With me now having to take a flight to Minsk rather than a coach, I had to check out and spend the day in Vilnius with my heavy bag. Just in case you don’t already know, the rules for Belarus visa are 80 countries can stay for 5 days only without a visa. However, there are rules
a. You have to have at least 25 Euros (or Belarusian Roubles equiv) per day spending money
b. You have to have proof of travel insurance up to 10k
c. You have to enter via the airport only
So this was mega frustrating because the Lux Buses have been amazing, cheap and convenient so I cancelled that (full refund) and booked a 30 minute flight (utterly pointless) from Vilnius to Minsk.
Anyway, all I did was chill out in some cafes and bars today, but at one point (given it was again warm), I sat down in the park on my phone. I noticed a guy in some sort of dress walking by and got back to looking down at Arsenal Twitter. The next minute, he’s plonked next to me, this guy must be around 20, he’s got a ponytail but with a monk skinhead on top and he’s holding some books, I knew this was going to be painful.
I said hello and he said same, asked me my name and what I was doing etc. Anyway, after some general chit chat he got to the point, ‘do you know about Karma’? ‘Well I know of it but don’t know the in’s and out’s’ I resisted the temptation to make a joke about Spurs. I tried feintly to get out of it by saying, ‘I find it hard to discuss religion at the moment with all that is going on in Europe’… it didn’t work, ‘we of course talk about God but karma is more about understanding your surroundings for a better life’. I was waiting for the discussion about money to start and he recommended for me a beginners book (I clearly was not ready for the Karma epic novels he was stashing in his little monk bag). I asked how much and he said donations, and I said how much roughly (this brought back memories to Marrakech buying my epic statue). He replied a few Euros and I only had 4 in coins so I gave him that. He must have been pleased because he gave me some Karma music (not Boy George I hope) to go with the book. Anyway, there was some more pointless monk-y type chat and then he asked what time I was flying to Minsk. I shit myself, I thought I have got to lie to this monk here or I am doomed. So I told him 4pm even though my flight was 8pm (I am going to hell), and he asked if I would like to attend a lunch at the temple (I am now panicking). I was waffling about needing to get to the airport which was clearly nonsense and he kept saying so. In the end I said I am going to stick to the book first because I’d feel pressured if had to discuss something I did not know anything about. Thankfully, this seemed to put him off dragging me along to some Monk lunch and we shook hands (he told me I was a very good person) and he departed. My ordeal was over but I have a got a monk karma book and some banging monk karma choons to feast on when I am home. I have no room for souvenirs on this trip with the inter-europe flights so at least I have these to remember my trip by!
The train was 50p to the airport and when I arrived it was like an IKEA warehouse. I had been told the airpot was re-opening today as the Air BnB host was surprised I was flying from there (as she thought it was closed). It looks like carnage here to be fair, I am safely tucked up in the bar/cafe on the laptop typing this drivel.
The flight was basically like going over a speedbump, up and down in an instant, complete waste of time. The border control was actually pretty easy and quick though, despite fact I couldn’t convince them I had worldwide insurance so I had to buy their 3 Euro cover for the 2 days. I met a chap at the border control who lived in London (Swedish originally) so shared an Uber to centre where my hotel was. His was a photographer who travels for a living, but not one of these instagram dudes, he works with hotels, hostels brands etc to promote them using google/tripadvisor etc.
The scenery driving into centre was great, I could already tell I was going to like this place. Having travelled quite a bit I often moan that a lot of the major cities in Europe at least all are pretty much their same with their quirks, landmarks etc, this clearly was not the case with Minsk. You could see the huge soviet style avenues, roads and buildings but immediately you could tell the perception of Belarus (and indeed Russia I am told) of being dark and dinghy is absolute nonsense!
My hotel was some huge soviet looking building but thankfully the receptionists English was good. I arrived very late so didn’t do anything but I noticed my hotel had a huge casino, bowling and a Texas erotica bar… odd. After an early night it was up the next day for a full day of sightseeing, trying to cram everything into one day.
I was up early and it was 33 degrees so it was going to be an absolute scorcher. I won’t bother listing the huge amount of things I visited in Minsk but I will tell you the place is incredible. Huge open spaces and absolutely enormous buildings, it’s made me excited to go to Russia in 2018 (maybe 2019 as want to avoid World Cup). There’s a monument or memorial around every corner in all parts of the city, all their dead are honoured from the wars and the Island of Tears (which commemorates the Soviet soldiers who died in the Afghanistan war in late 70’s 80’s) had no where near the grandest but was the best memorial I’d seen. The main one is actually huge, but there is a small angel which has tears dripping between the fingers, it’s pretty special.
Belarus is super cheap, everywhere I went I was stumbling on festivals too (as well as monuments/statues and incredible buildings). Early in the morning I heard this singing from miles away, and I tried to follow it and I was worried when I saw a small crane that I’d walked this far just to hear some builders listening to the radio, but it was the cathedral and there were hoards of people in some kind of special mass. I also stumbled upon a photography festival and a arts/crafts thing by the side of the river.
The two main squares Victory Square and Independence Square make Trafalgar look like a courtyard and I am told there are even bigger ones across Russia. The Lenin statue as most of the others are absolute huge and are towered over by enormous buildings. I just loved being there, in a city which looks and feels completely different to what I am used to. The city is also hugely colourful and unbelievably clean, the idea these places are dark, dinghy and unfriendly is absurd and I look forward to spending a month or so in Russia as many people have told me how good Russia is (and in particular how St Petersburg is the most colourful city in the world).
I spent the whole day toasting in the sun and covering as much ground as I possibly could. I then headed back to the hotel to get ready to go and watch The Arsenal in a pub with the Arsenal Belarus Supporters Club. I got an Uber to the pub which had a load of Liverpool fan in there as they’d just scraped a win Vs Palace. I did think throughout the day a lot of the Belarusian and Russians look like they could kill you with a stare. I had no chance of cider and the menu was in Russian only (in the centre you will find English in most places do don’t let this put you off), and they didn’t do Coke which I found odd, so I had to have Vodka Schwepps.
The least said about The Arsenal game the better, it was a total disaster and the referee was an absolute crook (as was his linesman). After the game a few of the Belarus Supporters club stayed behind and their English is amazing so we spent few hours chatting. They’re great people and it made me feel even more guilty that I wasn’t doing their city or country justice with my measly 36 hours visit. Artemiy also has told me they got some impressive castles elsewhere in Belarus so it would be rude for me not to come back!
The next morning, I had to head back to the airport after my 2nd weird hotel breakfast. It was weird but can’t fault it, it was really nice but the sausages looked weird as if they’d been tortured by the KGB for a few hours.
So that’s the end of my new countries count, up to 39 now with Germany/Spain left where I’ve already been many a time (Berlin and Marbella). It’s been a great trip with great weather so far and I am excited to get to Berlin because I should have gone a long time before now really. I am trying to shake off the disappointment with The Arsenal ready for Berlin.