Monday, July 25, 2011

Splashing Across the Carpathians

July 25, Lvov, Ukraine

It's 9:30 pm of a day off here in lvly Lvov (aka Lemberg or Leopolis), a gem of a city here on the western edge of Ukraine, nestled at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, the historic capital of the region of Galicia. I really like the feel of this city. It is a piece of the Austro-Hungarian empire marooned in Ukraine, full of Catholic churches, cafes and elegant fin-de-siecle architecture. It's a bit like Budapest in its feel, thanks to the century and a half that the Hapsburgs ruled the city. It was actually a Polish city for centuries before that, a major trading centre in Eastern Europe and a major centre of Jewish, Polish, Armenian and even Greek culture. I arrived here yesterday at midday and have spent the past day and a half poking about, sampling the excellent cakes and hot chocolate (more Viennese influence) and looking at the architectural eye candy.

Before I start blogging, I should mention that the right sidebar contains links to the Google Map showing my route, and the Google Doc table with all the daily riding statistics, for those of you who want to keep a closer eye on where I've been.

Since I last blogged from Kosice, the monsoon season seems to have arrived here in central Europe, with some rain on each of the past 8 days. Some days it has mostly rained at night, but other days have been pretty soggy on the bike. Here's the skinny on what I've been up to for the past week.

Superb Slovakia

I didn't know what to expect in Slovakia; it was a bit of a mental black hole before this trip. I have to say that, although I was only in Slovakia for 4 nights, I was greatly impressed with the country as a cycling destination, and as a pretty, outdoorsy, historic country, with good, cheap food and good bike shops.

In Kosice I had my front and back hubs tightened and my bottom bracket (the thing that goes through the frame to hold the pedals) replaced. I had been hearing cracking noises from the bike as I pedalled, and I thought that it meant that one of the ball bearings in the bottom bracket had broken. The mechanics replaced the bottom bracket, but told me that in fact the bottom bracket bearings had been fine, although it was the wrong diameter, and that probably because it was too small, it wasn't being held in place properly. As soon as I pedalled off, I realized that I had misdiagnosed the problem. The noises were unchanged, and I realized that it must be the freewheel, the bit of the back axle assembly that allows you to coast downhill without pedalling. This is a more major reconstruction job, involving rebuilding the rear wheel around a new axle, so I want to avoid doing this on the road if I can at all avoid it. I have, however, bought a new axle with a properly functioning freewheel, in case I have to have a new wheel built in the next month somewhere with fewer bike shops and less access to quality bike parts.

I rode out of Kosice a bit groggy, after a huge thunderstorm kept waking me up in the middle of the night. I pedalled north at first to Presov, leaving behind the broad agricultural fields around Kosice and heading towards the foothills of the Carpathians. I then turned west and headed towards the highest part of the entire Carpathian range, the renowned High Tatras. I was hoping to do some hiking, but as I approached the mountains, I realized this was not going to happen; the peaks were completely covered by black thunderclouds, and the weather forecast was for much more of the same.

I still managed to see some lovely stuff, despite the bad weather. After a bit of a rollercoaster ride against the grain of the landscape, I coasted down from a reasonable climb and was greeted by the sight of an outsized castle dominating the landscape from atop a steep ridge. It was Spis Castle, the biggest castle in Slovakia and one of the largest in all of Europe. It was hard to get a decent picture, as clouds stayed stubbornly directly overhead, but it was impressive to see from different angles as I rode past. It marked the start of the Spis region, devastated by Mongol invasions in 1242 and repopulated by Saxon German settlers invited in by the King of Hungary. Spis is full of little medieval towns with pretty market squares, castles, Gothic churches and lovely housefronts.

I rode through one of the standouts, Levoca, which has made it onto UNESCO's World Heritage list. The main square was outstanding, with extremely pretty houses everywhere attesting to a prosperous Middle Ages for the town, based on trade. The main square was dominated by a huge Gothic church famous for its 18-metre-high carved wooden altar, supposedly the biggest wooden Gothic altar in the world. It was carved by Levoca's most famous son, the sculptor Master Paul. There was scaffolding on the altar when I ventured into the church, but a nearby museum has excellent high-quality replicas of the carvings that you can get up close to and photograph. The church was full of astrophysicists, attending a big conference on exoplanets in the High Tatras. It was funny to run into people from my previous life; in fact, one of the scientists I talked to was at Harvard when I was there (1992-94) and was the advisor for one of my fellow grad students, although I don't think we ever met.

I pushed on, into black, ominous skies, headed for the city of Poprad, but the increased hilliness and impending downpour had me looking for a place to sleep indoors. I found a little motel and got one of the better deals on rooms of the trip: 15 euros for a luxurious, enormous room with satellite TV and a big breakfast in the morning. I turned in early, replete with sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes, perfect fuel for another day in the saddle. I felt really tired, perhaps from two nights of poor sleep in my tent in the pouring rain.

All day I had noticed that many of the villages I passed through seemed to have a majority Roma (Gipsy) population. There seem to be a greater percentage of Roma in Slovakia than almost anywhere else in eastern Europe. Many non-Roma Slovaks that I spoke to displayed a pathological hatred for the Roma, and said some truly vile things about them, the sort of things that Nazis said about the Jews. I found it quite disturbing. While it's true that the Roma are in general poorer than other Slovaks, they seem to be doing materially better than the Roma in Romania or the Balkans, with quite a few members of a Roma middle class visible on the streets. On the other hand, there are a couple of definite favelas on the outskirts of some towns, and some Roma are extremely poor indeed. I remember a story a few years ago in which the mayor of a small town in Slovakia bought plane tickets to Canada for all the Roma inhabitants of his town and told them to claim refugee status when they landed. I get the feeling that a lot of Slovaks would like to do the same thing to their local Roma inhabitants. George Soros, as part of his Open Societies projects, is trying to help the poor state of public health provision to eastern Europe's Roma communities.

That night there was an apocalyptic thunderstorm that left me happy to be indoors. I got going relatively early and cut a corner to avoid Poprad and head straight to another pretty Saxon Spis town, Kezmarok. Lovely castle, great town square, and a perfect spot to sip hot chocolate, eat chocolate cake and write postcards. The local river was running very high, and later that day, Slovak TV was carrying stories of flooding in various parts of the country. I was glad that I had decided to abandon thoughts of hiking up the peaks of the High Tatras, which I still hadn't so much as seen through the curtain of rain. I rode off to Stara Lubovna, with the inevitable castle and cathedral and, more to the point, a fantastic restaurant for a vast lunch. Thus fortified, I continued the ride, over increasingly hilly terrain, towards the UNESCO-listed town of Bardejov. At one point, looking back, I could just make out, through a break in the rainclouds, the silhouette of the High Tatras; it was the only glimpse I caught of them in two days.

I got to Bardejov having covered 110 fairly tough kilometres, but decided to take advantage of a break in the weather to go see one of Carpathian wooden churches (unusually, this one was Roman Catholic), 10 km uphill out of Bardejov in the village of Hervartov. The setting was perfect, in a copse of trees overlooking the village, and when the sexton showed up with the keys, the interior was amazing, full of Gothic paintings and altars and frescoes. I coasted back to Bardejov, found a hotel, ate pizza and collapsed into bed, pretty tired after 133 km.

I spent an hour the next day absorbing the wonderful central square of Bardejov. After another night of rain, there was dramatic light, with shafts of light illuminating the pastel facades with black thunderclouds behind. The museum told the story of another rich Middle Ages trading town, which declined over the centuries as religious war tore apart the fabric of society. The town was burned by Hussites, then converted to Protestantism for a century before converting back to Roman Catholicism.

After bidding a fond farewell to Bardejov, I rode towards the small town of Svidnik. Somewhere along the way, as I properly entered the Carpathians, I crossed an invisible border line between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, or rather the Austrian-influenced hybrid of the Uniate church. The Carpathians are full of pretty little wooden churches, much as I saw in Romania, most of them Uniate and many of them on UNESCO's list. I spent much of the day visiting these churches, almost all of them Uniate (Greek Catholic; beliefs and rituals are Orthodox, but the church has the Pope as its head, rather than an eastern Patriarch). Some of them have been recently renovated, reducing their atmospheric value, but I really liked Bodruzal,

with ancient wooden walls and roof shingles and a peaceful, small interior.

The road led over the 500-metre-high Dukla Pass, site of a series of bloody battles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht in late 1944. There are German military cemeteries everywhere, and a huge memorial to Soviet, Polish and Slovak soldiers at the summit of the pass. I coasted downhill into Poland and into more rain. I pushed on, through heavy truck traffic, as far as a tiny truck stop motel where I turned in early, shattered again.

The Push Through Poland

This ride through the southwest corner of Poland was a bit of a non-entity in terms of sights and history and culture. I spent the next day riding to the town of Przemysl, along a well-engineered modern road, up and down over low hills, through alternating patches of woods and hayfields. I did 1450 vertical metres that day, but it felt like less, as most of the climbs were very gentle. That day I discovered that I should have put on a new chain while the bike was in the shop in Kosice. All the rain meant a lot of grit on the chain, and it accelerated the erosion and grinding of the links that meant the chain was getting longer and longer, and starting to skip very badly whenever I was pedalling hard (ie uphill). I decided that Przemysl, my destination for the day, was likely to have a bike shop with new chains and other useful bits of metal.

When I got to Przemysl, a pleasant little Galician town with a lovely Baroque main square, I checked out the bike shops, but found most of them closed. I spent a lazy evening sketching the church facade and eating, and the next morning found me checking the bike shops one more time before leaving town. Several shops were either still closed or didn't have a nine-speed chain, but the last shop I went to had a chain and a friendly mechanic named Marcin who had just come back from five years working in Ireland. I bought the new chain and, in the process of putting it on, realized that the middle chain ring on the front was completely worn out. I tried to replace it, but the new ring I bought didn't fit properly, as Shimano had changed its specifications. The next several hours were spent trying to remedy this problem, and the final solution was to buy a new crank set (pedal arms and three front chain rings) which, due to another change in Shimano specifications, didn't actually fit on my bike. I then took all the chain rings off and put them onto my old pedal arm. It was a brilliant idea by Marcin, but once again Shimano found a way to foil us. The middle chain ring was a few millimetres too small to fit on the old pedal arm, even though they were exactly the same model number, just from different years. Lots of cursing, then an hour and half of hard work with a metal file and I was able to enlarge the inner surface of the chain ring enough to put the whole assembly together again. Marcin's colleague was impressed with my filing: "You are like McGyver!" High praise indeed.
Return to the Ukraine

By now it was 2 in the afternoon, and there was no way I could make it to Lvov that afternoon. I had pizza with Marcin and his colleague, then pedalled for the border where I had a piece of grim deja vu. Once again the Ukrainian border police insisted that I couldn't cross on my bike, and made me get into a minivan. Once again, we waited forever for lazy, corrupt border officials to deign to let us through. It took two and a half hours to finally get through, so I rode only 20 km into the Ukraine before finding a little hotel (the fourth I tried; the first three were booked out for weddings on this July Saturday night) beside a pond where I ate well, but slept poorly as hordes of drunk Ukrainian revellers shouted and pounded on doors late into the night.

My ride into Lvov yesterday was non-descript, other than the appalling road surface. My new chain rode smoothly on my new front chain rings, but my rear gears had also been badly ground down by the old chain, and skipped badly in my most favourite gears. I realized that in Lvov I was going to have to find a new back cassette to fix the problem once and for all. Once I finally got through construction and awful cobblestone sections of road into central Lvov, I made my way to the rather charming Cosmonaut Hostel, threw my clothes into an actual washing machine (they still look grim, but less revolting than before; bike grease is hard to get out of clothes!) and set off to see this beautiful city.

Today's cafe crawl brought me through several fine Austro-Hungarian cafes, full of sinfully rich cakes and thick hot chocolate, with occasional stops in museums and churches along the way. Lunch at the Masoch Cafe (yes, named after that Masoch, he of masochistic fame) was painful only for the length of time it took food to appear on my table. The real pain was to come when I rode through the inevitable afternoon rain to a bike shop to buy a new cassette. I found exactly what I wanted, but when I went to put it on, I found that Dom Cycle, my new least-favourite bike shop in Switzerland, had enormously overtightened the ring that holds the back gear cassette in place on the hub. No amount of pushing, pulling, grunting and swearing would make it budge, so now tomorrow morning will have to be devoted to finding either a much longer and stronger wrench, or else a long metal pipe to put over the end of my wrench to give myself enough torque to undo the un-handiwork of my overpriced and underskilled Swiss bike mechanics.

It's very frustrating to be held up by mechanical problems, but this all could have been avoided if I hadn't made a classic rookie error and not watched my chain for signs of wear. If I had changed my chain 500 or 800 km earlier, none of this other stuff would have been necessary. I thought I had learned my lesson on my year-long 2001 bike trip, when I had to replace my entire drive train in China, but apparently at nearly 43, I am suffering from premature senility. So, much as I may rail against Dom Cycle as the proximate cause of being stuck in Lvov longer than necessary, the ultimate cause is my own negligence and laziness.

I hope to be out of here by midday tomorrow, if not sooner, headed for Poland for another couple of days before riding into Belarus, another new country for me, at the historic town of Brest. From here on, my predominant heading will be north as I head for the Baltic. Appropriately enough, Lvov is right on the continental divide; its river, now buried underground, flows north into the Baltic, while most of the rivers I have encountered this summer have had the Black Sea as their final destination. With only three and a half weeks left in my summer vacation, it's time to start getting serious about making it to Tallinn. I've now rolled over 3500 km from Tbilisi; another 2000 km or so should see me to Tallinn.

Peace and Tailwinds


Sunday, July 17, 2011

A long stretch to Slovakia

Kosice, Slovakia, July 18th

I'm sitting in an e-mail cafe (hard to find recently along my route) here in the pretty town square of Slovakia's second city Kosice. I arrived in town early yesterday afternoon (for once!), did some laundry, devoured a huge lunch, and am now taking a full day off here today while a bike shop does some maintenance on the bike.

Since I last wrote, in Chisanau, 11 days of cycling and a day of rest and wine-tasting in Hungary, along with nearly 1200 km, have passed by, so I need to do a brief summary to bring this blog up to date.

Meandering through Moldova

I left Chisanau fairly early on July 6th, full of the usual Intourist hotel breakfast buffet spread, headed towards Moldova's only real non-wine tourist attraction, the old monastery at Orheiul Vecchiul. I rode well in the morning, past the vineyards of Cricova and the other Moldovan wine producers, then took an unexpectedly hilly route east towards Transdniestria. The countryside was pretty, full of sunflower fields and little villages. Suddenly, as I crested a rise, an apparition appeared to my right. A hairpin bend in a tiny meandering river, the Raut, has been deeply etched into the soft limestone plateau, and on top of the narrow ridge between the two channels is perched a beautiful church. It dominates the huge amphitheatre of limestone left by the river's erosion. It sits on top of an old cave monastery and church, but after the wonders of Uplistsikhe a few weeks ago, the underground stuff didn't do too much for me. I did like the setting immensely, though, which was good as it cost me lots of time and backtracking to the main road. I then set off into the setting sun on a side road, across the grain of the land, with a series of ups and downs that finally petered out in an appalling dirt track that had once been paved. I found an orchard, pitched a tent out of sight of the road, and called it a day after 114 kilometres.

The next day turned into an unexpectedly epic day. I had intended to cross the Romanian border and camp immediately, making for 100 km or so. It all started out well, with the dirt road turning back into pavement, and the pretty villages and orchards continuing. Moldovan villages all seem to have wells beside the road, dipping into the aquifer that lies not too deep into the porous limestone. It's a boon for a thirsty cyclist! The villages I passed through, even though they were only 60 km or so from the capital, were poor and depressed-looking, although not as bad as what we saw in eastern Crimea.

It was hard, hilly riding until lunch, when I dropped down onto one of the main roads leading out of Chisanau that follows a river, rather than angling between valleys as I had been doing for a day and a half. I made good time up the valley and then down the other side to the Romanian border at Ungheni. It was a very hot day, and I was looking forward to getting off the bike soon. Instead, a gas station owner broke the bad news to me: the border is only open to train passengers, and everyone else, including me, has to head 23 km north to the road crossing. I gritted my teeth, polished off some more chocolate and cookies, and rode north along a very flat road. At the border, everything went smoothly in terms of immigration formalities as I entered my 100th country, but there were (very unusually for Moldova) no money-changers at the border. On the Romanian side, I asked about moneychangers or ATMs and was told that I would have to backtrack south another 24 km to the city of Iasi. More tooth-gritting, more hard cycling, and suddenly I was in Romania's second-largest city, a prosperous university town. A huge electricity blackout left my hotel in darkness and (of course) most of the ATMs to be out of action. The sixth one I tried finally disgorged some Romanian lei, and I went out to feed myself before an early night, tired out by 140 km, much of them unwanted.

Monastic Masterpieces

July 8th was a long, extremely hot but fairly flat day. I rode north, retracing my path into Iasi for 12 km, and then parallelling the Moldovan border for most of the day. It must be the poorest corner of Romania, poorer than much of Moldova, reportedly Europe's least prosperous country. For 80 km I saw no banks, no restaurants and almost no shops. This is an area of largely subsistence agriculture, with an almost continuous string of villages along the low limestone hills that line the flat, broad river valley that marks the Moldovan border. There was little vehicular traffic, with horse carts outnumbering cars at least three to one. I saw a small clan of Roma (Gypsies) collecting scrap metal into a small fleet of horse carts; three of them were trying to wrestle the rusty carcass of an ancient car into their cart, which I thought was an apt metaphor for the direction of economic change in this part of the world. Eventually the road turned away from the border and up into the hills, where I camped in a little forest for some privacy. It was a bad idea in terms of comfort, as the trees prevented any cooling breezes from hitting the tent, and I sweltered all night in rainforest conditions.

The next day was a shortish ride as I climbed over a series of parallel plateaus into parallel river valleys (Moldova all over again), passed through the town of Botosani (tens of thousands of inhabitants, fairly prosperous, exactly one open restaurant that I could find) and then pushed on towards the regional capital of Suceava. I bypassed the city and camped in a little campsite across the road from the Orthodox monastery of Dragomirna. Romania's plague of stray dogs did their best to keep me up at night; aside from Burma, I can't remember seeing so many feral dogs in one country before.

Orthodox monasteries are the main draw in this part of northern Romania (Southern Bucovina), and I spent the next two days exploring the best of them. Collectively, these 15th and 16th century monasteries, painted all over, inside and out, with extraordinarily vivid frescoes, have made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list, and I visited five of these masterpieces. First up was the little-known Patrauti, the oldest of the Bucovina churches. It is so little-visited that it was locked up, and two fellow visitors had to go find the keeper of the keys. I loved the interior of the tiny church, its walls and arched ceilings completely covered by a maze of paintings. This church was full of military saints, as it was established by King Stefan the Great in a time of great military danger from Ottoman Turkish invaders. I found the 360-degree visual stimulation almost too much, but our guide pointed out a number of the details and stories that I might otherwise have overlooked. I staggered outside, saddled up, and set off on the long trek to Sucevita monastery, past a string of dozens of Roma horse carts, as they came back on this Sunday morning from the Catholic church in a nearby town.

Sucevita, when I finally reached it after a ride through tremendous heat, was a different story entirely. It's firmly on the tour bus circuit, and makes a popular weekend excursion for Romanian families. A wedding was shooting photos outside the walls, and the crowds were quite unlike Patrauti. The paintings were amazing, however, well worth the effort of getting to them. The most famous of them is a huge ladder that is supposed to show the genealogy of Jesus from the time of Jesse, father of King David. One of the rooms of the church is covered with gory martyrdom scenes, big on beheadings, being burnt alive and being stabbed in various grim ways. The artwork in the paintings is fine, typical of the late Byzantine style that had captivated me on previous trips to places like Ohrid (Macedonia), Bulgaria and the mountains of Cyprus. The colours, particularly the blue, are wonderful, and hard to capture on a photograph. Sadly, photography is forbidden inside most of the churches (aside from Patrauti), but I did manage a few clandestine snaps. I also loved the monastery enclosure around this and other churches, a haven of peace from the tourist frenzy outside, planted with splendid rose gardens and dotted with nuns reading Bibles on shaded benches.

I had planned to camp in Sucevita, but the campgrounds looked pretty grim, so I headed up the valley, towards a pass over the first range of the Carpathian mountains. Eventually I found a secluded logging road and camped in a clearing in the forest. My bad luck in choosing good tent sites continued. I had a lovely cool breeze, but it did nothing to keep away the clouds of supersized horseflies that plagued me all evening until I finished eating and crawled into my tent to sleep the sleep of the dead.

The next morning, I left very early to complete my climb over the pass in the cool of the morning. There was almost no traffic, and the gradient of the road stayed gentle, making for a pleasant, quick ride to the top. There were pleasant, if not spectacular, views from the crest of the pass. I spent the rest of the day pedalling down a long valley, with short side trips to more painted monasteries. Moldovita was pretty, in a quiet little village, although the two huge tour buses that arrived made it rather less quiet than I would have liked. It went a little too heavily for the death and dismemberment of saints in its frescoes, but I liked its monastery courtyard and the frescoes on the outside. I returned to the bike and flew along a newly-paved highway to Guru Humorolui, where I turned off for Humor monastery.

The Lonely Planet raves about the frescoes of Humor being the best in Bucovina, but most of them, sadly, were under scaffolding when I was there. What little I did see, though, looked as though they were painted by a more skilled brush than some of the other monasteries. I emerged into the relentless heat (38 degrees by my thermometer) and rolled back to Guru Humorolui in search of lunch.

Half a chicken and a plate of fries later, I was ready to complete my hat trick of monasteries at nearby Voronet. Despite the inevitable mass of souvenir stands outside, it wasn't very busy inside the churchyard, and I had time and space to contemplate the wonderful artwork, particularly the daunting Last Judgment on the outer wall above the entrance. Their take on the genealogy of Christ was much harder to follow and less pleasing to the eye than the Sucevita painting. Art historians make much of the famous Voronet blue pigment used on the church, but to my untrained eye, it looked much the same as the vivid blues I'd seen on other churches.

I staggered out, completely saturated with visual imagery, and found a little pension. I was feeling very tired from the heat and the hills, and decided that a long night of sleep in a real bed was called for. The little hotel that I found, the Valeria, was wonderful, with spotless rooms, an extra-long bed and delicious, filling, calorie-rich food, and an English-speaking waitress.

Across the Carpathians

My ride the next day, July 12th, was longer and harder than I had anticipated. I had seen two passes on the map, and had decided that I would probably camp somewhere between the two. However, I had a very good morning, refreshed by a wonderfully deep sleep, and charged over the first pass, an 1100-metre job, by 1:00 pm. The road was in great shape, with gentle gradients the whole way, and I felt strong on the climb. A precipitous descent through a village of haymaking led to a turnoff for the secondary road to Sighetu Marmatiei. Although the road surface deteriorated noticeably, there was hardly any traffic and the black thunderclouds massing behind me kept me pushing hard up the valley. I realized that I had enough energy and time to make it up the second pass that afternoon, and decided to go for it. I pedalled past a series of little logging towns, separated by long stretches of spruce forests that brought back, by sight and by smell, the great boreal forests of northern Ontario. Before I knew it, I was on the last climb to the 1400-metre pass, as thunderclaps echoed ominously around the valley. At the summit, a vision straight out of the pages of Bram Stoker: a church with soaring turrets was silhouetted against the inky blackness of the stormclouds. I resisted the urge to stay there, even if we weren't in Transylvania, and hurtled downhill, trying in vain to outrun the torrential rain at my back. Soaked and wet, I decided on the soft option, eschewing the tent in favour of a hotel at a ski resort (in Romania? Who would have known?) where I ate a huge dinner and slept like a log, worn out by 130 hard-won kilometres.

It was only the next day, rolling down the Izu Valley, that I got my first really good look at the higher bits of the Carpathians. They're not enormously high, only about 2500 metres or so at their highest in Romania, but they're very pretty, with good forest cover in a lot of places and hay-making villages in other spots. The valleys are full of pretty wooden houses, and this valley, the Izu, is known for its ancient wooden churches and elaborately carved wooden gateways. I detoured off the main road a couple of times to see these churches, and was greatly taken with their soaring spires and wooden shingled roofs. There's a new monastery being built at Barsana in the old wooden style, and it's quite atmospheric and very popular among the Romanian devout (ie, almost the entire population), as well as making the cover of my map of Romania.

I blew through Sighetu Maratiei without stopping; it was too late to visit the house where Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel was born, and I had a cemetery to visit. 20 km down the road, following the Tisza river along the Ukrainian border, the Laughing (or Merry) Cemetery is a big drawing card to the village of Sapanta. There a local wood carver spent a lifetime creating beautiful, vivid wooden memorials to the dead buried there, showing them in key moments in their lives (occasionally getting run over by trains or cars; more often working on farms or in shops) and commemorating them in what are apparently quite humorous poetic epitaphs in Romanian. I loved it; I felt that the art captured far more of the lives and characters of these villagers than any conventional cemetery every could have. I'd love to be buried in a similar style whenever I shuffle off this mortal coil. I found the best campsite of the trip, in a field just outside Sapanta, and settled in for a wonderful night's sleep.

Roasting on the Alfold

The heat seemed to grow more oppressive day by day, and July 14th, my three-country day, was the hottest yet. I set off a bit late after a lazy breakfast, and boiled as I crossed a low, forested pass over the last gasp of the Carpathians. Coming down the other side, I had technically entered Transylvania, and definitely entered the Alfold, the Great Hungarian Plain that lies inside a semi-circular arc of the Carpathians. Although I was still in Romania, suddenly the village road signs were bi- or tri-lingual, with Hungarian and occasional Ukrainian names. I could hear people listening to Hungarian TV and music, and speaking Hungarian on the street. I descended very slowly from the pass across the endless flat expanse that had once been the pastures for invading Magyar marauders from Central Asia before they settled down to become agricultural Hungarians. The towns seemed noticeably more prosperous and bustling than further east; I felt as though I had been travelling along a steady upward growth in economic well-being since that first day in Romania where there were no banks or restaurants at all. The thermometer topped 40 degrees for the first time that afternoon, and I took frequent shade breaks to avoid overheating, aided by the occasional ice-cold beer.

Eventually I made it to the Ukrainian border at Halmeu, in plenty of time to cut a 20-kilometre corner of the Ukraine on my way to Hungary. This turned out to be a strategic error; this was the shortest route to Tokaj, Hungary, but not in terms of time. The border was a caricature of old Communist-era frontiers, with fat, corrupt Ukrainian border officials studiously ignoring the motorists in front of them in a display of power that would (they hoped) result in more bribes being offered. I was loaded into a minivan (no bicycles or pedestrians allowed) and spent two long, hot hours waiting for the passport and car registration folks to recognize our existence, despite the Romanian banknotes tucked into my driver's passport. Finally I made it through, said goodbye to my saviour/driver and headed rapidly for Hungary, through a bilingual landscape which seemed to be a tiny corner of Hungary sliced off and added to the Ukraine. At the border I couldn't find either moneychangers or an ATM, and rode deep into the dusk across the Alfold, lit up by a rising full moon over an African-like savannah, before setting up my tent by headlamp and sleeping well after 130 roasting kilometres.

The ride the next day to Tokaj was another 130-kilometre marathon, although it was across a plain that would have made the Netherlands look mountainous. I trundled along through 41-degree heat, following little tertiary roads past little meandering rivers and prosperous, tiny towns, trying to remember what little Hungarian I once knew. I spent 4 memorable months studying math in Budapest in 1988, went back for a brief visit in 1990 and hadn't set foot in the country for 21 years. I found it strange how completely my knowledge of Hungarian had been eradicated from my brain, although individual words came bubbling up now and again, particularly in the supermarket. I found an ATM in the city of Fehergyarmat, and tried to change my leftover Romanian lei, only to be told that Hungarian banks wouldn't touch them. The teller, however, offered to change them herself (at a discounted rate, of course), and I was able to get most of the value of the lei back. Money issues at borders has been a theme this year; I need to get better information in the future about where to change money or find ATMs at upcoming crossings.

I liked my day of cycling, despite the risk of sunstroke. Every town seemed to have a few stork nests on top of telephone poles, and for once I was not the only crazy cyclist on the road, as dozens of locals zipped around on bikes (another echo of the Netherlands). I made it to Tokaj, a sleepy little wine-producing town, at 6 pm only to find that it had been taken over by thousands of music-festival attendees. Given that it was a festival of heavy metal bands, the number of motorbikes, tattoos, beer bellies and black T-shirts came as no surprise. The campground where I was staying was a sea of tents, and sleeping was difficult with the noise from the bands and the fans.

I did, however, stick to my plan to take a day off after 10 straight days on the bike, and go wine-tasting. After a long, leisurely, massive breakfast, I made my way into town to the Tokaji wine museum, where I learned of the illustrious history of Tokaji wines (the first AOC in the world, dating from 1723, and praised by such luminaries as Schubert and Voltaire). I then went for a more hands-on approach to my oenophilic education by going winetasting at the lovely Rakoczi Cellars. I tried various of the sweet dessert wines that have made Tokaj famous, and found that they were even more wonderful than I had remembered from 1988, as privatization has led to a great increase in quality. Made sweeter by adding quantities of grapes that have molded and rotted on the vine, the 5-puttonyos wine was my favourite, with a taste like fine honey. I bought a bottle for later consumption, and retired to my tent for more noise-interrupted sleep.

Into Slovakia

I got an early start yesterday and had perhaps the nicest single day of riding of the trip. I left Tokaj, but not its vineyards, as I circled around the foot of the ancient hills that produce Tokaji Aszu. It was a Sunday morning, and I had the road almost to myself all day, as I followed a small local route through the various wine villages. A few castles topped the hills to my right, and eventually the vines gave way to the sunflowers and corn that have been my cycling companions since Odessa. I watched storks doing their beak-chattering mating dance atop the roof of a house, and stopped to pluck ripe sour cherries from roadside trees. Before I knew it, I was at the Slovak border, where (predictably) there was nowhere to change my leftover forints. This time, at least, I knew what to do: buy more wine!! Three bottles of red Egri Bikaver weighed down my already groaning bike, and then I was off across the unmanned border into my 101st country. The road was flat, new and wide, and I absolutely flew along the 20 kilometres to Kosice, Slovakia's second city. It took longer to find my campground than to get to the city from the border. I wandered around yesterday afternoon, absorbing the lovely Central European central square, dominated by a huge Gothic cathedral (the easternmost Gothic church in Europe, I'm told) and eating ridiculous quantities of dumplings, sauerkraut and sausages.

Today is another day off; my wheel hubs have worked their way loose, and I don't know how to fix them myself. I also have been hearing ominous noises from my bottom bracket, and so I'm having it replaced, since there's a good bike shop here. Then it's off to the High Tatra mountains, to go hiking, before cutting back across the Carpathians, and a corner of southeast Poland, to Lvov. I'm running out of days on this trip; in exactly a month, I need to be back in Switzerland, so I'm having a bit of a check of the maps to see that I don't bite off more than I can chew. I think I will have to sacrifice my tentative plan to ride through Kaliningrad in favour of a straighter route through Lithuania.

Thanks for reading all the way through, and I hope to post a little more frequently in future, assuming I can find enough Internet cafes to do this.

Peace and Tailwinds


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A couple of curious small countries

Chisanau, July 5

After a day of exploring Odessa, Terri and I spent a couple of easy days of cycling from Odessa to Chisanau, through the curious semi-state of Transdniestria. It was Terri's last 2 days of cycling, and I was relieved that finally she had a couple of relaxed, easy days to enjoy the landscape and the cycling.

The ride out of Odessa was pretty flat, and there was, for the first time since Abkhazia, very little traffic on the road. It was a rather dull landscape of sunflowers (not in bloom), wheat and pastureland, and the grey skies didn't help make it look more cheerful. As we approached the border with Transdniestria, it started to rain, and we had lunch in a little cafe on the Ukrainian side of the border while it poured down outside. Terri has gotten me hooked on french fries as the perfect cycling lunch food, and we had a particularly good lunch that day: variniki (Ukrainian dumplings), fries, meat cutlets and beer. Cycle touring burns a lot of calories, and it takes a lot of effort to keep myself from getting too thin; luckily this is generally a rather enjoyable effort!

Crossing the Transdniestrian border lived up to the hype. It's not an internationally recognized country, although it does have its own army, currency and border guards. The border guards live up to all the old stereotypes of Communist borders: big hats and outstretched hands. As we approached the border, we met a German cyclist coming the other way who had only been allowed into the country on the payment of 40 euros for the dubious offence of not having a Romanian exit stamp in his passport. Our offence was the fact that Terri had a Moldovan visa in her passport (as a Kiwi, she needs many more visas than I do). We had a long palaver, dodging the loaded question of "how much cash do you have on you?" by pulling out bank cards. The original bribe request was for 100 euros; we ignored this and sat there, trying to outwait the guards and their mutterings of "problem; BIG problem!" Eventually, one guard gave us back our passports, having entered our details into the border computer, and told us to go "to the police post". We wandered back to our bikes, looked in vain for any police, went through the last custom post and were into the country. We stopped to change 35 dollars (which Terri had set aside for paying bribes) into Transdniestrian rubles, and as we cycled away, congratulating ourselves on getting in for free, a car pulled up and a border guard ordered us back to the border.

This time the border guards had a new offence to fine us about: entering the country without filling in the entry card. This time the bribe request was for 300 euros. Terri pulled out the 380 Transdniestrian rubles and they settled for that. We were given 24 hours to transit the country, and this time nobody called us back as we rode off. The last custom officer asked us why we were crossing a second time, and when I explained that we hadn't filled out the entry form the first time, a huge corrupt grin crossed his face and he asked "How much did THAT cost you?" In fact, 35 dollars for 2 people is cheaper than Russian or Belarussian legitimate visas, and much cheaper than Terri's visas for the Ukraine or Moldova, so it wasn't too horrible. According to everyone we've met, no matter what country you're from (even Transdniestria itself), the guards won't let you go without a good shakedown for cash.

Once through the border, the cycling was great. The highway was wide and almost empty, and we rode side by side most of the way to the capital, Tiraspol. Tiraspol is one of the more surreal places in Europe, capital of a breakaway country which still proudly displays the Communist hammer and sickle and feels stuck in the Brezhnev era. The city is surrounded by the standard Stalinist apartment blocks that disfigure so many Soviet cities, but the construction cranes that we saw here and there were engaged in building more of the same: new Stalinist blocks! The streets were eerily deserted, devoid of cars and people to such an extent that we thought we'd veered into Day of the Triffids or an episode of the Twilight Zone. Compared to Russia or Ukraine, the streets and sidewalks were spotless; in fact, it was a cleaner city than most Swiss towns. There were almost none of the frenetic capitalism that characterizes both Russia and Ukraine; only a few shops and almost none of the ubiquitous Communist kiosks that we had gotten used to further east.

We met up with Lena, the woman whose tourist apartment we were to stay at, then rode off to a Stalinist block where we schlepped our luggage and bikes five storeys up a scary staircase before setting off to see the sights. The city has enormously wide main streets almost empty of traffic (I hear that Pyongyang and Burma's Naypyidaw are similar in this respect), lined by memorials to the 1992 war that saw Transdniestria win its independence from Moldova. Transdniestria has been Russian for 2 centuries, far longer than the rest of Moldova, and identifies itself as a Russian-speaking Soviet state. Big billboards talked about the importance of allying Transdniestria with Russia, and about the glories of the Red Army's victory in World War Two. People on the streets seemed more sedate and content than in, say, Ukraine. We saw plenty of young couples walking their dogs or pushing prams, and none of the public drunkenness and restless undertone of aggression that characterizes so many ex-Soviet states. We passed a curious sight in the form of the only embassies in Tiraspol: those of the equally fictitious countries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We had a few conversations with curious locals (tourists are a bit of a rarity in Tiraspol) and then left the Brezhnev era by walking through the doors of Andy's Pizza, an exemplary fast-food chain that fed us tasty, massive meals at ridiculously cheap prices. A stroll back along the Dniestr River, with a tiny sliver of new moon in the sky, and it was time for a well-earned sleep.

Leaving Transdniestria was far easier than getting in. We rode ten kilometres (TD is a very long, thin sliver of country) to the border outside Bendery and got ready for the inevitable bribe requests. This time our offence was overstaying our visa (our 24 hours was suddenly retroactively changed to 10 hours) and not registring with the police. This time I calmly stated our case in Russian, again and again, and eventually the guard got bored and decided there were easier pickings to be had from Moldovan BMWs waiting in line behind us. We got out for free, and were very glad to be across the Moldovan checkpoints where the border guards just wanted to chat about bike touring, rather than asking for hundreds of euros.

The ride to Chisanau was relatively easy, although traffic got pretty heavy as we approached the capital. The countryside got a bit more interesting: vineyards, lavender and steep riverbanks lined the road. After a delightful picnic in a watermelon patch, we rolled into the endless urban sprawl of Chisanau around 4 pm. The hotel that Terri had had to book to get her visa turned out to be excellent, a renovated ex-Intourist concrete monstrosity, and we settled in for 24 hours of hedonism: microbreweries, a wine tour to the outstanding Cricova winery (120 km of underground wine cellars and a collection of antique wines to die for, many of them confiscated from Hermann Goehring) and an afternoon sipping fine Cricova champagne and putting Terri's bike into a box for flying. Terri headed back to Switzerland at 5:30 on a night train to Bucharest, leaving me alone to catch up on my blog and contemplate the next leg of my journey, a swing north and west through Romania, eastern Hungary and eastern Slovakia. After my recent bout of relaxation, I'm hoping that my legs are ready for two weeks of non-stop cycling! I'm also excited about the fact that Romania will be the hundredth country I've visited in my travels; I'm about half the way to visiting every country on earth, but I think I've done the easy half first.

Peace and Tailwinds