Thursday, April 18, 2013

Into the East Part III

After our initial circuit of the city centre, we decided to have a drink somewhere. When planning the trip, I had been looking for a guidebook about Belarus, or at the very least Minsk, but I came up empty handed. Even Lonely Planet didn't have a guide on Belarus, which shows you what an out-of-the-way place it is. In the end, we found an In Your Pocket guide on Minsk online and printed that out. The guide mentioned a couple of promising bars and we were standing on front of one of them now. As most of you will know, I keep a list of every bar I've been to since 2005. The name on this bar was, ofcourse, in Cyrillic, which got me a "good luck putting THAT on your list!" 
I soon worked out, however, that the name translated to Gambrinus. Gambrinus is a Latin translation of Jan Primus, or John the First, in English. Which was a pretty cool coincidence because my favourite Dutch beer is named after this historic figure, a Dutch duke who ruled the Southern parts of Holland and the North of what is now Belgium, somewhere in the middle ages. According to legend, Duke John (or Hertog Jan, in Dutch) enjoyed his beer and would often ride into battle on horseback, clutching a sword in one hand and a mug of beer in the other. No wonder they named a brewery after him. Nowadays, he is still depicted on the label holding a sword and a mug of foaming beer.

In any case, it was good old Jan who stared at me from the cover of the extensive beer menu, which was pretty cool to see in such a remote place. We ordered beers and contemplated our first impressions of Belarus. One of the first things you notice, obviously, is that the alphabet is different. Where in other countries you are normally able to deduct what is a bakery and what is an insurance office, here in Cyrillic territory I was more or less completely lost. Every streetsign, billboard or shopwindow was a big riddle. This is ofcourse sort of cool, but it also makes live a bit harder than normal because you have to consider everything you do because you don’t really know what is what.  I mistook the window of a funeral director for a flower shop and It took me a minute to figure out that what I took to be an information centre for tourists was actually an office of the national lottery.
You live and learn.


           I think this means 'AC/DC'

  Another thing that you notice straight away, is the ridiculous currency, the Belarussian Rouble. Where the Rouble in neighbouring Russia is around 35/1 against the Euro, in itself entertaining enough, the Belarussian version is a whopping 11.000/1 against the Euro. On paper, this looks comical enough, but when you actually get there it is so ridiculous that you just have to laugh. The 7 minute taxi ride to our hotel cost 100.000. A bus ticket was 1.700 for a single. A pint clocked in at around an impressive 40.000. I have a photo somewhere of me holding 2 million in cash. I felt like an early 90s rapper. I could only just resist the temptation to go and get a bottle of Dom Perignon to complete the picture.
It was after a day and a half that I figured out that the country doesnt even bother producing coins. It would be useless anyway, in a country where inviting your in-laws out for dinner would result in having to make a trip to the bank with a wheelbarrow. 

This is the amount of cash for a single on the bus. It's about 17 cents

Another thing I noticed, was the behaviour of the people. It's not that they're unfriendly as such, it's more that they're sort of paranoid or afraid of strangers, which is not that strange, really, after a century of oppression. Imagine how they must have felt:  After being ruled with an iron fist by the Soviet Union for 70 years, the countries around them cautiously started to declare independence after Gorbatsjov told them they could and that he basically didn't give a shit about the concept of the Soviet Union anymore. Then, while the Baltic states developed themselves into modern, tech-savvy countries (Skype, for example, is an Estonian invention) the Belarussians had to look on with tears in their eyes as the Kremlin rolled in a dictator to keep an eye on things. The same dictator is there still today.

                                                     The Kremlin is STILL watching you!!

This reflects in the behaviour of the people. We asked, or rather tried to ask, a woman in the street about the location of a certain building, but she simply pushed the map out of our hands and hastily moved on with a look in her eyes that you would expect to see on a lonely white girl who is approached at dusk in the South Bronx by 3 black guys carrying Uzis. On the bus, you are simply shoved out of the way if someone wants to pass. No people in the bus talked to each other. (On a side note, going back to the country's Monopoly money, the ticket inspector on the bus was carrying a wad of cash as thick as her wrist. I guess it was worth about 3 Euros).

Apart from the weird currency, another thing that you notice straight away, is the presence everywhere of soldiers and cops. If I deducted correctly, the police wear grey uniforms that, comically enough, have a batch on it saying “OMOH” and the army soldiers are dressed in green. They are literally everywhere. On every streetcorner were at least 2 or 3 soldiers, apparently keeping an eye on proceedings,  and I must say, I have never seen such a clean city. Not a single chocolate bar wrapper, piece of chewing gum or empty beer can could be found anywhere. Even the local winos dropped their empty cans in a bin.

         The tv show 'COPS' never really took off in Belarus

Ofcourse, Belarus being a communist state, there is, on paper at least, no unemployment. This, in turn, means that an awful lot of people are employed by the state. We walked by a church and found a dozen soldiers keeping an eye on the ceremony, hardly the number you would need at a Sunday morning church service. Every park we walked by had at least 4 or 5 employees of the Parks Department standing there, most of them leaning on shovels or broomsticks. We walked by another immense building, most likely a state department of some sort, and as soon as we took a couple of pictures of the building, the soldiers that were ‘guarding’ every corner started moving towards us, so we beat a hasty retreat. 

The Belarussian Department of Important Decisions

We then realised it was about time to get some dinner. It was, after all, a special day. My friend Renae had now officially visited every single country in Europe and this called for a special celebration. Fortunately, our research had revealed that there was in fact  a microbrewery in Minsk that had a restaurant attached to it. Being both fans of microbreweries, we set off to find it and despite the trouble with the Cyrillic alphabet and the black-and-white photocopied guide book, we found it at the first try. (I must admit though that we first approached the building from the wrong direction, but with the uttering of the word ‘Brovar’ (my first word in Belarussian, meaning brewery) we were set on the right path and about  a minute later we entered a surprisingly large establishment. I really had no idea about the size of the place, but it was big. It even had 2 floors.  Another thing that you will notice as a Westerner in Belarus, is that it is still allowed everywhere to smoke. Bars, restaurants, public buildings, you can puff away as much as you want. This is, ofcourse, brilliant if you smoke yourself, but if you don’t it can be quite annoying. We asked to be seated in the non-smoking section, and found that every table had an ashtray on it. 10 years ago, I would have welcomed this, but now, having given up smoking myself over 7 years ago, and accompanied by someone who hates smoke, I was less than happy with the arrangement. Fortunately, nobody in our immediate vincinity smoked so all was well. The place looked really cool, with a lot of wood and a tiled floor. Towards the back of the ground floor was a sports corner where, this being Belarus, most of the merchandise on display had to do with hockey. The brew tanks stood behind the bar and further decorations of interest were a fish tank that appeared to be filled with baracudas and a huge bear skin that hung from the fence on the first floor. It all looked really cool. The beer was good as well, and the food was really nice. We both had a stew of pork and mushrooms and, ofcourse, the ubiquitous potatoe pancakes, but it was really nice.

Brewing in action

After we left the restaurant, we decided to go back to the hotel. Even though it was only around 8 in the evening, we were exhausted. We’d been up since about 5AM, had been through all that shit at the border and we’d been walking around through a thick pack of snow, and everyone who has ever gone through a semi-serious episode of snowfall will tell you that it is hard going. We bought a couple of beers to drink back in the hotel and got on the bus back home. We somehow got off at the wrong stop which wasn’t that much of a problem, as we had a nice 10 minute walk back to the hotel and had a cool photo opportunity at a sign saying “Welcome to Minsk” with a train and a plane on it. Near the hotel we walked past a bar called Beer Nora. We decided to go in and have one for the road, even though the remaining bit of road was about 30 yards. It was a nice, subterranean place that seemed to be just as much in use as a restaurant as a bar. We had a local beer and went back to the hotel. We didn’t get to meet Nora though.
After a long day, and one more beer in the hotel, I was glad to go to bed and put my head down. I watched some CNBC and was asleep in 10 minutes.

No comments:

Post a Comment