My trip to Belarus, Easter of 2000
I began my trip to Belarus in the manner that every foreigner should and must do; by attempting to figure out where and how to obtain a visa to the Republic of Belarus.. Luckily for me, the Republic of Belarus has just opened an embassy in Sweden, I gave them a call, and a very friendly fellow explained to my in a very good English what was required:
-An official invitation from a citizen of Belarus.
-Filled-in visa application form.
-Three passport pictures.
-550 Swedish "kroner".
-Stamped, self-addressed envelope.
The whole process might seem more than a little bothersome. But as a foreigner you should not forget that the worst part of the visa application is done by whoever invites you. Especially in the larger cities, if you need to have anything to do with the "Passportnyij Stol" it means that one is going to stand in a very, very long and slow moving line. And when at last you are trying to make the "apparatchiki" behind the counter understand what you want to do, the need to possess patience might prove to be more important than you might think! I know this of first-hand experience. Belarusian bureaucrats can be so incredible annoying, and might be totally absorbed by their own "importance". If you, like me, enjoy observing people, then Belarusian bureaucrats can give you hours of entertainment....
I chose to send all the mentioned documents in an envelope and send it by ordinary mail to the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm. Since I was not able to buy Swedish postal stamps in Norway I enclosed an International Reply Coupon (IRC). Approximately three weeks later I got a letter in the mail containing my passport with the visa inside. So the most difficult part of the preparations for the trip was done.
The journey begins...
I decided that the cheapest way to go to Kobrin, Brestskaya Oblast, was to go by plane (LOT) to Warsaw, and then by train from Warszawa Centralna to Brest where my wife, her sister Tanya and my father-in-law where to meet me. Peace of cake. Nothing particular happened on that trip, so I'll just say that I think that LOT is a terrific plane company; friendly and on-time. Kudos to you! I can not say the same for PKP, the Polish railways and their co-operation with the Belarusian or Russian railway companies.... Of some reason, I was not able to buy a place on the train.. Ticket -nyet problemski. But the lady behind the counter at the international ticket sales at Warsaw Centralna (one flight of stairs up from the main hall.) told me that she could not guarantee me a place on the train, even if there where places left. I had to discuss that with the conductor aboard the train. Right... I visualized in my mind a discussion, alright. That probably would end up with the conductor's pockets being filled up, and mine emptied.
But the conductor was not like that at all! I paid Zl 45, app. US$20, and got a coupe all for myself. I even got a receipt! But I have had several experiences in Poland and in Russia that did not end as happily as this one. As a foreigner especially on trains that normally don't carry western foreigners you might be viewed as a easy target, so watch out! But don't watch out so much that it prevents you from having a good time. Accidents happen, but that is no reason for staying home! I would also like to say that other than this I have had only positive experiences with PKP. They are usually efficient and on time.
Crossing the line...
The polish border control where finished without any problems. The Belarusian border control was considerably more complicated. When passing the border you are asked to fill in a customs declaration, where you have to inform about how much money you are carrying, and about you baggage. The train-attendant brings you two copies of this in good time before the border, and you need to fill in both. Note that one of the questions on the form is about any "carriers of information" that you might take with you into the Republic of Belarus. That means that you have to note any books, music (CD's MD's, cassettes and so on) in your luggage, and their value. I had with me two books, a minidisk player and 8 discs. The customs officer looked at the form, but signed it without checking anything. Another thing that might seem weird is that they take the passport with them an check it somewhere else, not in front of the owner of the passport like one is used to when traveling to other countries. This might seem a bit scary, but don't worry; you'll get your passport back.
At last I reached the Brest railway station. There I was met by my wife, her sister Tanya and my father-in-law. We drove from Brest to Kobrin in their car.
You should be aware of one thing if you are planning to go to, or through, Belarus in your own car, bus or truck. Along the main road from Brest to Minsk there are several toll plazas. The toll fees are relatively high; from $3 for cars up to $25 for trucks.
When you go to Belarus you must remember that you have to register with the OVIR (pronounced AVIR) in the city you are staying. Failing to do so will guaranty you trouble when you pass the border on your way home. You'll find the OVIR at the " Passportnyij Stol" office. If you stay at a hotel, you do not need to worry about this, it is then done as a part of the checking-in. After you have been registered you may travel around Belarus as you like, in Russia you have to register with the OVIR in every city or oblast you spend the night. In Russia you have to state your intinary when you apply for a visa, and you have to keep to this intinary. Surprisingly, in Belarus the regulations are somewhat more relaxed.
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If you are interested in Belarus, or are planning a trip, you might want to take a look at these websites;
Belarus in your pocket
A very good tourist-guide! Unfortunately, there are very few good tour-guide books for Belarus. Some books about Russia and/or Ukraine have some short chapters about Belarus, but those are far from satisfactory covering the subject. This web-site does!
A Belarus Miscellany
As the name suggests; here you will find various information about Belarus.
The Virtual Guide to Belarus
this web page is a collaboration among a group of Belarusian scientists working around the world. The result is a terrific fountainhead of information about Belarus, and one of my favorite sites on the net.
The Belarusian Embassy in London
Here you can find more information about how to obtain a visa, download the visa application form and so on.
A good place to start if you are looking for more links to websites related to Belarus. You will also find some information about various aspects of statehood in Belarus here.
An Internet Service Provider in Brest. You'll find some pictures and some information about the city and the Brest fortress.
In addition to this there are two very good mailing lists that I would like to recommend:
Belarusian mailing list
Everything related to Belarus. This list has a relatively "high ceiling", and subjects that are discussed here range from genealogy to politics.
A onelist.com based mailing list for everybody interested in traveling to and in Belarus.
There is also a newsgroup for Belarus:
You can find the official archive here.
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