Budapest

Trip Start Sep 14, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Budapest Story...

Day / Night 1 in Budapest was business-as-usual.. I found a nice hostel, and headed out for a night on the town with my fellow travellers. The following day; however, was a little unusual.. by both Canadian and Hungarian standards.

The HungarianRevolution in October 23rd 1945 was an event where citizens rose against the imposed Soviet government in the interests of reform. These 'revolutionaries' violently demonstrated against the current government by hanging the hated Pro-Soviet communists on the closest available lamp posts.. Naturally the Russians couldn't tolerate the decent within their own Empire and came down hard on the Hungarians... tanks rolling through the streets... thousands of civilians were killed and over 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. In 1989 this bloody day was inaugurated as a national holiday.

October 23rd 2006 (my second day here) was the 50th anniversary of the Uprising. Throughout the day there were peaceful demonstrations. Over 100,000 people were marching in the streets.. burning candles.. waving flags.. paying their respects. At one point I saw an older lady crying as she marched with the masses across Elizabeth Bridge - perhaps she had experienced the Uprising in person. There was a generally somber feeling around the city, where monuments, giant flags, and exhibitions had been set up to commemorate the day. For a while I walked the streets wondering if there would be any clash with authorities. One month earlier there had been a clash between protestors and police when the newly elected government admitted to lying about the Hungarian economy just prior to elections. He had misled the people and they weren't impressed to say the least.

As the sun set some of the demonstrations turned aggressive. Apparently an old man was involved in stealing an old tank from one of the exhibitions.. but was arrested shortly thereafter. Other protestors gathered in front of Parliament and Elizabeth Bridge only to be met with hordes of riot police. The protestors were smashing bricks against the pavement to break them into stones and throwing them at the police. The police would then fire rubber bullets (still VERY painful and will pierce skin) and tear gas into the crowd.

I had missed all this on my walk, but caught it live on the news from my hostel. Some other travellers returned from observing the 'riot' in person and told us their stories... A girl from California and I decided that it would be a shame to be here, but to only see it on TV.. so we headed out to take a closer look. The hostel staff assured us it would be safe as long as we kept a good distance. With a camera in one hand and a bandanna (for the gas) in the other we were off.

The demonstration was less then 10 minutes walk from the hostel. And as seen on TV there were tens of thousands of protestors standing in the street opposite a line of riot police. The vast majority of people were just standing in solidarity.. some chanting in Hungarian. Protestors closer to the front line were throwing stones at police who responded with an endless amount of tear gas. There were also a group of bikers who would ride through the crowd to the front.. line up.. and take turns speeding toward the line of police, turning at the last possible second. It was very intimidating!

Things started to get rowdy after an hour or so when one or two protestors started throwing Molitov cocktails toward the police... who then brought out a water TANK and began to douse the protestors, along with a shower of gas. The girl and I escaped by running around a corner to the next street where there weren't many people. It was there where I uttered some famous last words 'I think we're safe here'. BANG, the sound of another tear gas canister being launched from our left. As I look over to discover another line of riot police not 50 yards away; the canister lands within 7 feet of us and starts to spew gas. 'Jesus.. let's move!'

We stayed in the fray.. taking it all in for just over two hours.. Often people in the front would run backward in response to being gassed, which would cause a chain reaction and suddenly everyone would be running. We would normally just walk to the side of the street and let the protestors calm down. There were many locals who were interested in our view on the event as tourists.. and they explained that this is NOT the typical day in Budapest. And one guy was nice enough to give us some advice.. He said 'you're pretty safe over here.. but if you happen to see horses coming, you better RUN and try to hide in a doorway or an alcove on the side of the street.' We had a laugh at the sock of such advice, but it turned out to be a good heads up.

About 20 minutes later I'm trying to film the crowd from the middle of the street and I hear the California girl exclaim 'oh shit, HORSES!!' There side-by-side coming down the middle of the street were maybe 10 mounted police donning full riot gear. And they were moving fast! Needless to say, we bolted. I felt like I was in Pamplona running with the bulls.. as we ran along side the 10,000+ Hungarian protestors. People were ducking into alleyways and store fronts.. and after 2 minutes I turned expecting that the police would have turned around my then. There were still directly behind us!! We picked up the pace and after another 2 or 3 minutes they had stopped and turned around. What a rush!

After that it was time to call it a night. We had been gassed several times.. ran from the police several times.. seen fires and cocktails.. talked to the locals.. taken some pics.. and received multiple hits of adrenaline. Back at the hostel I watched the standoff until 2 or so when the police dealt with the few remaining protestors by driving a bulldozer toward them which sent them running. In reality it was a fairly peaceful protest.. 100,000+ people involved and less then 1% got hurt. It almost seemed like a game.. the rioters would throw things and the police would fire gas... back and forth.

I'm lucky to have experienced this event.. and I'm especially thankful to live in Canada where I think things are a little more stable.
What a night!
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