BELARUS

Vodka, Stalin statues and porn CDs: A trip to Belarus

The national memorial to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. All the photos were taken in Minsk by Joseph Preston.
The national memorial to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. All the photos were taken in Minsk by Joseph Preston.

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“What are you doing in Minsk?” Joseph Preston, a British tourist, heard this question a lot during his holiday in the capital of Belarus, which remains one of Europe’s least popular tourist destinations. Preston told the Observers about his trip to this unusual country.

Belarus is not exactly a popular destination for tourists, unlike other former Soviet block countries. Only about 300,000 tourists -- most hailing from neighbouring countries -- visited Belarus last year, according to the Belarussian National Statistics Committee. And that’s still more than two times the number who visited in 2014.

Belarus, which has a population of about 9.5 million, remains one of the most closed-off countries in Europe. Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1994, and is renowned for his dictatorial practices.

This poster is of a high-ranking Belarus general.

"Our guide showed us the factory where they make refrigerators. That’s when we really wondered what we were doing there”

Joseph Preston, age 20, spent five days on holiday in Minsk with three friends.

My curiosity was piqued when I read somewhere that Belarus was “Europe’s last dictatorship.” I also liked the idea that there were so few tourists.

But even just getting into the country was a struggle. The tourist visa is expensive [Editor’s note: it costs around 60 euros] and the process for getting it is difficult. As there are no direct flights between London and Minsk, we had a 14-hour layover in Kiev. All in all, our journey was 22 and a half hours.

Once we were there, our guide started proudly showing us Minsk’s principal “attractions”. “Here’s a factory where we make refrigerators. That’s the Holocaust memorial. A little farther, you can see a factory where we make vodka.” That was when we really started wondering what on earth we were doing here.

Next, we went to the apartment that we had rented. It was really small and painted salmon pink. It was located in the middle of a big, Soviet-style housing estate [Editor’s note: Minsk was practically levelled during World War Two and was almost entirely rebuilt in the Soviet style of the era].

A large statue of Lenin looms over a government building.

 

"Don’t eat the mushrooms because they are extremely radioactive”

The next day, our guide absolutely insisted on bringing us to a certain restaurant. You could eat an entire meal for about a euro, but the food was vile. We ate a traditional dish made up of a potato pancake with meat. We later discovered that the “restaurant” was actually the Belarusian state university cafeteria.

We were told when we were there that we shouldn’t eat any mushrooms because they are extremely radioactive, even more so than other food products. About a fifth of the country is still contaminated after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

We noticed a lot of people with physical and learning disabilities in Minsk, and we did wonder if it had anything to do with radiation. Despite the apparent problem, we didn’t see any handicap accessible buildings.

Later, we went to see the brand-new World War II memorial and museum, which was all about “the triumphant struggle of the Belarusian people” and the “heroism of the Belarusian army.” It was very nationalistic, to say the least.

Young skaters practice in front of the WWII memorial.

The neighbourhood close to the WWII memorial.

"Lots of vodka in the supermarkets"

But this country also has its good sides. For example, the forests are very well preserved, despite the sizable lumber industry. [Editor’s note: forests cover a third of the country].

We ended up having a great time. We took out a paddle boat on the Svislotch river, which winds its way through the town. The only problem was that the person who rented the boats didn’t speak English, like most Belarusians. So we had to figure out the hand gestures to express questions like “How much is it for half an hour?” or “Can we rent life vests?”

Our Observer liked the neighbourhood where the Belarusian national theater and opera are located.

We also went to a giant supermarket, which was really entertaining. There were cans of horse meat, aquariums full of sharks and eels, and vast amounts of vodka. Then again, that isn’t surprising because it is the country with the highest rate of per capita alcohol consumption in the world. We also found an aisle that was just full of porn CDs.

We also went to a shopping centre where there was a restaurant called "Good Burger", which is the Belarusian version of "Burger King". There were in fact a lot of signs that looked like ones that we have in the West, except they are in Russian.

"We only met two other tourists"

When we headed back to the airport, our guide started talking about politics for the first time. He was pretty critical of the government, which surprised us. We hadn’t brought up this topic before, because we had been told not to talk about politics in Belarus.

We only saw two other tourists during our entire trip.

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According to our Observer, another one of the weird and wonderful sights in Minsk are the many underground flower shops in Minsk.