From Baltic to the Black Sea Pre Trip #1

Pre-Trip Bulletin #1
21 July 1999


The trip’s almost a month away and I have been busy preparing for it (apart from work – just in case some of you think I don’t do anything else). This is a region for which no one has written any guidebooks in the past few years – the last Lonely Planet was published in 1996 and since then, Ukraine has a new currency – Hryvna and Belarus has seen its ruble wiped off by inflation. Oh Gosh! I would need a bag just to carry cash around for a meal or bus ride in Minsk.

Anyway, what really keep me preoccupied these days are the visas. With the exception of the liberal Baltic republics, getting visas from Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova is simply nightmarish. These countries require visas from virtually every country unless you come from countries that were once members of that grand old socialist alliance. And to get a visa, you need either to join package tours or get invited officially by a business organisation or private individuals. Tough, isn’t it?

Sure, these workers’ paradise and “people’s democracies” need stringent immigration controls to prevent the whole world from illegally emigrating there, or/and preventing entry of foreign agents out to conspire with enemies of the people. No wonder few bothered to visit these countries – beautiful they may be – or to write about them. What “great” jobs their tourism departments have done so far – yes, they do have tourism departments though few people have any idea what they do.

I started the process rolling by applying for the Lithuanian visa, while waiting for my Ukrainian letter of invitation. Singaporeans do not need visas to visit the United States or Japan, but since Singapore’s GDP per capita of US$31,000 doesn’t quite impress the once powerful Lithuanian Empire (which together with Poland, in a joint monarchy, once constituted the largest power in Europe), I was required to fill out a form, present a travel insurance certificate as well as travellers’ cheques to show that I would not land up begging on the streets of Vilnius (the ancient capital of Lithuania, also a UNESCO World Heritage site). �8 and a week later, I got the Lithuanian visa.

Singaporeans need visas for Latvia too, but they are obtainable at Riga airport upon arrival. I decided to get it in advance to avoid the potential hassle of showing an exotic passport at yet another equally exotic airport. I visited the Latvian Embassy and was given the option of receiving the processed passport by registered mail. I grabbed the offer, hoping to escape another lunch time rush to the embassy. What a terrible mistake, which led to a whole week of sleepless nights.

UK’s postal services, Royal Mail, promises delivery within 1 day – mind you, my passport was sent from one part of London to another part about one kilometre away. One day passed, then two days, and three, and I haven’t received my passport. Rang the Latvian Embassy 3 days after the supposed receipt date. “We sent the passport last Friday.” Registered? “Hmm�no, actually by recorded mail.” Oh goodness, there are differences in delivery, tracking methods as well as differences in compensation for the loss of items, and no one in the right sense of mind would send a passport via recorded mail.

I contemplated making a police report or ringing the Singapore High Commission (Embassy) about passport replacement. Images of an unplanned visit to Singapore to get a new passport as well as the hassle to redo my UK work permit flashed across my mind. Fortunately, I received the passport a few days later – a full one week after the promised date, and just after I had decided to make a report about its loss. So much for the Royal Mail’s service promise.

Belarus was next. This is the most communistic of the ex-USSR states. A few years ago, the republic elected Lukashenko president. The former collective farm manager set about clamping down on the opposition, signing a treaty of union with Russia (with the intention of running for Russian presidency after Yeltsin’s resignation), restoring the Soviet emblems of the old Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic, closing down foreign embassies in Minsk, and his most remarkable achievement – the depreciation of the Belarus Ruble from 2 to 315,000 to US$1, i.e., 15,000,000% devaluation! [Of course, the room I booked at Hotel Minsk costs US$40 or 1.26 million Belarus Rubles. Hmm, I will be a Belarusian multi-billionaire]

To the tourist, however, his greatest “achievement” lies in the visa requirements. In most ex-USSR republics, a letter of invitation suffices. For Belarus, you need to show official tourist vouchers, i.e, proof that your entire trip has been prepaid – so you can’t simply pay someone to get a letter of invitation and hope to stay wherever you wish. And visa fees have been raised to �40 for a full visa. Given my limited time, the complicated rules and Belarus’s relative lack of unusual places compared to other countries I plan to cover, I decide to get only a 48 hour transit visa which cost �10 and doesn’t require any letters of invitation. Only proof of transit is needed, at least that’s what the rather rude and impatient chap at the Belarus Embassy in London told me over the phone.

So, I set off for the Belarus Embassy on a Monday lunch time. There, I saw the consul arguing with an elderly Belarus-born gentleman – one of those who once lived in Polish-ruled western Belarus and fled to UK after WWII, when western Belarus was occupied by the USSR. The latter had a letter of invitation but the consul insisted that he needed vouchers as well. Of course, the poor man had to leave and deal with his visa another day.

Then came my turn. I showed the consul my Minsk – Simferopol (Ukraine) air ticket and my passport with the Latvian and Lithuanian visas. He looked satisfied initially, but asked me whether I had an Ukrainian visa as well, since that’s my next destination. Old mine! Well, I told him, I will be travelling to quite a few countries and would have to do my visas in proper order of my trip, and hence I did the Latvian and Lithuanian visas first. Belarus is my next country. If he doesn’t issue me with a Belarus visa simply because I haven’t got an Ukrainian visa, and if Ukraine won’t issue me an Ukrainian visa without me first securing a Belarus visa, then I can get neither the Belarus nor the Ukrainian visa.

Having heard so much about the inflexible and unfriendly Belarus embassies, to my surprise, he actually accepts my explanation and went ahead and issued me the visa. What a relief ! Certainly, I agreed to pay him double (�20) to get the visa on the spot (“express service”), rather than to wait for 5 days (for �10). Who knows, he may change his mind any time.

Three visas done – Ukraine’s next. OK, I will tell you my no less amusing experience trying to get the Ukrainian visa next week – that is, after I have already secured it… Just in case some of you out there are spies of the Ukrainian secret service who will report my less-than-friendly comments to the embassy.

Take care,

Wee Cheng