Today is my last day of backpacking in Belarus. After publishing this blog post, I’ll cram all my belongings to my backpack once again and head to the Brest railway station. A few hours later, I’ll arrive to Warsaw, Poland.
“Why did you come to Belarus?” a group of young student girls asked me a week ago. It was my first night in Belarus and I had just arrived to my hostel in Minsk an hour or two earlier. We shared the same dorm room for one night, but we didn’t really share a language. Only two of them spoke a few words of English and my Russian is very rudimentary.
“Я не знаю”, I don’t know, I answered truthfully, laughing. The girls laughed as well.
Backpacking in Belarus
Indeed, why did I come to Belarus? Even if I had spoken more Russian, I couldn’t have given a much better answer. Just because it’s there: A huge mass of land that would stand out as an empty spot and taunt me if I’d ever draw a map of all the European countries I’ve visited.
Because it’s Belarus; because it’s something different.
”We don’t have the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China here” my friendly hostel manager, Juliya, said to me the following day. Juliya’s hostel, Hostel Trinity, is located in a beautiful spot right near next to the center of Minsk. The place opened just last year and is one of only few hostels in the city. Luckily, backpacker culture has recently started to get some foothold in the country.
Compared to many other Eastern European countries that I’ve covered on this travel blog, there’s little tourism in Belarus. Foreign travellers usually come from Russia, Ukraine or other former Soviet countries. Most of the locals don’t speak English, so the country can be a very challenging destination for Western travelers. And then there’s painstaking and expensive visa application process that is sure to alienate the casual voyagers.
Rumor has it that the Belarusian authorities might loosen the visa requirement for trips of no more than five days in the future. I truly hope this to be true.
(UPDATE: The rumor turned out to be true. Since February 2017, citizens of 80 different countries can travel to Belarus without a visa for a maximum stay of five days. However, the only allowed entry point is the Minsk National Airport. You can see more information here.)
A Country with a Reputation
It also doesn’t help that the international reputation of Belarus is not very good. Known as ”Europe’s last dictatorship”, the name of the country either rings no bells at all or the bells tend to clatter badly off-key.
Corruption, human rights violations, censorship. The reputation of the country is personified in the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who’s kept the country on a tight grip for over 20 years. ”I like to say he’s different”, my hostel manager said politely – after first describing the president in a bit more colorful terms.
When we look at Belarus from the outside, we easily forget that not all the citizens of the country share the values of their leader. This is an interesting but dangerous phenomenon that is not limited to Belarus. For example, the politics of Vladimir Putin have increased racism against ordinary Russians – even though these people don’t have any say in their country’s foreign policy.
It’s much easier to see this from your own perspective. At least I wouldn’t want anyone to assume that I completely agree with the values of the current (slightly conservative and right-wing) government of Finland. I also believe that half of the U.S. population would eagerly distance themselves from their president’s policies.
We easily forget that no matter how different governments are, the people in all countries are fundamentally as diverse and humane everywhere. Likewise, the citizens of Belarus are as genuine and friendly as any other people anywhere else.
An Offbeat Choice
If you expect ”the last dictatorship of Europe” to be somehow similar to North Korea (which I visited in 2015), you’re in for a disappointment. The government buildings and squares in both Minsk and Pyongyang may share a similar megalomaniac scale, but that’s just about where the similarities end. Instead of being a life-size puppet theatre, Minsk is a modern and bubbling metropolis with a surprising amount of greenspace even in the city centre.
Would I recommend traveling to Belarus? Yes! Would I recommend backpacking in Belarus to travelers who don’t speak any Russian? I’m not so sure. While I could run basic errands with my crude Russian, the language barrier made deeper discussions mostly impossible. It was hard to meet locals as a solo traveller in Belarus.
In Baltic countries such as Estonia, the language barrier is slowly crumbling as younger generations learn English. This is not necessarily the case in Belarus, where asking ”Вы говорите по-английски?”, do you speak English? at a fast food restaurant was usually responded with a nervous headshake and a quick ”нет”.
Whenever you get past the language barrier, however, Belarus will reveal it’s glimmer to you. This is a beautiful country with interesting culture, nature and history. If you don’t count the expensive visa, the low price level makes backpacking in Belarus an attractive choice.