The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Don’t trust the Hungarians, according to the Romanians. And vice versa. Just as well they’re all good people.
The Eastern Bloc, and back to England
The customs man at the Bulgarian border asked us for third-party insurance, which we no longer had. When I told him this, he rolled his eyes heavenwards and waved us through – he couldn’t be bothered getting the forms out.
Bulgarian roads were pretty nasty, mostly cobble stoned and wavier than the Bay of Biscay in a gale. Someone once said that the potholes were the size of small planets. Big moons, maybe. Fields were being ploughed by small tractors with treads instead of wheels, possibly lightly converted tanks.
We felt our way gingerly through the forested hills to Veliko Tarnovo. The campsite there turned out to be the most expensive of the trip, but at least it had plenty of hot water for the showers, although I cannot for the life of me imagine why the taps were electrified…
Perhaps some of the cost of the site was an entertainment charge. We were certainly entertained, by singing and revelry, until about 2.30am. It was a party of East Germans who were no doubt glad to be away from the Stasi. We in our turn were glad to get out of Bulgaria after our extensive stay of 24 hours – that was all the time our visa gave us.
Good thing, too. Among other things, the roads had finally done what even the Yugoslav ones had not managed— they had broken the bike’s luggage rack.
Romanian Customs must have had us pegged as International Drug Runners. They searched everything on and off the bike, even though their drug-sniffing dog didn’t show the slightest interest in us.
The highlight of the ceremony came when one of the male customs officers found a suspicious small cardboard box filled with what looked like miniature white sticks of explosive, with fuse attached. Neither of us spoke Romanian, and Annie finally got through with a bit of French.
“Pour Madame,” she said. The customs officer looked at the box of tampons, went bright red and couldn’t give them back quickly enough.
We then had to change $10 per day of our visit into the local currency and should also, apparently, have bought petrol coupons. Nobody told us anything about them, so we rode blithely off. As it turned out, only one petrol station asked for them, and they filled our tank anyway when we shrugged our shoulders.
The roads were noticeably better than the ones in Bulgaria, and we made it to Bucharest for lunch. We ate at the Carul cu Bere, a restaurant in an 18th-century inn. The food here was superb, beer came in great stoneware steins and was delicious, and it was all quite cheap.
I know the people were being oppressed by the government, but everyone we saw seemed cheerful enough – even the ones eating the awful greasy ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s, Romania is yours for the taking.
It was frustrating trying to find somewhere to camp. Most of the sites listed in the official booklet (another damned official booklet) were either closed or had disappeared. One was even closed for stocktaking!
“One tree, check. Grass, sort of, 80 square metres, check. Pile of gravel, one of. Where’s the pile of gravel, Karoly?”
When we finally found a site the bike immediately attracted a crowd of truck drivers. While they were admiring the twin disc brakes up front, one drew me aside. He told me that he was Hungarian, and to be sure to lock everything up. The Romanians, it seemed, were all thieves.
Marvelous, I thought. Later a Romanian told me that Hungarians would sell their grandmothers for a packet of cigarettes. Why do neighbours always delight in blackening each other’s names?
This slanderous tendency isn’t restricted to morals. When I made a disparaging remark about the Bulgarian roads, all the Romanians were tickled. One of them pointed to the dirt track we were on and suggested that that was what the Bulgarian roads were like. I said no, worse, and he pointed to the ploughed field next to the campsite. When I nodded, they roared with laughter and then bought us beer.
We had a race with a diesel locomotive up into the Transylvanian Alps and lost when we came to a red light. It was unfair – there was no red light for the train. These mountains are beautiful and full of old chateaux and grand hotels from the days before Communism. Most of them had been turned into workers’ holiday hostels – one improvement, anyway. We saw no signs of direct bloodsucking.
Somewhere in the north of Romania we lost the rubber plug out of the cam chain tensioner. I manufactured a new one from rolled-up adhesive tape and wired it into place – it seemed to do the job very nicely. We were once again trying to find a replacement gas bottle, and in Oradea near the Hungarian border finally found a gas depot.
It was closed, but there were some people outside and one of them took our empty bottle, passed it through the fence to somebody inside and got a new one back for us, free of charge. Nice people everywhere, or maybe they just enjoy sticking a thumb into Authority’s eye.
The border with Hungary was easy, except that once again we had trouble changing unwanted money back. It’s against the law to take Romanian money out of the country but they wouldn’t give us anything else, so we had to spend our remaining cash on the el cheapo souvenir wooden plates with pokerwork decorations which were the only things for sale. Could this have been deliberate?
The roads to Budapest were smooth and straight and almost unbelievably flat. With conservative and polite drivers as well, Hungary is one of the most pleasant countries in Europe to ride in, although things weren’t quite so easy in Budapest.
Annie checked with the Tourist Bureau and they told her that the campsite was closed, which seemed a bit unlikely to us. We rode out there just to make sure and lo! not only was it open, but it was open the whole year round, and it was a pleasant enough site despite the loud disco music from the restaurant at night. Isn’t it great to see Western culture spread behind the Iron Curtain?
Budapest has excellent public transport and is an altogether prosperous city. The people still didn’t look happy though, and the truckloads of Russian soldiers we saw were pointedly ignored. We took the road along the Danube on our way to the Austrian border and were rewarded by quiet country lanes and lush greenery.
The border was quick as they were only searching cars, not bikes. There’s a tip there, unless they change over on even days… As we rode into Vienna that afternoon, the back wheel of the Yamaha started making the most peculiar scraping noise. I tracked it down to a shoelace caught in the rear brake caliper.
An overnight stay in Vienna, in a clean and well-equipped campsite, and we were on our way again – no more time for sightseeing. The border with Germany is a one-stop affair – the guards showed our passports to a computer, which raised no objections, and we were simultaneously out and in. Coming into Passau, we started chatting to a bloke on an ancient BMW outfit, and he showed us a good pub for lunch.
We camped in Nuremberg that night, near the stadium made famous by the big Nazi rallies. It’s a parking lot now, which seems appropriate. The campsite was excellent, as all German campsites seem to be. Then it was up the Autobahn, on to Brunswick and a few days with relatives.
Then a long day across to Ostend and the late ferry to Dover. Due to delays on the ferry – it kept yo-yoing around in Dover harbour – and problems with the ramp, we didn’t get ashore until well after midnight.
The Customs man asked us where we’d been and wasn’t at all impressed by the 18 countries I rattled off. He just asked whether we’d picked up any ‘noxious substances’ and when we said no, we didn’t think so, let us go.
Miracles do still happen. There was a bed-and-breakfast place still open on the Folkestone road, and the first thing our landlady did was offer us a cup of tea. We were back in England, all right.
The run to London was just a formality. We were back, 194 days, 20,000 miles and £2000 after we’d set out. A great trip, albeit with its ups and downs. And then there was the next one…
Yes, this isn’t the end. America is yet to come, back on the old Honda XL250 and in a place where everyone remembers Kings Cross.
After years spent faffing around with old Harleys, The Bear rode a Honda XL250 around the world and then decided he might as well keep writing about bikes. Three books and endless magazines later he now spends his time looking for those special bike roads.
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