A Harrowing Drive to Bucharest


BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — Forget what I said about the terrible road from Timisoara to Petrosani. The road from Petrosani to Voineasa and beyond, while represented by a fat orange line on my map, is something else entirely.

A GPS track of my way through the mountains

A GPS track of my way through the mountains

The village of Voineasa is cottage country on the other side of the mountain range from Petrosani, and the road connecting to it is… well, it stretches the definition of the word “road”. As I headed up into the mountains, the usual broken concrete slabs — which now, thanks to decades of frost heaves, fit together well-shy of plumb — gave way to patches of heavily potholed asphalt, fist-sized gravel, and sometimes just mud. Oh, how I longed for those broken concrete slabs to come back.

One of the nicer stretches of road, down in a valley floor

I tenderly negotiated the switchback hairpins in 1st gear, dozens and dozens of them. Up and up I went to an altitude of 1600m, the road worsening as I went. There may have been a nice view, but I couldn’t tell you; all my concentration was on swerving around rocks and potholes and mud pits. Up in the clouds it started to rain, and every few kilometres there’d be fridge-sized boulders strewn across the road from a recent rockslide. The road was so bad, I rarely got into third gear. As I’d climbed, I could hear the Hamburglar’s exhaust noise echoing off the canyon walls. Something was wrong. Every few seconds, I’d hear a cylinder misfire and feel a sickening lurch. The problem got worse the higher I climbed. At the apex of the mountain pass, the farting noises emanating from the poor Hamburglar’s rear increased in frequency until it just up and died.

And then, nothing but the sound of heavy rain drumming against my helmet.

“Oh bother,” I said, or words to that effect. My best guess was that Petrosani was 40km back the way I came, and Voineasa a good 50km ahead. I hadn’t seen another car in the last hour at least, and my paranoid mind reminded me that the Transylvanian woods are home to half of Europe’s black bears. I was wet and freezing, and I took this downtime to put on all my cold-weather gear, which I didn’t think I’d need, it being June and all. Out of curiosity, I checked my phone to see if there was coverage up there. Zero bars out of five.

Helmet-cam screenshot: Not a Vespa-friendly road

I took a moment to berate myself for heading into a mountain range on a rainy day. I was making stupid mistakes. Here I was, still in the frigging EU, and already I’d managed to get myself in a bind. I wasn’t able to start poking around near the engine, what with the rain, and I had no idea if the carburetor was doinked or the sparkplug was loose or if it was the thin mountain air that did it. Hell, it could have been anything wrong with the motor, given the unrelenting beating my poor bike was taking. The idea of eventually getting across Pakistan this way struck me as laughable.

Just for fun, I tried starting the bike. It took a few minutes, almost killing the battery, but eventually it coughed into life. Soon the Hamburglar was healthy enough to idle in that glug-glug-glug… glug way P200’s do. Another Festivus miracle! Overjoyed, I hopped on, and coaxed the bike down the mountain pass. The road steadily improved the closer I got to Voineasa.

And then two figures on bikes appeared around a bend. It was Henk de Jonge and Ron Steenaert, two smiling Dutchmen I’d tossed back a few tuicas with back at the guesthouse the night before. Henk and Ron were on a charity bike ride from Holland to southeast Romania, raising funds to build a new orphanage for disabled kids in the village where Ron had recently bought some retirement property. Ron’s wife works with mentally handicapped children, and apparently the conditions for those kids in the orphanage are appalling. I asked Ron what the point of the European Union was, if private charity were necessary to improve the lot of orphans living in medieval squalor. Ron replied that most EU funding to Romania went to improving its road network. Clearly none of that dough had been diverted to the road we were currently on.

Ron and Henk, fighting the good fight in ineffective raingear

I wished them good luck and sped off in the rain. I made it to Voineasa, where the road became quite good, and then on to the main road No. 7 in Brezoi, where the road surface improved even more. It was 95km/h all the way to the start of the A1 highway in Pitesti. Along the way I ran into my first taste of homicidal Romanian driving: some asshole driving a sport Volvo sedan, who’d obviously obtained his driver’s license from a Cracker Jax box, spent the better part of half an hour trying to murder me. It drove him crazy whenever I’d split the lanes at traffic lights and end up ahead of him, and he’d fight his way up through traffic, taking insane chances passing in blind corners, and then he’d tailgate me by a matter of a few feet. Then he’d pull up inches beside me and try and press me off the road into a guardrail. After all I’d been through that day, I was in no mood for this, and there was a great deal of bird-flipping on my part and fist-shaking and screaming on his. After that episode, I calmed down and resolved to put my middle finger away for the rest of the trip. There was no sense in it; I was supposed to be enjoying myself, and I’d have to just pull over and let any future road-rage sufferers go on ahead to try and kill somebody else.

Speaking of road rage, about half an hour outside of Bucharest I saw a big cloud of dust appear beyond a truck I was following. Then, a twirling boxlike object soared over my head, spraying ropes of some red liquid like a lawn sprinkler. I pulled over and looked back. It was a doozie of a collision, and I couldn’t quite figure out what had happened. Both cars were facing the same way; one, past the opposite lanes, firmly lodged into a tree, the other in the median, with its entire front end collapsed like an accordion. The twirling boxlike object turned out to be the car’s battery. I helped kick the larger pices of the debris field off the road, and watched as the two drivers, who were unhurt, take turns screaming at each other. In typical Eastern European fashion, it didn’t come to blows. In one particularly memorable bit of physical comedy, the driver of the car with the collapsed front half gamely tried to close the hood. He did eventually get it down, to his credit.

That busted hood

The sun was going down and I had to make time. I was running low on gas, though, and my first attempt at pulling into a gas station was met with a pack of a dozen barking feral dogs running right at me. I freaked and went back into the on-ramp and gunned it on down to the next gas station. There, the feral dogs weren’t so intimidating. I gassed up and made it to Bucharest just before it got dark.

Alex Postelnicu, formerly of Budapest, now of Bucharest, was waiting for me and gave me the couch in his swank downtown pad. Alex is an all-round stand-up dude I’d palled around with in Budapest for a few years, and he was hellbent on showing me a slice of this Bucharest nightlife I’d heard so much about. And so I dropped my stuff off, cleaned myself up, and braced myself for six days and nights in the big city.


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