Friday, October 20, 2017

Sofia, Bulgaria to Shtip, Macedonia: Trains, Mountains, and Kind Strangers

I left Sofia Bike Rental after the guy from the 24-hour coffee/alcohol/cigarette store next door helped me out – I'd been locked in! I unlocked the door from the inside and managed to do the padlock via the crack permitted by the “open” door, but the metal screen was locked at the bottom and I couldn't reach around the outside to the lock. The guy next door head me trying to open it and came over – I gave him the key and he let me out.

Also before leaving I “fixed” my hub. Much to the chagrin of the cycle touring facebook group I had asked for advice, I went the Dremel route. Their conclusion was I needed a new cup (the part that was pitted) and if I couldn't find a new cup I needed a new hub. My conclusion was... if I'm going to replace it anyways, may as well try the Dremel!



It's not as good as I would like since Sofia Bike Rental didn't have a lot of bits, but then, most bike shops don't have Dremels at all. It is at least 10x better than it used to be. I think I'll make it through Africa. For science!

Also, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank LK and PK, who, upon reading that I was considering a new bike and/or potentially expensive modifications to Louisa, donated to cover that cost. Thank you! It's really nice to do what I think is right for the bike without having to worry too much about how much it costs (eg if I had thought a new hub was warranted, I could have gotten one no problem).

I made it to the train station and, via the help of a lot of Google Translate and people (I can think of at least four non-English speakers who went out of their way to help me in some way, the conductors at one point recruited an English speaker, and then there were the three Czechs), made it 50km south to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. Did I say I was going to Greece? Oops.

Just in case you forgot you were at a TRAIN station...

The whole situation was quite confusing from the start because there were two trains linked together leaving Sofia, but only one went very far. Only one of these trains was there when I got to the station, so the conductor Google Translated this as, “Two trains will be. One will continue.” I was to get on the latter. I felt like I was solving a murder mystery or something.

Louisa (left) enjoying the view

Glad I'm not on that...

Then after 30k the train stopped and we were put on a bus. Luckily it had storage underneath and thus plenty of room for my bike to slide in sideways, though I pulled a muscle in my back doing so. The bus went to another train station where the train was much harder to get onto, being it was higher than the platform, but luckily three Czech guys were on the train too and helped me out. Turns out George, Simon, and Luchon (spelled as best I can, pronounced “luge-ohn”) were highschoolers who have taken to backpacking across Europe over long weekends. I was grateful for their help and grateful to have such cool dudes to talk to for the remaining 1 hour train ride, though I found myself at a loss of good questions to ask, since all I could think of was “What do you want to do with your life?” I hate asking people this since it implies they aren't doing much right now – it's a question created by a society that is always worried about the future.

I took lunch in Blagoevgrad and then headed west for Macedonia. Traffic died down the closer I got to the border and after about a 1200m climb I finally made it. Truckers in overalls said “Dobre” to me (short for “Dobre Dein,” which is “Good day” or “Hello” in most Slavic languages), the first time I'd heard the abbreviation. The border was fast and uneventful except when the Macedonian guard took my passport, then said, “and documents for the bike?” My face fell, and then he smiled a big smile. Border guard fun. I smiled too.

Yep still glad I didn't spend the day on that.

In the distance: hill to Macedonia!

A climb approaches...

Halfway there...

At the top!


Down 1200m in Delchevo, I found an ATM, then hunted for a restaurant I'd read about when researching border crossings. I went in and immediately the guys at the table next to me invited me to sit with them. Turns out one of them was the owner, spoke great English, and ordered for me since I had no idea what anything was. Salad, some really good pork with fries (not sure how “traditional” that was but it was some of the best pork I've ever had, and fries are carb- and salt-vehicles, great for cycle touring), a beer, and palacinki (pronounced “palasinkee,” this translates to crepes but as a traditional Macedonian dessert it comes with bananas and chocolate – in this case nutella) for 390 denar, about $8.


Since I knew the meal would keep me after dark I erm, politely hounded the owner for a place to stay. First he kept saying a hotel was $20, very reasonable, but when I explained to him that was my budget for the day he said he “knew someone” who would give a bed in their house for 400 denar (again about $8). I was very tempted but also mentioned I was okay in a tent, at which point he offered the alley behind the restaurant. Just for giggles we went to look... it was cement, lots of trash, stray dogs, and visible from two streets. I went for the unofficial hostel. I ended up getting my own room (there were two beds but one was unoccupied); many older guys, none of whom spoke English (nor did the hostess), occupied the other two rooms. Between the train, grocery store, dinner, and “hostel,” I spent $22, just over budget, but not bad at all considering what I got – and anyways, I have been under budget lately...

The next morning I left at 7 and took a side road about 5 km off the highway. Pavement came and went, and on some of the meaner, rockier uphills I had to walk. At one point I was huffing and sweating and regretting my choice, though I have a policy not to turn around unless absolutely necessary. I was glad I didn't, for after all the uphill I was rewarded with some amazing views of the Macedonian countryside.

Side roads are sometimes best roads.

Side roads are sometimes not best roads.

A failed housing development, but they paved the road for it so... success!

Here I started singing, “You're beautiful...”

Stuck behind a tractor

Random unpaved curve

After descending again the rest of the day was fairly uneventful until Shtip, where my host was for the night. I had tried at least five grocery stores throughout the day and NONE had fruit of any kind, so I'd settled for a fruit drink with as little sugar as I could find. In Shtip one of the grocers spoke English and directed me to a produce stand across the street – thank you!

These trees are very common here...

It's typical in poor countries to dump trash, it's just now I got a "good" picture of it.

As I was locking up my bike two kids walked by and began talking to me in Macedonian. We had a miming conversation and I tried to wave them goodbye; while they seemed friendly enough, I didn't want them poaching anything from my bike while I got produce. The shop owner noticed this and mimed that she would watch my bike while I got my produce, then we traded when she weighed everything. Three bananas and two apples came out to 40 denar, about $0.80. After I gave her the money she threw some cucumbers in the bag and handed it to me with a smile and a wink.

Pause: people here are very friendly. Almost everyone smiles and waves at me, at least three people have given me a thumbs up, and everyone seems eager to talk to me. Not that other countries haven't been friendly, but Macedonia might be the friendliest country so far. I mean, free cucumbers? Come on.

*ahem* I went back to my bike and the kids were still there. We mimed a bit more and it came out that they wanted money. I'm not one to give to beggars but I wanted their picture since they were part of the story now, so I though it would be okay to “pay” them for their picture. They didn't want to at first but once I established I'd “pay” them they were okay with it, and even got into it a bit, asking for a second picture with a cool pose. I gave them each 10 denar, about $0.20, and they were very happy with that.

Look out, Gucci.

Finally I made it into the heart of Shtip and found a coffee shop with wifi. “What can I get for you?” asked the barista in suprisingly good English. I ordered a latte and sat down to blog since I was two hours early for my Warmshowers, but turns out Miki was in the area so he showed up not 20 minutes later. We talked for a bit, walked to his house, and after a shower and a very late lunch of beans here I am blogging.

Tomorrow I'll head to Greece!

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