Bouncing Czechs and Drunk Latvians

Day 12 – Sunday 11 May 2014.

People tracking my journey will no doubt have noticed that there is no entry for the past two days. The reason for this is that Friday and Saturday I took a two-day tour of the Chernobyl/Pripyat area, and this will go onto a separate specific entry in the ‘Life During Wartime’ section, once I write it.

Arrived in Minsk just before 9am after a patchy sleep in a train upper bunk that was also too small for me. Had problems getting up there and couldn’t get comfortable. That the train took an hour to cross between the border posts of Ukraine and Kiev didn’t help – how slow was that thing going?!
For these two days in Minsk, I’d been joined by a good friend from back home, Ali, who’s a major ice-hockey fan. At the time of visiting, Belarus is holding the World Ice-Hockey Championships, so I asked her if she fancied coming over and meeting me there.

It’s a good time to visit Belarus, as during the tournament they’ve removed all visa restrictions for tourists holding tickets to any of the games. Normally it’s a country with Soviet-style admissions policies, that require a visa, a sponsor in the country, full police registration, a drop of your blood to write the immigration form in, your twitter password, and a regulation to smile even less than allowed on a UK passport application.

I’d had this impression therefore of Minsk that it was going to be very drab, grey concrete buildings, miserable, with a whole vibe of ‘frigidness’. In fact I was pleasantly surprised. Whilst the suburbs (where the apartment was) is definitely Soviet, even here the blocks are in pastel shades rather than all grey, whilst in the city centre it felt a bit like parts of Paris, with wide boulevards, a myriad of styles of imposing buildings, and lots of cafes. There were also a few big Orthodox Christian churches, a bit like Kiev, though it being Sunday morning we didn’t go in any.
We did visit the ‘Island of Tears’, a very small memorial on an island in the river dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Afghanistan War. Also known as the ‘Soviet Vietnam’, this was the war in the 1980s where the Soviets tried to impose a friendly regime in Kabul, and failed. While I saw a small one in Tiraspol, I didn’t notice a reference in either Chiinau or Kiev; maybe this suggests it’s only the Eastern-looking regimes that choose to commemorate this one.

Like Tiraspol and Kiev, there were a number of parks in and around the city centre. Gorky Park in particular was pretty huge, although oddly parts of it resembled more of a British park than a regulation Soviet one. Much of Gorky Park (does every Russian-leaning city have a Gorky Park, I wonder?) was given over to a large children’s funfair, complete with candyfloss, popcorn, waltzers, and apparently very dodgy toilets. Though these facts are unrelated.

My impressions of the city may be coloured by the fact that it is the ice-hockey world championships, and the city’s been cleaned up, decorated, and make tourist-friendly (the signs in Minsk station are both evidently new, and dual-signed in English). This also means there’s a lot of tourists; although there’s 16 teams taking part, the city seemed to be full of :Latvians, Russians, Slovaks, Czechs, and not a lot else. The Latvians were the most numerous, the loudest, and, seemingly, the most partial to spending time in the cafes drinking the local beers.
They’re also a very friendly lot, and were invariably surprised to find two Brits in the city who were going to the games (‘Do the UK even play ice-hockey?!’ was a typical question. As it happens the UK is one of the four founder members of the IIHC, and even won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. Granted it was as long ago as 1936, and that the team was made up almost entirely of ex-pats in Canada and dual-nationals, but …), but definitely respectful for it. People even asked for photos with Ali when she was wearing her GB shirt as it was so unusual,

Most of our transportation involved taxis – the apartment was quite a way out and the taxis were relatively cheap- around $7 for the 15-min ride to/from the city centre (bear in mind this is a European Capital during a major tourist event). It seems you can also pay for taxis in at least three different currencies (apart from the local Ruble, USD and EUR are also accepted. Ukranian Hryvna are not), and I suspect you could probably pay in the Russian rouble as well.
The Belarusian Rubel is a fairly worthless currency, in that there are 16,800 to the £, and notes of 100 rubel exist and are used. It’s also fairly non-convertible outside the country, making it one of those currencies you get a whole stack of when you change money and then have to worry about being able to spend it, bearing in mind you can eat very well in a café for 30,000 rubel.

So to the game: tonight’s was the Czech Republic v Sweden, a game the Czechs should have won but didn’t take their chances and didn’t kill the game off, so Sweden won on penalties after a 3-3 draw.
We saw the game in the smaller of the wo ice0hockey arenas in Minsk, the Chizhovka Arena. By ‘smaller’ I mean it only holds about 9,500 people as opposed to the much larger Minsk Arena. Still much larger than anything in the UK, obviously. And perhaps surprisingly, given the fact both are European countries, the vast majority of the crowd were Czech-supporting. We were sat right at the front of the upper tier, behind one of the goals, and right next to a whole gaggle of very vocal Czech supporters (of the kind that keep chanting. And chanting. Endlessly. They also went through phases of all jumping up and down, which actually caused the area we were seated in to bounce too). It was quite nice at the start but got very annoying very quickly. That being said, because the rest of the crowd had pockets which were doing the same thing, and given the stadium looked pretty much full, the atmosphere was incredible. It’s also the only time I’ve ever heard anyone from Sweden being booed and jeered.
Obviously it being the world championships, it was very clear just how much quality there was on the ice – the game in the UK is much less smooth and fluid, and much more stop-start with more penalties and errors. It shows the game in the UK has a very long way to go, and to be honest will probably never get there, not to this level at least.

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