Passport features stories from the road. This one told from a 2004 trip to Bulgaria for a feature that appeared in September 2004 issue (33.1) of POWDER.
From the airplane window, the city looked like a bomb had hit it. From the ground, it looked like several had. During WWII, Allied sorties targeted Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. But it was a half-century of Soviet occupation that wore the charm of the old city away.
POWDER Photo Editor Dave Reddick and I landed at noon after an overnight flight from New York. It was a bizarre place to arrive with four pairs of skis and six bags of gear—made all the stranger by not sleeping for 36 hours. There were potholes in the runway and hardly any windows in the airport lounge. This was 2004, just 14 years after the Wall came down and the Republic of Bulgaria was born.
A year before, I’d discovered Bansko Ski Resort—a Jackson-Hole-sized Eastern Bloc ski mecca the Soviets built up to serve youth alpine sports. The mountain had 3,300 vertical feet of Alps-style terrain, plus a few dozen 4,000-vertical-foot sidecountry descents and 400 inches of powder annually. Lift tickets were $15 and included a free shot of vodka from the liftie. It was a POWDER story waiting to be told.
A giant man in a tiny car met us outside the baggage claim as we dragged our gear and exhausted bodies outside. He motioned with his hands—no English—that he needed to take us somewhere. He was wearing a leather jacket, black jeans, and work boots. We strapped and squeezed our gear into the little Moskvitch sedan and he headed for town with our boards sticking out the window.
Soviet Bloc housing units rose from the landscape like metallic fingers—perfectly symmetric, brown concrete skyscrapers framed by vacant lots and disintegrating roads. The man drove quickly through a web of highways then entered the city, a rather quaint old place with cobbled streets and pre-war architecture.
We asked him where he was going and he didn’t answer. We asked again and got nothing. Then he pulled over beside a building and a beautiful young woman ran out to meet us. She was a friend of some ski bums I’d met on my first trip to Bansko. She’d arranged for Dave and I to appear on a radio show that morning.
We followed her inside, up two flights of stairs and through two doorways. She stopped outside a sleek recording studio where a DJ spoke into a microphone. I asked her what we were supposed to say and she shrugged her shoulders. Then I asked what station it was. She said it was the old Bulgarian state broadcast. Our show would play in every household in the country.
The DJ paused for an advertisement, and she led us in. Dave and I sat down and the DJ swung a giant, fuzzy microphone in front of us. For a second it appeared that the DJ didn’t speak English either. Then he asked, “How you like skee-ing in Bulgaria?”
For the next 10 minutes we spoke about the world of skiing and snow—Bansko, Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley, Maine, the Alps. The station used the same transmitters that broadcast the Fatherland Front of 1944 and Gorbachev’s Perestroika in the 1980s. Throughout the countryside farmers tilling potato fields and tech workers building rockets listened to the world we lived in, through stories about skiing deep powder in the Rockies and riding helicopters to virgin slopes in Alaska.
Another advertisement came on and the girl opened the door and ushered us off to the car. The giant man was waiting, as was all of our gear. We crammed into the backseat, and the girl waved goodbye. Then the driver pulled away and merged onto the highway, heading south toward the mountains.