DAY 15 / BASKERVILLE
3.8.2015 / Roman, Romania – Potiond, Romania / 418 km, 3859 km total
The fifteenth day on The Crimson Trail started rather abruptly as I heard a voice from outside my tent. I hastily put on my gear and ventured out to investigate. I found myself looking at a man and a pitchfork and with a rather quizzical look on his face. He turned out to be the owner of the land I was on, but he had no problems with me camping there. After some some polite words he walked up the field and went to work. I continued on the trail, stopping briefly for some coffee in the next village.
I was getting increasingly worried about time, as I was well behind schedule. I was hoping the trails would remain fast, but it was not to be. Instead, the next section was again on very steep and technical ground. Staying on the offensive and focused required a lot of energy and it was another hot day. Stopping to take some photos on a ridge, a large flock of sheep grazed on the hillside nearby. With sheep come the ferocious local sheepdogs. They had noticed me and all hell broke loose as they darted around the bike, barking maniacally at me. It was pretty funny, and my main concern was not to run over any of them as I opened up on the ridge and made a hasty getaway.
The section ended perfectly at a restaurant and I had a huge lunch before continuing. About a kilometre later I noticed that my rear tyre felt strange and immediately stopped to investigate. It was deflated and while changing the tube i found a nail stuck through the tyre. Unfortunate I suppose, but mainly due to the loss of time. As I was feeling the time pressure, I decided to take a faster route towards the Bulgarian border. Just after midnight I found a suitable spot for camping, tucked behind a corn field and out of view. I was feeling pretty exhausted and sleep came immediately.
DAY 16 / THE COMMUNIST UFO
4.8.2015 / Potiond, Romania – Sofia, Bulgaria / 533 km, 4392 km total
The sixteenth day on the Crimson Trail was going to be a hot one. Already at 0700 it was very warm outside as I started packing up my camp next to the cornfield. After breaking camp, I quickly proceed to the Bulgarian border and made it through in a flash, with just a passport check and a bit of a chat with the friendly border control officers.
Bulgaria was very different compared to Romania. The alphabet was Cyrillic and there was a distinctive ex-Soviet flavour here and there. Architecturally it was very hard to place though. It seemed like it was a strange cocktail of the Eastern Europe, Soviet and with almost a Spanish flavour going on with the roof tiling. It seemed odd and of course very enjoyable.
I had planned to ride from Romania to Serbia, so I had no route planned for Bulgaria. My maps were pretty poor and even the smaller roads were mostly paved. I was getting rather frustrated with the riding so I had to improvise and decided to take any small forest or field roads that were going in the generally correct direction. The strategy paid off and I found some nice trails and even bumped into a large abandoned building in the middle of the forest. There was derelict guardhouse and a gate on the road, but had clearly not been active for a very long time.
The day was indeed incredibly hot and as I stopped for lunch, my phone gave an overheating warning. I hadn’t seen that before. Stopping for photography on the trail was very tough in the heat and had to be planned carefully. I needed a spot where I could set up in the shade and then ride through the scene and pack up again in the shade. Even with the precautions I was sweating profusely and going through my CamelBak quickly.
A section of the trail was completely overgrown, and I had to ride some sections with my head all the way down on the bars. It was of course very slow and hot going so I decided to make a move and head for the main attraction I had in Bulgaria. The Buzludzha Monument.
I arrived there after a stretch of tarmac but had to stop on the way due to another overheating warning from the bike. It was my fault though, as I had been hard on the throttle on the way up, enjoying the endless hairpins on the flat tarmac.
The monument was an impressive example of Communist concrete architecture, perched high in the mountains, where the final battle between the Bulgarian rebels and the Ottomans was fought. After several successful clashes against a much larger Ottoman force, the battle went badly for the Bulgarians and their leader, Hadzhi Dimitar, was mortally wounded. His great adventure came to an end a few weeks later in a nearby village, where he succumbed to his injuries. A verse from a poem by Hristo Botev beautifully verbalises the unbreakable spirit of a man set on his own path. Non serviam.
“He,who falls while fighting to be free can never die: for him the sky and earth, the trees and beasts shall keen, to him the minstrel’s song shall rise…”
I parked in front of the main entrance of the decaying Communist behemoth. It had been unmaintained for a long time and closed to the public due to the imminent danger from falling roof plating among other hazards. I knew there was a way in though, so I packed up my cameras, tripod, tank bag and helmet and went looking for the entry point. On the northern side of the building I found the hole I was looking for and went to have a look. I was in luck as there was a Russian couple inside, to whom I passed my equipment before crawling in.
The place was silent, with an ominous echo from the gravel grinding under my MX boots. I had reached the bottom level, under the main hall and after some photos made my way up. I knew the place from some research I had done earlier and knew what to expect. It wasn’t a difficult place to navigate, and I quickly found myself looking at the great circular hall with a mosaic ceiling displaying a huge hammer and sickle. It was stunning, as was the outside balcony with its sweeping mountain views. I ended up staying for two hours, not wanting to leave, just enjoying the spectacular views and architecture in the low western sun.
Everything comes to an end and it became time to move on. On my way out I bumped into two Bulgarian guys, who were also bikers. They gave me ahead getting the equipment out of the building and we chatted for a good while before splitting ways. Georgi and Vladislav were on their way to party at the Black Sea and I decided to catch up some lost time and made a spirited ride to Sofia, arriving there around midnight. It had been a tight couple of days of riding and I was utterly spent. I decided to take a day or two off and recover.
DAY 17 / THE DECREPIT DUO
5.8.2015 / Sofia, Bulgaria – Sofia, Bulgaria / 0 km, 4392 km total
A lazy rest day without any riding. I took a short stroll around downtown Sofia, but wasn’t interested in tourism, which is typical. I did notice, to myself disappointment, that the Rally Raid rear tank had sprung a leak. It was an irritating leak of fuel seeping through one of the embedded nuts, which was typical for RR tanks. This was my second rear tank, as the first one had been replaced due to a leak which formed during the last days of Eastern Dirt 14. There wasn’t much to do about it, except let the gasoline seep out slowly, so I decided to deal with it later.
Another spanner in the works was my right arm, or rather the elbow, which had started acting up. It had started already in June, during a mountain bike trip to Chamonix, but I had no idea why. I hadn’t injured it or anything, but it had suddenly gotten pretty sore from riding in France and Switzerland. The pain had vanished before leaving for this trip, but now it was back. I wasn’t in the mood to see a doctor though, but instead armed myself with whatever I could find in the local pharmacy.
Most of the day was spent planing a route from Sofia through the Balkans. I decided to mostly focus on Macedonia and Albania, after which I’d gun it to Berlin.
DAY 18 / DO NOTHING
6.8.2015 / Sofia, Bulgaria – Sofia, Bulgaria / 0 km, 4392 km total
Another lazy day of recovery. I popped out for a meal, but spent the rest of the day barricaded in my hotel room, backing up photos and posting updates on the site.
DAY 19 / BOUNDARIES
7.8.2015 / Sofia, Bulgaria – Mount Golak, Macedonia / 146 km, 4538 km total
My arm was feeling much better, and I was anxious to get moving after being cooped up in my room for two full days and some. The first stretch was a tarmac transfer to the Macedonian border, but progress was cut short by a flat front tyre. The whole tube change turned into a great big mess due to my impatience, and I ended up having to patch up two tubes before the job was done. As the bike was on its side, I decided to empty the leaking RR tail tank and also clean up my radiator as the engine was running pretty hot.
I eventually made it to Macedonia, and soon after the border connected with The Crimson Trail. It was immediately clear that Macedonia was going to be tough. Steep ascents and descents, with a hard surface with a lot of loose stuff on top of it. The rear tyre would spin out with just a touch of throttle. The trail descended down into a town in a valley, where I resupplied and had a hasty dinner, before heading back out on to the trail, while I still had light.
The trail ascended steeply over similar terrain I had ridden on the other side of the valley. Easing into a rhythm, the riding became quite exciting. However, following the trail I made a navigational mistake and ended up on very steep ground in the mountain forests. I had stubbornly followed the track I was on, as in my mind it would surely connect with the main trail. Unfortunately progress came to an end after several falls on the steep and technical ground, as the trail became even steeper and completely overgrown. I was in a bit of a sticky situation on the steep and narrow trail, as the bike needed to suddenly go the exact opposite direction.
Turning the bike around on the steep ground was extremely difficult. I fell off it in the process, tumbling downhill, and when I looked up I realised that things had gone from bad to worse. The bike was pretty much upside down with the tyres facing uphill as the last rays of the sun disappeared. It was a pretty bleak situation, as I was utterly spent from the battle with the mountain track and picking up the bike several times. I exerted all will power and strength I had left, and somehow I managed to turn the bike around and get it on its feet. I had spent every last drop of energy and almost threw up from the exertion.
Taking a break after the bike was secured, I realised that I had found the limits of what I could do with the 690. It was on that steep overgrown trail, with the last light of the day gone, where the idea of an ultralight expedition bike started taking shape. I toyed with the idea of something lighter, with a enduro suspension, a shorter gear box and an engine that wasn’t prone to stalling, as those were the greatest weaknesses of the 690 on steep mountain trails. Little did I know it at that moment of exhaustion, but that idea of an ultralight expedition bike evolved from a spark to a roaring fire, and the Crimson Trail would be the last expedition with the mighty 690, which had carried me through the Arctic, Mongolia, through Siberia to Lake Baikal and back, and finally through sixteen countries on the Crimson Trail.
After catching my breath, I backtracked to the original track, and camped in the bushes by the trail. My arm was completely wasted but I hoped it would be better in the morning.
DAY 20 / HEAT
8.8.2015 / Mount Golak, Macedonia – Prilep, Macedonia / 227 km, 4765 km total
The morning was beautiful, but started off less than ideally. I had slept badly due to the constant pain in my arm. It was clear that it was in no better shape in the morning, after the exertion on the steep trail the previous night. I could barely use it, and riding would be difficult. I had no other option, but to take it easy for the day and try to stay on bigger roads.
I continued through the mountains and reconnected with the Crimson Trail higher up on a ridge, to where I had tried to fight my way the previous night, but had come up short. The scenery was incredibly beautiful, as was the riding. Just a perfect dual track across mountains and hills. It was steep at times and descents became especially tricky, as I had to ride them from the seat due to not being able to extend my right arm.
The trail finally connected with tarmac and I pushed west. But seeing the scenery which flew past me, I could not take the monotonous tarmac for long. Injured arm or not, I had to get back to the trail. So I turned off the tarmac and up into the hills and followed a dirt track through small villages and beautiful scenery. It became very overgrown and a little technical, but I was doing ok thanks to painkillers. The arm seemed to be doing better once the muscles warmed up anyway. However, the bike was fully fueled and at some point the tanks had some kind of equalising problem, as the front tanks started to build pressure and their breathers spewed out fuel, although all valves between the tanks were open. It of course cleared itself after a bit of fuel consumption, I guess it’s a good idea not to fill up to the brim on hot days.
The ride had stretched to almost 5000 km, so I stopped at a garage and asked if they would let me work on my bike. They had no objections and I soon had a group of young motorcycle enthusiasts helping me change the oil and filters on the 690. It was a fast pitstop and I was soon back on the trails. Unfortunately I had another flat tyre, but this time took great care not to screw it up again like outside of Sofia. It took a long while and a great toll on my arm, but eventually the ride continued, although I had lost a lot of precious time. Once again the ride turned into tarmac and a ride into the city of Prelip and another hotel night.
DAY 21 / SCARS
9.8.2015 / Prilep, Macedonia – Urakë, Albania / 189 km, 4954 km total
In the morning my arm was feeling a little better so I headed back into the mountains. Macedonia was incredibly scenic and I wanted to enjoy every minute of it, before crossing into Albania. The turning point came, when I was trying to gain access to a high mountain plateau, but it was not to be. All trails were either dead ends and the final effort ended up in a very dodgy looking footpath across a steep wall. I was not feeling brave enough to attempt riding it solo. So I turned the bike around and rode to Albania.
My woes with the bike continued, with the familiar scar on the swing arm, which the Walrus had contracted on our shakedown test before Eastern dirt 14. The Rally Raid luggage racks bend in falls and eventually start rubbing against the swing arm. It’s something that needs to be monitored and requires the odd borrowing of crow bar from a friendly local every now and then.
Soon after the easy border crossing, I stopped at the first hotel. I was hesitant to park my bike at the side of the road so they let me park it in the hotel shop. Seemed like Albanians were very resourceful and friendly people.