I better keep my eyes open, there may be dinosaurs crossing.
I better keep my eyes open, there may be dinosaurs crossing.
When I was leaving, a friend posted this song on my page. Whenever I think of the road, it often comes to my mind. Where I lay my head is home. Anywhere I roam.
The road is a harsh mistress I said once talking about long hours on the road but it can also give you a lot of pleasant surprises, not
only in the form of gorgeous landscapes. I entered Laos through the South from Cambodia and even before I got to the border, I ran into two bikers in disguise. At first they looked like locals, riding smallish bikes very heavy loaded but their luggage didn’t look like the things you usually see on the road (video post to come on that). It was Denis and Hanes, Dutch and Estonian who had bought their bikes in Vietnam and had come riding all the way from there. Even though I was faster, we crossed the border together and they came with me to Don Khong where we crossed the river together in some scary barges.
We stayed there 2 days, minding our own business. I reading my book, them checking for a mechanic for Hanes’ bike and after two nights I was on my way. Ahead of my I had the road to Pakse and Savannakhet where I didn’t expect to do any sightseeing. I was on the road to Vientiane where I had agreed to meet with Julien, a French biker I had met in Ulan Baatar, like 4 countries ago. He was luckier than me with his China crossing and actually crossed China from North to South. In truth, I was also feeling a bit pressed for time since now I have a date to fly out of New Zealand to Chile and have to somehow manage to get to Auckland on February 18th to catch my flight with the bike sorted out.
I didn’t feel like straining myself though so I left not too late and rode only to Pakse, a couple of hours away and checked my self into a guesthouse with wi-fi. Since it was pretty early, I wandered around town and had a late lunch of pizza. Not really good but did the job.
After wandering around and fiddling with the internet, I decided to share the info on Vietnamese bikes I had got from the other guys with Antoine, a French guy travelling in the region I had met in Bangkok and then randomly run into in Chiang Mai who was interested in maybe buying one. I fired him an email, only to receive a quick response just before going to sleep saying “you are going to laugh but I was just thinking of you, I’m in Pakse tonight too”. Wait, what? Distance from Bangkok to Pakse: 600 km as the crow flies. Time since I had last seen him: around 3 weeks. Emails exchanged in the meantime: zero. And he was in the same town. See, I give all the details and all but these things barely seem strange anymore. We agreed on having breakfast the next day before I left.
And breakfast we had. Soon after I was on my way to Savannakhet. Another short ride and very nice. Here, checking into a guesthouse was a bit more difficult, most of the guesthouses the Lonely Planet mentions had disappeared and the first one I visited had me running away from it for no particular reason but finally I did find a cozy one with wi-fi and a garden to park the bike inside. Again, it was still day and I went for a long walk around town hunting after lunch. On a small side street not far from the Mekong and not far from my guesthouse, I saw a small group of backpackers. Among them, Timo, a Finn I had also met in Bangkok. I remember also saying to him that I was sure we would meet again because the road is just like that.
The road indeed is just like that. You will meet the same people over and over again without even asking for it. Most of the time not even in the same country. I had met these two guys in Thailand. Antoine had come straight to Laos from there, Timo had been in Vietnam in the meantime, I had been to Cambodia. I put Laos in my list of “that sort of places that are just like that”. That list has so far four countries: Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Laos.
The next day I set off for Vientiane and got there. When I was checking myself into the guesthouse, I met with Julien but that meeting was planned. He told me that the next day he was going to work on the bike at Fuark’s bike shop and when we went back to the street to look at my bike and his, we noticed that my rear tyre was completely worn. Looked like I would be taking my bike to Fuark’s too.
The next day was Thai visa day and Buddha Park day. We also did some pictures together with the bikes. We are in Laos. In the background, the Mekong and beyond, Thailand.
To be sure, that wasn’t the end of it. In Vang Vieng, some random guy said bonjour, I had seen him in Vientiane so when I saw him again in Luang Namtha we shook hands and introduced ourselves, lest we meet again and still don’t know each other’s names. They are Michael and Sandrine and they are also travelling around the world, only by plane and bus.
This is what Mongolia’s main Southern “highway” looks like from Bayankhongor. I let you figure out how it looks like when you are on it.
Oh noes! I am back to where I started!
Another desert is ahead of us and so we ride early today. We have been given by Chris two bits of important information about the road ahead:
We set off early, Neil and I. Although there was 3 of us from the China team in town so far, we knew that Iain would ride earlier than us, he’s an early bird. After a bit of town riding to get out of the Khiva urban area, we saw 2 bikers on the side of the road doing an oil change in front of some random house. Nick and Kevin, I’ve mentioned them before but this was actually the first time we met them. There, changing their oil they told us about the problems they’d been having with their 125cc bikes and they also told us that Iain had been there 5 minutes ago. So, we didn’t leave that much later. We may even catch up with him somewhere on the road, we thought. It is, after all, a 10-hour long road.
Wait, did I say 10 hours? Piece of cake! Worst road so far? Wow, after the road from Beyneu to Uzbekistan, that’s got to be some badass bad road. And it was. After 100km from Khiva and a bridge over an unknown river (can’t remember all the river’s I’ve crossed, can I?) and it turned to dirt. It was pretty bad and then it got worse but Neil had heard that if you go a little bit faster you let your suspension do the work and sort of glide above the potholes, ruts and corrugations. And that’s what he was doing when bam! Punctured tyre. Where were we? Middle of the desert. What time was it? Just before noon. There’s no better time and place to change a tyre than in the middle of the desert under the killer midday sun, they say. No they don’t.
I helped but the bulk of the work was done by Neil. That was a very tiring and dehydrating experience but we managed, with the help of three Russian bikers (Dasha, Denis and Sergei) who had an electric pump and helped us put the tyre back into the rim. Those Heidenaus are so hard it required the force of 3 men to put them back in. I suspect my Shinkos will be the same and I hope I never have to change them myself, pray for a tyre shop within walking distance if it ever happens to me.
Once we had changed the tyre and started riding away, I noticed Neil’s rear wheel looked wobbly. It was the inner tube sticking out through the humungous hole the tyre had. That was around the time we saw a couple more of Mongol Rally cars, including Team Bobby who took a couple of pictures of me while riding that I hope they will share. By the time the Idiots Abroad caught up with us, we had come to realize that Neil’s tyre wouldn’t go far with a hole that size and the tube sticking out. They suggested we use a piece of an old oil bottle to hold the tube in but we had none so I started looking around for an old tyre. There is always tyres and tubes by the side of the road in the desert. By the size of them, it looks like truckers change tyres in the desert quite often, but a truck provides shade and you can hide from the sun while you sweat your life away trying to break the bead. Did anyone say shade? and truck? Our knights in shiny armor were actually two Uzbeks wearing a-shirts and they said in broken Russian (my favorite kind) that they had something better than the piece of rubber I had found on the floor. Soon Neil’s Ténéré was under the shade of the truck and we were all trying to break the bead again to perform the repair. The trucker had a better method than ours: squatting and jumping on the tyre with his full weight. It took us a long time but when we finished, the tyre was road worthy again. Neil would still have to find a new one in town but at least he could ride safely for the rest of the day. I still carry what’s left of the thick rubber in case we need it again.
A couple of ours later when we were out of that hellish road (still in a sort of desert though), we caught up with Nick and Kevin, sort of our companion team for the day. They were having some drinks at a truckers’ stop and rode off leaving us to eat something and rehydrate ourselves. At the speed they were riding, we knew we would catch up again with them. When we finally did (after eating fried eggs and fried sausage at 6PM at an Uzbek truckers’ stop :P), Nick’s bike had stopped working and Kevin had ridden on without noticing. I chased after Kevin while Neil stayed with Nick and we offered to escort them to Bukhara because it was getting dark. It looked like it would be a slow ride into the night when Nick’s bike broke down again. While trying to make a quick fix, Kevin inadvertently emptied the fuel tank and we knew it was time to set up camp for the night.
We had Staffordshire Chicken Tikka that they had brought all the way from England for dinner. It went perfectly with my cashew nuts (always have them on the bike, they are lifesavers).
The next day we escorted them into Bukhara. It took us 2 hours to ride the 80km that separated us from the city. As I write this post, Nick and Kevin are still stuck in Bukhara waiting for parts. At least it’s Bukhara.
While the others chose their hotels, I went straight to the Madina & Ilyos guesthouse and this is where the next installment of this amazing story will find me.
PS: Did I say river? The desert is on a high plain and from the road we could see a fertile valley below and a beautiful river snaking through it. I wonder why they couldn’t build the road there. I think it’s because it’s in another country but I’m not quite sure right now. Check the Desert Rider picture, you can catch a glimpse of the river in it.
We got up early to start the desert ride while the weather was still bearable. Fail. At 9am it’s already 30 degrees. And we were off. Bye bye Beyneu, hello desert!
From Beyneu, the last proper town before the Uzbek border there is a 90km stretch of very bad road. Not the worst I would see on this trip but
pretty bad. Dirt, corrugations, camels, sand patches, all the guest stars were there. And there I was gliding over the sand at 70kph, desperate to regain control of my trajectory and to stay vertical. I am not of the kind that rides the sand fast, I prefer the other riding technique: slow and both feet down, I know it’s not the best but I feel safer. But this particular sand patch, I didn’t see it coming and had to cope with it the best I could. I did quite well actually, I didn’t come off and that’s the most important. Now I would be more on the lookout for sandy patches.
The road was so bad that it took us 3 hours to get to the border. Around the second hour we saw a lone cyclist and stopped for a chat and to check if he needed anything. Leo, English. Here’s a what a cyclist looks like:
He had camped near a small hamlet by the side of the road and was on this way to the border too. With all the time the border took us, we thought we would see him again there but that was the only time we ran into him so far.
We spent two hours at the border and were finally admitted into Uzbekistan where the road turned “better”: instead of being good dirt, it was bad tarmac. A big change and we could ride much faster. It’s such a featureless road that there’s not much to say about it.
We did meet people on the road, other travellers like Jyri, Artur (Finns) and Christian (French). Christian was riding with another French guy, both on Africa Twins but they had split and he was now riding through the desert with the Finns for security. Days later I met his road companion in Bukhara but that’s a story I’ll tell later. We were riding this lone road and after 257km since the last fuel top up, I was starting to wonder if we would find a gas station on the way or just run out of fuel in the middle of the desert when I spotted what looked like one on the left side of the road. I pulled over and when I was getting closer I saw 3 bikes parked a bit further. Not only there was a gas station but also a little shop selling sodas and cold fizzy water. If felt like finding water in the desert. Wait, that’s exactly what it was 😉
We rested, we exchanged tips about the road and the fuel availability each way, we also exchanged some money, mostly to help Christian get rid of all his Uzbek money, we had our drinks. I tried to use the filthy toilet that probably hadn’t been cleaned once since the last century and decided against it. After a while we wished each other good roads and went on our opposite ways.
The road went on straight, featureless and potholed but the landscape was not completely devoid of a certain beauty. On our way to the end of the day we met some more English cyclists and after some fast riding, I had to convince Neil that we wouldn’t get to civilization that day and that we had to start looking for a camping spot. It wasn’t very hard, he was tired too and the sun was setting, soon it would be dark so we set up camp some 50m away from the road behind a little dune. That night I used my stove for the first time to cook rice with a beef sausage I had been carrying since Sinop in Turkey. The best meal on the menu that evening. The other dishes were stuff only Bear Grylls would eat like sand and insects.
The silence of the desert at night is, quite appropriately, very hard to describe in words. It is just beautiful. And peaceful.
You may notice the tent doesn’t have the rain cover, you may also realize there’s no use in explaining why it doesn’t. Plus, that way you can enjoy the beautiful night, take advantage of any wind that could refresh you and wake up at dawn to ride again.
After an instant noodles breakfast (I think I had bought them in Kazakhstan by chance), we set off on our way to civilization.
As the bad tarmac turned into an excellent road as I have never seen on this trip, the desert also turned to green and we had a second breakfast at a trucker’s stop. Soup, bread and tea, the taste of civilization.
We were in Kungrad and would soon arrive to Khiva where we expected to spend a couple of days visiting the ancient city of Ichan-qala.
When 10 people are aiming to be in the same place on the same date, they are bound to meet somewhere along the way. In our case, the place is Torugart and the date is August 28th.
I had run into Neil before at the Georgian border but he was going a bit faster than me and he got a 1 day lead on me. Until his top case flew off. He was a bit unluckier than I and didn’t see it fly off. It was lost to him and with it his bike’s papers and Russian import papers, which are necessary for Kazakhstan too, along with a couple more useful things (he kept remembering stuff he’d lost for days). He was staying in a very expensive hotel so I just had a chat with him and went off to search for a cheaper one in the expensive, oil-empowered, expat-inhabited city of Atyrau. He also told me that Iain, another one of the China group, was in town but he didn’t know where (Iain’s not big on email and technology). Nevermind because as soon as I got to one of the hotels mentioned as cheaper in the Lonely Planet, I saw a red Ténéré parked in the garden. It was Iain’s and so I knocked on his door, introduced myself and we were off to Neil’s hotel to have some beers together.
The road into Kazakhstan also brought a surprise to me: Camels!
It was on some email from Chris (yes, another one of the China team) that I had heard of the Southern road to Uzbekistan. Instead of going North to Aqtobe as Google Maps had shown me, I could go South directly to Khiva. The only problem is that I would have to cross a desert and go through uncharted territory. Uncharted to me anyway because these guys were sure there was a road and so was Open Street Map. I had no idea of the towns there would be on the way, the distances between them or where I could sleep but there was a big chance that Neil would finish his paperwork on time to leave with me. That would be a relief, I would feel better knowing that we were 2 on the road. My rest day in Atyrau was quiet and I spent most of the day doing what one does on rest days: resting. I did go for a walk around town and found the nice promenade along the river and THE beach, there is just the one and it’s artificial.
The next day I started to get ready at my usual late hour because Neil still had some paperwork to do and he hoped it would be done by 11AM. Luckily, at 11:30 he was ready and so was I. I hadn’t found a Kazakhstan map but it was alright because he has a GPS with OSM loaded on it. We set off around noon and the road was quiet and good (or maybe not bad) and by 7PM we were in Beyneu, the last town before the desert where we had to stock up on water and rest because he had ahead of us 90km of very bad roads to get to the border and more than 500km of Karakalpaqsa desert before the first town with a hotel. That night we went to strange sort of bar where there were only women. When we got back to the hotel I was informed that the second bed in my room, which I was assured would be empty for the night since the person renting it wasn’t coming for the night was now occupied by a third person. I gave little thought to the possibility of the third person coming back in the middle of the night to dislodge my roommate and went to sleep. I was interrupted by said roommate who absolutely wanted to talk to me (in Russian, of course) at 1AM but he quickly understood that it was not the moment. And that he better not turn on the air con either.
We wanted to ride early the next day because there is a 90k stretch of very bad road ahead and a border to cross for which Neil has “unusual” paperwork (a declaration from the Atyrau police saying that he’s lost all his papers).
3 hours the Russian border took me. My two passports make a lot of things easier but they also make some other things take more time. Usually it’s not a problem. At the Georgian border I explained that I had two of them, one Argentine and one French and that the blue one didn’t need a visa for Russia. I wasn’t even asked to show it. But the Russian border is special, everyone needs a visa. Except the ones who don’t but no one knows exactly who those people are and by the way, where is your Georgian stamp? I have none, I have just parachuted into your border crossing, you ape! No, really, I never understood why border officials care so much about the other country’s decision to stamp you or not. That part actually went smoothly once they called up the guy who knows.
Come the bike declaration part. See, this is Russia, we speak Russian and all our forms are only in Russian, mind you it is a beautiful language so why should we stain our forms with ugly little gibberish in English? There was this (sort of) nice guy in a military uniform who could parrot some English to help foreigners fill the form. The only problems is that he had stubby fingers and every time he pointed at a yes/no question, I got the wrong answer and he would scrap my form and yell “Answer my question” (can you guess what his job would have been were he in the KGB?). I filled it 5 times until I got it right and then had to make a duplicate. He did say sorry when he was making a golf ball with my 4th form and made a face as if to say “it needs to be flawless, sorry”. I managed to hide from him the small mistake I had made on the duplicate and was off to the counter were the lady fill the computer version of the form and stamps the paper version without even looking at it. The truckers were a happy bunch and one of them was trying to sort us out in Russian while allocated order numbers to us in Turkish. I was lucky, he gave me the only number I actually know in Turkish: beş (5).
Once I had crossed the border the landscape started changing fast, from mountains to plains and very soon I was in Vladikavkaz where it took me some time to find a hotel. Didn’t feel like camping in a militarized area :S.
The next day I set off on my way to Astrakhan where my new tyres would be waiting for me while trying to avoid riding into Chechnya so instead of going East, I had to go West through Pyatigorsk. It was around Pyatigorsk that it became completely flat and a vicious crosswind started blowing. I stopped for the night in Budyonnovsk, feeling it had been enough for the day with the wind and the many hours I had been riding.
The next day I left from Buddyonnovsk at my usual “early” hour, 11AM and took the road that Google Maps had suggested as the shortest one to Astrakhan while asking the locals for confirmation. At some point, Google’s road made a sharp right and so did I, into a dirt road. No problems, I kept asking locals for confirmation and it seemed to be the right road and besides, it was a good dirt road, I could almost ride it at 100kph. Until it wasn’t. Potholes, deep ruts and sandy patches started to appear but it wasn’t so bad. At a small bridge (over a dry stream?), I noticed the landscape was becoming more and more bleak and I started thinking I was riding into a desert. I stopped by a Lada whose occupants were waiting for the engine to cool and chatted with the guys in it. One of them was from Astrakhan and they confirmed that it was the right road and that it would become a lot better in 30km, that there was an oasis and a shop and that the road became tarmac. So I rode on but after what seemed like an eternity of sand, I decided to turn back.
While turning back I realized there was a bit of a harder trail and decided to go on but when it became pure sand again, I just had to turn back. I didn’t have actually, but I did. That was a road mistake, there will be others but this was the first big one. It cost me two days and big dent in my pride. When I finally turned back, I dropped the bike. Twice. In the desert that means that you have just “lost” four liters of your water reserve because, I tell you, you are going to sweat them. That said, the rest of the ride out to the little bridge was alright and I didn’t drop the bike again. At the little bridge I ran into the guys in the Lada who couldn’t understand that I was turning back without getting to the beautiful tarmac road or the oasis. I said I was too tired and didn’t care. Later on the road a couple on a Mitsubishi almost insulted me because I was turning back but I repeated that I was too tired and would like to ride on asphalt. They couldn’t understand and so I continued all the way to the tarmac and tried to reach Elista, the road Neil had taken the day before. Everyone was saying that I should go back to Budyonnovsk to get to that road but at a gas station they told me that there was another way and that they would show me, through Arzgir, and we set off. It turned out that the guy guiding me had something else in mind, another road. A dirt road! He was really nice and really wanted to show me the shortest road and so left me on another dirt track and told me to ride by the canal until I saw a farm (I understood silo) and then ask but the tarmac would be really close.
Whilst on the way there, I hit a pothole so hard that my top case flew off the bike. I went back to pick it up and realized why it had flown off, it weighed like 20 kilos. Not only that but the attachments were all broken and I couldn’t put it back in place so I tied it to the bike the best I could and went on my way. The farm was there, the asphalt road was there… but it was barred. There was a farm and I asked the people about and they confirmed that I couldn’t ride it.
After some hesitation (including going back 1km to try to take the other road), I asked them if I could rest there, camp somewhere and sleep. Luckily they said yes and they showed me a room at the back of their house with a mattress and a quilt. They also gave me melon, watermelon and tomato. Yummy! Later, they shared dinner with me and we talked what we could about my trip and their lives. They were a Muslim family from Daguestan who had moved to this farm by a dam 12 years ago. Dinner was pasta with fresh tomato sauce and more watermelon, melon and tomato. While we were finishing dinner they sent me to bed on account of how tired I looked. I didn’t have such a great night because it was very hot but I won’t complain. The next day I woke up with the sun and rode off very early after having some breakfast. Coffee and melon that Ruslan, one of the kids had shared with me.
I doubt they will ever read this but thanks Maria and husband, Ruslan, Jamal and Aya, you were great!
After 20 or so km I finally arrived to the tarmac road, police check on the way by a guy wearing khakis, a knife and a police t-shirt. My road just changed from dirt to tarmac in the middle of (almost) nowhere. From there it was a breeze, albeit a very long one, to get to Astrakhan. I got there around 2 or 3pm and I was just about to relax in my hotel room when I discovered that I should to the tyre change that day or I would have to stay 2 nights in Astrakhan. On the bike again to the bike shop where they were very nice and changed my tyres but took like 3 hours to do it, especially since they were missing the tool to remove my front wheel (and me too btw).
Finally, around 7 or 8 I was free and went to look for some dinner. Two very special days that had left me with very mixed feelings about Russia had just ended happily.
Some things lose their meaning as you travel East, other radically change their meaning. Take this roadsign for example:
In Western Europe it usually means that there is some kind of roadworks ahead, probably taking one lane of the road you are riding. From Romania tu Turkey it means that you are in for some traffic jam and alternate circulation for probably a hundred km. I don’t really know what it could mean in Georgia because I have never seen it. Up to now, the meaning is about the same but when you get to Russia, it starts getting more difficult to decode. So far, I think it means “some time ago, this road has been worked on and there may be a better bit ahead” whereas in Kazakhstan it gets more philosophical. In Kazakhstan, the presence of this sign just means that there is a red triangular sign with a black worker holding a black shovel drawn on it by the side of the road. It gives absolutely no indication about the future characteristics of the road.
Another sign that completely lost its meaning after the Russian border is this one:
Even when it is accompanied by a “15 km” panel.
Other signs that are usually useless in Western Europe should actually be put at the entrance of the country together with the ones announcing the local top speeds. I’m talking about this one:
It starts in Romania but then in Georgia, they’ve just given up using it.
By the time you get to Kazakhstan, it’s a whole different thing…
Here’s the road I took from Sofia to Sunny Beach. I’m posting it here so that you can zoom in as I tell you what happened.
I pleaded not to take highways anymore and with that in mind I set off. After trying and failing to get Scottoiler oil in Bulgaria (the official dealer seems to think that selling the thing is enough and doesn’t stock oil), I went to Tatiana’s workplace to give her back the keys of the appartment (Thanks Tatiana!). That’s where it all starts. I had said before (to Tatiana, btw) that it is easier to get lost in cities than outside of cities. Silly me! It’s just as easy.
She gave me a couple of indications on how to get to the road from the center but I wasn’t worried: the signs saying “tsentar” had taken me to the center and to her office and I was sure that other signs, hopefully blue ones, would take me out of the city. And yes, I said blue ones. See, contrarily to France, in Bulgaria the highway signs are green and the national roads signs are blue. I knew that already when I came from Romania so no confusion there, thought I. There are two roads leading to Burgas, roads 6 and 8, pretty much of the same length. I had decided to take road 8 and see Plovdiv and Stara Zagora on the way so I went on to leave the city by the highway. I knew I had to use the highway to get out of the city quickly, I glanced at the map and decided that I would ditch it as soon as I saw signs for Novi Han and I did… only to find myself in the midst of (amateur?) road blocks made of piled up dirt in the middle of the road. This is what you see on the map when it look like I took two roads at the same time. I went there, tried to continue and finally turned myself around after going around the 5th or 6th road block.
And I turned back so inexpertly that I ended up on road 6. But I didn’t want to take road 6. I lost some time buy finally managed to be on my way again. It was highway until Ihtiman then. At Ihtiman I tried to ditch the highway again, got lost in the town, found a kebab shop, asked some guy who directed me to his friend who did speak English who finally told me how to get out of the town and take the small road to Plovdiv. And I had my kebab of course. I followed that road happily for a short while until I saw a blue sign (Blue, national road!) indicating Plovdiv to the right. Where did I end up? On the highway again! Arghhh!!!
Ok, ok, calm down, it’s not so bad. After all you are already late, a little highway won’t hurt. You’ll ditch it again in Plovdiv. That’s what I was telling myself all the way to Plovdiv and I did. At Plovdiv I managed to enter the town, go through the center and leave the town without taking the highway. Only I wasn’t on the road I wanted to be. At the first town I looked at the map and saw I was on a much smaller road than the one I wanted to take. I slowed down so abruptly that the car behind me thought that I had a problem and stopped some 20 meters ahead of me. Some guy came out of the car and I couldn’t hear what he wanted. Instead of keeping telling myself that he was pissed off by my sudden stop, I turned off the engine and finally could hear him say “Vous parlez français ?”. Together we figured out where I was and I decided to stay on that road.
It was an interesting experience for a couple of kilometers, the road was excellent in the surroundings of some towns and immediately became pothole paradise in the surroundings of other towns. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t run absolutely parallel to the highway. I took the highway. No use being on the highway without the benefits of the highway.
Finally, in Chirpan, I actually managed to take road 66 or 6 and not end up on the highway. I got lost in Stara Zagora but still managed to stay on road 8 and not the highway. If you look at the map now you will see why it was so easy: there is no more highway after Stara Zagora. Until there is. And you join it automatically and have no other option near Karnobat.
By then, it was 7pm, I was tired and had decided it was time to rest. Bad luck, there was no gas station or rest area at all for at least 40 minutes. Finally rested, I undertook the final stretch to Burgas and Sunny Beach and got to the hostel safely.
That, dear friends is what the road feels like. On a bad day.