The way East – first stiff steps (Bulgaria)
Sometimes a dream might get stuck in the orbit of reality and start spinning around it. A moon that lights up the clouds of routine and disperses them at night, shining through conversations with friends and lonely contemplation of the bedroom ceiling. It might nest so cozily in the no-mans-land between the life we live in and the one we imagine, that it could rest shyly and comfortably there for eternity. After two long years of dreaming, and fearing that our two-men caravan to the Himalayas might freeze in such position over the coming winter, we start looking for that magic radio station that tunes wishes and reality, and spend a long summer of planning, packing and bidding farewells. And at last, when the days start growing shorter our steps get larger, we set off through a tunnel of colourful leaves to search for the den of the Sun.
On the 1st of October, after a slight delay, we shut the door of our tiny flat in Sofia and, along with it, the traces of comfort of settled life get blurred. Our pockets are light and key-free. This is the beginning of our long travel East. The slippery floor and the sullen sky of Sofia prompt us to begin the walk away from the city and the coming winter. Under the weight of the heavy backpacks the road folds us, puts into its pocket and begins its run with a breathtaking pace.
In fact, a few hours later what is breathtaking is just the number and speed of cars indifferently passing by our side. However, as it often goes with hitchhiking, just before setting the tent by the road, 3 km away from the city center where our warm home still lies, we are saved from the cold and rain by Stefan, who takes us to his place in one of the three Kostenets that you can find set in a row if you check a map of Bulgaria. Several nights later we will finally start to realize that the confines of our home will be from now on either those of helpful strangers or those of forests and mountains.
We want to say goodbye and leave Bulgaria through a path that would drive us far away from shopping malls and high streets, and take us through its dusty turns to the villages and shelters that still live time at a slower pace. So we head south to the Rodopi mountains and the town of Madjarovo to be guided into caves, Thracian ruins, abandoned mines and precious herbs by our friends Pesho, Kamelia and Zeus, who welcome us at home and make us dream of coming back to Bulgaria even though we are still kilometers away from leaving the country. Madjarovo is set in the crater of a dead volcano and protected from the rage of winter winds by impressive rocks, where endangered species of vultures nest under the scrutiny of ecologists and adventurous tourists who, overtaken by the scenery cannot avoid hoping to glimpse a dragon in between the birds. Once a quite village, Madjarovo temporarily expanded during the Bolshevik rule motored by a mining industry. Now, ghost grey blocs adorned with the obituaries of miners stand as cold embers mutely reminding of a recent, but forgotten past. Traces of that past could be found in the surrounding mountains where broken down mines that have already taken their place in history, peacefully co-exist with Thracian sanctuaries, and resembling a yawning mouth generously spit semi-precious stones down the hills and into the river flowing calmly next to the town. In this remote corner of the Eastern Rodopi mountain, Pesho and Kamelia are set to find the balance of an insolvable quest – how to bring people around and make them share their love for nature and the treasures hidden by the cliffs, but keep the wilderness unspoiled. Are we, travelers, able to pass by such places as on tip-toes and enjoy nature and history just as they are?
We leave Pesho and Kamelia wishing them a happy winter, and after a brief goodbye by the Black Sea seasoned with salt and wind, some happy travels and 2 Germans on an interesting quest around Europe, we head on to the even more remote area of Strandja – a mountain in the far south-east of the Balkan peninsula. A calm and still sea of green motionless waves covered by thick forests, the place, totally oblivious to the fact that it is cut apart by an imaginary line separating Bulgaria and Turkey, has long been a border region and traveling there 20 years ago was only allowed with a government’s permit. Probably that is why wildlife in the area still roams the hills hardly disturbed by the noisy and expansive human. Similarly to Rodopi, in the past the mountain was inhabited by Thracian tribes that left behind tombs and spectacular monuments, the meaning and function of which is still widely disputed. Now, there are only a few scattered villages connected by paths that disappear as you walk through and we fall into the trap of the woods on our way from Stoilovo to Petrova Niva, being eventually forced to turn back unable to reach our destination. We spend a couple of nights in a tiny shelter overlooking the village of Stoilovo, famous amongst the locals for its miraculous curing properties. Starring at the theater of the fire flames at night and observing the peculiar shapes of threes, hills and stones at broad light, we feel that each minute lived around is once again pushing us away from our plans to travel further East. This is a place where we could happily stay. Convinced that if we do not make it to the border as soon as possible we might never leave Bulgaria, we take the almost masochistic decision to grab the backpacks and hitch to Turkey. The next morning finds us back on the asphalt roads. Isolated and puzzling, Strandja sings her fairy songs while we walk and hitch through a light mist and primaeval oak forests. We can only hope that the forest shelter performed its magic and our bodies and minds are healed and prepared for the next step of our journey.
Upon reaching the Turkish border the sun salutes us fighting off the fog. We take a deep breath and dive into the vast swath of the unknown that stretches for thousands kilometers ahead. But we still wonder, can we stop the time and dedicate eternity to each of those tiny universes that are connected in a line traversing the world in all directions, or are we doomed to a superficiality of traveling which we falsely perceive as a deep experience? We are on the way to Istanbul and around us the air vibrates with the voice of the imam who reaches for the deaf ears of God.
If you like maps, you can see an online version of this travel in Tripline.