There are countries that millions of typical Singaporeans would love to visit, all for a photo opportunity just so they can post on Facebook or Instagram to show that "they've been there". (oh the Eiffel Tower!)
And, there are countries that probably 99% of Singaporeans don't give a damn about; Belarus is one of those countries.
If you’re like most Singaporeans, you'd most likely never given much thought to this "State" (now country) of the former Soviet Union (my bad, most Singaporeans don't even know Belarus exists). It is, by far, the least touristy country in the whole of Europe.
The most iconic monument in Belarus, 100 foot stone monument called "Courage"
I didn’t have much expectations when I planed my trip to Belarus. I'd already visited quite a number of former Soviet republics prior to planning my trip; Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia; but frankly, I still didn't know much about Belarus.
In Singapore, news about Belarus is almost non existent. The only time Singaporeans discovered the existence of Belarus was when a Singaporean was detained after wining a gold medal in the "World Powerlifting Championships" (held in Minsk, its capital) because he exceeded his 5 day Visa free stay and had to raise funds via Crowdfunding in order to get home.
Leaning on the touristy Minsk sign in front of the Great Patriotic War Museum
Belarus provides a glimpse of what life was before the Collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also perhaps Europe's only remaining country still holding on to its Soviet past like a badge of honor and has maintained the strongest ties to Russia among all the former Soviet States. While the country does have "democratic elections", its President, Alexander Lukashenko, has firmly held on to power and deposed all rivals since 1994.
I couldn't help but notice the similarities with my own country Singapore. Both countries are controlled by a "single person/single political party", both are ruled with an iron fist (by modern standards), both practice heavy censorship, propaganda and have a debatable human rights record.
The streets of Belarus are amazingly clean. And by that, I mean they are way cleaner than Singapore or even Japan (both countries don't even come close to Belarus in terms of cleanliness). Soviet monuments and parks fill the city, luxury cars line the roads and poverty seems almost non existent (on the surface). The government of Belarus has a law requiring individuals to work at least 183 days a year to fulfill their income tax obligations to the government. Failure is punishable by fines, detention and community service.
What You Need To Know About The VISA Free Entry
War memorial in the city of Minsk, Belarus
Effective February 12, 2017, citizens of 80 countries will be able to enter Belarus visa free. But note the following though; lest you end up like our Singaporean Powerlifters who overstayed their welcome.
Visa Free travel to Belarus is for a maximum of five days
These five days INCLUDE the day of entry AND the day of exit.
You MUST enter and exit from the Republic of Belarus only through Minsk National Airport
You CANNOT arrive and depart from/to Russia.
You MUST have the following documents with you when entering Belarus:
A valid passport
Financial means: at least 25 Euro or equal an amount in Belarusian rubles for each day of stay
Travel insurance with coverage for at least 10,000 Euros which is valid within the territory of Belarus (just select the "Worldwide" option when you buy your travel insurance)
What To Do?
1. Soak up the Soviet atmosphere
Parliment Building, Independence Square, Minsk; Belarus
The capital of Minsk is lined with Soviet monuments, propaganda, and communist era mega structures, buildings so huge they wont fit into your frame when you try to snap a photo. Visit the KGB Headquarters in Minsk and get asked to F*** off for taking photos of it!
Visit the War museums, checkout especially the Stalin Line; an open air museum consisting of Soviet weapons, tanks, and bunkers. And no, this isn't your typical museum where you walk around snapping photos of old Soviet relics. As part of your Stalin Line tour, you get to taste the Soviet army dishes they ate back in WWII, fire weapons, and even ride a Soviet tank!
2. Check out their Monuments and Architecture
National Library of Belarus
Belarus doesn't simply have an old communist feel about it. Similar to some of its "former allies" like Azerbaijan, and Georgia, there is a conflicting futuristic vibe about it. The picture above shows the "State Library", an awesome structure in the middle of communist styled residential housing.
The real draw of the library though is the observation deck where you are treated with impressive views of the capital city.
Memorial at the Island of Tears
We stayed in the city center, less than 5 minutes walk away from the Island of Tears. While it's not evident in my picture above, this memorial of a chapel with grieving mothers and sisters was built to commemorate the Soviet Soldiers from Belarus who died during the Soviet - Afghanistan war in 1979 which dragged on for 10 years.
Church of Saint Simon and Helena
In the Independence square of Minsk is the Church of Saint Simon and Helena, arguably the most impressive church in Minsk especially known for its statue of the Archangel Michael striking the winged serpent.
For more of Belarus's iconic architecture or even castles, take a castle tour to Mir and Nesvizh, about an hour and half's drive out of Minsk. We were supposed to visit this castles, but thanks to a screw up from our hostel (we had already booked the tour and were supposed to pay on the day of the tour) who decided to offer our spot in the tour to some other people to "paid first", we had to give this a miss.
3. Enjoy a night of Opera or the Circus
National Academic Big Opera and Ballet Theatre
Tickets start from as low as 3-5 Euros for a performance. The enjoyment of traveling is not simply about sightseeing, but rather to soak up the culture of that destination. What better way to soak up soviet culture than catching a performance in one of their grand theaters?
4. Immerse yourself in its nightlife
Capturing lights, roads of Minsk at night
The streets of Minsk are lined with lounges, bars, restaurants, clubs, anything you need to keep your vacation going all the way into the wee hours of the morning. They aren't exactly cheap but Singaporeans should be able to afford it, luxury vacations are apparently our thing. If shopping in Milan is a non issue, partying in Minsk is nothing.
5. Do a day trip to Brest
Entrance of Brest Fortress
The city of Brest is home to the largest tourist attraction in Belarus, Brest Fortress.
I repeat. You haven't been to Belarus if you haven't visited Brest Fortress. It's like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower or saying you traveled to London but didn't cross the Tower Bridge.
The centerpiece of Brest Fortress is a mega monument, a 100 foot high stone memorial which is the greatest "unknown" monument no one even knows about. Built to commemorate the Red Army's heroic resistance in the city of Brest against Nazi Germany, the waves of Soviet patriotism and sorrow of it all hit you the second you step into the fortress compound (thanks to the solemn Russian music played throughout). The experience of standing in the square and having a stern stare-down by this 100 foot stone giant immediately justified why I came such a long way for.
The other significant monument is the 40 foot stone soldier sprawling on the ground trying to fill his helmet with water. It's name; "Thirst" (below)
This monument symbolizes the suffering of the defenders of the fortress. Under siege and having had their supplies cut off by the Nazis, the defenders of Brest were mad with thirst and tried to sneak out at night to the river in the hope of find water before being picked off by Nazi Snipers.
6. Explore the National Parks
In the point above, I mentioned Brest Fortress was the key attraction of Belarus. That holds true, when visiting on a 5 day visa free entry. But the true attraction of Belarus (which I could not have experienced based on my 5 day visa) is actually the beauty of the Belarussian wilderness.
The national parks of Belarus are home to animals, forests and rivers few have ever seen; and perhaps the last and only national parks worthy of being called "untouched". Huge parts of the country have been closed to visitors since the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster in Ukraine back in 1986. What might be possible would be visiting the Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park just outside of Brest. It is the oldest wildlife reserve in Europe and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
That would be possible to visit today, but on a 5 day visa? Maybe not.
Great Patriotic War Museum
Belarus is cheap.
1 Euro is the rough equivalent of 23,000 Belarussian Rubles. A pasta (in a proper restaurant) for instance would cost just 2.5 Euro equivalent in rubles. Quality vodka (a Russian favorite) costs as low as 3 Euros a bottle in supermarkets. And beer? Well, around 1 Euro a glass.
Taking the subway in Minsk, Belarus (it's really convenient goes to most attractions, and doesn't break down like the one in Singapore) costs as low as 0.10 Euro cents! It's incredible!
Getting to the city centre/Around
The city center (which is modern, unfortunately I only came across 1 shopping mall) is around 42km away from the airport. It takes around 40mins by taxi (Roughly 15 - 20 Euros) and over an hour by bus no. 300 (less than 2 Euros). Buses depart every hour and you can get the ticket from the driver. If you happen to speak Russian, you could probably get an Uber for 10 Euro.
I'd suggest the taxi though. The usual flight into Belarus is around 3.30pm and later. Singaporeans are supposed to be wealthy, keep the public transport experience for your 2nd day.
Recommended restaurant in Minsk
Belarussian food is unimpressive. Lots of potatoes, meat, sausages; nothing entirely dissimilar to the rest of Eastern Europe. In the picture above, I've ordered what the waitress claims are staples of Belarussian traditional food, potato pancakes and some kind of sausage.