Ah damnit... I actually went through the Ardennes on the way back but it was one of the wettest days I've seen all trip so I just rolled along the freeway. Just put the bike on the ship back home today... it's all ending. Hopefully I'm able to get the rest of the trip blogged in the next few days.
Iron Curtain, Part 2
After an angry and slidey trip through Slovakia, I arrived in Vienna. Vienna is somewhere I’ve always been curious to visit ever since I watched an old Austrian show set in Vienna called Inspector (Kommissar) Rex, which is basically about a dog that solves crimes. As you can imagine, it wasn’t all that gritty – it made Vienna look like such a nice and happy place that I definitely had to fit it in. On the way I stopped at a petrol station to find a couple having lunch next to their BMW F800GS, which still had all the lights on and a GPS charging even though the engine wasn’t on. I assumed they’d forgotten to turn it off and let them know, but they seemed to think it was fine – plenty of power in the battery. If I do that I end up spending 30 minutes trying to push start the bike (as you’ll see later in this post). Maybe there’s sense in buying more expensive bikes :-/. As for Vienna itself though – I really liked it, a beautiful city that looks good even in the rain.
This is what a road sign looks like in Austria. Dem Austrians got swag.
Back into the Warsaw Pact for a stay in Budapest. As much as I was in denial about it, my odometer was coming up to 48000km – which marked 18000km of European riding… and time for a major service. Having a look at the service manual, it all about flushing brake fluid, replacing rubber parts etc – not something that was going to be too easy in a hostel carpark with the tool kit under the seat. So I wimped out again and found a mechanic. Fortunately for me I was able to find a really good one – Mirek Motors – who fit me in at short notice and spoke English. Score! I also had to get my chain replaced again, as just like my last one, this had a tight spot and it was getting pretty bad. I’m not sure what exactly I did to those two chains to ruin them so quickly
. The front sprocket was bolted on so tightly that the guys had to take it over the road to a car tyre place with a badass impact wrench, which then had to be left for 5 minutes to come up to maximum pressure just to budge the nut. No idea how that happened :-/.
The many tourists of Budapest
Budapest is a nice town, but I booked in for way too long there and spent a lot of the time just chilling, reading a book and relishing in the fact that I could afford to go to nice cafes and buy coffee. The hostel I stayed in was… interesting. It had an Australian guy in charge – apparently a few weeks ago he’d turned up there and on his first day asked for a job – the owners immediately let him run the hostel on his own and left. The result after three weeks was that it was more like an empty apartment that a bunch of backpackers had started squatting in than a hostel. There were a couple of girls that I’m pretty sure he was letting stay for free because he was involved with one of them, as well as some Hungarian teenager that he’d adopted who hung around. Woke up one night to the sound of one of the girls and the teenager… engaging in international relations. And much like international negotations, it involved a lot of noise-making and never really reached a conclusion.
So the upside of staying in Budapest was that I know longer fear being in a dorm room with heavy snorers. There’s so much worse out there :-|.
You know things are getting out of control when you're allowed to write on the walls. Although who am I to talk... I consider my GPS to be a travelling companion
I think that night was really where all the lustre fell off backpacking for me. On this trip I’ve got sick of so many things – sick of hostels, sick of pub crawls, sick of castles, cathedrals, museums, art galleries, camping… but never sick of riding my bike. Never for a second, not through rain, wind, campervans, potholes-big-enough-for-me-to-bottom-out-in (stay tuned for Albania). It’s a beautiful thing… and the good thing was that just south of Hungary…
Look at this guy, deliberately looking away from the camera, what a poser.
… was Romania.
I’m still not sure whether I loved or hated Romania. On one hand it has some of the best riding roads in the world… tight, twisty and not perfectly maintained, perfect for a almost-adventure-tourer like the Versys. Problems exist when you consider that the rest of the roads in the country are uniformly pretty terrible – which isn’t to say that they’re boring, more in the sense that they’re covered in roadworks, impossible to see at night and filled with the most dangerous drivers in Europe. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
George didn't actually even think the Transalpina was a complete road... I guess that might be related to the million sections of surprise gravel in the middle of it. I thought it was great fun though.
Getting out of Hungary was a bit more eventful than I’d planned – I was riding up an empty, perfectly straight road with perfect visibility and an unbroken line up the middle. Not really enjoying being stuck behind an oil tanker, I decided to overtake anyway… only to find that while my visibility of oncoming traffic wasn’t hindered, it was harder to see the two motorcycle cops hiding behind the trees on the side of the road. Uh oh. Upon being pulled over I got my passport, registration and so forth out and told my story about how I’d shipped the bike here and was riding all around Europe. My initial fear pretty soon disappeared as I realised that short of impounding the bike or imprisoning me there wasn’t really much they could do – I don’t think the Hungarian Police Force has the authority to issue New South Wales demerit points. I guess they came to the same conclusion because they pretty shortly said “Good holiday!” and let me go, but not without a warning – in Hungary I would normally get 240 euro fine for this, but in Romania? The officer mimed pointing a gun at his head and pulling the trigger.
After crossing the border… the first to involve a passport check since entering the EU (although I didn’t even have to take my helmet off… what is the point?) my first impressions of Romania weren’t great. I was trying to make it to near Brasov to find a camping ground, but my estimates of how long this would take were thwarted by the fact that there was a set of roadworks every 500m, and each seemed to involve 5 minutes of waiting at a red light. After a few hundred kilometres of frustratedly roaring away from a red light, turning a corner, finding another red light and screeching to a halt I beginning to wonder how I could convince the Hungarian government to retake Transylvania, just so they could be in charge of roadworks instead. Eventually I accepted that it was getting dark, there weren’t many campsites around and I was in the cheapest country so far… so I stopped in a town and found a pension. I was pretty impressed… for 30 EUR I got a private room with a TV, an ensuite, wifi, breakfast with omelette and coffee and juice – luxury!
It's slightly better than a tent and alphabetty spaghetti cooked on a dirty trangier
After a gnarly adventure-touring night spent lying in a comfy bed watching B movies on Romanian cable TV, I was ready to hit another motorcycling mecca – the Transalpina and the Transfagarasan. The Transalpina is great road – mile after mile after mile of easy lefts and rights, without too many hairpins or nasty surprises. It’s more like Norway than the tight passes in the Alps… you just get into a rhythm and eat up the kilometres. The Transalpina is made extra fun because it occasionally turns into gravel for anywhere from 10 metres to a few kilometres… it’s great, kind of like 5 minutes of comic relief in an action movie to keep things interesting. Sections of gravel road are also the only places where Romanian drivers really slow down – and there’s few things as satisfying as literally leaving the Audi-driving rich kid that’s held you up for the last 5 minutes in a cloud of your dust.
It's also quite pretty
Transfagarasan is possibly the best road in the world, if you believe Jeremy Clarkson’s view (which is generally inadvisable). It’s a different beast to Transalpina – going north to south as I did, it starts slow and immediately turns into a steep set of hairpins with a rough, grooved road leading up them. This is the famous bit of Transfagarasan – the bit you see in photos, and also a rubbish road to ride on. I’ve never seen the appeal of doing a million hairpins, and the fact that the rough road tends to make you slide a bit as you go around them doesn’t really help. But just as I was thinking up a vitriolic Facebook post about what a let down it was (“Best road in the world? Not even the best road for 50km!”) I descended the other side of the mountain and entered riding heaven. South of the hairpins the road starts to follow the shore of a lake, and turns into beautiful not-too-tight-not-too-fast twisties that go on and on and on. It actually turned out to be the best road I’ve ever ridden after all.
Another motorcycling pilgrimage complete!
As I exited Transfagarasan and got on the freeway (and I mean the
– as far as I know there’s only one in all of Romania) night fell and riding became a whole new kind of exciting. I haven’t really talked about the driving habits of the Romanian people yet – often people will complain about the driving of the Greeks or the Italians or the Turks, disobeying the rules and driving dangerously. My experience with that sort of traffic has always been that it’s not ridiculously dangerous or chaotic, it just works in a different, more organic sort of way than in straight-laced Australia, where car drivers will chase you down just for lane-filtering past them.
After riding the second bit of the Transfagarasan I stopped here and stared at the lake for a while... a beautiful ride, a a beautiful view, and a beautiful moment by myself. It's times like these that made this trip worth it at three times the cost.
Romania isn’t like that… imagine some 17 year old who’s just got his licence, inherited his parents old car and gone out for a drive to impress his mates with his sweet ride – you know the sort. Now imagine a country where every single driver has that exact attitude, permanently. That’s basically Romania. In other places with chaotic traffic people overtake, fairly safely, in order to get where they’re going faster. In Romania, people will gladly put themselves and you in ridiculous amounts of danger just for shits and giggles… what was the point of putting yourself massively into debt and buying that new X6 if you’re not going to use every kilowatt, right? You’ll overtake a car in a twisty section of road, watch it quickly disappear into your mirror and think nothing of it until you hit the next town, slow down to 50, then find it screaming up behind you at 120 just so it can squeeze by you by a few inches and sit there in front of you again. If you see an oncoming car overtaking in your lane and move to the right so as to buffer it, you’ll often find that the car behind you will just hit the gas and move up beside you… once again, not so as to get anywhere, just to sit there at whatever speed it was doing before… the point being that it’s ahead of you now. But buffer overtaking cars you must, because they don’t care how many oncoming motorcycles they hit in order to get that extra space up in the traffic – Romania is the first (and hopefully only) place where I’ve had to swerve completely off the road into the gravel to dodge an oncoming car in my lane.
And the police are no help at all...
Getting back to where we were, the freeway in Romania was probably one of the scariest experiences of the whole trip. It’s a freeway in that it’s flat and reasonably wide, but unlike a Western European freeway it doesn’t have much on it that’s reflective in order to show the way at night, and often lane markings disappear completely for a while, leaving you to determine the way ahead mainly by dead reckoning. My headlight was ridiculously weak, illuminating barely any of the road ahead and forcing me to pick cars to follow so that I’d be sure to stay on the ashphalt. I was confused though – I could clearly see that the light was on because it was reflecting off the back of my windscreen, so had to still be working. I later realised that what I was seeing was the glow of the parking lights on either side of the main Versys headlight, that somehow got squeezed together in the reflection from the concave windscreen and hence deceived me. And by “later realised” I mean “didn’t realise until I got to Greece, several thousand kilometres later”. I am no Robert Pirsig.
An derelict building with a new BMW parked alongside - this is Bucharest.
Bucharest had the best value accomodation of the trip – 6 euros per night for a dorm by myself, with included breakfast and they let me wheel the bike through the person-sized gate in order to park it securely. Unfortunately that ends the bits I really liked about Bucharest. After so many spit-polished Eastern European tourist cities, Bucharest really stood out, but not really for positive reasons. When you tell your mum that you’re going to Eastern Europe, the fearful image she has in her head probably looks a lot like Bucharest. The traffic is insane, there’s stray dogs everywhere, and half the city seems to be falling down derelict. It looks a lot worse than it is though – you feel incredibly unsafe walking around the dark streets past abandoned buildings as the eyes of diseased animals follow you… but the dogs never even come close, and Bucharest apparently has one of the lowest rates of street crime in Europe. Bucharest is also home to the second-biggest building in the world (after the Pentagon) – a huge palace built by Romania’s despotic ruler in its last decades of communism. It was inspired when he went to North Korea and saw the huge monuments dedicated to its leaders, and it took so long to build that it was still under construction by the time Romania’s people had risen up and had him shot. By this time, however, it was already big enough that it would cost more to demolish than to finish, and so now it houses a substantial amount of the Romanian government.
The 45 minute tour covers less than 2% of the building. Yeah.
Not keen to be bogged down in any more cities, I headed south to Bulgaria. I’d actually been planning to turn around and start slowly heading back to England at this point, but I was sick of slowly heading anywhere – I longed for the same sort of lifestyle I had in Norway, where if I wasn’t riding, I was probably eating or sleeping. A post on this thread (thanks Jackson) encouraged me to check out Bulgaria, so why not. Unfortunately Os the Versys was less enthusiastic, as upon trying to start her up that morning all she could muster was a bit of feeble clicking.
Ahh crap, not this again.
To be honest I’d seen it coming – the last couple of times I’d started the engine, it’d been a real struggle to get it going. I’m not entirely sure what caused it – perhaps too much stopping and starting while taking photos on the Transfagarasan? In any case, what followed was the first 15 minutes of my journey being taken up by pushing the bike up and down the street outside the hostel trying to push start it. Eventually, after the help of a friendly American hostel-goer (also a motorcyclist) and some Romanian guy sitting on the street, it started up and I rode away with my fingers crossed that this was a random occurence and not the indication of some drastic reg/rec problem.
Parking in Bucharest... whether it's a parallel park or a 45 degree park depends entirely on what you feel like on the day
After fuelling up while leaving the engine running for fear of another push-start, I proceeded south over the border to central Bulgaria, where rtwdoug's motocamp is. Of course he was riding around America at the time so he wasn’t there to meet, but I still had a great time. The campsite itself is awesome – it’s decorated with a collection of random old Eastern European bikes and has a sort of clubhouse decorated with tonnes of bike memorabilia. As well as having free wifi (surfing reddit from inside a tent never gets old), it’s just a tremendously welcoming place – it was great explaining my trip to someone, and rather than enduring the typical backpacker reactions (“you can ride a bike around Europe?!!?”), feeling a bit inadequate next to what other people had done (“Bulgarian signs actually aren’t that difficult for me because I learned the cyrillic alphabet when I rode the whole way across Russia”). Apparently central Bulgaria is the next big thing in British real estate – riding through the villages you see GB plates everywhere, and two of the British guests were just about to close the deal on buying a house. Makes sense too – for the cost of a deposit on a Sydney apartment, I could literally buy all the property in a Bulgarian village. Or more realistically I could buy neither, because I spend all my savings on petrol and tyres and photos of me with Santa.
I'll definitely come back when I ride around the world
It’d be a waste to go to Bulgaria and not check out the Buzludzha monument. Basically, the Balkan mountains in the middle of Bulgaria were often used for secret meetings by Bulgarian communists before they took over, so the government eventually commemorated this by building a bizarre flying-saucer shaped building on top of one of the mountain peaks. To be honest, the architecture of it is phenomenal – pictures don’t do it justice, even looking at it from 12km away you can’t take your eyes off it. After riding down the seriously dilapidated road that leads to it, I parked, took some photos and looked for a way in. I’d seen blog posts and such about people going inside and discovering mosaics… but I found that someone had welded the doors shut (apparently the existing Bulgarian Socialist Party now has ownership, so maybe that’s something to do with it). Disappointed, I had a walk round and eventually found a hole in the wall big enough for me to climb up through… et voila, I was inside.
Pictures can’t ever do the inside justice either – it’s impossible to really even describe the experience of climbing up a derelict socialist monument in the middle of rural Bulgaria, with no one around, listening to the constant creaking of the building in the wind. It’s really quite creepy – I was constantly looking over my shoulder expecting someone to jump out at me.
Perhaps the coolest place of the whole trip.
Apparently you can climb up into the tower as well, but daylight was fading me and I really wanted to get back to set up my tent. As with Romania, I’d planned to turn around in Bulgaria… but then I realised that Istanbul was only a day’s ride away. Would be a waste to be so close and *not* see it, right? So I loaded up and off I went… to the very edge of Europe itself.