Hitchhiking in Bulgaria is not hard but can be slow. At times I had long waiting times because of the lack of traffic and only travelled short distances due to the bad roads.
Travelling from East to West and back is faster then North to South and back because of the one motorway. Don’t be deterred from travelling this way though, I went from Turkey up to Veliko-Tarnovo in the North near Romania. It took two days but I meet some great locals travelling South to North.
In Bulgaria I hitchhiked with Gypsies for the first time and had no issues, (I wasn’t robbed like most people said). The countryside is mostly safe even if many villages look extremely run down and lawless.
Most of the men who will offer lifts used to hitchhike themselves back in the days of Communsim. Quite often they speak highly of Communism and the “old days”. They often complain about the modern politicians and Turks, especially the Turkish truck drivers.
If you are going to Turkey then try catch a truck, most will be going to Istanbul and like the cars can be flagged down simply with your thumb on any road.
Camping in Bulgaria is easy in the countryside seen as there are miles of open fields between the villages.
Getting into Transnistria isn’t as difficult as I thought. The border only took about half an hour and we were issued with 24 hour transit visas.
I arrived at the border after hitchhiking from Chisinau in Moldova with two friends, one from France and one from Germany (all EU passports). Our driver was a local of Tiraspol (the Capital of Transnistria). Each of us was issued with a paper slip allowing us 24 hours backpacking in Transnistria before we had to move on to Ukraine or back to Moldova. Our passports were never stamped and the border police refused to stamp them when my friend asked.
I had taken out my phone to for a quick photo of the sniffer dogs at the border when a soldier approached me asking to see me delete the picture.
No journalists allowed, or crap amateur photographers like me.
We then passed across the border without further questioning.
That’s it really, the border had shuttle buses heading to Tiraspol, we were of course hitchhiking onward with our driver. In Tiraspol we got some money exchanged to the local currency, all that seemed to be accepted by the exchange shops was Moldovan and Ukrainian money plus Euros and Dollars. There are no ATMs in Transnistria.
We left the country (or half country) into Ukraine later that day. Make sure you don’t lose the paper slip and overstay the 24 hours and you won’t have any issues.
Inter-railers have been travelling through Central European cities like Prague and Budapest for donkeys years thinking they have been visiting Eastern Europe. There is a difference though, even if they were all once part of the USSR some are more “Soviet” than others.
So if you want cheap alcohol, smokes, beautiful girls, some wild nature and to witness a more traditional style of life while hitchhiking then follow these 11 simple rules.
1) Smoke : An important part of everyday life from the age of 14. Even if you are completely against smoking be sure to carry a pack when hitchhiking. The offer of a smoke to someone is a good method for making friends and finding lifts. It’s also a nice gesture when getting into a strangers car. Smoking by the petrol stations and hitchhiking spots somehow makes you look more approachable too.
Beggars are always delighted to take a smoke too and considering a packet will cost less than 2 euro then that’s 20 beggers not bothering you anymore.
All girls and guys smoke too in the bars and nights-clubs, and in some countries like Serbia they smoke inside too. So don’t expect to socialise with locals in a bar without getting smoke in your face. In other words, don’t complain about smoking in Soviet Countries.
2) Enjoy local Vodka / Wine : So you get into a Bulgarian car after 20 minutes of hitch-hiking and he offers you a shot of his home-grown 40% alcohol Rakia. It’s insulting to say no, so just drink it and smile. Even if you make a horrible face from the taste he will be delighted to have shared his own alcohol with you. Offer a smoke in return and you have a comrade for life.
This happens a lot more often then you would think because the alcohol is cheap and most farmers make their own. Whether it be Rakia (Bulgaria, Serbia), Wine (Moldova, Georgia), Vodka (Ukraine, Belarus) or Palinka (Romania, Hungary).
3) Have a Phrasebook : Countries like Georgia have had to fight off invaders from large empires for many centuries and still managed to hold onto their native tounge. Its a good idea to learn maybe hello and cheers in the local lingo as a sign of respect. The Eastern countries are very proud of their language’s and history so don’t expect the people to have an interest in speaking English. A translation of the Cyrillic alphabet will be helpful too.
4) Hate your Neighbour Country…. and Turkey…. and Gypsys : If you are in any of these countries you should speak poorly of the immediate neighbours. Bulgarians don’t like Romanians, Serbs don’t like Bosnians etc. Just pick any country that borders you and curse them!
The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) savaged the Balkans and Georgia hundreds of years ago leaving a sour taste in their mouths and they aren’t prepared to forgive. Don’t praise Istanbul as your favourite city.
Russia on the other hand is half in half. Some people despise Russia and the language while some people are happy to learn Russian. Much of the older generations remember communist times fondly (seriously). None more so then in countries where Russian is still spoken by a large population. Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia and Belarus are examples, some people hate Putin and others admire him. It’s hard to know who’s who so its best really to avoid Russia chat.
Germany gets off scot free by the way, Hitler’s third Reich also raped Eastern Europe but an ill attitude towards ze Germans is very rare. In fact many people learn German rather than English or Russian as children in school.
Gypsys are very despised by the people who aren’t themselves Gypsys and some people will claim that they came from “Fucking Turkey” originally. Especially in Romania, it’s easy to tell a Gypsy from the rest too, they always have much darker skin.
5) : Don’t stand out : Subcultures and fashions such as goths, rockers, hippies etc. do not exist in Soviet Europe and girls often wear jeans to night clubs. Dress plainly, brush out them dreadlocks and throw out that Che Guvera t-shirt. Try not to smile too much either when first making conversation. I’m not saying people are overly serious but a bit more reserved, just don’t come on too strong with high fives or fist pumps.
6) Enjoy Cabbage Soup : The national food of Ukraine, stews and soups will make up your diet when travelling through Eastern Europe. Vegetarian’s needn’t worry.
7) Carry Some Cash and your Passport : Just incase it’s needed, euros will be accepted almost anywhere and exchange stalls/shops are never far away (often far more competitive than banks). Get some exchanged when you can though. I have had to exchange cash before on the street with random people because if your fifty has even the slightest tear on it that angry old bitch in the exchange stall won’t accept it.
Cash comes in handy for a quick bribe too (you never know).
The Passport is required in some countries to be with you at all times, spot checks can happen from the police.
8) Don’t Keep Falling in Love : Yes they are all hot, every young woman. Your going to have to get over it eventually.
9) Meet a Local : Couchsurfing is superb for meeting locals, just post a conversation topic in the main page of whatever city you are in. You now have a free tour guide because most young folk actually know their city’s history in Eastern Europe.
10) Be Tolerant : When out socialising just remember that some aspects of education and what’s accepted by society are certainly different here. Don’t claim that Communism was horrible or that the Allies could of won WW2 without Russia, it will lead to heated debates. Who’s to say your education is perfect?
Also don’t complain about issues like the lack or rights for gays, racism or how Gypsys treat horses etc.
Yes it’s not fair but your not going to change the mindsets of millions of people while starting an argument at a bar. You might however get your head kicked in by Dimitri and Igor.
11) Don’t do Drugs : The educations system in some of these places has people convinced weed is about as harmful for you as heroin. Do not under any circumstances approach a border carrying weed (or any other recreational drug). If you do you could be facing jail time in some very shit conditions.
In countries like Bulgaria (where weed can grow wild), Ukraine and Belarus you can’t even find skins for rolled up cigarettes easily, and you definitely won’t find a bong for sale. Alcohol abuse and chain smoking is common if not encouraged, but drugs are seemingly the devil! Just don’t bring any.