In march 2019, when Anya and I flew to Belarus, we knew which parts of the country we wanted to visit but we hadn’t booked anything ahead besides the first four nights in the capital, Minsk.
We had an ingrained dislike of having all our accommodation booked in advance because it allowed no flexibility, no opportunity to change plans. Sometimes it was unavoidable but as far as Belarus went, we assumed we had a fair bit of latitude here since very few tourists ever went there besides a few Russians. Ruled by communist dictator named Lukashenko, the country had been hermetically sealed off from the outside world for decades and had only recently opened up to tourists from Western Europe – desperate as it was for hard foreign currency.
Had we made the attempt to book ahead before going to Belarus we would have realised that travel in that country was very different to anything we had done before. Because there were very few tourists in that country – a definite plus point for us – there were also very few places to stay.
We became acquainted with this situation during the first few days in Minsk when we tried to book the places we had marked on our map of Belarus which we thought looked interesting – and after cross checking them on Booking.com discovered it was impossible to stay there.
We were forced to change our plans and to travel to those places where there was somewhere to stay. It was a whole new way of travel for us and consequently we ended up staying in places which we would never normally have considered.
After departing Minsk, it didn’t take us long to also discover that the official government hotels – intended for party officials and bureaucrats – were to be avoided if possible because checking in involved a simply stupendous amount of paper work, something reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.
Private accommodation was far preferable because there was far less the form filling to surmount and furthermore, it was usually in small towns, which we much preferred to the cities because one got an intimate view of how ordinary people lived in this Stalinist era society which had been quarantined from the outside world and unbeknown to us then – was about to be closed off again indefinitely thanks to the Covid pandemic followed by Vladimir Putin’s murderous invasion of The Ukraine.
The only catch with booking accommodation in the towns was how to get there; regional and local transport was by run-down mini buses and there were often no direct connections. Furthermore it was often hard to get reliable information because of the language barrier; in the cities we usually found someone who spoke some English but it was a different matter outside the cities; furthermore, the printed information on the boards at the bus stations (as indeed on all of the signs) was in the Belarussian script, which like Russian, is Cyrillic.
These obstacles however did not deter us from consistently seeking to stay at the towns rather than the cities. Some of the places we ended up staying at were unique travel experiences – no better example in this respect was the town of Horki, where we stayed for a few nights in an apartment in an old, chipped, high rise block – one amongst many – which had not been renovated and was still exactly how it been built probably in the 1960’s.
In between the apartment blocks were bench seats and playgrounds, but everything had a rundown, ramshackle feel about it.
A recruitment poster for the armed forces in the main street of Horki. The armed forces are overwhelmingly filled with people from rural and outlying areas who are pro-Lukashenko.
Waiting for a bus at a local take away place – the coke adds still visible and soon to disappear with the invasion of The Ukraine by Russia and the resulting sanctions – which included Belarus, a client state of Russia.
Departing Horki proved to be at least as difficult as reaching it.
At the bus station Anya took charge of the purchase of tickets for the simple reason that she had infinitely more patience than me. She stood in a cue and finally reached the counter where she attempted to explain what she wanted; but the woman behind the counter understood none of it, whereupon the people in the cue behind Anya, dressed in some kind regional attire, long coats and strange hats, tried to help. The everyday people in Belarus, despite their serious, even dour, expressions, were consistently helpful and friendly. There was a group discussion and after a lot of gesturing Anya finally made herself understood; in the meantime, seated not far away, I took some photos of this amusing scene and the last shot: Anya turning towards with me holding the tickets in her hand with a big smile on her face:
Sometimes the most mundane achievements can seem truly momentous.
Flags – Rotterdam, The Netherlands, October 2022