My Wandering

 

Triglav, Mussala and the Warm War in Between (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria)

December 2001

PART 4 (SERBIA, BULGARIA)

I almost did not hear what he said. In my opinion I wanted them all to die. In pains preferably. No, in big pains. I shall never understand how it happens that all the bastards get to have such jobs with the authorities, why don't they simply end selling bread or carrots in the marketplace?

We went down and took our passports back. After we returned, the Macedonian girl asked me why I was sad and I told her that I hope that one day we, people from the Balkans, will get enough brains to raise from the mud we writhe in. Then I made a comparison with the situation in Slovenia and Croatia, comparison which she absolutely did not like and actually, later on, I also hated myself for overgeneralizing like that. She started talking to her boyfriend about my comments, but I was tired and fell asleep.


When I woke up, everything seemed to have been a dream. The Macedonian couple was gone and the train was crossing Serbia with a constant noise made by the wheels on the rails. It was very cold and I noticed that people from the whole wagon had left. I checked with the other wagon and they were all there, as it was warmer and there were also lights. I went there.

"Slobodu?"

"Da", a mid-aged man answered.

There were two men in the compartment. Noticing I was not Serbian, he started talking in a stunning English. We had a quite pleasant chat for a while. This man was certainly a very experienced person and he had obviously travelled a lot. I was sorry I could not spend more time in their company, but the train soon reached Nis and we all had to go on our ways. It was night already, it was passed 8 PM and I had to stay there until 2.30 AM. I thanked God for endowing so many stations with luggage offices, dropped my backpack there and went for the centre. It wasn't difficult to reach it, as there were street signs pointing there, and the centre seemed quite pleasant, with a long walking alley, a nice river passing by it and the ruins of a local fortress, with an impressive gateway. I wandered in the streets which were filled with people, as it was Saturday night. I do not remember when the hours passed and I had to go back. I mistook the streets and could not find the right one to the station (of course, there will be no street marks for the station when one looks for them). I stopped someone in the street and asked:

"Sorry, do you happen to know where the railway station is?"

She shrugged and wanted to go away. I remembered where I was and asked:

"Zeleznicka Stanica?"

She showed me the way and explained how to get there, but I only partly understood. Later on, I had to ask again and the two Serbian words made wonders, while English was obviously useless. I reached the station and I sat down, watching people sleeping, entering and exiting the station, as trains were announced through the speakers. Life was going on in that still middle of the night even, with the rhythm imposed by the trains.


Eventually my train arrived and many people got off. I found a compartment with no light where there was only a lady with a small cart and a lot of bags: she was probably going to Sofia to buy things which she would afterwards bring and sell in Serbia. I slept for an hour or so. The train was getting emptier. When we reached Dimitrovgrad, the Serbian customs station, some other smugglers got in the wagon and the lady woke up, going with them in some other compartment. An old lady got in. It was to be a unique experience. She was from Belgrade's Zemun Quarter, but had some relatives in Sofia and was going to spend a few days there. She spoke - again - with a great English accent and filled the next couple of hours with so many stories of a lifetime that one could hardly ever list. At the age of 67 she had started to learn Arabic language and she looked forward to it. She was carrying a big manual and she insisted to show me what she had just learnt. She would interrupt the language studies every now and then and fill the gaps with war memories, then she would come back to her studies.

"You have to study this language, people have to study, it is amazing, such a different culture, such a different world, go, go to the embassy when you reach back Bucharest, and ask for their courses, it is free, one has to do that..."

I hardly said any words all the way and also hardly noticed anything within the train or through the window all the way through the customs or between Dragoman and Sofia. It is amazing what some people do at their age, over 60: some hike up Triglav on a more than daily basis, some others start learning a language which is totally different from theirs, while we call ourselves brave or smart for spending the whole night on the internet, in front of a computer which has nothing to do with what there is out there only for us to discover and experience...


The train was almost an hour late in Sofia Centralna, but that did not bother me, I wished it was 1000 years late and probably that would not have been enough as well. I said goodbye and went to the station, where I met my friends which had almost frozen waiting for me, as they had reached Sofia from Bucharest at 6.55 and now it was almost 10.

"We prayed that the train would have some damn delay, but it was right on time, not even a minute of delay!"

Exiting the station, we found a van and took it to Borovets Resort, from where we were supposed to hike up the mountains. The sky was grey and we shook like some toys in the van on the road until we reached the resort. The wind was blowing too strongly up there and the cable car only went half the way up, to 1800 m.alt. Then we started going up on the ski slope, with a wind coming down on us. We reached a round peak, the end of the cable car, at about 2350 m.alt. and from there we were supposed to go more or less in a straight line, crossing a mountains slope covered in junipers and also crossing some ski slopes. The wind was more and more intense and the snow on the ski slopes was quite thick. We reached Mussala Hut after darkness fell and settled in, as it was too late and the weather was too bad for us to go up to Everest 84 Shelter, as we had decided from Bucharest. The hut was full and it was funny, as it felt like going back home, with a typical old poor hut, dislike the very different experience in Slovenia. We ate a lot, had a good time and then went upstairs, in our big room, where we slept with the metallic roof shivering and trembling all night in our heads due to the strong wind.

The next morning we started going up again and reached Everest 84 Shelter at around noon. The shelter was nicely located on a glacial lake and we could see from some postcards that the summit should be visible from there on a clar day. But this was absolutely not the situation. We settled and started arranging things for New Year's: it was December 31st. I noticed that I had forgotten both the black Armani suit and the shining shoes with red laces at home and so did my friends. The Bulgarians had some very nice music and a party-like atmosphere filled the air, unfortunately I think I had preferred some guitars and other classical instruments like the year before, but, huh, one cannot have them all in a lifetime. The night ended with a mountaineering songs contest between the Romanians and the Bulgarians. Friendship won.


The next day, after a long laziness period, we eventually decided to go on the peak, despite the strong blizzard and the snow. We reached the peak on a day which was similar to the one when I reached Triglav in Slovenia and this was very nice. We returned to the shelter for an afternoon filled with mountaineering stories, good laughs and small arguments concerning the following day. Which arguments continued the following day in the morning as well. While some people wanted to go up on the ridge, as initially planned, some others wanted to go down and go to other huts, some others wanted to remain there for one more day and there was even someone which wanted to go straight back to Bucharest. Eventually most of the group went down, while I and another girl, Anca, went up, across the peak, trying to reach another hut on the ridge in the evening (Granchar Hut). The day was clear and the sun was up there, but it was very cold and the wind was extremely strong, almost throwing us to the ground at certain moments. The views were spectacular and one could see as far as Pirin or Vitosha Mountains. The snow had been drifted and hardened, therefore the ridge should have been easily covered, unless we had to deal with the wind. At about 3 PM we reached a peak from where we could see the hut we were supposed to reach: we had to go down in a wide saddle, then to turn to the left, go down on a glacial lake and the hut was to the left shore of the lake.


This distance should have been covered in the same snow conditions in 1 hour at most. However there were juniper bushes all the way and they resulted in high snow layers, due to the fact that the area was also protected from the wind. We hardly walked through the junipers and we several times rolled over among them. After a long while we exited the junipers and walked on a flat surface. Taking my sunglasses off, as they had frozen and I could no longer see through them, I noticed at a certain distance, through the fog, a building: one of the hut annexes. We walked to it and soon also found the hut. After twice going round the hut and after once mistaking the toilet door for the hut door, I found the hut door, as well as two people inside. They were two very nice Bulgarians which gave us the very good piece of news that we do not have to pay, as there is not hut master in winter time there, in Granchar Hut. After a good night sleep, the next day again was announced by bad weather, with strong winds and fog. We stayed in the hut, cooking all food we still had and chatting with the Bulgarians. It was so very nice to be there, in the middle of the mountains, after the party on New Year's Eve. It was all so silent and peaceful now, with the only noise produced by the wood burning in the stove. The next day was reserved to the beginning of the end: we had to start the long way home.

We woke up at 5 AM and started digging steps in the very thick layer of snow: the next 5-6 km. meant digging steps at turns on a trail which is probably extremely easily accessible in summer. We walked at the moon light, then saw the dawn getting up from the snow, then the sun - again - up in the sky as we were departing the main ridge where - hopefully - other people would continue what we had started.


At about 10 AM we reached some snowmobile traces and this made our job much easier. We reached a hut and from there the road was cleared and cars were running. The last 7 km. to Iarouda Village and station were the most difficult, walking on that road down and perceiving step by step civilization getting closer. Willing or not, we reached the railway station and took the narrow gauge train towards Septimvri. The train was like a toy, after all my trip by trains. I thought what would have happened if this train had been in Slovenia. They would have closed it for the public, written on it "The Triglav Train" and charged a lot for it, making advertisements in tourist magazines and on TV and so on... I looked at the mountains leaving behind. Or maybe I was leaving behind them. The conductor came and looked at my ticket with an already well-known confused face. He looked what the other conductors had done, meaning they had signed the ticket, he did the same and left. Night was falling and in the shimmering light of the wagon I could make a plan for going back to Bucharest: it was better to take a night train and sleep on the train than to spend the night in a station. Therefore from Septimvri we took a train to Plovdiv, which I had wanted to visit so very much, but we did not have the time for that.


Looking on the electronic board, I noticed that an express train from Varna to Sofia had almost 4 hours delay. I was to find out later on that it had remained stuck in the high layer of snow. Our train however left Plovdiv on time and it was very good that it was pretty warm inside. The only annoying thing was that they changed the conductors very often and all the new conductors were eager to wake us up, strangely look at my ticket and then slam the compartment door after them. Stations were passing by, people were passing down the hall, the night was also passing by us and so was Bulgaria. In the morning we reached Ruse, the same big station which had that nice architecture, the same flags and the same feeling that Romania was only a few kilometers away... We dropped for the last time the backpacks in the station and went to the city where I had a memorable baclava, just to end a Balkans’ tour as I should have. It was saturday and people were doing their regular shoppings. Christmas and New Year's Eve were already history and people were now back to their routine life. As always, the train from istanbul, which was supposed to be there before the one from Thessalonica, had a 200 minutes delay, so we took the other one. On the train, we had a companion from Ruse to Giurgiu, a Serb that lived in Romania but had no resident visa and had to go every month to Ruse to then get another tourist visa for 30 days in his passport. We talked again about Belgrade, as he left the city when the war emerged. He was one of those survivors that will never die unless they want. He was very on the ground, he had no problems talking about the big party he threw for the Romanian transportation minister once and about other bribes he gave, including the one the Bulgarian customs officers had asked for. He was the best piece of evidence for the way things work here.


The train eventually reached Giurgiu and he got off. Then it splat the night that had fallen in puffs of steam from the heating system, until it reached Bucharest. Some bus driver asked us whether we need a ride somewhere. Once again, I was home. Or maybe not, maybe my home was on board of a train or it lay somewhere deep in the backpack. Maybe the bus driver was correct and I did not belong in Bucharest, but on the road or rail again... Nanak knows.


THE CROATIAN SECTION

THE SLOVENIAN SECTION

THE BOSNIAN / MACEDONIAN SECTION

THE SERBIAN / BULGARIAN SECTION (you are here)

Anyone looking in a guidebook can see that Bulgaria has them all, from mountains or seaside to old towns and cities. However this is not all. My greatest memory from this country is about Vesko's playing a traditional song from the Rhodopes on the bagpipe, while everyone else was dancing around him in one of those crazy, but nevertheless beautiful "horas". One of those moments that bring back to me Sir Chris Bonington's words: "an absolute joy".