Another kebab

The road to Lake Van was long and arduous. We met a Dutch cyclist on our way. He was cycling around the world. It had taken him 8 weeks across Turkey.

Lake Van was enormous and beautiful. It had giant storm clouds above it.

Van was, however, a total smeg-pit.

We were disappointed- the guidebook had tricked us again. We rode back down to the shore to find a place to camp. There were no campsites, only picnic-parks- a unique Turkish and Iranian phenomenon which consists of a park with dusty-looking trees, some picnic tables and bins, and a shack to rent barbecues from.

We rocked up to one of them, where a weaselly-looking man with a lazy eye that made him look villainous tried to charge us the same price as a hotel to stay.

We found another one, and an old drunk man held up his hands at us. We pitched the tent in the rain while a young, retarded boy watched us.

A serious guy appeared and brought us to the picnic area for chai. He was brilliant, and fed us chai after chai, and talked about his family.

The old drunk guy was his dad.

The young kid wasn’t retarded, but 19 and secretly drunk on Raki.

When the dad wandered off, our man went to buy more Raki for us without telling us, and we all got a bit drunk. He lit an enormous fire, and tried to get us to agree to food. We hoped very much he had listened when we said ‘No thanks.’

There were giant slabs of meat which the young kid speared onto kebab sticks and cooked over the fire. We were still hoping they weren’t for us, when he offered us them again. We felt really bad, and spent a long time explaining we didn’t eat meat, and yes it looked very nice and smelt amazing, but we couldn’t eat it. He said hopefully ‘But it has hooves?’

Adam was made to promise to go swimming in the lake in the morning and we had to hide our Raki glasses from the dad, who was so drunk he later started shouting. Everyone agreed to go on a tour.

They woke us for chai and breakfast in the morning.  We sat with them in a wooden shack in the middle of the park, with a trowel instead of a bolt on the door, and one big bed in the corner. The boys talked football.

The serious family man tried to drive his dad to their house to get dry clothes. They came back in and there was some confusing commotion. Eventually we worked out they had run out of petrol. Petrol was the one thing we did have, so we filled a big bottle and they stuck it in the car. They tried to pay us 30 Lira for it which was very silly after everything. We refused, and the dad kissed Adam on both cheeks and left.

Eastern Turkey

Mt Neermut has giant heads placed on a fake summit. That’s what the guidebook says. It was a beautiful ride up to the top. But I would dispute the word ‘giant’. The heads were there, granted. ‘Giant’ they were not. The view was good though, and worth the killer journey.
There were more tortoises. There were villages with 12yr-old cowboys on horseback. There were giant black lizards on rocks. There were storks on sticks. There were old men on donkeys.

There was a crazy wedding procession in the middle of the dirt-road. Young hijabed girls were dancing to a car stereo, surrounding the bride in her meringue dress. Lots of little children surrounded the bike.  We waited for the dancing to stop so we could carry on. They said ‘Hello’, and ‘Bye-bye’. At the next village people stood on roofs waiting for the wedding procession.

We got a ‘ferry’ across towards Diyabarkir. The lake was stupidly blue. Mindblowingly, inconceivably blue. We crossed and found a petrol-pump. We were in need of tea.

As we sat, a group of Kurds arrived, resplendent in their traditional baggy trousers with tight ankles, their waistcoats and checkered headscarves. They greeted everyone seriously, with formal handshakes. Their hijabed wives were kept in the back of the vans with the 8 kids in the sun as they chatted.

We arrived into Diyabarkir and it was a frontier town. There was a strange atmosphere.

We stayed for a couple of days to fix our little blackened stove. It had punctured itself. We took it to be welded, with a picture of a welder to explain.

As we walked to the welders, a stranger appeared. He somehow knew we had a motorbike. He took us kindly to three different welders, all of whom said they wouldn’t touch it as it might explode. We were in the old city walls, in the bazaar, down tiny little shack streets, where people worked in doorways like in the Middle Ages.

Another stranger appeared, following us and asking for an invitation to Britain. He wouldn’t believe I had no influence over immigration in the UK. The first stranger said the second stranger was his cousin, and whisked us off for tea in his uncle’s place.

Coincidentally his uncle lived in a carpet shop. It was dark and a bit creepy, and they shut the door behind us as we went in. The carpets were old and smelled of library-books.

It all got a bit odd. They sat us in-between them, and a chai-man appeared with tea, but only for us two. They asked us questions and we drank the tea reluctantly. They tried to show us carpets, and we explained we were riding a motorbike. They showed us more and I started giggling because he was still trying to sell them. He got annoyed I was laughing.

I got worried we had been drugged- Adam’s eyes had gone dilated. They started talking about the devil. I thought they were trying to scare us. My legs were heavy and I felt odd. I stood up and we left, right in the middle of the conversation. We ran away, and got lost in the bazaar streets. My legs were still like jelly. We found our way home, and pondered the whole thing.

A tortoise, a fire and a rip-off merchant

We met a tortoise the next day. We stopped and fished it out of the road. I was ecstatic. I’d never met a tortoise. I considered it a good omen. Then it shat all over my leg.

The road was just through more bush. Nothing else there except for a road, and dust. Rocks, rocks and more rocks. The sky was yellow and heavy. It felt like another planet.

We were going about 50kph over a bridge, when suddenly a white car hurtled straight at us on our side of the road. There was 50cm left on our side. Adam steered out of the way between the car and the bridge railing. We swerved into deep gravel, skidded and came off. The white car raced off at high speed on the wrong side of the road.

Adam scraped his leg, I bruised my foot and the oil filter was dinted, but we were fine. We were quickly surrounded by well-wishers, handing us painkillers and business cards, and trying to take us to hospital.

We rode on. The roads got un-road-like. The gravel got deeper, the sky got yellower and the tarmac was a pleasant intermission. Trucks overtook us. We were still miles from Mt Neermut.

We pulled into a café for a rest. There were two bikes parked up, looking bizarrely familiar. I realized that was because they looked startlingly like ours…

There were two British bikers in the café, riding back to the UK on their fully loaded BMWs!! Despite the general knackeredness, we managed to spend the entire evening talking rubbish, and decided to stay the night on the café-owners roof as they had been doing. They were very well-prepared and Touratech-ed up, and made us feel a lot better after our meeting with Monsieur Enfield.

Two truckers came into the café to chat with the owner, and the Brit had an arm-wrestle with a funny little pot-bellied man who looked exactly like Danny DeVito. He played Eurovision songs on his mobile at us.

The café owner brought us hideous tiny sprat fish, which we fished the bones out of and proclaimed delicious. He brought mattresses out onto the roof under a tarpaulin.

We went to bed. The wind kicked up and blew in our faces. The rain poured in on us. The tarpaulin flapped loudly. The mosquitoes were unperturbed by the weather and continued their feasting unabated.

At 2am Danny DeVito loaded up a JCB outside the café. At 5am the muezzin started.

We woke to find the café owner demanding 50 pounds for dinner and lodging. I may have got a little upset. Some might say I was furious. We didn’t pay it, but it wasn’t a pleasant way to leave.
The next morning a fire-breathing dragon belched in my ear and I woke up. It was 5am. The noise was deafening. Adam asked me in his sleep why they were mowing the lawns. He is quite deaf.

We snuck out, ready to attack.

It was 40 hot-air balloons, readying for take-off in the next field. They were like incredibly noisy jelly-fish, half inflated and hanging in the air. There were touts cramming rich tourists into the baskets, 30 to a basket. Japanese couples photographed each other.

Halfway up a large hill we met a biker, on an Enfield. He was a Frenchman riding across to India, with no documents, no helmet, no boots, no jacket… he made us look like wusses. He was very clean, despite sleeping in caves. He was going to sell the Enfield in India, and invent a crash story for the carnet people. His bike was leaking oil. We wished him luck and swapped advice about Iran. We haven’t seen him since.   He left us feeling like over-prepared muppets, with all our bike gear...

Every time you go near a petrol pump in Turkey, you are invited to stop for tea. The tea is free, and gets better the further east you go. It is an amusing hobby. We have started stopping for tea and a chat even when we don’t need petrol. Its fun to sit and while the day away, miming with the petrol-attendant.

We stopped for provisions in a tiny little village. We were thronged around by a huge heap of school kids.

A friendly man handed me some beef kebab from a polystyrene tray.

I am a vegetarian. I have been a vegetarian for 5 years. However, in the interest of moral niceness, I had resolved to eat meat if it were donated out of kindness. In fact I had only resolved that about 5 minutes before we stopped… Oh dear. It was obviously some kind of test…

I had a nibble and swallowed it. The rest went inside a crisp wrapper in the tank bag. No one noticed.

Half an hour later I threw up at the side of the road.

Becoming a carnivore suddenly isn’t the best plan, not when the first meat you eat is a greasy Turkish kebab…

We were intent on reaching Mt Neermut. It was about 500km away.

The road was long, straight and boring. Except occasionally, when it suddenly turned into a dust-bath, and you couldn’t see a thing, and the ground underfoot turned into deep freshly laid gravel. At those points I wished for the boring road again.

The tarmac started again, and I sat up, wiped my visor and straightened myself out, pleased we had made it through it. Then out of cosmic meanness the road disintegrated again. Oh well.

We didn’t make it to Mt Neermut that day. The road got worse, and then the area got industrial too, and we bounced along in the dark wondering what to do.

We stayed at a roadside motel where they sniggered at us and asked if we were married.

A Premature Burial

We rode down to Goreme. It all started looking a bit odd.  The rocks became boulders.  The boulders turned into giant lurking formations.

We stopped in the 50 degree heat to sit in a cave.  It was 2000 years old. It had shelves cut into the rock, steps and a fireplace. You could see where a very long time ago someone had put a beam up to hang their pots off. There were miles and miles of caves, as far as you could see, with a whole lot of nothing in-between.

It was very hot. The road had a heat haze on it. I had a heat haze on me. The sweat made big white marks on my trousers.

Goreme was a little tourist town, only there because of the rocks. There were bars with Shisha pipes, embroidered wall hangings, floor cushions, and backpackers in various stages of decay.

We got lost in the sand-towers. A dog adopted Adam. There was a cave-house, still obviously occupied by someone, with vegetables planted in neat rows in the cave entrance, and pictures on the walls.

Further on there were cave-churches from early Christian times, with blood-red decorations painted on the walls, and crosses. I walked into one to find myself quite obviously in a grave.  I decided it was a little premature, and scarpered, spooked.

Ankara and the Halfway-House

The receptionists of the hotel were matching magical girls in uniforms with pigtails and symmetrical eyebrows. They smiled at us, told us we were beautiful, and filled our pockets with sweets.
 We got a taxi to the bus stand and the taxi man put us straight on the right bus, where all the passengers helped us to pay and get to the right stop, and two young students took us off the bus and directly to the hotel we’d needed, leading us by hand to the door. It wasn’t their stop and they had to walk back to where they were supposed to be going.

The reception man in the hotel said we could park in the hotel lobby for free.

Turkey was going to be hard to beat…

We moved in, and marveled at having real walls, and almost a bathroom.

Our hotel was in a seedy part of town on a crossroads. To get to the hotel you had to walk past strange beggar-men selling bits of tat they had found or swapped- old Harry Potter books, fake Diesel boots, parts of mobile phones, all thrown onto the ground- like Tranmere car-boot sale on a really bad day.

Dodgy young guys sold hardcore porn DVDs hidden away in alleys behind the hotel.

The corner-shack next to the hotel sold newspapers by day and illegal beer in black plastic bags at night. Young boys brought it there from somewhere or other, and there were various drunk age-groups gathered below our window every night.

The first night there was a drunk man holding an 8” blade, waving it in the air while people tried to remove it. He leant against a truck, crying. His friends gave up on him and went home. A few hours later he started up again, and tried to stab someone. I was watching out the window but they saw me and I had to hide. I don’t know the end result.

We had a visit to the Iranian Embassy planned and I needed hijab gear to get in. We found a lovely shop assistant in a more conservative Muslim shop in town, she dressed me up and showed me how to fix the skullcap underneath, and the headscarf with pins.

The beauty of wearing hijab in Turkey for me was that no one stares. You become invisible. To look in the eyes of a non-related woman in hijab is almost a sin in Turkey.

Ankara was visa time for us.

We visited the Indian embassy. They told us we couldn’t have a visa for India until we had a Pakistani visa. Then they told us we wouldn’t be able to get one of those, so we might as well not bother. We left. Oh.

We called the Pakistani embassy. They told us to go back to England to get a visa. We called back. They told us to go away. Hmm…

We visited the Iranian embassy. I sweated underneath my hijab. We were very nervous. There was perceptible shaking as we sat in the offices. Without an Iranian visa we would be completely stuck.

We received the visa the same day. We left the offices and did a little dance. 19 days in Iran!

We began to realize our hotel was a little..odd. The man next door to me waited until I was on my own. He grabbed my arm in the hallway and told me ‘Definitely don’t worry.’ He said it 5 times. The man down the corridor kept coming out of his room with no trousers on every time we went past. There was a woman in reception with a tiny skirt on, clutching her head and being shown to her room. Our day was tried repeatedly at night, and someone knocked to be let in, convinced they lived there.

We came to the conclusion it was a hotel being doubled up as a half-way house.

There was no hot water.
There was no flush to the toilet.
There were cockroaches living in the curtains.
At night billions of tiny creatures crept across the bathroom floor.

It was cheap though.

We had a couple of days of non-visa activity, and went off to see the sights. We climbed the castle walls. Teenage lads released their pet pigeons from the rooftops. We went to the mosque and watched hijabed young women going to pray together. There were devout men with their heads against the mosque walls. I thought it must be odd to go for a pray with your friends. We bought olives and peynir and Turkish Delight by the gram.

The man from the hotel who had grabbed my arm saw us off as we left Ankara. He was quite drunk at 8am. Possibly he was an arms dealer. He told us he was in imports-exports. He had lived in Libya, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq and was now living in a squalid hotel in Ankara. He clutched at himself as he spoke and hugged his shoulders. He made a video of us for his daughter, whispering into the camera as he watched us leave. He had tears in his eyes. He blew Adam a kiss as we rode off.

Turkey, a snake dance and a very long day

The Turkish border was quiet and serious. We showed our documents 5 times and rocked into customs, where a pumped-up young official in a pink shirt talked about us in Turkish, and mocked us when we didn’t know what to do. We completed swine-flu forms.
The landscape changed at the border. It was very dry and desert-like, still with rolling hills, but no green plants. I wondered how it knew to change.

Turkey is bloody enormous. I mean, really, really big. You drive for a day and then look at the map, and you’ve covered an inch of the country. It is amazingly friendly though. There are lots of women looking beautiful in hjijab headscarves. How do they look so stunning with such an odd frame round their faces? I look dreadful.

We stopped for coffee at an internet shop in a little country town, and a very dignified gentleman came over and invited us to his wedding. It was happening right then, next door in the giant hall. When we said we had better keep going, he paid for our coffees without telling us.

We found a little spot in the scrubland to camp. Adam waited until we had set up the tent to see a snake. It was in a bush. There were lots of rustling noises all round us. We did an elaborate snake dance around the area and went to bed. I got up for a wee, and there was a shadow outside the tent.

Petrified, I stuck my nose out. It was a slightly crazed looking shepherd. He spent half an hour trying, increasingly loudly, to explain that we shouldn’t sleep there, but in his hut, and he would make us food, and it wouldn’t be cold. It was very nice of him and we would have gladly taken his offer, but he would have had to sit for an hour waiting for us to pack up again, so we didn’t think that would be fair.


We rode to Ankara the next day. It was 650km away, through Istanbul. It was an idiotic day. The traffic on the highways into Istanbul was insane. It was all signposted though, and everyone was lovely.

There were cars going past with little Muslim covered-up women, grinning at me and showing thumbs-up.

There were beautiful and not-so-beautiful calls to prayer. Either way, nothing happened. I expected to see people rushing to the mosque or praying where they were. I didn’t.

12 hours later, we parked up in the car park of a nice hotel in Golbasi, a few miles from Ankara. The car park was our campsite. We had made it, just. Adam was my hero that day, I could barely see so I don’t know he managed to drive all that way.

The day hadn’t finished. We had no food, so we drove down to the nearby supermarket to get grub. It was all well and good, and we got lots of everything. Then we tried to get back home.

The supermarket was on a one-way dual carriageway from Ankara. We rode towards Ankara, exhausted. The road got misty and we couldn’t see a thing. I was carrying a supermarket bag weighing as much as a large chimp in my hand, and we were only wearing t-shirts. It was very cold. We made it back an hour and a half later. Funnily enough we slept quite well that night…

A spooky campsite

We stayed at a campsite on the Black Sea coast and met a nice young German engineer who got us very drunk in a bar. I threw up secretly into a bush.
 We rode down the coast, stopping briefly to gawp at the tourists in the resorts and the Pub Crawls being advertised by young touts in different languages.

We rode past more prostitutes along the way-side and watched a young flashy girl in the back of an old man’s car, leaning over to him and giggling.

There was a big coach-load of young Bulgarian city-kids, resplendent in giant earrings and high heels, and the Cuban-styled boys checked their quiffs in our wing mirrors.

We were almost in Turkey, but it was evening again and time to start the hunt for a sleeping place.

There were supposedly campsites everywhere in the area. Maybe they had all slipped off for a little holiday of their own. There weren’t any.

We spotted some caravans from the highway and found a route down to them. It was possibly a campsite, though you couldn’t really tell. The gate was open but the reception was closed, and we rode through the torn-down huts and café shacks to the caravans we’d seen. They were permanent, with proper built outside showers. There was a strange man chopping wood with no shirt on. He ignored us. We ignored him back. There was a woman who smiled briefly and played with her toddler. A large dog was chained to a post.

We set up the tent and went for a walk down the deserted beach, past bars that were still broken-down for winter, and miles of beach umbrellas flapping about in the wind.

There was a grave close to where we had set up the tent. I did not investigate, obviously. I like sleep. Adam told me the next day it was the grave of a young couple our age who had somehow died on the same day there. Their photos were on the gravestone.

Dead Dog Brain

The next day we ended up in Bucharest in the rush hour. Bucharest was big. Very big. And strange, with Communist blocks with shops underneath and massive roads all jam-packed.

We got lost for 2 hours 4o minutes. We rode down a one-way main road the wrong way, and it all went very wrong, with giant jeeps heading straight for us, beeping. We stopped, solely to curse. It started to rain.

We skidded through a dead dogs head. It squished and our front tyre went haywire, flying out to the side and we wobbled and wobbled and eventually came to a stop.

We reached the border crossing back into Bulgaria, and rode up to the ticket booth.

We discovered we only had 6Lev left. There was no-where to change money. The ticket cost 10Lev. The counter-lady was fairly unforthcoming, but she must have taken pity on us, because she gave us a ticket. We couldn’t read the ticket, and didn’t know where it was for, but it was a Ticket. Hallelujah. I very nearly crossed myself.

We got onto the floating car park in the rain, and the villagers surrounded us with buckets of leaves. There was land ahead. We congratulated ourselves, and I said ‘There’s Bulgaria, what else could go wrong now?’

Then we had a horrible dawning that we had only gone downstream and not across the river. We drove off the float and tried to determine which country we were in. A friendly ferry-man showed us a map- there was a sneaky bit of Romania on Bulgaria’s side of the river, and that’s where we were. And sure enough we went back and found Bulgaria, through a gate, and we were no longer in Romania. I swore loudly that I would never return.

Brassed Off in Brasov

Our idea was to reach Transylvania. We rode on some great roads. Not great as in maintained perfectly. Possibly not actually maintained at all. The potholes could have been entrances to other worlds, they were so large and deep. But they were still great roads from the pillion perspective- winding and hilly and interesting.
Romania changed suddenly in Transylvania. There were Dracula-esque castles and the normal typical Transylvanian sights, and nestled in amongst them there were BMW and Mercedes dealerships, and big foreign cars instead of horses & carts, and industrial towns. We reached Brasov, intent on spending a couple of days sight-seeing and then moving on. It was a nice enough place, a tourist town, with historical buildings, pizza restaurants and tourists in those dreadful beige knee-length shorts.

We rode to the campsite. It was by a main road, 3 miles from the town, in an industrial estate. We asked a churlish-seeming fellow the price. Then we sat outside for about an hour, upset that we couldn’t even afford to camp, and angry at the owner for charging so much. It was 13 quid for a pitch, in Romania!

Eventually we had to swallow our pride, and we skulked back in to pay. The man still seemed mean.

Then we discovered there had been a massive misunderstanding. It cost us 5 pounds. No wonder the man seemed fed up, he thought we were unwilling to pay 5 pounds a night for a campsite. We were sheepish.

The next day Adam was playing with the bike, and discovered a giant bloody hole in the shock.

Coincidentally the campsite was next door to one of the aforementioned BMW dealerships, and he took it over to them. The dealership took one look at it and told us not to go any further until we had a new shock (and did we want to buy one for 700Euro).

We were stuck.

We were to remain stuck there for 12 days, in a tent, in the rain, on an industrial estate.

We ordered the part off Ebay and got it couriered out to us with a 3 day express service. It took 11 days.

We went into Brasov a few times on the bus. The buses in Brasov are horrible. They cram on as many humans as possible. They appear to pick the smelliest humans to cram on, and strategically position them, armpit to nose, next to you. Then they arrange for the little old woman at the back of the bus to want to get off first, so that the entire bus-population shifts around at every stop.

One interesting phenomenon is the piousness on buses. Every time the bus passes a church (and there are many, many churches in Brasov), all the occupants try to outdo each other, crossing themselves in elaborate fashion, and kissing their crucifixes. Sometimes the youngest are the most fervent.

There were various tourists passing through the campsite, the groups would shift every few days.

There was a Romanian family in the hut opposite our tent who really really liked loud Romanian folk music and played it on the car stereo with all the doors open. They had a sweet little 5-year old daughter with an enormous 60s hair-do and eyebrows that met in the middle. Someone had put lipstick on her. She came and sat with me and gave me a stick of mascara, so I gave her a flower. She drew me a picture of a flower, and a bee. I told her in mime to give the bee eyelashes and she did. She stayed sat with me while they packed up to leave, and right at the last minute when everyone was in the car they noticed and called her.

Wandering back from town one day two weeks later, we arrived to see the once-taciturn reception man waving something in the air and grinning. It had arrived!!!

It took us 20 minutes to fit it. We were so happy, we fitted it in a thunderstorm and left the next day.

Romania and the turkey on a lead

After a few days we had had enough of dry ski-slopes and said goodbye to Frederick the cat and set off for Romania.

The border is a river. The crossing involves a miniscule and dilapidated floating car park. It couldn’t really be termed a car ferry as such. There is no cabin, or front. The only other border-crossers were truckers, all chain-smoking, all in stained vests pulled over their big bellies, all driving vast articulated lorries. We stood out.

The river was pretty good though, it looked very exotic and wide and Amazon-like, especially considering it was the Danube. Maybe we caught it on a good day.

Southern Romania is 150 years behind Europe. The gypsies far outweigh non-gypsies, the horse & carts far outweigh engine-driven vehicles, and all the buildings are wooden with very ornately decorated tin roofs.

I watched an old peasant woman in holey tights pull a turkey along on a red lead.

The women were all in headscarves and knee-length skirts with wool tights underneath, even the ones my age. The men all wore trilby hats. Everyone sat outside their homes on specially erected cartwheel benches facing the road, and they all waved as we went past. The small ones pointed and looked worried. One threw a rock.

It got late and we needed somewhere to sleep. We stopped to ask at a truck-stop, hoping to sleep next to the truckers. We were lost, scared of all the oddness and too tired to ride on.

We got sidetracked before we could ask, by a giant man with his belly out, shaking us by the hands and congratulating us for owning a ‘Buh-Muh-Vuh’ and speaking rapidly in Romanian. We had to leave without asking the truck-stop man, who looked very scared of us, and even more scared of the Belly.

We had to ride on. It was all a bit worrying-looking for wild camping, so we carried on and on and on.

We arrived into Craiova, an amazing New York cosmopolitan city (relatively-speaking…) It was like reaching heaven, but we were outrageously lost. A saint appeared driving a taxi, and drove with us to show us the best hotel in town. We were sad, and explained our poverty, and he was even nicer, and drove us even further to a cheaper version. He drove off without any further anything, just a saint wrapped in a yellow taxi.

We were staying at the ‘Grim Hotel’. We walked into reception, and straight into a wedding. The guests were immaculately adorned, and the children wore frilly knickers and meringue-dresses. We dragged our stinking, dirty selves through their party and they all smiled.

Snowballs in Samokov

We were in Samokov. We’d arrived. There were signs saying Samokov, amongst other things, that led us to understand this. Campsites, however, there were none. There were plenty of scruffy communist apartment-blocks, some of them even with people in them. There were plenty of scruffy bars, nearly all of them with people in them. But definitely and emphatically, no campsites. We rode around for a while, stopping occasionally to stare at the little malevolent tent symbols on our Bulgaria map. They didn’t go away. Eventually we plucked up the nerve to enter a large, plush hotel with a symbol on its sign that could, if you squinted quite hard, have been meant to represent a tent, once. There was a giant fat man with a handbag in the lobby, sat amongst very cheesy 80s décor, like an authoritative walrus. He agreed with us- there was no camping in Samokov. And certainly none in his hotel. And: ‘You know ees dangerous outside? And virry cold? But I hev gud room for 50Lev? No? Ok, ok, 40Lev. No??? 30Lev…Surely leddy not want to sleev outside also? Really??’
Eventually he turned out alright, our walrus man, and told us of another hotel he owned, up the hill, were he would let us have a bit of ground outside to camp on, for free. He thought we were certifiable. Possibly he was right.
We rode back up the hill again. It got dark. We arrived to a small greeting committee- our man had phoned ahead. They were nonplussed. Flummoxed, even. Very friendly though, and they showed us maps of Borovets and helped park the bike.

We set up the tent on a spiky bit of hill out the back, and cooked our spaghetti.

The local fire brigade arrived. They brought us strawberry ice cream and wafer biscuits. They gesticulated a lot. It wasn’t that hard to understand the universal sign language for ‘mad as spring hares’.

A drunk lad from an apartment shack arrived, bringing us a saucepan full of meatballs and three-day-old cold chips, all mixed up together in tomato ketchup. We made pleased noises and surreptitiously threw it in a bush..

A small black cat arrived. It was very nearly a party.
The cat didn’t bring anything, but it did drink a lot of milk.
We spent a few days in Borovets. It was a ski-resort, complete with wooden chalets and fake rustic pubs offering Full English and Beer on Draught. There was no snow. There were no people either. A few of the hawkers on the streets didn’t seem to have noticed. We watched them. They sat for entire days behind their cheap sunglasses and Bulgaria fridge magnets and nothing happened. We wandered up to the ski-runs. We stood on the last bit of snow and threw snowballs. We went back into Samokov and watched the rain . There were ‘No Guns’ signs on the supermarket.

Bulgarian beer and singing gypsies

We rode past the nice-looking campsite and onwards- 150km in the wrong direction based on a border crossing on our map that didn’t actually exist. The towns got smaller and smaller. We stopped and asked a burly army officer how to cross into Bulgaria. He looked very surprised when he eventually understood, and sent us back exactly the way we came. We stopped at a disco garage for strong coffee to buzz us back towards the Bulgarian border.

Bulgaria awaits.
The border had a brilliant soviet-style ‘Republic of Bulgaria’ sign, and we passed the now-defunct ‘Disinfection Bay’ without anyone trying to hose us down with anything. Everyone was whizzing through without showing anything, so we got stopped and asked for our passports.

some communist-looking flats in the rain.

The crossing was great though, and the bit of Bulgaria we arrived into was excellent, with very shabby little villages, and Lada cars everywhere, and dodgy-looking huddles of young men at roadside bars. We changed some money at a very unforthcoming money changer, where the owners carried on their muttered conversation throughout the transaction. The bike got a lot of attention. Saw an actual campsite sign and thought it prudent to stop there for the night (slow on the uptake but learning!). We rode into a tiny village past a man hanging up his freshly skinned pig from a shed-beam, and a pen of very large goats, to an actual, real-life campsite.
We prepared ourselves for the arduous task of determining prices etc in mime, and were greeted at the door by a southerner from Kent , telling us rapidly about his power-failure. His name was Matt, and it was his campsite. It had the dubious honour of being the best campsite in Bulgaria, out of a grand total of two. We were promptly shown ‘the reason I stay here’- his young Bulgarian girlfriend Magdalena, who introduced herself by saying ‘I am Magdalena and I am a Bulgarian.’ in an excellent accent. We ventured out to the local shop where we managed to procure, amongst much confusion and hilarity, a pot of pepper sauce, a piece of the worst cheese ever tasted, and two large local beers. We got lost trying to find our way home, and passed some excellent toothless old crony real-life peasants in headscarves, several roadside tethered donkeys, and a pony-trap. The beer proved excellent. Bulgaria was going to be good.

a pony cart in the village.

On arriving back at our pitch we met Barry & Margaret, a retired couple from Yorkshire who had spent the last 14 years continuously travelling in their modified motorhome, and who were very knowledgeable about- in no particular order- bears in Greece, cartography, Bulgarian history, world affairs, birdwatching, websites and cycling. Plus the storm they had witnessed briefly before we arrived, which had caused (as we heard many times) the failure of the Wifi, the switching of one fuse-box and the failure of the hot water. Having said that, they were very friendly and talkative, and very pleased with the half-full pot of 60p jam we donated them when we left. They were keen to let us know that the Slavs were an arrogant race with regards to their own history, and that charity donations were wasted unless spent on knitting woolly hats for Romanian orphanages. I now pass that information on to you, for any use you feel is appropriate. But it was good to have spent time chatting to people from home, and I was impressed with their lifestyle.

Barry & Margaret, formerly of Halifax, now of Motorhome.

We slept well and mostly managed to ignore the singing gypsy who passed through the campsite at 3am.
The next day saw us riding around on tiny little roads, still in fairly good condition but getting smaller and smaller. We went past some amazing soviet-era tank vehicles, and statues in weird soviet blocky style but with religious overtones, and giant soviet factories, both defunct and working, with women outside smoking in aprons (like the old black & white photos from the 40s in Britain).

soviet-era military machines of some kind...

a big rusty factory. one of many.

There were more ponytraps with Roma gypsies and horses with feathered head-dresses, and lots of people smiling and waving. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant with churlish waitresses who glared at us when we ordered the only thing vegetarian on the menu. We headed off to somewhere on the map called Samokov, a hilly place which appeared to have campsite symbols on our newly acquired, possibly less-than-accurate Bulgaria map.

The roads wound up through crazily pretty scenery, with forests and rivers and waterfalls. Bulgaria is definitely a beautiful country and should be firmly on the map for the beer and people alone. Anyway, we kept going, and there were lot of people sat outside cafes after work, and Romani gypsies (Barry: ‘paid by the day not by the hour- too lazy’) working the fields completely by hand, sometimes with horses, or sat on their lunchbreaks in big groups. The streets were relatively quiet until after 6pm- everyone works. We got lost and lost and lost again, in a pleasant unhurried manner, and went past the same café four times before finding the correct road. Finally arrived in Samokov to hunt down the campsite.

storks nesting inappropriately.

Eastern Greece, baby fish and a very long day.

We headed off towards the main roads, with our new desire to visit Halkidiki driving us forward. We rode down the first prong of Halkidiki and immediately ran out of petrol. Just made it on reserve to the petrol station though- our luck was really in that day what with bears and all.

We spotted our first snake, about a meter long, but with its head squashed as though someone had run it over on purpose.

The prong was fairly pretty, but possibly not quite as beautiful as expected. We rode through a strange deserted tourist resort with a few rich Greeks eating over-priced fish in a beach-side restaurant- one place had a fish dish for 65 Euro. We got sneered at for only ordering coffee, and the coffee itself was undrinkable, with the grains lurking in the bottom. It was possible a very refined way to drink coffee, but I am of the Nescafe school, and I took a gulp and had to discreetly spit. It transpired we weren’t going to be able to afford restaurant food in Greece either, and we found a tiny corner shop where the lovely owner gave us a cup of her own sugar for free.

We rode down more steep dirt tracks with the bike fully loaded, and I had to get off to ease the load, leaving me to wander on my own through slightly sinister forest. We rode into a very pretty turtle reserve, and camped there for the night on a cliff edge, looking out over incredibly clear water with reefs underneath.

it helps to set the tent up when its still light.  maybe one day we will learn this.
A bright green scarab beetle got obsessed with my hair and flew back and back to sit in it.

a friendly green beetle.  he likes my hair.
our turtle reserve camping spot
poppies by our heads...
The next morning we rode round the bottom of Halkidiki, where there were horrible tourist resorts with old English couples in indecent swimwear posing in bakeries, and enthusiastic sausage sales-women. Ate veggie burgers on the beach, cooked up in the frying pan from frozen (slimy and reformed), and Adam went for a very very cold swim in the amazingly blue sea. I dipped myself in too eventually, until I spotted two jellyfish and we legged it.
adam in freezing cold water.

We found a slightly miserable campsite where the owner tried to overcharge us, and decided to keep going, hoping for somewhere better… Carried on to Thessaloniki. It was a smegpit, horrendously congested. We got very lost at rush hour, with no map and no way out.(Looking back it might have been quite a good place, but not when tired and looking to camp. There appeared to be lots of students revolting about something, with marijuana stickers and political slogans everywhere.) We eventually made it out of Thessaloniki by the ingenious method of driving in one direction until the town stopped existing, and then trying to work out where we were.

Where we were was nowhere, and we rode on and on and on, stopping at a Russian-owned kantina van selling only meat, where a Greek woman managed to translate for us and get us two enormous coffees and a plate of dredged up chips. We were tired and smelly, but everyone was lovely and waved when we left. We rode on later and later through sparse and unpopulated Eastern Greece, to a strange thermal spa resort, entirely abandoned, with one woman sweeping an empty street. It was an eerie, empty place.

We got provisions from a friendly shop-keeper on the way who told us of a campsite further down the road. We were relieved and slightly recovered with this news, and rocked up to the strange German tourist resort down the road to discover all the campsites were closed until June…

We considered beach-sleeping, but it was the 5th day without washing, and the next day was Adam’s birthday, so we knocked on doors in town and found us an apartment (in German) for 30 Euro a night with a odd Greek girl who had studied in Berlin and seemed to love me a bit too much. She lived above in a dark mahogany furniture apartment, and fed me chocolate when we left whilst telling me her life-story. We were very happy to arrive though absolutely knackered, and sat watching Saving Private Ryan whilst eating pasta.

I made us a horrendous lunch, and we tried to go out for a meal for Adam’s birthday. The restaurant below us was a fish restaurant, so we thought we would try our luck. The starter was promising, mostly. The main meal turned out to consist of 4 miniature, entirely whole, entirely dead fish, with their eyelids battered shut but their eyes intact beneath. The only other thing on the plate was a small piece of soggy lettuce. We mourned the dead fish looking up at us, and then, as the only diners in the restaurant, realized we had to eat it. We both ate them all, watched over by several curious locals and the chef, and ran away, in shock.

On leaving the resort the next day, I noticed a nice, open campsite and several promising eateries 2km down the road…