Monday, September 01, 2008

Traveling in 'the last dictatorship of Europe'

Halfway on the four hour train ride from Vilnius to Minsk I crossed the Belorussian border. As a point separating the European Union from one of Europe's poorest and authoritarian ruled states, the Lithuanian border with Belarus is heavily fortified. From the train I watched at least ten kilometers of fences, cameras, checkpoints and soldiers passing by the window. The Belorussian border guards stamped my passport and I officially entered the republic of Belarus, or one of the 'outposts of tyranny' as Mr Bush calls it. The landscape on the way revealed the welfare difference between Belarus and Lithuania, the villages and towns made a sad impression and I spotted almost no cars on the roads. My stay in Belarus' capital Minsk, however changed this first impression.
Like in Russia, I also organised free accommodation in Minsk. I met my couchsurfing contact Elena soon after I arrived that night on the central station. Elena took me to her father's apartment, where I stayed for the following three days. Elena and her father, who trades in toys, were really nice to me and showed me warm Belorussian hospitality. I drunk some vodka with Elena's father the first night and we talked a bit about our countries. Next day, I walked around the remarkably clean streets of Minsk, stopping by the main square, the parliament and the former KGB building. When I ate a cheap pizza in an Italian restaurant called 'Il patio', I met a commander of the Serbian army named Dragan. We started talking and he shared his impressive war stories with me. As a student in Political Geography, I listened with much interest to Dragan's anecdotes about his career in the Serbian army. He fought in Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, Angola and Iraq and was waiting for his next assignment in the just started conflict in South Ossetia. Later on we walked together along Independence Square and the former apartment of Lee Harvey Oswald (although both the CIA and the KGB never admitted Oswald lived there).
Next day I visited the Belorussian national museum with Elena and we had lunch in a good restaurant afterwards. A bit later I met Dragan again, with whom I drunk a couple of beers and walked for a couple of hours in some of Minsk's nice parks. From my conversations with Elena and Dragan, I got the impression that Belorussian people are quite reserved and shy. Interestingly, Belarus doesn't really have its own national identity, because it was strongly suppressed throughout its whole history (first by the Polish-Lithuanians, after by the Soviets). Although Belorussians have their own language, nobody really uses it. Russian practically is the main spoken language in Belarus and Belorussians identify themselves mostly as Russian.
Walking along the wide boulevards of Minsk, I saw numerous slogans saying 'I love you Belarus' as well as lots of pictures of president Lukashenko. And although Minsk is a very safe city, I felt some kind of tension, because I realised that people are a bit afraid to speak openly and everyone basically stayed at home during the night (only prostitutes and mafia guys go to the ridiculously expensive bars). For example, Elena got really scared when I tried to make a picture of the parliament. Also I found it very hard to approach people.
After my stay in Minsk, I moved on westwards by night train to Grodno, a midsized city next to the Polish border. I dropped my bags in the apartment of a young couple, Oleg and Irinka, and walked around town after. In three hours, I basically saw all the churches, castles and parks of Grodno, which really is a quiet and clean town. I had a dinner in a cheap restaurant, where surprisingly I heard a song in Dutch language on their radio. During the evening I stayed in the apartment, figuring out how to travel to my next destination Brest.
As public transport to Brest is quite inconvenient, I decided to hitchhike. Oleg brought me to the main road early in the morning and directly after I pulled out my thumb. After waiting for over 40 minutes, a rusty GAZ truck stopped for me and offered to take me to a town 30km further. The guys were delivering groceries to some small shops in the area and were really friendly. They brought me to the junction towards Brest, where I tried to stop another car. Again I waited for quite some time, before a man stopped for me and brought me about 50km further. He dropped me off at a junction, 6km from a town called Voltovysk. This junction was in the middle of a forest and the continuing road to Brest didn't had a lot of travel. It caused that after waving my arm for 2 hours already, I gave up hitchhiking and decided to walk to Voltovysk to continue by public transport. However, as all the buses already left and the next train was only late at night, I was kind of stuck in this town. I decided to wait for the train and I spent my time eating some bread and salad.
I took the train to a town called Baranaviki, from where I hopped on a terribly slow night train (9 hours) to Brest. To conclude my hitchhiking attempt: Belarus definitely is one of the most difficult places I tried. But yeah, I arrived in Brest after all. My intention was not to spend the night in Brest, but to buy a train ticket back to Netherlands. The train to Amsterdam however is very expensive, so I decided to take the night train to Berlin first. But before taking the train, I still had a full day in Brest to spend.
Brest is one of the Soviet Union's 'Hero cities', because it was heavily attacked during the second World War. As the city is only 6km from the border with Poland (along the road to Warsaw), it was the first Soviet city to be attacked by the Nazi's as part of Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The city therefore is famous for its red bricked fortress, which was the main site of the fighting. I visited the fortress after a long walk from the train station. The entrance gate directly is very impressive, with a huge star carved out of concrete and I heard war music being played. Inside the fortress, I went into the small history museum and walked a bit around the red walls full of bullet holes. On the main square inside the fortress was a group of young soldiers marching (see the video), which I watched for quite some time. On the very hot day, I felt a bit sorry for the guys who were constantly marching around under the fierce sun.

With over three hours already spent in the fortress, I walked back to the city for some food. A couple of hot dogs and beers later, I made my way back to the station, where I passed immigrations and entered the train to Berlin. The ride to Berlin was very comfortable, although I desperately wanted to take a shower, since I didn't had that possibility for the past 2 days. Upon arrival in Berlin, I bought another ticket back to my hometown Utrecht, where I arrived that evening.