We never really even thought of going to Belarus until a few days ago when Jim noticed how close we are here in Vilnius to the Belarussian capital of Minsk. A little research revealed that it is tough but not impossible for Americans to get visas for Belarus, but that it’s easier from Vilnius than from anywhere else.
Suddenly we got very excited about jumping at an opportunity to do something unexpected. Never before have we had the flexibility to take such an unexpected detour — and to take whatever time we needed to “deal with” whatever obstacles were in the way.
[Note: As you live through our Belarus planning saga, you can enjoy these nice pictures of gorgeous Vilnius, though they have nothing to do with this story.]Why did we want to go to Belarus? It’s not exactly on everyone’s hot list, but of course that’s what sometimes makes places extra appealing to us. I’ve always been fascinated by the world’s shrinking list of hugely dysfunctional countries. I spent the summer of 1986 in the crumbling Soviet Union, and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting quite a few other Communist or quasi-Communist states. And I find them utterly intriguing and appalling at the same time. As far as dysfunction goes, Bealrus apparently shines. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, most of its newly independent dependencies threw off the cloak of Communism and embarked on reforms of various stripes. But not Belarus, a country that dug in its heels for the next quarter century, rejecting free markets, privatization of property, or any kind of political reform. It remains a stubborn dictatorship and an economic basket case that appears to be lost in time. The US government has listed Belarus as the only remaining “outpost of tyranny” in Europe.
In other words, we needed to check the place out. So following some online advice we researched travel and hotel options and then sought out a travel agency specializing in help with acquiring visas to Belarus. They told us to book our hotel stays and bring printed proof of those bookings, passport photos, and an outrageous amount of cash to “expedite” things.
The price quote was obviously arbitrary, involving some degree of payoff to someone. We were fully prepared for this and had decided it was worth it. This was the price of admission, and I honestly thought this was a case where you get what you need if you pay the price. In fairness to the agent, she warned that things do not necessarily work that way, especially for Americans.
So we booked three nights in Minsk. And then we booked another stop in Brest, a place with a fascinating history perfectly situated on our logical path from Minsk to our next intended destination of Poland. Plus just imagine the pun-making potential.When we arrived back at the agency with all our requirements in hand, the agent was greatly concerned about our hotel reservation documents, which included the terms for advance cancelation. She insisted this would cause problems, and that the embassy would not look kindly on us unless the hotels were paid in full and not subject to cancelation. But she was also insistent that nothing we did would guarantee success. There is no way we are going to put down hundreds of non-refundable dollars for hotel rooms to help get a visa with no clear indication it will matter. Besides that, the booking services I used didn’t even offer a pre-payment option.
On top of all this, we’d only booked one room at each stop, and we were clearly going to each need our own set of booking documents with our own names on them.After a lot of exasperating back and forth, we finally settled on a plan. Forget about the REAL hotel reservations. I just went online and booked one five-night stay at a bland business hotel in Minsk for me and another one for Jim. I emailed those reservation to the agent and then proceeded to cancel them. She pulled them into Word and doctored up the cancellation terms before printing them up. She seemed pleased with the outcome and told us to call her cell phone tomorrow. (I did genuinely feel she was rooting for us.)
After several calls and delays the next day, we learned that the embassy was not happy with the hotel documents. They insisted that we must provide reservation documents from the hotel that include SIGNATURES and SEALS.How on earth am I supposed to provide something like that? It’s not as if I can physically go those hotels and get these fancy documents from them — without a visa! But she says they are used to this crap, and if I email them they might be able to produce them, scan them, and email them to me.
I remind her of all the problems remaining: the reservation submitted were fake, doctored, and already cancelled; the real reservations only have my name on them and still aren’t paid for; and since I’m paying an exorbitant fee to get a two-day visa (the only viable alternative), how do I possibly have time for all this complicated back and forth?
Reaching the end of our ropes, Jim and I decided we’d at least make one quick stab at getting these documents. So I emailed each of the hotels, asking if they could possibly send such a document for each of us. Meanwhile we started researching Plan B — heading for Poland from here as we originally intended.
To my surprise, both hotels responded to my email within a couple hours. One of them sent two separate documents, one for me and one for Jim, just as I’d requested. But they had no signatures and no seals. The other hotel sent a fancy looking scanned document with a signature covered by a very official looking seal. But it had only my name on it and was loaded up with all the cancellation terms.By this time, we’re getting excited about Gdansk, Poland. But the transportation and hotel options are extremely limited. The perfect hotel has exactly one room left; most others are sold out. And transportation options are all terrible, except for one oddball cheap flight combo on LOT airlines. The alternative to pursuing more of this hotel reservation catch-22 bureaucracy nightmare was to get to exciting Gdansk sooner with all that Belarus extortion money back in our pockets. It’s one thing to be willing to suffer the indignity of paying a bribe to get what you need. It’s quite another when the bureaucracy is so screwed up your bribes don’t even work.
So we decided to pull the plug on Belarus, darn glad we had hotel reservations that could be canceled without penalty. We’re staying in beautiful Vilnius until Saturday. And then Poland, here we come. Screw Belarus.