Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hiking And Chance Meetings

The Poles, living in a land that is mostly flat (Poland, essentially, means "Land of Fields"), appreciate mountains. The highest (reaching 2500m) and most popular, are the Tatras. In the far southeast corner of the country, poking into Ukraine like a cheeky finger, lie the Bieszczady mountains which hold a special place in the affections of the Poles for being the wildest, most inaccessible part of the country, home to bears, wolves, bison, deer and lynx among others. The sparsely-populated area is now a favoured retreat of artists and artisans, but up until the end of WW II it was the home of the Boyks and Lemks, two Ukrainian-speaking minorities that were forcibly removed by the Polish authorities at the end of the war following a Ukrainian-separatist struggle in the area.
The bare ridges (poloniny) of the Bieszczady mountains.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Polish. Impressions.

From Warsaw the road takes me south and east. The eastern part of the country is quite rural and relatively devoid of tourists. The summer colours are particularly vivid: the endless blue sky; the deep green of pastures and forests, now a mix of oak, elder, rowan and beech; and the gold of the rape and wheat fields (a growing number of which are just stubble dotted with bales of hay, signalling the imminent end of summer). Rickety buses, which surely remember the deep days of the Cold War, ply the pockmarked country roads between towns and villages, keeping the communities alive; even ricketier, rusty tractors labour in the fields. Chickens scramble about in the gardens in the villages. Young storks can be seen in the mornings, circling overhead, as they get flying lessons from their parents in preparation for the long migration south. The topography is also getting more wrinkled, a prelude to the Beskids that form the border with Slovakia to the south.

Sunset in rural southeast Poland.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

City With Soul

Warsaw is not a city that would ever win any beauty contests (although when it comes to its female populace that's another matter): its unending rows of Communist apartment blocks, drab office buildings and overly-wide boulevards make it, at first, an impersonal and dreary city. The Lonely Planet guide suggests devoting only a day or two to Poland's capital, and on the surface of it this seems like a reasonable recommendation. After WW II 85% of the buildings had not just been damaged, but completely razed to the ground, as the Nazis tried to obliterate it from the face of the earth. The entire old town and most state buildings and numerous palaces were systematically blown up. A town with so little in the way of historical remains must must surely be devoid of attractions and soulless. But no, following the war the plucky Poles decided to rebuild the old town exactly as it was. So, often with only the aid of 18th century paintings of the city, they set about reconstructing the medieval centre brick by brick to create the newest old town in the world. And the result is certainly convincing. From the cobbled streets and simple, everyday houses to the Baroque palaces and even the Polish Royal Castle the historic core has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.

The main square in Warsaw's old town looks like any other medieval european centre, except that this is a faithful, 20th century reconstruction following the cataclysm of World War II.

Friday, August 13, 2010

State Of The Nation(alism)

As a student I remember arguing with my flatmate about nationalism. She was of the opinion that it's ugly and leads to divisiveness and hate, whereas I countered that although it could be, a mild patriotism is harmless and even healthy, fostering a sense of achievement, belonging and pride.. I've got to admit that I think she was right, and Poland (at least the northeastern part that I have witnessed so far) is a good example of why.

Nationalism itself is a strange thing and a relatively new phenomenon. Two hundred years ago the idea that an (each) ethnic group should have its own country, exclusive to itself, was unheard of. Back then people lived in larger (or smaller) kingdoms and empires which encompassed a multitude of nations yet had no ethnic identity of its own (though a religious one maybe). People's ethnic background was rarely an issue for determining loyalties and borders, such as they were, were very porous. People, when not bound into serfdom, moved quite freely and rulers attracted settlers from all over to populate their kingdoms. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was particularly open to foreign colonists, with significant populations of Germans, Jews, Belarusians, Russians, Tatars and Karaites (a rather obscure Jewish-Turkic group). It's no wonder then that Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, was born in Białystok: born of a Russian father and a Jewish (Yiddish-speaking) mother and studied in Warsaw. Zamenhof was dismayed by the growing mistrust and hate between the different groups that nationalism brought with it and hoped a universal language would help bridge the gaps and reduce misunderstandings. He saw the rise of nationalism as fuelling the divisions and separations between the people when he said:
"I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness... It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples -- as a natural self-defensive reaction -- is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other..."
Following the ravages of World War II and the population movements that followed Poland became an almost exclusively Polish country (today over 96% of the country considers itself as Polish, whereas before the war it was less than 66%), but a scratch of the surface reveals the rich demographic diversity that existed. I spent a day visiting the only two remaining Muslim Tatar villages in the country close to the Belarus border. The Muslim Tatar community is quite small and declining as assimilation reduces their number, but those that are left are very proud of their roots and distinguished role in Polish history, where they have frequently fought as an elite cavalry unit alongside their Polish neighbours. (Interesting factoid of the day: the Hollywood actor Charles Bronson was parents were Polish Tatars.) Between the two villages lies the sleepy town of Krynki, now a neglected border backwater, but at one point a major market town in the flourishing region, a past that is betrayed by its cemeteries. The town is home to 4 cemeteries: 1 Jewish, 1 Orthodox, 1 Catholic and 1 Protestant. Despite the fact that no Jews live in the town anymore and that it was greatly damaged in the war, the Jewish cemetery is still the largest. Of course we all know the result the unchecked rise of nationalism had on that community.

The relatively unassuming Tatar mosque in Kruszyniany.

Although it's not possible to turn the clocks back it would be nice to regain some of that eclectic cosmopolitanism. To reduce the demands of loyalty that nationalism imposes, based solely on a shared language or ethnicity, blithely ignoring anything else, categorising people into "us" and "them", regardless of individual merit. Categorisation which, according to Genocide Watch (a respected authority on the subject I am told), is the first step on the road to genocide (there are 8 steps, so it's not too late to turn back). All this may sound rather Utopian and idealistic, calling for some new world order. Sure, nation states are our political reality, but we can, in our own words and actions, reduce the malignant influence of nationalism around us and break down those imaginary, artificial borders that keep us apart (I suppose it's one of the reasons I'm a big fan of the idea of the EU where most internal borders have all but disappeared and people are free to move and work where they please). Of course changing entrenched dogmas is difficult, but the game is worth the candle.

Even writing this blog has been difficult due to the blurring of the meaning of the word nation in English. It used to solely mean an ethnic group, a demos, a people, but nationalism has become the political reality to such an extent that the word is now synonymous with a political state, implying that to be a member of a state one has to be a member of its dominant nation and that others are a Minority, to be tolerated, condescended, borne grudgingly. On official forms you are asked for your nationality, not your citizenship; as if citizens of the non-majority nation are not complete, proper members of the state.

Hmm, I seem to be getting rather introspective of late with my musings, so in order to lighten the mood a little I will share a little of my more mundane travelling stories. I am glad to say that hitchhiking in Poland has been easier than in any other country so far and it is possible to get pretty much anywhere hitching. A peculiarity of Polish drivers is that many of them have CB radios that they use to chat to other drivers and also to warn each other of police speed cameras, which speaks volumes about the general attitude to driving here. A couple of days ago I was heading towards Warsaw from eastern Poland after going on bison safari in the Białowieża national park. It was late afternoon and I was hoping to cover the 300km that same day. It turned out that I was too optimistic and only managed to get 80km before getting stuck in the small town of Bielsk Podlasie. It had been a gorgeous day, and so instead of bothering to enquire about accommodation options I headed for the edge of town where I found a patch of secluded wasteland with some handy high grass to hide me and just spread out my mat on the ground as I was too lazy to bother pitching my tent (my least favourite chore whilst travelling is taking down my tent and packing my rucksack in the morning) and reassured by the endless blue skies. I was awoken at 2 o'clock in the morning by the bright lights of lightning arcing between the clouds that had crept up on me overhead. There was no rain or thunder, which initially intrigued me, before the small, practical part of my brain kicked in and suggested that it would be a good idea to put up my tent. Quickly. So, scrambling in the dark, with the occasional flash to help me, I rushed to clear some ground and get my tent up. My caution proved well-founded as only 20mins later the dry lightning was followed by a less-dry downpour, which allowed me to make a rather unsettling discovery: my tent isn't fully waterproof in the face of heavy rain. I suppose I ought to get myself a better tent, but I'll just hope that I don't run into any heavy rain instead.

Monday, August 09, 2010

(Re)Viewing History

Travelling, for me, is a way to fill in the gaps of my understanding of the world we live in, each place visited adding a small piece of the infinite jigsaw that is the world. If you don't understand where people come from, - their past, their traditions, their culture - you can't understand where they are now and you will be forced to misunderstand the events of today.

My last stop in the Baltics was at Grutas Park. A local entrepreneur bought up many of the Soviet-era statues of Stalin, Lenin and various other local Communist personalities and has created a sculpture garden along with expositions of other memorabilia from the time, earning it the moniker of Stalin World. I find the name unjustified (probably some media hacks trying to stir up some controversy) as the park is very informative and balanced in its message, describing in detail the terror, suffering, hypocrisy and even idiocy of the regime. It was an apt summary for the region whose trio of small countries share a very similar history over the past 150 years or so, and it is one that has really made me stop and think.
Has anyone seen my thumb? One of the myriad Lenin statues that dot Grutas Park

Thursday, August 05, 2010

X Marks The Spot

One of the most unique and fascinating sites I have come across so far on this trip was to be found in the rather unassuming Lithuanian countryside some 10km north of the sleepy (catatonic) town of Šiauliai. Kryžių kalnas means "Hill of Crosses" (less flat countries would probably use the word mound or bump) and it is exactly that: a hill with crosses. Even in pagan times the carving and planting of a cross to commemorate or give thanks was a deeply rooted tradition which six centuries of Christianity have only served to reinforce (Lithuanians are eager to share the fact that their country was the last in Europe to accept Christianity and are proud of the many pagan names and traditions that survive to this day). Travelling through the Lithuanian countryside you will soon notice these large crosses, some standing over 3m in height, standing isolated in private gardens or in small graveyard-communities. They are always adorned with intricate patterns with many layers of meaning and symbolism. The site at Šiauliai has been special since time immemorial, but during the Soviet occupation it became the focal point for peacefully protesting against the tyrannical regime. Over time the number of crosses grew and grew and the Soviet authorities, abhorring this challenge to their hegemony, razed the site in 1961 ... 1973 ... 1974 ... 1975. Each time they would spring up again like mushrooms after rain, each time more than before. In the dying days of the USSR there was a last ditch attempt to bulldoze the site and its, by that time, 55,000 crosses, but the writing was already on the wall. Since then placing crosses has not only become less risky, but it has also become something of a phenomenon, with people making pilgrimages from far and wide to place crosses or rosaries, both large and small, as votive offerings. It is estimated that there are now some 400,000 crosses on the site today with hundreds added each week.

"I left my cross here somewhere, has anyone seen it?"