"Eject, eject" he says. I pull hard on the two well used red handles between my legs, there is a loud noise as the hatch shoots upwards, I soon follow. Fortunately this is just a simulator and I'm thrust just a metre upwards, no rockets no parachutes, no crashes. This is the Mig 21 flight training school for the Bulgarian airforce, I shouldn't really be here as a foreigner, but my host has snuck me in to have a look at his work.
Sofia is a construction site, building in concrete and steel rise like mushrooms in a field, the earth around each one remains broken, not yet paved into one continuous mass of man made urbanisation. Cars of all descriptions swerve left, right, left, up down as they negotiate what seems to be a forgotten aspect of the city planning. Prehistoric trams and trolley buses lumber arduously down the boulevards, pedestrians hope skip and stumble over uneven surfaces while unfinished buildings stand like tombstones to a new found economy in this country. For Rent signs in English and Bulgarian adorn many a window, just waiting for some life to enter their four walls. The centre is bustling with all walks of life, suited businessmen rushing to their next meeting, over dressed women who look more than ready for Saturday clubbing and teens dressed heavy metal outfits. My ears are met with the constant honking of horns as newly graduated teens whizz by, screaming in unison in a euphoric babble about leaving school behind.
My passport arrives on the second day, this is my ticket out of here, I leave towards the east on potholed boulevards, passing the airport I turn left and continue on the old road to the coast. From a leafy rest stop on my left a fancy BMW speeds off, to my surprise 3 scantily clad girls wait for their next customer. I would love to know their life stories, but I realise that they are just doing their job. I pass several others as I climb into the mountains.
While stopped to make some adjustments a pot bellied Bulgarian on a racing bike stops to assist, Koprivshtitsa is the best place in the world he tells me. Wow, must be good. Arriving in the late evening, the cobbled streets , walled houses and the clip clop of horse hooves take me back to another century when most of Bulgaria looked like this. Quite a contrast from Sofia. Since this is a very touristy place I'm asked to pay for a room rather than shown a piece of grass for my tent, no problem. I'm woken early to the clatter of a truck hub being dragged past my window by an ancient grandma. This will soon become one of three wood fired stoves for the feast at lunchtime. I pack my things and sit and help to peel 20 kgs of potatoes. Peppers, carrots, parsley, chicken, oil, fat, salt and other ingredients appear and are added to the mix. There is heated discussion about how each thing should be done. I'm happy that I don't understand any of it.
I reach the top of a grassy valley and see out over the plains, snow speckled peaks beyond. I treated to a fast 12 km decent to the valley below in which I proceed for the rest of the days cycling.
I'm greeted very warmly by my host, he shows me in then lends me a mountain bike to go to the hot spring. Stopping for a drink at a spring along the way we arrive at a white, round concrete building in the middle of the fields. He is surprised to find that the spring has been closed off. We use my pocket knife to open the door and text the valve, the water begins to gush freely onto the floor, ever warmer as it wells up from the ground below. After a wash in the water we gorge ourselves on cherries at a nearby orchard before heading for the hills.
Run, run, run! He says, my legs push hard against the ground. After just 2 meters I can not make a progress, suddenly I'm being pulled backwards down the hill, we start to run that way, soon I trip and fall, he lands on top of me and the wing drops. With a bashed knee and nose we give up, the wind is coming from the wrong direction. My dream to go paragliding will have to wait.
From my bed I'm greeted by the sound of rain. Perhaps it'll be a nice change...