Thanks to the 272 people who entered to receive one of five free kindle editions of Keepers of the Stone: Book One: The Outcasts and congrats to the five winners! Its still only $2.99 and available Here.
I’m also giving away Ten free copies of the entire Keepers of the Stone trilogy Here on Goodreads!
Here’s a post on Belarus — Europe’s last Outcast — to celebrate:
Europe’s last dictatorship. The North Korea of the EU’s neighborhood. A time capsule from the USSR. We’ve all heard labels like these tossed about. None of them make Belarus like sound like the next hot travel destination. It probably isn’t. Yet, precisely because this makes it the outcast of the continent, it’s been at the top of my list for a while now.
When I heard that the country had relaxed its visa requirements — allowing citizens of the EU, the US and Canada, among others, the right to visit the country visa free for five days — I jumped to book a flight. At the same time I was nervous about how I would be treated in such a closed off society.
I prepared for the trip more than I do for most. I made a folder, detailing all of my accommodations and my entire itinerary. This included passport copies, plane flights, hotel reservations and even a Russian language press release from the Belorussian president’s office explaining why I had the right to be in the country with no visa. I’m happy to report that this never came in handy. In fact, the locals were friendly. More than that. From the man that invited me on board his minivan back to Minsk, to the bus driver who was ecstatic meet an American in an subway barbershop, they were curious.
But, before I go any further extolling the virtues of Belarus, a word to the wise:
I am an experienced traveler who’s been to almost sixty countries. I speak survival Russian in addition to fluent Polish and intermediate Slovene (Slavic languages related to Russian). If you don’t read Cyrillic, don’t even think about going it alone. You won’t be able to get around. If it’s your first time abroad and you’re looking for a place to go in central-east Europe, try Vienna, Budapest or Krakow. Belarus is a trip in more than one sense.
Beyond that, if you think the visa waiver is going to allow you to visit the whole country? Think again. Five days means exactly that. From the date your passport is stamped at entry to the date stamped at exit. That mean’s three full days. Belarus is a country roughly the size of the UK with slightly worse transit connections. Most of its cities, besides the centrally located capital of Minsk, are practically on the border with other countries. Because the visa waiver rules require that you enter and leave via Minsk International Airport, your options will be limited by what’s a day trip or overnight distance from the capital.
That said, in light of these conditions, I had a blast! As I hinted at above, one of the first things that impressed me was the trusting friendliness of the people. You’ll be required to purchase health insurance from the national provider before clearing passport control. Payment is excepted in US dollars or Euro. That’s it. My Belavia flight from Brussels (CRL) arrived in early afternoon. When I was told that my five day stay would cost six Euro and paid in exact change, the receptionist grinned broadly, stating in fluent English (this was the last time basically anyone spoke English to me): “You are the first customer to make me smile all day. All morning people have been trying to pay in Yuan and Lira.” This is one thing I love about the former USSR. When someone smiles at you it’s not ‘customer service’ BS. Its genuine.
The amount of times situations like this happened to me in Belarus made the country stand in contrast to the other three post-USSR states I’ve visited: Russia, Moldova and Ukraine. There the people trust no one. They volunteer absolutely no unnecessary information. In Belarus, people seem to almost naively trust in the honestly of others.
I was met by my host and driven to the apartment I’d rented for my first two nights in Minsk (via booking.com; Tripadvisor is not widely used in Belarus). Upon arrival — speaking a mix of Polish and Russian — I was told to pay cash for the first two nights. The third, after my overnight in Mir, would be worked out upon return. I agreed. The specifics were never discussed.
That evening I headed to Minsk’s famous opera house. I’m a huge opera fan. When I learned I could come to Minsk visa free, I planned the trip to coincide with a bit of something I like to call “operatic tourism”. In this case, productions of the National Academic Bolshoi Theater’s Turandot (my favorite opera and the partial inspiration for one of the plot lines in the trilogy I’m currently writing), as well as Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. Both were lavish performances with the production values low on technology, but using a seemingly endless surplus of extras. Whereas in the West, the leads are expected to act their parts to the hilt, in Minsk the scene is played with an almost stereotypical static poise. One that focuses on the singing. In Turandot, the leads — imported from St. Petersburg and Astana — kicked some serious vocal behind. The price is an attractive factor too: At both operas I had a front-and-center ground-floor seat for about 10-15 EUR.
Belarus is often billed as a time capsule. This is partially true. And its partially why I went. But, recently it has taken some limited steps to open up to the West. If you’ve heard stories about a country where there’s no advertising except for Soviet-style propaganda? That’s going away. I saw what were clearly commercial advertisements. They still co-exist alongside propaganda-ish announcements in a type of dual system.
At the Belorussian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the Hammer and Sickle is still proudly flown. But, I can’t help the feeling it’s on the out. If you’re someone that wants to see it before its gone? Go. And go soon.
The department store under the former Lenin square (name changed after unwitting independence from USSR) is no exception. There aren’t many globalized brands… for now. That’s changing already. And it’s changing fast.
From Minsk I boarded a bus to Mir. A small town in the Grodno region, with a UNESCO World Heritage castle. I checked into the nicest hotel in town, Mirskiy Posiad, for about 45 EUR a night. No English spoken. Unexpectedly, cash Belarusian Rubles only. This left me short on local currency. Changing money at the local bank proved easy. In basically every country I’ve been to, people perfunctorily only change money into or out of the national currency. Yet, in Mir, Belarus, the woman seemed emphatic about making sure I received the transaction I’d intended (Russian Rubles, Euro’s or Pounds Sterling were all options) even despite the language barrier.
Money changed, I set to seeing Mir castle. Largely owned by the Radziwiłłs: A clan magnates in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — another of which, the Lubomirskis, figure prominently in my books — the place is an imposing labyrinth of parapeted staircases and chambers. Most of the exhibits consist of photocopies of original documents that are held in Warsaw.
The castle complex was impressive. But I couldn’t help notice: the homes directly on the opposite side of the road from castle seemed to have little interest in renting out rooms. The only other tourists I saw besides myself were from Russia. Frankly I enjoyed it. It’s not every day you get to go to such a major sight that’s so far off the beaten track.
Back in Minsk, I found myself waiting in front of the outside door to the flat I’d rented. About fifteen minutes late, my landlady pulled up un a brand new Toyota Rav4, after I’d emailed her specially about how to re-gain entrance to her flat. “I thought you’d just keep the keys,” She told me. The woman knew about my overnight excursion, though she hadn’t asked for any proof of it.
“But I haven’t payed you for the third night, yet,” I responded.
“I thought you’d just leave the money when you came back,” She shrugged. It was as if my assumption of her untrusting-ness had caused the misunderstanding.
I left Belarus wondering if Europe’s Outcast has something that West could learn from.