Lust for life

Blistered, wet and tired, Liza Power finds trekking in Romania strangely inspiring.

Comfort comes in many guises, but in the pine-cloaked valleys of Romania's Bucegi Massif, where conventional delights such as showers, clean clothes, electricity and waterproof tents are in short supply, an American cigarette smoked in the cabin of a beaten-up truck with our smirking driver, Marian, is as close as you get. A 12-hour hike deserves a salute, after all. I'd prefer a swig of the cook's tuica, but two hours of winding, mud-choked road stand between me and the bottle of home-brewed plum brandy.

Which is probably a good thing.

It's times like these - legs aching, shins caked in mud, heels blistering, lips bleeding from windburn - that it pays to remember all the reasons you trade comfort for adventure. In Transylvania you forgo warm water for silent forests, fields stained pink with wildflowers, and lonely mountain peaks.

A soft bed is eschewed for deserted walking trails presided over by the occasional shepherd, his herd, and a handful of woolly mountain dogs. Still, there are days like today when I'd trade solitude for a scrub, preferably not in the glacier-fed stream that runs by the camp site.

The cigarette sustains me for about three minutes. I smoke it as slowly as I can, watching Marian as he negotiates the sludge of road left by recent storms and a daily relay of overloaded logging trucks. Now and again rusted caravans loom by the roadside, the laundry of logging workers fluttering on strings beside them like ragged maypoles. Between sharp corners, log stacks pare the road back to narrow corridors of quicksand, and before long the rain sets in, bringing with it a thick veil of mist. Marian slows, casts me a blank look, lights us both another cigarette and sighs loudly.

Colin Thubron once wrote that journeys rarely begin where we think they do. By his reckoning, my journey to Romania began some 10 years ago, with the plays of Eugene Ionesco, the poetry of Mircea Dinescu and the cinema of Tony Gatlif. Through their voices - Ionesco's spell of delirium, anarchy and excess, Dinescu's political fervour, and Gatlif's passion for the Roma and their music - the Romania of late night news reports, with its sinister cast of dictators, mafia and secret police, faded into a land of subversive intelligentsia, complex ontologies, geographical beauty and gypsy music.

Seduced by Gatlif, my original plan was to tour Romania's spill of villages by rail, truck and foot, Gadjo Dilo-style.

As on previous trips to Eastern Europe, I envisaged being collected from railway stations and roadsides by grandmothers looking to supplement their pensions by offering board to backpackers. Sunken beds in corner rooms and breakfasts of hard-boiled eggs, cheese and sausage. Between the pages of Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing, I day-dreamt of crossing paths with a Romany caravan and taking the ultimate road trip - set to a soundtrack of Nora Luca songs and made hazy by tuica and vodka.

Still, romantic as I like to be, I had three weeks, not that much money, and a healthy realisation that Romania by foot was a little trickier than it sounded. So I scoured the internet for treks through Transylvania, found one that didn't dwell too much on Dracula, and paid a deposit.


Four weeks later I found myself loitering in the dim-lit bowels of Otopeni International Airport thumbing my way through a book of Romanian folk stories while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.

It was there, sprawled across a plastic chair beside a brokendown luggage carousel, that I chanced upon the story of Miorita. A famous Romanian poem, it tells the story of a young shepherd boy who is warned by his favourite ewe, Miorita, of another shepherd's plan to murder him and take his flock. Rather than resist, the shepherd accepts his fate, telling Miorita to search for his mother and tell her a story - not of his betrayal, but a tale of how he married a princess.

And so Miorita still wanders, from the Carpathian mountains to the Black Sea, telling a story not of death and betrayal, but of a wedding, with hundreds of fir trees and sycamores as his wedding guests, the high mountains as priests, the moon as his white bride, and the shepherd's death captured as shooting star falling from the sky.

Much later, I discover that the fable of Miorita has been used as a metaphor for Romania's turbulent history, with the death of the shepherd representing the exile of the Romanian spirit, and many of its citizens, during its history of Turkish and communist regimes. Perhaps more powerfully, the poem's overriding moral - that one must face death with honour and rise above the bitter nature of fate - is viewed as representative of the Romanian spirit and ethos.

Four days, a long truck journey into the mountains of Transylvania, and two days of trekking later, I stumble into camp, a small clearing between a stand of pines and a river, around dusk.

After 12 hours on the trail, the concept of absolute physical exhaustion has taken on a new dimension and the desire for a wash is fast vanishing, much like the final light of day, which at this point runs like a fine chain of gold along the rocky peaks closest to the skyline.

This is not the Romania of Ionesco, Dinescu or Gatlif - or at least as I had imagined it - but it is incredibly beautiful.

A gentle melody - the wash of the river, wind hushing through pine needles, the faint echo of bird calls and dog barks - mingles with the smell of damp earth and rain. Our camp cooks, Emi and Nahlu, have arrived ahead of us and are seated by the mess tent, laughing as they peel potatoes and chop vegetables for dinner.

A fire spits in the misty rain, and a pile of tents, still wet from the previous night's storms, wait to be unpacked by the roadside.

Much as this would be the best time to collapse fireside and reflect on the day's journey, its chorus of craggy peaks, meadows dotted with donkeys and vertiginous stretches of scree, the last light of dusk is instead devoted to setting up tents. Layers of mud-smeared clothing are peeled off damp skin, our limbs are rinsed in the icy river water and boots are stacked next to the fire to dry.

I flirt with the idea of simply sliding into my sleeping bag fully clothed. It's only out of regard for my tent mate that I strip down to smalls and head for the river.

By the time dinner is served, night has settled in around us.

The river, sleeved in forest, glints silver with the reflected face of a rising moon, and the same air that split my lips and tore at my hair during the day has taken on an eerie stillness. The setting seems to spill straight from the fable of Miorita, with its silent sycamores and string of shooting stars.

My hands, numb from river water, spill most of my soup in the space between the bowl and my mouth. Fortunately the medicinal Romanian merlot, bought in Bucharest before the trek, doesn't suffer the same fate.

As the days go by, it becomes apparent that I'm not the only member of the group who arrived in Bucharest with visions of Romany music and gentle walks through fields. It seems most people on the trip feel as though they might be getting more than they bargained for. Of the 14 hikers who started, one is evacuated by day five with feet so blistered and infected he can barely limp. Another leaves on day three on the grounds that the hike is too tough to be enjoyable. Of those that remain, several are marathon enthusiasts, two are female, and one is so irritating that the remainder spend a fair amount of time wishing he'd stumble off a cliff face. It's no secret that long hikes and short sleeps can compromise one's sense of kindness and diplomacy.

Expectations aside, there are days that I enjoy. One afternoon I spend hours wading knee-deep through fields of wildflowers, running my hands under waves of purple lillies, pink foxgloves, yellow daisies, blue bellflowers and dianthus.

Narrow dirt tracks lined with wild strawberries and plum trees link tiny wooden villages where houses wear skirts of vegetable gardens and ornate churches dot the hillsides. We drop into deep valleys carved by wide rivers criss-crossed by rickety wooden bridges.

Boys wearing cowboy hats and chewing strands of grass trot past on horses, and old women appear, their heads wrapped in floral scarves, smiling, carrying baskets of fruit or a sleeping child.

One afternoon I watch a shepherd cloaked in sheepskins and a fur hat sitting by his flock, and I wonder what it would be like to spend a few weeks in his shoes, watching his theatre of blue sky shift through its repertoire of sunshine, sleet, snow and darkness.

But then there are days I don't enjoy. When storms close in on the afternoon of a particularly steep descent, I find myself hanging from a cliff face clutching a sharp, rusted stretch of wire, searching for another foothold as the rain falls down around me, rendering everything I touch slippery, slimy and unusable. The same afternoon our guide, Alex, who has made clear from the outset his opinion of me as a ditzy blonde, issues me with a lesson on how to run down a scree slope and stomp trails through steep, slushy snow. My legs shake, I'm scared of falling, I stumble, twist my ankle and cut my hand on a sharp rock.

My vision is dotted yellow by the reflection of the sun off the snow. At one point, on the edge of tears, I think of Ionesco's lust for excess and his absolute fear of death. "You're not eating to live, you're eating to burst", he once wrote. In a moment of fatigue-induced delusion I wonder if I've come to Romania to burst from the excess consumption of life, or rather, as my mother might have it, to realise that excess is, in fact, largely overrated.

Either way, the days of endless uphill and downhill climbs have their rewards. One afternoon, knees aching after three-hours of steep descent, we come upon a wooden shack. Its spartan rooms - an atrium with a low fire and several makeshift cots piled with sheepskins and furs, a side corridor for storing cheese and a third room for milk pails and blankets - form home for the summer months to a family of shepherds. Beckoning us inside, one tall, grinning fellow ushers us to the hearth, while the remaining three settle on a bench on the balcony, chainsmoking amid a gallery of dog-eared Lucy Liu posters.

Speaking with Alex, who translates parts of the conversation, we learn of news of the world that the shepherds have heard on the tiny transistor radio that hangs from a string off the edge of the balcony. Leaning on a wooden fence, surrounded by six wolf-like mountain dogs, I take in the spill of mountains, fields and forest that surround me and find it hard to imagine the other world the radio, and the news it brings, belong to.

Living by sunrises and sunsets brings an easy routine. Days begin at dawn with the lacing of boots, a cursory splash in the river and hot mugs of tea cradled in cold hands around the glowing embers of the previous night's fire. The hikes take on a pattern of steep morning ascents through tall forests of pine and conifer, which thin with altitude into wide, donkey-dotted pastures by mid-morning.

Around noon we reach a pass, ridge-walking between peaks before snatching lunch on a lower plateau. Alex monitors the race of storm clouds to ensure we're not engulfed by thunder as we eat. After lunch we're allowed a short spell to either doze in the sunshine, tend to our blisters or take in the view, which most days comprises a crown of peaks, some dotted with snow, others freckled by sheep.

Afternoons are spent descending from the ridge, scrambling across cliff faces, scree running, cross-backing down valleys that plunge from open meadow into forest, and then, finally, joining a river as it snakes along to the next campsite. Then it's dinner, a briefing for the following day's trek, a bottle of Romanian merlot and sleep.

Occasionally we venture into small towns where old women with sun-creased faces sell woollen jumpers and homemade cheese. One night we camp by a farmhouse and at dusk I watch a tiny hunchback woman emerge from a doorway to gather eggs from the hens that roam her backyard. Seated on a nearby tree stump, her son dozes in and out of consciousness under a heady spell of tuica and afternoon sun, the bottle at one point falling from his fingers and scattering the hens.

On the final day of the hike, as we descend out of the mountains to a cabana overlooking Lake Balea, I am reminded of another reason one trades comfort for adventure - the joy of a hot shower and clean clothes after several weeks in the wilderness. The sensation of sinking into a bed with clean sheets is indescribable.

Days later in Bucharest, however, surrounded by a spill of regal monuments, leafy boulevards, and sweltering heat, I find myself missing the cool air, space and silence of the mountains. At night, after an evening spent stumbling between bars talking to sleazy bar flies and prostitutes, I stumble back to the hotel and try to sleep. But with the noise of the city closing in around me and the low hum of a flashing neon sign outside my window, I long to be back in a tent with rain drumming a slow percussion on its roof. When I do fall into sleep, I dream of sheep and shooting stars.