Our train rides through Romania were unexpected in the lack of sketchiness that our internet research had warned us about, and the openness and friendliness of the people of this country. We generally tried to buy tickets in advance at the train station instead of doing it online, which avoided any internet-related mistakes and allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the route to the train station before we had our heavy packs on our backs. The ticket window people didn’t speak any English but they were generally patient and they weren’t complete jerks like their Russian counterparts.
Romanian train cars are split into eight-seater cabins. Unlike the Russian trains, though, this particular train was filthy. The seats, windows and floors were in bad shape and could’ve used some cleaning with an industrial-grade power steamer or something.
An American couple we met back in Bosnia had told us about riding the trains in Romania and how pickpockets and thieves often preyed on clueless travelers in these confined spaces. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any issues on the four train rides we took through the country.
We boarded the train at Sighisoara early in the morning and settled into our seats, hoping we would be alone in the cabin for the ride to Brasov. No such luck. A smiling middle-aged man came bustling in and sat across from us, immediately asking us questions in Romanian. After realizing that we couldn’t speak a lick of Romanian, we got each other acquainted by having him grab my hand and putting it on a growth on his wrist (shudder). I know it could’ve been worse but at that hour in the morning, I really didn’t need to touch a weird growth on a stranger’s wrist as he repeatedly told us “dialysis” and “renal transplant” in Romanian. We accepted the chocolate croissants he offered us and I choked three of them down. I’m not being ungrateful about free croissants. I’m just not a huge fan of sweet things and these were damp, mushy imitations of croissants that came in a plastic bag and reminded me of pastries served on airplanes. Kindly Bob invited us to come stay with him and his wife in Kluj, but we weren’t heading in that direction.
I have to say, the Romanians are a friendly bunch, especially compared to the rest of the Balkans. At the next stop, a young teenager and her grandmother joined us in our cabin. The grandmother was super cute with a scarf tied around her head and everything. She started trying to speak to us and Bob let her know that we were Japanese tourists. Then two other people came into our cabin at the next stop, and all of a sudden we had an almost full cabin and we were sandwiched between each other’s bags like sardines.
What was strange about this arrangement was that the cabins on either side of us were completely empty but everyone remained squeezed into their assigned seats, smiling politely at one another and trying to give each other as much personal space as possible, which just wasn’t possible. We asked the teenager if we could move into any of the empty cabins and she said yes and maybe. Maybe the locals don’t like to break rules, but we weren’t about to ride three hours in a stuffy cabin, cute little grandmother or not, so we stumbled over legs and feet and moved to the cabin next door.
Watching the scenery outside in Romania was far more interesting than many of the countries we’ve traveled through on trains and buses. Well, besides Russia, where I could spend all day scouring the desolate landscape of Siberia, and France, whose countryside is unmatched in beauty to any other place I’ve been to. But we saw some pretty cool shit in Romania. There was a dead cow in a ditch by an overgrown field, its white fur sinking into the bones underneath. There were men talking around a horse-drawn plow, a big red tassle hanging from the horse’s bridle to ward off the evil eye. An old shepherd huddled in a large wool coat among his herd was straight out of National Geographic (of course, I didn’t get a photo of this). N even saw a guy squatting by the tracks and taking a dump (we didn’t get a photo of this either).
And then there were all of these cement chimneys everywhere, but it looked like they scrapped the building project and left the chimneys standing.
On another ride, we were on a slightly less disheveled train where we met Mary, a small woman with twinkling eyes, who started talking to us once she realized we spoke English. She related her interesting life history to us, told us about the sights and sounds of her home city, and then walked us in the direction of our hotel. She wanted to walk us all the way there but we assured her that we would be able to find our way.
Train rides are calming. Sometimes incredibly so, and I always find myself a little sad when the journey comes to an end. This was was no exception, made more pronounced by the fact that this was our last train ride for this leg of our world exploration trip. We vowed to come back to explore more of this country, to hike the Tatras, explore the painted monasteries in the north and of course, to ride more trains.
If you’re traveling through the Balkans by bus, there a few things you should know. The most important thing is that the people here are late for everything, they cannot sit on a bus for more than an hour at a time and timetables seem to be a mere suggestion and not something anyone takes seriously.
By the time we took the seven hour bus ride from Sarajevo to Belgrade, we had armed ourselves with blog posts about this ride. Some lamented the seven hour ride which actually ended up taking nine+ hours, while others talked about the driver nodding off as he maneuvered himself around curvy, narrow mountain paths. We mentally prepared ourselves to never get to Belgrade alive, bravely approached the surly woman behind the ticket sales counter and bought 20 euro tickets for the old-school Transprodukt bus.
We left late, but at least it was only by about 15 minutes. It was a cold Wednesday morning and we handed our backpacks to the driver, a towering man (did we mention that the Balkan people are enormously tall?) who gruffly threw our stuff under the bus. We settled into the cold bus with seven other passengers and we were off.
We stopped constantly. I mean, we stopped after about 10 minutes to pick up a couple of girls off the side of the road, and then again 10 minutes later to pick up a few more people. We stopped an hour into the ride for 30 minutes at some random bus station, where N had to deal with the “Turkish style” (squat) toilets. After another hour, we stopped again by a restaurant on top of a mountain for a 30-minute lunch break. I needed to use the bathroom, and of course, there was no toilet on this bus. I watched as an older man went inside the restaurant, came back out and ambled over to a wooden shack perched on the edge of the road with the letters “WC” painted on two of its barely-hinged doors. Oh hell no.
After leaving Tallinn, we decided to stop for a few days in Vilinius, Lithuania, mainly to avoid taking a 24-hour bus ride from Tallinn to Krakow. The bus ride was about 9 hours and it wasn’t as enjoyable us our previous ride, but it was acceptable. Most people go from Tallinn to Riga, spend a couple of nights in Riga, and then head to Vilnius, but we only have 90 days in the Shengen Zone so we didn’t want to spend too much time in the Baltic cities. Sorry, Baltic peeps.
For many foreigners, riding the Trans-Siberian rail across the vast Russian countryside is a once-in-a-lifetime travel adventure. Most of us have romanticized visions of sitting in a cozy and comfortable train car while idly staring at the passing scenery. If you’re really a dreamer you might even have fantasies of meeting a kindly Russian who speaks accented but perfect English and she’ll be an absolutely perfect cabin mate for the next seven days. She’ll be easy on the eyes, smell nice and even share her black caviar, homemade blinis, and vodka with you. And, of course, she’ll have an advanced degree in Russian history and enlighten you with her vast knowledge of her country. Before you know it, you’re at the end of your 7-day, 9,289km trip and you and Tatiana exchange emails and promise to keep in touch.
Keep dreaming, silly foreigner.
Kyoto: Tokyo’s #1 fantasy. A history- and tradition-packed city of beautiful Buddhist temples, quiet narrow streets and unique food arrangements. A sophisticated city which boasts incredible natural views during cherry blossom time and autumn (especially on those pretty tourism posters in Tokyo train stations). But we found out recently that it’s so much more than just a pretty face.
There is so much to say about Kyoto and why we’ve fallen head over heels in love with it, but that would take too long, and we’re busy kids. We’ve chosen our top 5 favorite things to do.
For photos of our trip, check out our Flickr page.
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Skip the insane crowd at overrated Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion) and go here instead. This mountain shrine reveres foxes, which are considered heavenly guardians. This explains the fierce-looking fox statues everywhere.
Torii of various sizes line the walkways, making for quite a visual as you approach and walk through what ends up looking like long orange corridors.
There are a ton of things to look at as you make your way up the mountain paths, so this is a fun shrine for the inquisitive photographer. Unlike the other shrines in the area, Fushimi Inari isn’t a quick walkthrough. The path winds up a mountain and takes a while to ascend. The crowd at the very bottom of the path suddenly disappeared as we got to the halfway point of the route, and we were left alone to enjoy the quiet. Unfortunately, we were drenched from the constant drizzle that day so we turned around before we made it to the very top. Entrance is free, as with all Shinto shrines (unlike the Buddhist temples).