Belarus

 

We are at the border between Lithuania and Belarus. To get here we have struggled our way out of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. Over a barely existing sidewalk to cross a bridge, up a hill in terrible traffic, but we are happy. We are happy because it is dry. It has not rained now for twenty-four hours, which is miraculous after all the rain we had while crossing the Baltic States. We detoured to avoid more traffic and ended up on a terrible dirt road, but before three in the afternoon we hand our paperwork to the border patrol officer.

 


We’re all proud because we think we have everything perfectly in order. We stayed over a week in Tallinn, Estonia, in order to get the visa for this far-away country. The officer looks briefly at the paper that I’m handing him, while Antoine stays with the bikes. He nods his head, telling me in some variation of Russian that something is not right. This is as much as I can understand. He gives me back my paperwork and there we are. An expensive and not easily retrieved visa in our hands, between the European and the Belarusian border.
Two girls from Minsk see me struggle and offer to help, since they speak a tiny little bit of English. It turns out that we have to buy another insurance policy. And, how convenient, right at the border is an office where a square-faced man is selling health insurances to ignorant foreigners. It’s good that we had the brains to purchase some Belarusian currency in Vilnius, because credit cards are not usable. I purchase another insurance (50 cents per day) and make my way back to the border patrol officer, cutting in front of the line because we still have to make it to a safe place before dark, on our bikes.
As we bike into the new country, we come across some trucks. Hundreds of trucks, waiting in line to enter the European Union. After a few kilometers we are ready for a slight downhill, which reveals the line to continue up and over the next hill. This line must be at least ten kilometers! Truck drivers are having a barbecue on the side of the road, or they are dozing away behind their steering wheels. Some wake up when we come by, they lean out of their truck and stare at us. Some shout “Going to Minsk? Going to Moscow?”
The road is brand new, nice and smooth. The sun is getting low, so at the first real intersection (where a tarred road actually continues instead of ending in a field) we turn towards a small town. There must be a hotel of some sorts. When we ride through town, people are staring at us, laughing and sometimes trying to scare us. Our third attempt to ask directions for a hotel is successful. The young people who we suspect to speak some English, are very shy and obviously not used to seeing foreigners in their town. They point out where the hotel should be. Even though we know the word for ‘hotel’ in Russian, we could never have recognized this building as a hotel. It looks more like a very run down elderly home, with people hanging out the windows. Antoine enters the building, while I stay with the bikes and entertain a group of children. As far as Antoine can tell without speaking Russian, it’s a decent price. However, before checking in we will have to register at the police office. We bike back, all across town again, followed by one of the kids. At the office Antoine stays outside while the child keeps busy taking pictures of him with his cell phone. The police officer in charge is sitting in a tiny, old-fashioned room, surrounded by good old dial telephones. He waives at me to sit down around the corner, which I don’t do in order not to be ignored for another hour. When he is ready with whatever he is not doing, I manage to communicate my need to him. Russian is al he speaks. He carefully copies our passports by hand and we receive proof of registration.
Back at the hotel – by now it is dark outside – I go in this time to check us in. Communication without speaking the language seems easier for me than for Antoine. When the lady at the desk sees our passports, suddenly the prices are doubled. She points out a sign which must say something like double prices for anyone who is not from either Belarus, Russia or Kazakhstan. She must not have been aware that Antoine was not from one of these countries and that he does not speak any Russian. Suddenly this is becoming a 40 euro night in a hotel that is worth less than some of the African hotels we’ve seen from the inside. I try to convince her that she could consider letting us in for the original price, but she points out that there is nothing she can do. These are the prices and she is not in charge. Obviously this is a hotel owned by the government. The one thing she can do is letting us rent two beds in a three-bed room. Technically there could be another person added to our room, but that is not very likely to happen. This is what we do, since it is a bit cheaper.
The communal bathroom is horrendous. I prefer the African bush-douche and do not even consider touching anything in this place. The room is interesting. Decorated in seventies-style (a bit like our experience in a hotel in Serbia years ago) and three of everything. Three beds, three cabinets, three radios on the wall (one channel of course). By now it is late. We have a pick nick, dressed up because it is cold in here. After a bad night sleep we check out, meeting all kinds of officials in the doorway of the hotel. This must be THE place in town to stay. We cook our breakfast in a park and Antoine tours around to find drinking water.
We decide to bike inland, away from the highway. We compare the signs in the Cyrillic alphabet with the names on our map and pick the direction. The road curves in every direction, it absolutely does not match our map. Since it is cloudy we need to use our compass to check if we are actually continuing east (Thank you Loet!). We eat our lunch (which I purchased by pointing out what I want in a tiny but very full store) on the side of the road, while we see a man loading his horse-pulled cart with hay.
The villages we pass have no facilities. They all look similar. There is the main road which is barely surfaced, left and right are similarly looking houses, all built in the same angle to the road. They have been painted in different colors, probably thirty years ago. Later we hear that the quality of paint is terrible in semi-formal communist countries. The fences are the same in the entire village. Low and colorfully painted, as opposed to the high, concrete walls in Romania for example. At five P.M. we decide to find a place to sleep, but there is no living soul in any of those villages. Finally we see two women in a garden. They are harvesting potatoes and carrying heavy bags into the house. The woman in charge understands our need and allows us to pitch our tent in her garden. After the tent is built, an older woman arrives on her rusty bike. She is dressed in dirty clothing and she smells like a drunk. She starts yelling at us in a language we certainly do not understand. The younger woman who seems to be her daughter comes out of the house and calms her down.
When I am preparing our meal, she comes outside with a plate. It is filled with potatoes and bacon, drowning in fat. It smells good, but my stomach starts complaining after just two bites of it. Later in bed I start worrying. What if she put poison in the dish? Antoine laughs at me and convinces me that we are safe and are going to have a fine night.
Not for long though. A car drives up the street and brakes hard, right in front of ‘our’ house. People jump out and suddenly we see a bright light shining onto the tent. Once again we are being jelled at in a language we do not understand, either Russian or the Belarusian version of it. Police, that much we do understand. The two police men want to see our passports. In my dictionary- Russian I explain that we are biking around the world and that the younger lady of this house has permitted us to pitch our tent in her garden for the night. The policeman seems more amused than upset. By the house we see the old woman looking at us, with a big smile on her face. Only minutes ago we heard a lot of yelling coming from the house. We cannot figure out whether the old lady called the police to bother us and her daughter, of if the daughter called the police to help dealing with her obnoxious, drunk mother. The men indicate that we are fine and they send us back into our tent. They spend some time inside the house and leave.
Our third day in Belarus we buy bread on a tiny, local market. We are a crowd puller and especially old men are eager to be in our pictures.

 

Market in Belarus

 

In a bigger village, we sit down for a cup of coffee. This was the first Belarusian coffee and certainly the last one. The place is the local government owned hotel with a cafeteria. Workers come from all over the place for lunch. We decide it is almost noon and the prices are good, so we give it a shot. Antoine finds it reasonable, I do not. When I want to go to the bathroom I have to put up with very public bathrooms. The walls would give a toddler just enough privacy. We decide that we want to be in Minsk sometime soon, and head for the highway. It’s not busy and very straight towards our goal. That night we camp by the highway, in the yard of a hotel. They allow us to shower and we eat good food in a restaurant by the road. That night I see a shooting star!
All seems well, we are clean and fed and Minsk is only a half day bike ride away. Yet I am so tired. The weather in the Baltic States has completely worn me out. I am continuously struggling through the day. After a decent night of sleep I wake up tired. We do not even bike too many kilometres.
In Minsk we want to find a decent hotel. However, every hotel is expensive. The hotel we finally get settled into is old and old fashioned, but nice. We treat ourselves to dinner and a long night of sleep. These days in Minsk should recharge us for our continuation. We walk through the city, indulging in Lattes and French pastries and discussing the continuation of our trip. Our life is getting more and more expensive. Hotels, visa, unexpected airplane tickets last spring make our money disappear quickly. The rain has not been helping, as the need for a dry place to sleep and a treat here and there becomes bigger.
When we leave the hotel, we feel optimistic again. But before leaving Minsk we need to go to the post office. As usual this takes us past lunch time and towards the end of the afternoon we leave the centre of Minsk. Because we do not make it to bike out of town and camp, we end up in another hotel and feel very silly. It is not even cheaper than the one we have been staying at before. Next morning, it is once again pouring rain when we leave the hotel. While I am at a grocery store Antoine tries to stay dry. We look at our options. In order to leave the country before our visa expire, we need to leave right now and bike a few long days. In this rain? We know how well that works.
We bike back to the hotel and the manager is very helpful. She calls around for bus tickets and even finds somebody that has a place to sleep for us. Interestingly, when I try to talk politics with her, she avoids this every way she can. ‘I don’t know anything about politics. But look at this picture of our stadium, isn’t it gorgeous?’
After a night where we are once again accompanied by rats, we take a bus to Kiev.

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