Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Hiking the Transylvanian Alps

We were three hours up the river valley, soaked to the skin from a combination of constant rain and sweat generated by the effort of clambering up steep, crumbling stream banks, and following wandering hunting and herding trails in a futile attempt to find the trail during incredibly humid conditions (especially by my Colorado dry mountain air standards). My boots were filled from plunging into the creek to grab a hiking pole one of my travel companions had foolishly thrown to me (“foolishly” because I can’t catch the broad side of a barn). Our legs and arms burned from unavoidable contact with stinging nettles. We searched despairingly for some sort of trail marker or, indeed, anything that appeared to line up with our Fagaras Mountains hiking map: “The stream is supposed to be on the other side of the road.” “Is this a road?” We asked a passing shepherdess for advice. She looked at us as though we were about to roast her baby on a spit.
If you can tell these two villages apart,
you win the prize: not dying in the wrong
valley!

Yep, it was a great start to our Romanian hiking adventure.

Only when we finally gave up and hiked back into the center of the ramshackle community where we started did we discover why nothing made sense: the taxi driver had dropped us in the wrong village. We were in Sebesu du Jos, not Sebesu de Sus, located only a couple of kilometers away across a low intervening ridge. Between the almost identical names and street layouts (look at them on a map and you really can’t tell them apart), plus the fact that Mark and I both saw a “Sebesu de Sus” sign as we came into town (a sign we realized later must have had a “that-a-way” arrow on it), it was an easy mistake to make. But it set us back a day on our Fagaras Mountains hike. 

This incredibly frustrating and draining mistake, however, turned out to be the saving grace for the trip. If we’d arrived at our first cabana (the Romanian term for mountain huts) that day, the most spectacular day of the trip would have happened in terrible weather. We might have actually quit: these are not trails to hike in slippery and wet conditions. And, best of all, once we decided to walk to the correct village, we found a lovely, tiny local inn and had a hilarious night. 

Things didn’t seem so promising, however, once we realized our error. We decided to push the remaining 2.5 km to the right village and at least figure out where the trailhead was before returning to Sibiu (the small, pretty and well preserved city that serves as the western gateway to the Fagaras, with much larger Brasov serving that role from the east.) We schlepped up muddy roads past fields, found Sebesu de Sus, and eventually discovered a small inn. No one was home but it was well rated online so I booked it. And then we sat there in the rain waiting for someone to show up. We knocked. Peeked through cracks in the courtyard door. I sent a text. I called. Nothing. An old man across the street called down to us and told us via gestures to knock on the door next door. A very irritated lady eventually answered. He yelled out the situation and she got on the phone. No answer. 

With time running short before we would have had to start walking the 8 km to the nearest train station, Mark and I decided we should at least hoof it up the road and find the trailhead. There it was, plain as day, and extremely well marked (as were all the trails we encountered). On the way back, my phone dinged: “there in 10 min.” We arrived back at the inn (where we’d abandoned Stacy, without considering that some of the local shepherds probably hadn’t seen a female who wasn’t an ewe in many months) to discover the owner’s daughter and her boyfriend had opened the place up. It was cute and cozy, and they couldn’t have been nicer. We showered and warmed up, then cracked the wine Stacy had thoughtfully carried from the U.S. before the owners showed up, a middle-aged couple with a daughter of 12 who was anxious to try the English out she was learning in school. The woman immediately pulled out their palinca (local distilled beverage generally made from apples, plums, grapes or whatever else is at hand) and we toasted each other. She also had a lovely cherry liqueur. She fed us until we were bursting. We got slightly faced on the palinca, wine and beer from their little convenience store (7 lei for a 2.5 liter plastic bottle of beer – that’s $1.75!). We had a good warm night’s sleep. We were inside through hours of torrential rain. We weren’t lost in the woods and forced to cannibalize one another.

Day 2: Once more with feeling!

View from Suru: as good as it got
those first days
Sadly the rain kept going the next day as we strode through the village to the correct trailhead and started up the ridge (after one brief, but agonizing, detour 20 feet in the wrong direction – “Not again!” we thought). We slowly worked our way 3,000 feet up a ridge to our first cabana, Suru, which I had managed to reschedule the night before. Not a ton to report on this hike. We couldn’t see a thing as we were in the woods most of the time, and on those occasions when we strayed near the edge of the ridge, everything was hidden behind clouds and mist. The trail itself was easy to follow, soft dirt and pine straw, if occasionally overused to the point that we were hiking 3 or 4 feet below the surrounding forest floor.

Suru was an experience! There’s a covered outside patio with a stone floor, and that’s where the caretaker found us. He was adamant about leaving our boots outside, which we did (knowing there was no possibility they would dry), as well as about not putting our wet packs on the beds. (Nothing about our disgusting wet bodies: just the packs. I suppose previous people haven’t been that careful, and the beds were brand new). It was, with the exception of a more traditional mountain lodge we stayed at later, the best accommodation of the trip, our room being in a new addition to the back of the building, with a double bed, a single bunk bed and a double bunk bed.

He started a fire for us, but after getting it going, never added more wood so the clothes we hung near the fire never really dried out. We didn’t ask about it as he had mentioned something about a fire costing 10 lei. At least we think that’s we said. He may very well have told us that the cold shower cost 10 lei or that he would sell us Romanian sheep cheese for 10 lei. He spoke fragments of 5 or 6 languages but in very much a triumph of memorization over understanding kind of way. (I’m not complaining here: we were the visitors and I wouldn’t expect anyone to speak my language. On the other hand, Romanian is tough. Not as tough as Hungarian, which is incomprehensible, but tough enough.)

The food was prepared perhaps not with the same standards of hygiene most folks would prefer. Both Stacy and Mark felt sick the next day, possibly because the food (even the soup) was unbelievably greasy. You could have slapped some of the stew onto a bicycle chain and kept it lubed for 20,000 miles. And we weren’t fully convinced that the leftover lunch soup didn’t become the evening’s stew and then end its life in the morning’s frittata.

It was fairly quiet with five Germans (including a couple we were to see again at the end of the week) and four younger guys I guessed were Italian-Swiss (as they spoke German but with a strange accent). We played cards (Mark taught us a game called Pitch), drank wine and were in bed by 9.

Day 3: we break free of the rain

The forecast promised more heavy rain and cloud the next day, so it was with heavy hearts 
Cabana Negoiu - It's going to be
lovely once the renovations are finished.
and legs that we jammed our feet into sopping boots and started plugging our way up toward the main ridge, another 3,000 feet above us. Our hike for the day was a wide and shallow U. The hike to the ridge was the first part, following by the “bottom of the U” along the main ridge, concluding with a descent to the next cabana. After less than an hour in the woods plodding steadily upward, we popped above the trees. Miraculously, the rain held off. A brief squall hit us just above treeline and we pulled on our raingear, but it never gained much momentum. And the clouds began to lift and the mist roll back so we started to get some sense of the landscape, which is spectacular: sharp, craggy ridges covered in verdant green except for the highest peaks; a constant flow of cloud and mist up and down the many drainages; abrupt ascents and descents. We were able to enjoy it most of the day as the rain, miraculously, held back – until we reached our accommodation for the evening, Cabana Negoiu. Sadly and painfully, reaching Negoiu involved descending almost 3,000 hard-won feet, although given the absolute torrential downpour that hit just as we arrived, we were very grateful to have a roof overhead. Even better, we were able to dry out our clothes and boots for the first time in 3 days. (I dried my boots out a little too much: the leather was so sodden that once they dried it, they shrunk, making the next morning exquisitely painful.)

We initially found a small and decrepit cabin with 3 or 4 rooms outfitted with cots circa-1950 and smelling like it. I was seriously expecting to fall through the floor. Thank goodness Stacy kept hiking and found the real lodge a couple of minutes up the trail. Negoiu is a huge, Communist-era lodge that looks like a typical mountain lodge from the outside. Inside, its roots show through: it has a definite Soviet institutional feel. That said, the staff was lovely and friendly, the beer was nice and cold, the rooms were reasonable comfortable (even if the beds were old), there were showers (not in the best of shape but they were building a new bathroom that is going to be spectacular), and we weren’t in a tent slowly floating down the valley.

Day 4: Spectacularama!

"Trail? We don't need no stinkin' trail!"
This brings us to the fourth day of the trek, one of the most spectacular days I’ve ever experienced in the mountains. We climbed over 5,000 feet (and descended over 3,000), passed over the 2ndhighest peak in Romania (Negoiu), scrambled up and down several steep and fun sections, plus passages with chains and/or cables, passed alpine tarns and avoided the rain again, all while the clouds provided an exceptionally haunting atmosphere with their constant drifting back and forth. It’d be sunny one minute and then the clouds would drop so quickly we could barely see one another only 50 feet apart.

The shape of this day’s hike was similar to the previous day’s: a shallow, wide U, albeit
"I can see!"
a bit narrower. However, in spite of being shorter, there was more elevation gain: over 5,000 feet! We began in a typically lush and beautiful alpine valley (after 10 minutes of walking along metal catwalks riveted to rock walls shortly after we left Negoiu) on an ascent that gradually (and at first imperceptibly) steepened until we were crawling up tight switchbacks on loose scree with water flowing over it. Then it got really steep and we were essentially rock climbing to make it back to the ridge below Negoiu. Here we were greeted by one of the most exquisite views on the whole hike – before the clouds dropped and everything disappeared, leaving us with a “view” of about 20 feet on Negoiu itself. 

From there it was a few hours of working up and down the ridge (and trying to avoid being bitten by the intensely territorial sheepdogs) through terrain of ancient plates of rock and lush green mountainsides until we began to close in on Balea Lac, a high altitude tarn located on the famous Transfăgărășan Highway that twists and winds, often practically on top of itself up to and through the Fagaras chain. Up to this point, we’d seen relatively few people but more and more began to show as we closed within short day hike range of the highway. We thought it was awfully quiet for being near a road, but when it eventually came into sight, we realized why: the road was closed for a bicycle race so everyone was stuck in the parking lots at Balea Lac. 

Balea Lac
We wound down to and along the back side of the lake and reached our lodging for the evening, a more traditional mountain hotel where we enjoyed real showers, real beds, and a really nice view from the terrace hanging over the edge of the lake.

Day 5: What’s that smell?

After over 9,000 vertical feet over 2 days, we looked forward to an easier day of “only” 3,000 feet! I was certainly feeling beaten up as I’d left my poles (barely year-old Black Diamond carbon fiber Z-poles … sniff, sniff…) in the Sibiu train station (never to be seen again) and had abandoned the hiking stick I’d found the day before when we had to start rock climbing. The downhills were a particular killer due to lots of loose rock and general steepness. 

We left the beautiful outline of Balea Lac behind us and followed a route along the ridge
Cabana Podrogu - beautiful on the outside
for a brief period before taking a more direct shot to our cabana for the night that avoided lots of steep ups and downs. After the exquisite beauty of the previous day’s hike, this day seemed a bit more low-key, and we were in and out of the clouds so did not get expansive views.

At first glance as we descended steeply, Cabana Podrogu looked promising: a blocky, solid-looking stone mountain hut with tin roof sitting in the open near several lakes and overlooking a perfect knife of a ridge. Arriving on the porch, however, I immediately caught an intense smell. What the hell is that?, I wondered. Moving closer to the door, and it became apparent what was making our noses wrinkle: mold and mildew. Built in the 1940s with very little ventilation (a situation worsened by the recent installation of very well constructed windows that further blocked any cross-breezes from making it too far into the building), the cabana had apparently not been aired out properly since Nicolae Ceauşescu was a young apparatchik. The caregiver gave us a tour of the available rooms and we decided on the “high-end” room that consisted of two stacked group bunks that accommodated 6 people on each (allocating about 2 feet of width per person) and were padded with foam bedding stapled to the bunk. (The “low
But even the caretaker didn't want to
go inside.
-end” room consisted of iron bunk beds of such age that I expected to immediately fall through the decrepit springs if I’d dropped my 240 pound bulk onto one.) Everything felt dank but we had no choice, other than continuing another two plus hours down the trail.

It worked out much better than we expected. For one, the stinky interior was offset by its spectacular setting. For two, they had beer and someone bought a container of the caretaker’s palinca. We proceeded to drink lots of both with two Polish military guys, the older German couple we’d met at the beginning of the trip who’d caught up to us, and two German brothers who were both geniuses but also so tall and thin that a few sips of palinca had them swaying on their feet. The food wasn’t any worse than we’d had previously (although we did decide to skip breakfast and cook our own on a stove on the front porch). And I had the best night sleep I’d had as it was so cool that for the first time I wasn’t hot in my sleeping bag.


Day 6: Decision point

If we’d stuck to our initial plan, we would have faced our longest day of the trip: some 10 hours up to, then up and down along the ridge, until we descended another ridge to Cabana Valea Sambetei. It also would have featured a side trip to Moldoveanu, the highest peak in Romania. (“Higher by only 9 meters,” Mark kept pointing out.) 

We were highly undecided. I didn’t feel like I had the energy, particularly since we had run through most of our snacks and the cabana had very little available. I figured I could have rallied. Mark was indifferent while Stacy was slightly for it. In the end, the deciding factor was the cabana: we didn’t figure we could handle another night in a stinky place. So we bailed out, taking the valley route out to the nearest town. It was pretty at first as we descended next to the river and into the trees. We had to cross the river several times on bridges that had obviously suffered serious damage in winter and spring. One was so bad that, lacking poles, I crossed it on my knees. As we continued to work our way downhill, the trail seemed to get longer … and longer. We were stuck for 15 minutes at one point while shepherds worked an enormous herd of sheep past us. The sheep destroyed the trail so we had some hairy moments afterward. I slipped several times and Mark took a fall so bad that Stacy thought he’d broken his arm.


We finally reached the end of the trail, and the start of the road toward town. Two guys were inspecting recent roadwork that was already in the process of being washed out. They ended up offering us a ride, thank goodness, as it saved us a minimum of 3 hours of walking along roads on what was rapidly becoming a very hot day (especially after 5 days spent over 1000-1500 meters higher where it was considerably cooler). This brought us to the town of Victoria where a frustrating few hours of asking questions, exploring and waiting finally put us on a bus down to the railway line running between Bucharest, Brasov and Sibiu. The “bus” was an old 20-person shuttle that had lost its spring many years ago. It was absolutely packed and I could barely breathe, particularly since the vents delivered only the tiniest puffs of fresh air. The air vent/emergency exit on the roof was held in place, I kid you not, by two big tree branches that hadn’t even been trimmed. The train lacked any ventilation at all so I was one hot and cranky puppy by the time we reached Sibiu.

Not the best way to end what was otherwise a very interesting and beautiful hike, bad weather, bad navigation, and bad smells aside.

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