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7 Jan

Jan-Henry Wanink, Grafschafter Nachrichten, December 1, 2012 (Germany)


543

Belarus by bike: beautiful white spot in the heart of Europe

Aid projects for the victims of Chernobyl, that is the first image many inhabitants of the German County of Bentheim have when they think of Belarus, or White Russia. In the last twenty years, especially on churchly and private basis many contacts were made with people from the region of Gomel and countless children and teenagers from the radioactively contaminated regions in the south-east of Belarus were given the possibility to spend a recreational vacation in Germany. However, how would it be to spend a vacation in Belarus for a change? To travel through Belarus by bike was an undertaking provoking people to frown at first. A vacation in the nightmarish country of Lukaschenko? A trip to the “last dictatorship in Europe”? Those travelling to Belarus accept an expensive visa and are accompanied by many speculations rather than helpful travel information. There simply is no German speaking travel guide about Belarus. Only an English guidebook gives an indication on Belarus probably having more to offer than soviet-nostalgia, horse drawn carriages and contaminated mushrooms.

 A Kwas in Grodno

Starting in the East Polish city of Sokolka, a rather unpromising picture arises eight kilometres away from the border. From here onwards trucks are waiting and they do not seem to move the slightest meter. Praise the bike that easily rolls to the border officials, whose hats seem to grow in accordance with their bearers’ level of command. After a little more than one hour waiting, showing documents and plenty of stamps, we continue our bike tour on a well asphalted road with little traffic to the catholic border town of Grodno which gives a tidy first impression. Cheery people are strolling through the pedestrian zone and everything looks spruced up and cheerful. We take a walk to the viewing platform above the river Neman and wonder about the black brew coming from the second tap at a beer stall in the city park. “This is Kwa, it’s made of bread” Hanna, a young woman explains in her best English. She offers her translation services and invites us to sit at a table where her fiancé is already having a beer. Both the bread-brew and the discussion partners turn out to be surprisingly enjoyable and “effervescent”. Having her translation diploma in her pocket, Hanna and her fiancé, a web designer, are very happy with their lives. Whether they would like to live abroad? “Well, of course there are things that we don’t like, reasons to complain you can find everywhere.” Hanna answers.  “Being a Belarusian of polish origin, I could even go to Poland without problems, but I don’t want to leave. I love my country.” For us not the first Belarusian surprise. Would a German say these words as unemotionally and blatantly?

Following the Neman

From Grodno we travel onward with a cosy stopping train to Lida, a distance of approx. 100 km that costs 90 cents per ticket and bike. After having set up our tents on a field behind an air force base – what could ever happen to you here? – we continue our tour the next day on well built streets which seem to disappear somewhere in the horizon, via Lubscha to Mir. Life in the countryside is relaxed under the hot summer sky and we cycle through sleepy villages, each one with a small corner shop. A great part of the rich harvest is still brought in by kolkhozes, although more and more land has been given into private hands. On our way we taste real life socialism in the cantina of the Neman – glass factory in Biarozauka. The cantina workers are not only amused by the unusual visitors but also speak a few scraps of German: “Guten Tak!”

We keep on following the beautiful Neman with his meanders. Behind an orthodox church we come across a German speaking archeology professor. He has recruited a group of students for a one week archeology expedition and uses the time to proudly show us (and due to his size he is gasping for breath) his excavation of an abbey from the 11th century – from a time thus, when the division between orthodox and catholic church 1054 A. D. probably had not taken place yet. In the Western part of Belarus, the coexistence of catholic and orthodox Christians is often shown by two decorated crosses at the village entrance. The West and East European confessional and cultural border is thus present throughout the entire country.

Academic workers

On the edge of the town of Mir, the owner of a petrol station invites us to have coffee in his shop. A pump attendant helps us to order and impresses us with perfect German. “Oh well, I used to be a teacher for German and history, even headmaster.” he explains calmly. “But here at the petrol station, I earn the same with far less stress.” We get big eyes. Later we learn that almost all employees in Belarus earn around 2,5 million Belarus rouble – approximately 260 Euros. Only construction workers seem to be scarce and earn three times as much, which is the reason why many academic workers can be found on construction sites. The pump attendant with university degree uses German news sites to keep his German up to date. What is he thinking about the German reports on Belarus? “I read our news and the German news. You have to hear both sides and both have their points”, he answers slowly. We understand: both sides inform way too one-sidedly.

After a short visit in the impressing castle of the Radziwi??, a powerful Polish-Lithuanian aristocratic family, we ask for a room in the only hotel in Mir. There are no camping sites in Belarus, which leaves us with two options, either camping in woods and meadows (quite feasible) or sleeping in hotels, whose prices, however, are on the same level as Western Europe. The hotel in Mir is completely booked, but after a call of the receptionist, Nikolai appears after a few minutes who offers us to spend the night in his cute holiday lodge, which he has built himself next to his own home. More than 80 percent of the Belarus economy is state – owned, the same goes for hotels, where we meet Polish and Russian tourists from time to time, however, no West Europeans. But an increasing number of Belarusians seems to visit the Radziwi??-castles in Mir and Njaswisch since they have been protected by the Unesco. Thus the branch of tourism, has to offer a lot of possibilities to pioneers like Nikolai.

In the city of the sun

Having arrived in the Belarusian capitol, we drive by impressive skyscrapers which we would have had expected in Asian countries, however, not in in the country of storks and wisents. With its broad and shiny boulevards, its soviet monumental architecture and the many statues of Lenin & co, Minsk offers and impressive urban image. After “the great patriotic war” 1941 till 1945, which still is identity-establishing for the Belarusians and in which every third Belarusian lost his life and Minsk was completely destroyed, soviet architects began to transform Minsk into the socialistic city of the sun. And even today the impressive and almost spotlessly clean streets seem to be strangely untouched of commerce and bill boards, which would not attract much attention anyway due to the countless well-dressed beauties strolling down the streets. Only the state himself is advertising strongly for lovely Belarus and not, as we would have had expected, for its moustachioed president.

Tired of walking and watching, we sit down in a pub. As usual in this hospitable country we are immediately addressed by a group of students sitting next to us. We quickly learn that we are now - only a couple of hundred metres away from the presidential palace – dealing with intellectual and politically rebellious Belarusians who also report of the difficulties dissidents are facing here. “We want into the EU to have your freedoms, almost everyone in the city wants that”, Andreij[1] says, aware of the fact that public statements like these can be quite dangerous. “After the last demonstration, when many people simply marched through the city clapping their hands, the state not only forbade public applause but also arrested a lot of people. That is the risk.” Alongside his studies Andreij works for an aid organization that sends children with cancer from the region of Gomel, which was heavily affected by Chernobyl, on recreational holidays in Western European countries. As organizer he as well was able to smell the air of Western European freedom.

The blind spot

Not only Andrej has profited from the journey into this completely different world,  which has educated him and made him a sharp person. We as well have developed a new point of view. Going through Belarus by bike is a comfortable way to travel through a beautiful, friendly and with regard to its people, history, nature, economy and politics highly interesting and exciting country. We thought we were on our way to North Korea and visited a country that – apart from camping sites and linguistic barriers – does not have to fear a comparison with Western Europe when it comes to infrastructure. And concerning hospitality it surely is miles ahead of us. For all these things we used to be blind before. Travelling means education, while the usual way of reporting only suggests horrific images of Soviet zombies with Lukaschenko being leader.  However, next to the wave of images freedom also means kissing a lot of icons. Which publisher will thus open our eyes for Belarus and will work on a German speaking travel guide for this beautiful, white spot at the heart of Europe?

The authors:

Jan-Henry Wanink from Münster (Germany) works for a German-Dutch agency in Steinfurt (Germany). Reiner Lübeck works as a doctor for a hospital in Bremen (Germany), Tim van de Griend is a Protestant pastor in Frankfurt (Germany).


[1] Name changed.



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