Monday, 29 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Bandit Country Revisited

New readers might want to begin here.

The road between the Turkish and Greek border posts felt like proper no-mans land, with armed sentries, barbed wire and a general sense that these two countries might have fallen out with each other at some point. But while the Turkish side felt rather formal, the Greek side couldn't have been much more relaxed. Right at the edge of the village of Καστανιές (that's Kastanies, we've got another new alphabet to play with) it consisted of little more than a hut with two windows, one for us to wave our passports at and another for customs, who wasn't interested in us unless we had something worth declaring. Within seconds we were through and back in the EU. Better than that, we were back in the Eurozone, albeit the most broken part of it, so we could raid the nearest ATM for currency to see us through the rest of the trip.

Why go to Greece? Because it was there.

Right next to the border we found a small petrol station with friendly, English-speaking staff and a well-stocked ice cream cabinet. The Greek economy may be collapsing but they still know how to deal with the basics, and we loitered far longer than necessary before setting off. We were only due to be in Greece for 20 miles or so before looping back into Bulgaria, but we were a bit tired after an early start and in feeling a more than a little peckish.

Kastanies is the least likely border town I've ever seen, a charming, whitewashed little village at the very tip of Greece that looks like not much has happened in a hundred years. Nonsense, of course, as a hundred years ago it was still part of Bulgaria and feeling the brunt of the Balkan wars, but it was a sleepy little place. Riding through the village I spotted what looked like a small taverna and suggested we go back to try and get some lunch. We turned up a side road looking for somewhere to park, only to find a back garden, prompting the people who'd been sat at the front of the building to come out and see what was going on.

This was a chap and his mum, who ran the place. He spoke pretty good English and they seemed more than happy to have us in. I'm not sure they were really open for business, but trade is trade and they couldn't have given us a warmer welcome. After an iced coffee in the shade we asked if there was any chance of some food. He said he'd see what his could be rustled up, and before long we were sitting down to eat a simple meal that was one of the best we had on the entire trip. While we were waiting we had a look around the place and he ran us through the various photos on the walls, mostly of his late father's hunting and fishing exploits. Massive catfish from the nearby river, and a corker of a photo of him as a toddler sitting on the bonnet of a car wearing a chain of bullets. After a quick dose of ouzo at our host's insistence, we were back on the road, feeling glad we'd made yet another unnecessary detour.

A photo of lunch? Anyone would think this was Instagram.

From there we rode the short distance to the border post at Ormenio, where a surly Greek border guard looked at me and asked, baffled, why on earth we wanted to go to Bulgaria. Little did he know, we'd just ridden through it and loved every minute. Steve got some hassle for the video camera on his bike - it wasn't recording, but it was powered on, whereas I'd made a point of turning mine off. They're a bit funny about stuff like this in Greece, and I remembered the plane-spotters who were jailed as spies a few years ago just for taking photos at an airport. No real hassle though, and we were through in no time. The road quickly opened out to a full four-lane dual carriageway for a few hundred yards before the Bulgarian border post. The most pointless bit of tarmac I've ever seen, as the place was almost deserted and I can't imagine it ever having been that busy. A quick wave of our passports and we were through, stopping only to change some of our crisp new Euros into Leva for the day ahead. They do have ATMs in Bulgaria, though we hadn't seen one and the general advice is not to use them. Cards don't get you very far either, as it's still pretty much a cash economy - there might be a Visa sign on the door, but odds are cards won't be accepted.

Bikes resting in the shade

Our destination that day was Eco Camping Batak, a brand new campsite on the shore of Lake Batak just south of Plovdiv. I'd picked this one while doing some research online before the trip, and Nick at the campsite in Veliko Tarnovo had told me he knew the owner. Getting there meant 130 miles of minor roads across Bulgaria in 40-degree heat, relief from which came only when we passed through some heavy rain. While riding through the centre of Plovdiv I'd noticed an odd clunking sound coming from the back of the bike, but I put this down to the chain being excessively slack. We'd done almost 3000 miles in just over a week and one of the chain adjuster lock-nuts had seized solid and there wasn't much I could do about it while travelling.

Bulgaria, I think. It all starts to blend together.

Leaving Plovdiv we picked up the road towards Batak, another absolutely brilliant biking road with a reasonable surface that started winding gently through the countryside before heading up into the mountains. We gained altitude so quickly that the change in air pressure sucked one of my earplugs out and I had to stop to sort it out. I'd not looked too closely at the location for the next campsite, and hadn't noticed that it was a fair way up. By the time we got there it was early evening and the temperature was starting to drop.

Spoilt for choice

When we turned up, the office was deserted, so Steve called the owner as directed by a sign in the window and we went to set up camp. The site seemed pretty basic, with the ground sloping away towards the lake and a small cluster of sheds behind the office for the facilities. It was the only option unless we wanted to pay for a hotel, so the tents went up and after a short while the owner arrived. He sorted us out with beer at sub-Romanian prices, then gave us a quick tour of the place, which was far, far better appointed than first impressions had suggested. The showers and toilets wouldn't have been out of place in a decent hotel and a nearby building turned out to be a decent sized restaurant where we necked more beer and sampled some local dishes. Not the best choices we could have made, but better than brain.

Camping on the shore of Lake Batak

One thing that had caught my eye was the number of flash cars with UK plates, but with drivers who didn't seem to be speaking much English. The paranoia started to creep back, not really abated by a discussion with a local the following morning. I was told that there's very little crime in Bulgaria, but what crime they do have is entirely due to gypsies. The police aren't particularly interested in such things, but there are (and I presume this is a euphemism) private security firms who'll go into the gypsy camps once a year, rough a few people up, and make it clear that any more crime would result in another visit. And that's why there's no crime in Bulgaria. I'll reserve comment, suffice to say that the charm of being in Bulgaria was wearing off a little and I was looking forward to the next country on our list.

Mark had managed to loosen the chain adjuster on my KTM the night before, and I'd finally been able to adjust the slack chain. This had only made the clunking sound worse and, fearing something might be on the verge of failure, I checked my satnav to find the nearest dealer. I'd looked up every KTM dealer east of Austria before we left and entered them all as waypoints, expecting to need to visit one at some point. There aren't many in Bulgaria - three, in fact, only one of which I'd been able to find on Streetview. By sheer chance, that one was about 15 miles away in Pazardzhik, so I set that as our next destination and we went to see if we could get the bike sorted.

Not everyone had bought a new car on finance

Parking on the street outside the dealer, I walked in and asked if anyone spoke any English. The answer was yes, a bit anyway, and within moments the chap from the shop was rolling around in the road next to my bike taking bits off and trying to work out what might be causing the odd noise. After a while he came to the conclusion that the chain was on the verge of failure, and I needed to replace it there and then. The dealer's workshop was some distance away, and happened to be closed that day anyway, but they had the right part in stock so I bought it on the spot. By the time I got back outside, the others already had the bike up on some axle stands Simon had brought along and Steve was brandishing a chain riveting tool which we could use to do the repair in the street. I'd mocked the them for the sheer quantity of tools they'd packed for the trip but I was happy to eat humble pie as they saved my bacon in deepest Bulgaria. It was at this point I realised that the English-speaking chap from the shop didn't work there at all,  but was just another customer who'd spotted we were in a fix and was only too eager to help out. Seriously, Bulgarians, just how bloody friendly can they get? Amazing!

Mark + junior hacksaw = chain off in a jiffy

Before long the chain was replaced and we were ready to hit the road again, this time with no ominous clunking noise from the bike. We were heading for the Serbian border at Dimitrovgrad, a hundred miles away, and we soon picked up the motorway to the Bulgarian capital. Rather than ride through the centre of the city we picked up the ring road which, while slow, was nothing like its Bucharest counterpart. The last bit was rather bumpy, with a lot of construction work going on and huge holes in the tarmac, several inches deep, exposing an old cobbled road over which several layers of tarmac had been laid.

Not knowing whether the price of fuel was going to go up or down when we entered Serbia, but figuring it would be hard for it to be any lower, we stopped for fuel one last time in Bulgaria, then made sure we had our bike paperwork and passports handy before approaching the border itself. Getting out of Bulgaria was quick and easy, and entering Serbia was pretty much the same. We were on the main transit route and nobody was really interested in four bikes passing through. Our passports were given back with a faint entry stamp and a leaflet advising us about police corruption. At last, proper bandit country! We stopped briefly after the border to exchange the last of our Leva and a few Euros for a fistful of Serbian Dinars and after a brief chat with an Italian couple on their way home from Armenia we were on the road again.

Serbia wasn't really a destination as such, just somewhere we were passing through on the way to Montenegro. Our goal for the day was as close to Novi Pazar in the south east of the country as we could get, but the problem with my bike had meant we'd not left Pazardzhik until almost 2pm and we were running late. We pressed on, finding that the Serbs had clearly been in on the deal with the Romanians to corner the market in 50k limit signs. Using the same approach as before I found a local to tag onto and before long we were making decent progress, often at double the limit or more, slowing occasionally when oncoming vehicles flashed their headlights to let us know we were nearing a speed trap.

"Steve, put your gloves on. Mark, no you can't have lunch!"

The road from the border to Niš started out as one side of a motorway - only one carriageway had been completed, the other had clearly been under construction at some point but work seemed to have pretty much halted. The south of Serbia is quite mountainous terrain and before long we were winding through a valley on yet another great biking road, so long as you completely ignore every posted speed limit. As we approached Niš we joined a proper motorway and in no time we'd skirted the city and were back on local roads. It was almost time for a fuel stop and around the usual hundred mile point I pulled in to a garage. Simon protested, on the basis that it only had one pump and would take too long, and as the attendant appeared I shrugged and gestured that we were going elsewhere. He saw my GB plate and asked "where are you going?" I replied "London, eventually." He laughed and gave me a hearty thump on the back, which made me wonder a bit. A few miles later we stopped at a larger garage and I dug out a map to check the route the satnav was trying to take. I mentioned Garmin Specials in an earlier post, those satnav-induced detours off the sensible route to shave a few minutes off the journey, but this was the mother of them all. Kosovo. We were heading for a fucking war zone!

OK, the war's been over a while, but it's still a bit dodgy and none of us had insurance. The border between Serbia and Kosovo is still a little unstable and there can be issues getting in and out, so we did a quick about-turn and headed back to Niš. From there we hit the toll road briefly towards Belgrade before heading for the nearest town. We'd lost more time and the light was starting to fade, but we still had nowhere to stay.. I'd done a fair bit of planning before we left, finding places we could head for at the end of each day wherever we got to, but I'd kind of lost enthusiasm for the return leg and so the preparation had ended early. The nearest big town was Krusevac, not much of a tourist hotspot but we figured it would at least have a hotel.

Anyone for tennis?

Rolling into Krusevac we found a bustling town but nowhere that looked suitable for leaving the bikes overnight. The paranoia was trying to come back, and when Simon mentioned he'd seen a sign for a campsite at the edge of town I was keen for us to head back and check it out. When we got there it seemed deserted, there was nobody around and the lights were off. It was almost dark and the omens weren't good. Steve tried the door and as it opened he found two people sitting in the gloom. Neither spoke any English, and our Serbo-Croat was based mostly on pointing at things, but after some desperate gesticulations we were invited to set up our tents next to the tennis court outside. The soil was too thin for pegs and the mosquitoes were ravenous but before long we were all set up and ready for a drink.

Curry and beer, just like being at home

The venue turned out to be a family-run restaurant, with family consisting of an old chap and his daughter, and her English-speaking son who turned up a bit later. There was one person missing from this picture, and when Simon spotted a photo of a chap in military uniform inside the building I jumped to a few conclusions. They may have been correct - the kid looked about the right age and it was a dangerous part of the world twenty years ago. The kitchen was closed, and there was no shower we could use, but we all had stoves and emergency rations, and wet-wipes work wonders when they're all you've got. As we cooked up outside, our hostess brought out some bread and another round of beers, and we tried to chat as best we could about where we'd come from and where we'd been. It was a few days after the Wimbledon championship, and as the old chap pointed at the tennis court and made refences to the final between Murray and Djokovic (a Serbian) I tried to tell him that Wimbledon was where I lived. I've no idea if he understood, but they seemed happy to have us there and we were glad to have somewhere to stay - the beer and bread was a bonus.

Pure filth

As we packed up in the morning, Steve went in to pay. Camping for four, some twenty large bottles of beer, and a basket of bread, and the bill was less than 25 quid. Clearly we were all still going to have a lot of Dinars when we left the country.. Just as we were ready to leave, our hosts appeared with four small bottles of wine as parting gifts, and posed for photos with us and our bikes, very keen to have a GB plate visible. Mine was absolutely filthy and I had to clean the filth off for the country code to show up, in the process losing the smiley face that somebody in Bulgaria had drawn in the grime. We were well off the tourist trail at this point, and like many places we passed through I got the feeling vehicles with yellow plates were something of a novelty. This kind of thing just made the trip feel all the more worthwhile.

From Krusevac we skirted round Kosovo to Novi Pazar taking in yet another perfectly surfaced biking road that wound its way through a mountain valley. I love this kind of road, a seemingly never-ending series of S-bends where nothing makes more sense than a big bike. Having not seen any other bikes in my mirrors for a while I stopped outside a restaurant and flagged the others down as they caught up. We'd made pretty good time, so I thought I'd treat Mark to lunch. I don't mean I paid for it, I mean I let him have one. Over the meal we chatted, reflecting on how yet another country had blown away our expectations and proved to be nothing like we thought it would be. Well, to a point.

What surprised me about Serbia was that it felt poor. I'd expected it to feel rather more developed, being the biggest and toughest of the former Yuglosav states. But while the basic infrastructure was OK - the road surface was generally good, and it didn't have the same downtrodden feel as parts of Romania - it felt like life was a struggle. Towns looked a bit wild west, with market stalls in front of buildings rather than proper shop-fronts. This included Novi Pazar, which is a fairly sizeable city. Cars were no longer modern, either. I'd always wonders where old cars ended up when they "went to auction". Now I understood - right-hand drive models would end up in Africa, and left-hand drive models would go east. Serbia was full of cars I hadn't seen since I was a kid. Agricultural transport had improved though. Rather than horse and carts, the vogue was for vintage tractors that looked like they'd made a meaningful contribution to a Stalinist five year plan.  It made me wonder, if Serbia looked like this, what on earth would Bosnia be like? We'd have to wait for an answer to that one, as we had another country to go through yet.

Leaving Novi Pazar we followed the road back up into the mountains towards the border with Montenegro. As we pulled up at the Serbian border post, a chap in uniform appeared from the customs office and walked towards me. I expected the worst, but when he saw my GB plate he asked "You are an Englishman?" I was. He smiled. "You have just left Serbia. Have a nice day!"

Read on here.

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