Belarus, Europe - Stein Travel
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Belarus

Despite being landlocked, Belarus is a country apart from its continental neighbours, having stoutly resisted the integration into Europe and embrace of capitalism shown by other former Eastern bloc countries. While such isolationism has its negative side - the tyrannical rule of its president and its stringent visa requirements foremost among them - Belarus' Soviet-era atmosphere is also its primary attraction.

Not many visitors include Belarus in their summer vacation plans, but those that do get to experience a portion of Europe entirely free of consumerist trappings, litter and advertising. There is no doubt that life in Belarus is hard for the populace, and the country has suffered more than its fair share of misery in its history, including losing 2.2 million of its people (particularly Jews) during the Nazi occupation of World War II. More recently (1986) it suffered the fall-out from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident just across its border in neighbouring Ukraine. Moreover foreign investment is discouraged, and private enterprise is virtually non-existent. The result is a country that has evolved little in the last 20 years, providing visitors a sense of time standing still.

And yet there is much that is bright and beautiful in the culture and natural attractions of Belarus. Beyond the clean lines of its capital, Minsk, the tiny towns and villages of Belarus are living museums of medieval life, and the national parks contain mysterious forests, murky bogs and swamps, thousands of smooth lakes and a fascinating array of unspoilt eco-systems, fauna and flora.

Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the great outdoors in the Vitebsk Region, where there are almost 50 designated tourist routes involving hiking, cycling, boating and plenty of chances for hunting and fishing. Hotels and health spas offer rest and relaxation, and there is even a calendar of art and music festivals in the region.

Belarus is a destination that rewards those seeking an original travel experience, with genuinely welcoming people, pristine nature and traditional villages, all spiced up with interesting glimpses into a Soviet past that appears to live on in the country's isolated present.

Information & Facts

Business

Business appointments in Belarus should be made well in advance through a local third party with a good reputation and connections. When meeting, address people with their surnames and a brief handshake. Meetings are usually formal, and negotiations can be protracted. A great deal of concessionary bargaining is expected. Bureaucracy and legal matters in Belarus are very complicated so it is best to hire local professionals to assist. Dates in Belarus are written with the day first, then the month and then the year.

Climate

Belarus has a temperate continental climate, with cold, snowy winters and warm, pleasant summers. Humidity and precipitation is generally high all year round. Expect rain in summer, or snow in winter, every couple of days. In the north of the country winters are more extreme, the temperature often plummeting well below zero.

Communications

The international dialling code for Belarus is +375. To dial out on an international call dial 8, wait for the tone, then dial 10 followed by the country code, area code and number you are calling (e.g. 8-10 44 for the UK). Payphones are widely available but most cannot be used to call internationally. Payphones operate only on special cards, sold at post offices and newspaper kiosks. There are four mobile network operators in Belarus, two of which operate GSM networks. Coverage is good in the major towns and along the highways, but not available in rural areas. Mobile phones may be rented from local service providers. The Internet can be accessed from a network of state run (Beltelecom) cybercafés, and some private cafes, in the major towns.

Customs

While visiting in Belarus, do not take photographs of government buildings, military installations or uniformed officials. Be aware that jaywalkers are heavily fined. Whistling inside a building is considered bad luck.

Duty Free

The duty free allowance for visitors entering Belarus is 1.5 litres of spirits, 2l of wine, 1000 cigarettes or 1000g of tobacco products, a reasonable quantity of perfume for personal use and goods up to the value of US$1, 000.

Electricity

Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. European two-prong plugs with circular pins are in use. Schuko plugs are also in use.

Health

The main health risks associated with visiting Belarus are tick-borne encephalitis (for those who intend foot-slogging through the forests), measles (outbreaks occur) and diphtheria, so travellers should ensure they are vaccinated against these diseases. There have also been recent cases of human rabies infection in the rural areas, identified as originating with bites from foxes, raccoon, dogs and cats. Visitors should not drink unpurified tap water, unpasteurised milk or consume undercooked food. Medical care is limited and essential medications are frequently not available. Medical facilities lack modern equipment. The best equipped are private clinics, which are available in Minsk. Doctors and hospitals expect payment in cash. Travel health insurance with air evacuation cover is highly recommended.

Language

Russian and Belarussian are both official languages, with the majority speaking Russian.

Money

The currency is the Belarussian ruble (BYR), which is equal to 100 kopeks. There are no coins in circulation (plastic cards and tokens are used for the metro and public telephones). Currency and travellers cheques can be exchanged at banks and official bureaux de changes in Minsk and the larger towns. US Dollars and Euros are preferred and some currencies may not be accepted. Exchange offices may reject old/damaged notes and it is advisable to keep all receipts for exchange transactions as these may be required on departure, or when re-converting your leftover rubles. Mastercard and Visa are accepted at the larger hotels and tourist restaurants, but American Express and Discovery cards are not accepted at all. ATMs are widely accessible in major towns and banking hours are weekdays from 9am to 5pm.

Passport Visa

Visitors from countries where there is no Belarussian consulate or embassy may obtain a tourist visa on arrival at Minsk-2 Airport at a cost of US$80, but it is strongly recommended that an effort is made to obtain a visa prior to arrival. Visas are only issued on the basis of invitation from hotels, tour companies or Belarussian citizens. All visitors have to buy health insurance on arrival; US$4 for a stay of seven days or US$15 for one month. Foreigners not staying at a hotel must register with the authorities on arrival and such registration must be entered on their visa. Hotels automatically register their guests.

Safety

Most visits to Belarus are trouble free. The crime rate is very low, however precautions should be taken against mugging, pick-pocketing and theft from vehicles or hotel rooms. There have been instances of theft from travellers on sleeper trains between Warsaw and Moscow.

Time

Local time is GMT +2. (GMT +3 from last Sunday in March to last Sunday in October).

Tipping

Tipping in Belarus is not as common as in many other countries, but it is adequate to round up the bill or taxi fare, and a 10% tip for excellent service will not go amiss.

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