Reaching the 10,000km mark.

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Resting at the 10k mark.

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Rose fields near Rozino, Valley of the Roses.

Rozino to Kazanluk 77km

Today we passed the big 10,000km milestone since arriving in Tokyo (can you have a kilometre stone?)

It isn’t a huge distance over almost 7 months of riding, but given the gear we are carrying and the mountain ranges we have crossed, we are pretty proud.

Today we also passed 1,000k in Bulgaria. It’s a small country so we have nearly done a full loop. Tomorrow we cross the Balkan mountain range through the famous Shipka Pass.

We woke in our camp near the rose fields to the sound of a team of workers hoeing the rows between the rose bushes. We had a nice flat ride to Kazanluk enjoying lots of cherries on the way. We visited a replica Thracian Kings tomb as the original is kept closed to protect it. Decided to stay in a nice little hotel above a restaurant which was a good idea as a huge storm came in late in the evening.

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Sofia with Sasha

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Andy reading Bulgarian menu to Sasha.

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Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski

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Old sits with new in Sofia.

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Breakfast with Nina and Sasha.

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Very Soviet style Public Offices

We were so lucky to spend a couple of interesting days with 88 year old Sasha Darvodelsky in Sofia. Sasha left Bulgaria as a young man and ended up living and working in Chicago US, so has had an interesting life. His brother Stephan, the father of our good friend Paul Darvodelsky, ended up living in Australia. Sasha returns to Bulgaria for a couple of months every summer, so we were lucky to catch him in Sofia. Being able to share in his intricate knowledge of an ancient city such as Sofia through his stories was a such a pleasure. We walked the streets to the main city sites and shared some great meals together. Sofia turned out to be a very relaxed, quiet and tattered looking grand old place. The ride in around the base of Vitoshi, a small mountain south of Sofia was very pleasant.

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We enjoyed the city and food tours.

Walking in the Pirin Mts

We had a great three days walking in the Pirin mountains. With its beautiful forests, fast flowing rivers, dramatic waterfalls and high craggy snow covered peaks it is extremely scenic.

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Leaving Vihrin Hut

We were driven up the tiny windy road to Vihren hut by the owner of the hotel we stayed in at Bansko, where we had left our bikes. We planned to walk for several days across to Bezbog hut, but people at Vihren informed us that there was too much snow, so we started with a day walk to a lake nestled on the side of Vihren mountain.

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Partially frozen lake.

There was a bit of snow but we found our way ok. In the afternoon we attempted to walk up Vihren but it started to rain heavily so we returned to the hut.
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The following morning we were lucky enough to join a group of experienced walkers heading to Demyanitsa Hut, via Mount Todorin. There were several scary scrambles across snowy ridges; we felt very lucky to have joined this group as we would not have attempted this on our own.

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Walking up Mt Todorin

The views from the peaks over Vihren and all the other mountains, lakes and valleys was very dramatic.
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Demyanitsa hut was a very rustic, ramshackle affair with numerous drunken fishermen enjoying themselves. The kitchen and the cook looked very unhygienic, but the food tasted ok. Our bunk bed room was cold and damp, but it was better than sleeping outside.

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Crossing the creek to get to Demyanitsa hut.

The following day we set off on our own across to Bezbog, the route we took included one high pass that had a lot of snow on each side.

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Saying goodbye to our Bulgarian walking mates.

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Heading up to the pass on the way to Bezbog.

Going down was very steep, it was lucky the snow was soft and not icy. We were very tired and hungry by the time we reached the big hut at Bezbog.

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Bezbog hut.

We checked into a hotel-like double room in this enormous 5 storey hut, but we were the only people as summer had not started.

The food from the restaurant was incredibly bland and boring, strange given there is so much good food in Bulgaria. Laurie had not been feeling well for the past day and during the night Andrea started to feel very sick, with vomiting and diarrhoea. Andy slept until 10am when she felt good enough to catch the chairlift down to the small road leading down the mountain.
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After the chairlift we walked about 15 minutes before being picked up by a fisherman we spoke to at Bezbog, and delivered back to Bansko. So even though we returned with a good dose of black plague we will remember our time in the Pirin Mountains as one of the best mountain walks yet.

BORDERING CULTURES

It is not the first time we have been amazed at how an arbitrary border between nations changes daily habits of life. Bulgaria was for 500 years part of the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish influence is of course still strong. Many villages in the south-east corner are still Muslim and strongly Turkish in culture – our bit of Turkish language has been useful in this region. But others seem to resent Turkish customs intruding on the ancient and rich Bulgarian culture.

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Orthodox church beside a mosque.

Even so there were so many small things that we found different within a few ks of the border crossings (plural as we went through a tiny corner of Greece between Turkey and Bulgaria).

Friendliness
Turkish people are super friendly and sociable. Bulgarians are much more cautious, perhaps because of their political history. Many rarely smile or laugh and often come across as a bit grim. This isn’t helped by the fact that they shake their head when agreeing – which is very confusing for us. But when you get to know them they are warm, helpful and interested in visitors to their country.

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Friendliness is always on the menu in Turkey.

We do miss the wonderful Turkish tradition of sharing endless cups of ├žay (Tea)

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Shepherds in Turkey called to us daily to share tea with them.

Roads
Bulgarian roads tend to be in much worse condition. The lack of a road verge on main roads worried us, especially as truck drivers are just as impatient. Turkish main roads are wide and smooth, with often little traffic. Perhaps too much is invested in roads there rather than, say, in education.

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The Bulgarian Greek border, where the road verge ended.

Women
The first restaurant we went to in Bulgaria amazed us as it was full of women and families. We had become used to other customers always being 95 or 100 percent male. And no headscarves in sight. A few days later, in some rural villages in the southeast the headscarves and long gowns were again evident.

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Many women in southern Bulgaria wear head scarves.

Coffee and tea
It is really weird that within a few kilometres everyone stops drinking tea. Instead coffee, including Lavazza coffee, appears on the shelves of even the smallest village shop and the menus of every tiny eating place. At the first town we stopped at in Bulgaria we had the best latte we have had for months. It is now hard to find black tea, although herbal tea is everywhere.

Eating and drinking
Meals are similar so far, but there are a lot more choices of salads in Bulgaria, and good fruit is easy to buy, cheap and delicious. This would be partly due to it being later in Spring with more foods in season.

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First restaurant in Bulgaria, great salads and beer.

Bread
Immediately we missed the huge baskets of free, tasty (white) bread supplied with all meals in Turkey. In Bulgaria you pay for your bread by the slice, and very often it has been quite stale – something no self-respecting Turk would countenance. On the other hand it is easier to get good heavy wholemeal bread here.

Alcohol
Immediately across the border alcohol is available everywhere, and people (men) seem to drink beer like the Turkish drink tea. A bit like Australia??

Churches and Mosques
Bulgarians are 80% Orthodox Christians. Simple but beautiful small churches are dotted around the countryside instead of the mosques we have become accustomed to.

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Icons in an Orthodox chapel.

Nevertheless some villages in the southeast only have mosques, whilst others proudly show their mosque and church side by side.

The painting of icons is a highly valued Bulgarian art genre and many churches, whilst austere on the outside, are richly decorated with paintings inside.

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Fresco paintings Rila Monastery

The light
The light in Bulgaria is softer and more diffuse. It is like being in a Turner or French Impressionist painting.

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Gentle light over Trigrad, Bulgaria.

Turkish sunlight was much clearer and more direct, like Australia.

Horses and donkeys
Immediately we crossed the border we came across donkey carts rather than the small Turkish ponies.

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Turkish poneys were important on farms

However further into the countryside horses reappeared, but were now strongly built, handsome animals that wouldn’t be out of place in a show ring.

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Horses everywhere in Bulgaria.

Toilets
We really miss the bum wash we have become used to since leaving Australia. Varying from the super automated button control to hoses or buckets, they certainly save on paper usage. All gone at the Bulgarian border, and we are back to toilets just like at home.

Prices
Bulgaria is so cheap and food and accommodation excellent quality. About 30 percent cheaper than Turkey.

And the winner is…
We love them both! And appreciate how resilient regional cultures are, and how strongly people defend and create their own heritage and customs.

Walking in the Rhodope Mountains

After a good breakfast of pancakes and home-made blueberry jam and fresh coffee we headed off on a walk through the forest to Yagodina cave. We followed a small trail along the gorge top through beautiful green conifer and beech forest, broken by patches of grassy meadows alive with wildflowers. image

Grey limestone cliffs reared up along the valleys contrasting with the green of the forest. A deer spotted us from about 100 mts away and quickly took flight. Coming into Yagodina we came across a tiny little church perched on a hill top. image

We enjoyed a lunch of bean soup and salad at Yagodina before walking the final 2km to the cave. We joined a group of about 20 for the tour of the cave. The cave was a huge long system of limestone with stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes and sizes. They had built concrete paths and rusty steel steps and ladders that took us quite a long way coming, out about 500mts away from the enterance, it is a very impressive cave. image

We wallked the 8.6km home again only stopping for a coffee at Yagodina, in all walking 17 pleasant km. We had dinner in the open air restaurant again as it seem to be the only place open and they had a great open fire .
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