My Wandering


Imate Li Boza? (Bulgaria)

January 2001


I could have saved the money, but I had to go back home that very day, so I couldn't have afforded to miss that train because of the bastard, and to go down with him and talk to his boss. Anyway, I don't care much about the money, so that was it. Yet the sad feeling given by these small civilization-like incidents was covered up by a weird thing. While waiting for the train to be checked up by the customs officers in Ruse, a mostly interesting thing happened: there was this Bulgarian man, and he came to me and asked me something in Bulgarian, I said that I didn't speak it, then we started to talk in French, and we kept on talking - me from the train and he - from the platform - for more than half an hour, about everything, starting with philosophy, life happenings, the Balkans, the economy, nice things to see, experiences and so on. Life is so strange from time to time, as people that we think we've known for an eternity make us blue and upset, while some others, that we've never met before, make us cheer and smile, forgetting the small mis-happenings. It was so interesting, especially the fact that I use my French very rarely, and the customs officer came to me and thought that I was French! hehe... Anyway, it was sad when the train departed for Giurgiu, the Romanian customs, yet it felt good 2 hours later, when I reached Bucharest North Station, going down in the so well-known, yet so crazy, loud, moving crowd of people. It is so sad to go back, to cross that big station seeing people running for the train that you get off. And it feels so good when you are one of those people that run for trains... I miss that even now... And I am sure that I will be back in that crowd soon, soon, very soon. To share with that crowd the gloomy-like local trains, or the fast yet dirty accelerate trains, and so rarely the cosy warm and comfortable rapid or international ones, to laugh with poor people in the middle of the night, to listen to the songs of the peasants in the slow trains, to go to sleep with my head on the backpack in Warsaw and to wake up in Lichkov, to be awaken by the customs officer there, to make coffee in Gorna Orjagovica on the camping stove, with everyone else looking in horror at me, to eat 8 days old bread and smelly salami like I did in the first - and last - EuroCity I ever used from Deva to Bucharest, and to feel free...

I was to return to Bulgaria sooner than I would have thought. Just weeks after I came back home, I received an e-mail from my friends: "Hey, Alex, what are you doing for new year's eve? Why don't you come over, we're heading to Rila Mountains... It'd be fun.". Well, when someone says the magic word "mountains", then it only takes me half an hour or so to prepare my backpack. So there I was once again, leaving home at 11.00 PM, in the annoying noise made by the Christmas bombs the Romanian children enjoy to throw every winter, making me think of emigrating even if for this only reason. And again the same underground train, the same (but always looking so exciting for me) Bucharest North Station, the same weird feeling one gets when departing to somewhere. I was to share the compartment with some really interesting people. First there was this Albanian that was working in Bucharest, heading home, to a town close to Tirana. It was unbelievable but true that he needed three visas to go home, visas for which he was supposed to pay a lot of money. However this guy was what one could label as "a guy that manages through life no matter what". He had two or three official jobs, plus God knows how many unofficial ones.

"In this world one must manage one way or another... Though Albania is raising from the hole it was buried in after the civil war years ago, there is not much to do there" he said in a stunning Romanian. A true "man of the world", that will probably survive any change there could occur.

Then there was a Romanian couple going to Skopje, to some friends, to spend their winter holidays in Macedonia. The girl was under the pressure of the rumors about Bulgaria, especially that we were to cross the border at 2.00 AM. However they brought me a piece of extremely good news: Romanians need no visas to go to Macedonia (and God they have some really nice 2540 m. high mountains there, not far from the capital).

Finally there were some people like me: three Polish backpackers going to Stara Planina Mountains. They looked pretty relaxed for someone that had arrived in Bucharest with the Karpaty train that travels for barely 24 hours from Warsaw, and that would travel for another like 10 hours to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, where Stara Planina begins. But I guess that is a native feature of all Poles: they are meant to travel and traveling is meant for them, especially mountaineering.

Anyway, the train departed in the too warm night for the 28th of December. It was supposed to make 10 hours to Sofia, yet it made about 11 hours. "We're lucky, it usually has a longer delay" said the guy from Albania. "They just enjoy keeping it in customs, but now there are no smugglers to mess up with". However this longer stay in Ruse was good for us, as we all had only tickets to Ruse (why paying for an international train from Bucharest to Sofia, when one can go down and buy the Ruse - Sofia ticket from Bulgaria, and save about half of the price?). It was pretty amazing to see that the two men that I had previously seen illegally changing money at daytime, were still there, looking for clients. Yet the exchange rate was worse now, at night time. I guess they deserved a night bonus. However we preferred to knock in the official exchange office window and to wake up the lady there, which, without cursing us too much, changed the marks into leva. We felt rich and headed to the tickets wicket; it looks to me that the train stations are the only things (apart from hookers) that look more alive at night time than in the daylight. We barely felt the hours to come, as the warm compartment and the slowly moving train made us sleep and wake up in Mezdra, about 1 hour away from Sofia. As far as Sofia is concerned, it looked to me a very good-looking and functional station, quite big and well-organized; however I would have appreciated it more if they had put plates with English (or French, German, whatever) translations too; not for me necessarily, but just so. It seemed that I was the one closest to his destination from us, as Rila Mountains were far closer to Sofia than either Tirana or Skopje. My friends were there, on the platform, waiting for me. After the usual handshaking and welcoming cheers, we headed to the city. The train to Dupnitza was to depart in 2 hours and I wanted to visit Sofia, a city about which the only piece of practical information that I had, had come from an American with which I had chatted: "an ugly city; nothing to see there, only Vitoscha Mountain is worth seeing". Things were exactly on the contrary: Vitoscha was just a very touristic destination, as it lay very close to the city and everyone went there for skiing, hiking, sightseeing or for a drinking contest; it had many cable cars and endowments of the kind, what I hate most while in the mountains. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the Bulgarians seemed to hate it utterly, I liked Sofia. It is not the Prague-like kind of city where everyone goes, I cannot say they have something stunning or outraging there. But they have some interesting centre, with massive 19-20th century buildings, plus something so very Balkans-like: that kind of bazaar, where everything is sold and bought in the street. Sofia is a very good stop when heading from the so "civilized" Budapest or Vienna to Istanbul.

It is a necessary step in between, so that the cultural shock does not badly impress the traveller. And this bazaar is just there, when you get out of Sofia Central Station, and try to get into tram #19 to go to the centre. A bazaar that is a mystical blend of updated traditional music, the all-pies-in-the-world smell, gypsies hanging around and the merchants shouting at the passers-by to buy "this bargain".

After a running tour of the city we returned to the station to get into a local slow train going southwards. It looked nice to me, as I am thrilled to get into any kind of means of transportation, however my friends were sick of it; they used to call it "the cowboys' train", as it looked quite ancient and, God, so Russian (one needn't have read the plate saying where it was made to realize this). Three hours later we reached Dupnitza, a station at the bottom of Rila Mountains, from where we could see the misty clouds over the high area and feel the quite strong wind. There was a van going to Panichishte, a place up in the forest, and we took it. It kept on shaking and bouncing like it was to break down one minute or another, as the road wasn't in the best state; yet I was so used to such feelings from Romania that I enjoyed it greatly. "In 2 hours we'll get to Rilski Ezera Hut" Svilen said. And I expected a hut as we have in Romania, with 1-2 floors and not more than 50 places. Yet when, soon after the sunset, a shining and well-lit 4 floors building appeared, I said "OK, we reached the hotel, yet where is the hut?". They all smiled and pretended not to have heard my stupid question. When we went inside my opinion that it was a hotel got stronger: it was very nice, with wooden decorations, and all the comfort I wouldn't have dreamt of in the Romanian mountains except for the few hotels there are. The hut was meant mainly for skiers in winter, and it had ski-lifts and plenty of space for skiing. And the prices were extremely low (for "normal" people, not for us), as a bed was about Deutsche Marks 5. However we preferred the three times cheaper attic, where we slept in the more comfy (to us) sleeping bags. There were things to despise though, like in all "civilized" huts where they have electricity: there were radios, TV sets, and therefore noise. But we were too tired to notice that and soon went to bed (oh, sorry, to bag, not to bed). In the morning we woke up, cooked ourselves some delicious oats with dried grapes and peanuts and then my friends lay down around the map and decided to go to another hut across the main ridge. "We shall leave all sleeping bags and most food here, so that we have light backpacks, we'll return here tomorrow in the evening". That was more than I could understand: to leave all equipment that I worked for 2 years and to return tomorrow? No way, sir! I am taking it all with me. The food, maybe, but the sleeping bag, no way! It took them half an hour to persuade me. I left the hut "looking back in anger" and praying to God; I had also noticed that I had better equipment than the majority of people there, as they used to make themselves all the gear they could, due to the lack of money. This worried me more; yet I was so wrong and I would feel so ashamed for this later.

Anyway, we crossed a glacial valley full of bushes and reached the 7 Rila Lakes Hut, which had been built long before the other hut, lying at over 2300 m.alt. "Well, this is what I call a hut! A modest-looking building, with no electricity, and people cooking for themselves!". However there was no time for Dickens-like descriptions and we headed to the high area. After crossing a secondary ridge and another glacial valley, we went up and reached the main Rila ridge in a place called "the bells".

Actually there was a pillar with arrows pointing to all directions, and it had some bells on it, bells that had the bad (or good, in foggy conditions) habit of making noise in storms. Soon we could see the hut we were to go to, called Ivan Vazov. "10 minutes and we're there" one could have said. Yet it took us 3 long hours of struggling through the deep snow until we reached "solid ground". I was the first to reach it and when I saw no footsteps in the snow close to the hut I thought to myself: "This is heaven! There is no hut master and we'll sleep for free!". Yet a man that looked to me more like a monk than a hut master, appeared and told me something, probably hello in Bulgarian. I answered with a low "hello" and he looked for the others, probably hoping there were some Bulgarian speaking persons to make the situation clearer. Luckily the rest of the group was Bulgarian and they started talking. When they had a break, my friends told me that this man had seen none for the last 15 days, when the last group had been there. He was expecting his partner to bring him food, yet this had not showed up in time and he was out of supplies. He started the fire in the stove and the atmosphere soon got warmer, both physically and otherwise, as they started playing the guitar and singing. The only songs where I could sing along with them were of Creedence Clearwater Revival, but I enjoyed listening to the Bulgarian and Russian folk songs, around a small bottle of odd fake whisky I had brought from Bucharest. After some hours we had to leave the warm kitchen and go in the cold sleeping room, where we had to put on us like 4 blankets to get warm. The following morning, after waiting - and cursing - around the water that looked as if it just did not want to boil just to make us crazy, I cooked some Romanian mămăligă (maize flour porridge or polenta), we ate briefly and started for Rilski Ezera, as the weather was bad, with a dense fog and an overwhelming blizzard. When we reached the saddle, although we were at 20 m. from the bells (that were full of snow and ice, therefore they could not ding and shout at us: "hey, you losers, here we are!"), it took us like a quarter to find the right way. After some other 2-3 hours we reached the old hut, where we found all the friends. The party seemed to have changed moved. So, after a quick snack and some "nice" words that crossed my mind, we went to the new hut, grabbed the luggage there (of course that none had stolen any of them, as I had presumed) and, in the dim light of the new moon, helped from time to time by the head lamps, started again for the 7 Rila Lakes Hut. Yet the effort was to be awarded, as there were people playing traditional instruments and singing. Apart from all, there was this guy dressed in a mixture of hippie-like and traditional garments, playing both an old-fashioned bagpipe or the guitar like a god, with everyone dancing in a crazy "hora" (also present in Romania, a dance where everyone holds hands and goes round the musician). I tried to keep away from them, as I am the worst dancer ever. But it was hard to keep away from these warm and friendly people. Besides, I think that I had like a plate on my chest saying: "Hey, I am Bulgarian, come and talk to me!", as everyone came and asked me things in Bulgarian. It took about 2 days until everyone learnt that I was Alex from Romania, but that didn't make much of a difference, as I felt great anyway.

The party ended at 1 in the morning or so, and the shining sun woke us up for the last time in year 2000 at about 8 or so. The beautiful day involved a hike on the local Matterhorn (a much smaller, but very nice replica of the real thing), as well as a wandering trip to the 7 lakes that give the name of the place. A place where my friends told me that gathers in summer as many tents there can be, as camping is generally forbidden in Rila, except a few areas. Soon night fell across the land, and people started to prepare for new year's party. Yet don't expect they were putting on the evening dresses and the fancy Armani suits, getting ready for new year's meant getting the food prepared, taking out the old instruments and starting singing. But the best feeling there at that particular time where people in the city make and enjoy a lot of noise, was the sharing. Everyone had brought from home a certain something, a cookie, a plate of pies, a bottle of sparkling wine, or else. We started to make a "torta" ourselves and I discovered that, apart from the powder cream, nuts, powder milk, flavours and dried grapes that had travelled well from Bucharest, the biscuits were now just a sadly-looking powder, smashed into tiny pieces. When I asked Svilen if there was anyone having a pack of biscuits for the cake, I never thought they would bring not one, not two, but like 8 packs, chocolate cream, a lot of dried fruits and so on. It was very impressive to see that - in a desperate world where the nowadays technology makes people colder and more closed into themselves - there are still human-like relations. Anyway, the crazy hora started again with that resourceful man playing the bagpipe with a heavenly talent. This time, however, I could not escape the dancing. "Alex, come on" someone told me once, then twice. There was no third asking, as they just grabbed my arm and pulled me into the crazy dancing circle. After all, it wasn't that hard: two steps to the right, then one to the left. And, besides, half and hour before midnight, the happy people went outside, dancing on the frozen glacial lake, and none could possibly see neither that there was someone that did not know how to dance (as I wasn't the only one in this situation), nor that I was not Bulgarian. There was this feeling of - like Chris Bonington once said in a TV report - "absolute joy", where nothing else mattered, where all problems had remained somewhere buried in the dull and polluted city, where all that was of any importance was that dancing team, and the crazy music. The happy cheers, the simple fact of taking part in that circle meant everything in that very moment. And this went on, despite the cold wind that would stir the snow every now and then, until midnight and a little after that. At midnight, when towards Sofia there could be seen a red sky, due to the fireworks there probably, all we did was to go round and round dancing, faster and faster, screaming and being happy like nobody else. Then they opened a bottle of wine and it went from hand to hand, as the people were still jumping around. The whole circle broke, as we all started hugging each other and wishing a Happy New Year.

We went inside afterwards. And everyone started to bring what he/she had prepared for the group. They had some cookies which contained small messages which were supposed to foretell what the new year would bring to the picker. Then there were cookies which had some signs on them, also presumed to foretell the future. And I picked one that seemed to have only a line on it. As I did not know its meaning, I thought that it was the digit 1, and that - therefore - I only had one year to live. Yet I was far from the truth and eventually the girl that had made them came and revealed the mystery. "The line is the separation between things, like between snow and sunshine, or between winter and spring; you are to experience a new beginning this year". This intrigued me mostly and made me wonder. I guess that the mystical new year's night must contain something like this, otherwise it's just a party like any other.

When we took the cake out, everyone started to realize whom I was. I was Alex with the cake. It felt good to pay back this way these people for the great new year's, and to take part in their happiness. I think that no night in Hotel Ritz or Crowne Plaza could have been better. The show went on, with singing, dancing, lots of eating (oh, Nanak bre, could someone take the food away, please!?), until 4 in the morning, when we went upstairs to our welcoming, yet freezing attic.

I woke up at around 10 with the same feeling I always get when another year is over: a feeling of something lost, yet a feeling of something new coming. We gathered all around the camping stove to eat and decide what to do for that day. After eating and talking about things, it was far too late to start for some interesting trip, and we decided to leave Maljovica Peak for the next day. It seemed to be a lost day, yet soon the sound of the well-known music hit our ears. The bagpipe player had started again and soon the gang gathered in the hut kitchen and started the dancing crazy circle. There was no way to keep away from those happy people. They might have been rich, poor, old, young, tall or small, thin or fat, bearing the burden of life or being anarchists and rejecting the social rules, yet they were all in a mood that is very hard to describe. There is no way of describing the way some people can have fun out of what we usually call "nothing". And it is also impossible to say how we could understand each other without talking (as many of them did not speak English), when just a smile does it all, and a handshake is worth more than one million words. As far as I heard, we beat the record in that day, continuously dancing for more than 3 hours. If in the morning the snow layer on the frozen lake was soft and 5-10 cm. thick, in the afternoon there were several places where it was trodden and flat. The lyrics of a Romanian song that is usually danced in "hora" say it all: "dance, round and round, until you drop dead"...

The evening fell with a feeling of tranquility and general friendship, where everyone seemed happy and stack to the kitchen; we just didn't feel like going to sleep. However, as I was supposed to wake up at 7.00 AM, I had to go upstairs together with Tony, which was to join me to Maljovica Peak.

When the watch alarm rang, I looked for something to smash it to pieces, yet I found nothing solid in hand (thank you God for that). So the only option was to get up, to call my friend and, after a quick snack, to leave the hut with a small backpack. The sky was completely clear and the wind was more like a breeze. It took us like one hour and a half to get to the bells on the main ridge, and the view was overwhelming. Although we had been there before, we hadn't had the possibility of seeing anything because of the fog. Now the scenery lay under our feet so beautifully, from the mountains in Macedonia to the west, to Pirin Mountains to the south, the Vitoscha and Stara Planina to the north, or the eastern part of Rila (with Mussala Summit). Then we hiked, peak after peak, for about 2 hours, until we got on Maljovica (2729 m.alt.). At a certain moment before reaching the peak, we could see down in a valley Rilski Monastir, one of the most famous monasteries in Bulgaria (therefore, a place where I will never travel to). From the peak we could see the Mussala (2925 m.alt., the highest in the Balkan Mountains), as well as the steep walls used for rock climbing.

For the way back we had the same route, except for the final part, where we chose to hike amongst the glacial lakes. Thinking about the hot meal that we were to cook in the hut, I don't even remember anything else. I just remember that we made a kind of a contest, which of us was to cook faster and better. Yet we were so hungry that I think we were all winners. The awards involved huge quantities of veggy food, on the one hand (not mine), and of veggy food mixed up with pate de foie on the other hand (that was for me, of course). Some songs which I shall always remember put an end to that evening, when we all went to sleep with a sad thought. The hut was almost empty, there were only like 10 people left, and the next day we were to leave also.

Waking up, packing things, getting ready, setting things in order there were people sleep, that is what I mostly hate; that is why I always find something to do when preparing to leave back home. This time I chose to cook. And I filled my camping pot with a weird porridge of oats, peanuts, coconut powder and eventually potato flakes (as it was way too liquid and I needed something to make it better looking...who cared about the taste!?). And we all ate in a sad silence, until the bagpipe man came and cheered us up with one of his songs. A song whose sounds will always beat in my ears...

And we left. And went down. Down to the new hut, where a few skiers were still using the slope. Down to Panichishte, where the visitors' centre was empty and sadly-looking now, that almost all tourists had gone home. As time was running and my train back home was due to leave Sofia 3 hours later or so, we chose to take a van that was waiting there for people. It seemed that the driver wanted too much money, then he changed his mind or something like that. Then another one came and they started arguing. Only God and Svilen know what they were fighting about. Eventually we got in one of the two vans and the driver started the engine shouting like crazy. There is always happening something stupid when I go down from the mountains, so that I don't forget that I am heading back to the ugly-like-hell civilization. As the man kept on arguing to himself seemingly, as Svilen told him nothing, he was driving the van like bitten by snakes, and I thought that there was a lavine or something following him, or that he had a huge hatred on the Romanians and wanted me dead. Anyway, as I knew only a few and useless in this situation words in Bulgarian, I made the only appropriate gesture towards him, which has, I think, a general meaning, the same all over the world, except for the UK, where people use two fingers for that.

Eventually the man chilled down, and it seemed to be clear: the other van driver was illegal and this guy was angry that he lost many clients because of that one. Yet why were we to blame for that? Did he want to kill his only clients by throwing them into the steep valley just because of it?! And why the hell did he stay legal if he didn't like it this way?! Questions that will, probably, remain unanswered. Anyway, the guy took us to Dupnitza where we took a bus to Sofia. It is so sad to see all people going home or to work after the holidays, and that is what I saw in Sofia on January the 3rd. After crossing the city in a tramway that seemed to me to reach Bucharest rather than Sofia Central Station - as we travelled for half an hour or so - we met one of our friends there that invited us to spend the night at his place. The invitation of making a trip longer is never to be refused, says one of my logos, therefore I gladly accepted. His place was a garret, not too big, but extremely nice and picturesque. After looking at some pictures from all over Europe where this guy had travelled, and after eating something, we headed for the centre. A foggy and wet evening, plus a cold wind, made the city look quite the same like Jack the Ripper's London. Yet the few people in the street, some nice girls I noticed, and the guitar players singing "around the corner" made it look and sound better. We got back to Stilian's attic and all that I remember was - again - my watch ringing at 7.00 AM, and Stilian saying "Oh, I hate this" (yet I think he meant to say something else, but anyway). We headed to the railway station in a crowded bus, where I annoyed everyone with my huge backpack. What the hell was I doing there, in the bus full of people going to work, and not uselessly wandering, like I was? That question can be answered only by someone that is used to wandering... The same foggy weather was just like my thoughts: I hated to go home. However I got into the same, ugly-like-hell wagon on which it was written "Sofia - București Nord", and I sat on the so well-known benches. I slept for a while, ate for a while, and looked through the dirty window for a longer while. And I learnt to say "ne razbirem bulgarski" to the people asking me God knows what. And they looked strangely at me. I would have liked to talk to them, yet that was hardly possible. They know all Russian, yet the old people had no chance to learn English in the communist times. So, hour after hour, the train got closer to Bucharest. Mezdra, Pleven, Gorna Orjahovica, and this last one was so familiar to me from the last trip to Bulgaria. And then the train arrived in Ruse at 16.00 sharp, like scheduled. It is difficult to describe the customs station. Here everybody knows everybody. They are a big and happy family. The customs officers know and shake hands with the local smugglers, then they go somewhere where nobody sees them to get the bribe. The border police officers know the people that illegally exchange money, they say "hi, how's your wife and kids?" and they go on. This way they make life easier, no need to make it more complicated than it is. It is very easy to blame things when one earns $ 1000 a month, and very hard to try to understand things. These people live in their own world, which has no name. It is not Romania, it is not Bulgaria, it is a place where rules are made, and always obeyed to, yet never written down. The only ones that have nothing to do with it are the real travelers. They are just mocked at by the people working here or - if they are smart and understand things - they are the ones to make jokes about things.

The train left Ruse 3 hours later, with a 2 hours delay, as it had to wait for the Bucharest - Istanbul train coming from the other direction, then - as there was only one customs team on the Bulgarian side, we had to wait until they checked the other train. "Why the hell didn't they think of that before, that they didn't have men enough?" would be an obvious question coming from someone that does not live in this part of the world. "Because we're in the Balkans" is the prompt answer. And here, in the Balkans, things are meant to work slowly. People like to mess around, to make a fuss, to delay things, to bargain and to waste time. People here like to live vividly, yet not to obey in the same manner to rules. It is the nature of the place, like all Japanese, are small and have yellow skin. If they had said in the timetable that the train was to stay for 3 hours in Ruse, it would have stayed there either 2 hours, arriving in Giurgiu earlier than scheduled, or 4 hours, therefore getting there later... that is part of the game.

Anyway, the train arrived in Giurgiu later than it was supposed to arrive in Bucharest, it stayed there for who-knows-what-reason for about 1 hour or so, and entered Bucharest at 21.30 instead of 19.20. The same old station, the same crowd, the same underground train, the same misty streets and my same neighbourhood, the same building where I live, and eventually the same slow PC that keeps me online night after night when I am at home. And eventually the last words someone had told me before leaving the hut in Rila Mountains:

"Alex, meet you in Sofia or, if not, meet you somewhere in the world..."


IMATE LI BOZA? 2 (you are here)

Just like in most other sections of the Balkans, Renaissance came to Bulgaria in the 19th century, long after its peak of glory in the West. However this delay brought to surface superb and enchanting shapes and forms of expression, being called the Bulgarian Revival (a term which I personally prefer in front of the Renaissance, as it does not refer to something which died and was brought back to life). I shall never forget a visit to Plovdiv on a cold autumn evening, in those quiet and deserted streets...