I’d been interested in Belarus for a while and for several reasons:
- I’d heard it’s still stuck in the 60s / USSR times
- My mom went to Minsk as part of a business coalition after the fall of the USSR, going to several cities to teach business skills to people
- I was blazing through former Soviet-bloc countries at this point and growing in curiosity
In June 2014, in order to get a visa for Belarus, I went through the same company in the UK who’d arranged my Russian visa. The kicker was that you had to book a hotel from a small list of options the Belarus embassy provides, and 3 stars was the lowest option. That raises the price, obviously. I booked my hotel, sent off my application, and got my passport/visa back.
Remember that I was in the army at this time, so that created extra paperwork for me to get permission to go on this trip on a long weekend.
The trip itself was phenomenal.
Before going, I’d gone on several websites trying to find locals who were vegan, since I wasn’t having any luck on Happy Cow, but didn’t get replies from anyone. I arrived at the Minsk airport, with my ‘proof of health insurance’ in hand. Oh, they didn’t accept it, so I had to get out of line, pay $2 for health insurance for my 4 days, and then get back in line. What a racket!
Once I caught a bus to the main station from the airport, took the subway to my hotel, and checked in (funny thing was that it was next to the German embassy, the owners spoke only Russian & German, and I had to use my really bad German to communicate with them).
I’d no more than plopped down on my bed before I got a text message. “You don’t know me. You messaged my friend about vegan food in Minsk. Want to hang out & I’ll show you vegan food?” Seeming too awesome to pass up, I arranged to meet him at a subway station (I didn’t give my hotel name), and this started a fantastic trip.
You wouldn’t know it, but this guy had a big group of vegan and vegetarian friends who were all into hardcore, super excited to practice their English, super excited to talk about American hardcore bands, and I didn’t spend a waking moment alone that trip. I had guided tours everywhere I went and even attended the first ever Animal Rights gathering in Belarus!
That first afternoon, we walked around the city for a bit before catching the metro (2 whole lines!) out to this ‘beach’ at the reservoir. If you work hard, comrade, the USSR will let your family come here on a vacation! True story.
We had a great sunset here before heading back into the city. We wound up at one of those really common ‘pay by weight’ buffet places, but having locals with me was awesome. Obviously, the vegetables and salad were easy to recognize, but they taught me the important “ya veganska” (I am vegan) that I used a lot on the trip, and they showed me vegetable-stuffed pastries. The only way to find out what’s inside is to stab it with a fork, which doesn’t make the buffet employees very happy, FYI.
The next day was spent walking. A lot! Minsk has some really interesting status in the oddest of places, and we were never too sure what they were for.
I also really liked all of the Soviet-throwback stuff. A lot of the Belarus populace/government seems to miss the USSR, and they never made such big efforts as Russia to take down all of the Soviet stuff.
The architecture was really interesting, as well. Obviously Soviet-style buildings abound, plus the Orthodox church. However, some of the newer stuff was weird just for the sake of weird, and the contrast was super interesting.
Also, McDonald’s drive-thru was THE NEW THING when I was there, and people were lined up around the block to go through the drive thru. There was no line inside at all. I watched this from my hotel and found it strangely hilarious.
The third day was full of a group trip through the botanical garden and live translations from various people at the small-but-proud 1st animal rights seminar in Belarus. One of the most anticipated talks was from a guy who was trying to start the city’s first recycling program. Out of respect, I didn’t take pictures at the seminar, but we had a great time at the botanical garden nearby.
I wasn’t sure how to broach the next topic with the group, so I told them that I was tired and wanted to take a nap at my hotel. What I really did was go find the former home of Lee Harvey Oswald when he lived in Minsk and was trying to become a Russian citizen/defect to the USSR in the 60s. He even got married while living here!
Someone still lives here, and they will apparently let you pay to look around, but I wasn’t interested in forking over money to see his furniture.
Passing by my hotel, I scheduled a ride for the next afternoon out to the town of Khatyn, the site of a senseless massacre by the Nazis during WW2. The manager told me the driver won’t speak anything but Belarusian but will take me, wait while I take pictures, and then bring me back.
Meeting back up with the group, we went to a coffee shop with vegan cookies & then a restaurant for dinner, both of which sadly no longer exist.
The main guy I met first also had a cousin who works at this outdoor Belarus history museum and asked if the next morning, my last day in town, I wanted to visit it before it opened, so that it would be free. Of course! His cousin also gave us a guided tour and translated the signs for me. What a VIP treatment!
We had just enough time to catch the bus back to the subway station near my hotel, grab my bag, and stock up on candy bars before heading to the bus station to catch the bus to the airport. While I was there, I tried to hunt down a rumored vegetarian restaurant in the bus station, but my “dzie viehietaryjanski restaran?” was met with confused stares, and I figured out it didn’t exist.
Belarus was intriguing and fantastic. Writing this years later, I wonder what’s changed and what hasn’t. I see lots more stuff on Happy Cow now, but also the things I added have closed.
A year and a half later, I actually run into 2 of these people at a music festival in Czech Republic, which was awesome. They’d talked about being denied for EU visas before, so I was glad to see they’d gotten to do some traveling to get to the music festival.
Thanks for the awesomest of memories. I felt like I was among friends and family for 4 days in Belarus.This entry was posted in Belarus, Khatyn, Minsk