Taken from Whitelines 105, December 2012
Words by T.Bird
Photos by E-Stone
Eastern Europe has long been on the radar of the adventurous and the skint, but when some of the world’s biggest freestyle pros flew in, they didn’t know what was about to hit them.
I’d never drunk a beer in a van with a two-and-a-half year old and an eighty- something before – let alone after smoking some hash. But then again, I’d never been to Bulgaria before. In fact there were a lot of things I’d never done until I went there last winter. In hindsight, these things might be considered irresponsible (at best) or illegal (at worst) but then that’s the beauty of travel. It forces you out of your comfort zone. It scares the shit out of you sometimes; makes you evaluate the reasons why you’re there. But more importantly, it compels you to experience new things, good or bad.
So as I sat in the back seat of a van, barrelling up a random road toward a place called Bansko, with a grandmother, a baby, and a buzz for company, there was nothing I could do but buckle up, because this was Bulgaria – and so far, it was one of the coolest places that I’d ever been… and I was only four hours in.
Bansko is Bulgaria’s biggest mountain town, and home to some of the most breathtaking vistas the country has to offer. Lush green pastures stretch across the valley floor until they abruptly meet the Pirin Mountains, while the resort itself sits at the foot of the peak it was named after. The place is a mishmash of old and new. Abandoned buildings occupy the background while posh, Western European- influenced structures take centre stage.
The vacant properties are the by-product of a country struggling with its economy and massive corruption from the top down. Wealthy businessmen see the benefit of developing in Bansko, and so they employ local workers to build a hotel, restaurant, or apartment complex, but either the money runs out, the businessman is investigated or indicted, or the town shuts down the development for reasons unknown. Either way, the construction stops. And so the workers move on to another more profitable venture right down the road, and it repeats like that until the town is filled with empty buildings full of stray dogs.
We got some sleep the first night and the next morning we went to check out the mountain. While most resorts in the western world would require media crews to provide a few months’ notice and at least an hour set aside for signing waivers, the management at Bansko had us dialled in on the first morning after our arrival. Ivan, the Mountain Manager, called us up to his office where we shook hands, introduced ourselves and were immediately given season passes. Now, these weren’t your average season tickets. What Ivan gave each of us were previously used and visibly worn passes from actual people. Whether they were left on a lift or previously confiscated we don’t know. Some were men, some were women; matching the ‘owner’s’ gender to ours apparently didn’t matter, since as our guide Andy would later explain, the lifties really didn’t care that much.
Our drunken friend with the missing finger decided to help us shovel, stopping only occasionally to vomit in the woods
And so, at the first lift, Andy jumped in the VIP line and, naturally, we followed – not even sure if our passes would work. Sure enough they scanned, the gate opened, and no one said a thing. Needless to say, the social etiquette in Bulgaria was already proving to be quite a bit looser than the follow-the-rules-or-I’ll-sue-your- ass mentality prevalent back home in America.
We had invited Stevie Bell, Marc Frank Montoya, Aaron Biittner, and Marko Grilc, an unusual crew spontaneously thrown together in order to make the trip happen. In the end, it couldn’t have worked out any better. Aside from the diversity of their individual riding styles, the four team members offered very different characters, which added a lot to the fun. Biittner is cool, calm, and calculated; the type of guy that would be useful in a sketchy situation when a voice of reason is needed to calm down an antagonist. Say, for instance, you’re at the mid- station of the gondola eyeing up a kinked rail and (hypothetically, of course) your guide throws a snowball at an oncoming lift; and the snowball squeaks through the narrow slit of a window, thus hitting a lone British woman directly in the face. She’s livid. Screaming. Furious. The absolute epitome of rage. Biittner could calm her down with his serene demeanour and logical approach to problem solving. He could even somehow make friends with her. I guarantee it.
To be totally honest, MFM is rather intimidating to be around at first, but you soon realise that he’s one of the nicest people in the world. Loyal, too. He’s the type of guy that would have your back if shit hit the fan. And say that shit came in the form of a crazed kebab stand owner who doesn’t like the fact that you’re feeding stray dogs in front of his business, and who hurls a bowling ball-sized rock at your head in the hope it might kill you… I’m fairly certain that MFM would help you handle a situation like that. Like I said, he’s rather intimidating if you don’t know the guy.
The elder villagers looked a bit like they wanted to stab us and take all our possessions while we bled into the street
Stevie Bell loves being the centre of attention, and he should, because he’s a showman – and a damned good one. As the one dude in our group with an endless supply of energy, Stevie was constantly on the go
and up for anything, all the time. Like, if our hotel manager were to randomly and for no reason whatsoever present us with two brand new dirtbikes when we were leaving his establishment to go to the hill? If that happened, Stevie would probably jump on one of the dirtbikes in full snowboard gear and proceed to haul ass up and down the road doing wheelies within a few feet of a mother and her newborn infant who had stopped to watch this crazy American stuntman. The rest of us would most likely laugh hysterically and turn it into a bizarre Instagram photo shoot.
Grilo is a workhorse. In order to access Bansko’s incredible backcountry, you’ve got to hike the infamous and quite treacherous Todorka Peak. Todorka Peak is perched atop the resort, and its steep, rocky ridgeline crawls slowly to the summit. On any given morning, we were slogging up the three-foot-wide bootpack in howling winds with icy rocks for footing and sheer vertical drops on either side of us, and Grilo was usually leading the pack. Once atop the peak, he was scanning the landscape for jump spots, cliff drops, lines, and south-facing slopes that might hold good snow. Fortunately for the rest of us, he also applied that same work ethic when the sun went down. Say (again hypothetically) you’re trying to sneak out of a bar and into a taxi because you’re too drunk. I’d guess that Grilo would probably be the one to catch you red-handed right after you got in, open the door of the cab, drag you out of it and escort you right back to the bar to neck another round of shots.
Word spread rapidly that a group of famous American snowboarders were in town, and we’d heard that the locals were looking for us. On day three, as we were making our way to the mountain, a car crammed full of three people and what looked like five people’s worth of snowboard shit screeched to a halt directly in front of MFM and Stevie, its horn held down. The driver got out of the car with a look of amazement and started yelling in unintelligible Bulgarian, arbitrarily pointing at us. He was missing a large portion of his pinkie finger. Cypress Hill pounded from his speakers so loudly that the static from the thumping was more audible than the music itself. The other two stayed in the car, peering up at this strange group of pro snowboarders from a land far away. Turns out the man spoke some English, but the stench of alcohol on his breath suggested that his elementary vocabulary was probably more limited than usual. We managed to inform him that we were going up to hit a rail that Stevie had scoped at the mid-station a couple of days earlier. We invited him to come watch, more out of politeness than anything. Hours later he showed up at the rail, piling out of the gondola with forty other people and enough beer to get them all drunk. He and his cohorts stood around and partied while we set up the spot. Our drunken friend with the missing finger was now shirtless, and he decided to help us shovel, haphazardly moving piles of snow around with no real understanding of where it was supposed to go or what exactly we were doing, stopping only occasionally to vomit in the woods.
MFM is the type of guy who would have your back if shit hit the fan
No local, however, was more stoked that we were in town than Bansko’s terrain park builder Bobby Green, whose name is a subtle hint at his favorite off-hill activity (read: smoking pot). One morning, while eating breakfast, a few kids were sitting at our table and they started laughing, so we asked them what they were talking about. One of the girls told us that the evening before, Bobby Green had been smoking some extra strong hash before he went out. When he got to the bar, one of the first people he saw was Stevie. As an aficionado of the U.S. snowboard scene, Bobby was mystified at the sight of him, and instead of walking up and introducing himself to one of his favourite riders, he instead convinced himself that he must have been hallucinating. A few moments later, Bobby went home to sleep it off, while his American idol stayed on into the morning hours.
And so it went in Bulgaria. Fast-paced, breakneck, incredibly odd, insanely fun, and at times, stupidly unsafe. But we went with it, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you travel… or at least that’s what we did. As well as taking us to some world-class terrain every day, our liaison Andy wanted to show us what he called “the real Bulgaria” – all the stuff that people wouldn’t normally get to see on a typical tour of the country. He took us to a gypsy village outside Bansko where we were quickly descended upon by the slum’s inhabitants. None of them spoke a word of English, and while the young boys and girls crowded around us, smiling, laughing and pulling at our jackets, the elder villagers looked a bit more like they wanted to stab us and take all of our shiny western possessions while we bled into the street.
Every night, we ate traditional Bulgarian foods – fish, horse, pig – and downed traditional Bulgarian booze with Andy’s friends and family. However, when the sun set we would continue the party in more American fashion, and that helped make our trip memorable… well, as ‘memorable’ as it could be given the levels of intoxication.
On our last night in Bansko, Andy took us to his friend’s fish farm. Due to a misfire in translation, we were introduced to “Awesome George.” The words “My name is” in Bulgarian are pronounced “Ahh Simm,” so he was really saying “My name is George,” but we heard “Awesome George” as he shook our hands. The decades of farming fish had taken their toll on Awesome George. He wore an outdated, red and blue Reebok jacket with a baseball cap that read ‘NYC’. A silver tooth replaced his front left canine, and he was genuinely grateful that we had come to his house. Awesome George’s farm was located in his back yard, and consisted of three concrete canals containing thousands of fish that he would raise, kill, and then sell to local vendors in the area. About a dozen dogs were slumped around the perimeter of the property, chained to their miniature, dilapidated kennels, some with signs that read ‘Nice’ or ‘Stay Away’, while the most intimidating mutt was aptly dubbed ‘Evil Dog’. Awesome George invited us into his home for dinner. We sat in a small room lit by one dim kerosene lamp and sipped Rakia while eating fresh fish. Awesome George started to sing traditional Bulgarian love songs as a way of showing his appreciation and hospitality. Toward the end of dinner, our guide Andy’s young child grabbed a beer, took a few hearty sips, and began singing with Awesome George. This scenario pretty much symbolised our trip: it was weird, it was kind of uncomfortable at first, but in the end, it was one of the best and funniest experiences we’d ever had.
Our whirlwind outing ended in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Andy had set up a meeting with the local snowboard media who wanted to interview MFM, Stevie, Biittner and Marko. Our new guides – four guys and one girl – met us at our hotel. From there, we were taken to a rundown apartment that served as the headquarters of White Room, the snowboard magazine that they started a few years back.
Due to the economic climate in Bulgaria and the current cost of printing magazines, they told us that they were a digital-only title but they were hoping to produce a print publication again in the near future. Once upstairs, we walked into a room that had been hastily converted into an interview area, with a few small stools surrounded by studio lighting equipment and surprisingly current cameras. For a few hours they quizzed the guys on the American snowboard scene, while I went into another room and talked with one of the editors. We spoke of familiar topics, drinking Rakia and gazing over the historic buildings of downtown Sofia.
With the interviews wrapped up, we went to a party at a local club full of sweaty, beer-soaked teenagers dancing feverishly to mind-numbing techno, and when the night was done, we bid each other farewell in the lobby of the hotel and headed off to the airport. I was sad but happy to leave, and as I settled into my seat and the plane started to push back, my hangover started to kick in. At that point, there was nothing I could do but buckle up once again, because after all, this was Bulgaria, and after a week in this crazy country, I knew that anything could happen.