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The International Writers Magazine: East Europe

Wild, Wild East
Samantha Cliffe

R
omania, although slowly developing as a more popular tourist destination (especially around the Black Sea region) still remains a relatively ‘off-the-beaten-track’ destination generally visited by the more adventurous tourist.


Dracula's Castle

As part of our month’s rail journey around Europe, my boyfriend Elliot and I visited there for about 4 days. It wasn’t nearly long enough to experience what life in Romania is really like and we didn’t see nearly enough of the country. But what we saw in the time we were there brought home to us the level of corruption in Romania and we soon learned to appreciate the stark comparison between lifestyles between Western and Eastern Europe.

We caught a train from Budapest to Brasov (I like to imagine it was similar to the journey – albeit fictional – of Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) in the centre of Romania amidst the Carpathian mountain range.

The journey was slow, long and rather interesting. We had booked our tickets in advance the day before as we were told this was necessary. We stood in a queue in Budapest station for the better part of an afternoon to buy them, then on the day we caught the train and went to find our seats we found them already occupied by a large family. They looked rather disgruntled to say the least when we managed to relate to them (somehow) that the seats two of their children were sitting in were ours. They huffed, puffed, folded their arms and deliberately looked away, thankful that they didn’t speak our language. The train was full and we were worried that if we sat elsewhere we would be booted from our seats as we were attempting to do to the family. Elliot persisted and eventually the adults agreed to move their two children out of their seats.

We sat down happily and as we settled down it soon dawned on us that there was a distinctly awkward atmosphere in the carriage. The kind that felt like we had invited ourselves into someone else’s house for dinner and we hadn’t been invited. The fact that the journey was to be 12 hours long was an all too prominent thought in our minds. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

As the train chugged on (oh so slowly) we realised that the radiator in the carriage was stuck on full blast and wouldn’t turn off. To top it off, the window wouldn’t open. The prospect of a 12 hour journey in these conditions didn’t fill us with joy.

With some trepidation, Elliot decided to try his chances in first class. He came back about 10 minutes later and told me he’d asked the guard (as best he could as the guard didn’t speak English) if we could upgrade to first class and to his understanding the guard had confirmed that yes, this would be fine and we should go to first class and he would come to find us later.

So we moved, with much relief and a certain feeling of smugness. The carriage we now sat in was lovely and cool and spacious and all ours. The guard, as promised, came in later on. "Oh, but where are your first class tickets?" he seemed to ask.
"We don’t have them," we explained, "We want to upgrade to first class. Upgrade. Pay to move to first class." We gesticulated this and repeated a few words along with actions for an improved chance of being understood. The guard’s expression changed and realisation seemed to dawn on him, as if some invisible light bulb had flashed on somewhere beneath his blue guard’s hat.
"Ah!" he said, and explained that he would come back shortly to collect our money.
Phew, we thought, as for a while we were worried he would send us back to the jaws of the family in the stifling sauna carriage.
A little later he returned and sat down with his book of prices for train tickets open on his lap. He pondered over this for a while, and then asked us for a sum of money (which was quite reasonable and a bargain compared to prices in Britain). We handed him the money expecting a ticket in return. Instead, we both received a handshake. "Gentlemen," he shook Elliot’s hand, "Ladies," he shook mine, stepped toward the door and with a wave of his hand exclaimed, "Hello!" and with a big toothy grin he departed into the hallway. Elliot and I looked at each other for a moment, the realisation of our bribery suddenly dawning on us. It was a completely new experience. I had never bribed anyone before! In that brief experience, it almost summed up what life in Eastern Europe is like and how differently business and life in general is run there. Bureaucracy takes a back seat.

We comfortably sat in first class until we left Hungary and entered Romania. The Romanian guard came to check our tickets. Where were our first class tickets? He enquired. Fortunately, he understood more English than the previous guard and we were able to explain to him that we had paid the Hungarian guard but had been given no tickets. Unfortunately, we then had to pay him for our tickets as well. All in all, we paid twice. Still, this time it was for real and we actually got tickets. For the first time on this journey we could ‘legally’ sit in first class.

We tried to forget about the bribery and having to pay twice and sat back and enjoyed the vast expanses of Romanian countryside, and it was vast. Rolling meadows sprinkled with hundreds of white and pink flowers tumbled on undisturbed save for the odd small village or horse drawn cart, or pyramids of hay kept together with a wooden stick through its centre. This was not the modern world. Every once in a while (especially further north) we would stop in a town consisting of buildings that looked as if they had been bombed at some point and had fallen completely into disrepair and were now little more than shells. Children played amongst the concrete rubble and clothes hung up to dry in the glassless windows of the grey buildings.

As our journey continued south east, the villages and towns became more and more sparse and the countryside less and less interrupted. Twelve hours after leaving Budapest we arrived in the town of Brasov, Transylvania, at the foot of the Carpathian mountains. We were relieved to find that Brasov was quite unlike the towns we had seen in the north and was, by comparison, quite prosperous. This is due mainly to the money brought in by tourism to the region. In winter there’s a good skiing scene and in summer it’s a good place for people who are looking for a relatively inexpensive holiday or for those interested in outdoor activities. There are many places to hike, fish, climb or go on a wildlife tour. But predominantly one of the main reasons for tourist attraction to the region is the legend of Count Dracula, thanks to Bram Stoker, an Irishman who had personally never visited Transylvania, let alone Romania or Eastern Europe.


Gypsy Children

Romanian Gypsy Boy

We were met at the station by a woman called Maria Bolea, who is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook and runs the Rolling Stone Hostel. Her mind races a mile a minute and her enthusiasm and exuberant personality leave you even more exhausted after a day’s travelling. At the hostel, travellers come and go constantly and the kitchen is always full of different accents sharing stories of different travelling experiences. Many people visiting this part of Romania visit ‘Dracula’s Castle’. The ‘castle’ is situated in a town called Bran, just a short drive away from Brasov. The weather was sympathetic to our visit, with fog shrouding the mountains. However, the castle itself did not seem so befitting to spooky foggy weather. It’s not so much a castle, rather a nice summer house and not very gloomy. The walls had recently had a fresh lick of white paint, perhaps Dulux Snowy White. It was more cosy than creepy. So if you go and visit Dracula’s Castle expecting a maze of dark and mysterious corridors and large gloomy rooms, perhaps with a bat or two flitting around the corners… well, you won’t get that.

By far the scariest thing at the ‘castle’ was the sheer volume of screaming, excitable children scurrying along the corridors and flushing anyone who wanted to explore the building at a leisurely pace through the corridors like a twig caught in a violent flood. At one point Elliot experimented how strong the large group of children pushing against his back was by leaning back on them and seeing how much they held him up. The results were quite surprising and they held him up quite well!

We were relieved to evacuate the crowded house and filled our lungs with fresh air outside as there was scarcely room to breathe inside. As we left we entered a surreal world outside the building where local people set up their stalls to attract tourists visiting the house. It’s undoubtedly touristy, but in a rather unique way. The stalls sell… well, pretty much anything really! Strange hats, genuine fur coats, cheap plastic toys, balls, pipes, snow storms with tropical scenes inside them. It was as if, still new to tourism, the people really had no idea how to use the site of Dracula’s Castle to their advantage. They knew setting up stalls and selling things to tourists was a good idea, they just had no idea what to sell. One or two, however, seemed to have cottoned on and were selling bottles of red wine posing as bottled blood. However most had just decided to sell whatever they could get their hands on.

Brasov, where we were staying, is a pleasant town to spend some time wondering around. One of the nicer places to pay a visit to is Mount Tampa, the mountain that the town is based around. There’s a cable car that runs to the top (or close enough), or you can walk. We chose to take the cable car up and then walk down through a beautiful meadow, apparently a hot spot for barbeques and picnics and then follow the path down through the forest. There are bears and wolves in this area, but the chance of actually bumping into either are very slim.

The views from the top of the mountain are worth a trip up, but it’s still not quite the craggy and bleak mountain range of the Carpathians that fantasy stories have encouraged you to believe exist here.
Another place that is worth a visit in this area is the Palace at Sinaia, a town 2 hours south of Brasov by train. The tracks lead through some very picturesque scenery consisting mostly of thick forests and beautiful mountain ranges that are perhaps closer to the popular fantasy image of the Carpathians.
The station in Sinaia is small and quiet and isn’t situated directly in the town but, it seems, a little way outside it. A little lost at where to go we asked a man who approached us saying, "Bed to sleep? Bed to sleep?" at us and putting his head on his hands, the universal symbol for sleeping. When we failed to respond in the positive, he looked totally put out and walked off briskly. He then paused and turned around walking back a few paces. Perhaps we had realised our mistake and really did want a bed to sleep. "Bed to sleep? Bed to sleep?" he asked again, repeating the same sleeping action with his hands.
"No", we responded and asked again where the Palace was. This time he looked really fed-up and ran across the road in search of other tourists who might be in need of a bed to sleep.

As we walked up to the palace, we passed many gift stands selling the same cheap and tacky crap as we had seen in Bran and as we continued to walk we caught sight of something much more distressing than plastic snow storms with little red plastic towns in them. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes at first and only really registered what I was looking at when I heard my own voice saying, "It’s a lion."
Elliot didn’t know what I was talking about so I repeated myself and as he looked in the direction that I was looking in he too saw the lion cub, tethered by a chain to a metal fence by its neck. It lay on the pavement without a water or food bowl in sight and nothing comfortable for it to lie on. The man beside the cub was young and wasn’t badly dressed at all. He certainly wasn’t destitute. As we passed him he raised his eyebrows at us, "You want picture with lion?" he asked.

Neither Elliot nor myself responded, as we were too disgusted. We weren’t as excited now about our visit to Sinaia Palace as seeing the captive lion cub had somewhat dampened our spirits.
I told the woman at the ticket stand about what I’d seen as she seemed to speak good English. As soon as I mentioned ‘lion’ her knowledge of English seemed to plummet. She shrugged, "I don’t understand", she said, "I don’t understand what you mean." She shook her head and looked completely blank, although I suspected that she could understand me quite well. I gave up and asked two of the women who worked inside the palace about it. "Is it legal to keep a lion?" I asked them after I explained what I’d seen further down the hill. They looked at each other, then at me.
"Yes. Yes." They both asserted, "It’s legal."

I later asked Maria if this was the case, to which she replied that no, of course it wasn’t legal. The people I was asking had probably been bribed by the man with the lion. The police too would turn a blind eye having accepted a bribe themselves. That’s just the way things work in Romania. Maria herself had been to the palace at Sinaia many times, taking tourist groups with her. The staff at the palace will only give a tour of the ground floor, which, as magnificent as it is, equates to only 10 per cent of the building. However, Maria offers the staff a bribe and she always gets to see the next floor up with her group of tourists. A little more money and she’d be able to see even more. In Romania, this is perfectly normal.

Sadder still is the fact that this lion cub is by no means alone in its captivity. Many wild animals are smuggled into countries like Romania (often stolen at a young age from their parents, whom they may have killed in order to get the young animal) and go either to zoos where they are poorly cared for, or into private ownership where the owner will use the animal for personal profit. If you’re interested in finding out more about this or helping these animals, check out BornFree.org.uk.

Although upset by the plight of the lion cub who would not live a long life (as it grows older it will only be less appealing for tourists to pose and have their picture taken with it, as it will no longer be so cute, and as the costs mount to keep the lion alive and revenue for pictures taken with it decrease, the lion's fate is pretty much sealed), Elliot and I still enjoyed our tour of the palace at Sinaia which was stunningly beautiful and ordained with ornate wooden carvings most everywhere you looked. It's dramatically situated on a hill surrounded by dense coniferous forests often shrouded in mist. It's also dramatically surrounded by a fair few soldiers rather stunningly dressed in purple camouflage uniforms. Interesting, as the purpose of camouflage is to merge into the background to an extent that it makes it difficult to be seen. Wearing purple just doesn't seem to have the same effect. They carried large machine guns somewhat proudly and peered at us from behind tree trunks. I suppose we did look rather suspicious, what with our large cumbersome backpacks and the fact we were a young couple taking touristy pictures of one another in the palace garden. It would have been the perfect cover act for some kind of elaborate terror plot - that we didn't look suspicious was perhaps the most suspicious thing of all! Or so the purple guards seemed to think. One of them laughed at us menacingly as we walked down the hill. What a merry fellow, we thought, as we walked hurriedly away.

But our adventures in Sinaia were not over yet. No sooner had we hurried a little further down the hill from the mocking eyes of a purple guard hugging his machine gun than we were met by a woeful looking scruffy dog who walked on three legs, her front fourth leg held up in a heart breaking limp. With her was a small and even fluffier puppy, who looked up at us with sad and appealing eyes.

I'd never seen dogs look sadder. We stopped in our tracks and didn't think twice about taking out the pack of biscuits that we'd recently bought and threw them a few. No sooner had we done this than another stray dog appeared from the shadows. This one didn't look nearly so cute or sorry, but Elliot threw him a biscuit just to keep him happy. When we felt we'd given them enough, we carried on walking. The other dog that had recently arrived wasn't too happy about this. He was in a better condition than the limping dog and the puppy and barked angrily at us. How dare we decide to leave and not give him the rest of our food? Suddenly it dawned on us that feeding stray dogs in Romania might not be such a good idea after all. We tried to walk away, but the more we walked, the more the larger dog chased us and the angrier its barks became. The other two dogs chased us too, but their chasing was more pathetic and sorrowful than scary. We both sensed that the angry dog was close to attacking us, and as we hurried through the cafe area we passed another dog who saw the commotion and took up chase as well. With four hungry dogs on our trail, we threw them the rest of the biscuits amid cries of, "Just drop the bag!" and "Run!" The dogs all set about to scoffing up the biscuits strewn across the floor, but we didn't linger around to watch. We walked very quickly down the hill, casting nervous glances over our shoulders just to check they weren't in pursuit of us again. Thankfully only our pride was hurt. There are lots of stray dogs in Romania, but from then on we learned never to feed them, even the puppies and the sad ones that limped.

We passed the lion cub on the way down and several more stray dogs that thankfully stayed out of our way as we eyed them with nervous suspicion. We sat on a bench in the park nearby the station as the sky clouded over and started to dampen us with a light covering of rain. The same man who had asked us if we wanted a bed to sleep approached us again. "Bed for sleep?"
He asked.
"No." We both replied, sternly and in unison. We felt a little warn down by Romania today and were looking forward to Slovenia, our next destination.

Exhausted, we boarded the train back to Brasov and were met again by Maria who changed our money for us 'at a fair rate', she ascertained. We had always tried our best not to spend too much time hanging around Brasov station as it was plagued by gypsy children. They wander around the tracks in their tattered clothes and grubby faces and approach anyone they see to beg for money. They knew that we couldn't understand them, but cleverly still decided that the language barrier could be crossed by use of tone of voice and sad expressions. The gypsy population are second-class citizens in Romania. They are outcasts in society. Maria warned us that if a child begged us for money to not give them any, but instead give them food as this was the only sure way to know that you would be helping them. Otherwise, she said, they would give the money to their parents who send them out to beg and they in turn would spend the money on alcohol and cigarettes. Whether this is in fact the case or not I don't know and I wouldn't like to judge. What is the case is that, true or not, many people believe this.
We travelled out of Romania on the same tracks that we had travelled in on.

Back again through the wild meadows and past the thick forests, past the pyramid haystacks and the horse drawn carts and old towns with no roads save a dirt track. I contemplated what a fascinating country it is and to this day am amazed by the stark comparison between the culture and way of life of Western Europe to that of Eastern Europe and Romania, where bribery is a way of life and breaking the law is commonplace, where children and dogs run wild and military men walk around proudly displaying their guns. It seems that the days of the Wild West have passed long ago. If you want to travel to the new Wild West, head East.

© Samantha Cliffe October 2006
samantha_cliffe@hotmail.com

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