Chris and I woke up in a stupor six days ago, schlepped our filthy backpacks down to Keleti station and boarded a train bound for Cluj, Romania, which is a university city in the vaguely north-western quarter of the country.
Trains in this part of Europe aren’t precisely luxury affairs. The usable toilets, which are the toilets not clogged and brimming to the rim with excrement slopping and splashing the walls with every change in railway momentum, are really just raised holes in the floor of the carriage. Eastern European rail budgeting evidently balked at the notion of spending anything more than completely necessary like a flap at the bottom of the hole, so, pardon me, you just shit on the train tracks. If you really need to go to the toilet and don’t feel like risking your life in a train station restroom (most of which are decorated roof to floor in an avant-garde fashion with feces themselves) and you decide to go while you wait for the train to leave, when it finally departs the other passengers waiting at the station will have to deal with your poo right there in front of them in the station. Shit on the tracks. Poop on the rails. I’ve run out of synonyms for excrement.
You can smoke in certain carriages here, which fits perfectly with the Romanian attitude towards smoking. This attitude, I think, is best surmised as “Just don’t do it in church”. There are probably smoking churches. Quitting isn’t going so swell, mum.
Having opted for a day train as it was only a seven hour voyage, we were lucky enough to see hundreds of kilometers of Romanian countryside. Western Romania at this time of the year is enormous and bare, composed completely of patchy foothills rising and dropping away smoothly, undulating like vast gray-green ocean. Squares of paddock were burning in sections presumably preparing for spring and a foliage resurgence. The small towns we passed first on our journey began as cold, hard villages reminiscent of settings from Tim Burton films- bleak, broken houses between graveyards, entwined with wiry dead trees hanging heavily with ravens. As the landscape gave way to what I have described above, the communities we passed became dryer and poorer, washed out and the colour of hay, for myself something I expect to see in a place like Afghanistan more than Transylvania. Refineries of some kind spewing dust and smoke next to ominous iron sheds the size of shopping centres. Grizzled men in flat tops and jackets black with soot leaning on farming and mining implements, smoking cigarettes and spitting. Kids kicking soccer balls on dead patches of earth staring up at us and yelling when the train pushed by. The landscape wasn’t going to change until we got much further east, after we left Cluj-Napoka in a few days.
Cluj is a medium sized city with a charming old city centre balanced over a rushing river and very soviet-looking surrounding commercial, industrial and residential districts. The city all around it leans inwards over it’s reason for being so populated- the medical and technical universities housed in conspicuously shining steel-and-glass modern architecture. Directly opposite and starkly juxtaposing some of these places are what you would expect a fiercely orthodox city to be covered with- huge cathedrals and churches on every corner and at the centre of every plaza. Enormous slate coloured spires with impressive cast iron monuments to warrior kings and religious leaders astride lions and horses, drawing capes about them and brandishing badges of office. I wouldn’t go so far to say that the place is pretty, but it certainly has character.
Our hostel was a charming if minimal affair, a comfortable common room which just looks like any young couples loungeroom and a few dorms connected on either side. The staff were happy and helpful (and very enthusiastic about my video game tattoos) and made with recommendations on where to go and what to do with our days. We climbed to a citadel at the top of the city to take in the view, wandered looking for markets (unsuccessfully) and ate enormous three course meals with cognac for lunch and dinner every day for, you know, about eight bucks Australian. We met some friendly Canadians who are studying in Italy in our hostel, just checking out the country for the weekend. They told us they had just spent their day very interestingly. We hardly believed them when they told us what we could see in a small satellite town outside Cluj. We resolved to see it for ourselves the next day. I was woken up at 4am by a shitfaced Italian man flanked by two Romanian prostitutes, completely naked, fucking pissing inside on our hostel room wall. Fuck that guy.
So, right, we wake up early the next day, grab a breakfast which looked like a Christmas dinner for the change in our pockets and got on a minibus headed outside the city. It drives us in half an hour to a place called Tudra, which is about as eastern European as you can possibly get. The roads aren’t paved, they’re just kind of dusty, uneven tracks flanked erratically by ramshackle stone and wood houses. Incongruously expensive cars, obviously having pre-arranged some dangerous parody of traffic regulations, crunch by and veer up the winding roads off on some Turdan errands. Women in shawls and old men stare at people in skinny jeans and sunglasses like they are some exotic sideshow beasts. There are dead dogs just bloating in the gutters and patchy, skinny live ones who look like they envy them. People don’t so much as have gardens or yards per se, rather than mud patches. The more affluent Turdans seem to have a pig or rooster milling about. We follow the blatantly incorrect street signs to our destination, taking us four kilometers in the wrong direction and around the hill that the town is built on one side of, past another refinery or two and down a road in the middle of a frozen bog to our destination- a terribly out of place structure housing a ticket office manned by staff in suits selling admission to a tunnel leading underground. There is music playing. We buy a pepsi twist.
Romanians are fucking nuts for pepsi twist.
We are in a salt mine. The salt mine is doing brisk business, with foreigners and Romanians alike being herded in and out in the hundreds. We follow a tunnel for a few hundred meters and descend some stairs. We come, eventually, to a balcony above the central long upright tapered-cylinder shaped cavern, crusted with salt stalactites, and peer downwards a good two hundred meters. There is a huge, deep pool at the bottom. There are people in rowboats paddling about the island in the middle of the subterranean lake, which has pine-constructed modern-art looking structures with fluorescent light spikes shooting off of them in all directions to bathe the cavern in a strange, dull white light. Next to this, in the yawning, crusted salt mine bathed in eerie office lights hundreds of meters under the poorest town I have ever seen in Romania in the middle of nowhere, is a shelf in the cave with a fucking ferris wheel, minigolf courses and tenpin bowling.
It’s kind of hard to really follow that paragraph with anything interesting, so I’ll be snappy with my description of the rest of our time in Cluj. We went out and found a bar where they hate foreigners and make them wait an hour for a beer and then shoot them daggers when they drum the counter with their fingers. We smoked some sneaky Transylvanian J’s. We solicited strange Romanian tobacco. We got on a train to head ever eastward to a city called Brasov, which is pronounced “Brah-Shov”.
We drank in much of the same landscape for a few hundred kilometers until a majority of the country was to the west of us. The hills gave way to snow capped mountains and the scrubland yielded to pines and rough, gray rocks. Brasov is nestled snugly in a valley between two huge mountains, one with enormous white “Hollywood” style letter signs that spelled the name of our home for the next thirty hours. The city has obviously enjoyed the benefits of tourists swarming to it’s castles to indulge the Dracula fiction and buy tacky vampire souvenirs, it is well developed, beautiful and clean. The old town centre is gorgeous and reminds me of some Bavarian cities but with a distinctive eastern European foreign streak to the architecture. The black church, an mammoth cathedral in the middle of the cosmopolitan and fountain-wealthy main square, strikes up in a cluster of dark spires. We ate well and we saw some castles and they were pretty okay and exactly what you imagine. We saw a couple kicking a lost puppy in a park. We were horrified as we drank another pepsi twist. We left the next day back for Budapest.
En route to our new adoptive home we met a woman who was a millipedologist, which is a biologist who studies creepy little fucking things with a trillion legs. She thinks they are cute and she looks forward to attending a millipedology summit in Sydney. Good chat.
So we’re back again, for five days or so. We’ve gone to markets and been back to the baths. We’ve made plenty of new friends. I’ve been comissioned to paint on seven walls of a new hostel! I bought an excellent camera and have been pissing everyone off with my persistent, annoying and pretentious flashing and snapping. I’ve met someone who is a medical fetish model and who will take portrait photographs of complete strangers in a bar at 4am for me. St Pattys was messy as anyone would expect a hostel with Irish guests celebrations to be. We’ve been sewing beanbags out of jeans, the girls in the hostel keep dressing Chris up in strange clothes, we smoke shisha pipes at every given opportunity (and there are plenty) and I’m now going to stay in an apartment with one of our new amazing super pals in Barcelona for a huge three day festival in a month and a half. Tomorrow we’re hiring a soviet box car and going on a road trip to a town outside Budapest, going to a flea market to look for weird clothes and then to a shooting range where I’m going to break my wrist firing a fucking revolver.
You know you’ve found a good thing when the prospect of going to Prague in a few days seems like a downer.