Unorthodox Russians

28th JULY 2018

I’m woken around 7.30am by the sounds of some type of sporting activity taking place on the lakeside, which gets me thinking that this is rather an odd location for a campsite. We are hidden behind sports club changing rooms, hangar type buildings for storing rowing equipment and, when I pop my head out the tent, I find there is a beach volleyball tournament in full swing. The small tent area, with its rock hard mesh grass, seems very much out of place amidst all this competitiveness. There’s no hope of extra sleep, so I pack up the tent and depart, slowly walking my bike past all the noisy rowers and volleyballers.

My first stop of the day is at a petrol station, where I buy a sandwich and a drink so that I can use their Wi-Fi while having breakfast. I want to get some accommodation booked for tonight, and that way there will be no temptation for me to just keep cycling for hours like yesterday. I find a farmstay based mostly on price, but also the fact that I can use country roads to get there.

I take a back road out of Bialystok that is littered with Saturday morning road works. There’s also a guy in his thirties who’s still pissed from last night and trying to cross the road while being almost unable to walk. He staggers across eventually and slumps down with his back against a corrugated iron fence, so that he’s facing the road and in direct, blazing sunlight. He falls unconscious with one hand inside a jumbo bag of crisps. I keep going and watch in dismay as the road gets more bumpy and potholed the further I get from Bialystok. Then, I have to bounce along a 15km section where only one side of the road has been surfaced with the patchiest of asphalt, while the other side is nothing more than a dirt track.

My disgrace of a road eventually leads back to the busy Number 19 Route for a few kilometres, before I’m able to exit again and start heading East. This time the entire road has been surfaced, but with a mix that contains far more stones than is necessary for the comfort of one’s bottom. I pass through a handful of similar little villages that line the road with names like Ploski and Krzywa, all with a church, barking dogs behind garden fences and a couple of large, messy stork’s nests atop telegraph poles.

As I near my accommodation I notice that signs for villages are now written in both Polish and Russian, which reflects the fact that I’m only 20km from the Belarus border at this point. When I do reach Dubicze Cerkiewne the first landmark I pass is a cemetery which seems to be divided in two – one half has blue crosses above the gravestones, while the other just has normal stone crosses. I find out later that blue crosses are for the Russian Orthodox church.

My ‘farmstay’ turns out to be on the first floor of a creaky, old wooden house and I notice my bedroom has one wall taken up by a bookshelf consisting solely of religious books. I ask the elderly owners if there’s anywhere in the village to buy food, because if there is then I’ll likely stay for two nights. The old lady then says she would be able to provide a couple of meals for me, so I duly book myself in for an extra night. I’m invited down for dinner later and am served up a whole jumble of small dishes, beginning with a bowl of veggie and noodle soup. That is followed by a little plate with tomato, cucumber and peppers, one with ham, cheese and pork, bread, home-made jam, some kind of pancakes and apples from the tree outside. I am well and truly sated by the time I finish.

It turns out that the old fellow (Anatoly) is from Belarus originally and his wife (Olga) is Polish, although the whole family and most of the village speak Russian. They live with their daughter in a modern bungalow at the rear of the former family home where I’m now staying. I discover that a family of Ukrainians (Dad, Mum and SEVEN kids) live on the ground floor below the rentals. Anatoly’s English is OK and the daughter’s is passable, but Olga’s isn’t quite so good. Her favourite catchphrase is bellowing ‘EAT !’ at me any time I stop munching her food to chat for a minute.

At one point I’m almost certain that Anatoly asks me if I’d like a beer and to hear them singing in Russian. It sounds like it could be interesting culturally, and I quite fancy a beer so I accept enthusiastically. However, in the most horrible case of crossed wires, he has actually invited me to the Russian Orthodox church tomorrow morning to hear them singing in Russian. I’m still a little bewildered by how this has happened. Still, I have a few hours leeway in which to come up with a plausible excuse.

I’m woken on my Rest Day in Dubicze Cerkiewne by what sounds like, and probably is, an air-raid siren from the Second World War. This excessive, ear-splitting din lasts about a minute and I wonder if this is how the villagers are encouraged to attend church. Olga serves me breakfast, which is much the same fare as last night and most likely leftovers. I worm my way out of going to church by not washing, putting on my crumbliest clothes and saying I would feel embarrassed looking like this when everyone else is dressed up. They troop off to church, and as they are just round the corner, I can hear them all singing in Russian anyway.

For lunch we have mushroom and veggie soup to start, but without noodles this time. The entire second course consists of what looks like the fattest, longest black pudding I have ever seen. I’m looking forward to this as I do like a bit of offal at mealtimes. I take a bite and am left feeling disappointed as the inside is potato, which is filling, but a little bland.

After our enormous potato sausage, I’m witness to a somewhat bizarre turn of events. Anatoly, Olga and their daughter all begin to sing a religious song along the lines of ‘You have to read your bible if you want to grow up.’ Freakishly, they all raise their arms in the air when they get to the word ‘Up.’ I’m treated to the song in English first, then Russian, then Polish. One of their older sons is also present, but just shifts uncomfortably in his chair, arms clamped to the table while mumbling the words half-heartedly. The singers look unbelievably happy, but from my perspective it all looks a bit mad. I think of Homer Simpson being subjected to religious songs by the Flanders family and feel some kind of solidarity with him.

Just like Homer, I’m glad when the singing finishes and we can return to consuming food. Dessert comes in the shape of home-made jam biscuits and apple compote, along with fresh yellow plums and a type of sour blueberry. The daughter then wants me to listen to some gospel music on her lap-top, but by some kind of divine miracle, the songs won’t load. I make my excuses and leave them to it. They are a such a nice family, but I find their whole religious fervour a little creepy.

By late afternoon, the clouds that have been building all day finally release a downpour of thundery biblical proportions. It proves to be a great joy for the army of Ukrainian kids as they all take turns jumping around under an overflowing rainwater pipe. The water is warm too, as it has come down via a roof that has been bathed in sunshine most of the afternoon and has retained all that heat. By bedtime on this strange day, my only remaining task is applying Sudocream to my poor, grazed arse cheeks. All this time spent riding on bumpy roads recently has definitely had an adverse affect on my rear.

The following morning I receive my final breakfast from Olga, this time with home-made honey and cottage cheese thrown into the mix. I’m also given an itemised bill for all the meals I’ve had, so she wasn’t just feeding me from the goodness of her heart. Still, she only charges me ten zlotys per meal (£2.10 per meal) so I can’t really complain. I say Goodbye to them all and in turn they all shake my hand as I leave. They are actually a lovely family, but with that scary, unquestioning blind faith when it comes to religion. But, who knows, maybe that’s what makes them lovely. It’s certainly been a weekend that I’ll remember for a while.



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