back in Ukraine

At the Belarusian border I’m taken into a separate office where an officer takes a magnifying glass to my passport. I’m a bit nervous. Crossing the borders of police states is never entirely without stress. I just had to unpack my bag for another official and now things look very serious. But after about ten minutes of careful examination of my documents and some perfunctory questions I’m let go.

The guy taking me to Chernihiv used to be a cop before taking up a much more profitable job as a truck driver. We talk about the country’s new police force and he’s super enthusiastic about the changes. He seems keen on convincing me Ukraine is moving in the right direction. His friendliness goes so far that he even arranges a ride to the center of town for me after he drops me off.

After a day of visiting some impressive old churches and museums it’s time to move on. I want to go to the central Ukrainian city of Uman, but it’s kind of far away. So I decide to shoot for Kyiv for today, spend the night there and then continue on.

I walk to the outskirts of town as it starts to pour. I stick out my thumb but I’m not at a good place for cars to stop – besides nobody wants a soaking wet passenger. I give up and figure I’ll get a seat on a minibus. Quickly one stops and I ask, ‘how much?’ That’s not necessary, the driver says. I take a look and the bus is is empty except for the driver. He tells me he has to drive to Kyiv to pick up some people anyway so he might as well give me a lift. He tells me that tomorrow is Ukrainian independence day: there’ll be a parade and everything so I decide to stay in town for an extra day.

unexpected turns

I’ve got another long day of hitchhiking ahead of me. These roads are quiet, and I’ve been told that hitchhiking in the Belarusian countryside isn’t really a thing. But after some time I still manage to find some rides, initially just a few ones heading to the next village or a dacha. I get a ride from two private security guards who tell me that kolkhozes still very much exist in Belarus, and a military officer turned sports coach who drops me off by a store where I can finally buy something to drink since it’s scorching and I haven’t found water in hours.

After draining one litre of apple juice I cross the road and it only takes a minute for a car to stop. The woman even speaks a bit of English, something she picked up because she is an Evangelical Christian, and a very enthusiastic one at that (though maybe that’s a tautology). She even invites me to spend the night, and though I’m a bit hesitant I’m also kind of intrigued by her and her world. Plus she’s pretty insistent, so I take up the invitation and join her, her Crimean husband and her two sons for dinner and a communal prayer before going to bed. In the morning we take a walk through the ruins of an old Napoleonic-era fortress and past her church, before she drops me off by the highway. Though she emphasizes that Jesus loves me she doesn’t appear to put too much trouble into converting me – maybe it’s because I told her my mother’s mother was Jewish so I am too in her eyes, or maybe she figures I’m a lost cause. But anyway, though it was a pretty intense day in her company the experience is one of the highlights of my visit to Belarus.

My final stop in the country is the city of Gomel where I stay with two sisters and their parents. I don’t see too much of the city itself, though I do spend the first evening with the girls on the rooftop of one of the city’s tallest apartment buildings, talking and enjoying the views as the sun sets over the city. But the next day one of the sisters invites me to her grandparents’ dacha and I enthusiastically take up the offer, since I’ve spent enough time in the former Soviet Union to associate dachas with a carefree summer’s day eating hearty meals. The presence of grandparents pretty much guarantees that the food will be excellent. We gorge on an elaborate meal and the four of us talk for a bit, but after an hour or so I fall asleep on a bed in the garden. The food and the sun haven gotten to me.

changing scenes

After my detour through Minsk I head to the western border town of Grodno. It’s the only place I visit in Belarus where I hear Belarusian spoken in the street. I wander into a magnificent old Jesuit church just as a mass is underway and the service in the packed church is also held in Belarusian. I also pay a visit to an old synagogue, a few museums and an orthodox church which features an icon dedicated to the persecution of priests under the Soviets’ anti-religion campaigns, something I don’t recall seeing addressed in this way in any other Orthodox church. The town certainly has a very different feel to it.

I stay with three Ukrainian refugees from the Donbas: a couple and their six year old daughter. Though they’re very welcoming, they’re just managing to scrape by and can’t afford the bribe they need to get their daughter into speech therapy.

Ideally I would have visited Vitebsk in northern Belarus too, but I couldn’t find a couchsurfing host and with my private visa I can’t stay in paid accommodation; actually I’m not really allowed to sleep outside of Minsk at all.

A potato farmer gives me a ride out of town. In fact she’s about to become the country’s first asparagus farmer, and is very familiar with Dutch agriculture. Her English is great too from attending services for years at Minsk’s international church. She drops me off at Mir castle, but not before we have some good Belarusian food at a cafe together.

I’ve been to the castle before so I head to another, less impressive one 30 or so kilometers down the road. But it’s been a long day and I camp out by the road for one night before heading to the castle in the morning. Actually the place is not that impressive. It was just a shell of a building before being restored only recently – after the Second World War not much of Belarus’s architectural heritage was left in tact.

a few days in Minsk

My first two nights in Minsk are spent in a Ukrainian’s flat. He moved to town to work for the company responsible for Belarus’s most successful export: the strategic online game ‘World of Tanks’. But he can’t wait to leave. He hates Minsk,and hates that Belarusians seem to be so passive about politics and closed off to the outside world. I kind of get his point: when in order to buy a sim card I have to show my passport and get my picture taken, on the way back on the bus a guy admonishes us for speaking English to each other.

This is my second time in Minsk, and I actually have no good reason to visit except that I need to get registered with the authorities since I’m on a private visa, which is time-consuming but I guess it’s a touristic experience of sorts. I’m a bit at a loss for where to go and what to see, but luckily I got a tip about a Belarusian-language bookstore situated in a courtyard off of a big street. There’s an art gallery next door. It has an exhibition with pictures of young gays and lesbians which is an unexpected surprise. Another pleasant discovery is an vegetarian Indian restaurant but seeing the prices I guess it’s off limits to most of the city’s residents.

Since the Ukrainian guy leaves Minsk every chance he gets I spend a few more nights with two people who I guess are best described as yuppies: a programmer and a doctor from the city of Gomel who now live in a fancy new flat next to the Chinese embassy. They agree that the increasing presence of exotic restaurants is a good thing, but they’re more keen on showing me some traditional Belarusian food. Luckily for us there’s a food festival going on so we head down to the center of town to gorge on draniki.

border shuffle

On the highway to the Belarusian border I walk past another hitchhiker. I ask if he’s going to Minsk too. He nods but doesn’t really seem open for conversation. I’m definitely back in the area where hitchhiking is not seen as some interesting activity, but where it’s just a convenient way to travel and nothing more. I stand a few hundred meters behind him, but the car that stops for him also picks me up. We head towards the border in silence.

It’s a pleasure to walk past all the cars to the border post but walking into Belarus is prohibited. I need to be in a vehicle. My fellow hitchhiker disappeared somewhere in front of me so I have to figure this one out on my own. The border guards tell me I can’t walk and I should ask a driver to give me a ride. So I poke my head into a bus standing by the booth asking if I can get a lift. The driver doesn’t seem too pleased however and gives an equivocal answer. So I head back to the guards and tell them my Russian isn’t very good, but I think he said yes, could you please ask him yourself? So one of the guards steps into the bus and basically orders the bus driver to give me a ride to the Belarusian side. All very smooth, but I do suspect having a western European passport played a factor in the guard’s helpfulness.

My first ride in Belarus is from an ethnic Russian whose parents migrated to eastern Belarus in Soviet times. So we talk about differences between Belarusians and Russians, before the conversation branches out into topics the country’s most famous for in the former Soviet world: tractors, potatoes and furniture.

killing time on the coast

In Riga I finally manage to use a hitchhiker-friendly alternative to couchsurfing, which I prefer but has a smaller user base. I’m hosted by a young, very laid-back couple who take me to a hipster bar which I had first heard about on the other side of the Gulf of Finland . It used to be named after Noam Chomsky, but currently carries the even more enigmatic name of Čē. It’s an Interesting place, but I find myself in a group of Latvian speakers and don’t catch much of what’s going on.

I’m in town to get a Belarusian visa. It’s not an easy one to get so I opt for an agency to do the legwork for me. But I find myself running around town for a few days finding an agency that will even help me. The trouble is I have to get a private visa, since I’ll be couchusrfing, instead of a tourist one which will restrict my stays to hotels every night. But in the end, thanks to my Belarusian host in Tampere, and a friendly agency I manage to supply all the paperwork.

To kill some time before the visa’s ready I head down to Klaipeda to see the Curonion Spit. It’s a long day hitchhiking but as usual I meet some great people on the way including a mother and her eight-year-old child. I speak Russian to the mother, but the kid’s English is practically flawless to the point where I assume he grew up abroad, but as it turns out he just plays a lot of video games. The mother invites me for a short visit to the Hill of Crosses, one of Lithuania’s most famous tourist sights. I had no idea we’d go past it and if it wasn’t for her offer I’d have missed out entirely.

Actually Klaipeda itself turns out to be pretty interesting too, as it was once the easternmost city in the German Empire. And my hosts, who I also find through Trustroots turn out to be pretty great people too. The peninsula itself is very pretty and luckily hitchhiking goes well enough for me to make my way to see some sand dunes close to the Russian border before heading back down to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

Next up is the Latvian beach town of Liepāja where an organization has rented a floor in an old building and is letting people stay for free for a few nights. They’re a friendly bunch and it certainly is an inspirational and pleasantly chaotic place. They even hooked up with a local cycling organization so I borrow a bike for a day and go out and explore. Soon enough the waiting time for my visa is up and I head back to Riga for one final night there before hitching my way down to Vilnius close to the Belarusian border.

a trip through the country

I don’t do much in Talinn. To be fair it’s my third time in town and I’m in need of a break. After a few days mostly spent hanging out inside the hostel with some brief excursions into town I gain enough energy to head out to my next destination, the coastal town of Pärnu where I’m more enterprising, couchsurfing again and visiting the local museum and the beach.

But seeing how I’ve been to the country before I decide to try and find some places to sleep in the countryside to see another side of the country. Turns out there actually are some couchsurfing hosts outside the big cities. First I stay with an Estonian-French couple who built their own house. They live close to Tartu in an interesting village where an enterprising local mayor used EU funds to transform an old manor house into a center where people can rent a cheap workshop. Besides my host’s furniture-making business the old stables and storage houses hold a smithy, wool workshop, potter and oddly enough a longbow workshop.

After visiting a national park I head to the nearby town of Võru where the most interesting thing turns out to be my host. She works with mentally handicapped people and also converted to Islam to marry her husband so she has some insightful views on Estonian society. I’m also her first couchsurfing guest so she’s still super enthusiastic and drives me around to show me a few local attractions, including Estonia’s highest point which is four meters lower than the highest point in the Netherlands so I’m not impressed.

My final days in Estonia I spend on the outskirts of a tiny village with a family with four kids and one giant and one tiny dog. It’s a busy household and I just try not to be in the way too much, but I do join the family for a search in the woods for chanterelles and we end the day with a barbeque dinner.

last days in Finland

The guys giving me a ride to Turku are architects. So just before they drop me off I’m given a small tour past some cultural highlights with some background info. The city’s strategic location means that it has long been a center of power and has an impressive castle and church to show for it. What makes my stay even more enjoyable is the fact that my couchsurfing host is also really into music and takes me to a concert and introduces me to some friends with whom I have long nerdy conversations while sipping beer on the riverbank.

Helsinki is the first city in the Nordic countries where I don’t find somebody who’s willing to put me up for a few nights, and it not being a cheap town I opt to do some stealth camping in the city parks for three nights. That means I have to lug all my stuff around with me all day and as the sun sets roam around in search of a well hidden yet suitably comfortable place to lay my mat.

I’m never quite well rested and though Helsinki has a lot beautiful and interesting things to see, I do find myself going through the motions instead of actually enjoying my time here. By the time I catch a ferry to Tallinn I have a splitting headache. As soon as I get off the boat I head to a nearby hostel and sleep for a good 12 hours.

opposing sides

Though it takes a while to get a ride out of Oulu I get lucky and get a ride straight to my destination of Koupio. Once again the only reason this town is my destination is that I found a place to sleep there. This time my host is a Fin just shy of 20. But she’s incredibly well read and has some interesting things to share, including stories of her grandmother who came from the Finnish area in what is now Russia. The town is a big center for the diaspora, and the Finnish orthodox church is located here. Together we visit an exhibition of Orthodox Church relics including a bunch of original stuff from the Valaam monastery.

Next stop is the town of Tampere where I’m hosted by a Belarusian who works at the town’s main art center which provides a good insight into the reason why Tampere has such a good reputation for its art scene. But what impresses me most is the city’s old industrial architecture. One of the factory halls has been turned into a museum with an excellent exhibition on the Finnish Civil War, a conflict I don’t recall even hearing of before.  Whereas Koupia is now the center of the Finnish Orthodox faith, Tampere is a city with a strong socialist history and it was an interesting, yet very unsafe, place to be a Communist roughly 100 years ago when a right-wing coalition declared independence as a reaction to the October Revolution. Tampere was even the place where Stalin and Lenin first met in what is now the Lenin museum. It used to draw in busloads of Soviet tourists, but nowadays is more like a time capsule of Cold War neutrality.

My next destination is something else entirely. Rauma is famous for its picturesque old town center filled with pretty little wooden houses along narrow streets. But after a few hours there’s not much more to see and my couchsurfing host has to work so I guess I’ll just walk around town once more.

round the bend

Even though I get dropped off in Sweden, Tornio sits just across the border so I can just walk to my couchsurfing host. I even have some time to kill until he gets of work as a waiter in a restaurant, so I wander around town. Quickly I’m back where I started because it’s a tiny town. My host is from Samarkand, Uzbekistan and I kind of feel bad for him. He’s into partying and I can’t imagine he likes the long winters. He spends virtually the entire night I’m there playing computer games and we end up not saying a lot to each other after we get past an hour or so of small talk.

My first ride in Finland is in a convertible, so I’m off to a good start. The next ride begins pretty good too: a very big intimidating-looking guy covered in tattoos. In my experience people like this are usually super friendly. And he is, but at one point he starts mouthing off against refugees before opining that the Jews are behind the refugee crisis. He takes a detour to drop me off at my couchsurfing place and I feel kind of conflicted. On the one hand he was very considerate and pleasant to me, but on the other hand solely based on his political opinions I’d say that the guy is an asshole.

My hosts take me for a drive out of Oulu to a beautiful location just by a river to barbecue and hang out. Nature is still the best thing about these parts. The town is pleasant enough, but I don’t find a whole lot to do except for hanging out at a punk rock venue run in part by a guy I also manage to find on couchsurfing. It makes me realize how without hitchhiking and couchsurfing I would lose interest in traveling fast.