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We got out the door this Tuesday and headed towards a city called Kazanlak. I guessed it was about a 1 1/2 hour trip by car, but it turned into a 3 1/2 hour nightmare. I found this nifty shorter route on the map and took it, but I didn’t count on two things:

1. There are no street signs anywhere in Bulgaria. I’ve probably seen 4 total the whole time we’ve been here in Plovdiv. It’s ridiculous.
2. The “road” that was layed out on the map turned out to be this winding, largely cobble-stoned (that means it was a rough, bumpy ride) trail through several smaller Bulgarian towns.
Of course, I was hopping out of the car and asking people at every town, “so which road is it that leads out of the town and towards Kazanlak?” At least Bulgaria has this going for them – everyone I talked to was so nice and helpful. As a missionary, I was used to getting the cold shoulder or a very cautious look followed by an unsure answer or reply. As tourists, every one is so happy and pleased to help out. It’s been great.

But once we got to our destinations, all was well. We first payed a visit to the Shipka Memorial Church. You could see it’s unbelievably brilliant gold domes perched on the mountain side from several miles away (which made it easier to navigate to). The church is so colorful and vibrant, and really tall – all together quite an impressive structure. The courtyard and surrounding forest is serene. The small town it’s built in just goes about their daily, simple lives without seemingly noticing the church is there. The inside of the church is very cold, but incredibly elaborate, with every inch of wall and ceiling decorated or painted. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but you know me – I had to sneak one picture as we were leaving. (They don’t prohibit pictures because it’s holy, the prohibit them because you’re supposed to pay money in order to take pictures.)
While eating lunch outside the church I noticed a couple of guys that looked suspicious American or German. With a closer look I caught a glimpse of a BYU shirt. I told Amber and she went up to him and asked, “Are you American?” The poor guy looked like he’d been shot in the stomache. They were missionaries visiting the church on their P-day. In all there were 8 of them (including two sisters). They were so amazed to see us, and even more amazed that I had serverd in Bulgaria. We chatted about the state of the mission for a while and about how it was different for me 6 years ago. They were so young and goofy. But they said things are a lot more relaxed and normal than it was a few years ago. There are more branches (especially in Sofia, where there are 5 branches now), each companionship has a cell phone, they get full day P-days (which we took anyway, even though we were supposed to end at 6pm), no one ever gets into any kind of physical danger, there are a lot more Billas (huge, German-owned grocery stores) so they don’t shop in the small, scanty shops set up in of small garages. We chatted with the elders and sisters for about 30 minutes (One of the sisters was a Bulgarian, baptized about 4 years ago in Varna, and she didn’t speak English – I felt bad for her so I spoke with her in Bulgarian for a while, too. I had to show those missionaries I still had my Bulgarian skills.) and then we said goodbye.

Next was up to the top of the neighboring mountain to Mt. Buzludzha – or what I’ve always referred to as “The Spaceship.” The poor missionaries were a little nervous to go there themselves – there’s a mission rumor that a pair of missionaries set off an alarm while trying to break into the structure and were kicked out of Bulgaria and sent to serve in Serbia. Poor, poor little missionaries. I assured them that wasn’t true and told them to get up there if they could. Our drive up to the moutain’s peak was a scenic, easy one. The wind at the top was fierce – it almost kept Amber in the car. But she was coaxed out, mainly by the massive, impressive structure that is The Spaceship. We walked all around it, marvelling. We took a picture with Flat Stanley (Hannah’s little paper friend from school who is supposed to travel to all the interesting places he can and get his picture taken – I think Flat Stanley was blown away (almost literally!)), and then I told Amber that we would next be venturing inside the imposing building. I found the small, unassuming entrance that lead down into the freezing, dark building, helped Amber down, and we were in. We were both 100% sure that we were the only ones around for miles and miles, but there’s still that eerie sense of nervousness and forboding, simply because of the history of the building. It was built in such a secluded and towering place because it was used as a meeting hall and gathering place for the heads of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Huge, international rallies and small, secretive (and no doubt ominous) meetings were held there. We walked through what was once the large opening foyer and up a couple flights of winding stairs. All at once we walked into this massive, round hall, lined with colorful mosaics of Communist leaders and scenes of proletariat camaraderie. What once were plush, red seats were now ripped to shreds and littered all over the marble floor. It was awe inspiring and chilling. Flat Stanley was a little nervous, but agreed to have his picture taken in front of the large mosaic of Karl Marx (one of the founders Communism, and author of the “Communist Manifesto.”)

After that we decided to make our way back to Plovdiv (this time I took the “longer” route, which although it was longer, it only took us 1 1/2 hours and the road was perfect the whole way – I was so pissed I didn’t take that route originally).
We chilled in the center of Plovdiv for a while, dined on some Bulgar foor which Amber will surely describe, and then went back to our room for the final night. I was beat. After a few pages of my book I was down for the count.

Next time we’ll report on how the Plovidiv to Sofia transition was and about the quality of our next hostel. I’m not expecting anything great.
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