Belarus, Minsk and the National Ice Hockey Championships

Tuesday 20 May

I’ve crammed more cultural and tourist stuff into the past two days than I’ve managed in months of getting pissed up in bars around the world.  This is due in no small part to traveling with my Czech friends, who of course have their own car.  So up and down the country we zip, visiting sights ranging from the historical to the comical.  It’s a total hoot, and a real stroke of luck that I’m getting to see stuff I wouldn’t normally have managed.  Like old Father Frost.

Father Frost is the Belarussian equivalent of Santa Claus.  He lives in a forest in a national park, and you can visit him all year round.  This is just too tempting for my companions to ignore, so we pay him a visit.  A state employee who sits in a log cabin and waits for kids to yell at him.  With a ridiculously fake long white beard and hair, he comes out if you call, and starts ranting something in Russian.  He’s surrounded by surreal and creepy wooded sculptures of fairy tales and myths, and it turns out to be quite entertaining.  Apparently it all kicks off at Christmas as you would expect, with thousands of visitors everyday.  All those screaming kids.  No wonder his hair’s white.

Across country and Belarus is littered with old Soviet statues and memorials.  Particularly spectacular is the fort at Brest, which contains some incredible rock carvings, and harks back to times behind the iron curtain.  We whisk from site to site, filling the day with experiences.  I’m enjoying myself, as it’s reminding me of my time in Russia many years ago.  I have a penchant for old Soviet iconography and propaganda.  I find it fascinating.  It’s worth a visit here if you do too.

Minsk is pleasant enough, but lacks the charm of Tallinn or Vilnius as you might expect.  It’s certainly more of a concrete jungle.  Communist tower blocks dominate the skyline, and in truth, the outskirts are quite ugly.  Whoever designs these things should be put up against a wall.  The old town has its appeal, but I can’t for the life of me find a Belarussian flag sticker for my guitar.  As the hockey match fast approaches, I’m running out of options.  For the love of god Belarus – and other countries take note – make a sticker of your flag!  No I don’t want a magnet.  No I don’t want an actual flag.  I just want a damn sticker.  I’m in a stinking mood as the shops close.

I’ve opted to move faster, so this means I won’t be making my original planned quarter-final of the ice hockey championships.  As the Czechs are playing tonight, our kind couch surfing host manages to get me a last-minute ticket, so the evening is spent cheering the team against the French.  I’m not a great lover of ice hockey really.  It stops and starts too much, and I find more enjoyment scanning the crowd.  It’s an exciting game sure, but I just can’t buy into it.  The Czechs win 5-4 which obviously pleases my companions.  I’ll stick to football, and watching the stunning Belarussian in front of me.

My plans have changed somewhat.  Things are afoot.  As much as I would like to extend my stay, I need to be somewhere by a certain time.  It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a country, but largely thanks to my Czech friends, I feel I’ve visited much more here than in places I’ve spent longer.  But on the morrow I will undertake what appears to be the most challenging hitch to date; Minsk to Kiev; and unstable Ukraine.

 

 

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Hitchhike to India leg 26; Vilnius to Minsk and beyond…

Sunday 18 May

This should be pretty easy.  So easy that I break my usual tradition of getting up at the crack of dawn to catch the morning traffic, and I lazily make my way to the first hitch spot for around midday.  I’ve a nice big MINSK sign, added to that a little drawing of two hockey sticks.  With the Ice Hockey World Cup in full swing, I’ve managed to get a visa access to Belarus by purchasing a ticket.  80 quid for a visa, or 20 quid for a quarter finals seat and free entry for the whole of May.  Boom.  Winning.

I’m picked up in minutes by a Belarussian family who can’t speak English but can take me to the border.  A short drive later and I’m leaving Europe behind and peaking behind the iron curtain.  Although communism is long since dead, the evidence and effects are still in place, and approaching the Belarussian border, it’s clear from the comical guards hats that I’m not in Kansas anymore.  The funny thing is, they’re all laughing at me; wandering through by foot with my Minsk sign.  There’s a heart in mouth moment as I hand my documents over.  The ticket didn’t print in colour, and I’ve bought it off a ticket tout website.  I’m nervous as to see if this will actually work, and if I’ve got a fake brief.  The pretty passport control officer makes a face and turns to her superior.  My stomach drops.  After a short conversation she shrugs her shoulders and reaches for the stamps.  CLAMP!  CLAMP!  And I’m in!  I’m through!  Back in the USSR!!  I walk on air across the frontier.

It’s another kilometre or so through all the truck stops and customs control points, but before long I’m in a great spot getting all the traffic I want.  Across the other side, on the road out of Belarus, a back-up of hundreds of trucks trails for mile after mile.  I thought it was harder getting in!

Within minutes a swanky ride pulls in, and I’ve hit the jack pot.  Three Czechs heading to watch their team, with the back seats piled high with hats, scarfs and team regalia.  They all speak English, and the car is simply the finest I’ve managed to hitch in.  A top of the range Szkoda Superb, with more gadgets, gizmos and airbags than you can shake a stick at.  The roof length sun window is a real treat in this weather too.  We blaze into Minsk in style.

After a short time, it appears I’ve really lucked out.  The trio are planning on visiting a beautiful national park near Brest, some 400K away, before traveling back to Minsk on Monday afternoon.  Since they should have been a foursome, they have a couchsurf host in Minsk expecting one more.  So the opportunity to see more of the country and stay for free is simply too tempting to refuse.  It’s a no brainer.  Added to the luxury of car tourism and stopping at sites along the way, it’s arguably the luckiest pick up I’ve ever managed.  And so here you find me dear readers, in a hotel in the middle of a national park, in the middle of nowhere; Belarus!  I’m being sung to sleep by the sounds of the forest, and freaked out by the flying beasties hitting my window.  I wonder if these Czech dudes could take me to Ukraine?

 

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