Hello! Many apologies for the lack of blog updates for the last few weeks but we have been on the road covering the huge distance from Belgrade to Sofia in Bulgaria.
Since leaving Belgrade we headed due south for the first time towards the town of Nis in southern Serbia. The route took us firstly across the mountains just south of Belgrade and then along the river Niska towards it's source across the Bulgarian border. Serbia was an interesting country and had given us a real taste for the Eastern culture change we have experienced with crazy 'turbo folk' music, the ability to turn any fruit into an intoxicating liquid and the massive poverty levels that are abundant in the countryside regions. The countryside has been beautiful but unfortunately the huge amounts of rubbish that line the roads, even in the depths of the countryside have put a huge dampener on the walking. The government can not afford to provide any form of rubbish disposal except in the main cities and so people are forced to burn and dump their rubbish in every possible location, including their gardens. That, combined with the huge stray dog population, has meant that we have been forced to use our walking sticks as weapons rather than to help us along the very uneven roads!
The walk from Nis up into the mountains towards the Bulgarian border was breath-takingly beautiful as our road lead us up a steep gorge with tunnels and rock ledges and some staggering views. The only problem was that our road was the only road to Bulgaria from that region of Serbia and so it was home to a continuous flow of lorries moving their goods from Bulgaria, Turkey, Hungary and Iran into the west. We have been forced many a time to dive from the road into whatever lay beyond the concrete to miss almost certain death from the thundering freight trains that past us at immense speeds.
We have also been plagued with an extraordinary hot end to the summer here with temperatures reaching well above 32 degrees. I hate to think of the ratio of water intake to the amount that literally spurts from our bodies over a 7 hour walk. Alas our prayers for cooler weather have been answered and the summer has in the last few days come to a quick end with incredibly cold nights and torrential downpours. The walk for the next three weeks is looking very uninviting but hopefully the excitement of being so close to the finish will pull us through.
Bulgaria has brought many new things to our walk. Another stamp has been added to the passport and we have even experienced our first time change since reaching Calais but more importantly we have seen our first road signs to Istanbul!!!!! This caused immense excitement from us at the border to the extent that the border guards that had just admitted us almost rounded us up and deported us back to Serbia in a flash thinking we might have MMD (Mad Mosquito Disease - the Serbians answer to mad cow disease!).
Now let me tell you about George...
We met George outside a small town on the main road into Sofia. We were plodding along as usual when we heard a great cry and frantic waving coming from the garden next to us. Slightly surprised and with a quick glance around to check it was directed to us we ventured in to say hello. We were met but a big bounding Bulgarian guy who could apart from the colour of his skin have easily been mistaken for Shrek. Accompanying him was a elderly man, who we assumed to be his father but who was only about 5ft tall and half the size of George. Not speaking a word of English didn't stop George from inviting us to sit down as he disappeared into his house in a fit of hysterics before reappearing with an armful of fruit and vegetables for us - this included a watermelon, tomatoes, apples and bag full of walnuts! Why people see two backpackers already buckling under the weight of their loads and immediately think we must give them more to carry still baffles us. Then about 10 seconds later George's father coming scuttling out with a variety of glasses and sets them down in front of us, 2 of which were shot glasses. Paddy and I exchanged glances, both concerned about the further 3 hours walk in the mid-day sun that we had to complete. Those concerned glances couldn't have been more justified, considering the events that followed. The pure home brew liquid that we were fed, weighing in at no less than 150% proof, almost evaporated before we even had chance to tuck into the rather generous 60 ml helping that we were both given. Well needless to say for Queen and Country we both immediately lifted our glasses in a toast to which George, in a moment that could only have come from 'Withnail & I', pipes up with 'chin chin'! Trying to hold the hysterics we put away most of the glass in one go only to almost fall off our chairs with the incredible potency of the grape based liquor. It numbed our brains and legs within a few seconds and burned not only our nostrils, mouths, throat but then proceeded to dissolve the contents of my stomach and its lining. We managed to finish our glasses and wash it down with some water before saying our goodbyes and heading back onto the road. At this point George, who had obviously been on the juice for most of the afternoon embraced Paddy and, sobbing, began kissing him on the cheeks! I narrowly escaped the kisses with a clever move but had my hand squeezed so tight that I almost wished I had taken the previous option. In my pissed state I decided the watermelon was an absolute necessity and packed it into the top of my rucksack and stumbled down the road in all sorts of directions untill I sobered up enough an hour later to collapse and eat it. George was another classic example of the exemplary hospitality that we have seen throughout the Balkans but was certainly in a league of his own.
Sofia, which we staggered into yesterday, is a very different and impressive city. The outskirts were muich the same as the rest of the big towns that one finds in these parts, but the city centre is affluent, buzzing, and attractive. Admittedly, a young lady tried to pick-pocket me yesterday, but she did it very politely and wasn't the least offended when i wouldn't give her my things. We're staying in a nice little hostel, where we were welcomed with booze and food and a short history of everything Bulgarian, and much as we would like to stay here for a few more days we have sadly got to push on. A slight peice of mis-mapsmanship has somehow lost us a day (or was it all that homebrew?) so were are going to have a furious pace from here on. We were also informed yesterday that it's going to rain for about a million years starting today (it has, indeed, been pouring all day) so that'll add a fun new aspect to the walk. Still, our spirits are high and we are neither bruised nor battered, but just a little tired. We are nearly as close to the end of the walk as London is to Edinburgh, which is, now that i come to think about it, not actually a very comforting way of looking at it. Wish us luck!
Paddy's Party Blog
Right. Enough of Andy's tourism nonsense. Let's all talk business for a second. The party is now completely confirmed for the evening of the 25th of November. Write it in your diaries now, because you'll feel like such plonkers if you end up having to go else-where and someone else wins the 48" plasma screen TV, or whatever it is which happens to be top prize. (Just to clarify, we don't actualy have a 48" plasma screen TV yet, but if anyone reading this happens to work for Sony, Panasonic, etc, or if they have a dodgey relative who works out of a transit van down East Hackney way and might be able to get his hands on that sort of clobber, then let us know).
To get an idea of what we do have in our raffle, go, as always, to our website where you will see all sorts of exciting brands scrolling across the top of your screen. We also have a chap who, at this very instant, is dreaming up all sorts of exciting canapes and nibbles to stop the bubbly (that'll be beer obviously, unless you win any of the bottles of champangne) from going to your heads.
I must also take this opportunity to remind you all of our dates for arriving in Istanbul, and for crossing into Asia. Drinking buddies are coming from as far afield as Russia to help us party the walking out of our systems. We'll get to town on the 28th (a weekend, dear workers) and then cross into Asia on the 31st. If you think you're up to the task of joining our ever-increasing band of volunteers, then give us a ring and we'll tell you all the details. It's a city that's well worth a visit, even if you don't want to hang out with smelly ramblers.
Anyway, lastly, as always, thankyou to all the sponsors. It's been an incredibly profitable week, and though we shan't embarass anyone here, we all know where the fundraising page is to be found, and that the donors are all listed at the bottom, so thank you again, really and truly, to everyone for their wonderful, generous, kindly and unexpected support.
We hope you are all as well as can be, and (for the first time in a blog) look forward to seeing you in the not-too-distant future! What a strange thought.
Paddy and Andy