The Wielicza Salt Mine; where tours guides say it’s OK to lick the walls!

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From the outside, it seems rather banal. After buying a somewhat expensive ticket, you go inside in organized groups (mandatory), and make your way down a small winding staircase. It all feels very normal, until you realize you’ve been going down for quite a while. 378 steps later, you reach the first level, 64 m bellow the surface.

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In case you had missed the description, it won’t take you long to figure out what they used to mine here. The guide gave us a warning that I have never received, anywhere in the world, in any kind of attraction: “Feel free to lick the walls, lick the ceiling, but please don’t lick the statues”.

Salt was mined here from the 13th century all the way to 2007 (although large scale commercial production ceased in the 1990′s). In total, the mine contains an incredible 250 km of tunnels and an estimated 2,000 rooms.

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About 2% has been modified and organized for tourism and other purposes, such as a sanatorium where the air is apparently beneficial to children with asthma, among other conditions. Here you see the old stone steps used by the miners, as well as the wooden ones built for the tourists (possibly also for the miners of the later years of salt production).

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A lot of people work there full-time to maintain the mine, and the quantity of wood used to build the support structures is incredible. I realize scale is hard to see on this picture, but these white things are not popsicle sticks, they are tree trunks! There must be hundreds of thousands of tree trunks in the mine. Maybe millions? Continue reading

Auschwitz.

I don’t think it requires an introduction.

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Auschwitz has become synonymous with the worst episodes of inhumanity in modern times. To me, the most terrible thing is the fact that we know so much about the camp, because we know a lot of it from survivors. We know far less about camps like Sobibor or Chelmno, because there were almost no survivors to testify or write books about them. This leads me to the horrific deduction that if, as a Jew, you were caught in the deportation system, ending up at this abomination of a place was one of the “least worst” possible outcome.

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It was raining when I visited. I was strangely content about this. As if the slight discomfort was appropriate to reflect on such somber events. And the services on site remain appropriately minimal. It’s hard to describe how out of place I would feel saying: “You must try the borsch at the Auschwitz Cafe; it’s delicious”.

I have no intention of writing a history lesson, but I will give you some travel advice.

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The camp is divided in two distinct areas; Auschwitz I and II. Auschwitz I is a series of barracks, most of which have been transformed in independent, “themed” museums. For example, the Polish Government arranged one to portray their history, the Dutch arranged another one to explain what happened to the Jews in the Netherlands, etc. All combined, they make a massive exhibit, a Wikipedia of the Holocaust plastered over the walls of countless rooms. Were you to read everything, you would be there for days.

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Some areas display what went on when the camp was in operation, such as this courtyard where people were executed by firing squad. These areas, including barracks with intact detention cells, tend to attract most of the tour groups. Don’t think you can easily get away from this; after 10 am, group tours are mandatory.

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The way around this is not to come with a tour bus from Krakow or Katowice, but rather spend the night in nearby Ośwęicim and arrive at 8. This will give you a couple of hours of relative peace before hordes of Italians come off the busses to enjoy their fun day at Auschwitz. If you have the choice, go off season and avoid the people visiting only because it is part of their all inclusive week tour of Poland. Continue reading

Ukrainian non-story: just a few happy pictures, for a change.

Between the ongoing Ukrainian conflict and my visit to Chernobyl, I decided to post some happy Kiev pictures, mostly taken in May of this year. No comments, no politics, just happy Kiev.

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A traditional dance festival.

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A wedding at St-Andrew’s Church.

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The colourful St-Michael’s Golden Dome Monastery.

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The guardians of historical monuments finding some humour in difficult times. Continue reading

Chernobyl and the ghost town of Prypyat; almost 30 years after the explosion.

When the Chernobyl disaster occurred on the 26th of April 1986, I happened to be in France (or maybe I was there in the following weeks). I was too young to understand the situation, but I do remember people talking about little else and concerns about what we should or shouldn’t eat.

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28 years later, here I was, at the epicentre of the worst accident in nuclear power history.

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Today in Chernobyl, the background radiation is down to the same levels as in Kiev, but the automobile traffic remains significantly lower.

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The exclusion zone is fenced off and 700 guards watch it for intruders and monitor the 12 entrance gates. On the Belarus side of the zone, there is no barbed wire or guards, just signs warning people not to enter. As I wrote when I went to Minsk, Belarusians tend to be an obedient people who like to do the right thing, or in this case, the smart thing (note: this sign is in Ukraine, not Belarus).

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However, don’t think of Chernobyl as a completely dead place; 9,000 people work there full-time, most either on a 3/4-4/3 or 15/15 days on/off schedule (the former population was about 200,000). Ongoing maintenance in the city, construction of the decommissioning infrastructure, administration buildings, support for all these people, and the odd tour guides. While tour agencies in Kiev arrange visits to the site, only Government guides are allowed to take people inside the exclusion zone, and it must be booked at least 10 days ahead to obtain the exclusion zone permit. Because of the fighting in a completely different part of the country, tourism is down 80% this year, just as it was when I visited Odessa in May.

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Despite having a safe background radiation level, Chernobyl is not safe for resettlement. There are radioactive hotspots, such as this area in a village outside of the city, where I measured ground radiation at the base of the wall of the former village kindergarden. Radioactive isotopes fell on the metal roofs and water concentrated them at the base of the wall, where they sometimes accumulate in moss and other vegetation, preventing them from seeping deep underground. While proper behaviour will keep adults safe here, you could never let children play outside, as activities young children enjoy, like eating dirt, would not be a good idea at all.

The dose I was recording (5.97 uSv/h), if sustained for a year, would exceed the maximum one year only emergency exposure for a radiation safety worker by 6%. For normally acceptable background radiation for the general public, this would exceed North American standards by over 5,200% This seems extreme, but to put things into perspective, this is a level of radiation similar to the upper limit of what you get when you take a long haul flight (depending on latitude and altitude). Also, it is almost 30,000 times higher than what you get walking down the street in Chernobyl. So to attain this excessive annual exposure, you would have to live and sleep in this dirty and wet, small mossy spot 24/7 for a year. Not exactly probable. Continue reading

Revisiting Kiev’s Maidan Square; the month the barricades fell.

I was recently back in Kiev, in order to visit Chernobyl. Back in April, I had been surprised to find Maidan Square still very much occupied, by some of the same protesters who had caused the fall of the Yanukovitch Government back in February. I wondered why they were still there, given that broadly speaking, they had obtained what they wanted. The few locals I asked seemed just as puzzled as I was.

From what I saw and understood, it was mostly a bunch of hooligans playing “Occupy Wall Street”. Many of the former protesters had now joined the Army and Police volunteer battalions, so the ones left on the square may not have been the sharpest knives in the drawer.

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The kind who post stickers like this all over town. Anyway, the Government decided they had enough and city workers started dismantling the little street utopia, which cause a major riot. You can watch a little clip here. (Euronews clip, not mine, as I was in Russia that day)

I have no comment, analysis or insight to share, nor do I have any desire to research it any further. But I thought some of you might like to see the difference 4 months can make. So here are some “before and after” photos.

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The Square then.

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And now.

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Streets with tents.

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Streets with cars. Given the heavy traffic, I imagine the months of occupation must have cause traffic mayhem in the periphery. Continue reading

Back to the USSR! My surprising visit to Europe’s recluse, Belarus.

Getting to Belarus is not necessarily a simple thing. While the logistics of transport are simple, for most nationalities obtaining a visa is not easy at all. Earlier this year, I tried to obtain one to attend May Day in Minsk. I will spare you all the details, but after an incredible chain of 37 emails (yes, 37) and a few expensive Skype calls, I had yet to obtain a letter of invitation from an authorized agency, which would then have allowed me to approach the Embassy and request a visa! I gave up and spent May Day in Lithuania, where May Day celebrations have been completely abandoned, and all I saw was a little union march to which nobody paid any attention. This time around, I went for a much easier transit visa, which would only allow me to be in the country for two calendar days. It cost only 20 Euros, but I had to leave my passport at the Ottawa Embassy for 9 days. After the prescribed delay, I went back and the clerk retrieved my passport from a pile of one. Belarus is simply not interested in promoting tourism, or at least Western tourism. Russian tourism is probably important, as spas and such types of vacations are significantly cheaper in Belarus. However, statistics are difficult to find, as the two countries have no controls at their respective borders.

I think in the West, Belarus is only know as being “Europe’s last dictatorship”. I honestly went not knowing what to expect, but I must say I was surprised. I would even say I was impressed. But first; of course it is a dictatorship. Describing his own style as “authoritarian”, President Alexander Lukashenko may even be giving up on appearances. When he won his 4th election, I wonder if Belarus even bothered to count the votes. In the 4 elections, the results have never moved by more than 3 percentage points: about 80% to Lukashenko, all 4 times!

Because of labour issues I was not able to figure out, the former collective farm director is either considering, or has recently passed, a law requiring farm and forest workers to obtain permission for the regional Governor’s Office to quit their job. His fiercest critics could have accused him of trying to reintroduced serfdom. But they didn’t need to, he used the word himself! Despite all this, from the little I discovered about the country, I have difficulty seeing it as a “bastion of tyranny”, as Condoleeza Rice said. This is not Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. It made me think more of a mostly benevolent dictatorship, like Singapore in the 80′s, except socialist-style. Or perhaps the small Gulf States, conservative and oppressive to their opponents, but by and large trying to use Government resources to better the life of the population (the citizens, not the foreign workers).

Before I say why I was impressed, I will say how and when I saw the signs of a dictatorship.

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By taking a bus tour. I had taken such audio-guided tours by boat before, but never by bus. I don’t like the concept and will not repeat the experience. But the audio commentary was out-of-this-world. A lot of the censorship in authoritarian states is self-censorship. In Belarus, insulting the President carries a 5 year jail term, but there probably isn’t a law detailing exactly how much criticism of various things in the country is too much criticism. So if you publish written or audio materials what do you do? You play it safe and avoid anything negative. Therefore, I learned that “According to experts, the train station is one of the most convenient in Europe”, this street is the longest in…, excellent hospitals with Belarus-developed technology attract all sorts of medical tourism, etc. I have no reason to doubt any of this; the train station and airport were certainly fine, if not very business-oriented. But surely there is at least one thing that could be improved in Minsk! Even in North Korea my guide said they had problems generating enough electricity, and self-criticism is not exactly a North Korean strong point! During the two hours, only two negative things were said. First, Stalinist architecture was described as “grandiose, if somewhat pompous”!

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And then it was explained that these buildings (a very large development of many buildings) were intended to have gardens on the roofs for residents to enjoy, but that they were no longer there because of mismanagement of their maintenance. At first I could not believe my ears. No visitor would ever even know gardens were supposed to be there. This was specific and direct, harsh criticism and totally unnecessary. If I was a betting man, I would put $100 on the fact that the project was managed by opponents of the Government.

I was the only non-Russian speaker on the bus and I had to hide my smile during the tour’s incredible conclusion:

“Today Minsk is a simple, democratic city. As we conclude our day of sightseeing, so concludes a day in the life of Minsk. New citizens have been born. New songs have been written.” You know I’m not lying because I could never invent this! Continue reading

Latvia: my last stop in the North of Europe… and a pretty big milestone for me!

Before saying anything about Latvia, I have to mention a certain milestone, one for which I was delighted to have my girlfriend Michelle join me in Europe to celebrate.

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Latvia was the 100th country I visited. Notice my “Latvian flag shirt”!

Now, we saw a lot of fun and interesting things in Riga, but first I want to write about the “serious things”. We visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, detailing the 1939-1989 occupation of the country by Germany and then the USSR. We also visited the former KGB headquarters, opened for a temporary exhibit, which the organizers are trying to make permanent. The building itself is very nice, designed by architect Aleksandrs Vanags, who designed more than 80 major buildings in Riga. Ironically, when the Soviet Union first invaded the country in 1919, he was accused of being a “counter-revolutionary” and executed without trial by the KGB, but they still liked the building! So between the two museums, that made for a lot of 20th century horrors, and since the recent history of Latvia is very similar to that of the other Baltic countries (and to some extent Finland), I will skip 95% of it. But I will mention a few things that stood out for me.

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Movies were shown in the old KGB headquarters in which former detainees testified about their ordeal. This man spoke of a young KGB Officer who would take him from the detention cell to the interrogation room. Detainees were kept in abject conditions; packed naked by the dozens in small rooms. Along the way, he would stop in the staircase, between two floors, open the window and say: “Breathe some fresh air, you’ll feel better”. Sometimes he would share a sandwich with him and if he heard someone approaching, he would push him against the wall and scream insults at him, to make sure they didn’t get caught. I was not surprised at all that such a guard existed. No matter which institution of horror you chose, you will always find in them a handful of fundamentally decent men, who ended up there because of ignorance, despair, coercion, poverty, wanting to make their father proud, etc. What touched me is that this victim of torture, in an interview decades later, chose to take a moment to remember and honour the brave young KGB Lieutenant.

The second thing is a historical fact with major consequences for many of Latvia’s resident today. To solidify their control over the country, the Soviets deported many of the educated people to Siberia and moved 700-800 thousand Russians into the territory. I have no idea why the Soviets felt a need to do this, since in the free an fair elections of July 14th 1940, the Latvian Working People’s Block got 97.6% of the votes. But anyway, Latvia was by far the country where this was done on the largest scale. So much so, that in 1989, Latvians were almost a minority in their own country (52%). When the country regained its independence, this was perceived by politicians as an existential threat, and they passed a law denying citizenship to people who had migrated to the country after Germany’s retreat, in 1941. So today, most of Latvia’s large Russian minority are not citizens of any country! They have Latvian passports identifying them as “Non-citizen residents”. Practically, that means they do not have the right to vote or run for office, cannot own land (but buildings yes), and cannot occupy positions that would normally require citizenship in most countries, such as the police and various Government jobs. In daily life, I don’t think that affects most of them, but it is a highly unusual human rights situation in a EU member country. I certainly understand the Latvian Government’s concerns, but to limit the rights of an 18 year old boy because Soviet policies pushed his grandfather to move to Riga in 1946 certainly doesn’t seem very fair.

And the final thing I will mention has had an impact on Canada. When the German army began retreating towards the end of World War II, many Latvians – especially educated people who remembered the Red Terror of 1919-1920, retreated with them. At some point there were 200,000 Latvians in Germany (out of a population of less than 2 million). Since they no longer had a country to return to after the war, many sought refuge abroad. Between the three of them, Canada, Australia and the USA got the benefit of 52 Latvian writers, 564 physicians, 672 university professors, 766 engineers and 2,827 school teachers!

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At the Latvian War Museum, this display mentions the service in the Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police of Latvian immigrants. A similar display illustrates the careers of Latvians in the US military, 200 where 200 of them became Senior Officers, and 2 General Officers. However, proportionally to the size of the countries, more immigrated to Canada (20,000) than to the USA (50,000). Maybe they thought they would miss the snow! Continue reading