An early start for a morning walk with a guide through the strict reserve part of Białowieża forest. The idea was to be out in the cooler part of the day, which I assumed was to improve our chances of seeing animals, before they retreated into the shade during the hotter parts of the day. We threw clothes on and were at the museum by 6am, where we met Tomasz (Borowik – I think that was his surname), our twentysomething guide. We got on very well with him from the start. He was very good, not neglecting his role as a guide to tell us about the park, the palace and most importantly about the forest. His background and training was as a forestry scientist and his day job was to conduct surveys of the wolf and lynx population. He had an odd oogopslag (Dutch word, difficult to translate but it means generally how someone looks, i.e. using their eyes, not their appearance), which made it seem as if he was generally looking downward.
We walked through the park and then across a meadow to the entrance to the forest. A large wooden gate guarded the access. Tomasz told us about the various trees, the composition of the forest, its history and development, and pointed out different bits and pieces and how the whole ecosystem hung together: insects, fungi, trees; how different trees used different mechanisms to procreate, features of the different trees, such as the hollowing out process that took place within lime trees as they aged, the huge massive oaks which could live up to five hundred years, ash, pine, spruce with their very shallow root systems, how woodpeckers were instrumental in creating the perfect holes which could be used by other birds and animals later, and so on.
We walked for around three hours. It gradually got warmer, still pleasantly, and the bigs weren’t too much of a pain. We bumped into a few tiny groups also being led by a guide, like us. After a good circuit we returned to the main gate. A park warden had appeared and checked our tickets. Back through the palace park where we said bye to Tomasz. Very glad to have had a Polish point of view for a while. Most of our conversations have been limited to “transactions” in shops, restaurants, hotels, rarely getting beyond the standard to-and-fro. Tomasz was happy to tell us about the current Polish society and pre-occupations. He came across as a bit of a traditionalist, in a nice way. He was certainly old enough to remember the days of what he called “socialism”, and as someone who is highly educated was able to understand that this system could not continue as it was, particularly in the towns and cities, with food shortages and empty shops. But in the country, well, things had not been that bad, he said. In fact there was a sense of nostalgia from him, and his father likewise he said, for the old days when, well... “same, same, but different”... He said things had been better, more certain, without crime or social problems. He also explained how the changes, from communist eastern Europe as a larger community to membership of the EU basically resulting in Poles turning their backs on nearby Russia, and now people knowing more about what goes on in “the west” but nothing about other eastern European countries, their neighbours.
We returned to the hotel and went for breakfast and then, staying “smelly” and not stopping to shower, we drove out to the Bison Reserve in the forest west of Białowieża. Tomasz had suggested that now (9am) might be a good time, before it got too hot. We parked, immediately attracting the horseflies to the bonnet, and walked past the stalls selling local honey and cuddly stuffed bisons. The reserve was basically an open-air zoo, with a small number of large enclosures. The sun was already quite warm and the animals had sought refuge in the shade next to the fence or deep within their enclosures under the trees. We saw some sandy-coloured wild horses, tarpans I think, deer of various kinds, boar, but the two most impressive sights were the zubron, a cross between a cow and a bison, a massive curious looking animal that is said to be unstoppable once it has decided to go in a particular direction, and of course the bison themselves. A herd of about a dozen or so, including several young, looking fierce as they kicked up dust while moving about. A solitary moose looked odd, with its improbably tall legs and long curving hooves that resembled lady’s slippers. As we left the reserve we observed a heated argument between honey vendors. Quite funny to watch as the tempers and voices rose.
We returned to the hotel once more and spent some time in our room, me writing my diary. Ness is not actually keeping a diary on this part of our trip – I can sympathise a bit as it can be hard work, a chore sometimes, especially when you “fall behind” by a couple of days. On the other hand, if you don’t write down “the day” it is soon no more than a vague general memory and it just seems a pity to wander through a day without recording at least some of it. As it is, I feel I’m not capturing on paper what we are seeing, doing, feeling, and am only recording a basic sequence of events, but it may serve in future to re-awaken memories, and if I ever learn how to write properly these child-like notes may yet be useful!
Anyway, we spent some time in our room and later in the afternoon went out again, to the museum. We navigated the complex pricing system and bought tickets for the museum, for a guide to take us round the museum (obligatory, but to be paid separately), the temporary exhibition and entrance to the “watchtower”. We had to wait until 4pm for our guide so we went up the watchtower first. A lift took us up to the top, from where we could look over the tops of the trees of the palace park. Not much else to see really, besides the trees. The temporary exhibition featured some fantastic photographs, of Russian churches and more interestingly, of Russian faces and people connected with them, from an orthodox young priest reading from a book and surrounded by a group of young people listening intently, to old wrinkled faces with piercing or glazed eyes, to more portraits, a young boy with intense big blue eyes, covered up in black, and many more, also of religious objects, churches, etc. Further on there were more pictures, stunning nature photography by a German photographer showing bison in winter, moody forests, etc. Stunning images.
It was time to meet our guide, a young guy who clearly enjoyed the role of teacher/lecturer. He took us round the “multimedia experience”, a series of very well designed dioramas, rather than the conventional museum layout of stuffed animals and charts. This was an excellent way of bringing the forest to life and explaining how things hung together and connected to form a complete ecosystem. The dioramas did have plenty of stuffed animals but they were presented in the right context, in a copy of their natural environment, with forest lighting, going from early dawn to clear daylight, and I seem to recall there were also noises. Each of the more than a dozen dioramas focused on a different aspect of a different part of the forest or a different group of flora and fauna. Now we understood the need for a guide!
After we left the museum we followed our ears to the sounds of what sounded like a concert stage being prepared, hearing the sound test “one, two, one, two”. Tomasz had told us that tonight there was a village concert. We found the stage at one end of a parking area, with a café and terrace along one side. Some people had already taken seats and we stopped for a beer and a few games of crib. It gradually got busier and various acts did a quick sound check on stage. We stayed and carried on drinking and playing, and later had something to eat, some sort of tasty stew and a “potato sausage”. A Polish/Austrian couple later shared our table. We stayed on until well past 9pm, and walked back to our hotel.