Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Trekking through Bulgaria's Central Balkan Mountains

I just finished rereading Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods- a wonderful and very funny story of his section hikes through the Appalachian Trail that runs the distance from Georgia to Maine in the US.  I had picked the book up in Bled, Slovenia back in April - perhaps one of the last places that we've seen a fruitful book trade.  Nate and I watched the girl who was finishing the last chapter- and pounced on it when she added it to the book exchange shelf it.  I've been carrying it around since then along with a few others in my traveling library, convinced that the enjoyment of reading them would outweigh their toll on my back.  I feared that the English books would eventually run out so, I'd rather have a few on hand (which has now happened- the Balkan's has an abysmal book trade, English language or otherwise).  

As we reached our departure date for trekking in the Central Balkans, I knew that I had to get rid of any extra weight so I read voraciously- leaving books hidden in drawers, in hopes that they would find a home with someone, rather than be tossed in the rubbish bin.  Thus, A Walk in the Woods remained my last and only book- fitting for our own upcoming walk in the woods.  

We had spent a few rainy days in Veliko Turnovo watching similarly rainy forecasts for Gabrovo, where we would start our trek.  We delayed an extra day in Veliko Turnovo but the weather didn't improve any, so we decided to just get on with it and hope for the best.  Our next obstacle was that Gabrovo is not a tourist town- so there are limited hotels and they are all above our price range.  We didn't book anywhere and hoped that we could find a place once there; maybe an older couple would be at the bus station advertising their extra room, as we'd seen elsewhere???  No, no luck, there wasn't a soul at the station so we started walking towards town under increasingly threatening skies hoping that there'd be a visitors center with some kind heart who'd help us find an affordable room for the night.  We did find a map (mostly covered with graffiti) and a sign pointing us to the right building but we couldn't find the office itself.  We discovered that the office was in transition to another location across town but they called a woman to come over that might be able to help us out.  After much technical difficulty on a new computer system that no one knew how to use, our new lifeline eventually relented and used her phone to call around.  We gave her our budget range and were told that there were a few beds open at the local college dorm since students were gone for the summer. It was exactly as promised- hard to find, quite a ways out of town and cheap.  We ended up finding it- a large, dreary communist-type block apartment building within a sea of others- but we had a place to sleep so we settled into our college dorm room for two nights.  

While we didn't meet any of our neighbors, we quickly learned that the guy upstairs preferred his music to be played late at night and at a volumne loud enough to shake our window within it's pane.  I adjusted accordingly and took to having afternoon naps rather than my usual nighttime sleeping routine.  Nate instead took to yelling profanities at the guy in Bulgarian (which there's no way he would have heard over the music).  The weather remained dismal, but we couldn't stay in the dorm another night.  Our college days are long since over and we needed to get on our way, rain or not. 

The forecast for the following day would be cloudy but no rain until mid-afternoon.  We picked up a map at the park office, asked a few questions and planned our route so that we would reach our first stop before the rain.  

The actual start of the trail is in Etar/Etura but we decided to walk from Gabrovo and start up the first few kilometers of the trail and reach the first mountain hut near the monastery at a location marked GPS 7 on the bottom of the above map.  It was a nice walk and mostly flat until we reached the B1 trail in Etar.  At that point, we had to scramble up very steep and thoroughly rotten series of stairs and a several unmarked trail intersections but we did eventually reach the monastery.  We were thankful to know that soon we'd be in the hut, likely just minutes before the black skies above us opened up.  We passed the monastery and a sign advertising beer and BBQ.  We agreed that after a shower, we'd head back for both.  Life was looking good.

The mountain hut should be just a little further.  There were no signs for it and we were growing a bit concerned that as we continued on the trail that we had perhaps missed it and were walking further away.  We agreed to stop when we hit yet another unmarked intersection.  I stayed with our bags and Nate went back to see if he could find anything.  While waiting, I found a nice little camp spot under a tree that would buffer us from the rain.  We had hiked about 15 km already and the next mountain huts were in Shipka Pass, another 4-5 km on the opposite side of the Balkan mountain range.  

Nate returned to say that he had indeed found the hut... but that it was closed up.  Camping in the rain seemed worse than hiking in it- so, with that, we made a guess to turn right at the trail fork and carry on.  Within minutes, we passed by the back of the hut.  Not only was it closed but likely condemned.  I spent the next few minutes grumbling  and wishing that that the helpful girl at the park office had thought to mentioned it when we had asked if all of the huts were open.  We would soon learn that about half of the huts and hotels that are marked on the map had long since closed down.  As I summoned seemingly empty stores of energy for the additional miles, the rain began to fall.  It would have been a really beautiful hike up and over the mountain range, but the rain was heavy, visibility was minimal due to the thick fog and the trail was slick with mud after weeks of rain- sometimes even with unexpected sinkholes to keep things lively. 

We eventually hit the road near Shipka (GPS 6, bottom where the fold is), our last hope for a dry bed.  We followed the road at this point in hopes of catching the first available accommodation.  After passing several dilapidated homes, gas stations and shops- I determined that sleeping in one of those would at least be warmer and drier than the woods.  Eventually, we came across a small sign for a hut. Two wet but friendly looking dogs greeted us at the top of yet another set of rotten stairs.  We made our way up and were thrilled to see lights on and a fire going. We attempted the door, ready to throw ourselves and our wet socks next to the fire but the door was locked.  After repeatedly knocking, pleading, and knocking some more- we resigned ourselves to waiting in hopes that the owners would eventually come back and throw another log on the fire before it died out.  We were both soaked and now that we'd stopped moving and night was setting in, I was becoming increasingly chilled.  My fingers were too numb to unzip my rain jacket to add additional layers so instead I put my head down on the picnic table and balled myself up around my hands to warm them.  With that, it seemed to Nate that I had lost all hope (he wasn't too far off the mark).  

We'd already been waiting for over an hour, we needed a back-up plan.  Nate took off to see if maybe there was another hut down the road while I stared at the fire wishing that there wasn't a locked door that separated us.  After a while, Nate came back carrying a fresh water bottle saying that he had found a shop just down the road.  He was only able to see it through the thick fog because the shop had a neon open light!  I'd always hated those things until that moment.  It was hard to believe that there was anyone for miles, much less just down the road.  It seemed like Nate, I and the two dogs were the only ones in the Central Balkan range.  The shop owner had told Nate that the hut was definitely open and that the owners had probably just gone into town.  That gave us a renewed hope and after another hour or so, they indeed drove in and showed us to our room.  Within minutes we had showered, had our things out to dry and were on our way down as new people for a hot meal followed by a warm, comfortable nights sleep.

When we went down for breakfast the next morning, it was like walking into a different dining room.  The entire room was now festive with party napkins at each table setting.  We found seats and sadly watched two full plates of cherries removed from before us to be served instead to their proper recipient.  I must have been busy staring at the cherries because it wasn't until then that looked out of the window and instead of seeing the previous day's thick fog, I instead saw lines of tour buses and a massive monument perched ontop of a hill before us! 

We spent an extra day in Shipka Pass to rest and hike up to the monument between rain showers.  

We had a lovely day of sunshine the following day as we walked along the road from Shipka (on the left) to Buzludzha (GPS 8, on the right), the site of the Communist monument build in the 1981 and then abandoned and left to elements only a few years later.  

We passed by the monument on our way to find our next hut.  The first couple that we saw were abandoned and we were forced to walk further than we had hoped in search for a bed.  After finally reaching one, we were told that it was full.  Full?  We had been the only two people in a huge hut the night before- how was this one full?  Again it was a race before the rain started so I again watched the bags and Nate and his knowledge of Bulgarian went off in search of a room.  Turns out that there was one close by- we had walked by it but I had thought that it was just a private home.  Again, we were the only people there.  We dropped our bags, had a late lunch and set off with our rain gear to see the monument.  

It's a "healthy" climb up the steep path to reach the monument.  There's also a road for those with cars or motos.  The monument looks far better from below- as you reach it, you can see that the strong winds have ripped most of the roofing and ceiling materials off.  

With all of the rain, I imagined the inside to be the world's largest bird bath but we could hear people inside. We walked around the perimeter and only saw a small hole, which we learned later that yes, that was the entry point for the interior.  

That night, yet another massive rain and lightening storm rolled in right above us on the mountain and stayed the following day.  We took it as a sign to stay an extra day, plus the owner made a fantastic lentil soup.  The company was good too. 

It turned out to be a good thing that we stayed (other than the fact that we would have been miserable hiking with lightening dancing around us).  That afternoon 4 guys from Sweden who are riding their motorcycles around Eastern Europe stopped in while waiting for a mechanic.  They spoke English but no Bulgarian, the owner spoken Bulgarian but no English and the mechanic who showed up at 9pm (rather than at 5 as he had promised) spoke only Bulgarian.  Over dinner, Nathan became a key player in translating the complexities of BMW repair while I happily slurped up my lentil soup.  The guys were great and we really enjoyed hearing their stories.  Around 10, they learned that their bike would have to be towed to Sofia the following day, so they settled into the remaining rooms and pulled out a home-made bottle of liquor, made by the owner of a guesthouse that they had stayed at when in Romania.  The next morning, we shook off the mental fog left by the previous night's home brew to see the guys off and get on our way.  We continue to follow their trip at RushHourMC on Facebook.  The current trip is winding down but they have others planned for the future, including one through the US. They also took a video from inside of the monument that you should definitely check out as well as their FB page. 

With that, we were off as well. We had planned on hiking another few days but the rain showed no signs of clearing so we decided to bail and head for Stara Zagora.

We followed a seemingly never-ending switchback (the white squiggly line in the center of the map to the left of the fold) down the mountain for 19 km until we hit the tiny town of Kran.  Although we were positive that we were standing at the bus stop, not a single bus stopped for us.  Eventually a taxi came to our rescue and took us to the bus station in the next town over.  

Now a week since we got off the trail, it's STILL raining.  When I think of all the folks hiking the Appalachian Trail or similar long-distance trails with no mountain huts to find warmth in, no one to cook them delicious lentil soup after a cold/rainy trek and no option but to hike in the rain, it makes me feel blessed to be hiking here in Bulgaria.  We loved the Annapurna Circuit Trek in Nepal for the same reason.  It makes a huge difference when you don't have to carry the additional food weight and alway trust that you could find a fire and a meal to warm you up (although obviously in the Central Balkans- it is a bit of a search to find a functioning hut).  

Our next trek will be in a few days in the Rila Mountains- and the forecast is looking better!

Happy Trails. 

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