Visiting the kingdom of aurochs
[b]Tourists from all over the globe come to Polesie and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha to meet exotic animals, to see five-century old lianas and embrace centuries-old oaks[/b]Nature lovers are becoming regular visitors to Belarus. After last year’s 600th anniversary celebrations, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha — the world’s largest reserve — has become known to millions of people worldwide for its unique flora and fauna. However, there are many other unusual places located nearby, such as the basin of the River Pripyat. Its virgin forests and marshes are often called the ‘Belarusian Amazonia’. The purest lakes are found in the north of Belarus, boasting ‘pre-historic’ maxillopods; you can drink the water directly from its source.
Nature lovers are becoming regular visitors to Belarus. After last year’s 600th anniversary celebrations, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha — the world’s largest reserve — has become known to millions of people worldwide for its unique flora and fauna. However, there are many other unusual places located nearby, such as the basin of the River Pripyat. Its virgin forests and marshes are often called the ‘Belarusian Amazonia’. The purest lakes are found in the north of Belarus, boasting ‘pre-historic’ maxillopods; you can drink the water directly from its source.
Wolves may now be rare in Western Europe but are easily met in Vitebsk region, alongside bears. Despite the last century’s large-scale reclamation, precious eco-systems have been preserved in the republic. Among them are lowland marshes (Europe’s ‘lungs’); these are home to dozens of protected species of plants and animals. Additionally, game — and even auroch — hunting is allowed.
Siberia in the neighbourhood. Foreign audiences are yet to be sufficiently informed of opportunities in Belarus for ecological and hunting tourism. Africa’s dusty savannahs are more popular with safari enthusiasts than ‘Polesie Amazonia’ and the ‘jungles’ of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. However, Cheslav Shulga, Belarus’ Deputy Minister for Sports and Tourism, believes that ‘Belarusian nature is among the most unspoilt in the world, giving it a competitive edge in the world of tourism and making it supremely marketable’. “We can be truly proud of this and should promote ourselves as a country at the heart of Europe which has preserved wild nature in its primeval state.”
Sergey Plytkevich, a photographer and traveller, notes that Belarus combines natural exoticism with a favourable geographic location. He asserts that there’s no need to worry about the lack of access to the sea. “We don’t have seas or mountains. However, I’ve travelled all over Belarus, ‘shooting’ hundreds of species of animals. Our country possesses wild, untouched landscapes. Taking into account our geographical location in Europe, we can offer a competitive product on the tourist market. We are not remote Siberia or the Russian North, which are difficult to reach, yet we boast flora and fauna no less interesting.”
Shocked by the green. Residents of Middle Eastern countries have been among the first to assess the attractions of Belarusian nature. Nikolay Takunov, Vneshintourist’s Deputy Director, has long worked with tourists from Arab countries. He believes they ‘are attracted by our reserves’ and ‘shocked by the amount of green, by our rivers and fields’.
Maria Filipovich, Belintourist’s Director, is well aware of the beauty of Belarus yet even she was surprised by the lushness of the Pripyat River basin on a recent trip. “Our country is rich in nature — perfect for incoming tourism,” she smiles. Francesco Frangialli, the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organisation, shared similar views on his visit to Belarus. In Western countries, three trees can be said to comprise a small park! Land is privately owned, so there are fewer opportunities to experience the raw thrill of nature. The Italians are petrified on hearing that people can easily walk into the woods to gather mushrooms. In Italian forests, visitors are restricted to special paths. Here, everything belongs to the state, making it fully accessible to the public. The Pripyat River basin isn’t called ‘Polesie Amazonia’ for nothing. I’ll never forget cruising along this broad river by motor boat with my colleagues. Suddenly, one of them exclaimed, ‘I’ve just returned from Zambia; however, Africa didn’t make as strong an impression on me as our Pripyat!’ There were so many wonderful aspects to our trip. At the time, the water level was high, so oaks were standing ‘knee-deep’. Huge, blue dragonflies flew overhead and, in the evening, we caught a 70kg catfish…”
Visiting ostriches in villages. Mr. Shulga believes that ecological tourism is perhaps the most promising area. The Deputy Minister for Sports and Tourism reports that, according to the World Tourism Organisation, over five million people from western countries enjoy eco-holidays. Elections in the European Union saw the Green Party receive around 9 percent of votes, so we can assume that millions of people are potential participants of eco-tours to Belarus.
Which opportunities are offered to travellers? Visiting an exotic country, you can usually sign up for excursions to the jungle — wild and untouched, while boasting some tourist infrastructure. You can take photos of the wonders before you, enjoy a meal and take home marvellous memories. Belarus has been working hard to set up similar excursions. You can travel to an ostrich farm in the Postavy district. Additionally, according to Mr. Plytkevich, local guide Yegor Shushkevich offers other exciting trips through this district of the Vitebsk region.
Mr. Plytkevich explains, “We like to use local experts, like Shushkevich. Speaking of eco-tourism, I must mention that each region has unique characteristics and traditions. Each boasts its own natural beauty spots, historical sites and cultural motifs. Besides stunning landscapes, our country has preserved several villages in their original state. You can visit them in conjunction with nature tours and / or hunting. One such is the village of Kudrichi, situated where the River Yaselda flows into the River Pripyat. Kudrichi is unique, since it has preserved so many of the elements missing from our modern lives. Roofs are thatched and people use hand-made household utensils.”
Between promising and performing. Private firms account for 90 percent of Belarus’ tourist market. They welcome guests, providing accommodation and looking after their needs. Nikolay Kozak, Director of state Belgosokhota enterprise, assures us that, “Our enterprise has managed to set up a well-developed system of guest welcome. We greet visitors at the airport, accommodate them at a good hotel, organise excursions if they wish, provide them with a gamekeeper and transport for hunting, and offer services for trophy processing (with the necessary documents). Of course, our system has improved by trial and error. Recently, we welcomed Germans and Spaniards, informing them about our excursion programme via the Internet. They expressed their great wish to see Minsk and visit Dudutki ethnographic village.”
Belarusian hunting trips are selling like hot cakes. Galina Zaburyanova, Head of Tourism Department at the Presidential Property Management Directorate, tells us that hunting tours run by her department already have three year waiting lists. The jewel in the crown — the Belovezhskaya Pushcha — sees around 187,000 visitors each year. Rather than simply trying to raise this number, it’s keen to expand services.
Forest fairytale. Infrastructure is also being developed at the Nalobokskaya Pushcha. Naliboki, as it’s called, is located not far from Minsk — a major advantage. Aurochs live there, alongside characters from Belarusian folk legends. Father Frost may be ‘king’ of the Belovezhie, welcoming children and adults all year round, but Naliboki visitors are welcomed by Baba-Yaga. She stops a mini-bus, gets into it and demands … a ransom. Of course, it’s a joke. She then takes her ‘prisoners’ into her hut, where she asks them to play roulette — an unusual combination of fairytale and modernity.
Father Frost is also gaining a residence here, being built on the riverbank, ready for a spring opening. According to legend, famous poet Nikolay Gusovsky was born in the area. Back in the 16th century, he wrote De statura feritate ac venatione bisontis carmen (The Song about Bison, Its Stature, Ferocity and Hunt), celebrating the attractions of the Belarusian countryside.
Where do aquatic warblers live? Belarus’ Deputy Forestry Minister, Nikolay Yushkevich, confirms that increasing numbers are seeking out Belarusian forests. “In 2009, Belarus was Europe’s third most popular destination for foreign hunters, behind Russia and Hungary. However, only 15 percent of visitors come to actively hunt. The rest are happy to relax at the lodges, which offer every comfort. Sometimes, whole families arrive: one member goes hunting while the rest relax, take excursions, go fishing and gather mushrooms and berries.”
Foreigners are now receiving equal rights with domestic hunters. In 2008, Belarus earned around $2m from foreign hunting tourists and, over the last three years, hunting lodges have raised their profits by 5-10 and, even, 15-fold. The number of animals available to hunt is constantly rising; currently, there are 120,000 hoofed creatures in the country.
How can foreign tourists learn about the opportunities open to them, travelling through the national parks and relaxing at Belarus’ hunting lodges? The Executive Director of Master Puteshevtviy (Master of trips) tourist company, Igor Chernozipunnikov, tells us, “For a western hunter, personal recommendation by another hunter is the best advertisement.”
Mr. Plytkevich advises us to find a specialist on the Internet. “You can avoid risks if you work with professionals. For example, APB-Birdlife Belarus can tell you where rare birds nest — such as the aquatic warbler.”
Hunting lodges employ those who know the forests like the back of their hands. A new hunting lodge has been built on the bank of the River Nieman, in the suburbs of ancient Lyubcha (on a Novogrudok forestry farm). It sleeps six, has central heating, a kitchen and, even, a billiard table. It costs just 15 euros per day to stay there (and the same again for food).
“We can organise rest at the highest level,” notes the forestry farm’s director, Alexander Dosko. “Our guests never leave without trophies. In January, they can hunt deer and wild boar. In April, they can shoot geese and, in May, boar and wild goats are in season.
We began to welcome foreigners in 2008 and have since had many Lithuanian and Russian guests, alongside hunters from France, Italy and Spain.
Eternal liana. While forestry farms continue to improve their infrastructure, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha remains the most developed complex. It’s unlike any other forest, with mixed climatic zones. Even plants which have long since disappeared elsewhere thrive here.
The Belovezhskaya Pushcha has been divided into quarters, with the 713th housing the famous residence of Father Frost. The neighbouring 712th houses a beautiful, ancient oak forest.
Valentina Khudyakova, a botanist and research officer at the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, muses, “The Belovezhskaya Pushcha is like a time machine. You can enter a quiet glade and, viewing the plants, can imagine how things appeared centuries ago.”
Ms. Khudyakova shows us plants which usually grow in central Europe. Belovezhie is an island in Belarus — home to species long extinct elsewhere. The rarest is ivy. One plant twines a 40 year old birch tree on the bank of Lake Lyatskoe. She assures us that this is one of several ivies in the Pushcha. Liana can reach 500 years old, like oaks. They are evergreen and only blossom once in their lifetime. In 2008, flowers appeared on this particular example; Ms. Khudyakova noticed them by chance. Who knows… perhaps you too will be lucky enough to witness such wonders of nature in a Belarusian forest?
By Viktar Korbut