Bulgaria. Everything breaks, but not me (2014-08-28–2014-09-30)

“Bulgaria tours! Vacation at the Black Sea!”. The advertisement of this kind is quite popular in Russia. So, I’m in Bulgaria, at the Black Sea. It’s time to figure out what it is.

The road is empty, only a black dot is looming in the distance. Little by little the distance is getting shorter, and the dot is splitting into two dots, not black at all. That is a couple of guys on bicycles: Christin and Magnus from Germany:
“Hey guys! Where are you going?”
“Along the coastline.”
“Cool! I gonna go with you for a while.”

We are stopping to take a rest at the Cape Kaliakra. My cap has got broken on the way. The first loss in Bulgaria.
Magnus is putting a stove on the ancient ruins. “Wanna some coffee?” Yes, for sure, Magnus, I’m ready to follow you wherever you go as long as you make coffee!

Suddenly Lars is appearing, who I met a day earlier in Romania. “I expected to meet you here”, he tells me. By some unthinkable way he has managed to bring a watermelon. Many times in Romania I saw off watermelon stalls with a sad look. I really wanted a watermelon, but I didn’t know how to carry it. Meal is continuing. A Russian tourist dicontentedly grumbling watching at our bicycles: “And those, probably, have left here since ancient times”.

The first joint overnight stop at the Black Sea. Magnus and Christin have taken out a couple of beer cans and offer to join. I’m looking suspiciously at the cans. No, definitely it isn’t enough for four people. It’s ten kilometers to the city, I’m sitting down on a bicycle and going to buy beer.

Riding in a group is unwonted. So usually I go uphill first, but all the other time I carefully follow the group.

Bulgarian language turns out to be easy for appreciation. I understand almost all signs, but as soon as I get involved into conversation, I understand almost nothing. Time is needed to get used to it.

The second joint overnight stop fearless gang of four spends on a public beach. I wouldn’t dare to do that if I’m alone.

Already the third day at the Black Sea in Bulgaria. So, how is it? I don’t know, strange feelings. All those hotels, restaurants along the coastline, all of that looks too artificial. And it seems that there are more Russians than Bulgarians. And though it’s nice to dip into chilly water after a hot day, I wouldn’t spend a vacation here.

We see off with Magnus and Christing, they go into Sofia, I and Lars continue to ride together a bit longer. I listen to fascinating stories from Lars about his previous travels, how he worked as a captain on a ship (not without purpose I got that association with a sailor when I saw his snow-white beard for the first time).

On a bumpy road to Malko Tarnovo the rear rim has cracked. Here I say goodbye to Lars, he’s going to Istanbul next. Before we go into different directions, he gives me already unneeded map of Bulgaria. Before that I preferred road atlases, usual maps seemed bulky for me. Now I draw another traversed path in the evenings and sometimes I like to unroll the map entirely and look the whole my route in the country.

At the end of the city a gypsy boy follows me for long time and yells: “Money-money-money! Police! Police! Money-money!” Oddly there are more gypsies in Bulgaria than in Romania. Often there are prostitutes along the road, mostly gypsies, some of them are pregnant and they stroke their bellies with tenderness. From time to time they send me air kisses.

“Oh, dude!”, policemen, who stopped me, are exclaiming. “Show us your passport ”. I tell them that they are simply curious, I don’t want to dig in panniers. Disappointed policemen let me go.

It’s 300 km till Plovdiv, the closest big city where I definitely can find a new rim. The crack becomes bigger and bigger with every kilometer, but it’s still possible to ride.

I’m standing on the main pedestrian street in Plovdiv at a hostel. Nobody on CouchSufring replied me. A guy on the street takes interest if I’m going to stay in some hostel. Hmm, yes, I’m going to, it’s hard to go anywhere far with a broken rim. He tells me that I’d better go to the hostel where he works, as there is a garden where I can easily leave my bicycle, and a girl from France, also on a bicycle. Sounds cool, so I’m following his advice.

The evenings in the hostel are full of fun. Really nice to meet other travelers and share impressions.

Magnus and Christin are also here. They came for a day by train to watch the city. Wonderful reunion.

Meanwhile the new wheel is ready. Martin from a local bicycle shop has done it fast, qualitative and cheap. Sometimes it happens that all those properties come together. I change the ground off cassette and chain too. Ready to ride.

The Shipka Pass is on the way to Veliko Tarnovo. A father reads a sign on the monument to his son. About the defense of Shipka in the Russo-Turkish war, and how Russian helped Bulgaria to become free of the Ottoman Empire. I’m thinking maybe it’s a time to get some patriotic feeling, to be proud of Russia. No, it has happened by chance that I was born as a Russian. Nothing to be proud of, but also nothing to be ashamed of. But the story is interesting.

A Mercedes with German number plate is stopping at me near the entrance to Veliko Tarnovo. There is a driver from Caucasus and a blonde. They are reaching me a golden ring: “Brother, we are going back to Azerbaijan, take this ring, just 50 €, we have no money for petrol”. Oh, no-no, thank you.

I’m trying to find the house of my host in Veliko Tarnovo. Leaving any further attempt I’m calling him:
“Hello Hristo! It’s Yury. I can’t find your house. There is a sign, it’s written that it’s your street, but there are only stairs going uphill.”
“Yeah, man. You need to go all the way upstairs.”
“Oh, no way. My bicycle weighs a ton.”
Luckily, the house is on the top of the hill, it’s possible to get there by a normal road. After a few minutes we are inside the house. I’m studying paintings and texts on the walls, they were left by numerous strangers who stayed in Hristo’s house.

Just after one-hour walk in the city I have fallen in love with it. Mostly I was amazed by endless street-art there.

In the evening when I left Veliko Tarnovo I’m discovering that I’ve left the knife. But I wanted to make a salad as some granny spotted me at a shop and gave many vegetables. She told me I look like her grandson. Ok, teeth are enough for making a salad.

On the next day I feel sick. What is that: poorly washed vegetables, a sunstroke, dirty tap water? I don’t know. I pitch a tent in the middle of the day in a forest. Between vomiting attacks I’m reading a book “Physics of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov in Bulgarian. This is a post-modern literature, as a main theme author exploits the Myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. The book itself is also like a labyrinth, different stories from different times seem unrelated in the beginning, but later they become interconnected, form a labyrinth. But for me this book is a meta-labyrinth. I can only guess the meaning of many Bulgarian words. Sometimes I make a right guess and go deeper into the labyrinth, sometimes it turns out that the guess was wrong, so I come back to the point where I did a wrong guess and make a new attempt to understand what is written there. Oh, shit, a new vomiting attack, stop talking about the book. By the irony of fate the nearest town to my stop is called “Две Могили” (“Two Graves”). One grave is for me, another one is for the bicycles. Later on it turned out that in Bulgarian “могила” means “barrow”, and I didn’t die too.

A couple of day I preteneded I’m sick and cycled only ten kilometers just to get a bit of food and find water, but in the next days I got stuck again. Heavy rains started, there were news about threats of floods.

Again sunny. I’m changing rain pants to shirts. Some strange feeling in the right buttock. Ah, yes, shirts are broken.

I’m following some country roads. Big roads in Bulgaria go away from cities, so usually you don’t meet people, only cars. But the small roads, that I cycled in those days, were quite empty as well. Once I passed a village, there was a speed limit sign and below the sign was a hand-written plate: “Тук все още живеят хора” (“People still live here”). I didn’t meet any people there. Apparently, it’s cool when you don’t need to worry that you won’t find a place for camping, and with a small effort you can find absolutely amazing places for overnight stops. Nevertheless, without people you feel lonely sometimes.

But in short time I’ve reached Sofia and was surrounded people. There were hospitable Diana and Yana who hosted me, Hristo who found my knife in his boot, Teodor who studied with me in the university, Nadya who took my old tyre as a souvenir.

Yes, in the last days I’ve got broken tyre, torn clips straps, unstuck shoes, broken charger for camera batteries, I’ve lost earrings…

But of course it is not about Bulgaria where I got so much interesting experience. Simply I left Moscow and started my trip one year ago. Everything breaks in one year, but not me. The trip continues.

Two months of zigzagging in Romania (2014-07-03–2014-08-28)

Every new country that I visit is a puzzle that I should solve. To understand why it’s a separate country, not a part of some another one. To figure out what common people of that country have. Everyone separately—individuality, but altogether—the whole, called “nation”

That wasn’t my first visit to Romania. Back in December I’ve already crossed it on the way to Montenegro. At that time it happened fast, I didn’t understand it plainly. For that reason I came back to unknown Romania and did a long way. However I haven’t found a solution for the puzzle, as people from different parts of the country differed too much.

My old visa has expired, so I went to Moscow to get a Schengen visa. I got used to Moscow reality quite fast, though, for example, it was strange not to hear polite “добар дан”, “изволите”, “приjатно” in Moscow shops. A feeling of tiredness was my permanent companion during this visit. Maybe it’s true, that a big city squeeze the juice out of a human.

I’m in the Austrian visa centre.
“Do you really want to get a one year long visa?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I’m afraid you won’t get it without a document that confirms you have some job.”
“Hmm… got it. Gonna go to find a job. Good bye.

Luckily, Spaniards were more compliant, and the precious insert shows off in the passport.

Apart from Moscow were also St. Petersburg, unplanned visit to Kharkiv with adventures on the Ukrainian border, and so on. But those are another stories, so I’m continuing about Romania.

After taking away my bicycle in Zaječar first of all I went to the Bulgarian border. Just didn’t want to cycle the same way in Serbia for the third time. Forty kilometers on a deserted road in Bulgaria, and finally I’m in Romania.

Painful first days, they were full of thoughts about the tiff that happened in Zaječar. Unbearable heat. Surprisingly I didn’t endure it well, even though I’ve spent in sunny Tashkent 14 years of the childhood.

Deeper in mountains I’d felt a sense of relief. There is no more sun, there are downpours in the evenings. There are no more thoughts, there is their absence. There are no more people, there is only something called “I”, and it’s moving on the abandoned road DN66A, crossing Retezat National Park. Though I met up a few people: five-six amazed dirt motorcyclists and a few guys driving heavily loaded trucks with wood. There was also a man, who clapped and laughed when the ducks in the lake scared the claps and rushed to swim away.

Two days that I spent on that road ended up by the half-hour downhill, it was an incredibly high-quality road and there wasn’t even a single car.

As though I didn’t get enough adventures on DN66A, I continued the route by a small road DJ666. Such an attractive number! It had fully justified itself. That was absolute hell lasting just ten kilometers, but a few hours. At first I got lost, and after I got stuck on a such steep uphill, that even pushing my bicycle I could move only one meter forward after every push.
It isn’t true that only legs of cyclists get trained.

But that was over as well. I came down from the mountains and returned to civilization. After watching the castle in Hunedoara, a souvenir seller, who looked after my bicycle, reached me a cigarette. She didn’t have it in the beginning, but managed to find while I was exploring the castle. A random cyclist asked me where I’d come from. His last phrase was: “Romania not safe! Gypsies, bum-bum! Go Moscow!”

A crazy grandpa in Deva. He was wearing high fur boots silently drinking beer on a terrace at a pub. Suddenly he’d asked in Russian: “Do you speak Russian?” I replied affirmatively, so he started speaking strange language, neither Russian, nor Romanian. A waitress brought me a piece of cheesecake and added funnily: “Don’t worry, it isn’t taken from trash”.

A week of camping had ended, I was hosted by Dana from Timișoara. It’s strange, just a few days ago I was in total isolation from people (but one of the evenings was brightened up by a mouse; it found dropped rice seed near my tent and didn’t want to run away), and now I’m in a crowd on a square, jazz sounds from the stage are reaching my ears.

On the next day jazz festival is still going on. We are dancing near the stage in downpour. We are moving into a pub. We are going outside and there are a couple of stoned guys. One of them is giving me a hardly started joint. New friends of mine don’t understand how I’ve managed to get a joint in such short time.

Right after that is Oradea, the city that I really liked and kept in mind thanks to Silviu.

In the morning we are going in the city to buy contraband cigarettes from Ukraine and Belarus. It’s interesting that you’d hardly find those brands in the country of origin. “Ţigări, ţigări,” a dude at the corner is blurting out through clenched teeth.

Before my departure Silviu wants to take a picture of me under water in the bath for his photo exhibition.
“Should I put off my underwear?”
“No-no-no… it’s ok like that.”

A short visit to Hungary to “open” the Schengen visa and be able to enter Kosovo with that visa later on. Again Romania, Maramureș.

In Maramureș everything is in its own way. Massive carved wooden gates in front of every house. Men wear big sun hats. Women, even grannies, put on black skirts and black shawls. Men are getting back home from fields on bicycles, sharp scythes are attached to the frames.

I’m standing at the side road waiting for a proper moment to cross the bridge, pass the field and find a place for camping staying unnoticed. Here a man is coming on a bicycle. I’m pretending that I’m look into the map, but actually I’m waiting when he’ll disappear after the turn. Yet he is approaching exactly towards me. Mixing Romanian, English, Spanish and Russian languages Aurel (oh, Romanians have such beautiful names: Silviu, Aurel, Camelia, Roxana!) is inviting me to stay in his house.

What a wonder, every time when a stranger invites me to his house it’s a moment, when I really experience some problems trying to find a place for spending the night.

Aurel and his father are bakers. The bakery takes place on the first floor of the house, the family lives on the second floor. We are entering bakery, and he is poking me hot, baked just now bread: “I know you’re hungry”.

On the next day I didn’t sleep in the tent again staying at Paul and Anna’s house in Bistrița. I couldn’t take a shower there as they fixed it at that moment, but Anna got a genius idea: we went to a swimming pool! Of course there was a shower too.

Beyond question I wanted to meet up with Gherman when I was on the north of Romania. He lives in Ukraine just in a few kilometers from the Romanian border. Yes, yes, that striking Gherman who I met in Lviv, and then we saw each other in Chernivtsi a couple of times.

When I came to the Ukrainian border point I was dressed in colors of Ukrainian flag: yellow shirts, a blue rain jacket. An army cap with a red star from Laos crowned my head. For sure, it happened like that by accident, but it looked a bit ambiguously taking into account current Russian-Ukrainian relations.

I’d spent there about two hours. A border guard asked questions and diligently wrote down the answers. At the end of the conversation it turned out that they recorded everything on dictaphone as well. One more interesting detail: at the entrance point the guard greeted me in Russian, but right after the start of official part of “interrogation” he switched in Ukrainian.

“What’s the purpose of your visit to Ukraine?”
“I want to see a friend of mine.”
“What’s his name?”
“Full name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where does he live”
“In Krasnoilsk.”
“Exact address?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many days are you going to spend in Ukraine?”
“I don’t know. Three-five-six.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Mmm… I don’t know. What do you usually do when you meet up with your friends?”

Pff. Allowed to go. And they didn’t even check what I carry.

We had an agreement to find each other at the selsoviet (rural council). Being already in the village I asked people two or three time where the selsoviet is. They replied me quite distrustfully. No wonder: a strange guy on a bicycles, speaks Russian (everyone in Krasnoilsk speaks Romanian, as it was a part of Romania in the past), and for unknown reason that stranger is looking for the selsoviet…

It’s very easy to communicate with Gherman. At times there is no need in words, anyway you feel everything. During those days I was like his shadow, as if I chipped off a bit of his life.

We went to the forest, picked mushrooms and blackberry, sat under the “legendary” bridge (I’ve heard a lot about that bridge after our previous meetings) and listened to music there.

Gherman mowed down grass, milked a cow, looked after the house, and so on. I watched.

Gherman attended me on a bicycle when I left Krasnoilsk. I didn’t turn round after we said each other goodbye. I know we’ll meet again.

Getting back from Ukraine to Romania was much easier. Just Romanians asked for fun if I carry AK-47.

By chance I met a bicycle mechanic Lucien on the streets of Suceava. He told me that further on the road is another one cycling tourist. Indeed, after a few hours I’d caught up Anton Duma who did charity cycling tour in Romania.

We spent some time together, drank beer, took pictures for our mutual friend Alina and continued our trips separately. In the evening I was in Piatra Neamț.

I didn’t expect anything special from Piatra Neamț, but everything can change due to people who host you. When Radu and friends of him offered me to join hiking in Ceahlău Massif, I didn’t hesitate, I accepted immediately.

We spent some hours on the top and started descending. Radu decided to pick up mushrooms and from time to time he stopped spotting another mushroom. In our turn we called him from time to time, but Radu almost didn’t react, so thanks to these delays he witnessed a big double rainbow. As if a magic source in the rock had been opened, and all kinds of colors gushed out from it. And it’s not a big deal that we came back through the forest in the darkness.

What I remember about the way from Piatra Neamț to Cluj-Napoca is that there are quite many Hungarians. There were some villages and towns where all the signs were in Hungarian only. Leaving Târgu Mureș I hesitated which road to take. Suddenly, I’d got urgent necessity to visit the toilette, so there was no more hesitation, I took the road that allowed me to leave the city as soon as possible.

Eventually I came to Transalpina road, the highest road in Romania. I have to admit that I wasn’t impressed. There isn’t that high correlation between altitude and scenery you can see. But I didn’t hurry to go down after passing the highest point. I wanted to luxuriate in mountain coolness a bit longer, when you don’t have that delicious mix of dirt, sweat, sunscreen and repellent on your skin.

In its turn, Transfăgărășan road was absolutely splendid.

I camped there on a paid campground. There was a nice company of Poles who travelled by cars, and thanks to them the dream, that I had during that day, came true: I had a company to drink beer.

A bear came to a trash bin during the night trying to find something eatable there. They say he comes every night to that place. Funnily, my first reaction was: “Wow, a bear, finally! Faster! I need to grab camera and torch!” There were many places on the map in GPS-navigator marked by bear pictogram, and once a couple of Romanians in Apuseni mountains promised me that I won’t sleep alone there (a bear will join me), but so far I witnessed a bear in relatively natural conditions only once, on that paid campground.

It was not that hard to go on the top as in case of Transalpina. I didn’t even expect that I have enough power after all previous climbs. There were many motorcycle travelers on the way, almost everyone with a GoPro-camera. Some other mountain roads in Romania are also occupied by motorcyclists. I even wonder how many times I was filmed and how often I smiled when I went uphill, rather than cycled with the last bit of strength.

Robert M. Pirsig wrote in his “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

It’s more true if you will just change the word “motorcycle” to “bicycle”.

By the way, another very steady partners on mountain roads in Romania were gypsies who sold exactly the same dinnerware set wherever I was in Romania. They even offered me to buy it.

Fascinating descent, another forty kilometers, and I’m in Sibiu. Finally I could take a rest staying at Vlad’s place.

When I’d left Sibiu at last, I’d forgotten the laptop charger. Fortunately, Vlad noticed it in time and handed it over a bus driver who followed the same route as me.

And then Brașov where I continued to get energy being hosted by Ivan, a guy from Ukraine. Usually I went on the hill where the citadel is located, watched the city from the top, and read a book. Ivan drove me to Bucharest by car as he was going there as well.

As in previous time Andrei and Roxana hosted me in Bucharest. It’s really nice to meet again with friends.

After Bucharest I went to the Black Sea. It’s hard not to notice mountains, but it’s easy to miss a sea. Here I’m at the entrance to Constanța, a few minutes later I’m cycling on the streets of the city, just a few more houses, last turn, and, finally, I’m seeing the sea.

I’m sitting at the seaside, sea wind is blowing on my face. Suddenly, like I did quite recently, a picturesque man with a snowy white beard is coming up. He also travels by bicycle.
“Hey, man, how are you doing?” Who was the first who said that?

With Lars we rode together just a little bit and said goodbye. That was my last day in Romania, but only the first day of acquaintance with Lars. Sometimes our paths cross with amazing people, and sooner or later we are lucky enough to meet up again. I met Lars on the very next day. In Bulgaria.

Serbia (2014-05-05–2014-05-27)

As if with a wave of a magic wand, as though the nature knows about political borders of states, rains had stopped when I’d got into Serbia from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The sun shined in Šabac, my clothes were washed, and I lived in a bicycle heaven. Alexander, a bicycle mechanic and an owner of a bicycle shop, lodged me in his house where I was surrounded by all kinds of bicycles. I spent many hours and could watch infinitely how he fixes bicycles even in the most hopeless cases. Often he didn’t ask any money as he supposed that a person will come later on to buy something in his shop.

I asked Alexander how it happened that he linked his life with bicycles. He replied that once during Yugoslav conflict his family went out on the street to sell a couple of bicycles they had, as they needed money for food. Neighbors spotted that episode and asked to sell their bicycles as well. That’s how it started.

Though there was no suitable tyre for my bicycle in Alexander’s shop, he just told me to look in his bicycle collection and put off a tyre from one of them. This way I got Schwalbe Marathon Plus for free.

From Šabac I headed to the north of Serbia, to Subotica. Views didn’t differ much, just endless fields. But Subotica surprised nicely. I left the bicycle at the tourist information point and walked a few hours in that Serbo-Hungarian, drowning in greenery city.

After that I moved to the Serbian part of the Eurovelo 6 route along the Danube river. As a whole I didn’t like to follow some predetermined, invented by other people route. Often there weren’t roads close to the river, so the Danube river left somewhere in a few kilometers from the route. But route inventors still had insane drive to lay the route as close to the river as possible. Thus often I followed trails, but suddenly found fences and went around by paved roads.

When I’d arrived to Novi-Sad I didn’t manage to find any host. I was sitting at the quay, eating bananas deep in thought. Some guy came to me and started asking about the bicycle, my trip, and so on. After a few minutes Miladin, that was his name, invited me to stay at his place. The most remarkable thing in this story is that Miladin never invited strangers to his place before. In the beginning he even wanted to make up a story for his flatmate as if Miladin and me were old friends. But I convinced him to tell the truth.

The next place after Novi-Sad was Belgrade, there I was hosted by awesome guy Martin. A small rain started in the evening when I approached Belgrade. But during the night it rained non-stop. Those were the days when Serbia and Bosnia started experiencing floods.

At the same time Martin hosted another one cyclist Ed from the USA (by the way, he also had Surly LHT). The first four or five days we almost didn’t go out, ordered food online, Ed played guitar, from time to time we watched news about the floodings, on floods photos I recognized places where I cycled quite recently. In the evenings we moved out just to reach some pub, thus I knew a dozen of drinking places, but nothing else about Belgrade.

Martin, who hosted about one hundred cyclists in the last year, told us storied about some gloriously insane guys that stopped at his place. Like the story about a French guy who traveled without money on an ancient bicycle, who didn’t have even a single proper pannier, only plastic bags and duct tape, and… also that guy carried a huge accordion on his bicycle!

The day when I finally had left Belgrade was very atypical for me. Suddenly I started thinking that probably it’s a bit strange to move from place to place without any final purpose. Such thoughts never visited my head before. Usually thoughts get stuck in my mind for a moment, I register their appearance, and then they fade away like outgoing train. Rest of the time I directly take in what happens around me. What I see, hear, smell… I don’t judge it. The world around neither good, nor bad, it just exists, it’s what it is.

In the evening I turned to a trail going along the Danube river, trees grew directly in the water, no signs of human beings, gigantic birds, the sky was in sunset haze. Two small deers ran close to my tent.

After a couple of days I was in Zaječar visiting Viktor, who hosted my in the winter. I endeavoured to help him on the farm, but either I managed badly, or I did some other mistakes, but I felt that my presence brings discomfort. I didn’t dare to ask Viktor what was my main false step. Instead of initial plan to get a Romanian visa in Zaječar, I’d bought an airline ticket Belgrade->Moscow to deal with my visa issues in Russia.