Sunday, June 17, 2018

Pleasant surprises in Minsk

Before yesterday, when I thought of Minsk, and Belarus in general, it was grim and gray, and grudgingly creeping away from its Soviet past. Some of that might be true, but not much, as viewed from a tourist there for hardly a day. As is a growing theme in this mad tour, I left Belarus wishing I could have stayed there longer, but at least glad that I did visit the city rather than spending an extra time in one of those other places I'd previously wished I'd spent more time in.

It's one of life's great time optimization problems: How much time to you exploit the experiences you know you like, versus the time you spend exploring new experiences you have no knowledge about, with the risk it might be terrible. And if you're focusing on "explore" versus "exploit", which what I am largely doing on this holiday, how much time is needed to explore each item? Is it better to explore more things less fully, or fewer things more fully?

People's Republic of Belarus
The taxi was early for me and he took me quickly to the airport without much hassle. I wanted to pay in Ukrainian Hryvnia but he wanted Euros. Awkward. I ended up giving him a dollar bill I'd exchanged from Aussie for just such eventualities and (I hope) he gave me the right change. I think he did.

The airport was very small but I got through easy enough to my seat on the Ukrainian airlines plane. I say "easily" enough, but I had to surrender my very nice bottle of Moldovan red wine to the security guard. I hate that. How come airports positively beg for you to buy alcohol to take with you on the plane in duty free shops (which are getting so close to the gate I expect soon they'll be trying to sell to you as you board the plane) but you can't take a bottle you've bought elsewhere? It has to be a scam.

 I dozed off straight away and have no memory of the flight really until we landed in Kyiv when I noticed I was sat next to a young couple who I started chatting with.

As seems to be the theme, they had something in common with me, both living in Nuremberg where my grandma and uncle Joseph used to live. They were cool dudes. I was particularly impressed with the guys blue shoes.

After a couple of hours stay in Kyiv it was time to go again, this time to leave the country completely. This was, technically, the end of my third visit (having gone from Kyiv to Hungary and Poland, before returning again for England v Italy in the Euro 2012 quarter finals.)

Odessa airport

Old Soviet style hall

Had to sacrifice my bottle of Moldovan red

So, this latest Ukrainian visit has taken the country into my top 20 in terms of time spent there.

To do some "closure" on Ukraine in a World Cup context, I should just point out that, unfortunately for them, they narrowly failed to make it to the World Cup.

They lost the crucial last match at home to Croatia. If they'd have won that, Ukraine would have ended in 2nd place and would have had the chance to play a play off game. Perhaps, if they'd have drawn Greece, like Croatia did, they would have qualified. It's interesting to speculate how that would have gone. A country playing at the World Cup next door at a host that has occupied part of your territory.

Ukraine's ten qualifying games. So close.

Last Ukrainian airlines flight
My last glimpses of Ukraine were through the clouds down at the border area, pretty close to where the Chornobyl nuclear plant was.

Down there somewhere be Chornobyl

Chornobyl - Few really knew what was going on

Belarus - Country 61
Having arrived at Minsk airport it was almost back to the usual routine. Money, Wifi, map, taxi.
Except the last bit wasn't my usual bus trip. See, I had severe time pressure this time. The plane landed at ten past 11 and somehow I had to get to the city, and find a bar by 1 pm to watch Australia's intriguing opener against France. A bus ride and then a walk from the station could slow me down here. So I got a taxi. Belarus have a very good service at the airport though. You book and pay at an office there so there can be no dodgy dealings. I paid 35 Belarus rubles for the ride which is almost 50 km. Fair enough.

Another difference in Belarus is that you need to show a medical insurance certificate at the passport control. Never had to do that before.

100 Belarus Rubles = $67 Australian

It's a long way from Minsk airport

45km taxi ride
Couldn't help dozing

Big bold streets of Minsk

So, here I was in my 61st country visited.

The taxi driver was very nice but not very talkative and I kept dozing off anyway. The airport is a long way from the city and the drive was largely through woodland and open countryside before we hit the big open rebuilt streets of Minsk, a big city of almost two million.

I arrived at my hotel in Minsk city center which I'd chosen largely for its proximity to the railway station. My plan originally was to spend two nights there and then catch a train to Vilnius but upon reading the small print I learned that the short visa (up to 4 days) requires that you came and go from the airport.

It's a nice old hotel and the check in went smoothly. Up to my room. Dump my bags. Look at my watch....

Eek 12:50! The match starts in ten minutes!

I scampered down stairs and asked the receptionist, but as I mouthed the word "football" that empty look on her face told me all I needed to know. I darted out of the door and turned left, in the direction Professor Google had suggested was the better direction.

50 meters along the road, I noticed a Pizza parlour so I went in and asked the most beautiful girl if she knew where I could watch the match.

"When is it on?"

"Cey chas (now):

"OK. Ve haf television."

And she proceeded to flick the channels until Jeniak's ugly face appeared on the screen.


So I sat right down in front of the tely. Ordered a beer and a pizza and was set for the match.

Aussie Aussie Assie, Oi Oi Oi

Many fans of the socceroos fear what might happen when they played against class opposition and Boro's chief gambit in his betting strategy in the World Cup was based on the idea that France would win big and their top striker Griezmann, would score at least a couple.

Turns out Australia proved all the doubters wrong. They matched France for most of the  match and went in at half 0-0. Things changed soon in the second, though. Our local lad, Josh Risdon - he's from Bunbury in WA and started out with Perth Glory challenged superstar Antoine Griezmann in the box and did enough to put him off scoring. The Madrid forward clattered to the ground looking for a penalty but the ref waved play on. A few seconds later, though, the VAR system was called into play for the first time and the decision was reversed. 1-0 to France.

Amazingly, though, the ausies came straight back and 4 minutes later Jedinak scored the equaliser after a silly hand ball in the box by Umtiti. Australia continued to play well and looked like they might get an unlikely point until Pogba scored with ten minutes to go. Actually it has been credited as an own goal as it was heavily deflected off the Australian defender, Behich. It was a spectacular shot that hit the underside of the bar, bounced over the line and came back out into goalkeeper, Ryan's hands.

Anyway, a creditable performance from the Caltex socceroos.

I nipped back to the hotel to finally grab a shower and get changed but before I knew it, it was panic time again, Another match - Argentina v Iceland, was looming.

I set off to do a little exploring and, following Professor Google's advice quickly found a great pub in the center of Minsk, called Gambrinus, just along Ulitsa Lenina (yes, the names haven't changed in Minsk).

It's a great place with over 100 beers from all over the world. Their English beer section in the menu was about 14 pages long. Each room had a theme. There was a German beer-keller room an English pub kind of  room and a Belgian themed room - just looked like a room to me.

I had some great Belarus stodge. Potato pancakes with pork and sour cream as I settled to watch Iceland punch above their weight yet again. Argentina scored first with a great goal from Aguerro but Iceland equalised when the goalkeeper failed to clear a shot.

The key incident of the game was when superstar Messi missed a penalty and so Argentina failed to win.

Ronaldo 1 Messi 0

After the game I was determined to see some of Minsk so I went on a little walk. The Dinamo Minsk stadium is very central so that was an obvious starting destination. Then I looped back to the busy city center where I'd just been.

Hotel Garni

Lenina Ulitsa

Gambrinus - Great Pub

Potato pancakes - Belarus style

"English Pub" Section
As I walked around I began to notice that a bizarre number of people seemed to be carrying union jacks. They were everywhere. Earlier on I'd heard a concert going on somewhere close by and they were singing some of the Beatles classics. It all began to make sense when I realised that Minsk was holding a massive festival to celebrate - Great Britain.

It was so heartwarming to see so much British culture on show for everyone. The band played Rolling Stones songs, then Queen songs and so on. I saw a performance of Romeo and Juliet going on too. Everyone was so friendly and there were literally thousands of people out and about indulging in the British theme. What a wonderful surprise.

Great Britain Exhibition Programme

Best pub in Belarus

Dinamo Stadium - Classic Soviet + Modern Roof
Dinamo's very central location in Minsk

Although the ground was historically home of Dinamo Minsk, it is now bizarrely the home of FC Minsk, while Dinamo play at another, smaller , stadium. Dinamo Minsk are another of these iconic sides of the Soviet era. They won the "Top" league in 1982.

Here's some great action from a key game that season when they won 4-3 at Spartak Moscow.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, they've won the Belarus league seven times but only once since 1997. In recent years the best team in Belarus has been the team from Borisov, called BATE, who have won the league for the last TWELVE seasons. If, like me, you were wondering what BATE stands for, prepare to be underwhelmed... Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electronics.

And, yes, they're well on their way to making it thirteen.

They lead the current table...

Slutsk move up to 4th place
I had the chance to watch a game in that league while I was there as Torpedo Minsk played Slutsk in a 5:45 pm kick off. I was tempted, but even I had to pass on that one. I would have had to walk out on Argentina v Iceland when it was a really exciting stage of the game and I doubt I would have got back for the start of the Peru v Denmark match. It was a 1-0 win to Slutsk. Oh well, next time!

BATE's stadium in Borisov is also the current home of the national team, although once the renovations that were going on during my visit, are complete, they might switch back to Minsk.

Belarus are not the strongest football nation and are currently ranked 79th in the FIFA list.

Needless to say, they didn't qualify for this World Cup, finishing bottom of the group from which France and Sweden qualified (but not Holland.)

One win against Bulgaria and two draws (against France and Luxembourg)

As you walk around Belarus, you do start to notice a distinctly pro-Soviet feel to it. There are soldier walking around with those massive pizza sized caps and many buildings have the red star, the hammer and sickle or Soviet slogans on them.

You feel that you have to be careful what you say in Belarus

Massive People's Palace of Culture

Palace of the Republic

Massive Prospect

See that? "Slava Trudu!" = Glory to the Struggle!

The river Svislach

Minsk is an impressive city

After my walk, I headed back to Gambrinus to watch the Peru v Denmark game. I decided to indulge in an English beer for once and had a bottle of Badger's Tangle Foot. Very nice too. I also had some Czech soup.

The game was pretty good and basically involved Denmark taking the lead and Peru then continually attacking, coming very close to, but repeatedly failing to score. They even missed a penalty. I thought they were unlucky to lose but they did keep giving the ball away. Denmark were not very impressive. I think Australia could beat both of these teams if they play as well as they did yesterday against France.

Czech Soup with Black Bread
After the match I was getting very tired and found it increasingly hard to keep my eyes open.
I decided to go back to my hotel room and watch the final game (10 pm kick off) between Croatia and Nigeria from my bed.

I got back to the room but couldn't get the TV to work. I called reception and within 90 seconds a lady came to fix the problem. So I packed my bag, getting ready to get up at 6 am for another early flight to Vilnius and got ready to watch the final game.

Getting dark, time to go back to the room

I set my alarm and turned the light down and the TV on.

Of course, I fell asleep within seconds and so completely missed the Croatia v Nigeria game. I heard later it was a dull game so I probably wouldn't have been able to keep my eyes open in any case. 2-0 to Croatia.

So with four games played today it left groups C and D like this...

So ended a lovely day in Minsk.

Here are some bonus photos...

Union Jacks everywhere

Big attraction in Minsk

Notice the Stars and the Hammers and Sickles?

After the heat of Odessa, Minsk was cold and overcast

A queue to have a photo taken in a British Phone Box

Lovely Minsk

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