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5) 21st May, Bulgaria - Sofia. Eastern European beauty...or dirty old man ?

Well it feels great to be making real progress, having cycled 3370km so far (plus - oh, the shame - 30km by truck). Although it has been tougher, little things reward me: lorry drivers cheering me on (rather than trying to run me down), a room with a TV, green vegetables...

Lack of conversation (in a language I understand) is driving me a bit batty. Maybe this will improve once I hit more touristy Turkey...

15 May, Sun :   Belgrade is a city I'll be going back to. Very cosmopolitan, lots of cafes and shops (where do they get the money?) and, er, the best-looking women of any capital city I've been to.
Last night I casually wandered back - got lost - to the barge via the castle, which I hadn't had time to see during the day. A sprawling complex, enclosing a tree filled park, and at night softly lit, with street vendors and hundreds of people just strolling around - couples, families, friends - fantastic. And Mr No Mates me, of course.

Getting out of the city this morning - didn't get lost for once. Couldn't really - I had three lanes of traffic on my left, and the trams on my right to keep me in my place. And hilly, very bloody hilly. Even caught a glimpse of the Danube occasionally. Later on in the day passed a massive US Steel complex in the middle of the countryside. Checked into a hotel in Pozarevac, with two very chatty receptionists - got a call to my room from them a bit later asking me if I minded going down ... for a chat with them, as they never get a chance to practise their english. They took me to a Serbian wedding taking place in the same hotel - hundreds of guests, singing, dancing, food, wine - everyone hammered. Brilliant!
Chatting over coffee, I heard again how hard it is for the Serbians - living with Western prices on a third world salary. Their monthly salary was about 100 Euros apparently.
Some little kids came out from the wedding, curious about the strange foreign cyclist. The kids here are not shy - they were trying bits of English, having a great laugh, a bit excited, but - this really amazed me (coming from the UK?) - so well behaved. Bubbliness with manners! One girl, in her bridesmaid dress, sat very prim and her hands crossed infront of her, "My name is Alexenda", she said very beautifully, smiling, "How are you ?". I replied of course, "Fine thank you, and YOU ?". Listening carefully and seriously, she nods, pauses, beams a broad smile and says "My name is Alexanda". So sweet !

I'm finding that when passing people standing gobsmacked at the sight of me, a cheerful "Dobra Dan" usually elicits the same greeting in response, and often some words of encouragement (at least that's what I think they are...). And sometimes, when a car passes, instead of rubbish being thrown out the window at me, a wave appears in encouragement.
Distance: 86km. Overnight in Pozarevac (Serbia).

16 May, Mon:   I'm waiting for my hamburger in what is probably the most depressed town in Serbia. A town seemingly built specifically for the massive iron ore mining works next to it (now closed). I was pretty shocked when I arrived at the outskirts of this place. The cycling (especially from Rabrovo - where I spent 2 hours with locals looking at photos, etc) up till then had been superb - climbs through some beautiful countryside, small hamlets, windy forest roads following streams, the sound of birds all around...but suddenly it turned into a wide straight road with the rusting hulks of hundreds of cars littering the roadside - a car cemetary - before leading on through the abandoned mining works. Not too many environmental controls here, I thought, as the bright red liquid oozing down one side of the road turned into a bluish-green sheen covering the entire surface. And the town is grim - stalinesque in design, graffetti covered tower blocks, everything grey or rust-coloured. The traffic lights not working, and the closest thing resembling a restaurant was a bare room with strip lighting. People milling around the street, a skinny dog sat casually in the middle of the road licking his bollocks, and rows upon rows of deserted buildings, which were once shops and restaurants.
I kinda linked it.
Distance: 104km. Overnight in Majdenpek (Serbia).

17 May, Tue:   Got to get out my Bulgarian phrases and start practising, for tomorrow I cross the border. Another hot sunny day today, and the hardest climbing day so far. Real mountains now, small villages, isolated farmhouses - and dogs, bloody dogs. Passing one house, the dog there, a horrible big thing, immediately lept up and ran parallel to the road. Usually this doesn't concern me too much as they are either on a leash, or enclosed by fencing.
It concerned me pretty sharply though, when I saw the brute in my mirror, out on the road and pelting towards me. I started peddaling furiously, but it was gaining ground, and I darkly remembered the sticker they put on car wing-mirrors "Objects are closer than they appear".
It was over pretty quickly - I saw the thing literally snapping at my heels, I yelped, and a man standing by the side of the road (the owner?) roared "down Rover" or something, and he backed off. Very unpleasant. Later on that day, I saw a middle-aged woman riding a bicycle with a big stick balanced across the handlebars. Yeah, I thought, I know what that's for.

There's very little employment or industry out here (most factories are closed down), and you find from mid-morning blokes congregating around little kiosks, drinking beer. Not much changes from day to day, I imagine, so when I pop into town, I get noticed. Usually it's in the way of helping with directions, sometimes (as yesterday) it's coffee and photographs. Today, it was some old codger taking the piss out of me.

Anyway, arriving in Zajecar, I liked the look of it (nice little park infront of the town hall) and decided to stay here rather than press on to the border.
Tonight, as I went out for my usual pizza (that, along with hamburger or ice-cream being the only food I seem to find in the sticks of Serbia), I was again amazed by the cafe culture here. All the cafe outside tables full, kids playing around the main square, people having a couple beers or coffee, relaxing.
Went to an Irish Pub, called "Rivendell". The barman had never heard of Guinness.
Distance: 87km. Overnight in Zajecar (Serbia).

18 May, Wed:   Bulgaria. Well, I've had a helluva time trying to order something to eat - no english spoken at all. And some guy came in, sat right opposite me on my table (the restaurant was empty), very friendly, and ordered a beer while I ate. After breaking the ice by pulling out photos of his favourite "discoteque", and engaging in some miming, it turned out that he was asking me for some money. Cheeky bastard was trying to extort money from me. When I told him where to go (luckily he didn't understand some of the choicest words I used) he mimed that the least I could do was to get him a beer ! I didn't.
This incident was a shame really, because when I crossed the border the guards were so friendly - I taught one of them some Japanese, and he was then pacing back and forth repeating to himself "arigato gozaimasu". Even though they'd never seen a Japanese person at that border crossing! The border post itself was a minor one, in the mountains and quite a pleasant location. Bulgaria is very green, but the first towns I passed seemed to indicate that it's in even worse economic decline than Serbia. Crumbling, half-demolished houses, still being lived in, loads of horse and carts.
Some shifty looking teenagers in one of the towns - I think one of them half-heartedly threw a stone at me (it missed). Although I certainly felt conspicious, I never felt this uneasy in Serbia.
There were a few nice stretches next to the Danube today (meeting it the last time this trip, I believe), but it does seem that this is a country of unfinished roadworks. I guess that this area of Bulgaria is relatively isolated from the tourism that seems to happen further south.
Distance: 85km. Overnight in Arcar (Bulgaria).

19 May, Thu:   Well tonight is a complete contrast from last night's Mad-Max style restaurant. Staying in Vratska, about 100km from Sofia. Really nice town (even noticed a well-stocked mountain bike shop), laid back with a massive town square right in the ley of the mountains (which practically surround this place). The mist has started to hide the mountain tops (later unleasing a torrent of rain..).
I guess taking my chances on a route with my method of just looking at a map is pretty hit & miss. A bit like looking at a map of the UK, and deciding to go on a cycling holiday through Sunderland. This morning - a late start because I didn't realise I'd crossed a time-zone - took me cross-country to Montana, and the main road to Sofia. By heck, it was hard work. Greenery, trees, twittering birds, but up & down, up & down, and some atrocious road surfaces. Stopped in a village for "lunch" - the owner of the shop improvised a sandwich for me - a chunk of meat in a huge round loaf of bread. It cost half-a-euro, weighed a ton, and took 45 minutes to eat.
Out of Montana the road was a constant series of ups and downs, each "stage" lasting about 5km. Then I saw, in the distance, what this road was avoiding, and soon stopped complaining. A massive mountain range - the Mt Vitosha range I believe. At the top of one of the tougher climbs, a young woman jumped out from the side of the road to stop me. Seems I could purchase myself a little reward, given the services she gestured at. Not now love, need to save all my energy for the next bloody hill -

I'm in the restaurant now, getting chips for dessert. Language problems.
Distance: 98km. Overnight in Vratska (Bulgaria).

20 May, Fri:   Sofia. Not quite the charming eastern European beauty that the name alludes to. "She" is infact a middle-aged man who dresses up in his dead grandmother's clothing. What a friggin' awful day. Pissing down with rain as I left the hotel in Vratska - and cold - it was a nightmare getting out of the town. All the potholes were covered with water so I didn't know if a puddle was just a puddle, or if it was hiding the Loch Ness monster.
It was a lot of climbing today (think I reached 900m or so), on the main road, with lots of traffic. A few of the quieter sections were quite nice - very green - but the mountains were shrouded in cloud. Then, for some reason, I found myself on the motorway. And bit-by-bit it got worse. Going uphill, the hard-shoulder disappeared, the fog descended, and there were long dark tunnels as well. Abysmal. Absolutely abysmal. At long last I saw a road off to the side - this was the "old road" some workmen informed me. It was a winding mountain road with no traffic at all (they all used the highway of course). So I took it - it was getting darker, and the mist was closing in, but if I really go for it, I figured I should be okay.

A puncture, rear tyre. Knew this would happen, I thought, as I unloaded the bike and fixed it. Loaded up the bike again - my, it was getting mistier - and 20 metres up the road and BANG! This time the tube had exploded - the tyre, after 4500 touring kilometres had finally given out, and there was a tear in the sidewall. Getting worried now. Replaced the tyre (I had a spare!) and tube, but the tube just wouldn't inflate. Very worried now. replaced the tube with my last spare and it still couldn't be pumped up. Oh ooohhh. What the hell was wrong ?!? Checked tyre & tube again - no apparent problems. What on earth do I do now ?? Started looking for an emergency camp space (under falling rocks...). As a long shot, dug out my spare pump... by the Gods, it worked! Oh joy of joys! But by now it was incredibly misty, and I had 30 mountain kilometres still to do...
Just then, the friendly road-workers came by. They stopped, looked at the state of me - drenched and covered in mud - and insisted that I put my bike and gear into the truck and they'd give me a lift to Sofia, where they were heading. I said no problem, all fixed... but they weren't having any of it! Oh well, if you insist...
Distance: 70km (plus 30km on four wheels). Overnight in Sofia (Bulgaria).

21 May, Sat - rest day in Sofia:   I realise that I was a bit harsh on Sofia yesterday. Last night I walked for miles and miles in search of something to eat, finding only ill-lit streets, practically deserted, stray dogs growling from the darkness, and subway entrances blocked up with rubbish. And this was Friday night !
I've only just realised that last night I'd confused North with South (God knows how I'm not in Iceland right now) and had been walking directly away from the centre of the city, towards the outskirts...
I'll explore a little more -

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