All day I travelled through a wasteland: once fertile agricultural lands destroyed by decades of foolishness, now just empty fields filled with weeds and drift sand.
The beaten up bus I travelled in was forced to stop for a few hours.
´Mechanical problems´. Wouldn’t have been the first time.
At one stop, an area of asphalt, there were the remains of a bus which had been burnt out – or bombed.
I missed my connection to a distant place well known for its historic ruins and had to spend the night in a slum city – another very different kind of ruin.
A monstrous place, an urban nightmare: rows and rows of flaking, decrepit apartment blocks. Old run down factories filling the air with thick black smoke. Crowded streets pot holed, littered with plastic bags and gaudy foil wrappings. Trucks and old motor cars leaving behind them clouds of dense fumes.
People walking passed like zombies, grim faced, dour.
Accommodation was hard to find especially for a foreigner. I walked into a dingy excuse for a hotel only to be dismissed with a wave of a hand. Then another, then another.
Eventually I found a soulless, run down room. A dungeon.
What did I do to deserve this?
As the sun neared the horizon and darkness enclosed the city, I walked the streets in search of a meal.
And walked, followed by furtive stares, derisive laughter.
One of them.
On my part, one thought occupied my mind as I ate a greasy excuse for a meal:
What it would it be like to live here?
The country I had come to in search of difference, diversity, had never had a free and fair election. It produced nothing. Beyond its borders, its currency was worthless. Corruption riddled it at every level. Its human rights record was scandalous. It’s prisons crammed with those suspected of not being totally loyal to a brutal dictatorship. Minority groups were living a precarious existence. The role of women was to bear children, cook and submit. LGBT’s didn’t exist. Whilst gladly accepting foreign aid, the same regime blamed the rest of the world for its poverty. There was only one source of information, the state controlled media.
The people were told that they were blessed, never had it so good.
Did they believe it?
Did they have any choice?
The truth was: this place was hell on earth.
Then again, who was I to judge?
Me, a foreigner, with my ideals of freedom of speech, social justice and human rights?
When I went traveling, I wanted to see another way of life, to experience strange sights, to be disorientated, culture shocked. To escape the feeling of being one of ‘us’.
Well, here it was. I was amongst ‘them’ and the view was ugly.
What the hell was I doing here?
On the following morning I got a bus out to the ruins of an ancient empire. Stone walls, columns, statues chipped and pitted, lines of script which had only recently been deciphered. All of it unearthed and given importance and meaning by foreigners. Now a handy cash cow for the government.
It was incredible. I walked around as if in a dream. I was suddenly transported miraculously, as if on a magic carpet, to a time long ago, when a civilization, an empire, rose out of the earth like a vigorous plant, bloomed, and then died.
Yesterday I´d wondered what the hell I was doing here, in this hell on earth, and today, that question was far from mind.
Overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive, I knew why I was here.
Walking amidst stone relics, some of them bearing the symbols of a strange script, Percey Shelley’s famous poem echoed in the desert:
‘I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…..Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
We had arranged to stay at Francine’s place for the night.
We were on a bike ride through Zeeland, a province of The Netherlands which lay west of Rotterdam.
Francine was a member of a Dutch organization called ´Friends of the Bike´ (Vrienden van de Fiets) and so were we. It worked like this: people offered to put up bike riders for the night and provide breakfast the following morning for a set fee of 45 Euros. The bike riders paid a nominal fee to be in the organization and received a book listing places to stay all over the country. Friends of the Bike was an inherent part of a national bike riding culture – and a country with the best system of bike tracks in the world.
Sometimes the people offering the accommodation were themselves also bike riders and felt obliged to contribute to the system they used. Sometimes they liked to meet strangers and talk. Over the years we had met some amazing people via ‘friends of the bike’ and had some memorable conversations – and Francine certainly fell into that category.
Leaving the portal, we entered the monastery grounds.
There was no one about. The silence hung heavy in the air.
An early morning sun glanced over the perimeter wall.
What was once a fortified monastery built in a time of war and inhabited by hundreds of monks was now more like a museum.
There was a wide area of grass on our left, whitened with frost. On our right, there was a church with high turrets. We went over there and circumnavigated it slowly like two children making a new discovery.
In these precious moments of solitude, it was possible to reimagine the past and the generations of monks who had lived and died there over the last 5 centuries.
Then the silence was broken.
The sound echoed in the cold air.
It took us a while to identify where the yelling was coming from: in an alcove next to the wall was an old monk sitting in a chair basking in the early morning sun. Dressed in black, a grey beard and a walking stick. He motioned for us to go over there
Anya and I went to Romania to go walking and as far as that went, we knew long beforehand that a good place to do this was in Transylvania.
So our plan was fairly simple: fly to the capital of Transylvania – called Cluj Napoki – look around for an outdoor shop, buy some maps and make a few plans. We had a good map of Romania, but it seemed to me, after a doing a bit of research on the net, that we needed a map of Transylvania and then also, some more detailed maps showing walking trails.
Only when we were in Cluj and bought the map of Transylvania did we realise that firstly, Romania is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe and secondly, that Transylvania was a lot bigger than we thought. We were forced to scale right down; we ended buying a map of one part of Transylvania – west of Cluj – and four maps covering most of the trails in that region.
Our approach to walking is to find small towns or villages in areas where there are trails and start there. Access to the trails is crucial. We avoid big towns like the plague. The worst scenario is being in a sizeable town and having to walk along busy roads or suburban streets before we can start a trip. So we usually end up in small, remote places. The problem here is usually finding accommodation and food (the eastern European diet is pretty limited). The attractive side to such places is the ‘cultural dividend’: that wonderful feeling of being a stranger in a strange place, of experiencing something very different to one’s own country. In that sense, Romania was a revelation.
We walked two different kinds of trails – hills and mountains.
None of our maps were in the least bit accurate. They gave us an indication of where trails in general could be found. We soon became adept at improvising: following trails with only a general idea of where we were going and often no idea where we would end up. Sometimes locals on the way gave us directions. In the mountains, there were marked trails although most of the time it was very difficult to find the first markers (because they weren’t there) but once we found them – after an hour or two of taking wrong turns – they were fairly reliable. The marked trails were made for the Hungarian tourists – Romanians in general don’t walk.
Whatever kind of trails we followed, the ones we liked best took us through remote villages. This was where we encountered a way of life which had disappeared from Western Europe 50 or 60 years ago; traditional wooden houses and barns, heavy work horses used to plough fields and pull carts, fences of wooden palings, old women dressed in headscarves and long colourful dresses; shepherds and cow herders. Most of the people living in these villages were old; their kids had long ago departed for one of the cities – or for Western Europe (in the last decade especially there has been a mass exodus). These old villagers knew no other way of life and they were determined to live that life until the end. It was a hard life, especially in winters when temperatures can drop far under zero, yet somehow I couldn’t see them resigning themselves to life in a typical drab communist-era apartment block in one of the cities.
Not so long ago, millions of Romanians lived this way of life. Romania had lagged behind the other Eastern European communist countries. The age of Marx was a schizophrenic time for Romania: on one hand, there was a nation engaged in a Long March to the glories of industrialisation – smoke belching factories, the planned economy, free medical care and public transport, an industrial working class – and on the other hand, millions of peasants, especially in the mountains, living a way of life unchanged for centuries.
25 years on and Romania had joined the E.U. and the younger generation had left and the factories and mines had closed. A new middle class was on the rise. The western consumer revolution had arrived. For millions of Romanians now living in the cities there was a longing for the traditional way of life of the villager; it was a kind of dream image. There were three TV channels devoted to satiating this national nostalgia for a mythical past: traditionally dressed ‘villagers’ singing and dancing and playing their instruments, with cows and horses and grassy fields and wooden houses in the background. Traditional village based music was more popular than ever before. No one of course wanted to ever actually go back to the land and relive the old life – though the middle class were buying up land and old houses and renovating them.
None of this nostalgia was permitted during the communist era. The only dream image permitted was the Socialist Man. Then after 45 years of dictatorship and a failed economic model, the Socialist Man was tossed aside. To be replaced by singing and dancing peasants.
Our flight back to Rotterdam left from Budapest. On the way to the Hungarian border, we left the mountains and took a bus south, passing though big towns constructed during the communist era and now very run down and dilapidated. We stayed for 3 days in a large town called Deva. Amongst other things we took a local bus out to a place called Hunedoara; there was a finely restored medieval castle near the centre but just as interesting were the remains from the communist era: abandoned factories and a huge railway siding, rusted, overgrown with weeds. Then there was the beautiful old railway station at Hunedoara, which had been abandoned; on the walls of the main entry hall were paintings of the Communist Dream probably done about 50 years ago. They seemed valuable to me those paintings. They were a part of the nation’s history. Yet as far as Romanians were concerned, it was a part of their history which they wanted to forget. As if the Lords who had occupied the castle – on which millions had been spent – had been a part of a benevolent age.
Romania was many things, it had many sides to it.
We left the country resolved to come back as soon as possible; for us it was one of the most interesting countries in Europe.
For more photos of Romania see: Serious Travel Images, Romania: Country of Contrasts Parts 1 and 2
For blogs about travelling in former communist nations try: