Minsk was never on the agenda. I did look into it once before going on the trip when I decided to fly to St. Petersburg from Vilnius and saw a layover option. That was until I saw I needed a visa and well Moscow as a layover sounded so much more appealing at the time.
Turns out a friend I met my first night on this trip, in Tallinn, was headed over to Minsk. He was going because he received an email saying that with the World Cup Fan ID the Belarus visa was exempt. When I received this news I was in Lithuania for my marathon and would head to Vilnius which is pretty close to the Belarus border. I wanted to fit in Minsk but wasn´t sure if before or after Vilnius…well or just stay in Vilnius because if I went to Minsk I could only go for a day.
As I was arriving to Vilnius by bus it started to rain heavily and my friend said it was sunny in Minsk. So when I got off the bus, I left my bag in bag check and jumped on the next bus leaving, some 10 minutes after arriving.
It was crazy, I had no clue what bus I just jumped on, no hotel or hostel reserved, no clue if there was a bathroom or internet on the bus, nothing but off I went. Turns out no wifi, no toilet…ha The bus ride was 4 hours, aka another bus ride added to the 1.5 hour journey from Kaunas…what was I thinking! Also turns out no one spoke English on the bus nor where I was going (nearly no one) and Belarus was full on Russian Cyrillic script (so no more reading either)!
My four hour journey was none the less great, I passed out as soon as we left only to be woken up about 40 minutes later when we hit the border and I had to get Medical Insurance (similar to Cuba) which here cost about 2.5 USD a day…incredible! Then stamp and off we went. Now awake for the longer part of the trip which was field and forest after field and forest for hours but I kept myself entertained writing in my journal and trying to take photos of the cool Cyrillic signs I couldn´t read. I was steadily loving this plan of 24 hours in Minsk!
What I was liking was that I was off the tourist grid! I couldn´t understand the language nor speak it, not many English speakers present, normal people need a visa to come and well who goes to Minsk anyway??!! I also liked the unknown, I had no hotel, I had no map, no recommendations, no clue what awaited. It was super exciting!!! It has been too long since I have done a trip, even if for only 24 hours, like this into the unknown and not touristy, I couldn´t help but be ecstatic!
Finally the bus was arriving, the city was very cool. Huge all white buildings, building after building, all very similar. All very Soviet I thought. Turns out Minsk is the most well preserved Soviet style architectural city in the world because it was reconstructed after the World Wars when Germany tried to occupy Belarus in the end leaving it´s original architecture destroyed.
The bus terminal is next to the train station (yes, you can take a train as well) and in front are the City Gates, welcoming most travelers officially to Minsk (although it was only later that I noticed them since my mission was find a hotel as soon as I arrived). Minsk is actually quite the hub for travel in this region and I totally recommend a quick visit if you can as it is a city that leaves an impact on you.
Hotel…well I found someone on the street who randomly spoke some English and they helped look on Google for a nearby hotel and then sent me in the right direction (since I didn´t know the word for Hotel in Russian…). I definitely did not find the one they sent me to but I found another. I made it to a Crown Plaza Hotel, and of course this is where foreigners stay so their price quoted in USD (warning!) and second it was way too much ($200 USD a night). This was a business hotel, but luckily the receptionist helped me find a hostel and call and reserve a bed. Turns out hostels here are really Casa Particulares (similar to Cuba, rented rooms, no reception, no real common area). Happy to have a place I obviously used the wifi there too and let me friend Daniel know where I was and where I would stay. He was coming back from a local football game (yes, he too was going to the World Cup, or shall I say his 4th WC and was passing time before WC started going to other local matches near Russia) and would head over and go with me to the hostel. So I sat, enjoyed the wifi, talked with my Mom and stayed warm as I had brought the rain with me (well sprinkles).
On our way to my hostel we made several stops, enough to get us to the door at about 1:30 am LOL. You can blame this on dinner, touristy photos and the place not being all that close by…we also left Crown Plaza around 11 pm…..so anyway we arrive and obviously they were asleep and don´t answer the door, they actually blocked the calls from the cell we borrowed on the street from party goers…lol so in the end…no place to stay..HAHA Obviously my friend had a plan B, in his hostel, they actually do answer phones at any hour but I had called earlier and they said they were full…but he knows that in his all guy dorm there are beds available and he asked the other guys if I could stay before he headed out just in case….so we go with that plan and continue our tour…looking for a beer on the only party street in Minsk to celebrate my marathon..yeah!
We end up at a burger joint that still seems to be selling beer since the club down the street is too loud and the bar next door had stopped serving..it is what it is. Finally at the hostel by 4 am, walking back again and touristing on the way. By the way, it felt like a pretty safe city.
His hostel was in the City Gates back by the bus/train station. We arrive and call, still the response is, we are full. Again there are beds, so I crash for the night (or morning)..only to wake up 5 hours later to go for a run (my first since the 42kms). Not wasting many hours in my day obviously. The run took about 2 hours….as most runs seem to while being a tourist in a new city. That and I only managed to run 3km…of course legs not ready for more…but I got out there. I ran along the river..by the way…awesome place to run! 3km got me to the start of Gorky Park which is next to the Victory Monument (with an Eternal Flame) so I walked the park and checked out the monument before walking all the way back…just in time for my friend to walk out the door thinking to go look for me (I said 1 hour …oops)….I showered, changed and out we went exploring. And no I didn´t pay the night, no one knew, and yes my life was saved for that night (Thanks Daniel!)…welcome to my crazy travel lifestyle…ha ha
My last few hours in Minsk were just as great as the night time arrival craziness. Daniel and I went exploring, walking every where. He had been here before so he acted as my guide. Lucky too, he knew a bit of Russian to get us by….his 7th language if he decides to finish learning it…WOW!
Any who we started at the City Gates (ha were we stayed…) then slowly made our way walking toward the center of town, grabbed lunch in Independence Square (Business Lunch..an English word and not even this I could figure out how to pronouce…cryillic…oh my), found Stalin, got lost, stumbled upon a Nike Store (good to see because they too were months behind on product arrival as is Colombia…yeah we are not alone!), some random monuments (finally the center), tried the musical chair and touched a sculpture for luck or riches or something, souvenirs and then figured out what we really wanted to see ha ha. We focused on seeing the Great Patriotic War Memorial, sad we didn´t enter because this is the first WWII Museum ever build (actually built during the war) and also biggest war museum ever built. Needless to say the memorial outside was well worth the stop where the Soviet Flag still flys…didn´t know those even were allowed…nor had I ever seen one. The monument shows the many battles of the bloodiest war and has red stars incorporated everywhere! In Belarus 3 million people died and over 250 killing camps were set up :(. Very sad.
Our last stop before parting ways was obviously the Metro ha ha but tourist wise we checked out the Island of Tears, Opera/Ballet Theater and Km 0. The Island of tears is yet another sad place but interesting because it is a memorial to fallen soldiers in a 10 year war in Afganistan. What is interesting is the island is the shape of the country Afghanistan. The Opera House is Gorgeous and huge, also well known for the talented works that come through the Theater and the excellent prices to see them here. Km 0 is the middle of the country basically, all roads lead to this point (also found in Russia).
Short, quick and very interesting last minute trip to Minsk left me wanting to learn Russian and happy to have felt the true backpacker spirit again off the tourist grid :D.
Belarus was worth the visit just to see a somewhat trapped in time culture and rampant Soviet history found completely preserved in Minsk.