Getting to Minsk

Getting to Minsk seemed like a complicated process from the very beginning. The Belarusian entrance requirements were one thing; as it turned out, there were delays, unexpected developments, and last-minute machinations on top of the basic visa application process.

Prospective US visitors need to do several things before visiting Belarus: obtain an invitation from a recognized travel agency, complete the visa application form, obtain a visa, and purchase health insurance. (For anyone arriving by air, the health insurance purchase can be taken care of at the airport upon arrival.) Easy peasy, right?

My first and most straight-forward obligation was to secure an invitation from one of ten approved Belarusian travel agencies before showing up at the embassy here in London to apply for my tourist visa. I sent out a general inquiry via Twitter. Gadling’s own David Farley responded, recommending Belintourist as efficient and pleasant. Belintourist certainly delivered. Their English-speaking agents answered the phone and responded to emails in short order. They were also very patient as my travel companion and I tossed several itinerary changes their way during the course of planning. In addition to furnishing us with our official invitation, Belintourist booked our hotel.

Then there was the visa itself, priced at a not insignificant $140 (£90 from Belarus’ London embassy) for five-day turnaround and almost twice that for next-day service. I showed up at the embassy in London and submitted a completed visa application form and my letter of invitation from Belintourist.

In addition, I had to purchase the requisite health insurance. As mentioned above, anyone entering the country by air can purchase health insurance at the Minsk Airport on arrival. Since I planned to arrive via train, however, my health insurance had to be bought in advance. Belintourist took care of this requirement for me, and emailed me a PDF of a photocopy of the receipt, which I printed and included in my travel folder.

Everything was in order. And then I ran into a snag. The consul at the Belarusian embassy in London did a spot of search engine research and discovered that I was a travel writer, producing a printout of an old copied-and-pasted writer’s bio as evidence. He insisted that I obtain press accreditation before he would issue me a visa. It was a quick process, he assured me, and gave me contact information for Belarus’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press accreditation office.I sent a dozen emails over the course of several days to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minsk. I was told that an application form and a letter of request from Gadling’s editor would suffice. I emailed the form and had Grant Martin email the letter of request. Then came an email informing me that this would not do, that the letter of request would have to be on letterhead and would have to include Grant’s signature.

A panicked set of emails to my esteemed editor followed. Grant took care of the matter quickly and without complaint. Three days before I was due to leave, the Ministry emailed me to tell me that my press accreditation had been processed and that I would need to pick it up in Minsk the following week. And a few hours later the London consul telephoned with the news that my visa had been granted. The consul was terribly polite. He even gave me his business card and suggested that I follow up after my return with any questions.

I’d never been asked to do so much before being granted a visa, not by a long shot, and I wondered if my arrival on the train from Vilnius would be stressful. Happily, the border formalities were anticlimactically placid. The friendly young woman in the seat next to me translated questions posed by a stocky border agent in a gravity-defying peaked cap; he inquired as to the purpose of my trip and asked for my medical insurance information. My passport was stamped and soon thereafter the train resumed its steady lumber toward Minsk.

Once I was on the ground in Minsk, my remaining obligation was easily met. I showed up at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, turned in two passport-sized photos, and was given a laminated temporary press accreditation card within ten minutes. Though it expired shortly after I left Belarus, that card instantly became a prized possession, something I’ll keep around for some time.

Was all this a pain? Why yes, yes it was. Yet it is impossible, particularly as the holder of passport that provides (according to one recent survey) visa-free access to 169 of 223 of the world’s countries and territories, not to think after an experience like this about the stresses and bureaucratic contortions that the citizens of many countries have to go through–and with much greater frequency and under more invasive scrutiny, to boot.

The sushi invasion of Eastern Europe

Traveling through Eastern Europe recently, what stood out to me the most (aside from ultra low prices and varying success with capitalism) is the extreme popularity of sushi. Particularly in Kiev and Warsaw, sushi restaurants are nearly as prolific as the national cuisine and if you find yourself in a fashionable restaurant, odds are raw fish will be on the menu.

My husband and I had differing theories as to the sushi invasion. I figured it was popular as it is the exact opposite of most Eastern European food. After many years of boiled meat, heavy sauces, and pickled vegetables, sushi must make a refreshing palate cleanser and a delicious novelty. My husband, who was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, had a more subjective theory. He maintains it has to do with a way of thinking that is particular to post-Soviet and developing countries: after the oppression of communism, wealth and status are held in high regard; imported goods once impossible to obtain exemplify status and wealth. In other words, nothing says how far you’ve come from bread lines more than eating fish flown in from another country while wearing Louis Vuitton and texting on your iPhone.

In order to delve deeper into the sushi explosion, I consulted a few expats familiar with the former Eastern bloc to get their insights and found both of our theories supported.Political consultant, fellow Istanbullu, and Carpetblogger Christy Quirk easily qualifies as an expert in my book on the peculiarities of the FSU (former Soviet Union), with posts like how to tell if you’re in Crapistan (perhaps “many sushi restaurants” should be added to the checklist?) and how to buy a suit in the FSU. She agrees with the post-Soviet (and new money) mindset theory, noting “nothing says ‘I have more money than sense’ more than eating overpriced frozen sushi from Dubai. EVERY self-respecting restaurant in the FSU — especially those that appeal to the Oligarch class or, more accurately, oligarch wannabes — must have a sushi menu.” She adds: “Our favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Kiev had an extensive one (I hold that up as the paragon of ridiculous dining in the FSU but it did have good chips and decent margaritas, for which it deserves praise, not derision).” As a fellow expat, I understand the importance of a place with decent margaritas, even if the menu is a bit geographically confused.

Prague-based food and travel writer Evan Rail has fully experienced the, uh, Prague-ification of the Czech Republic after living in the capital for the past decade, concurs with the novelty theory and adds that food trends tend to take a bit longer to arrive in this part of the world. Sushi became big especially as “most of this region is landlocked, it’s quite noteworthy to encounter the salty, briny flavors of seafood, especially raw seafood. Fines de claire oysters went through a similar vogue in Prague a few years back.”

Evan further reports that in Prague, sushi is no longer the flavor of the month. “After [sushi], it seemed like every restaurant on every cobblestone lane in Old Town was serving Thai soup, but only a weak interpretation of tom kha gai — you couldn’t get tom yum for love or money. Now the vogue seems to be about Vietnamese noodles, which makes more sense given the Czech Republic’s long-term and quite sizable Vietnamese community. I’ve actually had some of the best bun bo hue I’ve ever tasted here, far better than anything I’ve found in Paris or Berlin.
But banh mi? Well, maybe in another five years…”

While all this may be further evidence of globalization, it’s become part of the food culture, for better of for worse. If you travel to Eastern Europe, be sure to try the local food and keep your mind open to what might be “local.”

Do you have another take on the sushification of Eastern Europe? Noticed another foreign food trend abroad? Leave us a comment below.

[Photo by Flickr user quinn anya]