Cycling in Romania is easy because nearly every day we’re at one of our grandparents‘ place. And, as I mentioned before, that means loads of food and a warm bed. Basically, this country is our second home.
As we’re heading north toward the Ukrainian border, we pass through depressingly remote villages in the Romanian mountains. Roads are bad here, but that’s nothing compared to the dogs: With a big smile on my face I’d gladly sell each of those beasts to the Chinese. Sure, we’ve encountered normal dogs too: they come and bark but you can sense that they won’t harm you. However, that’s not the case with those other monsters: you see them from afar and everything about them says Danger. With a capital D. Fletched teeth, angry eyes, aggressive behaviour. At high speed they come running after you and try to get a bite of you. We’re lucky that we’re on our way down the mountains, so we closely manage to escape them every time. However, I don’t want to think about what would have happened if it were the other way around …
After three days, on the 17th of April, we reach the Romanian border town Halmeu, high up in the north. As we want to trespass the Romanian-Ukrainian border, a Romanian border official stops us.
„You can’t cross this border on your bicycles. This one is just for motorized vehicles intended. You have to wait for some minivan to take you over. There’s no other way.“, he says friendly but determined.
We try to explain the situation, that we came all the way from Austria, that we want to go around the world by bicycle and that we have to cross this exact border. Doesn’t he understand? Did we really come 1.300 km to get stopped at an European border? Has he ever heard of Schengen? I feel my stomach aching. It always does when something’s not right.
„There’s no other way.“, the border official repeats.
We decide to do just as the border official said and wait for some minivan or truck to come. However, today is Easter Monday. In Austria nobody really cares about official holidays; everyone is happy to have a day off. Well, it‘s not the same case for a Christian country like Romania. No one is out on the street. Everyone is visiting relatives, celebrating Easter. There are no cars or trucks whatsoever at the border. I go back to the town Halmeu and knock on every door that has a minivan parked outside. My plan is to explain the situation to whomever listens and kindly ask to get us over the border. But nobody seems to be at home. I’m desperate. It feels so humiliating to depend on others now, to not have full control over a situation. Didn’t we choose the bicycle in order to be independent in the first place? Suddenly, there!, a minivan coming my way! I raise my arms. The driver understands and stops.
„Hi. We’re three bicyclists from Austria and came all the way to Halmeu. They won’t let us cross the Ukrainian border on our bikes. Would you mind taking us over with your van? We can pay.“
But before his mouth forms an answer, I can read it in the eyes of this approximately 40-year-old man. They’re sunken in, somehow red, and silently I wonder whether he sees one or two versions of me. Slightly drunk.
„No… can’t… visiting my relatives… celebrating…“
We decide that it’s best if we accept the situation as it is and just camp one night near the border. Next morning we’ll surely find someone willing to take us. Still, I call Ruben, a friend of ours from Romania. Maybe he has a solution or maybe he knows someone with a minivan. I retell him what the border official said. „I’ll figure something out and get back to you as soon as I know something“, says Ruben, rather vague.
Two hours later two things happen simultaneously: while the border official is frantically waving and calling for us, I get a phone call from Ruben. Hastily, we pack our stuff. I pick up the phone. I’m just about to tell Ruben that I can‘t talk right now.
„Yeah, relax, I know“, he says. „I know that they‘re calling for you. That’s because you are free to go now, you can cross the border. My father called some high-ranking official in Bucharest and they ordered your border station to let you guys through.“
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What?! Really now, that easy? On the inside, I’m grinning like an idiot as we victoriously approach the very same border official that denied us beforehand. I act dumb.
„Hi. Did you call for us?“
We slowly follow him to his office.
„Did something happen?“
„Yes. You’re getting the necessary documents to cross the border.“
„Aha. How come?”
„Well, it’s you who should know whom you just called.“
Total defeat on his part. Well, you know you’re in Romania when a phone call to „whom“ solves your problem. I don’t know what happened exactly but I don’t reveal this to our border official. Better for us if he believes that Mr. Whom is a good friend of ours and he better follows orders, if he knows what is good for him. Sure enough, he suddenly speaks in a friendlier way to us than before. The whole situation is just so unbelievable: a part of Romania’s law is temporarily suspended for three random cyclists. Are you kidding me?? So good.
We’re approaching the Ukrainian border and it’s for the first time I see a Ukrainian man. Strangely, he looks exactly how I’ve always imagined a Ukrainian (or Russian) to look like: bald, stern face, camouflage uniform and a Kalashnikov on his back. A soldier. Now it’s his turn to tell us that he won‘t let us through. Same old story: we need to get a minivan. Not even Mr. Whom from Romania can help us here. Ruben can, though. Once again he calls and says that his mother’s cousin Benji is coming to get us. Sure enough, it doesn’t take long and a red minivan stops besides us. In just a few seconds the bikes are loaded into the van. Then the next peculiar thing happens: virtually every Ukrainian official knows Benji and everybody wants to have a quick chat with him.
„They know me here. For years I’ve been crossing this border. You’ll have no problems when you’re with me.“, he explains to us and for the first time today I feel relaxed. I know that we’ve made it now. Benji’s got our backs.
After a quick „passport check“ we’re good to go. (The only thing they check is whether we „forgot“ enough money inside. Ruben told us that a bribe is normal and necessary at this border. I find it amusing. And yes, we left some money in our passports. It must have been enough, since we could cross.)
Thank you Ruben, Debi, Daniel, Dana and Benji for having us over for Easter and for getting us over the border. You helped us way more than you know.
Ukraine marks not only another country on our journey. It’s not just a country I tick off my list. For me, the Ukrainian border represents a separation: a fine line between my old and new life. Now that I think about it, I realise that everything and everyone I’ve ever known will be behind me. Literally. A new chapter in my life begins: new things, new dangers, new cultures, new people, new places, new languages. Absolutely everything will be new from this day on. I’m nervous, because this „new“ has begun bumpy. What other peculiarities will await us in the coming year?