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Belarus & Finland November 2017

The problem (or is it benefit?) with having visited most countries in Europe and still having a desire to visit new ones is that it forces you to go to countries that make your friends and family ask why? Or, in the case of Belarus, where?

Those who asked where (I'm looking at you, Mum) were pointed in the direction of an atlas. But, amongst those who asked why were the Belarus border guards. I know my passport photo isn't brilliant, but I'm not sure that it required three separate guards and five minutes to verify that it really was me.

The reason why was two-fold. First, I've never been there. Second, there was some decent ice hockey to be watched. So, Belarussian bureaucracy out of the way, it was a taxi to the fantastic Hotel Belarus and my 12th floor bedroom.

View from room in Hotel Belarus

It was late by the time I'd checked in, so only had time for a quick walk along the riverside to get my bearings before trying to find somewhere to eat. To my shame, I have to confess that was done in TGI Fridays due to difficulties in finding somewhere open this late at night.

Minsk riverside at night

The next morning was damp and misty, but gave Minsk a softer feel. The harshness that I expected given the country's reputation was noticeably absent. Instead, Minsk was filled with wide boulevards and a riverside that was a joy to walk along.

Central Minsk

Minsk is an excellent city for anyone with a love for coffee. I was certainly thankful that the many coffee houses gave me an excuse to get out of the cold. I was also thankful to Starbucks. When I first went to Eastern Europe in 2001, it was difficult to explain what type of coffee you wanted. Thanks to Seattle, the term Americano now seems to be ubiquitous.

That night was the first of my trip's four ice hockey matches, a 2-1 win for Dinamo Minsk against Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk in the impressive Arena Minsk. It was only two-thirds full and the atmosphere couldn't be described as electric. Well, not until Yugra scored with five minutes left to set up a closer finish than the game had implied we were going to get.

Warm-up at Arena Minsk

The next morning, those in the "why" camp may have had a point. The end of November is not the most obvious time of the year to visit Belarus. This was suitably demonstrated by the carpet of snow that presented itself as I pulled back the curtains in my hotel room.

Hotel Belarus

More walking around the riverside, the western side of the city this time. The -4ºC wind chill factor made it a bit fresher than the day before and sadly the coffee shops were notable by their absence on this side of the city.

Wintry Minsk

That night, it was a Belarussian Extraleague game between the Belarus u20 side and Yunost Minsk. Couldn't find somewhere to pay, so I think it was free. If it wasn't, I may find that it's not just my passport photo that creates issues the next time I try to enter the country. A 5-1 win for Yunost against a spirited u20 side.

Minsk Sport Palace

My last day was an excuse to go see Lee Harvey Oswald's flat from when he lived in Minsk. Strangely, there is no indication on the building that he ever lived here. And there seems to be some doubt as to what apartment was his. Consensus of opinion is that it was behind the pillars on the right.

Former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald in Minsk.
Final day in Minsk

You're only allowed five days in Belarus without a visa. So, the next day it was time to fly back to Helsinki and pick up another couple of games in a brief stopover before going home.

My flight was slightly delayed and involved a game of follow my leader as the Minsk airport staff couldn't agree which gate was ours. But, still had time to check in to my hotel and walk through the snow the Helsinki Ice Hall for the SM-Liiga game between HIFK Helsinki and TPS Turku.

The Ice Hall is an older arena. But, it is filled with character and was pretty much at capacity for this game. A 2-1 win for HIFK and a rash of penalties late in the game to add to the excitement.

Helsinki Ice Hall

I only had a few hours in Helsinki the next morning, so it was a quick tram ride into the city centre for a wander around the streets. First stop had to be the iconic cathedral which was beautifully bathed in early morning light.

Helsinki Cathedral
Central Helsinki

Then it was just a quick visit to see this guy before heading to the Helsinki Ice Challenge.

Santa Claus starting his rounds early this year

When I bought my ticket to see the Helsinki Ice Challenge, I was expecting a good, tight game between not just two of the best teams in the league. But, Jokerit and SKA are two of the best teams in the league. SKA in particular would beat some of the weaker NHL teams.

But, back in Minsk a couple of days earlier, I saw a feature with Pavel Datsyuk on the KHL channel. I've no idea what Pavel was saying, given he was speaking in Russian. But, there was something about the feature that drew my suspicion.

How did I manage to buy a ticket for the KHL Winter Classic without realising it?

Helsinki Ice Challenge

I'm not religious, but there are times in your life when something unexpected happens and you just get the feeling that it was meant to be. This was very much one of those moments. I'm just glad that I had packed suitable clothes to stand outside for three hours in sub-freezing temperatures.

And that was it. A 5am train to the airport to catch the first flight of the day home and the trip was over.

I'd been to Helsinki before, but only on business and always at a time of year where the lack of daylight stopped you seeing the city after work. It was good to get a better taste of it this time. I just wish it wasn't so stupidly expensive.

Minsk was a revelation. I was expecting an austere, oppressive city and it really wasn't that. While not always the most outgoing of people, they were always friendly. There was minimal police presence which really did surprise me. And the city felt it had room to breathe.

I liked it.

Created By
Graham Goodman
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© Flyfifer Photography

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