Someone please wake up Belarus. I mean really shake them up, maybe a sharp slap in the face. Let them know the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. You are free! Take down your statues of Lenin. Remove the Soviet red stars. Disband your police state.
Until then, realize that Belarus does not want you to visit. They don’t like tourists.
Lenin still stands guard over Minsk
Forget about Visa on Arrival at Minsk 2 Airport, a dilapidated relic from bygone days. First, you need to obtain a Letter of Invite. These are issued by either Belarus Tourist Agencies or hotels. I booked an apartment through Aparton (don’t recommend) and they graciously provided me the letter for only $70. And they speedily provided me the one page letter in only 10 days. They acted as if it was the first time they processed this letter. I then filled out the mostly painless visa application and sent it the Belarus Embassy in Washington DC with an enclosed money order of $160. With shipping my tourist visa for 5 days set me back $270. Also please note, when sending your paperwork to the embassy you must include your hotel reservation. Your visa will only allow you to stay in the country as long as your hotel reservation. In other words, don’t plan on extending your itinerary; otherwise you will be overstaying your visa. Also, my experience was you can only receive a Letter of Invite from the company where you booked your hotel or apartment. So don’t bother shopping for a better rate for the LOI. (UPDATE: Belarus is now providing visa free travel (for 80 countries including the US and many European countries for 5 days if you arrive via airport in Minsk.)
My $270 visa
Then get ready for your warm welcome to Minsk. It will start with a 45 minute wait to buy mandatory health insurance at the airport. Your health insurance or travel insurance you have is not sufficient. I then proceeded to fill out the immigration form at the airport. Whoops! There were no forms. I pantomimed to the model-like, blond immigration officer that the forms were missing. After she finished yelling at me in Russian for my American forwardness she crankily walked over to the table with the missing forms and realized that I was not a counter, counter-revolutionary trying to stir up trouble. Minutes later 20 forms were placed on the table.
The 80s called and they are looking for their mullets. I am no fashion diva, but the Belarusian fashions were a cross between disturbing and archaic. When it came to hair styles, the men seemed to be of one of two camps: mullets or buzz cuts. Seeing a large portion of men strutting around with mullets brought back memories of watching an 80s movie marathon. The men who seemed to favor the mullets also had a penchant for cut off jean shorts. Those with the buzz cuts enjoyed matching track suits. Other fashion priorities were a sizable following of men sporting murses (male purses).
Minsk must be quite shy, really just a wallflower. They don’t like cameras. I randomly arrived in Minsk for Belarus independence day. I was excited to join 500,000 other revelers to watch their military parade. I marveled how the police state managed to shut down access to the entire parade and funnel all participants into security lines. After an hour wait with the parade already starting, I finally approached the security station. A plainclothes officer yelled “nyet apparat” as he pointed to my camera. A local translated that I was not allowed to bring a “professional” camera to the parade. I naively tried to explain that I was a tourist, not a professional photographer. It fell on deaf ears. I pondered why the government would be fearful of someone taking photos of a parade. I watched for another hour as the security line finally declined to a few souls. I decided I would try and enter the parade grounds one more time for I had discovered there was a place to check your camera. I went to check my camera, but was refused. The attendants explained that they had exhausted their supply of claim checks.
I couldn’t see the parade, but the Minsk govt could not figure out how to block my view of the sky
I lazily strolled down Independence Avenue, think Michigan Ave in Chicago or Nanking Road in Shanghai. A central artery for the city. I neared Victory Monument, a large obelisk in a center island of a major intersection. I readied my camera until I noticed a security check point. Dozens and dozens of plainclothes policeman ringed the monument. Maybe 200 of them. Again, I was singled out and turned away from the monument due to my camera. Again, I wondered. Is Paris ashamed of tourists taking photos of the Eifel Tower? Does Washington DC prevent people from photographing the Washington Monument? In addition, to these two situations I was stopped several other times and prevented from taking photos.
This group of 5 “Undercover” security personnel patrol the largest square to stop tourists with cameras
A lone policeman scurries over to prevent me from taking a photo of the “KGB” building
No Tourist Infrastructure
Minsk is not part of the standard itinerary for travelers of Europe. And it shows. There is simply no infrastructure for tourists. Minsk is a great walking city, but it is critical to have a map. This alone is no easy task. After a brief investigation, I discovered that a city map could be purchased at an underground mall in Independence Square. There is a distant lack of English in Belarus. With my limited Russian it took me 90 minutes to find the correct kiosk that sold the map. I mumbled Ya khochu kupit carta. Gde? I want to buy map. Where? This magic phrase was uttered over 50 times.
The elusive map
On my list to visit was the Nesvizh and Mir castles. They are located approximately 120 km from Minsk. With the limited amount of tourists that visit Minsk there are no set group tours to these great UNESCO sites. I investigated taking the local bus, but the roundtrip was going to be over 6 hours. For my short stay in Minsk, I did not want to dedicate that much time learning the bus routes.
I then investigated hiring a guide for the day. I figured with a per capita income of under $7,000 (the fifth lowest in Europe), I would be able to find an entrepreneurial local who would drive me to the castle. Well, I realized you can find plenty of entrepreneurial go-getters, but they are charging $200-$300 a day. They were charging Paris prices.
No English Spoken Here
English is very limited in Minsk. And in many countries that is not an issue. In fact, it is part of the charm and the adventure of trying to communicate with the locals. For example, if you are in Thailand and you simply say hello, saweedeekrup, in Thai, the locals’ faces will light up and they will unequivocally state how great your Thai is.
Speaking English in Minsk will get you shunned or ignored. In fact, speaking Russian will not necessarily improve your situation. I am able to sting a sentence or two together in Russian. In a lovely café on the main prospect, I was yelled at by a surly waitress while attempting to order coffee and elected to quickly depart the premise.