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Borders, Belgrade, Barges, and Bulgaria

En route to Plovdiv from Sofia, 9 pm, 8/4/9

No major health problems as yet (for either humans or the car), although we had to reattach the right-hand passenger mirror after I inadvertently knocked it off (it was loose to begin with, when the car was purchased), and we are all developing a slight heat rash because of the temperature, which regularly exceeds 90 F. I suspect it will only get warmer as we head further east.
The heat also is suppressing our appetite – we are down to ~1.5 meals a day, usually a light breakfast (coffee, the occasional bowl of cereal or pastry) and a heavier linner. We just don’t feel that hungry, in part because we are probably burning far fewer calories as we drive and walk around cities than we do in our normal activity-filled days back in the States. I’m fairly sure I’ll return home ~10 lbs lighter than when I left, although this is nothing new (when I go to India, diarrhea usually thins me out a bit).

I had mentioned last time that we had some issues at the borders. Turns out one needs a ‘green card’ – essentially a proof of insurance in multiple languages. Although the car is insured, and we have a yellow piece of German paper to prove it, we didn’t appear to have been given the corresponding green card when the car was purchased. This wasn’t a problem until we reached the Serbian border, when we were told that we needed it. Further complicating matters, although there was a workaround (one can buy ‘border insurance’ to get through), the particular border that one could purchase the insurance was ~80 km to the north. While we were deciding how best to get into Serbia, we dug around in the car and found a green card – but it was for a previous owner, and the license plate # didn’t match our current plates. We tried again at the same border, but were turned back, as the Serbian border police checked our plates. At this point, we were starting to get some funny looks from the Bosnian border people, as they had seen us attempt to leave (and re-enter) their border twice. We were also starting to think about how best to actually obtain the document – it seemed like not having it would incur more complications further along the trip. Ideas ranged from trying to call the German agency that issued us the insurance to attempting to forge our current license plate # on the green card we had (possible with a photocopier and some green paper).

In any case, we decided to try the northern border, and had mentally prepared ourselves to pay whatever amount the Serbian police asked for border insurance. By this point, it was getting quite dark, and for once, the night worked in our favor. The Serbian border guards were either too lazy or too tired to get out of their booth to check the match between our plates and what was listed on the older green card in our possession, and the darkness meant that they couldn’t easily see the plates from their booth. We were waved through, after they checked that we had a green card. Lesson #1: driving through borders after hours can help if you lack the required papers!

The story has an amusing ending: although we later spent a few frustrating hours communicating with the German insurance company, and they refused to issue and send us a new green card to replace the one we thought they didn’t give us, it later turned out that we had the current green card after all! It was stuffed inside Tristan’s IDP (international driving permit, another document necessary to drive a car through Eurasia), and we just (ten minutes ago) found it, as we were pulled over by the Bulgarian police for speeding. Lesson #2: make sure you get and then *remember* where you put the green card.

Having snuck into the Serbian border, we proceeded to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It was harder to sense the Muslim influence here – Belgrade is more Christian and further north, a bit out of our way to Turkey but still east of Sarajevo. On the other hand, the grit that I had felt in Bosnia was still evident in Belgrade: although the buildings weren’t as dilapidated and I didn’t see any that were shelled, graffiti was still prevalent everywhere, and cigarette butts lined the streets and parks. Belgrade is a fun city – lots of young people. We encountered several friendlies at the hostel we were staying at – the ‘Hotel Chilton’, a hole in the wall place a bit south of city center.

We’ve been in hostels now for the last few days, and there are similarities between them all: a youthful, fresh-faced friendly crowd, proprietors that aren’t anal about when checkout is, a ‘welcoming shot’ at each place we’ve stayed at, free internet and wi-fi, some kind of kitchen area, and generally grubby living conditions. While not outright filthy, there is definitely more dirt here than in the campgrounds or hotels we stayed at earlier. Most of the other travelers are in their early 20s, enjoying their drinks, rolling into bed after 2 am, and almost all smokers. I do like the enthusiasm and friendliness of these places, although I think I’ll enjoy leaving the crowds and doing some camping in Turkey and the Caucuses.

I’ll recount just one Belgrade experience – the dance clubs on the barges. Belgrade is surrounded on the west side by two rivers, the Danube and the Sava. At the western side of both rivers, there are many barges that are moored, and that house pubs, restaurants, and dance clubs. We took a cab on Sunday evening to the west bank, and strolled about looking for a way to burn calories. Neither barge we went onto required a cover charge, but the feel of each was quite different. The first had a crowd that resembled that you might find at an east bay or san francisco party – young people that had interesting clothes (in fact, there was some kind of vintage clothing shop on board) and danced to 80s music tunes (english!) that we could understand, but most of which we had not heard before. Most of the Serbs onboard seemed to know all the lyrics, and mouthed them as they danced to them. There was also some sort of low-budget filming going on, with a camera-man constantly pointing and recording one particular couple that danced on the floor. The second barge had hordes of young Serbs that danced, grooved, and beat to the thump-thump of ‘drum and bass’. This was interesting to see, but much less my style – too much frenetic moving around. Both were quite interesting, and reminded me of the club/barges I had seen before many years ago on the London Thames. Anyway, it was nice to see people many miles from home getting down and having as good time as my friends in the US.

Leaving Belgrade behind, we drove into Bulgaria, and spent a day in Sofia. We didn’t have any issues with border crossings, perhaps partially because Bulgaria is now in the EU (unlike Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia). The ‘EU-ification’ of Bulgaria seemed to have other effects also – although Bulgaria retains its own currency for now (the Lev), Sofia seems much more western european than the balkan countries between Croatia and Bulgaria. McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc have all found there way here, although Sofia does retain its own undeniable charm. The streets near city center are colorfully (gaudily?) painted gold, a shade that has dirtied somewhat throughout the years, but nevertheless evoked a fanciful yellow-brick road feeling in me. There is much more of a Greek Orthodox flavor at work, with the churches heavy on iconography, and the portaits of Christ and the apostles artistically different than the churches in Vienna.

Today, we drove from Sofia to Plovdiv, a smaller town in Bulgaria that I had never heard of before, in order to get some rest tonight. Tomorrow we travel to Corlu, a town in Turkey near the border, and from there, Istanbul! Eastern promises await…

–Hari

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