From Baltic to the Black Sea #4

Belarus (My 50th country)
2 September 1999

Doobre Zhen,

(Hello in Belarussian)

Actually, there’s no point writing in Belarussian, as few people, even the Belarussians, speak this language. Belarussian nationalists claim that they are a separate race from the Russians but have been excessively Russified such that they have forgotten their mother tongue. Others, for example, the president, believe that the collapse of USSR was a mistake and that the Belarussian language is just a form of bad provincial Russian, no different from Singlish. One is better off sticking with Russian, and my phase book is full of useful phases like “Moy cut-tyon-knock, ya hut-chew teb-bya!” (My kitten, I want you!)

Anyway, I arrived in Belarus’ capital, Minsk, Wednesday evening. I am now writing from the office of my friend, Anatoly, who is an owner of various newspapers and journals. Tomorrow, at 7:50am, I will fly to Simferopol, capital of the Crimean Autonomous Republic, which is an autonomous part of Ukraine. Ukraine, with 50 million people, also happens to be the 2nd largest country in Europe in terms of surface area.

Belarus is a strange country. If Latvia and Lithuania have become capitalist, Belarus still lives in the era of the USSR. The notorious border checks were surprisingly fast, although the moment my bus crossed the border with Lithuania, black marketeers boarded the bus offering to sell Belarus ruble for 460,000 BR for US$1. The official rate is about BR 340,000.

Minsk is an awfully dull city. Totally destroyed during WWII, it was rebuilt with huge Stalinist buildings with lots of communist symbols, none of which were taken down with the fall of the USSR. Indeed, my hotel lies on Karl Marx Street, and Lenin Street is not far away. Dear Comrade Lenin’s statue still stands on the (ironically-named) Independence Square in front of the Parliament.

Here, you buy things by queuing up at the right counter, get the counter staff to take the item from the shelf behind her and then pay her. At least, you no longer need to pay at yet another counter…like what I did in Central Asia last year.

Very few speak English here – not even the young. Few shops and restaurants around. Department stores stock things that nobody wants. Capitalism hasn’t reached here. Things may be cheap here but you wouldn’t know how to spend your money – the food’s lousy and waiters are rude (mostly state-run restaurants!). Even museum staff are rude – I was shouted at by the cashier at the museum for a gross crime – my inability to read the Russian notice on prices. I have only changed US$20 worth of BR but still have half left. I would rather buy bananas from non-state hawkers on the street than to eat in restaurants staffed by rude waitresses. Souvenirs – forget them, when you have to face all these state employees.

Anyway, have to go now. Can’t ride on local hospitality (you see, people are nice so long as they are not working for the state).

See you people in Ukraine!

Wee Cheng

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