Monday, 18 November 2013

Wolfhounds & Vampires - Transylvania 2000

Approaching Dracula’s Castle


Transylvania, September 2000.


The cable car took me up into the mountains. As it rose, I reflected on just how much effort and aggro this alleviated. I'm headed for Dracula's Castle in Bran, via the Carpathian Alps, or as this stretch is known, the Transylvanian Alps. Since almost every aspect of life in Romania is tainted by corruption there is a risk that this cable car may be unsafe - for instance, if the proper bolts cost £5 each and a similar one £1. If this fraud is discovered by an inspector, well his mouth can be shut for a certain sum. But all's well that ends well and we make it to the top.

Exiting the upper station, the scene was rather barren. There would doubtless be hordes of people here in the high season, but there were in fact less than a dozen of us in these high spaces. A Saint Bernard dog was led among us by a hawker hoping for a few tourist-dollars of photo fees. And there was a woman in girly shoes and a leapordskin coat wobbling over the mud and scree


One of the regrettably few photos I took in Romania

Alone at last, I worked up a good sweat heading off across a ridge, and down, to the Gorge of the Bears. In the side pockets of my rucksack were a dozen party poppers. These childish plastic cylinders would emit a slight explosion and a few coloured paper streamers. If the name of this gorge was meaningful, I might need them to frighten away any hungry bears. I tried one out. The result was unimpressive. Against the white-sound rushing of the river, the explosion was like a slight cough. Deterrant value: zero.


The attraction of the Gorge of the Bears had lessened somewhat on the flight over. I had got into conversation with a couple of American engineers, coming over to install a donated body scanner to an impoverished Romanian hospital. “Gorge of the Bears, huh? You ever met a bear before?”


“Well, no, actually.”


“Where will you be sleeping?”


“Under a poncho.”


“And where will your food be?”


“In my rucksack, under my head.”


“Bad move. Bear smells the food, he’ll come through you to get to the food. Doesn’t care that you’re in the way, he’ll come through you to get to the food. We were setting a machine up in a hospital in Alaska last year. They brought in a headless corpse. Bunch of guys were doing some blasting, back of Anchorage. They woke up a Kodiak bear. Nasty son of a bitch a Kodiak. Angry bear wakes up, nine feet tall, takes this guy’s head off with one swipe of his paw, then goes back to sleep. But you should be OK – probably only brown bears in Romania. But hang your food from a tree, not under your head.”




I decided that it would be impossible to sleep whilst fearing the unheard approach of a bear and made my way upwards, beyond the tree line, into the barren grassy upper slopes. From time to time, heavy rain would come down. Despite sheltering in a crevice, I ended up soaked. Continuing my ascent, I reached a place where rhododendron-like bushes grew in a strange horizontal fashion, doubtless to resist the winds. There was enough dead wood to make a respectable fire, and I was able to dry out my kit under my sheltering poncho.


The next morning, a couple of fit young astronomers awoke me as they skipped up the slopes heading for the observatory up top. When finally I got up top and passed the observatory, I reached a high ridge, with glacial valleys radiating to all points of the compass. The sky was clear, but a ridge of cloud was moving towards me from the North, coming in fast on the same level as the ridge like a car ferry heading into Dover harbout at full steam. As it hit, the wind got up, the day darkened as if a curtain had been dropped, and in minutes snow was falling. I sat on a rock and huddled under my poncho, shivering, waiting it out, wondering if I really was in control of the situation.


It passed, the sky cleared again, but I was disoriented. The valleys all looked the same. It took a while with compass and GPS to figure out which of the valleys led down to my destination, the town of Bran where Dracula had had his castle. Heading down the steep slope into a wide scooped-out alpine valley where sheep were grazing in the distance, another wave of cloud hit. The thick clouds came rolling down behind me as if somebody had let off a fire extinguisher, rolling down the slope and enveloping me in thick mist.


Again clear, I carried on down to the level ground, and made my way past the grazing sheep, heading towards where the meadow narrowed before sloping down again towards Bran. At the neck of the valley was a shack. This was where the sheepdogs lived. A couple of hundred yards from it, they spotted me, and came to check me out, woofing away in a deep bass. As a former paper boy, I thought I knew how to deal with aggressive dogs, which is to point at them and shout “down” in an authoritative way. But these were not yappy little Welsh sheepdogs. These buggers were three feet tall, their role in life to take on wolf, and were unimpressed by a former paper-boy. They kept on coming, their fangs and hackles out, and were making for my calves. Fortunately, I had my trusty party-poppers. With the circular disc, and streamers, removed, they are a lot louder. I let a couple off, and the dogs relented, scurrying back to their den.


I passed the neck and took in the craggy route down. The choice of route would be critical. You have to choose a path which will lose altitude fast enough to get you down, whilst avoiding precipices. A flat sloping ramp is the theoretical ideal. In practice the rule is not-too-sleep and not-too-shallow. From below, a strange call came echoing up the valley. Starting with a high, falsetto note, the pitch of the voice descended, though the falsetto break, and tailed off into a gurgle like somebody groaning or complaining. This must be yodelling. I had always thought of yodelling as being a form of alpine singing, for entertainment purposes. But I realised in a flash that it is in fact a means of making the voice carry great distances in a silent environment, using the natural resonance of the terrain to make it carry the sound. Somebody was observing me, but my eyes were not good enough to see them. I gave a large shrug, hoping that they would see that I didn’t know how to respond.


 At a certain point, I made the wrong choice, and it got steeper and steeper. Beyond the immediate way forward, it was looking like misty space. Should I go forward or retreat back uphill? I went on. I reached a point where the only way forward was under a massive boulder sitting on a flat ledge. Going down on all fours, I edged sideways along the giant saucer, the boulder being a giant cup, and a sheer drop to the kitchen floor underneath. On the far side of the teacup I found a dead end, and was obliged to retrace my steps.


Grinding back up the gorge, I was alarmed by a human voice to my left and ten feet above me. The man was a fit looking young fellow with short beard, boots and woolly calf-socks. We continued uphill to where our paths converged, and entered into conversation. With the aid of my dictionary, and lots of body-language, I asked him who he was.


Me: “Baah, baah?” (Bleating like a sheep.)


Him: “Da!”


“Doggy doggy woof woof?”


“Da, da!”


He then made the sign of somebody shooting a pistol. Aaah! He has come from below to investigate the sounds of shooting! Again, with lots of body-language, I explained that his dogs had attacked me, and then whipped out a party popper to demonstrate how I had frightened them off. When I let it off, he went “Aaah! Hahaha! Da, da!”  (Translation: Aah, so that’s what happened. I thought some idiot was shooting my sheep!)  


The shepherd pointed out to me the proper route down. We parted company, and I took the path. At a certain point, a steep precipice presented itself - steep but not vertical. Nailed into the living rock was a steel hawser. How high? Maybe a couple of double decker buses high. Rucksack on back, I went down into the void, hand over hand, hoping that I had enough strength in my hands to reach the bottom before my grip loosened. After the precipice it was a walk in the park. From below there again came the sound of yodelling. This must be Daddy, asking the shepherd if he was OK. From, above, the shepherd answered. The conversation continued. I imagined that Dad went on to enquire what his son wanted for dinner, and that son was replying (in yodelly-screechy sounds as if he was being stabbed to death) that he wanted beans and chips.


The slope was now perfectly manageable, and I made my way through mile after mile of forest meeting, on the way, a team of lumberjacks felling the trees with axas and a chainsaw. A wizened old grandad gave me a sip from his hip flask of some vicious spirit. I asked them about bears. “Da, da, muy Urs” (yeah, yeah, there are lots of bear in these parts).

I couldn’t reach Bran before nightfall, so camped out near a stream. I made an all-night fire using big logs, and improvised my anti-bear defences. Using the string that I always carry, I put a cordon - a ring of string around me on twigs pushed into the soil, and inserted party poppers into the string in series. I experimented, deliberately tripping the string. The party popper gave a satisfying bang. With my food hung up in the branches of trees, and safe within my circular booby trap, I managed a proper night’s sleep. Next to my head I kept saucepans and spoons, ready to make a right old clatter if the local bears decided to pay me a visit.

Sadly, in my time in the Transylvanian Alps I saw not a single bear. Dracula's castle was everything onemight expect, with pointed turrets and battlements and arrow slits. Perched over the town, it spoke to me of might-being-right; it said, You peasants below might as well stay in your places because we're the Lords and even a million of you can't storm THIS baby. After an hour of rubbernecking at the castle I was bored, reminding myself that I don't do monuments.

Lonely Planet spoke of a certain village where the people were so keen on music that they would go into a frenzy, carried away by the gypsy violins, whirling away into a state of.... this account was a load of made up crap. I made my way there via Tirgui Mures, and hitched a lift with Martin Balla who happened to live there. He explained that the people of his village most certainly did not whirl or swivel, did not go into musical fenzies, and found it odd that I should think they did. He invited me into his home to stay a night or two.

In the evening, translating through his daughter, he told me that everybody was now going off to church; that I could stay in the house or come with them as I wished. Yeek! Thinking it illegitimate for a stranger to be alone in their nice house, I said I'd join them. But, Martin explained, I did not have a hat! Only hat-wearing worshippers may enter the church. So we go to the hatmaker. All the local men wear a straw hat, rather like a trilby, and I clearly must buy one for church. It is not cheap - I think it cost me twenty five @#£% quid.

We go to church, me in my new hat, them in their old ones. They all sing. I try to look... what adjective describes worshipfulness?... pious perhaps? Angelic? Anyway, I get away with it.

Back home, Martin asks me, through his daighter's language skills, how often I go to church.

B: Oh, not as often as I... haha... jolly well should, Martin. (Expression a bit Bridget-Jonesish.)

M: Right. SO how often is that then, Brent?

B: Oh, you know, christenings and funerals mostly. And, ah, the occasional sunday....

M. Are you a Christian?

B. Oh, haha, you know, ah..... I try to... well you know.......

M. (Looking me straight in the eye) Do you, or do you not, believe that God sent his only son Jesus Christ to Earth in order to save your soul and give you eternal life?

B: (Looking like I've confessed a guilty secret) Er, no, Martin.

M. OK. That's fine. At least I know where we stand.

Martin was no fool.

The Balla Family

Transylvania is historically Hungarian but today is, of course, in Romania. I imagine a lot of blood has been spilled over the centuries. I subject Martin to the Tebbit Cricket Test.

B: OK Martin, let's suppose that Hungary are to play Romania at football. Who do you shout for? The country you live in or the one over the border?
M: Er, Hungary.

B: OK. That's fine. At least I know where we stand.


Overall, despite some vivid experiences, Romania is just a bit too drab to justify the effort.


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