As we begin the final kilometres to peak the 2025m high climb the snow becomes terrible and the road worse still. The fog is heavy. Black and white are the only colours we can see in this foggy overworld. Ski chairlift structures emerge through the haze but no skiers are to be seen. An old yellow bus trundles past at a walking pace on the single-lane farm track. Now the iced over puddles crack as the wheels crash through the frosted mud and nearly push me and the bike over the edge of the pass and in to the white noise abyss.
When we arrive at the top the snow is piled two metres high and it was time to tighten the brakes, don down jackets, gloves and sock-gloves and get started on the descent. But not before being stopped by some older men driving by. One wore a shotgun over his shoulder and asked if I wanted vodka, but since every move of my fingers felt like a frosted crack I voiced for the teetotal option. “No no!” He cried “You must”, he ran back to his car and carried what the fog only revealed to be a brown lump. As he drew closer this brown lump turned out to be a dead eagle and there I was posing for a photo with him.
It was remarkably light for such a powerful animal. This magnificent creature shot down by some vodka-fuelled Georgians driving over the wild pass. The sadness of this later struck me. Over the last few thousand kilometres I had ridden alongside many eagles soaring high above or below gliding through the valleys, and had thought of their stoical struggle through the winter. The eagle had become a bit of a symbol of beauty on the trip, and as such this foolish shutter-happy behaviour on the pass summit was not the proudest moment of my life.
We were in Georgia. Leaving Batumi we cycled through puddles collecting the incessant rain of three days and continued up the valley of a river in to the mountains of the autonomous region of Adjara. After the open dry plains of Turkey and winter of Europe Georgia felt like a tropical hinterland, it’s greens lush and the rivers gushing.
The pass we were now summiting was 2025m high and the last 30km had been off road: a muddy farm track on which it wasn’t the potholes to look out for but the sparse few flecks of level rocks to ride over. We hadn’t expected this surface, nor had we prepared a feast for the day, making the generous offering of some tar-black coffee from a Georgian on the ascent all the more nourishing.
Shortly after the black of the coffee arrived the white of snow. And hail down it did as we approached the top. Towns rapidly diminished as did the road surface and the temperature cooled to chill our fingers and toes once more. The situation seemed desperate: no food, I had no serious gloves but socks, it was well below freezing and there was no infrastructure up here. Our brake pads too were not well-equipped for the ragged corners of the off-road descent.
But the trickle of cars that passed us would stop for a chat in broken Russian and cheer us on. The sheer rarity of being on that pass in those conditions on a bicycle seemed to bring a smile to most faces. A group of young lads stopped and rooted for a group picture and facebook befriending, suddenly the backdrop of desolate mountain had changed: this scene of boyish humour and back-slapping didn’t seem possible only moments before. Eagles, shotguns, snow corridors, it was all happening on the peak of the pass. We continued on down and in to the first village we could find.
The snow was settling now and we needed shelter. We found it but at a hefty price. A derelict building next to a stream in the hub of the town, piles of rubble and dusty rotting bricks sat in the first room, taking on the novel usage as a public toilet. The warmest and most hidden room was at the back of the building. This room was termed the black hole: the mass of cobwebs hanging from the low ceiling, lack of natural light and a floor made of cow manure contributed to this image. And as we later set up the stove a bat flew out and hung upside down from the rafters, the Russian-termed ‘flying-mouse’ glaring at us and screeching to help it sense through the black hole. But it was better to have no sense data in there. The place was literally a shithole.
We left sharp the next morning.
Georgia was refreshing: people appear blunt, smiling isn’t a popular past time. But they are simply friendly without the trimmings, hospitable beyond belief offering us cognac shots while we rode past small foothill villages. We stopped in one petrol station on a main road and the attendant was shaving, stopping mid-stroke to answer our request; often cars are brandless or the cubic Lada, relics of their soviet past; military vehicles standing out on the hillsides, debris of recent conflicts with Russia; cows ambled along these lanes, often galloping in surprise or staring as they blocked passage; there were no barriers on the cliff-face roads and ancient rocky bridges formed crossings over the rushing muddy water of the river below; the petrol stations consisted of a hut with a pump, the intercontinental giants of the oil world unmissable throughout our trip were curiously absent in the Georgian mountains.
We sped through to Tbilisi, the capital, a place of intrigue since entering this unique country. Georgia doesn’t fit with Europe geographically, separated by the monolithic nations of Russia and Turkey; it doesn’t align with Asia ethnically or religiously. It has a language and alphabet of it’s own: forming the basis of an independent family group, disconnected from the Turkic and Indo-European groups that include Turkish, Baltic, Slavic, Hindi, Germanic and Latin. The people have characteristically Georgian features: exhibiting facial structures of remarkable similarity. Even the spice selection for the excellent meals was incomparable: a milder version of Asian cuisine but rich, earthy and varied.
The Russian land mass was once detached from the Turkish. As the two tectonic plates they sit on collided the Caucasus mountains were formed in what is essentially a continuation of the Himalayas. These mountains now form a natural border for Russia, and a continuation of the once separate lands continues.
The Caucasus are home to a tight concentration of ethnically diverse peoples, the recent conflicts over these mountains stem from a range of factors but partly date back to a period in which Stalin displaced entire ethnic populations, the Chechens after a revolt in the 1940s for example. After 1956, under Khrushchev, they were eventually permitted to return to their homelands to find home and property occupied by others. The region is politically fragmented quite unlike anywhere else in the world, the mountains and extreme terrain playing their part in these conflicts too. We saw many military vehicles lining the road, now being utilised for more peaceful means.
From Georgia we headed to Azerbaijan, a country yielding no expectations. We rode through fast in order to maximise our time to wade through the bureaucratic swamp that is Central Asian visa territory and give presentations to some schools in Baku, the capital. And this is where I write this now. In the living room of some teachers at one of the schools, two ex-Peace Corps volunteers with excellent stories from Senegal and Turkmenistan.
A shop we passed in Azerbaijan sold inflatable footballs next to a cow mid-butchering, a blade being glided underneath the leathery skin. This for me sums up why bike touring is what it is. You see a country without filter, the shepherd who walks past your campsite as you wake, whistling to his two hundred sheep is just as important as the spectacle of a famous mosque in the heart of the capital. Your view takes it all in from entry to exit, unobscured by guide books or hotel recommendations. You sleep on the floor of a kind cafe owner you’ve just met or watch the butchered cow strung up next to children’s toys in the apricot glow of an early morning sunlit town square, and it all colours in your picture of a place. You see the natural borders and the subtleties of change emerge passing over a river or mountain range, sometimes yielding more change than the border of a nation. And one thought surfaces buoyantly above any other. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Kind acts offered from mechanics, lorry drivers, lawyers, shop owners. People on the whole are decent folk, trying to get by wherever they are, extending kindness to some passing bike riders.
We arrive in Capadoccia, a site full of magnificent rock formations and the sculpted cave monasteries carved out of them. It is where George Lucas is said to have got inspiration for his Star Wars films (the planet Tatooine especially).
As I sat in a caf in Göreme centre in the early morning sipping the distinctive Turkish rose-shaped glass of tea it is raining and only Turkish locals sit under the canopy with me, one wears a Sherpa jacket and another a black rain jacket with a balloon symbol on the back, hot air balloon rides are the big business in town. The rain pelts down with the certainty of an overnight downpour. A cat is chased under a collection of chairs outside the adjacent café by three dogs. The cat is cornered, hissing at them vehemently and the dogs are braced expectantly, tongues hanging out. It’s my guess that all the animals are stray. The man next to me dressed in paint-streaked and fur-lined denim jacket and dusty boots shouts at the dogs, interrupting the attack and suddenly they scamper off calmly. The cat waits for thirty seconds then rushes out from under the table. It’s the second time I’ve seen this kind of cat protection from locals.
While in Cappadocia we met Will, a fellow bike tourer. He had set out from Limerick, Ireland around the same time we had, in January, and had been riding since on a trip that would take him around the globe. After a day in Capadocccia we continued on together, heading from the central plateau to a north coast which promised warmer winds and the mystery of the Russophile Black Sea.
This company was welcome: Will was an excellent lad and had some stories that he told with obvious relish, kindled in the growing length of hindsight.
One involved arriving in a Romanian village late one evening, being invited in to a local man’s house only to be poked on the helmet emphatically then shown a bucket of chicken broth with chicken breast floating in it. The man then started to rub his crotch violently while pointing to the bucket. He left and ended up camping in the rubbish-strewn seclusion behind a billboard, this was certainly type 2 fun: only to be enjoyed after the event.
While we stayed in Capadoccia Will was unfortunate enough to get attacked by a pack of dogs and bitten, meaning the continual schedule of Rabies jabs throughout the rest of his month in Turkey. Even this he took with what seemed typical acceptance and a deal of good-natured patience. We made sure there was a beer waiting for the man after his first immediate shot and got on the road the next morning
The three of us rode out in to Turkey once more, setting up three tents in a stealthy section of meadow, sharing the reminiscent joys of talking to female tourists in the cities: trying to pass off this mad quest as something more than a collection of showerless weeks and mornings telling your riding partner to wipe chocolate spread off his face, while concealing the filthy socks you have used as gloves all week. We spoke of the joys: revelling in a well-earned bowl of pasta outside camp, set up in the recently shadowed base of sunset-fired snowy peaks. Lengthy discussions ensued about the selection of biscuits in Turkey and we spoke of the harder moments: times when you want to weep as you sit in the dark rain and realise comfort is a far sight.
The sun would set and the symphony of calls to prayer from the dotted surrounding villages would begin. But between these three living on the road we laughed around the stove as it failed to heat up the culinary delights of half-raw rice and three stock cubes, and we recalled the untamed delights of Eastern Europe, Turkey and trying to imagine what was promised further East. We had each had a stint alone on the bike, which made this company all the warmer and the laughter the heartier.
We parted as we approached the northern mountain ranges of Turkey and Will headed for Iran. The great web of political playground talk going on above our heads would form an obstacle to our entry in to Iran, something for David Cameron and his band of merry men to try and fix, this was a country Josh and I had been looking forward to most. Being British (or American or Canadian currently) would not allow us easy access to the heart of the Persian empire without the compulsory aid of an Iranian tour guide, but Will’s Irish passport had a fresh Iranian visa in it so we parted and saw the back of him, cycling away on to a slip road and in to the unknown.
There was something that made me stop for a moment. Seeing his small frame set against the mountains and shadowed valleys behind, the sound of lorries thundering over the dual carriageway he was entering, and it got me thinking of his trip around the planet on two wheels. Seeing that figure ride off in to Turkey’s by now distinctively epic scenery made me consider bike touring as a whole. His figure tiny, landscape massive; him putting in great effort, landscape powerful, passive and unyielding beyond. And he was heading around the globe; to Australia, across South America and on to Africa heading north back to Ireland. This guy we had come to know over the last few days was to pit himself against what the world had to offer: the weather, the people, the deserts and mountains that he would cross. What stories would the lines on his face tell next time I saw him?
A couple of phenomenal mountain passes separated us from the northern coast: alpine hillsides to finalise the diverse scenic spectrum of Turkey and we descended for 60km off the plateau and down to the Black Sea, visiting some extraordinary cave temples en route at Sumela. And with that our Turkish excursion was almost over. Georgia, Azerbaijan and the post-Soviet Stans to come.
Lying in a tent somewhere on the Black Sea. I can hear waves crashing on the shore and rain drops spattering on to the outer surface of the tent. Blanket like cumulus clouds cover the scene to the horizon over the dark sea, small openings provide bright white patches among the quilted sky. There is a small cliff above us with bare wintry branches silouetting this grey sky and dimly lit houses crest the hill of the clifftop village.
This scene is so incongruous with my vision of Turkey. This all feels very close to home, very familiar. My idea of Turkish landscapes has been slowly crafted during the last few weeks to mean vast open undulating plains at high altitude. The steppe-like plateau of central Turkey, open only to silence and the occasional shepherds call. Wild, natural beauty of unprecedented epicicity. The Jesus zone has not disappointed, and now the sound of the waves brings me back down to earth.
Josh and I had a crash. As we were riding out of a town one morning and a dog started to dash towards us. Josh stopped to throw stones and I hit his back wheel and fell down on to the road.
What I can remember is sitting on the road with my head in my hands. The sun was bright above me, almost piercing a hole in my head while confusion filled it. Josh walked towards me and I asked to be left for a second as my head hurt, but I didn’t completely recognise him. He asked when we had met. I said yesterday. But at this point we had been together for over three weeks. He tried to restrain his surprise but I could tell in my confused state that something wasn’t right. He asked if I remembered anything else. Nothing. Didn’t have a clue what country I was in.
It was like being landed in the middle of Turkey. ‘Waking up’ during a large cycle trip across continents.
You gradually get used to the difficulties, the risks and dangers. To awake in to all of that was overwhelmingly stark, like raw skin exposed to heat, the skin is much more sensitive to it; as was I more sensitive to the fact that we were strangers in this place, putting a lot of trust in the wilds and locals of Turkey. And that faculty of trust took a few minutes to return. In the same way when you enter a new country it takes a while to trust people. Then a warm person behaves in an exceptional way and the landscape loses its edge. How can this place be foreboding when old car mechanic I spoke to lives here? They’ve got my back.
Within minutes Josh, being a decent practical bloke an’ all, had the map out. The holy map of Antioch. It becomes the lifeline of the trip in a lot of ways. You come to live by it. And it becomes the anchor of your awareness, the first way in which you experience the land. After seeing the map thoughts started re-emerging rapidly. I was in Turkey, we had been together over a week, I wanted to see photos to jump the start the memory. The bike was at first an alien sight, then it dawned on me what we were doing and I wanted to ride right there.
Some Turkish men had approached us by this point having seen the crash. They were talking to us and as they left I said “Tesheke”, Turkish for thank you. This instinctive reaction brought back vivid memories and life on the road could start again. We rode another 10km that day which seemed to stand as the best treatment: re-aligning a cloudy mind with the wholly familiar.
Most of Turkey sits on a vast plateau around 1000m in altitude. As we climb on to this plateau massive landscapes of mountains and ridges stretch outc before your eyes. The roads climb up and hug ridges, allowing you to see well across valleys towards the next range of hills, a distance of over 100km. Hills that send you speeding down as though slingshotted, trying to take a photo as you descend. The undulating farmland prior to Istanbul has been replaced by mountainous fiery volcanic rock opened by quarries and their exploratory diggers.
Awesome is for once the right word. The landscape on the plateau is reminiscent of the Mongolian steppe. As we leave Eskisehir the Turkish plateau starts to unveil itself from it’s mountainous gates and hundreds of miles unfold in front of the eye, enveloping all manner of canyons, hillsides, small mud-hut villages, distant whistling shepherds, their grazing flock and tarpaulin covered shacks.
Whenever you think of the bible, Jesus wandering across some plain, this is the kind of scenery that it evokes. Dry grassy plains amid red canyons and far off singular snow-topped volcanoes. Biblical setting and epic in scale, the scenery is open and vast, a naked landscape of nature untouched. It is hard to imagine any humanity existing whatsoever on the plateau amongst such a quiet wilderness. But exist it does and we pass towns on hills and petrol stations with differing styles of mosques: the former with tall elegant minarets overlooking the terracotta roof tiles of the town, the latter a corrugated metal shed with a Turkish flag and a megaphone. In one town a man calls open-armed and smiling out of his window “Hello”.
We stopped in a town called Yunak for some bread and tea. The shop owner sets us up with a table and chair, and buys us some apricots. His friend stands in the shop and speaks good English. They are charming and tell all of the customers that come in about our trip. As we leave the friend says “Good luck… I hate Mourinho!” with a smile. There were many such encounters in Turkey and countless cups of tea or fresh apples handed to us by locals, often followed by a “afiyet ulson” (buon appetit) and a shrug. When I had dreams of travelling as a teenager, my naive fish-bowl mind had never imagined far parts of the world to be so welcoming.
There are a few certainties in life: death, taxes and the impossibility of walking in to a club and immediately attracting the attention of three gorgeous Ukrainian women uninvited. This was the case on our last night in Istanbul, they sat at our table and opened by talking flirtatiously and seemed both amiable and keen to get us on to the dance floor with them.
We had got chatting to a guy who had suggested going to a traditional club, innocently trusting him we made our way across the red-carpet and through mirrored corridors to a dark underground bar. Alarm bells were ringing in my head as soon as peanuts were set down on our table but now that these model-esque girls were trying to charm us the full beacon of ‘scam’ had been lit. This was no ordinary club. I walked in to the toilet to speak to Josh, my cycling partner. ‘This isn’t legit’ I said. ‘I know I’m putting all my money in my shoe’, was his response.
Our host, if you can call him that, experienced none of the spectacular lack of selective criteria the girls we sat with employed. And as a result he repelled not one but two women from our company. Even if he did brandish a face as unsymmetrical, short of actual deformity, as he did we would still have expected the girls to humour him. But they did not. Which led to further suspicions from Josh and myself
When we got back to the table drinks had already been bought and we were told they were not expensive. After some time we made eye signals and got ready to leave, our snake of a guide slipping out to get the ‘bill’ and there we are standing at the entrance opposite the club owner being asked for 2000 Lira (£500), an extortionate price for Turkey. Even this manager seemed pretty vexed at his stealthy club rep, for this dumb personification of a skid-mark had probably brought the two most penniless tourists in Istanbul to the bar, a couple of cycle tourers living off noodles and the classic nutella and bread combo. We paid what we had, a mere fraction of what they asked for, and walked out of there quickly, both prepared to run.
These conflicts have been known to go astray and end in no safe way. At the beginning of our week we had met a couple of British guys who were chased out of a club with a hammer after a similar experience. It seems that the strays weren’t the most dangerous dogs to watch out for in Istanbul. One thing was clear. It was time to leave, and the simple life of the road where the Turks would show warm hospitality was a prospect of great appeal. We both now had fire in the feet to get back on two wheels.
I don’t want to put a bad spin on Istanbul, this could have happened in any major city, and it is indeed the hospitable nature of the Turkish people that perhaps made it so easy to trust another with a hidden motive.
During our time we had spent days meeting a host of great people: a cyclo-journalist full of empathy for our trip and the love-hate relationship with the bike, he had written a book about his mountain bike voyage across the length of the Rockies, the longest such race in the world; a local journalist keen to get a story for a Turkish daily, passionately talking of the complex political story unfolding in her country; a charming literary agent with a knowledge of the best bars through couchsurfing; and Brits with more than a wealth of travel experience and mental stories.
The cosmopolitan city had delivered: hours sitting in the calm atmosphere of mosques, beautiful Arabic inscriptions intermingling with the blue floral paintwork of the interior domes hanging loftily over the prayer hall; the swaying of tea sellers in the Grand Bazaar as they carry their silver trays of rose-shaped glasses of chai between throngs of tourists; the energetic rhythm of the gipsy band as the female lead singer laments that one man is not enough but seven will do to the backdrop of clarinet, accordion and the midnight chime.
I sit within a park at a fountain in the more traditional Fatih district: three couples of middle-aged men sit by me on three benches while the water cascades in it’s central stone bowl. Despite their varying dress code from suits to paint-glittered decorating gear they all sit discreetly shuffling prayer beads in the palm of their hands, sliding the fingers from one bead to the next as they speak to each other.
We set off and head for the plateau that is Turkey, hospitality reigns and we are delighted by the Turkish people as often as we find a Turkish town. On our second day a van pulls over in front of us twice and as Josh is lining up the appropriate volley of reprimands out steps a beaming treasure of a man apparently more pleased to see us than most of our own family would be. He was definitely a two-handed handshake kind of gent, very earnestly happy and enthusiastic about our cycle trip to China as he asks loudly what we are doing. We followed his beaming smile as he walked round to the boot and opened it to find hundreds of bottles inside. He hands us what we think is honey and some shampoo ‘All completely natural ingredients. You need energy!’ He says and points to my legs. I rub my belly in confirmation and he laughs, wildly patting it too.
On the same day we are looking for a campsite as dusk prepares to fall. We approach a couple of farmers in a tractor and ask if they would recommend camping in a disused barn, ‘no you must not’, they say, ‘follow me’.
We do and end up on a construction site, large metallic chicken feed containers have been erected for the flood of chickens soon to enter this farm-in-the-making. The owner of the farm approaches us, the brother of the tractor driver, and tells us ‘Because you are foreigners you can stay. If you were Turkish…’ We are delighted and set up the tents in a large breeze block warehouse.
As we wake in the morning builders are mixing cement with spades and setting fire to the packet to warm their early morning frosted fingers, asking if we want anything. I draw a hacksaw on the palm of my hand for some bike repairs but the search for one fizzles after repeated attempts by these workmen.
None can speak English but it doesn’t stop them asking us if we would like some chai. We sit among nine workmen on as many breeze blocks around a long and low wooden table to take part in a tradition that must be as ancient as it is universal. Tea is poured from the kettle to each of us and a box of sugar cubes are handed out. Some guys have the rose-shaped glasses, some not and the banter is clearly being handed round in thick spadefuls. The son of one man is talking the most English, and when he says a few phrases his dad pats him on the back and makes a joke in Turkish, to which the son suddenly spits out his mouthful of tea all over the table and a hysterical laugh resounds among our hosts.
The Turkish hospitality was certainly making it’s mark on two tired riders, we could not pass through a town without being bought something by a local: tea, Turkish delight, some coffee, often without a word being said by them but a ‘bon appetite’. Every driver that passed us tooted in encouragement and people everywhere waved and smiled a ‘merhaba’ (hello). We had met up safely, the boys were on the road, our introduction to Turkey was complete and life was good.
I woke up at 5am ready to ride over the mountain pass that would lead in to Sofia. I was not certain it would be open as there had been rain in the last few days, which could equate to snow on the top. But open it was and as I rode through the fog it revealed ‘отворен’ road signs, my staggering mind gradually translated these new Cyrillic letters and I prepared for the long road ahead. Someone packed with as many dried dates as I do must be able to get over the 1437m. As I ride up the road is perfect, a previous concern punctured, oak and pine forests channel the road like a long corridor winding up and over what had seemed a snow-topped wall from the valley below. On the route up were multiple taps built in to lay-bys which use diverted stream water. I stopped to use one and run across the road to fill up my bottle, when I look back at my bike I see how small it looks set against the rest of the landscape, the steep walls of this enclave of mountain giving way to the distant plains below. It is leaning against the road barrier taking up less than a speck of my view. And yet there is everything I know. The only thing not an unknown in this vast space. The place where I spend 12 hours everyday, it carries my house, my food and any chance I have of staying warm off the bike. To be honest I had been psyching myself up for the ride, unsure if road or snow conditions would allow it. But I was in luck, perfect weather and stunning vistas weren’t the only joys the ride would bring. As I neared the top a voice popped up next to me and asked where I was from. Enter Iveta, who I would find out rode this climb every day, and had last week been chilling her hands on the -12 degree descent. She ran a family business collecting forest fruits and making products from them including jam, which was soon revealed filling a cake in an effort to funnel sugar in to the body. The area Iveta lived in provided ample mountain biking opportunities, the Starra Planina stretched in a ridge from the pass we took and that morning clouds clung to its peaks like giant fluffy sombreros. We finished the climb together and chatted about her ambitions to become a mountain biker. It is remarkable the boost in morale an exchange like this can bring, almost forgetting I was in the final kilometres as we realised we had a whole meadow of common ground and shared a coffee and (of course) a selfie on the high point of the pass. The snow was piled on top amid the forest, and the view in to the valley gave way to an enormous plain. I set off again, all the better for a chat with a like-minded soul, and aim to increase my ascending speed tenfold at points on the descent. A few hours later Sofia sits in front of me and as I descend the last hill in to the city The Rolling Stones hammer in to my headphones as I hammer down the pedals. I’m breaking the 60km speed limit dodging potholes as I ride, each one carries the death penalty. The wind rushes over me and clings to everything I wear. I can see the entire city of Sofia lying in the plain before me while snow-capped mountains block the far horizon.
Sofia possesses a standard feature of the Eastern Europe I had come to know, Soviet-inspired concrete blocks standing in armies at the entrance to the city. These buildings, locally termed Panelki, are unromantic and ooze functionality and strength. Massive imposing structures, these cubic concrete jungles cut the view of the snowy peak of Vitosha Mountain as I enter the city. I am met at the apartment of my couchsurfing host by Ivo, an architecture student in the city who also feels a thrill for riding a bike. Ivo didn’t live at the apartment but had travelled in to town to let me in, he was a friend of my host. We sit on the floor of the lounge, eating the remainder of the feast I had bought that morning. We chat and it soon becomes clear that we will spend a lot of time together in the next few days while I stay in the city.
From what I am told the quality of life in Bulgaria was in a much better state during the Communist time than immediately after. ‘Everyone had a job then, everyone could work.’ The budget for science and technology research was highly prioritised and the country was known as the Silicon Valley of the Eastern Bloc. ‘But corruption was inherited from Communism’ Ivo tells me.
Uniquely, after the fall of Communism Bulgaria’s crime syndicates were often run by wrestlers, the word wrestler (борец) synonymous with a mafia-man. Before 1990 these wrestlers were frequently bodyguards for politicians and when the spoils were divided up in the first democratic years many of these wrestlers went on to take high ranking positions in the mafia. ‘You can see everything on the street here, everything is so open’ Ivo says, ‘Most businesses have to pay protection money.’ There has been over 100 assassinations in Bulgaria in the recent ten years, thought to be among mafia figures and high-ranking businessmen or politicians (including an ex-Prime Minister), with only one conviction. These are frequently committed in broad daylight in the capital’s centre.
After our scraps of bread we head out in to the city and sink a few cans of Bulgaria’s finest. Despite the dark image of a corrupt government and open crime the city has a very friendly atmosphere and it was easy to approach strangers in the street, ask for a cigarette and start to chat. Something I would feel across Bulgaria, one of the friendliest countries I would travel through and not once did I feel unsafe. The Bulgarians I met were spirited and had a strong sense of cultural identity as well as an enthusiasm for artistic events.
A few more Baba Marta bracelets (the Spring Festival) later and we had come to the open grass spaces outside the National Theatre and the Monument to the Soviet Army, a recurring site of politically-minded graffiti. In 2011 the soldiers in a statue on the site were painted as comic characters including Superman and The Joker, with a caption reading ‘In Step With the Time’, more recently to raise awareness for the Ukrainian revolution in 2014. Bulgaria was largely an agricultural society in the late 40’s but by the 1980’s it had become the ‘Silicon Valley’ mentioned, Ivo explains that in order to achieve this ‘the government had encouraged migration to Sofia and other big towns’, causing the eruption of these Panelki so noticeable on the city’s fringes. Plovdiv is a city further East and demonstrates a well-preserved historic old town, ‘in Sofia I feel like a rat in a cage, when I go to Plovdiv I feel like a Bulgarian.’ That having been said the city centre displays some remarkable architectural beauties. As I had seen across Eastern Europe, magnificent city centres interspersed by the relics of Communist rule.
The pair of us stayed at Daniela’s, my host’s apartment. Daniela, another gem, generously bought the two tipsy jokers some burgers on her return from work late that night and we chatted until even later. Leaving Sofia was a sad occasion, but only because I felt so at home there. Sometimes the hardest part of your day is leaving in the morning, friendships spring up quickly and naturally. I’d met many people on the trip who were open-minded and would happily echo Mark Twain’s words that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice’, and my hosts in Sofia were no different.
On my last morning I sat with Ivo outside the apartment preparing my bike. As an elderly woman, a ‘Baba’ reminiscent of the Russian Babushka, walked past in to the bright sunshine of the morning Ivo told her in Bulgarian I would now cycle to China, “Oh ok. Have a nice day” was the response. We embraced and made bold statements about the next time we would see each other. Whenever it would be it would not be soon enough. The sun was high in the sky and I pedalled out in to some manic streets with a coffee-infused hangover before reaching the outskirts of Sofia. I was overjoyed to have spent time with Ivo, Daniela and Iveta. The solitude of the task ahead was made so much easier by these exchanges and the memories they would ferment.
Today something changed. I feel like anyone does when they realise their life has become a vague representation of what they hoped it would, only coloured in with the sights, sounds and smells: the details you can never expect.
I rode out of the Carpathians and mounted a final hill climb to bring me back to the Danube. Climbing up the zig-zag bends the bushy landscape quietens as your legs pump away. A few men holding rifles sit in a hut but jump out when I ride past, cheering and pumping fists while eagles that had soared high above become level with my eyesight, their cry is the only sound I hear.
Descending through bushy forests and seeing the Danube river once again reminds me of the journey, the distance travelled as well as Bratislava, where the great vein of water first flowed next to me. And what a great time I had there: the wonderful people I met sending me off with a week’s worth of food, wine bottle and all; my freezing hands while following the river; the role that stretch of water had to play in the city’s story of the second world war: a natural chasm between the guns of Russia and Germany.
The river I now saw divides different mountain ranges and different countries, it no longer washes over the flat plains of Hungary where I left it last. All these things come over me while I look out at this beautiful landscape and yet another country before me, Serbia is on the far shore. Another unknown. The river is somehow familiar after the troubles of Romania. Dogs and bears and tough times in the mountains lay behind me for now at least and I feel once more ‘at home’ on the bike.
The Danube forms the base of a vast gorge, and rockfalls block sections of road. The Romanian section of this National Park I ride through is called The Iron Gates, whose image is not lost on me, dark granite cliffs and grey scree slopes leading down to the riverside pass on which I travel. Large blocks of bricks and mortar stand derelict and idle, perhaps old quarry buildings or Soviet infrastructure, only adding to the sense of epicness and emptiness of the open scenes of the gorge. Water rushes through streams and rivulets, at times excavating huge valleys through the mountains and the natural beauty overwhelms me. I am touched emotionally too. This vulnerable position I am always in is momentarily revealed and I am thankful I have made it this far safely and the river’s regular companionship wraps me like a hug from a mate. I camp within a few metres of the water and listen to this creature’s waves hit the shore, it will soon be a memory: a nostalgic image to remind me of Europe. I feel at one with nature, with these crashing mountains with the sunset the colours the waves and the winding road along these rocky banks. I am alive.
Through Germany and Sweden I felt like I had been holding the reins to a carriage being carried by some wild beast, a mad horse or a cheetah. In southern Czech Republic I was finally able to camp in relative warmth and sit out having a torch-lit picnic next to a lake and find out how useful my star map would be. I felt like I’d dropped the reins to this crazed beast and could relax, gliding along at a comfortable speed in positive temperatures. It was just that sort of comfort which allowed for the step in to Romania: a land of cattle wandering the road and gate-less railway crossings.
You get used to the bike, to the dangers, to not knowing where you will sleep as anyone gets used to a job: to the responsibilities that end up resting in the hands of an engineer or train driver. Your brain starts to isolate new risks and forget ongoing ones, perhaps it would blow a fuse up there if not. I have been obsessed with dogs or lorries or cold temporarily as they become more serious. Lying in the tent with your iPod waiting to play The Sex Pistols to scare off an adventurous bear in the night. This ride can at times feel like a management of these hazards as you ride through different landscapes, constantly trying to figure out what is currently most life threatening.
I pass through Serbia for less than 24 hours but am moved by the kindness of the people, I find myself being bought petrol for my stove and tanned drivers stopping to help without being asked. More encouraging toots from drivers on the road, spreading their own version of the cheer heard from most sports events. The weather was thawing as I travelled further south and so were the people. ‘The frozen people of the UK and their stern faces hiding an undoubtable sense of humour’: this was the opinion of the people I now passed.
When I arrive in Bulgaria I am lucky enough to find a cash machine in a small village and withdraw what feels like my lifeblood. I find a tiny but essentially stocked village shop and sit drinking coffee and eating something akin to bird food, unsure if muesli is an acceptable meal in this new place. People mill about the shop smiling and saying ‘dobre’, the Slavic word for good. I am clearly something of an anomaly, donned in helmet and luminous jacket, salt crusted on my forehead where the sweat has dried. The shop owner, a lady used to laughing, approaches and calmly wraps a red and white string bracelet over my wrist, ‘Baba Marta’ is a sweet tradition. On the 1st of March the locals wrap the same coloured bracelets around the wrists of friends and strangers, marking the birth of spring. If you’re to see a stork with a red beak you must wrap this bracelet round a tree branch and at times these wooden arms standing in the city parks have thousands of red and white bracelets racked upon them.
As I cross from Romania to Serbia to Bulgaria I have little currency and as a result eat only a handful of peanuts. I trawl along, watching donkeys overtake me and finally make the Bulgarian border. An experience which has become a staple of the trip: standing in the rain while the border guards ask where I’m headed. China. The double takes, the laughter, the look of smiled surprise from a passing lorry driver. I am used to this now, joke with them and ask what the next word for thank you is: Takk, Danke, Děkuji, D’akujem, Köszönöm, Mulțumesc, Hvala, Blagodarya. A new language and alphabet, a new face on the bank notes, new features among the people and a new set of roads to work out which will kill you.