A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Thursday 23 April 2015
This is a story about a road trip. More specifically, a road trip around Bulgaria’s fading communist-era monuments. While I’d usually focus on those monuments themselves however, this is the story of the places in-between – behind the scenes, on the road, the long series of mishaps that contributed to making this perhaps the most disastrous road trip of my life.
I had been to over a hundred of these monuments already, before I started running my official week-long tours; but what I hadn’t done at that point, was spend a full six days on the road ticking off one monument after another in quick succession. And so last summer, as my first tour loomed closer and I started getting a little nervous about how it was all going to come together, I decided to do a test-run.
For that week I tried to emulate tour conditions as closely as I could: I followed the same itinerary. I (mostly) stayed in the same hotels. I was overthinking it, of course, I know that now – but it was my first tour and I desperately wanted everything to be perfect.
But that early test of the tour route turned out to be invaluable… because that week, everything that could possibly have gone wrong did go wrong; and those six days on the road gave me an intense and effective training in exactly How Not to Do a Tour.
The Tour Bus
The main difference between this road trip and the actual tour itself, was that instead of 10 people travelling there would only be two of us. I had a friend visiting from the UK, and we met in Sofia to hire a car for the trip. That was the plan, at least – a car. Something small and fuel-efficient, that could cope with the occasional mountain road along the way. I had a contact in Sofia who said he could arrange it, and so we set a time and place to collect the vehicle from him.
The weather was awful that day: torrential rain and a powerful, cold wind. We checked out of our hotel early, and saddling ourselves up with heavy backpacks we made our way to the prearranged meeting place. There was no sign of my contact. Ten minutes later I called him, but no answer. Tucked away under the overhang of an old church, we did our best to stay out of the rain – but the wind was blowing it in, so that there was no hiding from it. Twenty minutes and four missed calls later, he finally picked up.
“There’s been a problem,” he said over the phone, “with the engine.” He assured us that it was nothing major, but he wanted to get a second opinion from the garage and so we’d need to wait another 30 minutes.
And so we did. We waited an hour, in fact, as the rain gradually got worse. We sheltered in a nearby bar drinking coffee after coffee, while I quietly worried about that somewhat disconcerting phrase, problem with the engine. The next time we spoke, he suggested it might be more like two hours until the vehicle was ready.
I’m not going to bore you with the details of that day – but in short, it was a day wasted. A day of waiting in the rain drinking endless coffees, while each successfully connected phone call shifted the finish line slightly further away from us. When we did eventually get our hands on that vehicle, it wasn’t what I’d expected, either: instead of a small, manageable car, we had a bus. Or close enough, at least.
This nine-seater wagon was a huge machine, and built without an engine to match its size. We’d soon find it could barely power itself up a hill, let alone deal with the mountain passes we had planned for the week; but after an eight-hour wait, we were desperate to hit the road… so when we were offered a discounted rate of just €12 per day for the vehicle, we took it and ran.
We had already lost a day, though – so I had to draw a line through the first page of the itinerary, the rock climbing, monuments and lakes located in the northwest corner of the country, and skip straight over to Day 2.
So we drove to Veliko Turnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria. This monster-car did fine on the highways out of Sofia, but it soon started struggling once we reached our destination: narrow, cobbled streets, and steep hilly roads. Nevertheless, we got through it. There were a few close scrapes, a couple of misfires as the old beast tried pulling itself up the slopes, but by nightfall we were at our hotel and more-or-less on track with the tour.
We’d have until the next afternoon to enjoy it – before things started going seriously wrong.
The Dictator’s Mansion
The next day, in Shumen, we visited one of my all-time favourite monuments: the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State, a vast memorial plaza on the plateau above the city; 50m of sheer concrete cubism that’s visible from many miles away across the plains.
I had heard a story though, just weeks earlier, about another site worth visiting in the area. Supposedly, Todor Zhivkov – Bulgaria’s 35-year communist dictator – was having a private mansion built in the forest near Shumen. It was never completed (the building site abandoned when the Iron Curtain began falling in 1989, and Zhivkov himself was arrested for crimes against Bulgaria); but I’d found co-ordinates, and so after the monument we set off into the forest in search of the dictator’s would-be retreat.
It had taken me hours of scouring Google Earth to find what I believed was the location, but I’d get little confirmation as we followed long, weathered roads deeper into the forest. Our oversized tank of a vehicle punched its way through the overhanging trees, where low branches had met and entwined above the disused tarmac. On either side of us, the empty shells of abandoned hotels and guesthouses hinted at a time when these woods might once have been full of life and noise; a rural holiday village, with the leader’s own woodland residence at its heart.
Eventually, as we approached the red pin on my map, a bare concrete tower rose to greet us above the treetops. We parked where the track came to an end, and pushed through the last of the trees to come face to face with the building.
It was a ruin – the bare bones of a mansion, sprawling across five levels inside the rotted stumps of a chain-link perimeter fence. Beside the road entrance, a gutted shell looked like the remains of a security building. We pushed through the undergrowth to the gaping doorway of the mansion itself, and headed on inside.
It wasn’t hard to see how this place might once have been: floor after floor of guest rooms and open lounges, each wing served by its own elevator shaft. I was crossing off potential functions in my head, as I walked around the place. It couldn’t have been offices, and a hotel seemed unlikely too – there weren’t enough doorways, but rather this place was designed as a series of conjoined lounge spaces, one area feeding into the next open area with no provision for individual privacy. I concluded that the only purpose it could have served was as a home for some incredibly wealthy person and their family; and by logical deduction, during Bulgaria’s communist years there weren’t too many people who had that kind of wealth and influence. The theory that this had been a mansion for the dictator then, was not a difficult one to accept.
We were exploring what appeared to be a conservatory, when we first heard the voices.
It’s not uncommon, in my experience, to run into other people while exploring abandoned buildings. Usually I’d just say Hello and pass on by; but this situation felt a little different to normal. For a start, we had no exit strategy in case things turned sour. All we had was our expensive vehicle parked in plain view right outside, and loaded up with everything the two of us had packed for the week – passports, tablets, laptops, cameras, a veritable treasure trove of consumer electronics that would have equalled several years’ worth of wages for most Bulgarians. It’s not that I expected trouble, but the stakes were high and the worst-case scenario here didn’t bear thinking about.
But what made me really nervous was that the owners of those voices seemed to be looking for us. Tucked into the alcove of a stairwell, I listened carefully to what they were saying. I didn’t understand all of it, but I heard a few key phrases – “They were here,” “Gone that way” – and it was enough to make me uncomfortable.
Then the voices split up, quite suddenly. The next time I heard them, one speaker sounded as if they’d moved clockwise around to the hall just beyond the area we were in – while the other voice, calling back a response, echoed up from the bottom of the stairwell behind me. We were being cornered in some kind of pincer movement, and while it was impossible to infer intent I nevertheless decided it was time to leave.
So the two of us, communicating in nudges and whispers, resolved to make an emergency exit – and on a count of three we ran across to the gaping window slots that overlooked the forest, and leapt from the concrete ruin to the leaf-strewn bank that circled the building site. We fell, rolled, found our feet then found the car still where we left it, and just like that we were gone.
I never saw our pursuers in the end, and never worked out what they wanted. Perhaps it was harmless. They might have been squatters, or police, or fellow explorers like ourselves – but in that situation, the risk had felt too great to gamble on and I was happy to never discover the truth.
Driving away from the place, we turned the radio up and celebrated a successful – if brief – exploration… but we had no idea then of the ordeal we were about plunge ourselves into next.
When driving on Bulgarian roads, short-cuts are generally not to be trusted. They can seem appealing, and Google Maps will often advise on massive detours that stand to shave entire hours off your journey – but anyone with any experience of the roads here ought to know better. And on this occasion, I certainly ought to have known better.
In the past, I’ve seen online maps attempt to navigate a path straight across reservoirs – or along mountain roads that have been altogether washed away in floods and heavy rain. Other times, I’ve driven along perfectly good roads that don’t even appear on the map. So when my tablet suggested a quicker route down the mountain from the monument at Shumen, bypassing the city to get straight back onto the highway heading east, I shouldn’t have been so quick to believe it.
That road didn’t seem so bad at first, though. It was bumpy, badly weathered, but no worse than some of the other roads we’d already taken that day. We took the turning, and followed it round a corner where it began to angle back down through the forest towards the bottom of the mountain.
It’s hard to say exactly when the surface deteriorated: it was a gradual thing, a couple of potholes here and there, then more, and more; no sudden, dramatic change, but at some point we realised that this might have been a bad idea. The holes were getting bigger, the patches of smooth tarmac smaller and further in between. A few minutes down this steep track, and we were mostly just driving on gravel and rocks.
But at every turn in the road, there was always the temptation of hope – the road would get worse, then we’d turn a corner and suddenly it’d improve again. There would be a good patch, we’d pick up speed, then round another corner and the tires would bite into gravel. We tried steering around the next pothole, but sandwiched here between a rock wall and a steep drop on the other side, we really didn’t have much space to play with.
We were making progress though, ever closer to the main road, and we just kept telling ourselves that it might get better again round the next corner. Night was beginning to fall, and already we could see the lights of houses at the foot of the slope, twinkling up at us through the trees. They looked so close, and almost within reach… so we decided to ignore the protests of the vehicle, and push on through the ruts and bumps to reach the promise of civilisation just beyond.
Just then we took another bump in the road, nothing much to look at; but even as we were tipping over the edge we realised too late how deep it was. The nose slammed down hard, chucking us forward in our seats, and then the vehicle’s back end followed us down, slamming against the rock. There was a horrible noise from beneath us as the car settled, the sound of sharp rocks scraping on metal.
We got out to take a look – and found we’d just driven down a rocky step, almost a foot deep. It had been practically invisible from uphill, disguised by the gravel that covered the track; but now we’d gotten past it, there was no going back. The only way from here was down.
I scouted around the corner, to get a look at the road ahead. It didn’t seem much better: a patch of good tarmac, then some gravel, then some more tarmac… I walked further then, around the next corner, and my heart sank. Here the road disappeared completely into a field of boulders. Huge rocks bordered a curving trench that wound down into a pit of gravel. Just beyond that the houses were only a stone’s throw away – but crossing the next 50 feet would be utterly impossible. We were trapped.
Sat there on the bonnet of the stranded car, I tried brainstorming possible solutions. We could walk to fetch help from the nearby houses, though I couldn’t imagine what help might look like from here; short of being airlifted out by a helicopter, I just couldn’t picture anyone reaching us, let alone towing us out of this mess. At one point a pedestrian passed us – a Roma man, walking a pack of large dogs down the rocky mountainside. He smiled at us but when I asked for help, for suggestions, for any idea how we might get out of this fairly self-explanatory mess, he merely shrugged and carried on.
I started making calls, asking local friends for ideas – while the two of us began mentally preparing for a long night spent inside the stranded vehicle.
One friend I spoke to suggested the Mountain Rescue service; and though I was loathe to call in the emergency services, in the end I conceded it might be the only solution to getting the car unstuck. My phone was on its final bar of battery, and so I frantically attempted to explain our location to my friend – he promised to relay the information to the rescue team, then my battery went dead and all we could do was wait.
By now, the tour felt like a dud. We’d fallen, failed, trapped here on a mountain for who knew how long. I was already picturing the walk we’d need to make in the morning, back to civilisation, to a bus stop, leaving the vehicle abandoned to the same scavengers that had stripped the dictator’s mansion bare and reduced it to its crudest components, to scrap metal. There was just no way I could picture any vehicle, and certainly not a vehicle with the power to tow us, following down that rocky slope behind. But when help finally arrived, it surprised me – by coming not from above, but from below.
We had been stuck there for about an hour when the spotlights appeared down the track ahead. The lights danced about, flicking up and down, accompanied by a grinding, chugging engine sound and when the vehicle finally came into sight I was taken aback by just how small it was: a two-seater souped-up Suzuki jeep, massive off-road wheels and an exposed roll cage, a vehicle that seemed to be cobbled together from the oversized parts of larger trucks but which nevertheless, was making fast work of the seemingly impossible course beneath it.
The jeep hopped and bounced over the boulders towards us like some kind of four-wheeled mountain goat. I’d never seen anything like it. When it finally pulled up alongside, the driver got out – a stocky, bad tempered Bulgarian who scowled at us from out beneath a heavy, hairy brow. He shouted at us first, called us some names, then hooked a tow rope onto our vehicle before squeezing past towards the track above.
Give it everything, he told us in Bulgarian, and follow me close. Then he revved up hard and hit the stone steps, his large wheels chewing into them and grinding up the slope. We followed his instructions and tried to follow him up – but our wheels span in the small stones and the vehicle barely budged.
After a few minutes of failed attempts, the driver came back and waved us out. He cursed at us some more as he took the wheel, then thrashed the car about in the gravel – unlike us, this man apparently had no care that the hire vehicle made it out of here in one piece. His attitude was clear: I’ll get you out of here, but whether or not the car still works after that is your own problem. It was still the best offer we had.
With the hire car finally grinding out of its rut, the driver resumed his place at the lead… and from there he half-towed, half-guided us through the twisting ruts back up the mountainside. It was agonising – boulders bumped and smashed at the underside of our vehicle. Branches scratched hard down the sides, giving off squealing metal cries that set my teeth on edge. Higher up, bouncing through a gully of rocks at far too much speed for my liking, the whole chassis shuddered and groaned and then the electric lights inside began to flicker and fail.
It felt like sitting inside a car driven into a trash compactor. The whole thing seemed to be falling apart, getting battered to oblivion, but as long as we maintained our ascent I simply bit my lip and stayed quiet. I began calculating how much a car like this would cost to replace – by now, I was certain the vehicle would be a write-off.
Eventually we made it to the top, bouncing over the last lip of broken tarmac to land back in the grassy turn-off where we’d made our first mistake. The car was in one piece… we tested the lights, revved the engine, and everything seemed to work. Our guardian angel laughed at us again, as we paid him his 20 levs (about £8) and then he disappeared off into the night. I got the impression that for all his cursing and shouting, he’d rather enjoyed himself.
After he’d gone we inspected the car – there was barely a visible scratch on it. Beneath the chassis, the baseplate looked like a cheese grater; but without a closer inspection, the vehicle appeared more or less the same as when we’d picked it up.
Somehow, inexplicably, we had gotten away with it.
The Saucer in the Mist
After all that drama our next stop, Varna, was delightfully uneventful. We visited the Park-Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, as planned – ate dinner at a Turkish restaurant, as per the itinerary. It all went perfectly according to plan, and after laughing about the whole mountain mishap over a beer that night, the two of us were left pleasantly refreshed for the rest of the journey ahead.
Our next stop was at Buzludzha: a long drive, down the Black Sea coast towards Burgas, then taking the fast highway from there across the south of the country. We turned off north through Stara Zagora, then began ascending the mountain ridge towards Buzludzha Peak and the saucer-shaped ‘House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party.’
The weather had been good that day, and we sped through bright sunshine all along the southern highway. As we reached the foothills of the Balkans though, we began to notice clouds gathered about the peaks higher up… and, climbing gradually up the mountain pass one switchback at a time, we found ourselves rising into a heavy fog.
Closer to the top, that fog had become impossibly thick. My friend was driving, and kept asking me for directions – I’d been here dozens of times before, but suddenly I found I was unable to navigate. Usually I’d aim towards landmarks on the horizon, take turn-offs marked by monuments or signs or distant buildings; but all I could see now was the road immediately ahead, the undergrowth on either side of the car, and the deep, consuming fog that swallowed everything else. We were driving into a void of nothingness, and I was forced to navigate by memory alone.
When we reached the car park at the summit of the mountain, it was only my memory that told us we’d arrived in the right place. Up here, the snow hadn’t yet finished melting and so the land was a moonscape of white ridges and drifts. It felt like walking in a dream, white above, white below, white nothingness in all directions – and though I knew the way by heart, that didn’t stop me from tucking a compass into my pocket as we left the car.
The going was slow, walking that mountain path through the mist. Stone steps appeared to us only a few feet ahead, with visibility so poor that my fingers, held at arm’s reach, were beginning to disappear. Even once we’d reached the memorial plaza that spreads beneath the giant form of the saucer, there was still no sight of our destination.
We began our way up the ceremonial steps. My friend had no idea what to expect – he’d never been here before, couldn’t picture the monument – and so that first contact caught him by surprise. We were already beneath it, dwarfed by it, when the Buzludzha monument revealed itself like a ghost ship looming out of the fog. We were close enough to touch, almost, and when a wind blew through the mist it cleared to reveal a vast concrete monster that towered above us, suddenly filling our field of view as if it had simply materialised there.
“Holy shit,” my friend said, as the mists momentarily cleared and the behemoth revealed itself to us; and then it was gone again, just as suddenly, and we continued up the steps to find the entrance.
We spent a couple of hours inside the monument that day. It was hard to see much, and I ruled out climbing the tower – not only would the access ladders be slick with ice, but there wouldn’t be much of a view to look at anyway. Instead we simply wandered the corridors and halls, making our way up to the main conference arena with its golden hammer-and-sickle motif glittering somewhere above us in the misty void.
The monument’s architect has claimed to have been inspired – at least in part – by the sci-fi movies of the 1950s; the age of ‘flying saucers.’ That much at least is clear from looking at the thing. On a clear day, the Buzludzha monument appears like a UFO that crash-landed on the mountains of Earth. Today though, it felt like we’d travelled with it… no longer on Earth, the thick white mist gave an impression as though we stood in a wrecked flying saucer abandoned on some hostile alien landscape. A strange vessel decorated in communist symbols and headed for the great utopia in the stars.
My travelling companion might not have seen much of the monument that day, but he certainly got to feel it – and for me, amongst all my dozens of visits to the place, that day with the saucer cloaked in mists remains one of the most affective, most disorientating, and most powerful experiences I’ve ever known there.
The Dark Side of Plovdiv
We’d spend that night in Plovdiv – the large city in the south of Bulgaria, perhaps two hours down the mountain and across the plains from the saucer. By the time we hit the highway it was dark already, and later, turning off at the Plovdiv junction, we took the long straight road through industrial estates into the northern quarter of the city.
What happened next was so fast we almost didn’t see it. Not that it would have mattered, either way: because even if we had, there wouldn’t have been time to react.
There was a lot of traffic on the road, perhaps five cars behind us and a constant stream coming from the opposite direction. As per usual, these Bulgarian drivers were playing leapfrog along the unlit road, overtaking one another against oncoming traffic as if they believed themselves invincible. Suddenly, a horse decided to join in.
It darted across the road only metres ahead of us, a speeding blur of hooves and mane. It was even closer to the column of cars coming towards us in the other lane though, so close that it must have almost brushed against the bumper of the lead vehicle. We didn’t brake. Didn’t breath. It all happened so fast that by the time we’d processed it, the danger had already disappeared. It took me a few moments to realise how close I’d been to having a horse land in my lap – and after that horse melted back into the darkness beyond the road, I almost wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing.
By the time we arrived into the centre of Plovdiv, we were both experiencing a delayed sense of shock. It had started to rain too, and it was only after parking up and taking to the streets with our heavy backpacks that I found our hotel didn’t actually exist. My map was leading us to a residential block, but there was no sign of accommodation here: just a panel of family names and buzzers. We walked around the building, and tried some of its neighbours in vain. Eventually I gave up – we were wet through, tired and nervous, and I was happy to lose my online deposit in favour of finding another hotel.
The next place we tried was closed – maybe it moved, or maybe it only opened up for the summer season – and soon we found ourselves wandering through the city centre, loaded up with backpacks in the pouring rain, desperate to just find anywhere we might sleep for the night.
That desperation led us to a dark place.
The sign in the window, several floors above a row of shops, said simply, ‘Rooms.’ We followed a dark corridor and up some stairs, where printed-paper signs directed us to an office. At the top floor, these crude signs announced our arrival and my friend knocked once before opening the office door.
Inside the small room, a middle-aged man sat on a bed in his underwear, surrounded by food cartons and watching a screen that seemed to be filled with CCTV feeds. I don’t know who was more startled – us or him – and after a moment of awkward silence we asked him about the advertised rooms. Our host nodded, put on some trousers and grabbed a key, then led us back downstairs.
The room was small, stained and with a faintly perfumed smell about it that masked other odours I couldn’t place. I quickly got the impression that this was the kind of room you could rent out for the night… or just an hour.
“We don’t need a double bed,” I explained, but the man simply gave a lazy shrug as if to say, What goes on in here is none of my business. We paid him €8 for the room for one night. He didn’t ask to see ID from either of us… just cash upfront and no questions asked.
After he left, I pulled back the covers on the bed to find an ample handful of soil scattered about between the sheets. Not dirt, not mud – but dry soil, as if someone had sat here only recently to re-pot their houseplants. My friend was examining the window, meanwhile. There was a stain on the curtains, a yellowing of the fabric that began at waist height before spreading out and down through the material. “I think someone’s pissed on these,” he said, and I guessed he was probably right.
Fortunately I’d had the foresight to pack a sleeping bag for the trip, and so I managed to spend a night there without physically touching any of the furniture; but it was an uncomfortable sleep, a restless night that left us both drained even before we tackled the new trials offered by our final day on the road.
The last day of my tour itinerary, as anyone who’s been will know, features a visit to a massacre site in the Rhodope Mountains; the town of Batak, where in 1876 some 3,000 men, women and children were brutally killed by the Ottoman forces in retaliation for their role in Bulgaria’s attempted uprising.
I’ve always found this corner of Bulgaria rather fascinating. It has a very different feel to the north, not just thanks to the rough and rolling landscape of the Rhodopes down here near the border with Greece, but it’s also, culturally, a very different place. Little villages cluster around silver mosques in the creases between hills; the people are different too, with Turkish enclaves scattered about and some of the highest concentrations of Roma populations.
On the tour, I wanted to give people a taste of this contrast between regions. Eventually I decided to do that with a short visit to Pazardzhik – sometimes dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Roma Capital’ – but before I’d settled on that plan, I was still scouting for options.
So on the last day of the test-run, we found ourselves driving past Batak: following mountain roads into the southwest corner of Bulgaria, deep into the Rhodopes, searching for the perfect illustration of Bulgaria’s rural multi-culturalism. Those roads took us through some strange places… including Ihtiman, possibly the worst town I’ve ever seen.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of abandoned buildings; and so, you might think that a town absolutely full of them would spark my interest. In Ihtiman though, I felt no desire whatsoever to get out and explore. Abandoned buildings seemed to be all these people had, barely-standing shells of houses lined up along a dusty railway track and long, straight streets populated with burnt-out cars and skeleton-thin dogs.
Bulgaria is not a rich country, but this was the most affecting picture of poverty that I had so far seen in eight years of getting to know the place.
We drove on through Ihtiman, to a village presumably named after the former dictator: ‘Zhivkovo.’ After seeing it on a map, I had hoped perhaps to find a monument there, even just a bust fashioned after the village’s namesake; but again, there was little apart from ruined buildings and dirty-faced children on bicycles. The latter stopped in their tracks and gawped at us as we drove by. Likely they were curious just to see a car here with Sofia number plates; the possibility that it was driven by two Englishmen would be a further revelation that I doubt any of them could possibly have guessed.
I began troubling over the ethics of this mission: scouting for ‘multiculturalism’ in one of the poorest parts of the country, just so that I could bring foreigners here to look at it. I hadn’t been searching for poverty specifically, but the truth is that Bulgaria’s minorities don’t typically live well. I began to realise that it would be difficult to separate one from the other.
Soon after the village, we had another scare on the road – as we followed a curving route that wound through the valley floor, a thin strip of tarmac that mimicked every curve of the river down below us. As we approached a corner in the road, another vehicle appeared round it coming the other way: a flatbed lorry, a huge vehicle loaded up with a stack of heavy logs.
The vehicle was speeding, flying around the corner towards us and as it did so its back-end had swung right out: in that first moment it appeared to us almost sideways, a solid wall of death filling both the lanes ahead and skidding fast towards us.
We barely had a moment to react, braking hard and hitting the rough ground between the road and river – squeezing as close as we could to the edge without tipping and falling to the water below. We missed the swinging back end of the lorry by just a hair’s breadth.
Later we arrived into Samokov. According to my research, the town was a major tourist hub – most notably in the winter season, when the surrounding mountains attract a large number of tourists here on budget ski trips.
We didn’t see any of that, though. I was more interested in a monument I’d pinpointed just on the outskirts of the town… and of course, by the promise of cultural diversity. I guess we took a wrong turning into the town, however. Instead of arriving on a main street, seeing hotels or ski lodges welcoming our approach, we somehow found our way initially into a run-down housing estate at the edge of Samokov.
The streets here were little more than earth, and they were busy – thriving with gangs of children, chickens and dogs, and dark skinned groups of men who stopped their conversations to watch us pass. A horse and cart overtook us, as we paused to get our bearings.
I soon established that we had driven straight into the heart of the Roma district – and it hadn’t gone unnoticed. All around us, the locals were looking up to see these two foreigners in a fancy car. Fancy, that is, merely by comparison. Of the few other vehicles around us, not one of them had four doors in the same colour, and none looked less than 40 years old. People filled the streets, women and children, gangs of young men, while others watched from the glassless windows of crude brick houses lining the road. We appeared to have the attention of the whole community, and it made me nervous.
I am actually planning to write a long piece about the Roma in Bulgaria soon. It’s a big conversation, and one worth having – but for now, I’ll just summarise: there is a lot of terrible prejudice that paints these people as criminals, and such attitudes can be extremely damaging to well-meaning Roma communities. However, while it may be unfair to generalise to everyone, these sentiments are not based on nothing; and there is a precedent for high incidents of violent crime and muggings within impoverished Roma communities.
Of course, the historic reasons for this deserve a much longer explanation, and ultimately I view the Bulgarian Roma as victims of demonisation leading them into a vicious cycle of poverty and, in many cases, crime. But benefit of the doubt aside, in that moment it would have been unwise of us – sat there lost in our expensive car – to assume that we were 100% safe.
That’s when the first stone hit us, a sharp tap against the passenger-side window. A gang of kids grinned at us nearby, and it was probably meant as a cheeky greeting; but it didn’t make us feel particularly welcome.
We reversed back out of Samokov, by now with an audience numbering in the dozens, and we decided to just drive back up north to Sofia. I had wanted to find different cultures here, and we’d succeeded in that – but it was too real, too troubled to make good tourism, and so I decided to leave Samokov for another day. I would be back, I was sure, just not at the head of a group of Western tourists.
So there you have it: How not to do a tour. Just about everything that could have gone wrong that week did. We got suck in the grimiest hotel I’ve ever seen, called out the emergency services for a mountain rescue, and even the Buzludzha monument, usually the visual highlight of this tour, was basically invisible when we visited it. Had this been a proper, official tour, it would have been an absolute disaster from start to finish.
But then, that’s clearly the moral of this story… it’s good to test things. I learned some valuable lessons dealing with all these crises on the test-run, and I’m happy to report that both tours since then have been a complete success. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my tours these days are improved a hundredfold by my worst experiences on Bulgarian roads; and my itineraries are built just as much around places to avoid, as they are the ones I advertise.
As for the hire car, I still can’t quite believe we got away with it. There were moments on that mountain when I really thought we’d have to tow it to a scrap yard; but it held out, somehow, and by the time we rolled into Sofia and delivered it back, there were no questions asked. No scratches, no dents, no visible damage. Sooner or later though there’ll come a day, a check-up or an MOT, when some mechanic will put his head under the car and find the underside torn to shreds – a mess of twisted, battered metal, the hidden scars left over from that time two stupid foreigners tried driving it off the side of a mountain.
The Exclusion Zone.
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