At the turn of the Millennium I lived in the US as an exchange student. I spent my time predominantly in the rather unimpressive locale of Albany in Upstate New York. During my year in the States, I did plenty of travelling. I hopped over the border to Canada on a couple of occasions, I spent plenty of time in the City and toured a lot of the Catskills region. However, one of my greatest regrets is that I did not venture further west into the US. I would very much have enjoyed visiting some of the more remote areas in the country, such as Montana or the Dakotas.
Not only would trips to that area have satisfied my desire to get a bit of a cowboy experience, it would have provided the opportunity to get a little closer to nature and to enjoy the much vaunted 'big skies' that region boasts. Sadly, a lack of money (I was a student after all) and a lack of time ensured this was not to be. However, a few years later, I got to see something of the same ilk when I visited Ningxia in North-western China. The barely-known and rather under-developed province is home to mountains, deserts and some fantastic panoramas. As the Gobi desert meets the Helen Shan mountains a few kilomteres north of the main city of Yinchuan, the horizon simply opens out in splendour. This was a magnificent sight in the day, but was equally impressive at night when the stars seemed unbelievably clear and astonishingly close.
Prior to my trip to Bulgaria, I had no idea that it too was a land of big skies. If I am honest the image I had was of old Communist era factories and apartments off-set by smoggy skies. In short, I was expecting to be confronted by walls of grey in every direction. This, rather emphatically, proved not to be the case. Some of the major cities had a less than colourful appearance. Both Shuman and Russe seemed to be very fond of dour looking apartment blocks and had plenty of ominous looking smoke-stacks. But once out into the countryside things were very different.
I was able to see the difference between urban and rural Bulgaria within minutes of crossing the border from Romania. We crossed the Danube at Russe and were greeted by a rather glum looking city. However, after passing through it – it was certainly not inviting enough to encourage us to stop – the greys gave way to vast swathes of greens and blues. The countryside began to roll away for miles in either direction and the skies stretched away to the horizon in an expanse of wondrous light blue. All the way from Russe to my girlfriend's family's home in Stoyan Mihailovskiy (a small village close to Shumen), I simply marvelled at the scenery.
The theme of expansive countryside and unrestrained skies continued for pretty much the whole trip. As Stoyan Mihailocskiy is out in the countryside, we had plenty of chances to explore rural Bulgaria. We walked, we drove along deserted country lanes and we had picnics. All of this was done with the sky opening up over head. However, as magnificent as the scenery was during the day, it was not until the evening that we really got a sense of the natural wonder on show.
On my second night with my girlfriend's family we went for dinner at her uncle's house in the same village. After tucking into some delicious kofte (seasoned meatballs), we sat and chatted – they were all quite interested to meet me as you do not see too many foreigners in that part of Bulgaria. However, as we chatted we were suddenly surprised by all the lights abruptly going out. My girlfriend's uncle checked the fusebox and found that everything was ok, meaning that we had been hit by a power-cut. So, we decided to walk home through the darkened village. Once outside we were taken aback. The stars seemed so big and so close. It was as though you could reach out and touch them – it was stunning.
The wonderful skies were not something I had expected to find in Bulgaria, but they proved to be an absolutely wonderful surprise.