Ticking things off the list…in Minsk, of all places

Alexandra Willis

I am lucky enough to have done my fair share of border hopping.  I’ve bumbled from Kenya to Uganda, popped in on Pakistan, pootled around a bit of India and a few others, as anyone unfortunate enough to have heard any ‘gap yah’ stories will no doubt attest. I have had cameras confiscated or destroyed, phones stolen, been hissed and booed at, but never, cross your fingers, have I been escorted under armed guard.

IMG 6473 300x199 Ticking things off the Minsk, of all places

Minsk town hallot in a good way.

Until yesterday.

There is, of course, a first time for everything. But I did not think that something so innocuous as covering a Fed Cup by BNP Paribas tie would result in close proximity to armed men in green uniform.

But, lo and behold, after taking two planes across Europe to Vienna and then Minsk, that is exactly the situation I found myself in. Sitting in a deserted airport at gone midnight with a phalanx of stern-looking uniformed people watching me suspiciously.

And why? Because I hadn’t yet procured my visa (rookie error No.1), and the consul in charge had gone on a bit of a walkabout. For an hour. Eventually, the increasingly real prospect of sleeping in the airport was briefly abated when the consul in question re-appeared. Forms handed over, letter of recommendation, photo, something else, something else.

‘Money,’ was his next statement. ‘Oh can I pay with a card?’ (rookie error No.2) ‘Card?’ ‘Yes, card. You know…*mimes swiping of credit card.* The next Gwyneth, I am not. But I think he got the gist. ‘No card. Cash only. Dollars or Euros.’ Oh. The guards stepped a bit closer.

‘Is there an ATM, a Bankomat in the airport?’ ‘No.’ Oh. The guards stepped a bit closer.

What would happen? Would I simply sleep in the airport? Or would the scene turn into something altogether less enticing, frogmarched back to the Fokker 100 and back to Vienna. I’m not sure, but I think my lower lip definitely wobbled.

IMG 6469 199x300 Ticking things off the Minsk, of all places

The bridal room in Belarus

Thank the Lord for a friendly Finn, who, as if by magic, rounded the corner in search of a visa. Not only was happy to lend me the money for my visa fee, a modern miracle, but was happy to do so despite the fact that, being British, my fee was triple what his was. And he had the cash to do so. He’s lucky I wasn’t travelling as a Yank. It would have been quadruple. Flabberboggling.

Managing not to nod off on the way into the city centre and risk ending up in Russia, locating a fabled ATM with which to re-imburse the friendly Finn with a million Belarusian roubles, I finally tottered into my hotel.

‘No rooms.’ Oh help.

Back to the airport floor then. ‘Ah there is one. The wedding room.’ Errrr. The chapel?

No, not exactly. The very pink, very ruffly, very flowery, bridal suite. Pity the poor groom.

So…interrogation by armed guards? Check. Life figuratively saved by random stranger? Check. Sleeping in a honeymoon room when not on a honeymoon? Check. Never leave visa to the last minute? Check. Never travel without adequate cash supplies again, despite fear of robbery? Check.

And the tennis hasn’t even started yet.

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  • Justin

    Finns are indeed nice people, generally. But why were you traveling without some cash for emergencies? In Minsk of all places. You should have at least had some dollars on you for duty free or a taxi.

  • Ron Broxted

    Very different from my entry in Belarus (via Vilnius by coach). Surely The Indy travel section briefed you? I went to Latvia initially but had a run around (many staff tell contradictory tales) then to Lithuania where a plump man waddled up to me and hissed “Visa?” Yes. Price? In cash. A fluid notion. About 50 Euros. He went into a room then after 5 mins “You can enter tomorrow”. Glum looking border guards. By the way most nations hate the Brits, Irish passports are useful. My only armed guard was in Moldova where they thought I was a spy. My Russian language came on in leaps and bounds. Detained for 13 hours and released. Next day same thing at another border post (they said I’d be ok). Leaving Belarus I was “accused” of being Armenian. They kept staring at my passport. I used every swear word I know (a lot). It is great when they only speak Polish and Russian.

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