A Town Called Horki


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

Evening Cloud


I will build a monastery

With my evening’s longings

In the single white cloud

Drifting far above the distant peaks and

This place deep in the shadows


And I will pray

Alone in my monk’s tower

That you and I may see tomorrow

That other visitor from afar.


Afghanistan – Past and Present


In 1893, a young 23 year old man joined a British military expedition against the Pathan tribes in the south of Afghanistan near the border of Pakistan. He was, to all appearances a born failure, and joining this dangerous venture was his attempt to atone for his sins.

Born into an aristocratic family living in vast mansion, he was the son of a well known and brilliant member of parliament, a Cambridge graduate who was famous for his eloquent speeches and sharp wit. His son was a born troublemaker who showed no promise what so ever and was certainly not smart enough to attend university. In those times, the hopeless sons of the aristocracy were sent to the colonies and shunted into either the army or the bureacracy. 

This young man was admitted to Sandhurst military training centre – on his second attempt – and after completing his course pulled strings to get himself on the Afghanistan expedition. He had what was for the times a very unusual idea; he would join a highly dangerous military venture and write articles for newspapers back in England. The invention of the telegraph made such a venture a possibility.

He pioneered the whole idea of the war journalist, something we take for granted today. 

Was he really so dull? Or rather a late developer?

His articles in any case captured the imagination of the British public. 

The man could write. 

His name, soon to become well-known for newspaper readers such that he would become the highest paid journalist in England, was Winston Churchill. 

Here are some excerpts from those first newspaper articles (later compiled into a book): 


The Himalayas are not a line but a great country of mountains…range after range are seen as long surges of an Atlantic swell, in the distance some glittering snow peak suggests a white crested roller bigger than the rest….’

“The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. The abundant crops which a warm sun and copious rains raise from a fertile soil, support a numerous population in a state of warlike leisure. Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger…”

“Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong propensity to kill, inherit in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. ….A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.”

“In such a state of society, all property is held directly by force. Every man is a soldier. Either he is the retainer of some khan—the man-at-arms of some feudal baron as it were—or he is a unit in the armed force of his village—the burgher of mediaeval history. Many, perhaps all, states have been founded in a similar way, and it is by such steps that civilisation painfully stumbles through her earlier stages. But in these valleys the warlike nature of the people and their hatred of control, arrest the further progress of development. This state of continual tumult has produced a habit of mind which recks little of injuries, holds life cheap and embarks on war with careless levity…’

‘When they fight among themselves, they bear little malice, and the combatants not infrequently make friends over the corpses of their comrades or suspend operations for a festival or a horse race. At the end of the contest cordial relations are at once re-established. And yet so full of contradictions is their character, that all this is without prejudice to what has been written of their family vendettas and private blood feuds. Their system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices, has produced a code of honour so strange and inconsistent, that it is incomprehensible to a logical mind.”

“…passing from the military to the social aspect of their lives, the picture assumes an even darker shade….Those simple family virtues, which idealists usually ascribe to primitive peoples, are conspicuously absent. Their wives and their womenkind generally, have no position but that of animals; they are freely bought and sold, and are not infrequently bartered for rifles.”

“Their superstition exposes them to the rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood—”Mullahs,” “Sahibzadas,” “Akhundzadas,” “Fakirs,”—and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, who correspond with the theological students in Turkey, and live free at the expense of the people. More than this, they enjoy a sort of “droit du seigneur,” and no man’s wife or daughter is safe from them. Of some of their manners and morals it is impossible to write.”

“Yet the life even of these barbarous people is not without moments when the lover of the picturesque might sympathise with their hopes and fears. In the cool of the evening, when the sun has sunk behind the mountains of Afghanistan, and the valleys are filled with a delicious twilight, the elders of the village lead the way to the chenar trees by the water’s side, and there, while the men are cleaning their rifles, or smoking their hookas, and the women are making rude ornaments from beads, and cloves, and nuts, the Mullah drones the evening prayer…..

Then the Mullah will raise his voice and remind them of other days when the sons of the prophet drove the infidel from the plains of India, and ruled at Delhi, as wide an Empire as the Kafir holds to-day: when the true religion strode proudly through the earth and scorned to lie hidden and neglected among the hills: when mighty princes ruled in Bagdad, and all men knew that there was one God, and Mahomet was His prophet. And the young men hearing these things will grip their Martini rifles and pray to Allah, that one day He will bring some Sahib—best prize of all—across their line of sight at seven hundred yards so that, at least, they may strike a blow for insulted and threatened Islam.’



How prescient the words of this young soldier were! 

His aim was to bring the reality of the enemy confronted across the border in Afghanistan to the readers back in Britain.

Who could have imagined it?

That 120 years later his words would still be as poignant as then. That Afghanistan had not changed and was still the brutal, feudal society he had so eloquently depicted; a society based on violence between clans and were women had the status of ‘animals’. It was this warlike clan based society, predominant in the rural areas, which ultimately defeated the American led attempt to bring Afghanistan into modern times. They succeeded in bringing progress to the cities (along with the advance of women and girls)  – but it was out in the mountainous hinterland where they failed. 

And so the triumph of the Taliban. Today the words of that famous war journalist echo through the valleys of oppression.  


During the last years of the failed attempt to bring Afghanistan into modern times, a high ranking British officer spent his off-duty hours immersing himself in Churchill’s book about the border war against the Pathans in 1893. 

No doubt he was mesmerised by more than just the prose. There was also the feeling of Deja Vu; of history repeating itself.

The  past and the present colluding and imminent disaster on the horizon.