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New and old co-exist. Minsk is a city that has embraced capitalism without fully erasing its past.

Prior to 2017, American passport holders had to apply for a visa in order to visit Belarus. With so many countries in the world to experience, this was an easy enough deterrent for me. Now that the restriction was lifted, I was happy to check out what the country had to offer.

Arrival

The immediate landing brought about surprises and some observations. The security at the border control were one of the most thorough I’ve encountered in my travels. I’ve yet to experience my passport being scanned as meticulously as they did at the Minsk security, even bringing out the F***’in loop.

Prior to arrival, there are two small tips for fellow travelers that I can offer. First, bring a pen with you on the plane. For whatever reason, no matter the flight, I’ve found stewardesses are never willing to give out pens. A pen is needed to fill out the entry form, which should be given to you during your flight. In addition, make sure to fill out the form twice (for entry and exit). I learned this the hard way as I only has one side filled in when I approached airport security and was sent back to try again.

Secondly, you need to get medical insurance while you are there. It’s only $5 and normally you can purchase it before entering getting through the border control. You can save time by having these two items taken care of before entering the country.

Airport

I found one kiosk in the airport that allowed me to get an internet sim card, which only costs $5 for the maximum of 5 days you can stay in Belarus without a visa. This is well worth the wait and something I recommend since it becomes tougher to obtain to get these cards once you leave the airport.

One area in which Poland is no different than Belarus is that older grandmas (babcias) simply have no concept of queuing in lines, waiting turns, or the social unacceptability of interrupting people. Similar to many experiences I’ve had in Poland, while patiently waiting in line for my card, a babcia cut in front of me to interrupt the clerk while she was helping someone else out.

From an American standpoint this is one of the rudest things you can do in public. I’m not sure the reason this happens in Central and Eastern Europe but there has to be some cultural background, probably related to communism where it’s not viewed as a problem. The clerks are always annoyed but seem to accept it. It takes a lot to get under my skin but between this and being constantly bumped into by the same group in queues, it’s the one area where I have to hold my tongue and remind myself I’m the guest 🙂

If you can get internet on your phone in the airport, I’d recommend an Uber.

And here comes another aside 🙂 Although I don’t think the CEO of Uber was the greatest guy, if it wasn’t him someone else would have this concept, so let’s table that for now.

Many don’t like Uber and I can see some downsides but I’ll briefly explain why as a traveler to foreign countries, I much prefer it. Although my situation is extreme, I play the economics game back at cab drivers who complain about Uber. In countries where foreigners have more money than residents such as places I’ve been to like Poland, Moldova, or Ukraine, it’s economically rational to charge them higher rates. Even though it’s rational, I find it dishonest.

In the case of Minsk, I’ve learned by being ripped off from cab drivers so many times in the past that you can negotiate with them. This is the first thing I don’t like about traditional cabs. I much prefer a fixed price based on the actual market rate, I’d even pay a small surcharge for being a foreigner. But what I don’t like is being egregiously ripped off. When I’m in the airport and have spent the whole day travelling it’s not fun to play a mental poker game to figure out the price the driver is willing to accept. 

In my situation in Minsk, I spoke with the wrangler, the guy at the airport that got people to the cabs. Unlike all of my Uber drivers, he was pushy and rude. Prior to getting into the cab, he both quoted me a fixed price and told me the driver accepted credit cards. Of course, when I arrived at my hotel, the driver charged me a higher price and didn’t take any cards (luckily I had cash). So now the newer lesson for me is that I need the wrangler to both confirm the price and write it down so I don’t get scammed. This isn’t about money but principle. The fact that I have to jump through so many hurdles to not get taken advantage of is frustrating. Because the wrangler knows I’ll never see him and I need to get to my hotel, he can take advantage of me. This is all true but it creates disdain for cab drivers, and pushes me more to Uber.

Impressions

My initial impressions of Minsk were of a very clean and organized city. I may have missed it, but I couldn’t really find an “old town” or “central square” like other European cities. Instead Minsk tended to branch out in rings, offering more and more space as you got further away from the center.

When you get outside the center rings, you are presented with many massive public and private buildings with nearly nearly immaculate groundskeeping work. I could really get the sense of what a centrally planned place would feel like, especially going into the m

 

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Unlike nearly all of Europe, graffiti was very hard to come by and the streets were immaculately clean, above average for the cities I’ve been to. Although I’m sure they exist, I didn’t encounter a single drunk bum or panhandler in the places I ventured, another big plus for me. 

For those nostalgic about the Cold War, it’s an absolute must to visit Minsk. You can find a big statue of Lenin and plenty remnants of communism can easily be spotted in the city. In the main center there are several Orthodox churches that provide nice photo opportunities.

I’m not sure why but compared to other cities I’ve been to, Minsk has many casinos. There are scattered throughout the city, often built into hotels like you’d find in Las Vegas. I was even able to find Texas Hold ‘Em games.

The food is similar to Russian but with its own twist. Minsk had many American fast food options, more so than I expected.

’d recommend learning some basic Russian phrases to get by. If you stick to the main, main center you can do OK without English but this isn’t like Western Europe where you don’t have to put any effort into things. I think it’s worth it to invest the time to get the most out of the city.

Additionally, unless you want a very limited experience you’ll need to rent a car or be comfortable with Ubers since it is not a walking city. You could also take the public transport to save money but I tend to get lost so it’s not something I considered, although this may be fine for the more adventurous. I took the street car once and it’s easy to buy a ticket from the driver.

Final Thoughts

In terms of travelling, I’d rate Minsk medium for someone who has traveled before and hard for an American who has never left the country. Similar to my experience in Moldova, visiting Minsk is ideal for someone who is enamored by the former Soviet Union, interested in another  language and culture, or wants to slightly go off the beaten path of the often traveled parts of Europe.

Having lived in Central Europe for awhile, you appreciate how much Americans are really pampered when it comes to service. If you have the money, everything in the US is spelled out and made easy as possible for you. When travelling abroad this is something you need to let go of, even in nicer places; it’s simply not in the culture. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend Minsk for those new to travelling in Europe or those who don’t want to venture out of their comfort zones. If you prefer staying in an English-speaking bubble, you’ll not get much out the visit and will be confined to a few small areas.

You need to invest a little to get the most out of the city, either in embracing the culture, language, or being open to a different way of life. I enjoyed my time in Minsk.


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