Before I came to Belarus, I was lucky to meet a Lithuanian, Virginius, who drove me across the country twice in one day!
It's not everyday that you get to cross an entire country by car in a day. Twice.
He was going on a sales call by the Baltic Sea with his co-worker and he let me join him on the 8 hour round trip. While he did his call, I spent several hours exploring the magnificent sand dunes of the Croanian Spit on the west side of Lithuania.
I left for Belarus the next day at 9AM.
The charming border crossing
As I've mentioned, getting a visa to Belarus is no fun.
Getting across the border also sucks.
I left Vilnius in a packed bus of mostly old fat Belarussians. It was very hot and humid. There was no AC or deodorant on the bus.
We stopped at the ominous border and a couple of folks tried to get off the bus to escape the heat (and stench). The bus driver quickly barked at them to stay on board.
Finally, 30 oppressive minutes later the border guard decides maybe he should do his job and collect the passports.
After another 30 minutes, the bus takes off, the assistant starts handing back the passports, and I figure we're good to go. But about 2 minutes later we stop in the heat as the assistant hands back the passport. I wonder, "Why do we have to stop for him to give the passports back?"
I got my answer in a few minutes when we drove up to another spot and everyone got off to get into another line to get our passports stamped. While we stood in line a border guard carefully inspected the bus to make sure there were no stowaways. Why anyone would try to sneak into Belarus is beyond me.
30 minutes later, we all got stamped a few times and everyone was happy. Except the border guards. They're never happy.
In summary, we spent 90 minutes dicking around at the border when the other Baltic bus border crossings had taken less than five minutes. This foreshadowed the efficiency to come. As we drove into Belarus, we passed an endless line of big rigs waiting to leave the country. I just shook my head in dismay.
Defying the law of supply and demand
With a per capita GDP of $6,000 (vs. $36,000+ for the USA), you would think that hotels in Minsk would be cheap. After all, the average Belarussian makes $100 bucks a month. If I could stay in hostels for $10-20/night in places like Finland and Ireland, Belarus should be cheaper, right?
Welcome to communism. Yup, there are still some die hards out there who believe this crap.
Belarus is slowly introducing a few free market ideas to become more cosmopolitan and Westernized. So think of it as communism with a cappuccino.
The cheapest hotel I could find said I had to pay 87,000 Roubles. That's $40.
I peered over to their computer and asked what the 26,000 number meant. "Oh, that's for Belarussians."
I split. After several hours I finally found a cute apartment in downtown for $30/night.
There are no government tourist agencies to help you out. And nobody speaks English or any other language besides Russian and Belarussian so it was hard to do anything.
The most useless language in the world
What's wrong? Haven't heard any Belarussian?
Don't worry, neither have the Belarussians.
Although related to Russian, Belarussian a distinct language like Portuguese is to Spanish. It is taught in school and is the official language. I would only hear Russian all day, so I asked several locals:
"So, do you speak Belarussian when you go buy something?"
"How about when you talk to the government?"
"When you're hanging out at your house with your friends?"
"So when do you speak it?"
"In many classes in school."
Dumbfounded, I confirmed and re-confirmed this fact several times. So nobody in the world speaks Belarussian, not even the Belarussians.
Imagine if they used all that energy and time to learn a more practical language. They might be able to help me when I'm lost.
Map of Belarus
Where the hell is Belarus anyway?
I arrived in Minsk (the capital) and visited nearby Dudutki, Mir, and Njasvizh. All these places were interesting and I'm glad I saw them, but you're not missing much.
Basically, the small towns had a few 13-16th century buildings that were nice, but decrepit.
Lots of smelly people in town too. This one guy sitting next to me on another hot bus somehow managed to hold onto the luggage rack over my head for 99% of the 2.5 hour bus ride. Having done rock climbing, I'm amazed he didn't get tired of gripping something so high for so long. But he did, and I had the joy of staring at and smelling his armpit the whole way.
Who needs a laundromat anyway?
That smelly bus ride reminded me that I needed to do laundry. Unfortunately, the Belarussian Government doesn't believe laundromats are necessary. So they don't exist anywhere.
I wasn't staying in a hotel (which will do your laundry), so I had to give my clothes to the company that rented me the apartment for a few days. They lost one of my socks. My clothes are disappearing fast.
Although cell phones are popular, all the land line phones are still pulse dial (not touch tone). Static-filled connections and dropped calls on are common. If you ever wonder how telecommunications was 40 years ago, come here.
There are more cops per capita than any other European country. So it's very safe. These thugs, I mean law enforcers, are everywhere.
They can stop cars when they are on foot. Cars are zipping by at 40 miles an hour and all a cop has to do is point at it and the driver will stop on a dime. Routine checks are common. I saw them everyday.
The "President" of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has stripped the authority of the parliament and made the entire government subservient to him. He plans to change the constitution so he can serve 12 years instead of 8. I didn't meet anyone who likes the jerk.
Why Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK
He lived in Minsk.
I saw his apartment. It was in a good location. But living in this system of government might drive me to shoot someone too.
The Great Patriotic War
Minsk has come back from the dead several times since it was born on March 3, 1067.
It was frequently destroyed by fires throughout the centuries, sacked by Crimean Tatars in 1505, trampled to ruin by the French in 1812, and damaged by the Germans in 1918 and by the Poles in 1919-20. Its greatest suffering came in WWII, when half the city's people perished, including almost the entire population of 50,000 Jews. Virtually every building here has been erected since 1944, when Minsk's recapture by the Soviet army left barely a stone standing.
A whopping 25% of the country died in WWII, many executed in the 200+ concentration camps. The guidebook says that the Museum for the Great Patriotic War (what they call WW II) "will leave your head spinning."
No kidding. The graphic images are overwhelming. Lots of people (including women and children) getting hung and shot. Several mutilated bodies of citizens and soldiers. They should include a barf bag with the admission.
WW II was a big deal throughout Eastern Europe because they bore the brunt of the war's devastation. They had most of the concentration camps. They had to deal with the Nazis storming in, the Soviets pushing them back, and then overstaying their welcome.
Minsk takes a cultural vacation
My guidebook says, "Minsk has quite a lively cultural life." Here's what I found:
- Circus was closed until Aug.
- Ballet closed till Sept.
- Philharmonic hall under reconstruction.
- Dance performances suspended until Nov.
In short, the city has 2 million people and nothing is going on.
Chilling with the 4 Belarussians in my apartment
Wanting some entertainment, I invited 4 Belarussians who were hanging out near my apartment to come in. They stayed until 1:30AM and we had a great cultural exchange. Only one guy didn't speak English. Their main criticism against Americans is that our friendliness is sometimes fake. I've heard this comment many times. We're all smiles, but we don't mean it. So work on your frown.
Gov't encourages students to fail exams
One Belarussian student told me that if you pass the final exams, the government doesn't let you go abroad. They are trying to prevent brain drain.
The student knew of 20 fellow classmates who were in the USA working. They all failed their exams. They are trying to stay in the US.
Going to get some radiation
Almost 20 years ago, Ukraine's nuclear power plant in Chernobyl blew up and dumped 70% of its radioactive isotopes on Belarus.
Here in Minsk, most are no longer worried. However, I did meet one hypochondriac who was afraid of the "radioactive" rain and the "contaminated" food.
Here is a good map of what's still contaminated in Belarus.
In a couple of hours I'm catching a train that is going straight into the nasty southeastern part.
Dark colors on the map indicate lots of radiation, shitty water, and glowing people walking around with three arms.
This should be a hoot.
August 4, 2004
Radiation therapy in Belarus
Imagine if a nuclear power plant melted down in the UK and dropped its fallout on 25% of the country, poisoning all its touched for years.
Belarus is almost the size of the UK and that's exactly what happened to it in 1986.
I'll describe what happened to me when I entered into the heart of the Chernobyl disaster area.
This just in: Alcohol prevents radiation damage
Back in Minsk, I spoke with a husky cop for 45 minutes. She told me that her father had gone to the Chernobyl immediately after the disaster. The government told everyone that alcohol protects you from the effects of radiation. Today, most people I talked to believe this.
This cop told me how the government forced her father to drink liquor. She believes it's because they didn't want him to remember anything.
He doesn't remember much.
It does produce a funny scene. Imagine some cop, who can barely stand, slurring, "Don't worry, I'm here to save you from the radiation! Hic!"
Intrigued, I wanted to learn more.
Entering radiation land
About 20% of the forest and 250,000 hectares of land remain contaminated. Although the worst part is in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, areas around it aren't exactly the Garden of Eden.
My guidebook stopped short of saying, "DO NOT GO TO THE SOUTHEAST OF BELARUS UNLESS YOU ARE A COMPLETE FOOL. THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE AND YOU WILL GET AN UNHEALTHY DOSE OF RADIATION. YOU IDIOT."
So I booked a trip to Gomel, in the southeast of Belarus.
There was one guy in my train cabin named Yuri. Despite his broken English, we talked for most of the six hour journey.
I asked him, "So if I want to go to a really remote town in Belarus, near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where would you recommend?"
"The town I live in: Dobrush," he answered. "But beware, the government shut off the hot water for one month to save money. They do that every summer. So your hotel won't have hot water."
"Perfect," I thought.
"Has an American ever visited your town?" I inquired.
Yuri answered, "No, I think you will be the first."
Yuri's dad picked us up and took us on the 30 minute drive to Dobrush. He dropped me off in front of the town's only hotel and wished me good luck. Yuri was leaving leaving to Moscow the next morning, so I needed a lot of luck.
Strange priorities: example #1
My hotel had a TV and a refrigerator, but hot water or no toilet paper. Strange priorities.
Granted the TV barely got two channels and the refrigerator kept my food at just about 2 degrees below room temperature, but still.
For almost $20 a night, I figured they would spring for some TP.
Strange priorities: example #2
The government sells goods to the local state owned enterprises. They allow these monopolies to mark up everything from 0-30%. So of course, being a good little monopoly, the state owned enterprise marks up everything up 30%.
However, the government has a few exceptions which can only be marked up a small amount because they are "essential" products. The short list includes:
Now you know the priorities in Belarus.
Vodka is more important than toilet paper here.
Meeting the locals
Dobrush, which means "kind" and "good", is a small town of a few thousand people. Although I met probably over 100 people (including store clerks and random people on street), I only found one person who spoke English, albeit barely. Her name was Irina, and this kind and good woman soon introduced me to her friends and family.
A Russian bath
Dimitri, one of Irina's friends, invited me to have a Russian bath with him. I agreed, not knowing what I was getting myself into. Dimitri, let's just call him Dante, didn't speak any English so he couldn't explain anyway.
The term Russian Bath is misleading. It's more like a Belarussian Sauna. Or in my case: a Belarussian Inferno with a Plant Beating.
Detached from his family's house is a small bath house. I entered inside and I felt like I was in the sauna. Dante told me to strip. I did.
Then he told me to follow him into another room.
"But I thought we were in the sauna..." I mumbled.
The temperature in the next room was much hotter than the first. I was sweating within seconds. After doing a couple of things, Dante told me to go into yet another room. This is when I walked into hell.
I am not sure what temperature it was, but I'm sure that even Satan would be toasty.
Dante told me to lay my naked body on the bench. I laid on my stomach. The bench scorched my body. Sweat pourred down my brow as if I was running a marathon in the Amazon jungle.
Dante brought out this bushy plant with many leaves on it. Holding it in his hand, he started running it all over my body. Occasionally he would whip me with it.
After several tense minutes, he told me that we could take a break from Hades.
We cooled off outside for a couple of minutes and then returned to the inferno. He told me to lie down again. I did. Now flip over, on my back. I did. He brought out that hell-spawned plant again.
The naked Dante looked down on me with the big bushy plant in his sweaty hand. He had a malevolent stare, but that could have simply been an illusion in my heat-stroked state.
I closed my eyes and started asking the Lord Jesus for forgiveness. I asked Muhammad too. And the Buddha.
He ran the plant all over my front side. Gave me a few good whacks.
Fortunately, not there.
I couldn't help but wonder, "What the hell am I doing here?"
After an eternity, he stopped and I emerged from hell.
Clearly, I was now a better man.
Porn in Belarus
After the Russian Bath I had a small meal at 2AM with Dante's family and friends. The TV was in the background. Suddenly, I heard English! I was so excited I turned to the TV. A sexy woman was walking across a scene straight out of "Mad Max." Except Mel Gibson wasn't there.
From the narrator's voice, I could tell this wasn't just some B movie. This was an X rated movie.
I warned my hosts that we were about to see some porn. They shrugged. It didn't take long for the movie to "get into it."
This made for another bizarre scene. There I was, enjoying a fine Belarussian meal, listening to everyone speak Russian, and glancing at some hardcore porn in the background.
Who wants a million rubles?
After 10 minutes they finally got tired of the moaning in the background and switched to the Russian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"
It's the same show except Regis doesn't host it and the grand prize is a million rubles, not a dollars. That works out to about $25,000. But with monthly wages averaging $100/month, you'd feel like a millionaire if you got that.
Feeling like an alien
The American government calls foreigners "aliens." I've always felt that was a derogatory description. However, in my case, it was accurate.
I got double and triple takes whenever I opened my mouth in stores or public places. Kids stared at me. Even Lenin's statue on the Dobrush square seemed to look me over.
Irina recognizes 50% of the people she passes in town. The day after we met she told me that some random people she barely knew were asking her if it was true that an American was in town.
As fast as gossip spreads, I was dumbfounded that it took so long for this community to find out what really happened the day the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down.
1984 in 1986
George Orwell's "1984" describes a government that covers up the truth. In 1986 the government of Belarus (with orders from Moscow) waited over a week before admitting that they had a little problem.
But they couldn't completely cover everything from those who were in the middle of the disaster area. After all, things weren't quite exactly normal that day.
Memories of nuclear holocaust
All the older locals I talked with remember that April day was scorchingly hot. The temperature was not normal at all. The sky was an eerie dark color. Nobody had any clue that they were being doused with radiation.
Irina was a little girl when she witnessed the cataclysm. She said, "I remember a violent, horrible wind, unlike any I've ever felt. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't understand what was happening."
Strangely, five years after the horror the middle aged folks fared the worst. According to the locals, those over 60 and under 30 have fared better. However, rates of thyroid cancers among women in Belarus have increased 12-fold in the years since 1986.
Today the locals blame nearly all their aliments on Chernobyl. Having bad joints and high blood pressure is pretty common for anyone over 60, but here they attribute it to Chernobyl. Unfortunately, since the government represses most of the little information it gathers, we may never know the full long term affects of Chernobyl.
Into the Chernobyl exclusion zone
Mikhail, Dante's father, offered to drive me into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The military guards all entrances and foreigners are not permitted. Mikhail was taking a big risk in trying to sneak me in.
As we approached the checkpoint, Mikhail told me not to open my mouth. He will tell the guard that we're visiting relatives who still live in the Zone. Since he lives just 30 miles from the Zone, it's a believable story. The guard took Mikhail's documents. Then he looked at me.
I stopped breathing.
The guard barked out a question in Russian.
I had no clue what he said.
Luckily, Mikhail did. He answered.
The guard waved us through.
The gate opened and I breathed a deep sigh of relief, and some radioactive air.
We entered the Exclusion Zone: the most radioactively and chemically contaminated area in the world.
The funny thing is that it doesn't look so bad. Abandoned buildings with broken windows and weeds overtaking them dominate the scenery. There's lots of vegetation, although some of it is mutated if you look closely. No joke.
Mikhail showed me his father's old house that had a small farm in the back. The plants were bearing fruit. I ate some radioactive apples. No kidding. Hey, they were free.
It's just like a ghost town, except a few loonies actually live here. I saw some old ladies sitting outside their little shacks. With no electricity, police, stores, or government services, these survivors tenaciously cling to their homes, because that is all they have.
Forget about it
Although only a couple of dozen or so live in the Exclusion Zone, 2 million Belarussians still live in the hardest hit areas. Why don't they just move?
Did I mention this country is communist?
The labor market is not liquid. The government gives you a job and a house. You move, good luck finding a job and a house. Besides, who are you going to sell your radioactive house to?
Mikhail said the government relocated a few people "just for show." They were probably the folks who were glowing in the dark.
There are some vital industries in the entire Homel region, and the government didn't want to abandon all that production and relocate 2 million people.
Today the government is downplaying the dangers in living in these areas. They are encouraging resettlement and are cutting benefits to those who suffered from the accident.
You can learn more about the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
On my way out of Belarus I stopped at the border town of Brest, which has the best Soviet WW II memorial in the world.
Although part of me was relieved to leave Belarus, there was a part of me that was a bit sad. Its resilient yet friendly people were good to me, even if they didn't always smile at first.
Now I re-enter the world of capitalism and tourists. Poland should be fun and so I'll leave you with a Polish joke:
An American is walking down the street when he sees a Polish guy with a very long pole and a yardstick. He's standing the pole on its end and trying to reach the top of it with his yardstick. Seeing the guy's ignorance, the American wrenches the pole out of his hand, lays it on the sidewalk, measures it with the yardstick, and says, "There! 10 feet long." The Polish guy grabs the yardstick and shouts, "You idiot American! I don't care how long it is! I want to know how high it is!"
August 5, 2004