Miorița

Today is a sad day. Today, on my way from El Calafate to the Chilean border, I ran over a sheep. Today I want to tell the story of Miorița. I didn’t kill the sheep, but I must have hurt it pretty badly because it was shaking and tried frantically to limp away from me when I approached her on foot.

The tale of Miorița was related to me in Samarqand, Uzbekistan by a group of shady-looking Romanians who were running the Mongol Rally, their team was called Free Miorița. The views about Romania in this article reflect what they tried to convey with this tale. As far as I remember anyway.

Miorița was a sheep. She was very fond of her shepherd and when she heard that two other shepherds, envious, were plotting to kill him in order to steal his herd, she went straight to him and told him about the danger to his life. Despaired, the shepherd asked Miorița that, should the worst befall him, she should make sure that he gets proper burial and never tell that he was murdered.

The actual poem is much longer and has other nuances but the point is that this tale symbolises the conformism and tragic mood of the Romanian people. Their aim as a team, and in their lives was to fight against this and debunk the myth of Miorița as a foundational story for the Romanians. I wish them good luck.

On my bike I have two stickers that they gave me and the other day I was about to cover one with another sticker. Maybe now I won’t. I have been meaning to write about this story for a very long time but somehow I couldn’t fit it anywhere. Now seems to be as good a moment as any.

Miorița
Miorița

Of course the sheep I ran over has nothing to do with Miorița but I felt sorry for it as I felt sorry for the shepherd when I heard the tale for the first time.

The bike didn’t suffer any damage as far as I can tell but I did get a hell of a scare. After hitting it, I lost control of the bike for about 20 meters. I didn’t think at any moment that I would come off, though.

By the way, sheep are not usually that stupid. Most sheep run away from the road when they see you coming. This particular flock was having a cow day and decided to cross the road when they saw me coming at 100kph.

Natales, Provincia de Última Esperanza, Chile

The rest of Uzbekistan

I am running a bit late, the blog is 2 countries behind me so I will try to summarize Uzbekistan in this post. Pictures will come later. Tomorrow is another long riding day but there will be shorter days later in China.

August 9th, 2012 – Bukhara-Nurata-Samarkand
Leaving
Cedric left the same day I did

I tried to leave Bukhara the next day as planned and after turning around for a long time, I did. I had planned to go to Aidar Kul and camp for a night there so I needed a big 5L bottle of water, then I turned some more looking for the road to Navoiy, my first waypoint and when I finally found it, I left. And came back after 30km because I still hadn’t found decent fuel for the bike. The only gas station that had some, didn’t have electricity to run the pumps.

Around 12:30, I was finally on the road to Nurata in a strange mood. After an hour and a half I overtook an odd looking vehicle, it had “Ambulancia” written on the back and a Spanish licence plate. I honked and the driver turned on the siren. Later, while I was resting in the shade and rehydrating myself, they passed by and turned the siren on again so when I rode off and found them putting some Diesel into their engine, I pulled over and talked to them. Two Basques driving an ambulance to Mongolia, taking part of Charity Rallies, a bit like Mongol Rally but more serious (according to them anyway). They said it was lunch time and that they were going to stop and eat at the next shade they could find. I rarely have lunch when I ride but I accepted their invitation. It was a proper Spanish lunch: it took 2 hours but I enjoyed their company, I don’t have many opportunities of speaking Spanish in this trip. By the time we set off again it was 4pm and when I got to Nurata, I felt it was too late to ride to Aidar Kul so I retraced my way back to the main road and decided to go directly to Samarkand.

Ambulance going to Mongolia
Ambulancia vasca

Bad decision. The main road to Samarkand has many little towns, which makes it very unsuitable for wild camping when it becomes dark so I rode more than 1 hour in the dark to get to Samarkand. When I finally found the hostel I wanted to stay at, the entrance was full of bikes (Neil and Iain were there plus another biker on an XT660R, at first I thought it was Chris but he’d left that morning) and the hostel was full so I was sent to the annex, a bit more expensive but with wi-fi. The SPOT stopped working when I arrived to the Bahodir hostel.

August 10th, 2012 – Lazy day in Samarkand

It was a lazy day, I rested most of the day, had lunch with some Mongol Rally guys and a cyclist, Mark Wright who is going to Hong Kong on his bicycle. Before the end of the day, we did Neil’s oil change. He did most of it because I was late but I helped by producing a makeshift funnel to pour the oil into the bike and getting my hands dirty when the funnel didn’t work quite right. There’s no bike oil in Uzbekistan so we put car oil in it and scheduled my bike’s oil change for the next day at the same hour in the same place. Once finished, we had dinner with Tina (remember her from Bukhara?), the Mongol Rally guys (Andy and Toby) and Mark again. Truly, it was a very lazy day.

August 11th, 2012 – Playing tourist in Samarkand

Today, I did go out to play tourist. At Bukhara, Cédric and others that had already been to Samarkand had told me that all monuments in Samarkand had a secondary entrance where you don’t pay if you are brave enough to take it. Apparently it’s a well-known bit of tourist lore that gets passed on from tourist to tourist at guesthouses around Uzbekistan. I tried to apply it in the Registan but the secondary entrance was being watched so I just went around it, snapped a bunch of pictures and went on my way to the Bibi Khanim mosque where I did use the side entrance, totally worth it :P. After that I went on a 5km walk around a not so interesting part of town just trying to find Shah-i-zinda. It’s not that difficult, I was just lost and too stubborn to turn back. Once I got there, I was so tired that I didn’t feel like trying to find the secondary entrance so I paid my ticked and visited the famed necropolis on my own. Finally, I went back to the Bahodir B&B to do my oil change and enjoy another home made dinner with Tina, Neil and the Mongol Rally guys. Marion (from Bukhara) was there too but she didn’t have dinner with us this time.

Samarkand is very different to Bukhara and Khiva. Although the monuments are all similar: grandiose mosques and madrasas covered in blue tiles, not always respectful of the Islamic ban on imagery of live creatures; the disposition and level of restoration are quite different. In Khiva, all is concentrated in the Ichan-qala citadel, in Bukhara the monuments are a bit further apart but you can still see a sort of coherence and it’s very easy to cross into the new part of town. Finally, in Samarkand old and new mix everywhere, the sights are far apart from each other and the entrance tickets are expensive for foreigners (locals pay 10% of what we pay). I liked the three of them but Bukhara I liked most.

August 12th, 2012 – To Tashkent

On the 12th we (Neil and I) set off not so early on our way to Tashkent. I hadn’t planned to visit Tashkent, the long road to Kyrgyzstan had started and that’s what I did. On the way to Tashkent a couple of unusual things happened. We were overtaken at the speed of light by an Uzbek biker. Yes, a local biker, member of the illustrious Tashkent Steel Scorpions. Two minutes later he was on the side of the road, he had run out of fuel. I pulled over and siphoned 3 liters from my tank (I’m becoming quite good at this) to give him and he gave me some money in exchange. I was going to give them for free but he insisted. Then he started gesticulating about not being able to start his bike so we pushed him around a bit. After a while I got tired of sweating behind a bike that wouldn’t start and grabbed my hammock’s rope from my top case, tied it to the back of my bike, looped the other end around the center of his steering and gave him the loose end to hold against his left grip. I towed him for 30 or 40 meters and his bike started but he didn’t understand that he had to release the rope once it started working so I had to stop. With his bike running, he left at the speed of light again only to turn around 1km down the road into a gas station. Later on the road we saw 2 Italian GSs with their panniers in a sorry shape and the riders nowhere to be seen, police all around and a couple of locals filling declarations. Apparently one of the Italian guys had broken his leg. Poor guy, such a bad ending for his trip.

Nurata fortress
Alexandrian fortress in Nurata

When I got to Tashkent, I took the last bed at the Gulnara guesthouse and discovered that Tarik and Ryo were here too (I had met Ryo in Bukhara and again in Samarkand). While I was lazing at one of the tea beds and eating the last of the pistachios Tzveti had given me when I left Metz, I heard someone ask someone else if he was Nacho. It was Chris talking to a random bearded guy at the guesthouse. I quickly made my presence known and we chatted about the plans for the coming days and his trip so far.

After a Russian cheeseburger dinner I went to bed early, we were riding to Fergana the next day, making our way to Kyrgyzstan via Osh.

August 13th, 2012 – Leaving Uzbekistan

So at 10:30 we met Neil at his hotel and started towards Fergana. Not without first topping up with 80 octane fuel for the first time. The road went on uneventfully except for Chris’ frequent stops to top up his radiator with water (his water pump was leaking) until we reached a mountain section that is very close to the Tajik border. As usual with this kind of places in the region, there was a police checkpoint and all the foreigners had to be registered. But we were not the only foreigners arriving there at the same time, a huge group of Italian bikers (11 bikes?) was there too and we chatted a bit with them while we waited to get registered. The two bikes that we had seen the day before belonged to this group. It has been more than one month since I arrived to Istanbul and it was time the bike got washed so we were splashed by some rain while crossing the valley. One month, two rains, quite a score.

U-lock
Finally ditched my U-lock

At the other end of the checkpoint, I finally ditched my U-lock, it was too heavy and I hadn’t used it since Romania. Just in case I ever come back to this valley, I attached it to a fence and kept the key (quite a silly thing to do but I’m sentimental that way). Also, at some random spot where we had stopped to top up Chris’ radiator, a bottle of water was thrown at my ankle by a passing truck. There was two Uzbeks with a broken down car there and they had been signaling truckers for water, it seems to be a common thing for truckers to throw water at people in need, very nice of them.

Quite late, almost at sunset, we arrived to Fergana and started looking for the guesthouses described in Lonely Planet with little luck, none were there to be found except the last one we tried, Valentina guesthouse, actually an apartment for rent for the night. Not too cheap, not too expensive, not too clean, not too dirty but quite big and comfortable.

My stay in Uzbekistan was coming to an end. I had a great time, met awesome people and rode some tough roads. A new country was ahead of me and I knew very little about it. I had a map though, thanks to a map exchange I had done with Cédric before leaving Bukhara, and some dirt tracks were marked on it as interesting (interesting to Cédric anyway)…

Aksu/Akesu, Aksu City, PRC

Meanings

Some things lose their meaning as you travel East, other radically change their meaning. Take this roadsign for example:

In Western Europe it usually means that there is some kind of roadworks ahead, probably taking one lane of the road you are riding. From Romania tu Turkey it means that you are in for some traffic jam and alternate circulation for probably a hundred km. I don’t really know what it could mean in Georgia because I have never seen it. Up to now, the meaning is about the same but when you get to Russia, it starts getting more difficult to decode. So far, I think it means “some time ago, this road has been worked on and there may be a better bit ahead” whereas in Kazakhstan it gets more philosophical. In Kazakhstan, the presence of this sign just means that there is a red triangular sign with a black worker holding a black shovel drawn on it by the side of the road. It gives absolutely no indication about the future characteristics of the road.

Another sign that completely lost its meaning after the Russian border is this one:

Even when it is accompanied by a “15 km” panel.

Other signs that are usually useless in Western Europe should actually be put at the entrance of the country together with the ones announcing the local top speeds. I’m talking about this one:

It starts in Romania but then in Georgia, they’ve just given up using it.

Cows on the road
Sharing the road in Georgia

By the time you get to Kazakhstan, it’s a whole different thing…

Camels on the road
Kazakh road users

 

Atyrau, Атырау Г.А., Kazakhstan

Kronstadt

Brasov's fortress
Brasov’s fortress

Three days are not enough to know Romania but they may be just enough to fall in love with the country. Romanians are so kind that when you pull out your map, before you even finish unfolding it, there is already someone asking you “Unde something something?” or event better if they speak English: “Where are you going?”. Always ready to point you in the right direction. Not always ready to admit that they don’t know the place you are trying to reach, though.

That last “morning” in Brașov was an interesting experience. Needless to say I didn’t wake up early, after finishing that last post so late, I could only wake up later than before. It’s ok, I wasn’t in any hurry, the road to Bucharest is not very long. Only I didn’t count on the total randomness of life to slow me down to the point I didn’t have time to visit Bucharest at all. I did take a better look at beautiful Brașov though.

German couple
The first Germans of the day

I set off at noon, a good time to set off if you are looking forward to melting inside your riding jacket and you know I’m always looking forward to that! I wanted to take a closer look at the Black Church and was hesitating to go into the sidewalk with the bike to get closer to the entrance when I saw another travel bike with its bikers right by the church’s entrance. That was my cue so I got closer. It turned out to be a very nice German couple travelling around Eastern Europe. We talked for a while and they recommended me a monastery to visit in the Turkish border. I might just go if I leave early from Sunny Beach. I took a regular I-ve-been-here pic of the church and left for the other church in Brașov and the first Romanian school. There I was, lazy me trying to figure out how to get closer to the church without leaving the bike when the usual Romanian kindness pushed some guy on a bike to ask me where I was trying to get to and where I came from. He spoke French and was happy to speak French with me. t turned out to be a German-Romanian whose claims to fame were many, one I can remember was to have founded the Romanian ski school.

Nicolae Chibac
Nicolae Chibac on his smallest bike (he had at least 2 more in the garage)

His name is Nikki Chibac and he invited me to this house on the hill. Little did I know that it would mean my first fall with the bike, and the second one too. See, I said house on the hill and conveniently omitted to mention that to get to it the only way was a little dirt trail ending in a very steep curve. Yes, that was my cue to touch the floor. No harm to me or the bike apart from a scratch on the left pannier. In no time I was surrounded by 3 of his gipsy workers that were helping me to pick up the bike and asking me in broken English if I had ran out of gas. Shame on me, I answered “no, no, bad driver”, countering his broken English with my own brew of broken English. After showing me the property and taking me on a hike up the hill to show me the road to Poiana Brașov that I should take if I wanted to go to Bran before leaving for Bucharest, he invited me to soup but I had to refuse. It was already 3pm and with my proverbial slowness, I was never going to get to the capital before nightfall if I stayed for the soup. Pity, it would have been my first home cooked Romanian meal. On the way out, I fell again and this time, 4 of the gipsies and Nikki himself took me down the ramp carrying the bike with small steps of clutch release and brake. After a brief reminder by Nikki of how I should ride a trail, I was off on my way to Bran. The rest of the road was uneventful, beautiful but uneventful. The only thing to say is that I ran into a lot of bikers. With these roads, there had to be bikers. I got to Bucharest very late as expected. It was still day but not for long, time to go for dinner at a Romanian restaurant, my first since I hit the Romanian roads.

View from a hill
The view of Brasov from Nikki’s hill

PS: Kronstadt is the German name of Brașov

Sofia, Sofia-grad, Bulgaria

Warnings

I’ve been warned. Don’t sleep there said the hostel lady in Cluj-Napoca when I told her that I planned to go to Sofia by the shortest road and spend the night in Craiova. What about Caracal? No. Slatina? Maybe, why don’t you spend the night in Pitesti? Pitesti is only 140km away from Brasov, that would take me nowhere.

White Church
Cluj-Napoca’s white church behind the abundant aerial cabling

When I got to Brasov I asked a similar question to the hostel guy and he said about the same or worse, it was more like: no, don’t stay in Slatina either, that is the most dangerous part of Romania. If I were you, I would speed through it and get to Sofia, there’s no telling how the adjacent Bulgarian side would be.

Some biker
Strange biker in Cluj

Both times the reason was the same: that’s Rom region. Rom, gipsy, tsingari, egyptians. Who are they and why are they feared that much? I guess I will not find out by going into their region of the country. I have rearranged my route, heading another piece of Romanian advice: “don’t go to the beach in Romania, go in Bulgaria”. Really, what is it with Romanian beaches? I guess I won’t find out this time either. This morning I’ll head to Bucarest and then to Sofia from there. Pity to take such a detour but it will give me the chance to spend the night in Bucarest.

Today was a sort of short riding day but the day before was long. I’m starting to feel the road on my bones and muscles and I will welcome the shorter riding tomorrow and the rest days in Bulgaria and Istanbul. The road was even nicer than the previous days with trees on the side providing some shade but there was a lot of road work that slowed the traffic a lot. The fact that it’s a twisting single-lane road with lots of trucks that you can’t overtake without putting someone’s life in danger (the motorcyclist’s usually) doesn’t make it any faster but I’ve found a solution for taking pictures on the way. Actually, the camera was inside 2 layers of bags up to now and taking it out for picture taking was a drag. Now it’s just in my tank bag without any particular other bag and taking pictures is as easy as stopping by the side of the road, opening the helmet, opening the bag and pushing the shutter button. I don’t even need to open the helmet if I don’t care what’s in the picture and what isn’t :P. Or I could use LiveView. Hum, there’s an idea!

Somewhere along the road to Brasov I saw a sign indicating a fortified evangelical church and I followed the 6km dirt track leading to a small village (Valchid was the name), which must have been enjoying a collective nap to get them through the scorching heat of midday (Seriously, who rides in this heat? Me) because I couldn’t see anyone and of course the fortification was closed, that’s what fortifications are for. Out of the blue came a car with a Netherlands plate and the driver asked me if I was up to what I was up to and said he would ask the keykeeper to come open the church. Not even a minute later I was entering the fortification and the church. That was some sight! The church was not particularly beautiful or anything. It’s just that there was the walls and the church, very close to each other. Inside the fort, there was only the church, nothing else. Strange thing to build, I must remember to read why they did that. I tried to ask in what passes for Romanian in my head (it’s most certainly not Romanian) when was the church built. I didn’t understand the answer. Once at the hostel, I tried numbers in Google Translate and now I think he said XVI or XVII century.

Fortified church
The church’s outside shell

Today, I also chose the roads that were marked “of scenic interest” on the map. The map conveniently omits to say that they are not of asphalt interest, especially the road from Iernut to Medias but it’s alright. At some point the quality of the roads is going to start to fall, it might as well be now :|.

Bike in town
Some biker came to wake the town up

Brasov, Brasov, Romania