Sunday, 31 March 2013

Day 301 – A discotheque and a film set. (Ukraine)

We had a couch surfing host in Odessa lined up, but before we could go and meet her we had to find someone who could align Trevor’s wheels. When we’d bought two new tyres in Romania (Blog Day 289 – Threatening to spontaneously combust), now almost two weeks and about 1,500 km ago, we’d been advised to get the wheels aligned after driving about 300 – 500 km. Having spent €210 on the tyres, we felt we owed it to ourselves not to wreck them by driving around on them wobbly for too much longer so it really needed to be done sooner rather than later, and it was really starting to get later. We price checked a couple of places on our way into Odessa and ended up returning to the first one where we had been quoted 180 Hryvna ($21) for the full caboodle. While we waited for the job to be done another guy who we assumed worked in the yard, but actually we have no idea who he was, came in to see what our story was. He was very excited by our trip, studying all the stickers on the car and asking questions about individual countries and flags. He was so enthusiastic about helping us out and was adamant that he could surely offer us some sort of assistance, so when he found out where we were headed (towards Scotland) he insisted on giving us the phone number of an acquaintance of his called Alex who lives in London. He wasn’t exactly sure when he’d last seen Alex and was a bit vague as to how they knew each other but he suggested that perhaps we could go and stay with him. Of course we gratefully accepted the scrap of paper on which he wrote the name and phone number, but we were just imagining rocking up in London and ringing this fellow: “Hi, is this Alex? Um, we met a friend of yours in Odessa a couple of months ago who said maybe you could put us up. No sorry, we didn’t ask his name. No sorry, I’m not really sure how you know him...”

Odessa is Ukraine’s city of beach resorts, where tourists go to get sun tans and drink cocktails on the sand, and we’d heard a lot of glowing reports about it being a beautiful and exciting place. This couldn’t have been further from our first impression of the place though. The buildings were greyand drab, the roads were potholed and the traffic noisy, and everything was dirty and crowded. It probably didn’t help that it was raining – something that supposedly only happens four or so times every year, but the suburb where we stayed was one of the grottiest of all the ex-Soviet suburbs we’ve seen. The grey cement walls were covered in graffiti and any paint that had been applied to any trim was peeling off. The “lawns” and “gardens” were squelchy patches of mud and the uneven road surface was covered in deep brown puddles, litter floating on the surface. It was very difficult to imagine this being the desired destination for holiday-makers in summertime, but we are aware that the suburbs aren’t exactly where they aim for.

When we arrived at our host’s house she was out somewhere so we were greeted by her boyfriend who asked us if we wanted to go to the party that his girlfriend was already at. Other than eventually managing to get out of him that it was a “tourist club” we couldn’t glean any information on what this event was or whether or not we wanted to go. So we decided to go. We walked a bit then caught a bus and walked a bit more and found ourselves at some sort of community hall. Still we had no idea what we were actually going to – we were really struggling to get any information about anything whatsoever from our male host. So in we went and met our host for the first time, who made me look like a giant! (For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m barely 5 foot and generally shorter than anyone over the age of about 11.) The room we entered reminded us of a late primary school/early high school “disco”; there was a DJ in the corner, a line of trestle tables set up with crisps, chocolate and soft drinks, and a group of about a dozen people around our age letting loose and dancing energetically to a selection of pop music. Still not exactly sure what the point of this event was we threw ourselves into the mix, making the most of it and enjoying the simple fun. It was only after we’d been dancing for a while that we eventually spoke to our host, the one who had invited us through the couch surfing website, and found out that the group was some sort of uni club dedicated to tourism and travellers and that this event was just for the sake of fun, loosely celebrating New Year. It was nice to have finally found out what it was that we were gate-crashing!

We spent the following day exploring the old centre of the city and we discovered that this part of town was actually quite magnificent with its Renaissance architecture, wide boulevards separated by sprawling squares sporting classical statues, trendy cafes and classy restaurants, shadowy residential lanes, views over the port and bits and pieces of quirky modern art dotted along the streets. The main landmark of note was the famous Potemkin Stairs (more commonly known by Ukrainians as their Soviet name – the Primorsky Stairs) which were made famous in 1925 by Sergei Eisenstein’s silent movie “The Battleship Potemkin”, and have since been featured in other works of art. We were intrigued when we arrived at the top of the magnificent set of steps to find that parts were closed off by work tape and cones guarding piles of rubble, scrappy wooden structures, canvas mats, shards of metal, sandbags and rusty cannons. The vantage point at the top of the stairs allows you to clearly see a large section of the port, and watching the view whilst noting the unusual items laid all over the stairs, we descended the 200 steps. We realised that this must be a film set and as we reached the bottom of the flight this was confirmed. A lovely parkland area runs adjacent to the staircase and this was filled with actors dressed as soldiers, all sorts of war-time vehicles, directors and cameramen arranging furniture and tents and fake snow and elaborate settlements and buildings. Having made our way back up the 200 steps we watched on for a while, intrigued by the action, but still completely unaware of what the movie might be that the filming was for. We found out later on that the director is a famous Russian director and that this, his latest work, was quite high profile in the area.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Day 300 – Friends with the EU Babysitters. (Border crossing Transnistria to Ukraine)

Exiting Transnistria was disturbingly simple. We’d been expecting all sorts of questions, searches and requests for bribes, but all we got was a quick passport check and a surly farewell wave. The Ukrainian side of the crossing was a bit more serious though. It was quite clean and the buildings were modern and functional. When we arrived, there were about a dozen vehicles lined up in queues waiting to cross, and a female officer was working her way through the cars looking inside the boots and backseats and taking paperwork from the drivers to one of the booths up ahead. As we watched and waited we noticed a burly stern-looking bald fellow in a navy uniform who seemed to be overseeing the operations, casually but purposefully meandering around the cars, subtly observing from a polite distance. When he turned away from us we saw that the back of his jacket had the EU logo on it and we made the assumption that he was probably part of some anti-corruption supervision project.

He didn’t pay any attention to us until it was our turn to be processed and we were directed to drive up to the front of the queue, at which point he focused his attentions on us. As it turns out he was German and we were correct about what he was doing there. He was surprised to hear that we’d had no problems leaving Transnistria as that’s usually a pretty lawless border post and he’s heard some horrific stories from other Western Europeans making the crossing. His Polish colleague and an EU appointed Russian translator joined him to find out what this group of funny foreigners in their eccentric vehicle was up to. We found out a bit about what their jobs entailed and they were very interested in our trip, asking loads of questions about various aspects of it, specifically but not limited to other borders. The Polish guy advised us about the crossings between Ukraine and Poland: the main one near Lviv is apparently horribly busy and often involves hours and hours of waiting in queues, but there’s a much smaller one close by that’s usually much quicker and simpler. This was great advice which we took on board, even though when it came time to do that crossing we didn’t actually follow his advice. I’ll explain that when we get to it.

We stood around the car chatting to these EU officials while our paperwork (passports, Carnet, insurance etc) was being handled by the Ukrainians. They didn’t interfere at all with the process but just the EU presence was obviously enough to keep them in order, whether legitimately so or not. We weren’t asked for anything unseemly, or anything at all in fact, and even though they were really confused by us our documents were moved through promptly. I’m fairly certain that we weren’t actually processed; they just moved us through as quickly as possible so as not to cause problems for us – the friends of the EU babysitters. That in itself doesn’t feel like it’s in keeping with the nature of an anti-corruption project, but we weren’t about to kick up a stink and get up on our moral high horse about how it’s unfair that we got special treatment. Being different has worked against us in many situations, but every now and then it acts as a blessing.

The odd thing about the way we planned our route, going through Moldova to Transnistria and then Ukraine, is that according to our passports we never left Moldova; we have stamps for entering Moldova, and then stamps for entering Ukraine, but as Transnistria didn’t stamp us in or out there is no record of anything in between.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Day 295 – Chisinau. (Moldova)

The overwhelming image we got of Chisinau was how ex-Soviet everything seemed. The buildings were a collection of matching grey concrete blocks, the roads were beautifully laid out but had not been maintained for 50 years, the piping was all overground, and there was a general sense of grey blandness. This is in no way an attack on the Moldovan people, or even my impression of them; it’s just a result of Communism’s harsh hand laid on the country for such an extensive period of time.

The first item on the agenda for our self-tour of Chisinau was the Chisinau Brewery, brewer of “Bere Chisinau” and owned by Efes. Our directions were vague but we found our way, hoping we’d be able to land one of the guided tours that we had heard existed. As we pulled up in the car park we noticed that everything looked very closed up, but when the two sets of automatic doors at the front entrance opened as we approached, we thought “oh, maybe it is open after all”. A smiley grey-haired lady and a sturdy balding man sat behind a desk in the foyer, behind which hung a huge map with the location of each Efes brewery in the world lit up with a small globe. We asked about having a guided tour but without a word of English it was made quite apparent that this would not be possible. At first we thought they were being dismissive and rude, but the lady then went on to explain why it would not be possible. First she pointed at the next few days on the calendar, crossing her arms in front of her chest in the universal sign for “no” at each day. Then visibly impressed at herself for having such a brain wave she scuttled around the edge of the desk and gestured at a pot plant. By crouching down, then raising her arms and standing up straight she imitated the plant growing, and by opening her hands and waving her fingers she acted out the sun beating down on the plant. We realised that she was saying that in summer the tours run, and when she showed the plant dying she was telling us that in winter the tours don’t run. We were thoroughly impressed by this show of common sense and her insistence at doing everything within her power to communicate with us. All too often we try to communicate with people and with only a little will on their part we would manage, but so many people are not interested in making the slightest bit of effort. This lady was the perfect example of how anyone can speak to anyone else; convey a basic message, with a little bit of thought and effort.

We went searching for the National Museum, this time with an exact address which matched up with the map we had. At this address though was a small boarded up brick building, the type of building that in most places you’d assume hadn’t been in use for several decades, but in this ex-Soviet setting could easily still be home to a museum. We did a block around it to see if we could find an entrance but no, this building really was completely dilapidated and out of use. We were just going to drive down the street assuming that we’d probably been given the wrong street number and hopefully the street name was correct, but then we realised that just across the road was a very National Museum looking building. We parked on the icy pavement outside and approached the stately pre-Soviet stone structure.

It was a surprisingly informative and extensive museum housing an unusual variety of artefacts. There was a lot of Soviet propaganda – both pro and anti, some of it was specific to Moldova or Chisinau, some was relevant to the entire region. There was a huge selection of personal items that had been owned throughout the past few centuries; everything ranging from furniture to razors, paintbrushes and books to car accessories. A wide variety of different styles and periods of artwork led onto a room dedicated to fine china and ceramics. Even a tee-pee was set up as part of a display about various war uniforms, weapons, tactics and stories. Probably the most impressive part though was the very detailed 10 or so metre wide war diorama depicting WWII. That we could have spent hours looking at, observing all the tiny details that together told the grand story.

The Moldovan national monument, a structure that closely resembles the Arch de Triumph only on a much small scale, is opposite the Government building, separated by a wide boulevard designed for military marches and displays. As it was mid January most of Europe’s Christmas markets had closed down weeks ago, but Chisinau’s one was still running at full pelt on this wide expanse of road. Queues of families waited to have their photos taken in one of the Christmas/Santa/winter scenes that were set up in a line of booths. Several Mr and Mrs Clauses meandered around the market speaking with children and handing out goodies. One Mr and Mrs Clause were even running a miniature train on wheels.

We had lunch in a fine example of a Russian/Eastern European canteen, which like so many places we found completely by accident. This style of eatery is part of the culture of this region that we have really grown to love and enjoy. They tend to be very basic and relatively cheap (although not necessarily the absolute cheapest option), but the food is tasty and filling and much more varied than what you’ll find at a lot of other cheap restaurants. This type of eating probably isn’t for everyone – it’s certainly not very luxurious, but the down-to-earth comfort and anonymity that we found became something we really appreciated.

Getting famous.

Our latest media appearance:

Friday, 22 March 2013

Day 296 – Religious Caves and Frozen Vineyards. (Moldova)

Moldova is not a huge country and there isn’t a huge number of attractions to go and visit. There’s the home of gypsies in the north of the country; not an attraction as such, but an interesting area where you might get a little bit of insight into the way they live. The style of houses we saw in Romania are abundant in this part of Moldova and the self-proclaimed but widely recognised gypsy king and his family reside in this part of the country. Moldova is also the proud home to some very good wineries and huge cellars, but of course these were all closed over winter. These are both experiences we would have loved to have had, but unfortunately due to timing (the gypsy area – not enough time, the wineries – not the right time) we couldn’t, so the other place that really sparked our interest was Orhei Monastery.

40 km North of Chisinau, Orhei Monastery comprises of a selection of caves hand carved into the side of a rocky ridge. From a distance, as the ridge came into view, we could see all the tiny holes in the side of the rock which we presumed to be the windows of the caves, and perched atop the end of the ridge was a small white church. We drove up as far as we could, and then making our way on foot over the snow covered rocks we climbed up and across the ridge. The road on which we had approached wound its way through some of the famous wineries. They were all frozen over with snow and ice, but the stripes and squares that vineyards form were still visible, producing an eerie sort of grey scale version of this landscape that you know should be green and filled with life. A frozen river dissected the wineries and disappeared off into the rolling snow-covered hills on either side. Just below us on the other side of the ridge there was another narrow river, this one very shallow and rocky, and a line of small houses and buildings directly below us that from where we stood looked like little more than sheds and shacks. On the other side of the village and this river some much higher hills shadowed menacingly over the whole valley.

It was a very serene setting, a little ghostly even, and we quietly observed the surroundings as we walked over to the small church. The building and grounds of the church were beautifully maintained and a small dog yapped at our ankles and growled at us when we approached his elaborate hand-made kennel. We were pretty content that even though we hadn’t actually seen inside any of the caves, the place was impressive and we had enjoyed it. We began heading back towards the car when we spotted a couple of other tourists up ahead who had stopped and were obviously planning on speaking to us. Immediately we recognised the bloke’s relaxed Australian drawl as he asked whether we had spoken to anyone about going in the caves. Well no, we hadn’t, but fortunately for us he and his Polish girlfriend had made arrangements with the priest and were just waiting for him. So when the bearded, robed priest appeared a few minutes later we followed on with their little private tour, so grateful to Mr Aussie for having included us.

A heavy door at the bottom of a small clock tower mounted on the side of the cliff was opened for us and we were ushered inside to a surprisingly warm corridor. The priest had walked on ahead and turned around, calling out forcefully and making some wild hand gestures. We realised we were doing something wrong and thought maybe we weren’t allowed to come in, so quickly retreated through the open door, to which we received more yells and arm movements. For a moment we weren’t sure what the problem was, concerned about what mistake we may have made, and then we realised that he was simply telling us to shut the door behind us to keep in the warmth. Of course in our kafuffle we’d ended up leaving the door wide open for much longer than necessary, allowing lots of heat to escape from the unusually well heated cave. Embarrassed and apologetic we quickly closed the door and followed the priest down the stone steps.

The corridor opened out to a room decorated with an array of paintings, statues and candles, similar to what one finds in most monasteries. The expertly carved windows allowed natural light to filter into the otherwise dark space. A young man, maybe a teenager, dressed in jeans and a jumper sat on a bench underneath the windows and watched as we explored the cave. To our left as we entered was a small opening which the lead to a small steep stairwell opening out onto another room. The stairwell continued down a metre or two reaching a dead end which was being used as a storage space, so we followed the priest as he teetered across a very narrow landing, only a few centimetres wide, at the side of the stairs. This room had no pictures or monuments and barely any light, but walls adjacent to the external walls had been carved into the stone, forming small open-fronted rooms around the edges of the main room. It was a very interesting space, the walls left rugged and unfinished, but we didn’t actually figure out what the purpose of it was.

If we looked right instead of left when we entered the main part of the cave there were two archways fashioned out of the rock which opened onto an alcove which was obviously the main worship point of this particular cave. The priest sat down on the bench next to the boy and waited while we looked around and took a few photos. The boy spoke quite a lot of English and after explaining a few things about how the caves were carved and giving us some examples of rituals and traditions unique to this place, he asked us some very insightful questions about religion in each of our countries, specifically how Catholicism varies the world over. We were very impressed with the priest and the boy and were so glad that we’d bumped into the Australian guy who had made seeing inside the cave possible for us. It turned the experience from being an enjoyable one into being a thoroughly interesting and unique one.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The long and winding road.

The image quality of the picture I put up here a couple of days ago of the article in the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald wasn’t great, so I’ve just typed it out word for word. So here’s what the article actually reads:

The long and winding road

A plucky girl has just finished a year-long epic journey across Europe to Scotland from Australia.

Eilidh Robertson (23) and three male friends set off from the other side of the world on March 25 last year to travel more than 10,541 miles across Asia, the Middle East and Europe – finally arriving at their destination of Appin in Scotland on Tuesday, February 26 this year.

Eilidh lived in Scotland until she was 12, firstly in Bearsden – where she briefly attended Westerton Primary School aged five, and then Appin – between Oban and Fort William.

Her family then moved to Melbourne in Australia where she has lived ever since.

While growing up she often visited Bearsden to see her grandparents, Karen and Ian Macdonald, and she thinks of it as her “ongoing home” as both of her parents also come from there – Douglas Robertson from Conon Avenue and Alison Macdonald from Maxwell Avenue.

Eilidh and her friend Ben Crowley persuaded two other guys – Tom Denner and Tom Unkles – to undertake this massive journey in a custom-modified Toyota 4Runner and they called themselves 4guysinacar and wrote a blog.

Their first task was to cross Australia, from Melbourne to Darwin – about 2,332 miles. They had been looking forward to taking two weeks for this part of the trip across the desert but unfortunately they had to do it in just three days to catch the cargo ship.

This took them to Malaysia and from there they went on to Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Romania, Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France and finally the UK.

Amazingly they didn’t break down once but they did get a few flat tyres along the way.

Eilidh said: “Ben had always wanted to drive across the world and Appin was the logical sentimental end point.

“We wanted to see as much of the world as we could and there’s no better way to do that than in a car.

“The only way we could do this trip was by all being equals – I couldn’t get special treatment just because I’m a girl.

“The joke was that I was the real bloke and they were trying to keep up with me!

“The main thing I’ve taken away from this is that people from all over the world are pretty much the same.

“Most people are basically good and want to help you.”

Eilidh’s favourite country was Iran as the people were so friendly and the culture and history is exciting and varied.

They enjoyed visiting sites left over from the Persian Empire which were mostly untouched.

Her least favourite place was Armenia as the people were a bit stand-offish.

However, while they were there they visited a fascinating place called Lavon’s Divine Underground – a network of hand-dug caves under a house which had been created by the owner after his wife asked him to make a cellar to store potatoes.

Eilidh said: “It was really off the beaten track – there were no signs and we only found it because we stopped a local person to ask where it was and he drove us there.

“Apparently God spoke to the man and told him to keep digging as there was a purpose to it – but the purpose has still to be revealed!”

For more on their journey go to


Photo captions:

BACK IN BONNY SCOTLAND... Eilidh with her grandparents – Karen and Ian Macdonald from Westerton, Bearsden.

A map showing the route they travelled.

THEY MADE IT... 4guys arrived in the capital city of Kazakhstan – Astana.

The gang on their arrival in Appin.

TASTE OF THE ORIENT... the group at the Great Wall of China.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Day 296 – Gypsies singing on a trolley bus. (Moldova)

Our biggest regret about our time in Moldova was that we didn’t get ourselves organised enough in advance to have a couchsurfing host set up for our arrival. Fortunately though we did get one set up while we were there and she was everything we could have asked for – warm, welcoming, knowledgeable and interesting. After finally allowing ourselves to be convinced that secure car parking is just something that simply does not exist in Chisinau, we were over the moon when Victoria casually showed us to one, not of course having any idea the trauma we’d been through for the last couple of days with trying to find somewhere to keep Trevor safe. 

Victoria suggested we meet a friend of hers that evening at one of their favourite restaurants where we could sample some typical local cuisine, and so as not to worry about a glass of wine or a beer or two, we agreed to catch the trolley bus.  At first it seemed like a right pain as we waited in the cold while multiple other buses passed, ours seeming as if it would never arrive. Needless to say the bus did eventually turn up and as the journey progressed things started to take a much more interesting turn. First of all a hilariously drunk man, bevvied to the point of being an unrealistic caricature that surely only exists in cartoons, stumbled up the steps onto the bus, unable to control his limbs or wipe the dopey smirk off his face. After the driver unknowingly tried several times to close the door on the man as he lay sprawled half in, half out of the bus, a few by-standers stepped forwards to help Mr. Blotto onto a seat which was quickly vacated for his use. At this point almost everyone on the bus exchanged an awkward look as if to say “this is funny isn’t it? It’s not mean to laugh at this bloke is it? We could get grossed out or sad, but let’s just stick with the comical side of this”.

And then, just as the hype of us all adjusting our positions around Mr. Legless was wearing off, a group of young gypsies appeared at the entrance to the bus. The tension was almost visible as the non-gypsies already filling the bus cringed while the gypsies lugged their battered musical instruments onto the vehicle and found themselves seats. Within a few minutes one of the group had started fiddling with his guitar, plucking at various strings and humming incoherently. His friend who sat opposite joined in absentmindedly, tapping on the edge of his drum and beating his foot loosely on the muddy floor. Gradually the group of half a dozen or so joined in, very organically, expertly following each other’s lead and singing along enthusiastically. The rest of the busload couldn’t help but smile at the impromptu performance, blown away by how genuinely the boys were playing and singing. A few lookers-on began clapping or tapping in time, some even tried to sing along, but everyone (except maybe Mr. Boozy who I don’t think physically could) was grinning and laughing, thoroughly enjoying and becoming involved in the performance. It was impressive and incredible how such a simple thing as a few young gypsies busting out a tune on a trolley bus could bring so much pleasure to so many different people.

We had been concerned at the beginning of the spontaneous number that the purposes of the exercise would become clear when a hat was passed around, accompanied by a pleading face and insistent requests for money. When we realised that this wasn’t the musicians’ agenda at all we felt a little guilty, ashamed of ourselves for having jumped to a conclusion based on a stereo-type (even if that stereo-type is not founded on nothing). In comparing impressions with Victoria afterwards though we found that we weren’t in the least bit out of line. Having been born and brought up in Moldova and living in Chisinau for her entire adult life, she could not stress enough that this is not a normal occurrence; she had never seen anything like this display before, and had also jumped to the same conclusion based not on an unjustified stereo-type, but on her previous experience. What a truly remarkable and unique Moldovan experience: gypsies breaking into song on a trolley bus.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The long and winding road.

I never really anticipated that I would appear as a centrefold, but thanks to this week's Milngavie and Bearsden Herald we have:

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Day 294 – The last visa. (Moldovan visa, Romania)

We really enjoyed our time driving through the Romanian countryside, and it certainly feels as if there’s a lot more to see and do there than we managed to fit in. Romania is certainly one of the countries we would all love to revisit with a bit more time on our hands and have the chance to do the country a bit more justice. Adapting to our surroundings yet again though, as was easily second nature by this point in the trip, we dove into city life and immersed ourselves in the sights and sounds of Romania’s exciting capital city. Bucharest’s old town is beautiful and even though everything was quiet and things were shut over winter, we could just imagine how lively and exciting the cobble-stoned streets would be during the summer months. The narrow streets are lined with stately old buildings which house a selection of quirky bars, trendy shops, hearty take-away food places and high class restaurants.

Having finally, and seemingly against all odds, managed to get Ben a Ukrainian visa, we now needed to get Ben and Tunkles Moldovan visas (Denner and I being holders of British passports don’t need visas for either Ukraine or Moldova). According to the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs website the embassy in Bucharest should be able to issue visas in one day to Australians with no supporting documents other than a hotel booking for a fee of 60, but having racked up a substantial amount of experience with embassies over the past few months, we knew that while this might be a handy guideline it was pretty unlikely to paint a true picture of what we’d be faced with when we reached the embassy in person. We easily found our way to the given address which was surprisingly exactly where the website said it would be (this is very unusual) and Denner, Dee and I went wandering around the very Soviet-style suburb while we waited.

At the end of the street was a magnificent example of some sort of Communist government building with the typical vast empty car park out the front, wide symmetrical concrete stairs surrounded by murals depicting scenes from the era, leading up to the towering monument that stands in front of the perfectly symmetrical, cement square building as a testament to the power of the people under communism. There wasn’t really anything else to do around there, so we got sachet hot chocolates from a tiny corner store and headed back towards the embassy.

As we were making our way back we spotted Ben and Tunkles walking very purposefully away from the embassy. We called out and they turned around and acknowledged us, but continued to power walk away from us. We followed, discussing what might be going on. Power walking was definitely a good sign – if they’d been flatly denied the visas they wouldn’t be power walking anywhere. They probably just had to go and do some fake photo-copying or visit someone in a different office or make a payment somewhere. Sure enough we followed them right into a bank where we caught up and were able to get the full story.

There was a small guard post at the front of the rundown building, but just addressing the policeman in English was enough of a passport to be allowed entry into the embassy. The front door was opened by a tired looking man who brought them into a tiny waiting room where there was barely enough space for the three of them to stand. The building was basically just a house, gutted and left to dilapidate. Paint was peeling off the walls and there weren’t any computers or desk chairs; just a few chipped laminex tables. The tired man was very quick and dismissive; maybe he couldn’t be bothered with Ben and Tom, or maybe he simply had something more interesting to do. As soon as it was established that they were there to apply for visas they were thrust a sheet of paper and instructed to cross the road and take this document to the bank to pay. They handed over the required one night hotel booking they’d made, but he was less than interested. Ben was quite concerned about the fact that his passport was entirely full bar one full page, an issue which had caused no end of problems in obtaining a Ukrainian visa (Blog The Ukrainian Visa Saga, by Benjamin Andrew Crowley), but their unexcitable host couldn’t have cared less and just told them to go and pay. And this is when we spotted them power walking to the bank.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website had been very specific about the payment that should be made. A 14 day tourist visa for Australians should cost 60 and no other amount should be paid to any Moldovan embassy. Well these slips that Ben and Tom had been instructed to take to the bank had a title in Romanian, the address of the embassy, then a place where “Benjamin Crowley” and “Thomas Unkles” were hand-written, and then there were two bank account numbers. Next to one bank account number it read “60” (the true fee for the visa they were applying for) and underneath it was “5” written next to the other bank account number.

We have prided ourselves all along this trip on not giving into giving up money for bribes on the many occasions that we have been asked to. We have avoided paying bribes at border crossings, police checks and random police pull-overs, but when it comes to paying for visas we pay what is asked. If we refuse to pay off a policeman who has made up a fake rule that we didn’t break and is trying to “charge” us for it, if we stand our ground for long enough (usually not that long, but sometimes it’s a battle) they will eventually give up. They’ll realise that they’re wasting their time on us and could be getting bribes out of other people, and as none of the allegations that we’ve been faced with have been remotely truthful they have no recourse. Essentially we have the upper hand (assuming and of course hoping that they won’t resort to violence or arrest us just to make a point – which never happened to us). If we refuse to pay a “fee” placed on top of the legitimate price of a visa though, they can just not give us the visa. They don’t have to give it us if they don’t want and if we make them unhappy they won’t want. And in this case they have the upper hand. This is a theory that we have based this whole trip on and I would swear by it.

So they paid their extra 5 each, returned to the embassy with their receipts and were told to return at 4pm. That we did, at which point they realised that he hadn’t even looked at their passports during the day, so he quickly put the visa stickers through the printer and stuck them in their passports. Their personal details were actually typed which is more professional than some of the visas we’ve got, but the sticker itself is amusingly amateur looking. The word “visa” is written at the top of the sticker, in the sort of word art font that reminds me of a school project from the 90’s. It was a great relief though – for a couple of weeks there it looked as if Ben’s full passport might prevent us from getting to Moldova and Ukraine, but we’d got the visas and were on our way.

Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the Peasant Museum after all, but we did manage to squeeze in a visit to the Village Museum. Allegedly the largest of its kind in Europe, the 30 acre block in Herestrau Park is home to a wide selection of traditional buildings that have been carefully disassembled in regions all over Romania, and re-built in the museum to recreate a village which represents traditional living throughout the entire country. The collection of buildings mainly consisted of houses, but there was also a lovely wooden church, a small school, a couple of old-fashioned windmills and a few open air workshops. As far as we could tell we were the only visitors there at the time which made the snow-covered lake-side village experience all the more serene. We were a little disappointed though that we couldn’t go inside any of the buildings as we’d thought from everything that we’d read about the place that that would be part of it, but regardless it was a great experience.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Day 339 - The End.

There’s still a few weeks of the story to fill in, but having finished the trip we were featured in both The Oban Times and The Appin and Lismore Parish Newsletter this month. Our sincerest gratitude goes out to everyone who was part of our surprise welcoming committee in Appin, and all of those who have supported us at every step along the way.

Here’s what they had to say about us:


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Day 291 – The grave of Vlad Dracul. (Romania)

We hoped to squeeze in a visit to the town of Snagov on our way to Bucharest, then in Bucharest the plan was to visit the Peasant Museum and the Village Museum before meeting our Couch Surfing host in the evening. Snagov is the town about 40km north of Bucharest where Dracula was laid to rest in a monastery on a small island in the middle of Lake Snagov. Unfortunately the way the road network is laid out, even though we were approaching Bucharest from the north we had to drive almost all the way into the city and back out to reach the small town, adding about 70km to our trip. But putting it in context of the fact that we’d already driven about 50,000km and seeing it was a beautiful, crisp frosty day, we thought it would probably be worth it.

As we arrived in the town we realised that finding the island and the grave wasn’t going to be all that straight forward though, and we ended up driving around all the streets in the small town, attempting to find our way down to the lake. Every road seemed to disintegrate before it reached the lake, turn around and lead back the way we’d come from, or simply come to a dead end at a property. After a while of this frustrating circle-driving though we found ourselves at the edge of the lake, which to our delight was completely frozen over. Considering the temperate and how long it had been so far below 0°C for we should have realised that the lake would be frozen, but we hadn’t really considered it, so much to our embarrassment we were excitedly surprised. Disappointingly though, as far as we could see there was no bridge across this section of the lake. We did consider for a brief moment (well I considered, the others of course would never consider something so horrendously stupid) driving the car across the frozen lake, but for obvious reasons that idea was quickly dismissed.

The late afternoon sun (it was only about 1pm actually, but the sun was low as if it was late afternoon) was beating down on the snow-covered frozen lake, turning the trees and shrubs around us into nothing but dark shadows, contrasting against the shimmering crystal of the lake. It was difficult to see through the glare of the sun reflecting on the snow-covered everything, but families, groups of teenagers, couples with dogs, cyclists, and all sorts of other people were using the perfectly flat snow-covered lake as the ideal surface for any number of fun activities. We ourselves had a bit of a running and skidding tournament, resulting thankfully in no injuries, but unfortunately we had to keep moving if we wanted to find this grave and get to Bucharest in time to meet our host. We were gradually coming to the realisation that we probably weren’t going to be making it to either of the museums that we were intending to visit.

We got back in the car and decided to drive further around the lake, out of the town of Snagov itself, and around to the other side where we hoped to find a bridge, and maybe even some indication as to where we might find the grave that we had dedicated this day to finding. All we had to go by was some vague directions we’d gleaned from various websites, but none of the directions were really making sense until we stumbled upon a sort of nature reserve which seemed to be closed for winter. One of us had definitely read something about something like a nature reserve, so we turned onto the frozen mud track and drove in. Whilst trying to find someone to ask, Ben made friends with a family of dogs, but other than that the nature reserve was a bum steer and we continued our circumnavigation of Lake Snagov.

We continued on to the next town where we wound our way around some narrow residential streets to lead us down towards lake once again. When we spotted a sign which clearly pointed us towards our destination we heaved a sigh of relief, hoping that we may actually find this grave after all. We reached a small track that lead to a pedestrian bridge across the iced-over Lake Snagov, so we parked the car and were immediately accosted by a group of what we can only assume to be gypsies, who claimed to want to “protect our car”. Apparently the spot we’d chosen to park in “wasn’t safe” and we were given a very suspicious spiel about the positioning of security cameras and told we should move across the street. The security of our vehicle (aside from our personal well-being I suppose) being the most important aspect in terms of the quality of our trip, we were in the habit of taking every precaution within our capabilities to protect it, and we were pretty uncomfortable leaving the security of it in the hands of these men. We’d noticed them following us for a few hundred metres before we stopped and gave them the opportunity to approach us, and they seemed far too worried about our security. We actually hadn’t been in the least bit concerned until this group made it into such a big deal, so with them all hovering around waiting for us to leave our car and all our possessions, we decided to visit the island in twos, taking it in turn to hang out with the car. As soon as they realised this is what we were doing they quickly dispersed, clearly realising they were wasting their time on us. It’s very disappointing that in this case our observations support the stereo-types surrounding the antics of gypsies, but unfortunately we couldn’t really find any other way to read this situation.

A couple of the same guys made their way to the bridge, intercepting Denner and Dee as they made the crossing and asking for a toll for the bridge, which they were of course refused, and then an entrance fee to the island, which they were again refused, and then the monastery itself, which they were obviously once again refused. Hoping to avoid the accosting, Ben and I walked over the ice instead of the bridge, as the island was much closer to the mainland on this side. It was oddly silent in this little section of the lake, sandwiched between the monastery on the island, and the backs of houses on the mainland. Huge ruptures streaked across the ice, as if there had been an earthquake, and along the edges a few brave plants had pushed their way through the frozen surface. The ice became very thin in places, and we could see the swirling water just beneath the surface, hearing a few creaks as it shifted around the bridge. We wondered how long the lake had been frozen for, and when it would eventually melt.

The island was home only to an old farmhouse with a very barky dog, and the small understated monastery in which we believed Dracula’s grave lay. There wasn’t a single signpost and other than the barking dog and the gypsy standing on the bridge, we couldn’t spot any discernible signs of life. Because of the hovering gypsies making us feel so uncomfortable, we unfortunately didn’t go inside the monastery, but although we never set eyes on the grave itself we were pretty chuffed that we’d at least found the location, and regardless of anything else it was a beautiful little island.

Needless to say we arrived at the Village Museum and the Peasant Museum shortly after their closing times, so hoping we’d get a chance to visit them during our few days in Bucharest we continued on to our meeting with our host.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Day 290 – Transfăgărășan. (Romania)

Transfăgărășan is a real contender for the title “Best Road in the World”. In fact a lot would argue with me that it is a contender at all and not just the downright winner. Originally built in the 1970’s as a strategic military route to protect Romania against invasion from the Soviet Union, the 90km stretch of road was made famous by Top Gear’s episode in Series 14 where it was presented as an attractive and daring challenge for drivers. Connecting the two highest peaks in the country, winding its way in a series of narrow hair-pin turns, sweeping S-bends, sharp corners and steep ascents and descents, the road crosses the Făgărășan mountains in the Carpathian mountain range and is now a popular destination for dare devils of any sort whether it be drivers, cyclists, hikers, photographers, or anyone else.

Driving on this road was one of the activities that we had been most excited about since before we set off from Melbourne, but as we got closer and had our schedule a bit more clearly planned out, the devastating realisation that the road would be closed when we got there began dawning on us. At over 2,000m in altitude, the mountains are of course covered in metres of snow for the entirety of winter, usually spanning from late October to late June, sometimes longer. This was far from conducive to our January arrival. Still though, we were determined to see as much as we could, even if it was only the “closed for winter” sign at the turn off to the road. It was only a small detour from our actual route between Sigishoara and Sibiu so there was no question of whether or not we would give it a go anyway.

As we drove along the edge of the mountain range, the rugged landscape which we were hoping to cross on this infamous road was visible out of the side windows, and as we drew ever closer to the turn off where we would find out how badly shot our hopes and dreams of making this incredible drive were, our hearts began pounding and we all became excessively giggly and excited, and then silent with awe. We passed a sign indicating that we should turn left in a few kilometres for Transfăgărășan. Another sign told us that we were less than a kilometre away, and finally an arrow pointed us down a surprisingly wide road that led to the base of the mountains. We made the turn and were slightly confused when we passed an open boom gate. Why was the boom gate open? Surely the purpose of it is to close it in winter when the road’s snowed in. Is it possible...? No it can’t be possible. We didn’t dare to allow ourselves to hope that the road, or even part of the road, may for some flukey reason be open in the middle of January.

We reached a small town just as the road began its ascent (well actually it was more along the lines of a few sparsely dotted houses and a handful of hotels), and although the place wasn’t overly lively things were still obviously open for business and there was still no indication of the road being closed. As we came out the other end of the “town” we passed a “closed” sign, except it read “open”, so wondering whether maybe part of the road really was in fact open, we stopped at the last hotel to ask for some information. I was most impressed when the husband and wife owner who had been watching television in the restaurant and didn’t have a word of English used their common sense to help me, and communicating with a pen and paper and a series of arm gestures we established that the road was open for 15km, and from then on it was snowed in.

All too aware of the fact that the first 15km wasn’t exactly going to do the 90km long “Best Road in the World” justice, there was still no question in our minds about turning back now. We were determined to see as much of the road as possible, and 15km was further than we had dared to hope for, so grateful that we had the opportunity to see any of it at all, we began the ascent. We divided up the 30km round trip so we could all have a chance to drive the Transfăgărășan, even if only for a couple of kilometres each. Even though it was now dusk so the lighting wasn’t great, and the weather had been a bit drab all day, and we were only witnessing a very small section of the road, it was still a truly incredible drive. The tree covered valleys were so relentlessly steep, the rock formations on the sides of the cliffs were brazen and beautiful and the narrow road wound expertly around the sheer walls. Two or three cars passed us on their way down the mountain and we wondered what they were up there for – I can’t imagine too many tourists just rock up in the middle of winter and decide to drive the first stretch. Perhaps there was still some sort of outdoor facility, or maybe an accommodation place, that runs throughout winter. As we rounded a gentle corner and came out through a small tunnel we came face to face with the hotel, mounted on the edge of the mountain with what I can only imagine to be one of the most impressive views of any hotel anywhere in the world. And just around to our left, past an impossibly steep hair-pin bend which required us to do a 3-point turn to get around, we found the end of the 15km stretch, marked not only by the fluorescent “road closed” sign, but more impressively by the wall of fresh white powder that had collected on the road over several months, marking the point at which the clearing stopped and the closing started.

It might seem like a disappointment, the fact that we were so close yet missed out on driving the entire length of Transfăgărășan, but in actual fact it was such an amazing place anyway that we couldn’t possibly be disappointed. Of course we wish we’d been able to plan our trip to allow us to be in Romania in that small window between June and October when we might have been able to complete the drive, but that’s the nature of a trip like this: you can’t see everything everywhere, all we do is see as much as we can of each place and be pleased about what we did see as opposed to regretful about what we missed out on. This is definitely somewhere we all hope to return to.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Ukrainian Visa Saga, by Benjamin Andrew Crowley.

         It was decided at some point over the course of our overland odyssey that after spending New Year’s Eve in Prague, everyone’s favourite 4guysinacar would venture further east, backtracking to Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. I’m sure any Germans reading this would be red with fury, “this is not efficient!” I can hear them saying, but nevertheless we thought it an experience to venture out to this part of the world with trusty Trev’. Out of the four of us, two (traitors) are lucky enough to have British Passports, while two of us have only our Australian passports. Ukraine does not require a visa for any EU citizens as well as numerous other countries, but unfortunately Australia is not one of them, so it was decided that in Belgrade, Serbia we would attempt to apply for them.

Embassy Visit Number 1: Belgrade, Serbia

After arriving too late at the embassy on our day of arrival we ventured there the next morning to be informed that the embassy would require as part of the application, copies of our passports, travel insurance certificates and an appropriate hotel booking, but that it would take 15 days to be approved, 5 days if we payed double. With Christmas less than a week away this would be an impossible solution given we were expected in Budapest for Christmas Eve celebrations.

Embassy Visit Numbers 2 – 3 – 4: Budapest, Hungary

After agreeing to make some phone calls for us, we received a text message from Tom Unkles’ cousin on the morning of the 24th December saying that the Ukrainian embassy would be open today. We frantically drove down there and after waiting at the front gate for 15 minutes we were told to come back in an hour. We gathered our thoughts (ate KFC) and returned an hour later and were ushered into the usual consular waiting room where a man behind a glass window took our passports. “Success” we thought, he’s going to have a look at our passports and then return explaining the process. We waited 15 minutes and of course were told that they could not begin the application process as there were no banks open that day to make the appropriate payments to. Embassies never really make much sense and having our passports taken for 15 minutes only to be told that we couldn’t apply had become all too common. Trying to find out the date we could return on was like trying to draw blood from a stone, but eventually we were told the 27th.

After a satisfying Christmas we returned to the task at hand and once again made our way to the Ukrainian Embassy. With all that was required we handed over our applications to this time the lady behind the glass, and sat down to wait as she studied our applications. After no doubt updating her facebook status and making a cup of hot brown liquid she came back and told Tom that his application would be fine and would take 10 days, but that I wouldn’t be allowed to apply for a visa as my passport was too full, having only one whole page free. This of course is enough space in which to place a one page visa, but the powers to be in their divine wisdom demanded I have three completely blank pages. We brainstormed and decided we would try our luck at their Viennese mission, hoping they would be more flexible.

Embassy Visit Number 5 and our brief return to Australia: Vienna, Austria

It was slowly becoming ritual to arrive in a city and make our first destination an embassy, and beautiful Vienna was no different. We drove straight to the diplomatic quarter and made our appearance. This time we were informed that they only receive applications from citizens and permanent residents of Austria, of which we were neither. This concerned us, and if that was then also the case in Prague we would really be up the creek without a visa. This prompted us to return home and make our way to the confines of Australia’s embassy to Austria and consider the option of getting a new passport. This of course was an impossible task, taking too long and demanding too large a payment with the chances of success not necessarily increasing that much.

Embassy Visit Number 6 – 7 – 8: Prague

                This was our last roll of the dice, and once again we arrived at the wrong time and were told to come back three days later after, in the New Year.

Our Pakistan visa which took up two pages, and those of you who have followed the trip would know that we never had the chance to use, was becoming annoying as the cheap glue used to stick it in had worn off and the visa was constantly falling out. We had all re-stuck it several times for sentimental purposes but in this instance I decided that allowing it to fall out wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

We came back, I now having two spare pages, and were told that upon payment, which included an express fee of roughly $220 as well as hotel bookings for the entire stay, copies of bank statements (so as to prove that we won’t attempt to claim Ukraine’s most generous welfare), travel/health insurance (I understand that those individuals taking advantage of their amazing health care system is becoming a huge problem, thus making these rules unavoidable). Three days later we were anxious as we went to collect our visas, and this was not unfounded as we were told on arrival it couldn’t be approved without some further documentation. Driving like how I imagine an alcoholic would to the site of a crashed beer truck, we burnt home, printed off what was required and then returned. SUCCESS, but of course, not completely so, we still then had to wait one more hour before we returned to our accommodation triumphant.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Day 290 – When Trevor got cold. (Romania)

It was an incredibly cold morning and we all huddled together in front of the small electric heater inside the kitchen while Trevor took his time warming up. Eventually we decided he was probably warmish, so shivering, we piled into the car and attempted to blast the heating on our frozen selves, hoping to revive at least some level of feeling to our blue fingers and feelingless toes. This of course failed miserably as the only air blowing out of anything was well below 0°C. We waved farewell to our lovely guesthouse hosts and rounded the corner onto the main road out of Sigishoara. As the slip lane ended and we merged with the traffic on the main road though, Trevor made a little splutter and gurgled to a stop.

Once before when we were in Kosovo, the LPG tank froze over night and it was a simple matter of pouring a kettle of boiling water over it to literally unfreeze the system. So Denner ran back to our guesthouse to boil a kettle and we stood in the sun, attempting, to no avail, to thaw our painfully cold bodies. It didn’t reach more than -17°C that day, and even in the sun the cold was excruciating. A few minutes later Denner returned and poured the steaming water over the LPG system, and we watched on hopefully as he attempted to turn over the engine. Unfortunately it was considerably colder than it had been in Kosovo and Trevor still wouldn’t turn on. We got one more kettle of boiling water, and when still nothing changed we considered attempting to start on petrol, but having not run the car on petrol in several days, possibly a couple of weeks, we decided that having no idea what state the petrol was in it was too much of a risk. (Our car runs on both LPG and petrol and switches between the two by simply pressing a button on the dashboard. As LPG is much cheaper we run almost solely on that, only using petrol when we can’t find LPG, or occasionally to keep the system running smoothly.)

By this point we had tried so many times to start the engine that stupidly, we had drained battery. We began waving people down to ask for a jump start but nobody was interested in rescuing us, so Dee and I ran back to the guesthouse to ask for help. The middle generation of guesthouse owners were both out, but their teenage son and his grandmother were more than happy (almost disturbingly so in fact) to do everything they could for our cause. We were inundated with chocolates and coffee while excited phone calls were made to the mum and dad who were both out with their cars. We insisted that they shouldn’t come home to rescue us, but their son and mother wouldn’t hear of it and next thing we knew they were both on their way home. We felt incredibly guilty that they were being put so far out of their way just to give us a jump start, but nobody would listen; they were on their way, and they were determined that one way or another we would get our car started.

Anxious to look after us the teenage son put on some woollen socks, leather boots, a fur-lined jacket, a black Russian-style fur hat and a pair of fur-lined suede mittens, and followed us from his warm living room to the icy outdoors. His intention was to act as translator, but for that to be effective we still needed someone to pull over and offer us assistance. As we headed back towards the car though Denner came running towards us to say someone had already stopped and was attempting to jump us. We thanked our host and sent him home, making sure he told his parents to get back to whatever they had been upto before we interrupted them.

On our return to the car we were disappointed to find that the jump starters had given up and left us, so we stood out in the middle of the road again to find someone new. After some time two men in a pick-up track u-turned to pull up in front of us, immediately taking control and connecting the batteries. Realising now that there was no way we were going to get started on LPG we switched over to petrol, but the we had exhausted the battery so much and the petrol system had been out of use for so long that the jump starting didn’t work immediately. Each time we tried it sounded a little healthier and knowing what our unique situation with the LPG was we were sure that with a little persistence we could get started, but our rescuers didn’t believe us and they refused to continue. Really wanting to help though they attached us to their tow bar and took us a few kilometres down the road to a mechanic where they found an English speaker and left us.

With some help from the mechanics we pushed Trevor up the hill where we’d been dropped off and into the forecourt of the workshop. They were all incredibly kind and helpful and we were instantly ushered out of the cold and into the small office where we were shown to a tea/coffee/hot chocolate machine. Trevor was attached to a machine that basically served as a jump start and after guzzling up as much battery juice as he could over 15 minutes or so, we were finally able to turn the engine over and get him going. Relieved, we left the engine running, still attached to the battery machine until the mechanic advised, about two hours after the whole debarkle began, that it was probably ok to go now.

You learn something new every day, and this day’s lesson was that an LPG tank freezes when it’s cold. So from then on, whenever the temperature would be under 0°C overnight, we would switch to petrol before turning in, and start on petrol in the morning until the LPG had time to thaw. I’m not sure how owners of LPG vehicles deal with winter in parts of the world that regularly deal with such cold temperatures, but this system worked fine for us. Once we figured out that that’s what we had to do.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Day 290 – Goulash and Gypsies. (Romania)

I’m not really sure why, maybe just because we were in such good humour, but we decided to reward ourselves with a night of nice accommodation in the border town of Oradea. As I say it was probably just because we were really relaxed and happy, but our excuse was that it had been a successful border crossing (Blog Day 288– There’s a first for everything), we’d worked hard on the tyre the last couple of days (Blog Day 289 –Threatening to spontaneously combust), and by staying in a town maybe we’d have a better chance of finding new tyres in the morning. It wasn’t an overly exciting town, but we did find a delightful American style burger joint which sported the somewhat comical name “LactoBar”. Yes of course it just means milk bar, but between the name and the ridiculous logo of a jovial cow with long eye lashes and a cheeky grin, we were intrigued by the establishment. As it turns out, although their desserts were scrumptious, and their selection of beer cocktails was fantastically inventive, they weren’t so good at burgers. We did enjoy the booth made out of a retro American convertible and the wall of world beers comprised of shelves and shelves of hundreds of bottles of beers and a world map with pointers to the origins of each bottle.

We continued on with our tyre saga the following day as we crossed the Transylvanian countryside. The area of Transylvania is renowned for its spectacular mountains and gorgeous medieval towns and villages, so we chose a route that would take us through two of the three most notable towns, whilst taking us through a wide slice of the region as we headed south towards Bucharest.

A few of the small towns that we passed through were full of magnificent houses that caught our attention. Not only were they huge and extravagant, but they seemed to be mostly empty and often unfinished. The outsides were garish, with the walls painted in dazzlingly bright colours, shiny pointed roofs and sparkling trimmings, yet the insides were left confusingly gray and bare. It wasn’t until we were in Moldova a couple of weeks later that we discovered that these were gypsy houses, and suddenly the bizarre buildings made sense. It is very important to them that the facades are vibrant and glamorous, but they only live simply in one room often, sometimes with a dozen people, leaving the rest of the house empty and incomplete.

As I’m sure you can all imagine, we have driven on some pretty varied roads: everything from 8-lane motorways to narrow dirt tracks, mountain passes to desert trails, routes that haven’t seen a car in the last 5 years (if ever) to hectic traffic in high-density cities. In all of these experiences though, we have never come across an on-ramp that was as astonishing as the one that flabbergasted us on our way to Sigishoara. There we were driving along one of Transylvania’s main roads (the roads are fine – nothing to write home about but they do the job – one lane in each direction, well sealed, and sufficiently signposted), approaching a turn off to another main road, when we found the on-ramp to end all on-ramps. The turn was essentially a right-hand one – we had been heading due East, and we were going to be turning to head due South – but first we had to take an off-ramp that took us onto a bridge which crossed the road we had just come from. We then ended up back on the first road for a few metres, heading in the opposite direction, until the next off-ramp which did a 360° and landed us on the next ramp which directed us onto a small road that connected the road we were originally on to the road we were trying to get onto. From there we were faced with another 360° on/off-ramp which took us over a small bridge and eventually onto the road which faced due South. The hilarious thing about this on/off-ramp network was that neither of these roads was even particularly huge or busy. A set of traffic lights, or at most a simple slip lane would have more than sufficed. Sadly we didn’t realise how incredible the experience would be until it was already passed so we didn’t take a single photo or video of the unique road/bridge/ramp layout.

We had had some very cold weather in Macedonia and Kosovo (-10°C and -15°C and so on), but for the past couple of weeks it had actually been reasonably mild (around 0°C, sometimes higher). Driving through Romania though we remembered what -°C felt like and we had some of our very coldest days (possibly ever in our lives) in the days we spent between Prague and Bucharest. We were generally pretty brave with camping, having no qualms about pitching a tent in or near snow and frost, as we had done plenty of times before, but with sleeping bags that aren’t really suitable for lower than 10°C, camping in -25°C each night was becoming a bit exhausting. If we’d realised how cold Romania was going to be we wouldn’t have stayed unnecessarily in accommodation in Oradea, but regardless we looked for accommodation when we arrived in the beautiful town of Sigishoara.

Sigishoara, Sibiu and Brasov are the most notable towns in Transylvania, each one demonstrating a slightly different aspect of the rich culture and history that encompasses the region. An abundance of castles, fortresses and churches are dotted all over Transylvania and the famous Carpathian Mountains, and the two very different cultures of the Saxons and the Romas is evident all over this incredibly exciting place. As we didn’t have an infinite amount of time to spend frolicking in the Romanian countryside, we chose Sigishoara and Sibiu to stop at, leaving Brasov for another trip (which will certainly happen – Romania is one of the countries we are most adamant about re-visiting).

Sigishoara is a beautiful example of a walled Saxon city, now UNESCO World Heritage Listed, and made famous for being the birthplace of Vlad Dracul (Dracula). The walled old town is particularly haunting. I can’t quite put my finger on why it was that way, maybe just because it was so deserted, but there was something about Sigishoara that was different to the usual UNESCO World Heritage Listed old towns, of which we have seen so many. Outside the city walls we got a feel for the way the Roma and the Saxon styles have mixed in many ways. A lot of the architecture was quite clearly of Saxon influence, yet the pastel walls and little sections of glitzy trim drew your attention. We stayed at a lovely guesthouse run by all three generations of a very hospitable but non-interfering family who we were extremely grateful to the following day, but I will get to that in the next blog. For dinner we found a restaurant called “Transylvanian Restaurant” where we ate Transylvanian goulash with maize porridge and other examples of “traditional Romanian cuisine”.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Day 288 – There’s a first for everything. (Hungary to Romania border crossing)

Having crossed our fair share of uncontrolled borders within the Schengen agreement over the past couple of weeks, it was now time to face our first proper border since entering Hungary before Christmas (Day 273). Still hobbling along on our precariously patched tyre (Blog Day 289 – Threatening to spontaneouslycombust), we were a little nervous about it suddenly bursting during the border crossing process, envisaging all the extra problems this would cause us.

The Hungarian side of the border was unmanned, so we drove straight through to Romania. We were a little surprised by this, having expected that Romania would have been the more corrupt, less trust-worthy of the two countries, but apparently Romania has proven themselves worthy of controlling both sides of the border. Immediately we were shocked at how professional the entire border post was, from the well-maintained modern buildings, to the professionally stern guards who greeted us in perfect English. The man who approached us asked for our passports and car documents, and noticing that they were foreign asked where our vehicle was registered. When we told him it’s registered in Australia we weren’t met with the usual disbelief or confusion, but instead a surprised and slightly amused interest. Apparently he’d worked at this border for ten years and had never seen an Australian car cross it, as if we would expect that he would have! I guess there’s a first for everything.

Very politely he asked us to wait at the side while he processed our passports and documents. “As it’s a foreign car it will take a few extra minutes, sorry for the wait.” What a change from the usual grunts as people wander around confused, handing our documents between offices, obviously completely oblivious as to how to process us, yet usually not once addressing us either politely or informatively.

“Oh sorry, excuse me. Is it possible to stamp the passports carefully in small gaps, they’re getting very full?”

“Yes of course, no problem. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” and he was off.

We’ve asked so many border guards to stamp our passports efficiently and very rarely do they understand, even when we’ve specifically pointed out a gap appropriate for the stamp, but to our delight our very switched on border guard returned several minutes later with our passports neatly stamped and our car documents processed (well actually we have no idea if this was done properly, but from where we were, they seemed to know what they were doing). They weren’t interested in the slightest in searching our car, and the entire process took less than twenty minutes and we were waved on to the border town of Oradea.