Istanbul, Turkey to Kalotina, Bulgaria/Serbia border
Number of kilometers: 12,193
Number of countries crossed: 8 (China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria)
After a wonderful long weekend it was back to reality. Back on the bike, back to the tent, back to eating meals on the side of the road, and to top it off rain and cold swept in from the Marmara Sea as we headed towards Bulgaria. Having left half of his belongings in his hotel room in Istanbul Oli did manage to pick up Matthieu’s cough and cold and it was with this that the two of us limped into Bulgaria.
Feeling rather down and out we met a lovely chap called Jorge in the first service station we came to. Jorge was from Chile and had made his way to Turkey from South Africa. His stories of charging elephants and exotic “conquests” along his route made for an excellent distraction from our heavy heads and chesty coughs. Two became three and after 20 km three became four as Adolfo, the great bearded eco-warrior, hopped over the barrier in the road and cycled back the same way he came(!). We all camped that night in the garden of a street-side cafe and talked about the good and the bad, travelling tales from far and wide, everything and nothing. We stayed with them all the way to Sofia.
Bulgaria can best be described as a country covered in beautiful forested hills littered with towns that look as if a nuclear bomb was dropped on them 40 years ago, with only one family surviving. The drab, grey, horribly depressing buildings left no doubt as to why the majority of the population seemed like the walking dead. “I told an awesome joke and she just stared blankly at me. That has never happened before”, Matthieu said one day after trying his luck to get a better price on the motel room we intended on staying in. Ok, ok, this is a little harsh given we were only in the country for four days and whizzed through just a tiny portion of the country. And Plovdiv city was quite sweet with its old medieval centre made up of little back alleys. And we did have one of the most beautiful days riding for a long time as we entered Sofia, with a bluest of blue skies and stunning autumnal colours littering the rolling hills with reds, yellows, oranges. Maybe it was only a couple of towns we went through that had too many cousins marrying other cousins who had kids with their brother and an affair with the nephew.
Unwarranted conclusions aside we did enjoy Bulgaria. It was a big change to the countries we had been traveling through for three months – grilled meat instead of kebab (yeah, yeah, it’s sort of the same), churches instead of mosques, scantily clad women on billboards advertising power tools (we strongly disagree with this tasteless act of sexism), hot pants instead of hijabs. It felt like we were closer to home. After three miserable days coming out of Istanbul, this was riding as it was meant to be and we were on track with our ridiculous schedule to get to cover 2,000 km to get to Milan in 19 days.