Howling wolf charades got me to Belarus
REGULAR readers may remember my features on the European Bison earlier this year when I stayed on the Polish side of the Bialowieza Forest Reserve. With space at a premium I did not get chance to talk about my time in Belarus, so here goes.
The mission was simple, or so I thought; make my way to the border in the forest, surely just a red and white post that the guard would lift up and wave me through with a smile on his face, to meet up with my friend Dmitry who would have driven nearly 400 miles from the other side of the country to greet me.
He was also keen to collect a parcel of clothing from the Raging Bull clothing company which had sponsored the trip and, even more precious, a number of radio tags for the wolves he is monitoring in the Chernobyl region of the Ukraine. Simples... right?
Wrong. The Border is straight out of a Frederick Forsyth novel, two stark, but modern buildings, within a stone’s throw of each other, with lots of red and white posts, cameras and armed guards. My image of a fence running the length of the reserve, which could easily be negotiated by bison and indeed humans if they fancied nipping across, was just that, an image.
In reality there is a no-man’s land of 60 metres between two lines of four-metre high fences and the vegetation is kept as low as a putting-green.
Smaller mammals such as beavers, otters, wolves and raccoon dogs could make the journey Houdini-like at some river crossings, but for the bison it’s definitely Checkpoint Charlie – there’s no way through.
You have this amazing anomaly, one of the last great primeval forests in Europe, little changed for thousands of years, cut in two by three lanes of the M60.
On the Polish side there’s about 2,000 bison, while the Belarusian side boasts another 500ish. I often wonder if the animals ever see each other across no-man’s land.
I had to concentrate while making my way to the first building because of the ice, and I could see the Polish border guards eyeing me up.
I thought at least they would speak English and could pass on the information to their counterparts over the way in Belarus. Ha, not a chance.
I soon realised, as I opened my Irish passport to display my Belarusian visa, that it was going to be a long job. Everything was in order, and in spite of the language barrier, it was obvious that they were wondering what on earth I was doing entering Belarus at this little-used border.
To be fair, they waved me on with not too much fuss, although all of the staff came to view me step out towards the otherside.
Lots of arrows showed me the way to go but noone was visible until the last minute when two armed guards emerged from a side door I hadn’t seen. Funny how guns make you nervous.
There then followed a 20-minute pantomime of epic proportions as I tried to explain why I wanted to enter Belarus.
I was never any good at charades but my flapping arms, howling wolf and pointing to the sky, making – as I thought – a very good impersonation of a satellite beeping, did the trick. While not exactly saying ‘pass friend’, they let me in.
More next week on Belarus.
●● Sean Wood made use of a little-known border crossing into Belarus after staying on the Polish side of Bialowieza Forest Reserve