Friday, June 18, 2004

SVS Day Two (Dvo) - Shortcut - Popovov - Isperih - Shumen - 156km (97mi)

Plaza in Popovo
A nice long sleep, clean up in the morning and start trying to figure out how to contact the ride to let them know that I must officially abandon, but still want to continue riding. I hope Mitko is not trying to find me. I can't find a number to call, don't have a phone, and don't know the procedure for placing a call anyway. Popovo is alive in the morning when I get up. Out for coffee, look around, start to ride out of town, then stop for an omelet and on toward Razgrad and Isperih (Разград и Исперих). I feel good!

We're not in the mountains here, but I'm going slow. It's a little discouraging but I decide that though there's not forests and rocks it's still quiet hilly and I'm not doing too bad. Mitko will probably be along any minute, and I feel good. The scenery is wonderful. I watch a couple with donkey and cart parked by the side of the road picking cherries from the bushes. I ride ahead a bit and find my own bush to sample some cherries - very good. Now I see what must be more "ethnic Turkish villages", but this time with some light on them. I see an older couple in splendid traditional attire. I wave "Zdravsti! Dober Den!" they wave back and smile. I want to get a picture. I've been hesitant about taking close pictures of people - don't want to offend, so I dig out my camera hold it up and ask "Da?", "Ne?". I get a confirmation and take a picture, but I notice he seems to be turning his back and hurrying off as I snap the shot. Uh-oh. Did he say "Da" or did he just nod his head? In Bulgaria, the up and down nod means "No" - that's hard to get used to. Dang, I feel bad that I may have offended him, but nothing to do about it now, so on to Razgrad.

Small Mosque
Hey, Bulgaria has us beat when it comes to biking-to-work! You should see the farmers biking to work! Picture I most wish I'd gotten: Farm wife biking to work carrying a pitch-fork!

I pass an impressive gate to some kind of school I think as I come into Razgrad - enter city traffic, left turn at the Mosque, take a picture of the Minaret stop at a Bistro and order up a 1/2 liter of Zagorka (Bira) and a sandwich. They use the word "Sandwich" here, making it easy, but it's frequently "open faced" i.e. only one slice of grilled bread, with sometimes what looks like meager toppings. But the topping consists of cheese with some strong spices, so a think layer is all it takes. Very good, in fact I have another 1/2 liter of Zagorka to go with it! Then I'm off for Isperih after stopping in the middle of a Razgrad neighborhood to fill my water bottle from a roadside spring.

Near Razgrad (Разград)
On the way out of town, I pass two youths out hitch-hiking. I'd past youngster hitchhiking earlier, and then passed him again as we seemed to leap-frog down the road. Giddy after a liter of Загорка, I went back to these guys and had them stick out their thumbs again so I could get a photo. "Dangerous?" I asked. "Nah." I tell them that it's dangerous in America...or at least people THINK it's dangerous...but then Americans think a LOT of things are dangerous...See you up the road!

On northward, through villages toward Isperih. It drizzles a bit - a welcome relief from the afternoon heat and not so much rain that I bother with a jacket. I pass a couple of more utility cyclists headed north.

Here I see a few old motorcycles with sidecars - also used for transporting fresh cut hay! I think I read that when the Nazis left, they left in a hurry and left behind many motorcycles-some of these look like they could be that old!

Lukoil attendant just before Isperih.
Jobs are hard to come by - these kids seem overqualified.
Approaching Isperih the street is lined with Paper Birch trees - their white trunks dazzling in the sun. I stop at the Petrol station on the edge of town for a drink and chat with the attendants for a bit. One of them gets in his car to escort me to the hostel - another game of let's see how fast I can draft. Through the beaded doorway into the hostel I meet the jolly couple that own and run the place and hey - here's my drop bag! This is great! A change of clothes! But do I need to carry this with me or can I leave it here? Mitko drives up everything is cool. We discuss the options and decide I can ride down to the control at Madara to rejoin the other riders who will be returning form Varna this evening. I pick out some back roads on the map and check with Mitko and the hostel owner but they advise that I should take the main highway instead. Mitko says he'll meet me at the gas station in Shumen ("Шумен"), just west of Madara, because traffic will be heavy east of Shumen).

Birch trees along the road just south of Isperih
I draft a backhoe out of town, past the birch trees and into the woods south of Isperih. I come to a railroad crossing that I remember from the trip up. After crossing it the first time, I remember thinking "I probably should Look for a train, because I don't know if I should trust the automatic sensors and gate to work in place like this". This time the gates are going down slowly when I get there, so I stop, but I hear no train. I sports car flies up to the closing gate on the other side and starts blowing his horn. "What's he trying to do," I thought? Then the gate starts going back up, as if in response to his horn as he goes across the track he waves to the small building by the side of the track. That's when I see it's NOT automatic, there's actually a guy sitting there inside the shack who's in charge of raising and lowering the gate! He steps out and we exchange "Dobr Den"s. He seems to know that I'm on a ride to Varna and back - how does he know this? Or is he just guessing? I don't know if it's more downhill heading south, or if my spirits have just lifted having gotten back in contact with the ride, but I seem to reach Razgrad in no time. Turn left where I saw the hitchhikers and head for Shumen.

Fields are worked by hand. Donkeys, horses and bicycles provide transportation.
Turning eastward toward Shumen, I see a field of farm workers and a guy in a suit smoking a cigarette next to a small car. He calls out as I go by and I turn back to chat. It's not easy communicating but he tells me he's Turkish. He's pulling out various ID cards and wants me know that he's in charge of something, the field I guess, and for some reason he wants me know what year he was born. It's getting late and the workers are coming in from the field. Then I notice they're ALL women. I'm wondering how he's going to get all these ladies into that little car, when his right-hand man pulls up in another small car. It'll be crowded, but I guess they'll fit now. The 2nd man looks Indian and seems to know a little more English. He tries to tell me what the suit-guy is saying - he's "President" of something. I get out a paper and pen so they can write it down for interpretation later - turns out he's the Mayor of some community nearby. I still don't know why he wanted me to know that he's 50. I suppose I would've guessed he was younger by appearances - was it that? Or was it that he'd accomplished so much by the young age of fifty?

The guard operates the Railroad Crossing from inside this building
Onward toward the gas station where I told Mitko I'd meet him around 8pm. I've been seeing these trees with something that looks vaguely like apples and decide to check one out. I cut into it with my teeth, but it doesn't seem like anything edible. The headwinds are strong. That's good - that means the other guys, heading back from the east probably have a good tail wind, I'm not doing so much distance, so it's better that I have the headwind. I'm not real sure which gas station - I stop at a Shell station (I think that's the only chain that I recognized in Bulgaria). I think one of big problems in Bulgaria is that the youth are widely underemployed - I imagine these kids working the gas station are mostly very over-qualified for the job they're doing, but there's not a lot of opportunities. Motorists in Bulgaria may be getting the best service in the world, but probably don't realize it. The rain is getting heavier, the attendants telephone Mitko for me and I settle back with a bira and a bag of hazelnuts. Mitko loads me up into the car and we head out for the hostel at Madara. The rain gets heavy and we see the headlight of a cyclist going the other way in driving rain - must be either Lazar or Richard Leon.

We drive out of the rain - "It's raining there, but not raining here - Bulgaria's a big country," Mitko observes.

Up a steep climb to the hostel. It's a Ski Chalet in the winter. In the lobby I meet with several of the support crew, but the other cyclists aren't here. Soon enough though Lazar pulls in. I congratulate him on his second day of riding and we order up some food. What to have - hey - how about a Shopska salad! Shopska salad is a trademark dish of Bulgaria. It can be really simple - just sliced homegrown cucumbers and tomatoes, but with a special "Shopska" dressing. My friend Sid warned me that travelers in Bulgaria are frequently greeted with "You're a foreigner? You MUST try a Shopska salad" about three times a day. Here it was, my third night in Bulgaria and I was still a Shopska salad virgin. Soon we're joined by three Austrian travelers - one lives in Bulgaria now and the other two are visiting her. Of course, the one living in Bulgaria speaks Bulgarian and all three speak English well, but she speaks English without even a noticeable Austrian accent. She's a chameleon they tell me. I explain what we're up to and the guy observes that Bulgaria must be good cycling country - nice and hilly - cycling on flat land is boring. Lazar is eating quietly at another table - I hope he doesn't feel like I ditched him for the Austrians, but I guess he must be pretty wiped out - he's covered a lot more miles than I have today, and he didn't have that nice long sleep in Popovov.

The roadsides have been lined with wildflowers - purple cones, Queen Anne's Lace, Poppies - frequently growing right up to the edge of the road, but sometimes cut back, possibly to make room for the donkey carts. I'm thinking how so many people live so close to the land - producing all they need, but later I'm told there's a more complicated angle: After 1944, the Soviets seized the farms and formed huge farming collectives that were worked with large combines and other heavy machinery. Everybody moved to the city and the farming collectives fed the city. After 1990, these collectives were broken up and the land returned to the ancestors of the farmers. These people have forgotten many of the farming techniques and cannot afford to buy large farming equipment, so now the cities have to import food from Turkey and Greece.

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