‘Belarus, what the hell are you going to do there?’ This is what we heard when telling about our New Year plans. Small wonder, Belarus is neither a typical travel destination nor very present in Western media unless it’s ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’ news piece.
So why did we go there? We had two simple reasons for that – we like to go off the beaten path and meet friendly people. Furthermore, you get much value for your money there.
After the decision was made we started planning the itinerary. Our choice fell on Minsk, Vitebsk and Polotsk. Retrospectively it was a good choice.
What a stereotype scenario! Minsk around New Year is very colorful. The streets are lit up with thousands of blinking lights in all colors – a little kitsch but very impressive indeed.
After a short walk, we reached our hotel. We booked the first night in a hotel to easily get rid of the registration process for the rest of the trip but unfortunately, we were taught a better one.
Expectations vs reality
The next day we got straight to Vitebsk by train. The English version of the Belarusian railway website makes buying electronic tickets easy. While traveling you only need to show your passport to the conductor before you enter the train. That’s it.
For the 3-hour ride, we’ve booked seats in the sleeping coach. We didn’t know what to expect but heard from friends who took the Trans-Siberian Railway that it can be a boozy ride with lots of vodka. In our case, everything was chilled and really quiet.
The train was sold out, soon after departure most of the passengers laid down in their beds. A friendly tip – the coaches have upper and lower beds and no separate seats.
If you have booked an upper bed and want to sit you have to take place at the lower bed. In any case be prepared to share your personal zone.
Geographical centre of Europe
Vitebsk. One of the first impressions is that it’s away more relaxed to stroll across the streets there than in Minsk. The city has a nice little old town beside the Victory Square and the Victory Park is the main attraction.
One full day was enough for us to explore the main sights, eat a dranik-burger at Pushkin Times and have a little snowball fight. The next day we continued to Polotsk, the oldest town in Belarus but way smaller than Vitebsk.
I don’t know how it is in the summertime but in winter we felt like we were the only tourists in town. Due to its small size, it’s perfect to get an impression of the everyday life Belarusians have.
You should not miss the central market: a busy place surrounded by classic Soviet prefabricated buildings where one can find everything from self-made groceries to warm socks. Continuing our city walk we passed the exact geographical centre of Europe (according to Belarusian scientists).
Generally, Polotsk is that small you don’t need more than a day to explore it. That gave us time for an extensive restaurant visit with layer salad, draniki, Krambambulya (kind of a national alcoholic drink in Belarus) shots and pickles to neutralize all the alcohol.
Celebrate like a local
Our train to Minsk left at 4 pm the next day, so we luckily had a lot of time in the morning to sober up and pack our bags.
Back in Minsk we continued to explore the city, shopped souvenirs and enjoyed the days just before New Year’s Eve. Much to the relief, almost all shops and restaurants were open until 10 pm in the city center.
We also had some worries about celebrating New Year’s Eve, as we heard that most of the people stay at home with family and friends till 12 pm and parties will start after 1 am only. Since banner announced several music acts until 4 am at the October Square we decided to spend the night on the streets.
Everybody watched it attentively and then the countdown began and suddenly it was New Year 2019. The atmosphere was pretty strange without a big celebration or firework. Just a few hugs here and there – that’s it.
Straight next to us was a Belarusian family who started chatting and sharing self-made sandwiches with us. And once again the same question came up: “Why to celebrate New Year in Minsk?”
Are we the only ones thinking this is not a big deal? We then offered our new friends a glass of our sparkling wine, which they thankfully refused. Maybe it’s not the best champagne, huh?
Our mistake number two that night: glass bottles were prohibited around the square and so the militsiya (the Belarusian police – note BelarusFeed) came very quickly.
After a short discussion, we moved to the Sports Palace to watch the big firework at 1.30 am. Turned out that the party there was bigger and louder. So if you’re into partying go there! The firework itself was one of the most colorful and biggest we’ve ever seen.
Afterward, we blended in with the crowd and enjoyed the rest of the party eating shashlyk. Even at 4 am the streets were very crowded. Not only young people but also families with children were still celebrating.
Next day was a public holiday. We spent it strolling through Gorky Park and relaxing because the next morning it was time to go back home.
Registration trick backfires
As I told at the beginning, we’ve only registered for one night. According to the official ministry website that should be fine and it was until the border control.
The pulse rose a little when an emigration officer asked us questions regarding the missing registration days. Luckily, after a short call, she got the approval to let us pass and a very nice trip came to an end.
To sum up the trip I can highly recommend Belarus around Christmas. It’s not so cold and the cities are colorfully decorated. Many things reminded us about our childhood in eastern Germany.
The typically Soviet architecture and lifestyle are mixed with many western elements. Don’t expect rundown infrastructure, you won’t find it here and in the stores, you can find everything – traditional eastern and western brands.
Be aware that English is not widely spoken. So you should know some basiс Russian words or at least be able to read the Cyrillic script. The Belarusians itself are very friendly and open-minded people.
We wish we could have spoken better Russian to get more in contact with the locals. Maybe that’s a good New Year’s resolution.
Text by Markus Thiemann. Preview image by @tsaruchkainst