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A double shot of Minsk, thanks to poor planning and an inconvertible currency

A double shot of Minsk, thanks to poor planning and an inconvertible currency

Old Jul 11, 13, 9:06 pm
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A double shot of Minsk, thanks to poor planning and an inconvertible currency

Enough lurking and commenting on the reports of others. I think I've finally ready to break into this wonderful world of travel pornography that we call "trip reports." I'd list those whose greatness has compelled me to act, but I neither want to leave anyone out nor subject those I mention to the collective groans of the masses for spawning a failed imitation of said greatness.

So, without further hesitation...now this is going to happen.





BACKGROUND

I work for the government. In New Jersey.

We've all dealt with the government and its bureaucratic joys throughout our lives. You may have had issues with someone's incompetence at the DMV. Or while trying to claim some sort of unemployment/disability benefits. Or the TSA. You may have departed from that interaction feeling a mixute of shock and awe; shock that those employees with whom you were forced to deal made it past childhood, and awe that they have no awareness that their continued existence is either a statistical anomaly or a sad indictment of mankind's elimination of natural selection.

Maybe that's too harsh of an assessment, but I'll provide just one (of many) examples. My clerk (government speak for secretary) gave me a written telephone message one day, not long before this trip. It had the call back number, and the person's first name as "Kark." Not having heard of this name before, I went to confirm the name with my clerk. She agreed that it was an odd name, but assured me he had firmly told her that his name was "Mark with a K."

The point is, in order to keep my sanity when stuck in the purgatory of government work...I travel. I travel as much as possible. And there are times when I just need to GO.

In February, 2012 I needed a "GO" trip.

PLANNING

These were the wonderful days when US still had their winter saver Envoy awards to Europe for only 60,000. And, as long as you avoiding their new C product on the A332, you get find some decent availability. I eventually found, and settled on, a main routing of PHL-CLT-LGW-CLT-PHL, with a plan to tinker with where I could get from there that was interesting. And not England. I settled on Prague.

I must add at this point that I am 31, not married, no signifcant other, no kids, and generally answer to no one and try to have as little responsibility as possible. (Perfect for government work!) So my trip planning decisions are usually the result of my hammering away on this site, amongst others, and just going with the flow until I find something which seems like a good idea.

So, yeah, Prague. Now to get to Prague from LGW there were a few options, BA, U2, other connections. But being a good FTer, I went the path less travelled and picked B2. Belavia. Through Minsk. With an overnight, because why not? And C was only $500+ one way, so naturally that was the financial "splurge" flight of the trip. After booking I was actually requested to scan and send pictures of my passport and my credit card. Disconcerting but, after blocking out anything of use, I obliged and was ticketed.

Now, Belarus is not the most friendly country in the world to be a tourist. Visa fees at the time were not cheap, $100+ at the embassy/consulate in the States for a US passport, triple if you decided to get it on arrival at MSQ. Very extensive questions on the visa, photos required, most of us know the drill. But, like we all would have done, I used my own little loophole, one which was created by the exploitation by my grandfather of a different loophole back in 1986.

You see, Irish citizenship laws were much less stringent at that time. If you could prove your grandparent was either born in Ireland or was a citizen from birth, head to the consulate, sign a ledger, and YOU were a citizen from birth. That was changed in late 1986 to citizenship which was not retroactive and thus left the possiblity for the line of citizenship to be broken. So one winter day when I was 4, my grandfather, whose mother was born in Kiltimagh, County Mayo dragged my mother and I to the consulate in NY. He signed, BAM, citzen from birth. My mother, BAM, citizen from birth. I (probably was given a crayon and drew a dragon of the ledger), BAM, citizen from birth.

And guess who Belarus doesn't hate and allows 30 euro transit visas on arrival? The Irish. Thus, visa documents completed and two passport photos in hand, entry was solved.

Hotels in Minsk didn't seem to be the cheapest, if you wanted a central location, but I settled on the Hotel Minsk. $180ish/night, with a $25 airport transfer option which I also booked to ease my arrival. While I took one year of Russian in college, I didn't expect it to be of much use past the basics and deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet and didn't want to find myself struggling to tell the cab driver where to take me. Because if I said, "Hotel Minsk, ty znayesh?" I might be taken to A hotel IN Minsk, not the Hotel Minsk.

Then, of course, four nights in Prague, return to LGW on a direct U2 flight, overnight at the Yotel, and back across the following day. But this report is all about Minsk. Twice.

Last edited by FlyIgglesFly; Jul 11, 13 at 9:13 pm
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Old Jul 11, 13, 9:41 pm
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The former Envoy lounge at PHL. Fairly deserted at noon before the first leg to CLT.



I was lazy with pictures, and this PHL apron shot was the last one I took until Minsk. I'll briefly report that the C seats on the US 762 are underwhelming, but servicable, and that the former F seats on the A333 were quite comfortable, well padded, and able to accomodate my 6'1" frame and allow a few hours of wine induced sleep from CLT-LGW.

Now my plan on arrival was, since I had to pass immigration to check in for my B2 flight, use my US passport to enter the UK, then leave on the EI passport, thus ensuring no record of my travels to Belarus for Uncle Sam. Because obfuscation is clearly the best policy when it comes to travelling to politcally unsavory countries a a US citizen, unless you want "the treatment" upon your return. What I wasn't expecting was that the immigration officer I got at LGW was doing his best CBP impersonation and challenging my every answer to his questions. My plan was to say I was staying with my half-sister outside of Glasgow (she does, in fact, live there), figuring that would suffice.

It didn't. And led to this exchange, which contained no lies other than the initial "going to stay with my sister" lie:

UK Officer: What is your purpose for entering the UK?

Me: Going to see my sister who lives in Glasgow.

UK Officer: Where does she live?

Me: Right outside of Glasgow, Paisley.

UK Officer: What's her address?

Me: I don't know.

UK Officer: Well how are you getting to her house?

Me: She's picking me up at the train station.

UK Officer: Well how long has she lived there?

Me: I don't know, 20 years?

UK Officer: (incredulous) And you don't know her address?

Me: I've never been there and I haven't seen her in 15 years.

UK Officer: (incredulous) Why haven't you seen your sister is 15 years?

Me: Full story? Her and my father had a falling out when, in the process of his divorce with her mother, the mother and her wheelchair bound lesbian lover spread hateful lies about my father in an effort to drive a wedge between them, which ultimately worked and led my sister to move to Scotland for reasons I've never been told. The last time I saw her was at my other sister's wedding in 1997 when the only thing she said to my father and I was our first names as she walked by us.


All true. And not what the customs officer expected, because who makes that up? A chuckle, a stamp, and I was through.

After that fun, I fondly remembered the former US LGW arrival lounge I used twice back in college after, in true FT fashion, purchasing envelopes on ebay which, as a gift (T&Cs, you see), included two TATL upgrade vouchers. No shower on arrival for me during my four hour layover. I was relegated to the ServisAir lounge which was tiny, cramped, and whose only redeeming quality was the coffee/espresso.

LGQ-MSQ was served by a CRJ. Business class was...not worth it. Same seats, only difference between that and Y was the "meal" and the close proximity to the FA, who wore what had to be prohibited footwear the entire flight.

They were boots. You know those boots that just give you impure thoughts about the woman wearing the boots? Those kind of boots.

I had impure thoughts.




Finally at MSQ, my CRJ with a large number of IL-76s in the background. Outside temperature? 3F.

Up next: Entry
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Old Jul 11, 13, 10:49 pm
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I'm looking very forward to this trip report. I had the pleasure of spending 8 days in Minsk and the surrounding countryside back in 2010. It was during this trip that I discovered I really enjoyed seeing the world and developed this intense desire to travel as much as possible.

One amusing note, fellow government employee.. This year while I was renewing my security clearance I had to list all the international travel I'd done in the last 10 years. I don't think my 4 trips to SE Asia in 16 months will raise any eyebrows, but I'm still waiting for the phone call to explain the one trip to Belarus...

Looking forward to the rest,
Eric
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Old Jul 11, 13, 11:17 pm
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You have a wonderful gift for writing. Given the quality of your prose, and your amusing turn of anecdote, don't worry too much about photos. I love the name of your hotel.

Hotel Minsk.

Sounds like the name of a spy novel, or a nickname for some god awful prison where political prisoners are tossed and forgotten.

Looking forward to future installments!

Eric (er, different Eric than the last Eric who commented)
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Old Jul 12, 13, 9:32 pm
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As you could see in the previous picture, we parked at a remote stand, away from the terminal that looks like something out of a Star Trek film. Bus transfer to the terminal and...now the fun begins.

You enter the terminal on the lowel level. You are presented with three options: immigration booths to the front, and two narrow, granite lined staircases, one on the left and another on the right. It's one of those moments where, no matter how seasoned a traveller you might think you are, you realize you're going to look lost and a little bit amateurish.

Now I know I can't proceed right up the middle. The right staircase is not marked. Fortunately, on the left staircase there is a small sign that says "visa." So I squeeze up the staircase, wander around the corner, and find the window for the consulate.



That window on the right? That's the consulate. The staircase is around that corner and to the right. I am the only one on my flight who is getting the visa on arrival and am greeted by the caricature you no doubt have in your mind of a consular official in an ex-Soviet republic. But he does speak a little English, I speak a little Russian, so we start the process of figuring out just how much work he's going to have to do this afternoon.

Consular Guy: (gruffly) Hallo. (unintelligible Russian)

Me: Transeet Visa, pozhalista. (slides papers, including passport, through slot in window)

Consular Guy: Da, da, ehhh, when you leave?

Me: In the morning.

Consular Guy: Ohhhhh, less than day you do not need visa. Eeees ok.

Me: But I'm going into Minsk. I'm leaving the airport.

Consular Guy: YOU NEED VISA.

Me: Yes. I do. Here are the papers.


This is about that point where I want to commence with the sarcasm and mockery but, as unsure as I am about how to translate my English words into Russian, my sarcasm and mockery? I'm sure that will not translate well.

I pass the 30 euros through the window as well, hoping to indicate that I know the fee and have done at least some cursory research. For you private sector stiffs out there, when interacting with a goverment employee/official it is imperative that you demonstrate at least a modicum of knowledge of the processes and procedures involved. Not too much so as to suggest that you are smarter or wiser than the official (this is a capital offense), but just enough to show a healthy respect for the official's time and importance.

Consular guy takes the money while perusing my application. He's filled out some of the forms on his end, he has the stamp in his hand and then:

Consular Guy: What is company is you work for? What is Department of XXXX?

(As much as I'd love to give more details about my work on here, I won't. Until I slip up during a posting while intoxicated in LH F with in flight WiFi.)

Me: It's a government job. In the US. There aren't any jobs in Ireland (true!), that's where I live and work now.

Consular Guy: (quickly looks up) GOVERNMENNNNNT?

Me: Yes.

Consular Guy: (puts down stamp) UH HUH. YOU TAKE SEAT.


Aaaand he shuts the window and disappears to an adjoining room for about five minutes while I sit on a bench and twiddle my thumbs. He eventually reappears, poking his head into the window as if to confirm I was still there. I get up and wander to the window to find him on the phone, standing in the doorway to the aforementioned adjoining room, pausing every few seconds to turn around, reconfirm I am still there, say a few words into the phone, and continue talking seriously into the phone.

I'm not really sure what's going on. I'm...hopeful? I think that's the word. I'm hopeful that I'm not about to enter a my own personal Bond movie, mistaken for the main character in this country which by all accounts is stuck in a Cold War time warp.

I'm there for 45 minutes.
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Old Jul 12, 13, 9:38 pm
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Ah that window looks familiar... got my visa on arrival for my UK passport there several years ago (had to prearrange the service). 50 Euro at the time. But now VOA for US/UK is insane $350+.
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Old Jul 12, 13, 9:42 pm
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ZFW-ATC and Tall Travel Dude: Thanks for the encouragement. I'm never sure how my writing plays. I've been relegated to work related legal/policy writing of late, and it's the same words/phrases over, and over, and over. I'll keep banging these posts out at about a one/day clip until done.

hauteboy: When I went back this year I learned you can't even get them on arrival, starting in 9/12, unless there is no embassy/consulate of Belarus in your country. Ireland still makes the cut, 90 euros for a regular tourist VOA.
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Old Jul 13, 13, 12:53 am
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First, I love how Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, gets relegated to parking in the middle of nowhere, when there aren't even any other planes at the gates! I guess they are reserved for airlines that can pay their bills.

Second, when I went there in 2010 I was lucky enough to get an invite from the Department of Humanitarian Affairs which meant I got a free visa prior to arrival. I remember that Arrival Hall very well, fortunately we only had to get our medical insurance and get out of there.

You describe the typical beauracratic experience very well. How many times in your two stops there did you catch yourself saying "Why can't they just....". I think thats the tourist mantra there..

Keep up the good work,
Eric (the first, not too tall one)
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Old Jul 13, 13, 8:23 pm
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This sounds exactly like the Belarus I have grown up with...
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Old Jul 14, 13, 4:13 pm
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I was a tourist in Minsk in February and the photo from the "consulate" brings back some memories. We had to purchase insurance first(if you had taken the right staircase it would have been there) for 2 euro and then back to the visa guy.

I will be following this report.
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Old Jul 14, 13, 8:27 pm
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As if the past 45 minutes of sitting on the marble floor and wondering what was going on had never happened, Consular Guy reappeared with nary a word, gave me my passport, visa stuck in and ready to go.

Ok then?

Now, as Fredrik74 has mentioned, to enter Belarus you do need to show proof of insurance. I assumed that my insurance cards from the US would suffice. That assumption would be incorrect, with the Ridiculously Too Hot For A Passport Stamper Official informing me, "NOOOO, THIS IS NO GOOD," and sending me back up the staircase to the right, where there were three booths offering this insurance. Five minutes of form completing and about 2 euros later, and back down to see Ridiculously Too Hot For A Passport Stamper Official.

(While we're on that subject, you know how in some movies, and a prime offender here are the old Bond movies, they have the Soviet military females as just being obvious plants in the movie as eye candy? Turns out that's really how it is in Belarus. If ever you needed to get into trouble with customs and be strip searched, I highly recommend Belarus.)

Naturally when I get to baggage claim my bags are just sitting off to the side. When I attempt to go through to door for persons who are declaring things (because my Russian is awesome), I am yelled at by Ridiculously Too Hot For A Customs Official to exit through the other door. I'm am disappointed that being a submissive is not really my thing, otherwise I'd have found my heaven.

Into the airport and the person holding the "Hotel Minsk" sign is a boy that's all of 8 years old. I nod, he nods. I follow him outside to a grey van where a man who I presume is his father is smoking my leaning against the hood. I throw my bags in the back, climb in, and enjoy the 30 minute ride into the city. Not a word is spoken by me the entire time. I'm not even sure if I pay them, pay the hotel, or what. I find out that I pay the hotel when, after unloading my bags, the father nods at me, gets back in the van, and just drives away.

A relatively painless check in process and up to my room for a much needed shower and change of clothes, as I'm pretty sure my smell and appearance are doing nothing to endear me to the people of Minsk.



Small, but functional room. There was a bit of an issue with the bed length, though, as I'm 6'1" and that bed is...not 6'1" in length.



View from the room.

After getting all cleaned up and putting on a decent set of clothes, I headed to the lobby to exchange some currency, and the ruble was getting about 8,400/1 vs the dollar at the time. I'd brought sizeable chunks in dollars, euros, and Czech korunas for my trip. I know some people prefer using ATMs abroad, but I'm more of a "take all the cash I'll probably need and don't tempt myself with the card" kind of guy. Sure, you risk losing it in a mugging, but I've been lucky so far and always compartmentalize it to risk a total loss.

While they're not nearly as strict with accepting pristine bills as in Burma, one of my $100s didn't pass the test.

The restaurant in the lobby had a decent menu, even one in "angliskii" that I could understand. It being 18 months after the fact, I can't exactly remember the food I ordered, but I remember that Johnny Walker Blue Label was on offer for ~$15/glass. Great price for something I rarely get to drink, and I indulged.

I went back to the room and got my jacket, hat, and gloves for a post dinner wandering around town. That's usually one of the first things I do in a place when I travel, just go outside and walk for a few hours to get my bearings. I wasn't going to walk for that long here, as I was only spending the night, but it seemed foolish to not venture around a bit.

Last edited by FlyIgglesFly; Jul 14, 13 at 9:11 pm
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Old Jul 14, 13, 8:48 pm
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Please note: Winters are cold in Minsk.

I grew up in New Jersey and, after splitting time in North Carolina and Texas during my 20s, I'd become deluding into thinking that the cold didn't affect me. When you're surrounded by a bunch of southerners whining about the cold and donning winter jackets when it dips into the 50s, it's easy to boast of snowy winters and waiting for the school bus as a kid when it was only in the high teens.

Yeah, well, in Minsk it was -10F and windy, so, I finally knew what those Texans felt like. I wore sneakers to walk around, because that's clearly good cold weather footwear. Jeans, because that is also good cold weather clothing. My mother, who still insists on buying me clothes/jackets when she sees something I (read: Nine year old me) would like, had bought me a huge, puffy jacket with a fur lined hood and given it to me when out to dinner a few weeks before. And stuck gloves in the pocket, because "you never know." I'd laughed at her, saying I'd never need it, but took it along on this trip to humor her.

It. Came. In. Handy.

I'd gone about a block before my hands were numb, and the gloves went on. Nothing I could do about my feet starting to freeze, or my legs. But my core was toasty and, after putting up the goofy fur lined hood (after seeing other men walking with them and confirming it was an acceptable fashion move), so was my head.



Oktybrskaya Sq. They ice it over in the winter and make it a skating rink. On the right is the Musuem of the Great Patriotic War, which says at the top "The Feats Of The People Will Live On For Centuries."



Their snow removal? On point. I don't think it had been above freezing in a month, but the streets and sidewalks were completely clear.




Svislach River



By all means, walk on the river.



This building looked important. It was also far away and really cold out. I did not investigate further.



This photo prompted some investigation by one of them many "Militsya" who were walking around. When pointed at with a truncheon which is being motioned downwards while he says "NE PHOTO", you comply.

Until you get a few blocks away and they are out of sight, because **** it, you're tired, you're cold, you've had some scotch and your decision making skills aren't in top form.



Victory Obelisk with an eternal flame.



Right, so, ahhh, did you guys get the memo about the Cold War ending?
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Old Jul 14, 13, 9:10 pm
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The Militsya do not catch me taking any more photos, and I head back towards the hotel, noticing that there is a casino attached to it. This is fortunate for me, as I have lots of cash, currently poor decision making skills, and a fondness for gambling that has at times in my life straddled the line of addiction and degeneracy.

The beautiful blonde who greeted me when I entered was a harbinger of good things. And she was able to speak fluent English. In order to gain access, you had to register with their passport and were issued with a players card, much like at most US casinos. Coats had to be checks, and you had to both go through a metal detector and be patted down by a Belarusian heavy. He did not look like someone to be trifled with.

When you get into the actual casino itself, it's essentally a long room lined with gaming tables, a bar at the far end, and an exchange booth. At the booth, you would change your cash into chips at the rate of 8500BYR/1, roughly a 1/1 rate with the dollar. 200 chips should suffice, the tables had relatively low limits of only 5/bet.

I spent the next hour refamiliraizing myself with Russian numbers, as the only form of communication between me and the dealers was the audible calling out of the number of my or the dealer's hand. I had a few more scotches (JW Black, I slummed it) and, while not really raising my betting levels, managed to put together a pretty good run, cashing out about 700 chips. Almost 6 million rubles.



MAKE IT RAIN.

And then I passed out. 8:00 departure for the airport, and I wanted to grab breakfast beforehand.
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Old Jul 15, 13, 8:44 am
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Good stuff!
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Old Jul 27, 13, 9:20 pm
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(Sorry for the delay in posting, life got in the way...)

I wake up and shower way too early for my flight. Thanks to the time zones and season, the sun is still well below the horizon at 7 am. The hotel had a decent buffet breakfast which was either complimentary or such an inconsequential price that I threw the previous night's rubles at starting the day off with a good, healthy meal.

I grabbed a cab to the airport outside of the hotel, which took around 30 minutes and cost ~30 Euros. Not extortionate, but with the conversion rate as high as it was the driver had to show me the price on a calculator. I know my Russian numbers, but once you start getting into the tens of thousands I get lost. I didn't negotiate ahead of time, operating under the assumption that if a taxi parked outside of the hotel ripped off a guest and it got back to the hotel, some sort of harsh, Eastern Bloc type punishment would be meted out.

MSQ isn't exactly a clusterf**k per se, but it's not the most efficient. That being said, it still beats my home airports of EWR/PHL because at MSQ at least you get to deal with officials such as the Ridiculously Too Hot For An X-Ray Machine Watcher or Ridiculously Too Hot For A Document Checker ladies. Instead of the typical Ridiculously Too Fat And Too Dumb To Be Alive TSA employees in the US. People claim to be molested during pat downs in the US. People try to be molested during pat downs at MSQ. "NO, I HAVE NO IDEA HOW THAT KNIFE GOT THERE, BUT YOU BETTER CHECK REAL THOROUGHLY FOR ANYTHING ELSE, IRINA. Whoa, not that thoroughly..."

To get through everything you first have to wait for your flight to be called for check in. This leads to excessive milling about immediately inside the terminal. When your flight is called, there's the first security/documents check. Show itinerary, passport, put bags on belt, walk through x-ray machine, etc. Then you're at the check in area, where mercifully when you check in at the business class counter and produce and Irish passport they immediate address you as, "English, yes?"

I take a deep breath and don't impulsively slug her for calling me English, as any good Irishman is entitled by law (O'Brien v. Thatcher, 1981) to do, and assume she means the language in which I'd prefer to be addressed. Simple check in for Belavia, and boarding and lounge passes in hand I head to passport control, where I'm stamped out by another Ridiculously Too Hot For A Passport Stamper Official. Now, another security check, standard metal detector/bag belt affair.

When I get through there I immediately start searching for the currency exchange booth to offload my profits. I have trouble finding one and head for the lounge to ask.

Somewhere prominently on my list of "Things I Will Never Forget" is the wry smile on the face of the Ridiculously Too Hot For A Lounge Attendant when I take out a wad of 100,000 ruble notes and ask where the currency exchange booth is located.

Ridiculously Too Hot For A Lounge Attendant: "Uhhh, it before security."

Me: So...you mean there is no place for me to change these now, da?

Ridiculously Too Hot For A Lounge Attendant: Da.



I have a morning beer. Because I need a morning beer.

I'm a bit pissed (at myself) and depressed. I find out later that the only currency exchange is down a flight of stairs and not very well displayed and before the initial security. I sulk in the lounge for a bit and console myself with both the beer and my camera.



Tons of business class fliers.



Tarmac view of a Belavia 737-500.

Remote gates means a bus to my 737-500 to PRG. A few other fliers started taking pictures, so I took my chances at being chastised by security.





And last photo, because of security. Of course. Managed to get some shots from my seat of the tarmac, taxi, and takeoff.



Some AN-24s



Wonderful snow clearing at MSQ



"Whatever, plane have engines to push out of snow."



A mass of IL-76s who have no doubt engaged in some illicit cargo delivering in their day.



TU-154s



Business class seats. More comfortable than they looked, like a well broken in leather recliner. And so I went on to Prague...



...and generally drank lots of beer, wandered the city, ate good food, read a few books, and forgot about my job for a few days. But that's not the point of this trip report. The point is I now had about $600 in Belarussian rubles and not one exchange booth I could find in Prague took them.

Obviously, this meant a return trip was in order.

NEXT: ROUND TWO

Last edited by FlyIgglesFly; Jul 27, 13 at 9:26 pm
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