How to feel the beauty of Belarusian forests?

Through the thickets of the Rossony District

To travel on foot and spend at least one night outside beneath the canopy of century-old trees in a reserve or protected area is the best way to feel the beauty of Belarusian forests, rejuvenating your spirit with the help of their natural life force
To travel on foot and spend at least one night outside beneath the canopy of century-old trees in a reserve or protected area is the best way to feel the beauty of Belarusian forests, rejuvenating your spirit with the help of their natural life force

Krasny Bor hunting area. Bird’s eye panorama

The majority of tourists coming to Belarus from abroad see our forests solely from the windows of buses, trains or cars. For those who make the effort to get closer, the forest remains forever in their consciousness, with its unforgettable atmosphere and magnificent sights. This is true for all visitors to the Belovezhskaya and Nalibokskaya Pushcha, Belarusian national parks, and for those who stay on Belarusian campsites, at forest agro-estates and at health sanitoriums. Few foreigners travel on foot in our forests but many Belarusian nationals enjoy hiking. Walking clubs exist in most of our institutions of higher education, in schools and in after-school clubs. The forest regions of Belarus have a large role to play in educating society. Our 120-day journey, made in 1996, was unusual in being a source of cultural and journalistic interest. We jokingly named it a ‘journey to a faraway kingdom’.

We travelled entirely on foot,  2,810km around the Belarusian state border. We began in the settlement of Druya, on the border with Latvia; four months later, on August 12, we completed our travels, having seen many different forests. We walked along spring roads, through the forests of the Braslav and Oshmyany districts, Voronovo and the outskirts of Grodno — with its military range near Gozha. Passing through the Svisloch District, we came close to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha: the largest forest reserve in Europe. From there, we walked more than 60km in two days, with nights spent in the office of the forest ranger at Khvoyniki, through the Belovezhskaya Pushcha and into Kamenyuki, where the administration of the National Park Forest is located. Those of you who enjoy forest walks will be interested in the number along the Belarusian border. However, we did not go far into the depths of this woodland, but walked many forest paths.

We kept a travel journal and, on completion of the journey, had accumulated three thick notebooks of observations. I would hope that anyone reading them would be inspired to search for adventure along the forest trails of Belarus themselves. It is worth noting that we had no trouble at all from humans or the animals we encountered, though we spent almost every night in forests, on the banks of rivers and lakes and sometimes in open fields. Since then, there have been a few isolated incidents. In 2008, we met a traveller, Horst Kuntysh from Northern Germany, before he went on a walking journey through Belarus. The pet shop owner from Flensburg city was on his way to the city of Volozhin, where there is an orphanage that receives charitable help from his city. Unfortunately, during the first stage of the journey, Horst was unlucky near Czaplinek in Poland, robbed by criminals, who took his money and valuables, leaving him beaten and with an injured shoulder. With the help of some kind strangers, Horst reached Minsk, where he received medical aid. Having rested, he was able to continue on his way. He says cheerfully that on all roads afterwards from Brest to Volozhin he experienced only pleasure.

Now, let us return to August, 1996. By this time we had completed more than 2,500km and were in the northern part of Belarus, approaching Druya from the Russian side. Having passed through the city of Nevel, we entered the Rossony District in the Vitebsk Region.

August 8, 1996. Day 113.

We managed 31km yesterday and spent the night near the village of Yukhovichi, heading for Dolostsy. We walked into the forest a little way, just 100m from the road, to spend the night. We slept well, waking to heavy dew and a sunny morning. On first awakening, as though halfway between dream and reality, I saw a figure before me which, if superstition holds, may have been a symbol of Lake Osveiskoye, our next destination.

In the village of Yukhovichi, hairdresser Lyuda Shashun and her daughter Yanochka helped us draw water from a well and treated us to milk and apples, refusing payment. Lyuda`s husband is a forester and they love the country life. She was keen to share her wisdom and believes that all happiness comes from our children.

We arrived at Dolostsy, still in Russia, and asked how to find the road to Lisno. Some people we asked said that there was no such road, though it was shown on our modern map. Older residents remembered the old neglected road and directed us to a path between two houses, where a barely noticeable track next to sheds was all that remained of the road. We made our way forward with difficulty, as the track quickly became overgrown with grass; in places, there were deep ruts.

Later, we spoke with a man from the village of Veremeevtsy, who informed us that, before the war it had been an important military road, leading to Nevel. Finally, we were rewarded for the difficulties of travelling on an impassable road with large amounts of luggage by the sight of a magnificent forest. There was an abundance of bilberries on the old path and large mountain cranberries just about to ripen. We could not resist collecting almost 2kg of bilberries.

Further along, we came across a wonderful forest river called the Nishcha, with pure water and a sandy bottom, surmounted by a bridge. The name is interesting; in Belarusian it originates from the word ‘beggar’. Perhaps it is lacking in living creatures and maybe this is the reason for its name or it could be because it flows through poor sandy soil. We wondered what led our forebears to give such a beautiful small river such a poor title. In the Blue Book of Belarus, it says that a small river 85km long springs from Lake Nishcha in the Sebezh District with the same name; it flows across the territory of the Pskov Region of Russia, while the rest winds 68km through the Rossony District of the Vitebsk Region. It joins the River Drissa that runs into the Dvina.

We had dinner near the river close to the old bridge and swam before continuing on `the road, lulled by rye`, as one of our poets poignantly said about a similar place. Although the rye in evidence here was of poor quality and the soil lacked in fertility. The road began to improve as we moved into Belarusian territory, probably due to the increased volume of traffic and the presence of agricultural machinery. On two occasions, where the road forked, we had to make a decision which way to choose. At the third crossroads, we were fortunate enough to pass a motorcyclist, who confirmed the correct route for us.

The next part of the path was again a forest road. Right under our feet was a carpet of mushrooms; we picked oyster mushrooms and russulas whilst on the move. We were keen to leave the dense forest and return to civilisation as quickly as possible. In the evening, as it was getting dark, we arrived at the village of Krasny Bor. The gnats in the Rossony District were active, biting fiercely. After a short while outside, it was necessary to take cover.

In the evening Valya felt an acute weariness and before we reached the village of Veremeevtsy she experienced a wave of terror, growing as we went deeper into the forest. Later, we were told that during the Great Patriotic War Fascists shot peasants there: 42 people in total. The Rossony area suffered greatly from Fascist round-ups, blockades and punitive actions during the war, when the partisans found shelter away from the German aggressors in the deepest forests. You can read about the Rossony-Osveyski partisans online: Russian, Belarusian and Latvian fighters who hid near the border. The region occupied 10,000 square kilometres and was inhabited by more than 100,000 people.

Yesterday, we travelled 19km. It was a day of beautiful berries and a wonderful river. It was a special tradition in our `travelling` to give  distinctive names to certain days if we were impressed by something. We spent the night in the remote forest village of Krasny Bor and woke up in the morning feeling as if we were in paradise: it was sunny and warm and there were not a single cloud in the sky.

After breakfast, having packed our belongings, we went to the house of a local family. It appeared that they were the family of a ranger who worked for the Yukhovichi forestry, part of the Rossony forestry enterprise. We introduced ourselves and discovered his name was Yegor Yegorovich Makeenok. He told us that he had held his post for nearly 20 years. His duty is to protect the forest grounds, to know the animals and where they live and to prepare forage for them during the cold season. In the winter, it is necessary to feed the elk and wild boar.

After the war, in the area of the forestry enterprise, there were 22 households and Khimleskhoz workshops. Here, in the summer, workers manufactured pine resin. There was also a tar works. Turpentine, resin powder and black resin were manufactured for sale. When chemicals started to appear, such handicrafts became unprofitable; demand for gifts of the forest fell and, by 1962, the enterprise had closed.

The diary records few days in such detail and is limited to brief comments on events. It mentions a meeting with holidaymakers in a forest glade on the very beautiful Lake Beloye-Yukhovskoye, where all the banks are black because of the bilberries. The road on which we travelled to Lake Osveyskoye (the second largest in the area after Naroch) mostly passes through coniferous forest.

The next day, Valya wrote in her journal: ‘Yesterday there was an interesting meeting with the ranger and his wife Zoya, both of whom are of pension age. They have five sons! She is a Capricorn, and he is a Virgo. They have lived in the middle of the forest for many long years. There was once a whole village, and not so long ago either. The farmstead forest ranger Yegor is large, with a house, outbuildings and a big enclosure made for two cows, heifers and a bull-calf. The owner also has a pond: dug out with the help of a tractor and now home to crucian carp. However, Yegor Yegorovich told us that they were under threat from cats who would catch fish directly from the water. On the estate there is also a well and a bath, as well as an open-air cage for dogs. One, Belka, freely ran in the courtyard while we talked with our hosts. They warned us that the dog was malicious, but clever. I spoke to the dog tenderly, and she approached, having sniffed me first and laid down beside me, slightly whining at the pleasure of being petted. Perhaps he took us for friends, homeless tramps that we were. We probably did not smell like any form of danger and the dog was happy to befriend us. On the 115th day of travel, when we had covered more than 2,700km, all anger and impatience had completely disappeared; we simply radiated calm and kindness. Clearly, animals sensed this!’

Here is a `man`s view` of that meeting, which was described in the diary on August 8, after lodging for the night at Lake Osveyskoye: ‘Such details remain in the memory after our meeting with the ranger the day before yesterday. Yegor Yegorovich has led a very interesting life, telling us proudly that his deeds could fill a whole book. He meets many different people commenting that, in the winter, there is no time to rest, as people still arrive, and all hands are needed. He described how Rossony forestry enterprise has a sustainable culling plan and, every year, 100 elk are shot by hunters. Meat is delivered to the meat-packing plant, while the skin and internal organs are simply left in the forest, as they cannot be sold.

In the winter, the ranger is not only occupied with hunting, but feeds the elk and wild boar. He once trained three young wild boars, so that they came to him like pets to eat wheat which he poured from a bucket: the daredevils! The rest of the herd stood at a distance and waited until the huntsman had walked away. In this part of the forest there are wolves, bears and lynx’.

Re-reading these lines, I feel a little afraid, as we spent the night directly in the middle of that forest in a flimsy tent, walked almost every night and never feared.

The diary continues: ‘Yegor has a Vladimirets tractor from before the monetary revolution (pre-1991). His bachelor son drives it. He also has a small mowing machine for preparing hay. Water is drawn from the well by an electric pump. Electricity is conducted to the estate from Yukhovichi, whose local electricians keep it in a good condition. There is also TV; the family is used to such comforts of civilisation, because `if there is no electricity then all is impossible’. He admitted that he could live in the city, but has no desire to move. Wolves sometimes approach the estate but the dogs are in open-air cages, so they are safe.

Among Yegor`s dogs there is one who senses when people are angry. One quarrelsome ‘hunt organiser’ spoke to workmen abruptly, inspiring the ranger’s dog to snap at him, despite being usually good natured. He has many visitors, with some coming even at night to ask directions (in 1996, there were few navigators or GPS-receivers in Belarus). When a night visitor appears slightly drunk, the ranger tells them to sleep themselves sober, and return in the morning for help. He warns them not to approach homesteads at night, or he’ll punish them! Sometimes, there are catastrophes. Last year, he told us, during hunting, one dog was shot, though the hunter was experienced. Wolves killed a second dog’.

We did not ask the ranger about his five sons but it seems likely that they did not want to live with their parents in a forest village. Not everyone likes such a desolate existence on a farmstead in the forest, where there is only one house.

Preparing pages from the diary for publication, we called the Yukhovichi forestry section of the Rossony forestry enterprise and they told us that ranger Yegor Yegorovich Makeenak had now died, and one of his sons Anatoly lives with his wife and mother now in the parental estate.

There is one interesting record in the diary, dated August 8, about forest riches and the beauty of Rossony: ‘We were going through the forest. Valya picked mushrooms near the road, as there were a lot of porcini mushrooms, and beautiful ceps. At Lake Belo-Yukhovskoye, there is a convenient stop for tourists, where we swam with pleasure in the beautiful clear waters of that place.’

By Ivan and Valentina Zhdanovich
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