Sunday, 28 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Vampire Country


It was day three of our trip (new readers might want to start here) and we'd just left the small town of Komárom in Hungary. We had four working bikes, just over a thousand miles behind us, and a long way to go. We'd lost a fair bit of time getting Steve's exhaust sorted, but it was worth it just to have him not cause accidents, let alone to know the bike was going to be reliable.

But we were running late, and we needed to be past the Romanian border by the end of the day to stop the trip going off the rails. To add to the fun, the Romanian border would see us officially leave central Europe and enter eastern Europe, changing time zones from CET to EET. Nice to know, but not great when you're behind schedule and about to lose another hour. So we hit the motorway towards Budapest and made rapid progress.

Budapest felt like the crossroads of Europe. It was the point where we started to see country codes and place names on road signs and vehicle registration plates that took a bit of thought. NL, D, A, I, those were easy. SRB? That'll be Serbia. UA? Now I was stumped. Ukraine? Fucking Ukraine! A coach went by with MD on the plate. Moldova. It really did start to feel like I was a thousand miles from home.

Cruising at a steady 77mph, the SMT was doing over 50 miles to the gallon, rather than its its usual 33, even with luggage and a tent strapped across the back. Remarkable. Mark and Steve were seeing over 70mpg from their XTs. All because we were sticking to the speed limit - maybe the tree huggers have a point. More importantly, the miles were ticking by and by late afternoon we were past Szeged and approaching Makó where the motorway ends.

As soon as we left the motorway, the road surface deteriorated, the driving became ludicrously aggressive and the paranoia started to creep back. We'd heard that the roads in Romania were going to be bad, and the driving in Bulgaria even worse, but we weren't even at the border and people had started driving on the other side of the road just because it was there.

Romanian border, trucks and the campsite

Romania was going to be the first time we'd need our passports since entering Holland. Like Bulgaria, it's a member of the EU, so there are no customs checks for non-freight vehicles, and they've signed up to Schengen, but haven't yet implemented all the relevant controls. So it was passports at the ready, bike documentation somewhere handy, and off to the border we went. I was expecting a bit of grief, being only too used to the happy smiley people that are UK border staff, but all it took was a cursory glance at my passport, without even needing to remove my helmet, and I was through. The others followed through behind me and we pulled in at the first big petrol station to fill up.

Border towns tend to be grotty, and the Romanian border at Nădlac is a perfect case study. It's not exactly the most affluent part of a fairly poor country, and it was crawling with touts in a way I've only seen before at the immigration hall of an Egyptian airport. Everyone wants to steer you towards their particular outlet for petrol, currency or a Rovinieta, the Romanian vignette. In Romania, unlike most countries, vignettes apply to all roads, not just motorways. It's not applicable to bikes though, and I'd picked up some local currency just before we entered the country.

I'd first tried to get some Romanian Lei before leaving home, nipping round to the bureau de change at the local department store in Wimbledon. They were able to fix me up with a fistful of Euros, Turkish Lira and Bulgarian Leva, but when it came to Romanian Lei they were pretty much out. All they could offer was 16, and though I'm not an expert on exchange rates (it was £3.25) I had a gut feeling that wasn't going to buy me a pint, let alone see me through three days in the country. As it turned out, I was wrong on the first point but bang on with the second.

It takes a while to get four bikes fuelled, so we usually pull over near the shop after filling up and have a quick tweet, coffee, piss, whatever's needed. While hanging around this time, a chap came over with a curious look on his face. Once again, my defences were up and I was expecting the worst, but he was just a Romanian truck driver who'd spotted our UK plates and was interested in exactly where we were from, where we were going, and just fancied a natter. That's pretty much all anyone wanted, whenever they came up to talk, and it took several days for me to skip the paranoia and move straight to being open and friendly with people. I felt a bit guilty for thinking the worst of anyone who came near me, and I'd like to think that one thing I learned from this trip was to cut that shit out, to a point. As mentioned before, expect the worst of people and that's what you'll get. This chap specialised in transporting cable to car factories in England, particularly Nissan, Toyota and Honda in Sunderland, Derby and Swindon. He'd clearly seen Britain at its best, and after a brief chat we were ready to make a move and waved him farewell. But not before a kid had appeared with Romanian and Austrian vignette stickers plastered over his torso, under his tshirt. His trick was to go up to cars and offer to wash their windscreens, under the guise of which he'd have a good feel around and see if he could lift the vignette off the glass. He seemed a bit baffled when we said we wanted to keep our Austrian stickers, despite them being valid for another 7 days. I'm sure there's a Romanian word for souvenir, but none of us knew what it was.

It's worth mentioning the trucks. The video above should give some idea of just how many there are on that bit of road. Goods vehicles are filtered off on approach to the border, but after a while they're just parked up by the side of the road for mile after mile after mile. With so many trucks come so many drivers, often far from home, and so services have sprung up along the road to service their needs. The first of which is signs for Vulcanizare TIR, tyres and tyre repairs for trucks. The second is whores. I've seen them in Spain and Italy, standing by the side of main roads looking for business, but I've never seen so many, working so overtly, as in Romania. At one roadside stop the next day, while Steve and Mark eyed up a combination flick-knife and knuckle-duster in a souvenir shop attached to a cafe, I stood and looked at the scene at the other side of the road. A queue of trucks by the side of the road, and two hookers sitting having a smoke break. Meanwhile a couple of kids came over, apparently to chat (as if that was going to work), but in reality to run their hands over our bikes looking for anything loose enough to steal. I can only imagine those kids one day meeting their dads when they stop again at the same place for a comfort break. Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but if there's one word I'd use to describe how that part of the world felt, it's poor. Not poor as in kids scraping through mountains of shit in the third world, but for the EU it felt broke.


I am conqueror of all Romania - kneel before me

From the border we headed for somewhere to spend the night. Before we left I'd put a load of waypoints in my satnav for known campsites, the idea being that wherever we happened to end up each day we'd be no more than an hour or two from somewhere to stay. It's not really worth camping in that part of Europe, accommodation is dirt cheap and easier to come by than campsites, but the boys' own adventurers had their wish and I wasn't going to stand in their way. Not until they started trying to camp in ditches, anyway. There was no way we were going to make it much past Arad before the end of the day, so the nearest one was Camping Route Roemenië, which didn't look like much from the website but it claimed the owner spoke English and that'd be handy if nothing else.

On the way there we had our proper introduction to Romanian roads. These have a tendency to be perfectly, or at least acceptably, surfaced for mile after mile, and then turn into rubble at a moment's notice, stay like that for a bit, and then go back to decent tarmac. The big obstacles, at least for the trucks that dominated the road, were railway crossings. Whereas in the UK they're constructed so the top of the rail is level with the road surface, in Romania the rails stand proud. They're crossings, but they sure as shit ain't level. We also had a roundabout where there were no signs, none of the exits matched what was in the satnav, and the surface was a combination of gravel and rubble. If nothing else, I was glad I was on the SMT - I'd bought it to do a big trip, and this was turning out to be it, and the combination of big engine and long-travel suspension seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

We were all pretty knackered by the time we turned off the main road to find the campsite. After a bit we turned off the tarmac and onto shale, and then off the shale and onto dirt, and then we were at the campsite entrance. As we pulled up, the owner appeared, gave us a smile, and told us to park up wherever we liked - it wasn't exactly rammed and there were plenty of spots to choose from.

Keeps the wind and rain out, but not the noise of dogs and roosters

Cornel, the owner, was a cracking host, and the campsite was far more pleasant than it looked from the photos on the web site. I went and dealt with the paperwork while the others set their tents up - four tents, four people, four bikes, four bottles of beer, €34. Bargain. Our host asked if we'd eaten, and then offered to sort us out a meal. Given the choice between some local grub or a boil-in-the-bag curry, it wasn't a hard decision, so we sat down for some home-cooked Romanian goulash and a few more beers. As the food appeared so did a bottle with no label.

Plums are rather plentiful in Romania, and the locals have a tendency to turn them into a substance called țuică. As we were introduced to it, we were told there's a limit to how much people can make for personal consumption each year, and this particular batch had been twice distilled. The first distillate is meths, good only for fuelling stoves and making people go blind. We were having the second distillate, and it was just like plum schnapps, slivovitz, rakia or any other number of plum-based moonshines you'll find around central and eastern Europe. Smooth yet lethally strong, just what the doctor ordered.

Cornel left us with access to the beer fridge, payment via honesty-box, and we rounded off the night with deeply awful conversations before heading for our tents. Romania has a bit of a problem with stray dogs, and as I laid in my tent all I could hear was packs of dogs howling, hopefully from a distance. The beer, țuică and long day did their work and before long I was off to sleep, waking occasionally to play a game of wills with my own bladder. Around 4am the dogs stopped howling, only for roosters to take over at 5am, joined by the dogs again an hour later. Ah, the countryside. So tranquil.

Day 4 began fairly early, as we needed to make up some time. I was aiming for us to at least make it over the top of the Transfăgărășan, the road Top Gear proclaimed the best in the world a couple of years ago. So we packed up, waved Cornel goodbye and hit the road towards Sibiu.

It must be a blood bank. Haha! Oh, please yourself.

Romania is slow going. At times it seems like somebody sold the country a job lot of 50 limit signs and they've been planted around the country at random. There aren't many major roads, and towns and villages tend to stretch along the roads there are almost interminably. This means progress can feel hard, even when the road surface is good. And they mostly are, at least on the major routes, with signs along the side of the road advertising the EU money that's been poured into the country. People in the UK often get the hump about foreign aid, but that's usually people who haven't been where the money's being spent. It's hard to complain about a few potholes after an English winter when you've spent days riding on roads that haven't been resurfaced since the wall came down, if they were ever surfaced in the first place.

The trick, I quickly realised, was to latch on to a local. When they speed up, you speed up. When they slow down, you slow down. They say speed kills, they're lying. What kills is speed differential - if you're sticking to a 50k limit, and everyone else is doing 100k, then at some point you're going to either get rammed off by someone eager to overtake, or you're going to get rear-ended by someone who didn't notice how quickly they were closing on you in the first place. Do what the locals do and everything'll be alright. So we did, and things got much, much easier.

Now there's foreign
 
Somewhere along the road between Arad and Sibiu, I know not where, two things happened. One was when we stopped for fuel, parked up by the shop to get a coffee, and a police car appeared. The paranoia came back with a vengeance, and having crossed western and central Europe with no problems I thought this was the moment life was about to get interesting. They didn't give us so much as a second glance. The other was better. Riding along, I caught up with a truck ahead of me with Mammut plastered across the back. I looked at the back of the trailer and couldn't work out where the reg plate was. Then I realised why I'd not spotted it: Arabic numerals. I looked closer, wondering where it was from? And then I saw the country code: IR. Iran! Between us we'd covered the full distance from London to Tehran, which is something you don't get if you stick to weekend rides around the home counties.

Nothing unusual about a hundred foot scimitar, nothing at all

One thing the old eastern bloc countries do well is mad stuff by the roadside. I first saw it in the Czech Republic a couple of years ago, a massive wooden eagle in a field by the side of the motorway, but that was probably just an advert for beer or something. Romania moves things up a notch, and has proper communist-era monuments. And then you get things like this, which are hard to miss (unless your name's Mark, Simon or Steve):

Makes a massive scimitar look a bit weedy really

As we rode through Romania, we passed through poor, rural regions and more affluent urban areas. In the poor areas, skin was darker and clothes were clearly gypsy in style. In other areas, skin was lighter and styles were more western. There are more Roma in the north east of the country, towards Moldova, but those we saw in the western side generally seemed dirt poor and the difference was noticeable, even passing through. One sign of this was how people got around - there were very few cars on the road, most of the motor vehicles we saw were trucks and foreign-registered cars, and we saw a lot of people walking through and between villages on foot. Occasionally there'd be someone on a bicycle but generally it was walking or nothing. In one village I saw an old woman pulling a gas bottle along on a metal cart. Kids appeared at petrol stations with drinks bottles to buy a litre or two of fuel for home, presumably for cooking or heating.

Turn left for fun

By mid afternoon we were past Sibiu and huge mountains had come to dominate the horizon. Unlike the Alps, which gradually rise out of the landscape, the Carpathians seemed to have just appeared from nowhere. One minute, grassy plains, the next, mountains. There are a few roads over the top, one of which is the DN67c, the Transalpina. This was, until recently, a treacherous road but has recently been upgraded to be an arterial route between Sibiu and Bucharest. We were taking the other option, the DN7c, the Transfăgărășan, Ceaușescu's folly. A military road built over the mountains, it's a hundred miles of winding tarmac - part country road, part Alpine pass, part river valley - rising to over 2000m above sea level and with a surface that makes me wonder just what the Top Gear guys were on when they declared it the best road in the world.

We stopped for fuel at the bottom, not knowing how easy it would be to buy any once up in the mountains, and while hanging around we saw something we hadn't really seen since leaving Austria a couple of days before: bikes. Four supermotos came roaring down the mountain road and pulled in to fill up. One was an XT660X, the rider of which seemed rather excited to see a pair of XT660Rs parked up. While he was having a good look at the XTs, two large muscle cars went past and turned up towards the mountain. We'd see them again a bit later.

Riding up the north side of the Transfăgărășan

The road starts out as a dead straight line towards the foot of the mountains, and then starts to wind sinuously upwards. The mountain road had only been open a couple of weeks when we arrived, the previous winter having been longer and colder than usual, and while landslips and potholes had mostly been dealt with on the north side, the surface was pretty dubious. Wherever there'd been any real damage, a rectangle of road surface had been cut away but not replaced. Riding safely was a matter of picking a path between the gravel-filled holes, often using the other side of the road.

Stopping for some sightseeing

As we gained altitude and broke out through the tree-line, we stopped by what seemed to be a monument to those who'd died building the road in the early 1970s. While parked up more bikes passed us in both directions - this was clearly a mecca for bikers in Romania. From the monument we headed on up to the top of the pass. Whereas the rest clings to the side of a valley, winding with the rock and gradually climbing, the highest part looks like nothing so much as a road nailed to a vertical cliff face. It was quite good fun to ride, but even better to just look at as a feat of engineering. Really quite remarkable.

Twisty bits

At the top, we stopped to look down at the classic Transfăgărășan vista, facing north over the valley. It was sunny but cold at 2000m, and there were still vast areas of snow beyond the souvenir stalls at the side of the road. Simon and I took the chance to feed our fridge magnet addictions, Steve went for a wander around in the snow, and then it was time to make a move. Just before getting on the bike I noticed my headlight bulb had blown, which wasn't great considering the first thing we needed to do was ride through a half mile long tunnel. I had the spare with me so made a mental note to replace it when we stopped for the night.

Parked up at the top

The ride down the south side was no less spectacular than the ride up the north, with a near vertical drop down the rock face to the top of Bâlea lake. This is a glacial lake blocked at one end by an enormous dam, and the road skirts the eastern shore for mile after mile. We were below the tree line, and it was quite late in the day, so shadows made it hard to pick out the road surface at times. This was a bit of a problem as the surface deteriorated quickly with every corner covered in sand or gravel, but we were on the right bikes for the job and before long Steve and I had caught up with the two big muscle cars we'd seen at the northern end of the road an hour or so before. They were stuck behind a maintenance truck, and the twisty nature of the road meant they were having trouble getting past, so I took the chance to show them why two wheels trumps four and shot past. They were having none of it, and from his position behind Steve had a great view of two horrendously questionable overtakes into blind corners as they hoofed it past the truck to catch up with me.

Riding down the south side of the Transfăgărășan

What followed was some extremely spirited riding, something I'd promised myself I wouldn't do because any crash could jeopardise the entire trip. But that promise was less broken, more smashed into a thousand smithereens, as I hustled a somewhat overloaded KTM along the lakeside. Feet out round corners, in case the front started to slide, standing on the pegs while barrelling along a broken surface at 60mph, eventually I saw them fade away in my mirrors and decided it was probably a good time to stop before anything unfortunate happened. I spotted a lay-by with a metal picnic bench and thought that'd be a good place to stop, and made sure I had my lid off and was looking suitably settled by the time Steve caught up.

Steve had similar ideas, and quickly got his trangia out in the hope that we could be sitting drinking coffee when Simon and Mark arrived. We didn't quite pull it off, but we did have a brew on by the time the two muscle cars pulled in. They were driven by two yanks based in Northamptonshire, over doing a tour of the best mountain passes in Europe, and they were beaming huge grins as they got out of the cars and shook our hands. A Camaro and a Mustang, with a 800bhp between them, they'd had their arses handed to them by a 117bhp two-wheeled tractor with enough luggage to make it handle like a drunk pig, and they were only too happy to have taken part in the fun.

When in Transylvania...

It was getting quite late in the day, so we made a move for the next campsite, the wonderfully (if tackily) named Camping Dracula. We were still quite high up and it wasn't particularly warm, so I was pleased to see they had wooden huts which, when I asked, were only a couple of quid a night more expensive than sleeping in our tents. Face with the choice between £3 each to camp or £5 each to go halves on a chalet, it was a no-brainer. These were rather more cute than the one in Hungary, with comfier beds and a couple of power points for recharging stuff.

Bijou

Once we were unloaded, I got on with the most important thing: buying beer. Four large bottles from the restaurant bar cost the princely sum of 16 lei, or 85p a bottle. That was exactly the amount I'd picked up in Wimbledon and hadn't thought would be enough to buy a single pint. I'll say one thing for Romania, once you're there it's an absolute bargain. The scenery's not bad either.

Maps plus beer = new friends and their illegal booze

There were two more things I needed to do before calling it a night: replacing the bulb on the KTM, which was a bit fiddly but not too tricky, and having some dinner. We'd skipped lunch, as stopping for an hour or two would have meant tackling the mountain pass in the dark, but the restaurant was absolutely crawling with kids and none of us really felt like dealing with the noise. So dinner was mostly liquid, and while hanging around outside our huts we got chatting with some locals from the next one along. They were a couple from Bucharest, with his or her dad in tow. They spoke pretty decent English, and the old chap spoke some French, which I understand was the default second language taught in Romania after Ceaușescu fell out with Stalin. As we chatted about our trip, how lucky we were to be able to afford to do it, and how shit life can be in Romania, the younger chap produced the inevitable bottle that contained a liquid which, while clearly not what it said on the label, was going to be familiar to us. Any chance of an early night vanished in an instant as Mark and I tucked into the țuică with relish. I've no idea what time we called it a night, but our heads were banging a bit in the morning.

That meant a leisurely start, but the next day was going to be a fairly easy one. We only had a couple of hundred miles to cover, and some of that would be back on the main road past Bucharest, the Romanian capital. It would also be the day we entered Bulgaria.

The ride to Bucharest was a fairly dull one, as roads go, but we were kept occupied by more poor rural areas, where horses and carts are still the primary means for agricultural work and getting around. Romania felt like the poorest country we saw on the trip, but it's somewhere I'd love to go back to, just to explore properly. We were only there two days and we hardly got a taste of the place, but what we did get was enough to make us want more. Friendly people, great scenery, and cheap as chips.

At Pitești we picked up the main transit route to Bucharest, which would involve a new EU-funded motorway to the capital, skirting the city on a local ring road, and then another new road to the border at Giurgiu. The contrast between roads that have received EU funding and the ones that haven't is stark, and none more so than when we left the motorway north of Bucharest. The ring road was the worst we saw in Romania, remarkable considering how important it is for getting trucks past the city, with tarmac varying from reasonable to poor to appalling. Huge sections had been dug up, leaving nothing but rubble, which caused the trucks to slow to a crawl. At times we were all standing on the footpegs, riding as if we were on dirt, as even the tarmac was rutted like dried mud. At one point I found myself in a rut and realised that the crap in the bottom was likely to give me a puncture, something I didn't have time to deal with, so tried to change line. Absolutely no chance - the rut was six inches deep, if not more, and I was stuck in it.

A pleasant spot for our last meal before Bulgaria

Eventually we got to the new road heading south, which was bizarre. A four lane dual carriageway running from Bucharest to Giurgiu, with a 90k limit most of its length but dropping to 20km/h at times for pedestrian crossings. Ever tried doing 12mph on a dual carriageway? It's shit. But at least the surface was good, though sideways glances at junctions showed side roads rapidly turning into gravel or dirt, and we arrived at Giurgiu early enough to use the last of our Romanian cash to have a proper lunch on a hotel terrace.

It was time to visit Bulgaria.

Read on here.

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