I left Velingrad refreshed after the birthday celebrations, and feeling as if I could conquer any mountain challenges that stood in my way. Just like previous times when I was getting complacent, the gods of the mountains decided to punish me for my hubris and give me a white whipping to remind me that I was in their realm upon their sufferance. I walked a long day from Velingrad to a curious communist left over- the high altitude sport complex at Belmeken on the edge of the Rila mountains. This huge complex, contains the facilities for every sport you can think of (wrestling, swimming, archery, rowing, etc) and has capacity to sleep 100s of guests, all up at 2000 m altitude, and all completely covered in snow when I got there as the sun was setting, grateful to find that it was open and taking guests. It was snowing heavily when I arrived, and the wind was picking up noticeably.
My planned route for the next stage took me up to the 2400m plateau of the eastern Rila mountains and down to the Borovets ski resort on the other side – an easy 20k across largely flat terrain – on the map. I poked my head out the next day, and waded into the soft fresh snow which covered everything. I manged to get about 800m before the continued heavy snow, zero visibility and high wind convinced me to turn back. The mountain gods didn’t want me to progress too easily. The next day I was again forced to turn back, this time due to a discrepancy between my map and reality – I was not lost, the map was wrong!! The third day after getting to Belmeken I set out again, and made it up the 400m to the plateau – at which point the brutal winds, frigid temps (-7 deg C, -15 deg wind chill), zero visibility and whiteout conditions forced me to turn around once again. As I descended back toward the sports centre with a heavy heart – I took a look at my map – and made a snap decision to pursue a lower, longer path on a slightly less exposed route. The severe weather forced me to turn back on this route as well, as I reached to top of a difficult pass. I turned back for the second time that day, pretty crestfallen, only for the weather to clear after I had retreated a little way. The path ahead was clear – I could see the pass ahead of me, and grabbed the opportunity, not sure of when the clouds might come back and obscure my way. I made it to the Belmeken mountain refuge knackered, after 10 hours of hard effort through deep soft soft snow. I had made a grand total of 6 km from my starting point – and I was ecstatic to be safe and sound in the empty hut. The next day the tip of my nose started tingling and hurting, and a few days later it peeled off – methinks it was frostnip. So the lessons from this experience – if at first you don’t succeed – try try again, if you still don’t succeed – try something different. Also – be very careful when crossing mountains in winter, and be prepared to wait out bad weather – obvious, but sometimes needs repeating.
Musala (From arabic: Close to god)
I arrived into Borovets ski resort a couple of days after departing the belmeken mountain hut. I was very keen for an attempt on Musala, the highest mountain on the Balkan peninsula at 2925 m. I’d heard that the climb wasn’t technically difficult, until the last 200 m or so, when it became steep and exposed – so I had the idea to take touring skis up, which would shorten the trip down markedly. I was lucky to find them in the ski resort, but one little rental shop tucked away from the others had a couple of pairs stashed away in a back room. The weather precluded an attempt on the summit, the day after I arrived, so I was forced into taking a days skiing at the resort, ouf. Next day I set off bright and early, on the long slog to the top. I had left most of my stuff in the restaurant where I had purloined a room (The Green King – one of the finest restaurants in Borovets, and very cheap acc.), but still had a largish pack – full of a seeping bag and mat, and extra clothes in case everything went south. I was put to shame however by the 50-year-old guy who started climbing at the same time as me. He was wearing – some cut off running shorts, and some boots – that’s it!! The rest of his stuff he had managed to fit into an impossibly small bum bag. He only put on some clothes when we were about ¾ of the way up,when the temperature and wind chill made things extremely frigid. The climb was just a long constant slog, with heavy uncomfortable plastic ski boots, and heavy skis. Three people began the climb around the same time as me, but they pulled away on the long climb, not held back by the heavy stuff on my feet. When it got so steep my skins couldn’t grip – about 250 m from the top, I parked the skis and continued on foot. The clouds coiled around me, and the top was obscured – but there is a handy wire and metal poles to hold on to for that last vertiginous part. So I pressed on. I got to the top, and.…….nothing. I couldn’t see a thing , except a strange-looking shed looming out of the cloud. I couldn’t find the door, and was getting a little chilled, when the nice short shorts man (who had put on a super thin top and pair of trousers by this time – it must have been about –5 or so with the windchill), appeared and directed me over a barrier, and through a hatch like door, down an impossibly steep and constrained flight of stairs down into the bowels of the strange building. Two flights down in the bowels of the complex, we came across a hatch in the wall – mr short shorts knocked on the hatch, and a grizzled weatherman appeared and handed the two of us cups of tea. I was then ushered next door to a room with no windows, but an electric heater. With the tea, it was bliss and felt rather surreal – like we were on a moon base or something. I munched away on some nuts and warmed up for 30 mins. Then I got my stuff together and steeled myself to head out again. Queen Rhodopi was smiling on us that day – the clouds had cleared – giving views back over my route of the last several weeks, and all the way forward to Sofia. Many of the main mountain ranges of Bulgaria are laid out below you from that peak – the Rila spreads around you, the Rhodopi are off to the south-east like a green wrinkly carpet, and the Pirin down to the South looking like a series of sharp white teeth. It might not be the highest mountain in the world – but the views sure take some beating. Afer 30 mins marvelling at it, I decided to beat a hasty retreat, scrambling down to my skis and from there whizzing all the way down over 1400m of vertical drop in 20 mins. I couldn’t let the three who started at the same time as me beat me down, and lo and behold I whizzed passed them one by one secretly smiling to myself. I was back at my restaurant guesthouse getting a beer from the proprietor – Peter- by 1500. Latter in the evening I was saying goodbye to Peter, as I would be gone before the restaurant opened in the morning – and he said – yes you must come back, you can climb Musala in summer when the weather gets a bit better. Again I smiled, and said I did climb it – earlier today. He was momentarily shocked – “but how you get up and down so fast to be back here at 1500” :).
Vitosha and Sofia – Winter to Spring
Next day I headed down from Borovets towards Samakov and from thence Sofia. Down on the plains around Samokov, spring had certainly arrived, the flowers were blooming everywhere, the sun beat mercilessly down and storks soared about the place looking for frogs to eat. I felt like I had smashed through the back of the wardrobe in Narnia, and come out in a different world. I put my head down and pressed on for Sofia, trying to put all the bear prints that had appeared on the path out of my mind for the coming camp – they had obviously figured out it was spring as well. Hopefully they weren’t hungry enough after their long sleep to be tempted to try a bit of human. One last big exertion and outing for the snowshoes took me over Vitosha, the impressively massive volcanic massif which towers over Sofia. I’d thought it would be a doddle after Musala, but the ascent and descent wasn’t actually that different, and now I had all 20 kg of stuff to carry…it was a long day indeed. But I descended to find a rather sweet reward – Dana was waiting for me in Sofia with a Pizza and Beer – if ever there is a way to a mans heart…
Conclusion – Bulgarian Revival – Seeds of hope for the future
Revival is a charged word in Bulgaria. It is used to describe two nationalistic episodes in the previous two centuries. The first is the national revival of the 1800s, a cultural awakening by the Orthodox majority in Bulgaria which culminated in the liberation of Bulgaria from the ottoman empire by the Imperial Russian Empire in 1878. An enslaved nation was freed from the yoke of an imperial oppressor something that most would describe as a generally good thing, with a few negative elements. The second was called ‘The Revival Process’ and referred to a systematic harassment of the ethnic Turkish population in the 1980s, as the regime looked for a distraction for the population, to stop them turning on the real enemy of the people, the state itself. Turkish was forbidden to be spoken, Turkish names forcibly changed to more Slavic sounding one’s, Muslim graves were desecrated, and many Turks were beaten and even raped by the state security apparatus. This second revival is seen by all except the most frothing of nationalists as verging on a crime against humanity.
So perhaps I would be wise to steer away from the word altogether, however, i feel like what I witnessed in Bulgaria – compared to the accounts I had heard from the 1990s, which really were a lawless and scary time to be in Bulgaria – did feel like a revival. A coming back to life of civil society, and a dramatic increase in security and prosperity for the average citizen. Now don’t get me wrong, Bulgaria still has some huge problems to deal with. It is one of the most corrupt countries in the EU. No one has been charged for the worst excesses of the communist regime. Organised crime is flourishing, and by all accounts the rich, powerful, and well-connected can more or less do as they please, without any fear of the corrupt police or judiciary coming after them.
So far, so bad…. However, I witnessed a different Bulgaria from the nasty picture I just painted above. Pretty much everyone I interacted with was polite, friendly and helpful. At no point did I feel personally threatened, afraid for my stuff, or left feeling I had been overcharged. On the contrary, I regularly encountered incredible generosity and hospitality. It also seemed to me that the perception of crime was quite low in the society – when I rented my skis in borovets, the guy didn’t ask for any ID, he did write down my telephone number, but only after I had prompted him that he might want it. I could have just walked right out with the skis and never come back, but he just trusted that I would. Then in Sofia bought some stuff at an outdoor shop, and then asked the proprietor if he knew of any barbers close by, he came with me out of the shop and right around the block to show me to his local barber, leaving a shop stuffed full of expensive outdoor gear completely unattended. I can’t think of this happening in the UK. The criminal activity (organised or otherwise) in Bulgaria is carried out by a miniscule proportion of the population, and as long as you exercise a modicum of care (especially in the big cities) you are very unlikely to have any problem.
So I think Bulgaria is in the middle of a third “revival”, we could call it a “civic revival” to differentiate it from the “National revival” and the “revival process” which came before. There remain huge challenges ahead to come to grips with the structural problems of the Bulgarian State, but every young person I met was sick to death of the current crop of corrupt political parties, and hungry for change. They have travelled much more widely than their parents, and get their news from sources different to the mainstream media which are often aligned with the dominant political parties (who are quite happy with the status quo, thank you very much). These youth might make up a small percentage of the overall population, but their voices are loud, and their numbers can only grow with time.
In summary, I had a wonderful time in Bulgaria. It is a beautiful country, with a warm and welcoming population. There are big problems still to be dealt with, but I am hopeful that change will come.
Next up, Serbia!! Looking forward to the next Slavic country on the itinerary….
I would like to thank my parents for their continued logistical and emotional support. Also Arjan Schilling, Max Smits, Sedat, and Tine Lambers from the Sultans trail team, for answering numerous questions and being generally helpful and enthusiastic about my trip. The Sultans trail is a long distance walking trail from Istanbul to Vienna, and I have been following it via GPS for Turkey and Bulgaria. It has been an invaluable help for navigation. Information can be found at www.sultanstrail.com. My thanks go out to Julian Perry from Balkan trek (www.balkantrek.com) for giving very detailed answers to my questions about trekking through the Bulgarian mountains in winter. For help, hospitality, and pleasant company, I received on the trail and in the town, above and beyond a standard commercial relationship, my thanks go to: Rumen and the team at Hotel Deni in trigrad; Mel and Lee at the Melanya guesthouse (www.melanya.com); Stan at Chatama cabins on Golyam Beglik Reservoir (facebook.com/chatamalive); Ferdi and his family at Family Hotel Deizi in Borino; and Karina in Plovdiv for welcoming me to the city and helping me collect my crucial package of winter gear. Lastly I am extremely indebted to Dana and Petra D., who were extraordinarily generous and hospitable to me during my stay in Sofia (and who found me the computer and gave me a space to write this blog), many many thanks.