Sunday, November 6

Echoes

Vilnius [Lithuania] turned out to be very nice. A pretty city, I'm told it's halfway between Latvia and Poland, in terms of culture as well as geography.

There aren't many stories to tell, as most of my time there was spent either going to bars or cafes. Meeting people who lived there was easy. Though it would be a nice town to live in, there isn't too much geared towards tourism.

While there, I managed to get a visa for Belarus. This surprised me. I'd talked to people that had paid about 150 dollars for various processing fees, only to have their application for a tourist visa rejected. I tried a different approach, applying for a transit visa instead. Telling them that I wanted to go from Vilnius to Kiev [capital of Ukraine], they let me in for 48 hours. Not too much time, but better than nothing. It's enough time to look around Minsk, the capital, but not much more.

It's so closed because it's the last dictatorship in Europe. Although the country has become more capitalist [the first thing that greeted me when I got off the train was a McDonald's], the enforcement of rules hasn't changed much in the last 25 years. They still have an agency called the KGB, and although disappearances aren't as frequent as they used to be, there is almost no political opposition or free press. Apparently President Lukashenko's last real opposition vanished about 6 years ago, and hasn't been heard from since. There have also been a few jouralists that got a bit too critical and disappeared.

It quickly became clear how challenging the country would be. Hardly anyone spoke any English at all. And all street signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, so it was a good idea not to get lost. I had expected to find a hotel near the train station, but there were none in sight. After wandering around for five hours [carrying your packs make this even less fun...], I finally found a girl who spoke a bit of English in a cafe. She told me about a hotel on the other side of town, one of only three in the city [Minsk is about the same size as Montreal], and the only one that was not geared towards wealthy diplomats.

The town itself was immaculately clean, as well as very modern in terms of architecture. Sometimes on the bizarre side, very avant-garde. This is eerie considering that Belarus has a very low standard of living. Apparently the government bleeds the country side dry, and channels all of the money in the country into the capital. As a consequence, it's more well kept than any other city that I've seen, save perhaps Monico. But Monico is a city of millionaires. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to see anywhere else in the country.

There were soldiers watching everyone on the street constantly, about three per block in the center of the city. This makes for a feeling of stress that is hard to imagine. But it was apparently daily life in the Soviet Union. Perhaps I should be thankful to have had the chance to experience it, even for just a few hours.

Belarus was also by far the cheapest country that I've been to. A bus cost just 400 Belarussian rubles, but keep in mind that it takes over 3000 rubles to be an American dollar. So it translates to about 15 cents. A full meal cost between two and three dollars. And a 12 hour night train to Kiev [with sleeper bunk] was just ten.

Arriving in Ukraine was in many ways a relief. I could actually feel my blood pressure drop a little. It was obvious how much more free Kiev is. This also meant that it was quite a bit dirtier. There were stray dogs and cats all over the place. Still, this felt much more natural.

Kiev was a very pleasant surprise, as it's very pretty. Similar to Belarus in terms of the preserved architecture, very much on par with the biggest tourist destinations [Prague, Vienna, etc.]. But although it's much more open [Westerners don't even need visas to enter as of last summer], it's still very much undiscovered by tourists. This is probably a combination of how little time the visa regulations have been relaxed, and how far it is from Poland. To get from the Polish border to Kiev is only 700 km, but because of how slow the trains are, it takes about 14 hours. It will probably take a discount airline to change things.

The highlight of Ukraine was all of the open markets. Run mostly by old ladies, they sell anything that you could imagine, and pop up pretty much anywhere. I found most of them by peeking into back alleys. I suppose that the reason that they're run by old ladies is that they need some income to supplement their pensions. As well, it might give them something to help pass the time. It's a shame that I couldn't really talk to them, but unfortunately Russian isn't really my strong suit. Everything that's sold there is at rock bottom prices, and the products are very fresh. The vegetables still had moist soil on them, the fish were still twitching in the baskets, and the pastries were still warm. You could easily buy enough groceries for a very nice dinner and not spend more than a dollar. The markets were also frequented by stray dogs, some looking healthy, others not. But they were all very well fed...

After leaving Kiev, I caught a night train to L'viv, near the border with Poland. This city is mostly known for it's well-preserved architecture, and it is a very pretty place. Still, it wouldn't have been so interesting had a not been offered free accommodation with a Ukrainian family [Marichka, the girl who first contacted me, as well as her father, mother, and grandmother] that I met through something called Hospitality Club. It's a great service run mostly through the internet, and although I'm a bit apprehensive about staying with people I don't know, I really wanted to get a better understanding of the culture here. It's been great to meet so many people here, as Marichka introduced me to her friends, who in turn introduced me to some of theirs.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the hell, now i can read blogspot??? Weird. Pertinent comments to come.

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davie in bj

8:28 AM  
Blogger ian said...

cool, it's always nice to read what others have to say! i've said it many times, but even though blogs are designed to monologues, it's much more interesting when they feel more interactive.

5:35 AM  

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