Hailed as the last dictatorship in Europe, this politically volatile state which has been a point of conflict between Russia and America is possibly one of the most mysterious parts of the world. It is a country which has seen terrible riots, continual police brutality and repeated “disappearances” of those in power who oppose the regime. Even Russian plays which could be argued to have parallels with the goings on have attracted pressure to be banned. The capital Minsk has a mixed architecture which matches many other aspects of the country. The centre is dominated by soviet building, mostly hailing back to the height of communism, with some more ancient buildings hidden away and a glossy garish front applied which does little to reduce the city’s oppressive nature. Brest has been an incredibly busy point of transit in the past but is now more famous for its Second World War fortress and as an entry point from the West. Despite the country’s reputation, the people are incredibly friendly (if not wearing a uniform) and enthusiastic to show off the successes of their nation, both new and old. The impression of the country as impenetrable is also false. The train north through Poland to the Baltic States once passed through Belarus and border guards may have contributed to this. In fact visas can usually be obtained at the airport on arrival, although it would be more sensible to organise one before departing.
The main languages are Russian and Belarusian which share vocabulary meaning that Russian speakers and Belarusian speakers can easily converse. There are several different dialects of Belarusian itself but some keys phrases are as follows:
Dobree Dien - Good day.Kalee Laska – Please. Dzjakooyeh - thank you.
It is good manners for all guests at a Belarusian meal to make a toast, this can simply be done by raising your glass and saying Za Droojbooh which is a toast to friendship.
The currency is the Belarusian Ruble (BYR) or Zaichiki. £1 to BR4000, $1 to BR2100 and €1 to BR2700 (correct October 2006). There are ATMs throughout the country but travellers cheques may be hard to exchange.
The climate is continental and certainly not clement enough on its own to draw many visitors. The coldest month is January with lows of minus 8 degrees Celsius, whereas the warmest and wettest are July and August with averages approaching the twenties.
Brest – Brest was once one of the busiest thoroughfares in Europe although more recently its fame has drawn to a more military nature. Brest Fortress, built in the nineteenth century was used in the Second World War to defend against the Germans for a month. The fort itself and museum are a testament to the sombre and turbulent history of the area. The city itself has a far brighter atmosphere and is renowned for being distinctly different to the rest of the country. The accommodation here is typically communist, coupling structural elegance with impersonal service.
Ice Hockey – The national sport is ice hockey and the national team caused huge upset in the 2002 Olympics with their victory in the quarter final over Sweden. There are plans to build a stadium in every centre but currently the main stadium in Minsk is the most obvious place to watch a match. The standard is very high and the atmosphere normally very exciting. The President is said to organise his own mock matches here with players from the national team. It is in everyone’s interest that his team wins and there have been serious repercussions when this has not been the case.
The centre of Minsk could well be a futile shopping experience. The main streets are lined with boutiques apparently selling Gucci and Prada, closer inspection however reveals that none of the shop really hold any stock and are simply part of a huge communist façade. Milavitsa makes the majority of undergarments in the region thanks to a joint Italian-American investment and the number of outlets reflects this. Multinational companies are yet to set up any hypermarket type affairs in Belarus allowing smaller chains and independent grocery stores to continue with bizarre queuing practices and unbelievably low prices. Souvenirs are limited tea-towels, matrioshkas (small dolls) and cigarettes.
Much of the tourism is dominated by those looking to purchase or collect a bride. The nightlife is adapted accordingly and it is hard to ignore the organised events where teams of educated women trying to achieve a future that does not involve poverty or alcoholism which are so rife in this part of the world. Nightclubs catering to the young locals and expat crowd have a very high turnover; West World Club is one of the few places which continues regardless although it is a bizarre experience dominated by prostitution and odd dancing. All the major opera and ballet performances tour in Belarus; it’s the place to be seen at the weekend and tickets are cheap, the only excuse not to go would have to be your attire.
Belarus has well surfaced but frequently poorly lit roads. Driving is on the right and driving under the influence of alcohol is forbidden. Speeds limit in built up areas is 60 km/h and 90 km/h on rural roads.
Food and Drink
Restaurants in Belarus have a long way to go if they hope to catch up with the rest of the world. Minsk has a few more modern options but most are fairly uninspiring, despite the trend for musical accompaniments. The food is no different; traditional meals are stewed or slowly baked and usually include quite a lot of potatoes. Kotleta po krestyansky is a traditional meal and consists of pork chops mushrooms. Belarusian meals traditionally include a large volume of alcohol, predominantly vodka and beer but Georgian wine is also popular. Drinking is widespread and beer is available pretty much everywhere.