Friday, May 19, 2017

Sightseeing: Minsk

So for a silly little adventure, a group of us decided to do a weekend trip to the Belarus capital Minsk. Why? Well several reasons. Firstly for me it would be a new country to add to the list and having done most of Europe I'm having to trouble further east to visit them. Also from a rollercoaster perspective Minsk is home to an old Schwarzkopf rollercoaster, which to those who aren't that geeky, is a very famous make of historical coasters that have endured and that are now scattered all over the world. Finally at the start of the year the country softened it's visa regulations meaning that for those visiting for a few days you can get in with just a passport and proof of medical cover as long as you enter in and out of Minsk's international airport.

I left for Minsk via Vienna on one of the first flights of the day. I managed to get a rare early empty photo of Heathrow Terminal 2.

The first flight left late which left me with a bit of a run to make my transfer and no time to check out Vienna airport.

But the second flight was made and left on time, and a few hours later I was on Belarussian soil.

Immigration went ok but they're very thorough with the medical cover. You have to have paperwork that clearly states you are covered. Emails aren't good enough and I had to show the line of text in a pretty sizeable document to get through. If you fail at this hurdle they have kindly installed a booth that sells the appropriate paperwork for around 4 euros. Do check your visa conditions, the UK and Germany were ok to enter without one. I can't guarantee your country is being treated the same...but it is easy and historically this was a tough country to get into. 

The country has closed currency so you can't get any money until you enter the country. Fortunately there are cash machines waiting for you on making it through immigration. The currency is transitioning from one currency to another. The old is the Ruble, BYR which has a ridiculous inflationary rate where you could win the top prize on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and go home with £40. This currency has no coins. The new currency is BYN which is the new Ruble and this currency looks very much like the Euro denominations perhaps in an attempt to make the migration into the Euro easier. 

From the airport you can catch taxis but the cheapest option is the coach which can get you into the centre of the city within 50 minutes for the bargain price of 4 rubles, or around £1.70, an absolute bargain. I also liked that the man who recommended we travel that route was a taxi driver looking for business. Having been ripped off in Athens, Rome and Bucharest this was a refreshing introduction to the country. Thank you Mr Taxi Driver.

The drive takes you through some beautiful countryside before taking you into a rather small city (compared to a lot of others I've been to). Soon after leaving the airport you'll pass this monument commemorating the Soviet Soldiers who died during WWII. It's called the Mound of Glory.

This cool looking building is the city library, and you'll pass this as you enter the centre of Minsk.

This is Victory Square. It's actually round.

This is Kastry─Źnickaja Square on Independence Avenue, the main boulevard that runs through the centre of the city. It was renamed from Lenin Square. That building, the Palace of the Republic, is a concert hall now (although it may have served some other purpose historically). It had a concert from Smokie on during our visit...yes, that Smokie. 

I don't know if Alice was in attendance.

The other major building on the square is the cultural palace.

The bus has a couple of stops on the way into the city, we got off at the penultimate stop at the main Railway station. The final stop is just a few hundred metres away at the city bus station under the railway line.

Most of the city was bombed during the wars so a lot of the construction is fairly recent. These buildings for the Minsk City Gates and are an example of the Stalin Empire style of building. Myself and Christof had decided to walk from the station to our hotel as an introduction to the city. Thomas had not had much luck on his flights and would meet us later.

Independence Square is is one of the largest squares in Europe and as well as holding the Government building it also has a 3-storey shopping mall...

...which you're walking on because it's underground, and not that great from what we could tell. Now if they'd have had a rollercoaster or two within it our opinion would have been better. But from what we could tell it was just a lot of cramped shops, much like any other mall.

The brick red church, also in the square is the Church of Saints Simon and Helena but most people just call it The Red Church. Built by Polish folk it was at one time taken from the Roman Catholic community and turned into a cinema, but it's back to being a church now.

The buildings here in the city are huge communisty looking buildings, not a surprise.

Other signs of the communist mark on the buildings comes in the form of these relief plaques celebrating various important figures. They featured on most of the major buildings that we passed.

For the hotel we'd chosen the Hotel Garni which is located dead centre and was reasonably priced. It also came quite highly rated in review websites. We were really happy with our choice and would add our recommendation to the others.

The red men on the crossing stand a little more firm and proud than ours in the west.

Whilst in Minsk we were going to visit the rollercoasters in the city. For our first choice we chose Gorky Park, the nearest to the hotel. 

This is the park that has a huge ferris wheel peeking over the treetops but as you get into the park it seems to pull a trick and disappear. Most odd.

The park looks to be in 2 parts with little kid rides in one area and the bigger teenager rides a little distance away. Rides are pay-per-ticket and part of the fun is finding the right pay booth for the rides you want to do; it's not always the nearest.

This ride looked a bit odd.

We'd seen some of these mini versions of rides in Moscow during our trip there a few years ago. The 2 person top spin is particularly sickly from what I recall.

So onto the first coaster which translates to Wild Train. This is a Russian made Pax coaster with a ridiculously steep lift hill leading into a fairly ok layout but it seemed to lose pace in its second half. Two laps was enough for us to get a nice introduction to the coasters here.

The nearest ticket booth was closed so we eventually found the ticket we wanted at this vending machine voiced by a very Indian person speaking English. A little odd but it was enough to serve its purpose.

The only other ride of note was an Enterprise ride which looked pretty good.

I've no idea who this is.

As we were leaving this park we passed this little simulator attraction. I have no idea why it's called "Stereolife Rifter" though.

Looking back at the gate.

Next stop was Victory Square.

The eternal flame is here.

This is located beneath the eternal flame that is found here. There was a great string quartet busking down here too. The acoustics were perfect.

Now having overlooked the vandalised statue in Sofia in only looking at 2 sides I now make sure I check all the sides out when looking at these. I do like this stuff. 

It's just not as cool as this one. This is one of my regrets in life that I missed this.

I seemed to be having difficulty with the panos on this trip. Everything was leaning...

Walking back to the hotel now and this is the city's Circus arena. The fact they have such a prominent and permanent building for this is a sign of the country's love of all things Cirque.

Some classic communist fresco seen above the entrance to the metro station.
The metro station currently consists of two lines although construction is underway on the third.

Drainage was basic.

Why does she need such a big lense for a mirrored selfie? Why do I ask the questions no-one else can be bothered to?

Any relation to Mick?

It's pretty cool that major bands take the time to visit places like this. Does anyone like the new album? I couldn't get into it. I guess I'll always be an "Early Depeche Mode" fan.

A rather good beer selection in the supermarket near the hotel. I ignored them all and bought cherry flavoured yogurt which I downed way too quickly. If drinking cherry yogurt was an olympic event I'd be happy to represent the country. 

Their local drink is something called Kvass, not "Krac" as it reads. It's a sort of malty drink that I'm not sure I could drink an entire bottle of. Thanks to Christof for being the one in the group willing to buy it. 

After a short nap back at the hotel it was time to meet up with Thomas who had mate it in on a later flight and we decided to head to the second city park and the main reason for coming to the city. The not easy to pronounce at all Chelyuskintsev Park. 

Another reason for choosing our hotel was that it was within walking distance of the one intersection station Kastrycnickaja (no, I don't know how to pronounce it either) making it easy to get around the city. In our first journey we couldn't quite figure out the token system; the woman in the ticket booth didn't take our money and just pointed us to the barrier and another member of staff let us through them. We thought that meant we had to somehow pay at other end of the platform but soon realised we'd gaijin-thumped our way through. (the Japanese term for taking advantage of host countries by being a dumb tourist). We subsequently found out that each journey costs 60 kapeyka regardless of distance and you don't speak to the people in the ticket booth. Just put the coin in the tray and take the ticket and change. A rather straight forward system in hindsight.

Here's a token, just pop it in the barrier on the way in to open the barrier. There are no checks on the train and you have nothing to do on leaving either.

One of the Metro trains. Christof recognised these from a video game, Metro 2033 I think it was called.

This is a huge wooded park with an area on the south-west side.

Loving the Tarzan artwork on the backplate. 

The first coaster here has the most predictable name for a roller coaster, "Roller Coaster". It became quickly apparent that we were not going to get to ride this. Firstly it had been fenced off and secondly the train was missing, both pretty major clues that the ride was not operating. This ride was made by Ukrainian company "Analog".

I remember seeing this theming in Moscow. It's so bright and firey!

The second coaster was called Flitzer but was not the normal flitzer design. This is one of the new SBF Visa rides that are popping up everywhere and I'm convinced is going to become this generations wacky worms and they are appearing everywhere. It was an ok ride which seemed to run for a long time, the laps must have reached double figures and we had the whole ride to ourselves.

Looking like some sort of cartoony grudge match it's flamingo vs triceratops. 

So now for the Schwarzkopf and after wasting about 10 minutes trying to find the pay booth for this ride we eventually realised that you paid at the ride. This was also the only ride with a queue but even with a single car operation (two others sat wrapped up) the waiting time was less than 10 minutes. 

The Jumbo Jet has travelled quite a lot in its lifetime and if I've got this wrong I'm sure I'll be corrected but based on my limited research it made it's first appearance at rollercoaster mecca, Cedar Point in Ohio back in 1972 (yes, this ride is as old as me). It then moved to Maine in 1978 where it remained until 1985 at which point it shipped over to Malmo in Sweden for a 4-year run there. It then disappeared for a few years before being found in 2003 in Novgorod in Russia where it remained until 2006. It then disappeared again before popping up in Dreamland, a huge waterpark in Minsk in 2010. Finally in 2014 the Dreamland park decided to focus on just the waterpark and the coaster was snapped up and run here. So quite a journey for a ride I'm sure you'll agree.

and like a lot other Schwarzkopf coasters this was still running extremely well with really tough forces at those sweeping turns at the front of the ride. Powerful but re-rideable, it's a difficult balance to get right but this manages it.

and following the disappointment of the other big coaster not working in this park, this was a great piece of luck and definitely made the trip worthwhile.

Another of those pokey little spin rides that you can barely fit 4 people in.

So day 1 had gone really well and we'd already ridden most of the coasters in the country. With one confirmed coaster and one to check

After a quick dinner in a German themed restaurant around the corner from the hotel and where the irony was not lost on Thomas that he'd come all the way from Germany for this we called it a night.

Day 2 was more sightseeing this time with Thomas who hadn't done everything we'd done the night before. We started with Independence Square from where we planned to catch the metro to the one coaster we didn't do the day before.

Having a quick look around the red church again.

This looks like they're doing some sort of king tut dating ritual.

Wicked rims mate!

This is a great looking statue. It's of Archangel Michael supposedly slaying the Devil. However it's clearly a dragon so the devil may still be at large...

This is the Nagasaki Bell, a tribute to the victims of various nuclear catastrophes and is similar to a monument in Nagasaki, Japan from which this takes it's name. It was at the point we found out the monument contains soil from the sites of various sites such as Chernobyl, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki and The Polygon, home of Russian Nuclear testing that we decided we should walk away before we developed tumours :)

Whilst nowhere near as impressive as the Moscow metro, the one here still featured some impressive art. I guess it's good luck to rub Lenin's nose.

Adverting is much like that in London...mostly unecessary. Do cats really need gravy?

We rode the metro to the end of the line and from there we had to catch a bus. We used the same system with the metro just putting 1 ruble coin on the driver's tray. This seemed to work and we realised the cost was the same as the metro, 60 Kapeykas. You can buy bus tickets from little concession stands before getting on the train as an alternative measure but we didn't want to try to deal with explaining where we going. The buses are prompt and don't hang about, the driver was still processing my ticket as he drove off. How did we know to go this route? The wonderful staff at the hotel sorted it out for us.

Theoretically there's nothing to stop you boarding more than one bus with the same ticket but being honest you'll remember to get your ticket stamped using one of these machines on the bus. Thomas is showing how to be a responsible and upstanding citizen.

We were heading to the south of the city to Kurasowshchyna Park, home to a small Alpine coaster. Apparently this park is the place where the Minsk locals go skiing when snow falls so an appropriate place for one of these rides. The bus ride took us along the southern edge of the city's ring-road, which really does mark the border of the city. We had communist tenement blocks out the left hand window and rolling hills out the right.

This is the little sports centre and cafe at the top of the hill

 The hill didn't look particularly massive and it didn't appear much bigger than some of the indoor ski slopes you see in city's such as Dubai. We somehow found our way through the park to the top of the hill where we quickly realised the chances of us getting to ride the alpine coaster were next to null.

Uh, oh! No first turn.

At the top of the track the first turn had been removed. So we couldn't ride it but if we were looking for a silver lining it did give us the opportunity to see a cross section of the ride. (In that silver lining I'm finding straws to clutch it would appear).

and as we made our way down the hill the bottom of the track was now home to a airsoft arena with mini bridges built over the track to allow the combatants to get around.

We were able to figure out that the rides is just called toboggan.

It wasn't too hard a piece of Cyrillic to translate.

Here's the first turn into what would have been the lift hill. The staff didn't mind us walking over the track to take photos, you have to do it to get into the airsoft place anyway. He also told us that this had been closed for a few years and a retrospective look at the satellite imagery revealed that the first corner was removed at some point in 2013. In hindsight we could have spotted this when researching the trip and had we looked at the imagery properly but a) nobody would expect a piece to be missing and b) we'd have still come to check anyway.

Here's a view from the bottom looking up. Not that big a hill at all.

The lake at the foot of the ski slope was stunning and a walk along here makes up for the Alpine not doesn't but I feel obliged to say something positive :)

A pretty nice church.

Having caught a bus back to the Metro we headed somewhere else. Here's a poster that I couldn't recognise immediately. It's obviously Tom Cruise but the film is actually The Mummy. I'm not sure how the Cyrillic translates to that though.

So our little adventure to the south of the city drew a blank so we thought we'd continue our research by heading to the west of the city for another potential coaster. This one was going to be more of a longshot than the one we'd just visited.

With any of my trips I do tend to do a lot of research to find as much as I can to explore and I do have a pretty good success rate at finding new rollercoasters. However on this occasion I have to concede defeat to a couple of other enthusiasts Bruno and Anita who found this one where I had failed to find any. So we thought we would go and check this one out. 

This one took us close to the western end of the red metro line, a much more residential area with lots of modern tower blocks. 

Rather than catch the bus we thought we'd walk it, the weather was pleasant, the route was straightforward (unlike the alpine) and we weren't in any hurry.

So we drew a blank here as well so consoled ourselves with a brief lunch stop buying food from the supermarket across the road from what was now a construction site. Here now follows the next instalment of "Malcolm Trying to Find Odd Products In Foreign Supermarkets" is now available with a quick array of stuff in Belarus!

They packed them end-to-end for maximum inconvenience.

I know it means "good" but it also means "gut"

You know what follows...

This was in the snacks section. The idea of people walking around eating dried fish made me laugh. Actually one of the reasons why the city was so clean was because people weren't pigging out everywhere saving it for parks and the like. There was definitely nothing being eaten on the trains, something we tried to enforce through the police and threat of fines a few years ago but never worked in practice. You need to have the right society for that to happen, and we lack it.

I'd not seen these in the UK.

On the way back we decided to jump out at Niamiha station, close to the hotel and the site of a lot of the more tourist friendly sites in the city. This is the Holy Spirit Cathedral and goes back to the 17th Century.

A nearby market selling original crafts. 

There was an open air festival with lots of traditional Belarusian music. Oddly, and not obvious in this photo, it was the women only who'd dance. That lady was a bit crazy doing her best to get other women dancing, when she wasn't adjusting her breasts to make it easier for her to dance that is.

Another pretty cool building.

This statue caught my eye and is in the grounds of the cathedral. I think I'm drawn to the unusual wing positions.

This looks like an old town style arrangement and next to that one of the most alluring if ugly buildings we'd ever come across. More on that in a bit. The old town only goes back to the 80s but does capture the style that would have existed at older times.

In the distance to the west we could see a large tower structure so we thought "let's head to that".

On the way we passed another sport arena. This one was holding a competition in Sambo, which is Russian wrestling. Christof's flight had included a contingent of Spanish wrestlers so they were probably here for that.

The tower thing was part of a large monument to the war dead and the name of it appears to be Minsk Hero City. It's celebrates Belarus's stand against the Nazis which lasted more than 1000 days.

The arrangement behind the tower is pretty cool with more amazing Communist reliefs.

A nice statue at the top.

Whilst built in 1985 as part of the 40th anniversary of the great patriotic war it's undergone some amendments in recent years, unless skateboarding was popular back in the 80s.

This much more poignant piece was located a short distance away. I much prefer this one.

The gateway entrance to the park next door to the memorial. This took about 10 attempts to get level and it still doesn't look quite right.

The ugly building. It's an absolute eyesore. We've no idea what it is, whether it's a hotel or not but we have a sneaky suspicion it's a dormant transformer waiting to be awoken.

A rather random sign.

It points the way to the Island of Tears, another war memorial commemorating the missing and lost of the wars.

Each of the four entrances into a tiny chapel tower feature women in various states of mourning. I liked that each entrance was unique.

There is some stunning murals inside the chapel. It appeared to be in a constant locked state but you can peer through the gate to see inside.

A nice small statue also on the island. This one features plumbing to make the angel cry.

Wandering into the old town, some kids were playing playground games. A video of this will follow when I work out where it went... 

This amazing mural is located in the south-east corner of this area and is visible from the cathedral. A little disappointing it has a KFC under it. We hadn't realised when we got off the metro quite how close this was to the hotel. The supermarket where I bought the cherry yogurt is in this building.

The train station again. I quite like this building.

If you're going to cross the road do so with a purpose.

Almost rude!

A nice little statue I found in a park close to the railway station. There are loads of statues in the city and I've barely seen them on this trip. The statues here are nicer than the ones in Skopje I should add. That place is going crazy with them.

We thought we'd finish day 2 by visiting the library complex at night as I'd seen photos of it lit up. This is located on the blue line near the northern end at Uschod station. There are four tower blocks here with great murals on them. I'd caught sight of them on the coach into the city but didn't photograph, so it was good to get a second opportunity to do so.

We got there whilst it was still daylight so had a bit of time to kill.

There's a brand new mall complex opening next door and malls sometimes mean coasters. Would we be lucky?

Err, it doesn't look like it. This place is brand new. The Dan Mall opened with a supermarket in February this year and are still looking for tenants, in fact more than half of the mall was sealed off completely.

This was the most amusing thing we could find. No indoor theme park...however all is not lost in that front. Whilst grabbing dinner we had a promotional video for the complex playing on a screen nearby and beside there's the mall they should renders of tower blocks (which do exist) and a little theme park including a rollercoaster, which we can't see just yet. So something to check if you're planning on visiting.

My dinner which tasted better than it looks, was a burger pancake from a little franchise called Mama Doma in the mall. We felt a bit sorry for the staff here as they were working in places that were open in a mall that was mostly not. Our server had excellent tattoos too (her arm ripped open to reveal a guitar fret board inside)

At night the library is quite impressive with illuminated animations running on the exterior of the building. Unfortunately some of them were adverts for various companies but it was still cool to see and not the complete waste of time it could have been.

As a stupid aside here's a statue outside the library and a cat doing it's best impression of it on an advert inside the mall.

My final day was for me to head back to the airport and home. I could have done some sightseeing had I woken up earlier but I decided to have a bit of lie-in. I'm clearly getting old. So after a quick breakfast I said goodbye to the Germans who were going to remain for one more day and headed home.

This statue is in the same park as the girl with the umbrella. I didn't photograph it on the previous day as there was someone sat on it.

To travel back I decided to go for the 4 ruble bus journey and made my way down to the bus station. Whilst the drop off was at the rail station there was no pick up there so I had to go to the bus station. 

There are two types of buses, little mini buses with the airport logo, and the conventional bus. If there are spaces you can pay on the way onto the coach, however if the seats have all gone you have to wait. 

I played it safe by getting a ticket for the first available bus from the ticket office. Note, it took a little while to figure out that the bus ticket from here is 4.05 rubles and not 4 from the airport, something to bear in mind if you're going to do the same thing. Also something that I realised from our trip to Russia and was being done here is that the seats are allocated and numbered; you're encouraged to sit in the right seat when you get on. It's not rigidly enforced but other passengers were keen to get to their allocated seat to avoid any grief. 

The buses to the airport depart from platform 2. Another advantage in boarding here is that you aren't gambling with availability which happens if you board at the other stops on the way out of the city.

More big tower blocks on the way out.

So, as is often the case Minsk was a lovely city and not as bleak as I had wrongly prejudiced. The city is really clean and runs well. I think the complexity of London and the challenges that brings gives me a bleak benchmark against wish to compare against. The spoken language was a bit of a hurdle but the locals would try to help as best they can. The ease to get into the country now makes it worth considering for a short trip, perhaps longer than the couple of days I stayed for. There are UNESCO sites in the country but you'd need a full day to reach them, and I didn't have time for that. Food is mixed, and whilst the breakfast was not the best being in the centre of the city meant there was plenty of places to eat elsewhere. 

Thankyou to Thomas and Christof for providing the as ever good company on the trip!
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