Carpathians at Last

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Hitting the road at 5:50, we laughed a bit about the ridiculousness of the night we’d just spent. I had so many bug bites I felt like I had hives, but at least we were outside breathing fresh cool air, moving too fast for any bugs to catch us.

The bad news is that with only a couple of hours of sleep for the night and having burned through our energy pretty sufficiently yesterday, we were up against a rough day. We planned to cycle roughly fifty miles up the Carpathian Mountains to the town of Bunesti. We committed to taking things slow. At least we had the whole day to work with!

We found an open bakery (surprisingly easy given that it wasn’t yet 6:00!), scarfed down some pastries, fed our leftovers to the sweet stray dog nearby, and then hit the road on a highway already hopping with Monday morning rush hour.

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The rush was so intense in fact, that we nearly got run off the road a couple of times by big trucks who had no interest in waiting for enough passing space. We lamented the insanity of Romanian drivers and felt discouraged about spending another day with a death grip on our bikes.

All the sudden, Ben stopped, yelling something about an owl that apparently I’d just passed. I looked at him skeptically and he announced, “it was right by your wheel!” I hadn’t seen anything of the sort and doubted he’d really seen an owl just hanging out on the side of the road, but when he asked if I wanted to go back, I said yes, mostly just to be nice.

Ben was, in fact, right! A one eyed owl sat in a roadside turnoff, unphased by the traffic flying by. I simply hadn’t noticed him. We mused about what might have happened to his eye, but he seemed alert, checking us out as we took his picture. I hope he is all right!

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As we went up the canyon, we seemed to leave behind a small percentage of the trucks with every village we passed through. Village after village, the ride became quieter and the towns became older until finally the roads muted and it was just us cycling uphill through quiet mountain villages. The traffic jams in town suddenly involved horses, wagons, tractors, and pedestrians, and now us, on colorful bicycles. People stared curiously and nodded to us, and we, also curious, back at them.

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Though crumbling, the architecture of each house was stunningly intricate, wooden patterns decorating windowsills and doorways, rooftops and fences. The neighborhoods were buzzing with life, people walking every which way to complete their errands, men digging rocks out of river beds, women beating rugs, others drawing water from their wells. One elderly man nearly caused a traffic accident when his rogue cow went running into the street. All this was strangely mingled with random speeding delivery vans and people chatting casually on cell phones. The balance between tradition on modernity reminded me time and time again that we hadn’t travelled back in time so much as that we had simply arrived somewhere very far from home.

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The forest thickened around the towns as we headed further and further north, and soon the towns we’d been passing evolved again: smaller with less fences and more action. These, I realized, must be gypsy villages. These communities were much less wealthy, some homes seemingly tacked up with leftover pieces. Life was happening right on the edges of the street. People cooked and did laundry, chased children and gathered to gossip all along the road as we passed with nothing to keep the happenings of their lives from passers by. Trying not to feel intrusive in such a small, close community, I smiled at people as we went by and many smiled and nodded back at me. We’ve found that Roma people here have a terribly unfortunate reputation, but I felt uncomfortable about believing any of it as we rode through their villages watching them go about their daily work to survive.

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The last village ended as we crossed a bridge over the river and headed into the forest. We were headed to the switchbacks that led to the top of the pass. Tall pine trees stretched tall into the blue skies and patches of vibrant grass lined roadside turnoffs. We quickly found a lovely shaded spot where we carefully unpacked our stools and almost all of our food, taking a lingering lunch in the wooded mountains, watching wagon carts go by. I still couldn’t believe we were finally here in the mountains of Romania!

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We pondered camping in the forest for the night, noting that we would probably need to use precautions with our food due to the large number bears that call this place their home. I absentmindedly told Ben that our food would easily fit in one small bag making it easy to hang in a tree, which he promptly informed me was exactly why we couldn’t camp tonight- we’d starve.

He had a point. We were low on water and once lunch was over, food. Instead, we pushed on into the sunny day and headed uphill, making only about two minutes of progress before Ben’s crank fell completely off his bike, stuck to his foot with his bike cleat.

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In another roadside pulloff, we dug out the tools and repaired the problem, hopeful it wasn’t a sign of a bigger issue. We still needed to cover 12 miles before we’d be anywhere near town. I doubted the wagon traffic was equipped to pick up two hitchhiking bike tourists!

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Finally, we really got to pedaling, the road now climbing steeply up. Though we were tired, the climb was stunning: frequently shady and lined with trees and meadows. Ben stopped to take a picture, and was passed by a man on a wagon who hoped Ben might offer him a freebie. Did we have gum? Chocolate? Beer? As we were completely out of food, he was out of luck, but the exchange did make us laugh!

Ben also stopped to lament the solid blue mass of sky we had above us. Without a cloud in sight, our pictures were kind of dull. He looked up and commanded the sky to deliver us some clouds. I laughed at his presumptuous behavior, but within minutes the wind started churning, bringing with it heavy piles of white fluff. Now we really had the perfect day on our hands.

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We hardly paused at the top before heading down the other side, the descent slowed repeatedly by the man-eating potholes that lined the road. Hitting a hole that big on a bicycle would be sure to send the rider flying and we were determined to stay rubber side down. The slow speeds did however, give us time to check out the towering rock cliffs above, the clear river below, the complexity of the forest surrounding us, and to soak up the last of the stillness before we hit the busy highway into Busteni.

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We’d planned to camp at a campsite in the outskirts of Busteni for a few days while we rested, worked, and saw the sights. When we arrived however, Camping Aviator was more of a small plot of grass behind a tire shop than an actual camping. Anxious to be off the insane highway and out of the sun, we checked in, but upon sitting down, felt sick with disappointment. We had only a tiny square of shade and the whole place quivered with the noise from the highway rumbling by. We were the only ones attempting to camp there.

Did we really come all this way up the mountains to cook in the sun and listen to the highway? We debated a while, both too tired to want to get up and go on a search for other accommodations, but in the end we decided to take our fate into our own hands and try to find somewhere enjoyable to spend the next few days. Family run guesthouses can be inexpensive, but finding the right one can take time. I took a deep breath, hopped on my bike, and road away into the sun, hoping for the best.

The first place we tried quoted us nearly three times what we normally pay for a room. We passed, looking at each other with concern. I started feeling panicky, worried that in this touristy town we’d be hotel hunting all day. Almost as a formality, we also tried the next door neighbors, and surprisingly, were quoted such a good price I made him repeat it three times to make sure we were hearing him right. I went up, looked at the cozy room and we decided to stay.

Gabby, the guy who welcomed us in, didn’t exactly speak any English, but we mimed enough to get by until his English speaking aunt joined us. She explained they’d offered us their best deal because we were young and because “you arrived how you are” which I took to mean “looking like grungy lost kids.” They fed us the rest of their sausages from lunch and soon we were settling in to our quiet room set near lovely gardens and beautiful mountain views for the night.

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