Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Into the East Part II

                                                                         Snow in Minsk

5.30AM is never a great time for having to get out of bed. Knowing that you have to leave your warm bed and trudge out into the snow in subzero temperatures, to sit on a ramshackle bus for hours on your way to the last dictatorship still standing in Europe doesn’t improve the situation a whole lot.  The bus drove out of Vilnius and into the early morning darkness on its way to the Belarussian border. As soon as we left Vilnius, the landscape changed from city to patches of woods and farmland, seperated by stretches of snowy fields. After about an hour and a half, we appeared to be approaching the border. This resulted in a flurry of activity among the other passengers who, by the look of it, were all locals who had been through this routine many times before. 

I had no idea what to expect, so I watched with interest as the rest of the passengers scuttered out of the bus and into the border patrol office.  When we started out at planning this trip, it occurred to me that entering Belarus requires a visa from the powers that be in the country. We downloaded forms from the embassy website, completed them, and inserted our passports and about 200 Euros worth of international money orders into the registered mail enveloppe.  This is one thing I don’t get. Why do all those countries that are allegedly poor and backwards make it nearly impossible to enter them? If I was in charge of a poor country, I would throw every border crossing wide open for every rich Western tourist who was planning to throw around hard currency like Dollars and Euros to boost the local economy. As it stands, Belarus holds 63rd position in the world when it comes to income per head of the population, which is only just outside the top third of the world, but behind every other European country except for notoriously poor Moldova(130) and Bulgaria, which follows it in 64th spot.  The embassy in London had informed us that it would take about a week and a half to process the visa request, so we waited in patience. After about 2 weeks, we received an enveloppe with all our paperwork. Our visa request had been rejected because we had used “Incorrect forms” as the accompanying card informed us. They sent us new forms which, upon closer inspection, were EXACTLY THE SAME, to the last letter. This was an early indication on how Soviet bureacracy works. We compared the forms for about half an hour and could not find any difference. In the end, it dawned on us that when we had printed off the forms, about 1/8 of an inch of the top of the frame lining the questions had not been printed out, but that was all we could find. We sent the forms off again and, 3 days before we were about to leave, finally received back our passports with the coveted Belarus visa stickers in them.   
And now we were approaching the border, and we could finally put them to use. When I approached the guard’s desk, she took out one of those square magnifying glasses that jewellers and watchmakers use. She inspected my entire passport ID page with this thing. Just for a moment, I expected her to kick up a shit storm about the US Border Patrol stamp on one of the first pages, but this was apparently no problem. She then asked me to present my travel insurance which, I realised then, was still in my back pack on the bus. So I hurried off back to bus and returned with my insurance cert. She looked at it for about 0.4 seconds and waved over a male colleague. And this brings us back, in a roundabout way, to the start of our story. As mentioned there, the guard told me that this insurance was not valid in their ‘Territory’, as they put it, and sent us off to the insurance booth across the street to purchase medical insurance suitable to life in the harsh territory of Belarus. It wasn’t expensive, only 3 Euros each for the week, but it just seemed weird to me that they would organise it this way. The boy working in the booth sat behind a computer (and I use this word in the broadest way possible) that was manufactured, I would guess, before the Soviet Union was disbanded. He typed in our information using 1 finger and constantly made mistakes which  necessitated him starting over again. When my form was finally done and he started on Renae’s papers, I noticed from the corner of my eyes that our busdriver was walking back to the bus that was parked about 30 yards beyond the border office. I walked outside to inform him that we were nearly done, but when I reached the bus, he started to drive off. I ran past the bus and started waving at him, indicating that he had forgotten 2 paying passengers.  When he opened the door, rather than apologising for his rude mistake, he started shouting at me that we were delaying his schedule and he had no intention of waiting any longer. This asshole had clearly learned customer care from a Siberian camp guard, but after a lot of shouting and delaying, we could finally get aboard the bus with the correct papers and continue our trip. What a start to the day. 
                                           Pictured: a Belarussian border patrol computer

As soon as we passed the general clutter that you find in border areas, like empty freight containers, old buses with wheels missing, and the seemingly never ending line of trucks that you will find at nearly every border crossing east of Munich, the landscape changed noticeably. Where in Lithuania it had been mostly woodland and farms, the scenery on the Belarussian side of the border was one of utter wintery emptiness. There was nothing but snow, at some points blown up to 5 feet high, as far as the eye could see. Once every mile or so, the white nothingness was offset by a clutch of dead birch trees or a lone farm house. This always makes me wonder. Who lives in places like that? When (WHY?)did they decide to go live in a crumbling farm in the middle of fukcing nowhere in a place that is covered in shoulder high snow for most of the year? I can't even begin to understand. For hours we drove through the frozen wasteland. We passed nothing. There was only snow. At one point, I got the idea that it somehow looked familiar, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why it did. I realised later that it looked as if we were driving across Hoth. I expected to see Han Solo riding a Tauntaun any minute. ( if you don't know what Hoth is, you have a severe lack of movie education and you should go watch the Starwars trilogy. Now! Or read this link: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoth )


                                                 Belarussians on their way to work

Being rather bored with the snow, I amused myself by reading Bill Bryson's excellent book "A walk in the woods". In it, he describes his 2000 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, a footpath through the wilderness of the Appalachian mountain range that runs from Northern Georgia to the Canadian border. Incidentally, Bill was caught in a snow storm himself in the chapter I was reading while we approached Minsk. After hours of snow, I noticed that the scenery started to change. We were clearly approaching a city, as the roadside started to get populated with signs indicating highway exits, gas stations and other amenities you would expect to find near a sizeable city. 

After a while we entered the city proper and the first building I saw was an enormous apartment block. It was HUGE. It went on for about a quarter of a mile. And that's the thing that baffles you when you get to Minsk, the scale. I don't mean the size of the city itself, Minsk has about 1.8 million inhabitants which puts it somewhere halfway between Manchester and Birmingham, just to give you an idea. No, it's the size of everything in it that is the amazing thing. They don't build to small scale in Minsk. When we had checked into our hotel, we went out to explore the city. Being the great adventurers that we are, we had lunch at TGI Friday's, the reasoning behind this being that they would have a Wifi signal(they didn't). 

After lunch we went on a walk through the city centre and the size of everything left me completely amazed. Every building was enormous. Every statue was huge. Official-looking 
government buildings routinely took up 2 or 3 entire blocks. The ambitiously named Grand Palace of The Republic was bigger than an airport terminal. 

Every building was adorned with large Belarussian flags. Most roofs were lined with statues of statesmen, folklore heroes and other noteworthy characters from Belarussian history.  I had obviously never been to Minsk before, yet still it looked familiar in a vague way,  a persistent spark in the back of my head saying that I had seen this before, but I  couldn't say where it would have been. We walked onto the huge square on which the picturesque Red Church is set, faced across the square by another 3 block government building and then it dawned on me.

Minsk is what the world would look like, if the Nazis had won the war.

It was very impressive. Now before you start accusing me of sympathising with nazi ideas, let me state here that pretty much everything the nazis did was very wrong in every way imaginable, but their architecture was sort of cool. If you don't believe me, type the words "Albert Speer" and "Germania" into Google or Wikipedia and you will see what I mean. To give you a bit of background on this: Albert Speer was Hitler's chief architect. When the 3rd Reich would have won the war, and had overrun Russia in the process, Berlin would be renamed Germania and Albert Speer was assigned the task of rebuilding the city and turning it into the capital of the world, a city consisting of broad boulevards, impressive and huge buildings and large parks, all decorated with grand statues of noteworthy people from German history. This is exactly what Minsk looked like. You could see from the look of the city that it had once been an important city in a vast empire. It would not surprise me at all that an alien civilisation, if they flew their space ship over Europe, would assume Minsk to be the capital of the continent.  What a weird, yet fascinating city.

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