Belarus’ visa policy isn’t very welcoming to tourists other than Russians (who can enter without crossing any form of border control), but Belarusians were very welcoming to an unfamiliar face once I got in. Not being able to speak Russian is a huge handicap, but people are a lot more willing to take the time to try and understand your charades, read your body language, or speak a few words in English. I wouldn’t say they’re the smiliest people, but certainly a lot more comfortable to be around, especially considering how safe everything and everywhere was. All the couchsurfers I met were helpful and hospitable, though sometimes a bit too friendly – one man and his wife were open to threesomes with female travelers and stated this openly on their couchsurfing profile!
There wasn’t much striking about Minsk, a city nearly completely rebuilt in Soviet times with oversized, colourless, communist buildings filling most of the city. The entrance doors to most residential buildings reminded me of a maximum security prison cell door, but like in many other things, functionalism and safety are more important than aesthetics. Visiting in summer helps brighten things up, though all the parks and green spaces are left to fend for themselves, unless it’s a park around some sort of historical monument or war memorial. Children’s play grounds more often than not had swing sets without swings, but the endless forests outside of the cities made a much larger, more beautiful playground for those who wanted to enjoy it.
I enjoyed a lot of cultural things in Minsk, though not all of them very stereo-typically Belarusian. I attended a Salsa festival, a symphony, the Swan Lake ballet, and an art/music street festival whose theme I couldn’t figure out. Around Minsk, the rebuilt traditional village of Dudutki had some old buildings, a wooden church, windmills, a petting zoo, bee hives, a horse training stable and a moonshine distillery. There were two castles, Mir and Nezvizh, surrounded by beautiful forests and walking trails, and a lot of Orthodox churches in between. In Vitebsk city center, there was a small zoo tucked away into a forested park, and I would have walked right past it if I hadn’t heard the lion roar.
I attended one forest barbeque, with a handful of Belarusians who knew exactly how to grill a piece of meat, and went to two ‘summer’ houses – an old home or cottage in a small village that people keep as a vacation spot. The forests are usually just a stones throw away from any village, and the little dirt roads that connect them seem like they should still be traveled by horse and carriage.
I traveled mostly by train, and a 3 – 5 hour train ticket costs only 3 or 4 euros, and for that price you get an entire sofa-bed bench. For a few extra cents, you can rent sheets and drink tea, and I seriously considered moving back and forth across the country every night just to be able to live on the train. The metro and public buses are also easy to use and super duper cheap, but a lot of people still own cars. There is a huge sub-culture of car garages, little covered parking zones where people park their cars in individual, locked garages. The men also gather here from time to time, using this space as a second home. Here they can barbeque, play chess, drink beer, or just work on their cars and pretty them up. I also noticed that most people don’t sleep in beds, but sofa-couches, so being a couchsurfer there was like being a local.
I couchsurfed in Minsk, Brest and Vitebsk, staying with very different people but always walking away with a similar experience. Their friends were my friends, I was always fed, I had my own space in the house and almost always had an escort outside. The graffitied apartments I stayed at never looked very inviting, but once inside with the people I met, it became my cozy home too. I just fish that Belarusians would stop wallpapering their walls, ceilings and even floors with the tackiest patterns I’ve ever seen – it would do a lot for the feng-shui!