Introduction - 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.
Area: 207,600 km2
Languages: The official languages are Belarusian and Russian.
Passport and Visa: A valid passport is essential for entry into Belarus. Most visitors also need to secure a visa. It is a good idea to confirm the latest requirements with the Belarussian embassy nearest to you. Once in Belarus, don’t forget to register yourself, and it can be easily done at any hotel for a nominal fee. For more information visit http://www.mfa.gov.b.
Health and Safety: 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.
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.
Religion: Mostly Shia Muslim although there are Russian Orthodox and Jewish communities.
Social conventions: Handshaking is the usual form of greeting. Hospitality is part of the tradition and people are welcoming and friendly. Company or business gifts are well received. 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.
Climate: The climate is typically temperate - mercury in winter drops well past zero and summer temperatures soar only as far as the high teens. The warmest month is July when temperatures only go up to 20º C. The ground is covered with frost for 7 to 8 months in a year. June and August are the rainy months while December to April is snow covered.
Best time to visit: Summer temperatures do not rise above 25° C and June and July are the sunniest months making them the ideal months for a vacation. However, there is no real "tourist" season in Belarus. Let the weather guide your choice of when to visit the country. May to September, the climate is warmest, but it is also the time when it rains the heaviest whereas December to March would mean snowfall.
Money: Belarusian Rouble (BYR; symbol p.). Notes are in denominations of p.100,000, 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10. There is no coins. Ensure you change any remaining roubles before leaving Belarus, as it's almost impossible to exchange the currency outside the country. Major international credit and debit cards, including American Express, Cirrus, Electron, MasterCard, Maestro and Visa are accepted in some larger hotels and at foreign currency shops and restaurants. There are a number of ATMs in central Minsk. Travellers cheques may be accepted at larger banks, but cash is easier to exchange. To avoid exchange rate charges, traveller's cheques should be taken in US Dollars or Euros.
Currency restriction: The import and export of local currency is prohibited. All remaining local currency must be reconverted at the point of departure. The import of foreign currency is unlimited, subject to declaration. The export of foreign currency is limited to the amount declared upon arrival.
Currency exchange: Foreign currency should only be exchanged at banks, money-changing kiosks and official bureaux de change, and all transactions must be recorded on the currency declaration form which is issued on arrival. It is wise to retain all exchange receipts. It is best to change money in US Dollars, Euros or Russian Roubles since travellers may encounter difficulties with other currencies.
Getting around towns and cities: City buses, trams, trolleys and taxis are the choices available. Long distance buses for travel within the country are quick, safe and inexpensive. Negotiate the price before you get into a taxi because the drivers tend to overcharge the traveller. Renting a car is an option, and for that you will need to have your International Driver''s Permit about you. Keep to the right of the road when driving and always keep a spare can of fuel in the car. Speed limits go between 60km/h (37mph) for urban areas to 90km/h (55mph) on country roads. There are regular trains between Minsk and practically every major capital in Europe. Most Belarusian towns can be reached by railway. The new Central Rail Terminal in Minsk offers all the services a traveler needs, most of them are available 24/7. Restaurants, bars, a game zone, a waiting room, a locker room, shops, a pharmacy are to name a few. Everything is signposted with easily recognizable pictograms. Public transport network connects Central Terminal to all the parts of the city.
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