We pedalled slowly down the dusty track out of the last Hungarian village. An unsettled evening was in store – clouds brooded above, hanging menacingly as the air gusted and whipped around us, and the silence of the plains was interrupted only by the distant sound of cowbells on the wind. I had cycled a hundred kilometers, and was ready to pitch my tent and sleep, but the lure of the unknown drew the three of us onwards for just a little longer. The map showed a road across the border into Romania, and it would be a satisfying achievement to cross it before the end of the day.
The border itself came and went in a spectacularly anticlimactic fashion. It was nothing more than an unmanned metal barrier, which we instinctively skirted round on our bikes. The road went from dirt to tarmac, and we stopped, wondering uneasily if we had missed something. Surely there was more to it than that? But then, what with Romania joining the E.U., trans-continental travel was supposed to be a whole lot easier, wasn’t it?
As I rode into the gathering dusk, the unease I had felt did not diminish. Instead, as we arrived in the first of many Romanian villages, the feeling was intensified. People shot us looks of suspicion and hurried away from us. We tried asking an old lady where we could camp – she got agitated and shook her head, pointing back along the road we had come in on and making noises of concern and disapproval. This was not good.
It was not a great first impression of the country. As we continued uneasily through the village – farm animals roaming freely in the streets – we were met with the same cold feeling from the residents who sat watching us from their doorsteps. Darkness was approaching. The cold, sharp smell of thunder drifted on the wind.
We carried stoically on into the countryside.
The next village was no different. A trickle of paranoia began to infiltrate my mind. What if… no, nobody really cared enough, did they? As we rode out of the village across the open plain towards some distant ramshackle cowsheds, I felt the worry lift slightly. We were off the road, having found somewhere secluded to camp, and it was almost nightfall. We would pitch our tents, cook a quick meal, and bed down for the night.
Lightning struck in the distance across the plain, and the first big drops of rain pierced the growing darkness as I strapped my headtorch on and began to pitch my tent into the wind. I was cold and my poncho kept flapping in front of me so I couldn’t see my hands. I stumbled about, clutching tent pegs and trying to control the billowing fabric that played with the wind as if it were a sail. In the gloom, I ran over to my bike, extracted the night’s necessities and back to the tent, trying to avoid them getting wet in the driving rain that now came down in sheets. My tent was up, and I was ready to escape from the elements for the night.
Suddenly, a fork of lightning crashed down close by, temporarily disorientating me like a flash-bulb in the face. Then, headlights swung round the corner, carving great shafts of light out of the rain. I was trying to make out what was happening. Andy was over by the bikes, trying to figure out what was what in the blackness of night. Figures appeared from the car and a voice shouted “Border police! Passports please!”
What followed was 10 minutes of confusion and frustration. We stood about in the darkness. Every few seconds an arc of lightning would smash to the ground within a few hundred metres of our campsite. Pouring rain lashed down, soaking everything where it stood. Maria, together with a Romanian cowherd who spoke to her in Spanish, pleaded with the small group of officials who marched around, inspecting our sorry little situation and muttering things into radios. After what seemed like a deliberately long stalemate, we realised that they were ordering us to pack everything up and come with them. Frustration turned to anger and despair. I couldn’t believe the utter misery of what was happening to us. Everything was wrong. It was cold, dark, wet and miserable, and we were tired, hungry, unable to communicate, and now we were uprooted in the night and told to pack everything and march across a muddy, pitch-black expanse of grassland, with only the diminishing tail-lights of the police car as a guide.
I remember the walk across the plain. It seemed to last for hours. In reality it was probably no more than half a kilometer. My pathetic headtorch was useless. Rainwater ran down my poncho, down my legs and into my boots, where it slowly developed into a cold, squelching mush of mud, water, sock and foot. I could see nothing except the distant village streetlamps. The red tail-lights had disappeared. Every now and again I would catch a glimpse of Andy’s headtorch, flickering way ahead of me. A nearby bolt of lightning bathed the world in whiteness for a split second. I was trudging past the back end of a nonchalent cow. I remember thinking that this was quite a surreal experience and one that I would certainly look back upon with a certain nostalgic pride.
To my surprise, my spirits actually took a turn up. It was one of those situations where everything is so desperately out of line with what you were intending to happen that everything becomes imbued with a certain amount of humour. I started to see what was happening and laugh about it. When I had negotiated the rabid dogs, giant cowpats and random ditches, and rejoined the others by a large police van, Andy had also seen the funny side and was cracking sardonic jibes at the ignorant officials whose English extended to a vocabulary of about 10 immigration-related words. Despite the sheer hideousness of what was happening, we had transcended the initial despair and were now riding the wave of this new and unexpected process.
The rest of the night continued in an unprecedented display of pointless bureaucracy and ignorant, bored frontier police behaviour. It took 14 officials until 1:30am to drive us and our bikes and luggage to the nearest official border (10km away) and hand us over to the Hungarian border police who then told us we could cross into Romania (thanks). And so it was that 4 hours of red tape later, we asked if there was anywhere we could camp nearby. Yes, cycle 50km to Oradea, we were told. Well, thanks for understanding…
So the night wound up in the nearest 24-hour petrol station. We sat in our wet clothes in the cafe area, ordered 3 beers, bought a mountain of snack food and attempted to get as much sleep as possible in various positions of discomfort. The following morning, we set off into what would be by far the most challenging and varied country we’d visited so far… Romania.