Howl­ing wolf cha­rades got me to Be­larus

Stockport Times West - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

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

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