The Belarus Ordeal
On a recent trip to Eastern Europe, my cousin and I were in Riga, Latvia and we decided that we wanted to go to Minsk, Belarus for a day or two. So we consulted our trusty Lets Go book and it told us where the Belarusian consulate was in Riga. So we got in a cab and showed the taxi driver on the map where it was supposed to be. This is where the “ordeal” started.
Obviously, the embassy was not where it was supposed to be according to the book, which allegedly was updated for 2004. So we drove around the neighborhood where the embassy was supposed to be and saw embassies from every neighboring country except for Belarus. So the cab driver asked person after person and nobody had any idea where it was. So we kept driving, the meter kept running and eventually he called his dispatcher and found out where it was; completely on the other side of Riga.
When we finally arrived and paid our kings ransom to the cabbie, we walked into the embassy and were greeted by a loud Belarusian man barking something at us in Russian. We finally figured out, half by his hand motions and half by the big gun he had at his side that he wanted us to go and sit down. So we obliged him and sat around waiting.
After a few minutes of waiting, in typical American fashion we lost patience and started snooping around at the different windows. We were asking everyone where we should go and what forms we needed, etc. Of course nobody spoke English or wanted to even give us the time of day. Finally, a lovely young Belarusian girl with jet red hair told us that we needed to speak to the head of the consulate because he allegedly spoke English.
We waited a bit more and then finally pushed our way into his office to take care of the details for our visa. His English was pretty bad but we couldn’t complain because at least he was trying to help us. Eventually we figured out that it would cost us $100 for a visa to Belarus or it would cost us $45 for a transit visa for a stay of less than two days. After consulting our guidebook again we decided that it wouldn’t be worth the $100 visa because there didn’t appear to be too much to do in Minsk or in the surrounding area. So we told him that we wanted the transit visa.
Now being in Eastern Europe, I should have known it wouldn’t have just been that easy. We needed to leave the consulate and go get pictures taken for our visa. This wasn’t too bad because you really should travel with extra passport pictures anyway, but they also required something else. Belarus requires that you buy health insurance from a Belarusian approved insurance agency regardless of whether you have insurance at home or not. So we had to run around the city to a place where we could buy insurance for $1.00, yes that’s $1.00 USD.
After accomplishing all this we ran back to embassy, which closed at 1 pm. We arrived at quarter of and pushed our way to our guy in the office and threw everything on his desk. We then had to pay $90 for the two visas and we were told to come back at 3 pm to collect our visas. We went and grabbed some lunch and came back at our scheduled time to receive our visa that was written in Russian with no English translation. We were exhausted and thrilled to be finished with this embassy and half-heartedly looked forward to entering Belarus.
A few days later, after a couple of days in Vilnius, Lithuania, we boarded a bus for Minsk. An hour after leaving Vilnius we arrived at the border crossing into Belarus. We were ordered to exit our bus and stand in line at the border, which looked about as old-school communist as you could imagine. There was an observation tower with armed guards and inside the walls were all cold and white. Nobody said a word and they all looked at us like they hated us. We were happy to get through customs without too much trouble because we read that they usually give people a hard time if they aren’t from a neighboring country, as we would find out on our exit from the country later.
However, we arrived in Minsk at 1 2pm and checked into overnight trains to Warsaw. We found something around 10 pm and we figured that would be enough time in Minsk. We didn’t want to pay the high accommodation prices in Minsk that we heard about and we didn’t want to risk any trouble with our 48-hour visas. After getting our tickets and money squared away we checked our bags and began to walk around Minsk.
I have been to many Russian and former Soviet cities and Minsk, to me is the most communist looking city. Minsk was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War and afterwards it was rebuilt in grand Stalinesque style. The avenues in Minsk are long and very wide, you cross the street using underground subways. The grand avenues are lined with Soviet style buildings with no space in between them. The main avenue finally leads to a humungous main square that houses a theatre and a serves as a social gathering place for the youth of Minsk.
As far as things to see, there really isn’t that much to see in Minsk that I would recommend to anyone. The best site in Minsk is the sheer beauty of the women. Not to belittle the country or city, but the women are simply so stunning that it would be shameful of me not to mention them. Eastern Europe as a whole is known as the “valley of beautiful women” and I swear that Minsk must be the capital.
After walking around the city for a while and admiring the scenery, we headed back to the train station to claim our seats and go to sleep on the long ride to Warsaw. The ride was supposed to take ten hours but it was only a short distance on the map so I couldn’t figure out why it would take that long. I was to find out shortly.
After our train left Minsk, my cousin and I were fast asleep. I love night trains around Europe, it is so soothing and fun to ride on them. It gives you time to reflect and relax and read up on your next stop. However, at midnight we got a loud knock on the door.
I stumbled from my bed to open the door and when I did, I saw a big tall Belarusian man standing there with a big gun strapped at his side and his hands out demanding our passports. I gladly obliged him and he started flipping through the pages in search of my visa. He finally found it and started barking something in Russian and I just kept saying visa and giving him the thumbs up sign as if to say that it was in order and legal. I don’t think that he cared very much and he just took our two passports and headed off the train.
Needless to say, this made me very nervous. As a seasoned traveler, my passport is my most valued possession and in this part of the world, it’s a necessity and my lifeline. I was also nervous because in the book, it said that the Belarusian border guards are always in search of bribe money and can be relentless and forceful. I didn’t even mind having to pay them $20 if I had to, but only as a last resort.
Shortly after the guards left the train, we started moving fairly rapidly for about 5 minutes and then came to a stop in what looked like a warehouse. I was very nervous now and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Nobody on the train spoke English and nobody could tell us anything. All of a sudden, our train car was lifted up in the air and I really started freaking out then. However, it didn’t seem to bother anyone else and that seemed strange to me. My cousin was asleep and didn’t seem to notice or care and that made me feel even less certain of things. As I looked out the window, pacing up and down the aisle as time passed, I was watching men putting new train rails on our train. This was very odd so I decided to check the book and see if it mentioned anything about this.
It said that the train tracks in the old Soviet Union are a different size than the rest of Europe and that it can take up to 3 hours to change the width of the rails at border stops. To me this was a slight relief because at least I knew what was happening, as annoying as it was, but I still had no idea where our passports were and we had moved miles away from where they took them.
Finally, at about 3:15am, after three hours of sitting in the station and having the maintenance done on our train, I heard the door open and the guards came back on and handed me the passports with no incident or request for money. I was relieved at this and went back into cabin to lie down and get some sleep, finally. I was exhausted.
I crashed my head on the pillow and realized that my time in Belarus was over and that, to be honest, I couldn’t have been happier. With all the red tape and bureaucratic nonsense that we had to go through, it really was a relief to be out of there, the whole ordeal was not worth it. So I drifted off to sleep and ten minutes later I got another knock on the door and it was the Polish border guards looking for our passports, and I thought to myself, ‘not again’. Such is life as a backpacker.