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Don’t Go to Belarus – There’s Nothing Fun or Funny About Minsk

by Gail Mooney
June 20 2010

In planning our itinerary for Opening Our Eyes, I needed to ticket a flight from Warsaw to Moscow. There was nothing direct – most European airlines went back to their hubs and thus took more time, going out of the way. I thought about the train, but I saw warnings about going through Riga and having to pay for high transit visas so I avoided it. I opted to fly Belavia Air, the national airlines of Belarus. Every flight went through Minsk (its hub), but at least that was going in the same direction. But little did I know what was awaiting us in Minsk.

We had a scheduled layover of 2 ½ hours in Minsk, which quickly dwindled to less than a half an hour because the flight was 2 hours late taking off from Warsaw. The problem was with baggage – they couldn’t match the baggage tags with the passenger roster so everyone needed to get off the plane – identify their bag on the tarmac and then reboard.

When we got to Minsk we were in a hurry, but we needed to pass through passport control. I thought since we were in transit, it would be like most transit flights and we’d whisk right through. But when the official asked us for our Belarus visa – we knew we had a problem. We quickly went upstairs to the visa window and were encountered by a stern blonde woman who looked like she was straight out of a 1960’s Cold War novel, who asked for our passports. When she saw the US passports she told us it would be $300 – I was shocked. And then when she informed us that was for each one of us – my shock turned to outrage.

I wasn’t traveling with that much cash so I needed to go to an ATM. Of course the ATM would not accept my card so we were ushered to a small currency exchange kiosk. It was closed and wasn’t going to reopen for another 40 minutes. And that’s when I started to panic a bit, knowing that our flight to Moscow would leave with our bags – but without us. Not something you want to have happen as we were due to arrive in Moscow after midnight. After waiting over 45 minutes she opened the kiosk and people started pushing their way to the window. I finally got my “usury” money and paid the “bandit” immigration authorities after an hour and a half of stress and agony.

The only saving grace was that the airline officials held the flight for us. My daughter was wondering why they didn’t have direct flights from Warsaw to Moscow since it would have taken less than 2 hours. I know why now – the routing is designed to hold anyone with a US passport hostage until they pay these exorbitant fees. No pleading or explaining that we were only in their country for 15 minutes would do any good. I have never seen such callous and rude people in all my years of traveling and I will never return to Belarus.

But I do hope someday that I will come upon a Belarusian visiting the United States. I will go out of my way to treat them with the kindness that we never received in their country and perhaps that will filter through. I can only hope.

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9 Responses

  1. Interesting. I’ve been curious about visiting Belarus, but not sure since I’ve read it’s not a very friendly place. I’ve also heard of other countries where a US passport means much much higher visa fees and that sort of thing. Glad you were able to get the flight in the end.

  2. Charles

    Very sorry this happened to you.
    This does not only apply to US citizens, but is true for most citizens of “rich” Western countries. So don’t make this a US against the world issue. (maybe you didn’t mean that, but this is how I read your story)
    Don’t forget, Belarus is the last of the Mohicans. The last communist/dictatorial country of former Greater Russia. A few rich people and the rest is poor. Although it is in our view an immoral act of that immigration office, remember that you hopefully made one poor guy a little richer. (if not, the richer people got even richer than they were, unfortunately, but lets think of it in a positive way.)
    And wasn’t this what your trip was all about? Showing the world how some people live? Belarus could have been one of those places…

    • Actually, there was a list of visa fees posted on the wall and the US was singled out as being far more expensive than any other “rich” Western country. Incidently, the $300 fee was for each TRANSIT visa. To enter the country of Belarus as opposed to transiting – the fee would have been $400. This to me made a statement in itself and for that reason caused me to write this blog entry – to caution other US citizens to avoid transiting through this country. I will think positive however and if I ever come across any citizens of Belarus in my travels or in the US, I will treat them with fairness and kindness.
      Our project is not about showing the world how some people live but rather our project is highlighting some of the people in the world who are making a positive difference world by their selfless acts of kindness. We had just come from Poland where one of our subjects had given up her job and was using hippo therapy to help children with disabilities. I watched her for a week, work tirelessly with all types of children, rarely stopping to take a break even to eat. It is people like this who are project is about.

  3. Zan

    Oh my heavens! That sounds awful. I recently had a weird connection from Reno to Newark in Phoenix where I had to run a lot but nothing like what you went through. My connecting plane was also late but not sure whether or not it was exactly held(Thank God they at least held yours to collect the US citizen tax-God, how obvious)!
    You can try to be nicer to them here but the fact is, our border agents at the Maine/Canada border (by car) are actually quite rude and present a horrible impression of our country. Especially compared to the Canadian guards who welcome you in with a warm “Bonjour.”
    They quizzed my husband on whether his parents were married when he was born, and on and on.
    I mean yes we have a little terrorism but is that much rudeness ever really necessary?

    Also just got pulled out of line to have my bags swabbed for “outer particulates” getting on a train at
    Penn Station– and while I saw the necessity(NYC is a target), it was not a pleasant experience.

  4. I simply HAD to comment on this one since I met and dated a woman from Belarus here in the US for a year, and it was going fine (I thought)until one day she came over and coldly told me our relationship was over. When you wrote “callous and rude” I thought of
    those cold aspects of her personality – she too is from Minsk. Maybe something in the water there? lol Sorry U had to experience that.

  5. Andrei Burdenkov

    Actually the price-tag has gone mad since the New Year, in the States you can get the visa at USD 131 (at least a tourist one) by mail from the Embassy.

    It is not the country that’s unfriendly – damned officials spoil the whole image. =)

  6. With your promise at the end of your article, I thought, may be I should come visit you :))
    I am Byelorussian, live in USA, Colorado since 1998.
    You are absolutely truthful in your description, as sad as it sounds. You can only imagine what it took to do all paperwork for the US immigration FROM Belarus…
    Sometimes I feel I’d like to go and visit my motherland, but then all practical difficulties rise up (I also have two American born children and I am US citizen now) and I just drop that idea, ank keep bringing my parents for visits.

  7. TESSA

    Thank you to all from this info about Belarus. As I was researching the cost of Belarus visa , I came across this TA forum. I was informed by my travel agent that the cost of Belarus visa is now $320 for 2014 ($180 for 2013) payable upon entrance to this country.
    I plan to do a “package” guided 19 days land tour to Northern Capitals and Russia, Belarus(Minsk) included next year. But now I am contemplating if I should do it or not. Uhmmm….Any advice?

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