Hitchhike to India leg 32: Plovdiv to Istanbul

Friday 22 May

OK so I’ve cheated a bit. In order to cram in a few more sites (including my beloved communist party headquarters) I’ve taken the bus to Plovdiv, technically breaking the hitch rule of not paying for transport when I travel to a new place. It was only a few miles though I promise. And yet after what seems like an eternity, I’m finally back on the road, continuing what most people had begun to forget what I was attempting.  I’m hitchhiking to India.

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The next destination. Finally a new sign.

The sun is warm with the promise of a hot day as I strike out from the centre of town to the outskirts, accompanied by my friend Tan, who is showing me to the first hitch spot having used it before. Sunshine isn’t always your friend when on a hitch, and it isn’t long before its roasting rays are searing the skin on my arms and the back of my neck. For some reason, my legs are immune. This explains why it looks like I’m wearing white tights under my shorts in certain photographs. Anyway as per usual I’ve neglected to buy sunscreen, so I’ll be looking like a lobster in minutes.

Parting ways, no sooner has Tan disappeared over the brow of the bridge, than my first ride pulls in. I’ve literally had my sign out for seconds, and it’s easily explained, as the driver is a hitchers stalwart.  Young guy, nice car, wrap around sunglasses.  My bread and butter.  I’ve lost count how many times these dudes pick me up. He can take me 100K down the road.

It’s a blessing to be on the move again. In the coming months, I’ll no doubt I’ll start to feel regret at continually going back on myself, or staying stagnant for so long. Indeed the pangs of guilt that I could travel for decades if only I didn’t spend my time languishing in drinking holes are already creeping in. The only way to beat that, is to press on. It’s not long before the thrill of the road is crushing contrition, and I’m dropped by a gas station edging ever closer to the border.

Walking two minutes to a decent spot away from the service station exit, and I haven’t even put my bags down before a driver has swerved in ahead of me.  Bulgaria I love you.  A little old fellow with a worn face and nicotine stained nails beckons me in. He doesn’t speak English, and inspite of showing him my google map print off, I’ve got no idea how far he can take me. His eagerness for me to join him rubs off however, and I pile in, hoping the miles will fly by.

I’m somewhat disappointed as he pulls onto the hard shoulder and jabs a grubby finger towards a junction, all of five minutes down the highway.  But sure enough, the turning leads to the road to Istanbul.  Almost about to curse his lack of distance, the old boy has done me an absolute solid, and driven me to where I actually should be standing.  I could have been waiting for hours, and I’m more than happy to shake his hand and start the march up onto the flyover.  A sign for Istanbul cheers my heart. Two rides, 120 odd kilometers, not yet midday, and I’m getting closer.

The day takes a turn for the disconcerting as the morning traffic thins to nothing. A scarcity of vehicles dwindles by every few minutes, but it’s not the constant flow the hitcher craves. Most drivers staccato an index finger twice to the floor, the universal sign for “I’m staying local.”  I mumble obscenities at a number of trucks with Istanbul plates. The scorching ball of fire in the sky begins to take its toll. A couple of snakes scurry for cover as I wade into the undergrowth to take a bathroom break, but otherwise the minutes tick by slow and uneventful.

Then, just when I was contemplating a hike to find shade, a snazzy estate pulls in. I’m saved from cremation. The hero speaks good English, and not only that, he can take me out of his way to the border. As much as I hate to admit it sometimes, but people are good. The journey passes pleasantly, enthralling my driver with tales of my adventures in hitchhiking. I’m crossing into Turkey by the early pm.

I love walking through borders. You’re pretty much guaranteed to be the only soul doing it, and you get all kinds of looks. It’s liberating. It makes you feel alive. It panders to my narcissistic ego that demands being the centre of attention. A whiter than white Western kid with two bags, a guitar and a sign that reads “India.” No fear. I revel in striding passed a bus rammed with noses pressed to the windows.  Yes that’s right; I’ve got balls of steel.  Envy is a terrible thing.  Your wives and girlfriends clearly want me.

A mosque stands a stones throw from the final checkpoint. The Ezan (Turkish call to prayer) really is beautiful to listen to. Portrayed as an evil sound by wrongdoers in Western film and popular culture, its misinterpretation is a terrible shame. It can make the hairs stand on the back of your neck, and for me and other travelers, really lets you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. It rings out over the landscape as I prepare to hitch the last leg into Istanbul. I’m finally in Turkey.

Normally an easy place to get a ride, this border is proving difficult, not least because a local shoeless gypsy has festooned himself to me, jabbering away with no English and expecting me to understand. As a result, it appears we’re hitching together, and two guys trying to get a ride is the worst possible combination. It’s only when he gives up and moves on, does a brand spanking new, top-of-the-range 4X4 swing in. It’s driver is a beaming Turk, and his little grasp of my language isn’t a problem. I ride to the capital in style sucking an offered Werther’s Original. My driver has currently clocked up some 1250 miles, having driven from France, and while he can’t drop me at my door, he nonetheless deposits me on the outskirts of a massive city. It seems the taxi into town takes longer than the ride to the border, but as I stumble through old narrow streets, that euphoric travel feeling rises inside. Four rides, 400 kilometres, and around 8 hours.  I’m in Istanbul.

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Abandoned Communist Party Headquarters, Mount Buzludzha, Bulgaria

Thursday 21 May

I’ve been looking forward to today for a long time.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for abandoned or lonely places.  There is nothing more romantic for me than the seaside in winter.  Forgotten remnants of days gone by.  Standing where something or someone stood.  Crumbling buildings, ghostly apertures and lonely vistas punctuate the environment, while nature takes back what was once vibrant with activity.  It’s thrilling.

And so today I am a child on Christmas morning.  We’re visiting the abandoned communist party building on Mount Buzludzha, Bulgaria.  I’ve known about this place for a number of years and along with Chernobyl and Prypiat, I’ve always wanted to pay it a visit.  It’s a photographers dream come true, as much like Chernobyl and other such sites, the pictures take themselves.  It was an absolute joy to behold.

The structure was completed in 1981, but left to ruin in under a decade, due to the collapse of the USSR and the fall of communism.  Built to house party rallies and greet foreign dignitaries, it was a symbol of power and influence that should have stood the test of time, and intimidated the West for years to come.  The only force that remains now is nature.

Always a fan of Soviet iconography, sculpture and art, add it together with an abandoned building and you’ve got this travelers wet dream.  As much as my smokers lungs could handle, I launched myself up the steep climb as fast as my little legs could muster.  Which wasn’t fast at all and it nearly killed me.  Reaching the top, you’re greeted with this imposing behemoth of a structure, which has been likened by many to that of a UFO.  Indeed it’s nickname in these parts is “the flying saucer,” and it bares more than a passing resemblance to one Starship Enterprise.

At the base of the behemoth

At the base of the behemoth

The tower stands at 107 meters tall, with the red star of communism the same size as that of its counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow.  The structure itself sits at 1441 metres above sea level, and the glass from the windows would have been the first to go, so the whole building is left open to the elements.  You wouldn’t want to hang around in winter.

The red star

The red star

Gaining entry is something of a squeaky bum time.  The site passed into the care of the Socialist Party of Bulgaria, and they have made repeated attempts at keeping people out.  Where there’s a will there’s a way however, and you’ll never keep a tenacious urban explorer or photographer from getting into anywhere they want to get into.  Round the side of the main entrance some enterprising chap has fashioned a small crawl hole.  Just beyond the lip there is a drop to the floor below, so stepping up and through isn’t a pleasant experience.  Actually getting out for me was even worse, as there is a moment when you’re lowering your arse over the blackness below.  I suddenly remembered how timid I can actually be.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

The In and out

The In and out

But of course it is.  Your first glimpse of the stunning upper chamber will live long in the memory.  It is rumoured that over 60 artists collaborated to create what was once astounding mosaics and sculptures.  Now its grand pomp and circumstance has been reduced to a crumbling mess by the elements, thieves, graffiti and salvagers.  The roof is caving in, marble steps have been ripped up to be re-used elsewhere, coloured glass from the art litters the floor.  To view a before and after picture is both incredibly sad and powerful at the same time.  Never one to vandalise such a site, for it should be left for others to enjoy, I make sure I only take a small souvenir that has fallen from the wall.  I slip a small, shiny yellow mosaic glass piece into my pocket.

The stunning main chamber

The stunning main chamber

There’s a strong movement to get the site restored to its former glory, but at a cost of over 10 million US, you can understand why it isn’t financially viable.  Some counter that the tourist dollars would more than make up for it, and they’ve got a point.  In it’s current state, it’s still pulling in a large number of visitors every year.  Above the door the slogan “forget your past” stayed for many years, before someone preceded it with “never”.  But perhaps that is exactly where this place should remain.  A crumbling memorial memory to a dark chapter of Bulgarian history.

I hope you enjoy the photographs as much as I did in taking them.

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Haggis day oot

Wednesday 20 May

I’ve finally managed to drag myself out of Sofia and I’m feeling rather smug about it.  One might say proud of oneself.  My usual M.O is to languish in this den of iniquity for months on end, doing my best to destroy my liver.  You’ll be pleased to know dear readers, that I stayed but one night, and I didn’t touch a drop.

My friend Tan is taking me to the centre of the universe.  Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  From there we intend to visit the Mount Buzludzha abandoned Communist party headquarters, and then I will finally hitch to Istanbul to be there by Friday.  I guess I’m cheating a little by not hitching from Sofia, but time is of the essence, and I want to cram in as much as possible before I finally begin to leave Europe.

As part of my sisters care package from home and at my request, she’s included a Haggis.  I really wanted to cook it for friends at the hostel, and I haven’t had so much as a whiff of this delicious delicacy in years.  However by the time I’ve returned to Sofia, it’s a month out of date.  I still consider baking the hell out of it anyway, but I wouldn’t want anyone’s first taste of that sweet, sweet meat to be tainted.  I opt instead to give him a tour of Plovdiv, which I think he much rather preferred.

Hitching a ride

Hitching a ride

It’s a beautiful little town, and quite rightly the European capital of culture for 2019.  So they’re gearing up for the eyes of the world to be focused here in a few years, and everything is being polished.  It’s charming, laid back, clean and welcoming.  And the food is outstanding.  Visiting a mountain restaurant with new friends and feasting until we dropped was a highlight, as I tucked into buttered veal tongue, hand cooked crisps, shopska salads (Bulgarian national dish with tomato, cucumber, onion and cheese) and homemade everything.  All this a few hours after a kilo of skillet lamb.  Diet my arse.  I had no room anyway for my little meaty friend.  The Haggis.  You filthy perverts.

It’s a pity I couldn’t stay for longer and experience the town at the weekend when it really comes out to play.  I’m already starting to regret spending eons getting wasted in black holes when really I could have been traveling for decades.  Hopefully by getting back on the road I will have learned my lesson.  Maybe Istanbul is the kick up the backside I so desperately need.

I have discovered I can’t write well about happy shit.  I’ve really struggled with this post.  But feareth not dear readers, for I will strive to find something miserable to vent about soon enough.  Stay tuned.

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The midnight train going anywhere…

Monday 18 May

Well, back to the city of Sofia to be exact…

After my third (and final) love/hate relationship with Belgrade which has subjected me to visits to health care professionals, garnered a wealth of new friends, a bruised heart and a partridge in a pear tree, I find myself on an emotional stumble to the train station, bags in tow, six beers in, turning to take in a hostel dear to my heart for the last time.  By my side is a particularly special someone that I have to leave.  Time called on another temporary hostel love affair.  Turning to see her disappear from view, I reluctantly bundle myself into a dark cabin filled with large, snoring Serbians, and whisper a distant tune into the air:

What’s the fascination, with lovers at the station, you have to tear yourself away…

I sing a few more bars as the train jerks into life, creaking over tracks and shaking through the gears.  Smoke from a cigarette wafts from the adjacent compartment.  I catch the aggrandised glow of the burning cherry, and I rise to light my own, leaning tentatively out a gangway window.  Each grind of metal takes me further away.  “I can still get a taxi back from here…and here…and here…” I ponder, exhaling fumes slowly into the cooling air, contemplating the romance of jumping off at the next platform.  But she wouldn’t like that.  Nobody would.  Except for maybe me.

The harsh truths of the constant globetrotter once again sink in, around about the same time as I sink into my uncomfortable compartment seat for the next ten hours.  “I’d rather know you for three days than never have met you at all.”  It does little to lift my spirits.  Darkness takes over as city lights recede, and I make out my companions in the gloom for the first time.  A large, excessively hairy man and champion wheezer has beached himself over three seats on both sides, his exposed belly like a basted, shaggy chicken. An elderly, giant gentleman with legs like sequoias infringes on my comfort from distance.  His long fingers interlock in a pose of unconscious contemplation.  Death and his brother sleep.  I sit with my back to the direction of travel, rest my head on shuddering glass, and with glassy eyes, close hooded lids and attempt an uneasy sleep.

It’s been a long time since I was on a train, and the transport has always held a mythical air regardless of current mood.  Ahhh the romance of the rail.  The irony isn’t lost on me as Mr Hairy breaks wind in his shuddering comatose.  Chattering Serbian lingers from passengers down the aisle.  A TV talent show is spotted buzzing in a distant signal box, the solitary viewer lit from the glow of the tube.  The callous locomotive drives on into the night.

Lifesavers

Lifesavers

Traveling and relationships.  That’s an interesting juxtaposition isn’t it?  Never the twain shall meet.  Certainly in my case.  But after blinking blindly in early Bulgarian sun, roughly woken several times in a chilly night by officials demanding papers, I arrive back to a comfortable place.  Within moments, I meet a lovely couple gracefully growing into the twilight of their lives.  They’d each been traveling for over 20 years, having met on a boat in India 16 years ago, and inseparable ever since.  With the added comfort care package of Yorkshire Tea, Marmite and Scottish oatcakes from my sister, they were the angels I needed.  Someone, somewhere had been listening, and there was hope for me yet.  India they say?  Maybe it’s about time I get there.

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The Black Hole of Belgrade Booze Boat Blowout

Tuesday 05 May

Alright, this is getting ridiculous.  A few weeks ago I had arrived back in Belgrade to spend a weekend seeing friends and getting up to mischief with (a) hot Serbian woma(e)n.  I’ll only stay a couple of days thought I, adamant that a return to Sofia would be imminent and I would be into Turkey before you could say doner kebab.  Alas dear readers, I once again never factored in the black hole of Belgrade.  You would have thought I would have learned by now.

It is my third time in this den of lascivious iniquity, and on each and every occasion it has this annoying habit of keeping you lashed to the wall of dissipation.  And try as you might, you will not break free until you’re dragged kicking and screaming to some kind of clinic.  Take that how you will.

I have destroyed my immune system with such wanton abandon that Bacchus himself would have been impressed.  This is a direct result of the peer pressure I’ve endured from new hostel buddies; including – but not limited to – French deviants, super cute American cheerleaders, Serbian sexual predators, fellow crack addicts, and locals who drink paint-stripping Rakija as if there’s a decorating job in their stomach.  Friends have hit on the idea to create a (classy) sunset booze cruise on the swirling waters of the Danube and Sava, and so far be it from us to turn down the chance to be the guinea pigs.  A selection of pre-rapture photographs can be viewed below.

A small selection of the motley crew

A small selection of the motley crew

And so I find myself flat on my back following 72 hours or carnage, sunburn and…other stuff.  I’m subjecting myself to the apple only diet/detox, I’m on day two, and apples can go fuck themselves.  How can anyone actually do this?  I long for a steak.  Or an egg.  For the love of god just an egg!  I’ve introduced low-fat yogurt, lemon water and raw garlic for some variety.  I smell divine.  Seriously someone should fry me in butter.

Unfortunately all of this necessity has been due to my regular change-of-season fever blister arriving with four of his big, well ‘ard mates.  I’m hiding away until I’m back on my feet, which shouldn’t be too long, and then the games begin again.  In the interim, I reminisce on those recent heady days which have brought me to my knees.  That Belgrade baseness that few cities in the Balkans can rival, and indeed you have to return to Budapest to even come close to the Serbian capitals’ penchant for party.   They know how to throw down here.

But feareth not my dearest readers, for soon I must away, and steal through the night to seek out new worlds.  Or just back to Sofia.  I must leave the curse of the Green Studio Hostel (and all who sail in her) behind once and for all.  Ahhh but would we want to have it any other way?  Who could forgo such friendship and merriment?  Such drunken debauchery?  Such weeping lip sores?  Not I said the fly, as once again he passed precariously parlous to the spider’s web.

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