Romania: The First Ascent

I am now sitting in our host’s flat in Bucharest, trying to summarise the events of the last 7 days and 700km.

We started with our arrival in the small town of Ineu, close to the Hungarian/Romanian border.  We had been contacted by an adventure cyclist called Claudiu. He had heard of our journey and wanted to be part of our trip, guiding us through the beautiful mountains of the North, so to avoid the busy European roads that someone with a European map might otherwise use. He wouldn’t have needed a map to devise a route, he knew this country better than anyone, having cycled over 100,000km of Romanian roads in his 12 years of cycling. In total this man had already cycled 135,000km around Europe (mostly mountains too) just for fun. He had to fund all his ventures himself, so between tours would look to pick up work in various ways, mostly teaching English.

He had collected us about 25km away from his house and guided us to his home, via a pub, where he had sank a couple of beers and we got affiliated. He was a very enthusiastic guy and if ever a man loved cycling, this was him. He seemed shy and was in complete awe of our journey, yet when we heard of his travels, it was us that knew we were not cyclists. It was like discussing our tuna, spaghetti and tomato recipe with Raymond Blanc. All of his tours would start from his front door. When he wanted to cycle the French Alps or the Italian Dolomites, he would simply pedal out of his garage on whatever bike he could find and return 50 days later, each tour round 3/4000km.

We arrived at his parent’s home and were fed the most generous of Romanian meals. Their house was decorated with influences from all over the world and the father had even converted his large wooden shed outside into a comfortable area where he could drink and write poetry. Here we spent the remainder of the night drinking beer and chatting about travel and the next 6 days.

Despite going to bed at nearly 2am, Jodie and I emerged around 7:30 to check the final e-mails and get our many jobs done. There is much co-ordination to do on this trip, and it’s very difficult to find any time to write. Much of what has happened will wait until the book. Claudiu’s father brought us breakfast and we fetched the young lad from his bed to join us. He was a little worse for wear and managed to eat only a little before asking nervously if he could have a little more sleep. He had such a polite demeanour that it was impossible not to like this man.

Finally we left the house, it was passed midday and the temperature was now high. We still had plenty of time and so with our guide, we were confident of some fantastic scenery and arriving in Bucharest by Monday night.

We cycled for only a short while before he stopped us at a small pub. I say pub, but really most of these places were small vendors with a fridge and an outdoor table or 2. The beer was very cheap, only about 30 pence for a large bottle. They were nice spots, where locals would sit motionless in the heat and chat to anyone who would stop. Although back at home we would enjoy the occasional glass of wine, or crate of guiness, we didn’t choose to mix drinking with our exercise.  Our bikes weigh close to 50kg each, the temperature was in the 90s and we were cycling on hilly terrain. So we would sit and chat with Claudiu as he enjoyed the cheap beer instead. That afternoon, he showed us local water sources where we could refill our bottles, he brought us to a secret thermal pool, and despite some inappropriate roads for our bikes, he took us on our very steep rocky shortcut over a hill to save 30km or so of our travels. After our 12km ascent over surfaces best cycled with mountain bikes, we were pretty tired and hungry. It’s difficult to know if Claudiu was too, he was such a natural cyclist that the 5 beers that afternoon had not slowed his progress, nor dampened his appetite to head straight for more beer on our arrival. So into another pub we sat, instead of making camp and the hours drained until late evening. The pub closed and still no dinner, nor tent spot. We made camp further down the road some time after 2am. With no dinner and not enough mileage on the clock we were determined to make extra effort the following day. 

We packed away our gear and cleaned the bikes from yesterday’s off road journey . We weren’t ready until midday again, having not woken until 10am. We set off, only to be stopped 100m down the road at the first pub. We began to feel the heat of the situation, we were at the feet of the Carpathian mountains, our first challenge on the 6 day tour, and we were not making progress. I have no doubt that Claudiu himself could have completed this whole trip in 4 days, but we are a very different kettle of fish and it’s easy to forget that we are not real cyclists. He ordered food and more beer and we sat for over an hour waiting to begin the day. Finally at 1:30pm we were on the road. Those at home may read this and think little of it, but with our routine in camping situations we have normally completed 80%-90% of our daily cycle by this time, it takes away the stress of completion and allows you to ride at a lower intensity and take breaks where necessary. We reaffirmed that our arrival in Bucharest was to be Monday afternoon for the television filming, we simply had to be there, and unacceptable to our hosts to arrive at 2am instead. Once we had reassured ourselves that our itinery was clear we progressed. A long hot ascent followed, 12km up the hill, summiting after 2 hours of prefuse sweating. With a top speed of 6kph we made the final hairpin, and as promised we were soon freewheeling through the beautiful “Alpine-esque” towns. It was the single best cycling experience of the entire trip. To take in the dynamic hills, the quaint hotels and have a fresh breeze on our face all at once was a new luxury. We knew that without our guide we would not have been on this route and who knows what experiences we may have missed. We glided through 50km of valley only interrupted by the inevitable stops at the small beer houses. At one stop though, we realised again that we would not be near to our destination in time for dark, and we did not want to spend another evening cycling in the dark. The roads were generally quiet, but with heavy bikes, and little vision, it only takes a single pot hole (of which there are plenty) to jeopardise the entire trip. We spoke with Claudiu once more. It was a difficult situation. He was great guy, a fantastic host and a passionate enthusiast. Also he shared an awesome sense of adventure, but our methods were clearly not compatible.  We could not ride late into the night with no dinner, our budget did not cover pub food and we didn’t want any accidents. We were looking for early starts, early finishes, on safe roads, with nice views. Poor Claudiu, he had hoped for a new crazy adventure, but all he had found was two tedious English people on a “Saga holiday” bike ride across the world.

Later that afternoon, after spending the majority of his budget on beer and food, he conceded to us that he would need to turn around or risk arriving in Bucharest with nothing. We had seen this happening, but maybe not quite so soon. It was sad to see our friend leave so early, after only one solitary night away from home, but he had many things to think about, and now had a job to find too. We wished each other a safe journey and went our separate ways.

We now had an extra sense of urgency. We were not familiar with the terrain, and we were seriously behind schedule. Worse still, it was late in the day and we were slowly approaching another passage in the hills requiring a 15km climb. We had been told there were places to find camp on the other side of this passage but we simply did not have the hours left in the day to reach there. We made only 5km up the hill before dark and managed to find a flat clearing by a makeshift table by the side of the road. We quickly cooked our pasta and ate. As we had eaten in the dark four wild dogs had alarmed us. We were unsure how to deal with the situation so armed ourselves with a few stones as they approached, sniffing at the remains of previous meals around the area. Jodie tidied all our food remains into a bag which I hang from a tree a short distance down the road. We now had to change our camping mindset to deal with wild animals, bears and wolves were not unheard of in the area. The dogs retreated back up the hill, and we quickly assembled our tent. Nervously we tried to settle after a day of real turmoil.

Our tent lay only 6 feet away from the trees, but safely 10 metres from the road, and on a bank to avoid most of the direct car headlights. After just one minute we lay frozen as the sound of heavy footsteps crushed sticks inches from our tent and bikes. This was something heavy, and after climbing 5km into the hills, it was not a man. Breathing followed, and ours stopped. Surely this could not be a bear? Moments later it had paced around the tent and was rustling on some nearby litter. We lay paralysed as we tried to identify what this could be. I knew not to shine a light and not to make any noise, but we couldn’t stay camped here if it were dangerous. I quietly unzipped my bag, and waited. As a car approached the corner, I opened the inner tent zip and peered under the outer tent cover. I could see a black silhouette moving back towards the rubbish against the faint headlight of the car. It stood and ate again and it looked big, but not huge. Was it a huge dog or was it a bear? It didn’t feel like a dog but when you are put into this situation for the first time rational and logic are not your primary tools. I asked for a small light and would wait for the next car before using it. Only 30 seconds later and another car, I shone the light and it was gone. Perhaps it had been scared off. It didn’t return, but it left us sweaty and out of our comfort zone. When we had set off from the pub at 1:30pm that afternoon with Claudiu we had not prepared ourselves for such an evening.  To this day we will only know this animal as the dogbear. It sounded and moved nothing like a dog, but with the wild dogs in the area, perhaps this would be a likely answer.

As expected, we got little sleep that night, and so when 5am arrived, we were up and packed and looking to get over that hill in shortish time. Day 3 of our Romanian transfer was going to have to be a tough one. We had some serious ground to catch up now. We pedalled steadily through the entire day, despite the heat in the afternoon reaching the mid 90s. We had no choice, but to miss our invitation. The hills were relentless and sweltering. We didn’t even have views to consol us as we were pedalling with commercial lorries on the busy European roads, heading for Sibiu. We managed to locate a cheap room in the middle of Sibiu after 135km of hill pedalling. We knew this was still not enough, but we were in danger of pushing ourselves too far, and we hoped to press on the following day. This was not to be. Something broke, and anyone who knows Jodie would rightly assume that it was me. I woke up and felt wrong. My head was not right and my stomach was showing the first signs of dehydration and exhaustion. Progressively through this next day, I had to stop and take a minute to put my head down as tried to work towards the highest mountain pass in Romania. Several motorists stopped and offered lifts; some to the mountain to help with the afternoon journey, others to the doctor if I needed medication. We weren’t ready to throw the towel in, and we continued. When eventually reaching the base of the mountain, we had already covered 85km and I had practically nothing left in the tank, I felt sick with stomach cramps, had lost my appetite and warm water from our bottles was not doing anything to revitalise us. We managed only a 10km climb that evening before I collapsed at the first opportunity and slept as Jodie fixed some dinner and tea. We had no place to camp and no rooms available, so we waited until dark to sleep under the stars on a wooden market stall. By the next morning we realised that things were not looking good, but what choices do you have? You’re trying to cycle 25,000km across all terrain, weathers and conditions, and your body is going to suffer. For two city office workers we would have to adapt fast to harsh situations or fail. Despite the pain, we proceeded early next morning. A further 15km of climbing started painfully and got progressively worse. I had taken a mixture of diarrhoea pills, sickness pills and rehydration sachets. It had given me some relief in the morning, but when taking a second dose late in the morning with some paracetemol , my empty stomach reacted violently. The pain was excruciating. I was floored and I couldn’t take the pain away, I struggled for breath as Jodie looked on helplessly. I just wanted the pain away, and neither of us could do this stuck halfway up a mountain. I managed to empty the cocktail from my stomach by using a technique normally reserved for students on drinking missions.  The pain relented enough to sit on the saddle and push for a further hour to the summit. Here I knew that the pedalling for the day was effectively over. I could rest then see how far we could freewheel down the other side.

At the 2,040m peak and after our 24km of uphill hairpins, I took a sugary drink, which unfortunately had the same effect on my stomach as the pills. I had to get myself down and get some rest. We got back on the bikes and drifted down the other side. Such a shame for me as this would have been the greatest enjoyment of the trip, instead all I could think about was the mountain rescue hut situated a few km downhill. We collected some anti-acid pills and this allowed me to carry on for some time. By 4pm Jodie spotted a camping spot a full 40km short of our aim. I couldn’t continue, for the first time in the trip, I really did not want to carry on for this day. I wanted to take a day off, but here was no place to rest properly, we had no money and no food, we knew that respite awaited us in Bucharest, but now 210km away. The roads by this point were pitted like the moon, and were hilly. They bent and wove around a huge lake, and the average speed from here was indeterminable. We knew that if we didn’t act I would deteriorate further, but we would not reach Bucharest without help in one day. The last option was to make for the town of Pitesti and hope for a train.

In torrential rain and thunderstorms the next morning we set off on our 90km journey. Encouraged by the rest at the far end, I managed to keep with Jodie’s gentle pace making and 6 hours later we had negotiated our way to the station. It was all I could but to collapse into the train seat and wait the 90 minutes for the departure. I felt frustrated and disappointed that for a mere further 108km by rail, I had broken our “no unnecessary transport” and failed before even Turkey. As the train finally departed and I watched the perfectly flat landscape roll away to my side, my frustration turned into relief. I had lost all care. I could have arrived one day late and completed the gentle 108km cycle along the rail the following day, but I would have missed the IRB invitation and that was the only reason the targets had been so aggressive. Two hours later and our new host Radu Constantine was there to greet us with his friend.

40 hours on and we have watched 3 international matches, met with many rugby contacts, visited the Pakistani embassy and are now planning the next adventure.

More to follow in Bucharest…….


5 Responses

  1. Weakness leaving the body !!!

  2. Hello guys, welcome to Romania. I am the cyclist you met on the ascent to the alpine pass (Transfagarasan), on early Sunday morning (08.00 AM). I wish you could have enjoyed the trip more and I could have done something for you… I figured you were globetrotters, but didn’t imagine the size of your chllenge! Don’t let these problems get you down. Push on & the best of luck!
    Vali (from Bucharest)

  3. Hello,

    See you in 2011 in Nz
    All the best from Romania and have all the luck!

  4. Guys, you rock! You might remember me, I’m Kristy and Paul’s friend Kat, you met me and my drunken rugby-obsessed (now) husband Andrew a couple of times at Kris and Paul’s place in West Hampstead.

    Just wanted to say I think what you’re doing is AMAZING, you are a real inspiration, especially for someone like me who has no motivation for phsycial activity but feels guilty about that on a daily basis!

    Keep up the good work, I’m signed up to receive blog updates from you now, so I’ll be keeping up with your progress, and when you make it to Melbs next year we will catch up for a beer or fifty!!

  5. Hi guys, it was a real pleasure for me and Anca to host you in Bucuresti for a couple of days. We feel being part of your great adventure and we wish you best of luck and please keep us updated on your way to the Rugby world cup!

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