The Pilgrimage

by vpundir | September 28th, 2008

As Explorish had guessed and warned against, I wake up at every stop of the train. At one such stop, I open my eyes and look outside to check which station it is, but don’t see any indication of a name anywhere. There’s no one around that I can ask.

As I am still rubbing my eyes, searching for a name, the train starts to crawl. A clock at the station says it is 1.30am. Bacău! This is where I was supposed to get down. Should I „pull the chain to stop the train” and get down? Neaah…then I’d have to wait at the station till 4.30 or so. Instead, I should go to the next station, and take the train back here, for trains are cozier than the stations.

It takes almost an hour to reach the next station, Adjud, which suits me fine as my train from Bacău is at 4.30 anyway. Asking around at the station, I discover that the next train to Bacău is at 3.30, which is cutting it a little bit too close since it is about an hour’s journey. It doesn’t matter now – the deed is done.

There is a sandwich shop open but they have no vegetarian food. Outside on the platform there is a bar-cum-game-saloon where I find a packet of potato wafers and pear nectar. The wind is cool and nice and I enjoy walking on the platform, which is deserted except for a stray dog sleeping in a dark corner.

My train arrives at its due time, and delivers me to Bacău in one hour. Unfortunately, I have missed the connection literally by seconds – I can see its tail rolling out of the station. The next train is at 9am. So I walk out of the gara and to the nearby autogara and minibus station. Nothing goes to Piatra Neamț.

So I return to the station and catch a few hours of sleep. In the morning a gypsy guy comes to me, strikes a conversation, and talks about how he knows about Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and how Mircea Eliade spent a good part of his life in India. He tells me how the Turks are the worst enemies of Romanians, and tries to sell me some t-shirts and belts, which of course I politely decline. Finally, he asks me to swap pens with him „for friendship” and I see no harm in that (I have a very cheap ballpen with more than half the refill empty) even though I know that the ballpen he is about to give me is almost certain not to work.

The public toilets are locked, so I go up to the first floor and freshen up in the toilet-bath suite of the railway officials’ (apparently deserted) office, and get back down well in time to catch my train.

The train to Piatra Neamț is a „personal” train („passenger train” to Indians, slow train to everyone else) that stops at every station and has a lulling rhythm. Since I am still sleepy, this suits me just fine, and I doze off almost as soon as I sit down.

I am woken up by Miss Green, a 20-something girl sitting across from me, whom I have thus named in my mind since except for her hair and nails she is wearing all green stuff – from shoes to dress to jewelry to accessories. She tells me that the ticket checker is almost upon us.

I am having a little trouble finding the ticket – in my half-asleep state I have forgotten where I kept it; this jacket has way too many pockets and I am way too eccentric to have a predictable pattern of keeping stuff. The ticket checker goes on to check the tickets of the other people in the compartment and returns a little later. I have found the ticket and by now I am fully awake.

Looking around, I see a sea of faces – old, young, bored, cheerful, chirpy, silent. The compartment is packed, but I can only clearly see the faces of the folks nearest to me: An old lady a few rows down is completely focused on weaving whatever she is weaving as the rest of her companions joke around eating sunflower seeds. There is one grey-haired moustachioed man smoking a pipe as the woman sitting next to him is apparently trying to sleep. There is a bunch of tweens fighting each other in jest. There’s the family whose toddler wants to roam about freely. And there’s Miss Green.

Towards the end of the carriage a group of 4-5 young girls is singing folk songs to a guitar. Their songs are lively, youthful and just pure fun to hear, and they keep going tirelessly from song to song. And once as they change the song yet again, I suddenly think „Wait! That tune sounds familiar.” It seems a little bit slower than I remember it, but…yes, I know it! Involuntarily and spontaneously, I break into „Cine trece valea seacă…”

I have barely uttered 2 words when I realize that the girls have stopped singing and it feels like all eyes in the coach are on me. Well, can’t stop now! So I keep going, „Cine trece valea seacă, cu hangeru fără teacă. Și cu pieptul dezvelit..” and signal with my hands for the girls to pick up the refrain „Andrii Popa cel vestit”. Sure enough, they pick it up, but they aren’t the only ones to do so. Many others join in – it’s as if the entire coach is singing now. It is surreal!

Even though I sing (read remember) only two paras of the song, I am showered with kisses, and offered pears, grapes, and sunflower seeds along the way – as if I am a homecoming hero or something. Ah, good thing I missed the 4.30am train, I think to myself.

Stepping out of the station at Piatra Neamț at 11am, I am reminded of my hometown Haridwar in India. It’s not that this place looks like Haridwar; it’s just the orange teleferic (skilift) cars here remind me of the the ropeway trolleys in Haridwar.

Though apparently only personal trains come here, I have a feeling that the small town of Piatra Neamț is a beautiful and popular tourist destination. Of course, I could be wrong, but I do not have the time to prove or disprove my hypothesis. There is a hill waiting to be climbed.

As I am trying to find how to get to Izvorul Muntelui (Spring of the mountain), the village from where the Ceahlău climbing track begins, a taxi driver offers to take me there for RON 60. I think that’s pretty steep. Well, the driver tells me, even if I get to Bicaz by bus, I’ll have to take a taxi from there and they’ll charge me at least RON 50. Hmm…thanks for the advice, but I don’t believe you at all.

Bicaz is 20km from Piatra Neamț and soon I board a minibus that charges RON 3.50 to take people there. On the way, we pass by Lake Bicaz, which is absolutely spectacular. If I were driving down this road, I would have stopped to take a picture or two and just sit down and take it all in. The water is placid, completely devoid of waves. The mountains on the other side stand proudly with the snowy hair declaring them to be old and wise. And a bright reflection of these mountains and forests is clearly visible in the waveless lake, making it look like one of those landscape paintings that are sold as posters and greeting cards. Maybe I’ll stop by here on my way back.

Izvorul Muntelui is 20km from Bicaz, and there is no indication that there is a bus service to there. The taxi charges me RON 24 for the journey and drops me right at the gate of the national park. I have not seen a spring or a creek around the village, so I guess Izvorul Muntelui probably means the origin or the start of the mountain.

The „taxă access” (entry fee) for Ceahlău National Park is only RON 3.50, which is a steal when you consider that the entry fee at Voroneț, which one enters for a very short duration, is RON6. The guard who sells me the entry ticket also hands me a map of the national park and advises me to follow the punct albastru bandă albastră (blue point blue band) trail.

He is a little uncomfortable with letting me go up all alone, especially after I tell him that I intend to return tonight itself (it is already quarter past noon). Apparently the diverse fauna of the mountain includes the lynx and the bear. There’s absolutely no problem if you are in a group, but there is some risk if you are alone.

I shrug that off, and assure him that I will stick to the trail. Now, where can I buy a bottle of water? He directs me to a restaurant close-by.

When I return with a 2L bottle of sparkling water in my „rucsac”, I find him slightly happier as a pair of other climbers has arrived. He asks the three of us to stick together and to stay on the trail, and we assure him that we will.

My companions are a București-based computer programmer in his early-20s and his mustached, religious friend in mid-30s. They are pleasntly surprised to find that I can speak a little bit of Romanian, and I am happy to be able to practice with them. They plan to climb up to Cabana Dochia (1750m) today and rest there tonight, venturing further towards Vârful Toacă (the peak – 1904 m) only tomorrow.

Ceahlău is by no means the tallest mountain in România (the tallest is Moldoveanu), but this is more than a climb – it is a pilgrimage. This mountain used to be home to Zamolxe, the God of Dacs. So sacred and legend-rich is the mountain that it is often compared to Olympus.

Among the legends are those of Panaghia, Vârful Toacă, tower of Bugha, stone of lime, crying stone, shepherd’s stone, and lilies, etc.

Ceahlău is also home to some unusual flora and fauna. Apart from the lynx and bear, it has the black stag, marten, grouse, aquila and hedgehog. Among plants, it is has lion’s paw, lady’s slipper, warrior’s blood and larch to name a few.

About halfway to Cabana Dochia, we see hoofprints in the wet ground and the programmer tells me about the tales he has heard about a government biological laboratory somewhere on the mountain guarded day and night by horse-mounted armymen.

The mountain intermittently offers clearnings that afford spectacular views of the lake and the surrounding peaks, but the most stunning views start appearing at higher altitudes, and most of them involve forests of coniferous trees, on a mountain-slope, topped with snow.

The programmer doesn’t think that it is snow on those trees, and he’d hate for there to be snow on this mountain. He asks the few people we meet on their way down whether there is snow up there, and gets conflicting answers. He stays in denial till I step on a wet broken branch and exclaim „Zăpadă!”

Sure enough, there is snow on the branch and it is quite likely that this freshly broken branch fell off the tree under the weight of the snow. We are approaching a cover of snow. There are only small patches of snow to start with, but as we step out of the forest and onto a knoll, it pretty quickly transforms into an all-encompassing cover. The good news for my programmer friend, though, is that now that the forest is behind us, the cabin can not be more than half an hour away.

The snow-covered Cabana Dochia is surprising large and preceded by a 4-part signboard that says nothing. This is even more hilarious than the several “Information panel coming soon” boards that we encountered on our way.

I wonder if the cabin is named after Baba Dochia, whose legend is behind the Dragobete celebration. Apparently Dochia was an old shepherd lady who wore 9 lambskins on a particularly cold day on the mountain. But it snowed heavily and as the snow melted, the lambskins got wet and heavy. So she took them off one by one, and finally froze to death.

Another tale goes that he was the daughter of the Dacian king when the Roman emperor was on his conquering spree against the Dacians. She escaped to the mountains disguised as a shepherd to avoid marrying him. She underestimated the cold and took off her lambskin garments, and froze to death along with her herd. As is the case with so many of these legends, a heartwarming story indeed!

The reception area of the cabin is also the communal dining area and I am almost surprised to see it packed. The stewards are running around with ceaiuri and cafele as climbers gathered around tables chat animatedly.

The landlady tells us that the Vârful Toacă is 2 hrs away, each way. Since it is almost 5pm, it doesn’t seem to be a good idea to take up that enterprise if I am to reach Piatra Neamț tonight. So leaving our bags at my companions’ room, we decide to pay a visit to the nearby skete, even as it is snowing lightly outside.

Upon our return to Cabana Dochia, we have a cup of warm and very sweet (almost Indian sweet) ceai each, after which I pick up my rucksack and take leave of my companions and set off on my way back down to Cabana Izvorul Muntelui.

As I reach the fork in the road, with one going up to Vârful Toacă and the other leading down to the blue band trail, I stop and take a look to the left and then to the right. On one hand it makes me uneasy to leave the mountain without reaching its peak, while on the other I must reach Piatra Neamț tonight if I hope to find a night-train to București.

While I stand there deliberating, a group of 3 youngsters comes from behind me and takes the path to the left. They plan to go to the peak and return to Cabana Dochia, where they have been staying for 2 days. That does it! I didn’t come all the way here for nothing.

It gets progressively foggier and the visibility keeps reducing as I scale the heights in the last stretch of today’s expedition with the assistance of directions provided by the 3 young climbers. The peak is more of a plateau than a peak, somewhat like the peaks of Scottish hills, except that unlike the Scottish peaks the plateau here is more elongated than round. In fact, it is easy to see why it is called Toacă – there is a marked similarity to the item in question. Anyhow, I don’t have the time to ponder over such issues – the visibility is low and the cold wind is slapping my face with a pack of needles. Rushing down, I feel pretty good as I pass by Cabana Dochia again.

As I get into the forest, the fog clears quite a bit, but I can see that it is getting darker. Soon the sun will go down completely and while the moon may be bright enough for me to make out shapes, I won’t be able to see the trail markers in that light. I really need to hurry down.

One of the unsaid guidelines of hillwalking is „never run” for it can be hard to manage your momentum, especially on the way down, and hills are strewn with treacherous traps like loose gravel, tree stumps, etc. I don’t have much of a choice, though, as the sun is going down fast, which is pretty much the norm for mountains.

I am sure that I will fall, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing – all I need to do is make sure that I fall down the right way and avoid any serious injuries. I give myself 3 falls – if I fall thrice then I will reevaluate my plan of running all the way down to the base.

Finally, I beat the sun to the base – I can see the last red sliver sink behind a mountain as I reach Cabana Izvorul Muntelui – and that too with just one fall on the way.

The guard is happy and surprised to see me again and asks if all is well. There are no taxis in sight so I ask him where I can get one. If I have a phone, he tells me, he can call one for me. Well, I don’t have a phone. Hmmm…that’s a problem.

Well, what about the restaurant? They should have a phone. I ask if he thinks the place might still be open. So he takes me directly to the establishment, which is great as I couldn’t have navigated to it by myself considering that among all the log cabins around, the restaurant is almost unmarked and easy to miss.

He requests the landlady on my behalf to call a taxi. I haven’t eaten all day so as I wait I gorge down some vegetable ciorba and munch on some delicious cașcaval pane with the best chips/ fries/ French fries/ Greek potatoes that I have ever eaten in my life. All for the grand price of RON 16.50

The cab duly gets me to the minibus stop in Bicaz for Piatra Neamț for RON 25, and another RON 3.50 in bus fare takes me back to Piatra Neamț gara. I would like to read my email and charge my cellphone at least long enough to read my messages, if any. Therefore, I walk into a grocery store and ask the middle-aged proprietor if there is any Internet café around. Truthfully, I am just taking a shot in the dark and don’t really expect her to know. But she does, and tells me to go straight down Bulevardul Republicii and the café should be on the right after the third traffic light.

Upon reaching the intersection with Bulevardul Decebal, which seems to be the spot the lady indicated, I do not see any Internet café around. So I check with the old gentleman (yes, I am picky about whom to ask about technology-related issues) manning the movie-rental place. He tells me to go straight down Decebal. When I see a church after about 1km, I should keep going as further down the road is the restaurant Laguna. An Internet café by the name De Muerte (no kidding) is in the same building. He even sketches a little map for me on a scrap of paper.

„Indian?” he asks.

„Da,” I smile back. Finally!

Upon reaching Laguna, I have trouble finding De Muerte. I even ask the girls managing what seems to be a spanking new superstore, but they have no clue. I try to look around the building in the hope of finding the café but without success. Crestfallen, I start to lumber back when I see a 12-13 year old in a parking lot. Jackpot! When I ask him, he drops what he is doing, and leads me to De Muerte, which indeed is in the same building as Laguna; it’s just that somehow from the side it looks like the building has ended much before it actually does.

Internet usage charges at De Muerte are just RON 2 per hour, and I am able to plug in my laptop and mobile phone for charging, and check my email. Explorish îmi ținea pumni (has had his fingers crossed for me) since our call got disconnected last night and I reply to his email telling him that I’ve reached Piatra Neamț safely.

He calls me right away. I tell him that I’ve returned to Piatra Neamț after climbing Ceahlău and that I do not have a plan as to what to do next. Perhaps I could go to Maramureș. I am about to scour the Net to see if there are any trains tonight, and if not I’ll check for hostels to spend the night here.

„Wait!,” says he „I have a friend from Piatra Neamț and he should be able to help you find a decent place for the night. Let me call him.”

As luck would have it, Explorish’s friend, who is an advertisement executive in București, has just arrived in his hometown for a little vacation and offers to pick me up and host me for the night.

A hot shower later I feel almost human again. My host and I talk about Explorish, România and travels. His wife and 8-month old son are asleep, but he shows me their pictures on his iPhone. They are adorable. His wife and he are both originally from Piatra Neamț, but they met each other in București – talk about meant to be.

His son is very cute and loves being in front of the camera. He also loves to suck his big toe, which is considered very lucky in India. This kid is destined to be a star.

As hunger strikes, we cook some eggs and cașcaval for dinner. And then Explorish calls. He’s been hard at work, trying to figure out what I can do for the next part of my trip.

„Here’s the deal: It’s tough to get to Maramureș from Piatra Neamț – no trains at all. But I checked with another travel guru and he said there are buses. So i checked, and found this: Piatra Neamț – Vatra Dornei : 5.45 AM – 11.01, Vatra Dornei – Vișeu de Sus : 13.30 -17.14. Can’t find anything beyond that, but from there you should find some way to get to Bârsana, which has a beautiful monastery. You can sleep there. From there you can go to Sighet and visit the Communism museum. And Săpânța, which is close by. The train to București leaves Sighet at 17.14 and arrives at 7.19. So what do you say? How does it sound?”

„Sounds impossible.”

„So, you’ll do it?”

„Yeah, I’ll do it.”

The morning begins early as I would like to catch that 5.45 bus to Vatra Dornei. My host’s wife and son are awake, and I meet them in the kitchen. The little one is perky and energetic this morning. He’s definitely among the most social and friendly babies that I have met. A quick but engaging conversation and a hot breakfast later we are off to the autogara to catch that bus.

Click here to check out my pictures from Ceahlău of 27 Sept 2008.

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