Belarus

Posted by Ellen

The Russian painter Ivan Shishkin was illustrating scenery in Poland in 1890, when he completed this painting of the swampy forests of the Pripyat, or Rokitno, marshland. Today, the spot where he set up his easel could be in Ukraine or Belarus or Russia or perhaps extreme eastern Poland.

But the scene he painted may or may not look much the same. The marshes of Polessia remained lightly settled throughout much of the twentieth century; the forests there provided years of cover for partisans fighting for and against the Nazis and the Soviets.

Then came the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, which devastated much of the countryside, leaving large stretches radioactive and uninhabitable. Not all the wildlife has returned. Although herons have again been reported, "mushrooms and berries," it is said, "set Geiger counters screaming."

Posted by Ellen

When the Cold War thawed, old Russian cultural traditions became new again, and Ded Moroz–Father Frost–emerged from hiding up near the Siberian part of the North Pole to resume his holiday responsibilities.

To acknowledge the new cultural politics, Ded Moroz's many colleagues in northern and eastern Europe–notably Joulupukki, Finland's Christmas Goatnow seek him out at border crossings and Christmas markets across the continent. The two Nicks typically engage in a little winter diplomacy, sometimes competing in endeavors such as chimney climbing.

This picture features Ded Moroz presenting a gift to Joulupukki during a diplomatic mission in Minsk, capital of Belarus. 

Incidentally, Ded Moroz can sleep in Christmas morning, because in Russia, the gift thing doesn't happen till New Year's. Happy New Year's one and all......

Posted by Ellen

Our Mongol Rally teams--"just call us Mongoleers"--have been making good progress on the drive from England to Mongolia, except for the guy who got threatened with arrest at the Ukrainian border and decided to retreat to Prague.

Those who took the northern route through Russia are now deep into Siberia, approaching Irkutsk or partying there. Except for those who had car trouble or who had to detour around Belarus, which closed its border this year to Mongoleers, without notice, they've been making good time.

The teams taking a more direct route, through Kazakhstan, report pleasant people--not even a little like Borat--but extreme heat and frequent police stops. The police want USD, it seems--U.S. dollars. We're told that 20 USD is the going rate per car per stop, but fast talkers can sometimes make 20 USD cover a whole convoy of Mongoleers.

Those attempting a more southerly route, through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekhistan, and other countries unknown to Americans report astonishing sights, including a marble city ("slippery when wet"). They like the people and the food but say the roads are narrow and winding and confusing and slow.

The southern route through Iran proved open this year, contrary to predictions, and Mongoleers there report excellent highways and no problems.

Where are our folks? Well the boys from Detroit are pretty much worthless--as of a couple days ago, they were still in Germany. They had a lot of friends to visit along the route.

Captain Subprime and his Spanish buddies? They're spending the night at the Uzbekh border, waiting for the guards to show up in the morning and let them into the country.

And Yippo, our Dutch couple? They have crossed Iran without incident and are now in Turkmenistan, eating lunch.