Monday, 27 May 2013

Belarus Part 1: Dreading Belarus

It was with a mixture of excitement and dread that I was approaching Belarus. It is, after all, the last dictatorship in Europe. It's also the last country in Europe to hang on to communism. Communism suggests poverty, shifty secret police and endless queues for basics like bread. Is this what I would find? I had so many questions but the internet couldn't tell me. Really it was the unknown that I was fearing.

There's a web site called There you can find nearly ten thousand blogs of cyclists who have a story to tell. If you need to research your own trip, it's a great resource to learn all you can about the places you're interested in visiting. If you type in 'Belarus' and search through the results you realise that only two of those bloggers ever visited Belarus, and one of those was a quick two-night stay to the far north-west corner of the place. No one cycles here. There must be a reason for that.

Well, there are lots of reasons. First of all, the visa is expensive and tricky to obtain. Second, the politics of the place scare a lot of people away. There may also be fear of radiation, since Ukraine's Chernobyl selfishly dumped its worst on the south-east corner of Belarus. There's a chunk of the country that's still a restricted area.

But I came here, via the swampy south of the land. The border guards were friendly although the mosquitoes weren't. I came away with my visa stamped and my legs smeared in my own blood as I wiped off hundreds of the buggers. Three days later I was in the little town of Mar'ina Horka. I had a reservation at a hotel there. Such is bureaucracy here, and my rubbish Russian, it only took 25 minutes to check in.

The next day, the morning of my 43rd birthday, I had some very special cycling companions: Bruce, the UK ambassador to Belarus; Martin, a good friend of his and whose wife also works at the embassy; Chris, number two at the US embassy; and Denis and Pavel, two Belarussians, one of whom had done an MBA with the Open University. It was nice to hand over the route-finding decisions for one day only as Chris directed us for 80 kilometres on smaller roads to the riverside cycle path on the edge of Minsk. This path would take us all the way to the centre of my 39th capital and to the appropriately named Victory Square.

The team: Martin, Denis, me and Bruce (and Chris taking the photo)

Bruce, the UK ambassador, clearly loves a challenge. Of all the European ambassadorial roles this one has to be the trickiest. He has to make connections within Belarus but he can't get close to the regime. He has to be positive about the country but remain critical about it too. His mantra is: "It's clean, it's safe, everyone has a job". The way that he rattles off that statement makes you expect it to be followed with a big, fat 'but'. But there is no 'but'. It's a clever trick, positive and yet critical.

But these three things - cleanliness, safety, full employment - aren't to be taken lightly. There's no other country in Europe that can boast this trio. As soon as I hit Mozyr, the first town over the border, it was obvious that the place was a lot tidier than any of the countries I've visited so far except perhaps Austria and Switzerland. And full employment is a first. No one was homeless or looked like they were desperately short of a meal. The roads here are the best in non-EU, eastern Europe (so far), the exact opposite of Ukraine's, the worst in Europe, just over the border. And Belarus's apartment blocks, at least the ones I saw, are not crumbling like Romania's. Something is right here.

But then again something's wrong too. There's a darker side to Belarus but for the casual cycle tourist it's not something you would ever see. Bruce has been here nearly a year and he admitted that he hadn't seen it first hand either. I'm perhaps not seeing the table, just the varnish but it's a varnish that enables me to walk around feeling entirely safe.

I'm torn. Freedom is everything. The UK's politics is adversarial. Whenever one side proposes something, the other side takes the opposite view. It's about scoring points. It's about one side gaining or retaining power. We have some massive decisions to make soon, decisions about climate change, peak oil and sustainable pensions for a start. Their solutions will not come within a single term of office. They'll take decades. And it'll be painful. But it can't happen with our system of party politics because whichever side is causing the pain necessary to solve the problems will be kicked out next time around. There needs to be a stable government in power for decades to see the plan through to its conclusion. The system here in Belarus, with one man - one dictator - in control,  for all its serious human rights abuses, is more geared up to solve long term problems than the UK's. And yet freedom is everything. Freedom versus solutions. That's why I'm torn.

And so while I came here with a dread of the country, I leave with a grudging admiration for the place. Its past political violence and police heavyhandedness can't be forgiven but I will happily wear the bright red and green Belarus t-shirt given to me by Martin as a surprise birthday present (it was a surprise for him - he didn't know it was my birthday) and talk fondly of the country and remember these few days not as a nightmare I survived but as one of the highlights of my entire trip.

Sorry, that got a bit serious, didn't it? Part two will be back to the usual frivolity and tell of a great bunch of co-riders, jazz concerts, reindeer soup and elk for lunch, cheeky photographers, ambassadors and Ferrero Rocher and include no politics whatsoever.

да пабачэння!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Chisinau & Kiev

Sorry, it's been a couple of weeks, hasn't it? I've been busy with the cycling but also revision for my MT365 maths exam on the 11th June in Latvia. Since last time I've seen two more capitals, Moldova's Chisinau and Ukraine's Kiev.

What can I say about Chisinau? Well, I can't see many people adding it to their bucket lists. It's got no real sights to see and none of that magic that you sometimes find in smaller cities, like the joyous Sarajevo. Moldova itself was lovely, a giant allotment of a country with, it seemed, each household growing fruit or vegetables in its back garden, maybe out of necessity but it still looked pretty. Moldova does countryside very well. But its cities are not up to much. And the country as a whole is desperately short on road signs. Finding your way out of a strange, car-stuffed city with half a million inhabitants and without any help at junctions or roundabouts is a bit taxing. Perhaps it's the Moldovan government's way of keeping you trapped in town spending your money.

Luckily, using the power of my trusty compass, I escaped the city. The first road sign confirmation that I was on the right road out of town came about 20 kilometres from the centre. I was heading to Orhei or, rather, a small village, Trebujeni, nearby that has a little, pink house. And after the traffic, noise and dirt of Chisinau it was lovely to spend one evening sat in the garden of the little pink house, reading as the sun went down, being served up way too much Moldovan home cooking. Don't worry, it didn't go to waste; I took cakes and pancakes with me the following day to sustain me on the next leg. If you fancy a trip to Moldova, skip Chisinau and go to the pink house.

A week or so later I was hauling myself into Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. I'd been warned that hotel prices in Kiev were inflated. Although my first Ukrainian night cost me only €8, the cheapest bed of my entire tour, elsewhere in Ukraine I'd been paying around €25 for a room. Kiev would be double this, giving my budget a good kicking. Ten minutes after hitting the city proper, I found a hotel that €50. I was all ready to accept this when the glum receptionist added that she wanted another €4 per night to lock up my bike. Every other hotel on this trip has done this for free and so I walked away. If I'd found an offer so soon, how hard could it be to find a second?

It would be two hours before I found another room, cycling around a 2.5 million inhabitant city without a map. The first hotel I approached was full, the second was, ahem, a dog hotel (OK, I know the Ukrainian word for 'hotel', but not 'dog'). The next was full, the next's only remaining single room was 'premier', whatever that means, and was going to cost me €170. Er, no thanks. The next was full. I was beginning to think that I might end up sleeping in a park. But then I found a tiny place, with only seven rooms, and they wanted the same price as the very first hotel and were happy to include the price of the stored bike. Result! Much longer searching and I might have returned to the dog hotel and given them €20 for a cage.

So, having cycled around much of Kiev already, the next day I went out to explore. I wonder if all this city seeing is making me slightly jaded. Kiev has some lovely churches, the glittering, onion-domed towers of Orthodox architecture, but it also has a lot of the crap that comes with a successful tourist market, people dressed up in costume to winkle the cost of a photo out of a passing tourist. You could choose from a rabbit, a pharoah, Scrat from Ice Age and a manky-looking home-made Bart Simpson with a nose that would have been more more suited to Squidwood - all national icons of Ukraine, as you well know. And you also had plenty of those turnips who dress up as statues and then stand about. I think if you've looked at the balance of your talents and decided that your only chance of income comes from standing still for hours on end, it's probably time to get that CV moving with an OU course.

Chisinau and Kiev may not have been this year's Rome or Istanbul but I'm glad I've seen them, and even happier that I saw all the places in between. But now it's time to go as eastern European as it's possible to go. Next stop, Belarus!

Monday, 6 May 2013

When Old Ladies Attack

Never believe anything you read on the internet, especially if it warns you of the dangers of a place you want to visit. Fear is a good motivator to keep you ploughing through someone's blog but stuff can be made up or exaggerated to provide a good read. Don't worry - you'll never find me trying to provide you with a good read.

Here's a fine example - the Ukrainian border. I'd read on numerous occasions of time-wasting, total bag searches that keep you trapped for hours and then the compulsory bribe when the guards find a tube of Smarties that could - they say - be a party pack of something trippy. So, as I approached the Moldova-Ukraine border, I fretted a bit because my blood pressure medication consists of five tubs of self-labelled pills that could easily be mistaken for ecstasy (well, in my mind anyway, having never actually seen a real E). That's surely got to be a bribe in the thousands.

So I turned up at the border, the guards and I chatted nicely about my trip - even the burly bouncer type border guard in charge seemed impressed with the distance (I'm now past 25,000 km) - and they let me through within five minutes. The irony is that I don't have high blood pressure and I now have loads of high quality drugs with a street value of three million pounds to sell in Kiev. Except I can't speak the lingo. Looks like it'll be personal consumption then.

If the first 24 hours of life in Ukraine is a yardstick for what's to come then it might take me a few months to get through the entire country. Yesterday, shortly after arriving here, I quickly searched for a hotel and quickly found one. Sat in what you could call reception but wasn't really (think hallway) were two middle-aged women: a small, chubbly, smiley one and a small, chubbly, moustachioed one. The latter was Maria, also a guest, a Polish lass here for Orthodox Easter. Despite my insistence that I don't believe in God and stuff she invited me to the celebrations at the local church the next day.

So I went. Now, I could write about this for about five thousand words but I won't. I'll summarise. If you want more, please buy my book. When I eventually write it. Each book will come with a free E.

Anyway, the service itself, like all church services, was tedious in the extreme with lots of chanting by a football team of heavily garbed priests in big hats standing in distant parts of the church that the congregation could barely see. I think boredom at these things is to be expected but I was there for the new experience.

Church service - Yeahhh....awn!

There was also an outdoors part of the service where we were all splattered with a large brush soaked with holy water. Some poor, old sod on the front row got a right soaking. It nearly knocked off her head scarf. But it was a hot day and we were all happy for God's cooling effect.

After the service, which lasted two and a half feckin' hours, there was an outdoor buffet. Buffets in the UK are very British. We all form an orderly queue with our little floppy plates and then, after collecting our goodies, we stand around in the middle of the room with the plate in one hand and a drink in the other wondering how the hell we are going to eat that pasta salad. Not in Ukraine. Here you stand around the table with a spoon in your hand and you dig in. (Yes, Nina - double dipping!)

Dig in, ladies!

And then once you've realised that the tall bloke with the weird blond eyebrows near the end of the table is from England you stop digging in and you make it your life's mission to feed him and make sure that he takes as much as possible of the table's contents home with him.

Next to me was Julia, a soft spoken German-Russian lady in her 60s with a lovely, open face ('open' as in friendly, not an axe wound or anything). We spoke in German. She topped up my plate about ten times, made sure I had plenty of wine and water and slied chocolates into my little rucksack. And then, when it was time to leave, she sneaked a bottle of red wine in there too. Oh, and two carrier bags of snacks. Then another older lady asked me to wait for a minute and then delivered a third carrier bag. I haven't lost the whole of my winter weight yet - I can't look that hungry. But lots of the folk around the table were doing a sort of 'strong cycling' mime - y'know, scrunched up faces and twisty hands - and so I guess I might need the sustenance to get me through the little hills that lie ahead.

Me and (one third of the) swag.

Normally it would be time to return to the hotel but not today. Instead Maria and her new friend Acsenti, a wonderfully friendly but manically talkative bloke, had decided to take me to the monastery at Lyadova. Only a visit - they weren't planning to section me or anything. So we climbed on to the back seat of Sergei and missus's car (yes, I know these are new characters - keep up) and off we popped to this 11th century church on the deep green banks of the silver river Dniester. And we saw skulls in caves, and drank holy water, and Acsenti bought me a couple of Jesus Top Trump type thingies from the gift shop for luck and health - if only I played Dungeons and Dragons! - and that type of thing. Look at the website - it was an interesting trip.

Skullls. You'd probably guessed that.

Just as we were about to jump into the car to go back to town, a family of Moldovans invited us - just like that! - to join their picnic. We drank their wine and ate their jars of meatballs and I really can't imagine something like that happening in, say, Blackburn.

The family of friendly Moldovans.

When the dad of the Moldovan family learnt of the nature of my trip, he said to me, "Your ride is a mission of peace". And even though I'd never thought of it like that, and - who knows? - maybe the religiosity of the day had got to me or, in reality, the totally wonderful and yet entirely unnecessary friendship that had been shown to me by absolutely everyone I'd met today, he was right. It's about peace, and it's about new friends, but some of it's also about old ladies sneaking bottles of wine into your rucksack.

So, if there's somewhere you fear going, just go. It'll be fine. Scratch what I said earlier. You can believe some things on the internet.