When I told my relatives about my plans for a trip to a swamp, I could feel them silently questioning my sanity. A common belief is that swamps are dangerous. If you don’t get dragged to the bottom, you will be bitten by vipers, stung by hideous insects, or shot dead by an unfortunate hunter. Thank God, at least we are spared of rednecks and alligators! However, if done properly, tracking in the wetlands, particularly Yelnya - the biggest bog in Belarus and one of the largest in Europe, can be a fascinating adventure.
With this question on my mind, I’ve conducted a small research. Belarussians use the word “balota” (usually translated as the swamp) for all three types of marshy wetlands. Language can limit the perception of different ecosystems. Travel and learn new things to understand the world better! Marshes like Lithuanian Čepkeliai are nutrient-rich wetlands that support a variety of reeds and grasses. Swamps like Hutovo Blato are defined by their ability to support woody plants and trees. Yelnya-type bogs are characterized by their poor soil and high peat content, while fens have less peat and more plant life than a bog.
Yelnya is 250 square kilometers wide, an equivalent 2/3 of Minsk width. The fifth biggest bog in Europe pays a high contribution to the Belarusian “Lungs of Europe” image. Peat moss produces 8 times more oxygen than a pine tree forest in areas equal in size. Despite 9000 years of age, it was almost destroyed by melioration and consequent fires in the last century. In 1968, it received the reserve status, and in 2002, it became a Ramsar Wetlands Convention site. Since 2007, volunteers from BirdLife Belarus organization help to build dams to prevent bog from drying. The EU and UNDP opened a visitor centre to promote sustainable tourism in Yelnya as a part of its Belarusian Peat Marsh Support program.
There are two ways to visit Yelnya: arranging a guide from the visitor center for a tough hike through the bog (8 hours to 3 days) or easy standalone tracking through the eco-trail for a couple of hours. The visitor center is located in Miory town. To get there from Minsk, you can take a bus at 8:30 or 18:05, which costs 7-10 € and takes approximately 5 hours. Or you can book a bed in a sleeping carriage to Vitebsk for 5—7 €. It gets to the Miory Train Station at 6:00 in the morning. Getting from Miory to eco-trail is an additional 12 km. There is no public transport option here, and this is the main reason why an individual trip to Yelnya is not a good idea. But, one can always find other options: taxi, hitchhiking, bringing your bike, or even walking is possible.
Before tracking in Yelnya, you need to know several rules: no rubbish throwing, no plant picking, no open fire. It’s better to have knee-high rubber boots, or you might end up travelling barefoot. Water in some lakes at the bog is clean enough to drink it, but it lacks certain minerals and salts. Locals just bring a pickled cucumber to replenish the difference. I recommend bringing a sufficient amount of water and food that you need instead. No need for mosquito repellent – they don’t live here. Warm clothes are a must in any season, but you can also take your bathing suit if the sun is shining. Don’t forget to bring waterproof cases or sacks as they can save your valuables. I wish you a great journey through one of the biggest bogs in Europe!
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