The Transylvania Trade

How to procure a Bike in the Remote Lands of a former Dacian Empire

Perches for hunting wild Boars. For years, only Ceausescu was permitted to hunt here, allowing the wildlife to flourish.

Venturing deep into the Transylvanian forest, I spent most of my hike daydreaming about how easy it could have been to be sitting atop my saddle in this vast wilderness, Ceausescu’s former hunting grounds. The occasional sheep herder seemed to do just fine using horse or donkey-drawn carts to haul their supplies over dirt paths, from one grazing field to the next. I witnessed gypsies, mostly out to pick wild mushrooms and steal local hardwoods, like oak, beech, and maple, left out in piles by the seemingly aloof timber industry. (I later learned that while the industry does move at staggeringly slow pace, they are far from aloof; they have eyes everywhere and it’s not advisable to steal their well cut bounty.) The rickety wooden wheels pulled by the gypsies also seemed unfazed by the dirt road that eventually led us to our campsite.

One of the more stable horse-drawn carts we encountered; manned by a sheep herder we regularly encountered using his cell phone!

Surely, my all-surface Schwalbe tires (purchased to handle the back roads of India a few trips back), could handle this 5km ride from the town of Racos to our campsite, at the base of a former Dacian settlement. What I wouldn't give to have my bike on this trip! And, as often happens, it is times like these when the universe hands you moments, both mocking and serendipitous.

Upon arriving at camp I learned that another member of the group did bring his bike along. We were there, as volunteers, to dig five days a week but JP reasoned that he could turn this archeological expedition into a bike trip sandwich, with adventures before and after the six-week dig, and maybe a few weekend trips in between. Smart man.

Our camp in the valley below the Dacian acropolis.

During my own trip planning, I waivered as to whether my bike would join me on this adventure. The director of the dig decisively advised against it. He worried that the rough terrain wasn’t suitable, and cautioned against gypsy thefts of basically anything seen as valuable. For anyone unaccustomed to bike travel, a bicycle will always appear to be a hassle; I knew better than to base my decision around this advice.  But, I also knew that I was entering unfamiliar territory, with a Monday-Friday task that didn’t involve a bicycle. After some planning, I ultimately made the decision to travel without my bike.

JP and I spent the first night around the fire chatting, not of the Dacian excavation, but of bicycle travels, future and past. Only hours at the camp, and it was decided: our first weekend off was five days away and I needed to get my hands on a bike before Friday.  A camp of about twenty archaeologists in the Transylvanian wilderness is no place to find bicycle. The town of Racos, a 5km hike away, was our best hope.

The town of Racos; the remains of the volcano above.

Home to about three thousand people, Racos sits nestled in the nose of the southeastern end of the Carpathian Mountains, in the Transylvanian Plateau, one of the least densely populated regions in Europe, a land rich in metals and fertile soil. A former mining town, most of the homes can be found at the foothills of an old volcano.  Racos’ inhabitants, about half of whom are Hungarian, work in timber and small farming, and shop at the one Hungarian grocery store. About one third of the town, Romanians, do essentially the same, except they shop at the one Romanian deli-sized grocery store. The thousand or so Roma in the area mostly get by on mushroom and forest scavenging, wood and sheep theft, and begging. Not a bike shop around for miles.

The tallest structure in Racos; maybe it housed a bike shop when it was a booming mining town!

Thankfully, a quirky pair of Romanians came to our rescue. Mishi, and later Sandor, joined us at camp to help out with the dig, provide local know-how, and, most importantly, security. This proved especially necessary after a couple of young gypsy's broke into the tents one afternoon while we were out digging.

Mishi was a man I will never forget; straight out of Lord of the Rings. He was large, extremely large, and I’m told he was called Taur in his younger days. His wiry hair and severe limp told stories of hardship and obstacles, making him all the more fearsome. His distorted facial features were terrifying, but his smile could melt your heart. And, as we got to know his gentle & considerate ways, his roving wobble across the campsite (he was always keeping busy) felt less Frankenstein and more fatherly. If things ever went bad at camp, we’d surely all turn to Mishi.

His young sidekick, Sandor, was equally noteworthy.  At about 5’4”, this intrepid little tinkerer could wire a radio, fix a bike, build a spear, and fight off dangerous sheepdog-wolf hybrids, in the time it took us to light a campfire. Mark Twain would have written volumes on this kid.

Hard at work at the excavation site

I’m gravely serious about the sheepdogs. This was THE warning we received when we arrived at camp: steer clear of the herding dogs that work the day shift, for sure, but do NOT venture away from the site after dark because that is when the nightdogs are let loose. Penned up by day, the nightdogs paced impatiently, releasing a series of chill-inducing gnarls and barks, until the Transylvanian countryside became theirs again by night. I heard talk of the nightdogs being part wolf. And, in truth, all locals we encountered insisted they would much prefer to be face-to-face with a real wolf (which was also a threat in these parts; along with wild boars, bears, and mountain cats-- all preferable to the nightdogs). If anything or anyone entered the unmarked sheep boundary at night, there wasn’t much chance of getting out alive.

With this warning in mind, we became concerned one particularly dusky evening, while transitioning from dinner to campfire beers (of the 2-liter, plastic bottle variety), when intense barking rang out from the direction of the nearest herd. Everyone around the fire wondered aloud if the nightdogs had been let out a touch early and had chased some unlucky animal up a tree. This happened the previous night with what we speculated, by the sound of the cries, was a lynx.  

Unearthing the Dacian settlement

The barking seemed to get closer, indicating the prey was no longer trapped, but on the run. We heard shouts, and before we could process what or who, Sandor barreled down the trail leading to our valley. He tossed his spear and sprinted across the meadow into the safety of our campsite, out of breath, but seemingly unfazed. After a bark or two, the nightdogs waited in the distance, before deciding that we weren’t a threat to their herd.

Just like the lynx, Sandor had climbed a tree to elude the nightdogs. But, unlike the linx, he carried a 10ft spear that helped him to fend them off as he escaped. This was my introduction to Sandor, one of the most resourceful people I've ever met. Sandor & Mishi were just the locals we needed to help us get our hands on a bike.

After proudly retrieving and showing us his spear, Sandor and I shared a Ciuc, the cheap local beer pronounced chook, and I soon plied him for information on finding a bike in town. The language barrier made minor details irrelevant but, yes, he could get his hands on a 'pretty good' bike. With some translation help, and a few laughs, I understood that he thought I was crazy to use this bike to get all the way to Sighisoara, but he'd be happy to procure it for me if I wanted to try.

Baby Blue with my make-shift saddle bags

The following evening Sandor arrived, rolling down the rock-pocked road, the bounce of the Kmart-like shocks apparent from 100m away. This was the bike that would take me to Sighisoara, the closest castle-charmed, vampire-laden town we could find within biking distance of Racos.    

The bike, newly named Baby Blue Ceausescu, did not look capable of making the trip. It was in need of a significant tune-up, and, not wanting to bring along my oversized backpacking pack, I needed to figure out how I was going to carry my belongings on a bike like this. There was much to be done before I could confidently say that Baby Blue could safely transport me on this journey.  But, the reality was that this was my only option, and the truth is that my mind was made up the moment I saw Baby Blue bouncing down the hill.

Aside from my Leatherman, these were the local bike tools I had at my disposal. 

Trying to asses the Romanian value of this bike was an amusing topic of conversation around the campfire. Renting it for a weekend surely wouldn’t cost much, and Sandor made clear he wouldn’t accept any form of payment. But, despite the dubious dependability of Baby Blue, I wanted to get Sandor something in return for his generosity.

In search of a gift, I hiked to Racos to purchase the classiest bottle of liquor in town: a liter of Jameson. The next morning I slipped the bottle in Sandor’s tent as we went off to dig. For days, I wondered when this ‘rare’ bottle of Irish whiskey would be broken out around the campfire. I was later informed that Sandor likely took it to town and traded it for Palinka, the local plum-based moonshine, with which he could get more bang for his buck. Good for him; I preferred the local Palinka myself.

Leaving Racos, with the Dacian acropolis in the distance, the land of Burebista.

After five-days of digging and bike tinkering, Friday finally arrived. That morning, we made the challenging hike up to the excavation site with our bikes so that we could hit the road right as we clocked out. After cleaning up our buckets and trowels, we had four, maybe five, hours of daylight to make it 100km to the birthplace of Dracula before the sun went down.

Once out of the woods, the beautiful ride started fairly smoothly. The small truck-stop towns of Rupea and Homorod proved to be less congested than we anticipated, and they soon gave way to the rolling hills and quaint villages of Cata, Palos, and Petecu. As is often the case on trips like this, friendly villagers, unaccustomed to seeing visitors on bikes, greeted us warmly (and sometimes with a bit of confusion). While not wildly popular, renting a car to explore the Transylvanian countryside is relatively common, and we’d occasionally find little local museums and sculpture parks catering to roadtrippers.

The Transylvanian countryside.

But, as the pleasant afternoon turned into evening, our route north took us up increasingly difficult hills. The road surfaces and the bike itself were also beginning to take their toll on me. I’ve certainly biked on worse, and maybe a Kmart salesmen would tell me that the rear shocks of this bike could do me some good in these circumstances, but Baby-Blue was not meant for keeping up with a true touring bike for 100km. The bike bounced with an inconsistency that could not be explained or fixed, no matter how many springs I tightened or adjusted. My lower back and knees felt every uneven surface, and my quads burned like never before.   

JP loaded his bike with all of my gear when my make-shift rack failed.

Before my body could give it out, my make-shift rack decided to fail first. Loading my gear on to JP's already precarious rack was our only option, and to this day, I'm still amazed that rack survived the trip.

We were saved by flatter lands as we rolled through the beer gardens of Betesti, where the temptation to stop for food and drink only seemed to energize us.  The mere fact that the night life was beginning highlighted the urgent need to keep moving. From a biking perspective, the roads we were soon to encounter would not be safe in the dark. From a mythical perspective, it would seem unwise to tempt fate in such a way: true to its reputation, Transylvania exudes a very real supernatural energy, one that makes it clear you don't want to arrive at the home of Vlad the Impaler after dark.

The charms of Betesti soon led to a busier highway, populated by the small scale block housing so common beyond the walls of your typical Transylvanian castles. Riding the narrow, mangled sidewalks was debated (and, occasionally, tried) but the steadily setting sun and my aggressive New York instincts encouraged us to stick to the flow of traffic.  

View from Sighisoara at sunset.

We had the wind at our backs; there was a slight downhill. I don't know what got into Baby Blue, or how the pain in my legs seemed to vanish, but we were finally rolling. Gazing into the sunset, I thought, this is how I experience freedom. This is why I travel by bike.  

Make no mistake, the gritty apartment blocks still made me wonder about this so-called dreamy castle we were going to find. And, the aggressive third world traffic made our worries about vampires seem trivial. But we were getting there. We would make it before sundown. And this feeling of accomplishment really set in as the 13th Century skyline of Sighisoara finally emerged atop a hill in the distance. The nearing clock tower signaled we would safely escape the grips of the Transylvanian countryside after dark. We found our beautiful castle, a perfect place to rest our weary bodies for the weekend. 

My new buddy (during daylight), Vlad the Impaler

Looking up at Dracula's birthplace