Sunday, 26 June 2011

Bulgaria: Mayors replace Bears

I am not clad in lycra cycling garb on this trip, I never have worn it despite all my years of cycling and only now do I own a pair of Craft padded hotpants to wear under my combats. This lycra veto is simply due to
1 personal preference,
2 the fact that most of my outdoor gear is for mountains and does the same job
3 avoiding lycra helps me blend in..

Wrong! It is impossible to blend in. However hard I try to be invisible the fact I have a bike loaded with 6 bags means that heads will turn wherever you are. And of course they did in the town of Nova Zagora, Bulgaria where 3 delightful ladies smiled at me while I was stuffing a rather stale pastry into my mouth with one hand and trying to manoeuvre my bike with the other. I smiled broadly then remembered my manners and swallowed the pastry before smiling again. They were intrigued by my trip, 'you're doing this alone, as a woman, alone?' and I gave my usual reply that my belief is the world is essentially a rather nice place and people are out to help not harm and that it is incredible that in the 21st century it is still considered strange for a woman to be travelling independently..

A phonecall was made and I was asked to accompany them to the Town Hall where I believe I met the mayor, was fed chocolates and icy cola, given souvenirs of Nova Zagora, photographed and treated with humbling respect.  Lovely lovely people and I left Nova Zagora feeling I knew a little more about the town and its people

Later that day I was camped in what can only be described as horsefly hell. I was too weary to go further and went to bed with no water nor food having not replenished my 'lost' food bag and having run out of money. So it was a thirsty start the next day with an uphill of 5km but a thrilling 28km of downhill to the town of Lyubimets where I reached a cashpoint and splurged on 2 coffees and 2 pastries before moving on to a petrol station cafe where I ordered a salad and the owner fed me free pizza.
Before I knew it I was saying farewell to the beautiful country of Bulgaria and entering Greece.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Bulgaria: Bears and tales of missing loaves

The Bulgarian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) is a subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos), and found across northern Eurasia.The animal is widespread in Bulgaria..

"Jilly!" said a voice behind me interrupting my thoughts of  the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster as I looked down at the waves curling over the edge of the boat and covering my sandals. I struggled to turn my head to see who on earth I'd know while hemmed in between a cattle truck and the side of the car ferry which was now transporting me across the river Danube from Bechet in Romania to Orjahovo in Bulgaria.  A florid pockmarked face under a lime baseball cap came into view and my hand was grasped, pumped with vigour while my arm slapped. Aah, it was the rotund chap from a 'campsite' I'd stayed at the night before who'd bought me 2 beers while teaching me to say 'Multumesc' the Romanian word for "thank you" which I think I'd finally mastered when departing the country (ie I hadn't received a confused look from the person being thanked) as I purchased my ticket before boarding the ferry. "I work in marketing" he'd said but now I realised it was of the cattle type of market and I think he saw it in my face as he gave me a final slap on the arm and hurriedly retreated to the cabin of his truck in preparation to disembark.

Leaving Bulgarian passport control where I'd spluttered and made up a word for 'Hello' I spotted two fluorescent waist-coated people tucking into a plate of food at a roadside cafe, two touring bikes leant up against a corrugated fence. I waved and cycled towards them as they beckoned me to join them. This amiable couple were from Holland, retired and on their final leg of the Danube river route which they'd completed over a series of summers "The best way to spend our retirement money" he said. They were doing the next leg in Romania to 'avoid the hills of Bulgaria'. Hills...?

Shortly after leaving them, my heart was battering my chest and I breathlessly asked a bemused old lady who stood with head cocked at her garden gate "Bank(e)?" -adding an e to the end for no particular reason just it sounded more foreign - and she smiled and pointed at another hill and up I went and at the ATM stood confused again as to what the currency and exchange rate was. My safe bet is to now select the second amount down on the left hand side!

I weaved my way through rural roads, thick with mud and deep pools in the chasmal potholes after an earlier storm. At the next village a sudden short yet almost vertical hill caused me to get off and push and 3 ladies, their faces as crinkled as their thick black stockings, chuckled and tried to push my bike with me. Let me say that pushing a fully loaded tour bike is more exhausting then getting on the bike and pedalling and the pain in my increasingly weak wrists is unbearable yet I was soon distracted from any suffering as the Bulgarian countryside is stunning. I became absorbed by the hedgerows of poppies, golden ragwort, plump magenta thistles and the deep violet of wild lupins as I left the villages and climbed up to a rolling plain looking down at the River Danube.

 My camp that evening was on the edge of a village, the heat of the day had erupted into a ferocious storm and I sheltered under the trees, camoflaged and relatively dry. This was my spot where I was treated to a dazzling firefly display

 I woke needing coffee and at the next village the cafe was a coffee machine in a small store. I tried to count how many people were helping me with coins, buttons, strength, size, sugar and milk options. Amusing start to the day yet things took a slight turn for the worse when many kilometres later I was on a deserted strech of road and had overtaken a horse and cart with 2 rather shifty looking men onboard. Blame it on fatigue, too much time alone, an overactive imagination sprinkled with a slight hint of paranoia, whatever you want but something gnawed at me so when the thundering of hooves commenced - and believe me that pounding sound on tarmac when you are going full pelt and wishing you had an extra gear to get more pedal power is really quite frightening- I knew that this was the day it would all go wrong. I was expecting to be lassooed, jumped on, robbed of all my possessions and tied to a tree. I could hear the Lone Ranger theme tune playing its tinny sound in my head, interspersed with the dandyish chants of Stand and Deliver.  What did happen was I lost the glorious fresh loaf of bread and feta from the back of my panniers, arrived sweating and shaking in another village and hid under a tree waiting for them to ride on past looking for me. They didn't of course and they were probably just late for lunch.. in fact they probably stopped and had my lunch!

A few hours later I found myself panicking again - where to sleep? I'd met a policeman in the most depressing town which had looked so appealing on the map being by the river and surrounded by forest. I asked the way to Svishtov and he pointed at a sign post which had "prison" and "Nuclear Power Plant" written on it.

He laughed, said 'Bravo', shook my hand and slapped me on the back. So that was my route.. 8km of nuclear power plant later the sun was setting, I approached a vacant looking guard to ask directions while his possessed manic dog circled me and snarled (very discreetly i was zapping him with my Dazer - the dog not the guard..) and after some confusion remembered that a shake of the head in Bulgarian meant yes not no so I was still heading in the right directon. More kilometres later and I found a spot on a raised bank with the Nuclear Power Station to my right and a Power Station to my left and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of crashing machinery, generators and throbbing turbines.

2 nights later I was in a warm bed, devoid of snails, slugs, centipedes and mosquitos. My stomach groaned in agreeable discomfort with its contents of Bulgarian stew washed down with beer and a splattering of chardonnay. The bike had been replaced by a horse, my own repetitive thoughts with stimulating conversation, damp fields with cool tiled floors. I'd reached the sanctuary of my friend's brother-in-law David, his partner Detelina and their baby son David - ironically precisely 4000km from my mother's house where I'd commenced my journey. A delightful day and a half spent with them and eternally grateful for their warmth and hospitality (and for getting me to a bike shop!)

My inadequate map, bought hastily at a petrol station, showed all the place names in English yet the road signs were in Cyrillic causing me to navigate by sun and directions from people . It also failed to show any difference in terrain and a text from a friend tracking me online enlightened me that I was heading towards the Central Balkans national park with a mountain pass to cross and an abundance of wildlife: wild boar, wolves and bears. Bears. I cycled through densely forested mountains.. Bears, .. and took a steady ascent of the Pass of Republic, a meagre 700m yet the top afforded views, a delicious yoghurt and an encounter with 2 Dutch cycle tourers who were on their journey back to Western Europe having cycled through Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Bears. I love when I meet a couple of tourers: the lady usually natters the most while the man stands smiling politely, surreptitiously glancing at my bike until I then take a nose at theirs, ask questions and then you see the relief and we talk schwalbe tyres, maintenance and rohloff hubs.

Nothing like a bit of bike talk to take ones mind off bears. "Hey, watch out for the bears" he shouted as they started their descent blessed with a tail wind while I struggled up the last 3 metres to the top of the pass.  What bears?!! I shouted back trying to look over my shoulder and seeing only a cheery wave as he freewheeled down. Bears

Centuries old forests of spruce, beech and fir carpeted the mountains around me as I rested my thighs and enjoyed the downhill.

and of course the obligatory sweaty, inane grin self-portrait

I wasn't really that phased by being in the most populated bear area in Europe and once I'd found a camp, hidden in long grass again with a mountain meadow in front of me I was content
That night I dreamt of bears.

The following evening I rejoiced at the camp I'd found on the edge of a lake. The hills had taken their toll on my already strained back and I realised I needed to lie down and rest it for a day. I didn't get much rest as I pitched my tent and then noticed the footprints..

I was totally oblivious as to what a bear print looks like but there were enough large footprints around my tent to make me realise I was slap bang in the middle of some animal's nightly jolly to the lake.

A few texts later I was fully informed to leave my food and toiletries 50m from my tent and what to do with a bear encounter.
  • Speak in a calm authorative voice
  • Do not run
  • Do not climb a tree
  • Stand tall and show the bear you are not there to steal its food?! (what if it's there to steal mine?)
  • If the bear attacks you, curl up in foetal position, keep calm (yeah, right!) and act passive (cough!)
All very helpful advice if I wasn't prostate in a one man tent with a door that didn't close due to recent zip failure. Yet I survived the night and the next day woke to a glorious sunrise and I forgot about bears

as life doesn't really get much better than this.

After a lazy day willing my back to repair itself I once again took my food bag and one of my panniers containing my cooking equipment and my toiletry bag and hid them in some bushes about 50m from my tent. The next morning I returned to the bush and my bright orange Sea to Summit bag containing my yorkshire tea bags, oats, couscous, a loaf of bread, chilli powder, tomato & garlic purees was.. gone! the pannier was still there - it had been on top of the orange bag- and I lifted it up, thankful I still had it but.. I'm not sure how long I stared at the empty spot, my brain ticking.. yes, the fishermen must have stolen my food bag. I'd seen 2 young guys the night before, 200m or so away from me and presumed it must have been them so I stomped on over to confront them. One man lay snoring under a chequered blanket beneath a tree. I looked around and examined their small picnic table: a loaf of bread lay untouched (it wasn't my loaf as I'd mauled the top of mine the night before), olive stones and pistachio shells shared an ashtray of white cigarette butts. I saw a carrier bag underneath and with my foot tried to nudge it open. A man appeared from the trees, and gave me a questionable look. "Bag" I said forming a fist in the air in a pitiful attempt to mime carrying a bag. "Orange" I continued looking down at my orange t-shirt and pointing to it, "Sea to Summit" I stupidly added my hands trying to sign a rough ocean and then a pyramid shape, "bushes" I said pointing behind me, "food.. my bloomin food" I exclaimed, pointing at their table and looking him straight in the eyes.  The man was not in his 20s but with grey hair and slightly stooped. His friend had woken up by now and they both looked at me blankly and I frustratedly stormed off. After I'd calmed down and appeased my stomach with a small yoghurt I'd forgotten to hide I chuckled at how bizarre I must have appeared. fist, t-shirt, sea, pyramid, in the bush, the table. Mad wild english woman trying to nick our food

So I never knew what happened with my food bag. If the young fishermen who'd disappeared by the morning stole it I can only thank them for being such considerate thieves and leaving my Ortlieb pannier containing my MSR stove, my titanium pots, my repair kits, my toiletries and 6 packs of lithium batteries for my SPOT Gps tracker. If it was an animal then good.. it left me alone and I hope it enjoyed the chilli powder.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Ruminating Romania

Are you mad? You'll die. You'll get robbed. It's dangerous there. The dogs are ferocious. A woman can't cycle solo through that country. Rather you than me.  Are you crazy?

It was with a little trepidation having heard these comments that I entered the country of Romania. I could have avoided it by travelling along the Serbian side of the Danube and into Bulgaria yet Romania was an unknown to me, I wanted to judge it for myself and make my own opinion. I am glad I did.

Let me show you the villages of Romania. the ubiquitous horse and cart, laden with laughing faces and bright clothing, villagers collecting their cows from the fields in the evening, forming a trail of communal cow walking. the shady spots under the trees that line each street with the benches where old ladies sat in patterned skirts, thick socks up to just below the knee, headscarves and toothy grins. Old men and women resting with sturdy hoes and scythes, shepherds tending the sheep, goats and cows stopping to rest on their stick and wave as I passed.

 If you ever feel lonely then go to Romania. As I entered each village I would see people, look and look again as I drew nearer, confused faces as they tried to determine what 'it' was approaching, then, as I came into view their faces opened into wide smiles. Everyone greeted me. Children would rush out from the side of the road and I would have to give them high 5's as I sped past, I raced with horse and carts (and won thanks to the oncoming lorry :).
Hungry as ever I entered a small village shop to buy some bread yet they only sold large loaves. I asked if any smaller and was promptly given the largest and the gentleman would not accept payment. Drum bun (have a nice trip) he said and gave a tut as I once again tried to pay, holding his hands up, smiling and turning his back on me.

Romania put its arms around me and gave me a big squeeze

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Remain in Romania!

"You can't be that old! You are too beautiful to be that old!" exclaimed the Romanian passport control officer when I told him my age. His eyes suddenly narrowed suspiciously and he nodded towards the other official who was scrutinising my passport who looked up and I can only guess said "Bloomin eck! She is!" and handed him my passport. Great, I'm now going to be refused entry as I don't look as old as I should! I do really, it's just when you've spent the night on a rubbish dump and have your hair in pigtails and wearing baggy clothing and you're on a bike that looks too big for you.. anyway back to the story. He looked closely at my passport and looked up at me
"Aha! Sherlock! Sherlock Holmes" my age forgotten for now and I gave my sweetest smile and said he was my grandad.
"Are you married?" no.
"But you are beautiful" another sweet..ish smile
"How long are you staying in Romania?"
I explained that it would probably be 3 days that I was cycling to China and needed to head south through Bulgaria pretty soonish. Once again I received the usual guffaws, crazy womans, and then a shake of the hand with a slight and awkard embrace, a pat on the back from the other chap and as I cycled away he shouted
 "Marry me! Remain in Romania!"

Now let me take you back 500m to the other side of the Iron Gates Dam border crossing where I was trying to leave Serbia.. 2 dogs lept from the grass as I approached passport control and sped towards me growling, snapping, snarling.  ARGGHHGRRRRRR I screamed at them having not had my daily coffee and feeling a little fractious. They meekly crept away
"Passport please" sweet smile hand passport to Serbian official.
"Ah! Sherlock! Sherlock Holmes! Is he your grandad!" false laugh, yes of course
"Where did you stay last night"
"Oh. erm.." I looked at my map on top of my handlebar bag and saw the name Kalakov or something which was near by. "Here!"
"Name of hotel"
"I don't know" hmm, this is not looking good
"Receipt from hotel?"
"I don't have one, I've erm, thrown out all my receipts as I needed to lighten my load" Look matey I have just spent the night on a rubbish dump!I don't have a darn receipt. Please just let me leave the country. I'm a crap liar. I don't know what the consequences are of lying nor of not having a receipt. I need a coffee! And the toilet!
"Jillian. what?! How the heck do you know my full name?? oh yes. of course, my passport. You need to prove where you have slept. It is Serbian law" and he nodded his head towards an official looking sign on the counter, faded by the sunlight.
"Jillian please you must have something. Anything. From any night. I just need one" he said almost pleading and I looked up and beneath the stern glare looking down at me I noticed a hint of warmth, the empathy of an executionist maybe- I really really don't want to do this but I have a wife and child to feed
"I, I don't.."
"Anything, Jillian. Please."
Suddenly I remembered! I had a receipt from Serbia! Just the one from my 8 days here from a campsite where I'd taken refuge in a storm and I'd chatted to the man about wild camping and he'd given me a receipt saying You may need this!
"I have one!" I shouted as I fumbled through my purse and pulled out the Golden ticket with glee.
Simultaneously we exhaled slowly. He ran his fingers through his hair. "Thank you, Jillian"
"I loved Serbia" I said pathetically never having learnt when to just shut up. I meant it! I did love the country but I just sounded crass
"I love Serbia too. Goodbye"

Serbia: the dog's bollox

The pollution leaving Belgrade hung as heavy as the balls of the rottweiler which was now swaggering away from me, intermittently turning to snarl in disgust as I continued to zap it with my Dog Dazer. Having left David in his Lord Munsterland campervan and memories of a fabulous four days with him and Scott in Belgrade I followed the cycle path as the river arched around Belgrade's fortress. Walking towards me a middle aged couple wearing their holiday best started waving and shouting hello! I racked my brains.. they knew me and even looked delighted to see me. "Slovakia" they said as I came to a standstill and put the Dog Dazer back in my pocket. aha! My saviours. This poor couple had helped me when, panicked after being stalked by a man in a car and unable to find a safer route and despairing at my vulnerability, I had seen them pass from the tree I was hiding behind and I leapt up and pedalled frantically after them. We'd cycled together for a few kilometres until I reached the safety of the road and we'd said our farewells. Their journey was now complete, they'd cycled to Belgrade from Passau and it was lovely to see them again.

14 km later I was out of Belgrade and into an industrial area and run down towns

yet soon as I was back following the trail of the Danube as it worked its way eastwards and the beauty and biodiversity wetlands continued to absorb me

80 km of unpathed cycle route later I decided to set up camp and catch up on some much needed sleep: avoiding this side of the cycle path

Camp was once again in long grass and the next morning I put away yet again a damp tent. An early start ended up in vain as I faced a 3 hour wait in a small hamlet for a boat to take me across the Danube where I would continue my journey towards the Iron Gates. A few thick Serbian coffees later I'd browsed the Sunday newspapers plastered with the news of Mladic's arrest and of course Djokovich's continuing success in the tennis and a young couple showed me to where the boat would arrive. Bizarrely another chance encounter this time with Frank and Franka the 2 Germans I'd crossed the Croati/Serbian border with. Their party of 2 had multiplied to include a couple from Switzerland cycling to the Black Sea and an Austrian travelling to Iran. Sabrina the Swiss girl said "oh you are the girl cycling alone!"  She had also met my Swiss saviours mentioned earlier and they'd told her about me.

I left the group as they were stopping for lunch and set off at a furious pace to catch up on lost time. Before long I'd reached the beginning of, what has to be, the best stretch of the Danube at Golubac. This medieval fortress town begged me to have a beer to recharge both my batteries and my iPhone's.

Leaving the town I passed through the arches of this magnificent fortress in search of a bed for the night and before long and feeling a bit carefree (beer!) I scrambled down to the water's edge and set up camp on the rocky river bank and watched another Danube sunset with Romania this time as its back drop. I lay there snug and smug that all this was free.

I learnt the next morning that rivers are tidal. The soporific sound of waves lapping the shore as I lay there in my tent not wanting to get up just yet... but hold on that sound of water is worringly right next to my ear!
My beach had disappeared!

As my feet were already wet I thought it was time to have a bit of a clean up so I stripped off and had a quick bath! Despite the damp start I was rewarded with a fantastic ride towards the Iron Gates: towering cliffs, hill climbs, green lizards darting across the road, rockfall and 21 tunnels! All unlit and long!

I stopped in a small town and met Dragan and Dragan 2 gentlemen from Belgrade on a week's holiday and cycling to the Bulgarian border then back through the forests and hills. They shared their food with me and offered me a beer yet I wanted to get close to the crossing with Romania so another farewell and I was off.
The scenery was stunning and the heat oppressive with the temperature now at 35*C. I was almost beginning to enjoy the dankness of the tunnels..almost.

At the top of my last steep climb of the day I looked across at Romania and saw the strange face carved into the rock. Then the storm came and I watched my thermometer plunge by 20*C!

A few more dog attacks as I cycled back down through the villages in search of a spot to camp. I was at the slightly panicked stage as no small beaches for me to camp on only a sheer drop down to my left and a rockface to my right. Eventually a rest spot was found and I clambered down to a ledge which had become a dumping ground and I nestled down for the night surrounded by plastic bottles, empty beer cans and other unsavoury items. Yet I watched the sunset over Romania and wondered what this country would bring...