A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Mostly the former, though. It has been WAY too long since my last post. So much has happened I surely won’t be able to remember it all. Here is my best attempt:

I had spent last weekend at Alice’s apartment. She was away on work business, and returned on Sunday evening. After delivering her keys I headed across town to the hostel. Alice offered to call me a cab, but I insisted I could walk the 4 kilometers. Of course, shortly after leaving her apartment it started to rain. After about an hour of walking I was finally back to my old favorite residence, the Spot Cosy Hostel! I actually stayed here last year, after picking it from a list of hostels because of the name. I had some great memories here, so I decided to come back if ever I needed a place to stay in Cluj. Oddly enough, after all the traveling I have done this year, this is the ONLY hostel I have been to each year. And once again, it did not disappoint.

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The first evening after checking in I met Daniel (England) and Tegan and Zach (siblings from Australia). The four of us decided on a night tour of the haunted Hoia Baciu forest the next day. We met up on Monday night at 1900 when our tour guide, Alex, picked us up from the hostel. The tour itself was pretty cool, but not really worth the 75 Lei that each of us paid. We hiked up to the forest just before the sun set, but the next four hours was just walking around a forest at night, really. It was fun, it was a good experience, but something we could have done on our own for much cheaper.

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That evening we returned to the hostel and made a new friend. Tegan and Zach had to catch a 0200 bus out of town, but Daniel and I made friends with Neah (Oregon). Daniel and I had decided to catch a ride to Turda (haha) on Wednesday, and invited Neah along. So, after a relaxing day on Tuesday, the three of us awoke rather early to eat breakfast Wednesday morning. We caught a taxi to the Romanian Opera House, across from which I was told we could catch a gypsy cab to Turda. Sure enough, within ten minutes of standing on the side of the street we were offered a ride by some guy with a van. It took about ten more minutes for him to fill all the seat, and we were off!

Arriving in Turda, we decided to check out the salt mines first. Salina Turda is an ancient underground salt mine that has recently, thanks to the European Union, undergone numerous renovations and additions. It was actually quite interesting to descend the thirteen stories into the depths of the salt caverns. The three of us opted for the stairs instead of the elevator, avoiding the ridiculous queues. Along the way, and although it was illegal according to posted signs, I was able to snag a sample of natural salt – completing yet another of my sister’s travel quests. The top of the largest cavern had a boardwalk all the way around, from which the view down was quite dizzying. Finally reaching the bottom, we walked around the plethora of inadequate attractions – from mini-golf to bowling to pool to a tiny Ferris wheel – the only one we patronized was the boat rental. There is a bit of a lake at the very bottom, and for only 10 Lei you may rent a small boat and paddle around the circle for 20 minutes. I was a bit scared of tipping over the entire time, but only for the sake of my cell phone. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and we eventually made it back to dry land. That would be three forms of transportation for the day, if anyone is keeping score: taxi, gypsy cab, and boat.

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After leaving the salt mines we enjoyed lunch from the rows of stands outside selling food and trinkets. Well, we tried to. Daniel ordered some type of fish. I tried to order chicken, but I guess they were out(?). Then I tried to order a simple sausage, but was similarly rebuffed. So I just decided to eat later. Neah ordered a Kürtöskalács – some typed of DELICIOUS rolled dough that is baked and sprinkled with cinnamon. My god it was tasty. When Daniel was finished (Neah and I couldn’t eat the rest of her pastry) we headed towards the city center, about 4 kilometers away. We didn’t really care to walk the entire way, so after about half a kilometer we stuck out our thumbs and hoped for the best. It took maybe twenty minutes until a young couple from Bucharest picked us up. They were both medical students, on a short vacation from Bucharest. And my god was the woman beautiful. Hitchhiking is the fourth form of transportation that day.

We made it back into the city center but couldn’t find a way to our next destination, the Turda Gorge. Cheile Turzii, as it’s known locally, it about 10 kilometers outside of the city. We finally broke down and hailed a taxi. Splitting it three ways only cost about 10 Lei. We arrive at the entrance to the gorge at about 1400, and started our hike without a clue as to where we were heading or which trails to follow. After about half an hour we discovered a small cave on the other side of the river. We crossed a bridge nearby in order to explore the cave, and found a little opening after a short climb up. Neah proved we could fit through, so I followed her, and Daniel followed me. Emerging from the cave I saw Neah sitting farther up the cliff, so I joined her. Daniel climbed up as well, and we all had to cram onto a tiny little ledge in order to all have a seat. The view was fantastic. I was a bit worried – not for myself though. Neah had managed to perch on a bit of rock that seemed a bit too inclined to support a person, and though we were only 10 meters high, the fall looked dangerous. About 20 minutes later we climbed down and continued our hike.

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The path through the gorge crossed the river several times. Each time a bridge offered passage, and each time the bridge seemed less and less stable. At about the midway point we discovered some mountain climbing paths labelled along the steep cliff face. Lacking any gear or safety measures, we still decided to try our luck. I would have to say that Neah made it up the farthest. She was probably a good five meters off the ground before she decided to descend. Admittedly, I probably only made it to about three meters. I really need to start taking more risks in life…

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We eventually arrived at the other side of the gorge, in an opening that surely gives every visitor a sense of the perfect picnic area. The gorge and forest were just behind us, but the river cut a path through the lush grassland. We did stop for about fifteen minutes to rest and finish off the Kürtöskalács. By this point, we really had no idea where we were. The gorge starts outside of Turda, but the other end brings you to another village entirely. Along the path out we saw a very small footbridge leading into what appeared to be a small residence with a homemade restaurant and bar. We approached, but the bridge had a sign across that was clearly Romanian for “closed.” Turning back to continue down the dirt road, we heard someone yelling at us from across the bridge. We just assumed that they were inviting us, so we moved the sign and crossed the river.

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There were several people on the patch of land. I think the older couple lived there, but there was a younger couple with a baby that seemed to be helping out. They gave (sold) us some beers and talk us the best way to get back to town. It was 1600 by this point, and apparently the next and last minibus to Turda left at 1800, so we figured we would have about two hours to spend there. The gentleman helping out, who spoke English very well, told us to contact the driver of a gold car parked down the road. He recommended we ask for a ride when they returned. Having no idea when that would be, the three of us casually sat and drank beer while we waited. Worst case scenario, we catch the 1800 bus into town. I befriended one of the two puppies on the lot, and named him “Weasel” because of his pointy face.

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When the couple appeared and headed for the car, Neah sprang into action. We had selected her for two reasons: I’m sure they didn’t want to see three people making a mad dash for them, and women typically have better results in areas such as hitching. Thankfully, Neah has success! She waved at us, and we gathered our things and rushed to the car. Her and I still had half a beer left, and were forced to chug them as quickly as possible so as not to waste them. This couple, too, was from Bucharest. They were a little older, maybe their early 40’s, and had been hiking the gorge the same time as us. They took us through the winding hilly streets for half an hour back to Turda. By this time the sun was about two hours away from setting. Daniel, Neah, and I were able to find a minibus – the fifth form of transportation – and make it back to Cluj.

As tired as we all were at this point, our hunger was even worse. We stopped at a place Daniel recommended from eating their a few days back called “Roata.” I don’t know if it was the most delicious food I had ever eaten, or if it just tasted like the most delicious food I had ever eaten because I was so tired and hungry, but it was the most delicious food I had ever eaten. The three of us agree on three different menu items, and in true Romanian fashion ate freely from each other’s plates. Of course, following the meals we split a massive plate of Papanasi. I was surprised to learn that neither of them had tasted it before. It’s such an awesome treat!

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I think I will break here. There is quite a bit more to write for the past few days, but I will save that for another blog post. Hopefully tomorrow. Here’s a bit of a teaser to make sure you read the next part: I left the hostel. I returned to the hostel. I slept four hours last night. I toured an ethnographic compound with a local, after eating pasta she cooked us. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination until I write again. Cheers!

Oh, I almost forgot to mention: Neah wove me a bracelet! I guess you can call it a “friendship” bracelet, if you need a mental image. It’s Rastafarian colors, and the second I am now wearing. The first is a red prayer bracelet from Corfu. I bought three at the time: for Lisa, Gabriel, and myself. I would like to think we are all still wearing them. Both have significant sentimental value to me.

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