Monday, November 1, 2010


Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the Seven Lakes
What started as a trip to Istanbul ended as a jeep excursion into the Rila mountains.  Twice a year our faculty ventures together on an “excursion”. Most often it is in Bulgaria, but this fall a plan was in the works for two nights in Istanbul. That never came to fruition, I’m guessing because of the expense. An alternate plan was developed; a one night trip to the beautiful Rila Mountain National Park to the mountain top resort of Panichishte the place we spent our first four nights in Bulgaria with Peace Corps. It is a beautiful location and this time the promise of a lift ride to the top to view the famous Seven Lakes enticed us to join the group. The excursion is an opportunity to dance, eat and drink together. Not everyone goes, but for those who do it is usually a fun time.

We set off in a luxury bus right at noon on Friday. It is about a four hour trip, none of it on highways. First through the flats and then up and over one pass after another. Looking down in some locations, you know that puny little guard rail would never stop a full bus from careening off the edge. But our driver was cautious and the edges of sheer cliffs became less threatening. As we neared our destination, it all looked familiar. Interestingly, some colleagues had never been here. We find this to be true often as we talk about places we have been in Bulgaria. We have certainly been to more places in Bulgaria than either of our counterparts.


The Panorama Hotel was appropriately named. It sat in a clearing facing south with wide expanses of mountain views. The sky was a clear deep blue, bringing the outlines of the snow covered peaks into sharp focus. A large patio even in late October with the sun shining was a wonderful place to sit and enjoy all this grandeur.


Mike and I immediately set out on foot in search of this new lift reported to be about twenty minutes away. We found the signs but it was more than six kilometers away.  Too far for a late afternoon trek.  Instead we just enjoyed a shorter walk with some colleagues.

News broke early that the lift was not working, a great disappointment for those of us who had planned to ride it the next day. We had come prepared for what might be a cold 20 minute ride and a 30 minute walk once on the top. Seven Lakes sits at about 9,000 ft.

There are two things that are consistent among Bulgarians. Most often plans come together at the last minute even for rather large events, and details just aren’t part of the plan. In America, one of the planners certainly would have confirmed that the lift was operational at this time of year. As a result of always being in “crisis mode” they are good at scrambling and solving problems on the fly, or  just accept things as they are. This time there was a plan within a few hours of hearing the lift was not working to take jeeps to the top of the mountain where the lift would have dropped us. All was well and good.

Saturday morning was just as clear and beautiful as Friday had been. It would be perfect at the top, with opportunity to see all seven lakes from one vista point. At the designated time three jeep/four wheel drive vehicles were parked out front and ready to go. It was a squeeze getting everyone in. Ten people were packed into my jeep: a father and son in the passenger seat, four women sitting two forward and two back in the back seat and four good sized people cramped into the way back with very little head room! As we left I thought there were still people waiting to go and thought there must be another jeep on the way. I never did sort that out. 

The first 15 minutes were on a newly paved road and there was much laughter and excitement. A few expressions changed as we reached the bottom of the lift and started up the rugged construction road. We zigzagged back and forth under the lift several times and expansive views opened up a few times. This was going to be SPECTACULAR!  We splashed through puddles formed by descending streams and bumped over good sized rocks. I didn’t care for the driver smoking and talking on the phone while driving, but at least we were not on cliffs edge while he was doing it.

During one of the phone calls I heard him say чакай!  Wait! And before long we were stopped. Another quick call and we were on our way. Around a bend and up a VERY steep incline. Part way up and we could go no further. Ice and spinning wheels! Back down and try again. Same thing. Third try unsuccessful. Time to lighten the load. Everyone out. Back down with only the driver and another attempt. Over and over again while we watched. Up ahead of us the first jeep had cleared this part of the hill, but was enacting the same scene on the next part of the hill. Below the third jeep waited patiently. Our driver eventually tried an alternative route from the lower waiting point, only to get hung with two wheels in the air 20 yards from the road. The first jeep eventually gave up as well and returned to the flats, quickly rescuing the hung jeep. 

"I know I can, I know I can"!
Not this time, but next time for sure!

Everyone OUT!

Rescuing the "hung Jeep"
Eventually we had to admit defeat and turned to return. However my jeep which was packed like a Volkswagen full of clowns on the way up now only had five people in it and one was not someone who had come up with us. Where were the others? Had they been shuttled back already? Another mystery!

Back over the stream puddles and rocks feeling disappointed. Will we have the opportunity to return to the Seven Lakes again before we leave Bulgaria? The snows remain on top into summer and they are not easy to get to. Bummer!

Suddenly my jeep turns off the road and we are attempting an ascent up a logging road, much worse than what we have already experienced. Now there were trees to dodge and much bigger stumps to get hung up on. What is he doing?  A failed attempt one way just means try again another way, and that is what we did several times. No one in the jeep is saying anything, just numbly sitting and watching.  In the meantime the other two jeeps have stopped and are waiting on the road. Again failure, more discussion and off we go again to the base.

Oh No! NOT our driver. He heads back from where we just came and sure enough we try again (with the five of us still in the vehicle). On our way up the impassable stretch we see a VERY LARGE logging vehicle backing down. This is the kind of machine that has tires larger than I am tall (no laughing) with treads as deep as my hand. If he can’t make it up certainly we can’t. But no, once it is out of the way we try again, first forward then in reverse. I’m thinking ( in Bulgarian) enough already. What is motivating this man to be such a fool?  Is it the money for he would garner in this one afternoon a week’s salary, pride, or stubbornness? God knows. All the while we are just very quietly accepting this. I could not stand the foolishness any longer and said (in Bulgarian) “Enough, this can not be done and there is not enough time to go to the top.” I got no response from anyone, but within minutes we were turned around and heading back.  The other jeeps were no where in sight. They had not waited to rescue this fool hearted colleague if he had once again got us hung up! Once we hit paved road there was a collective sigh of relief.

Feeling safe, I enjoyed the vistas that would appear as we descended, but became alarmed again when the jeep stalled for no apparent reason. A few tries of the crank and nothing. Had he emptied the tank of fuel with all those attempts up the hills spinning wheels furiously?  The driver hops out, grabs something from under the driver’s seat and lifts the hood. Blinded by it we can only guess at what he is doing. The sounds of a compressor certainly leave me confused. Unhook the compressor and back in the jeep. Several more false attempts and I’m thinking surely we have run out of gas. His stubbornness is rewarded and eventually he gets the jeep started and we are off again!  The hotels are looking familiar and we are now within walking distance to the hotel if anything else should go wrong.

Once back, there seems to be some commotion among the teachers which neither Mike nor I could understand. We try to sort it out by watching and listening but eventually have to turn to Petya to translate. Apparently those people that did not return in my vehicle are STILL on the mountain. They had decided to walk to the top. All but one have cars at the hotel as they are planning to extend the long weekend by going other places nearby. They are in touch with the group and it is estimated that it will be four hours before they return. There is talk about a jeep waiting to pick them up but where? We have learned to just go with the flow as there is nothing we can do. However it becomes clear 38 people riding the bus back home are going to wait for the ONE person who decided on her own to hike to the top. Mike and I certainly would have joined her if we had known it was an option!!!   There is surprisingly little discourse about the waiting….once again just accepting things. Petya says, “We have no choice. She paid for the bus”.  As Americans you can imagine our thoughts about that. She is not being stranded on the top and once down there are two cars heading toward a town with buses to Plovdiv!!  But we wait. Her four hours were only two but I can tell you she was not a popular person when she returned. The director had a few words for her, we boarded the bus and headed home.
There is a good chance Mike and I will  get to Istanbul and return to the Seven Lakes long before many of these Bulgarians do.

As crazy as it was, we had a good time. The camaraderie, location and weather were all worth it plus we had another Bulgarian adventure!!



Anonymous said...

Sometimes we wish that we were on this adventure with you - this time, not so much! And we agree - you will both make that trip at some point before you return to the US! Thanks for sharing!
Estelle & Bill

Anonymous said...

Fantastic photos- and a great story. As always: Today's adversity becomes yesterday's adventure!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought I could be flexible in travel / vacation activities. Well I guess you pass the manyana test. Hope you do have the opportunity to make the summit, and get to Istanbul.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work. general health