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 CrazyGuyOnABike.com. 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.