Chris' 1994  R100GS/PD ULTIMATE JOURNEY Erin's 1997  F650

Living a Dream . . . 2 Live-N-Ride

October 7, 1999 -- 19 countries and 15,000 miles later

Fears about traveling in Romania and Bulgaria are unfounded
-- Story by Chris --

Back in May when we began this journey, the route from Hungary to Greece was uncertain:  The Kosovo situation in Yugoslavia was unclear, Albania's borders were closed, and the warnings of rampant crime in Romania and Bulgaria put us a bit on edge.  Our "failsafe" plan was to drive down the eastern coast of Italy, then take a ferry to Greece.

Italy is a country we've visited a few times, and although we have not been to the south, we probably will go there in the future.  Although the Dalmatian coast is said to be beautiful, and the route would require a short time in western Yugoslavia, the main problem is the 20 miles of Albania's coast to get around, and the ferries would be expensive.  We traded emails with fellow BMW rider Jim Herne in Bucharest, Romania, and he assured us that if we were cautious, travel through Romania and Bulgaria would be fine and very rewarding.  We decided that we would probably never otherwise visit Romania and Bulgaria in the future, so here we are!

Before we left Hungary, we were called back to do another TV interview, this time for an internet program.  The interview lasted about 20 minutes, and I answered all my questions in Hungarian, which was a bit challenging for me (the co-anchors translated into Hungarian Erin's answers).  During this week back in Budapest we also met another American, Steve Duz, living there but is now contemplating "the big trip".   Steve decided to come with us across the border to Romania.

Horkai Family and GrandmaOn Sunday morning (Oct 3rd), after saying goodbye to family and friends, we departed Budapest.  Jim had given us a few route suggestions, and we figured it would take one day to get to Transylvania, one day to Bucharest, and one day through Bulgaria to the Greek border.   This would be a total of 3 days, and we'd be in Greece by the 6th.  Umm, today is Oct 7th, and we're still in Bulgaria.

We got a late start from Budapest, and only reached the Romanian border in the late afternoon.  We don't carry much cash, and rely on getting local currency from ATM machines (which also give the best exchange rate and no commission). Steve planning to follow his own dreams -- maybe we'll see him in OZ Steve changed some money at the border, and we figured we could get cash in the first city, Chisineu-Cris.  When we arrived, we discovered the city was actually a small town, there was no bank, and darkness was rapidly approaching.  The countryside looked impoverished, and we were getting nervous about our options.    Instead of heading into the mountains, we turned south and headed to the city of Arad, were we found an ATM and a hotel with secure parking (the major concern).  Steve had to work Monday, so we said goodbye to him in Chisineu-Cris and talked about maybe meeting next year in OZ (a.k.a. Australia).

Monday's plan was to ride to Bran, visit Dracula's castle, and get to Bucharest in the evening.  Boy were we wrong.  The economic problems in Romania are especially apparent in the poor road condition -- which hasn't been attended to in years.  Although the roads were paved, the surface was covered with bumps and crevices, and felt like riding across ocean waves made of cement.  Add to this the narrow 2 lane roadways (one lane each direction), comprised of hundreds of horse drawn carts, shabby cars, diesel spewing trucks and trailers, luxury sedans piloted by competitive drivers, and meandering cattle (including baby pigs!)-- I guess this is a taste of what India might be like.

After passing multiple police "stops" without incident, we were finally stopped in the middle of nowhere, along a shaded roadway and between towns.   To make a long story short, we negotiated a $60 speeding fine down to $9 -- Off the record, of course and paid in cash directly to the officer.   Erin was frustrated by the obvious shakedown, but I looked at it as good practice for the future.  Upon reflection, I probably could have gotten away with paying only $6.

We arrived in Brasov, north of Bran, around 5:00pm, and called Jim to tell him not to expect us (He already knew this from our location at our lunchtime call.)  We found a pension, actually a room in a private home, for $18 including secure parking, and went to town for a nice dinner ($10).  The next morning, we got a late start as we had trouble starting Erin's bike.  We went to a gas station and checked the battery, but couldn't find a problem.  We checked the voltage throughout the day, and although it was lower than usual, it didn't seem to be a major problem.   We also didn't have much faith in the local service.

Almost immediately after starting into the mountains we arrived in Bran, home to Bram Stoker's Dracula character and the castle where he lived, according to the story.  The castle is a somewhat foreboding structure built atop a rock on the mountain.  Locals say, however, that the story is mostly fiction with a few bits of history thrown in to suit Stoker's tastes.   The Dracula character is based on a guy named Vlad "the impaler" who lived in the mid-1400's.  The locals said this guy never impaled anyone (in fact he might have actually been a chef!) and was actually a hero who fought against their enemies with valor.  The inside of the castle is really like a comfortable chateau with lots of fireplaces throughout, big wooden furniture, elegantly carved wood ceilings and doors, etc.

We left the castle around 2:00pm and headed south through the mountains.  Up until this point, Erin was very unimpressed with Romania -- Bad roads, traffic, lack of scenery, hazy red sky (from all the field fires), beggars, and that we were constantly overcharged a few cents here and there for "incidentals".  But, entering the mountains was extremely different.   The blue sky opened up to reveal rolling hills, lush with green grass, large trees, and the mixture of old (gray) wood homes and new "chalet" style homes in the classic Transylvania style were quite impressive.  We passed many farmers and shepherds along the roads who were dressed in the old style with felt-like hats and wearing vests which looked like the were made either of suede or wool.

Lunch was an interesting experience on the side of the road.  Earlier in the day, we stopped in the mountains at a scenic overview.  There was an old man selling 3 different types of Cheese.   We opted for one of the two "Moooo" varieties; the third was a "Baaaah" (this is how we communicate with theMoooo Cheese locals most of the time.)  Later, we stopped at a small shop with very few options and bought a loaf of bread and some soda.  At about 3:00, we found our lunch spot across from a stream, in a shaded area full of grass.  We had peanut butter (PB) and some left over chips in our food bag, and added to this our purchases from earlier in the day.  Our first visitor was a stray dog, who we fed old bread, and bits of cheese and PB.  This dog was definitely hungry, because he gobbled everything up.  A small boy wandered by asking for money, we gave him a slice of bread with some PB and the remainder of the chips.  Soon after, a couple of other dogs came by, and we fed them too -- Keep in mind the dogs never got too close (they were too scared and we didn't want rabies).

We had just put away our supplies and started to put on our riding gear when an old man was walking by with his load of tree branches (We saw a lot of people throughout the day hauling this kindling).   He had a big smile, and we exchanged pleasantries -- we didn't understand each other. 

I decided to offer him a ride, and he seemed thrilled.  We rode about a mile to his village - a small poor settlement of shacks on the side of the river.  The homes were all very small, made of wood, with small vegetable gardens and there didn't appear to be electricity or indoor plumbing.  The villagers saw us coming, and called out to their friend in amazement -- He was definitely the man of the hour!

Jim, Irena, and her motherWe finally arrived in Bucharest just before dark, after riding only 225kms (135miles) from Brasov.  We stayed with Jim and his wife (Irena), and had a fun evening with them, learning about the issues and concerns in Romania.  Before retiring for the night, we hooked up Jim's battery charger to Erin's bike overnight and kept our fingers crossed.

Wednesday morning, Jim and Irena left for work, and we headed south to the Danube River and the Bulgarian border.   Exiting Romania was no trouble, but entering Bulgaria was kind of funny.  We went to passport control and handed the agent our passports.  He looked at the blue United States passports, then at us, then he said, "Ah, Bill and Hillary Clinton, welcome to my country.  Where's Monica?"  I guess that sums up his idea of the good 'ol U.S., eh?

We passed through Passport Control and Customs without incident, then came to a third official area, which we couldn't quite figure out.  I approached the window and was told this is where we pay for health care and road taxes.  I wasn't sure what this meant, but was soon informed we were tourists and didn't have to pay (I certainly wasn't going to complain).   The gate was opened and we rode through a deep puddle of watery grease, which left a nice residue on our riding clothes -- Welcome to Bulgaria!  We were later told that the puddle is for disinfecting the undercarriage of one's vehicle to prevent the transportation of germs and viruses into the country.  Apparently it's been at all of the Bulgarian border crossings since the 1960's and, although they now know it is a silly and ineffective thing, it continues to exist today.

In Romania, we were warned to be extra careful in Bulgaria -- "It's full of thieves."  We can now say that is a vicious rumor. We stopped for money and lunch in Ruse, a very clean and friendly town.  Our plan was to ride the rest of the day to make Sofia (Bulgarian Capital) by nightfall, as we wanted to find a place to stay with secure parking.  Well, the ride was great.  The roads were, surprisingly, in great shape and we made great time (thanks to the GPS keeping us from getting too lost).   We arrived in Sofia with an hour of daylight remaining.  Although we never really got to see the tourist sights of Sofia it looks like an impressive city. 

The problem in Sofia was finding a hotel -- nothing in our price range anyway.  In such a large city, we could only find 4 and 5 star hotels, at $100+ per night = not on our budget.  We had some addresses of cheap hotels, but couldn't read the Cyrillic road signs.  I walked into the local Harley Davidson shop to see if they had suggestions, and they sent us across the street to meet the owner (Mark) of an American restaurant.  Mark gave us directions to a small town just outside the city where he lives.  It was dark when we left the city in search of accommodations.   We got lost several times, and 20 minutes later we were stopped by a police patrol (no speeding ticket this time, they were just curious about us.)   They headed us in the right direction, and when we went to leave Erin's bike wouldn't start.  We bump-started the bike, and headed off into the night.

Now we knew Erin's volts were dropping so she switched to her parking light and followed close behind me.  We were approaching the exit from the very congested highway when Erin's bike died behind me.  That's right, no streetlights, no shoulder, and going up a hill.  I quickly pulled over and rode back to her position (against traffic).  We eventually pushed the bike across the street, bump-started it again, and Erin rode next to me, now with no lights.  We were both nervous, as we didn't know where we were really going, if we would find a hotel and how soon it would be before the bike would die again.

Climbing the steep little streets up the mountain we found the first hotel was booked, and we meandered a little ways, dodging stray dogs and pedestrians, following signs for other hotels -- at this point we didn't care about the cost.  While looking for one hotel, we happened upon another -- it was more like a pension.  I went inside while Erin kept her bike running.  They had a room for $27 and secure parking.  While putting the bikes in the garage, the owner (Ivayo) showed us his Suzuki GS550, but said the battery was dead.  Funny, I said, so's Erin's.   "I am moto mechanic!" he says. 

What followed over the next 36 hours was truly unbelievable.  It was about 9:30pm, and while Erin unpacked our clothes, Ivayo and I started to set up the battery charger -- This is the extent of what I knew to do.  Thankfully, Ivayo was a pro, and wanted to find the cause of the problem.  The fluid level was low, which was odd because it was normal 2 weeks before.   Ivayo then tested the acid level in the cells, and determined that it was no-good.  We then siphoned the existing fluid, replaced it with fresh battery acid, and set up the charger for the night. 

It was about 11:00pm, and we still hadn't eaten.  Ivayo and I went into town and picked up a couple of pizzas, which we brought back to eat.  Two hours later we went to sleep.

I awoke around 7:30, and went to the garage just before  8:00am.  Ivayo informed me that the battery acid was in the "white".  "Green"=bad; "White"=OK, but barely; and "Red"=good/normal.  We rode the bike around and then tested again. 

Ivayo checking the battery acid on my bike

The end result was that he felt the Voltage Regulator was faulty.  This meant that we could drive during the day without lights, but night driving would leave us stranded.  Ivayo had to run some errands and pick up some car parts.  Afterwards, we swung by the BMW dealer, but they didn't have the part in stock, and it would take 10 days to get it.  Since we would be in Greece in a few days, we decided to have it replaced there.   He then took me up to the mountains where he showed me the mountain he and his brothers used to ski.  In the mid-80's, he was the #1 downhill skier in Bulgaria, and he had a host of trophies, medals, and certificates to back it up.  He also took me to an old monastery in the hills, which was beautiful.

Ivayo was nervous about us breaking down on the way to Greece, and wanted to test the regulator to be sure that it was the sole problem.  We agreed to take the bike to a friend's shop later in the afternoon (around 4pm), as he had a few customer cars to work on.  I woke from my nap around 3:30, and found that Ivayo had already taken the bike to the shop, and he was 100% certain that if we replaced the regulator in Greece, the problem would be solved.   Still, he was very upset he couldn't fix it himself.

I figure Ivayo spent about 9 hours working on the bike(s) for us.  He also paid for our pizza dinner the first night (he refused to let me pay), and wouldn't accept any money for his time with the bikes.  He is far from rich, and works about 14 hours every day.  Friday morning when we left, his father claimed he was sleeping and that Ivayo wouldn't get up -- I knew he was avoiding me because I planned to give him money.   I left some money on his bike and told his father it was for a new battery.  Ivayo is the kindest and most selfless person I've ever met, and while we were in the monastery together, I actually prayed to someday be the same kind of person.

EPILOGUE:  Monday, October 11 -- Athens.
I had called the dealer in Athens before we left Bulgaria to be sure they had a voltage regulator in stock, which they did.   When we arrived at the shop Monday morning, the mechanics checked the regulator, said it was OK, and so was the battery.  We were dumbfounded!  We insisted there was a problem, and we believed it was with the regulator.  The chief mechanic was called over.  He rechecked the regulator, tested some wires the previous guys neglected, and fifteen seconds later he told us the regulator was shot -- Thanks Nikos.  The regulator was replaced with a new one (under warranty), and the bike is running fine.

Imagine if we had found the hotel in Sofia (Bulgaria) we were originally looking for!

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