The Bucegi: other angles

It’s 7:15. My alarm goes off. I snooze only twice, meaning I’m up, and proud, by 7:25. I do yoga, apply the finishing touches to my pack, have breakfast and call a taxi. It drops me off at Braşov station, where other taxi drivers line up to lure me into one of theirs – but alas, I’m getting on a train. To Râşnov, to be precise. After a short ride on the ridiculously cheap Regio Calatori train I briskly direct my steps towards the Bucegi. After about two kilometres I finally begin to wake up properly and realize I am still for an asphalt road, and that there are no signs of it ending anytime soon. I should definitely have taken a taxi for the first stretch to Cabana Mălăieşti. I could probably still call one, but instead I start flapping my hand up and down Romanian-style to find a ride. It doesn’t take long to take one: I end up in a car with a mountain guide, two Italian tourists and their driver. They are headed for Mălăieşti as well – lucky me. The ride probably saves me two hours of dull walking; as it turns out it’s almost 12km until the start of the trail. Sloppy slapdash planning on my part – I had a deadline to make the night before and didn’t mind the details.

Pleased with these fortunate circumstances, I walk up the forest road, with the tourists and their guide on my heels. I very much want to be all by myself so I speed up a little to get ahead of them. From here, Cabana Mălăieşti is signed only two hours three quarters. I already begin dreaming about squeezing in the Brâna Caprelor circuit today, which is high on my wish list. It has rained; the forest is gloriously cool and fragrant and the flowers are at their most beautiful. When the forest opens up I am greeted by the imposing rock walls that guard the Mălăieşti Valley. I see a picnic table which makes me realize I’m pretty hungry, so I have breakfast part two. A large bird of prey swooshes past me but has disappeared among the treetops before I can turn around.

I arrive at Cabana Mălăieşti by 1pm, which means I can consider the Brâna Caprelor round, although it might mean getting back late. But I’ll risk it. I gobble up a tomato and a ball of mozzarella, some dried apricots and a chocolate wafer and I’m off again. With that sobering feeling that I could potentially die on this trail; that I’m alone and it’s not exactly early. The cabana girl said it would be three and a half hours up, two and a half down. Although that seems fairly generous to me and I definitely think I can beat that, I also know I need to keep my cool and take it easy to avoid accidents.

Right at the start of Brâna Caprelor two chamois stare me in the face from atop a rock, at a safe distance, but still close enough for me to admire them. Although the Brâna Caprelor trail is exciting and involves some hands on rock and the scenery is absolutely imposing, it is far less difficult than I’d expected – quite a few people have warned me about the technicality of this trail. This happens to be my favourite environment and I feel right at home with the capre (goats). A sound in between a hiss and a whistle alerts me to the presence of another capra neagra: it’s on my trail and doesn’t like my presence there. I win though. In terms of distance the trail is short; I can see the cabana down below most of the time, if it isn’t hidden by the clouds, which make the experience even more enchanting.

I creep through a narrow gate in the rocks to arrive at Brâna Caprelor Saddle (2285m), right underneath Bucşoiu Peak (2492m) from where I start the descent via the Friedrich Deubel trail. I’ve never been all that fond of descending and this is a devilishly steep and slippery trail indeed. There is an extra challenge too: there are several trails to the left and I’m not quite sure which one to take, so I have to do some extra exploring – but finally, I arrive at La Prepeleac saddle from where the red triangle trail unambiguously leads west and back to Cabana Mălăieşti. I get treated to a couple of cables and ladders but other than that the trail is straightforward. Turns out the circuit only took me two hours. A total of 1500m up and 700m down today. And all this while having my period and being in quite a lot of pain. It makes me feel powerful. If that is too much information for you, I’m only a little sorry: I refuse to just post pretty pictures and stories. I write about reality and that includes the less presentable side of life. I also do this because personally I find it reassuring to read about real people doing real things. It makes me think I can do those things too. And then I do them. Although admittedly I didn’t really have a model for what I’m doing now – I just started doing it because I felt I needed to. I would have starved if I hadn’t.

The next morning I set off in the same direction again, but this time my first destination is Omu Peak – officially the Bucegi’s highest point at 2507m, but from whichever angle I look at it, the neighbouring Bucura Dumbravă peak looks considerably higher even though it only gets 2503m on the map. It’s very foggy on the summer trail to Omu – all the bigger the surprise when I see chamois appearing through the clouds. I see at least three; one jumps away, another sits perched upon a tall rock, but the middle one isn’t shy at all and stays right on the trail. It even follows me, peeking around rock after rock at a distance of no more than twenty metres. Another one expertly runs down a steep mountainside during my lunch break. It’s breathtaking. In fact, all I can hear is my own breath and the occasional stone dislodged by a chamois. Soaking up all this beauty and stillness is truly rejuvenating.

At Cabana Omu I meet Cosmin, the mountain guide, with his Italian tourists again. We didn’t really get to talk much the previous day, but now it turns out we get on quite well. I discuss my plans to become a mountain guide with him and he has some very valuable input. He also completely understands why I’ve picked Romania: ‘Politically this is the worst country to move to, but in terms of freedom it’s the best – you can do whatever you want here.’ Exactly that. Freedom abounds. Cosmin studies my boots with a half-worried, half-disapproving look: ‘You need new ones.’ I know. They very much need replacing. They’re only two years old, but I’ve walked over 1500km in them – perhaps closer to 2000km by now. So I’m kind of proud of how bad they look; like Johnny Cash of his ragged old flag.

I’m not done for the day yet: the weather has only given me a two-day window of opportunity and so I have to make my way down today. I descend to Buşteni via Valea Cerbului, Deer Valley. I don’t spot any but I do run into a very cute bunch of donkeys. The descent is long but not arduous, and the vegetation is lush – the butterflies seem to think so too. It looks like the trail has been re-marked quite recently. At one point I miss the new marks and accidentally follow an old section, but it’s easy enough to reconnect to the new path. At Poiana Coştilei I decide to opt for the red triangle into the centre of Buşteni rather than the continuation of the yellow stripe, which according to the map goes over a paved road. I’d rather have some more forest.

I feel accomplished when I arrive in Buşteni and take the first train to Braşov; I left my luggage at the station so it makes all the sense in the world to find a room there. However, on the train I find out that Braşov is more or less fully booked – the only decent-looking rooms I find are €50 or more and that’s way more than I’m willing to spend. When the train pulls in to Braşov station I still haven’t found lodgings, so I call Wilbert to help me out. I feel pretty frazzled too at this point: tired of the hike, overstimulated by the city buzz. He finds me two decent-looking options; I book the first one and get a phone call more or less straight away. The woman on the line tells me she’s awfully sorry but unfortunately the room just got booked by someone else. But she has another one just like it – right above Sergiana restaurant. That sounds fine to me so I decide to go with it – not that I have many other options, but my judgement is a little clouded too. So I take a bus there and wait while the rain starts pouring down.

Initially I am quite happy with the room, but when my host has left I can take my new environment in properly, and I realize I don’t like it one bit. It feels wrong. There is no kitchen like in the room I initially booked, there is a lot of traffic noise coming in from the street, the room is warm, there is a wasp inside and on top of all that the bathroom is across the hall. I don’t feel comfortable with this at all and I feel the panic surge. Before I know it I’m crying uncontrollably. I message Wilbert, then decide to take a shower to see if that will calm me down. It doesn’t. At all. I message Cristian, my new Braşov friend mentioned in my previous post, as well and he immediately says I should come over – his brother is out of town for a few days so he actually has a spare room. I don’t want him to feel obliged and I feel so shattered that I’m not sure I can move at all – besides, it’s late – so I tell him that. He suggests I come over just for the night and make plans the next day; at the same time I’m on the phone with Wilbert who tells me he’s cooking for guests. That does it: ‘I want your cooking too!’ I cry and then I realize I should really go over to Cristian’s, who has food ready as well as a room. So I call my host and try to explain; she doesn’t make a fuss, comes over straight away, gives me most of my money back and drives me over to Cristian’s place, where I feel better instantaneously.

Although I hated having to go through this rough transition back into town I realize it led me to the right place: to a friend who could look after me when I needed it – and who I had heaps of things to talk over with anyway. So I end up staying for a couple of days – it keeps raining and I don’t feel like going anywhere else. We talk about interdependence: I may need Wilbert’s income to do what I do, but he depends on me for other things. I may need Cristian’s hospitality now but my presence helps him too. The society I live in teaches me that anything short of financial independence is shameful. This is a very narrow-minded point of view though: there are so many other things we depend on others for. Care, expertise, insight. Cooking, fixing flat tires, listening to each other, doing the dishes, answering questions, holding each other. Wanting to be completely independent is sad and foolish. Interdependence is beautiful, strengthening and empowering. We achieve so much more when we hold hands. It’s called synergy.

Slowly, I calm down again and regain my sanity. I realize once more that, even though there are pitfalls like these, I am so grateful for what I get to do. I’m walking and I’m writing. I’m doing the two things I feel I was born to do. And I’m sharing these things. I’m passing them on. The mountains of Romania empower me; they help me connect to what is good and beautiful and true, and put it into words. One by one, the ideas and suspicions spring up. Nudges and hunches and inklings and insights and sparks and rays. ‘Could it be that…’ ‘I cannot help but feel…’ I cannot give you examples of these here. They are not things that come in isolation or can be pulled out of their context. I want my writing to be permeated with these suspicions, not shout them from the rooftops. But they all are realizations about what truly matters: life in all its fullness. Because the more time I spend in the mountains, the more I realize that we have a goal, after all: to be. Not to survive, but to thrive. To bloom. To connect. To sing in unison with the universe. And if all that sounds a little lyrical, try going up those mountains and stay there for a while. We’ll talk afterwards.

Stage One: Izvorul Mălăieşti – Cabana Mălăieşti | 2hrs | blue stripe | 7km | Total ascent: +815m
Stage Two: Cabana Mălăieşti – Brâna Caprelor – Friedrich Deubel trail – Take Ionescu Trail | 2hrs | blue stripe, blue triangle, red stripe, red triangle | 6.5km | Total ascent/descent: 690m
Stage Three: Cabana Mălăieşti – Omu Peak – Valea Cerbului – Buşteni | blue stripe, yellow stripe, red triangle | 16km | Total ascent: 910m | Total descent: 1660m

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