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Published: April 15th 2019
Monday April 15 – The day started with a bit of a lie-in, which was quite nice. I slept from about 11-7:30, so I’m starting to catch up on my sleep. I repacked, used a little internet, and had breakfast in the hotel. It was funny, because I picked the more traditional local breakfast of potato pancakes with bacon, toast, cheese and tea, and was told it would take 20 minutes. I said ok, and then ran upstairs to get my computer, thinking I could be productive while I waited. But when I got back, maybe 5 minutes later, my breakfast was ready. Not sure what that was about, but it tasted good. Back in the room I got everything together and headed down at 9:25 to meet my driver for the day. A friend in Basel had organized someone he knew to drive me to the national park Puscha, an hour away, wait for me, and then drive me to the train station at the end of the day. His name is Alexander, but he also goes by Sasha, from what I understood. His wife’s name is Alexandra, which is hilarious. They’re about to have their first kid, and he
assures me he will not name him Alex. I was told he did not speak English but that his wife did, and we could call her if needed, but he did speak English. Alex says no, he doesn’t, but we were able to have quite a decent conversation with his school English, which was great. I spent the drive chatting and looking around. Belarus has a lot of open land and small villages. He told me the farms are owned by the government and maternity leave lasts three years, with some pay.
When we arrived at Puscha, Alex helped me rent a bicycle. I chose the 4 hour/27 km path called A Big Journey, with a visit to see the animals in “open-air cages”. I tested a couple of bikes out, and went for the one with hand brakes. I like to pedal backwards at times, and that would be bad if I forgot and came to a screeching halt. I emptied out a lot of my daypack into the back seat before I left so that my bag would not be as heavy while I cycled. There were 17 stops along the way with signs that explained things
in English as well as Russian. I learned a little about the land, and the forests along the way. It is the oldest forest in Europe, and the majority of it is in neighboring Poland, which has a border very close to the park. Actually, before I left, I told Alex that if I never come back, thinking I would tell him to send someone for me, but he finished by saying, “If you never come back you’ll be in Poland.” Hilarious. I did have to show my passport at the front gate when I rented the bike, but that was probably more to do with the bike rental. I saw 300 year old oaks, an oak that had some damage early on and split into 9 trunks, black alder forest growing in wetlands and giant pines.
It was a beautiful day with blue skies and I had a really nice time. It was a little cold, but I decided not to wear my big jacket, sticking to the fleece instead. But I did wear gloves and my winter hat after a while. It was a bit cool out of the direct sun, and sometimes a bit windy. I
didn’t see any other cyclists along the way, and there were not even that many cars that passed me along the way. Mostly I just cycled in a forest that was still sleeping, almost no leaves were out yet, but there were also pines to make it more green. The forest is known for having large bison and pigs, but I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to come across them on the paved forest road. I was right, which is a shame but expected. I did see a hiking path towards the end that apparently has towers that increase the chance to see something, but I did not have enough time to do that.
I started cycling just before 11am and at noon I was already at stop #10, Lake Liadskoye, so I was thinking that I was nearly done. I stopped to take pictures, then ate my apple and chips while I read my book. It was quite windy by the water, so I sat on a wooden gate across the road, and that was much better. The best stop was at the Estate of the Belarusian Father Frost. It turns out, Santa Claus lives here. My
ticket allowed me entrance. You have to go through a special gate, and the guy at the gate then walked me to the place with Father Frost, or Deda Moroza as he is known here. There is a phrase you have to call out three times for Father Frost to make an appearance, so the guy called out to him three times for me. I was happy there were signs in English everywhere so I understood what was happening and learned some of the lore of the land as well. Father Frost did not speak English, but he did have me read the sign out loud in English, which basically had me calling for him again. We took a selfie together and then he took my arm to bring me to the next little building, where a woman took my ticket and gave me a present, a box with a mushroom-shaped cookie. I had actually been quite nervous about this part of the journey, because I was alone, going to a mini family amusement park, and there was essentially no one else. The park has bus tours as well, and one with less than 10 people was leaving as I
The hermit oak
It grew up alone, without competition, so it's shorter and stouter than it's newer neighbors
entered the Santa area, and another came along just as I was leaving, so I really was alone apart from the people who worked there. But in the end, it was my favorite part. I loved it. It just felt like I learned a little bit about the traditions by being there and reading and taking pictures, without the bonus of everyone looking at me weirdly for being foreign.
By the time I left Santa’s, it was later than I’d thought, so I got on the move again. I thought I’d be done by 3pm, and Alex said we should leave by 4pm as it took an hour to get back and my train was at 5:30pm. I only got to the open-air animal cages at 3pm, and it was quite a large place. No one was there to take my ticket, so I went in and cycled around. The first animal I saw was a bear, and his cage was much smaller than I’d like to see. The lynx was also in a tiny place. Most of the rest of the animals had a pretty good space for roaming and grazing. There were a lot of types of
deer, the pigs, bison, and horses. Mostly things you could find in the forest now or in the past, but there was an ostrich, which seemed weird. There were also a couple of wolves who acted more like dogs.
I got back to the parking lot around 3:45pm, returned my bike and looked for Alex. I completely forgot what the car looked like and wasn’t sure how to find him. I walked through the lot, took a picture of something, and then remembered he drove a taxi. For a minute I didn’t see it and wondered if he was back in Brest, selling me laptop. But then I saw him in the front, asleep in the passenger seat. I tapped on the glass lightly and he didn’t hear me. I felt bad but tapped again and he woke up. We drove back to town, this time with less chatting as we were both quite tired.
I’m so glad I went to the park today. I had wondered if it was too much traveling in the three days I had before my course starts, but I’m really glad I did it. I used the 3+ hours on the train
to write the blog, go through pictures, read and relax. Music played in the background and at one point, music from Swan Lake came on, between pop songs. It seemed so cliché, and yet so right.
When we got to the train station in Brest, we said goodbye and I looked around to see what was there. There was a little café outside and I decided to get some food there. I ordered some perogies and my timing was way off. I ordered at 5:05 and got the food at 5:15, but the train left at 5:30pm, so I had to burn my mouth to suck them down in five minutes and get to the train. Then I couldn’t figure out how to cross the tracks, so I asked and was told to take the tunnel under. Couldn’t find it, so I asked and someone else pointed to a bridge over. But the original guy who I asked worked there and walked me to the tunnel. I got there with five minutes to spare. Too short for comfort. I typed up my blog and decided which pictures to include so I could go to bed early. Not to be.
When we finally got close to Minsk, people started getting up to stand to get off the train. I decided to go stand with them, but the woman who was sitting next to me on my “sleeper” seat (hers was above and it was clear she didn’t want to get up there if she wasn’t sleeping) told me to stay, it was still 10 minutes away. It was in Russian, but clear what she meant. When it was almost time to get off the train, she showed me her phone. She had written me a message and Google translated it. It asked if I needed any help getting into the city since it was late and dark. It was only 9:10pm, and had only been dark for an hour, and the city was safe, but I was very touched by that. It was a very sweet gesture. I told her I was ok, but I loved that she was willing to help. I got to my apartment quickly, and thought I would be able to talk to my mom and Jeroen, but skype is not on this thing and chrome does not work, and I could not use the
built in skype in outlook with firefox. What a mess. So I showered and types with Jeroen and sent some emails with my mom. A later night than I’d expected.
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