Minsk, I knew nothing about it. Or Belarus for that matter. Which is why we chose to include it in our Eastern European winter holiday road trip. The only thing that came to mind was a Seinfeld episode in which Bette Midler starred in “Rochelle, Rochelle” singing about Minsk. I am sad to say that I knew virtually nothing else about this part of the world. Only about 4,000 people travel from the UK to Belarus each year and we were delighted at the prospect of visiting some place completely foreign and unknown to us.
I started to do a little research to investigate what to see and do in Belarus with children. After searching online and finding almost nothing I decided to try the book store. I found one book, a very long and detailed book about the history of Belarus. Hmm, not exactly what I was looking for. Later, I came to realise that the reason I couldn’t find any information online is that it wasn’t in English. If I was searching in Cyrillic I would have found the motherload.
We discovered immediately that we needed a tourist visa and would have to visit the Belarus Embassy here in London to apply. Feeling quite confident in my visa application skills after having survived the India visa process, I prepped all of my paperwork in duplicates of 5 dotting every i and crossing every t. We documented travel health insurance. We also needed a hotel booked before we could apply, and the hotel’s address and phone number had to be included along with the dates of entry and exit. No big deal, standard visa questioning.
I was turned away on my first attempt as I failed to realise that we also needed confirmation in Russian from the hotel in the form of a signed letter stating that they would be hosting us. Not to be discouraged, I marched home and emailed Hotel Europe. The hotel was kind enough to email me back that day with the required letter.
I went back to the visa office in Knightsbridge completely satisfied that I had all I needed to complete the process only to be turned away again. “I’m so sorry, the letter must list each person’s name and not just your husband’s.” Stephen had booked the hotel. “You must call them again and ask them to include all of your family members on the reservation.”
Ugh! Ok, back home I went and wrote a new email. To add a new twist to my mini drama, it turned out the hotel room that we booked through Expedia will only accommodate 2 people, even though we had booked for our entire family. Expedia, WTF?? The hotel regretted to inform us that is would be impossible to have our family share the one room and that we must book 2 or 3 rooms for all five of us. Over Christmas that would have cost us around £1200 for two nights which was far beyond our budget. Frustrated, we cancelled our reservation and decided to book with another hotel, the Renaissance Minsk Hotel, for half the price. We booked directly through the hotel afraid of any more mishaps and included all of our family on the reservation. The staff at the Renaissance then provided us with the ever important proof of stay letter (in Russian) and I was on my way back to the embassy. It was approved to be submitted, finally!
While at the embassy I decided to enquire about third party car insurance and a BelToll pass (an electronic box placed in the car which deducts money when you pass through tolls on the motorway), both of which are required for driving in Belarus. The embassy representative had no idea how or when to obtain either. He handed me a pamphlet for BelToll. It was a start.
I researched as much as I could to compile a list of everything required to drive with our car for our two days in Minsk. I had to gather information from several websites as it was all in bits and pieces. Here’s what I found to be mandatory:
- Snow tires, if driving during the winter
- A first aid kit
- Warning triangle
- Replacement vehicle light bulbs
- GB sticker on our car’s rear window
- Fire extinguisher
- Headlamp beam deflectors (We need these always as a UK car traveling to Europe)
- International Driving Permit (Yes, another application process!)
We also read that the police can fine motorists and demand payment on-the-spot for minor traffic offences–yikes! We got to work right away with our check list. New tires though, really? We began to question our dedication but only for a short while. Good things (or new destinations) don’t always come easily. We rationalized our new tires with the argument that the tires that came with our newly purchased pre-owned car probably needed to be replaced sooner rather than later anyway. Lots of new parcels were being delivered regularly by Amazon couriers to comply with all that we needed in our car to set off on our adventure.
I finally discovered that at the border crossing there would be an insurance booth to purchase motor vehicle insurance to cover us whilst driving through Belarus as well as the BelToll station to pick up our on-board device and create an account. Fingers crossed it was all accurate. The lack of reliable information made us feel a bit anxious about the whole thing. We decided that if it didn’t work out for whatever reason we would just cut out Belarus and head to Poland for a few extra days. It would be sad after all of the hard work and money we had put into it but not the end of the world.
Within a week, we had our passports back from the embassy with our new visa stamps. A new feeling of excitement replaced our anxiety. We were on our way to unknown lands!!!
“Well, you made a long journey from Milan to Minsk, Rochelle, Rochelle. You never stopped hoping; now you’re in a Pinsk, Rochelle, Rochelle. When the naysayers ‘nay’ you picked up your pace. You said nothing’s going to stop me so get out of my face. I’m having adventures all over the place, Rochelle, ROCHELLE!”