- $7,035.57 = How much it costs to travel around the world through nine countries over five and a half months
- Revisited: How to pack for an independent traveler with no set return date
- A glimpse in the thoughts of Bolod Namkhai Mukhadi
- Beijing to Ulaanbataar Mongolia: The nitty gritty of independent travel
- How to get Chinese and Russian visas as a United States citizen: My experience
- Writing assignment: "Inside The Candelaria Festival of Puno, Peru"
- Marathon hitchhiking: Southern Mexico to Michigan in 7 days over 3,400 mi
- Mango Surprise: Being the victim of a random, delicious act of kindness
- Legendary Vagabonder Rolf Potts with priceless advice on travel
- Fire juggler in San Pedro de la Laguna, Lago Atitlan, Guatemala
- Romania: WWOOFing in Transylvania and back to the US
- Bulgaria: Nice cities, tipped off about an isolated beach, and getting perspective from a prostitute's cigarette burns
- Kazakhstan Pt. 3: Almaty, where kids watch pole dancers, and joining the family
- Kazakhstan Pt. 2: Astana, WTF? Diagnosis: major inferiority complex
- Kazakhstan Pt. 1: Whoa Aunt Jemima's!, the Darth Vader Mosque, and a failed haircut
Bulgaria: Nice cities, tipped off about an isolated beach, and getting perspective from a prostitute's cigarette burns
Written by Tyler Cole | 20 July 2011
Hitching in, a challenge
I’m not sure why, but thumbing up to Bulgaria from Turkey (click for my articles on Turkey) was much more difficult than in the rest of the country.
Taking a bus out of Istanbul was enough of a delay, and after a handful of short rides, with long waits in between, the border crossing finally popped ahead on the road.
Walking the expanse took a while, but actually going through customs was just a matter of them looking at my passport and waving me on. After getting through and wasting time at a bank that wouldn’t change my Turkish lira, I started walking into Bulgaria.
The story of long waits repeated itself; eventually, as the sun was going down, a girl who worked at customs picked me up and left me at a bus station in Svelingrad, not far from the border. Looking at the map and Wikitravel on my iPod, I decided my next stop would be Plovdiv (yes, incredible planning skills), a city with a quaint old district, Roman ruins, and cheap hostels. Of course, there were no more buses to Plovidv that day, so I just went out to the road after walking through some dicey Gypsy neighborhoods and started thumbing again to get back to the highway.
Once on the highway, there were very few cars and no one stopped. At least the weather wasn’t bad. As the sun dropped, I just wandered off the road and pitched my tent out of view and crashed until morning.
Thoughts on reading and (not) understanding
I realized I actually preferred reading the Cyrillic alphabet of Bulgarian writing (Cyrillic originated in Bulgaria, f.y.i.) to Turkish, even though Turkish was in Latin script. Haphazardly psychoanalyzing myself, I figured this was because it’s a bit alienating reading Latin script, something so familiar, but not being able to make out a damn word since Turkish was so far removed from any language I could recognize. Bulgarian, however, was clearly similar to Russian (or as I was corrected by a Bulgarian, Russian is similar to Bulgarian). Combined with a base vocabulary I had gathered in Russian, absent grammar of course, I didn’t feel so inadequate stumbling through reading words that I probably wouldn’t understand anyway since my phonetic reading ability was hindered just as much as my actual language ability. That is, I found it more comfortable to be both bad at parsing Cyrillic and understanding the language it represented as opposed to being able to completely understand the Latin script of Turkish but not being able to understand anything; something with the mismatch bothered me.
Making it to Plovdiv
After a little while in the morning flagging cars on the highway a jovial truck driver stopped. I saw Turkish on his truck while approaching, and he was enthralled when I greeted him with a few words of Turkish. He was going all the way to Plovdiv en route to Holland, and I was happy with my luck.
After 150 kilometers he dropped me outside town where I could catch a bus toward the center. I found an internet café downtown and pinpointed a well-rated and inexpensive hostel. I rested up after the long trip, but that night met a few homely American girls who had contacted a local guy through Couchsurfing that was planning on giving them a tour that evening. They invited me along but weren’t really big on conversation with their guide, so I ended up talking with him (whose name is now lost on me) most of the time.
He told me about the comical succession of leaders in Bulgaria since the Soviet Union fell, including an exiled king from the pre-Soviet era and a bodyguard, and in general the poor state of the government. He also pointed out the different styles of buildings downtown, down to the decade, something that I totally would have skipped over had it not been for him.
The next day I wandered around the old part of the town and into a Roman amphitheater that was being restored, relatively tame compared to the ruins I had seen in Aphrodisias in Turkey. Considering the trouble I had hitching and learning about the rock bottom prices of train tickets in Bulgaria, I decided to take a train to the Pirin National Park to do a little hiking.
Hiking in Pirin National Park, and hanging out the train
I caught the train from Plovdiv in the late morning and transferred to another train after a little confusion about where to transfer. The confusion arose since Bulgarians don’t nod their head up and down to say yes, but rather do a weird head jiggle side-to-side kind of like how a dog turns its head, but back and forth multiple times.
The second, jankity train had incredible views through the mountains though, and it was pretty old so the wagon doors just flopped open and no one cared if I hung out to get a better view and fresh air. I arrived to Bansko, the town just outside the national park, too late to get up to the hut that is used as a hiking base camp. I found a cheap place for night with a summer discount; the town was obviously way empty compared to ski season with most shops shut down, but there were plenty of people heading up into the park in the morning and I easily caught a ride up to the base camp in an old Soviet-era Lada with an electrician hiking for the weekend.
He dropped me off at the base camp, and I hiked up to the second highest peak in Bulgaria called Mt. Vihren along with a few other weekend warriors. The view was good but mildly disappointing, and, after seeing the guy who gave me a ride up but hiked a different route on the peak, headed back down to the hut to get some food and crash for the night.
Cruising into Sofia, and tantalized by a beach
I hitched back down from the hut early and made the train, again enjoying the views which were like a continuation of the hike without doing any work. At the transfer station, I headed the other direction from Plovdiv towards the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The night I arrived I met some goofy Dutch guys who weren’t the brightest, but entertaining nonetheless due to their self-admitted alcoholism.
We made cursory plans to do the free Sofia walking tour the next day after they felt the need to go to two different ice cream shops within 30 minutes after having a few liters of beer. The tour was put on by a non-profit, youth-run group in Sofia (link: Free Sofia Tour), and the two leaders that day were some pretty enthusiastic kids from the local university. They were full of lots of great information and history about the city which would be uninteresting to regurgitate here, but talking with one of the leaders after the tour tipped me off to the next stop I would make in Bulgaria.
Petar told me about an undeveloped and isolated beach on the Black Sea you could camp on that was popular with students trying to save it from development since it was in a national park called Karadere. He was going to hitchhike out with friends in a few days, but I couldn’t wait since I had made arrangements to make it up to a farm in Romania in a few days. The Black Sea coast was far from Sofia, but I checked out overnight trains and there was a cheap one leaving that night and I decided to go. Camping on the beach sounded too good.
And the beach doesn't disappoint, well, except for too much male genitalia
Sleep was difficult on the train since it was in upright chairs and there were so many stops during the night, and I arrived in the larger resort city of Burgas delirious. The beach was still 70 km north of Burgas, and I stumbled onto a bus that was leaving to a smaller town I saw on the map north out of town. I got off on the highway and hitched the rest of the way to the closest town to the beach where Petar said to go, called Byala, and asked around about the beach. Apparently it was still a five kilometer hilly walk through some vineyards down a dirt road from the highway, and I was not looking forward to the walk considering how tired I was. I realized walking down the road to the beach that I had no food, but shifted thoughts when I saw a truck coming and the young driver gave me a ride to the beach.
He let me off at where his small shipment was going, still early in the morning, to a ramshackle café that was constructed to serve the food consumption needs of the campers on the beach. My food source was taken care of, and I was happy to see the prices for food were the same as anywhere.
The beach was dotted with tents and what looked like semi-permanent RV encampments. The whole place oozed relaxation and partial nudity was standard, including a few younger guys who unfortunately had their knobs dangling about.
I forgot I was tired and swam in the cool, clear waters of the Black Sea to a nearby beach around a rock outcropping, the only hiccups being a slight sting from a jellyfish which I didn’t even know existed in the Black Sea and a crowd of guys fishing with their dongs proudly on display. Indeed, it was totally isolated except for the dirt road, and there was not a building to be seen. If I didn’t have to arrive in Romania by the date my host said would be the best to arrive at their farm, I easily could have spent a few more days camping there.
Getting to Romania, and at least I'm not a border prostitute
When I did leave after two nights, I was not looking forward to the hot walk out to the highway. I didn’t have any luck since no cars were heading out when I left, but I eventually made it hot and sweaty to the highway and my shoes full of burrs since I cut through some fields out of impatience. I decided to hitchhike up to Romania since it was only a few hundred kilometers, but I was again plagued by long waits under an unforgiving sun and short rides. One of my rides, a supermarket inspector, actually picked me up twice. He stopped in a town to make an inspection after leaving me on the highway to continue, but it took so long for a ride that he finished and saw me again as he was heading to the next town.
I eventually made it to the border town of Ruse, but had to walk the last six kilometers to the border crossing around 6pm. Thanks goes to some nice prostitutes who were working at a bus stop and pointed me in the right direction to the border. Their willingness to help me out was in contrast to the cigarette burns I saw on their legs, and I realized my frustration with hitchhiking was pretty minor compared to the terrible things I’m sure they’ve experienced in life. I actually felt idiotic for mentally complaining about getting free rides from people and having to wait. My attitude changed and I gained a little perspective from realizing I would never have to deal with being a fleshy ashtray for either a pimp I was likely enslaved to or a sleazy john pissed because I wouldn’t lick his calloused feet or whatever demented thing he wanted. Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but that’s probably not far from what a prostitute on a border town has to tolerate, and likely worse. It was the sort of wake-up call everyone needs when they feel like whining about the lot they’ve been dealt, and in that case I was glad I was hitchhiking since I definitely wouldn’t have come across the ladies that helped me if I was hermetically sealed inside a bus crossing the border.
I wasn’t permitted to cross the bridge over the Danube by foot, so I had to hitch a ride with a truck driver, and he took me all the way to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. I’ll pick up here next time.