Across Europe, vol. 3: A hard day’s night

Katabatic storm

Sofia, Bulgaria

14 April 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

There’s snow on the ground and snowmelt on the eaves, and for the moment, I’m thoroughly enjoying a chance to let the soft tissue in my feet recover.  The way west along the Balkan Mountains and the Rose Valley was scenically impressive, socially hospitable, logistically puzzling, and arduous.  Food and shelter have both been much more problematic over the last two and a half weeks than they were on the way from Istanbul to Burgas; and since the uneasy tradeoff between the two has been the defining issue of the stretch as a whole, well, here follow two quick stories about cookies, sleeplessness, and peanut butter.

1.

I had originally intended to travel north from Burgas, catch the Kom-Emine / E3 footpath that runs across Bulgaria from the Black Sea to the Serbian border, and follow this route along the Balkan Mountains to Sofia.  The utter lack of trail maps for the region seemed less daunting given its supposed popularity with Bulgarian hikers, but my hopes in this case were abysmally misplaced.  It turned out that the Kom-Emine / E3 is merely one possible way of negotiating an extremely complex and ancient network of horse and sheep and goat and foot and cart tracks crisscrossing the range in every possible direction, blazed and signposted in a manner intelligible only for someone traveling from west to east, and not within easy striking distance of towns for someone needing regular supplies of food.  After two days backtracking and meandering amongst the hills, I resigned myself to descending back to the Rose Valley and continuing along the shoulder of Highway 6 until it intersected a more opportune section of the Kom-Emine / E3 at the center of the range.

Along the highway, there would be towns; outside or in between the towns, there would be gas stations; and thus I could be sure to find a regular supply of food, but hardly any shelter.  The Rose Valley is a patchwork of open farmland channeled by a parallel array of rugged hills, and the highway runs along the middle, skirting towns and rarely running up against the wooded margins of the mountains.  The most exposed stretch would be a 90-km run between the cities of Sliven and Kazanlak.  Looking at the satellite pictures, I could spot only one point along the way where the road would come tangent with a stand of trees – the rest was going to be wind, heavy traffic, scorching sun and soaking rain, and flowerless ill-natured wild roses, with little space left between the briars and the traffic.

I got a late start out of Sliven, and by sunset, I was still well short of my expected stand of trees.  I had passed women standing under overpasses in the smoke of fires sputtering in the rain, had sidestepped what looked like an unborn lamb left dead on the roadside with its head in a blue plastic bag; I had been pulled over yet again by police for a passport check, had been alternately soaked and scorched in turn; the bright lights of the freight trucks loomed up in the glowering east for miles behind me; and the thorns on the roadside brush ranged from prickling barbs to blood-red spines long and thick enough to pierce a hand.  Night settled with the bare dirt of the farm fields reaching blankly out on either side.  I stopped at a gas station; I stopped at another gas station; I felt peculiarly like an astronaut.  At 1:30 in the morning I reached the stand of trees, at a trash-spattered roadcut so steep I had to claw my way up off the road to reach a rough projecting boulder big enough to sit on.  I sat there wrapped in plastic, eating gas station cookies the taste of artificial hazelnut and watching the freight trucks lurch below, until 4:30 am, when I stood up, slung on my pack, and kept walking.  I reached Kazanlak in the evening.  I was tired.

2.

Reaching the village of Tazha, where crumbling concrete wreckage on the outskirts shares space with guard booths and a sign still displaying the hammer and sickle, I turned north from Highway 6 for my second attempt at the Kom-Emine / E3.  Supposedly, a road ran from the edge of town to join an offshoot highway heading up to cross the mountains just below the summit of Botev, the highest peak of the range and a confirmed waypoint on the Kom-Emine / E3.  This too turned out to be less than accurate.  I spent the morning out of Tazha alternately chasing dwindling paths through the trees and bushwhacking west-northwest, until I spilled out on a pasture, spooked the sheep dog and the sheep, and was told by the shepherd to keep heading uphill.  Barbed wire and guard towers; and then, unexpectedly, sporadic blazes for the Kom-Emine / E3, which promptly petered out entirely and left me none the wiser.  Up and up, with majestic views of Botev and a steadily widening perspective on the valley far below, until I cleared the trees in the late afternoon and came to a trail marked with a line of concrete-anchored snow-poles.  Following these up heavily sheep-frequented slopes, I came to an emergency shelter and checked to see if it might be a place to spend the night.

The door had been wired shut; I unbent the wire to open the door on an antechamber the size of a small closet, which had apparently been used to shelter animals, and which was furthermore heaped with plastic trash.  Through a second door was the shelter proper: a lightless, windowless drywalled cell containing more scattered trash, a wire cot, and a funereal yellow pallet.  A scrawled message on the side of the shelter indicated there was another refuge 800 meters uphill.  I kept walking.

The door to the second shelter had been left open, and the room inside had filled with snow.  It was considerably more spacious than the first, and had shelves, a window, and a wooden platform at the back for sleeping.  By the sound of it, something was living under the platform.  The ceiling was crossed with a series of hanging beams and countless dangling wire hooks, from which hung numerous bags of trash and several filthy, disemboweled mattresses.  I looked around to see what my options were.

Stretching away from the shelter was a low stone wall.  The only level surface in sight was the snow that had collected in the lee of the wall, and even this was liberally fouled with sheep droppings.  Still, the snow seemed preferable to the shelter, so I set up my tent in the most protected corner of the wall, piled in, and got ready to tackle the peak the next day.

At about 9:30 pm, I suddenly awoke to find myself lying in water.  My body heat had melted the snow beneath me, and the water had welled up through both my groundcloth and the floor of the tent.  I was wet; the tent was wet; my sleeping bag was wet; a gusting and rising wind was battering the tent from across the stone wall.  After rummaging in my pack, I hastily slid a large plastic bag underneath myself, propped my feet up on a few bags of muesli, and weighed the situation.  An hour later, my tent was broken down with my pack still inside and the poles still straight in their sleeves, stretched as tightly as possible under eight or nine large rocks from the stone wall, and I was sitting on the threshold of the emergency shelter with my sleeping bag wrapped around me, watching an immense darkness slowly cover the stars, and shivering to the sound of the wind as I peered down at the lights of a dozen villages along the highway in the valley.  At about six in the morning the sun rose behind the clouds, and the lights went off town by town far below.  I stood up, excavated my tent and retrieved my possessions, and pressed up the mountainside into a continual and rising headwind.

Over the next two hours, as I approached the saddle just east of the summit, the weather continued to deteriorate.  The summit was entirely obscured, and the wind steadily rose beyond anything I had experienced before.  First it became impossible to hold a steady course; then it became impossible to stand up; and then, as the turbulence worsened, it became too dangerous even to crawl on my hands and knees.  Leaning into the wind, there would be a sudden two-second rising shriek and then a colossal impact, and if I was not already flat in the snow, the wind would throw me wherever it wanted to.  It reached the point that I was lying spread-eagled in the snow, keeping my head into the wind to avoid being blown over, and inching sideways toward the saddle underneath my pack.  At this point, I wanted only to get down the far side of the saddle and off the ridge, because the summit was out of the question; but when I reached the saddle and fought through the ice that was screaming up from the far side, I discovered the north side was cliffed out.  No-go.  There was another concrete shelter at the saddle, so I splashed inside – the temperature was still just above freezing, and the snow was going to pieces – broke out the peanut butter, and listened to the glass rattle and the steel door quake as I prepared to retreat back to Highway 6.

It took me another four hours to reach the relative shelter of the tree line.  I don’t know how strong the wind was at the saddle that day, but looking at the current weather conditions at the summit (where there is a meteorological station akin to the one atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire), Botev is seeing gusts upwards of 300 km/h.  To which I say, do not – do not – mess with this mountain in April.

At any rate, I’ve reached Sofia without the loss of too many possessions to the wind; I’m still in generally good condition; and I’m still enjoying myself.  I expected the first leg from Istanbul to Sofia would be something of a shakedown, and it didn’t disappoint.  Now the next few days are for patching up equipment, healing, meeting people and catching up with friends, exploring Sofia, and planning out the route toward Belgrade.

Ah, spring,

Owen

[30 days, 890 km / 550 mi]

Next: Across Europe vol. 4: An inland riviera

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