Mount Moldoveanu (8,346ft) – Highest Mountain in Romania
Bicycle Tour Leg 3: Balanesti, Moldova to Moldoveanu, Romania, October 10-14
I started the morning of October 10 on the fog-shrouded summit of Mt Balanesti, the Moldova highpoint, with my sights on the next mountain a few days down the road, Moldoveanu, the highest mountain in Romania. With fresh honey, pears, and grapes in my paniers compliments of my friendly host family in Moldova, I cruised down the sandy road knowing I had enough calories on hand to last at least the rest of the day.
I easily navigated the unsigned roads back to the village of Balanesti, and out to the main highway near Ungheni. I decided to follow the exact route I had approached Balanesti the previous day, so there was no chance of getting lost. As I had discovered in Moldova there are absolutely no road signs or even city signs, so navigation consists of standing at an intersection and asking the next person passing by which way to the city I want to get to.
I made it back to the paved roads at Ungheni, and then to the Sculeni border crossing by mid day. I was a bit concerned the border agents wouldn’t let my fresh honey into Romania, and was prepared to turn back into Moldova to finish off the entire half quart, but luckily I passed through easily with few questions.
Romania was much more developed than Moldova, with paved roads, signs, and running water (there were no more wells on the side of the road at every house). I even saw a few other recreational cyclists out for a day trip. I biked through open farm land near the border until I reached the large city of Iasi (pronounced ee-awsh).
Big cities are always problematic for a cyclist to navigate through. It’s easy to get to the middle of the city from the outside – all signs point to the city – but nearly impossible to get out of the city in the direction I want to go. As a cyclist I prefer the small backroads, but these are by definition harder to find and usually unmarked. Any sign pointing to a major city will be directed to the biggest and fastest roads, which makes sense if you’re in a car, but unfortunately not on a bike.
When I reached the center of town I took a quick ice cream and water break at a gas station to prepare myself for the upcoming navigation difficulties. I had a paper map of Romania that wasn’t super detailed in the city, and road maps on my GPS, but they also didn’t show all the small roads I needed to micro-navigate through the city.
To make matters worse, it was now Friday afternoon and traffic was picking up as everyone wanted to leave town. I basically figured out roughly which direction I wanted to head, toward the small road 248A heading southwest, and did my best to always head southwest. After a lot of wrong turns, dead ends at rivers, and impassable interstate roads I eventually made enough progress to see a sign that I was entering Balciu, which was on my map in the right direction.
Now I could go back on cruise control, just trying to get as far away from town as possible before dark. I passed through open, hilly farm country for a few hours, without passing a single patch of campable woods. I really needed some trees to pitch my tent so I wouldn’t be seen.
Luckily just as the sun was setting I cruised through the small village of Voinesti and saw dark woods on the other side. As soon as I was far enough from town that I couldn’t hear the dogs barking I pulled off into the woods, walked for about five minutes away from the road, and pitched camp in an excellent open forest.
Over the previous weeks I’d grown more accustomed to stealth camping solo, but I was still a little nervous every night that some angry farmer would wake me up in the middle of the night and start yelling at me in Romanian. That night every once in a while I would be jolted awake by rustling of leaves that sounded almost like a person, but it always stopped when I sat up. I finally got up the nerve to go outside and investigate, and it turned out to be a chipmunk rummaging through the leaves. The rest of the night I had a more peaceful sleep with this realization.
I continued southwest on 248A the next morning, and had a relaxing ride through forests and farms until the road in front of me abruptly ended just outside the town of Tibana. My map clearly showed the road continuing, but the pavement literally broke up, then turned to gravel, then dirt. This did not match my map showing a major road continuing. I had been lost plenty of times earlier in the trip, and it would be no surprise if, yet again, roads in Eastern Europe don’t exactly match maps.
I stopped to quickly patch a flat tire (number 8 for the trip so far), then went back into town to see where I’d made a wrong turn. But there were no other turns – I was following the only road. It did kind of continue where I’d turned around, and was going the direction I wanted to go, so I kept following it. The road turned into a narrow single-lane dirt track through the grass field, and basically ended at a big reservoir, Lacul Tungujei. An RV was parked here and a few people were fishing.
The dirt was hard-packed on the shore so I continued riding all the way to the south edge of the reservoir, where it looked like some signs of civilization. Gradually I met up with another dirt track, which eventually turned back into a gravel road and a broken-pavement road by the end of the reservoir. I still can’t figure out why the road had just disappeared, but at least I was still making progress.
I hit a smooth paved road at Griesti and headed west on 15D. By the town of Dumesti I spied a small corner store and stopped in to get some groceries. When travelling solo in Eastern Europe I’d figured out the safest way to buy food is to stop at the small stores. Here I could lean my bike against the front window and always see it from inside while shopping. At a larger store I would have to lock it up and just hope nobody stole anything from my paniers, which would be no guarantee in poor cities.
Usually in these little stores I could pick what I wanted from the small selection on the cabinets, then bring it up to the front to buy. But here as I reached up to get a box of pasta the lady behind the counter started yelling at me. I was pretty confused, not speaking Romanian, and backed away, putting the pasta back. Luckily another woman in the store happened to be an English teacher at a school in town, and told me that I needed to point to what I wanted and the store owner would get it for me.
I didn’t know what the name of anything was in Romanian, but the school teacher helped me get my pasta, cheese, bread, cookies, and chips. I bought quite a lot of food, much more than the average customer it appeared, and the store owner had a wide smile across her face as she added up my total. I think any hard feelings between us disappeared as I handed over my payment.
Outside I spoke to a few police officers who were curious what I was up to, and they told me this road was in excellent shape at least as far as the town of Roman, which was the direction I was heading. I scarfed down a big lunch of meat, bread, and cheese, stuffed my paniers full of the remaining food, and continued on my way.
There were lots of presidential signs up across the road now, advertising either Victor Ponta or Klaus Iohannis, and an election must have been coming up very soon. The signs just had the candidates’ picture and name, and they both looked like friendly guys to me, so I’m not sure how the signs were swaying people to vote one way or another.
In the town of Roman I stopped on the side of the road to look at my map, and another cyclist pulled up beside me. He was very friendly, giving me directions for where I was heading, and told me to wait a minute while he went back to his house for something. He returned with a backpack full of apples from his backyard, and a brand tire. He said my tires were looking a bit worn (which was true), and I had more of a need for it now than he did. I was amazed how generous he was! I graciously accepted the gifts, and hung out a little longer chatting. Rameus said he’d recently done a long day trip biking to Lacu Rosu and back (140 miles!), and this was along my planned route, so he knew the roads were good for bikes.
I thanked him again, and continued biking. A nice tailwind picked up that afternoon, and I cruised through the touristy town of Piatra Neamt, and all the way to Bicaz before dark, easily breaking 100 miles. One guy in Bicaz actually saluted me while I was riding!
Unfortunately one problem with pushing big mileage days is that there’s a risk of getting stuck in the dark with no campsite. Just outside of Bicaz I found what looked like a nice patch of woods, but when I started in a farmer noticed me. I made a hand sign like I wanted to sleep, but he shook his finger side to side meaning no, and had an angry look about him. I quickly hopped back on my bike and kept going.
Now it was officially dark, and it’s really hard to find a reliable campsite in the dark. There’s always the risk that you’ll be very close to a house, but not know it until a dog starts barking at your tent at night. I pushed farther and farther hoping to find a spot, but eventually gave up at the 110 mile mark when I saw the Pensuinea Paleu in the town of Tasca. Pensuinea means hotel in Romanian, and this looked like my safest option to spend the night. I had so far only paid for one other night to sleep in the past two weeks (also in Romania, after I got turned around on the wrong road and stuck out at night with no stealth places to camp).
Near Tasca I found some woods and started in, but then a farmer saw me. I made a motion like I wanted to sleep, but he shook his head no so I continued on. Now it was getting dark and I was desperate.
An hour after dark I gave up and decided it was safer to sleep in a hotel and not bike at night. I found the Pensuinea Paleu, the first Pensuinea in town, and stayed there. It was a nice bed and breakfast for about $15. I was pretty tired after 110 miles. They served me a big dinner for $5 and I talked to some other Romanians before going to sleep.
October 12 – I slept in the next morning and biked in the crisp fall air up the only road in the valley. It was very scenic as I passed through a narrow gorge that opened out to a high lake at Lacu Rosu. I passed through the woods most of the morning (too bad I hadn’t gone another 10 miles the previous day to find excellent stealth camping).
I descended to Gheorgheni, then climbed back up another hill through the woods. At the pass I stopped for lunch, and saw several people with big piles of mushrooms on the side of the road. This was fairly common in Romania and they must have just dug them from the woods and been selling them.
I descended through the woods down to Prad, then turned south on 13A.
Around 4pm I found an excellent wooded area, and it looked like no other camping possibilities on my map for the next few hours. I was only at 70 miles for the day and usually try to get close to 100, but didn’t want to be forced to stay in a hotel again so set up camp there.
October 13 – This was a big 120 mile day. I took small side roads through the countryside until meeting up with E68 at Voila. E68 is kind of like an interstate, but it had huge shoulders so I made excellent time. I stopped at a gas station to fill up on ice cream and chocolate. I turned south on 7C and made one
final fill-up of water at a corner store in Cartisoara. Then it was a huge climb. There were very few cars on the road, and lots of scenic pullouts as I climbed about 6,000ft. This was tough after I’d already biked 100 miles by this point, but I’d eaten a lot of ice cream and had a good sleep the previous night.
The sun set as I ascended past treeline, but luckily there were very few cars.
An hour after sunset I reached the trailhead, and saw a few hikers returning from Moldoveanu. I asked if they thought I could camp at the trailhead (there were no trees). They said since it was a Tuesday night nobody would care, and wished me luck.
I camped behind a boulder so I wouldn’t be visible from the trailhead. A stupid fox kept trying to nose into my food at night, even in the vestibule. I started throwing rocks at it, which only halted it temporarily (it thought I was throwing food I think). One rock sliced a small hole in my tent!
October 14 – I rose early, put my bike behind the boulder, and started hiking with all my food so the fox wouldn’t snoop in my gear. The hike was long, probably 20 miles, and there were actually a few patches of fresh snow from the first storm of the season a few days earlier. Luckily it was sunny today though. I was all alone until the summit when I met an Israeli couple who took a picture of me. On the descent I met an older gentleman with a young guide. He was very religious and gave me a small card with a religious saying on it.
I reached the trailhead just before dark, and didn’t want to deal with the fox again. I bought some mammagamma (Romanian potato dish with bread) from a food stand on the road, then biked through a tunnel and descended down the south side of the mountains until sunset, when I found an excellent wooded campsite next to the road.
The next mountain on my journey would be Midzor, the highpoint of Serbia.