Visiting The Last Dictatorship In Europe

Before entering a country I like to do a little research into what to do and see (little being the main subject of this sentence). Sitting with my laptop in front of me and reading headings like ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’, and ‘the North Korea of Europe’ flashing before my eyes, I decided this wasn’t always such a good idea. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I envisioned my European holiday, more beaches and cocktails.

Crossing the border into Belarus was like going to an open area museum on the Soviet Union. Old cars rattled past us along the dirt road spotted with pot holes, the small wooden houses where mostly run down, chickens roamed their yards and some times the streets, people wore what I imagined as Russian dress wear, complete with large fluffy fur hats. It was a complete change as soon as we crossed the border crossing, it was like instantly getting thrown back in time, and we stood out with our large backpacks screaming ‘TOURIST!’

It surprised me how much of a difference crossing a border can make. All of a sudden the streets, cars, houses looked different, people dressed different and spoke differently. I can only imagine this is what it was like back in Berlin during the Cold War, on either side of the Berlin Wall, and we had just willingly arrived in the East.

To add to the feeling of being an eye sore tourist, when we checked into our hostel we were given the whole three-story building to ourselves. For dinner, we tried a local restaurant where no one spoke a word of English, and thought it was quite hilarious that two Australians were eating there. The menu was all in Russian, so had to struggle with our Google translate app to try and figure out what was what, even harder for me because I had to find something vegetarian. The waitress must have noticed our struggles because she called her friend who spoke good English and we ordered our meals through her, translating it back to the waitress. The food is amazingly cheap in Belarus; we ate meals all around $5AUS, large traditional tasty dishes.

It was such an interesting country, a vast contrast to what we were both used to back home. No footpaths, the streets were in poor quality and dirt roads throughout the main center. Every lake we passed was spotted with rugged up old Russian men, huddled over a small hole with a fishing rod dangling in.

Arriving in Minsk is another complete change to the countryside. The streets are wide and the monuments large and impressive, exactly what I had always envisioned Russia to look like. The city was clean, large and Soviet. Every person we met was exceptionally lovely and welcoming, our hosts looked after us like family and people were amazed to meet Australians.

When hitch hiking, we waiting not  long to be picked up, and even though no one ever spoke any English they took us anyway. One man even went out of his way to take us to the war memorial because we wanted to show us. Another time hitch hiking we waited only seven minuets, our record, before a young couple took us and with enthusiasm drove us all the way to Brest, where they hosted us for two nights.

Of all the places I’ve visited so far, this one would have to be the most interesting and different. I felt completely taken back at almost every turn of the corner. I was interested to talk to locals on opposing opinions of the current goverment, and try and get some sort of understanding into what it was like for the people of Belarus still living under dictatorship. It’s defiantly worth a visit just to see what the soviet times must have been like, and to see something completely different than on a normal European trip. The large Soviet monuments are something else, still very stuck in the reminiscing of the past.

I want to be fair and say that I didn’t give this country a fair chance by visiting it in the ends of winter. The trees were bare, the ground muddy and brown slushy left over snow was scattered around the countryside. Almost every person I met told me I must come back in summer, summer ‘is much more beautiful’. Since traveling further away from winter and finally seeing a country again in summer, I realize all the difference it makes depending on the season you see it. I can only imagine the beauty Belarus was capable of; in the spring with the bloom coating it’s many trees and the lushes country side a vibrant green. Sadly, I don’t have the time to see every country in the summer, and Belarus was unlucky it was chosen for February.

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