Who wants to undertake physical workd outside and to pay for the privilege? It sounds insane. Fed up with the weekly routine of tending vegetables at our childhood dachas, most of us only want to escape the city to relax, but foreigners enjoy immersing themselves in authentic Belarusian activities. For two days, students at the Minsk State Linguistic University — a third-year student from Turkey, Ertugrul Besheoglu, and a fourth-year student, Kim Sung Jae, from South Korea — learned to chop wood, mow grass and fry potato pancakes, in Rossony District.
Rural tourism has grown significantly in popularity in our country, with guests keen to enjoy traditional customs and activities: fishing and boating; horse riding and cycling; lake bathing and Russian baths; visiting local museums of old, rustic utensils and taking cooking master-classes; and excursions to places of historical and cultural interest; and petting domestic animals.
Alla Khoren, from Klyastitsy village, has an excellent view overlooking the River Nishcha. Three cows are on the shore, peacefully eating grass.
“Some time ago, Germans came here to rest,” says the hostess. “They wanted experience, planning to acquire their own farm, and asked me to allow them to milk a cow. They wanted to see if they’d manage. I agreed, although we have our superstitions about not allowing strangers into a barn. Those foreigners were really interested in our way of life: how we heated the stove, made hay, and cooked. Most prefer to watch, but some want to learn.”
The heroes of our story, Ertu and Song Jae, are like this. A scythe and axe are like artefacts from a local history museum to them: as if from the Stone Age. In fact, Ertugrul once visited friends in David-Gorodok, so has some clue about hay, chopping firewood, the rituals of the banya and other rural customs. He had a go at chopping wood, while noting that agriculture became automated long ago in his own counry, with manual labour forgotten.
“Grab the scythe-handle with your left hand, and the other handle with your right,” says Stanislav Kozlov a soloist with Yankovichy folk band Krynitsa. He has come to Klyastitsy to show his friends our country ways, meticulously showing them how to sharpen a scythe’s blade, how to hold it, and the sweeping motion at a certain angle (to avoid being hurt). A good scythe should mow itself.
Kim Sung Jae’s first attempt seems to be a failure, like the first pancake, but then he gets the hang of it.
“Scything is hard work on the muscles,” says Stanislav.
Ertugrul questions why we used scythes when they are so slow but Stanislav asserts that hand cutting of grass keeps you fit. “It can’t be good for you to mow all day under the scorching sun!” comes the reply, but Stanislav asserts that there’s no need to go to a gym when you have a scythe and grass to cut.
He shows the students an axe next and Alla steps forward, to the young men’s bewilderment. In response to their surprised looks, she waves her hand, as if saying: it’s no big deal! In their family, her husband tends to chop logs and she splits these into smaller kindling.
As the boys have a go, I shout, “Stand clear.” I fear that a fragment may fly off, or that they’ll miss, being beginners...
Michael Malashenka is teaching this master-class, on how to split a birch log. He says, “I’ll do it with one hand but you start with two.”
One swing and the log is split. When you’re physically strong, it’s not difficult and there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Ertugrul and Song Jae share their impressions, saying that there’s no need to use an axe in Turkish or South Korean everyday life, but they found it fun.
As for heating a stove or preparing an outdoor grill, they say that neither are popular in their countries. They don’t gather for barbecues, although they do grill samgyeopsal and bacon. “But we don’t use firewood; we use charcoal,” says Kim Sung Jae.
“If you really need firewood, you can buy it in bundles, prepared by specially trained people,” echoes Ertugrul.
Naturally, foreign visitors are keen to try local delicacies, and the table at Alla Khoren’s place is heavy with potato dishes, alongside baked tench in sour cream, homemade cheeses and pickles, and various mushrooms, including chanterelles. There are mugs with birch juice and glasses of local liqueur. Instead of compote, there are herbal teas.
Guests are invited to prepare draniki themselves but Ertugrul refuses, saying that he prefers to eat in cafes, although he can cook pasta with various sauces, as well as making Turkish salads and kebabs. He asserts, however, that the best cooks in Turkey are men, although the kitchen is a woman’s realm. His mother always cooks at home.
Song Jae doesn’t mind at all, despite, by his own admission, only knowing how to cook rice. “Have you eaten dog?” we ask, and he admits ‘only once’, diplomatically evading a true answer.
“Don’t cut your fingers,” warns Alla, as he begins grating potatoes, “And don’t make the pancakes so thick.” Ten minutes later, the draniki were ready and it was as if he’d cooked them his whole life.
Dmitry Subtselny, Vice President of the UNESCO European Federation of Associations, Centres and Clubs:
One of the objectives of our organization is the establishment of cross-cultural communication. Accordingly, in our work, we often cooperate with foreigners. They are almost permanent experts on our international projects, including at educational and volunteer camps. An obligatory part of the programme is acquaintance with the country. Sightseeing of castles and other historical and cultural heritage sites is one aspect but, to better understand the mentality and establish ties, it’s best to immerse into daily life. This gives the opportunity to ‘feel’ Belarusian, while showing a side of Belarus which most tourists fail to see. We’re attempting to do this.
Valeria Klitsunova, Chair of the Country Escape Association:
Some foreigners know they’ll find calm tranquility in Belarus and simply want to view apple orchards out of the window. However, the trend of modern tourism — for which many are willing to pay a great deal of money — is for ‘active’ holidays, full of experiences. Take, for example, mowing. You work physically, feeling the grass and hearing its smell, observing the sun and birds. For those who’ve never before mown grass, it brings strong emotions. Of course, people can distinguish between a ‘show’ put on for them and a ‘real’ experience. I speak first-hand, having spent a week with a Maasai tribe, wanting to gain an experience for my soul.