Belarus (An Overview)

On our last day in Belarus, we spent the afternoon walking around Minsk looking for a sign labeled “сувенир.” If you happen to read Cyrillic, the alphabet of the Slavic world, congratulations, you can skip ahead. If not, take a wild guess at what that word might translate to. A couple of hints, it is pronounced almost exactly the same as its English counterpart. Need another one? The sign pertained to a shop where we would be able to find traditional Belarusian keepsakes to take back to the States with us. Still can’t crack it? Perhaps you can use this phonetic key to help: с=s, у=u, в=v, е=e, н=n, и=i, and р=r. Yes, “сувенир,” is “souvenir.” If you enjoyed doing that and are amused at how a word pronounced exactly the same can look so different, then you may understand just how fun it was for Kate and I to learn the Cyrillic alphabetand try to decipher signs, seeing if they bore any resemblance to their English translations. A few more of our favorites were:

Restaurant (the top word)
Mini Market
Big Z Supermarket
Dodo Pizza
And, a subway station map with the Cyrillic word on the left and what it would roughly sound like in English written in yellow on the right.

While we found the most joy in deciphering common items like those above, perhaps our favorite contrast between the two alphabets was for the city of Nezvizh, which in Belarusian was written as “Нясвіжскі” (pronounced “knee-ez-Vee-chee”). There, we planned to tour the city’s palace, which dated to the 16th century and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belarus. Before being allowed to enter though, we had to go through our first ever mandatory coat check, where our coats were taken from us with such sternness and efficiency that we almost felt as if we had done something wrong by choosing to dress warmly that day. Being a bit chillier than we had hoped to be after being unburdened of our coats, we began to tour the palace, where we were confronted with the excessiveness of wealth, inspiring in us equal feelings of awe and envy, as all displays of wealth seem to do.


Kate imagining herself as a knight

Prior to the trip, Belarus’s history had been completely unknown to us and we were now coming face to face with the physical manifestations of its grandeur. As a part of the ill-fated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the land and people of present day Belarus were once members of one of the largest, most populous and most powerful empires of the Middle Ages. It remained this way for the better part of three centuries until the Russian and Germanic forces that bordered it began eating away at its prominence. We were glad that remnants of its glorious past were still on display for us to have a glimpse into.


Perhaps the easiest (read “least fun”) translation we came across was the town of Mir which was unceremoniously translated as “Мір.” There, we would tour a castle that shared its name with the town. We thought that the name for the castle, which is Belarusian for “peace,” was a rather Orwellian name to bestow upon a military fortress. Inside, we roamed its vast halls and elaborate rooms, though it was its exterior that intrigued us the most. This created a dilemma as seeing the outside of the castle involved being outside, a feat that presented a significant challenge as the weather was in an arctic kind of mood that day. 


Looking up at a very symmetrical ceiling within the castle
coming up from one of the castle tower’s spiraling staricases
A view of Mir from atop the castle


As we went outside, we were thrust into the grips of winter and shuffled about the castle’s grounds in a futile attempt to stay warm, teetering all the while between our desire to see as much of it as we could and our increasingly more urgent desire to find a warm place to escape into. Before succumbing to the latter, we made one more heroic push against the gusts of frigid air in a quixotic attempt to walk around the grounds outside the castle so we could view it from afar. As these grounds were even more open to the elements than we had been when in the castle, our heroism didn’t last long. Kate made it about one hundred yards in, turned around, looked at the castle for about five seconds, chattered “Okay, good enough,” and shivered her way back to the cafe where our friends Emmet and Olga were waiting for us. Foolishly, I continued on, though once bodily numbness became an issue, I quickly abandoned my pursuit to circumnavigate the castle and scampered back to the cafe to join them. There, over a cartoonishly large cup of hot cocoa, and some of the more delicious Belarusian food we would have during our time in the country, Kate and I had a long and painful thaw as our toes and fingertips regained feeling. Just as we were beginning to recall what warmth and comfort felt like, it was time to leave.


A church on the castle grounds


Towards the end of our time in Belarus we began feeling very confident about our Cyrillic skills, so much so that I assured everyone that I could comfortably split from the group and follow road signs to meet up with them at a predetermined destination. My reason for doing so was to get some pictures of Belarusian houses, whose colorful facades had intrigued me since our first day in the country. “It’s very easy, just look for this sign, take a right, and then the next left and that road will take you directly there,” Olga explained to me. “Got it,” I said. I didn’t have it. Not even one hundred yards into the walk I saw the street sign that I thought could possibly be the one she was talking about…and walked right past it. As it turns out, like with the Roman alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet has different fonts and letters can look slightly different depending on which font is used. So, despite the letters on the sign looking similar enough to the ones I was expecting to see, they were still just different enough for me to convince myself that I should continue lumbering forward. It wasn’t until I got to the edge of town and the road I was walking on turned into a highway that I suspected that I may have missed my turn. I frantically retraced my steps through the rapidly darkening landscape, making guesswork of where to turn and, by complete dumb luck, happened across the store where we were supposed to meet. As it turned out, beer had saved the day. Kate, Emmet and Olga, justifiably worried that I was lost, were planning to get in the car and drive around to look for me until they remembered that they had forgotten to pick up beer in the store and went back in to get it. I arrived just as they were checking out. The panicked moment was brief, but worth it as I was able to capture the houses that I had become so endeared by.

Emmet guessed that the reason for the houses’ unorthodox colorfulness was that bright colored paints were cheaper and easier to come by and therefore a better option for painting a large surface like that of an entire house.



We’ve come to look forward to seeing what seemingly mundane things capture our attention when visiting a new country. If you had asked me before traveling to Belarus what I thought would intrigue me the most, grand medieval castles and palaces or modern everyday houses, I would undoubtedly have chosen the former. But, as I look back on our time in Belarus, it is the houses that come to mind first along with the language whose characters, masquerading as the familiar Roman alphabet, twisted our minds time and again trying to discover what familiar word lay behind them. We’re thankful to have been able to see all of the incredible sites that we have throughout our travels, but it’s the unexpected places, people, and experiences in between that have stuck with us the most, and for those, we are even more grateful.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Merely Mir

Groups shuffle past
oil-painted faces
frozen in frames,
staring out
at each passerby
who absently takes in
their features
and scarcely scans
their golden name plates


They pass through
sitting rooms
dining rooms
bed chambers
and libraries.

From family trees,
centuries-long branches
reach out
but can’t
get past
the glass
that now encases them.

their roots stood firm,
growing into a home
for generations
to live their lives
in a palace meaning peace.

the castle is a museum,
as disconnected from its visitors
as it is from its former inhabitants.
A part of a holiday,
a piece of an itinerary.

Below, you can find some pictures that didn’t quite fit in to any of our posts about Belarus, but that we thought were worth sharing still.

Looking up at Puslovskys Palace. We thought it looked like a large birthday cake elaborately decorated with white and pink frosting.


One of our favorite experiences was going to a banya, which was like a Belarusian spa. There, you  sit in a sauna that’s so hot inside that you can only last about ten or fifteen minutes. After leaving the sauna, you  dump an ice cold bucket of water over top of your head to cool off. In between sessions you can sit in a common area and have snacks and tea. At the very end of your time at the banya, once your pores have opened up entirely, you take a bundled group of leaves dipped in water and hit your body with them. This is supposed to help your body absorb the nutrients in the leaves.
In Minsk, we went to a Soviet-era cafeteria where they served food much like they would have during its time under the rule of Communism. The food, simple, consistent, dirt cheap, and delicious, was enjoyed in a bare bones dining area with videos of Russian pop music playing on a television screen.
Inside an Eastern Orthodox Church in Minsk




Pushcha Forest

A dense, unmoving fog lay spread across the landscape. Out of its depths one can make out the faint outlines of familiar figures: houses and cars and fences making their presence known through their clouded, somber forms. Above all of these rises an unfamiliar silhouette, the bulbous dome of an Eastern Orthodox Church, its figure sitting unceremoniously through a view splintered by the bare branches of a nearby tree. We are in Belarus and one could say that a similar fog lay over our understanding of the country; our knowledge of its culture and history just as obscured as our view of its landscape. Luckily, we were visiting our friends, one of whom grew up in Belarus, so our knowledge about the country, unlike the fog that would occupy its terrain for almost the entirety of our time there, would become significantly less hazy.

If asked to name a fact about Belarus, most people would struggle to come up with one. When calling to inform my bank that I would be visiting the Eastern European country and not to block my card while there, the teller on the other end asked which country Belarus was in. Now, while we at least knew it was a country, and could perhaps point it out on a map, nestled in between its better known neighbors of Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland, the ceiling of our knowledge topped out there. Some may recognize Belarus from its cameo in HBO’s Chernobyl and most anyone would recognize its translated name “White Russian” as an alcoholic beverage. But, like a landscape obscured by fog, there is much more to the country than one might initially think. For starters, Belarus is a proud owner of several European superlatives, including being home to the continent’s largest forest, which earned it the nickname “the lungs of Europe” and is even represented on the country’s flag in the form of a large, green stripe. It is also home to Europe’s largest land animal, the bison, and its most dictatorial state, with pride in the latter varying depending on who you ask. And, so as not to end the list with mention of a dictatorship, Belarus manufactures the world’s largest dump trucks.

Our time in the country began at our friends Emmet and Olga’s guesthouse (Holiday Home Olenia), which sat on the outskirts of Belovezhskaya Pushcha Forest. As the fog surrounding the guesthouse dissipated, we realized that it was hiding far less than we had imagined, namely, a collection of sleepy cottages, the quirky blue body of the church, and, of course, trees. “It’s better during the summer,” they reassured us, painting a picture of green across the landscape filled with flowers and life, though this was unnecessary as we found the scenery beautiful even at its blandest. Inside the homestay, the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah” which is appropriate given that adhering to the concept feels like getting a warm hug from your living space) was in full effect. Heated floors created a warm and cozy environment, decorations were derived from the natural world, and hot beverages were always on tap. A day spent entirely in the homestay would not have been a day wasted. However tempting it was though to while away our time in Belarus relaxing there, especially since it had come at the heels of our 800-mile hike through Spain, we were eager to get out into the country, see its sights, and learn about its history and culture.

One of the first things we did upon arriving in Belarus was to visit an animal reserve on the outskirts of Pushcha Forest.
The elk calling out in this picture was extremely friendly. On a couple of occasions, he would walk up to us and let us pet the thick, wiry, and extremely dirty hair on his neck.
The short and stocky Konik horse
The reserve was also home to bison, which were absolutely massive


The first historical site we would see was the Kamenets Tower. It was our first glimpse into Belarus’s rich history, one as equally grand as any of its European counterparts, filled with castles, knights, princesses, and, as we would be seeing at Kamenets, medieval watchtowers. The tower, whose name translates to “White Tower” in English, though its red brick facade suggests nothing of the sort, was built in the 13th century. Spotting it from afar, it looked like any other brick building in that it appeared to be the whole of many parts and thus, like a puzzle, we didn’t have to do too much imagining when picturing how to dismantle it. Looks can be deceiving though, and the tower, as we would find out, is more akin to a column of solid stone than a column of Jenga pieces, with each brick being impossible to remove; as evidenced by the generations of frustrated peasants who have tried to do just that in order to use the bricks for their own construction projects only to fail time and time again. Luckily, we wouldn’t have to worry about finding a way to penetrate the impenetrable as the front door was standing open upon arriving, signifying the tower’s transition from a closed-door establishment as the essential component of an kingdom to an open-door one as the essential component of the tourism industry. We were happy for the change as we roamed its levels and heard its stories.


Slots where the latches of a ladder would have been inserted to allow for safe passage in and out of the tower

After touring the tower, we spotted an Eastern Orthodox Church nearby and decided to check it out. On the stairways leading up to the church, beautiful displays of flowers were laid strewn across the ground, a kaleidoscope of colors and dimensions seemingly exploding from the crevices of the steps. Almost immediately after entering the church, we ran into the backs of a large congregation assembled inside of it. Having lost track of what day of the week it was, we just thought it must be a popular day for worship, like a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. Soft, beautiful music filled the church’s interiors and paintings and decorations unlike anything we had ever seen before were hung about its walls. As our eyes trailed about, feeding our voracious appetites to take in our new surroundings, they were met with a most unfortunate sight: a gray, expressionless body lying in an open wooden box. “Corpse!” popped into our heads first, followed shortly after by an, “Oh no.” Suddenly the plethora of flower displays, groups of children playing outside the church, somber music, and, most notably, the sad faces that looked at us questionably as we entered the church, all made sense, we were at a funeral and we were crashing it. Like a dog who’s just been discovered having a snack from the family garbage can, we put our metaphorical tail between our legs and slinked out of the church as quickly as possible.

Unwittingly on our way to a funeral at the church in the distance


One of our last experiences before leaving our friends’ guesthouse and exploring the wider Belarus was to head back to Puscha Forest and visit Ded Moroz, the Slavic world’s equivalent of Santa Claus. Bearded, wearing bright colors, giving gifts to children at year’s end and delivering those gifts from a flying sleigh, Ded Moroz, or Father Frost as we would come to know him, bore many resemblances to his Western counterpart. However, he is slender not rotund, wears blue instead of red, gives gifts on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Day, and has a sleigh pulled by moose rather than reindeer. If you are thinking,  “Hey, Father Frost just sounds like a cheap, copyright infringed version of Santa,” you should know that the two are equally ancient and that many of the modifications to Ded Moroz’s character came with the dawn of Communism in the Slavic world as the U.S.S.R. tried to distance it’s cultural icons and holiday festivities from those celebrated in the West.

While on the topic of modifications, it’s worth noting that Ded Moroz has gone through one of the more miraculous transformations in history, making the incredible leap from snow demon who lurked in forests and kidnapped children for ransom to heroic gift-giver bringing joy to children most in need of it during the holidays. Somewhere in that transition, he also experienced a brief foray into Communism where he lectured the benefits of the ideology to children, encouraged all of them to work hard for the good of the country, and reminded them that Stalin was the ultimate good in the world.

Father Frost welcoming us to his palace

There would be no discussions about Stalin during our trip to Father Frost’s woodland hideaway. Instead, we would be given a tour of the grounds by none other than Ded Moroz himself. Throughout the tour, we were offered tidbits of information about the legends associated with him in a monotone, deadpan fashion (he had also missed out on inheriting Santa Claus’s jolliness) that was apparently infused with humor as the Russian speaking people huddled around us would occasionally giggle gleefully. Most of the people in our privileged tour group were adults, with only a few children amongst them, though at times it was hard to distinguish between the two. Like going to Disneyland, everyone is made a child again in front of Santa Claus or Father Frost, and it was fun watching all of the adults in the group, us included, act just as giddily as the children when being asked to partake in certain parts of the tour.

There is something significantly more appealing about the thought of a flying moose pulling a sleigh as opposed to reindeer.
The moment we were anxiously waiting, a picture with Father Frost. Apparently, one of his incarnations is notorious for strongly encouraging people, particularly women, to hold his staff during pictures with him. This one did not, though for some reason, I still chose to do so.

As we got to Father Frost’s residence we were handed off to Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper. The family lineage that takes us from Father Frost to Snegurochka travels through some pretty murky genealogical waters. Among the many stories about her, the one we were told was that she is the offspring of the personification of January and a snowman…or woman…? How Father Frost came into play with all of this was a mystery to us and we left it at that. A bit more enthusiastic than her grandfather, Snegurochka continued taking us around the grounds, letting us partake in different traditions like…

At this mill, you are supposed to place your hand on the stone whose size corresponds to how many lies you have told throughout the year. The stone is then ground to dust and the lies forgiven.
In this area, there were statues representing each month of the year. You could make one wish for the upcoming year to your birth month’s statue, but only by whispering it in its ear.
On this bridge, you could make a wish for every log that you stepped on while crossing the bridge. We were ill-prepared and ran out of wishes by the end.

With our view of Belarus a bit clearer after our time in and around Pushcha Forest, we eagerly awaited to find out what else the country had to offer as we loaded our belonging’s into Emmet and Olga’s van the next morning and pushed through the fog towards the far-off places still obscured.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Ded Moroz

Deep in the Pushcha Forest
Father Frost greets us,
clad in flowing
white and golden robes,
his snowy beard
nearly sweeping the floor.
We succumb to the magic
of the legend,
the trees,
and the faces lit up around us
as he and Snegurochka
lead us around
their wintry, wooden palace.
Passing gardens for wishes
and letters from children,
we forget for an hour
that we are adults.