“Latvia? Where’s that?”
If you’re Latvian or have spent any length of time in the country, it’s a question you’ll be asked frustratingly often. When US citizens were asked to put countries of Europe on a blank map, most didn’t even remember to put Latvia on it.
It’s also frustrating especially because there’s no answer that really captures the joys and downsides of the country.
Saying that it’s beside Lithuania and Estonia will just result in blank stares or “Oh yeah, my mate was on a stag there.” Saying that it’s in Eastern Europe will annoy the locals and, for foreigners, will evoke images of grey, crumbling tower blocks, snowy landscapes and border guards marching in Elton John videos. Saying it’s beside Russia is also a no-no, especially since Mr Putin isn’t exactly the toast of the town in the west now.
The final option, near Sweden, is how the Latvian government would like to market themselves, but is the same as saying that Algeria is “near Europe.” It’s a tricky dilemma and I usually just draw people a rough map, Germany>Poland^Lithuania^Latvia.
One thing that never comes up as an answer is “beside Belarus.” Latvia’s south-eastern neighbour is even more unknown. Belarus had always been on my radar to visit, but the one thing that always put me off going was the fact that you needed a visa to go there and needed travel insurance and an invitation to get the visa. The invitation usually came through a travel agent, who you had to pay for the privilege. The cost and hassle always just put me off.
So, last week, when a student told me that it was possible to visit Belarus without a visa while the Ice Hockey World Cup was on I saw the chance to kill two birds with one stone. See Minsk and finally see what is probably Latvia’s most popular sport.
The hockey ticket cost me 25 euro, much less than the visa would usually cost. Booking a hostel in the centre for 21 euro (double their usual price) and a return bus ticket for 60 euro (would have been cheaper if I’d booked earlier) I hot tailed it to Minsk for the weekend.
I’d been struggling to think of things Minsk and Belarus were famous for, before going. Things that came to my mind were that it was the home of Dynamo Minsk football club. It was supposedly Europe’s last dictatorship (vodka fans will disagree.) It was probably Russia’s best buddy and, like a jilted lover, has often expressed a wish to get back together. For 3 years Minsk was the home of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated the American President JFK (or was set up for it, if you believe the various conspiracy theories.) Winner of the 2009 Eurovision song contest, Alexander Rybak came from there and, well that was it. It was already shaping up to be a bit of a weird place.
The bus journey from Riga took a little bit over 8 hours, with nearly 2 hours spent on the border doing nothing. Going in was ever so easy. I guess that, unlike Lee Harvey, migrants aren’t exactly queueing up to get into Belarus.
The landscape on the way there was like the Baltic States: flat as a pancake. (I had a really good giggle recently when I saw an article in The Daily Mail, a British newspaper not known for its accuracy or truthfulness, saying that stag parties visiting Riga were “paying huge sums for pool parties in private mountain houses.” If anyone knows where to find the Latvian mountains, give me a shout!)
The Belarusian countryside was nice enough. Green and pleasant, but flat.
It was an overnight bus journey and I was stuck in front of a very annoying guy who reeked of booze and cigarettes and wouldn’t shut up babbling to his neighbour. It was one occasion when I was very glad that my Russian is patchy as the bits I did understand confirmed him to not be the sharpest tool in the shed. Apart from that, the journey on the Luxexpress coach was fine. Toilet available, wifi, plugs, air conditioned, tea and coffee facilities, all fine for the price. After crossing the border at close on 5am I eventually fell into an uncomfortable snooze. I woke up from my slumber with a jolt around 7am, as the annoying guy behind had started gibbering like an excited child about the suburbs of Minsk. My first thought was “Oh geez, I’m back in Plavnieki again.”
I’d low expectations for Minsk, but as another song said “A pessimist is never disappointed.” To my shock, I really enjoyed the city. It was greener, cleaner, cheaper, more modern and a little bit hillier than I’d expected. Some parts of it made me think of Vilnius, but with a time travel of 30 years back. Unlike the Baltics, Minsk almost flaunts its Soviet past.
Besides the Soviet kitsch, the city’s wide squares and streets reminded me of the stuff that Soviet city planners went wild for.
I walked on and while taking photos of yet another memorial to the “glorious Soviet victory”,
bizarrely located in an underpass near one of the main roads, I heard stamping and counting in Russian behind me. Worried that a load of drunk hockey fans were coming my way, I swerved my camera round and caught this video of army cadets marching through the tunnel purposefully. Naturally enough, I had to follow them to see what they were up to and found a changing of the guard ceremony in place, which of course, I just had to make another video of. The “soldiers” looked like they should still be at home, finishing school. I found their attempts at looking pompous quite funny.
As I noticed later, they seem to like them young in the armed forces in Belarus.
I continued on around the city, seeing restaurant chains that will be familiar to anyone who’s been in the Baltics like Il Patio, Planeta Sushi and Lido and even some from Almaty, like Stolle, a pie shop.
The transport was like I’d seen in other cities in this part of the world: trams, trolleybuses and a metro, only 25 years old, but already looking ancient.
The riverside bit was pleasant enough,
and there were ample parks to walk round.
Minsk also has a tiny Old Town.
It wasn’t all upbeat though. In one of the parks I came across this depressing memorial to the former Jewish residents murdered in shooting pits in World War 2.
With that dampening my spirits a little, I decided it was time for the main course, the ice hockey.
Latvia is one of the few countries in the world where football is not the number one sport. The map below claims basketball is the most popular sport here, but sorry to say, that’s nonsense. Ice hockey is clearly the most popular one here.
It was never a sport I was keen on and I came close to active dislike. I can live with sports like rugby, cricket, baseball etc, but ice hockey fans, or at least the ones in Latvia, constantly insist that football is boring etc (that must be why most of the map above is green then?) So my near dislike of ice hockey is partly childish petulance: ice hockey fans dislike my sport, so I’ll dislike theirs.
Still, I always meant to give it a go and where better than the World Championships? Ultimately I’m still not convinced, though there were good things. So let’s list them.
+ Desegregation of supporters. There was no “Danish supporters here, Czech Supporters here.” Everyone sat together and had good banter.
+ Good atmosphere at the stadium (but see below about the music.) People got into it.
+ I liked the short overtime stuff.
~ Lots of points scored. I just don’t know about this one. Sure, as a football fan, I don’t want to see a 0-0 draw, but if there are too many points scored, that means it’s easy to score points. In other words, there’s less skill involved in the game.
~ The game (when it was played, see below) was fast. Plenty of action, yes, but made it hard to follow. Also, you just don’t see slow burning goals like this one in football.
~ The security at the arena was way over the top. It made things safer, but I thought that being searched twice and going through two sets of airport style metal detectors was too much. That’s almost certainly a Belarus thing rather than a hockey thing though.
– The puck is too small and moves too fast. It’s hard to follow what’s happening and even sometimes, which player has it. In football, you can *always* see who has the ball.
– It doesn’t help that a lot of the spectators’ view is blocked by advertising hoardings. Often it would go into a corner closest to me and I couldn’t see what was happening, like in this picture.
Sure, I could watch it on the tv screen at moments like that, but isn’t the whole point in paying 25 euro to go into the arena the fact that you don’t want to watch it on tv?!
– For a fast sport, there were way, way too many stoppages. They seemed to stop every 2 minutes. In football, there will be 5 minutes of stoppages during a 90 minute game. In ice hockey, there were 15 minutes of stoppages just during one 20 minute period (!) With two breaks, that means that in an ice hockey game, there will be 60 minutes of action and 75 minutes of stoppages and breaks compared to 90 minutes of action and 20 minutes of stoppages/breaks in football. It was frustrating. Also, during the stoppages, please…
– Kill the music. Any time the game stopped, they’d blast out some techno or dubstep. Not only was the music crap, it killed the atmosphere off. Keep music to breaks only.
– What’s with all the substitutions? Players replaced each other every couple of minutes. Okay, they’ve a lot of heavy protective equipment, but it made it impossible to follow any individual player’s skills. Half the fun of football is seeing the contest over the course of a game between two players in the same area of the field. That doesn’t seem to happen in hockey. Stamina and tiredness are an important and interesting tactical part of the game in football.
– Lastly, specific to this match, but probably applies to other ice hockey games as well: teams in ice hockey don’t change colours. What?! Both teams were wearing red and white and moving around fast, so it made it even more difficult to see who was who. In football when you have a clash of colours one team will always change colours to make it easier for the spectators (and the referees) to see what’s happening.
All in all, would I visit Minsk again? Definitely. Though it won’t be any time soon until they remove the visa requirements. Would I go to an ice hockey game again? Probably. But a sport which takes forever to complete due to endless stoppages, where two teams of similarly dressed guys, who replace each other every two minutes, hit around a fast moving object which is too small to see and often hidden by advertising hoardings is never going to be one of my favourite sports.