Belarus

Belarus landscape by CC user u8230 on Flickr

Introduction

Shrouded in mystery ever since declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus is one of Eastern Europe’s least visited countries, only logging an average of 100,000 visitors per year.  Much of this low figure can be attributed to the authoritarian government that has been in place since the breakup of the USSR, which has gone to great lengths to build a pervasive police state and to isolate itself from most nations in the world by putting a Byzantine style visa application process in place, discouraging all from the most determined travelers from entering.

The proximity of Southern Belarus to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown hasn’t helped either, so due to this and the aforementioned reasons, a trip to Belarus will likely be made in the absence of fellow foreigners, a fact that may encourage some to put up with the hardships of getting here in the first place.

Once the intrepid traveler has set foot on Belarusian soil, there are several aspects of this country worth seeing, from the World War II front line that saw the Soviets and the Nazis locked in a bitter battle of attrition, to medieval ruins that are well preserved.

Additionally, while there is little in the way of mountainous terrain present here, simple country-style settings can be admired in many parts of the country, where a complete lack of touristic distractions will allow you to truly absorb what life in this corner of the world feels like.

Currency: Belarusian ruble

Languages: Belarusian, Russian

Mir Castle by CC user gudmd on Flickr

What To Do

Well over 60 years ago, much of this country bore witness to Stalin and his Soviet forces making their stand against the treacherous advance of the Third Reich, which had violated a mutual non-aggression pact signed just a few years earlier.  Anticipating that Hitler might try to double-cross him, Joseph Stalin built a massive series of trenches and walled fortifications from north to south called the Stalin Line.

In the present day, a museum has been built at a portion of this former line of control to document this bloody but ultimately successful defending of Soviet territory, situated about 30 kilometres outside of the capital Minsk near Loshany village. War buffs will adore this place, as not only are there extensive collections of defensive positions and military hardware (tanks, artillery, aircraft, etc.), but there are also mock battlefields that are used in occasional re-enactments, a quad biking track, and a firing range where one can fire an assortment of firearms from the World War II era.  Tours are given by guides dressed in military regalia, adding to the austere feel of this place!

Staying on the subject of World War II, much of Russia and the former Soviet Union are known for their larger than life tributes to the unfathomable loss of life suffered by USSR forces (between 9 – 14 million military causalities, and 20 – 40 million counting civilians!) during the worst conflict the Earth has ever seen. Khatyn Memorial is one of these places of sombre reflection, as it was a peaceful village burned completely to the ground by a Nazi battalion.

Virtually all of its inhabitants were massacred as retribution for their collaboration with the resistance, being herded into a straw shed, which was then lit on fire.  Those trying to escape the shed were mowed down by machine gun fire.

Only 3 villagers survived, with the statue of a man carrying a dead child representing the only surviving adult carrying his doomed son, in a vain search for assistance. Aside from the massive memorial statue, the foundations of the former village houses have been left as is, making for a heavy moment of pondering the most evil impulses of humankind.

For those looking to delve into a slightly less dark period in Belarusian history, Mir Castle is a Gothic/Renaissance style castle dating from the late medieval period, having been built in the 15th century. Having only sustained serious damage once, during the Napoleonic era, Mir Castle is in fairly good condition in the present day, garnering it UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for its elegant construction, in spite of all the threats that it has faced over the years from competing factions.

Braslav Lakes by CC user u8230 on Flickr

Those looking to get into touch with nature will have an easy time doing so at the Braslav Lakes National Park, a series of glacially formed kettle lakes that are a popular place for Belarussians to get away from normal everyday life in their villages, towns and cities.  Popular activities here include fishing, sailing, camping and hiking through the gently rolling landscape, which is home to wildlife that includes lynx (a wildcat), brown bears and the recovered but still endangered swan.

Another national park worth checking out is Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, which protects a heavily forested region of land that has all but vanished during the thousands of years of continuous occupation of Europe by organized agrarian civilizations. Bison are the animal species to watch for here, and some of the oak trees found with the confines of this park are up to 450 years of age, with a trunk diameter as big as six metres!

Latkes by CC user grongar on Flickr

What To Eat

While Belarus shares much in common with nearby Russia and fellow Balkan countries like Romania (halubtsy in Belarus are the same as sarmale in Romania … cabbage rolls filled with all sorts of meaty goodness), there are several dishes that seem to be particularly popular here.

The first of these foodstuffs worth mentioning is Draniki, more popularly known as Latkes in the west.  These potato pancakes are enjoyed with gratitious dollops of sour cream, making for a filling meal should you be lucky enough to share the same table with the locals during your trip here.

For someone seeking a sweet/savoury treat or something carby to fuel up with at breakfast, Blin makes for an excellent choice in either scenario. They can be infused, stuffed and/or slathered with a wide variety of ingredients, ranging from sweet additions like apples, raisins, honey and jam, or more savoury options like grated potato, butter, cottage cheese and even onions!

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