit out of place having slept on a sleeper train the night before and having not had the chance of a proper wash. Despite this I really enjoyed the show, promptly rushing across Minsk afterwards to catch another sleeper train on-wards to Riga in Latvia.
Whilst waiting on the platform my travel companion was taking a photo of the Minsk-Riga sign on the side of the wagon. A soldier approached us and said something in Belorussian. I responded in Russian asking if he spoke English? His response?;
“YOU ARE ARRESTED!”
“Shit, for what?”
“You cannot photograph train.”
“Ok we’ll delete the photo”
“No you must come to police station and pay fine.”
My heart drops.
So either he wants a bribe or we’re going to have to go the station, miss our train and thus overstay our visa and then be in serious trouble. I start to get worried and I think he can see this so then he drops the bombshell…
“Only joking! Takes as many photos as you like!”
And then strolled off laughing. I was not happy! But at the same time quite relieved. I took a photo (felt I had to at this point) and boarded the train, grabbed a beer and went to sleep.