This all started in Minsk with my CouchSurfing host Alex’s Mum, Olga. Alex wasn’t home from his tutoring work, so Olga thought she would show me some photos of Belarus on the internet. Among a slew of truly stunning landscape shots, a few reached out ad grabbed me. They were of a wetland/bog called Yelnya (Ельня), which was somewhere in Vitebsk Oblast -the administrative region of which the northern city of Vitebsk is the capital. By coincidence, I was next heading to Vitebsk, and thinking wetlands are pretty cool places, I made it a goal to visit this Yelnya.
But where exactly was it? Google threw up images and some blogs, but zero information as to where Yelnya even was, let alone how to get there. I mistakenly got it into my head that it probably was nearby Vitebsk. The information I could glean in Minsk suggested that this was a bad time of year, too cold and I suspected, perhaps too wet underfoot. There are plenty of good reasons why some places should ‘hidden’, or at least ‘off Google’, but this is arguable, not one of them. This post is to help any future travelers who want to walk the Yelnya trail.
So I traveled up to Vitebsk and checked into a hostel. Perhaps the hostel staff would have all the details abut how travellers can get to local attractions? It’s the kind of thing they excel in back home. However, the woman at the reception appeared to be in a prickly mood, or perhaps just had a plain old Soviet hotelier’s attitude towards pesky guests. When I asked her about Yelnya, her response was an abrupt “Get a bus”. When I pushed it with a second question – ‘Were there buses direct to Yelnya?’, I was dismissed with a flick of he hand as she glowered into a computer screen. I guess she was overwhelmed with work. My bunkroom had just me in it, and there were two other guests somewhere in some of the various other rooms. But then, perhaps she was taking seriously the Belarus law that requires accommodation-providers for foreigners to monitor and report all the websites they visit. If so, I was driving this poor woman mad.
So next stop was Vitebsk’s Tourist Information. Surely they had details on Yelnya? Vitebsk is probably northern Belarus’s premier tourist town – and within it, I was in the old centre, a pedestrian-only zone of old buildings scattered around the historic churches. Tourist Ground-Zero in other words. And here a couple of strange things became apparent, which I guess are just … Belarus. Firstly, amazingly, is that the Tourist Information is closed on the weekends. Just when most tourists were on those streets, and, as it happened, I was in town. Secondly, weirdly, the Vitebsk Tourist Information office is about 5 km away from the old town.
So on Monday I set off toward the Tourist Office on a GPS bearing. I’d gone a couple of kilometers before I convinced myself that I had obviously mis-entered a coordinate number. I was heading into a bland suburbia of Soviet apartments and massively wide roads. Nothing remotely touristy about it. But I pushed on and eventually, right where my GPS said it would be – was the Vitebsk Tourist Information office.
I pulled the door open and stepped into … almost complete darkness. Once my eyes adjusted enough, I knocked on the only door visible within the foyer where I now stood. There was no response, so I tried it. It was locked. More by feel, I then moved down a side corridor to an open door. A startled woman at a console gesticulated rapidly towards the next door. There were two women in there, one saying she did speak a little English, but ….
This is a Russian word that I’ve discovered means “Moment – while I pull up the voice to text translator on my iPhone” or, as in this case “Translate on Google”.
Finally I got some useful information. She knew about Yelnya – it was near the town of Miory (Миоры), and I could easily get to it from there. There were buses from Vitebsk to Miory every two hours. That was good news! But the bad news was that it was a four hour trip each way. Wherever Yelnya was in relation to Miory, I wouldn’t get much time on the ground before the day got dark and cold. I thanked the woman and she laughed and apologised for her little English. I set off back towards the Vitebsk tourist area – as light snow began to fall.
Back at the hostel, the reception had changed. There was now a very cheerful and helpful woman, Oksana. She spent some time on Google, but like me, drew a blank on actual information about Yelnya. I retired to my empty bunkroom and opened up GoogleEarth – and soon found Miory. And there it was – the satellite imagery showed Yelnya Bog as clear as day just to the southeast of the town. Better-still, there were a couple of public-added photographs, with one of them apparently accurately located on the Yelnya eco-trail boardwalk. I plotted a route from Miory to this point – unfortunately a series of zig-zags, each of them 2-3 km long (I could probably have walked a slightly shorter route, but at the time it seemed the easiest). It was walk-able if I had a few hours, but maybe I could get a taxi.
Then I had a (rare) brainwave -I noted that the city of Polotsk was about half way between Vitebsk and Miory. Just 70 km from Miory. Polotsk was another tourist town and had an economical hostel. Miory itself was much smaller, had a hotel, but was pricey. But if there were buses every two hours along that road, basing myself in Polatsk would be a much more sensible. It shouldn’t be more than two hours each way. So I reserved two nights in Polotosk at the Hostel Sophia, and wandered down to the bus station and bought a bus ticket for the following day.
On arrival at Polotsk I went straight into the bus station to ask for the times of buses to Miory. And now bad news – there was only one buses from Polotsk to Miory, leaving at 08:49 and arriving at 10:24. Worse, there were only two coming back. One at 06:00 and the other at 14:51. That would give me only four hours on the ground. I wandered out to my hostel, checked in, and then headed back into the town. After a lunch/dinner I found the Polotosk Tourist Information, sensibly located in the centre of town. The woman pulled out some timetables and a sheet of paper and helpfully wrote down my bus options to and from Miory. They were the same as what the bus station had given me – except now there was a later bus back from Miory – at 15:45 pm. That was excellent, it would give me an extra hour – but did it exist? Why would the Tourist Information know more than the bus station itself. What I didn’t yet realise is that the bus station was only giving me times of ‘official’ buses. But in addition to those, there are also fleets of ‘marshrutkas’ – private minibuses. Tourist Information recognises that reality, the bus stations evidently don’t.
The following morning I boarded a large bus heading to Breslav, which would pass through Miory. I was soon passing through a typical Belarus landscape of forests and multi-coloured wooden cabins. As the bus approached Miory – I was too late to realise that we passed the turn off to Yelnya. I didn’t manage to find a taxi and it took me an hour to walk back to the turn off that the bus had passed just minutes before. But then right beside that, I noticed a bus shelter – ‘Черессы’ (Cherecci). That at least presented the option of waiting there for the return bus and hopefully being able to wave it down.
I then plodded down the long straight roads towards Yelnya. Only a single car passed me on the gravel road, at high speed. I had the feeling that it swerved over the road at me, but it may just have been barely under control. I passed a few quiet cabins but neither saw nor heard any signs of people. Eventually I came to the start of a tiny village, just a few cabins on either side of the road. But there, amazingly, was a bus shelter, ‘KAHAXI’ (Kanakhi).
Given the general depopulation of the area, I said to myself that any bus through here was surely only on the fifth Wednesday of any month. As I walked through the village there were still no people, no cars on the streets nor even parked in peoples yards. It would have been creepily quiet, except it wasn’t. Every little cabin seemed to have an extremely aggressive dog. The largest ones were, thank God, tied up and seemed in danger of snapping their necks in an effort to get to me. A group of three smallish ones weren’t tethered, and followed me, barking, but kept their distance. I then spotted just one person – a babushka walking down the path of her cabin, who turned to look at me as she reached her door. I greeted her and said I was heading to Yelnya. I didn’t catch her reply, but the tone was positive, a sort of “Oh Ok, you’re welcome”.
Beyond the village was another long, deserted straight stretch of road. I took mental note of a long hefty stick as I passed it – and then – the entrance to Yelnya! There were several signs there, one of them with a map showing the boardwalk. I walked ten minutes or so along a slightly muddy roadway through low forest, and then came to another sign, a shelter, a long-drop toilet, and a foot-bridge over a sort of canal. On the other side was a lookout tower with no floor at the top – and the start of the 1.53 km Yeldnya boardwalk over the bog.
The wooden board walk winds across a vast open area of what is a slightly domed-up peatland. The surface has moss, small shrubs and dwarfed trees, like pines. It’s an important area for birds. I saw and heard a few in the distance. Yelnya was also the site of a secret Soviet air strip during the Second World War German occupation. Planes could land on the frozen surface in winter. The bog and its surrounding forest also hid a large Jewish group (I wondered if this was where the ‘Bielski partisans’ hid, as portrayed in the Daniel Craig film ‘Defiance’, 2008. It’s not. A Russian movie, ‘Come and See’ (‘Иди и смотри’ 1985), may be, I’m not yet sure).
Along the 2.3 km trail were three information boards and seats. The weather was sunny, only a slight breeze blew and there were no mosquitoes. For the first part of the trail there was no open water – but towards the end, there were some interconnected, picturesque little lakes. The trail itself terminates at a lake, with trees scattered around (see also the Featured Image).
Mindful that I had a long way to go back, I turned around and made my way back to the entrance. Along that last straight I picked up the stick that I noticed earlier. Passing back through the village I saw just one person again – this time it was an elderly chap working in his garden. He saw me, I waved, and he returned it. Then the three dogs arrived. This time they seemed much more confident of themselves, but I held the stick out and they got the message. The bus shelter now had a bike leaning against it, and there was a man sitting on the ground, looking at me. My greeting got dead silence in return, so I kept looking at him until he gave an almost imperceptible nod. As I passed the shelter I looked back, and was stunned to see its bench full of a row of almost identical babushkas (the typical Russian grandmother). All thickly clad in jackets and headscarves. Were there six, seven of them? (It was a photo I’ll always kick myself for not getting). Big stick still in hand, I turned to them and asked –
“есть автобус?” (broken Russian for: “Is there a bus?”)
The reply was something along the lines of “You bet – and here it is right now!” as they pointed over my shoulder. And behind me, like the proverbial mirage in a desert, a hundred meters off – a mini bus was approaching! After explaining that my stick was for the dogs (which they seemed to know already), I asked if it was going to Miory. Yes, it certainly was. I was simultaneously trying to process this amazing bit of luck (it was the only bus coming to Yelnya all afternoon) while one of the babushkas asked where I was from. She looked blank when I told her:
“Новая Зеландия” (Novaya Zealandia, New Zealand)
But after I repeated it a couple of times she finally comprehended my (no doubt thickly-accented) Russian. There then followed a torrent of Russian from several of them which I didn’t follow at all. At that moment the little bus pulled up. I would have love to have got into a conversation, but unfortunately none of them got on the bus. It seemed they were just sitting in the shelter for a good natter.
The bus had just one passenger in it, a middle aged woman. After picking me up, it turned around and headed back along the way I had walked in – but then, alarmingly, it turned away from Miory. We rattled slowly along bumpy roads as I saw Miory getting further and further away. The other passenger was eventually dropped off at a small village and I came up to sit by the driver. I asked him if we would be back in Miory in time to catch that last bus back to Polotsk. ‘Yes – of course!’ the driver gave a big flourish with a free hand, and asked me if I was German or American and was surprised when I said New Zealand. He had travelled to western Europe.
We got back to the Miory bus station at about 3:10 – heaps of time to spare before my 3:45 bus back to Polotsk.
So if you want to visit Yelyna Bog, in Belarus, you have a few options.
A. Yes, you can do it in a day from Polotsk. Get the 08:45 bus towards Braslav, which will get you to Miory at 10:24. From there the start of the Yelnya trail going first east back along the man road is 14.5 km. However, you could go a slightly shorter, 12.5 km, route to the southeast.
Or you could get a taxi. Just be back for the 15:45 bus back to Polotsk.
If walking, you could maximise your time by getting off the bus stop ‘Черессы’, 6.5 km before Miory Bus Station. That would give you an 8 km walk to the start of the Yelnya Trail. The bus back to Polotsk would pass there a few minutes after 15:45. I assume you can flag it down.
You could also factor in the minibus (marshruta) with its stop at Kanakhi, about 3.7 km from the entrance to Yelnya. The driver let me photograph the time table. From what I can make out, there is one that leaves Miory at 06:30 and reaches the Kanakhi shelter at 06:52. The only return trip (which I had fluked bang-on), arrives at Kanakhi at 14:22 and gets back to Miory at 15:10.
B. You could stay a night or two in Miory. There is at least one hotel there.
There is, according to the sign at Yelnya, a visitors centre at Miory. I have no idea of the details.
I would take boots. The entrance track wasn’t really wet when I did it, but it clearly hadn’t rained in a while. However, at one point near the end of the boardwalk, about 10 cm of water was flowing over about a 2 m stretch.