It was this simple: we went to the city of Salihorst because there was somewhere to stay. In Belarus you didn’t get to stay where you wanted. You stayed where you could. There was very little accommodation available because there were no tourists – besides a few Russians, that is. It took us a while to understand this. During the first few days, we got our map out, looked up interesting looking places in remote areas – and cross checking them on the internet (e.g., Booking.com), discovered that there was nowhere to stay there.
Our bus to Salihorst was a small, local mini-bus. It stopped regularly on the way to pick people up or let them off. Most of the passengers only travelled a short distance. Sometimes the mini-bus pulled over at the edge of a forest and watching people alighting or getting down, I wondered about where they lived and how far they had to walk.
The mini bus stopped at villages. Some of these were small and remote: wooden houses with galvanised iron roofs. No center, no village square. A kind of end-of- the- world feeling, sometimes oddly reminiscent of outback Australia.
Most of the passengers were people of peasant stock, heavy-set, dour, with a rough and hearty way of speaking. They were dressed in old fashioned clothes like you might have seen during the 1950´s in a western nation. Their diet was heavy in pork, potatoes and vodka.
It was the parents of these people, I reflected, who had defeated the Nazis.
In 1942, when Hitler made the fatal decision to invade Russia, a major thrust went through Belarus. Another went through Poland. The idea was to encircle Stalingrad.
Over a half of the German army and air force was allocated to that brutal invasion. And it was there that the master race met their nemesis.
Watching the locals get into and out of the rickety mini-bus, I recalled reading about how the Nazis had been surprised at how relentlessly the peasants – poorly armed – had fought them; ready to die to the last man, women and child.
Villages were blown up. But still the peasants fought. Despite the rapid advance of the Nazi death machine, there were ominous indications that they had entered a land where sooner or later, they were going to be beaten.
30 million Russians died, 1200 cities and towns were destroyed.
In Belarus, the war between the Red Army and the Nazis was especially brutal.
It was not surprising that all over the country, where ever you went, there were war memorials, freshly garlanded with wreaths.
The mini-bus broke down. It was a common problem. Most of the buses and mini-buses in Belarus were old and in poor repair: a strange contrast given that most of the roads were fine, and the cities, quite modern.
After a tedious journey, we finally got into Salihorst at 6.30pm. It was raining and there was a strong wind. We were in a strange city in bad weather and it was getting dark.
We walked around approaching people to ask about a hotel. No one spoke any English – or German or French – so we rested our heads on our hands to indicate that we needed somewhere to stay the night. This simple gesture was surprisingly effective.
We got good directions to one hotel, which upon arriving there we found out was closed for renovations.
There was apparently another hotel.
It was pitch dark before we found the hotel which was open.
There were 3 women behind the front desk in the lobby. There were two other women sitting behind a table near the stairwell whose function we never discovered. There is no unemployment in Belarus because there are no unemployment benefits. If you lose your job, you are given another one. You accept what ever job is given you because otherwise, you have no income. Jobs are created on the basis of demand. The net result in that there a lot of people who don’t do very much.
It’s a fair bet that we were the first western tourists who had ever appeared at the hotel. Other guests stared at us and that’s striking in a culture where people do not stare or even look at other people unless being addressed directly by someone.
One of the women behind the desk enthusiastically came forward and claimed that she spoke English.
She didn´t speak German or French either.
Par for the course.
We began using sign language to show that we wanted to stay the night until another woman, who was seated behind a computer, came over to the desk and to our surprise, began speaking to us in quite reasonable English. She was the youngest person there. She was in her 20´s. She had blond hair, cut short. Unlike the other women, she was wearing jeans and a shirt, not a dress.
She told us that the hotel had only one room left. Which didn’t surprise us given that the other hotel was closed.
The room was expensive: 50 Euros. That was a lot of money by Belorussian standards.
We hardly had a choice in the matter.
She accompanied us to our room. We got in the lift and began chatting.
Our room wasn’t a room at all, it was an apartment. There was an entry hall, a fully equipped kitchen, a dining room, a large bedroom with a private bathroom, and in a lounge with sofas and lamps, a large flat screen TV.
We put our rucksacks down and talked a while. We hadn´t communicated with anyone in over a week (besides each other of course). It was a pleasant surprise to have a conversation with a local.
Her name was Polina. She had lived in Salinhorst all her life. But her grandparents were Polish. She had papers from the Polish government which allowed her to stay and work in Poland. She had visited Poland, but never been tempted to stay there – or to use it to travel to Western Europe (Poland was in the E.U.) and stay there. She was studying at university: IT.
Belarus was turning out highly competent IT people. Big firms were investing in the country because of the low wages.
Polina was obviously intelligent. I asked about the IT graduates in Belarus. Wouldn’t they be tempted to move to Western Europe where wages were so much higher?
Why? She asked. ‘If you get a job with a foreign company in Belarus, you don’t earn as much as in Western Europe, but you earn enough to live like a king in Belarus. Buy your own apartment, a nice car. Belarus is a cheap country to live in. Your friends and family are here.’
Shortly before she went back downstairs, she suggested that we leave our passports and papers with her and pick them up later.
Sounded like a good idea.
There were an awful lot of forms to be filled in.
We showered, went out and found a supermarket, came back, made a meal. Afterwards we sat on the sofa and turned on the TV, just to see what the people looked at in this country. In the other apartments and hotels we had stayed in, we had never bothered to turn on the TV (what was the point, it was in a foreign language?). But we were too tired to read our e-books.
We surfed from one station to the next. On a couple of stations, there was a Belorussian version of the same kind of fare westerners watched – game shows and sit coms. On another, there was a live show beamed from Russia featuring two rotund, elderly men dressed in black suits who cracked jokes and sang, to the huge enjoyment of the audience. On another, a serious looking male walked around what looked a refinery, explaining the finer details of its technical specifications and operation. Riveting stuff. It reminded me of the kind of fare we had seen on the TV in China during the early 1990’s; ‘Factory 375’ and ‘Oil Rig 3’ and so on.
On two stations were ‘current events’. This meant: the latest events featuring the nation’s resident dictator, Lukashenko.
Lukashenko – another of the world’s tin pot dictators. He’d been in office for almost 30 years. His regime was similar to that of his fellow dictator in neighbouring Russia, Vladimir Putin; it was a modern day Ming dynasty. At every election Lukashenko was voted back in by at least 90% of the vote. It was striking how these petty tyrants rigged their elections to reassure themselves that they were absolutely adored by the masses.
Narcisism gone mad.
In the meantime, day and night, the state controlled media glorified the Great Leader.
Watching this nonsense, I felt a wave of revulsion well up inside me.
Lukashenko – what a pathetic jerk.
The following morning, the sky was clear. It was sunny. Perfect day for walking around town and taking a look.
But I woke up with a hangover, even though I hadn’t drunk anything the night before.
The bad weather had departed the world outside but it lingered on inside my mind.
Dark questions, like clouds, hung over me.
All those millions of people – the mothers and fathers of the people I’d seen yesterday in the mini bus – had fought and died and what for?
For the right to live under a dictatorship?
To exchange Hitler for Lukashenko?
It was going to take a whole day and another conversation with Polina before I could put these questions, these terrible questions, behind me.
Not that there were any answers. There weren’t.
But from Polina I at least got another perspective.