Thursday, 17 June 2004

SVS Day One (Edno) - Sofia to Popovov - 359km (223mi)

Dawn breaking on Day One of SVS-2004
As we head east from Sofia.
I bike out from the apartment on Vitosha Boulevard to head over to the Vassil Levski (Васил Левски) monument for the 4:00am start. Careful to go the correct direction this time, up the boulevard, past the Mosque...where exactly do I turn right? I go a little farther north to avoid the cobbles, get a little anxious about the possibility of losing my way again, hit the Vassil Levski Boulevard (Бул Васил Левски) and turn south. The start is a buzz of activity - somehow they've got flood lights and a full size refrigerator with drinks set up here! Quick introductions, last minute preparations and bag drop off and then we're ready to go!

Early morning descent.
Predawn group start with police escort - flashing blue lights on Blvd Madrid (Бул Мадрид) headed east out of Sofia. Right turn down a smaller road. First Hill - is this that peak on the elevation chart? Are you kidding?!? Not even close! This is a blip. "Under the Viaduct," the cue sheet reads. The sun comes up and I'm riding along with the other "Adrian" - the Bulgarian Adrian.

The Viaduct
My rear shifter is locked up tight - won't budge at all. Am I going to have to ride 1200km with only one rear cog? It worked fine through the brevets and the 100km ride in Sussex England. Here's the problem - the hood cover has slipped down and jammed the mechanism.

Up on a mountainside to the left I see something like the Linville Gorge Viaduct back in North Carolina. Then we pass under what looks like very narrow road held high above our heads by think concrete pillars - like one of those incredible Roman Aqueducts. Adrian soon out paces me and Mr. Balanski and the kids catch me. We ride along together for awhile - I don't have to look at my cue sheet because I'm following them. The next thing I know we've entered a town made a couple of turns and now we're riding across some kind of tiled plaza! I'm wondering where this is on the cue sheet and if I'd have figured this out by myself. We stop at our first Bistro to eat a quick breakfast while standing on the street corner before heading off into the mountains. As we start to climb our first mountain, I look at Mr. Balanski and make a motion with my hand to say we're in for some climbing. He nods and points to the top of the highest peak around!

Note the traditional red pom-pom on the horse's forehead.
He wasn't kidding-we climb, climb and climb. I think we're finally near the top but I can hear some kind of large truck rattling it's way down from above us. It finally rounds a turn and comes into view. One of many ex-military vehicles that we'll see now being used to bring loads of timber down from the mountains.

If you learn Cyrillic, you can read "Gas-Station" ("ГАЗ-СТАНЦИЯ") on the sign,
get a hint how they pronounce it and see that they have Diesel (ДИЗЕЛ)
If you go, take some time to, at the very least, learn the Cyrillic alphabet. There's a LOT of words that they've either adopted from English or that both English and Bulgarian have adopted from Greek-on the street signs they will have them written in the Cyrillic alphabet-so being able to translate to the Latin alphabet makes those signs perfectly readable to English speakers. Of the characters that differ from Latin, many are similar to Greek letters, which most Americans will recognize from either mathematics or fraternities. (E.g. the "D" sound is represented by a letter similar to the Greek "Delta" - "Д". The "P" sound is represented by a letter similar to the Greek "Pi" - "П".) Conveniently, the letters seem to represent exactly one sound each - e.g. no letter has separate "hard" and "soft" sounds, or "short" and "long" sounds - It's even more consistent than Spanish! Also, the street signs in town and the road signs in the country side are mostly in Cyrillic. The cue sheet has both the Roman and the Cyrillic, but you need to be able to match the Cyrillic on the cue sheet to the Cyrillic on the sign and that's MUCH easier if you can relate the symbols to sounds.

Mountain streams run right through towns
We get through the highest of the peaks and now we're in hilly green farm lands. I see more cars than I expected, but donkey-drawn carts are everywhere too. Some farmers (Gypsies?) put red tassels on the horse's forehead and most animals seem to be wearing bells.

Pretty soon Mr. Balanski and the boys have out paced me and I'm bringing up the rear and learning to read the cue sheet! Lazar has prepared an excellent cue sheet for us - I don't think I've ever seen a cue sheet so jam-packed with information. I don't understand it at first...where does it indicate which way to turn? I'm used to cue sheets where each line is a turn, but here we go for distances like 75km with no turns! It's great not to have to worry about turns for hours on end, but you want some confirmation that you're on the right road and the cue sheet does this by noting some village, sign or something every 5 - 20 km. I should've set my odometer to km (instead of miles) and taken care to calibrate it accurately though.

Potholes - yes, there are lots of potholes in Bulgaria. Most of them are not wheel-wreckers though - the rough ones reminded me of the type you'd expect in a neglected state park. Some of them seemed like abandoned roads. Often I'd look at the road, and then at the cue sheet and think, "If it wasn't for the cue sheet, I wouldn't expect THAT road to continue for another 5km, yes I'm to follow it for 50km!". More than one Bulgarian has told me that "All Roads in Bulgaria are paved" and I'm inclined to believe that - the only unpaved sections of road I recall were in England. There were many miles of perfectly smooth surface, but then you'd run into bad patches, mostly in villages or at the top of the mountains. I had feared plunging down a mountain road in the dark and being unable to avoid a crater, but that never happened (watch that one grate though! Lesson: pay close attention to the cue sheet.).

Fresh water rushing down from the mountains
(And camera strap!)
I reach a small town, make a right turn and find the bikes and support car parked along the left side of the road. On the right side of the road is a large dirt and gravel parking lot with several makeshift stalls apparently selling food. There's an assortment of construction workers and stray dogs hanging around and the cyclists encourage me to try the Halva Nougat at the second stall from the end. Most of the roadside Bistros we encounter are modern facilities with benches, tables and chairs beneath red umbrellas or a large awning, but this one is more rural. I probably wouldn't have stopped here had I not met up the guys, but it's nice once you get over the rough exterior. The support guys are looking out for me - they're concerned I'm carrying too much extra weight on my bike and offer to offload some to the car. Let me see, is there anything here I don't need? Spare tire, four tubes, crescent wrench, leg warmers, tights, jacket, roll of duct tape, emergency sleeping bag...nope I think I need to carry all this stuff. One of the support guys walks over with me to help interpret and to get my water bottle filled. I decipher the Cyrillic enough to see they're also offering something called "Mastic" ("Мастик") - I've read of this in tales of 19th century travelers but I don't know what it is. They tell me it's good, but I should take the Halva for cycling and try the Mastic later.

Chavdar Chernikov
It turns out Mastic is a seasoning made from the resin of shrub that grows in this part of the world. In Ancient Greece it was used like chewing gum to clean the teeth, strengthen the gums and freshen the breath. It is also used for flavoring liquor and sometimes used to make Ouzo. Modern dental studies have confirmed it's effectiveness in controlling plaque and gingivitis.

Mr. Balanski and the boys are almost ready to pull out when I arrive, so I make it fast in hopes that I might be able to catch up to them soon. A slow grind up the hill out of town, then a couple of stops to verify the route and gawk at the scenery and I'm sure they're all quite far ahead.

Fill your water bottle!
This is NOT a night scene - just a lot of tree cover!
I see cornfields that remind me of Alamance County back home, but here there's almost no tractors. In the western part of the country it appears that farmers and their wives work their own individual fields swinging pick-axes by hand. Across the country farmers are busy this time of year cutting grass/hay to dry for the winter. Donkeys, and to a lesser extent horses, are still widely used for transportation here. They'll find low-traffic sections of asphalt to lay out their cuttings to dry in the road way. I think I saw a photo of farmer with what looked like corn kernels spread across a section of the road, but at this time of year it's only grass. The farmers in the western part of the country appear to have a different way of storing dried hay than those in the east. In the west they stand a wooden pole, about 20' tall, vertically by attaching shorter poles near the base. Then they pile hay around it forming a sort of curved cone shape, like a hoop skirt.

No Dupkas here, just smooth road!
Around 11:00am I find Mr. Balanski and the boys finishing up lunch at a roadside Bistro. They invite me to sit down and get some food, but they're read to go. I'm not hungry yet, so I'm off with them. This could work-if I'm slower but stop less, we could stay pretty much neck-and-neck. Especially since the break seems to have slowed them down some and I'm pulling ahead.

Get ready for a descent!
Along the other side of the road a farmer is walking his dog...and his bull! Almost every time you see a flock of sheep or goats there's a shepherd among them-Leaning on his staff in the morning or lying under a tree in the afternoon. Horses and donkeys graze by the side of the road unattended and untethered. Fences are rare.

A stand of Birch trees
I had purchased Iodine tablets in case I needed to purify water, but I quickly realized that was completely unnecessary. The water is excellent here. Throughout the mountains, pipes have been driven into the hillsides and cold, clear and clean mineral water gushes forth. I don't think I've ever drunk so much water per mile on any ride!

Mountain Vila (or "ВИЛА")
After crossing over one mountain top I find a crew working a winch at the roadside. Trees are felled, a thick wire-rope is run down the mountainside and then loggers are sent down with "choke cables" to wrap around trees and attach to the cables. They blow a whistle to signal the winch operator to start reeling it in.

The View
We share the road with many large trucks - military-style vehicles and tandem trucks headed for Istanbul with many axles. The cars seem to pass very fast here, but they give us as much room as possible, crossing ALL the way over into the other lane to go around whenever possible. You often see cars approaching on the wrong side of the road - they too are trying to avoid potholes, but they cross back before reaching you. Once, back home, we were discussing "Sharing the Road with Bicycles" and a lady from England remarked that nobody in the U.K. has any problem with this because they all grew up sharing the road - "Nobody in Britain has ever driven a road that didn't have at least one cyclist on it." I think that applies here in that nobody has ever driven a road without a donkey cart on it. Bikes, being faster and narrower, are easier still to pass.

After Ribaritsa ("РИБАРИЦЯ"), there's a 9% climb up to 1176 meters, then we drop 500 meters and...oh no!...Iron drainage grating across the road with the holes going the "wrong way" for cyclists! Luckily they don't catch my wheel. I've slowed, so I go ahead and stop to look at the cue sheet - Doh! Right there on the cue sheet was my warning: "Attention 2 Grills!!! at city limit sign" I really should pay more attention.

Into the town of Troyan ("ТРаН") - beautiful town - I stop to check my cue sheet to find the control when Mitko spots me from across the plaza. He calls out and waves and I join him for a walk to the control. We walk across the plaza...down the street...these guys really don't mind walking! Too much walking for me, I have to get on my bike and roll along. He asks if I need a mechanic for my wheel, but I think it's okay. He offers a spare wheel he has, but it's seven-speed and my chain is nine-speed. I try it anyway, but it skips way too much. Mousaka, bread and lemonade for lunch and I'm back on my way.

There's several quick turns (on this ride, two turns within 10km is a lot!) and I'm not sure I hit them all right. Here's Mitko again checking up on me. I feel a little less embarrassed when I realize he also has to stop and ask a local about the directions. Later I understand that where the cue sheet says "<- Cevlievo 34", I need to look for a road sign that says EXACTLY that, i.e. the road sign that indicates "turn left and go 34km to get to Cevlievo".

Down to the village, then over the next mountain!
I come down a mountain road into village and I'm cruising along around 18mph when I see a guy entering the road with a dirt bike, so I race to stay up with him. I'm pouring it on up into the mid 20s and I can hear him calling out my km/hr in Bulgarian. Eventually I have to slow and he turns off. I'm still zipping along over 20mph in a flat section but I see an old stone bridge crossing a stream that I HAVE TO stop to photograph.

Plaza, Troyan I think
Bulgaria is full of tiny "Soviet Era" sedans and a lot of fancy luxury cars (BMWs and Mercedes). The former are more interesting, there's a lot of makes we don't see in America - like the East German "Trabant". They remind me of the old VW Beetles in that they are the kind of car that, though unpretentious, will never die. A dark orange seems to be a common color and we see them charging down the road with several bales of hay on the roof. Here I see one leaving a fishing hole, bouncing lightly threw mud pits between cattail stands where I wouldn't dare take a four-wheel drive Jeep! Car parts distributors have identified Bulgaria as the place where twenty-year-old cars go to serve their final years.

No, this suspension bridge is not part of the route!
Leaving the town of Cevlievo ("СЕВЛИЕВ), I cross a bridge and see a sight that forces me go back and pull out the camera again. Along the river bank, people are picnicking and there's three goats trotting along the river. This really seems to be a land without fences. I try to confirm directions with a passer by but he doesn't understand me grabs the next pedestrian. We go through a few "Az ne gavorish Bulgarski"s and then we realize we're both Americans. He's blown away by this - he introduces himself as "John Blessing, the ONLY American around here". John's a Peace Corp volunteer here teaching at the school and comments how people would flock here to vacation if they knew how nice it was. I'm just thinking I need to get moving again when he excuses himself to continue his afternoon jog.

Cruising along, but I HAD TO turn back to get this photo!
The cue sheet says "Ethnic Turkish Villages" ahead, but I'm having a little trouble correlating the cue sheet, my odometer and the street signs. A long gradual climb leads me to a tee at large highway - not at all what I was expecting. I turn around and descend back to town thinking that I hope I don't have to go all the way back up here again, but this can't be right. I get back to town and puzzle over the cue sheet again when I realized I've made a mistake - when I changed pages, I went to the wrong side of the page (page four instead of page three)! Doh! I do have to back to tee at the highway and turn right for 2km, then a Bistro stop and two more km. Mad at myself for losing an hour, I turn back around.

It's not ALL hills!
This is one of the highways crossing the country east-west. The signs here will only indicate the two inevitable end-points: The capitol, "Sofia" to the west and the beach resort, "Varna" to the east. Traffic moves fast but again they give as much room as physically possible. Unfortunately, it's not always physically possible to give a lot of room on this road. I stop at the Bistro and try the Mlyk - it's kind of like a cross between yogurt and Ricotta cheese. Coffee here (and in western Europe too) is Espresso by default.

Goats, in the middle of Cevlievo
I learned that "WC" meant toilet in France, and now I discover the same designation is used in England and here in Bulgaria. It must stand for "Water Closet" or "Water Chamber". I even see it on the back of bus - I guess advertising that the bus is equipped with "facilities". The restrooms are "Turkish" style - the walls and floors are tiled with ceramic tiles placed such that there's no exposed grout. The toilet has no "stool" so you're not sitting on a surface that others have been sitting on. There's a drain in the middle of the floor and shower spigots. This style is new to me, but all in all it's squeaky clean and I find it perfect for cycling because you can get yourself REALLY clean - especially important when you're planning on long hours in the saddle. Most places have both styles, to accommodate.

Out for a walk
While relaxing, I look again at the cue sheet and discover I've misread it again - we've got 36 more km on this highway, not just two! Onward and eastward to the former capitol of Veliko Turnovo. I start to get anxious again as I'm thinking I should be nearing V. Turnovo, but there's still no sign. I'm thinking I must be only 10km or so away, yet I'm seeing signs saying there's an "OMV" petrol station 12km away. This can't be right, can it? Would they tell me I'm approaching a petrol station and make no mention of the large intervening city? It turns out fine - I get to the city without the signs, wander around a bit, ask directions for Hotel Travenitza ("ХаЕЛ ТРАВЕНИЦА") at a restaurant.

They find an English speaker, who asks me, "Do you know where the Center is?"

"Um, I'm not from around here..."

(Every town here has an official "Tcenter" indicated by official signs.) They point me in the right direction, farther up the road, I ask a couple of girls for directions - they don't know, but after they've gone a couple of boys who walked by earlier wander back to see what's up. They're surprised and happy to meet a traveler from so far away and point me off in the correct direction. The town gets denser and livelier as I climb up the hill. Suddenly Mitko steps out of the crowd clapping his hands and congratulating me on completing the first day.

He's surprised that I intend to push on instead of staying the Hotel Travenitza - "Are you sure? It's getting dark.", but I'm thinking about the 9am control closure at Isperih and the 90km between here and there. I don't think I'll make it if I sleep now, so he leads me through town to the main road and sees me off. He'll sleep here and then head out around 5:30am.

On the highway toward Veliko Turnovo
I'm feeling good climbing and descending and checking my cue sheet...the next turn is "Second Right"...hmm, second after what? There's few street signs in Bulgaria - I think most of the roads don't even have names. Lazar says that street signs appear and then disappear in Bulgaria overnight, making it difficult to rely on them. Even the highways seem kind of vague about having a name or number. It turns out that to navigate the route it's quite important to have your cyclecomputer accurately calibrated and mine is not. I stop to ask for directions, but around Veliko Turnovo, I'm getting "Sprechen sie Deutsche?" - it's either Bulgarian or German here, maybe Russian too, but not much English. I choose a road I think is likely. The cue says "Dupka" and sure enough there's more than the usual number of potholes, so that's a good sign. Next, I need to cross the River Yantra. I figure there's only so many crossings, so even if this isn't exactly the right road, I'll eventually reach the river and ride along it to a crossing.

I come to a town and even though it's about midnight there's still people out waking and kids riding bikes. A youngster on a bike helps me out.

"You mean the stone bridge?"

"Yeah, sure, any bridge."

He directs me and sure enough I'm soon crossing an ancient one lane stone bridge - lots of Frogs in the water below - I thought the Yantra would be bigger though...maybe this is just a creek feeding into the Yantra? I see electric lights in the air ahead - maybe a bridge? Maybe a shipping facility? My eyes are tired and I don't exactly what I'm looking at. I pass through some industrial yards and start climbing. A "wild" dog snarls, but these "wild" dogs are no worse than the "domestic" dogs at home. At the top of this climb is an all night gas station, where all the employees and some of the customers end up gathering around to see the foreigner biking across the country in the middle of the night. They tell me there's hotels in V. Turnovo, but I explain I'm only passing through Draganovo (ДРАГаа on my way to Popovo (Паа and then I'll rest at Isperih before continuing. They fill my water bottle and I buy a road map and get directions. The explain to me that the town I'm asking about is really a village. A young man and his girlfriend dressed up for a night out have me follow their car to get me back on course. I get right behind them and wonder if they're trying to see how fast I can go. I'm having fun, hanging on, and trying to go as fast as I can while not hitting any Dupkas. After several turns that I'd have never found on my own, they point me off with instructions to continue some kilometers across and out of town, go under the overpass, turn right, then over the overpass toward the left.

When I get to the overpass, I pull out my flashlight and start trying to reconcile the instructions with my cue sheet. Two guys inside a commercial building see me, come out with flashlights and confirm. I stop again when the road "Y"s near a pub. Some folks at a table outside the pub help me with directions and again suggest I go back to V. Turnovo because I won't find a place to sleep around Draganovo, but I insist that I need to continue through Popovo to Isperih. They concede that at Popovo I can probably find a hotel.

I come to a small town where I need to make a turn. It's way after midnight, but there's still pubs open with people sitting at tables in the cool open air. I see TV's with the football game. I pull into a closed but well-lit service station to look at the cue and map. A guy walks over form the pub to help me out. I'm not sure, but I think he may have offered me a place to sleep - I probably should've took him up on that. Now I'm off climbing toward those "Ethnic Turkish Villages" on page four - the ones I'd been looking for when I got my pages mixed up. It's getting late, it's dark, the road looks like a National Park Service road and the cue sheet says "Wild Animals". Wild Animals? Dogs? Wolves? Bear? I jump a little anytime I hear a rustle in the bushes but I see no animals. It seems like I pass several lakes, could I be going in circles? I hear lots of frogs - maybe Lazar is playing a joke on me - maybe the "Wild Animals" are wild frogs! Eventually, I feel I have to rest. I find another closed, but well-lit service station, lie down and close my eyes.

I awake with a start some time later, but it's still quiet, dark and cool out. I decide I better move on. Next, I try to lie down on a bus stop bench, but neighboring dogs get too excited and I have to move on before I alarm somebody. Eventually I reach the main road to Popovo. The main road - there should be some diner or all night service station or maybe even a hotel here right? Ooops, this main road isn't all that big. I settle in for a little longer on a bus stop bench, but I'm wary that the people who use this bench are probably early risers who will be along soon as dawn is approaching. Sure enough a pickup truck approaches from a side road, shuts off it's lights and engine and I can hear two guys talking, so I move on. I find a Bistro and put my head down, but the clerk is inside getting ready to open and she advises me to move on to Popovo. Okay, Popovo it is.

Is this Popovo? A larger highway crosses here and there appears to be just some truck stops. I check the map. Popovo might be just a bit more east. Hey, I smell breakfast cooking - there must be a diner down there! I go back, but find no diner. The guy behind the window at the gas station pauses a long time when I ask if it's okay if I lay down in the grass, so I tell him "Never mind, I'm going to Popovo".

Ah here it is! But Popovo is quiet at 4am. I think for the first time I'm in a place where nobody else is up and about. There's some nice park benches along the main street, but I suspect the town will be coming to life soon and may not take kindly to a strange bearded vagrant sleeping on the bench in front of town hall. Hey, is this a hotel? A tall dull gray "Soviet era" building. Inside, though I can barely keep my eyes open, the desk lady takes the paperwork - completing the police registration forms - very seriously. Old Soviet bureaucratic habits are hard to break (or is it the new "Total Information Awareness"?). She's searching my passport for my "EGF" number or something like that. I have no idea. Eventually she comes up with something satisfactory to write in that space, softens, then unlocks an extra meeting room to allow me put my bike away and gives me the keys to a fourth floor room with two single beds and a shower.

Ah, beds are good.

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