Stalin’s re­venge

Rid­ing rough in Bul­garia

Old Bike Australasia - - OUT’N’ABOUT - Story and pho­tos Gary Edgar

Let me set the scene for this tale of mo­tor­cy­cling odd­i­ties. My wife Liz’s home vil­lage of Raz­dol in Bul­garia ex­ists in a sort of time warp. 1,500 me­tres up in the Rodopi Moun­tains where win­ter tem­per­a­tures plum­met to 20 de­grees be­low and where wolves and bears prowl the thick for­est, lit­tle has changed in gen­er­a­tions. Sheep graze, don­keys loaded with tools plod du­ti­fully af­ter their masters out to the fields and bells tin­kle as the vil­lage goats are herded up the main street each day.

Sim­ple to­po­graphic iso­la­tion is ac­cen­tu­ated by the road – best de­scribed as ut­ter crap­ski – to the near­est town of any con­se­quence. As Raz­dol lies within a pis­ton toss of the bor­der with Mace­do­nia (for­merly Yu­goslavia), there was to have been a paved road of some sub­stance, but it seems Stalin and Tito had a bit of a spat and the road project never went be­yond a few kilo­me­tres of bi­tu­men. Cratered, bro­ken and crum­bling as if it had been sub­jected to heavy mortared fire, this is the “good bit”. The rest – which is most of it – is far be­low that stan­dard.

Now add in a twist of po­lit­i­cal his­tory and the re­sult is that Raz­dol is a dy­ing vil­lage. Post-war, Bul­garia and its peo­ple were gath­ered to the cold bo­som of the Soviet Union and Com­mu­nism un­der the less than be­nign rule of Joe Stalin. In this worker’s utopia, travel and op­tions were se­verely re­stricted, so when the Ber­lin Wall fell and the USSR with it, the young peo­ple of vil­lages like Raz­dol were hav­ing none of the bu­colic life­style. They promptly fled for the bright lights of the cities and even­tu­ally the prom­ise of Western Europe. Left be­hind to carry on as they ever had, par­ents aged and even­tu­ally passed away. The chil­dren du­ti­fully re­turned, buried their par­ents, locked up the old fam­ily home and de­parted again, per­haps never to re­turn. Garages and their con­tents were also locked and aban­doned and therein lies the heart of my mo­tor­cy­cle tale. Dur­ing the long night of Soviet dom­i­na­tion, there was, to say the least, a paucity of the qual­ity con­sumer goods so com­mon and plen­ti­ful in the West. Cars and mo­tor­cy­cles were no ex­cep­tion. Ve­hi­cles were the typ­i­cal prod­ucts of the Com­mu­nist sys­tem – me­chan­i­cally ba­sic, of du­bi­ous build qual­ity and aes­thet­i­cally an­ti­quated. Cars such as the Tra­bant, Lada and Moskvitch were pre­dom­i­nant in Bul­garia and the process was that you paid your money up front and waited till sum­moned to come and col­lect your car. The wait was around 7 years.

Mo­tor­cy­clists faced a sim­i­lar choice in ma­chines from within the Iron Cur­tain, with the Rus­sian-made IZH (from the lovely folk who gave us the AK47 Kalash­nikov) and Minsk to the fore­front. The IZH (Bul­gar­i­ans pro­nounce this acro­nym pho­net­i­cally as “ee-zhur”) of the early era came in two mod­els. The sin­gle-pot Plan­eta and the twin-pot Jupiter were both 350cc 2-strokes iden­ti­cal in style. The style was that of the 1950s. The Minsk ap­peared as a 125cc 2-

stroke sin­gle, with a per­haps more “mod­ern” style ap­proach­ing that of a typ­i­cal ag bike. In their hey­day both IZH and Minsk served their strictly util­i­tar­ian pur­pose, mak­ing up in rugged­ness for what they lacked in aes­thetic fi­nesse and so­phis­ti­ca­tion. But with regime change, the doors to Western Europe opened and the flood of cars and bikes of con­tem­po­rary style ren­dered these relics of Soviet rule less than de­sir­able, es­pe­cially among the young. But in vil­lages like Raz­dol, where prag­ma­tism and lim­ited means un­der­score many as­pects of life, the IZH and Minsk sur­vive, al­beit in the ad­vanced stages of ter­mi­nal de­crepi­tude. Fes­ter­ing with rust, chrome a dis­tant mem­ory, caked thickly with oil­sat­u­rated dirt and held to­gether quite lit­er­ally with wire and hope, they sol­dier stolidly on. I dis­cov­ered a sort of “grave­yard” in which the car­cases of half a dozen bikes lay in the mud, can­ni­bal­ized for the parts es­sen­tial to keep their brethren up and run­ning. Decades of rot­ten roads, ex­treme cli­mate and ne­glect of all but the barest min­i­mum of up­keep needed to main­tain mo­bil­ity, have failed to kill the IZH and Minsk of the “Raz­dol Roughrid­ers.” To this day, if one peers through the cracks into the gloom of those locked and de­serted garages, one will see such trea­sures as an IZH shrouded in dust, for­ever en­tombed. I have rid­den a Minsk in Viet­nam (which was also a re­cip­i­ent of var­i­ous forms of Rus­sian largesse dur­ing the so called “Amer­i­can War”) and put­tered and popped around Raz­dol on a bor­rowed and de­cid­edly woe­be­gone IZH Plan­eta. At the end of my en­ter­tain­ing cir­cuit of the vil­lage on the lat­ter ma­chine, I thanked the owner. He nod­ded gravely at his IZH and ut­tered the words “strashna mashina.” My wife Liz du­ti­fully trans­lated what per­haps may be a not un­de­served ac­co­lade... ”awe­some ma­chine”.

Sport­ing a healthy patina, an IZH earn­ing its keep as a plumber’s hack.

TOP LEFT The vil­lage of Rad­zol in all its spendour. ABOVE Lurk­ing in a cel­lar, an IZH fin­ished in a fetch­ing shade of Char­treuse. RIGHT A pris­tine Minsk in all its con­cours glory.

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