Disks, dogs, deltas and ‘Da Svedanya’ Danube! It’s just over 5 months since we left London and we’ve covered 9200kms. We’re currently in Odessa, but for a variety of reasons are about 45 days behind our initial schedule predictions, and our Russian visas’ expiry date draws ever nearer!
Oh dear! After our hard efforts to claw back time lost waiting around for a new bike in Serbia, we then lost any gains we’d made in the black hole of Constanta. I mean black hole in a good way – it was impossible to leave.
The campsite, a few kilometres up the coast at Mamaia, was lovely, and more pertinently, full of lovely people. We were determined to stay just one, perhaps two nights and then leave as soon as we’d caught up on our blog, but every night it seemed we had new neighbours, all of whom were engaging and interesting, and very multicultural….Germans, Austrians, Kiwis, Poles and Romanians all proved excellent company, and far too much of a good time was had. We’re particularly grateful to Dorin, his wife Violetta and their friend Nikolai, who is an outstanding chef. We’d spent our fourth night in the campsite and were determined to leave in the morning, but Dorin talked us into staying for lunch, and Nikolai’s fish soup was well worth staying for….as was Dorin’s home-distilled (52% alc by volume) palinka. So….that turned into a long afternoon of eating, drinking, swimming in the sea and then more eating and drinking, and we stayed for a fifth night. The next morning we met up with Nikolai in Constanta and took advantage of his local knowledge and generosity as he drove us to a really nice bike shop. Shortly after we’d entered Romania, a small but stout stick had leapt up and bent the disk of our rear brake. It wasn’t a show-stopper, but was rubbing persistently and we wanted to get it straightened out or get a new disk. Unfortunately, it proved too buckled to be straightened out, and the shop (not surprisingly) didn’t have a 203mm (loaded-tandem-stopping) disk in stock, but they said they’d order one for us, if we could wait a few days for it. We were desperate to get back on the road though, so Keith sweet-talked the owner into ordering it for us and then sending it to his friend in Tulcea, where we would be arriving in a few days time. At last we were nearly ready to leave Constanta….after taking a quick look at a beautiful Roman mosaic.
And even better than the mosaic were the epitaphs on huge stone blocks displayed outside the mosaic museum, and which had been translated from Roman into Romanian and English. Here are a couple. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do.
“Salutation, passer-by! And also (salutation) to you! You stopped, saying to yourself in your mind: who and where from is this one (who lies here)? Listen, stranger, my homeland and my name: My place (of origin) before, was Hellada. I was born [that means] by a mother from Athens and my father was coming from Hermione, and my name is Epiphania. I saw many lands and sailed all over the sea, because my father, as well as my husband, were ship owners, whom, after death, I laid into the grave, with clean hands. Really happy was my life before! I was born among the muses and I shared the goods of wisdom. As a woman, to women I gave much (help) to abandoned wives, being ruled by pious sentiments. Also I much helped the one retained on the bed by suffering. Because I well realized that mortals’ fate is not according to their piousness.
Hermogenes, the Acyrian and Tomitan, from the Oinopes tribe, full of gratitude to his wife, devoted [this monument], as remembrance.”
Funerary altar, Tomis (now Constanta), 2nd – 3rd century AD
“Andrys built this funerary monument, carved skilfully, for his deceased wife – Kyrille, to remember her outstanding wisdom she had in marriage and in life. Devout deed was done only by the burial. Because he knows that the memory of those who were before is flourishing for the mortals remaining. (Also) he understood that time destroys everything, but retains this: the glory of the living and the virtue of those who are dead.”
Funerary epigram. Tomis (now Constanta) 3rd – 4th century AD
Aren’t they good? Anyhow, Roman epitaphs admired, all we had to do was pick up our kit from the campsite and say goodbye to the campsite dogs, who we’d developed a real bond with. They did bark rather annoyingly through the night at intruders, but made up for it by being very playful and gentle during the day. They also had the hilarious habit of stealing any shoes that were not placed inside your tent. Under the flysheet was just not good enough. I warned the other campers, but nevertheless awoke on at least two occasions to see random shoes and sandals strewn around the site, and bleary-eyed, hungover cycle-tourists trying to locate the missing half of their pair. The boldest of the shoe-thieves was still just a pup: all soft, round belly and rolling puppy-gait. She would follow us down to the beach and dig holes in the sand whilst we wifi’d, and would then sleep under our flysheet for the night. There was also a shy, black, wire-haired terrier-type pup and a sandy coloured whippet-type who was the trio’s leader, and even though we never fed them, they would regularly sleep by our tent and trot along beside us as we went about our business. It was hard to leave them.
Eventually we wrenched ourselves away and headed northwards up the Black Sea coast, past ruined castles and an old Roman port & town that had been abandoned when shifting sands made the port inaccessible.
The site was extensive and still being excavated, but we could almost hear the bustle of its hey-day as we walked through the maze-like remains of walls and foundations, deciding for our own amusement what each building’s role might have been. Frustratingly, the curators hadn’t seen fit to explain, which is a shame, as with just a little bit of signage the place would burst into life.
Reaching Tulcea (pronounced Tuul-cha), we received a text from the Constanta bike shop to say that they couldn’t actually send the disk to Tulcea as agreed and could we come back to Constanta. Needless to say, we said ‘no’.
At Tulcea, we had rejoined the Danube again, although it was unrecognisable from the little river we first saw in Donaueschingen. It becomes a large delta that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to vast numbers of birds and other wildlife. There are three main channels in the delta, and we took a ferry along the middle one to Sulina, the most easterly town in Romania, and, more importantly for us, the site of ‘kilometre zero’….the official end of the Danube.
You can just about make out the zero sign in the photo. It’s on the far side of the canal above the Pino’s front saddle. We would have liked to have cycled to the end, but there are no roads that go that far, so we had to haul the bike and baggage onto the ferry for the four hour journey. Once in Sulina we could either return to Tulcea the next morning at 7am, after just 13 and a half hours (overnight) in Sulina, or wait a further two days for the next ferry. We decided to wait.
There’s no campsite in Sulina so we pitched on the beach with a few other tourists and made friends with the local dogs. It was generally quite relaxing lazing on the beach with a small pack of happy hounds, but they did have one slightly annoying habit. During the day they just milled around, doing the rounds to see who was cooking. But come nightfall, it seemed that when a new tent arrived, one dog would be assigned to ‘guard’ it. Your guard would sit beside your tent, leaning annoyingly on the flysheet at times, and then woof loudly (about 10cm from your ear) at any hint of an intruder, real or imagined. This would goad all the other dogs into action and the whole pack would charge about barking until they were sure they’d seen off whatever threat they thought there was, and they’d then return to their respective tents to doze until 20 minutes later when one of them would think they’d caught scent of an intruder and the whole shebang would kick off again. Gaaah!!! I preferred the Constanta dogs. Broken sleep aside, the beach was still a relaxing place to camp. And having watched the sun set over the Atlantic coast many months ago, it was a nice counterpoint to watch the sun rise over the Black Sea.
In Sulina we celebrated the end of the Danube chapter of our trip by treating ourselves to a budget-breaking, but unmissable boat trip into the delta, which we shared with three Romanian tourists. Our little boat nosed its way through increasingly narrow canals filled with frog-laden lilies, past marshland and reedbeds. Then, after refuelling, our guide then steered us out into the open sea and to a newly formed sandbank where I was most uneasy as we were led from the boat and marched into a nesting area to see some chicks. The other boat-goers were delighted but once we realised what was happening Keith and I hung back rather reluctantly and tried in our best combination of Romanian and miming to explain why we didn’t think we should be there. At last we moved on though and on the way back to Sulina saw some pelicans, and a snake swimming in the water.
With our disk problem nagging away at us we did some research into trains and taxis from Tulcea to Constanta, and though frustrating, it would be possible for Keith to get a maxi-taxi (minibus thing) to Constanta to pick up the disk after we disembarked the ferry from Sulina….but it turned out the shop hadn’t even ordered it so we scrapped that idea and have ordered the disk (and a new rear rim as we’ve discovered some cracks in ours) from the stalwart JD Tandems who are posting it to a hostel in Sevastopol (Crimea)…..we now just have to get ourselves to Sevastopol on time and hope there isn’t another ‘Serbia/frame’ fiasco.
Getting bike parts wasn’t the only thing frustrating us. Despite being able to see Ukraine from Sulina and Tulcea, when we finally got hold of a map (something we’d been trying to do throughout Romania) and looked into the matter properly, we discovered that you can only cross the border at Galati, a day’s ride back west from Tulcea, only to then have to ride all the way back east along the shoreline looking across at Tulcea and Sulina.
In the end we spent exactly three weeks in Romania, and loved almost every minute of it. The royal welcome we received wherever we went was quite giddying and we spent much of each day with big smiles on our faces. People went out of their way to help us whenever we were looking for maps, water or bike parts. At one well-stop we were completely taken aback when a man jumped down from his cart and presented us with handfuls of plums and apples…a totally unexpected and spontaneous act of generosity. We also really enjoyed the ease of wild camping and, of course, I adored all the stray dogs. The only downsides were the heat and the amount of littering despite bins being placed every 20m or so along the roadside in villages. And one particularly unpleasant incident caused me several days of impotent rage. As we rode into a village I thought I could see a bizarre effigy hanging from a low tree, but as we drew closer I saw it was a dog, hanging loose-limbed and fly-black. A piece of blue nylon twine was drawn around its neck. This was no accident. Some b*st*rd had deliberately strung it up. Vengeful fantasies fuelled the next few days pedalling. But I don’t want this isolated hateful incident to mar my memory of Romania, and would recommend it to anyone who likes cycling and camping….and dogs.
Eventually though, it was time to move on from Romania, and enter Ukraine…..via about 1500m of pot-holed Moldovan tarmac. This double border crossing involves lots of waiting, exacerbated by the border guards’ well-practiced disinterest. It took us a little over two hours to cover less than three kilometres….but I guess it could have been worse….and the guards, particularly the Ukrainian ones, looked somewhat dour so we put on our most pleasant, acquiescent faces and were patient.
We felt a little sad saying goodbye to the Danube. Aside from our detour to Poland it had been a reassuring presence in our journey since mid-June, but it was exciting to reach Ukraine. Although we spent a couple of weeks cycling from Lviv to Kiev in 2010, it was a completely different experience entering through a land border and this southern part of Ukraine feels very different to the western region we visited previously. On our first trip, Ukrainian was the predominant language we encountered, with Russian only spoken by preference when we reached Kiev, but here on the Black Sea coast there is a notable Russian influence. The adults we’ve spoken with have said, when asked, that they preferred to speak Russian, and some children we’ve met claim they cannot speak Ukrainian. This surprised us as we understood Ukrainian to be the official national language and the school teacher we had met on our first trip had told us that Russian was not taught in her school, only Ukrainian (with German and English as foreign languages). But here on the coast we’ve met children who are taught both Russian and Ukrainian, and some, apparently, only Russian.
Another big difference, which feels especially apparent after three weeks of enthusiastic Romanian waves, smiles and greetings, is the way we’ve been for the most part ignored as we’ve pedalled through this part of Ukraine. There’s been the odd toot and wave from a car driver, and we can still draw a crowd if we stop, particularly in Odessa, but we’ve ridden through entire villages and been completely blanked, people literally stare right through us with no flicker of emotion on their faces. I don’t think it’s a sign of unfriendliness though, as whenever we’ve needed to ask for directions or water, people have been very helpful. I think it’s just that more people are reserved here and keep their emotions to themselves. We did however rouse one local’s emotions in a negative way when we thoughtlessly misused some water from a street-side well for rinsing a shirt when the well actually served the local houses with their drinking water requirements. We’d done this a number of times in Romania and no-one had raised an eyebrow, but with hindsight I can understand that we should perhaps have tipped the water into a different bucket. We apologised as best we could, to little avail and still feel quite upset about the whole incident.
A further difference has been the type of car. In western Ukraine the roads were dominated by old Ladas & Volgas. In the south, whilst there are still a number of old Ladas trundling around (many with jacked-up suspension, fake tiger-fur seat covers, after-market spoilers and ‘LADA’ proclaimed across the sunvisor – yay!), the majority of cars are newer and, like in Romania, include a fair amount of expensive brands, but oddly nearly no Romanian Dacias.
One thing that it isn’t different between western and southern Ukraine is the quality of the roads. Without doubt Ukraine has the most crap roads of any country we’ve been to – both in the degree of crapness and the number of roads that are crap. To be fair, there are some sections of good tarmac, but there are also miles and miles of pot-holes, gravel, and cracks. Many roads see frequent HGV use and the tarmac has softened and then been pressed into huge folds by the weight of the trucks. It’s not uncommon to see car-wide dirt trails on either side of the remnants of tarmac as drivers prefer to speed along on the dirt rather than wreck their suspension on the tarmac. Or alternatively cars will weave across the road, picking their way as best they can on the least awful bits of tarmac.
We’re currently in Odessa, which feels a very friendly and cosmopolitan place. Unlike in the villages, people have been much more open about smiling at us, asking about the bike and taking photographs – all stuff that we like.