If you believe that it takes the five fingers of one hand to count all unfooted virgin lands where nature reigns on our planet, give me a couple of minutes to prove you wrong. Just a hundred kilometers to the north of Minsk there is a very special place where thick forests are covered in black patches of bogs and greenery of flood meadows, where uncanny cones of hills formed by glaciers stick out from the smoky haze, and bluish lakes look like beads scattered near the winding ribbon of the ancient river Berezina. A traveler may easily come across wild boars or bears, or observe some extremely rare lady’s slippers and helleborines, which are often called Belarusian orchids. You will never be allowed to pick flowers here, though.
This area of 85,000 hectares is almost free from the influence of man. People do not fell trees here, not even dead standing trees, they never clean the paths from fallen leaves… No fires are allowed here, either. In the Berezinsky biosphere reserve you are only authorized to watch, admire and leave this land untouched.
Green Sea of Taiga
The Berezinsky reserve, the pearl of the natural heritage of Europe, appeared over 80 years ago owing to beavers that were rather scarce those days. It was decided back in 1925 that the reserve would help protect the population of the assiduous dam-builders. The reserve became one of the first protected areas in the USSR. It took beavers only 15 years to populate not only the banks of the Berezina, but also other Belarusian regions. In 1978 the successful reserve was granted the status of “Biosphere Reserve”, which made the Berezinsky assume additional obligations, the key one being to preserve the diversity of species.
— Every biosphere reserve in the world is a unique ecological system, says the deputy director of the reserve, the chief research manager Valery Ivkovich, who accompanies us along a so-called ecological path beaten through a dark forest. Our goal is the 12-meter-high watchtower, which offers a breathtaking view of the upland bog and adjacent forests. — The reserves are of various types: taiga, forest, steppe or mountains. The Berezinsky reserve is southern taiga with all characteristic features of this type. Unlike the same type Central forest reserve located in Russia’s Tver Region, in Belarus there are plenty of marshes and bogs, about 43,000 hectares all in all. Foreign tourists from Germany, England, France, Poland, the Netherlands are eager to come here and see this phenomenon: in Western Europe there are no vast peat bogs deeper than seven meters with a striking variety of natural features, while in Belarus they still remain.
The view from the tower is truly breathtaking: the peat bog and the adjacent forest are magnificent. Cranberries look like tiny dots on the moss carpets cut by hedges of sedge grass; hundred-year-old pines that grow only three meters because of the dampness; and the stupefying smell of wild rosemary. It seems you can touch the silence, which is surely palpable here. Time stopped running long ago, and it seems our watches have stopped.
The beaver, the reason why the reserve appeared more than 80 years ago, never made it to the official emblem of the reserve, as another type of landscape and another species are even more popular here than the famous rodent and its huts. The emblem features a bear, pines and willows. The Berezinsky has the largest population of bears in Belarus. There are over thirty bears here, whereas pines are the most widely spread trees here. There are over 100 plants and animals from the “Red Book” of endangered species — 58 birds, nine mammals and 38 plants. Foreign scientists and animal rights activist are very interested in the Belarusian lynx, bear, badger, some types of bats, black stork and golden eagle.
The best of the luck foreign tourists can have is to see wood grouse on the lek. The unforgettable spectacle will probably stay with you forever. Specialists believe the animal population of the reserve is close to optimal for such a natural facility. “To watch the animals in the wild you have got to get up at 4 am, make your way through the thickest forest you can imagine (could be worse than jungles), but foreigners are ready to suffer to see nature as it was hundreds and thousands of years ago,” Valery Ivkovich says. “You will never meet the dwellers of our reserve in Western Europe. The key task for our reserve is to get into the UNESCO World Heritage List. We have already made the first steps.” Eleven years ago it was awarded a special diploma of the Council of Europe. Last year the reserve confirmed its status for the third time in a row for another five years.”
Last of the Mohicans
Specialists have been keeping nature records of the reserve for over 40 years now, and are now close to completing the 37th volume, in which the key entry will probably be the one about a 1–3C degree winter temperature rise. Other important entries include the stabilization of the population of wild beasts, well-being of spruce forests after the assault of bark beetles and some other things, like the reasons why the population of this or that animal declines. Besides, the reserve possesses a wonderful nature museum, established more than 20 years ago. The visitors are treated to excellent panoramas of hard-to-reach sites of the reserve and a rich collection of records with voices of birds and animals. An unforgettable impression both for children and grown-ups.
One of the founders of the museum, Anton Khatskevich, the former guerrillaman, director of the reserve in the first post-war years and an excellent taxidermist, still lives in a small village of Kvetcha close to the Serguch Canal, which used to be the main water artery to transport wood between the Black and the Baltic Seas back in the 19th century. Anton Khatskevich, 91, is a must-visit spot for all guests of the reserve, as he is a legendary man. He is very lively, and he finds a great pleasure in communicating with tourists.
“Do you know how many times I slept in the forest in order to learn the nature of animals? I watched them very closely. This is why I have made it to 91: I took in so much fresh air. I made my last stuffed animal ten years ago, but they are so good that they still make the backbone of the museum collection,” he tells us screwing up his eyes.
Anton Khatskevich is one of very few villagers that refused to leave the reserve. The remaining 15 villages have only about 1,000 dwellers, most of them being pensioners and forest service. Some 30 or 40 years ago these areas were swarming with people; there were many large villages with factories and shops and farms. But when Berezinsky was granted the status of a biosphere reserve local dwellers were resettled from the reserved lands. The village of Domzheritsy, the administrative center of the reserve, managed to provide dwelling and jobs for everyone who wished to stay. As for forsaken villages, they stay empty now, and forbidden apple orchards are standing unattended (only bears visit these places once in a while to taste apples). The village of Postrezhye is an interesting site for the tourists that want to see wild bears enjoying themselves in once populated areas.
Sofia Gaiduk, 76, from Kraitsy, which is located on the very edge of the reserve, says life is normal in the village, just like anywhere else. The Gaiduks have a horse, a cow and poultry. “There is nothing special in the life of a reserve. The air is exceptional, and everything is so calm and quiet, quieter than elsewhere. We also have an abundance of mushrooms and berries, but you can only collect them in special areas of the reserve that are close to the village. I usually have enough for my husband and myself, and I often have something to send to my kids in the town.”
Beyond the Fog and Taiga Smell
Of the 23,000 tourists that visited the reserve last year foreigners account for about 1,000. “For a national park that does not cater for mass tourism it is quite a number,” says the director of the reserve, Vikenty Khmaro. “Unlike other national parks that prioritize tourism, recreation and leisure, the Berezinsky reserve cannot stake on mass pilgrimages. This reserve is very special, and specializes in research and forest management. Nevertheless we are trying to provide comfortable conditions for all.”
There are two hotel facilities — “Serguch” and “Plavno”, in Domzheritsy, and on Lake Plavno, respectively. The latter was one of the most popular recreation spots for the communist party elite. These hotels have enough rooms for 80 guests, and offer a variety of services at reasonable prices. A double room in “Serguch” will cost you just $15 a night, breakfast included, and a suite will be as much as $50.
Besides traditional trips to the forests and marshes, which make the core pastime, you could go fishing, rent a boat or twin-hull craft, play pool and tennis or relax in a sauna. You could also order a trip to large open cages with representatives of local fauna, so any fastidious traveler will certainly be satisfied.
The tourists attracted by hunting opportunities in the Berezinsky reserve, and there are many of them, will find cozy guesthouses in two local game-preserves — “Barsuki” and “Berezina”. They are cheaper and more practical for real hunters. A typical guesthouse has a fireplace, a kitchen in which you could cook the game and all the amenities a hunter might need, augmented by the possibility to stay in a company of soul mates.
There is no off season in the reserve, another unique feature of this unforgettable place. Summer is filled with aromas of motley grasses, autumn is like pure gold, and winter comes from typical pictures from fairy-tale books. The clients have to book rooms months in advance.
The number of hotels and rooms will remain the same, as the Berezinsky is first and foremost a natural reserve. But the administration will keep improving and enhancing the tourist infrastructure, and new routes and paths will be developed. The reserve plans to open the House of Environmental Education in Domzheritsy soon in order to arrange conferences, workshops, business-meetings and displays. There will be a large conference-hall with 200 seats, a library, a cafй and so-called collection halls to share hunting experience and boast trophies. The workers of the reserve are certain that business combined with recreation in the wild of the national park will prove most efficient. Hundreds of tourists, scientists and nature enthusiasts coming to the reserve cannot all be wrong. Small wonder. Those who breathed in the might of this half-wild thicket and dipped into these medicinal muds will certainly get back to the Berezinsky reserve. It can’t be otherwise.