The sun is getting lower in the sky. We’re standing on the roadside in a dry, treeless landscape, a wide valley bordered by rugged, rocky mountains. It looks like the snippets of footage from Afghanistan that I’ve seen on the news. The earth-brick houses are squares with flat roofs. The road signs are in Arabic. But this isn’t the middle east. We’re in almost the most north-western corner of China, a region predominantly inhabited by Kazakh people, heading for the western border crossing into Mongolia.
May Ling is waiting with us. We have already walked a few kilometres together, along the dusty road, before we managed to flag down a passing car – a rarity out here. She knows a handful of English words and we a pinch of Mandarin, so there is some understanding between us. May Ling is patient and seems committed to helping us, but she is understandably eager to get into town. We have established that she’s come out here for work, but that there is no hotel in town. Anyway, next town is the border town, 30km further down the road, we’d rather sleep there so we can cross in the morning. The wind is blowing so strongly that we stand sideways, angled against it. The sight of a car on the distant rise brings us hope – maybe this one? But so far we have only been disappointed at the sight of indicators flashing towards town. Reaching the border by tonight is beginning to look unlikely… And that wind is feeling cold. Continue Reading →
What was the name of this village before the revolution? “There was no village here before the revolution, it was a river here,” says Kirill (36), whose family are the only permanent dwellers of Чырвоны Кастрычник (Chyrvony Kastrychnik, Red October in Belarussian), “In the early years of the Soviet Union, they straightened up the Dnieper River for navigation. People from an overpopulated village nearby moved here then.” The whole region of Polesia, full of swamps and flooding rivers, has long been ignored by history. Local folks spoke their own language that had no name, they were calling it “our speech”. Even in the interwar period of 1918-1939, many dwellers of Polesia were not seeing themselves as belonging to any nation – asked who they were, they would answer “we’re from here.” They lived the same way for hundreds of years, growing and collecting food in the summer and in the winter making clothes and other commodities. “Every day of the year had its scheduled tasks, they always knew what to do,” says Kirill, “The oldest people remember it as a very happy time, with almost unlimited freedom.” Everything got changed in the time of the Soviet Union, that is after World War II in the west of Polesia and here – after the October Revolution, the Red October.
For the last 10 days we’ve been in Minsk, Belarus. Being here reminds me of how Poland was early in the ’90s, when the plastic, colourful world of empty satisfaction from buying stuff you don’t need hadn’t yet replaced the grim, grey world of pissed-off, grumpy people drowning in mud, being so frustrated with lack of opportunities. For most of the time, the weather here has been more grey than you can imagine, with low hanging clouds, freezing drizzle, dense fog… in such weather, you have to keep the lights on inside your house even though the daylight still lasts 10 hours. People here don’t have perspectives either. They need to work very hard for really little money and grim, concrete-paneled communist blocks are still being built and partly covered with pale pink or green paint. If you ask someone a question and don’t articulate your words clearly enough, the reaction more often than not, will be What?! And, stuck deep in this kind of environment, which only lurks, waiting to bring up the worst moods from the gloomiest parts of your psyche, we discovered some amazing art. But first, look at a couple of pictures to get the atmosphere.
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Minsk. “How is Belarus different from Australia?” they asked me at the weekly couchsurfing meet up. There were 40 or so people at the event. 5 were foreigners. I feel like a celebrity. They want me to tell them about the rest of the world. What is it like out there? They want to know about my work history. My salary. Our retirement age. My opinion on the refugee crisis. “How is Belarus different from Australia?” Can I think of one way in which they are the same?