Frank from Germany belongs to the type of travelers who like to immerse into the local culture and know how to make good contact with locals by being curious and a bit adventurous.
This is how he discovered Belarus through its charming small places that are not promoted as well as big tourist attractions.
Frank’s ten trips to Belarus in 15 years helped him gather useful tips and entertaining stories about ruins, visas and couchsurfing, Lenin and trains, and many other things.
My first time in Belarus was in 2004 with my best friend, who has relatives there. I joined him because it was something new, an unknown country. In Germany, you don’t hear much about Belarus.
Now, after many trips, I always tell people that I like to travel to Belarus. Belarus is something special. It has everything. Wonderful nature, a rich culture and history, good food and friendly people.
The change – in millions
There was actually one big difference. In 2004, I got around maybe 200 rubles for one euro, in 2012 – more than 2,000 rubles. So it was really strange for me to give one 100 euro-bill and get back a really big pack of money.
Now, it’s a bit easier – 2.3 new Belarusian rubles for one euro.
Visa and registration
I used only private visas to come to Belarus. I always had to give the address of friends to the Embassy and then always go with friends to a registration office. Actually, it’s really easy to get a Belarusian visa.
What I don’t like is the registration procedure. For this, it’s best to speak some Russian. Second, the persons at which flat you’re getting registered, also need to go there. It’s really hard to understand where to go and what to do if you’re alone.
I read it will soon be much easier because one can travel visa-free and also without registration or only a short form.
Not only Minsk
In 2004 Belarus was just a white spot at my land map. During the three weeks of my first visit, I was just walking with my best friend, looking around and exploring Minsk. When I came back in 2012, I also stayed in Minsk, and found new stuff like little monuments, amazing sculptures, cozy cafes, parks and much more…
For the two following visits, I came back to Minsk. Maybe it sounds quite much for just one city, but Minsk changes its face with the different seasons.
For example, when the snow is really high to your knees, the city is like Winter Wonderland. But in summer the sun might burn your skin if you don’t take care.
I totally adore the parks in Minsk. They are beautiful, especially in spring and summer. You always can drink a nice cold kvass and relax in the shadow there. One example of such a wonderful park is Loshitsky Park in May when all the apple trees are in blossom.
During my fifth stay in 2016, I wanted to discover other parts of Belarus. I got this idea, because every time I met someone from another city than Minsk, they told me how beautiful their cities are.
So I went to most all of the bigger cities like Brest, Hrodna, Homiel, Viciebsk, and Mahilyow. They are easy to reach by train. All in all, I can recommend the whole country of Belarus. Old castles, ruins, churches, little traditional villages and, of course, nature.
Country of magic ruins
Ruins are magical in my opinion. The problem is, they are in the middle of nowhere, for example in some little villages far away from train stations. This means, when you want to see ruins in Belarus, you will need a car or a bicycle and strong legs.
The one ruined castle I really liked is Halshany Castle. It’s a wonderful place, especially when the light is falling at a particular angle. Also impressive are abandoned churches, with only some wall or nearly intact, totally empty and silent. You can stand in the middle of this places and let your imagination run free.
What distinguishes Belarus
What was quite impressive for me is the landscape in Belarus – you have some little hills, but most of the country is nicely flat. In the region, where I grew up, in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge in Germany), we have mountains and hills everywhere. In Belarus, you can see really wide.
Sometimes the countryside reminds me a bit of the center of Canada, because of these wide fields, nearly the same style of roads (normal and many farm roads) and also many uninhabited areas.
For people who like to go by bicycle, Belarus is nearly a dream. There are nice little hills, you can go quite fast and easy from one point to another.
Transport and accommodation in Belarus
I always went by train. You can travel easily from Minsk to all other bigger cities. Of course, you need some more time for the trips, but you can enjoy the old Soviet-style way of traveling. For me, it was something new. Sometimes quite uncomfortable but cheap, sometimes much comfort.
What saved my time was to look for my trains in advance. I wrote the data of the trains on a little sheet of paper to show it to the ladies in the ticket office. I always got the ticket I want without any problems, and these ladies were able to smile about a funny foreigner.
I mostly used couchsurfing. And due to this, I met amazing people. They share with you nearly everything, they are open-minded and, of course, they are interested in you as a traveler. I couchsurfed for many times in Minsk and also in nearly all big cities, the “Big Five”. I never regretted this decision.
To choose my next destination, I’m using the application Maps.me because it’s nice, easy and you can see and find everything at this maps.
Negative surprises? Well, I just don’t like the border… But come on, who likes borders? Also, sometimes it seems that there are soldiers and policemen everywhere. But no worries, there are just big military and police schools in Minsk… And they can be also really helpful if you get lost somewhere.
Selfies with Lenin
I didn’t search for Lenin, there is one in nearly every Belarusian town or city. In some, there are even two Lenin sculptures. They can be everywhere: in parks, in front of Dom Kultury (Culture House), in front of governmental buildings, in front of schools and so on.
Of course, I took pictures of Lenin and me because it’s something that you don’t find in any other western European city. For example, in Hungary, they dismantled all Lenin and socialist sculptures and brought them out of Budapest and placed them all in a little park, where you need to pay an entrance.
In Belarus, Lenin is always somewhere in the middle of the city. Sometimes Lenin looks quite new, sometimes quite old and sad or the sculpture rots away.
Actually, this special heritage is very interesting, especially when you don’t have such in your own country. When you are driving 400 km through Belarus, you will see so many monuments and socialist architecture… First, I really stopped at every monument and building which looked somehow interesting and took a photo. In case I would have done this longer, I would need years.
Prepare some notes in Russian
For sure, you need English, but it’s still tough to get around. Without English or Russian, it’s really hard. The knowledge of Cyrillic letters helps really much.
Trips to bigger cities should be OK. Trips to smaller cities or villages can be a difficulty. The best would be to have a friend who can help you and translate a bit for you. Or you prepare different phrases for everything that could happen.
I never had problems to get around in Belarus. Somehow, I always reached my destination point. People are really helpful. Sometimes it’s enough to pretend that you are lost. All in all, traveling in Belarus is nice, it’s a little adventure. I always felt safe and well!
Miedavukha, Zbiten, Kvass
Food in Belarus is mostly everything about potatoes, prepared in many different ways – with mushrooms, with meat… I like Draniki. Until now, everything I tasted was totally amazing and I liked it.
Belarusian cuisine is very fat. They cook with much oil and other fat. But due to all this fat, it’s very tasty. I never met anybody who did not want or like draniki. Also some special soups, for example, borsch. It’s really nice after some long trips or some work when you come home and there is a nice bowl of this soup waiting for you.
In 2016, came in first contact with miedavukha. It was so tasty, a kind of beer made from honey. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to find miedavukha in the western parts of Europe.
The same for zbiten, a beer-like drink made from berries. Normal beer is also quite good in Belarus. I’ve been at the Lidbeer festival (a beer festival in Lida- note BelarusFeed) where you can try different kinds of beer.
Unusual at the beginning was kvass. It’s something like hate it or love it. Some people could drink it all day long. Other people say: Oh my God, no, go away with this stuff. In summer when you buy fresh kvass, it’s incredibly refreshing.
Oh, I almost forgot about birch sap, also amazing. The best birch sap I drank was homemade by the grandma of my friend.
Photo: Frank Naumann