Jana V., a.k.a. @themightyjane, was born in Estonia, but her family moved to Germany when she was 13 years old. Now in her mid-20s, she takes every opportunity she can to travel as far and as often as possible. “Selling everything I owned was the best decision of my life,” says Jana, who has been riding solo since 2012 and started her nomadic life of travel in April 2015. Recent explorations have taken her to China, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Russia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, and many more.
“My ultimate goal is to visit every country on the planet,” says Jana. Among her bucket-list destinations: Somalia, Chechnya, and North Korea. Here, she takes us on a magic carpet ride to Belarus, one of her favorite under-the-radar destinations in Europe.
“If you’re looking for a country that is off the beaten path, let me introduce you to Belarus. Situated in the middle of Europe, it gets almost no tourists. Many Europeans don’t know this country exists. When asking for directions in Minsk, locals were baffled to learn that I was not from the city. When I told them I was not from Belarus, they said, ‘How the hell did you end up here?!’ Belarus is not as modern as its neighbors. You can’t book bus tickets for intercity travel online; you have to buy it in person at the station. You won’t get far without speaking Russian (my native language), or at least reading Cyrillic. The charm of this post-Soviet republic is not its historic buildings or stunning churches—you won’t find a lot of that here. But it’s still one of the most underrated travel destinations I have ever been.”
“One of the most interesting people I met in Belarus was a friend of my grandmother’s. My cousin and I were sitting on tiny chairs in the kitchen, eating blinis, when an old but energetic woman came to visit. Turned out she had studied political science back in the day, just like me. She used to live in Minsk and her whole life was dedicated to the Communist party. She held quite an important position—important enough to be in the Soviet delegation to Cuba, where she drank vodka with Fidel Castro. Those are the kind of people you meet in Belarus.”
“Thanks to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus for the last 22 years, this post-Soviet country earned the title of ‘the last dictatorship of Europe.’ This is something you must be aware of when traveling through: Freedom of speech is restricted and you shouldn’t do anything stupid to endanger your new Belarusian friends (or your future visas). On the flip side, Belarus is a safe country to travel in, with low crime rates and lots of police (not always in uniform). To feel the Orwellian atmosphere to the fullest, go to the Museum of the Government in Minsk on Karl Marx Street 38, right inside the residency of the president. The museum is about the Belarusian constitution, history of the elections, international relations, and economy of the country, but feels more like a ‘Lukashenko looking at things’ exhibition. There is a creepy feel to the museum, like you are being watched and heard all the time. It’s a must-visit in Minsk.”
“Compared to the rest of Belarus, Minsk is glamorous, fashionable, and modern. But compared to other capitals like Tallinn, Moscow, and Warsaw, Minsk looks decades behind. Take the tap water, for example: It smells disgusting, and if you have bleached hair, it will turn a little greener every time you shower. Putting ketchup in your hair takes away some of the green, but since you’re using the same Belarusian water to wash out the ketchup, it will still be greenish. I guess you gotta accept it and rock the #mermaidhair trend until you are somewhere with decent water.”
“In some parts of Belarus, time stands still. None of the statues or buildings from the Soviet Union have been removed. All of the surrounding countries moved on: The Baltics got rid of the evidence and got busy becoming more European; Russia moved on to the 21st century; Belarus, on the other hand, didn’t get the memo that the USSR fell apart. Still, it’s not exactly a Soviet Disneyland: There are American and German cars, people check into hipster cafes on their iPhones, and there are colorful McDonald’s ads right next to Soviet-era buildings. It is a weird and fascinating mix.”
“Getting the Belarusian visa is a hassle. Your best course of action is going to a travel agency, just like you would with a Russian visa. Expenses after that will be low: Transportation, food, museums, and souvenirs are dirt cheap in Belarus. The one exception is accommodation. Since there aren’t many tourists, there are not that many cheap hostels and hotels, which is why you should try couchsurfing. And while you’re at it, try to get invited to someone’s family dinner where their grandma cooks; the food is amazing. The farming industry is still very important here and people take pride in natural food that tastes just like ‘back in the days.'”
“When in Minsk, check out the website kaktutzhit.by (translated literally: ‘how to live here’). Besides articles about how young people live in the capital, how much they earn and what their daily problems are, you can read about the cool new exhibitions, reviews of Belarusian cosmetic brands (which are way cooler and cheaper than Western companies), and upcoming food festivals and concerts. This website shows an insight into the life of hip millennials from a country with an oppressive regime. The only caveat: The text is in Russian.”
“I know some people who managed to hitchhike in Belarus, but they are native Russian speakers. The thing is, there is no concept of hitchhiking here—only carpooling for money. If you stand on the side of the road with a thumb up, that means you are looking to rideshare for money. Remember though, Belarus is a poor country. If you’re traveling here, you are probably wealthier than the locals who earn around 200€ a month if they live in the prosperous big cities and far less if they live in a small town or village. A two-hour ride is 2 or 3€. Belarus is a road trip-friendly country, since a lot of the charm is in the fairy tale houses in the villages, or random things like this statue of a condensed milk can in Rogachev.”
“Every town in Belarus has some cute little museums for 0,20 to 0,50€. Many are hidden behind hideous doors and don’t look like they would house a collection of wooden spoons, national costumes from the 18th century, or handmade furniture. Bottom line: If you see an ugly door that says ‘museum,’ go inside—you won’t be disappointed. (This is not a museum, obviously; it’s a playground in Mogilev.)”
To see more of Jana V.’s striking travel photography, follow her on Instagram at @themightyjane. Jana plans to visit as many post-socialist and post-Soviet countries as time and money will allow. But first: The snowy peaks of Austria, more Russia (pictured here), the Caucasus region, and Central and East Asia.