2013 was a busy year for me. My wife and I had set up an NGO (Act Global) that aimed to connect people from the world to foster greater peace and understanding between different groups. In this year alone we worked in thirteen different countries over the period of ten months. If you are interested to know more about our organisation follow the link here.
In a mission to complete all the countries in Europe, by chance, a call for participants came up looking for UK participants to join a training course in Minsk, so I jumped at the chance. I sent a mail to the coordination organisation expressing my motivation to join the project and happily I was accepted almost immediately and asked to start applying for my visa. I was so excited but had no idea just how difficult this would be.
I remember it was Monday morning and I called the consulate of Belarus to ask about the process, as I was not able to locate this information online. As I called the first time someone picked up the phone and I asked “am I through to the consulate of Belarus”? I got some fast reply in what sounded like Russian and the phone promptly being hung up. Ok, I thought, let’s try again. The second time someone picked up the phone and hung up right away. What was going on? So I continued to call, but then no one would pick up, this quickly became frustrating. So I called up the coordination organisation and explained what had happened. They told me my choices were to travel to London directly and apply for the visa in person or to apply by post. They also informed me that others from the UK who applied by post were rejected, so I was better off going in person, so I did.
Tuesday morning I was at the consulate where there was a cue, it seemed that most people applying for visas were just looking for transit visas as they were planning to join the Siberian express and had decided to first take the train from the UK to Moscow, other than the Russian visa, the only other visa they needed was to cross Belarus. After an hour or so of waiting, I was finally at the front of the cue. The conversation went a little something like this.
Me: Hello, I tried to call yesterday but I could not get through to anyone.
Representative: How is? If we answer phone we cannot do job.
Me: Is it not part of the job?
He did not answer, and I was not looking to piss him off as I was trying to get a visa here. So the project I was trying to join started the Saturday of this week, so I was hoping to get an express visa and was thinking they might do a one-day service. Not at all, when asking the conversation went a little something like this.
Me: Do you have an express service
Representative: нет (no in Russian)
Me: I need to be there by this weekend, is the zero percent chance you could do an express service?
Representative: Minus one, not even zero.
Me: Ok, so how long is the process?
Representative: Three days.
Me: Great, so I can collect on Friday?
Representative: нет, closed Thursday.
Me: Closed, what for?
At this point, I could feel myself just getting frustrated, so I just left and would need to wait for the result. I called the coordination organisation and explained the situation, I told them I don’t know if I will be able to go or not, and if I can I will be late, they said this was fine. So I waited a week to see.
The next Monday I was back in London and I arrived early to the consulate. Again a cue and a bit of a wait. Finally I got to the front and I was given my passport and it had the visa. Oh my god! I was with my wife and she would also be travelling with me, so we had experienced this process together. We got out of the consulate and said, “right we need to find some tickets to fly today”. We went to a nearby coffee shop, sat down and looked at flights. Flights direct to Minsk were now extortionate prices and we had a limited budget allocation to travel. Ok, let’s think about this I said. I pulled up Google maps and looked at what would be the easiest ways to get to Minsk. Belarus borders Poland and Lithuania and there are plenty of low cost flights to both countries, so we started looking at which were the cheapest that we could fly today. We found a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania, which would get us in that night. So the plan was this, we would fly to Vilnius, stay the night and get the train in the morning to Minsk. We explained this to the coordination organisation letting them know we would be an additional day late for the project, but they were fine with it. So this is what we did, we flew to Vilnius, stayed in a hotel close to the station and went to get a train in the morning (Vilnius blog here). Coming to the station I asked the lady if we could buy a one-way ticket to Minsk, she said sure but questioned if we really wanted to go there. This was not the best sign. Anyway, we got our tickets and off we went.
The train was great, one of these old style soviet trains. For me in the region of the former soviet union, the trains are such a great way to travel and people seem to really come out of their shells on these trains. The train took about three hours and was a peaceful ride over some beautiful flat plains. I was a little nervous when the border control came, but them guys are quite serious looking in most places, so there were no real problems.
Arriving into Minsk we were really surprised by how grand the station was and the epic buildings outside. Wow, where have we arrived too? We were picked up by a representative of the coordination partner hosting the project and taken to a large house just outside the city limits. The building was some kind of homestay for orthodox monks, which had been rented to the organisation for a week and we were the only guests. It was very pleasant and my wife and I had our own private room, and in the basement of the building was a banya (the Russian version of a sauna), because I guess the winters are cold and even monks like to sauna. The other participants on the project were from Moldova, Ukraine, Italy, Turkey and us from the UK. As a group, we were spending the week looking at and discussing areas of social inclusion. As a result, we went and visited a number of institutions in the city who were working with disadvantaged groups due to either physical disabilities or social and financial barriers, overall the project was very interesting and it was great to meet with people and hear about some of their realities. We also bonded well with some of the participants from the other countries and had a few late nights drinking and chatting. But from all the group we really got on with the facilitator Olga, who became and still is a good friend today.
We had a couple of tours around the city and I can genuinely say that Minsk is a very impressive, people are poor and they do struggle with what they have, but the buildings, green spaces and café’s and bars are all very nice. On a couple of days we had in the city we walked around for hours and explored a lot, exhausting but great. On one of these days, we also passed the KGB building. It is illegal to photograph any government buildings, but I managed to take this sneaky picture that was my facebook banner for some time. Sometimes it feels cool to live a little dangerously, however tragic this is ;).
The city is big with long streets and impressive buildings, some of the highlights for me were walking by the river, the main church by the river, hanging out in some of the cool cafés, and passing some little-hidden spots which can only be shared by true locals.
After the project, we hung around a little longer and Olga took us to her families apartment. In comparison to western standards, this appeared quite small in a huge concrete tower block. But the reality in the former soviet union is very different. We have to remember that people were allocated space by need, as most people live in the same situation. So our own concepts of how people are living do not translate to the local realities. This is not to say that people do not struggle, they do. Nevertheless, the place was very cosy and we sat for a drink before exploring the city once again with Olga. Going with her was also very pleasant as we got to see some of the residential areas of the city, something that we would not have seen had we come as just a tourist.
Belarus is a strange country, it is definitely run by a strong authoritarian leader, and people’s freedom does have some limitations, but opinions are very divided about the president and his popularity as a leader. I have now worked for a number of years with people from Belarus and am almost always inspired by their energy and enthusiasm to just get on and do things, and this is felt in the city with the young population.
It seems that Belarus is becoming a lot more open these days and for many countries, it is possible to get a visa on arrival. Although for me the visa process was a nightmare, visiting the city was incredible and this was made all that more incredible because of my friend Olga. Minsk is a great city to explore off the beaten track and you will be surprised just how magnificent the city is.