Holiday in Transylvania
In this feature story from the third issue of The Bikepacking Journal, Ben Page offers a reminder of the value of getting out on shorter, simpler trips, instead of always being wrapped up in planning something big and ambitious…
This story originally appeared in the third issue of The Bikepacking Journal, our biannually printed publication, in October 2019. To read more stories like this one—in the full glory of print—join our Bikepacking Collective. In fact, if you enjoy reading BIKEPACKING.com and think it’s a valuable resource, it’s the single best thing you can to do support us.
I missed the open road. I missed rolling out my sleeping bag in the evening as the sun swept across the horizon and my steaming pot of pasta beckoned like the best tasting Michelin-starred meal on the planet. I missed that clear sense of purpose. The sole aim for each day could be only to make it a few inches further along a map covered in unpronounceable names, each firing the imagination at the possibilities ahead. I missed the absence of distance and time, that there was no real reward in covering more and more miles, that there was nothing more pressing than the present. Life on the road was a humble daily movement. A small ant crossing an enormous field. Like pushing a boulder uphill but finding reason to smile about it. For three years, I lived like this and was the fortunate recipient of a wealth of experiential richness. But somehow, since finishing a three-year ride around the world in 2017, I hadn’t set off into the hills and horizon on a bike.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about riding—about that journey—almost every day. Often, stuck in front of a screen, I caught myself revisiting some distant, windswept landscape, my mind wandering down corridors of memories and nostalgia, reveling in the joys of escapism. The memories had become fuzzy around the edges and began to shift in and out of focus, but I knew they were etched in the person I’d become and how I perceived the world around me. I was fortunate enough to fill the time since finishing that ride with new and exciting adventures of a different sort, but the constant tug of the open road remained.So, when an email popped into my inbox earlier this summer saying a couple of old school friends had two weeks of holiday left and wanted to go ride bikes somewhere, it was just the push I needed. James, Robbie, and I had forged our friendship through months of sleeping in the dirt and eating various forms of badly cooked, half-burnt carbohydrates flavored with stock cubes. Our friendship existed in the outdoors, in well-worn saddles and sweat-stained shorts, and had taken us from the wilds of Patagonia to the Canadian Rockies to Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains. But as our 20s rolled on, it seemed all the time we once had to cast plans aside and hit the road was slowly lost. Adulting crept up on us, and we were in danger of losing touch.
We always embraced the philosophy that our plan should consist of little more than a start and end point. It was a philosophy that likely resulted in more failures than successes, but was a lot of fun nonetheless. For this trip, we looked at a map of Europe and found a happy combination of a new country and cheap last-minute flights. We spent an evening video chatting and crudely hashed out our route with Google Earth—some scattered waypoints joined by what we hoped would be a rideable track. They were points thrown down with the kind of blind optimism viewing a 3D world in 2D sometimes requires. We aimed to follow the spine of Romania’s Carpathian Mountains as best we could until we had to catch our flights home a couple weeks later. It was a new country but an old adventure.
Touching down at the airport a few days later, it all came flooding back. We arrived in the middle of the night and wheeled our bikes into the car park in search of a quiet corner to catch a few hours of sleep before sunrise. It was midsummer, and we packed light, taking a small tarp for the three of us but hoping to mostly sleep out. We knew we’d pass through small villages almost daily, so we needed to carry only a little food and water. It was novel not to be weighed down by the gear and equipment required for longer journeys. The bikes felt light and easy and the air warm—it had the unmistakable feel of a holiday. It was a holiday!
All my previous bikepacking trips felt more like an extension of life. They were full of scrimping and saving, a distant finish line only reached by chewing down a continent into countries, and in turn dividing those countries into manageable days and distances. I always lived on the tightest of budgets, a handful of dollars a day that never allowed for many luxuries. But now, in full holiday mode, we weren’t too concerned about drinking the odd beer in the evening or sampling the local firewater. We joked about all the crap food we made in the past as we tucked into cured meats and cheeses from the mini-market in the village we passed through late that first afternoon.
It was a welcome surprise how quickly old routines set in, how soon a short ride felt like a much longer one. All the belongings naturally finding their place on the bike. Each day we pedaled through quiet villages and nipped into small local shops that always seemed to be some sort of appendage to a living room or kitchen. Here, the old game of grocery charades played out, one of us pointing helplessly at objects behind counters, hoping the mysterious item was edible and would complement the obligatory evening pasta. The inevitable gamble on a strangely packaged item that, with a stroke of luck, would become the trip’s new go-to indulgence. We always spent just a little too long after lunch shading from the midday sun, none of us wanting to be the person to end our moment of post-meal bliss.We’d seen pictures of the Carpathians before leaving our homes but found scant information online aside from a few mountain biking and motocross blogs. We realised it might be possible to follow the mountains by linking up golden-grassed ridgelines along which endless miles of perfect two-track seemed to run, eroded into shape by motor vehicles. As much as I dislike the idea of anything petrol-driven and noisy crossing quiet mountains, I understand that most of the places I’m able to access as a cyclist are reachable thanks to those machines.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the perfectly graded two-track of which most of us off-road cyclists are so fond. Rather, we found rough, rock-strewn tracks with impossibly steep gradients. Perhaps suitable for the few locals to power up astraddle an engine, but impossible for those of us huffing and puffing under our own steam. There were occasional rideable sections—just enough to make us think all the pushing and dragging was worth it—but they exposed the fact that we hadn’t really chosen the best tools for the job. In our scramble to gather equipment before departing home, we had sorely underestimated the terrain we’d be covering and rashly decided to take gravel bikes. They were at least light enough to make the long hike-a-bikes somewhat enjoyable, but too often we found ourselves having to walk the bikes downhill, too—always a heartbreaking endeavour! It was a case of the wrong bikes in the right place.
The cries of shepherds graced our ears during the days we spent following those winding moto tracks from ridgeline to ridgeline. We could spot them from a distance, small flecks of color dashed against the hillsides. Despite the bucolic setting, their shouts served as a forewarning of danger. It so happens the Carpathian sheepdog is a truly ferocious thing, and each shepherd usually has five or six of them! Large and aggressive with shaggy fur and saliva dripping from yellowed teeth, these dogs protect the shepherds’ valuable flocks from the wolves that roam the hillsides. And they’re equally effective at scaring the shit out of cyclists. They would sneak up, silently sprinting through the long grass until they were within a few meters of us, then spring up barking, snarling, and snapping their jaws at legs and wheels. Fortunately, we’d all had our fair share of dog encounters in the past, so we knew they seldom actually bite. But the shepherds always seemed to chuckle to themselves for a few moments too long before hurrying over and calling them down.
Although these encounters provided a daily adrenalin rush, perhaps the most exciting of all the creatures found in the Carpathians is the Eurasian lynx—the largest wild cat on the continent. We were on the lookout for this mysterious creature famous for its solitary stalking behavior. Apparently, it is so special to Romanians it was designated their national animal. Cresting a peak early one day and resting our bikes for a few photos and a breather, we had the unmistakable feeling of being watched. From the corner of my eye I saw the slinking, slender figure of a four-legged furry animal, its pointy ears pricked upwards, prowling across the stones towards the bikes. What luck! Revealing itself, it curled its claws and bared its sharp teeth before promptly rolling over onto its back and purring softly as we took turns rubbing its belly. How a domestic house cat came to live on top of a mountain tens of miles from the nearest town we’ll never know, but it seemed to be content in its domain. We never did manage to see a Eurasian lynx.
It took us just over a week to grow weary of the absurdity of linking up these ridgeline tracks. The proportion of time spent riding to pushing was undoubtedly skewed against us. So, we opted to change the plan and leave the mountaintops and expansive vistas for the tree-filled valleys that seemed to extend to the horizon beyond the hills. It was a welcome mental shift from my ride around the world to accept we could easily hop on a train and skip ahead to somewhere new and different without it feeling like cheating. With a finite amount of time, we wanted to squeeze in as much of the country as we could—something I could never do while adhering to a strictly non-stop bike ride. It opened my eyes to the limitations of long-distance travel solely under human power.
We caught a train and sped north, pleading with the burly conductor to allow us to take our bikes and insisting that without wheels they were merely luggage. Leaving the mountains, we entered a new realm, one that seemed to leap from the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This was Transylvania, and the dark expanse of ominous forests were perpetually enveloped in a layer of mist that turned the air cold and moist. It wasn’t difficult to imagine a blood-sucking vampire stalking about.
We spent much of our time in Transylvania riding among the trees, navigating a mix of excellent forest roads and short singletrack detours to connect routes. Occasionally, we popped out onto an escarpment or into a small valley with a traditional village nestled at its base. A patchwork of green fields greeted our eyes, and we breathed in the fresh scent of the late summer harvest. Fresh fruit fell from the trees, and we happily scrumped our share. Horse-drawn carts tottered along the dusty dirt roads, transporting people to and from the fields, usually with a crackling radio playing some jolly accordion tune, occupants beaming and waving. Most of the people we met didn’t live in the villages full time but rather came from larger cities in Romania or returned home from Western Europe for a few weeks to help older family members and friends bring in the harvest. How much work actually got done we were never able to tell, since most interactions resulted in a ripe reason to celebrate old friendships and family with never ending toasts of ţuică, the national hard spirit.
As our little two-week holiday approached its end, I reflected on all the experiences squeezed into this relatively short amount of time. I knew those weeks riding in Romania weren’t particularly grand or epic, perhaps not even story worthy by today’s standards. We didn’t travel to a far-flung mountain range or embark on a life-changing trip, but I was happily surprised at how much similarity there was between a three-year world ride and a two-week holiday with friends. It felt like all the best parts of the former were distilled into the latter.
I suppose I hadn’t been on a bikepacking trip for two years because I was wrapped up in the idea journeys had to be big and ambitious and therefore naturally infrequent. I presumed tackling something grand and all-committing was the only way to achieve the sense of freedom and wonder that comes with an endless, open road. I happily learned that freedom and wonder can also spring from throwing a few belongings onto an ill-considered bike and heading out for some fun with friends. Our holiday in Transylvania was a welcome reminder that the sweetest memories can come in the smallest and most inconspicuous packages.
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