Riding rough in Bulgaria
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.