With one foot still in its Soviet past, Belarus might not be the most obvious choice for travellers, but its isolation is at the heart of its appeal.
When it comes to bureaucracy, Belarus is a world leader. Inevitably, this is a relic of the old Soviet days. The level of detail, process and checking involved in the most simple of procedures is mind-boggling. Of crucial importance, however, is the ability to smile and show the utmost patience and civility when faced with process and procedure. Anger and intolerance are viewed with disdain and will always be greeted with a wry smile, a shrug of the shoulders and a process at least twice as long as the original would have been. Just don’t get flustered. You’re not the boss here. It will always take as long as it takes.
The monolithic wall of red tape is of course at its finest when it comes to regulating entry arrangements for visitors from abroad. From its birth as an independent nation state, Belarus adopted the requirement of the old Soviet Union that visitors with foreign passports would only be allowed entry to the country with a visa. The convoluted process of obtaining one meant this was long regarded as a significant obstacle to encouraging incoming tourism. Things started to change early in 2015 with very limited relaxation of the rules permitting 72-hour visa-free access to Byelovezhskaya Puscha National Park, followed in 2016 by the opportunity to spend five days in the western half of Grodno oblast, subject of course to complying with a lengthy list of requirements; and the process of applying for exemption was every bit as complex as the visa application itself! Then in January 2017 the President signed a decree establishing a new visa-free regime that came into force the following month. Modifications have been made since that time and further relaxation of the rules is anticipated.
All international flights and most of those from the other CIS countries go to Minsk National Airport, formerly also known as ‘Minsk-2’, situated approximately 40km east of the city on an extension of the M2 motorway. Charmless but functional, and a glorious monument to Brutalist Soviet architecture, Minsk-2 was extensively modernised in 2005. Further significant structural works were undertaken in time for the World Ice Hockey Championships held in Minsk in the spring of 2014, with additional works since then to upgrade facilities and services to the standard to be expected of an airport serving a major European capital city. A proportion of the terminal building is still a vast network of stairs, doors and unlit areas with nothing going on in the spaces between, though there are now escalators at long last. Most of the facilities are collected in and around the departure gates themselves, of which you can find details on the helpful English pages on the airport website.
The one thing you will quickly discover on any visit to Belarus is that it reshapes your view of Europe, and such a different perception of the continent will be all the more vivid if you travel overland. West Europeans heading east by train to Belarus discover that our home continent is far larger than they ever imagined. If you are starting in Britain or anywhere else in western Europe, try and make time to travel by train to Belarus. Do it just once, and you may well be seduced by the entire experience.
The main pan-European route across Belarus for road transport is the E30 motorway from Paris to Moscow, via Berlin, Warsaw, Brest and Minsk. Within Belarusian borders it is delineated as the M1 motorway, and it crosses the country diagonally in a northeasterly direction from Brest in the southwest to a point south of Vitebsk in the northeast, en route to Smolensk in Russia and beyond. There are many border crossings into Belarus for vehicles and passengers (both private and freight) from its neighbours Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine. If you’re driving your own car, do be sure to check first that your chosen point of entry is open to private vehicles. From Poland, the major crossing points are at Terespol, Koroszczyn, Slawatycze, Kuźnica Białostocka, Połowce and Bobrownik, the most-used being Białostocka and Terespol (the point at which the E30 European highway enters the country, with the city of Brest but a handful of kilometres away across the Warsaw Bridge). All of the crossings from Latvia are into Vitebsk oblast and include Urbany, Gavrilino and Lipovka. Major crossings from Lithuania include Privalki (for Grodno) and Kamyeny Log, the main road from Vilnius to Minsk and the point at which I crossed the border on foot in the spring of 2014. There is a line of crossings from Ukraine across the length of the southern border of Belarus, including Tomashovka, Mokrany, Vyerchny Terebyezhov, Novaya Rudnaya and Novaya Guta. Travelling from Russia, you should know that customs checkpoints have been removed and unrestricted access on all routes crossing the border is generally permitted unhindered, although from time to time sporadic checks and controls are enthusiastically enforced.
Although some parts of the rail network have been modernised to significantly reduce journey times (with gleaming new rolling stock – comfortable, sleek and well-appointed – to match), many of the trains are still fairly old, particularly those running on local services. These older trains have a distinct charm, with wooden frames and white curtains around the windows. Carriages are heated in the winter, though they can be draughty. Overnight trains usually have traditionally designed compartments with closing doors, with a bench seat on each side and fold-down berths above. If you get to choose, always go for the lower-level berth, as the top berths slope outwards (away from the wall) and there’s a good chance you’ll fall out in the middle of the night. I did once, fast asleep somewhere between Minsk and Gomel, and it hurt. Bed linen is available for hire at a ridiculously cheap price. The carriage attendant will even offer bedding on long daytime journeys. A restaurant car will be available, and your attendant will also periodically come round taking orders for coffee, tea and snacks.
Buying train tickets is tricky if you don’t have the language. Ticket windows are not difficult to identify, but don’t expect to be greeted with an overabundance of patience on the part of either ticketing staff or those in the queue.
Generally travel by bus is a little cheaper and sometimes quicker than by train, although you may be compromising on comfort. For longer journeys, your coach might be relatively plush, but if you’re unlucky it could be old and rather rickety (and almost certainly will be for local travel, especially in rural areas). Crammed and claustrophobic minibuses also operate on local routes. The timetable is always fairly flexible – again, more so in rural areas. Try not to rely too much on forward planning and if you have the luxury of time on your side, just turn up at the bus station and see what time the next one leaves. When on board, don’t be surprised if your bus stops wherever it is flagged down. This makes it a true community facility, but it also makes overcrowding much worse. According to official statistics, 4.3 million passengers travel by bus each day along 4,290 routes – so you’ll be pretty unlucky not to find a bus to take you where you want to go. Just don’t be surprised if it feels like all 4.3 million are travelling on the same bus as you.
The supposed difficulties and risks associated with driving in Belarus are frequently exaggerated. Various travel websites will tell you that you’ll have to contend with bad roads, on-the-spot fines from traffic police and speeding maniacs in blacked-out BMWs, not to mention that all signs are in Russian or Belarusian. You will read that every other road user drives excessively fast and recklessly, that they ignore pedestrians and traffic lights, that the roads, even the main arterial ones, are full of cavernous holes and that snow, ice and fog in the winter are a major hazard. The last two points have far more truth to them than the first two, but you’re unlikely to have any trouble if you keep your wits about you, exercise common sense, observe the rules of the road and act with courtesy at all times.