Our Trip to the
Waterlilies of Belarus

Text and photos by Theo Germann
Translation from German by Markus Germann
Click images to enlarge

Belarus? Where exactly is that? And how do you get there?

…and why would someone want to go to Belarus?

Because THERE you can find wild-growing white waterlilies (Nymphaeas)!!

But let's take one thing at a time:

"Are you interested in making a trip to the Pripyat Marshland in Belarus, where wild white waterlilies grow?" Giving me such a question is pointless. My only answer is, "When can we start the trip?"

Hans-Peter, a landscaper friend of mine and a member of our GdW (Society of Watergarden-Friends Germany), is deeply committed in the "Kids of Shitkowitschi" aid organisation. This organisation enables kids who live in the Chernobyl area of Ukraine, suffering from the nuclear disaster in the 1980s, to come over to visit Germany. They are also working on several other social projects in the area of Shitkowitschi, Belarus.

Being a gardener, he has of course a special view for the untouched nature there. The plan to go with a small group on a trip to Belarus was quickly arranged. Quickly … well for a country like Belarus that's a relative term. You need to apply for a travel visa, need a host invitation, and the group shouldn't be too big, as we need private rooms for our tour members. Using Hans-Peter's connections, all the problems were solved and we got a bed for everyone, somewhere …

The cheapest way to get there was a 24-hour long combination of using the plane, taxi and a train. We flew from Frankfurt to Warsaw, Poland, took the night train to Brest, Belarus, followed by a 5-hour-long ride in a mini-bus. 

A few words about Belarus:

On the west side it borders Poland, on the north side Lithuania and Latvia, on the east side Russia, and on the south side Ukraine. The landscape is mostly plains with single hills, not higher than 300 m (984'). The main river is named Dnjepr (Dnieper), and one of its tributary rivers is named Pripjat (Pripyat), which is located in the area with all of its great marshland that we wanted to visit.  

Travelling along the "highway-like" road (just "like", because tractors and horse-carriages are seen there, too), we could already feel that this country has another understanding of time. Traffic was sparse like it is in Germany at midnight. The sometimes the four-lane road was used by every kind of vehicle with at least one wheel. It crossed the almost never-ending landscape where fields of cattle run up to the horizon, and forest - forest - forest. Half of the agriculture is cattle breeding and dairying.

Map courtesy of www.lonelyplanet.com

Our first destination was to pick up our translator in the small village of Lenin. People in Belarus have their own dialect, similar to Russian, and without a translator you are lost. 

The next stop at the city hall in Shitkowitschi was necessary because there is no travelling without having the mayor's stamp in your visa.

Actually the plan was to stay in Lenin, the small village located at the Sluzk River. We thought we would stay there at the homes of several families, mostly without washrooms, and toilets located across the backyard. Mentally we were prepared on that, but our hosts didn't expect this for their German guests.

So we travelled to Turów (Typow), which was closer to the Pripjat Marshlands anyway. We stayed there in an apartment house with four families, the only house around with washrooms inside and hot water (because it's near a heat and power station). No one had to starve, and our "Mamushka" (our host-mom) found a lot of joy in preparing our meals. We started our days with a extensive breakfast of sausage, cheese, sandwiches, fish and many more high-fat treats … a shot of vodka afterwards was a must for us.

Carefully we went over the logs.
Nobody wanted to be the first one to be bogged down.

Now, let's go to the marshland!! Unfortunately the Russian biologist who joined our group couldn't give us much information about the plants, but he was able to show us the place where the forest is marshy … this was where we wanted to go!!

Except one or two tourist points of interests, like a more than one-thousand-year-old oak, there was no path, and we were all happy to have some rubber boots with us. Depending on how close to the marshland or close to the river we were, we found always some plants we knew from our own business at home, just in a greater amount.  

In the typically marshy woods, under alder trees, birches and oak trees, we found several kinds of sedges, water sedge (Carex) in shallow water, marsh trefoil (Menyanthes trifoliata) and frogbit (Hydrocharis morus-rane) floating on the water.

Even in shady places there were lots of yellow water iris (Iris pseudacorus), calamus (Acorus calmus) and water arum (Calla palustris). In other places there were, as far as you could see, vegetation of Sphagnum moss with big moss-berries - Vaccinium macrocarpon. In August you can pick the dark-red berries and use them for marmalade or liquor. I doubt that it's good to harvest them here, because you can see radioactivity warning sights all over. You should not collect mushrooms or berries in this area. Regardless, we saw people selling berries next to the road.

A boat trip took us to some branches of the Pripyat River and to our first white waterlilies. It was a special moment, seeing the waterlily blossoms like a thousand diamonds on the never-ending water, the camera clicks seemed not to end …

We found typical shallow water plants like mare's tail (Hippuris vulgaris) arrowhead, (Sagittaria), blooming flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) at the edge of the river. Bitterweet solanum (Solanum dulca mara) twined through the bushes and pond lilies (Nuphar lutea) mixed with waterlilies.  

Wild white waterlilies near the little town of
Lenin on the Sluzk River

The city of Turow is located between Pripyat River branches on a hill; the vegetation there is exposed to extreme periodic water level variations. We found huge amounts of water-fennel (Oenanthe fistulosa), mixed with mare's tail and arrowhead.

We were always tempted to make breaks on our day trips. The landscape is untouched and worth seeing everywhere. We found especially interesting vegetation near Lenin at the Sluzk River. The whole river landscape is hilly and streaked with very old oak trees between small and large ponds with wild white waterlilies. It made a very special view, looking from above into those ponds with their almost black water and uncountable white blossoms.

Next to the ponds, on the top of the hills, we could see thyme (Thymus) and mouse-ear, also called hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella), the perfect place for a lunch break with fish soup and smoked meat.

I have to say thank you to Hans-Peter. We always had everything we needed on our trip, enough food and vodka. Even the expected mosquitoes were nice to us; we did not need the chemical repellent we brought.  

Never-ending Typha vegetation
at Tscherwonje Lake

There are not a lot of tourists in Belarus, but there should be because the nature is unique. "Cautious tourism" could be a good source of income.

You can find a slide show with great pictures of our trip on our German homepage www.wassergarten.de. Click on Fotoshow here: Neu: Abenteuer Weissrussland - Die Wassergartenfreunde in den Sümpfen von Prypiat hier die Fotoshow (6.64M download)

Profile - Theo Germann

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