Minsk, the capital of Belarus, contains more than 1.9 million people, easily more than any other city in Belarus. In fact, it maintains a population slightly larger than a number of central and eastern European capitals, including Romania’s Bucharest, Austria’s Vienna, Hungary’s Budapest, and Poland’s Warsaw.
The Russian Primary Chronicle first mentioned Mensk in 1067, the year that Vseslav the Sorcerer, Prince of Polotsk, met in battle his rival cousins, Izyaslav of Kiev, Svyatoslav of Chernigov, and Vsevolod of Pereyaslavl. They fought a very bloody battle on the banks of the Nyamiha River, a location now buried under the streets and sidewalks outside today’s Nyamiha Shopping Center. Vseslav lost and shortly after, Izyaslav used treachery during peace talks to capture him. The Prince of Polotsk was held for a year in a prison in Kiev, after which its people freed him to defend the city from barbarian invaders after Izyaslav fled to Poland.
For most of its history, Minsk remained a provincial Litvin (early Belarusian) city at the confluence of the Nyamiha and Svislach rivers. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish and Ashkenazi Jewish migrants settled in the city and created a more cosmopolitan setting. The Jewish population eventually dominated Minsk after Catherine the Great declared it part of her Pale of Settlement, a restricted zone in which Russian Jews were ordered to relocate.
That, of course, changed during World War II, when the Nazis devastated the city and carried out an almost complete deportation and mass-murder of the Jewish population. Very few Jews that lived in Belarus during the war survived, and their descendants have since 1991 been striving to restore what is left of the Ashkenazi culture that Adolf Hitler had targeted for extermination. As a result of the devastation, much of the Minsk that stands today dates from after the war. Authorities, after liberating the city in 1944, authorized the reconstruction of 2.9 kilometers of the main thoroughfare, renamed after the break-up of the Soviet Union as Praspekt Nezalezhnastsi, as a neo-classical dedication to then-ruler Joseph Stalin. Minsk’s Soviet-like atmosphere emanates from this city center. Eventually, they also collected and moved most of the remaining pre-war buildings of the city to a small neighborhood on the left bank of the Svislach called the Troyetskaya Suburb. These two areas contain the historical legacy of what is left of early Minsk.
After independence, the modern cityscape developed as the MKAD ring road was completed, the mass transit system (commuter rail, Metro, tram, trolleybus, motor bus, and minivan shuttles) was modernized, and new neighborhoods of residential buildings were erected near new Metro stations. Long after foreign embassies to the new Belarusian republic were established (mostly in the city center), hypermarkets and modern shopping malls sprang up, and tourist attractions emerged on the city’s outskirts, such as the replica Stalin’s Line open air museum and the modern aquapark north of the city.
Because of the way that Minsk has grown, getting around the city can be at times easy, and at times an interesting challenge. This article intends to help guide foreigners on the best ways to get around the more than 400 square kilometers (or nearly 160 square miles) of the Belarusian capital.
For most visitors coming in by train (a popular way to get from the National Airport), the entrance to Ploschad Lenina Metro Station serves as an introduction to the Minsk underground train system. Serving as the rapid transit network of the Belarusian capital, the Metro currently (May 2015) has two lines that cover 29 stations, situated on more than 37 kilometers (23 miles) of track. Portions of just about every district of the city are serviced by the system, which has a daily ridership of nearly 900,000 people.
Whether you are catching a subway train in the Belarusian capital, or in Budapest, Kyiv, Baku, Moscow, Tbilisi, or St. Petersburg, the subway trains, known throughout this area of the world as the Metro, all look the same. However, Minsk continues to follow the example of the early Soviet Metro systems by using ornate decoration in the stations, particularly within newer ones. Although the decor is more Belarusian in symbology than Soviet, the stations try to replicate the same sort of museum-like atmosphere that the center of Moscow enjoys, where commuters can view what are effectively artistic displays as they travel about the city.
The Minsk Metro, even today, continues to grow in size. In 2017, authorities anticipate opening a third metro line, which broke ground at the future “Vokzalna” station last year, around the time of the Sochi Olympics. By 2020, if all goes to plan, the Metro will extend from Kastrychnitski District in the south to Savetski District in the north. Among the innovations planned for the train line will be moving sidewalks, particularly at the junction between Vokzalna and Ploschad Lenina stations under Minsk’s main train station and at the junction between Ploschad Yubileynaya and Frunzienskaya under the Jubilee Square district (named for the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, celebrated by devout Catholics in 1825), and, reportedly, new self-driven trains.
Admission into the Metro system is through the use of plastic tokens (called “zhetoni”) that are pink in color or by monthly passes. As yet, authorities have not yet announced plans to switch to a card-only system, as was recently introduced in Kyiv.
Within the city, trams operate on the surface and connect certain key Metro stations with locations along important routes, such as the First Ring or the Lahoyski Trakt. At one time, post-World War II electrical tram service in Minsk operated many more routes, as can be seen sometimes in the abandoned rails left in the middle of streets in the city center. The eight lines that are left are really a shadow of the once-extensive Tram network.
Tram, trolleybus, and motorized use the same tickets (called “talonchiki”) – these are issued by the government-run public transportation company Minsktrans. The purchase price for these is also roughly the same as for Metro tokens. However, purchased tickets are not considered in use until they are validated. This involves sticking the appropriate end of a ticket into a yellow stamping machine, which then prints out the time and date of use in a conveniently located blank spot. A validated ticket is good only for the ride in which it was validated.
Commuter rail, meanwhile, services portions of Minsk’s outer suburbs. Tickets must be purchased before boarding, and these are generally available at each of the stations. Within the main passenger station, only certain windows are dedicated to the purchase of commuter (or “city”) rail tickets. These are designated with an emblem that consists of an aster, a typical city flower, set in a red box (other markers include: an iris in a blue box, indicating a “business class” train, usually much more comfortable than other trains operating in Belarus; a crocus or a violet set in a blue box that designates an “economy class” regional line, local and express, respectively; a plane in a blue box that designates the train line between the National Airport and the main train station in Minsk; a lily in a green box designates an interregional train, usually economy class; an orchid in a yellow box designates an international train; and a tulip in a yellow box, designates a private or “commercial” train, usually a luxury tourist train like the Golden Eagle). You should receive from your ticket purchase a receipt-like piece of paper. This is actually your ticket.
Trains usually arrive at stops that aren’t at the main passenger station on time or a little later than expected. However, arriving 15 minutes before the train’s scheduled arrival is usually good practice. On Fridays or before any public holiday, it’s advisable to arrive even earlier, particularly if departing from the main station, as most trains on such days are usually standing-room-only.
As with trams, fares are collected for trolleybuses and motorized buses through the use of a validated ticket. Also as with trams, you must validate your ticket at the start of your ride, or run the risk of being assessed a fine in an amount much greater than the cost of your ticket.
To understand why this is important, it’s illustrative to go through what happens during an occasional ticket inspection. The doors close, and almost immediately after, you’ll find that the ticket-stamping machines are flashing. People at this point usually reach into their pockets and pull out their tickets or monthly cards, and these are checked by a passing inspector. If you try to quickly validate your ticket during the inspection, while the lights are flashing on the stamping machines, you’ll find they don’t work. If you are caught without a validated ticket (and you can’t prove that you “just got on”), you’ll be told in Russian the amount in which you’ll have to pay on the spot. If you can’t do so, the inspector (called “control”) will either try to arrange to detain you at the next stop, or if they simply don’t want the hassle, let you go. In most cases, though, they don’t mind the hassle.
Trolleybuses, vehicles that can operate only along a set route where wires allow their contacts to connect to the electrical grid, do run across rather an extensive network of some 70 routes that extend across Minsk. A larger number of motorized bus routes connect streets and neighborhoods that exist beyond the trolleybus network. Most routes operate in the day, with only a handful that provide service to select routes at night.
Minsktrans, the operating company for trams, trolleybuses, and motorized buses, posts schedules on most stops. They also post schedules online on their website.
Minsktrans covers a large percentage of Minsk, but as you go further out, you’ll find that there may be the occasional neighborhood that is not serviced by even the farthest operating motorized bus. In most cases, private enterprise picks up the slack in the form of a minivan shuttle, or a “marshrutka”.
A marshrutka (or “marshrutki” in the plural), is usually a minivan that operates on a set route. Originally, such a vehicle was called a “marshrutnoye taxi”. or “set-route taxi”, which was later shortened to “marshrutka”. In Belarus, these mostly operate out of Minsk, though some private marshrutki do operate between regional and district centers.
Usually, passengers will pay fare directly to the driver as they enter and sit down. They’ll then get off at a stop closest to where they are going. Whether that’s in three blocks or 30, the fare will be the same (and almost always somewhat higher than Minsktrans prices). This cookie-cutter approach to fare-setting may not seem like a very profitable business model for a so-called “taxi”, but most marshrutki drivers make money on volume, rather than distance traveled. As such, these shuttles can become very crowded, particularly during rush hour.
Belarus, in general, is a kinder country than many of its neighbors. People are generally honest (society expects everyone to be honest), and outside of dealing with government officials, making mistakes is generally less punishing than in many other places.
This observation generally applies also to taxis, though it still pays to be cautious when taking a taxi from the airport to the city. If entering a car that doesn’t have a taximeter, the price going from the airport into the city should be negotiated ahead of time to avoid conflicting fare expectations. For most times of day, it’s in general rather foolish to take a taxi out of the airport, given the number of public transportation options available, but if using a cheaper option is not possible for the time of day you are arriving in Minsk, then keep in mind that the average cab ride into the city center should be no higher than 25-30 Euro (perhaps more only late at night).
Within the city, getting around by taxi is usually inexpensive – under 5 USD in Belarusian currency for most journeys in the city center. Do keep in mind that at certain times of the day, Minsk traffic can be nightmarish, and in such times, if it’s an option, the Metro is the best bet for getting someplace fast.
Beyond speed, a taxi can also be useful for just learning to navigate around Minsk. If you have the address of a place you are trying to get to, and if for some reason GoogleMaps is unavailable, most taxi drivers caught away from the train station will take you there in short and inexpensive order (and consequently show you how to get there in the future without the help of a taxi driver). Again, most Belarusians are honest people, so this tactic for learning to navigate Minsk is less risky than in many other places.
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