25 August 1997
In my last letter I commented on the heavy rains in Central Europe and the subsequent flooding; then I went on to say that we were somewhat dry. Well it was no sooner written than we began to get rains here everyday and received almost 2 weeks of daily rains. A year ago I came to Zlatograd for a site visit at about this time of the year also; I don't remember the exact date but around the second week of August. They were experiencing a long dry spell then also but during the three days I was here it rained everyday. It was the Mayor's view that I was very lucky for the town and had brought them rain. A more realistic view, as it turns out, is that it ALWAYS rains in Zlatograd around this time of the year! One of the rains had accompanying hail that did a lot of damage; particularly to tomatoes and grapes here in the town. That was damaging enough and will cause some people grief but nothing like the harm that would have been done if the hail storm had been in the tobacco fields outside of town. As I was looking out the window of our office I was thinking of the poor souls only cash crop being pounded into the ground. Fortunately that didn't happen and there looks to be a bigger harvest this year over what I saw last year. I'm certainly not a supporter of tobacco products but in this region it is almost the only agricultural cash crop they have. Speaking again of agriculture, I must tell you of the Rhodpe "trashing" system that I discovered on the 17th of August. I was riding the return leg of my 47 Km ride (more on this later) from Zlatograd and in the village of Dobromirtsi (phonetically, long o's and i's like long e) I noticed what seemed to be a load of straw spilled across the road. It was maybe 4-5 meters in length, covering the width of the road and was maybe 300-400 Cm high. I braked and eased off the side of the road onto the dirt to pass and got a better look at the straw. It was then that I found that I was not looking at straw but rather a wheat thrashing operation. The cut wheat had been carefully arranged on the road to cover the paved surface and allow for passing traffic to drive over it; thereby thrashing it. They would then sweep the grain from the road surface and I presume separate the grain from the chaff by tossing it in the wind.
While I'm talking about wheat maybe I should talk a little bit about the Bulgarian idea of a free market economy in what is described as "staple foods". Effective 1 July, the start date for the Currency Control Board, prices were liberalized (decontrolled) for almost all goods and services as required by the IMF, Among the exceptions are "staple foods": wheat flour and bread, cow's milk/butter/yogurt/yellow cheese, white cheese, pork with bone, veal, lamb, perishable sausages, eggs, sugar, and sunflower cooking oil. All of these products continue to have government set prices and wholesalers/retailers are allowed a ceiling price mark-up or face a profiteering charge. First, lets talk about sunflower cooking oil. At the beginning of July the government released 6,000 tons of cooking oil from it's contingency reserves with the intent of flooding the market and holding prices down. This oil will be sold through state stores at a controlled price of 1,150 BGL/Liter. When cooking oil was included on the list of exception items, the government contends, some dealers and speculators bought and stored larger quantities of oil with the intent of creating an artificial shortage then selling at higher prices when government prices were raised. Imported cooking oil sells at 1,600 BGL/Liter and the government suggests that the speculators are attempting to force prices to that level. At the beginning of August an additional 2,000 tons of oil were released from the contingency reserve, but government spokesmen now say prices will increase further to international levels (i.e. market prices). Secondly, there is milk and milk products. Around the 1st of July milk purchase prices were set at 150 to 200 BGL/Liter depending the region of the country and the season of the year. At that time the dairy farmers protested the low purchase price and demonstrated in many parts of the country claiming that at the set prices they are selling at a loss. Then to make matters even worse, the state owned milk processing companies are virtually broke and have big debts to the farmers for milk purchases. As a result, during 1996 the number of cows decreased by 13,000 and milk production was some 17 million liters less than anticipated by the government and state processing companies were working at 20-40% of capacity. In addition, on the 1st of August the European Union suspended the importation of Bulgarian dairy products because a processor fail to pass sanitary inspection. Additional inspections will be performed in September and the import ban could be removed at that time. There was also a significant increase in the price of dairy products in early August with some products becoming unavailable. "The market deficit of dairy products has been absolutely intentionally created by traders with a view of profiteering, the Chairman of the National Pricing Committee (NPC) claims. The NPC and the Ministry of Trade initiated large-scale inspections of wholesale warehouses aimed to establish if these commodities have been hidden in order to create an artificial deficit and push prices up further." At the same time the government has authorized the duty free import of 3,000 tons of cheese between now and 15 October and released 500 tons from it's contingency reserves. They have also raised milk prices to a level of 300 to 350 BGL/liter effective 1 September; but it is anticipated that will result in cheese prices that are higher than the duty free prices and the governments attempts to set and control prices. I think what these two examples show however is the governments consistent position that the problems are created by the private traders and warehouse operators attempting to profiteer through creating artificial scarcity. It should also be noted that the producers in both of these cases are state owned companies that are buying mostly from private farmers. In addition, it is the state owned producers that have the export licenses that allow them to sell the products in free market economies outside Bulgaria. This is the situation now under the "Reform government" that has come into power; I can only guess at what was going on before. There is a lot of reforming still to be done to say the very least!
On the reverse of this page I have drawn a map of my current cycling range and will send others as I hopefully expand my horizons. In the past I have mentioned town names that I thought you could find if you had access to a good world atlas. But, now that I am riding in the area I will be talking about villages and small towns that it would take a detailed map to find. In fact the village of Alamotsi doesn't even appear on automobile map that you can buy here in Bulgaria. I have shown the name in Bulgarian, both in normal capital and lower case letters as well as in all capitals, and the also in the English phonetic spelling. Therefore, if you do have an atlas maybe you will have a chance to match it to the general area that I am talking about. My rides to the west have been to Erma Reka and as far as the beginning of the dirt road to Alamotsi. My efforts are primarily toward the east with a 47 Km ride on 17 August that included about 3.5 Km (round trip) of the old road to Kudjuli; now a dirt road (not shown on local maps) that goes to Doulitsa. Looking at maps that I have it seemed that this could be a short cut to Preseka but the road is not very good and I climbed a 100 meter hill from where it starts. The paved road to Preseka has two long steep hills that I know will be tough but at least I get the benefit of the down hill. The dirt road was so rough that I didn't get any benefit from all the up hill work I had put into it. On 24 August I road as far as the top of the first climb and it was a 4 Km 140 meter low gear gut-it-out effort; but it is doable. My goal for now is to ride to Kurdjuli and back some weekend before it gets to cold this fall. That will be about an 80 Km ride each way which doesn't sound like much but it is plenty for the bike I have and the terrain that I have to contend with. Will keep you posted on how it works out. It is good fun - and the natives think I'm CRAZY!!!!