Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Maps And Figures

It probably won't come as a surprise to people that I love maps. From an early age I pored over them, and on our biannual family drives from Scotland to Czechoslovakia I would study our route and navigate for my dad. As I grew older I understood how maps could display so much more information than simple topography and place names: climate, industry, agriculture, ethnography, linguistics, politics - all are made clearer and more immediate with the help of a good map. I'm particularly fascinated by historical maps, with their imprecise coastlines, challenging handwriting, and flights of fancy (here be dragons). But especially because they show a reality that once existed and which isn't necessarily acknowledged today. Sure, London and Paris have been around for over 1000 years, but if you go back 2000 years then they disappear, only to be replaced by Londinium and Lutetia. Borders, which, today, feel immutable and permanent, ebb and flow, disappearing and reappearing with metronomic regularity. Names and national identities, for which people go to war and innocents die, are in fact ephemeral and subjective. Belarus epitomises this (un)reality perfectly. Attempts to find (the name) Belarus in old maps will more than likely come up blank; and if you do find it, it won't be where it is today.
Maps have a strange power. This map of China, from 1735, was recently given as a present from German chancellor Angela Merkel to China's president Xi Jinping on a state visit. A nice present you would think. However it caused huge waves on the Chinese blogosphere because it doesn't show Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan or Inner Mongolia as being Chinese, despite the Chinese official narrative of these being immutable parts of China since "ancient times". [For a more detailed analysis see this article.]

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Desperate Despot?

For the "last dictatorship in Europe" I was surprised that I could arrive in the heart of the country without having my passport checked. It's funny how that sobriquet, bequeathed during George W. Bush's presidency, has come to stick to any and every mention of Belarus and its leader Alexander Lukashenko (not that they get many mentions in the world's media). After spending just a few days in Minsk talking politics with almost everyone I met (locals are far more world-savvy and open with their views than one would imagine), I realised that it's an over-simplification that obscures looking at the country realistically (for an idea of the sort of journalistic hatchet-jobs out there you can read this recent article in GQ). Sure, there's no denying Lukashenko has a tight grip on power, political dissent is only permitted within narrow limits (as attested to by the number of people behind bars for their contrary political views), and there is more than a little corruption to be found; nevertheless these truths need to be tempered with others that don't sell as many newspapers.

"Just wait a sec, I haven't told you the punchline yet." Belarus's notorious president Lukashenko sporting his trademark moustache. [Source:]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Old Town, New Town

My "holiday" started at 11:00 on Sunday as soon as breakfast was over in the Saint Petersburg hotel and I had said goodbye to my charges. It started snowing at 11:30. This was not a great start. Although there are several daily, direct, trains from Saint Petersburg to Minsk, that would have been too easy. Instead I decided to stop at Novgorod along the way. Located some 150km south of Saint Petersburg it is the oldest city in Russia, which is somewhat ironic, given that its name translates as "New Town".

A footbridge over the Volkhov river in Novgorod. The city based its wealth on controlling this important crossing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's Work Jim, But Not As We Know It

Hello dear reader(s)! You may have surmised from my writing hiatus that my travels are over and that I have returned to the world of the working. And you would be right ... to a degree. It is true that I now have a job, with a pay-cheque and everything, however the travelling has not abated as much as I had envisaged upon my return to the UK.

Upon my return to the UK I decided to do a little tourism somewhat closer to home. Despite having worked a mere 15mins walk from the Tower of London for over 1.5 years I had never actually visited the iconic monument - a lacuna I quickly set to rights.