'A cold coming
we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
T.S.Eliot, The Journey of the Magi
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27th January to 22nd February – Strange Uncle Bulgaria
Perhaps we should have gone to Tobermory instead. The policeman at the border post insisted that, as tourists, we must have a police escort for our whole time in Bulgaria. When we finished laughing he explained that this applied to any foreigner travelling by foot, bicycle or horse and was purely for our own benefit, to protect us from “bad peoples”. Our escort car arrived and the argument continued. Did they really want to drive along behind us for three weeks at 5km/hr? Did they have a 4WD for the off-road sections? Did they have a tent? Painfully slowly the reality began to sink in and they finally agreed to let us go, settling instead for showing us the first couple of junctions on the way out of Oriahovo.
In Bulgaria, real winter finally caught up with us and gave us a big hard kick up the backside. Even down on the Black Sea coast they had snow, more than any time in the last fifty five years. Where we were, they were used to snow but not this much; it snowed solidly for three days leaving half a metre of the white stuff all over everything. It was a winter wonderland but to make any kind of forward progress we were forced to stick to the roads. Too dangerous to ride, all five of us slipped and skidded on the hard-packed ice. It wasn’t pretty, Sealeah and Audin are not going to be the next Torville and Dean and when sprayed with showers of grit from the big scary road scrapers they didn’t think it was very funny at all.
The snow also forced us inside at night, into all kinds of strange places. In Kneja, it was a huge shed full of buffaloes, cows, goats, chickens, dogs – a whole farmyard’s worth under one roof, not the best recipe for a good night’s sleep. In Barcach, there was a room in an abandoned house for us, with the horses squeezed into a tiny shed downstairs with the sheep. In Gabrovo, the five of us shared a warehouse in a car breakers’ yard with a collection of smashed up Volkswagens and Peugeots.
We were in no position to be fussy, it was hard to find places. Farms are not dotted about like in Britain, all the houses are packed closely together in the villages. On the edge of some villages are former state collective farms but many of these are now abandoned ruins. Village homes rarely had room for three visiting horses. Another phrase entered our multilingual trip vocabulary: “Nema tuk!” (nothing here!).
Our limited language
probably didn’t help but we found the Bulgarians took a long time to
get their heads around us. We were ‘touristi’ so we must need a
hotel. It was
to get across that we just wanted to get the horses sorted: hay,
water and oats, corn or barley – “don’t worry about us”, we tried to
say, “we can sleep anywhere and no, we won’t be cold, we have warm
clothes, sleeping bags…”. To be fair, in the small villages along
our route, they probably hadn’t come across great numbers of Welsh
horse travellers. Communications were simplified for us in Pisarovo
where we met an english-speaking ex-fighter pilot who’d just retired
from training pilots in Ethiopia to fly Mig jets. He bombarded us
with gifts, including a very old looking English-Bulgarian
phrasebook. We had a flick through; how could we fail with these
Just outside Lovech, on an old state farm, Issem kindly invited us to share his tiny one room accomodation. Outside it was snowing; inside, the wood stove was blasting, it wasn’t hard to accept. But the following day his wife and three kids returned and things became, well…cosy. Issem begged us to stay and sleep in the room but it was hard to see how it could sleep five let alone seven. So it was back into the cowshed with the horses for another noisy night with big-barn soundtrack – cows shitting, hooves scraping, dogs barking, rats scrabbling. We stopped at Lovech for three days for sixteen legs, weary from days of ice skating to recover for a while. But while we stopped the snowing didn’t. We kept hearing the name Shipka on Issem’s radio, this was where we were heading and the road to it was now blocked with two metres of snow. Between us and Shipka were the ‘Stara Planina’ (Old Mountains), the highest remaining barrier on our way to the sea.
Eaten alive by lice and fleas
For the next five days through the mountains the sun shone from a bright blue sky but this came as part of a package deal, the other part being cold, very cold. The coldest night in a run of cold nights was in the high village of Musga. We arrived late and the men standing around the woodstove in the village shop told us there was nowhere to stay, another ‘nema tuk’. While I was in the shop, Lisa’s highly trained hay-seeking eyes picked out a barn and open-fronted shelter. The men in the shop said no problem, help yourself, so we waded through the thigh deep snow, unloaded the horses, piled up the hay, carried a couple of buckets of water from the back of the shop and dived into our sleeping bags.
A three-litre bottle of lemonade I’d bought in the shop froze solid in a few minutes. We kept our kerosene stove blasting, melting snow for hot water to keep thawing the ice in the horses’ buckets. Fully clothed and submerged in our down sleeping bags, we were warm enough to sleep. But we should have slept in our boots as well because they were frozen hard in the morning. Everything took longer with frozen fingers but when we finally got moving it was a relief when the hot aches came. We heard later that down in the valley below us at Sevlievo, a temperature of –34C had been recorded that night, the lowest for more than half a century. As usual, our chestnut friends just got on with it, warm in their rugs, not a single shiver. By this stage Audin was hairier than a grizzly bear and the others weren’t far behind.
After a long pull from Gabrovo, we made it over the Shipka Pass where, in 1877, the Russians had beaten back the Turks in a famous battle. It felt as though our own battle with the elements would soon be over. On the south side of the pass, for the first time in a fortnight we saw trees that weren’t buckling under the weight of snow. “It’s still cold”, Lisa said, “but it’s a new, slightly warmer kind of cold.”
From Shipka, with the Stara Planina behind us, we’d convinced ourselves that it would be downhill all the way to Turkey and the long awaited Sea of Marmalade. But we were wrong, there was one more range in our path, the Sredna Gora. We reckoned we’d be able to cross it in a day, using a track spotted on the map. But the map is not the territory and the territory was buried in snow, covered in dense forest and completely devoid of people. By mistake (Chief Navigator takes full responsibility) we found ourselves on the wrong track, one that went on and on, up and up, became more and more overgrown and finally, after five hard hours, just petered out. We tried to thrash our own way through the forest but the valley sides became too steep. Decision time; should we stop and camp and try again tomorrow or lose all the ground we’d gained and go back with our tails between our legs? There’d be no food for the horses but if we could just get over this way it would save us a few days. In the end it was the wolf tracks in the snow that put us off a bivouac – we’d heard they were particularly hungry this year due to the bad weather and we weren’t too keen on providing them with horsemeat for dinner. So, for the first time all trip, we admitted complete defeat and returned for another night at the farm we’d left that morning.
But while we hadn’t made an inch of progress for our efforts, the horses had loved every minute. So happy to be off the road they did everything asked of them and more; ploughing through the snow, punching through the ice on river crossings and powering through all the trees that got in their way. “Why can’t we do this every day?’ they asked. Their energy and enthusiasm seemed to be limitless.
It was February 14th and as if we hadn’t had enough action for one day, there was a St Valentine’s Day Massacre to finish it off. It was my own fault, I’d just been saying how sorry I felt for Bulgarian dogs who seemed to spend all their lives chained up, when we arrived back at the farm to find the four big guard dogs very much unchained up. Not only that, they took their job seriously and were in full attack mode. When Audin was bitten, Lisa’s shouts were probably heard back in Wales, but not, it seemed, in the farmhouse. From my hiding place behind Hannah I made a run for it to go and fetch the owner, Ivan, but I was immediately surrounded. While one of them shredded my trousers, another clamped his jaw over my calf. Thank God for leather half chaps or the holes in my leg would have been much bigger and much messier. Later, over a glass of ‘rakia’ (some of which was donated for disinfecting the wounds), Ivan said he’d seen us under attack but…wait for it… “had to go and finish the washing up” before coming outside – talk about priorities!
After a brutal day of lashing rain and hailstones we found refuge in the village of Yulievo on a farm, another ex-collective, now privately owned. Like others we’d stayed on, the ‘patrona’ (owner) didn’t believe in getting his hands dirty, there were plenty of workers for that. This one became known to us as “The Fat Patrona”. Of course, we were grateful for the hospitality, the warmth of the wood stove, food for the horses etc etc, but sometimes we have to pay for these things in non-financial ways. At dinner time, The Fat Patrona bent his head over a bowl of fatty mutton and, sweating profusely, shovelled vast quantities of it into his mouth and ordered us to do the same. Afterwards he moved on to the pumpkin seeds and a mountain of shells soon built up in front of him. He demanded to see our map and insisted on telling us how to get to Turkey. The Bulgarian word for ‘here’ is ‘tuk’ or ‘tukka’ and, as his fat fingers violently stabbed a succession of villages across the map, it was accompanied by a deafening “tuk, tuk, tukka, tukka, tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk, tukka…” On and on it went, like a three-wheeled Delhi taxi. “tuk, tuk tukka…”. The soundtrack was accompanied by a continuous rapid-fire spray from his mouth of fragments of pumpkin seeds. Worst of all, when his finger finally reached Turkey, he came back to the beginning and started all over again, “tukka, tuk, tuk, tukka, tuk, tuk….”. He was just about to start his seventh or eighth re-run when Lisa broke under the strain and rushed out, saying she had to check the horses. In the morning, to our astonishment and horror, he insisted on showing us again - he’d been thinking about it overnight and changed his mind about a couple of sections. This time he was armed with a biro and his stabbings and scribblings managed to obscure what little useful detail there was. Again, the whole route had to be repeated several times. When he took our other map and started to trying to mark the precise locations of all the “bad peoples” in Turkey, it was just too much, we had, as they say, to make our excuses and leave.
When the hills ran out, all the charm did too and the landscape took a turn for the grimmer. Drab, grey towns full of drab, grey apartment blocks, an immense opencast coal-mining area littered with rusting wrecks of machinery, faded hammer and sickle murals on ruined buildings. It seemed as though all work had stopped twenty years ago and everything had been left to deteriorate. To add to the morbidness, when people die, posters of them are put up all over town so every spare bit of wall is plastered with photos of dead people. Where was the bright side of life?
In Romania, people had seemed positive about the future but most of the Bulgars we met just seemed resigned to it all, powerless to do anything to improve things. There was huge resentment of the ‘mafia’. Why should 5% of people have everything and 95% have nothing? The adjustment from communism was clearly a slow and painful one. Srepka, the third person in Bulgaria to give us a present of socks (were they trying to tell us something?), summed up what many felt: “Before – no money, no problem; Now – no money, big problem”.
Sealeah’s own version of this was “No chocolate, VERY big problem”. With the world under snow, our grazing stops during a day’s ride had become a thing of the past so the horses felt fully entitled to a share of our chocolate supplies. Sealeah became dangerously addicted. Even a tiny movement of my hand towards my chocolate pocket soon became impossible without being clobbered by a chestnut muzzle. I swear sometimes I just had to think about chocolate and she’d quicken her step to get into position for mugging me. Some of the products on sale were good for a laugh. There was a Bounty lookalike called ‘Coco-Country’ (two convenient sections for easy sharing with your horse), a Kitkat copycat called ‘Mistake’ (we bought one and it was) and an energy drink called ‘Pit Bull’ (how on earth did they think up that name?). When a lorry passed us bearing a big multi-coloured logo: “We Are The Toys” we knew that there could be no limit to this plagiarism – though to be fair it’s possible that they considered this a grammatical improvement on Toys R Us. Before the subject of bad food is left for ever, it would be wrong not to warn fellow travellers about the ‘7 days’ line of products, the worst of which is without doubt the croissant with filling. If you can find it at all, the filling is about as big as the kind a dentist puts in your teeth and the ‘7 days’ surely refers to how long after baking they leave it before carefully sealing in the staleness.
Our last good stop in Bulgaria was with Georgi in Pastrogor. He had a wicked sense of humour but was utterly depressed at the same time: “Life in Bulgaria very difficult, everything in Bulgaria broken, life very hard, everything broken” - he must have told us twenty times. He was amused that we had actually chosen to make things difficult for ourselves by travelling on horses. “Why this very difficult life?”, he kept asking us. In the morning he told us that he’d had two cows stolen from inside his barn by the gypsies. “These people are very hungry”, he said. His cup was a lot more than half empty, his parting words: “please don’t go to Syria, my children!”
Broken hands on broken ploughs,
We still hadn’t found any food for the horses but it appeared that somehow, the gypsies were guarding a supply of top quality lucerne hay. The horses were hungry after a run of bad nights so I had to try and buy some. Men came out of the ruined farm buildings. “Lucerna, lucerna?”, I asked. Fingers pointed towards by far the scariest looking of all the men. Apart from his scary head with scary tattoos and scary eyes, he had a very scary (and very big) knife which he was passing slowly from hand to hand, clearly enjoying the feel of it in his palms. He told me to go through a doorway into the barn. “No, after you’, I insisted. But sure enough, inside the barn was the secret stash of hay. They demanded euros and for some reason the big knife seemed to make all my haggling skills disappear.
Back at our luxury ruined barn (the Kapitan Andreevo Hilton), Lisa was doing her best to fend off a drunken gypsy and his bottle of ‘rakia’. My return put an end to his unwelcome advances but he wouldn’t go away and he wouldn’t shut up. He finally left but a good night’s sleep wasn’t really on the cards. At one in the morning our friend returned, slumped down on a load of hay that he’d carried on his back, muttered non-stop for twenty minutes and then passed out. At two in the morning he woke up and tried to break down the chainlink fence keeping the horses in. Our shouts sent him running off into the dark. After that it was all peace and quiet, apart from the sound of very expensive hay being munched, rats scrattling around in the roof and small bits of masonry from the collapsing barn landing on our heads.
After Lisa’s reconnaissance mission to talk with the vets at the border, we endured another similarly unpleasant and sleep-free night in the house of fun. It was from this somewhat-less-than-marvellous platform that we launched The First Turkish Campaign.
The inherent vice of
capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings.