Biking through a muslim territory in Europe - or how to celebrate national holidays

A short story about three young enthusiasts and their three day bike trip in the South-eastern part of Bulgaria. No big morals ahead but colorful scenery to be discovered…

This time the trip started out as a patriotic celebration honoring the Bulgarian independence day. The 3rd of March is THE date when one can observe an increased number of white-green-red flags per capita in Bulgaria. Everyone had his flag out… and so did we.

Pan-cultural unification! (Aleksandar, Ned and Ivan — left to right)

Moreover, if I have to be honest — despite the fact that we love our country and respect our traditions — we are philanthropes and strongly believe in global peace and omnipresent harmony (no, we are not hippies just people of common sense). We don`t like divisions nor walls (apologies to President Trump but we don`t ) and we truly believe that “the great forces” should do far better, in terms of global peace, than to counterposition weapons of mass destruction so that equilibrium exists. Thats why, for us, the 3rd of March 2017 was more of a a non-working day than anything else and an opportunity to do what we like the most — unite with nature. A great day for the beginning of our next bike adventure!

We had 3 days to explore the South East part of Bulgaria, starting from the biggest city in the region — Kardzhali. We took our chances with this part of Bulgaria for two reasons. Reason one (the heavy decision influencer) — it is a spectacularly beautiful area and despite the fact that it was still winter we were mesmerized by quite a few stunning views!

A road near the village of Perpek.
Too mesmerized to remember the location.
That`s the whole village. No shopping malls.

The second reason was a tiny-miny bit of provocation. As the the national holiday, actually, stands for the Bulgarian liberation against the Ottoman empire ruling over for more than 500 years- it all ended on the 3rd March 1878. Now, we all know that the Ottoman empire had evolved into a country known, presently, as Turkey. And surprisingly (or not), we have cycled through the lands mainly inhabited by Turkish descendants. The city of Kardzhali — our starting point, has so many Turkish speaking inhabitants that when Ivan asked for directions in Bulgarian, the man spoken to could not understand. We decided that this part of Bulgaria during this time of the year was a good match. And off we went…

Aleksandar the Christian.

Yes! It was the three of us (Ned, Aleksandar and Ivan) full of enthusiasm and completely lacking physical training. It was the first bike trip for the year and we were planning some 260 km of butt soaring cycling with an accumulated denivelation of little less than 2500m. Easy-peasy!

Day 1–54 km

Day 1 started at 5.a.m — we had to leave early from Sofia, and driving for some 3 hours. No one got much sleep but we were all excited and full of energy. Once we reached Kardzhali (our starting point) we realized that a Big-game off-road race was being held in the region. Getting hit by a Monster truck? — no thanks!

We started easy with almost no uphills so it was a true pleasure (“they see us rolling…”). Temperature was already reaching 13 C as it was almost noon — sun and no clouds, perfect riding temperature with zero traffic (oh, well, some cows went in the way).

Aleksandar regulating traffic.

It was interesting to notice that the density of villages was intense — every 3–5 km there was a small village and what was even better, there was a curious tradition in the region that every man should build a drinkable fountain before he passes away. The region is sufficiently water supplied and there were drinkable fountains literally every few kilometers — that meant no need to tank up and less weight to carry around. Gotta love `em traditions! Meeting people of all sorts was a curious experience as well.

A fancy drinkable fountain with a chill zone.
That was random.

Another typical Bulgarian tradition was remarkably revealed — Baba Marta. Bulgarians (a funny tribe indeed), have the ritual to exchange knitted bracelets or brooches of red and white cotton strings on 1st March. The exchange of the so called Martenitsi means for good luck, health and prosperity. I get allergies when I wear stuff like that, but my bike doesn’t.

Ned`s Martenitsa on his bike.

One gets rid of the Martenitsa only if one spots a Stork. Non negotiable. This is the symbol of the downing spring. Spring first, America second, it`s beautiful!

And we were lucky enough to spot Storks by the end of our day 1 trip. Brace yourself, spring is coming!

Stork`s nest. Stork was shy in front of the camera.

During the day we met a bunch of local people and they had one striking resemblance — they were all so polite and positive . Surely, everywhere we have passed through we were the oddly looking guys with tight pants and big backpacks. Some freakishly looking nomads who seemed to stick out abruptly in this land of eternal tranquility. We were offered to get some fishing lessons by a 7 year-old gentleman or, elsewhere, challenged on a football game — such a shame we only had 3 short winter days.

The fishing expert.
No time for football but always time for fair play.

The night we camped — out there in the wild. Despite the fact that my wine was frozen on the next morning — it was a multibillion star hotel.

The camping terrain.
Wine inside — frozen.
Shot taken at 7 a.m.
Day 2 — chill day.

Day 2 — the leisure day! We only did 45 km that day (and pushing 10 more uphill). It was a relaxing and peaceful promenade with plenty of chilling (and mud), swimming and animal loving (we met a lot of animals on our way and said hi to them, ok?

3 donkeys patrolling the streets.
Exchanging cuteness for sandwiches. Free market economy.
Have a break! Have a Kit-Kat!

Day 2 will be mostly remembered because of the museum of vultures we passed by (OMG warm food there). Vultures are extinct in Bulgaria so Kudos to the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds for creating the one and only interactive museum spreading the love and knowledge about the problem. Unfortunately, we were not able to see a vulture in real time :(

Aleksandar the Egyptian Vulture.

The bed of Arda river was also a highlight of our trip. The peaceful serpentine is calmly meandering through the region providing fertile soils and water supply for extensive farming. It was also providing a chilly bath for three bike roamers. Boy, did we need a shower…

Ivan going all-in.
Arda river near Madjarovo.
When Aleksandar came out of the water he said the the ultimate coldness he felt was at his eyeballs. Cold eyeballs anyone?

We had to have a shower simply because we took the longest shortcut on our way to Krumovgrad. It was a cross country dirt road with a ridiculous incline. It was impossible to ride up so we had to push. We pushed and then we pushed more and then we pushed some more…then we went back and decided to take the river journey — such a pleasant call!

He is smiling but his soul is crying. Shortcuts are always longer!
Bulgarian siesta place? Seriously, no idea what this place was designed for…

The end of day 2 was not as relaxing as the river pleasantries as we hit a painful denivelation of 400 meters in our last 5 kilometers so we had to sweat it out at the end. And then we had to hit the woods and get some fire fuel — evening was coming!

Ivan the wood carrier.

Day 3–80 km more silence then usual. I guess we did not want to go back but duty was calling. However, there were some 80 km we had to surpass before we met duty again. Unfortunately, the road between Momchilgrad and Kardzhali was quite car-intense so do not recommend this part of the trip.

Day 3 — finally some distance.
My sleeping bag playing the refugee. Kudos to the unknown driver who honked the s**t out of his car when this fella fell off my rack wheel.
Nomads- the real ones. No digital monkey business here.

A silent day with plenty of inspirational sights. Highly inspirational was the midday nap where I believe I found the definition of happiness — it was a mixture of pine needles whispering backed up by the singing of birds (some mystical hypnotically singing birds of divine origin) topped up by the gentle midday sunshine of March — bijou!

Nirvana classes with Ned and Ivan!
Home is behind that hill.
Going home…slowly.

And there it was. No grande finale and no heavy morals — as promised. Just the next journey peaking behind our shoulders.

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