Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Goodbye Minsk

Another thing that illustrates how isolated Belarus is, is the fact that hardly anyone speaks English. Now I don't want to state that the ability to speak English is the sole indicator of sophistication around the world but it goes a long way to see how connected a place is to the rest of the world. In Bratislava, for example, pretty much everyone spoke English when I got there. In Slovenia, most billboards were in English. Hell, even in Bosnia I was able to get around speaking English, and that was in Sarajevo, a mainly Muslim city and about as far removed from English culture as you can get in Europe. In Belarus, however, English will get you pretty much nowhere. 

                                          Any guesses?

This was brought home to me when we were looking for a museum about the history of Minsk and we couldn't quite find it. It wasn't until we showed someone a flyer of the museum that we got a vague wave of the hand directing us in the general direction. In the end, we didn't find the museum we were looking for but we did walk into an exposition which, I think, was about the history of cameras. In any case, the lady at the entrance booth didn't speak English either so we were none the wiser. Looking back on it now, she may have been asking for the entry fee or something like that. With our search for history and culture rapidly ended, we decided to go for the other global culture: the one of drinking. On our way to the elusive museum, we had spotted a bar that looked like a rock pub, so we went in it now. We were, in fact, correct in our assumption as the place was decorated with guitars, cymbals and old concert posters. Even the floor was done up with lots of band logos, which  looked pretty fukcing cool. As I had a look around, I did actually find it a bit too nice. 

                          TNT Bar, about as busy as when we were there.

Heavy metal bars the world over nearly always have a certain air about them, divey without being too threatening, rough without being dangerous and there's always a bit of a "you only live once so you might as well enjoy it" vibe. Not here though. Even though it was Sunday mid-afternoon, there was hardly anybody there. I worked in a heavy metal/punk bar in Holland for years and the Sunday afternoon sessions were always legendary, surpassed in madness and drinking only by the Friday night. 

                              Heavy Metal Bars: how it should be done.

Here, however, there was hardly a soul about, the music was in the background more than in your face and the barman spent more time playing with his espresso machine than pouring pints which I have never ever seen before in a rock bar. It was all really strange. That's not to say that it wasn't a nice place, it was just that it was so categorically different from any other rock pub I've ever been in.  What was also different from the usual standard, was the realisation that the place only had one male and one female toilet. Again, I'm not sure how busy it gets here on, say, Saturday nights but in pretty much every heavy metal bar I can think of right now, you can be 100% sure that a 2 toilet policy will result in major logistical problems before midnight.  
In any case, it was a nice, if somewhat strange place, and we had some other things to do, so we set off after we finished our beers. 

The next place we went to see was the aforementioned State Department of Important Decisions or whatever it was called, and the place was absolutely huge.  It was so big I couldn’t even get the whole thing in a picture, even from a 100 yards away. There also happened to be another interesting bar in the area, called T34. Those of you with a fascination for Soviet millitary memorabilia, will recognize the T34 as the standard combat tank of the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century. 

Even the nazis were afraid of them because they were nearly indestructible. The T34 was produced, roughly, from the early  40s to the late 50s and was the second most built tank in history, after the T54, the model that was developed after it. To give you an idea of how hardcore these tanks were, T34s were still being actively used by armies in 27 countries as late as 1996, nearly 4 decades after they stopped making them. The T54 is still in active use all over the world today.  The reason I bring this up is because there was one standing on a plint on the square where we were now, as a tribute to all the great battles it stood in during the days of the Soviet Union. And an enterprising soul had named a bar after it in the basement of an old KGB building and decorated it with millitary memorabilia. It being situated in a KGB basement, it was sort of hard to find but we got there in the end. It was quite a cool place, most of it in dark colors and with the fading light coming in from the windows near the ceiling it certainly had some atmosphere. But again, there was hardly a soul about. When we were about to leave, a group of about half a dozen people came in and sat at a table in the corner but apart from that it was just the two of us and a guy typing away on an iPad making up the clientele. What do people in Minsk do on Sunday? They certainly aren’t out drinking.
                                   Typical bar in Minsk

With another long day of trudging through the snow behind us, we were looking forward to dinner and a drink. We decided to trace down the local Irish pub which was situated conveniently near our bus stop so we set off for it. We couldn’t find it. We were certainly on the right square but couldn’t for the life of us find it. The pub was supposed to be on number 4 and we had found number 2,3, 5 and 6 but did not see an Irish pub. Until someone walked out of it and we found that we had been standing in front of it for the last 5 minutes. 

 In any other city, whether it is New York, Johannesburg or Belgrade, Irish pubs are always very obviously there. They’re always decked out with Irish flags, Guinness signs and neon signs of shamrocks and leprechauns. More often than not, there’s a tv in the window or a sign outside advertising what games are on tv that day and there are nearly always some people standing outside. In Minsk, however, we could have stood there for another 20 minutes and if no one had come out, we would have been none the wiser. 

                                                                  Normal Irish Pub

Strange place. The pub itself, however was nice and the food we had (smoked salmon and, yes, potatoe pancakes) was excellent.  Tired of another day of snow ploughing, we decided to go back to the hotel.

On our way to the bus stop, one of the local winos walked up to me with an outstretched hand, the wino sign the world over for ‘I’m out of vodka, please give me some change’. I told him that I had no change, which got me a comically grumpy “grmnst, chrttssv Amerikanski hgrghd!” or words to that effect. It was funny to see that I was immediately dubbed an American after refusing to hand him some of his country’s worthless money. 

The next day, we found that we had more or less exhausted our entertainment options in Minsk. Interesting as the city may be, after 2 days you have pretty much seen all the interesting buildings, the stadium and sites and if, like us, you can’t find the museums, that’s pretty much it. We took the subway to a residential area in the North East of Minsk to see what that was like. That, again, was quite interesting. The apartment buildings were huge,like everything else. What made it interesting, was that all the buildings had huge Soviet murals painted on the sides. There were 12 story paintings of Soviet astronauts and memorials to the time when the Olympics were in Minsk. 
Minsk never organised the Olympics, but when they were last in Moskou, in 1980, the organisers decided to spread the joy of the Olympics across the Soviet Union and the football stadium in Minsk was one of the main venues for the Olympic football tournament.  To give you an idea of how far spread out these Olympics were, events were staged, among others, in Leningrad (630 km to the North) and, stunningly, in Tallinn, which is nearly 900km from Moscow. Again, the Soviet Union was a ridiculously vast country, about the size of Canada and the USA combined. 

We had lunch at a football-themed pizza place, that had crests of Premier League teams engraved in the windows that separated the booths and jerseys and scarves on the wall.  After lunch we took the subway back to the city centre. The subway operates on a system that is somewhat similar to the one in Philadelphia. You buy little coins that you can use to operate the turnstiles in the stations. In Philadelphia the coins are made of silvery metal and look sort of professional. The ones in Minsk are made of purple plastic which gives it a bit of  a cheap look. The stations are pretty cool though. Like a lot of other things in Minsk, they still look like the Soviet Union was never dissolved. Impressive busts of Lenin stare at you in every station. Big Hammer and Sickles are above every exit. This, combined with the fact that there isn’t a single piece or garbage in the entire city, make that it looks pretty cool. 

Back in the city centre, we spent another half hour trying to buy bus tickets to Grodna, in Western Belarus, where we were going the next day. Buying a ticket in Eastern Europe can be a bit of a task at any time, but if you can’t even begin to imagine which window you have to go to, it takes just that little bit longer.  We spent the rest of the day in the manner that you do when you’re in a foreign city and have done everything you wanted to do and don’t really know what to do until it’s time to go to the next city. We walked around a bit, had a drink in a bar with a middle ages theme (again, it was practically empty) and had a look at Lee Harvey Oswald’s old apartment.  Most people don’t know this, but Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who clearly did not kill JFK, lived in Minsk for 2 years from 1959 until 1961. While there, he planned to attend university, but he was sent to work in an electronics factory where he was assigned a co-worker who had to teach him Russian. This guy, believe it or not, would (much) later become the first prime minister of independent Belarus.
Oswald lived in an imposing yellow apartment building not too far from the cenotaph we had visited earlier. The building consisted of 3 parts but it was unknown in which one exactly he had lived so I took pictures of all 3 of them. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around and ended the day with dinner at a traditional Belarusian restaurant with a complex Cyrillic name above the door. It was next to the TGI Friday's were we had had our first lunch on Saturday so in a really lame way we had come full circle in Minsk. The food was great, I must say. We both had a sort of stew consisting of mushrooms, meats and, ofcourse, potatoes, and it was served in a breadbowl. While serving food in a bread bowl is nothing particularly exciting (anybody who's ever been to San Francisco will tell you that after 3 days there you get the urge to dropkick the next breadbowl you encounter into the Pacific Ocean) but this one was exceptionally good. It was made of dark bread and had a taste somewhere halfway between sweet and savoury. It was amazing.

It was also time to go to Grodna.

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