On my weekend off, while on assignment in the eastern part of Poland, I had an opportunity to visit a very special place in the region: the Białowieza forest, Europe’s last remaining primeval forest. The forest covers an area of about 1419 km2 (548 mi 2 ), shared between Poland and Belarus. The area on the Poland side is about 153 km2 (59 mi2). Bialowieza forest plays an important role in the biodiversity of region and the ecosystem processes that it sustains. The Poland’s side of the forest became Poland’s first national park in 1932. It’s been inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1979. Today the park serves many purposes, including nature and cultural conservation, education, and recreation. Surrounded by the Białowieża forest is a small village with its namesake, the Białowieża village. And that’s where I spent the weekend.
The largest city near the forest is Białystok. It’s also a transportation hub in the northeastern region of Poland. So naturally, most visitors without a personal transportation would go through here. There is no plane or train service to/from Białowieża. But there are about four bus companies that run the Białystok-Białowieża route. Voyager is one of these four companies, and was the one I used for the trip to and from Białowieża. The regional bus stops are located next to the taxi waiting area (across the street from the McDonald’s), not in the international bus terminal.
I noticed that most signs at the bus terminal were in Polish only (without English ‘subtitles’). And not many people here spoke English. So for first-time visitors like me, whose Polish is zilch, it could be a bit of a challenge to navigate around. But fortunately, most young Polish do speak English. In fact, I was fortunate to have a young Polish named Kinga to help me find the right bus stop for Białowieża departure. To this kind, bright, and beautiful Polish lady: Dziękuję!
A side note: Białystok is a beautiful city. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to explore and enjoy the city in this trip. But I recommend an overnight (or even few days) stay here if your schedule permits.
As far as I know, bus tickets can only be purchased from the driver. They even have a cute little cash register comfortably sitting next to the driver! My bus was full but ride was quite comfortable. The two-hour trip took me through some very nice scenery of Poland’s countryside. The one-way Białystok-Białowieża ticket was less than $4! You gotta love Poland!
Białowieża National Park
I’ve been told that the forest we see today is what most of northern Europe used to look like in the ancient time. In other words, Białowieza forest is a snapshot of Europe thousands of years ago. It’s also been a breeding ground of the European wood bison (Bison bonasus) that once had their range stretched as far east as today’s eastern Russia and as far west as today’s northern Spain. But that breeding ground has sunken down to the size of the present day Białowieża forest.
Before the forest became Poland’s first national park, it was a hunting ground for kings of Poland, who issued decrees to protect the forest and the wildlife that lived in it, particularly the bison. All seemed to go well until a Russian by name Tsar Paul I came along and created a mayhem in the forest. All that happened when Poland was annexed by Russia following the defeat of Napoleon in 1812. This Paul I guy abolished the existing forest protection, opening the floodgates to out-of-control hunting and abusive exploitation of the forest. As a result, the bison population became endangered. But fortunately, Tsar Paul I didn’t live very long (he died at age 47). His successor, Tsar Alexander I restored some of the protection to the bison in mid 1800s. But between late 1800s and early 1900s, Russian Tsars found big appetite in hunting and decided that all of the primeval forest belonged to them. So the whole forest became the ‘royal hunting ground’! Then soon afterward came the German during WW I. The forest suffered once again. And that lasted until the Polish army regained control of the area. But it was too late. The very last bison had already been killed by German soldiers, Russian looters, or poachers! Now sing with me: “Bad boys, bad boys! Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?“.
Of the three sub-species of European bison, two are extinct! The third one survived only because it had been kept in the zoos elsewhere in the world. Today the relict bison have been reintroduced into their original and natural habitat here at what remains of the Białowieża forest (as well as in some other European countries).
Sighting of bison in this park isn’t very easy and can be expensive. There’s an organization by the name PTTK that offers tours, which can cost well over $100 for a six-hour tour. Also you would have to be out there in the wild before dawn – in the freezing weather of eastern Poland – to get a chance to see the bison having breakfast. Since I didn’t have enough time (or money) for this, I didn’t see any bison in their natural habitat. But I did get to see parts of the primeval forest. In order to walk in the protected area of the forest, visitors are required to be accompanied by a certified guide. In general, the cost of a three-hour guided tour for a group of up to 10 persons is PLN225 or about $60. The more people in your group, the less it’d cost you. Since I was by myself on the tour, I bore the whole cost of the tour. The tour is available all year round. The three-hour tour only coveres a small part of the restricted areas. The six-hour tour go deeper into the forest. No, I didn’t see any wildlife or birds. Yes, most of my body parts felt the cold, especially my nose. But the forest was so quiet and peaceful. There was no one else there, but just my “chaperone” (Barbara, my guide) and I leaving footprints on the ground of this ancient forest. On the way out, Barbara showed me a monument marking the site of a horrific event that happened right here during World War II: about 200 people were murdered by Nazi soldiers at this very site!
The park is home to 786 tracheophyte species, more than 3000 fungi species, and some rare mosses and lichens exist only in this forest. Permanent residents here also include about 120 nesting birds, 59 mammals and tens of thousands of crawling, jumping, flying, or screaming insects. This forest is a treasure for discovery. It’s been estimated that only half of flora and fauna here have been recorded and understood. I could spend an entire year here and walk away with only a fraction of what this forest has to offer.
The village itself has a lot to offer – at least to tourists. There are several ‘nice’ hotels with all the convenience and comfort you can imagine, including spas. There are a few bicycle rental outlets in town. The rental rates are very reasonable. You can rent a bike for the day for less than six dollars! The while this town has the feel of a small village, it offers excellent and classy restaurants. One of my favorite places for tea time or dinner is the Stoczek 1929 Restaurant. The ambient is very warm and classy. The foods and the service were excellent. They even had live music to complement the wonderful dinning experience. For breakfast, Hotel Żubrówka offers a serious feast. Just look at the picture below. The staff at this hotel were very friendly and helpful. In general, I found Polish people to be quite warm, friendly, and helpful, despite the fact that I might have looked like a homeless wondering around without the ability to communicate in the local language!
Białowieża is home to about 2000 people. The town’s history evolves around the forest that surrounds it. So naturally, the main bread and butter of the village is the forest itself, including the tourism that the forest attracts. Walking around the village in the late evening and the early morning hours, especially in the Park Palace area near the ponds, can bring you a healthy sense of peace and tranquility. There are a lot more about this town that I didn’t get a chance to experience. So, it’s been put on my Second-look list, only this time I’ll have to stay a little longer – like a month long!
Next stop: Warsaw!