Just about 30 miles from the Bulgaria-Turkish border, I decided to stay in Haskovo for a few days and try to get my camera fixed. On the 4th day there, I rode from my hotel-in-the-woods, a converted country estate about four miles out of town, back in to see if Zultan was having any luck with it. The country road ran along the southern border of a sprawling, heavily-wooded national park and I happened to notice four colorfully-costumed women walking up a trail into the forest. Behind them were a few more. Curious, I turned back, parked the bike off the road, and followed the trail after them. About a hundred yards in, I came upon a large clearing, invisible from the road, and found something resembling a Renaissance Fair getting underway. Small groups of musicians were warming up here and there and clouds of pleasant smoke were rising from the vendors’ food carts. What a find!
I walked up to what appeared to be a judge’s tent of some kind with three people at a table holding clipboards. I asked if any of them spoke English and one, an attractive, cheery 40-something lady, volunteered to help me. I soon learned this was an annual competition of folk dancers and musicians from about 25 different villages in southern Bulgaria, some from up to 120 miles away. I ended up spending most of the day there, sampling the great food, music and folk-dancing. Lesson learned: When you see a trail disappear into the woods, always check it out.
MORE PHOTOS of the Haskovo fair
One week earlier…
“You try start no choke”, Valentin offered supportively. I tried the ignition again. Same rapid clicking sound.
At the dark end of Valentin’s Soviet-era garage, my travel plans were unraveling.
“Battery not good,” I said, trying to imitate his Soviet-era English.
“Fuel, smell fuel”, Valentin added as I got off the bike. Sure enough, gas was leaking prodigiously from at least two sources. “Two problems,” Valentin added, making sure I was keeping score correctly. I had that unpleasant sensation you get when something dreadful has just happened and you know from that very moment things were going to be different.
Valentin Snejanka is a big, stocky, friendly Bulgarian guy in his late 60s with a military-style haircut and fierce blue eyes. He looks like a communist-era military policeman, one of what the jingoist press used to call “Soviet henchmen”. We both stood staring at my scuffed-up Kawasaki 500 cc sport-bike as if some solution would materialize just from our staring at it. On the plus side, I remembered that the mechanic who had previously worked on the bike was only two miles away. I also remembered that the winding road to his shop was almost entirely downhill and that I could probably coast all the way there if I had to. On the other hand, I had to recognize that repairs may not be a practical solution and may be more expensive than was justified. It was, after all, a 15-year-old bike that I had bought in Ireland the previous year.
An interesting curiosity about solo motorcycle travel is the tendency during a long road trip to start thinking of your bike as an anthropomorphic being. I think it’s the simple reality of your dependence on each other for mutual survival. There have been many times, most memorably in the Himalayas, where if my bike had broken down, I would have been in some danger. You start thinking subconsciously about your bike as a partner, not just transportation.
Now I was looking at my ailing partner. She (for some reason motorcycles seem to be naturally “she”) had brought me from Cork, Ireland through a rough night crossing of the Irish Sea to Cherbourg, then through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and most of the Balkan countries to Bulgaria. She had performed like a champ for three months and thousands of miles in rain, hail, and even snow in the mountains of southern Bosnia without once breaking down. As I looked at her reduced circumstances, I thought of the late afternoon thunderstorm and freezing rain as we went over the Fourneaux Pass from Grenoble into Italy. It had been a long continual climb and I had stopped near the pass when I noticed steam spraying out from the cooling system. I was afraid the radiator had cracked but discovered the steam was coming out of the pressure relief valve, a normal process when it’s close to overheating. She was working hard but she never quit. Now it might all be over.
I rolled the bike out of the garage and parked it in front of Valentin’s pension so the gas fumes wouldn’t drift up into the small hotel. It was Sunday and there was nothing to be done until the next day. I told Valentin I’d see him later and, wondering what I was going to do next, started walking down to the village square of Dragalevtsi, a decaying by-product of 200 years of government neglect. People were gathered here and there in small groups after Orthodox mass and the down-at-the-heels ambiance didn’t seem to dampen their spirits a bit. After all, the morning was blue and sunny, spring was afoot, and their motorcycles weren’t broken.
I sat on a bench in the quiet plaza, staring out at nothing in particular, mentally going through some possible contingencies in the event the bike couldn’t be saved. Since I was packed up to leave that very morning for a three-month ride through Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, I had to take stock of my options. I heard the familiar groan of a fat, 1960′s Russian bus wheezing up the cobblestone roadway. That’s it, I thought, I’ll take a bus ride. I do some of my best thinking on slow-moving, frequently-stopping buses, especially when I have no idea where they’re going.
The next day…
So I had to figure out a way to get the bike from my small hotel in the hills down to the bike shop nearly two miles downhill. I wanted to avoid the hassle (I don’t speak Bulgarian) and cost of finding a truck and driver to load it, so I decided to give gravity a try. I couldn’t recall any significant uphill stretches of road down to the shop, so I wheeled the bike out to the street, pulled my cap down tight, and just pointed it downhill. Away we went, down a steep cobblestone bank to the right, picking up speed, down through the plaza, across a crazy mishmash of an intersection, through a little neighborhood, then another. Still rolling. I couldn’t believe it, gravity was working! I was even picking up speed and was almost matching the traffic that passed me. Round a corner, across another intersection, past a schoolyard where a 10-year-old girl stopped playing ball to watch dumbfounded as the interloper rolled silently by. Now I was really moving and actually had to start braking occasionally. Then a long flat stretch where I thought I’d have to start pushing but the road dropped off and I was again picking up speed. One hard right turn and a bank to the left. With about 50 yards to go, I knew I was home free. The bike started to slow and came to a triumphal stop right at the driveway into the bike shop. I sat there grinning, wondering what I’d done to deserve such a lucky break.
Pacing the bike shop floor like an expectant father for the next two hours, I watched as Mitko carefully disassembled the carburetor, then cleaned and rebuilt it. He slowly put all the parts back together and I watched with some anticipation. Oh please start, oh please. Mitko hit the start button and a loud backfire shot out, startling some customers nearby. Then it jumped to life and unbelievably began roaring like new. Mitko throttled a few times and the engine responded with a new lease on life. My partner and I were back in business!