Weird and wonderful Romania. It certainly was. I think I saved the strangest part of this little trip around Eastern Europe for the end. Filling it with strange sights and positively strange people. For me when I think back on the days I spent there, it will not so much be about the majestic mountain views, or the stunningly gorgeous countryside I got to hike through in the north of the country. No it will be remembered by the people; the wacky locals and the eclectic travellers.
There were the locals to start with. The absurdly overly happy girl who runs the hostel in Suceava just over the border from Ukraine. Everything was ultra nice with her and it became a little bit disconcerting in the way she continually used that one adjective. "That's nice", "very nice" all with the same happiness. Her English was perfect, so I wished she would use more of the vocabulary she had. But she was great and helped me decide some of plans for travelling through her country, and she was a great cook as well, and I happily paid the extra cost for her to cook up some fine feeds.
But the older guy on the 8 hour train trip from Suceava south to Braşov was stranger in other ways. No word of English out of this guy so the phrase book came in handy once again. So we spent quite a few hours working out that I was from Australia, yes, I was travelling around on my own, yes, and that I should come and stay at his house, yes, and I should meet his daughter who was single. At which point a photo was produced from a pocket with a girl posing with her arms behind her head and hair a flowing. What do you say to that? But weirder than trying to get rid of his daughter to a foreigner, was when he got it into his head to take me to the toilet. Now this was very strange and I couldn't understand his persistence on why I should follow him to the toilet. I told him I was old enough now to know how these things work. But he kept grabbing my hand and trying to drag me there, without accepting my polite refusal that I did not need to go. In the end to stop his persistence I warily followed him and discovered that all he wanted to do was guard the door and stand outside because the door did not lock. Strange nonetheless. Weird Romanians.
Then I bettered it with the random punter I met in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu. The hostel was full and this guy on the street saw my backpack and said he had a cheap bed. Sure I will check it out I said, but when I did, instead of running when I saw the place was a dump, for some reason I didn't and I ended up having one the strangest nights in my life. This guy a chain smoking alcoholic who was perhaps the vaguest (and I mean genuinely vague, not the way in which I act sometimes) guy out. He took me out to have a few beers that night, even though he was already well and truly drunk already, and got it into his head that I needed a Romanian girl. "You travel so long, you need company". It became embarrassing as he went up to random women to ask them on the street, or in the bars, despite my continued pleas that I was fine. Waking up in the morning, after a fitful sleep on a converted chair-bed thing, the first thing he says to me, "you want women, yes?". I escaped quickly on the first bus to Bucharest.
Interspersed with the weird locals, I got to do some cool bits of travel, that you would not be able to do in most other parts of Europe, simply because technology has yet or is unwilling to catch up in this corner of the continent. I decided that I would try and do a hike across a hilly area from the end of a branch train line to one of the famed Painted Monasteries of Moldavia in the north, called Sucevita. To be honest I had no idea these monasteries existed before I crossed the border, but at this stage of my journey I was all church, cathedral, monastery and mosqued out and was more interested in getting into some fresh air.
The fresh air hike ended up being an adventure. To get to the point, I got lost and instead of following what was supposed to be a trail through the hills, I was bush bashing along a scant path. Once upon a time a track had existed there, some sort of track at least, but now it was overgrown and I was barely able to be follow it. I did have my GPS and knew the direction I had to travel and so just kept on going, hoping I did not come across the brown bears or packs of wild dogs I was told existed in this part of the world. Eventually after a few hours of bashing I came out onto a logging track and following that for over an hour I came across some locals out with their saws collecting timber for the winter. After an ask of "Sucevita?" together with a point down the track, I received a nod of confermation so I continued on my way assuming at least I would get to the monastery before dark.
One of the locals, after filling up his horse and cart with with timber, came trotting up behind me and using hand gestures asked me if I wanted a lift on the back. Never one to decline such an opportunity for a hay ride, or in this case a log ride, jumped on the back and clip-clopped for the next few kilometres through the beautiful valley filled with farm land and their farmers raking hay or picking potatoes. Sitting up on top I remembered that good things usually come out of these adventures, and in the end I got to see the painted monastery with its amazing biblical frescoes daubed on the outside and felt that it was all the more worth it for the trip there to see it.
After the strange father with toilet fetish on the train, I spent about a week in various parts of Transylvania. Here I got back to being a tourist and followed the Dracula route to Bran Castle and his birth place of Sighişoara. Of course the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, never sucked blood or was immortal, but that doesn't stop the countless T-shirt and other tat sellers from trying to cash in on this. Bran was particularly bad, and apparently the real Vlad the Impaler never actually set foot there. It didn't seem to matter for the tourists who had to have a look at row after row of the same stores all selling the same crap.
In Bucharest after the week just mainly relaxing and chilling out in Transylvania and the escape from the weird guy in Sibiu, I got to see why a lot of people don't like the city and call it a shit hole. I wouldn't go that far, it certainly has no real attractiveness or central geographical area of beauty of say a Paris or Budapest, but it is certainly not a shit hole on the scale of say some Asian or African cities. Just thinking back about the dead dog carcass in Dili or the rubbish collecting in the river of Jayapura and the capital of Romania is perfectly beautiful. It does after all have the massive monstrous second largest building in the world. I am not sure if this makes it any better but it makes it intriguing nonetheless. Though I think the two nights I spent there I think were enough.
And along the way between these sights and adventures, there were the other travellers I mentioned. They were were the most eclectic bunch of the trip. The female Russian backpackers hitchhiking through the country were certainly entertaining at the hostel in Sighişoara. They were certainly the first Russian Backpackers I have ever met, but considering they need a visa for virtually everywhere, this could be understandable. Then there was the cool Spanish girl that loved Gypsy music so much that she was on a trip to hang out with what seemed to be all the Gypsies in the east, so far she had camped out with them in Bosnia and Serbia and is now hooking up with the many in Romania. Also I can't forget the few Americans I met, the one who had spent 5 years in Japan teaching English, and the annoying Texan who wouldn't leave me alone in Bucharest.
But the best was the Belgium hippy I got to share a compartment with on the 20 hour train trip from Bucharest to Istanbul. He had spent the last 6 years in India and was on his was back there after a brief stopover in Europe to see his family. His tales of hitchhiking around Asia and busking to make money make my nomad tales pale into comparison. Being chased by the police in China for being in a restricted zone, cycling across Tibet and busking through Japan make a couple of years in Papua New Guinea childs play. He was a good laugh, and I wished him well, once we eventually arrived in Istanbul, in his quest to hitchhike through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, back to India. He wasn't phased by it, he had already done the same trip numerous times.
And so yes I am back in Istanbul once again. I have come full circle the long way through Eastern Europe and my time in this continent is nearly over. Tomorrow I fly out to South East Asia with a stopover in Vienna. Some more brief travel around Malaysia or Thailand will follow, and then we shall see where life goes. For the next part at least I will have company, I am meeting up with my mum. One parent was not enough on this trip, now I get to hang out with the other.