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Published: August 27th 2005
Erika in the 7 steps cascade on Piatra Mare - the lower part of this vertical ladder is half in the waterfall
So - it has been a while since our last posting; for both good and bad reasons -we have been too happy and having too good a time to be bothered tying ourselves to a computer at times, and at others we have been too stressed. This is the way things go on the road however, as in life generally, there are up times and down, good and bad. We have been forced to change even our sketchy plans by circumstances we did not foresee or want, but more of this later. As usual we will continue the story from where we last left it, and the rest will be explained in due course……
We decide to escape the overflowing campsite in Sighisoara and head towards Brasov, another hot afternoon on the road but at least cycling creates a bit of a cooling breeze. We reach the Olt river but decide against camping here as it is a mozzy infested swamp and push on to the hills and forests of Padurea Bogata. Whilst looking for camp here a crazy Romanian cyclist called Claudio arrives and starts literally wooping with joy at meeting other cyclists. He asks to cycle with us
The woods on the way up to Piatra Mare
and we agree but he sets of weaving across the road, clearly the worse for beer, intent on taking us another 20km to where there is another bar. We manage to stop him before he is killed by the trucks he keeps swerving in front of and explain we are camping here and he is welcome to join us, as we don't want him to carry on as he is. We feed him and he calms down a bit, we light a fire to ward off the swarms of vampire mosquitos and have an interesting night talking to him while he polishes off another 3 cans of beer! In the morning he is a bit saner and as we are all going towards Brasov we cycle together, he invites us to stay with him at his grandmothers in Brasov and we accept. His gran lives in one of the "endless rows of concrete blocks which have risen to house the proletariat" as the Lonely Planet describes it, but the flat is nice and his gran is very acommodating, especially as he had not warned her of our (and possibly his?) arrival. He is very keen to show us around "the
On the way up Piatra Mare - literally meaning 'big rock'
most touristical sites of the vicinty" as he admits he is lonely after spending 38 days cycling around Romania by himself, and is half planning the rest of our tour of Romania for us! We agree to go hiking with him the next day to Piatra Mare, a big limestone massif near town where he "knows the route very well". That night we go into the old centre of Brasov which is very nice, a mixture of german gothic style mixed with Romanian and more mediterannean style architecture reminiscent of Spain, Itlay or Southern France, an interesting but attractive mix. After gesturing towards a few of "the most important touristical sites of the city" it becomes clear Claudio's main interest lies in touring the bars instead, so we don't actually see too much of the place!
Our hike the next day follows a similar vein and it becomes clear to us we need to escape from this guy before he tags onto us all the way to the Bulgarian border. We express concern about going to the mountains without a map but he assures he knows the route well, we dont need a map etc. I am never keen
The old centre of Brasov - there be bears in them there hills in the background!
to trust others in this way in the mountians anyway as I much prefer to have some control of events and to at least have an idea of distances and terrain for myself. Once we are on the train out to the start of the hike and he has to ask other passengers at which station we need to get off, we start to realise he obviosly doesn't know the route so well after all. Fortunately the paths are well marked and easy to follow, although Claudio twice manages to lose the way before we re-find it and stop following him or his directions at all! The route is very nice, however, with awesome forests which are home to bears and other large mammals (we don't see any) and on the way up it passes a very impressive waterfall cut through a deep chasm in the limestone which you can climb down into on ladders and chains. Claudio reluctanly follows us down into this but only now do we realise his shoes have barely any soles left on them! - we cant feel sympathy for this as we know he has another better pair he has for some reason chosen
Our host and friend Cristina who looked after us so well in Brasov after our nightmares there - I hope we can return your hospitality one day...
not to wear!?! We continue up and up through steep forests and emerge on a grassy plateau to the summit, passing a high shepherds camp which fortunately has no vicious dogs around it. On the way up we learn Claudio has also brought no water with him, despite us reminding and asking him about this before we left. We now have 1 litre of water for all 3 of us on a hot day on top of a limestone mountain and are not too amused by his idiocy here - strict water rationing follows! We decide to eat our lunch at the summit but Claudio prefers to descend to a cabana (mountian hut) further down as he "would like to take a beer". We agree to meet him there on the way down as he says he is not hungry. We enjoy a nice lunch by ourselves and plan how to escape from this guy without hurting his feelings (as he has been kind to us) or creating too much tension. We arrive at the cabana to find he has polished off a couple of beers already and is keen to drink more now we have arrived. He also now
The summit ridge of Piatra Craiului as the cloud clears..... That red blob is the refuge!
says he is hungry and asks if we have any food left, as he brought only lightweight chocolate snacks and no proper food. We offer him what we do have left - a hard bioled egg, some tomatoes and some nuts, but he seems annoyed we have eaten all of our bread and cheese, even though we had made it clear we were going to do so on the summit and did offer him some then!. At the cabana we start talking to some a nice couple who show us their map and finally we have an appreciation of where we are and where our routes up and down lie etc. It also becomes apparent the town we are walking out to to catch a return train has no station!
The way down is spectacular however, with an even more impressive set of waterfalls and chasms called the 7 stairs, after the vertical ladders that descend almost through the waterfalls at one point. After about 2 hours of increasingly less subtle hints that our routes lie on different paths Claudio finally begins to take this on board and plans to take a different route to us in the morning, while
The view west at sunset - our only view from three days in the mountain. You can almost see the curve of the earth's surface.
we plan to remain in the city so that we can get info on the mountians around and actually see some of the sites of the city. We leave in the morning after trying to thank his grandmother for her hospitality, as really it is her who has gone out of her way to help us and make us welcome. We are not confident that Claudio has fully translated or expressed our thanks as we would like, as he seems to think it is unescessary to do so himself. We ask him if there is a gift we could buy his gran by way of a thankyou but he says this is not necessary - we notice she likes flowers and plants and suggest buying her some flowers from the nearby market. He replies that "she is too old to appreciate such beauty" - which gives you some idea of this guy's selfish attitude's! We say our goodbye's to him - only after he has once again tried to suggest we go "to take a beer in the city" and then go and buy some flowers and take them back to his gran, who is very happy and hugs and
Old & New in Bucharest
An example of both the old and modern architecture of Romania's capital city
kisses Erika when she gives them to her.
We are free! We go into the city and find the tourist info and buy maps for the mountains, and spend a nice afternoon cycling and walking around the old city. We decide to spend another night here and get a cheap hotel room right in the old centre. We then cycle out just after dark to Racadau, a suburb of concrete housing blocks in the adjacent valley wedged between steep forested hills that are home to bears. We go to Jepilor street where we have been told it is easy to see bears feeding in the rubbish bins. We are a bit sceptical about how easy it will be to actually find them, and Erika in particular is a bit concerned about the safety of seeing the bears, I am more concerned about being in this neighborhood after dark, as in Britain it is exactly the sort of place you would not venture into at this time of day (or any other!). As usaul such 'hoods in Romania are fine as people here are nice; we cycle up a badly lit street and notice lots of areas with american style
Smaller, heavier and much yellower - our new somewhat inferior tent that we are learning to love slowly...
'dumpsters' on the side of the road against the forest, opposite to the housing blocks. About halfway up the street we notice many of the bins have been tipped over etc. and now signs appear warning you not to enter the woods or feed the 'big animals'. Still no bears and we are still sceptical, until we arrive at one set of bins with some guys standing opposite with big camera's - we cycle past to the end of the sreet - nothing there so we go back to ask these people where the best place is etc. As we stop a dog runs out form the bins and we jump thinking it is a bear, I then spot a darker, much bigger animal in the bushes behind the bins - an adult brown bear! It climbs over the wall behind the bins and onto them, the dog barks and legs it! We then learn there is a cub in one of the bins - we had cycled past before only a few metres away! The bear we are watching is smaller than we had expected but as we discuss this a much larger, more powerful looking adult rears up
Smaller, lighter (only some paper and a match needed) and vastly superior and more reliable than an MSR
over the wall causing the first one to back off towards us across the road, we back off too! and the big adult emerges into the light with her four cubs! This is the cue for most of the other tourists in the cars to drive closer to take photo's - the bloke from the dutch couple who had been standing next to us rushes in with his camera flashing away like a fool towards the cubs, the mother quickly turns, growls and makes to move towards him but he has already covered the 50m or so backwards incredibly fast!! Erika is freaking out a bit now but the views are impressive and I assure if we stay a good distance back we will be safe - the only danger is from idiots like this guy getting in their face but at least if they are between us and the bear then we don't have too much to worry about! The cars get too close and the bears move off up the street to another ste of bins - cue the cars to follow (almost chasing them) - reminds me of the white safari vans in African National Parks!
We follow more slowly on our quiet bikes, staying in the shadows so as not to disturb them too much. Predicatbly the same happens at thses bins and the bears rertreat to the forest and the cars leave. We hang around but hey dont return and we go back to the first bins where the first adult - probably an immature sub-adult from last year? - has retuned, but this bear suddenly backs off to obne siude as the 'big mother' retuns with thew cubs. We get even better views this time - she is enormous and easily reaches up and flips over a heavy metal dumpster so her cubs can access the food inside. Ther cubs are cute but when the largest starts to get curios and approach us we back off behind the cars that have once again gathered. We realise a german car has the window open and is throwing food out to get the cub to come closer so they can get better photo's. When the mother spots this food she too comes closer to investigate and the occupants hurl themselves back against the far side of the car - fools! This sort thing carrys on for a while - people get too close, bears move off to toher bins, people follow, bears move back etc. We notice the less dominant smaller sub-adult lurks around waiting for the mother and cubs to move off and the cars to follow before returning to feed. In between the local dogs and cats scavenge anything left - their rapid departure lets you know when a bear is returning.
The whole thing is quite crazy - only 10m or so away are people's front doors and locals walk past ignoring the bears on their way home, local kids are hanging around smoking and chatting only 20 m away down the street etc. whilst the largest carnivores in Europe rifle through their rubbish! After an hour so we decide to leave them alone and make our way back to the hotel for a very late dinner. I don't know what the effects are on the bears of eating human rubbish/leftovers, but the big female looked very healthy and to have four cubs suggests they do alright, however these cubs will learn only how to raid bins rather than how to hunt and forage in a natural bear-like manner for proper bear food. What the longer-term effects of this are who knows?
So as you can see we have been having a great time in Romania and loving the place, the food, the scenery, the nature, the people. With the latter in mind we have met only really great, friendly, warm, welcoming people, despite the various warnings we received before coming here, and since arriving, about how the place is “full of thieves”. I was even dumb enough to mock this in our last blog. Well while I was typing the paragraphs above we met some less friendly Romanians - well technically we did not ‘meet’ them as they did not bother to introduce themselves; they did however, quite skillfully it must be said, remove our money and passports and other important documents from the bag at Erika’s feet while she was sat at the next computer, without either of us noticing. Somewhat less skillfully they also took our rucksacks from the bikes locked up outside, which contained our beloved tent, sleeping bags and other camping gear etc. AAAAGGGHH mass panic!!!! The B*****ds!!! Ok so we calm down and go to see the police - why I don’t know but we did need to get a report for the passports so we can get replacements more easily.
The police were OK, they were nice but obviously we were kind of forcing them to do some work when they would rather not - not really so different from home then?! They asked us if we could prove we actually had the various possessions we were claiming had been stolen - yes we said and produced receipts for the tent etc. They were clearly not expecting this and then asked if we could prove we had brought them to Romania - did we have some customs declaration form? (that probably doesn’t exist). “No, but I can e-mail people who have seen us camping with this stuff inside the country” - no we need the form. Anyway it was all kind of pointless as we had no insurance and so did not need a police report to make a claim, we just have to accept that this stuff has gone. After about 3 hours we manage to finish making a statement but will have to get it translated at cost and return to the police the next day to get it authorised and get our papers to take to the embassy in Bucharest to get replacement passports. We check back into the hotel and console ourselves with a beer - it could be worse, we both still have our wallets and most of our money; our other bags were not touched and the bikes were not taken; we were not violently robbed etc. Of course we are kicking ourselves that we made it so easy for these guys by leaving our luggage on the bikes in the street - yet we have been doing this all the way across Europe with no problems until now, we even spent three hours in the same internet place the day before with our bags on the bikes outside. I guess you could say we have either been lucky for a long time or unlucky now, we should have been more cautious after all the warnings about Romania etc. It is inevitable that you will play stuff over in your head after something like this, all the ‘what if’s?’ and ‘why us’ type stuff. We try to focus on the bright side - we are still healthy and can travel on once we sort out the passport situation and buy replacement camping stuff.
This is our mission the following the day - to buy a new tent, sleeping bags, mats, backpacks and a few other things to replace the stuff that was stolen, once we have sorted things with the police and embassy. We manage to get the consulate on the phone on the third attempt and they can issue us with full 10 year UK passports so we can indeed continue our trip as planned, except now we have go to Bucharest of course. We go back to the police and get the papers for the embassy and then start our shopping mission. Fortunately there is a lot of cheap gear in Romania, though some of is of dubious quality (and some will have been stolen…) - Mammut jackets etc. are actually made here and cost a fraction of the price they charge for exactly the same stuff further west. Anyway, our aim to buy replacement stuff and get the hell out of Brasov in the same day unsurprisingly fails - it took us months to decide on what tent to buy before starting the trip and now we have buy another one really fast. Erika is in one of the gear shops (I am outside diligently guarding the bikes and what we have left) at about 7.30pm trying to buy a sleeping bag, when she is told that the shop only has one sleeping bag left she starts to cry, it has all been too much and even though we tried so hard to find good gear it was not available - the girl in the shop asks what is wrong and the story comes out. Next thing we know the girl - Cristina - offers to let us stay in her house for the night, she will then try to order another sleeping bag from another shop and get it delivered for us the next day. We are a bit nervous about accepting her offer as we have king of lost faith in people after the theft.
We do accept and go with her to her place where she lives with her boyfriend in one room of his parent’s house. They are climbers and it turns out we have a lot in common so we get on well - her boyfriend Andrei returns from the gym while we are looking at mountain maps of the area. “You want to go to the mountains? I am going at the weekend and you can come, I will show you our mountains”. Next day we buy the rest of the gear we need to replace and spend another night with Cristina - one of the nicest and kindest person we have ever met - as Andrei is on a 24 hour shift with the army. He returns in the morning as Cristina goes to work in the shop, and we go to Piatra Craiului mountains with Andrei. Unfortunately the weather breaks on the way there and we get off the train in Zarnesti as it starts raining. We decide to go for it and climb for 2 hours up steep forested paths while thunder and lightening rip the sky and rain lashes down us. We reach a cabana - a Romanian mountain hut - before darkness falls and spend the evening inside a very warm room with lots of other soaking Romanians drinking and singing until late. We sleep outside in our new tent which does not leak, though we still miss the old one. In the morning the weather is slightly better - it is not raining but we are in a dense cloud with no views. We decide it will clear so we climb the rest of the way up onto the summit ridge to where there is a refuge consisting of a bright red plastic igloo/spaceship thing. Piatra Craiului is a limestone massif with a long ridge over 2000m high and about 2m wide. There are awesome cliffs on both sides of the mountain, but especially on the western/northern side, not that we actually see any of this however. We shelter in the refuge - the door does not close properly and the roof leaks when the rain is heavy! At about 8pm I go outside to answer a call of nature and wow! - the cloud has just broken and there is the most awesome view along the ridge and towards the sunset in the west over the Fagaras mountains - the highest in Romania. Although it is windy and freezing we stand outside for half an hour admiring the view, which has made it all worthwhile. The walk down the next day is through constant rain again and we arrive back in Zarnesti soaked but happy and over the stress of being robbed. We sleep on the train back to Brasov and then get on a bus from the station back into town. I am aware of a dodgy guy standing right next to me on the crowded bus, and still a bit paranoid about security I stand with my hand on my wallet in my pocket just in case. After a couple of stops there is a big push and I have to move my hand to steady myself, I put it back in my pocket and - no wallet !- I try to dive out the door after the guys (there are two of them - the one who pushed me and the one who did the lift, both now running up the street) but the automatic bus door shuts and jams me in it as I am halfway out. There are few seconds of manic shouting from other passengers while I kick and hit the bus door before it opens and releases me, but by now I have lost sight of them. I run up the street anyway and spot a guy who looks a bit like one of them but stop short of lamping him as I did not really see their faces properly and I am sure they are both well gone into the labyrinth of concrete housing blocks in this part of town. We make a search of the bins and bushes in case they have thrown the wallet after taking the cash but no use -it is gone too. Robbed twice in 5 days!! We did not lose so much money as there wasn’t much in there, but I now have no bankcards or any form of ID at all. Worse is that this brings back all the bad vibes from the first robbery that we were just starting to get over, though we try to laugh about me floundering around half stuck in the bus doors. We take another bus back into town and while discussing what to do a fellow passenger obviously overhears us - as Erika gets of the bus this old man tries to push a wad of 10,000 Lei notes into her hand. This reminds us of how nice and generous the majority of Romanians really are - not that we take the money as this guy surely needs it more than us. We return to Andrei & Cristina’s and they offer to store our bikes and bags while we go by bus to Bucharest to sort our passports, as neither of us really wants to cycle the main road to the city and it would draw us well off our intended route south.
Next day we go to the police just to give them Cristina’s details so in the slim chance they find any of our stuff they can contact her and she can then contact us etc. The policeman sees us and says “not again?” so we have to tell him about my pocket being picked also. He then repeats the standard phrase we have heard from so may Romanians:
“Aah Romania - beautiful country; lot of thieves”
I should make it clear that both sets of robbers were ethnic Romanians and not gypsies, something that is automatically assumed by many of the people we have met and told this story to. Maybe they even drive a BMW.....?
We take the bus to Bucharest - an experience in itself. The buses consist of sprinter/transit vans fitted with as many seats as they can - not that the number of passengers taken on board will be in any way limited by the number of seats available - and they are driven as fast as possible with little respect for anything else on the road. We get there alive however and find our way straight to the embassy/consulate building. It is surrounded by heavy security and has airport style metal detectors and searches going on before you can even get into the compound. The consulate office is already closed for the day however as it is by now 4pm. We then go on a hunt for a cheap hotel - something that doesn’t exist in Bucharest. We find somewhere of similar quality to Hotel L’viv but at twice the price. We are hopeful we can sort our passports the next day and get some beer and try to have a nice night in the hotel. Sadly our MSR stove - the one new bit of camping kit we bought before this trip that we still have - decides to start seriously malfunctioning and we spend hours trying to clean and service it, including going out to get new, high quality imported petrol, but to no avail - it only gets worse. We eat bread and cold sardines in a bad mood after spending hours swearing at the thing, and wish we had taken our trusty trangia instead. This is really the third and final blow to a really bad week for us - if this had happened normally we would probably just have eaten out instead until we could get it fixed but because of the thefts we have lost a lot of money and our budget has soared buying replacements etc.
After more bread and no coffee for breakfast we go to the consulate early and clear security - Erika is made to open her water bottle and drink from it to prove it is water; while I am allowed through with a bottle of beer and a water melon no questions asked. They confiscate our camera for ‘security reasons’ but fail to spot the penknife! Crazy. Anyway after an hour of form filling and being robbed for the third time (replacement passport fee) we are told they can print them today and we should come back at 4pm - excellent. We spend a few hours in a fruitless search for padded cycle shorts as Erika had a pair stolen with her rucksack, but it seems no such thing exists in Romania. We then tour the ‘sights’ of Bucharest including Ceacescu’s ‘palace of parliament’ which took years to build, was still under construction when he was deposed and executed, and is the second largest building in the world, yet not really anything worth looking at! (incidentally the largest is the Pentagon - must be something about crazy, megalomaniac rulers wanting big buildings or something….). As a result of the construction of this and the ‘modernisation’ plans instigated by Ceacescu most of the historical buildings in Bucharest were bulldozed and replaced with tasteful 1960’s style concrete stuff - very nice. A few old buildings remain wedged between ugly monstrosities. Other than this there is not much to the city -there seemed to be no real vibe, no sense of street culture etc. that was evident even in the crumbling mess of L’viv. We return to the consulate and Erika goes in to collect the passports while I wait outside with the bags to avoid security nonsense again. I joke on the way that I wonder how long I can stand outside before I am moved as a ‘security risk” - well about 10 seconds actually as I barely have time to make it obvious I intend to stand around before the guards shout at me in Romanian and point at the barrier across the street. I smile, nod and move a few metres so that I am just the other side of this barrier and sit down. They all smile at his before sending the English speaker over to me to explain that they actually want me to move right out of sight of the consulate building (in case the consulate/ambassador should look out and see a dirty dreadlocks?….). We get our shiny new passports and speed back to the bus station for an even crazier bus ride back to Brasov. This driver thinks he is training for the world rally or something - on the way out of the city there is a huge traffic jam on the road so he takes to the verge and speeds along over rough ground, half in a ditch, nearly kills a horse and cart one point (no exaggeration) and ploughs through bushes and small trees until even this abnormal lane of traffic (he is not the only vehicle doing this) becomes jammed. No problem - in one deft maneuver he barges through the two normal lanes of traffic and emerges on the opposite carriageway where we are soon back to full speed straight at any oncoming traffic, which gets a quick blast of the horn before having to get the hell out of the way. Amazingly we make it back to Brasov alive and return for our last night with Andrei & Cristina. Armed with new passports and replacement gear we return to our original plans and leave Brasov the next day headed for the Bucegi mountains - two weeks late and with our pockets somewhat lighter.
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