Traveling to Belarus: political incorrect?
Belarus is quite an unknown country stuck between Poland and Russia, often referred to as "the last dictatorship of Europe", and having one of the few centrally-planned economies left in the world. Although it became independent in 1991, its president still governs the country in a quite authoritarian way BUT thanks to several international initiatives the country is now slowly but surely opening to the world.
Although rural tourism is still in its infancy in Belarus, its beautiful natural surroundings (the highest biodiversity in Europe!), the hospitality and traditional skills of the population, offer plenty of growth possibilities for the near future. There are often festivals which celebrate the unique culinary, craft and pagan traditions of the region.
Some villages are now working on the so-called GREENWAYS: multi-functional heritage trails developed along natural corridors, rivers, historical trade routes and railways.
Those nature routes are developed under the UN flag of Local Agenda 21. A first attempt to introduce local democracy in Belarus!
Isn’t it up to each of us to walk, pedal, canoe etc towards a better world?
When you say ''Travelling to Belarus: politically incorrect?'' do you mean that maybe we should not go there as tourists?
No personally I think it's good to go there and try to help them working towards democracy.
I know some people may disagree with that...this is the good old debate about "are you really helping people by going there (Burma or Belarus) as a tourist?".
Well all I can say is that the Belarus Solidarity Cycling Expedition we organised last year (and organise again this August 2008, http://www.rebelfarmer.org/voluntourism.html) went through isolated villages where we had fantastic contact with the population, we stayed in people's houses and paid them a fair prices for that, we paid for some young Belarusian volunteers to translate our questions and allow us to speak with the older generation. We bought everyday fresh products from the farmers on our way etc etc. This has been a real exchange between the population leaving in hard conditions and being quite oppressed by the power and our group of 15 International participants.
Check some photos on http://www.flickr.com/photos/12463228@N07/show
Well Burma is a unique situation but I think in general it is a good thing for us to visit countries where everything is heavily censored and controlled by the governments. It gives the people there a glimpse of the outside world and in a small way overrides the propaganda their governments are feeding them.
I just ask the question - why?
Belarus is a dictatorship, and tourists will do nothing
to help the situation, no matter what they may think.
If you want to help people on a much smaller scale, try volunteering for a scheme such as the Chernobyl Children's Project
, http://www.chernobyl-children.org.uk/projholcamp.htm, where some of my friends have spent the last few summers. Take politics out of the equation - there are people who are in great need of help.
In a travel context, enjoy the capital, Minsk, for it's architecture, which unlike Moscow, Tallinn or the ciy I work in, Kyiv, is still unspoiled by capitalism.
Would we do anything to harm the politcal situation if we visit Belarus?
What does everyone think?
I often wish that people who travel to certain countries are more politically aware. But I suppose the people who live in those countries who are interested in politics will be aware that not everybody is politcally minded even if they are free to read and say what they want and will search a broad range of information sources when they can.
How much does it cost to travel in Belarus for a backpacker per day anyway? I heard it can be expensive.
I would imagine that Belarus' infrastructure is similar to Ukraine's - if so, expect food and transport to be cheap but living expenses (hotels, clothing etc.) to be expensive. Camo wrote a great blog about Minsk, but quite a while ago.
Would you harm the political situation by visiting? Again, ask yourself - how?
The danger involved is on a much smaller, personal scale - hostility towards foreigners and crime.
Why is there hostility towards foreigners Jonathan?
I went to Belarus in December 2007, and found it to be a fantastic place. I traveled on a visitor visa (far easier to obtain that expected), and Couchsurfed with locals in Brest and Minsk. It's far cheaper this way, than having to pay for the hotels, which carry exorbitant costs. Despite only staying for three days, I felt a great warmth for the place (despite the freezing weather) and the people. I had one of my all-time great traveling experiences in Brest - a full-on Russian-style sauna, shared with a group of around 10 people - which will, one day, be blogged!
I only ever saw one sign that was in English, and that was in the centre of Minsk, so I guess it's true to say it's non-westernised (which stands alone as a great reason to visit). So, put the politics to the side, the people aren't stupid, they don't want to live under such a dictatorship. Where to travel shouldn't be decided by the politics of a place, as traveling is far more than politics. And the final, most important point, Belarussian beer and vodka is incredible!
Ps. I didn't get to any nature reserves when I was there, but heard that they're suffering from neglect and pollution. Is this true?
You make it sound great Alex. 😊 I am almost ready to put it on my list of places to go to.
Did you see any women travelling alone there?
Would you consider it safe for lone female travellers?
Hostility towards foreigners comes from there having been so few of them during the Soviet era, and from there still being so few of them. The lack of communication between cultures has bred ignorance which has led to intolerance and racism - although of course that doesn't apply to everyone. Meet some educated Belorussians and the hospitality which Alex spoke of will come shining through.
Travelling alone might not be particularly rewarding if you don't read cyrillic, as finding your way around will be difficult. As far as safety is concerned, it would depend on where you'll be, but I wouldn't have thought it is especially dangerous.
Would the hostility be towards all foreigners, or non white foreigners, or women?
Not sure yet where I would go in Belarus or what I would do. Just hanging out in a place that is not touristed would be interesting for me. I would get a train to someplace and hang out there. Then maybe get on a night train and go someplace else if accomodation is so expensive. I have not been brave enough to try couchsurfing yet. People have said wonderful things about it but I still have reservations. I like my space. Or maybe I would splash out for a couple of nights accomodation even if it is expensive.
I can barely read cyrillic at all, yet traveling alone WAS particularly rewarding - without the constant reassurance of English signs, it felt more adventurous!
I didn't see any lone women travelers, but then again, I didn't meet any other tourists. I can't imagine there'd be any more of a problem for lone women travelers as anywhere else in eastern Europe.
The average guidebook's list of places to go in the country is very limited - Minsk, the capital, and Brest, near Poland. Both are very Sovietesque cities (obviously), and Brest has one of the most impressive war memorials you'll ever see (just Google some images).
Couchsurfing is by far the best way of doing Belarus. Aside from meeting the locals, you save a fortune on hotels (£50+ a night, special tourist prices, because we're all rich, right?). Even if not staying in hotels, you may still need to register once in country. I didn't have to, because I only stayed 3 nights, and went over a weekend period. The current registration law requires you to register if you're staying 3 or more days, but discounts weekends or something silly like that.
I highly recommend a trip to Belarus. According to some statistics I read, Belarus has only 60,000 foreign visitors a year (compared to e.g. France's 80 million!), the majority of whom are likely to be diplomats, business men and traders. Very few tourists like myself. Perhaps that figure even includes the large numbers of travelers who just transit the country on the way to or from Russia.
Hmm Belarus... One of those places Im really glad I went but probably wouldn´t rush back to.
Im seeing discussion about the dangers of travelling there. Im not sure where this is coming from, when I was there, I never felt in one bit of danger. I could walk around the place at night without a worry at all. Sure I wasn´t a lone woman travelling but Im not sure that would matter either. I didn´t see any women travelling alone but when thinking about it, I only saw two travellers while I was there anyway. The people there are among the friendliest in Europe. Although I could not speak to pretty much any of them, I always got a warm smile and as much help as they could offer. I dont think there is much xenophobia in Belarus and especially not as much as in South Africa at the moment. In fact the people that I did talk to were quite flattered that I was in their country and very curious about mine. I would think travelling there would be a very rewarding experience for anyone.
Mell, travelling there would be a bit more expensive than other countries due to the lack of backbacking infrastructure. There are no hostels (when I was there) and very little in way of tourist help. I spent around US$40 - 50 a night on accomodation. However food is quite cheap. General travel is a little expensive also. I guess after travelling with the cheapness of the Baltic states, the price of Belarus is a bit harder on the wallet but I dont think you would more any more there than in any other Western European country.
I dont know about how travelling there is going to affect the political situation. The government runs the country the way it sees fit and I dont think a few stray tourists are going to make them think they should change. As far as the local population, Im certain they just want to live a life like anyone else in Europe. A few tourists they run into aren´t going to make them take to the streets in protest of how their country is being run. However over time, maybe they may realise the potential of tourism and relax their visa regulations.
If anyone plans on going, I cant stress enough to familiarise yourself with some Russian. Belarus is possibly the hardest country I´ve travelled around quite simply because I couldn´t talk to anyone. Its actually quite a shock to realise how little english is spoken. Of course, a bit of French or German may help also. However if you´re after a genuine travelling experience, Belarus is the place. Sure it may lack the big sights of France or Italy and lack the tourist infrastructre of Germany or Austria but one of the beautiful things about the place is that you really do feel like you´re the only foreigner there. Certainly, if you go anywhere else other than Minsk or Brest, you probably will be.
You can check my blog here ...Of such immense size
I have been in a lot of countries where I did not speak the language so I am used to that. Of course I like it better when I am in places where I can speak the language.....
50 pounds for a hotel room!!! Ugh!! How much does the visa cost? I dont need to stay long. When I am in a neighbouring country I could just get a train into Belarus and stay for not too long.
Danger is a subject I always look into when considering a travel destination. Best to know about any that exists so I can take precautions to avoid it. Glad to hear that you experienced none Camo. That is reassuring.
I can speak some German so hopefully that will help. I am not good at learning languages so learning some Russian is not really an option.
No problem about lacking the big sites. I am generally more interested in seeing how people live and what they are like than looking at sites. That is the main reason I am so interested in going to countries that are not heavily touristed.
I have been researching Belarus recently as I am going on the Hong Kong to St Petersberg train later in the year and was wondering how best to get out of Russia.
A transit visa (48 hours) will cost you UK44 and you need a visa from the country you are arriving from and the country you are going to. If you don't need a visa for either or both of those countries, a ticket or travel agent's itinerary is required.
A short-term tourist visa (90 days) will cost you UK19 and requires an original letter of invitation from a "friend" or relative who lives in Belarus which has been written by the passport and visa office of the Belarus' Ministry of Internal Affairs. Nationals of some countries, notably European Union, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, may not need a letter if they are staying less that 30 days but still need to identify who invited them in their visa application.
If you want more details, have a look at www.projectvisa.com. Note that there is a malicious site www.projectvisas.com
so make sure you enter the url correctly or else have a good anti-virus/malware program running!
Hey Mell.. not 50 pounds for a room... US$50 which works out a bout 20-23 pounds.. My visa was quite expensive but that was because I wanted to go within 4 days, otherwise it wouldve been cheaper.
About getting a visa, I went to get mine from the consulate in Vilnius and they sent me to a travel agent who organised the whole thing for me and even skipped the "having a sponsor or pre booked hotel" part. Which was good for getting a visa but finding a hotel was a bit of trouble. I suggest staying at the Belintourist hotel which will sort you out a room without a booking. They have them in both Minsk and Brest. I recommend staying at least 2 days in Minsk and a day in Brest.
Minsk is an easy bus ride from Vilnius or any other major centre in the region I guess. You will wait for a while at the border while your visa and passport is rigorously checked and scrutinised but if all your papers are in order its no problem.
Hope you make it there one day Mell, I think you´ll love it.
I hope I make I there too Camo. So many countries and we only live for around 100 years. :D
What you and the others say about Belarus reminds me of Romania in the days before the iron curtain toppled. It was nobodies idea of a holiday. It was complicated and we got absolutely no value for money there, but the experience of seeing history in progress is priceless. The only thing I wish is that I knew more about history and politics in those days so it made more sense at the time but I was too much of a baby and thought that things like that were just people talking too much. There were intellectuals in Romania in those days who would invite foreigners into their houses to discuss what it is like in the West because they had little access to information but I did not pay any attention to them. :D
Yes, we really have 50USD-50GBP for a room. But it is not very expensive if you will see prices in Vien, Riga, Prague, Moscow and so on.
About visa... Yes, visa price is really 60E (for Englishmen 100E)... But the same price, we have to pay for European and British visa...
so, i thing that everything is honestly...