The land locked country between EU and Russia
Often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, the land locked country between EU and Russia does trigger one’s curiosity.
The same president rules the country since 1994 and local stand-up comedians joke (abroad) that elections in Belarus are not about who will win, but how much will the president Lukashenka beat other candidates.
Wide long streets, soviet monuments, Lenin, rumors about empty soviet-like looking shops, all of it makes it a really intriguing destination, especially when its just 2,5 hours train ride from Vilnius to Minsk!
Get in by land
Flights to Minsk are rather expensive and locals often travel through Lithuania.
Vilnius (Lithuania) and Minsk (Belarus) are well connected: frequent busses and trains connect these two capitals.
Trains (leaving 5-6 times a day) are a better option, as they do not stop at the border: Lithuania’s officials check you at the train station before bording the train, while Belarussians board the train at Gudagay (Гудагай) border station in Belarus and check passengers until next train stop at Maladzyechna (Маладзечна), Belarus.
Note, there are Belorussian trains, that take 4h20m, and newer Lithuanian trains, that make it in 2h30m.
Prepare for Bureaucracy
Prepare for bureaucracy to get your visa, as if you are planning to stay longer than 5 days, you will definitely need a visa! I wanted to make visa on my own, I always do, why waist the challenge and simply hand the documents over to a travelling agency (also overpay)! Decide for your self, if the adventure is worth the struggle:
- In Vilnius the consulate welcomes you with a tall fence, where you take a ticket and wait outside… for several hours (you can book time ahead, but how I could not figure out);
- Photos must be according to their standards, which differ from the usual;
- A long and very confusing forms to fill in (do it at home, seriously, it took me 3 copies to make it right);
- Hotel confirmation from booking.com is not sufficient enough. When travelling to countries like Belarus or Russia, one needs a letter of invitation from a local person or a hotel. Hotel is easier option as your local friend would have to spend quite some time to acquire it, while hotel only needs to send you a confirmation printed on their unique blank with a stamp and a signature of a high rank employee. They are not very keen on making it asap, but I managed to convince them and got it sent by fax to the consulate, as I was already there when I learned the booking.com confirmation won’t work.
Trust the people
Forget Google, it’s Yandex World! Just like in Russia, “Yandex” maps is what you should use for navigation and it is a great tool. It shows building numbers and traffic jams with suggestions on how to avoid them.
Don’r rely on timetables. Traffic system is somewhat confusing in Minsk. In one place you can find 5 different stops and no clear marking which one you should wait at for you bus. Ask locals, even if you think you got it right.
Timetables are really small and a bit away from the stop sign, so look further around for one. Not that it matters much, as the buses I used did not seem to follow the schedule strictly. Ask locals again, they often are much more reliable than timetables or maps.
Trust the people. What comes as a surprise, is the people in Belarus. While struggling financially, they yet manage to be very friendly and generous. While on the street everybody is very helpful and friendly, yet they will not approach you if you don’t look confused or in need for help. Younger people speak English and are happy to practice it.
Have your passport always ready. From buying a simple prepaid SIM card, to connecting to WIFI in a hotel, you will need to provide your passport data.
Do not argue with police
Nightlife can get quite pricy. When going out for drinks or food, do check out lonely planet or trip advisor tips, as it can get surprisingly pricy, especially if you think in terms of how much locals earn.
No matter what, do not argue with police. In tougher times in Belarus people got out to the streets protesting in silence. Yet simply standing still and not saying a word was enough for many people to get arrested.
Officials in Belarus are overly serious. Do not joke around with them, as if you get in trouble, it can get serious. There are also many signs forbidding public smoking, so look around before you smoke in public.
Service is very basic. Just as you would experience in Russia, Belarusians don’t bother to be very nice if they don’t feel like it. And no, you being a customer does not mean a thing. Also, some places might surprise with a lack of common sense. A café located in a supermarket might run out of milk. You order a coffee, walk 5 meters to the milk section and buy milk for your coffee separately.
When getting out of the country, note that regulations for goods to be taken out really differ from the neighboring countries. Tobacco allowance is only 2 packs (40 cigarettes) when going by train, yet it’s different for plane. It all really depends on how and where you are going after Belarus. Do check it before hand as these things can change without a warning!