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Belarus - Travel and visas
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 throughout, however, is the ability to smile and to show the utmost patience and civility when coming up against 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. Don’t be flustered; admire the view and take some time out to relax. And a few words of Belarusian or Russian never go amiss. An attempt to speak the language, however feeble, will generally melt even the coldest of bureaucratic hearts.
The monolithic wall of red tape is, of course, at its very best when it comes to regulating the entry arrangements for visitors from abroad. A number of key players within the tourism industry outside Belarus tell me that this remains a huge obstacle to the development of incoming tourism and that until such time as the entry requirements are completely overhauled, simplified and indeed relaxed, visitors from other countries simply will not come. Sadly, it’s very hard to mount a plausible and persuasive argument to the contrary. The reality is that all visitors to Belarus from the UK will require a visa, no matter the purpose of the visit or length of stay. A visa application fee must also be paid (full details of which can be found on the embassy’s website), the size of the fee being dependent upon the citizenship of the applicant and the type of visa requested. There are three types: transit (valid for two days), short-term (valid for up to 90 days) and long-term (valid for up to one year for any number of visits cumulatively totalling no more than 90 days). Additionally, visas may stipulate that they are single, double or multi-entry in nature. In each case, the amount of time permitted in the country will be for the period specified in the visa within the time of stated duration and cannot cumulatively exceed 90 days in any single year.
All international flights and most of those from the other CIS countries go to Minsk International Airport, otherwise known as ‘Minsk-2’. Of the regional airports, only Gomel is presently in limited use and then only for a handful of flights to destinations in Russia. The national airport is 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, it was extensively modernised in 2005, then further significant structural works were undertaken in time for the World Ice Hockey Championships held in Minsk in the spring of 2014. Additional works are still in the course of being completed and indeed, there has been something going on somewhere in the airport complex by way of building activity every time I’ve passed through since my first visit in 2001. The terminal building is divided into two wings, with the left-hand side serving flights in and around the CIS countries and the right-hand side for international flights. Arriving passengers emerge from the tiny and cramped baggage ‘hall’ (room) on the ground floor, with all departure gates located on the third floor.
The one thing you will certainly discover on any visit to Belarus is that it reshapes your view of Europe. That different perception of the continent will be all the more vivid if you take time to travel overland to Belarus. Western Europeans heading east by train to Belarus discover that our home continent is much larger than they ever imagined. If you are starting in London or anywhere else in western Europe, try to 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 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. Not all of them are. 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 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 mcrossed the border on foot in the spring of 2014 (see box, Through the back of the wardrobe, opposite). 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, customs checkpoints have been removed and unrestricted access on all routes crossing the border is permitted unhindered, although sporadic checks and controls are occasionally enforced.
I should make my position abundantly clear from the outset. I adore travelling by train in this country. Actually, I adore train travel anywhere. I’ve ridden the rails all over Belarus by night and by day. I’ve met so many interesting people and I’ve watched the landscape roll by for countless hours. It was always a cliché that under Soviet dictators the one thing upon which absolute reliance could be placed was that the trains always ran on time. In its day, the Soviet rail system was the largest in the world, crossing 12 time zones. In common with its neighbour Ukraine, Belarus inherited its share of the network when the Soviet Union collapsed. Nowadays, as then, trains between major cities are frequent and relatively cheap, but slow. If you have the time to spare, this is no problem at all; gazing out of a train as it lazily meanders across the country is an excellent way to get a feel for the terrain and the environment. And taking the overnight sleeper from Minsk to Gomel, especially in the dead of winter, is an experience not to be missed. This said, booking train tickets can sometimes be problematic, as it is not uncommon to find that timetable information doesn’t match what you are told at the booking office.
Generally travel by bus is a little cheaper and 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 on too much forward planning and if you can, 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. True, I’ve witnessed some extravagant (and dangerous) overtaking manoeuvres on most of the motorways, which are generally single carriageway except for the sections extending 80km out of Minsk and less for the other cities, but you are unlikely to run any risks if you stay alert.