How do you attract tourists to Minsk? Masha Charakova and her team think that you need to tell people about the uniquely eclectic city, where each district has its own unique flavour. A few months before the government allowed five-day visa-free travel to Belarus for foreigners, a group of enthusiasts and lovers of Minsk decided to create Minsk in Socks, an English-language guide book for foreigners. This guide will make any tourist feel as cozy, comfortable and calm in this city as grandchildren feel in the warm woolly socks knitted by their granny. Part of the books is already written and illustrated, but additional funds are required to finish the work. That is why the girls have launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
The travel guide has four authors, but it was Masha Charakova who came up with the original idea. Masha has already done a lot to establish a positive image of Belarus abroad. It was her who thought up and realized the Heta Belarus Dzietka! (This is Belarus, Baby!) book project. The girl was born in Minsk but left to live in the Netherlands with her parents when she was 8 years old. At 22, she came to her the beloved city of her childhood and stayed for 3 years. Whatever Masha does, she brings smiles, creativity and optimism with her.
Masha Charakova. Photo: Alyona Lis
Masha Charakova with her twin sister in the Netherlands. Photo: Masha’s personal archive
Masha remembers her favourite childhood spots in the city, one of which was Gorky Park, because you could always treat yourself with something sweet there. The smell of the Minsk subway also brings back many happy memories. It is this unusual perspective on Minsk that the authors of the guide offer to foreigners. “My mission is to open up the capital of Belarus to foreigners through this guide book, so that they do not go to Riga and Prague for the umpteenth time but instead learn first-hand that Minsk is also a fine city”, says Masha.
The well-known unknown capital
Of all European countries, Belarus has the least number of tourists. According to the National Statistics Committee, in 2016 we had about 200,000 tourists, which is less than in 2015. Over 80% of visitors come from Russia. On the one hand, it is not a lot for a country with great tourist potential. On the other hand, the small number of visitors will be a plus for foreigners who are tired of the tourist crowds around historical monuments. With the help of “Minsk in Socks” travel guide, every visitor will find a favourite place using their personal paperback friend.
According to Hanna Grydzushka, co-author of the book and crowdfunding-manager, in choosing spots to describe in the book the authors were not just guided by their own initiative and interests. The girls used various platforms to interview hundreds of people: Minsk residents, Belarusians from other cities and foreigners who have already visited our country, asking them for tips about must-see things in the city. Some places chosen by travellers surprised the authors themselves. For example, foreigners really like the historical and cultural complex "Stalin Line". They travel 30 kilometers from the capital to look at old military vehicles. The complex is also included in the guide book.
Hanna Grydzushka, co-author of the book and crowdfunding manager. Photo: Alyona Lis
Hanna also says that the interviewed foreigners often cite Kastrychnitskaya square as one of their favourite spots. The unique and grand architecture of the Palace of the Republic (that is how the foreigners describe it) paints an enchanting picture, sending you back to the Soviet past better than any time machine.
About Minsk with love
Olga Kapachenia, co-author of Minsk in Socks. Photo: Olga’s personal archive
Another co-author and crowdfunding manager Olga Kapachenia lived in Minsk for many years but moved to the UK some time ago. Olga says that she always loved the city: “I was born in Salihorsk and lived there until I entered the university in the capital. I remember saying to my parents after a school trip to Minsk that it was such a beautiful city we just had to move there. I see Minsk changing every time I visit: there are new places, new buildings, more festivals, concerts and other events. My favourite Minsk spot was always the old town and especially the green area with lanterns near the Nemiga subway station, to the right of the Cathedral. It looks especially enchanting at night, no matter the weather. I also like Kastrychnitskaya street with its graffiti and the whole bar scene. And, of course, Loshitsa Park. All of these places are in our book”.
The authors divided Minsk into distinct tourist areas. Tsentralny District in the centre of the city has five main places of interest: Train Station and the Institute of Culture, Nezalezhnasti, Nemiga, Kastrychnitskaya square and Yakub Kolas square. Several sections are dedicated to the “sleeper” residential areas on the outskirts of the city. For instance, the authors chose KOTTE BAR as a highlight of Kamennaya Horka district, where you can try homemade ravioli and dumplings.
Yulia Stankevich, trainer in non-formal education, co-author of the guide: "I write articles on specific areas in Minsk: Nemiga, Serabranka, the neighbourhoods around Minsk Tractor Plant and Shabany. Choosing from the areas on the outskirts of the city, we selected those with some hidden gems and surprises that would be interesting to visit for foreigners and Minsk residents alike. For example, the cemetery of old cranes in Shabany, which I was myself surprised to discover about ten years ago. We also suggest you take a bike and get to the end of the bicycle lane on Yakubov street. People usually ride through the city centre to go to the other direction, Drozdy. However, if one rides to Serabranka, you can enjoy a bike ride and see the residential areas at the same time. We will write about the museum of ancient boulders in Urucha and other non-trivial fringe areas".
Yulia Stankevich, co-author of the Minsk guide. Photo: Facebook
The guide will also have a section on travelling to Minsk with children. A lot of focus is on local initiatives and social entrepreneurship in the capital of Belarus. Actually, the very name of the book, Minsk in Socks, points the reader in this direction, because the book can be ordered together with a pair of socks. They will be hand-knitted by local grandmothers using wool from old Belarusian sweaters and other clothing. The initiative, Socks from Grandma, comes from Diana Sivitskaya, who is a participant of of Biz4ALL social entrepreneurship programme within the framework of the Social Entrepreneurship Incubator, implemented by ODB Brussels and Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces" with support from the European Union. Socks can also be ordered separately.
Diana Sivitskaya (first on the left) with the team of Socks from Grandma during a training of Biz4ALL social entrepreneurship programme of ODB Brussels
Unusual format – unusual contents
Photo: Instagram of eleonora_alimova
The guide is going to be published as a pocket book of 120-150 pages with a lot of illustrations. Another unique feature is that it will be easy to hold the book open at any page. The girls decided to raise money through crowdfunding, so that they could publish the book themselves, instead of working through a publishing company that can impose its own rules.
Photo: Instagram of katrina_tik
Minsky the squirrel. Illustration by Rita Tikhanovich
The authors pay a lot of attention not only to the content and text of the book, but also to how it is illustrated. The protagonist of the book will be Minsky the squirrel, who will become a personal guide through the city for every foreigner. Illustrators of the book Rita Tikhanovich and Darina Psardieva have links to Belarus but currently live abroad.
If you want to learn more about “Minsk in Socks” and see the city through a foreigner’s eyes, watch the vlog of Stanly van Ree, a representative of the Belarusian diaspora from the Netherlands, who has been in Minsk for a few months and makes videos showing why this city in the centre of Europe is the best and trendiest direction of travel.
“Minsk in Socks” is a tour guide written by real locals, so readers will also find tips on how to go off the beaten tourist track: where to go to sweat in a public sauna, where to drink a cup of coffee with a classic sandwich with sausage, cheese, fish or caviar, how to get into a cozy 1980s bookstore.
Support the unique guide book and order a copy for yourself and your friends at kickstarter.com.
Information partner of the project: ODB Brussels.
Text by: Valeriya Nikalaichyk