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5 August, 2005

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The goal of the day: a reservation on a train out of Belarus.


The construction zone directly outside my hotel window. Somehow a lot more quiet than Berlin.


Government buildings surround the area.


Directly across the street is the main post office (complete with hammer and sickle) where letter mailing still seems to be a major part of people's lives. Inside the post office are desks where up to four people at a time can sit and fill out some sort of form. They were all filled.


Minsk dogs understand the rules concerning their non-entry into certain places.


While there are all sorts of old and new buses roaming the streets, there are also quite a few vans like this one which serve as minibuses.


One of the city's major intersections which naturally has a famous landmark. You can hop onto the metro here or use its entrances to cross the thoroughfare.


Some things just make a whole lot less sense than others.


The sign says Minsk incidentally and hidden in the complex ahead was a supermarket where I stocked up on supplies for the evening's train ride.


I believe this is a manhole cover for the phone company.

5 August, 2005

Day 20. It simply boggles the imagination how complicated the simplest things can possibly be made if you simply put enough effort into it. And getting a train ticket in Minsk turned out to be just that.

I'm not in the least bit surprised that the better part of the day was taken up by this absurdity. But I had held out some hope that there may have been a speedy solution. After all, I technically already *had* the ticket. I had purchased an Amsterdam to Moscow ticket but the one thing I hadn't been able to get was a reservation for the final part of the trip between Minsk and Moscow. I can understand now why nobody else wanted to deal with it.

When I checked into my hotel last night I asked if it might be possible to get the reservation through the hotel. They told me to check with their travel assistance people in the morning so I figured, all right, *maybe* I won't have to deal with this crap. I knew full well it was a pipe dream. The good news was that I wouldn't have to go all the way back to the train station; there was a ticket office about five blocks down the boulevard we were on. The guy was even nice enough to write a note explaining my situation and that I wanted to leave on tomorrow morning's train. So I followed his directions using the local McDonald's as a marker and got to the ticket office after about 20 minutes. I waited for a while on one of those infernal queues and triumphantly handed the note to the clerk when my turn finally came up. After staring at it a while she started to mutter and shake her head. Uh oh. Then what I knew from the beginning was going to happen happened. She unleashed wave upon wave of Russian phrases, questions, exclamations, and the like at me. What could I do? I tried every way of indicating that I didn't know what she was talking about but she didn't seem to know what I meant. Supervisors were brought in and more words flung at me. It was a real meeting of the minds. In the end one of the clerks scribbled something down on the piece of paper I had handed them and motioned for me to go. I tried in vain to get them to call the phone number of the hotel clerk which was on the paper but to no avail. So I trudged all the way back to the hotel, this time taking in the sights on the other side of the street. When I got there, I showed the guy what they had written. Apparently it wasn't possible to get on the train tomorrow as it was full. So I had a choice. Either leave tomorrow night or tonight. I could think of numerous ways that information could have been conveyed without everyone having to speak the same language but whatever.

Much as I would have liked to have spent more time in Minsk, it was more important that I be in Moscow for the days leading up to the Trans Siberian departure. So I chose to leave on the 21:42 which entailed another trip down to the ticket office and another note written to them by the hotel guy. I don't know what he wrote but it seemed to get them very angry. They wrote something in response and sent me on my way. Again. This was getting ridiculous. It hadn't been my intention to come to Minsk and spend the day passing notes throughout the city. So rather than go through yet another chapter of this silliness, I asked the guy at the hotel if I could just hire someone to go and get me the reservation. It turned out that I could. The bellhop would actually trek all the way to the main train station with my passport and ticket and secure me a reservation. There was no mention of a fee for this service but the guy said in a sober tone that the train people would likely charge extra for the reservation. "How much?" I asked. "About 100,000," came the reply.

Now I don't care what the currency is actually worth but whenever someone says 100,000 it carries a certain weight. In actuality that's around $30 US. I honestly don't know how people can function under this kind of a system. Everything costs tens of thousands or more. And what about things that are really expensive, like cars or houses? What about kidnappings? How in the world do kidnappers ask for a decent amount of money? Do they need to use the words trillion or quadrillion? It's quite mind boggling, really.

Anyway, it actually came to much less than that when the guy returned later. I gave him the difference as a tip or a fee or whatever and the situation was at last resolved. But this literally took the better part of the only day I had in Minsk. And I wasn't really able to go outside without my passport so I was stuck there while they were trying to sort it out. But I salvaged as much as I could of the day and walked around the streets.

The city seems so different than the last time I saw it. They say this country is a dictatorship but I saw nothing in the attitude of the people to suggest this. People dressed in all sorts of interesting styles, there were skateboarders all over the place, and the driving style was anything but polite. These are all signs of freedom. Of course, I wasn't getting the full picture. What I saw were merely cosmetic impressions. I still wouldn't dare approach anyone with a video camera knowing what I know about this place. And I wouldn't want to potentially endanger anyone. But I have to say that this city seems to be full of hope. The people seem happy and lively. And that spirit will eventually result in some sort of change without the help of any outsiders.

I realize now why there are some people who insist that change will never come to Belarus. It's a bit of a misunderstanding actually. You see, because of the crazily inflated currency, there are no coins in this country. Just a whole lot of notes. So change is really quite impossible. That's my first attempt at Belarusian political humor so go easy on me.

One thing that really hits you in Minsk is the space. The streets and sidewalks tend to be wide and there are no real queues except of course in train stations. But there's also a decided lack of tourists here and I think the reason is pretty obvious. Belarus is a real pain in the ass to visit. You need to get a visa, you have those long delays getting into the country, and you have to deal with bureaucracy in the most annoying ways. It's a great looking city and the people seem quite eager to interact and be a part of the rest of the world. But why would tourists want to come to a place that tries their patience in such unnecessary ways? Hopefully these annoyances will be shed in the near future. When the revolution comes, perhaps that could be the first order of business. (I wonder if it's illegal to be writing about an upcoming revolution while in a country that's defined as a dictatorship. Better not press my luck; I'll post this from Moscow.)

Just like the last time I was here, I had absolutely no interaction or interference from any law enforcement or government agents. Maybe they were watching me the whole time but I really doubt it. People seem a lot freer here than in many other parts of the world. Just reading a copy of the Belarus Times showed me that. The free English language daily has articles with titles like "Less People Support Lukashenko," "Economic Growth in Belarus Slows Down," and "Belarusian Authorities Denied Ethiopian Pilots of Political Asylum." The news of the growing dispute with Poland is everywhere in all of the media. In fact, the front page story of the matter in the Belarus Times points out that Poland was the only country in the EU that raised the issue of simplifying visa requirements for Belarusians. That's a pretty far cry from demonizing Poland, as one might expect all of the media within a dictatorship to do. I've also been pretty hard pressed to find pictures of Lukashenko anywhere. I remember in 2003 seeing his face on just about every news story on state television. Tonight I couldn't find him once.

Are these signs of progress? Perhaps. But there are other things, such as the fact that wireless Internet is illegal in the entire country, that make you realize there's a lot that still needs to be done. I for one am quite curious how the people will decide to do it.