Breakfast in our run down little Romanian Motel was surprisingly good. It consisted of Omelette with mixed vegetables in and bread and cheese. I was now getting used to ask for coffee too. It appears that the further east we go the less coffee you are offered and thus need to seek it out to get the day started right. I now have instant coffee in my pannier.
Today was the day that we were to attempt the Transfargasan and Transalpina highways in central Romania. They are located in the southern central mountains and are famed for their winding curves, good road surfaces and spectacular views. There was some uncertainty among the locals as to whether the snow line had receded enough to allow traffic to pass on both of these roads but we thought we’d better give it a try anyway…..after all we’d ridden a long way not to have a go. Romanian roads at this locale are great to ride but are heavily congested with trucks and cars all trying to negotiate the two lane winding twisty roads that join town to town…..there are no expressways here. To try and ride distance in Romania is also futile. Double your time if you are planning to be somewhere… 100 kms will take you about 2 hours and just go with the flow because getting stuck behind a 25 year old truck that is belching out diesel fumes from an engine that is barely propelling said vehicle is an occurrence every five minutes. Saying this, the scenery is gorgeous. We rode through small towns where people were taking produce by horse and cart. The thing that struck me most was the amount of people walking the highways. That’s right Nevil, not everyone can afford a car so they walk to the next town. Old couples would while their afternoon away by sitting outside their houses and watch passers-by. Sometimes thay would have lemonade for sale in used coke bottles……or at least I think it was lemonade J
Romanian dogs are mental. I just had to get this off my chest. If you ride a bike in Romania you will encounter small furry missiles that shoot from all tangents across the road with the sole purpose of entangling their teeth in your spokes. This is your cue to break the speed limit in each town.
After a short wet morning ride through sub alpine scenery where broad leafed trees dripped with moisture and the fresh aroma of springtime came as a welcome friend, we found ourselves at the base of the Transalpina road. A quick check in the rain to see if the Camera was working, I headed out with Ulf to encounter wonderful high twisting corners that switched back at 180 degrees or more. Eventually this road takes you out of tree line and into the Alpine zone. More snow was appearing around each corner as we leaned the bikes into them hard. Then….a giant snowdrift covered the road. We stopped the bikes and paced around for a bit feeling frustrated that we were so near….. yet so far. The place was beautiful though and it reminded me of a late spring day at Sunshine Meadows in Alberta. We had no option but to turn around and go down the hill…..bummer, we would have to do all those corners again J
Moving eastwards we met more people along the way that told us the Transfargasan was also closed so we elected to give this a miss and head straight to Brasov where we had arranged to stay at my friend’s house. Cristian, his wife Alina and daughter live in a lovely house in the north of the city and they own a tour company that specializes in castles. Naturally, a Dracula tour was in order as we were now in Transylvania!
The next day Cristian had arranged for a local guide to pick us up and show us through a couple of castles. Bran Castle was probably the highlight of the day because it was a working museum….and was part of the Dracula family a long time ago. Niko….our guide was amazing and put into context the history of Romania during the tour. He is a mine of information and left me with the feeling that I should think more upon the history of Romania, from the Slavs to the Romans rather than become fixated on Count Dracula. Hard to do really; it’s like listening to the William Tell overture and trying not to think of the Lone Ranger! After two days of being spoiled by Cristian, we had to head south to see other friends in Bucharest. I first met Andreea and Alex in British Columbia last year as they too were heading out on their bike trip across Canada and on to South America. Their photography and website actually inspired me to go buy a Nikon and see what I could do. Bucharest was hot, in bike gear that’s hot hot! The city is huge and as we entered in from the Northwest we got ourselves a good education in survival. It seems like everyone here wants to kill you with their car. We were on our way to a small fabrication shop in the Northwest of the city to get some highway pegs made up for Ulf’s bike. He is 6 foot 3 so sitting all day on that 650 was crippling his knees…..it reminded me of trying to cram a daddy longlegs into a matchbox.
The lads at NSEW Motorcycle Products were amazing. At first you think you’ve entered some dodgy back alley mechanical shop but upon further inspection they have a goldmine of tools and produce panniers, bash plates and all manner of things motorcycle. They offered us into the garage style workshop with our bikes, mainly to get out of the heat and set about measuring Ulf’s bike for the highway pegs. Two and a half hours later they were made, installed and…..the guys wanted no money from us! We were both stunned and honored that 4 guys had just produced a 2 1,2 hour piece of work and wanted nothing in return….naturally this wasn’t to be so for probably the first time ever, we haggled with people to UP the price of the job. Ulf finally got his way and they accepted cash from him. Wonderful people.
Our friends lived on the other side of the city. This was going to be a nightmare because the circular road that skirts the city is crazy at the best of times. One would have to be barnstorming mad to tangle with the traffic on two wheels. Once on this road I felt like a complete bumpkin. Traffic was everywhere and there appeared to be no form of etiquette at all regarding lane or junction use. I was looking everywhere and the spidey senses were on full alert as I wrestled through this tangled weave of diesel fumes and chain smokers throwing butts out of their windows. Then, out of the blue haze came a sight I will never forget. An old man was riding a moped that appeared to have been manufactured the same year he was born and he had a cigarillo protruding from his mouth, flip flops and shorts. That was it. He seemed to be at complete peace with the world and even the traffic swerved around him to let him by as if he had some magical bubble around him. In a blink he was gone but that short moment gave me a form of understanding with the traffic. I can’t explain it really. It was like I just met Yoda on a moped.
Arrival at Our friend’s house was a hot sticky affair because we had to get our gear to the third floor in our bike gear on a thirty degree day. Hugs and greetings naturally came after we showered and we were offered a sip of the home made brandy. The boys in the southern States would certainly call this moonshine. Andreea took us for a night time drive around the city centre and we took in sights like the houses of Parliament and universities that were all lit up. It really was stunning to see. I think we both slept well that night. I remember going to bed wondering what happened to the guy on the moped. Was this the day he died in traffic? He seemed so at peace with everything….was he suicidal?
The next day we did more sightseeing in the city before going to meet Mihai and Doyle. Doyle is the name of his bike and Mihai has written and produced a wonderful book about his adventures to Mongolia and beyond. I hope someone out there would be willing to help him set this book up in the English language. It really looks like a fantastic piece of work. Margaritas in hand we listened to Mihai intently as he gave us valuable info on travelling to Mongolia. He was the Master and we were the pupils in his classroom….but with margaritas J
The next day we had to head out toward Moldova. Andreea was kind enough to drive us out of the city and we said our goodbyes at a gas station on the outskirts of Bucharest. Alex and Andreea had been wonderful to us. They fed us, housed us and guided us for two days. I only wish we had more time to spend with them. I guess that’s life on the road though. It was wonderful to see them again and I hope they come to Canada some day so that I can repay their hospitality.
We rode some 200-300 kms north east from the city to Moldova through classic farmland where small communities could be found working in fields. Some people were tilling grass with pitchforks whils others were moving firewood by horse and cart. It was as if we had ridden back in time. Every once in a while I would see a sign on a house or café saying “Pensuine”. These are the local Bed and Breakfast places and they are abundant out in the country. Crossing into Moldova was an easy affair and we were getting used to visiting the usual three stops at passport control, Migration control….where you need to show your passport again and customs where they check out your bike etc…..oh yes and show your passport again. Once everything is in order they wave you away and you ride 300 metres to a barrier and a guard house and….show your passport again, just in case you sneakily managed to smuggle your bike through the chickenwire fences, video cameras and armed personnel.
Moldova is a wonderful country, from what I saw there were rolling green fields and small communities that worked the land as in Romania. Moldova went by too quickly though and we noticed that the roads were getting rougher. Before long we were peacefully riding along when we passed some army guys stood at a guard house. I looked over my shoulder and they just waved me on without much care and attention. Within a few hundred metres there was another guard house and then another and finally a barricade that was attended by a girl in her twenties and she was in camouflage too. What was going on? I had to think to myself. She eventually waved us into a small area that consisted of some three wooden shacks that could easily have been selling coffee or trinkets for all I knew. Unfortunately these huts were occupied by more camouflaged people, this time with guns and they wanted to see our passports. The next 2 hours were made up of probably the finest display of bullshit and make-work projects I have ever witnessed. Lots of huffing and puffing and form filling, in duplicate and triplicate and filing and stamping and re-filing saw Ulf and I released into their country for …two Euros each. Christ almighty, who the hell works that hard for 2 euros an hour?! The Transnistrians do, that’s who. Yup….i’ve never heard of them either but they sure as hell want the world to know they’re here….and they earn 2 euros an hour in a country about the size of Nose Hill Park in Calgary. Their army appears to be the size of the Calgary Saints Rugby Football team and they have a tank. It’s parked on the Dam at the local reservoir just in case someone wants to blow up their water supply. Ulf and I were headed that way, not for subversive purposes but to join a bike meeting that we had just got invited to at the border crossing. Upon arrival at the bike festival we were made to feel most welcome. We filled in some more forms at the check in tent and were shown where we could pitch our tents. We quickly made supper and had a hot cup of instant coffee but then a car drove up to us and I guy told me that my presence was requested at the main stage area because I had won a prize. Ulf and I locked up the bikes and headed up to the main rock band area where everyone was bopping away to some really good rock music. It turns out I had won first prize for the biker who had travelled the furthest to get here. It never even crossed my mind until that point but yes….i had come from Canada and was now half way round the word at a bikers festival in a country that wants independence from Moldova but can’t afford to because it bought a tank two years ago. I had to get on stage and make a speech then got sprayed in champagne and whisked off the stage to dance a wild circly thing with about two hundred fellow 2 wheelers. It was incredible. These people had come from all over Romania, Ukraine and Moldova to make this weekend festival. Once again their hospitality was exemplary. My heartfelt thanks go out to all those people I met that night and spoiled us silly.
The next day was to be our crossing into the Ukraine. The usual passort issues were dealt with, in triplicate of course and we were let loose onto the Ukrainian roads…..although I wish we hadn’t been.
These roads in the Ukrainian west are rough. Pot holes abound for hundreds of kilometers saw us dodging and weaving all over the road, as the oncoming trucks were doing the same. It’s not uncommon to come around a corner to find a tractor or 18 wheeler on your side of the road. Your eyes bug a bit but you get used to it in the first three hours. Suddenly there was a “Whack” and Ulf weaved all over the road in a frantic attempt to keep his overburdened bike upright. I thought I was going to witness his first yard sale in the middle of the Ukrainian countryside but no…..he kept it upright and pulled in to the side of the road immediately. There was a black canister dangling on the road from the rear of his bike and oil was trickling out of it. He had blown the oil dampening canister on his very expensive Wilbers shock absorber. I walked up the road and picked up the few fragment of shrapnel I could find that I thought might have once been a part of his bike and handed them to him gingerly. He was muttering long German swearwords under his breath. We had to try and get it fixed so we hastily hose clamped it to the outside of the bike frame and reloaded all the luggage. Ulf took off up the road and I watched him bounce around like a fairground ride. This was not good….and it was about 300 kms to the nearest big city Dnipropetrovsk where we might find a mechanic.
Something to consider again:- As most of you know, I am hoping to raise about $20,000 for the Heart and Stroke Foundation in the process of riding a motorcycle around the world. If you’ve enjoyed the read so far, please consider clicking the link on our website to donate to these guys. The money goes to research and could help someone you know someday. It doesn’t have to be one of our chosen charities either, maybe you have one that you already support? Let’s just do some good out there for a change. The world is actually a wonderful place full of wonderful, generous people that help out people like Ulf and myself without ever wanting anything in return….despite what you hear in the media. Go out there and “Pay it Forward”