That’s what the people in Mongolia think, when they have a car full of people and stop anyway to squeeze us in. A true hitchhiker’s paradise! Before we hitched our way in from Russia we only knew about the horses, the steppe and Ghengis Khan. Ghengis hasn’t been around for the last 700 years, but he is as present in current-day Mongolia (his face is printed on every bank note) as the horses and steppe… as well as the yurts, the traditional tent-like homes they call “gers”. A third of the country still lives a nomadic lifestyle! As verocious as Ghengis Khan was, so friendly are his descendants (apparently Ghengis was a bit of a ladies man and now 10% of all Asian men linside the former empire are directly related to the 13th century crusader). Maybe that’s why all Asians look al.. ah bad joke. But in many ways Mongolia was the first kinda-culture shock of our trip. Not only because of the many gers and the vast and void landscape, but even more so because of the incredibly friendly nature of the people!
Not to say anything negative about the wonderful people in Siberia, which is where we left off our last blog entry with Jeroen feeling all better again after our Baikal retreat, it was the first time we felt like stepping in a different world. After hitching our way back to Irkutsk – first in one of those Russian Uaz vans, blasting across the bumpy roads of Olkhon island as if it were the German Autobahn, then with a group of Chinese tourists (Jeroen made their acquaintance when they came running after him for a picture after leaving the bushes for quick wee) and finally with a friendly mini-bus driver (one car of the Chinese tourist group broke down and it didn’t feel appropriate to yell “first in, first out”, so we voluntarily gave up our seats) – we decided to ridden our backs with the heavy load of the not so essential items we at first thought we wouldn’t be able to live without. The only pants we are now carrying are the ones we are wearing, which makes it all the more easy to decide what to wear each day. What wasn’t so easy was shipping all of it back home. The Russian post office was a Soviet-style reminisce of a bureaucratic nightmare. The only way we were able to understand what we were required to do in the first place, was a direct result of our lingering highschool French, as for some strange reason all the necessary paperwork we had to fill out was written in Russian ánd in French. We then had to individually weigh and write up a description for every single item, in three-fold, which was double checked by the rather unsmiling, yet thorough postal clerk. But it was well worth the effort, because the 5.4 kg that was on its way back to the Netherlands was now no longer on our backs. We hit a second language barrier in an Irkutsk restaurant for Jeroen’s birthday dinner. No French on the menu, but the waitress was more willing than her Soviet-style postal office counterpart, and translated every vegetarian item on the menu for us on her phone. We decided to order the lot, much to the surprise of our waitress, but she and her colleagues got a good laugh out of it, while we feasted on great Georgian food and wine.
In Mongolia, on the other hand, we didn’t experience much of any language, nor any bureaucratic, barriers. The Mongolian visa was a breeze, you go in in the morning and pick it up in the afternoon, and at the border everything went a lot smoother as well. On top of that, a surprisingly large number of Mongolians speak at least a few words of English. On our way to Mongolia we were lucky enough to meet a wonderful guy from Kyrgyzstan with his nephew, who was driving a load in his van to eastern Siberia. While the little guy was chatting away and giving helpful advice on when and where to overtake the cars in front of us, Linda got comfortable on the bed in the back. With amazing views from the road on the Baikal lake, the 500km journey to Ulan-Ude flew by. We pitched our tent out in the field somewhere and the next morning we caught a couple of shorter rides further south, from a guy who was on his way to a Budhist temple, maybe brushing up on his karma, a guy who may or may not have been employed by the kgb and a couple who threw money out of the window of their car on the top of a hill, probably in an attempt to buy off possible car crashes. Fastening ones seatbelt might be the safer bet, but who are we to judge? They did drop us off safely on the last stretch towards the Mongolian border, so who knows, it may have well paid off.
After a bit of a wait a car finally stopped. Unfortunately to head out in the wrong direction, but not before 4 drunken Russian men and 1 woman got out, who joined us hitchhiking further south. They enjoyed our company more than we did theirs, but they managed to get us on a mini bus at no charge (at this point we didn’t have a single Ruble left), which brought us all the way to the forelast Russian police patrol station. We were instructed to wait on the side of the road, which gave us the opportunity to observe the everyday life of a Russian patrol agent. The older, somewhat heavier guy was majestically waving cars to a halt with his patrol stick, while the younger, much thinner guy was instructed to sweep the side of the road. The senior patrol officer took the job of the junior officer rather serious and we could feel that the junior guy would someday do exactly as his superior, if only out of spite for having to sweep every inch of what wasn’t more than a strip of asphalt along the road. But they got us a ride for the last bit and as we got out and walked up to the border, we were told we weren’t allowed to cross on foot. Here the helpful nature of the Mongolian people came shining through, as we were immediately invited into the first car in line to cross. It might not have been a completely altruistic gesture, as the guys tried to convince us we would have to pay a fee to cross the border (through them). We weren’t buying it and “naively” proposed to simply walk up and ask one of the Mongolian border control agents, their English was perfect by the way, which was enough in itself to drop the money question.
We got through without any hassle, but we were also tired after a long day of traveling and as we were walking along the road to find a place to camp, we half-seriously raised our thumb. To our amazement, the first car immediately stopped. The driver let us out at a nice spot near a small lake, where we played a game of poker with the thick wad of Mongolian Tukruk we got from the ATM (1 euro is around 2300 Tukruk) and woke up the next morning amidst the goats and horses that came down to the lake to drink.
From there we felt like everyone in Mongolia was rushing to our halt, practically every car stopped, no matter how many people were in the car. Our ride into the capital city Ulaanbaatar was no different, the two kids in the back slid to the side and with the 4 of us in the back we were happily cruising through the countryside. Our driver invited us midway into a ger for a traditional deep fried goat meat bread roll and some lovely fermented horse milk. We already had some “kumis” in Kazakhstan, which they call “airag” around here, which had carved a deep lasting memory that made it hard for us to keep up our not so genuine smiles. The taste of airag is rather… intense. Think of a more sour version of butter milk or kefir, add the tingling mouthfeel of a sparkling wine gone bad, throw in the flavors of the goat hide in which it is churned and some of the other delicate aromas you get from having it sit in a ger for a few days at room temperature. Bottom’s up! We just pretended the milk was meant to be shared and passed the cup to our host after we each took a small sip. He probably read the insuppressible discomfort in our faces, because when he passed the cup to his son, he downed the cup in one single go.
It is the staple food in the Mongolian diet and the Mongolians love it, all animal products, although in Ulaanbaatar you can find any food you can think of. One thing you can’t find in the capital city is the right of way of the pedestrian. You could be on a zebra crossing, with a green light, having a car coming from behind, overtaking you and cutting you off in your footsteps, which would be a very normal thing. The more modest drivers would give you a friendly honking of the horn, if they would approach at high speed, to push you back onto the pavement, midway on a zebra crossing. But when you put your thumb up, they turn into the most loving creatures, some kind of a weird Dr. Jykkel and Mr. Khan type thing we suppose.
Close to Ulaanbaatar, next to the Kustai national park, we did some slave work volunteering in a guesthouse, which was a rather depressing experience. When we were expected to work more than the max 4-5 hours per day (more like twice as much), we thought “eerhhm.. yes… we can”. We were working on a nice project and enjoyed doing it. When Jeroen couldn’t work on his supposedly free 6th day due to a fever, he was asked to pay for the night. At this point we were more like: “ehm…no… we can’t”. It took the fun out of volunteering while traveling for us, at least through websites like workaway. But we did have a great time with the other volunteers, ánd we built one hell of a trash can!
Less majestic was the cough creeping up through Jeroen’s throat from the late-night light inebriated cannonballing in the swimming pool in the language camp. Joe, one of the foreign counselors, celebrated his early farewell party and as one of the Russian parents in the camp invited our entire group over to their table for shashliks and shots, we were bound to end up doing “bombas” in the pool. Jeroen’s health fluctuated up and down in the following weeks as a result, with some positive influences by (1) a collection of medicinal Altai herbs, (2) a highly de-concentrared homeopathic rescue-drop and (3) being taken in by a non-orthodox pelgrimage, though it couldn’t prevent Jeroen from ending up transported out in a beat-up Russian ambulance.
The herbs we got from Irene in Aktash. On the last day of camp we joined the kids on the bus back to Barnaul, but got out on the main road from the exit out of Chemal. We had gotten the tip from Aljona from the language school, that Aktash would be the perfect spot for a few days of unwinding after the camp. Loïc, one of the French volunteers, had similar plans, which meant we were now three! Wondering whether we would all fit with our backpacks into the same car, we enjoyed the sun breaking out through the clouds while waiving friendly to the cars passing by. Not soon after a guy who, as we later learned, had taken a private taxi east of our destination invited us in. It allowed us to sit back, relax and enjoy the astonishing beauty of the continuously changing landscapes through our back seat windows, all the way to Aktash.
There was a small hiccup as we got out of the car, when the taxi-driver insisted us on paying “three”. As we thought it was fair to give him a little bit of gas money, Jeroen reached for 300 Rubles, to which the taxi-driver replied in Russian “thousand, three thousand”. As this was too high of a sum for hitching a ride, we kindly objected, at which point the guy who was actually paying for the ride (and who had invited us in) intervened and assured us we didn’t have to pay. It was the first time we were asked for money at the end of a ride, but it all worked out ok. Funny enough, the same taxi driver passed us by twice while we were hitchhiking in the next few days, both times his car was full, and we even met up with him again when we overtook him at a view point underway.
In Aktash we had found the perfect retreat in Irena’s wonderful guesthouse. We were treated on delicious pastries with home-made raspberry jam and herbal tea and Irene’s friend Tanja and her daughter Polina and son Arseni joined us shortly after as well. By now Jeroen’s cough had crept up to congest his entire head, but Irene took every possible remedy out of her kitchen and bathroom cabinets. From salt-water spray to medicinal ointments and, of course, lots and lots of herbal tea.
With Jeroen’s health on the up again, we set out for a walk with Irene and her son Vasia, Loïc, Tanja, Polina and Arseni to collect wild herbs and mushrooms, which we later prepared into a wonderful meal and captured into a video (which you can find in our film section). We shared a few relaxing morning yoga sessions together (no cobras or cucumbers this time) and felt a little sad to part our ways with everyone. Especially with Loïc after having spent so much time together, but he promised to come visit us someday 🙂
We had seen a smallish lake on our map, which means that in reality it would have to be massive, and Irena told us it is stunning, so that’s where we decided to go. With Jeroen still not a 100%, we found some shade to hitchhike north to Ulagan, where three young local Altai in an old beat-up car picked us up. They have a beautiful language, which sounded much more Asian than Russian, and seemed rather curious about what we were up to. As the guys were rally-driving their old car through the mountains over some very bad roads, only stopping for us to take photos, all of a sudden the car came to an unexpected halt. It turned out we had run out of gas about 5km away from the nearest petrol station. Luckily Jeroen had just filled the gas container for our camping cooker, so we emptied the 600ml of petrol in their tank, in the hopes it would take us to town. But first we had to push the car down the hill to get the engine going again. After all four of us jumped into the moving car, our driver resumed his rally-driving style, to which we immediately indicated that we had to be economical with the little petrol, if we would want to make it to the next petrol station. One of the other guys echoed our concerns, which unfortunately didn’t deter our driver driver from speeding. As we were mostly going downhill, we hoped we would still make it and started envisioning driving up to the petrol station with the last drop of petrol left in the tank. But alas, real-life is not Hollywood, so we came to our second halt, right on the edge of town. So close… After a friend on motorbike brought us some more petrol, the pushing and running started again, but this time the engine didn’t start. After some pointing and staring and pulling on some wires of the engine, a second friend was called over, who showed up in a truck and pulled the car back to life. The whole event probably took around an hour and a half, which only became frustrating when we realised that the petrol station was at the bottom of the other side of the hill. We would have only needed about 500 meters more to make it. Not only that, we could have easily pushed the car for 20 minutes to the top of the hill and let it roll down to the petrol station. Why we did it the hard way, we will never know.
We briefly toyed with the idea to pitch our tent and stay in Ulagan for the night, but we had to get out of town first. There were a few younger people drunkenly walking around in the middle of day, which might be an effect of the lesser perspectives in life in a small rural town, but that’s just guessing on our part. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long to be picked up by Sasha(..?). He was on a bike tour with a friend and would drive his car in our direction to set up their next camp. As the surroundings got more and more impressive, the road got worse and worse and our driving speed went down. We were probably averaging only 20 to 25 km/h, but the views were stunning. Most astonishing was the view on top of a huge cliff, looking down into a valley in the evening sun. The road down there was so steep, that a two-wheel drive wouldn’t be safe, which meant we had to find a new ride. Here we met Irina, Jura, Tanya and her husband, who were on a road trip from Kazakhstan through the Altai mountains. They had a big 4×4 vehicle, with two sofa’s in the back and a flat screen tv. The women didn’t feel too comfortable going down the very narrow and steep road, but neither did we. Especially not after one of the shocks broke off halfway down. But eventually we made it to the bottom, where we continued our way alongside the river in the valley, with some of the most amazing views, accompanied by the sounds of disco-songs blasting through the speakers and the flashing lights of the music clips they were playing on their flatscreen tv. It felt a little like a small version of Russia in itself: beautiful, while full of contradictions.
As the women in the back tried to persuade the men to set up camp (to no avail) we kept on driving at 15 to 20 km/h (the roads wouldn’t allow us to go any faster) till midnight to make it all the way to lake Teletskoye. We felt destroyed after such a long day, but it couldn’t have ended better with us camping on a strip of sandy beach between the bonfires under a sky full of stars. The long day of traveling threw Jeroen’s health back a little, but we could still do some light yoga on the beach the next morning. With no food around, we decided to hop on one of the ferries in the afternoon to take us to the other side of the lake, which is a whopping 78km long and took us 5 to 6 hours, reminding us once more: Russia is big!
The sun on the ferry was melting us away and there wasn’t much left of Jeroen’s yoga warrior pose on the beach that morning. With Jeroen feeling ever worse, it was time to take out the big guns: our homeopathy kit, a present from Thekla, a long friend of Linda’s family and a homeopathic counselor. The “rescue remedy mix“ unfortunately didn’t have its desired effect, but then again, it is more of an emergencies and crises type of healer. Perhaps it did improve Jeroen’s vision though, as he spotted some tents from the ferry alongside the lake: a perfect spot to camp!
It turned out to be the camp of a group orthodox Christians (they prefer the term pravoslavnaya) on a pilgrimage. We were immediately invited by Aleksey, his wife and their friend Igor to join them for dinner, their mass and a concert. They even offered to have their doctor take a look at Jeroen. The hospitality of the group of pilgrims, who were on a 250km hike through the Altai mountains, was incredible and they even surprised us by being willing to talk openly to us about politics, a first with Russians in Russia! Here we also met Sergei, a Russian hitchhiker who was taken in by the religious community as well and with whom we shared some very nice discussions.
Despite the Altai herbal tea from Irene, the homeopathic rescue drops from Thekla and the great food and kindness of the pilgrims, Jeroen was still not feeling well, so we decided to take a break from hitchhiking and take the bus back up north instead. As we tried to break away from our new pilgrim friends, we underestimated the distance to the bus stop. With 500 meters to go, we saw the bus approaching from the bridge to our left. As Jeroen didn’t have the energy, Linda made a run for it, waving to a woman standing next to the bus at the bus stop. The woman didn’t seem to be bothered and as Linda came within 50 meters, the bus drove off, still 2 minutes before departure time. As Linda collapsed together in disbelief, the woman at the bus stop walked off, while pointed with a smug look at her watch…
After some encouraging words, we had our thumbs back in the air. Not soon after, we got a ride from a very friendly couple who drove us all the way to Bisk. It didn’t take us long to overtake the bus, which was a rather satisfying moment 🙂 In Bisk we decided to take a bus to Novosibirsk and spend a few days in a hostel to relax a bit. Jeroen wasn’t feeling too good, so in the hostel we asked about a doctor. It didn’t take long for two nurses to appear who, after a short examination, instructed Jeroen to follow them into the ambulance, which looked like it was an eighties original with a diverse collection of dents and holes after a good 30 years of service. The hospital didn’t look much better, but Jeroen got the full-body check-up with some very old-school looking medical equipment, probably an opportunity for the hospital to cash in on the well-covered insurance policies of a Western European foreigner. Nothing too serious, as the friendly doctor explained in her half-broken German: an acute bronchitis for which Jeroen was given some antibiotics. It made us decide to stay in Novosibirsk a while longer and take the Trans Siberian railway to Irkutsk, a lovely town with beautiful old-style wooden Russian houses, a nice switch from the not so pretty Soviet architecture, although most of these houses were unfortunately in a rather poor condition.
But Jeroen was still struggling with his health and this story desperately needs a happy end, so luckily the magical shamanistic powers of Olkhon island in lake Baikal provided just that. Just dipping your hand into the water of lake Baikal should already lengthen your life by a full year! We wandered onto the beach without much of a plan, when a friendly group of Russian hippies invited us into their camp. One of them was a bit too enthusiastic about the magical powers of the island, as he believed every plant, bush or tree to be magically edible (which he gladly demonstrated to us), but camping there on the beach for 8 days did cure Jeroen from his Altai cough and gave us all the energy we needed to hitch our way back and into Mongolia!
Not to get all too political all of a sudden, we’ll leave that until we leave Russia, but let’s see where such a provocative title could take us.
First, out of Pavlodar, our last Couchsurfing address in Kazakhstan, a country which shares a lot of the same democratic values as its aforementioned big bother. The family we stayed with had some of their own political struggles. They were homeschooling their five children, which is not officially allowed. The mother and kids fled the country to homeschool in India and Nepal and it took the Nepal earthquake for the local school director to urge them to come back and work out a solution.
Much respect to the mother, as she took care of the home and the schooling ánd the Couchsurfer guests. With five kids, two parents, us two and another Couchsurfing guest in a two-bedroom apartment its safe to say that it was an intense two days.
But our journey continued further eastwards, still without much sleep. We happily took the quick and easy option to cross the border back into Russia by train and would have taken a second train or bus further east, but there wasn’t any leaving anytime soon, so we started walking out with our thumbs in the air once more. Not soon after, we were sitting in a car with a mother and her daughter and son on their way to an outdoor church musical recital, to which we were cordially invited. The gathering thunderclouds hadn’t deterred the crowd, consisting mostly of babushkas and dedushkas, but the gusting winds played their part, cracking the sound of the music from the speakers. Linda offered the wind protector of our microphone, which didn’t help them much, but as the rain started coming down it was time to break up the concert anyway.
As we got back in the car, we were spontaneously invited for a small tour through the city of Kulunda, where we learned about the (to that point to us unknown) honeysuckle berries and the local soda lakes. The mother didn’t want to send us out into the light rain, but after some strong convincing on our part we were allowed to leave the car. As a joke, we got all five of us lined up with our thumbs in the air for the next passing car. It must have been a convincing image, as the driver actually stopped. We said our goodbyes and hopped in, hoping to make it to some of the bigger lakes to camp for a few days. Our driver, Ivan, told us he was driving straight to Barnaul, our destination for the upcoming language camp. Hinging back and forth on taking a breather or taking a quick ride into the city, the prospect of heavy rain, salty water, no shower, and many mosquitos, swayed us to stay in our comfortable seats of the big and fast Mercedes SUV. As we were happily chatting away in Russian, all thanks to Google Translate, Ivan was so kind to invite us for the night to his home. After Ivan collected all the groceries, we prepared a wonderful meal together. The local unrefined sun seed oil we used for the salad dressing was amazing and as Jeroen strategically tried to keep his whiskey glass half-full (to not have it refilled), we moved with a bottle of wine, some melon and a guitar to the penthouse balcony, where we spent the rest of the evening with an incredible nighttime view of the city.
After we kindly declined to stay a second night, we made our way to a hostel where we locked ourselves in a room to catch up on some overdue sleep. Here we met a few rather remarkable characters, although they probably thought the same about us, as we would often hear the aroused words Germania and Njemski (German) from behind a corner or a closed door. We decided to not overthink it and made our way to the language school where we met the other volunteers from the UK and France. We spent a few wonderful days with the Russian counselors/cameraman Polina, Anja and Slava (thanks for hosting us!) and the other volunteers in Barnaul, before heading out with about 90 kids to the 10-day language camp in Chemal in the Altai mountains.
To get an idea what it was like to be a camp-counselor, which brings us back to our title of a modern day gulag, we put together a small video, which you can find in our film section (Bad counselor). Of course we weren’t mean to the kids áll the time, but we did have lots and lots and lots and lots of fun. The hardest part was answering questions about whether we like Russia, to which we honestly answered that the country is beautiful and the people are incredibly friendly, while mostly leaving out anything political. Self-censorship is a shameful consequence of an oppressive regime, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’re still inside Russia. Did we already say it’s beautiful here?
Outside, behind the windows lies the incredible vastness of the Kazakh steppe. Not a tree in sight, only the blurred line of hills far away. Here and there a herd of horses or cows, a pray bird, and the occasional dusty road. At the moment, however, we cannot see any of this, because the windows of the bus, our last hosts maneuvered us in, are hung shut with curtains. With our deep dive into the Kazakh culture form the day before, the orange curtains come as a welcome change. More on that later, because much has happened on our way here.
We return to Moscow. After hopping and jumping over various motorway crossings, we continued our journey east. First with Olek, a self-proclaimed Russian gangster. We did our best to try and ignore that, to not get involved in any dubious business-deals, and tried not to pay too much attention to the self-made tattoo on the palm of his left hand. Except for the somewhat aggressive style of driving, we felt safe with Olek. Perhaps as he seemed impressed by our fearlessness (we jokingly refered to it as stupidity) to sleep in the wild with our small palatka (tent) between the medved (bears).
Not soon after we would have our first night sleeping behind a petrol station. Not a bear in sight, but plenty of mosquitos militantly buzzing around our heads, forcing us to set up our tent in record time without any discussion on the required amount of tent pegs.
Unfortunately we couldn’t find coffee at the petrol station the next morning, but instead we found Vladimir, who drove us slowly but steadily in a convoy with two trucks to Cheboksary. In no less than 19 days(!) Vladimir accompanied the trucks with farming equipment from the Netherlands to Vladivostock! Why he was driving alongside them in his car we weren’t able to figure out.
We decided to go further south and when we parted ways we camped out beside the motorway once more, luckily without any unwanted visits by bears or wolves. The next morning we met the wonderful Renaz and John who drove us with great enthusiasm to their home town Chistobal, where we were invited by Renaz’ mother to have traditional Tatar sweet and savory delicacies. With their friend Lera, who spoke fluent English and could answer our many questions, we walked around the smallish city. We learned that Tatarstan is the strongest economical region in Russia, with their own language and a 50-50 divide between Muslims and orthodox Christians.
We were invited to stay with Lera in the beautiful Russian-style wooden house of her aunt and uncle. While Lera was doing a top job translating the stories of her aunt from her travels when she was young, we were enjoying the homegrown strawberries from their garden. When Lera and Renaz’ friends came by later that evening, we were pleasantly surprised that instead of vodka, everyone was having tea and shisha.
The next morning we were treated on Blinis (buckwheat pancakes) from Lera’s aunt, after which we were dropped of at the bus station to take us back to the motorway. Here we had our first panic-attack: Jeroen couldn’t find his passport. Renaz and his friend Alina raced back, while Lera tried to convince the bus driver to wait just a few more minutes, when to our great relief Jeroen found his passport tucked away in a small inside compartment of his backpack. After a couple of good-bye pictures, we continued our way east.
From a deserted petrol station we were then picked up by Kamil, who dropped us off at the exit toward Ufa, and showed us in the translation app of his tablet what we have experienced during our trip as well: “All people are inherently good. Sometimes they do bad things, but I still try to see the good in them”. The motto was confirmed not long after, when the cctv camera installer Evgeny took us in for an 850 km drive to Chelyabinsk, only stopping to treat us on Borscht or to show us nice viewing points, although we couldn’t actually see that much, as it was pitch-dark in the middle of the night. While we were trying to teach each other some English and Russian, Evgeny called his wife to organize a train ticket for us to Astana in Kazakhstan. Every week Evgeni drives thousands of kilometers around Russia, which is hard to comprehend when you are from a country as small as the Netherlands.
Not only the size of the country is impressive, the rivers (such as the Wolga) are huge as well, but they all pale in comparison to the size of the Russian women’s high heels. How they effortlessly walk around in shoes with 25 cm heels is beyond us. We spotted only one shoe-related accident, but it didn’t stop the girl in question to bravely continue limping forward in her fashionably high heels.
In contrast to this self-inflicted torture, widespread among Russian women, our stay in the train to Astana was most enjoyable. We spent most of the 1000 km laying down, catching up on some sleep, while enjoying our view of the vast Kazakh steppe. In Astana we found our way to Sergey and Nathalia, who introduced us to the incredible Kazakh hospitality by not only offering us a place to sleep, but also by showing us around the city on bike. The city is an architectural playground, with many exotic buildings scattered across a Soviet-style infrastructural city, which was nothing but steppe before it was made the new capital city of Kazakhstan about 15 years ago. In winter, the temperature can drop to below minus 40 degrees Celsius and during snowstorms, the police closes down the city to prevent high-risk and costly rescue operations from people that get stuck in the snow. Something that was hard for us to imagine, while cruising through the city in our slippers and t-shirts. It didn’t turn out to be our last taste of the Kazakh hospitality.
As we continued our journey, we noticed that another pronounced trait of the Kazakhs is their curiosity. Many drivers, even those who were going in the other direction, stopped to ask us what we were up to. Fortunately, we’ve learned by now how to explain our travel plans in Russian. Not soon after we were taken in by a driver who was incredibly friendly to us, until he suspiciously asked whether we were “globalization agents” and proceeded to express strong nationalistic tendencies as well as his rather pronounced homophobia. We felt somewhat flattered to be seen as agents, but were also a little sad. To Europe he would not want to travel, since all people were gay. In addition, the Netherlands is a drug-infested country. We decided to think of Kamil’s motto: “All people are inherently good, but sometimes they do bad things…”.
Our driver tried to convince us not to continue on our planned route along small roads, but to go with him to the closest bigger city, as there would be more traffic. But we were looking for adventure and decided to try our luck. After waiting for half an hour at the crossroads of a dusty road and not a single car passing by, we slowly lost heart. We had some entertainment though, with a stranded bus on the side of the road full of curious Kazakhs who, after some hesitation and initial reluctance, decided to come over and ask us about our trip.
Fortunately, one of the many small police stations was located near by, so we walked up to one of the police officers. We learned that our preferred route was not so bad, but with a desperately gesticulating “nje machina” (no car) we made it clear that we had been rather unsuccessful thus far. The friendly policeman then offered to drive us over the deserted road to a better crossing. After a few unsuccessful attempts he managed to get the engine going and so we drove with blue lights further in the direction of Pavlodar, cheerfully waving at the guys of the bus
The new intersection also lent itself much better for hitchhiking and after two short rides we got in the car with Sertay and Alma, who gave us enough experiences for an entire week in just one day, which brings us to our second story of the amazing Kazakh hospitality. Sertay and Alma did not seem to be bothered by our inability to speak Russian and happily chatted away at us. We mostly nodded and smiled, trying to catch a word or two from what they were saying. They invited us over for tea and lunch with their relatives in a nearby village and while we enjoyed the excellent fish, we tried as hard as we could to scrape together the little Russian we know, to try and communicate with them. As we later drove further up toward Pavlodar we passed a group of guys on horses in the steppe. Sertay hit the brakes and drove up to them to ask what they were up to. Immediately we were involved as advertising models in a promotional film for a national park. We were interviewed and asked to say “Kazakhstan chorosho” (Kazakhstan is good) many times. Linda got her head wrapped with a flag of the national park and was then hoisted up a horse, all carefully registered on camera.
When we finally arrived around 6pm in Sertay and Alma’s small village Radnikovsky, located in the middle of the steppe along the Irtysh-Karaganda channel, which supposedly runs all the way from China to Russia, we were even invited to spend the night. Sertay immediately put an end to the last aspirations we had to try and be vegetarian, when he said “bèh” and “shish kebab” a couple of times with a twinkle in his eyes while sliding a finger across his throat. As we tried our best to convince them not to go through so much trouble for us, more and more people from the village came round to have a glimpse at the tourists, word got around quickly. Luckily Gulmira dropped by as well, their daughter in law who spoke perfect English. She took us on a walk through the small village, and told us about her wedding from a few months ago (in Kazakhstan it’s not a wedding unless at least 300 guests are invited) as well as the challenges and beauties of getting used to her new life in the countryside. She also treated us on some kind of horse-buttermilk, which tasted rather interesting and unusual. We both obediently drank up.
When we returned from our walk, Sertay sat calmly on his garden bench and we were already hoping that we had simply misunderstood him. Our hope was quickly shattered when we entered the kitchen with a carved up lamb lying before Alma on the kitchen table. Sertay had probably diplomatically sent us away to not burden the faint-hearted souls of us Western Europeans. We imagined to still see a few hastily wiped away blood spatters on the wall.
So a feast was prepared and a few other people from the village came by to see the new village attraction, according to Gulmira we were the first tourists to have ever visited their village. Alma was running around the kitchen with a dough roller and head scarf in her hair to not only prepare the shashlick, but also a traditional horse-sausage and a Kazakh dish made with dough.
We ate and drank, with the poor Gulmira serving as our translator, as Sertay repeatedly uttered short speeches about friends and hospitality, to which a new glass of vodka was raised each time. It was an incredible party and when we finally went to sleep, Sertay even tried to apologize to us for not finding the time to heat up the sauna.
After a solid breakfast the next morning we were then maneuvered into the bus, because our hosts wouldn’t allow us to simply stand and wait next to the road. Behind the orange curtains we left Sertay and Alma’s family in deep gratitude. We have now arrived in Pavlodar where we were spontaneously invited by couchsurfers Yura and Svetlana and their five cute little kids. Some sleep would be really good now.
As quickly as we made it from the outskirts of Kiev to Moscow, we managed in one day, so slowly did we move in between. We had only planned to stay in Moscow for 3 nights, and yet we have been here a week already. Partly due to the unfriendly nature of the Russian visa requirements, here we are degraded as a tourist to a mere “Input”, but more on that later.
First: Kiev. We were warned that it is no easy hitchhiking destination from Odessa, although it seemed straightforward enough on the map. But as we took turns waving our КИЕВ (Kiev) sign, smiling to the cars passing by and flashing the red and blue of our bright colored ponchos while walking up to people at a nearby petrol station with our best “privjet” (hi), we gave in to the rain and the temptation of a nice warm seat on a bus. It also got us in time to our next Couchsurfing address with Sonya and her fluffy (definitely not fat) cat Ted and her pet snail Isha. Not soon after, Jeroen was unsuccessfully running after Ted to get him to perform on video, while Linda was showering Isha on her hand in the sink. Ted was not amused by Jeroen’s frantics, but, as far as body language goes for snails, Isha was having an awesome time.
As did we. Kiev is a beautiful city and Sonya showed us some of it’s most beautiful places. After sharing a nice Warenyky meal (see our film section), we were on our way to the biggest country in the world: Russia!
The tip we got from hitchwiki.org was “Do not accept any rides to the city of Brovary, as there will be no useful spots to hitchhike along the road”. We felt confident we had communicated perfectly where we needed to go. Not soon after, we were dropped off in Brovary.
As the rain started coming down in buckets we decided to make the most out of it and find a cheap hotel. In this rather smallish city we felt we couldn’t possibly miss out on something. So like Isha, we decided to curl up in our little home and stay inside, which turned out to be so comfortable, that we decided to take things easy and stay two more nights. Lo and behold when we went for a walk on the third day, Brovary was putting Transnistria to shame in all it’s old Soviet glory, with wide streets, big arches, fighter plains in parks and a selection of battle tanks for children to play on.
But we were on our way to Russia, so to Russia we must go. With the help of Larissa and her husband and the incredible friendliness of Sascha to make a big detour for us and drive us all the way to the border, we seemed to have refound our speed again. Although the momentum was abruptly halted, when we got to the Russian side of the border portal. For no apparent reason we were left standing, melting like a slug in the blazing sun, until finally, we were allowed to enter the “Input” line for Russia. After the final necessary recitation of famous Dutch and German football players with the last border patrol, we had made it into the land of 11 time zones: Russia.
We quickly got back up to speed again when Andrew 1 and Andrew 2 picked us up, as they were on their way to where we wanted to go: Moscow! We don’t know how many of our nine lives we lost on that journey, but somehow we managed to come out alive. Andrew 2 told us: “don’t worry, this is Russian style of driving”, which made us wonder why we were the only ones overtaking others. Andrew 1, while overtaking someone on the right, reassured us; “I did a safety test for driving many years ago, I have a certificate”. Well, why don’t you just unfasten your seat belt, close your eyes and get some sleep, this man has got a certificate…
As we got off our hot tin roof, we refound our slower, more comfortable pace again and had a great time exploring the city of Moscow with Couchsurfer Fedor and his two little sisters. The sisters, around 9 and 14 years old, were pushed by their big brother to speak English with us, in full sentences. When we asked whether they liked cats, a simple yes or no was not cutting it. Fedor forced them to correctly repeat the question and to reply in whole sentences, “they may not like me now, but they will thank me for it later”. We think they enjoyed it quite a bit and as soon as both got over their initial shyness, they really got going. Our favorite one, was: “What is your hobby?” The nine year old: “I like old pre-revolution buildings… at night”.
And when we found out that the visa hassle back home and at the border was not good enough for good old Putin, we need to register in the first city we enter ánd in each city where we stay for more than 7 days, we decided to once again curl up in our little home and take it easy, while waiting for the necessary paper work to come through.
Lesson 1: Russia has a plan
Lesson 2: A cucumber is not a cobra
Lesson 3: Odessa is beautiful
Before we move on to Lesson 1, let us quickly recap. From Dracula’s castle we walked up to the road again and we almost started to feel bad. We had just left so much comfort behind and then this: the first car that passed stopped with a waving German flag right in front of us and the friendly Nelu, a young Moldovan with surprisingly good German skills, drove us straight into Moldova, our desired destination. Nelu operated his own transport service between southern Germany and Moldova. Apart from the two seats in his minibus he even invited us for lunch and took us all the way to Orheil. The second hand market between Germany and Moldova is booming. What is no longer needed in Germany lands in one of the many minibuses. Even many of the cars around here are all second hand cars from Germany.
Due to the long wait at the border crossing between Romania and Moldova we arrived late at the junction for Orheil vechi (old Orheil, Nelu recommended us to visit its monastery), where a friendly Russian-speaking Moldovan picked us up and, despite our language difficulties, seemed to be very amused with our idea to try and camp out there. He even dropped us off in front of a sign, which read “Camping”, although there was none in sight. Luckily, the guard of a neighboring hotel(?) allowed us to camp in their garden, as long as we packed up before 8 am the next morning to not scare the other tourists, which he explained to us in Russian with the help of drawings in the sand with a little stick. It meant we could finally set up our 3.1 kg heavy tent, which had been exclusively stored in Jeroen’s backpack since the beginning of our journey, but not without some bickering. Jeroen’s way of setting up the tent roughly consists of putting two poles in the ground and throwing a tarp over it, whereas Linda happily anchors away every little stake firmly in the ground. It probably did not help that we were hungry while doing it. But we worked it out and not soon after, what should have been pasta with tomato sauce, was slowly simmering on our petrol cooker. While our mood improved, the pasta was becoming squishy. Very, very squishy.
Fresh and rested the next morning we explored Orheil vechi and shot a small film, which you can find in the film section of our blog. We were enthusiastically chasing after bees, butterflies and grazing goats with our camera, when we suddenly heard the sound of bells. When we walked up to the monk in the bell tower, he invited us to visit an ancient monastery inside a cave.
From Orheil vechi we decided to spend a few days in a hostel in Chisinau and relax. In addition to the Soviet architecture and beautiful parks, we discovered Moldova’s excellent wine in Chisinau! Almost the entire country is riddled with vineyards and in Chisinau we indulged in its many different varieties. Despite the extremely low prices, it caused our stay in Moldova (the poorest country we visited so far), to be the most expensive part of our journey..
From Chisinau we traveled to the small village Romanovca (before known as Rohrbach), where Linda’s grandfather lived as a child. The people in the village were very confused about our visit and very helpful in their efforts to help us leave. Thus a lady approached us and asked: “niet Ruski, niet Moldawi?” Arguably, this would mean as much as “what the hell are you doing here?”. We then tried to persuade her to draw something in our booklet, to which she wrote something in Russian, which we of course did not understand. Later at the hostel we got the friendly Olga to translate it for us. It read: “You need a translator”. Even without any translators we managed to find the one small village shop, which also functions as the only bar, where we were treated on free water and ice cream. We must have looked very helpless, as more and more Romanovcanian women were brought in to help arrange a taxi out of the village for us. While waiting for the taxi, the nice Svetlana invited us into her home and treated us on strawberries, pastries and Palinka. With the help of our own drawings we were able to explain why we visited Romanovca. Svetlana’s face lit up and she immediately offered us to spend the night and visit one of the last German houses in Romanovca. Unfortunately the taxi was already on its way and we did not want all previous efforts from the friendly ladies in the shop to go to waste, so after a quick look at the German house we were on our way back to Chisinau again.
Our next adventure was to take place in a country that does not exist. A country in which the flags still fly with a sickle and hammer. A country in which the red star still shines bright. We were on our way to Transnistria. Already at the border it felt as if we went 30 years back in time into the Soviet Union, reminding us of a 70s Russian propaganda film. Contrary to our initial fears, we met a very friendly Transnistrian border patrol officer. Soon after, we found ourselves in the midst of a crowded market and a maze of Cyrillic letters in Tiraspol, with a Russian voice echoing through the loudspeaker.. We were glad that we could decipher the Cyrillic alphabet to find our way past the many Lenin monuments on to the bridge over the Nistra to Victor in Kitskani, our couchsurfing address. After some skeptical looks toward us and our big backpacks of many passersby, we were picked up by Lydia who dropped us off at the gates of Victor’s place. Apparently, everyone in the village knows Victor as the one person to invite international visitors to his house.
Victor was busy preparing rabbit food and after showing us his chaotic (to put it mildly) house, he gave us some matches and took us down the rabbit hole that is his underlying subterranean labyrinth of corridors and pass-ways. We felt like Alice in Wonderland crawling into his underground rabbit-house made from clay walls and glass bottles, allowing a dim light to project bright colors through. Victor’s current plan (he has many) is to breed rabbits in order to secure a small income. Although his big dream is to turn his house into a hostel. Victor’s many ideas and his enthusiasm are wonderful and if he can create some order in his chaos at home, it could turn into something beautiful. But first we had to go to the immigration services. Those who want to stay longer than 24 hours in Transnistria must be registered by the host in person, so the three of us were now on our way back again to Tiraspol. For a 57 year old Transnistrian Victor showed surprisingly good English skills, which is a great exception in this small country that does not really exist, and revealed to us something that brings us back to Lesson 1: “Russia has a plan”. Transnistria is positioned in an extremely hard predicament. Legal export is almost completely blocked, while import is only limited possible, mainly via Ukraine. Everything that does actually function in Transnistria, not counting corruption and mafia, only works because of big brother Russia. According to Victor many Transnistrians want to reunite with Russia. The only small problem in between is the Ukraine. According to Victor and our later hosts in Odessa, Russia had already planned to divide up the Ukrainian territory. The southern and eastern part of Ukraine would be annexed to connect Transnistria with Russia. The area north of Moldova and Romania could then belong to Romania and the rest could simply be added to Poland or remain independent. Badabing, problem solved.
At least for Transnistrians, as they would have little to no chance in the EU due to language difficulties. Not that they would want to join, as their television channels seem to be portraying a rather negative image of the EU: flooded by refugees and deprived of values. All the while showing regular Russian army muscle-flexing on tv, as we observed from Alex’ (we met him through Couchsurfing as well) family kitchen, while enjoying his mother’s soljanka. Alex showed us around Tiraspol and invited us to his home, to the initial dismay of his parents. We were of course strangers and foreigners are usually no good. After a quick peek out the window they invited us in and were happily reassured when we uttered our dutifully rehearsed Russian words “hello”, “thank you” and later “goodbye”. We spent a wonderful evening drinking Moldavian wine from the tap along the Nistra river, next to a neon-lit disco bridge with a loud party boat occasionally passing by.
But let us first return to Victor and our registration, which was a surprisingly quick process despite the animosity of the security officers. Next, we headed to the “Sheriff” supermarket to get groceries. Apart from supermarkets, Sheriff also has gas stations, a mobile phone company, even a stadium. Victor told us the founder is a former policeman who made a lot of money with smuggling, which he later turned into investment money. We decided to try and make borscht, to which Victor insisted on inviting his neighbor Nadia who helped us make the best borsch we ever tasted. We had a wonderful dinner in Victor’s beautiful wild garden with an excellent Moldovan wine, philosophizing about ideas how to turn Victor’s place into his desired hostel.
A highlight of our stay in Transnistria was the Kitskani’s St. Nikolas village fest. Victor took us to a ceremony in the Orthodox Monastery, but not before Linda dressed up as a Babushka with headscarf and skirt. It was a true theatre spectacle, with the women on the left and the men on the right, simultaneously bowing and crossing to the harmonious chants of the monks. The priests, dressed in bright colored robes with magnificent beards, paraded around and kissed a large golden bible in various formations entering from two doors positioned near the main stage. After the ceremony the abbot came storming out of the church with great delight, fiercely flinging holy water toward his followers. We were smacked in the face with a big load of water, as did everyone else who came within reach.
In the park the village festival then began, where the secular and the Christian gathered to watch performances by the youth and the elderly. Strangest was the honoring of the mothers of Kitskani, with a group of about 5 young mothers successively pushing their bundle of joy in front of the stage in a circle and being awarded with a homemade medal in the form of a stroller by the mayor. Later the elderly people who were still working after retirement age were being honored. All in all, the village festival was a great success and we even returned late at night with Victor and Alex, who had ventured into the village to meet up with us again. A diskoteka with Russian dance music was taking place in front of the community center, with an oversized bust from Lenin, fortunately, looking in the opposite direction. With the neon lights coming down on the party crowd and the back of Lenin’s head, we celebrated our last night in Transnistria.
Alex decided to accompany us the next day on our onward journey to Odessa. Perhaps he wanted to help us cross the infamous Transnistrian- Ukrainian border, or perhaps he was just looking to escape his work as a freelance programmer in Tiraspol a little while longer. We all got across without any problems and after a long march with our luggage through Odessa, we reveled in the beauty of the black sea from the beach with a well deserved beer in our hand.
But before we move on to this lesson number 3, we must first touch on lesson number 2: “A Cobra is not a cucumber.” Around 9 pm we made it to our Couchsurfing host Yaroslav, yoga teacher and mixed martial arts professional. In addition to a very nice evening with wine, strawberries, cherries and chocolate, Jeroen received a free yoga class as well, after complaining a bit too loud about a slight stiffness in his back. One of the principles of yoga, Yaroslav taught us the night before, is that one should not criticize. How that was to fit with the yoga class that followed, will forever remain a mystery. It all started with a harmless “sun greeting” routine. When Jeroen however leaned down and, due to his inability to touch the ground with the palms of his hands, Jeroen received his first complaint from Yaroslav and the fun (for Linda) began! Ity looked more like a military drill-instruction than a relaxing yoga session. Jeroen desperately tried to follow Yaroslav’s instructions with a meek “What? My hip on my knees?” but was soon forced into this impossible position by Yaroslav’s iron grip in the back of his neck. Barely mastering “the down facing dog”, Jeroen was to mimic a plank in a pushup type of position. While Yaroslav was comfortably sitting on the couch and talking on the phone, he made sure Jeroen was holding the required position on his torture mat by occasionally yelling “hold” into his direction. After about 10 minutes of talking on the phone, Yaroslav approached his victim while stating “You’re weak!”. Jeroen’s rebuttal “well …” was immediately swept away by “you are weak, your arms are trembling”. When Jeroen then also remarked “I’m already a plank for the entire length of your call” Yaroslav allowed for a break after uttering: “you’re lazy!” Then came the “cobra” position. The cobra stretches the neck and opens the chest. “You’re not a cobra, you’re a cucumber!” Yaroslav said, while Jeroen feverishly approached the end of his yoga class. But not before Jeroen’s stress pattern was diagnosed as a distorted relation with his family and the stiffness in his leg to some kind of sexual dysfunction. Looking at Linda, as Yaroslav shook Jeroen’s leg, Yaroslav remarked: “see, that should actually be relaxed, he has hidden fantasies.” Finally, at the end of an hour and at the end of Jeroen’s forces, it was time for us to go. As Yaroslav offered Jeroen a final martial arts lesson and a complimentary headlock at the door, we packed our things and ran away like the wind. To our astonishment, however, Jeroen’s enthusiasm for yoga was aroused, because the stiffness in his back felt a lot better after all.
We were happy to have some time in the hostel to relax and work on our blog. The nice Ukrainian Anna, who worked in the hostel, spontaneously offered to show us around the city and took us to some of the most beautiful places in Odessa: small art galleries, the opera, nice little cafes, the harbor, which brings us straight to our lesson number 3: “Odessa is beautiful”.
Despite of all the negative news the Ukraine has been in lately. Many people warned us from traveling to Ukraine. In Ukraine there is war. According to media reports the violence has decreased in the areas (Oblast) Donetsk and Luhansk, although violent conflicts still arise. In the Crimean the political situation is all but stable, but in Odessa you won’t notice any of this. Although some Ukrainians responded to our plans to travel to Russia with a raised eyebrow, Odessa is nothing but a peaceful place after the situation got tense two years ago during the protests on Maidan. The Ukrainians we met told us to simply let our friends know that Odessa is beautiful and they should have no fear to travel to the Ukraine. Most Ukrainians are poor and we were told that (partly due to the currency devaluating) the average income is less than € 150 per month. Despite all this, the country has a lot to offer! You’ll find art and culture, the Black Sea with its beaches, mountains …
“Visit Odessa !!! It’s beautiful here and don’t be afraid.”
Palinka for breakfast, that’s something you don’t see every day. About as often as a free hotel room with a private bathroom at the foot of Dracula’s castle. Although, Dracula’s castle is really more of a watered down Halloween tourist attraction, but still. We haven’t slept and eaten so well since the start of our journey roughly one month ago. What brought us here was a bit of luck, but even more so the incredible hospitality of Maia and her parents, who are running a pension here. The quality of our accommodation probably only went up since we arrived in Romania.
Not long before, we were taken in by Kristzian in Cluj-Napoca, who was our couch surfing guest in Berlin roughly one year ago. Krisztian was looking after the two bedroom apartment of a befriended couple, as well as their ten cats. Which makes it even more thoughtful that he was willing to take care of us as well! Still, we decided to sleep on the kitchen floor, the only cat-free room of the house, because a war was going on among the cats. The two inhabitants of the smaller room didn’t get along with the other eight inhabitants of the larger room (not counting humans). It made us come up with a cat-deterring strategy for crossing the apartment: open the front door, sneak in, close the front door. Shove a couple of cats to the side, open the kitchen door, jump in and quickly close the door again. The same procedure for the bathroom. Made matters got worse, when we would want to go from the small room with the two cats to the larger room. Here we had to avoid cats from either side to slip through to prevent a hissing contest from breaking out. It made our visit to the botanical garden, its fresh air, and the time we spent with our private guide Kristzian all the more enjoyable.
After two nights we were on our way to the “gipsy village” Huedin, hitch hiking all the way down to our planned stay on a small farm in Rachitele. There wasn’t much traffic going from Cluj, as the city was practically deserted due to the orthodox Easter sunday. Eventually a small van picked us up. The friendly driver was making his way to Belgium. Roughly 2.000 km. without stopping. Luckily for us he was still at the start of his journey. He tried to sooth our mind, by showing us his 2 liter coke bottle, filled with strong coffee.
From Huedin we got a ride to Calata fairly quickly from a bunch of fun energetic guys on a weekend trip to the hills. For Romanian standards, we had surprisingly little competition hitch hiking. In Cluj you’ll find up to 20 people in one spot, waiting to be picked up. There’s also plenty of elderly women, well over 70 years old, waiting for a ride on the side of the road with their grocery bags. A thumb in the air seems to be over doing it around here. According to Kristzian a simple downward hand gesture is all you need for a short distance ride.
From Calata we were taken in by a couple on holidays. They wanted to take a look at the water fall in Rachitele. He was Romanian, living in England, she was Hungarian, living in Romania. We were surprised to hear that our driver gave up his career as a priest in Romania to work as a plumber in London. The reason: “wages in Romania are shit”. His Christian background came shining through though, when he tried to bring us straight to the farm. Driving us with bravoure and determination, in the squeaking and struggling Mazda of his girlfriend, up the steep rocky slopes of the wrong hill. We then decided to convince him that we would also be able to reach the farm by foot, which we regretted not long after. After the relatively light way down the wrong hill, we were left with our back packs and a 3 km climb straight up the right mountain. At the farm, preparations were being made to celebrate Easter. Here we met Guillaume, a friendly guy from France, who took part in a 2 month long shepherd program. He took his much needed socializing breaks on Sunday evenings at the farm and had hand picked a lamb, that was now slowly simmering in the oven. Our efforts to try and eat mostly vegetarian, were immediately out the door yet again. Hard labor was required on the farm and for that you need to eat well. The food was excellent, although we missed preparing our own food as well. There was a “totalitarian regime” in place, in the words of the self-proclaimed sheriff of the farm, who took responsibility of the house and courtyard, while his girlfriend ruled over the garden and kitchen. Besides our work in the garden and around the house, which was a lot of fun and taught us a lot about ecological gardening and traditional construction work, we also learned a valuable lesson: “give the people Palinka and they will work hard forever”. Not only the Palinka, but also the fun nights with the other servan… erm volunteers with camp fires and guitar music made our stay in Rachitele a wonderful experience, from which we’ll cherish many positive memories. We admire how the owners of the farm shared their knowledge with all the helpers and how they built strong relations within their local community. One of our daily tasks was to bring milk from the elderly farmer Abraham, who would invite us in for a Palinka, or two. Even though Abraham had mostly eyes for his female visitors, Jeroen would get a sip of Palinka as well.
A visit to the market in Huedin was a highlight as well. A small group of beautifully dressed Roma girls, who spent their holidays from Ireland in one of the palaces in Huedin, invited us to take their pictures and were curious to learn more about our journey. Shortly after we got talking with some more people in the “gypsy bar”. We played music on a horribly out of tune keyboard and were invited for beers by a Romanian guy. Drinking beer, or two, at 11:30 am with nothing but an early morning cereal for breakfast might not have been the brightest idea, but we had a very nice conversation in Spanish, our largest common denominator language wise. Once again, the difficult position of the gypsies in Romania became apparent. Even though gypsies and other Romanians appeared to live relatively peacefully together in Huedin, we have yet to meet anyone from Romania who doesn’t speak negatively about gypsies. There doesn’t seem to be a solution in sight, but the gypsies we met and briefly played music with in Huedin were very friendly to us! At first we struggled to call the Sinti and Roma gypsies, but as we’ve mostly heard from them that it doesn’t matter so much, as long as you’re friendly, we’ll stick with the term for now.
We’ve already left Huedin far behind and are laying in our comfortable hotel beds. We’re very thankful to the guy in Unirea who declined our request to camp in his garden, which made us hitch hike further down the road, where Maia and her father and brother (both called Constantin) picked us up and took us in.
The ice bear calf seemed to be more attached to us than the other way around. On the day we left from the end of the world, the white colossus was galloping happily in front of us. With the three of us, it would be hard to catch a ride, even in Poland. Luckily we were saved by a whistle from Koniec Świata, which caused our third wheel to storm back home. Shortly after, we were already rocking back and forth comfortably again in the cabin of a Polish truck driver.
The driver of our next ride explained a bit gloomy that from the 5 languages he spoke, we could not understand a single one. However, with a smile and a few hand gestures, it wasn’t hard to figure out what just had happened at the Slovakian border. Our driver had left his papers at home, but as soon as he whipped out his black and white collar (it turned out our driver was a priest), we immediately got a green light and were happily cruising down into Slovakia.
Where hitchhiking in Poland seemed like a breeze, in Slovakia we had to put in a little more effort. We did net some smiles after taking out our secret weapon, the ukulele, but even that didn’t make up for what was probably just a bad location on our part. Because just one village further down the road we caught a ride almost immediately and were even invited to sleep over.
That is how, after four days of wilderness, we ended up under a warm shower and with some pizza and Palinka. Lots of Palinka. An uncle across the road had his own distillery and showed us, while consuming lots of Palinka, the fine art of distilling alcohol from fermented fruit. During breakfast, we struggled to get down our yoghurt and tea and realized that we were still in need of much training before we would get to Russia. Equipped with a liter of Palinka and some homemade blueberry jam stored in our backpack, we even got a ride to the nearby Prešov. The only favor we were asked in turn, was to come back after our journey to tell about our stories.
Prešov was a jump away from Košice, where we decided to recover from the night before. Two nights in a hostel gave us the opportunity to work on our blog and led us to discover the surprisingly nice city of Košice. A member of staff from the hostel gave us a tip about an underground bar, the Collosseum, a superbly well-hidden punk-metal bar, with a confusing amount of stairs, doorways and backrooms. A beer for one euro per pint was a welcome change to the Palinka the night before.
We continued towards Romania with a longer stopover at the Hungarian-Slovakian border. After a slight hesitation, the friendly Roman backed up for us and then even drove an hour in the wrong direction to drop us at a good petrol station to hitchhike further to Romania. There we could make good use of our cardboard sign with the letters “RO” which we laughingly held up high, while smiling at Adi and pointing at his Romanian number plates with the same letters. Adi, seemingly amused, agreed to take us in, which made cross Hungary within a day.
Before we even got to our senses in Oradea in Romania or could point our thumbs in the air, Nelu approached us and asked whether he could take us to Cluj, our final destination for that day. Slightly swaying from left to right, with his thumb on his smart phone to proudly show us pictures of his rooster, we drove towards Cluj in record time. We couldn’t help but notice the gypsy palaces with the beautifully and fragile metal decorated roofs in the nearby Huedin. A statement of an excluded community with the necessary social problems, because despite all the outside glamour, the houses were neither finished from the inside nor inhabited. After a final coffee, instead of a Palinka (Nelu still had to drive), we headed towards what was to become our most special stay, in Cluj.
Om het makkelijker te maken voor iedereen die we onderweg ontmoeten om ons blog te lezen, hebben we besloten verder in het Engels te bloggen. Je vindt onze nieuwe blog-updates door op de corresponderende vlaggetjes rechts bovenin je scherm te klikken!