Sunday, March 31, 2013

Prequel to Minsk

Sunday, March 31, 2013
I have wanted to see Minsk (Belarus) for about two years. My wish was deterred for some time by the fact that there was no budget accommodation available at that time. Recently the situation has changed when the idea of hostelling was noticed at StartupWeekend (more about that later) and Minsk now sports a number of hostels. Belarus is known for its tough governing system, demonstrations, freedom of speech issues, etc. but it is often known as terra incognita of Europe. By saying this, I mean that there is hardly any information available in English about its tourism possibilities. It's also difficult to plan an itinerary and budgeting because the information related to that is simply not out there. On the other hand, those that have been to Belarus hail its sights and note cleanliness. I guess it's the time I checked that out.

Living in Vilnius is an advantage in terms of transportation: we have train and bus connections. The train station is being upgraded so that starting from May 2013 travellers to Belarus will go through passport and visa control before boarding the train and that will mean that the train will not be stopped at the border anymore, which will speed the journey. Train connection has always been a weak spot of mine, so I first went to make inquiries about it. Unfortunately, the morning trains only have sleepers available. That would mean that I would have to sit on somebody's couch or somebody would have to sit on my couch, which is even worse. I mean, you don't normally sleep on a three-hour journey that is also interrupted by border control, do you? So, the train option was nixed. I crossed the road to the bus station (which is conveniently located just across the train station) and moments later I owned a return bus ticket to Minsk. I even got 5% off because I had a loyalty card from the company.

The next thing was securing a visa. If there were ten companies doing it, they would all give different information and this is not an exaggeration. The company I bought the bus ticket from can also help with the visa but I first need to present them a hotel voucher, and visa would be issued for the duration of the stay. I was confused whether a hotel voucher is a printed hostel booking confirmation or not? Of course, there is always an option of downloading the form from Belarus embassy website, filling it in and going in person to apply, which would mean a smaller fee than via the agency. But since it seemed to be quite  a lot of hassle, I decided to do it via an agency. I found one that had smaller fees than others and only required a passport and a photo. I also needed to take out an insurance and my visa would be issued for the duration of my insurance and not my accommodation length. Mind, they can only process your visa if you submit it a month before your departure but not earlier.

The day I had my passport with Belarus visa in it was the day I booked my accommodation. I didn't want to do that before receiving my visa. I booked my hostel stay on March 27, 2013 for May 1-6, 2013 and I took their last bed for that period in the last available hostel in Minsk. How crazy is that?

I think I need to expand on accommodation in Minsk. There is no shortage of 4* or so hotels that charge my weekly salary for one night's stay in Minsk. However, if you are on a budget, it's a difficult story. I am sure there are decent 1* or 2* hotels available but they are not on the Internet. I seem to remember reading a comment by some Belorussian official saying that they don't need poor tourists. In January 2012 a girl Ksenia Kurus (forgive my Englishizing her name) proposed developing hostels in Minsk during Startup Weekend (an event when investors and clever people meet). She has opened at least two hostels in Minsk now. A drawback of hostels is that they mainly cater for big groups and three of four reservations of mine were turned down because they said they are not interested in single bookings. How shocking, if you ask me!

Now, according to my calculations, this escapade to Minsk of mine will cost me 3.000.000 Belorussian rubles. I intend to visit the main sights of interest and some museums, take public transport, take a day trip to Mir and Nesvyzh with a local agency (to see Radvila family legacy, our uncrowned kings of Lithuania), eat local food and maybe do some shopping (Belorussian textile is very appreciated across the border). I hope this trip will give me time to send a postcard home!

Have you ever been to Belarus?

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