Sunday, October 8, 2017

Chernivtsi, Ukraine to Cluj-Napoca, Romania: Cats, Vampires, and Frozen Flies

When we last left off I was in Rakhiv, in the Carpathians in Ukraine, after having just left the Color Farm. I'd had one last vegan meal...

...gotten one last picture of Maxym, Marina, and Misha...

(okay, two...) ...and a few pictures of the hills which made the area so lovely.

(which I then had to bike over). I stopped at a grocery store on my way out, because one of the few words I'd learned how to read in Ukranian was “groceries:”

(looks like “Npoayktom”). My bike was a little heavier with a package of souvenirs and books I intended to send home, in a blue bag on the back, and a winter sleeping bag tied to the handlebars:

I stopped at the hostel in Kolomyia I stayed in last time, and was happily recognized by the English-speaking teen who ran the cafe one floor below the hostel. His English had improved. I went to his cafe to get some coffee and use the internet, and ended up being treated to an open mic in the next room – a few songs in a language I didn't recognize, but many English songs too (I forgot to mention that in my last post about culture – at least half the music you hear everywhere is in English). The last few songs were played on an accordion and everybody sang along. I felt right at home.

The next morrning was foggy and cold and my hands took turns inside my jacket as I made my way into the mountains (I made a note to get better gloves). I stopped at a grocery story, feinting the need of food, but really just wanting to be inside for a bit. After standing near the freezer eating the cookies I'd bought, the cashier kindly directed me to the restaurant in the next room, and I was pleased to discover she understood the word “soup...” so I got some soup.

I also finally got a photo of one of the Easter eggs that are so common around Ukraine – I think it's an Orthodox thing?

The ride was foggy until about 11, when the sun finally broke through and it became a beautiful, if chilly day – perfect for the 800 meters of climbing I had to do.

I finally got a shot of someone selling something on the side of the road – or, more accurately, someone leaving out something for sale, trusting that when a buyer came along they'd knock on the door:

...and some more shots of the valley as I came into Rakhiv:

My goals in Rakhiv were:
- Buy gloves that would go over my current gloves, keeping my fingers from freezing on cold mornings.
- Get a MiniUSB cable, left out of the package I got in Chernivtsi by accident. Needed for my MP3 player and my tail light, which had been dead since France.
- Mail the 18 or so postcards I had (including 6 from Budapest I'd forgotten to send earlier). These were thank-yous to hosts and cards for monthly donors – if you're a three-month donor, your next card will (hopefully) come from Greece.
- Decide what to do about Africa. I bought a plane ticket from Istanbul, Turkey to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on November 2nd. $268 and free bicycle carry!
- Update my blog, including (finally!) updating the map with photos.
- Skype with people I love, including my mom for her birthday.
- Start hunting for a new bike for Africa.

I'm happy to say I accomplished all of these goals. I made a few acquaintances as well – three backpackers from America, a Brazilian, an Argentinian, a digital nomad from Japan, and a real estate investor from Kiev all passed through -- but as I had such an extensive to-do list I'm sorry to say I never made it out for drinks or dinner with any of them. I could have stayed longer, but then more people would have come through... it was a tough choice. But, as I'm confident the world's supply of interesting people is more than I can meet in one life, I know I'll meet more of them as the trip goes on.

I left Rakhiv well stocked from the grocery store and a local bakery, including a few of these gems:

I have no idea what they are but they're good and cheap, and if you get them fresh they have the texture of cinnamon rolls (if you get them late they are chewy and stale).

I was originally going to go back to Satu Mare exactly the way I came, but on a whim decided to try a different border crossing (recall: the one I used to get into Ukraine made me put my bike in a vehicle to cross). This would mean biking in Romania instead of Ukraine for a day and add a 600 meter climb. It was also the road less traveled (for me), and I had time. So I spent the last of my Hryvnia at a grocery store on yogurt and Snickers, leaving about 4 UAH ($0.15) on the steps of the grocery store for the next lucky passer-by.

As it turns out, this border crossing not only allowed bikes and pedestrians, but they gave us our own lane:

And looking at the bridge, I'm not sure I'd drive a car across anyways... I felt nervous enough on my bike:

The border guard was very interested in my ukulele, and I don't think it was for security reasons... I think he just wanted to see what came in a tiny guitar case. Also in no-man's-land were two Americans working on the railroad – they apparently put the “final blessing” on anything technical for the railroad. Apparently we do trains pretty well.

Upon crossing the border, a sign for Satu Mare appeared, and I continued on my way. I saw, among other things, a turqoise church, some cool woodwork, and... Soren?

Yes, Soren was out on two-day ride with some friends. They passed me going the other way; he'd be back in Satu Mare the next day around dinner, in time to entertain me. I looked forward to that, but for the time being, had a climb to do. It started to drizzle, and I was very, very, very happy to have the new rain gear from the package my mom had sent me (thanks Mom!). I found the flattest spot I could 3/4 the way up the hill and made camp during a break in the rain. My winter sleeping bag was well purposed – it didn't get below freezing, but I was comfortably warm without having to put on all my layers.

The next morning I waited until about 9 for the rain to stop and my tent to dry, tried to act inconspicuous around some other people roaming the forest (looking for mushrooms maybe? As Marina taught me, just after rain is when they show up...), then went on my way. I stopped at a restaurant at the top of the hill to see what they had and ended up getting a sizeable omelette for 10 leu, about $2.50. This was after overcoming my shock at... well:

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. I was running about 4 hours early to Soren's (he wouldn't get home till 7; his wife, not till 5), so I stopped at an internet cafe to research bikes. I wanted to order food, too, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover they spoke French – apparently the family owning the place spent 15 years in France. They didn't have food, but we had some nice conversation, and I think they were sympathetic to travelers since they gave me the coffee for free (“coffee” though, often means the just-add-water stuff in rural areas... like in this case).
This has no bearing on the story, I just liked it.

In Satu Mare I stopped at a bike shop, hoping but not expecting they'd have the perfect bike for Africa. They didn't have any steel frames with 26” wheels, but the head mechanic spoke English from spending some time in Australia, so we talked about what made a good touring bike. He seemed to think I'd be fine on one of their bikes, but he was also down-to-earth and we had some good talk about why it probably wasn't the best idea, so it was enjoyable, not annoying or sales-ey.

I had a great stay at Soren's – his wife, Adriana, ordered pizza for us, insisting we not wait for Soren's return. Soren is the first person to host me twice on this tour (not counting Jane from England, who lent me her cabin in France, because – while that was very generous and I loved both stays – she wasn't in France when I was in her cabin. Also, shout out to Rachel who has hosted me once on this tour and once on my previous tour), so it was nice to not have the oh-god-don't-screw-up preface and feel like I belonged even before I arrived. I knew the customs, where my bike went, how to do laundry (and that it was OK to not have tons to do), and we got right into the meaningful conversation. It was really nice.

The next morning Soren took me to a photo shop to print some passport photos, since I anticipate needing them to apply for visas, since I'll actually have to do that when I leave Europe... he also offered to let me stay another night, which was very generous. But, being I now had a plane to get to (and the same “it's getting cold I need to go south” instinct from Chernivtsi), I had to decline.

That day was the straight, slim-margin roads of northern Transylvania...

Left water bottle cage misbehaved a few countries ago, so right water bottle caged wanted in on the action.

...and at one point I heard some desperate “mew!”s from the bushes. I turned around and this little guy came out to greet me:

Upon inspection from a distance I decided s/he passed the “if I pick you up I won't get the plague” test, so I decided to see if s/he was friendly... well, it climbed all over me, nuzzling and purring and generally being extremely glad that I rescued it from the side of the road.

I didn't have anywhere to put it – no pockets big enough, no bags I was okay with getting scratched up – so I put it on top of my luggage and decided, if it can hang out there, I'll take it to the next town, or possibly the next town with a vet, and go from there. After only 15 feet it jumped off and returned to the bushes. I was sad not to have kept this new, cuddly friend, but wasn't going to rescue a cat that didn't like riding bikes.

The road got hillier and hillier until, upon departure from Zalau, there was a 400 meter climb:

...and as I descended I felt I was really in the heart of Transylvania, or at least getting closer. Maybe I'd see a vampire soon?

Also, since my MP3 player came from the package in Chernivtsi, I had a good ascent, practicing Swahili along the way (“Jambo...” pedal... “Sijambo...” pedal...), and a good descent, screaming Rent at the top of my lungs and at one point raising my hands to the sky, coasting down the middle of the road, shouting, “Let it go, let it goooooo...” (I imagine Jacob reading this and wondering if he still wants to be stuck with me in rural Africa. I promise I can tone it down upon request...).

I had a pastry that wouldn't fit anywhere else – it would be a while till the next city – so I'd put it on the side of my bike. The plastic bag pastries come in is so weak it fell out onto the road – fortunately, a clean section of road at a time when there were no cars. I turned around and got it (didn't even need to dust it off) and, not wanting to eat it until I reached the top, put it in front of me where I could keep an eye on it for a while.

I made camp behind a half-built-then-abandoned house, close enough to the road I figured I'd be safe from bears but still invisible to drivers. As the sun set at only 7, I was at a loss for how to entertain myself. I decided to head to the restaurant across the street (half-built-then-abandoned houses have all the amenities these days...) for dinner. Soup, fries, and papanache (which I had planned to ask Soren for the night before, instead settling for pizza) came out to 27 leu, about $7. The waitress spoke some English, but I had to use the Spanish word for water – agua. When in doubt, just pretend Romanian is Spanish...

I expected it to be cold that night, but I was fine in the winter sleeping bag my mom had sent me in Chernivsti (did I mention THANK YOU!?). My tent did not fare so well, as I spent the better part of the morning trying to get ice off the fly without damaging it...

...and ended up just hanging it from the house when the sun came up to help melt the ice and hopefully evaporate some of the water:

Finally, after a breakfast of oatmeal-chocolate cookies (my favorite cycling food, which I hadn't seen in decent quality since Germany), I went on my way. With my XXL-wool-knit-Thinsulated-gloves-from-Rakhiv-for-$2 over my regular gloves over a wool liner, and still my hands were cold. They do bear the brunt of the windchill... also, on a brief descent, my face froze. I didn't know eyebrows could hurt like that. Must go south!

It's beautiful, but thank god I didn't camp low enough to wake up in fog.

On a descent of the day before (the one where I sang Rent and Let It Go) I had had to stop to adjust the rear fender. It had started rubbing again that morning, but I was so peeved about it I just ignored it – until it felt like every pedalstroke was doing half as much as it should. I hopped off the bike and to my horror, found the fender was pressing so hard into the tire that tire shavings were all over everything.

After unloading the bike I eventually identified the problem as a loose screw that had been trying to fall out since Switzerland (whereupon I had both cemented and zip-tied it in). It had almost fallen out again, and the farther out it got, the farther over the rack fell. The rack pushed on the fender, and here we were.
In any case, it's good I caught it before it fell completely out, because having my rack fall off on a descent on a busy road was not on my to-do list. Fortunately, one of the few spare parts I carry is screws, so I was able to fix it on the spot, including a nut, which will hopefully keep it in for good.
Not the best picture -- the new screw is at the top-ish of the photo. I was so peeved I didn't take a pic of the old one.

After another hill...

I finally made it into Cluj-Napoca...

...where I was hoping to have a Warmshowers for the night. Despite it being only 2 PM, I wanted to update my blog, and I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before. A Lidl raised my spirits... a Lidl with a french bakery, where I got all the pastries I had missed so dearly since... well, the last Lidl I saw, probably in Austria. After taking a long lunch outside Lidl, I found a coffee shop (with a cute waitress who wanted to practice her English to boot; she's studying math so we geeked out about advanced Geometry.... I was sympathetic for her as another customer kept trying to ask for food in English without using basic words like “food” or “eat:” “What do you have to munch on?” “Do you have danishes?” “What can you fill my stomach with?”) to check Warmshowers.


I checked the weather and found the forecast overnight was... freezing rain!? No thanks. So, time for a hostel! More expensive than in Ukraine, the cheapest one I could find was $14, but includes breakfast, has a backyard (for touring bikes, obviously) and is outside the city center (sometimes nice for noise reasons). With $6 at Lidl, it's actually in my budget for the day, despite being the most I'll have paid for lodging the entire tour.

Interestingly, the hostel internet doesn't really work, but there's a park across the street whose free internet reaches the hostel, and it's quite fast. Go Cluj!

So, here I'll sleep, under a roof out of the freezing rain. Two days to Sibiu, then the Transfagarasan, then Bulgaria and Greece... I'm getting back in the swing of things, and liking it.


  1. You're right about the Ukrainian Easter Eggs. They're called pysanka. The ones you saw are giant sculptures of a pysanka. A pysanka (Ukrainian: писанка, plural: pysanky) is a Ukrainian Easter egg, decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs using a wax-resist method. The word pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, "to write", as the designs are not painted on, but written with beeswax. Funny, I remember that Rosie had some of these.

    I'm glad that the raincoat and sleeping bag are coming in handy.

    Love you, Mom

  2. heard about the turkish visa issues, hope you can still make your flight!

    1. I already got the visa so I should be fine. Definitely keeping an eye on it though!

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