Old Aug 14, 19, 4:35 am
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Part 7: First day in Minsk, Belarus
Hotel: Hotel Minsk, 60 USD per night

In Minsk I opted for the Hotel Minsk – one of the larger (and cheaper) hotels in the city. It's an old communist-style hotel and it still shows in the lobby, rooms and stuffy corridors, even though it has undergone some renovation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the price, it's a good option as rooms are quite decent and the location is unbeatable, with a metro stop next door and both the railway station and the city centre just a short walking distance away. If I would however have stayed two nights, I would probably have opted for an apartment instead as these seemed to offer far better value for money.

As it was still mid-afternoon and I had plenty of daylight left to explore the city. I started back on Lenin Square, which besides lots of communist buildings such as government offices and an university, also has the red-brick Saint Simon and Saint Helena Church dating back to 1910 – one of the few old buildings of Minsk which survived the carnage of World War II.

For most, the city of Minsk was rebuilt with grand Soviet architecture – which is especially visible when walking up on the Prospekt Nezavisimosti boulevard – which is basically the central axis of the city.

It was my third time in Minsk and one aspect of the city which I always loved was how alive the communist history and legacy is. While many cities – including some in Russia – are removing communist traces, Minsk seems to embrace its past. Opposite the impressive building of the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus (basically the modern-day KGB) you can still see a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the infamous Bolshevik who led the Cheka, the predecessor of the KGB under Lenin.

As for how free Belarus nowadays is, opinions differ. Even on my first visit to Minsk more than a decade ago I was puzzled about the contradictions in this fascinating country. At one hand you have a capitalist consumer society pretty much like everywhere else in Europe – with people going for a coffee or beer, going on holiday in Europe, chatting happily on the streets. But make no mistake, the country is still a basic dictatorship with no real democratic elections and freedom of press. And although people can basically do all they want and there is lots of personal freedom (as long as they do not complain too much and call for change) the country is still tightly controlled. On my first visit in Belarus, a Lithuanian-Belorussian girl I met even told me that all hotel rooms are still bugged with the state security office actively listening in. Citizens' movements are still being watched and recorded. That said – I heard from friends that the country has since my first visit been slowly improving bit by bit. And based on what I would see later on in the day, that seems to ring quite true for sure. While I found that during my first the mentality of the people and the street scene were still quite communistic with a healthy distrust of strangers, it all seemed much more consumer-orientated and open now. Heck, even the metro had signs in English – I can still vividly remember getting completely lost in Minsk in my early 20s due to not being able to read Cyrillic at the time (and not having Google Maps!) - with nobody speaking English to help out. At not a single restaurant or pub this time I encountered someone who did not speak at least a bit of English.

Before I move on with the rest of the Minsk trip report I cannot resist to show this (English subtitled) video of the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko visiting a local farm. It's dictatorial micro-management at its best – an absolute hilarious watch!

Back to the trip report! More communist glory can be found around Kastrychnitskaya square, such as this fabulous communist mosaic at one of the entrances of Kupalawskaya metro station.

Or what about this fantastic Palace of the Republic.

From Kastrychnitskaya square I walked towards the old town centre of Minsk.

There are a couple of nice churches here and some old houses resembling the style you find in cities in Poland. Many of them are now restaurants and cafes. It is a very lively district to walk through.

Yet Soviet ugliness is never far away. And sometimes it can be so much more fun to watch. Take this gorgeous communist relief – Colonel Saunders turned into Comrade Saunders! I just love this shot.

Also in the old centre is a green area around a wide bend of the Svislach River – with at one side the old Trinity Hill neighbourhood (the oldest surviving area of Minsk) and on the other side some modern office blocks.

There is a small island here called the 'Island of Tears' which has a monument to commemorate the Belarusian soldiers who fell in the Soviet-Afghan war.

I headed back into the Trinity Hill district to stop for dinner at a restaurant with an appealing looking outdoor terrace. The local beer(s) and the potato pancakes with meat (draniki) were filling and tasted good. Apologies for only taking the picture after already having a few bites – I was getting quite hungry at this point!

Back across the Svislach is the liveliest quarter of the Minsk city centre, which I explored a bit more.

I found a great craft beer place with a couple of local and international craft beers from draught. I sampled two of the local IPAs – both were excellent.

As the sun was setting, I walked back along Prospekt Nezavisimosti towards my hotel. The low sun made for some beautiful sunset colours on the classical-style buildings of this grand boulevard.

I went into the local GUM (abbreviation for State Department Store), which in communist times was the main department store in many cities of the former Soviet Union. Nowadays it is not disimilar from a normal shopping centre or department store. The Minsk one has a big, modern supermarket – which came in handy to stock up on some water and beers as nightcap for in the hotel. It's a pretty cool place to have a look inside even if you do not need to buy something as the high ceilings and chandeliers make it look much more classy than it actually is.

After two or so beer at my hotel room I called it a night as there was some more exploring planned for the next morning!

Next up: A second day in Minsk, the bizarre Minsk Airport business lounge, and flying in Turkish Airlines business class to Almaty
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