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Ooaj Travel Guide, tourism, hotel reservation, residence, plane, cheap pension for you holidays in belarus
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After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration. Although Belarus agreed to a framework to carry out the accord, serious implementation has yet to take place.
Many visitors to Belarus will need a visa. For those exempt see here (http://www.mfa.gov.by/eng/index.php?d=consul&id=3). In Poland, you can get a visa at the Belarus embassy in Warsaw or at a consulate (http://www.belembassy.org/poland/pol/index.php?p=embassy&f=info).
In order to get a visa you will also need:
The letter of invitation/travel voucher is issued by a state-approved travel agent, or, (since 2005), it is enough if you have an address of a "juristic person" (can be anybody) in Belarus. This will be enough to get a "private visa"- no invitation is needed anymore.
For a transit visa you will need evidence of tickets for onward travel. You are permitted a one night stay in Belarus with a transit visa.
There is a compulsory state medical insurance (http://www.belarusembassy.org/consular/medical_insurance.htm) for visitors to Belarus. For a week's visit you will need to fill out a form and pay US$3.
In Warsaw, you must go to the official travel agent Kalinka (ul. Marsza?kowska 115, entry from ul. Przechodnia, kalinka at supermedia dot pl, tel +48(22) 620 53 75) to get the travel voucher (because you do not have a private address of someone in Belarus). You can get all three (visa + travel voucher + insurance) in one visit and have your passport returned by courier (for a handling fee), you can also send your passport there by courier.
Visa fees and processing changes so make sure that you check with the local embassy or consulate before you plan your travel. A visa will take a full page of your passport so make sure you have at least 1 page free.
Belavia (http://www.belavia.by) is the main carrier.
Some of the entry/exit points along the Poland/Belarus border include:
You can take a local train between the two corresponding border towns. Timetable information should be available on sites like DB (http://www.bahn.de) or PKP (en) (http://www.pkp.pl/english/index.php) (pl) (http://www.pkp.pl).
Passport, customs controls
Passport controls happen in the train itself. In the get in to Belarus direction, they happen typically even before the train leaves the station in Poland.
Customs controls happen in a room of the train station in the Belarus train station. As of 2005, you are most likely to have a short chat with a customs officer - the system of green (nothing to declare) and red (something to declare) streams and random checks of suspicious looking people in the green stream - everyone is presumed to be suspicious. In practice, the rules seem to be fairly standard - declare expensive goods, you can import/export a small quantity of alcohol, cigarettes, computer equipment for personal use. However, the formal content of the customs form asks whether you are carrying any publications. So if you have, e.g. a US passport and are carrying a whole bunch of do-it-yourself-color-revolution materials and you have that subversive look about you, then you will probably be giving the customs people have a legal reason to detain you and/or deport you.
Arrive early for the customs room when leaving Belarus
Warning: the customs room in the train station where you exit Belarus may be difficult to find (especially if you walk around the station rather casually and your cyrillic is weak) and it closes a long time before the train leaves; if you arrive only 10 minutes before the train leaves, you will be refused customs control and access to the train. (please update: the delay before closing is unknown, but it is more than 10 minutes, and probably it is around 30-60 minutes).
Women trading underpants, soap powder, strawberries, cigarettes
On a local train between two border towns, chances are high that you will be accompanied/befriended by women trading underpants, soap powder, strawberries, cigarettes etc across the border. They may be friendly and casual or (on the get out of Belarus direction) they might put pressure on you to help them in their trade by making use of the maximum duty-free allowance of cigarettes which you can carry - the idea is that you buy it cheap in Belarus and that you resell it to them once you're in Poland. Chances are also good that their friendly mafia boss is with them and you'll all travel together in the same train carriage, so chances of you getting away and reselling the cigarettes independently are probably weak unless you're James Bond. If you're not James Bond, just smile, use your common sense and probably best not to provoke them. Don't look to the border guards for help. They know the women traders and seem to have some informal deal with them (e.g. not being strict about visas etc) - the Belarus border guards are only worried about political subversives, they have higher priorities than defending you against women trading underpants and cigarettes.
At the Terespol/Brest crossing, there are six different controls, some sort of mix of anti-spam filter, passport control and customs control from the two sides. It would be nice to believe that there's a geiger counter to check for stuff which is radioactive from the Chernobyl accident, but it's unclear if this is used in practice - it's not done in any obvious way.
Expect to wait half an hour to an hour between the three controls on the Belarus side. The three Polish controls are typically faster. In reality, the border guards/customs officers from the two countries seem to be present together at many of the control lines, so it's not easy to know when you're still in Belarus and when you're in Poland.
If you're at one of the double town crossings, e.g.
there may be some places where you can cross by foot - e.g. because you're on the last day of your Belarus visa and you want to be sure not to overstay - but more likely you'll have to befriend some people in a car who will adopt you for a few hours and will (implicitly) pretend that you're travelling with them. The border guards have no problem with this. Remember that the people in the car are taking a risk as well as you - as far as they know you might be a National Endowment for Democracy agent who will be discovered by the Belarus border guard and get them into a heap of trouble. So if they are Belarussians and they ask for a fee of US$5 consider it fair. See the section By car above for what happens in your adopted car.
Belarusian is an official language, but Russian is more widely spoken. It will be difficult to get by without some Russian. The two languages are closely related, so even the Belarusian monolinguals understand Russian.
Inside of Belarus, you can get belarussian roubles from automatic bank machines for standard types of cr/debit cards, and you can change US dollars and euros into belarussian roubles or vice/versa at many exchange kiosks in big railway stations and centres of big cities. Converting belarussian roubles back into hard currency once you are outside of Belarus will probably be difficult. However, if you exchange all your roubles before leaving, any last minute purchases (or fines for overstaying, customs, whatever) would have to be paid in dollars/euros.
A very rough conversion (summer 2005) is about 2200 belarussian roubles = US$1.
Prices are much lower than in Western Europe: if you buy local products (local train tickets, food, drink) in local markets, supermarkets, shops, then divide the cost you normally pay in Western Europe by something like a factor of 20 (summer 2005).
As of 2005, the USA has given several overt signs that it wishes to overthrow the Lukaszenko government, by supporting opposition parties in elections, e.g. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's high-profile meeting (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6481-2005Apr21.html) with people from Belarus opposition parties on 21 April 2005. Just as French or German or Japanese or whatever local authorities would be rather sensitive about USA or Russian government organisations supporting local opposition parties, the Belarussian authorities are rather sensitive about foreign organisations interfering in the local developments in democracy.
If you participate in a street demonstration with political banners, expect to be detained within minutes. How fast you get out (24 hours or 24 days) depends on your support network, your social status, etc.
The KGB in Belarus has not changed its name since the days of the Soviet Union: it is still called the KGB, and its habits have probably not changed much either - the only difference is that now it "protects" capitalism instead of communism.
Some ethnic Polish journalists and journalists with Polish citizenship had hassles with the authorities (http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=14678) (ranging from refused entry to a dozen or so days in prison) during 2005. If you have a Polish sounding name, better have good evidence that you're not a journalist.
In Belarus, there is a big institute and lots of funding for studying the after effects of the Chernobyl disaster, which happened in 1986 in a nuclear power plant on the Ukraine-Belarus border, in the food chain. In principle, food inspectors check food not only for bacterial contamination but also for radiation levels, and except for the banned region within about 50 kilometres of the Chernobyl plant itself and a second hotspot starting from the point where Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all touch each other, and running roughly 100 km to the North of this point, food is considered safe. (please update: if someone has more quantitative information, please provide this; just saying "safe" is rather vague.)