• 2 November 2012

I stepped on desert in Bulgaria

I stepped on desert in Bulgaria

I stepped on desert in Bulgaria 300 169 Gürkan Genç

Dude! Are you kidding me? What desert? On top of it, in Bulgaria, the country just next to us? This subject is to be cleared in the upcoming chapters of this article

I always get stressed at the border passes. Melih, Furkan and Sercan who hosted me in their apartment accompanied me till the border gate. Also, two reporters from TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) and Cihan News Agency were waiting for me at the border. “Abi (elderly brother in Turkish) stay there.” “No, no… Go over there.” “Huh! That position is good, stay as you are.” Dude! I got hungry. I need to eat something before I pass the border till Ayca arrives. Ayca is going to accompany me at Bulgaria stage of my tour. By the way, who is Ayca?

My friend Emre called me one day: “Gurkan, one of the authorities of the company we work for is looking for a team mate at the footrace in Bozcaada.” So I decided to go to Bozcaada instead cycling around Eymir Lake in Ankara. We met with Ayca there. I got out of breath during the race (I weighted 88 kg and was trying to lose weight at that time), I begged of Ayca to slow down, but she didn’t pay any attention nor did she slow down. During the race as a woman was about to pass us, Ayca started to sprint. I tried to keep at but no way “F..k the race!” I won’t get a medallion anyway. Did I run up to the end? Yes. What else?

(I was about to die but run for 10 km. I did it. Hehehe. After I lost some weight I was able run 10 km in 42 minutes.)

She is top fit. The next day we borrowed two bicycles in Bozcaada. She had heard about my Japan tour. She asked me: “Is it possible to pedal together for a couple of days.”  I said: “Well, if you are fit enough why not?” We raced with our bicycles and she won. “Look, I’m also a good cyclist.”  Dude! What if she is so, she could make me exhausted till we return.  I chose the hilliest paths in the whole island. She fell behind me on the slopes and also downhill. Let’s put in this way: She was beaten. But she was shouting far behind me: “I know you have chosen these routes on purpose. But I never quit. I’ll do it!” “Dude, you didn’t even carry loaded panniers, if it had been so you would be so f..d up” Of course, I didn’t say like this to her

Anyway, this was the start of our friendship. As I recognized she was serious on accompanying me I told her which equipments and what kind of the bicycle to buy. She completed her gear in two months and started to train for the trip. That day I intended to leave Turkey she was dropped at the border by her aunt and aunt’s husband. By the way she is working for an international company from where she received the necessary permissions. We’ll going to pedal together in Bulgaria.

While pedaling towards the border gate I got so excited that my heart started to beat faster. I had a last look at the Turkish flag. I took a deep breath before starting to pedal. “Allahim (My God) won’t let me embarrassed! I’ll do this! I do believe in me! I possess that power! … And the pedal starts to rotate around.

The border process was not complicated. The officers got surprised hearing my destination. At the end we came to the officers at the Bulgarian border. The officer examined my passport and let me pass. Then, she looked at Ayca’s passport and ordered her to show her hotel reservations. She didn’t want this information from me but from Ayca. You always should carry copies of such documents with you: A copy of your passport, about 20 ID photos, hotel reservation documents etc. You never know when you will be ordered to present these documents. The officers want to know where you’ll be staying, where you’ll be going and so on.

Well, since Ayca didn’t prepare copies of such documents ahead, she tried to show the invitation letter on her smart phone sent her per e-mail. But the phone didn’t get open for minutes. Dude! Why is this I-phone opening so slowly? What is this? It became worse after the recent updates.  I smiled to the officer and started a small talk with her. Then she said: “All right you can pass” At the end. We are over with this process.

And I crossed our border at the end. I have my heart in my mouth. “Allahim (My Lord) you protected me during my previous tour. Your hand was always on me. I still remember where you guarded, guided and preserved me with a single word of mine.

I know that your hand is always on me. But I want to say once more: Clothe me with your protection. Accompany me during my tour. Show me the world you have created. Show me your miracles on the way I follow. May, I be filled with your grace. Light my way through suffer, love, happiness, tears, sorrow, fear and let me return home with my bicycle at the end. Allahim this is my very wish.”

After I passed the border I rotate pedal around once, twice… and listen to the sound of the rear derailleur…trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…

–          Gurkan you passed border, your journey has started.

Actually it ended J

–          Yes Ayca. It has started and now I have the planet earth lying in front of me. And I’ll definitely finish the tour, but in 7 years or more.  I won’t return to my country without traveling all over the world.

–          I believe in you.

The first town behind the border is Svilengrad. My plan was keeping my stay at hotels in Bulgaria at the minimum. The European leg of my tour will take about a year. Europe is one of the two most expensive continents. I said that there is no need to overnight in a hotel as it is still warm enough. But my plans changed as Ayca decided to accompany me at this stage. She hadn’t camped before in her life. Even she hadn’t been on a tour like this before. Therefore, it would be difficult to ascribe her camping life just from the very first day.

I spoke Turkish with the guy in the store right at the entrance of Svilengrad. We pedaled downtown after receiving the address of the nearest hotel. This was a small town. The thing which caught my eye was that everybody was riding on bicycle. We had only passed the border 20 km afore. How big seems the difference between the minds of these two countries? There is much less cyclists in Edirne a small level border town of Turkey compared to Svilengrad. It is really hard to understand that point of view not to use bicycles and not to establish bicycle lanes in this city as a one who cycled in Edirne.


The first hotel we saw downtown was Metropolitan Princess. A room costs 90 Lev (about 50 $) without breakfast. This is probably the highest price you might encounter outside of Sofia in this country. Prices are higher due to the many Turks coming for gambling. We have started very luxury but we’ll calm down. J The hotel manager was from Istanbul. He looked askance at us, we at him. “Usually foreigners travel like that. It is the first time I have seen Turks traveling with their bikes.” I hope the number of Turkish touring cyclist will increase in the coming years.

There are too many casinos in this small town. There are weekend tours from Turkey. Gambling tourism has made the city survive but the villages lying between the border and Svilengrad were deserted.  After entering the EU many inhabitants immigrated to larger cities or abroad for better job opportunities.

The prices of the meals are quite cheap, also that of the drinks. I ate ice cream not in a regular cone but in a one kilogram ice cream filled giant one. There is not much for sightseeing in the town. It’s better to sleep early and wake up early in the morning. Well, I had quitted route planning due to Nathan in my previous tour in Samarkand. He came next to me and asked: “Gurkan in which direction is Japan?” “East” “Okay then, just pedal towards east and have fun being on the road.” If you read those tour articles of mine you would recognize that after this point I started to write in a much relaxed and enjoyable manner. Well, I don’t plan my routes anymore except the border gates which I’m going to pass in this tour. I have no idea which road I’ll follow or where I’ll go to. J My bicycle will bring me to my destination anyhow.

Ayca made a sightseeing program on Google. There is a fortress in Mezek well known for its own brand of wine. Even she tracked two routes, one crossing Dikaia shortening our road for 20 km. Well, she is right it is not easy to pedal with that heavy load on bike. I said “Okay. But don’t tell me about the route, I’ll find it with my bicycle.”

At the exit there is a bridge a good example of Ottoman architecture. It is still compact with its whole beauty. It is not written by whom it was constructed. (Later we learned that it was founded by Mustapha Pasha)

As we came to a cross we saw signboards written in Cyril. It is really hard to understand what is written on the signboards. I was faced several times with such situations in China. The town Diakia on Ayca’s route lies on the left side which is on Greece. Hmmmm. It means that this Dikaia town in at the right of the Greek border and our route goes the border along. Well then, where is Mezek? What the hell, let’s take the shorter route and go to Dikaia.

After 5 km we saw the signboard Mezek. J A cross before we have arrived to Diakaia and another 13 km to pedal. If there isn’t any other exit we will have to turn back to this cross. Ayca seems pleased. Well, let’s see where this path brings us to. The path was really very nice rarely occupied covered with trees on both sides.

We entered the town Mezek. I showed the fortress to Ayca:

–          Are you kidding me Gurkan?

–          Well Ayca, fortresses are mostly built on top of hills. J

While climbing I looked at my GPS: a 17% slope. But how come could she know that the road to Mezek Fortress is such steep.  After climbing for 2 km I saw a bumpy rough side path. This path must be leading to the fortress. Hooppp… I just entered to this road. A short cut to the fortress is right in front of me. A couple of people in front of the fortress are staring at me. I asked them where entrance is. But where is Ayca! J

She was next to me just before I pedaled downhill this side path.

–          AYCAAAAAA!

–          What?

–          I’m waiting for you.

–          What if I leave my bicycle somewhere here?

She had been looking for a place to hide her bicycle.

–          I’m waiting for you with your bicycle. Let’s move.

When she came next to me she told me that she didn’t want to come with her bicycle because she did not want to re-climb the path she pedaled down. How come dude! Which scouting warrior leaves his horse behind? J

Mezek Fortress is among the best preserved medieval Bulgarian castles. Mezek (meaning border) Fortress dating to 11th century was established to protect the Byzantine border. You can see also a machine gun emplacement used by the German soldiers during the World War II. It was so placed that you can see the whole plain.

I took a look at the left hand side of the castle. How come? Did they also start to use these in Bulgaria! A solar energy field!

Germany with its own patented solar energy technology produces 18 000 GWh per year within 18 solar energy field which makes up 3% of its annual energy production. The same amount makes up of 7.5 % of Turkey’s annual energy production. Meanwhile, a regular nuclear energy plant produces about 6000 GWh. It is really hard to understand why Turkish government does not invest in solar energy technology having sunshine all year around. It does not have to be with being a developed country or not. I saw this sharply in a town Mezek in Bulgaria.

Mezek is also famous for its own winery all over Bulgaria. We couldn’t drink any wine, although it was Ayca’s dream. But I had just missed that point.

After visiting the castle we returned that 13 km and headed towards Dikaia. We were just riding for a kilometer when we hit the Greek border.

–          Hey my friend, would you look at me?

–          We want to go to Dikaia. Is it on the Greek side?

–          Yes. At the other side of the border.

–          Ayca did you make the route to pass on the Greek side? J

After a short silence we both started to laugh.

–          But it isn’t my fault. That’s Google’s fault. It shortened the route for 20 km.

–          Anyway, neither I nor you have got a Greek visa. There is no reason to stay in no man’s land which I had gone through before. It was good that you made such a route otherwise we wouldn’t come here and visit the Fortress of Mezek. But, leave it to me the next time, all right? J

–          Hahahaha. Okay.

It is too early to call and say “Hello, I’m stuck at no man’s land between Greece and Bulgaria”. I’m just at the very beginning of my tour, dude. I fixed my speed to 20 km per hour and let Ayca pedal on my tail. Hey! There are two cyclists coming across. We changed some words and then left.

We arrived to the town Harmanli. A room for two costs 30 Lev (about 20 $). Not bad. We had a rich dinner for 16 Lev (about 12 $). A glass of Jack Daniels costs 3 $. The prices are quite low. Ayca got exhausted this day pedaling for 56 km. It is time to check the route out. Enes loaded up a 2 GB GPS map in the internet right away for me. But it was a hard labor to download it. I had to download many other programs till the early hours in the morning since the download was interrupted may times and gave connection error. At the end I managed to download the detailed road map of Bulgaria on my GPS with just an hour sleep. Puhhhh!

Destination Kardzhali. But the route is full of ascends and descends. After 30 km Ayca is on revolt:

–          Gurkan, I’m done. Stop here!

–          Okay. Let’s take a break.

–          Aren’t your leg muscles burning?

–          No. Why?

–          Why are mine burning that much? I pedal 60 km per day in Istanbul. I don’t understand what happened to me.

–          You are climbing with the load in your panniers. This might be the reason. It is not the same as just pedaling along the sea coast in Istanbul.

She gets angry with me. She gets up on the saddle starts to pedal. By the way, she does not lean towards camping on the road because she wants to overnight in a hotel in Kardzhali. Since there aren’t any hotels before that we have to arrive to Kardzhali. We could camp, stay in a village house or at a mosque but she doesn’t want to. We pedaled for some time and at the 40th km she drew the towel. Her face faded a little.

–          That’s it. I’m done. Just camp somewhere here.

–          How many kilometers are left?

–          25 km

–          Dude! How come can I not pedal 25 km. I really angry at me. I do regularly sports and climbed up with bicycle for months. How come dude how? Why can I not finish 25 km? Gurkan, look I’ll show you my STRAVA data. I did really pedal very well. Don’t understand what happened to me?

–          Ayca keep your pecker up. It doesn’t matter. We’ll camp here.

Actually she is really doing regularly sports, jogging, cycling throughout her life. She also started to pedal on regular basis two months before she joined this tour. But she overlooked one thing. With loaded rear and front bags the level road does not remain the same and not the climbs. We could reach only Karagoz village at the end of the day. As 50 km was over we had climbed 700 m on the total. Actually, this was not an easy course for a beginner with that much load.

–          Don’t your muscles burn with that load?

–          No.

I stopped at a gas station near Karagoz village. As I saluted as Salam the response came in Turkish from a young man. I bought some water for our camp and asked whether I can find some more on the way. Meanwhile, the backyard of this station seems quite suitable for camping. “Ayca dear, I found a camping place. This is good here.” She and also me took a deep breath. She hadn’t left any power to continue.

I showed Ayca how to erect the tent and how to use the stove to prepare our meal. Now, it is time for a small talk with the employees. It is advantageous to camp at such stations open for 24 hours since you find water, store, toilet and sometimes even internet.

Since they were working shift wise Necati Abi came to replace that young guy. We bought some drink and snack from the store and set on a table.

There are all Turk villages in the vicinity. Nobody would bother us. To the question “Are you pleased with your life?” his prompt reply was “Not.” The income is low but prices high. It is his second marriage and has got two children. He says that the EU is not fair with Bulgaria. “People in Germany are paid in Euro but we are not paid on the same basis. Despite that we pay the same amount of taxes and the price of gasoline is higher than that in Germany, 1.37 $ per liter.” The working class in my country came in my mind and I kept silent.

–          The communist regime was much better. Well, there was a kind of discipline and pressure on people but we were happy. In old times (formerly) we left the keys on the tractor and went home. Gasoline was kept in barrels on the crop fields. We never used it unless needed for work. But nowadays nobody is left in the villages, all migrated to towns. Who is going to plough the fields? In old times all the fields were covered with crops now they are empty. When we got ill the government took care of us. Now, the hospitals take all of our savings literally grab into our pockets. We are not strong enough to fight. In old times, the folk had been regarded. Well, we are free now and have democracy but we are not happy anymore.

Well, since I didn’t live under such a system and at that time I’m not able to make any comparisons. I just know from the books.

–          Look treasure hunting is popular here. The village and around ahead was on the route of the military Europe expeditions of Ottomans. The salaries of the soldiers were carried along this route. I mean tons of gold coins. It is said that the official at that time keeping the salary had come to this region and had to hide this vast amount of gold for some reason. They hid the salary in a cave found at one of the surrounding hills and blow its entrance off. From that time to present treasure hunting has been experienced. Let me tell a case. In 1940s a man from the next village went to Istanbul. As he mentioned to the people in a Turkish café where he came from an old man whose father was among one of these officials came next to him. He described a child’s grave near Kardzhali. That old man told him that his father had hid a part of this salary there. But the villager didn’t pay attention since people were looking for the gold coins since the era of Suleiman the Magnificent. He returned to his village. One day as he was putting his animals out to pasture he found the grave that old man mentioned. He dug the grave and found a box filled with gold coins. He settled with his family in England. His grand children are still living in clover.

Dude! Look at this! We just sought of camping here but were surprised with such interesting stories. I’m tired couldn’t sleep well last night. Ayca lost herself in the stories. I asked some questions about the route we would follow. As he mentioned if we pedal first to Kardzhali and then to Velingrad we would have serious climbs, Ayca immediately throw off this route. We had to climb to arrive to Kardzhali 15 km ahead. The route passing through Asenovgrad shortens the distance to Velingrad but excludes Kardzhali. It is really bad not to go where I actually wanted to. Nothing to do. As that man told us that we have climb to 900 m for 25 km Ayca said promptly: “I pedal to only to Kardzhali and then take a bus to Velingrad”. I’m tired, have to go to sleep. I thank to Necati Abi for his information. I return to our tent, will decide tomorrow which way to choose.

Ayca had bought a camping mattress for herself bigger than mine. I tried to inflate it but unfortunately got deflated in couple of seconds. Gee! The mattress has punctures. “Take mine. I’ll sleep on yours. I don’t mind. Mine got also punctured in Gobi desert and I had to sleep on rubble ground.” Since I couldn’t sleep last night at all, I fell asleep right away.

As we woke up in the morning it was pretty cold. Hey, buddy! At the end the cold caught us. I like to pedal at cold weather. This time I have got better clothing, let’s see how many minus degrees I’ll endure…

After having breakfast we departed. After a couple of kilometers Ayca started to complain. I loaded her bags on my bicycle, an extra of 25 kg…

Well, I thought that I would need an additional load only for desert crosses. This bicycle was designed and reinforced taken such cases into account. But there aren’t any climbs in a desert. Before leaving Edirne I weighed my bicycle, 65 kg. I’m 80 kg heavy. Eh, adding up Ayca’s 25 kg of load it summed up to 170 kg. It might seem difficult to climb from 120 m to 900 m with a 170 kg bicycle. Ayca had not opened her mouth once since then. She was looking at me ashamed.  Her eyes fill with tears while talking to me. Hey! It’s okay. Could happen. If you have someone with you on her/his first tour such things may happen. The response to my smile after pedaling for 68 km and climbing 1270 m is:

–    You are not a human creature!

You make it! Actually, your brain is powering you up. An extra load of 25 kg is nothing for the one who set the toughest destinations on the world as his goal. That is individual motivation. My goals being so high, of course I’ll make a big smile at the end of the day. I HAVE TO turn bad into good! And enjoy.

At the end of the day we checked in a nice hotel in Asenovgrad which by the kids at the entrance of the town directed us. As Ayca started to speak in Turkish, the kids replied: “We are also Turks”. It seems that you may encounter Turks in every town in Bulgaria. We stayed for another day and hang around, had time to visit Asen’s Fortress a medieval castle. The renovation works are funded by EU.  During Ottoman era the fortress was initially intended to be destroyed but then was used by the army forces. The Church of Holy Mother of God is the best preserved construction of the fortress. The view from the fortress and the leading path is really marvelous. Afterwards, we headed towards Pazardjik.

The great meeting is to happen in the town Pazardjik. The ones who attended any of my presentations or had conversation with me would know my friendship with Nathan and also the love story of Angelina and Nathan. For the ones who don’t know I advise to read my Turkish-Japan road memories. I’ll meet with Angelina and Nathan in Pazardjik 66 km ahead. I gave Ayca’s panniers back since the road is level and we had departed early in the morning.

We didn’t take long breaks throughout the road. The first 20 km from Asenovgrad to Pazardjik is a kind of troublesome. There is no security lane to pedal on and there are too many trucks and eight wheels passing by. I managed to avoid the traffic by using the side village roads with the help of GPS at the expense of lengthening the route. We arrived to the meeting point in Pazardjik around 2 p.m. Wow, we pedaled 66 km. Well done Ayca!

I hadn’t seen Nathan and Angelina since two and a half years. We kept in touch with Angelina since then, because Nathan was never good with electronic devices and social media. She was following me and knew what I have handled. As we met at that square we hugged each other for minutes. Nathan kept as usual cool but seemed to be happy. We talked and talked. Then, I left my belongings at Angelina’s house in Pazardjik and we went out for dinner.

Upon our conversation we came to politics. Of course, travelers like us cannot just ignore the political situations of the countries. Nathan, Angelina, Ayca and me talked about our own truths and discuss what to be done and what not, how the regimes should be and should the travelers be a part of this system or not.

The next day we pedaled together to Velingrad. Angelina chose a marvelous route she had used to go to her school which meanwhile was closed to traffic due to construction which is now an isolated road along a river surrounded by forest and mountains. The landscape was so beautiful that even though we climbed continually we didn’t realize how. As we arrived to Velingrad I thought that it was the most beautiful town I had seen in Bulgaria till now.

Velingrad is famous for its hot springs in Bulgaria. You may encounter spa hotels in almost every corner. Angelina reserved rooms at the Tzveta (flower in Russian) Hotel her cousin owns in Devi. Her cousin at the age of forties is full of life. While she talks with a great amusement her hands move all around her body as if living all over. Hahaha. The meals she offered were so delicious that Idevouredwhat was put down on the table. I swear I couldn’t sleep that night. Tomato and hot pepper jams on top of warm feta cheese was really the highlight (Here you go! I’m longing for it now, I may go down and eat rest up). Afterwards, we bathed in hot springs. At evening, Angelina and Nathan joined us and we spoke about our program for the next week. [I will draw among the readers whose residence is in Ankara for a foreign language education grant (scholarship). The answers are to be sent between 4:30 – 10:30 p.m. on October 22nd. The one granted will receive an “English education program” in Ankara Kecioren division of Turkish-American Association for one year. You can read about the details in “Gurkan Genc offers grants” section on my web page. You have to send your address given there. The question is: Why did Nathan pedal like crazy for days? Whom did he meet? Where? In which country? Give some information about that place.]

Angelina arranged an organization in Sofia for the next week for my presentation in which people involved in cycling and other sports will attend. We also sent invitations Bulgarian and Turkish press agencies. Meanwhile, we are going for a trek to the highest mountain in this area. I’ll finish the 130 km long Sofia leg and see Ayca off to Turkey.  On November 5th I’ll be in Romania

Well, by the way Nathan will be accompanying me for a while. Till Romania J

–        Nathan how is your life? You settled down…

–        Guess?

–        How should I know? It must be some kind of boring after traveling around the world.

–        I try to adopt. I didn’t decide what to do, yet. But for the time being I’m happy. We are pedaling like in the old days.

–        Me too…

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