Saturday, June 24, 2006

Primeval Forests (June 24)

Today I took the early bus (actually the only direct bus) from Bialystok to Bialywieza, a village on the Belarussian border and the entry point to one of the most amazing national parks I've ever visited.

The Bielowieska National Park is one of the only undeveloped, unlogged, untouched forests left in Europe. It became the private hunting ground of the Polish kings starting in 1409, who permitted no development. This was carried over by the Russian tsars and the land became a national park in the early 1920s after Poland reemerged.

You cannot visit the park on your own; you can only go in small groups, on foot, with an official guide. I asked for an English-speaking guide, and split the additional fee with two other west Europeans who didn't speak Polish. We saw and heard numerous types of birds, including several different species of woodpecker, finch, and robins, not to mention the common white storks I can see all over the place here.

Since the forest has never been logged, it has a mix of trees, ranging from new shoots to trees over 500 years old. There were a few pine, but mostly linden, ash, elm, maple, and spruce. It was incredibly green. Really, a magical experience. The three hours went by in a flash.

I had hoped to see the famous European bison, but the bison reserve turned out to be a 5 km walk from town, and after walking an hour through the picturesque village (mostly wood homes, some quite old) and the forest, I still hadn't reached the reserve and was afraid that I would miss the only direct bus back to Bialystok.

I had an odd encounter at the bus stop with a homeless-looking man who kept trying to talk to me in Polish. We mostly communicated in sign language as I counted down the 10 minutes before the bus finally came. When I told him I was going to Tykocin tomorrow he asked if I was Jewish. I said yes, and he said he didn't like the politics of Sharon. I shrugged. He said he had visited Auschwitz and Majdanek and that he had gotten goosebumps. He was trying to explain to me how all there is at Sobibor is tall grass and chirping birds when the bus finally came.

After 5-6 hours of walking I'm ready to crash. Time to go to sleep.

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