Week five - Romania, Believe the hype.
When things go badly, however, you have no-one to lean on. No friendly face to laugh in despair with, no immediate companion to lend a word of advice or support.
Romania has given me so many empowering experiences, and also a moment or two of despair.
After my two nights in Satu Mare, I began the ride south to Cluj Napoca, the second city of Romania and a hustlin’bustlin’ university town.
I had organised to stay with a friend of a friend of a friend in Cluj. I was greeted by Tunde and her wired vizsler ‘Zokni’ (who apparently looked like a sock at birth and so was named accordingly - ‘Zokni’ means ‘sock’ in German. In the evening we ventured into town to the annual TIFF film festival. In the Piata Unirii, a cinema screen and seating for several hundred had been set up in the balmy spring evening. The St Mihail church silhouetted itself against the fading light as we sat to watch a Spanish comedy about two rebellious teens living in a girls camp run by nuns. It was a slice of unorthodox, undogmatic religious brilliance called ‘Llamada’.
The next two days riding through Transylvania justified my far from direct line between London and Istanbul. Technically I am still in Romania’s ‘low country’ but the chiselled hills and jagged strutting rock faces begged to differ.
Romania has provided some epic off road sections, which are bone jarring, often spectacular, and always fun.
My preparations were laid out perfectly. A contact in Alba had got me a hotel room in town with breakfast included. I would be able to relax in the evening, fuel well in the morning, and get an early start toward Transalpina. In the evening we went to the citadel for beer and traditional Romanian ‘mici’ (pronounced ‘meech’), which are small sausages of beef, lamb and pork combined.
What I hadn't prepared for was a bout of food poisoning which replaced what should have been ten hours of sleep with ten hours of alternating between being curled up in bed groaning and being bent over the toilet heaving my now-less-than-delicious mici into a Romanian u-bend. I lay in bed praying for the night to be over, and when dawn finally broke the next day Transalpina was out of the question. My skin hurt, my joints hurt, my stomach hurt, everything burned with an acute hypersensitivity that made even the smallest movements unjustifiably painful.
After so many days of cold porridge for breakfast a hotel buffet would have usually been enough to send me raving mad with culinary excitement, but it was all I could do to force down some cornflakes and herbal tea before crawling back to the room to pass out again.
I moved to a cheaper nearby hostel, where I spent another day and two nights incrementally forcing down porridge and bits of bread. Paul, the manager, took pity on me and adopted the role of doctor, bringing me toast, mint tea and congestion tablets.
I was still neaseous on the day of my Transalpina attempt, and struggled up the first 60kms of the climb.
Finding a campsite at Obarsia Lotrului at 1400m above sea level, I pitched the tent for the handsome sun of 10 lei (€2).
The final push to the heavens completely justified the previous days struggle. Rising out of the tree line, I twisted and reversed up 25 km’s of alpine hairpins, each one lifting me further into the patchwork snow line.
I mentioned earlier that weather can turn quickly at altitude, and darkness engulfed the peak only moments after I began my descent.
I have now only two days of riding left to Bulgaria. Romania has been special. I have seen thriving university towns, humming with energy and modernity, but also some places where time seems to have ground to a halt. People work scythes in the fields and carry their vegetables in carts pulled by donkeys. Today I drew water from a well with a bucket, despite being only ten km’s from a major city. It's a juxtaposition that is constantly absorbing.
In my ten days I have barely scratched the surface of this beautiful, intriguing, complex place and know I will return here. See you soon, Romania. Keep pushin' me on.