23 June 2011

Police Patrols [Belarus]

I was watching the clock... having only 48 hours to travel through the entire length of Belarus. The Transit Visa I obtained allowed me to enter the country at 00:01 on the 16th, and required me to be out of the country by 23:59 on the 17th. With such a short window, I decided to take an overnight train, leaving Kiev at 10:00pm on the 15th. The problem was that Kiev is quite close to the border, and that the train actually crossed somewhere between 11:00 and 11:30pm, meaning I would be crossing into the country up to an hour before my visa started. Common sense would dictate that this would not be a problem, I mean, it is only an hour... But from past experience common sense is something the border guards often lack.

It turns out I was worried for no reason at all. Even though entered Belarus at around 11:30pm, we did not go through the checkpoint until somewhere around 2:30am. The journey was actually a bit of a pain in the ass - I was woken at least four times during the night to check my passport or ticket. And it seems I was a bit of a novelty, the guards often checking over my passport very closely, passing it to their friends to take a look, entering it into the computer system, asking me hundreds of questions...

I arrived into Minsk red eyed, tired and smelly. I had actually not showered in... I dont know, a long time! (the previous two nights I had been on overnight trains). My awesome Couch Surfing host (and new best friend), Hanna, picked me up from the train station. She had to go to work, but her friend Masha, took me to the flat and let me take a much needed shower!

OK, so Minsk... It is a relatively new city, as most of the buildings were destroyed during the second world war. With an almost blank slate when rebuilding, the Bularusians went for a grandiose style - huge, wide boulevards, large, imposing buildings, massive central squares... All filled with a healthy serving of Soviet symbols and monuments (Belarus retains the closest ties to Russia of all the former Soviet Union countries). There is even a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, director of the 'Cheka', a group notorious for torture and mass executions. This is one of the only monuments to Dzerzhinsky that remains in the world today. There is also a huge KGB building in the center of town, along with hundreds of Soviet stars all over the city.

The president of Belarus, Lukashenka, has gained an increasingly tighter hold over Belarusian society for almost the last 20 years. He has stripped the authority of parliament, increased the length of his term and made the entire government subservient to the president. The elections have been widely criticized as being unfair or even rigged. And many of Lukashenka's opponents have been intimidated or disappeared. Hannah works for a student newspaper at one of the Universities, and she was telling me how restricted she is in what can be printed. It is pretty crazy.

One evening Hannah showed me the most awesome building in Minsk! The National Library. Only completed about five years ago, it is a glass monstrosity. I am not really sure what possessed them to make a building like this. It is more officially nick-named 'the diamond', but unofficially it is 'the chupa-chup'... which I feel is more appropriate. OK, I realise I am not really selling it to you at the moment, but there are some awesome things about it; The view from the top is really beautiful, you can see out over the whole of Minsk. From this view point you can see that the city is really enveloped by deep, thick forest, which is it slowly expanding into. The other MOST awesome thing... it lights up like a Christmas tree! I took a few photos that really do not do it justice... this thing is freakin' cool.

During one sunny afternoon I was chilling out in the park and reading a book. I felt a little tired so decided to lye down under a tree and have a bit of a nap. It turns out that wasn't such a good idea... I woke to three armed officers surrounding me. I got the full third degree; what am I doing here, when am I leaving, where am I staying, have I registered with the police... They each checked over my passport and visa's... When everything checked out, they told me in no uncertain terms that I was NOT to sit or lye on the grass... In a nice park on a sunny day, you aren't allowed to sit on the grass? Makes complete sense.

OK, so a few final notes - the country is actually in a bit of a chrisis at the moment. I have told you all about how the president is a bit of a douche... He recently decided to print a whole lot of money. (Just quickly, while I was there he gave a press conference, and apparently spent most of the time talking about tractors...). In the last few months the currency has halved in value. When I was there, €1 got you 7000 Belarusian Rubles. 7000!! I had a 100,000 Ruble note. While that is kinda cool, it is a royal pain in the ass when you are trying to pay for anything, or work out what stuff really costs. My wallet was PACKED with notes, but I had a total of about €10. Also, like Ukraine, the majority of the country actually speaks Russian, which I find really strange. You have a national language! Why don't you speak it?! Minsk has a circus that runs continuously. Not only that, but they have a huge circus building, dedicated to it. I just found that kinda weird!

This post seems to be quite negative, but I don't mean it to be. I did really enjoy my time in Minsk. And Belarus is a really interesting place. I just found it to be... different to other countries I have visited.

On the evening of the 17th I jumped on a train heading for Lithuania. Back to the EU after... I don't know how long! This will actually be the furthest north I have been on this trip. Thinking about it now, it seems kind of strange that I am trying to get from London to New Zealand, yet I have literally spent the last TWO MONTHS heading north. And I am now further north than when I started. Not in anyway logical. But where is the fun in being logical?

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