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This Week I Learnt Surfing and Climbing

December 8, 2009

If a journey is about discovery, then it’s been a good week for me on my journey to The Ashes…

I discovered what it’s like to climb a mountain, on a bike – before leaving, I took out comprehensive insurance for my journey through the Mountaineering Club of Great Britain, which is apt as I will be climbing a lot of mountains over the next year. The first of these enemies appeared on the horizon last Tuesday. I reached the foothills on Wednesday morning, some 60 kms north of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and climbed it for most of the day.

After the climb - the road to Sofia

As I began the ascent, I whispered to my video camera that I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of climbing almost 2,000 metres on two wheels in a few hours. Half way up the mountain I told my video camera that I should have been daunted. It was the first mountain I had ever climbed on a bike, and it was tougher than I had expected. During the climb I worked my way through a series of  emotions, among them weakness, excitement, pride and despair. But I also felt joy. At one point during the climb, possibly just after a chocolate pit-stop, and certainly when I thought I had seen the top of the mountain, I began singing along impossibly loudly to The Smiths’ This Charming Man, delighted that I was near the summit. Drivers hooted encouragement and I felt real camaraderie on the mountain. I smiled and waved at passing trucks. One of the drivers swore at me using his middle finger, so I stopped with the waving tactic, but continued singing. “Morrissey wouldn’t give in to cursing Balkan truck drivers, so I won’t either,” I told myself. 

As anyone who has climbed a mountain on a bike will know, the corner that looks like the last corner never is. Joy turned to despair as hairpin after hairpin emerged, and I wondered how long the mountain would make me and my loaded bike suffer. When I finally reached the summit after four hours of strenuous effort, I found a stunning blonde girl sitting in the passenger seat of a Lada. I handed her my camera and she got a snap of me, sweaty and red-faced. Satisfied with my morning’s work, I began the descent in blazing sunshine, and ended it in pouring rain. I arrived in Sofia four hours later, freezing cold and, to borrow from Blackadder, wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume.  Upon meeting, my host told me that I had chosen to climb the highest mountain on the route to Sofia. I didn’t mind because I had done it, I had completed it, and it felt great.

I discovered the joy of couch surfing – I spend so many nights alone in my tent that it’s nice to meet and talk to people when I arrive in a city. Cities like Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia, with fascinating but troubled, and often tragic recent pasts, tend to be home to interesting and inspiring people. So finally getting going on has been a revelation. In Sofia I stayed with Kristina and her mother.

Kristina and her boyfriend, Ivan

Kristina was a welcoming and caring host. She cooked me the local, cheesy delicacy banitsa. She helped me navigate across town to my cricketing engagements at the National Sports Academy, and gave me a tour of her city. Sofia is crumbling in parts, a monument to communism, but the centre is grand and historic. On Thursday night we met up with another couchsurfer, the crazy little weirdo Victoria, who led me to a bar called “The Barn,” in Bulgarian. Made only of wood and lit by candles, I couldn’t help thinking that a UK Health & Safety Officer would have suffered a coronary had he stumbled in. Happily they don’t seem to suffer from the claims culture in Bulgaria, and I hope it stays that way. I’m glad to have finally got to grips with Couchsurfing – as I write I have just had a response from a photographer in Istanbul who will cover our cricket match there…great news!

I discovered that curry for breakfast isn’t that bad – on Friday evening I had a great evening with Saif, the captain and coach of the Bulgarian National Cricket Team, and his wife Katia. We chatted about how he went about starting and developing cricket in Bulgaria. We talked about him being the only man in the world with a degree in the sport, and about his former career as an actor and playwright in Pakistan.

Luci (baseball and cricket lecturer), me, the Vice-Chancellor of the National Sports Academy with The Ashes, and Saif

The following morning Saif asked me if I would like some of the previous night’s curry for breakfast. I politely declined. Five minutes later I saw a re-heated bowl of chicken curry on the table, and Saif beckoned me to eat up. Not wishing to upset my kind host, I tucked in. It was surprisingly tasty, even after brushing my teeth – a good warm-up for the Indian leg of my journey perhaps?

I discovered the value of pitching a tent on even ground – I left Sofia later than planned on Sunday morning. I was shattered after a busy few days in the Bulgarian capital. I arrived at the grey town of Ihtiman just before dark. Communist-style blocks dominated its skyline. Rabid mongrel dogs prowled the streets, and barked at any cycle tourist that passed – there was only one. Gypsies rode horse-drawn carts down the dusty main street like cowboys. It was a typical rural Bulgarian town. My every move in the supermarket was followed by 20 pairs of intrigued eyes. I bought a bottle of water, an onion, an orange and, with the help of animal noises, beef stock. I then pedalled east – always east – out of town until I found the perfect field in which to camp – flat, grassy and hidden from the main road. The remnants of a camp fire made it clear that another traveller had recently found the same spot. I pitched my tent in a seemingly perfect setting, three metres from a fast-flowing stream splitting a farmer’s field in half. I erected it in record time – I’m getting better at that – and stuffed all my gear inside, before cooking a delicious meal of rice, onion, garlic, beef stock and white cheese.

My bike near Ihtiman

At around 6pm I was ready for fourteen hours of kip. One hour of trying to nod off told me that I had pitched the tent on the only uneven piece of ground for miles. Every time I woke in the night, I was off the mat on the other side of the tent, and my sleeping bag was soaked through with dew. To add to the relative misery of the situation, the lower side of the tent had a huge lump at shoulder height so I couldn’t swap sides. I would rather bed down on a cactus than sleep in that spot again. Still, an important lesson learned.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2009 11:57 pm

    Good stuff man 🙂

    Enjoying following your progress 🙂

  2. Annie permalink
    December 9, 2009 8:46 am

    So im guessing your mountain was worse than Paddy’s ‘wall’ on the cycle to dover?!! Bad times. But with a stunning blonde at the top that’s good karma for you.

    Keep it up pops xxxx 🙂

  3. Adam permalink
    December 9, 2009 9:32 am

    Great Stuff Oli!!
    Keep it up mate…..enjoying the updates!

  4. December 9, 2009 9:36 am

    Excellent, I’m glad they caught up with you. Did you get the photographs? I mastered You Sendit – so simply I’m mortified.

  5. Ross C permalink
    December 9, 2009 1:26 pm

    I told you that you would start singing to yourself!
    Loving the journey so far.

  6. December 9, 2009 4:57 pm

    Great story telling Oli. Just listened to the Smiths video on YouTube and feel very envious of you on your trip. It sounds as though you’re having an awesome time. Glad to hear Couchsurfing is working well. Best, Rob

  7. Katie permalink
    December 9, 2009 6:22 pm

    You bought beef stock with the help of animal noises??!! Ols – LOVE IT!!! xxx

  8. December 9, 2009 7:15 pm

    I hope the stunning blonde liked beards!

    Once again, I loved the photo of the bike.

    Viv x

  9. Becca permalink
    December 10, 2009 12:51 am

    Nice post Oli, I am actually rather surprised at how well you write and I haven’t fallen asleep yet – keep up the gd work x

  10. Nicki permalink
    December 13, 2009 8:24 am

    Ha – after 7 weeks tenting through Africa I totally hear you on the “even ground is key” comment! Great work on the mountain climb, sounds horrendous – am very impressed! 🙂

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