Sunday, 20 August 2017

Bulgaria: Strandzha's Mysteries

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff   
Indi Pasha, where shirts and lacy underwear grow in the darkness, is a place that cannot be found by simply following roadside signs. It is true that this holds for most places in Bulgaria, even for some of the big cities. But Indi Pasha [pronounced PASS-ha] cannot be found at all – the only way to get there is if somebody takes you.

Two things are needed: a guide and a jeep. The road through the Strandzha Mountain to Malko Turnovo is narrow and winding, but with relatively few potholes. After a turn, the driver Nedyalko suddenly veers off the road and heads upwards on a path, the fallen branches cracking loudly under the tyres. His clothing is camouflage, same as the jeep. He’s from the Gramatikovo village Hunting Preserve and one of his main goals in life is not to scare away the wild beasts unnecessarily. He’s friendly and seems to have naturally picked up a few boy scouts’ tricks; he manages to make out the path even in places where it is completely covered by grass, quickly getting back on the dirt tracks.

Our guide, Petko, is the director of the same preserve. In place since the Developed Socialism period, this hunting preserve used to serve as a free tourist agency – for VIP guests, such as Political Bureau members who had a simultaneous love for animals and hunting, and for Russian comrade miners from Donbas, in Ukraine. After the fall of communism, the hunting preserve’s base became accessible to regular people, but its geography could not change – right near the Turkish border, the region is one of the most isolated in Bulgaria. The market economy mechanisms quickly made clear to the local population that, in order to survive, Strandzha needed tourists.

Petko has adopted the region’s PR as his own cause and he performs it most sincerely. He spends the whole ride telling stories about the archeological findings scattered in the area.

The forest withdraws a bit and we find ourselves on a wide meadow covered with tents. The migrants have creatively used old nylon, rugs and army blankets, creating a brightly-coloured colony of small houses blowing in the wind; children, dogs and horses walking amongst them. “We are moving!,” the ringleader reports to Petko, who immediately asks for the report’s missing details. “And don’t leave any trash behind!,” our guide finally advises. He explains that they move around throughout the year, doing seasonal work. Sometimes they help him clear out the fallen trees.

We enter the forest again and, suddenly, it gets so dense that the bright summer day abruptly changes into dusk.

The trees here are very tall, tightly pressed against one another, but despite the strange darkness, there is “subforest” – thirsty for life, growing underneath. It’s what makes this mountain exceptionally valuable to the European continent: over 60 species which used to grow all of over Europe during the Tertiary Period can now be found only here. The locals have chosen one of the most beautiful endemic species – the periwinkle, as their symbol. Despite its misleading Bulgarian name, zelenika – derived from the word for ‘green’, the periwinkle blooms in pinkish-magenta colours in June. Some of the other ancient plants are poisonous.

At some point we start to descend and, on the left side of the road, we see a canyon. This is the Yazmenski ravine, as Petko points out. 300 metres further, we stop and start descending by foot. At its bottom, there is a small river – hardly visible in the grass at the beginning of the summer. However, we have no intention of looking for it – we stop in our tracks and survey the lianas stretching downwards from the trees’ tops and their exotic blossoms – nightgowns, socks, shirts, aprons, even panties. Lacy underwear and striped shirts are winding in front of the cliff towards which we are headed.

We jump over the small river and notice a small lake under a rock.

“This water heals,” Petko announces, while Nedyalko crawls under the rock on his stomach, to fill an empty water bottle. Our guide heatedly tells the legend about this place, or at least one version of it – in Strandzha every place with a name has a number of different stories. In this one, there is a man and his ox, which lost his eyesight. The man released the animal, feeling too sorry to kill it. A month passed and the ox returned with its sight recovered. Overjoyed, the man took it in. After some time, he noticed that the ox would sometimes stray from the herd, disappear for a while and then come back. He followed it and found the healing spring.

According to Petko, Indi Pasha actually means Anti-Pasha (Pasha is another word for ‘Easter’ in Bulgarian) and it is celebrated here a week after Easter – as a way for people to somehow spite the Christian holiday. This explains the underwear on the lianas – the afflicted wash in the healing water and leave their clothes behind, believing that through this ritual they also leave their malady behind.

So far, everything sounds consistently heretic. The strange thing is that right in front of the curing water lake, there is a portable chapel installed. Its small wooden roof, decorated with a cross, protects from rain the gifts people left – cones, soap, a pen, a plastic bowl painted in gold. As we survey the touching symbiosis between paganism and religiosity, we notice some lambskins hanging on the trees. “They often make kurbani here,” Petko informs us, seemingly used to seeing the consequences of this barbaric, but also biblical, ritual of votive offering.

Later, when we pass by the meadow with the camp, we see that the tents and their entire furnishings have disappeared. We see the last horse’s backside. We catch up with it and our guide angrily rolls down the window, “Didn’t we say you’ll leave no trash behind?” So they didn’t clean everything up this time, but other times they helped out.

After a while Petko’s anger diminishes and he continues his enthusiastic tale. This time it is a series of dark stories about death and the maladies which came upon a few militant atheists from socialist times, who raised their hand against the two Christian chapels in Gramatikovo. Strandzha’s inhabitants are not fundamentalist Christians and they do not explain the world through Eastern Orthodoxy. They place their ideas about life in a space between reality and fairytale. Now they think that the lack of good roads prevents them from living. But the truth is that it may, in fact, be helping them.




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