Belarus is a flat piece of land straddling the shortest route between Moscow and the Polish border. Wide stretches of unbroken birch groves, vast forested marshlands and wooden villages amid rolling green and black fields give it a haunting beauty.
There's more to see in Belarus than you might suspect. Minsk is a cosmopolitan centre and a shining testament to Soviet urban planning. Brest is lively and hectic, Hrodna a cocktail of histories and Polatsk a sleepy dowager reclining on the chaise longue of her former glories.
Full country name: Republic of Belarus
Area: 207,600 sq km
Population: 10.4 million
Capital City: Minsk
People: Belarusian (81.2%), Russian, Polish, Ukrainian
Language: Belarusian, Russian
Religion: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholic
Head of State: President Alyaksandr Lukashenko
Head of Government: Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski
GDP: US$90.19 billion
GDP per capita: US$8,700
Annual Growth: 7%
Major Industries: Food, chemicals, textiles, agricultural machinery, timber
Major Trading Partners: Russia, Austria, Germany, UK
Member of EU: No
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Currency: Belarusian Rouble
The Belarusian rouble (better known as zaichiki or 'rabbits') replaced the Soviet rouble in 1992. It was intended to be a transitional monetary unit, to be used only until the economy stabilised. Three zeros have recently been knocked off all BR bills, and it will undoubtedly take several years to remove all the old currency from circulation, so be wary.
The major cost when travelling in Belarus is accommodation, but everything else is extremely cheap. A full meal will rarely cost more than US$6, a night at the opera never more than US$1, and domestic train tickets are a bargain. Budget around US$30 a day if you're travelling on a shoestring, US$75 a day if you want a reasonably high level of comfort.
Credit cards and travellers' cheques are the most convenient and safest ways to carry money, but finding somewhere to use them can be tricky. It's worth bringing a substantial amount of cash to ease this burden: the euro and US dollars are the most widely accepted currencies. You can exchange money at moneychanging kiosks, as well as at banks.
A few top-end hotels add 5-15% to your hotel bills. Porters expect a tip of US$1-2; waiters appreciate 5-10% of the bill. Shops have fixed prices, but you're expected to bargain at craft markets.
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Minsk's recapture by the Soviet army left barely a stone standing, meaning most buildings have only been around since 1944. Minsk is probably the best example of grand scale pure Soviet planning. It has a bustling, cosmopolitan atmosphere and a cleaner, brighter feel than other former Soviet cities.
Minsk's main street, praspekt Skaryny, is a huge and hectic promenade. At the southwestern end of the street, the 500m (1640ft) long ploshcha Nezalezhnastsi (Independence Square) is surrounded by government buildings and the attractive Polish Catholic Church of St Simon.
Belavezhskaja Pushcha Nature Reserve
About 1300 sq km (507 sq mi) of primeval European forest survives in this reserve, which stretches north from the town of Kamjanjuky, about 40km (25mi) north of Brest. A small part of it is in Poland, which administers it jointly with Belarus.
Some 55 mammal species, including elk, deer, lynx, boar, wild horse, wolf badger, ermine, marten, otter, mink and beaver live here, but it's most celebrated for its 1000 or so European bison - a species which was near extinction in the 1920s.
One of the busiest road and rail border points in Eastern Europe, Brest lies less than 200km (120mi) from Warsaw and 350km (215mi) from Minsk, on the border with Poland. Like all border towns there's a hustle-and-bustle atmosphere, with Belarusians swarming back and forth on quick buying forays.
Central Brest fans out southeast from the main railway station to the Mukhavets River. Vulitsa Savetskaja is the main drag. Brest was one of the Soviet Union's 11 'Hero Cities' of WWII - when the Germans invaded in June 1941, the Brest Fortress held out for a month.
Hrodna, 280km (175mi) west of Minsk, is probably the most picturesque city in all of Belarus, simply because it survived the war better than anywhere else and has more historic buildings intact to prove it. These days it's an industrial and cultural centre with a decidedly cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Settled since ancient times, Hrodna was absorbed by Lithuania in the 14th century, when it became a major defensive fort, and later by Poland, which built a palace and several churches. Hrodna fell easily during WWII, suffering little structural damage but losing most of its population.
The Nazis burnt the hamlet of Khatyn to the ground in 1943. The site is now a memorial centred around a sculpture modelled on the only survivor, Yuzif Kaminsky. Also here are the Graveyard of Villages, commemorating 185 other Belarusian villages annihilated by the Germans; the Trees of Life (actually concrete posts), commemorating a further 433 villages that were destroyed but rebuilt; and a Memory Wall, listing the Nazi concentration camps in Belarus and some of their victims.
There's no public transport to Khatyn, which is 60km (37mi) north of Minsk. However, organised tours visit the site, and a round-trip taxi fare from the capital is not that expensive.
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