Autumn air in Russia is infused with the scent of mushrooms. You can feel them in the city’s countless market squares and on the streets scattered with local vendors trying to make a few extra Rubles by selling their morning harvest of slippery jacks, penny buns or saffron milk caps, which local forests are so rich in. Mushroom foraging is Russian national sport – it’s almost impossible to find a person in Samara who hasn’t been on a porcini quest at least once during the season, and they’d better have a good excuse. After I was told that this year due to mild October temperatures combined with above average rainfall there’s an exceptional abundance of mushrooms in the Oblast (i.e. region) I set off on a trip to Buzuluk Pinewood National Park, the largest woodland of high pine trees in the world, to fill my own basket.
Some raw facts
Buzuluk Pinewood National Park consists mainly of relict pine and mixed pine-deciduous forest crops. It is situated at the border of two climatic zones: steppe and forest-steppe, and its surface area exceeds 1000 sq. km. Approximately half of the forestland is situated in Samara Oblast and half of it lies within Orenburg Oblast. The woodland was officially made into a national park only in 2007 but the grove has been a forestry management area since early 1800s. In addition to its diverse flora with plethora of mushrooms and other edible delights, the national park is a habitat to 55 mammal species such as wolves, foxes, badgers, ferrets, minks, weasels and moose. Bird species include white-tailed eagle, peregrine falcon, great bustard, little bustard, sociable plover and Russian muskrat.
The road leading to the park from Samara is of a decent quality and only after you actually reach the park’s borders it turns into a dirt road. On a dry day it is still perfectly drivable, even without a 4×4 vehicle. Shortly before entering the park there are a couple of small picturesque villages with well-kept colorful wooden houses designed in regional style. There are plenty of such elaborately decorated wooden houses in Samara Oblast but sadly due to time and money consuming maintenance work many of them have fallen into disrepair. By continuing deeper into the park you’ll see a few rather eerie looking deserted human settlements, which may prompt some flashbacks from the Blair Witch Project movie. I’m not sure what they are but, I assume, the villages were abandoned after the area was turned into a National Park and commercial logging and oil drilling was temporarily suspended forcing people to look for employment elsewhere.
Oil exploration and woodland protection
Volga region is rich in petroleum and you’ll see plenty of oil wells when traveling around the oblast. There are 164 well sites in the park, many of them in extremely poor shape – an effect of irresponsible exploitation during Soviet times – which has put the surrounding woodland in great danger of fires. Last spring a local company won the tender for the right to use subsoil resources for exploration and production of raw hydrocarbons within the park area and has made the improvement of well sites and protection of surrounding forest their key priority. This is an important development because since 2010 more than 10% of park trees have died due desiccation and insect pests’ activity caused by extreme weather including hurricane and draught.
This easy day trip out of Samara will reward you for the effort with pleasant hikes, perfectly fresh air and the most dazzling forest vistas. For different reasons any season is a good time to visit but I’d recommend going there during autumn when leaves in the deciduous part of the forest take on any imaginable shade from the color spectrum. The wild abundance of mushrooms (confirmed!) is definitely an additional bonus. If you decided to go there on a wet day make sure you choose an appropriate car, the dirt road seemed solid when dry but it might get a bit mushy after rainfall. Take some food and drinks – there aren’t many pitstop opportunities in the area.