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  • Jamie Shannon

Through Bulgaria. I finally escaped the dogs of Romania!

This seems like a lifetime ago but I may as well get it written up.

I finished my last post by revealing that I had found the most perfect spot to camp – overlooking the Danube with the whole of Romania lay out in front of me like a giant chessboard. I had called it check mate. I had bloody won!

Cycle touring through Bulgaria - I just wished my camera wasn't dead!

I woke the next morning to a stunning sunrise on my right and I was just in super high spirits. With only one more country to cross and Istanbul almost on the horizon, things just couldn’t get any better.

When I had pulled over the previous night to inspect the area where I eventually camped, I started to mess around with my bike as a car had pulled over and I didn’t want them to know I was going to camp there. As I was fixing this imaginary problem, the guy got out to ask if there was anything wrong. He asked if I was Italiano, in fact most people ask that. Perhaps I should cycle with my white belly exposed. Anyway, the exact same guy came to my tent this morning so I guess he knew what I was planning. He agreed that it was just stunning and he even offered me a lift to the town where I was headed to but of course I declined. It is difficult to explain to someone you don’t share a common tongue with that you want to cycle (almost) all the way. Very difficult indeed but I hope he caught my drift.

Right, well I had no camera. Well I had a camera, just no battery and so I resolved myself to finding somewhere to charge it along the way.

I spent the morning gliding downhill with a few ups along a ridge that sat quite high above the river. It was a thoroughly enjoyable morning I have to say. After Romania and to a certain extent Hungary, the roads here were in pretty good shape and, with the drivers being very courteous too, I could just enjoy the scenery whilst I cycled along. It was a bit of a downer that I didn’t have my camera but It was also kind of liberating. With this in mind, I decided I would spend the entire day camera free and then also decided that eight night’s camping had been enough. I vowed to get to Veliko Tarnovo today. It was 150 km’s away I guessed but with a hot shower, a proper bed and the promise of English conversation at the end of it, I knew I could do it and so I pushed on.

By midday, I had made it to Pleven and got completely lost coming out of the city, indeed I couldn’t even locate the city centre as everything was written in dammed Cyrillic! Outside of the towns, a lot of the road signs have the Latin translation underneath but in the cities and small villages, there was just no way of knowing.

Eventually, after stopping several people who all kindly helped me I found my way out and began to cycle the long, long distance south east towards Veliko Tarnovo.

Well it was all mostly unexciting flat farmland for the next 50 km’s and it was hot like you wouldn’t believe – my thermometer was showing 41 degrees and it was very, very tough to cycle in - almost as bad as Spain. Here at least, the temperature and humidity does drop off at night which is a huge blessing.

Three men stopped me as I approached a village, panting heavily as I passed them. It’s strange as I would never accept a bottle of water from an old man I didn’t know back home but here it’s just not an issue. You just can’t say no to ice cold water when you’re cycling in 40 + degrees.

At one point as I was sitting there, I began to think about Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and of course how hot it would be. I’m going through so much of the stuff at the moment but in those countries, I would have the added effort of having to filter every last drop of the stuff and this for sure would be an ass ache. That word wasn’t in the dictionary and so I’m not sure if it’s one word or not.

I joined up with one of the main roads leading into the city and it was indicated that you weren’t allowed to cycle it but I didn’t know which other road to use. I thus tried my best to be careful and luckily the trucks were holding up the traffic which gave me several windows of opportunity to make a mad dash for it before I had to pull over to let everybody through again.

Veliko Tarnovo is unusual in that it’s built on a series of hills and thus all the main roads are set below it and this is where I got stuck. I found myself cycling around these extremely busy roads which were set deep in the valleys and not having a clue where to turn off. When I began to realise I was about to join a motorway, I did see a sign for the city which lay 200 m’s above me and with absolute joy, began the long and torturous ascent up.

When I got to the top, I was completely dis-orientated. With the city, and although quite small, set on four huge hills circumnavigating two winding rivers, I found it really difficult to get my bearings as my maps I had saved on my kindle of the hostel I was staying in were just too zoomed in. I was far off the page. I eventually decided I better find some place with internet and after figuring out where I was and where I needed to go, I cycled there with relative ease.

I went down some seriously steep streets where I asked a guy if Hostel Mostel was close by to which he replied that he would take me there. I thought, that’s nice but quickly added “no money yeah”. He replied, “of course no money”, and so off we went. He took me a grand total of 25 metres after which he pointed down another steep street to where the hostel stood. He then asked if I had one or two euros for his trouble. God damn it I said no money! Of course I wasn’t prepared to give him any euros or Bulgarian Lev for that matter but gave him instead the rest of my Romanian Leu which he seemed genuinely happy with. It equated to roughly 0.75 cents which I was genuinely happy about too actually.

The guy at the hostel helped bring my bike upstairs and it was a fantastic place to stay. With great staff, a terrace, garden, Hammocks, beer, huge clean rooms, free towels, free breakfast and dinner, beds already made for you and free lockers it was just a dream and probably the greatest hostel I have ever stayed in. It really was that good. You could even camp in the garden which is what I did on my third night and this is how good it is – they even provide you with their own tent. Unbelievable. Welcome to Europe’s best hostel.

On the plus side too and probably because it’s a city no one has ever heard of including myself, the people who were staying there were all interesting and a little different to the gap year students you normally associate hostels with. As it was off the beaten path, it lured a more interesting and sometimes older type of traveller with a lot more to say and whom were more interesting to talk to. If any of you are reading this, I had a great time with you all.

I ended up staying for three nights which is getting to be normal now once I reach a city. I tend to overstay. In reality though, my right foot was quite bruised and swollen which I put down to the fact that I had been wearing hiking boots whilst cycling since I had left England and had only recently switched to my sandals which were a lot more comfortable.

I now had only five days to cycle to Istanbul which worried me a little as it was still 500 km’s away. In between, stood lots of mountains not to mention the horror stories I have read about when one tries to cycle into this city of sixteen million people. I was really not looking forward to that.

With a bit of good fortune, I realised only the night before I left that I needed to buy an electronic visa for Turkey and with that bought, my bike fixed up a little and my clothes kind of washed I set out again on the final leg to the city that had always seemed to be the culmination of many a heady dream.

Leaving was considerably less painful than entering; the highway south was wide, flat and was light with traffic and I couldn’t quite believe my luck with the gradients. I mean if you look at a map, you would think the road would be a series of humongous climbs but, although it did climb steadily throughout the day, it was nothing that concerned me. Thus the day was spent cycling through stunning mountainous scenery where my thoughts strayed far and wide over a range of topics. Such was the level of commitment and concentration needed to cycle.

After about 70 km’s I reached the town of Gurkovo and began my long descent through the valley and down into the flat farmland that I could see laid out in the distance as far as the eye could see.

I was waved down a little later by two guys by the side of the road. I didn’t want to stop as I knew there probably wouldn’t be an exchange of language either of us could understand but alas, I stopped anyway. They asked where I was headed with which I said the next town 30 km’s away. They then indicated that it was too very far to cycle so late on and that I should perhaps come with them to sleep in their house but I just had to say no. I still wasn’t sure which route to take through Turkey and so I thanked them and said goodbye.

I was stopped even later by a man on his racing bike whom had cycled passed me and actually turned around to cycle alongside me. This lasted for a good ten minutes after which, realising that the language barrier was just too difficult, he cycled off. Strange encounters.

This night, I found myself cycling and cycling until literally I could cycle no more. I had seen a small lake on my map that looked like a great area to pitch. It wasn't. When I reached it, it stood next to a gigantic power station and I had to make do with some scrub land instead.

I must say that even though I woke up in such great spirits as I would today be entering Turkey, I became completely so demoralised with the constant stream of huge climbs that I had to undertake in order to get there. My energy levels had again hit the wall and I just couldn’t muster the drive to cycle faster than about 5 km’s per hour. The sun was just zapping every last bit of joule from my body. It was suffocating.

I even managed to cycle 10km’s in the wrong direction at one point because of my lack of concentration as all my thoughts tended to be reserved for hallucinations of giant bottles of orange juice or oversized coke cans. I only realised when the road seemed to bend west continually and I thought, “I’m sure Turkey is to the east....”

By mid – afternoon, my dishevelled body and I arrived in the last town before he border which lay just a few tantalising km’s further east. I quickly made my way through town and picked up enough food to last me until I reached Istanbul with my remaining Bulgarian Lev.

Reaching the Turkish border. One continent ends and another begins

There were roadblocks everywhere between Svilengrad and the border but of course they paid little heed to myself and my bicycle. I did get a little stuck though, as the road I had been travelling on ended abruptly just a few km’s shy of the border requiring a climb over the crash barriers and onto the motorway. Hundreds upon hundreds of trucks created a tailback as far as the eye could see. It was quite a sight. I was able to cycle the last part on a beautifully smooth motor.way but with the added benefit of no moving cars!

It was utter madness at the border with so many vehicles trying to pass through. I think it probably took close to two hours to get from one side to the other. As I inched my way forward, I would come to a halt beside a car whose occupants would ask me from where I had come after which they would reply that of course I was crazy and that they would prefer to do it by car. This scenario would play out again and again over the coming hour. I told them that they were obviously missing the point as I wasn’t simply cycling in order to get to Turkey. I was cycling all the way because, for me, the journey was the holiday. I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself. Being the only person in a sea of cars and caravans was such an incredible feeling and knowing that I had done it with just a simple bicycle just made my heart surge with pride and respect.

On the other side, as the Turkish border guard looked at my passport, he asked if I was running away. This obviously had to do with the recent referendum back in the UK which made me laugh a little. I told him that I might return one day but first, I wanted to see some bazaars!

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