Floods that have swept through our beloved home of Yangshuo have been described by locals and expats alike as the biggest that they have ever seen, with many older residents saying Yangshuo has not seen anything like this in over 100 years. The floods occurred just as Yangshuo, which attracts millions of local and foreign tourists every year was just kicking into season, with expat favourites such as The Brew, Ganga, and The DMZ Bar being totally submerged.Now that the water has subsided the cleanup effort begins, but with the damage so severe and many places still lacking electricity it is likely to be weeks before anything vaguely resembling normality is achieved.
Gareth Johnson set out on a road trip to discover more about one of the world’s most unlikely red light districts.
A few years ago, I chanced across a blog written by a dude who was cycling the backwater road from Varna to Burgas, in Bulgaria.
Of course, he saw many interesting and unusual things along the way, but what particularly struck him were the numerous ladies who lined the quiet country roads. At first he thought they were waiting for buses or hitchhiking, but then he noticed their foxy style of dress and realised they were practising the World’s Oldest Profession.
Judging from his account, it seems obvious that Mr Cyclist didn’t stop to “chat” with any of the ladies, but his account is still one of the top google results if you Google “prostitution in Varna”.
When I first read the blog, I decided that if I ever found myself in Varna, I’d like to drive along the “Hooker Highway” to see if it was true. I was intrigued as to why these daytime ladies of the night were plying their trade alongside quiet country lanes.
This summer I found myself living in Varna (my decision to move there wasn’t related to the prostitutes). One day, my friend and I decided to set out on a road trip. In the interests of research and understanding more about the contemporary situation in Bulgaria — I suggested that we travel to Burgas along the winding rural roads. The driver agreed, and so the trip suddenly had a purpose — we would go searching for some mythical creatures.
Varna and Burgas are Bulgaria’s major seaside tourist resorts, with Varna hosting Golden Sands and Burgas Sunny Beach — two places with a heavy party scene. Sunny Beach in particular is something of a poor man’s Ibiza and therefore highly popular with Brits aiming to get drunk. Both towns obviously cater for anything that tourists could possibly want, with cheap booze, drugs and prostitution high on the list. Having seen the trade played out quite openly in the streets of Varna, I was sceptical as to why any of the women would choose to work on country roads.
It was about noon before my designated driver and I hit the road. I felt that unless the prostitutes of Varna had union rules about going out in the midday sun, this would be a perfect time to spot the ladies. Less than 100 metres after turning onto the road the cycling blogger had described, there she was — standing in a lay-by and dressed like she was going to a party. Spotting us, she beckoned us over. With a cheerful wave in return, we declined her friendly offer, and continued along the road. In just a few minutes, we’d spotted another seven girls, and numerous cars pulled up along the roadside. (check out our YouTube link at the end).
So now we knew, the ladies did actually exist. Now, I don’t want to be rude, but while Bulgarian woman tend to be really rather beautiful, these professional ladies were far from pretty. Haggard is perhaps the most polite description I can muster.
Their appearance and habits also raised some new questions. Where did they take their clients to make sexy time? How did they get to and from their places of work? And, of course, why did they set up shop on quiet country roads in the first place? These questions would largely be answered later.
As we continued for seven hours down the coast, we found that the first prossie pathway was far from unique. In fact, it seemed to be quite the norm, with these well-dressed ladies popping up on many other remote stretches of road.
One night we stayed in a countryside hotel, and on checking out the next morning we spotted an older gentleman with a big smile on his face checking in with a younger lady (not smiling). It seems that where there’s a will there’s a way, or rather in this instance where there’s a hooker, there’s a motel renting rooms by the hour.
As for how the lasses get to and from their places of work, I think that’s easy to surmise. Although we didn’t see any girls being dropped off or collected, it’s clear that they aren’t working freelance, and that the whole thing is organised by the sort of entrepreneurial gents more commonly known as pimps. They drop the ladies off in the morning, give them a sales target and then pick them up at night. After deducting their “reasonable expenses” my guess is that these kindly chaps sell the girls some smack to “help them sleep”. This would also explain their uniformly haggard appearance.
And so to the last question — what are they doing on remote country roads? The answer to this shines a light onto the recent history of Eastern Europe. During Soviet times, Bulgaria was poor, a corrupt but relatively benign dictatorship. It was (and is) a major route for goods flowing up from the capitalist south of Turkey and Greece to the vast Soviet empire to the north. Prostitution, as the world’s oldest profession, tends to be practised with pragmatism. It’s a way any poor girl, and usually the guy manipulating her, can earn easy money. In Bulgaria most Bulgarians didn’t have much cash, and the only foreigners coming into the country with hard currency were the truckers, who tended to favour the quiet country roads…
Like it or loathe it, you gotta love how creative capitalism can be.