I spent the best part of my early years at my grandmother’s village settled right beneath the bridge of the main international railway in Portugal. I was amazed by trains, wondering about the passengers and where they were heading to, and I always had that urge to jump on the first train departing, no matter its destination.
A few years ago, I decided to make it happen – on a train ride to Belarus. What I discovered was an apple, standing there, just waiting to be plucked and savored. This was my first time in Belarus. In 2016, before the visa-free regime and the new rouble.
A Portuguese traveler explains why Belarus is perfectly ready for tourism.
I decided to add Belarus to the end of a railway ride that started in Moldova, taking me to the Black Sea, and then across Ukraine. My entry point to the country was the railway border between Zabalottya (Ukraine) and Brest.
It took close to two hours for my Portuguese passport to be validated by some superior authority. During that time, I sat on a bench looking for a train full of people waiting for me to board.
The trip resumed, and we approached Sušytnica station where I would “check-in” to Belarus.
There I was again staring at the same train while everybody waited for me to be controlled
I had all my paperwork ready: passport, invitation letter and insurance. The Belarusian border patrol gets into the train, everybody seats waiting for their turn. Equipped with a portable reader for electronic passports – it actually was the first time my passport was “electronically” processed.
The patrol was commanded by a beautiful 50ish lady officer with magnificent sky-blue eyes. She approached me and asked me for my documents with a very pleasant smile.
“What are you doing here?”
“Tourism”, I replied.
“Here!!? This is your bag?“, pointing at my backpack, “Could you please open it”.
There were a million people on that train wagon, none of them was asked to open their bags. I really thought she was just pulling my leg, so I asked with my best Portuguese smile: “Really..!?”. In less than a second, all the beauty was gone and gave room to the type of Soviet coldness we see in movies. Stressing the Rs: “Rrrreally!!”. I opened the bag. She looked in: “Please, step outside”.
There I was again staring at the same train while everybody just waited for your dear friend to be controlled. Turns out the lady was pulling my leg. They used the opportunity to test the equipment on a real passport.
Later she told me it was the first electronic passport to show up around there. The smile was back, I got a few suggestions for Brest and the train rolled on to its destination.
My companion during the ride was a nice Ukrainian girl trying to chat with me using her full multilingual skills – 7 words in English, 5 in German, 2 in French and 2 in Italian. I bought Belarusian roubles, I ate, and I drank on the train all thanks to this polyglot friend of circumstance.
I arrived in Brest with about 3 hours delay.
Upon arrival, as expected, the manager of the apartment I had booked was no longer waiting for me at the train station.
The first mission was to find out a place where I could get Wi-Fi and send him a message. This being done, with all the mess of trying to just reach them, I forgot I actually needed to withdraw some money to pay them.
I asked if they could just drive me to a cash dispenser. The reply was negative: just relax a bit, visit the city and you’ll find a cash machine somewhere then you’ll just leave the money on the table when you live. This was my first contact with Belarusian hospitality.
I could tell wonderful things about Brest now, but that’s not the purpose of this piece. I’ll just mention, as I do quite often, one of the weirdest things about Belarusians.
I was grooming the idea that I was just walking on uncharted lands
On my short stay, I obviously had to eat. In the places I went to, not so upscale but surely not for the common people, when I enquired the waiters if they spoke English, there was like panic in their eyes and they all said “No” at first. Almost all of them ended up telling me, in English, what was on the menu.
One other thing I must add is that the center of Brest reminded of that movie Pleasantville. The pedestrian part of the city is filled with an amazing bucolic ambiance, and very nice cafés to just sit and let time slowly flow by.
The next day I took the train to Minsk. I remember this lady at the bar in Brest train station trying to understand where in the hell I was coming from and just with this huge amused smile. She helped me select the best travel snack for my trip.
I am not assuming I was the first western tourist people that I came across in Brest ever saw, but let’s all agree that Brest is not exactly Venice or Paris. I do admit though that in the back of my mind, maybe on the bottom of my heart, I was grooming the idea that I was just walking on uncharted lands.
Upon my arrival in Minsk I already had internet, a SIM card I bought in Brest, and just went on to check-in. I got a few millions from the cash dispenser – the only time I was ever a millionaire, settled in and went off to explore the city for three full days before returning home.
It was a lot easier to get people speaking English in Minsk. A lot of restaurants already had menus in English, some of them with a brief explanation of the meal.
Prelude of open borders
I didn’t return to Belarus before June 2017. By then, there was the 5-day visa-free regime. Getting into the country was just a walk in the park. Show the insurance I’d gotten back home, handed over the passport and state “5-day visa-free”. Migration card stamped, passport stamped, and I was back.
This time not exclusively for tourism.
That trip was a test-run for my idea of opening a travel agency. I had a “normal” job, but I was tired of it. I was taking a small group of five other people with me. I established a few contacts before and met some people on the tourism business.
Meanwhile, I was back already for four more times, the latest less than one month ago.
During the following two years, I’ve witnessed the country going from a full need for the visa to the prelude of open borders – a ticket for the II European Games will be enough. It started with 5-day visa-free, moved on to 30, and now, as most of you will be aware from June 10th to July 10th of 2019, there will be no need for a visa to enter via any border, land or air, into Belarus.
There are troubles related to the specific geographic situation of Belarus or to this late opening of the country to the west
I’ve encountered, during my trips to Belarus or just on the internet, a lot of interesting people. I’ve been in touch with directors of the Listapad and with the core of the team preparing the Games. I’ve met and kept contact, with PR from some of the best hotels in Minsk. I’ve expanded my network to every sort of service needed in the tourism business.
Are there no troubles? Yes, there are, both related to the specific geographic situation of Belarus or to this late opening of the country to the west. We can take, for example, the interdiction for foreigners to cross the land borders with Russia, or trying to explain a request for an out-of-the-box service.
But those people I met tell me that Belarus is ready for tourism and for the world. The quality of services does not stay behind that of most, not to say all, the destinations in Western Europe. Hell… I even found nice Portuguese red wine in a supermarket.
But the apple is still there, getting shinier by the day. And every time I visit Belarus just looks tastier.
Life is just slower in Belarus
Belarus is not a destination for “normal” tourism. The first thing a foreigner needs to learn about this lovely country is that time moves differently there.
To give an example, I love to go and have breakfast in Tsentralny cafe. First time I visited there was only one lady queuing in front of me. She asked for a coffee and as the girl started the machine to serve it, I stepped forward to ask one for me as well as some pastry.
I was looked at as if I committed the biggest crime of my life. I waited.
When my turn came, I asked for my Americano and as I tried to ask for my sweet treat, the same look.
I got my coffee and I was finally allowed to ask for it.
Life is just slower in Belarus. And that just amazing. We forgot all about it while leading our western stressful lives.
Another experience I remember with a smile, a crooked smile. Once, while visiting a company’s office, I was received with a “you can get undressed and put the clothes on the hanger”. The issue was clarified with a correction that is was for me to feel free to take my jacket off.
Read also: 7 ways to make a Belarusian laugh
This mixture of a certain innocence and slow paced life reflected in a vast city – Minsk city area is more than 3 times that of Paris – with wide streets and sidewalks, inserted in a country where nature is still the ruler, perfectly oblivious to pace of modernity, make Belarus the most charming destination to be found within a 3-hour flight from most western European capitals.
And that fact is falling on the radar of the tourism industry, as the inclusion on the top 10 countries to visit in 2019 by Lonely Planet.
Mario Lobo is railway travel enthusiast. A former IT teacher living in Luxembourg, he decided to open a travel agency specialized on Belarus after his first visit to the country in 2016. His aim is to take other Westerners to “this lovely country”.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff.