. . . LAND ROVER OVERLAND EXPEDITION

. . . AROUND THE WORLD 2001/02
     
Home
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02
 

The Team

Jeff Willner
1. Start: Recipe for Adventure
2. Zimbabwe: Hyperinflation
3. Namibia: Southern Circuit
4. South Africa: Circuit 2
5. Zambia/Malawi: Sketches
7. Kenya: Bandit Country
8. Ethiopia: Diary
9. Ethiopia: Border Run
10. Sudan: Across the Sahara
11. Egypt: Cape to Cairo
12. Jordan/Syria: Sept. 11th
13. Turkey: Hospitality
14. Bulgaria/Romania/ Hungary
15. Slovakia/Austria/Poland
16. The Baltics & Russia
17. Scandinavia
18. Western Europe
19. Brazil: Clearning Customs
20. Argentina: Revolution
21. Argentina: To Ushuaia
22. Patagonia Disaster
23. Buenos Aires Beautiful
24. Uruguay: Beaches
25. Chile: Expedition Life
26. Bolivia: Atacama
27. Peru: Transit
28. Galapagos: Gorgeous
29. Ecuador: Jungle Run
30. Knifepoint
31. Dubai: Lay over
32. Singapore/Malaysia
33. Thailand: Hospitality
34. Cambodia: Ankor Wat
35. Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong
36. Laos: Back to Basics
37. China: Beijing Tour
38. China: Shanxi
39. China: Western Province
40. China: Tibet
41: Nepal: Mountains
42. India: Driving Struggle
43. Pakistan: Dodging War
44. Iran: Overcharging
45. End: One Last Laugh

Sally DeFina
1. Cape Town: Robben Island
2. Zanzibar: Mike & I
3. Kenya: African Driving School
4. Sudan: Mud Crossing
5. Patagonia: Goodbye Max
6. Malaysia: Mike Update
7. Thailand: Ko Phangan
8. Cambodia: Phnom Penh
9. Vietnam: By Train
10. Laos: Vang Vieng
11. China: Meet Mr. Chen

Jody Finver
1. Start: Surreal Solipse
2. Great Zimbabwe
3. Brokedown in Kenyan Desert
4. Egypt: So Should I Hyphenate
5. Poland: Home is Where the Truck Is

Gulin Akoz
1. Start: Bits and Pieces
2. Zambia: Diaries
3. Egypt: Africa Memories
4. Turkey: For Your Information
5. The Team and The Bean
6. Somebody Else's Child
7. On My Own
8. Long Lost Memories of Childhood
9. The Tree and the Boy
10. Jealous
11. The Aftermath

 

Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition

 

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www.KensingtonTours.com

   

 

 

#14 - Bulgaria & Romania
Jeff Willner - 13 October 2001

(Budapest, HUNGARY) - Did you ever read any of those Cold War spy novels when you were a kid? I soaked those things up. So I was both nervous and excited as we left Istanbul and neared the border of Bulgaria. A line of trucks stretched over a kilometer long, queued up for days, waiting for clearance to cross. It was not an encouraging sight, and the Soviet style architecture of forbidding concrete block and peeling paint lent a definite communist feel to the border post. A friendly trucker chatted with us at the Duty Free shop in no-mans-land between the two borders where we were getting rid of the last of our Turkish lire, "Make sure you don't stop for anything once you are in Bulgaria! Those gypsies will steal everything off the truck." Great. As if we're not already nervous enough.

Passports were produced at the little metal hut, scanned by the immigration officer, and details typed into a battered computer. We were waved to Customs. "Hello!" I said with what I hoped was a harmless bourgeois capitalist smile. "Open zee truck!" grunted the official. Middle-aged with a shock of white hair, he was rather severe in his green uniform, and I could tell he had the implacable eyes of a Party loyalist. He looked inside the back of the truck, made us open one of the storage bins with food inside, and then scrutinized the outside at the rear. I could see what he was thinking, there should be more storage space somewhere inside. Motioning the women out of the rear seats he found our locked cubbyholes, which we opened for inspection. None of the previous border guards had made that connection - I was impressed. His colleague tapped the jerrycans on the roof to make sure they were empty. They asked about the spare fuel tanks underneath the truck. All during which I had this goofy grin on my face - because hey, we were being searched by ex-communists and were about to go behind the former Iron Curtain. Outstanding.

A couple hours into Bulgaria, we were met at the town of Plovdiv by Buryan Kirov, a vascular surgeon and the brother of a school chum. Buryan was a terrific guide, escorting us to Bachkovo Monestary and Assen's Fort on the outskirts of town, and then taking us to the historic downtown. We'd talked about him joining the expedition for awhile but he explained very frankly, "Yes I am a vascular surgeon, but you know I don't have money for such a trip, my salary is only $180 per month! You could not imagine the conditions at my hospital. There are no supplies so people must bring their own scalpels, their own dressings for their heart surgery. It is sometimes like a war zone." "Why do you stay?" I asked, "Your brother is in the US, surely you could do better over there." "Oh, I went to the US for several months but I hated it, I wanted to come back." He led us to a shaded table at an outdoor café on Plovdiv's main pedestrian-only promenade.

" You see, this is the reason I had to come back." He continued. "Yes the pay is terrible, but the demands on me are also low. I must be at the hospital from the morning until noon, but even if I didn't come in they wouldn't care. It is my professionalism that keeps me there, sometimes until very late when there is a need. Maybe my clients can't pay me, but last week one of them brought over a four litre tub of yogurt as a present. Ah, that was some good yogurt, I ate it all in one week!" He grinned and patted his belly. "Bulgaria runs on favors. I do heart surgery for someone and they find their own way to do me a favor. I hunt regularly at the ranch of a former patient, and my new cellphone was a gift. You saw how old and beat-up my car is, but maybe one day I save the life of a tycoon - then I drive a BMW." He winked. "Besides, every day at 5pm I take my table here at this café and watch the pretty women walk by. You must admit, this is a pretty good life!" And he went on to lead us in an evening of pure indulgence, a five-course dinner at the restaurant of a friend, drinks downtown, and dancing until after 3am in the Plovdiv scene. We had to agree, it is indeed a pretty good life.

Heading straight north, we climbed winding mountain roads and went through the cold and foggy Shipka pass. Jody was scrunched up in the passenger seat, transposing the names of key towns and cities into Cyrillic. She got to the point that she could sound out the Cyrillic names without referring to the phrasebook and did a fine job of navigating. We toured through the Bulgarian mountain country. Etâr village, a living display of actual old buildings and various water-powered mills assembled into a tourist village. Arbanasi, a more genuine mountain village with an amazing church whose interior is decorated with over 2000 murals. We were offered accommodation in a private home while walking through Veliko Târnovo, evidently it is a common way for families to earn some extra money. The Land Rover barely squeezed down the narrow side road, and after parking we asked if we could have a ride to the internet café in town. "Of course!" our host was so helpful. He apologized for rushing around and explained that he had also just opened up a dance school and would be giving lessons that night. I was amazed at his energy, trolling for tourists during the day, maintaining his extra rooms, and running a dance school.

Our crossing into Romania was less of a novelty the next day, though Sally added some excitement when she decided to take a picture of Europe's longest steel-girder bridge that forms the border between the two countries - while on the bridge. A soldier stopped the truck and demanded to know what she was doing. Opting for the dumb blonde approach, she batted her eyelids and said giggled, "Oh, is there a problem Officer?" He lectured her for a bit and then succumbed, waving us on. We drove out the border post into farmland, small villages with patched together houses, and lots of horse-drawn wagons. They were a fixture in the poorer Eastern European countries, wagons of all shapes and sizes, usually with car wheels attached for a smooth ride, and usually loaded with produce or fertilizer. Trying not to be rude, I would slow the truck down and we'd fire off the digital cameras as we passed - we got a lot of blurred wagon photos. Bucharest, the capitol of Romania, is a spread-out mass of six-storey apartment blocks, shops, and tram lines. The historical downtown is rather small. We arrived at 4pm and had walked most of it in a couple of hours. Prices are very cheap. Dinner in a very fine French restaurant was only ten dollars with wine. It was an enjoyable afternoon, but Romania's real charm lies to the north.

North to Transylvania. It's mysterious reputation makes you think of dark forests, grim castles, and of course Dracula. But the autumn leafed lanes and quaint mountain villages were far from ominous, in fact they reminded me of Vermont. Sinaia was a royal retreat and remains the playground of the rich. Chalets are nestled into the mountain slope, a cable-car swings far overhead climbing to the ski-slopes thousands of feet up. Peles Castle was built a couple hundred years ago for the royal family and has the most richly decorated and finely carved interior I have ever seen. Further north, we stayed the evening in the handsome cobbled old city of Brasov.

Poking around in Bran Castle the next morning we ran across Janet, a lovely Canadian women traveling alone. We offered her a lift to the next town. On the way we paused to check out Rasnov Castle, not well preserved but home to Vlad the Impaler - the gruesome figure whose legend evolved into Dracula. Evidently in his long battles with the Turkish empire he developed a distaste for Turks, and for entertainment each evening during dinner would watch a Turkish prisoner writhe and die, impaled through the length of the backbone on a stake. In keeping with our all-Vlad theme, we drove north to Sighisoara, his birthplace, and walked through yet another spectacularly picturesque old city. "If there is one thing I must do in Eastern Europe, I must camp in Transylvania!" Jody had been making this point for days. So we found a campsite in the woods, in the birthplace of 'Dracula', and we camped under the stars.

Janet decided to stick with us for a couple of days since we were going in the same direction, we were quite happy with her company, so we all headed west toward Hungary. It was a long day of driving. We stopped to walk around yet another attractive downtown in Cluj Napoca, bought some picnic fixin's and ate lunch on the road. Twisting through the narrow valley roads made for some slow driving, but evidently I wasn't slow enough because I was nailed by a speed trap. No sympathy from the policeman either. I don't think my blonde act is as effective as Sally's.

Hungary might as well be in the west. We were breezed through the border never even leaving the truck, and as we drove away from the border post the most immediate impression was of the absolute lack of horse-drawn wagons. Even the cars changed, no more little wheezing Ladas and Skodas, we entered the realm of Volkswagen, Mercedes, and Ford. Budapest at night was almost mystical. Buda Castle perched proudly over the river, blocks of renaissance architecture, Parliament with its 365 steeples, and massive churches glowing in spotlights. We spent the next day on a bus tour of the city and walking through the pedestrian promenades, parks, and shopping boulevards. It was a relaxing and eminently urbane way to end our fascinating first week in Eastern Europe.

 

Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com