Sea of Herodotus
[b]Polesie becomes centre of exotic tourism[/b] The area can be compared with the mysterious Amazonia: it has a great river — the Pripyat, and villages along its banks, where people live as their ancestors did. Here, nature is not subordinate to man. The marshy forests of the Zhitkovichi district (Gomel region) are always prone to flooding, becoming a large water meadow, behind which ancient Turov is situated. Polesie is a mysterious land, as tourists are hurrying to see for themselves.
The area can be compared with the mysterious Amazonia: it has a great river — the Pripyat, and villages along its banks, where people live as their ancestors did. Here, nature is not subordinate to man. The marshy forests of the Zhitkovichi district (Gomel region) are always prone to flooding, becoming a large water meadow, behind which ancient Turov is situated. Polesie is a mysterious land, as tourists are hurrying to see for themselves.
Jumping on a croaking trampoline
The Belarusian marshes — upland and lowland — are the largest in Europe. “Nowhere else are there such bogs,” asserts Sergey Zagadsky, General Director of the Federation of Trade Unions’ tourism company, Minsktourist. He notes proudly, “Each Belarusian marsh has its own unique ‘face’; some are covered with grass, others with moss. In some places, the forest grows on the marshes; in others, there are hillocks. There are also marshes with lakes, where our national bird — the stork — lives.” We should embrace the stereotype of Belarusians as ‘people living on marshes’.
Valeria Klitsounova, the Chair of the Republican Public Association Country Escape, tells us, “A couple of years ago, Dutch cyclists came to enjoy our marshes.” Valeria organised their tour, being a founder of domestic rural tourism. She launched it in the 1990s, with her husband Yevgeny Budinas. “I asked the Dutch to leave their bicycles in the forest and took them along a wooden path to the depths of the marsh. The boardwalk was as springy as a trampoline. Seven thousand years were beneath our feet (a 70cm layer of peat which annually rises by only 1cm). Everything was squelching.”
Staff at the Srednyaya Pripyat and Olmany Wetlands Reserve began bringing tourists to their site in 2006. Olmany Wetlands cover 94,000 hectares in the Stolin district. It is an outlandish area, where legends predate the birth of Christ. Historians assure us that, in ancient times, the Herodotus Sea was situated here, while fairytale writers state that famous fairytale character Firedrake lived on the banks of the local River Goryn.
Ivan Yakhnovets, Director of the Srednyaya Pripyat and Olmany Wetlands Reserve, is keen to develop agro-ecotourism in the district. “More guests are arriving, who we accommodate in local village houses or send to the Stolin hotel (a standard room there costs 15 euros and a deluxe 30 euros). This brings significant income to the district, so it’s better for them to remain in the Reserve,” he explains. Ivan’s words prove that he is a true host, who loves nature.
Stolin, Luninets and Pinsk districts are included within the 2010-2015 state programme for Pripyat’s Polesie development. With this in mind, Mr. Yakhnovets’ initiatives are likely to receive support at a high level. The Chairman of Stolin District Executive Committee, Alexey Demko, agrees, “Our land boasts unique landscapes and ethnic features. It would be a sin not to use them. We already have several guesthouses but it’s not enough. Another is being established not far from the village of Semigostichi, which is a tourist base. According to the programme, natural sites of Republican and local significance — such as Mankovichsky and Nizhneterebyazhovsky — are to be reconstructed. Meanwhile, new excursion routes are being developed, encompassing our unique marshes. We have much to show guests.”
On the banks of the Lva
I’m convinced that tourist paths have already been laid here — popular with Belarusians and foreigners alike. “A group of nine Germans visited us,” recalls Mr. Yakhnovets. “Our route began in Stolin, near the old synagogue — a former centre of Orthodox Judaism, like Old Believers for Christians. They showed great interest in the Jewish legacy.”
“Does this mean that marsh trips extend far beyond the bogs?” I ask. “Of course,” replies my guide, adding, “The route includes a walk through Mankovichi Park, laid by the Radziwills, which is home to 35 plants brought from all over the world. As you see, people on the marshes were surrounded not just by frogs and beavers. This land has given birth to a rich cultural harvest! Farther on, we take bicycles or a bus to pass along four rivers: the Kopanets (laid by the Radziwills), Goryn, Chakva and Lva. The first stop is made in the village of Olshany, where life has changed little in hundreds of years. Local villagers gather cranberries to sell. Famous Russian writer Ivan Kuprin wrote his Olesya while sitting on a bench near the local, century-old church.”
On taking a book by Kuprin from the shelf, I find his Polesie-written novel. Here is an extract brightly illustrating the Olshany villagers: ‘On seeing me, they took off their caps, even at a distance. On approaching me, they gloomily pronounced ‘Gai bug’ — which meant ‘Godwilling’. When I first tried to talk to them, they looked at me with surprise — refusing to understand the easiest questions. They were attempting to kiss my hand — an old custom from Polish serfdom’. “People have changed,” notes Ivan. “They are freedom loving and enterprising — making money from selling cranberries, building guesthouses and opening amateur museums.”
The village of Olshanskaya Koshara is situated in the middle of Olshany marshes, and boasts a guesthouse. Beyond, the landscape changes, with the reclaimed area giving way to marshes. Tourists are given rubber shoes to walk through the marsh. “Won’t we fall in?” I wonder. The guide jokes, “We can let you fall — for extra payment. The marsh isn’t deep, so you won’t get bogged down. However, we’re planning to build a road. People are well-educated now and they don’t want to wade through mud.”
The goal of our journey through the marshes is to see Lake Bolshoe Somino, which is home to catfish. It’s unusual, since the lake isn’t connected to any rivers. Scientists suggest that it’s ‘fed’ from underground springs. There are two crosses — also worth seeing. There is a century old legend regarding the daughter of a local priest. She wished to marry a common man, which her father forbade. He chased the young man away, who ran into the marshes, and the girl followed and fell into the bog. Only then did the father realise his mistake and, in honour of his daughter, erected a cross. Several years ago, it fell into the water, so local villagers established a new cross and strengthened the original.
It feels quite romantic to walk through the marshes in rubber shoes and you can even hire a marsh-rider (able to drive and sail, with seats for four). A motor boat is also available, enabling tourists to see century-old oak trees, fallen into the river, and beavers.
Ivan surprises me by offering grilled beaver meat, noting, “Not everyone likes it but it’s similar to chicken — although twice as expensive.” Cucumbers are the usual treat, since the Stolin district is Belarus’ leading cultivator of this vegetable.
To say farewell to the marshes, Mr. Yakhnovets invites me to climb the former Olmany command post, opening up a wonderful panorama of the whole of Polesie. The tower is 52m tall.
Living under a thatched roof
Famous photographer and traveller Sergey Plytkevich loves Polesie very much. He was born here and returns every year to take photographs. Mr. Plytkevich believes the world is yet to discover this land, “Its inaccessibility has cut off the culture of Polesie from outside influences — from globalisation. Old customs have been preserved, as have its landscapes, flora and fauna. Man cannot master these huge forests, using them for his own needs. However, in the 20th century, good roads were laid, allowing tourists to see local exotic sites.”
Kudrichi is a typical Polesie village, which has remained untouched since the 19th century. Located where the Yaselda flows into the Pripyat, the village is often flooded; people live on islands for some of the year. When the water recedes, natural sediment is left behind, fertilising the land and ensuring rich harvests. Nature provides everything for a good life. Kudrichi is unique, having preserved much which is viewed as obsolete in modern life, such as thatched roofs and home-made utensils.
Mr. Plytkevich is convinced that Kudrichi has great tourist potential. “Let’s take Tunis as an example, famous for its Berber villages. Visitors are shown elementary crafts, such as grinding flour and the work of potters. However, these are recreated especially for tourists; in Kudrichi, we still genuinely live like this. Unlike other countries, there’s no need to invent. We’ve preserved our ancient folk way of life,” he stresses.
Pinsk is only 17km from Kudrichi, so it’s possible to spend the night in the city while visiting the wonderful village as a day excursion. Pinsk itself has much to offer tourists, be they Poles, Germans, Russians or Israelis.
There’s no other place in Belarus which better combines the past and the present, civilisation and ancient ways. Polesie has all these attractions.
By Viktar Korbut