By now, it is quite normal to be woken up by the sound of people’s voices either from fellow campers or curious passers-by. It is not the sound of choice to wake up to but this one is on us, for abandoning our perfectly insulated brick walls. This Monday morning was no different when a little old polish man who, out of the emptiness of Bialowieza park’s large car park, has shrewdly decided to set his honey and jam stall right next to us. When we came back from our lovely walk through the park, failing to spot a single bison in the famous bison forest, we noticed he drew quite a crowd of customers, more than his honey selling peers for sure. Whether it was due to his seemingly humourous self or whether Toyotoro was an unwitting member of his campaign, no one is sure.
After a quick breakfast we headed towards the Polish-Belarusian border. The drive through the park to get to the border is blissful. It was as if mother nature was showing us the way by leading us through a never-ending tunnel of greenery, simultaneously sheltering us from the midday heat. By the time we arrived at the border we were surprised there was barely anyone around. I must say, I was a little nervous for our first controlled border crossing, especially when our preparation time was so short and rushed. I am sure we forgot some crucial documents. Nevertheless, everything went reasonably smoothly. So we thought.
When we eventually arrived at the Belarusian custom control check point we suddenly realised one of our documents was not retrieved from the Polish side. Mild panic ensued. Followed by finger-pointing, peppered with a healthy dose of accusation. We explained to the border guards, achieved mainly with gestures, that we need to go back to the Polish side. Though they were surprised they nevertheless opened gates here and there and moments later we were at the back of the queue trying to enter Poland, again. As we waited, I thought I would triple check the car. Just in case. Remember the moment two June’s ago when Brexit happened, that feeling of disbelief and bewilderment. Well that was pretty much the feeling I had when I stared at the document lying on the table at the back of the car. I came back to the passenger seat, showed Henning the paper, we stared at each other and the rest is history.
Apparently, over 40% of Belarus is forestry, which makes driving through the country a very pleasant experience, especially when there are so few cars on the road. We really felt the whole country is our oyster. The houses we drove past in the countryside were quite shabby-looking but they were very colourful and in a way had its own charm. We came across men wandering on the roads, who at first seemed very friendly as they openly approached us to chat. But the moment they were of arm’s length, I thought I inhaled a whole bottle of vodka just from the smell he emitted. It turns out, which Belarusdigest proudly claims, that Belarusians are the heaviest drinkers in the world. While the world average alcohol consumption is 6.2L, for Belarusian males it’s a whopping 27.5L per capita!
The thing that strikes me the most about this country, everywhere is so incredibly clean, especially its capital-Minsk. Any patch of grass or shrubbery around the city is cropped to military precision, providing the perfect base for the most flawless socialist architecture, I have ever seen, to be erected on. The concrete cubic blocks fronted with flat retro colours and simple patterns are somehow charming for someone who is used to enjoying the grandeur of Victorian and Edwardian buildings in London.
From the observation deck on the 23rd floor of the National Library of Belarus (I want to say books is what drew us there but the words desserts in the café is more truthful), one realises how lush the whole city is. As the buildings are dwarfed by the forest that surrounds it, I am reminded of mother nature’s retaliation against mankind’s concrete jungle projects. This time however, she triumphs.
Behind the cold brutalist, concrete structures and the emptiness of large public plazas, with not a speck of graffiti, we found areas of creativity and freedom of expression in places like the murals on Kastrychnitskaya street. It is a short strip of road but along it hip cafés, restaurants and shops are dotted against the colourful wall paintings. It makes a nice change after looking up at stony statues of Lenin. And it was there, we continued our mission of finding Belarusian food that does not contain the ingredient potato.
Many times I caught myself transported to various places in China: the detached vastness of public plazas, the tacky interior decoration of restaurants and the brightly lit underground ‘shopping malls’, where you don’t know whether to question their clientele or the outdated spherical glass cabinet in which the random merchandises sit. Though, one notable difference is, China embraces capitalism with breakneck speed while Belarus has not. This means we were, for once, not bombarded by the same inescapable web of advertisements wherever we went. Like most places in China, the petrol price throughout the country is the same for goodness sake! That being said, in large petrol stations in Belarus water hoses and dump stations are available just for your convenience. Somehow I don’t think China will be nearly as friendly for self-sustaining vehicles as Belarus.
We can only hope for the best in our next destination – Ukraine.