September began with all the warmth of summer, but threatened to end with a chill in the air. Looking at a map, I traced a simple route across another couple of borders and down to a narrow isthmus of land broken by a thin strait – the Bosphorus. Strange that such a narrow stretch of water could delineate the edge of a continent. Labelled Istanbul, this spit of land was still just about the most otherworldly sounding place I could imagine. Crossing the suspension bridge to its Eastern Quarter would mark our arrival, by bicycle, into Asia.
I had two good excuses to take it slowly on my first day back on the road: not just to protect my knee, but because we would be a group of five. Sally, another young English traveller staying with Laszlo, had heard about Maria and Magalie’s defection from the backpacking camp and hit the scrap-yard herself with less than twenty-four hours to go until we were due to leave. The girls were all excited, and it was infectious. Wobbling down the road away from Laszlo’s goodbyes, bells a-tinkling and horns a-honking, there was a definite sense of overture to the departure. This was the furthest east I’d ever travelled. Mark had quit, and in his place was a gaggle of complete novices, and we were intensely conscious of our responsibilities to them. New territory lay ahead, and the thrill of the unknown rose up again.
We set out along flat, straight, drizzly back-roads across the Hungarian Great Plains, once an ocean floor, like the English Fens. But the dull weather had no effect on the spirit of adventure that burned within our new group. Sally rode just ahead of me on a single-speed town bike, complete with basket, her waterproof flapping. In my rear-view mirror, the dynamo light of Maria’s granny bike caught my eye. Behind her was Magalie, who had cut a banner from a sheet of cardboard and illustrated it crudely: two bearded stick-men and two smiling girls pedalling cartoon bikes away from a yurt, the ponytailed figure of Laszlo waving them off on their journey towards ‘The World’, as depicted on a road sign. Andy, meanwhile, was bringing up the rear of the group, swinging the video camera low for an on-the-road shot of the group’s first day of riding, and serving as a very visible warning to approaching traffic that there was something unusual on the road ahead.
In the early weeks of the trip, when tempers had been running high, I had worried about the moment of Mark’s departure – of setting out with Andy alone. But we’d already had enough trivial clashes for us both to have grown sick of them, and the presence of impressionable females put paid to any more arguments. Life on the road, I hoped, would be just as fun as I’d promised.
Sally, an athletic and strong-willed character, only planned to ride with us for a day. The following morning, after sharing one of our two tents with Maria and Magalie, she rode back to Budapest, picked up the belongings she’d left there, and pedalled furiously on her single-geared wreck of a bike to Slovenia, two hundred miles away. Spending her nights outside on the bare earth in a sleeping-bag from Tesco, pedalling with neither route nor schedule come rain or shine, her brief adventure felt far more raw and spontaneous than mine, and I felt a sudden pang of jealousy.
The weather improved, and as a group of four we enjoyed a few memorable days of carefree nomadism, wandering on our bicycles through the world’s backwaters. We experienced impromptu hospitality, the joy of making sense to strangers out of charades and scribbles and dog-eared dictionaries, and more fresh air and exercise than we’d have got for years had we stayed at home. I slept beneath the stars, rather than in my tent, and there was no shortage of riverbanks and meadows in which to make ourselves at home. The girls sang and joked with us as we rode, and no hint of romance threatened to complicate the arrangement. But only a few days passed before Magalie received news that she’d have to go to France for a wedding, and we waved her off on the train amid promises that she’d be back for more adventures in a couple of weeks’ time.
Andy, Maria and I rode seventy miles the next day – an unprecedented distance – to the Romanian frontier. We would begin this next stage of our journey as a group of three. So content had we become with basking in the end days of the Hungarian summer that the events on the far side of the border came as a kick in the teeth.
A deafening explosion of white illuminated the world like a photograph: I was passing the rear end of a cow. The muddy backside vanished and was replaced with that noise of scrambled colour you get after a flashbulb in the face, quickly dissolving into utter blackness.
Rain lashed down; a million watery bullets pounding my poncho; squelching footsteps rendered inaudible by the roar. Through the wall of water I picked out the distant red dots of the police car. And I trudged forwards into the darkness, putting one foot in front of the other in a string of individual acts of faith.
I’d spotted Andy some way ahead. Maria, I guessed, was following me, though it was impossible to know for sure. My head-torch from Lidl, presented with the sudden opportunity to demonstrate its vigour, had instead chosen to die. Rivers of rainwater ran down my neck, and I made a mental note to pay a personal visit to the British Army’s poncho-design department upon my return to England. I stumbled into a ditch, then leapt out of range of a guard dog that flung itself at me from the blackness, before strangling itself on its own chain. I found myself in the mud, doubled up with nervous laughter.
The tail-lights reappeared through the rain, slightly to the right of where I’d been heading. God damn it. How the hell had they even found us? The track we’d followed on our map had seemed normal enough. Just another Hungarian country lane, we’d thought, except that it happened to end up in Romania, which suited us perfectly, because Romania was where we were going. Of course, there had been those big metal barriers painted in the blue, yellow and red of the Romanian flag. And the first villagers we’d met had kind of shouted a lot and pointed back the way we’d come. But this was the EU, where border crossings no longer existed – right?
I arrived sopping and cold to find two police vans sat wonkily in the mud along with more cars and more flashing lights. Andy was loudly making fun of the situation in exaggerated Queen’s English amid a horde of Romanian policemen who couldn’t have had the foggiest idea what he was talking about. But it seemed like a good tactic – play the foreign idiot, keep smiling and hope for the best. I tried to follow suit, failing of course to be anywhere near as amusing.
Then I saw that Maria was already inside one of the vans! When had she overtaken me? I was utterly disorientated. After more shouting and standing around, more radio calls, Andy and I were ordered to deposit our belongings in the back of one van and to climb aboard the other with Maria. This resulted in endless fussing with trailers and bags and clips and straps and mud in the dark and pouring rain, the damp, impatient policemen growing more damp and impatient by the minute. Nobody would explain anything. The other van lurched away, taking all of our worldly possessions with it. Finally our own van bundled off into the night, the windows steamed up and any attempt to keep our bearings became totally futile. After cycling for seventy miles, we were now soaked, frozen, starving and being carted off back to Hungary by the Romanian police. There was little left to do but laugh in despair. I dearly hoped that we wouldn’t be locked up. That would be another massive blow for Ride Earth.
The three of us sat, clothes dripping and eyelids drooping, in the dimly lit waiting room of the border post, which had existed after all. Between snatches of sleep on the world’s most uncomfortable wooden benches, we were shouted at by a succession of increasingly angry immigration officials whose job it was to keep us awake, miserable and confused. After an eternity in red-eyed limbo, we were given back our belongings and frog-marched out of Romania and to the Hungarian side of the border. Had we been deported? And if so, where were we supposed to go now, at god-knows-o’clock, and in the wrong country?
The Hungarian border guards glanced at our passports, gave them back to us and told us that we were free to turn around, leave Hungary for a second time, and proceed into Romania.
The Romanian border guards scrutinised the passports closely, silently, followed by a prolonged period of page-flicking and re-flicking. We waited. I fantasised about sleeping on the world’s most uncomfortable wooden benches.
All of a sudden, drawers opened. Arms moved. Then came a moment of deepest possible significance.
A rubber stamp landed on an empty page of Maria’s passport.
What had she done to deserve this honour?
The documents were thrust through the small gap in the window, together with a smirk of derision.
‘Velcome to Romania!’