Wow. Sitting in my spartan Minsk hotel room,
I’m still rather staggered by the fact that I’ve managed to enter Belarus, a country which has fascinated me for years. My quest was not assisted by a bizarre administrative issue which at one point had me travelling to Minsk and Belgrade on the same day, but it was when I started trying to score a visa that things became even more challenging and confusing.
Some of you will remember me moaning about the irritations of sorting an Azerbaijan visa late last year. Well, those started to look like halcyon days once I’d clocked the Belarus visa requirements
. The mandatory letter of invitation from a travel agency startled me, as I was not entering as part of a tour group, and I’ve been lucky enough to have clients sort my visas at points in the past. After a degree of stressful head-scratching, I came across the rather marvellous ASLA
, who were a mine of information and sorted the letter of invitation for me.
They would have been happy to organise the visa for me for a further fee too, but with a startling lack of planning, I was in St Lucia the week before Belarus and was unable to leave my passport behind in London for processing. This left me with three days to organise my visa once I got back to London. I turned up at the Belarus Embassy in Kensington on Monday morning after a red eye from Hewanorra, looking unkempt, wild-eyed, and probably like a pretty unattractive candidate for entry to Belarus.
They couldn’t have been more helpful. Granted, due to my bad planning I had to pay double the standard visa charge of £70 for speedy processing, but they had the visa ready for me within 24 hours, twice as fast as the fastest they’ll officially state that they can move. Anyone else intending to go through this process should take note that now they only accept cash payments, not credit cards, even for group bookings. The visa section opening hours are quite limited too – 9.30 to 12.30 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. In other words, be better at planning than I was in order to save yourself money and panic attacks.
I didn’t know what to expect of Belavia
but it’s a friendly and punctual airline with an unusually bijou plane for European trips – just 13 rows and even so some empty seats. The plane meal starter consisted entirely of gherkins which is a dream come true for me but might not be everybody’s cup of chai. Passport control was far friendlier and easier than googling had led me to believe, as was picking up a taxi to the city centre. My attempt to organise a private driver through the hotel fell over, leaving me casting around for cab drivers at the airport, one of my phobias as a solo female traveller. The nice old driver with an insane smoker’s cough that I picked (over)charged me €40 for the journey and I paid happily - the journey took over an hour and he was considerate and kindly throughout.
My first sightseeing sojourn raised more questions than it answered, from what is this?
To what is going on in this advertisement?
To why does my hotel have FIVE bars including this one?
It must have sounded terribly poignant when I asked for a table for one at my hotel restaurant because I was placed in the middle of a hectic and extremely loud wedding party, complete with blaring live music, dancing dads and some women in thigh high fetish boots falling over. Apart from the volume levels it was all pretty good fun and capped off an intriguing first day of triumphal entry to Belarus. Oh, and the "grandma's pot" of chicken and potato pancakes was very welcome, too.