Mt Balanesti – 1,411ft
Date: October 10, 2014
Bicycle Tour Leg 2: Solotvyne Ukraine to Balanesti, Moldova
Oct 4 – Oct 10
Moldova contained Mt Balanesti, country highpoint number two for my trip, and I started my journey there from the Romanian border town of Sighetu-Marmetiei on Sunday afternoon, October 4. I was hoping this might be my first day crossing the century mark – 100 miles – of the bike tour. On past tours in Alaska and northern Europe Matthew and I would routinely break 100 miles, but those were during the summer above the Arctic Circle with endless daylight and decent-quality roads. I was having trouble making big mileage days here in Eastern Europe in the fall, when days were short and roads were rough.
The morning started out great, with a 30-mile downhill stretch following a river valley in Ukraine. Back in Romania now I left Sighetu-Marmetiei and headed east. I soon hit forest and started spying excellent camping opportunities. But there was still daylight left and I still wasn’t at triple digit mileage. By 5pm I crested the top of a hill I’d been climbing for the past hour, and looked down below me at the beginning of the town of Petrova. To my left a dirt road wound up through a small field to the top of a little hilltop that I bet would have an excellent view of the city, while still being on the edge of the forest. The odometer read 97 miles, and I was torn with what to do. Ultimately I chose to pitch camp here, and was not disappointed.
My campsite had an amazing view north to Ukraine and east to Petrova, and was probably one of my top five on the whole bike tour. Usually I camp deep in the woods far from any view but this was a welcome change. I was careful at night not to shine my headlamp where people in town could see, but was otherwise very satisfied.
In the morning I was greeted with an amazing undercast, my site poking above the clouds in the valley. I blasted down through the clouds on my bike, through Petrova, and on to Maramuresului National Park. This was a very scenic day, climbing up and over a big 5,000ft pass near the mountain town of Borsa. I didn’t see any snow up there, but it was chilly enough that I knew the snow would come soon.
On a morning snack break I met several nice Romanian bikers on a dayride. They had mountain bikes to make the rough roads feel smoother, and told me they’d hiked in the nearby mountains many times. They were pretty surprised first that I was American and second that I was by myself. “Solo!?” I would get asked a lot from people I met later, and “America?!” I think being solo actually made it more likely that people would stop and say hi to me when I was taking a break. Bike touring with Matthew on our previous trips we hardly ever talked to anyone other than each other, but on this trip it seemed like I was meeting people every day, even when we didn’t speak a common language. Maybe there’s a perception that a solo person has a tougher time, and could use some help. People were so friendly in Eastern Europe that everyone wanted to offer me assistance if they could, either with directions, or extra food, or a spare bike part, or just someone to talk to. It is certainly true that biking solo is more difficult. There’s nobody to draft off, nobody to split group gear with, nobody to guard the gear while the other goes into the big supermarket to get food, and nobody to help make decisions. But I managed on my own ok.
By late afternoon I’d finally cracked the century mark for the first time, and still had time to spare to crank the mileage up higher. I picked out a mountain pass on my map that I was pretty sure would have campable woods and set that as my target for the next hour. When I saw a road sign pointing to “Fondue Moldovei”, I instinctively took the turn, since my target road headed to the town of “Moldovei.” I headed up the road, outrunning a few angry dogs on the way, but something just didn’t seem right. The setting sun was almost directly in front of me at times (meaning I was heading west), but I should have been heading north, with the sun to my left. I glanced at my map, and didn’t see any of the little towns I’d passed through listed.
‘Maybe they’re just too small to be listed,’ I thought to myself, ‘the map can’t list everything.’
Eventually after about 7 miles up this valley and no indication of the pass I stopped to take the map out of the plastic biking bag and unfold it to get a better look. It turned out every one of those villages were on the map, just on the other side of the fold that I hadn’t seen and on the wrong road!
It was almost sunset now and I’d headed the wrong direction, back toward Ukraine, for the past half hour. The worst part was I hadn’t passed a single campable spot. I decided to bike up the valley just a little longer and find a spot, but there were just too many houses. That’s the problem with biking in a river valley – flat land is only along the river so all the land along the road is settled and uncampable. A mountain pass would be perfect since it’s unlikely anyone will live there far from a river or flat farmable land.
When the sun finally set I had to give up on camping and go to my backup plan – a hotel. That meant defeat and I knew it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to camp, just that finding a good spot is so difficult in the dark, and it’s also more dangerous biking when cars can’t see me as well.
I turned around and started biking back toward the major road. This was farm and village country and I actually couldn’t remember passing a single hotel (“Pensiunea” in Romanian). After 20 minutes I stopped at a small village food shop to ask if they knew of any hotels. It turned out this shop actually doubled as a hotel, with about five rooms upstairs! The woman at the counter had to call up the owner of the Pensiunea Irena (I don’t think it sees a whole lot of business), but eventually I got settled into a cozy little room upstairs. The owner didn’t speak English but his middle-school age daughter did, and she acted as an intermediary between us. We agreed on the price of the room at the equivalent of $14, then $3 for dinner and $3 for breakfast. I think the owner’s wife cooked the meals and they were amazing. Meat, potatoes, and cheese tasted a lot better than the pasta I’d had every night so far. They even stored by bike out in their shed for the night.
The next morning I got back on the correct route, and soon verified that the pass I’d targeted would have indeed mad an excellent campsite. I ended up biking up and over several big 5000ft passes to avoid the major roads. At the top of a pass just outside Sucevita I stopped to take a food break, and there just happened to be a man at the pass selling hot food. I couldn’t resist, and ordered three of every type of meat dish he had on his menu, as well as four different packs of packaged cookies he sold. The total was about $5, and definitely worth it. He looked a little surprised that I could eat so much at once, but in biking mode it’s not too hard to put down 8,000-10,000 calories a day, especially when it’s cold out and there are big hills to climb.
That afternoon I descended back into farm country, and vowed there was no way I’d get stuck in a hotel a second consecutive night. I cruised through Raduti and Dornesti, then strategically followed a route thorugh fourth- and fifth-tier roads that I hoped would lead to less-populated and more campable places. I was not disappointed. Though I needed to bike on a gravel road for the last 10 miles, I found a nice campsite between the town of Hantesti and the Bucecea Lake.
The next morning, October 8, dawned sunny and I quickly left my campsite heading east. I got lost once in the morning after missing an unmarked turn to Bucecea, but with the help of a local found an alternate way. Later I encountered a massive 5-car wreck in the road outside Botsani, with traffic backed up in a mile in each direction. If I’d been in a car I might still be waiting there, but on a bike I could cut through the fields around the wreck and pass through easily.
People were extremely friendly in Botosani. One guy pulled up next to me as I was riding and handed me a water bottle out the window. Other people clapped and said “Bravo!” as I biked by. One guy even stopped and saluted to me! They could probably tell I was a long-distance cyclist, and I bet they were cyclists themselves. They were definitely very motivating to me.
I continued east on 29D and by midafternoon hit the Moldova border at Stanca. I was initially unsure if they would let a biker through, since that one border crossing between Slovakia and Ukraine had been so difficult for me and Matthew. It turned out, though, that at this crossing and all the rest I would encounter I was treated just like a car (except I didn’t need any car documents) and passed through easily. The only question I got asked was where I was heading, and I would usually just say I was passing through to whatever country was next. This established that I didn’t plan to stay in the country, which I suspected was their biggest concern.
In Moldova I immediately noticed how much less populated the countryside was. In Romania at any given time on the road I could usually see a house, but in Moldova, at least this northwestern corner, there were hardly any houses. Surprisingly even though the land seemed relatively flat it didn’t even look farmed or wooded, just nothing. That did mean excellent camping opportunities though.
My Romanian map had most of Moldova on it, and showed a major second-tier road paralleling the border and running southeast in the direction I wanted to head. Surprisingly, though, this road was completely gravel. I would learn that in Moldova actually most of the roads are gravel, which I guess shouldn’t be completely unexpected given that it is the poorest country in Europe.
I was surprised, though, that none of the intersections had signs. I would come to a point where two roads of equal sides split from my path, both gravel, both heading roughly the direction I wanted to head, but there was no sign at all indicating the destination of either road. My gps didn’t help either, since it only had a few major roads for Moldova. The solution, I discovered after much trial and error, was to wait until a local passed by and ask them for directions. Everyone was extremely helpful, despite us not speaking the same language, and this usually worked out.
I continued on what appeared to be the correct road heading southeast until sunset caught me near the town on Chetris. Without too much trouble I pulled off to the right on a little dirt path and then quickly darted into the woods. Unfortunately it wasn’t very level, but at this time of day I knew I would have to settle for a sub-optimum site.
Whenever I had a non-level site like this I would just angle the tent with my feet downhill, and sleep without a pad. (The pad was more slippery and would cause me to slide to the bottom of the tent, while with no pad I would be caught by the features in the ground and not slide). Shortly after I’d set up the tent I heard a noise on the dirt path, and two farmers followed by their horse-drawn cart passed by. Luckily I was far enough off the path and the visibility bad enough that they didn’t notice me. Even if they did I really doubt they would care, but I knew I’d get a good night’s sleep if I felt certaint nobody would come and find me in the middle of the night. I fell asleep to the distant sound of dogs barking in Chetris, comforted by the knowledge that, for once, they weren’t barking at me.
The next day gave me quite a lot of practice honing my Moldova navigation skills. I tried to continue following the major southeast road (R57 on my map), but at one point past the town of Drujineni I came to a three way intersection, with one road definitely heading north and the other east. Neither were the direction I wanted to go. Luckily there was a guy standing in the middle, perhaps waiting for a ride.
“Pruteni?” I asked, pointing to one of the directions and saying the next town name I was supposed to reach. He stared back at me quizzically. I tried again, and he replied “Radiul.” I pointed up the other road and he said something else I couldn’t understand. I didn’t see any “Radiul” on my map, and he seemed kind of frustrated with me, so I said thank you and headed up the east road hoping for the best. Eventually, surprisingly, the road turned to pavement and I thought I had chosen correctly. But soon after that the road rounded a corner at a mechanic shop and then dead-ended. Now I was thoroughly confused.
I found a couple mechanics at the shop, Sasha and Alex were their names, who took a break from working and were very eager to help. They didn’t speak English, but it was pretty obvious I was lost. Sasha dug out a well-worn map of Moldova, all in Cyrilic, and pointed out where I was – at Radiul de Sus, a small village not on my map. His map also didn’t have all the roads I’d come in on, so he brought me over to a desk and began drawing a map by hand. He wrote all the town names in English, and showed that I needed to backtrack quite a ways. Sasha’s map was extremely useful, since most towns actually had a sign saying the town name in English. I was very grateful and stuck out my hand the give them a handshake, but Sasha showed me his dirty grease-covered hand and we instead did a fist bump.
Back at Drujineni I discovered that wrong turn I’d made, where a nondescript easily-missed gravel road had turned off. I continued down this road, occasionally asking for more directions at tricky intersections, and occasionally getting chased by dogs. By Taxobeni the road miraculously changed to pavement, and I was able to go almost twice as fast.
I blasted through Blindesti, Semeni, and Ungheni on paved roads, before turning back onto gravel roads at Pirlita. I was almost out of water here so stopped at a safe-looking well on the side of the road. There were religious statues on the side and a big fence around it, so I figured this would be a good one. I dropped the bucket down, and was first concerned because I saw some plastic bottles floating on the top of the water. When I pulled the water up I touched a little to my tongue and immediately spit it out. Nope, not this well, I concluded.
I passed a few more wells up the road, but now my threshold for drinking the water was a little higher: there had to be evidence someone else had recently drank from the well, like water splashed on the rim. After some steep gravel hills and navigation troubles in Alexeevca I found the perfect well, right on the side of the road with a fresh splashing of water on the side. I pulled up some water, popped in some purifying tablets (just to be sure), and continued on my way.
By just about sunset I’d reached the village of Balanesti (pronounced ‘bah-luh-nesht’) and could literally see the summit of Mt Balanesti nearby. I just needed to get through one more intersection and then I’d hit the turnoff for the summit. But, of course, this last intersection had no signs, as usual. I stopped and got out my guidebook and GPS to try to figure things out. Meanwhile a nice gentleman, Pavel, walked up and tried to help me out. He didn’t speak English (and I didn’t speak Romanian), but he pointed me in the direction of the mountain. He was also asking where I was sleeping that night and very generously offered for me to stay over with his family. He called up his son Sasha on the phone, and Sasha soon came up on a scooter. Sasha spoke perfect English and acted as a translator between me and Pavel. They were so nice I couldn’t refuse, so I agreed to stay with them that night and go to Mt Balanesti the next morning.
Pavel gave me a tour of his dacha (like a country cottage) up on the hillside, where he grew grapes, pears, tomatoes, apples, and raised bees. The dacha probably had the best view in the whole country, looking out over the landscape from nearly the highest point in Moldova. Sasha and his brother Constantine were in highschool and helped their father (Pavel was a highschool teacher) out at the dacha in the evenings.
We had an amazing dinner at a friend’s house that night of mamalaga (the national food of Moldova I learned) and fried fish and potatoes, along with wine the family made from their own grapes. It was quite a change from me camping in my little tent and eating pasta every night by myself. Pavel’s friends even gave me the phone number of their daughter in Bucharest, to call in case I were ever in trouble when I biked back through Romania.
We stayed up late that night (by my standards), talking about Moldova and some politics of Russia and Ukraine. In the morning Pavel very generously gave me a full jar of honey from the dacha, and a bunch of pears and apples. They tasted amazing.
Sasha had ridden his scooter to the top of Mt Balanesti, so told me exactly where to go. We parted ways when the family went to school and I headed up the mountain. Indeed, I actually did bike all the way to the summit of Mt Balanesti. The road was a bit sandy at times, winding through high cornfields and eventually woods before emerging at an open field. A large radio tower stood next to the summit, and I think a guard may have been sleeping in a little building there, judging by the fogged window.
This mountain was stuck in the clouds and cold, so I stayed just long enough to snap some pictures and eat some honey before heading back down. Two highpoints down, twelve to go for the trip. For the return to Romania I made the decision to backtrack as much as possible, and also cross back into Romania as soon as possible, thus avoiding getting lost and getting slowed down by too many gravel roads.
The ride out was actually pretty easy, now that I had memorized each turn, and by early afternoon I was safely back in Romania at the Sculeni crossing. Next mountain on the trip would be Moldoveanu, highpoint of Romania.