Eger to Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Nine hours on trains; Reservation difficulties; In which we are lightly shaken down; Border crossing and nervously giving up passports; More reservation difficulties but no Romanian shakedown; Gypsies; Transylvania at last; Funny-looking haystacks; Cluj-Napoca; Traditional Romanian food... pizza; Real Romanian beer

Our first train of the day not being until noon, we didn’t need to rush, but we had still planned to get out to the station in good enough time so that we could buy food for the day and make our compulsory reservations for the second and third trains. Early in the morning, though, we made a nasty discovery - I had a tick firmly embedded in my left hip. I hadn’t noticed him the day before, but it had been dark in the shower at the campground, so there was no telling how long he’d been attached. Long enough to completely bury his head under my skin - a thought which makes me feel ill. It took over an hour to remove him and when we had, we realized that his mouth-parts were still embedded. This was disastrous since the mouth-parts are the primary disease vector. We were forced to make a deep excavation in my hip with the aid of vodka, ice and chocolate (the second applied topically and the first and third internally). If all there was to worry about was the usual Lyme Disease, I wouldn’t be very concerned, but it seems that northern Hungary is a hotbed for Tick-Borne Encephalitis, which is far worse - a 2% fatality rate and the survivors scarred with neurological trauma. I won’t know for 28 days if I’ve escaped infection, but with a reported rate of 106 cases per 100,000 I remain hopeful.

What with all the excitement in the morning, time slipped away from us and we arrived at the station with no time to buy food for the journey, and we’d completely forgotten to make our reservations - a fact which would cause us a great deal of trouble throughout the day. We retraced our steps to Füzesabony, remembering about our reservations on the way, but arrived there with no time at all to make them. We jumped on a train bound for Püspokladany in the east, hoping that we’d be able to pull it off without a reservation. Having jumped on the rear end of the last car of the Budapest-bound train, we worked our way forward trying to find empty seats. There weren’t any at all in second class - we finally found some, but they were in the smoking car, which was an experience I hope never to repeat. Finally Sheryl had had enough and went forward, finding us seats in the nearly empty first class section. Our rail passes entitle us to first-class seats, but not without a reservation, so we hoped that when the conductor came around we could play the stupid tourist card and they’d overlook it. This worked to some extent - after some shouting and gesticulating we were allowed to purchase reservations there and then for 850HUF instead of the the 500 they would have been. We found out later that this is the official policy - I wish we’d known.

In any case that used up the very last bit of Hungarian currency we had. We knew we had 20 minutes at Püspokladany, so we frantically hatched cascading contingency plans for how to find money and make reservations in time to catch our train to Romania. We got very nervous as we realized just how late the train was and our safety margin shrank to ten minutes, then five. As the train finally reached the station, we jumped down and I ran into the building. There was no ATM, but the window had a Visa sticker and there was only one person ahead of me, so I relaxed a bit. There was a big language barrier, though, and I don’t think the ticket agent had ever seen a Eurail pass before, because two of them had to look it up. I tried to get across the fact that we needed a reservation, but they both flapped their hands in an “it’s okay” gesture, so I ran off to the train. While I was gone Sheryl had been talking to the conductor on the new train, and had secured some sort assurance that we could buy a reservation on the train with Euros. We weren’t sure which of these two conflicting opinions were true, but both of them were favourable and we just wanted to get to bloody Romania, so we got on the train. There was no first-class, but we had a second-class compartment to ourselves. I wasn’t quite ready to relax until the conductor had come by, though. Presently he did, pretended not to recognize us, and asked for our reservations. Sheryl either didn’t get it or was being stubborn and tried several times to remind him that he’d told us it was okay. He obstinately refused to understand the same English he’d understood on the platform, and I began to recognize the shape of the situation. I held up two fingers and said “Euros?”. His English improved drastically and we settled on €4. Naturally the smallest bill I had was a ten and of course he wouldn’t take coins, and smirked as he gave me 1000HUF as change (about €4). Sheryl was steaming - even more so when she saw that he’d made out our reservations for the regulation 500HUF instead of 850. I figured it was a pretty cheap bribe at €2, and one that I was more than willing to pay to get us to Romania. The conductor was 1300HUF richer, we don’t get thrown off the train - everybody wins. Except Sheryl - displaying hitherto-unseen depths of moral outrage, she fumed about it for half an hour afterwards.

Crossing the border into Romania was very interesting. We stopped at the last Hungarian station for easily half an hour, while a cute purple-haired border guard who spoke only Hungarian took our passports. She explained with gestures that she was going to pass them through the window to another guard, and then bellowed for him to come over. He took our documents and those of the other non-EU people aboard, and was gone for ages. Occasionally we’d see him wandering aimlessly up and down the platforms. Although I didn’t think we were getting grifted - they had new uniforms and guns and were chatting with the train conductors - he was still gone long enough for me to get very antsy and start packing up our things just in case. In the end, though, he came back and returned our passports, properly stamped with exit visas. This scene repeated itself just inside the Romanian border, except with paunchy, balding unshaven men instead of a cute purple-haired girl. Same guns, though.

After the train got under way again post passport-checking, the new Romanian conductor came around to check tickets. Securely in possession of actual seat reservations this time, we presented them and our rail passes, only to have him shake his head. He told us that we needed a reservation for the Romanian segment of the trip, separate from the Hungarian reservation. I thought three things - first, anger at all Hungarian railway staff, both incompetent and corrupt; second, a stab of nervousness at being thrown off a train newly arrived in an unfamiliar country and with no local currency; and third, that this was a perfect opportunity to witness some of the supposed corruption among Romanian officials. He didn’t shake us down, though - only informed us in a friendly fashion that we should be aware for next time - so score one for Romania over Hungary.

The landscape didn’t change much as we crossed the border, but the agricultural methods did. From large machine-cultivated fields of a single crop we began to see narrow strips of different crops tended by hand. And for the first time in my life I saw real old-fashioned haystacks instead of machine-rolled cylinders of hay. These haystacks didn’t look at all like the ones in the pictures and in the collective unconscious, though. They were sculpted silo- or cone-shaped, or occasionally lumpy irregular pillars of hay built around a frame of sticks. Sometimes there were bracing sticks like buttresses holding up the sides, but invariably there was a tall stick vertically through the haystack and rising up a meter or two above it. I’m not sure of the reason for the stick, but it occurs to me that if there was a very heavy snowfall the sticks would tell you where the hay was so you could feed your livestock. It would have to be an epic blizzard though - most of the stacks we saw were two or three meters high, and many were even higher. Some of them looked quite old, too. It was possible to compare ages of the haystacks by comparing the colours and relative shagginess. The smooth grey ones looked the oldest, and the rough yellow ones the newest.

Soon after crossing the border we saw our first gypsy camp - a caravan of cars and motor-homes drawn up in a circle. I was a bit shocked by the amount of trash strewn about the settlement - it looked as if they had been living there for months at least and had been dumping their trash in a ring only a few meters from the trailers. We’d been hearing dire warnings about Roma from many people ever since we’d reached Europe, and I had always nodded politely and dismissed them as no more than blind prejudice. Gypsies seem to be the target of the last remaining displays of overt, commonly-accepted racism in Europe, and so I was disinclined to believe any warnings I’d heard about them. Seeing this trash-strewn, rundown bunch of vehicles, and seeing their occupants scrounging beside the tracks for unknown salvage, though, I began to wonder if my knee-jerk anti-prejudice had been fully correct, and also to wonder what we’d gotten ourselves into. We’d seen far worse poverty in Morocco, but seeing it here, in a European country, seemed much more disturbing and out of place - perhaps only because of the contrast. (As I write this, ten days later, I’m happy to report that all the Roma we’ve encountered have been courteous, pleasant and decent. People here make a big deal about their alleged scamming, advantage-taking and casual thievery, but even if this is true, it only makes them sound like the average backpacker to me, and so I’m hardly about to point any fingers. And the habit of throwing trash everywhere seems to be, I’m sorry to say, common across all of Romania and not limited to gypsies.)

Although we were now technically in Transylvania, the landscape didn’t look like it to me. I misspent far too many years of my youth and early adulthood avoiding the sun and wearing too much black eyeliner, and so the very name Transylvania carries a thrilling resonance for me. I could hardly believe I was finally here - in the birthplace of Dracula - the legend, at least, if not the semi-mythical real-life inspiration for the story - and I was feeling a bit let down by the scenery. Where were the dramatic steep mountains, deep river gorges and black valleys? All I saw were a bunch of fields and haystacks. It didn’t take long for the landscape to start living up to the legends, though. Soon enough a thickly-forested ridge rose on the north side of the tracks, and climbed to form some respectable low mountain crags - the foothills of the Apuseni Mountains, I was later to find out. At the same time, ominous black storm clouds began to gather, and it began to get quite dark. The train plunged into a series of tunnels, and I, hanging my head and camera out the window, had to continually pull both back inside for fear of decapitation. So, initial impressions notwithstanding, Transylvania did not disappoint.

We arrived in Cluj-Napoca, or Cluj as it’s locally known, around 8:30 in the evening. It was already dark. We had directions and a reservation at a hostel, so we got our bearings and took the half-hour walk from the station to the town centre. Cluj seemed quite a lot like Eger in Hungary - the similarities in university towns making themselves apparent across borders - but was noticeably older and more run-down. Finding the building which housed the hostel was easy enough, but the open front door led to a black and empty foyer holding only an overflowing trash can. We ventured up the stairs with the aid of Sheryl’s flashlight, and all was well. The manager of the hostel, Iuliana, invited us out to dinner with her and a Detroit boy named Drew (with whom she was involved, we realized quickly). They were both cool people and she was easy on the eyes, so we accepted. Not having had much to eat all day and being nearly ready to fall over with hunger helped. We thought we might try some Romanian food, but the restaurant turned out to be a pizza place. Weird thing about travelling - you can get a pizza anywhere, no matter how small and remote the village. It’s both annoying and comforting at the same time. In this case it was neither - it was just food, which we inhaled like starving wolves. After dinner we tagged along to an Irish pub - something else you can find nearly anywhere, I don’t think there are enough Irish in the world to run all these “authentic” Irish pubs - and met up with some friends of Iuliana’s. They were very cool people - a cellist and a conductor. Vlad, the conductor, was kind enough to write me a list of his recommendations for things to see in Romania. Although we didn’t get to try any Romanian food, we did try two Romanian beers. Sheryl preferred the Timişoara, a very sharp hoppy lager. I like it quite a lot but preferred the Ursus Black - a strong, very dark stout with a full taste that reminded me a lot of Chimay.

Drew and Iuliana dropped us off back at the hostel around 2am, and we tried not to make too much noise in the dark.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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