If you are a keen follower of our adventures, you will recall that in our Eastern Eastern Europe Rewangering this year, we really wanted to go to Belarus but you needed complicated, expensive visas to get in. However in May Belarus held the Ice Hockey World Championships, and anyone with a ticket for one of the matches could get into the country without the need of a visa, hence we became overnight fans of the sport and got 2 tickets!
In a complex bit of logisticing, Jill’s flight to Dublin was first thing on the Thursday morning then we had a flight to Oslo at 5pm so we decided to go out and meet Aaron and Ger for some lunch during their break. We had a nice catch up, wine and some mussels at a nice restaurant with a terrace before it was time to taxi to the airport. As an added bonus, Susan had a voucher for Uber so we utilised that to get a luxury car and chauffeur like real ladies. We were met at the bus station in Oslo by Christopher (from Norway – another one of the Amsterdam/Copenhagen gang) and his Australian girlfriend Kirsty and had a few beers in the bar at the station before Christopher proposed that since Jill had never been to Oslo and didn’t have time to see it all, we should go up to the panoramic bar at the top of the Radisson hotel (which was conveniently just across the road) and sit in the window with the good view and they would give an aerial tour of the city. So we did that which was lovely (although we daren’t even think how much the beers we had in there cost, as it’s around £8 for a pint in a normal bar in Oslo! Christopher and Kirsty got them though, since it was their idea to go there and they are used to those prices and less likely to die of a heart attack than us!) and then met Erland, another good friend of Susan’s, and an ‘orrid unt of a man, for some dinner. It was about 1am by the time we got back to Howie’s (Susan’s torrid gay affair, whose house we were staying at and Erland’s twin brother – he was actually not there at the time as he was up visiting his parents in Trondheim but he and his husband Matthew had said we could stay there and Erland let us in) so we settled down to a nice relaxing two hours of sleep before we had to get the bus to the airport at 3. This was not very much fun as you can imagine – our flight to Vilnius wasn’t until 6.30am but the latest bus that would get us to the airport on time was the 3 o’clock one! So yes, it was very grim but we managed to make it and had a bit more sleep on seats at the airport before the flight boarded.
We have no idea how long the flight was as we were out for the count the whole way – must go down in history as the first time we have ever missed the beer trolley coming round! We got to Vilnius and managed to book tickets onto the 12.30 bus to Minsk, and raided the supermarket at the bus station for some bus snacks and ALL the bottles of Cherry Kiss cider, which was our favourite drink of the whole trip last time and we’ve only ever seen it in Estonia and Lithuania so every spare inch of rucksack space was stuffed with it. So we had an enjoyable four hour bus trip with gallons of cherry cider and nibbles. The border was a nightmare though! It took about an hour to get through as we all had to get off the coach and line up to go through passport control where there was only one man and he was checking everyone’s passports and visas with a fine toothed comb. Jill got called back twice as they stamped her passport (after peering at it for about 10 minutes and asking her what on earth had happened to it whilst Susan panicked at the end of the queue with her more visible Guilty stamp – “it got covered in beef sauce in Austria” didn’t seem to them to be a valid excuse) then sent a man out to get Jill whilst she was having a celebratory cigarette and bring her back so they could look at it again, and were examining it with one of those jewellers eyeglass things. We finally made it through though )with much relief and delayed cheering and cherry kiss celebrations on the bus so as not to look suspicious), Susan sailing through with barely a glance at hers, and arrived in Minsk at about 5pm.
We were already late to meet the girl to get the keys to our apartment (we hadn’t expected the massive hold up at the border) so we texted her when we were in the vicinity of the apartment and chose a pub with a massive suit of armour outside so she could easily find us. Our apartment was lovely – it was a quaint little place in a courtyard just off one of the main streets and quite bizarre…the bath was in the kitchen! We got ready (after vowing we were going to have a kitchen bath while frying an egg later) and headed out to see what Minsk had to offer. Jill had printed out a map of bars that had sounded good on the old internet but as is usual for us we didn’t even look at it and just wandered on out in search of some craic. After a while of wandering around not finding any, we came upon one of the “Fan Village”s that had sprung up in Minsk for the ice hockey. There was a huge stage with a live band on, loads of little stalls selling beer, food, ice hockey paraphernalia and the obligatory tat like Belarus fridge magnets and Russian dolls. Susan was huffing and puffing that she didn’t want to go to the “stupid tourist fan village” and wanted to go to some real Belarusian dingy bars, but we’d been walking around for ages in search of a bar so Jill persuaded her to go over for a beer while we figured out where to go next and maybe looked at the map. We were standing around with our beers taking in the scenery (loads of different nationalities of ice hockey fans and Belarusians dancing about and going crazy next to the stage and chanting “BEL-AR-US!!” a lot) when we met our first new best friend of the night – Igor, who was a young lad whose hobby was “talking to strangers” and we had a good chat on to him before losing him while squeezing through the crowd trying to find a portaloo. The place was really starting to fill up by this point and the bar queues were huge, so we decided that the best plan was to order a bottle of vodka (the beer kiosks were more like shops with pumps than “bar” bars) and some bottles of mixers and find ourselves a table somewhere for the night. We went to the bar and asked the woman for vodka and did the international sign language for “bottle”. After a bit of confusion and frantic gesticulating on both parts, it turned out that she couldn’t sell us the bottle, but instead poured a whole bottle into two pint glasses and gave us them. We thought this was probably a safety thing and they didn’t want a load of drunk ice hockey fans throwing glass bottles around, but on second thoughts they were blatantly selling beer in glass bottles! So finally we trundled off to find a table, and they were all full of people so we asked (in international sign language) if we could perch at the end of this bloke’s big table – he said his friends were coming back so we couldn’t sit there, and reluctantly let us sit down for a few minutes while we tried to combine the two pints of vodka and bottles of fruit juice into something drinkable. His friends shortly returned from their bit dancing and we got up to give them their chairs back, but they were having absolutely none of it and pulled up more chairs so they could squeeze round the table beside us. The lads were great craic (we can’t remember their individual names but they were all Igors, Ivans, Vladimirs and Sergeis) – one of them fancied himself as the Belarusian Eminem (and we made him demonstrate his rapping while we did rubbish beatboxing in the background), one of them was this massive 7 foot Slavic giant who took a shine to Susan and then beat her in a banana eating competition (not a euphemism – he really did eat about 10 bananas…maybe that’s how they woo their ladies in Belarus? And of course Susan with her tiny bird stomach could only manage about 1 1/2.), and bottles of vodka were appearing on the table left right and centre for more shots.
It was a total hoot, and we’ve no idea why we decided to wander off and try and find some bars…but we did. I think we were feeling a bit bad that our first night had consisted of just the Fan Village and nothing authentic and Belarusian. We needn’t have felt so bad however, as when we did finally manage to find some of the night spots on Jill’s “recommended by the internet map” we were pretty much the only ones there, as ALL the locals were out enjoying the ice hockey festivities! It was obviously such a big deal that people were allowed to go out and let their hair down and drink and dance in the city centre compared to normal when they have to be on their best behaviour or the police will arrest them for anything. Finally at about 3am we got a taxi back to the apartment and crashed out for the night.
The next day we woke up at about 11am (loving the nice lie in after the 3am start the previous morning, and Jill’s 5am start the day before that!), had a couple of cherry ciders while getting ready and headed out with our missions: to find a nice terrace to have a couple of beers and some lunch on, and to find some Kazakhstan ice hockey jerseys for the game that evening. The first mission you would have thought would have been quite easy, but it was a lovely day and all the bars that had proper open air terraces (not just Perspex greenhouse –style “outside” areas) were heaving, so after much walking we decided to stop for an overpriced beer in a Perspex greenhouse on the main square. The beer was really expensive (about home prices!) and it was sweltering in there being baked in the sun, so we decided to head down to the arena in search of hockey merchandise. There was another Fan Village next to the arena, so after a stop off in the mall to try to locate Kazakhstan jerseys (met with blank stares and questions of “But WHY??” upon our request), and to stock up on more street beers, we headed through into there (after Jill was accosted by a drunk Belarusian lad with a freezer bag full of chips who was trying to offer Susan 20,000 rubles for her – that’s only about €1.50 hahah, Susan said she would have just sold her if it was 20,000 Euros though). There were loads of people just chilling out on the grass with pints and it was like being at a music festival. We grabbed ourselves a couple of beers and ventured towards the official merchandise shop. Jill held the beers while Susan went inside, and 10 minutes later she emerged with massive Kazakhstan hats, Kazakstan foam hands and Kazakhstan sunglasses – score! We donned our new ensembles immediately (what a picture we looked!), bought some beers from one of the stalls and found ourselves a nice patch of grass.
We were immediately joined by the lovely girls that we’d met at the turnstiles who asked if they could sit with us. Karina and Sonia were from South Korea, Eva and Ena were from Moscow and they were all draped in Russian flags and had their faces painted in the team colours. They wanted to practice their English and as we’d agreed in the queue, we wouldn’t discuss politics haha (it was a bit like the Germans and the war – “nobody mention Ukraine!”). So we had a great afternoon sitting on the grass drinking beers and talking to them, occasionally having to ward off the advances of members of the gang of drunk Latvian men sat next to us who were punching way above their weight trying to chat up our girls. They mentioned they were doing a daft youtube channel where they filmed themselves dancing with random people so of course we volunteered to join in, just as the heavens opened which didn’t phase us all one bit. We got some very strange looks from all the people that had dashed in to the beer tent nearby and were gawping at the Russia and Kazakhstan fans jumping about like idiots in the pouring rain to “Happy” by Pharrell. We retreated into the beer tent at that point, where we met our next new best friend Anya who was from Belarus and thought we were the best thing ever. We had several drinks in there and by the time we had to go up to the arena for the match, we had added several Belarus flags to our outfits and Susan was enjoying taunting the Swiss fans by wagging her big Kazakhstan finger at them and singing the “Alan Shearer’s Illegitimate” song, substituting the name of Swiss ice hockey players that we’d looked up on Google. It was great craic and, as we seemed to be the only Kazakhstan fans there (met with many more blank faces and “But WHY??”), we were pulled into so many team photos in which we attempted to point our giant fingers at the boys crotches.
The ice hockey itself was great fun, although poor Kazakhstan lost 6-2 to Switzerland. Staggering outside, we got talking to a group of Switzerland supporters from Germany who wanted to go and find some rock music so we decided to join them but got distracted talking to a load of lads from Kazakhstan, one of whom said we could stay at his when we visit their next year but couldn’t find his business card and said “you will find me when you get there – Astana is a very small place!”. Jill: “I thought it was the CAPITAL?” (it is). So we lost the Germans and just piled onto the next tram back to town which was packed with supporters from both sides but there was no trouble at all – everyone was in great fettle and lots of hugs and songs were being sung and everyone was jumping up and down and the tram was rocking all over the place! It was class! We got off at the big stage we’d visited the night before, got ourselves our usual bottle of vodka in two pint glasses and some bottles of juice and found ourselves another lovely gang of Vladimirs, Igors, Ivans and Sergeis to drink and dance with. We eventually decided to flag down a taxi and then got completely lost as Susan’s phone had died so we had no Googlemaps, the driver didn’t know where the Belarusian National Arts Museum was (which was right opposite our apartment so we’d had no problem finding it in previous taxis) and Jill’s paper map had disintegrated completely due to getting soaked in the rain. We managed eventually (although god knows how!) and finally got to bed and passed out, soaking wet.
We managed to get booked on the 2pm bus back to Vilnius on Sunday, so had a nice lazy morning packing up our stuff before having a walk to the bus station via a couple of bars on the way. We must have booked the last two seats on the bus as we were wedged in at the back with a party of fat Moldovan men. They turned out to be a hoot and shared our respective bus vodkas. Thankfully the border crossing on the way back wasn’t too bad, but still took ages due to them only having one person on and insisting on checking through everyone’s bags (ours by now just contained a load of damp Kazakhstan merchandise and smelly socks) – obviously Belarus is much cheaper than Lithuania so I think they have limits on how much booze and cigarettes you can bring back over. We got back to Vilnius with plenty of time to buy some more cherry cider and some nice squidgy eastern European salads before getting the bus to the airport. When we got to the airport, the flight was delayed – it was supposed to be leaving at 9.30 but the board said “boarding 21.45”, so we had loads of time and went to the bar. Jill got up to have a cigarette 5 minutes later and walked past the board and it was saying “final call” so she panicked, ran back to the bar to get Susan and we both legged it upstairs, past the board which now said “gate closed” and the stony faced Ryanair girls wouldn’t let us through, despite the fact that the plane hadn’t even ARRIVED yet and everyone had just gone through the gate and were queuing on the stairs behind waiting. Of course we kicked off about this and played “good cop-bad cop” until they finally relented and let us through – thank god! And there we sat on the stairs for another flaming 45 minutes! So it was about midnight when we got into Cork, and headed straight to meet Susan’s gay husband Mark, who is the bar manager at a hotel near the airport and had arranged to finish work early so he could meet us for a couple of pints. Then we headed off for our Cork – Dublin bus at 1am that got in at 4am, and Jill’s flight back to Newcastle was at 6.15, and from there she went straight to work! Bad news for Jill having rubbish flights through Newcastle but good news for Susan as the best routes are always through Dublin!