Selezivka, Zhytomyr Oblast – Several moose calmly grazed beside the road. To our surprise, they weren’t startled by us getting out of the car to take a closer look.
We were visiting the Polissya nature reserve, a giant area of marshes and forests, some 250 kilometers northwest of Kyiv on the border with Belarus. The road we took led to the village the residents of which more than two decades ago were evacuated as being too close to the areas affected by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident.
The dirt road looked like it has been used by no more than a few people a month since that time.
It was the first time that we saw the animals, numbers of which are dwindling in Ukraine, at such close range. For what seemed like a couple of minutes, the humans and the beasts looked at each other, and only when we reached for the camera did the moose unhurriedly turn away and disappear in the woods. It was somehow a pleasure for a human not to been seen as scary from the animals’ perspective.
This nature preservation area is tricky to reach. Yet courageous travelers will be rewarded with an opportunity to explore Ukraine as far off the beaten tourist track as it gets, and experience a real adventure in the land of pristine forests and bogs, wild animals and ancient pagan beliefs.
The permeating feeling of being in the middle of nowhere starts to envelope you on the way to the Polissya reserve. Polissya, loosely meaning “woodland,” is the name of the marshland area shared by Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Russia, and considered to be one of the largest in Europe.
Soon after leaving Ovruch, the last town on the way to the final destination, the relatively smooth asphalt highway abruptly ends in the middle of the forest, as the car hits a bumpy brick road said to be built in the 1940s and definitely more fitting for a horse-drawn cart.
Unless you want to destroy your car’s chassis, it’s impossible to travel faster than 20 kilometers per hour, so the 50-kilometer long journey to the reserve took way more than one hour through the thickness of woods broken up by a few small villages.
It was funny how Volodya, the driver hired in Ovruch to get us to the reserve, seemed to think that the further away people lived from a good road, the nicer they actually were. The slow pace of life, in his view, made people less prone to do bad things.
Finally, we reached the village of Selezivka, which serves as a base for the administration, and got the keys from an old wooden hut used for the visitors. The insides of an “ethnic hut,” as it was referred to, felt like we were back a few centuries.
The peasant clothes decorating the walls were once white, but now turned gray. Thick layers of hay on the bed were to serve as mattresses, and all the food was to be stored on a metal rack fastened to the ceiling, so that mice don’t get it at night. Ovruch, the town we had left several hours ago, now seemed almost like another planet.
The snow has finally fallen in Polissya, making the tracks, such as these left by a lynx, more visible. (Serhiy Zhyla)
Since it was already late, the canteen where the reserve employees dined, was closed. Instead, a cook, a staunch middle-aged woman, speaking Ukrainian with a heavy Belarussian accent, gave us a pot of raw sliced potatoes, carrots, mushrooms and bacon to cook by ourselves using a stove inside our hut.
As we lit it up, it dangerously let out a cloud of smoke into the room, instantly making the idea of sleeping there a bit disquieting.
In the morning, it was time to see the reserve. Given that it spans more than 20,000 hectares of land, the idea here is to know exactly what you’d like to see and how much walking you feel like doing.
You can start by going to the small river completely taken over by beavers; to see and walk on the dams they built to shut down the river flow, as they prefer shale water.
From there, it’s just a short walk to the thicket where a bearded owl lives, the reserve being its most southern area of habitat. The owl is known for its aggressive behavior in defending its territory, so if you happen to wander close enough to its nest, don’t expect it to stay timid. In fact, this kind of an owl is known for attacking people, aiming specifically at the eyes.
If such encounters are not on your agenda, there are plenty of more peaceful options for pastime. Once you enter the forest, there is a stone with carvings of the animal tracks you are likely to see.
It is worth to take time and study them, as then a simple walk through the forest will become a whole new experience. Numerous scattered spots of freshly dug-out earth turned out to be traces left by wild boars searching for food. Large deep hoof prints on the trail were left by a moose heading for a nearby grove to eat birch tree leaves and buds, their favorite delicacy.
Further on, a bunch of young roes seemed to have gotten in trouble earlier on, as their traces were followed by distinct oval-shaped prints left by a wolf.
Wolves, which are plentiful in the reserve, seem to be an object of special reverence by the locals. After all, where else would you encounter a small monument to werewolves and witches, the existence of which few of the people living in the area dispute, even though no one is really willing to discuss their beliefs with the outsiders.
Perhaps, this is not by coincidence, that out of handful of books published by the reserve, one specifically deals with getting along with the wolves, so that you co-exist peacefully. The trick, the book says, is to acknowledge and apologize for the sins that the humankind committed towards these animals.
Wolves are revered by the locals and hunted by poachers. (Serhiy Zhyla)
A visit to the Polissya reserve by no means guarantees close face-to-face encounters with wild animals. But in the upcoming spring, the reserve plans to launch animal and bird-watching programs, as well as wildlife photography sessions and expeditions to trace wolves and lynx.
Whether or not you are into animal spotting and photography, it’s worth visiting the reserve just to wake up in the morning and walk through the marshes, where some of the most delicious cranberries grow. A handful of freshly gathered berries that still have the morning dew on them are guaranteed to make your day. The trick is not to wander off into nearby Belarus, only hundreds of meters away.
How to get there:
Train 373 (Kyiv-Grodno) leaves Kyiv at 12:47 p.m.on odd days and arrives to Ovruch at 4:20 p.m. A second-class ticket for a four-bed sleeping car costs Hr 75. Alternately, you can take one of the numerous buses that leave daily from Kyiv’s Dachna and Polissya bus stations and Akademmistechko metro station, costing Hr 50.
From Ovruch, the easiest way to get to Selezivka, where the reserve is located, is by taxi. An hour and a half-long drive costs approximately Hr 200. You can also take a bus that leaves to Selezivka daily at 6:50 p.m. which costs Hr 20.
Where to stay:
The reserve can accept only a limited number of visitors coming with 'educational and research' purposes who notified the administration well in advance. Contact director Serhiy Zhyla at (04148)3-4288, or (067)410-4939 for details.
Cost of trip: Hr 800 per person for a two day trip.
Kyiv Post staff writer Vlad Lavrov can be reached at: email@example.com
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