Belarus is not exactly somewhere you’d see advertised in a travel agent. It is a borderline dictatorship, the current President having been in power for nearly two decades despite the maximum term originally being 10 years, and has been denied entry to the EU as it still practices capital punishment and has a military that is not under civilian control.
To put people off even more they are also quite strict on the visa front, requiring you to get a letter from a resident/travel agent/hotel inviting you to visit the country, a signed letter from your employer and £75 to cover the admin all before you’ve even booked a flight. If you’ve reached this point you’ll then find that there are almost no direct flights from London and you’ll end up spending hundreds getting there.
There are various companies that will source the Letter of Invitation (LOI) on your behalf but they usually charge a substantial fee (£30+) and offer it as part of a visa application package inflating the £75 fee with a service charge of their own. So as it stands we’re looking at £100+ on the visa and £250+ on flights, and quite frankly if you’re not specifically interested in going to Belarus it’s not really going to be worth the time expense.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to see and do there (You can visit Lee Harvey Oswalds apartment for one), we just need to make the cost more reasonable to justify it. Now it’s quite hard to mitigate Visa fees as there’s not much you can normally do to bring down the cost except for applying to the embassy directly yourself to avoid third party service fees, however, there is one trick in the bag for Belarus.
A while ago I was reading about travel on the Trans-Siberian railway, as many people keen on travel do, and entertained the idea of travelling from London to Vladivostok entirely by train. A guide book mentioned that you would need a tourist visa for Russia and a transit visa for Belarus as the train passes through it. Now transit visas are issued by some countries that, due to infrastructure arrangements, have a lot of people travelling through them but not staying in them. Depending on the criteria they can make a short trip to a country much easier to arrange. The transit visa for Belarus allows you to visit the country for 48 hours and only requires you have tickets in and out of the country and has a cost of £50. There is no requirement for an LOI or a letter from your employer. Whilst not allowing for a comprehensive trip, if you can time your arrival and departure well enough, you can get a day or two in Minsk to see the sights and get a feel for the place.
Now since flying to Belarus is so expensive and a condition of the visa is that you are travelling through the country lets see if we can find cheap flights in and out of nearby countries and then travel overland to Minsk. Belarus borders Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Russia is out as it requires a visa with an LOI so would create a host of other costs. A look in the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable shows daily sleeper trains from Riga (Latvia), Kiev (Ukraine), Vilnius (Lithuania) and Warsaw (Poland). Now as the tickets must be presented to obtain the transit visa, and the embassy has the power to deny the visa if they don’t think it’s a valid application then it’s worth considering that the route you are taking through Belarus is actually a logical one. For example travelling from Vilnius to Riga via Minsk would seem illogical, as you would normally travel between these two cities directly, and could potentially lead to the application to be declined.
For my trip I’ve decided to start in Kiev so I can attach the trip to Minsk to my upcoming return trip to Chernobyl (Hopefully with access inside Reactors 5 & 6 and Duga 3!). So I’m left with Riga, Vilnius and Warsaw as destinations. The Baltics have always seemed interesting so it looks like Vilnius or Riga, a search on Skyscanner shows that a one way flight back from Riga is about £40 with Wizzair and one from Vilnius is £25 with RyanAir. Using the train ticket calculator on the RealRussia website we can see there is a sleeper to Riga each day from Minsk for about £35 and there is a daytime train to Vilnius for around £15. Vilnius is definitely looking like the cheaper option but after asking people who’ve been to those cities it would appear that Riga has a lot more to offer for a short trip (Bobsledding with the Latvian Olympic team being particularly note worthy!).
There is one last hurdle in that how can I be sure the trains I am on will cross the borders within 48 hours of each other so that I can stay within the constraints of the visa whilst still trying to give myself as much time as possible in Minsk. The only way to check this is quite laborious and involves going through the list of stops on the train and looking up which country they are in until you find each countries border town. This will give you a rough idea of at what time the border crossing is and can therefor let you know the latest train you can take.
As you can only buy tickets for the trains 45 days in advance I will have to wait until December as my trip to Chernobyl is in February. Only once I’ve bought these tickets can I apply for my Visa. I’ll update on the Application process once I receive them!
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