Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Journalists - captive, free, and those who work for Sky.

Big news weekend for Romania. Most importantly the three journalists being held hostage in Iraq were freed on Sunday. Basescu has assured the world that Romania didn’t pay any ransom and nor will it make any foreign policy changes. So, we are being asked to believe that the people who kidnapped them decided out of the goodness of their hearts to just let them go. Right. I’m glad they’re free, and I frankly don’t care if Romania did pay for it, but this myth that they were just let go is a tad far fetched.

The other big news for Romania this weekend was the film “The Death of Mr Lazarescu” winning the “Un Certain Regard” prize at Cannes. I can’t tell you much more about that except what I already have, but I’d like to see it. The clip I saw on Euronews looked pretty interesting.

On the subject of Euronews, some time ago early on in the life of this blog, I gave it a serious panning. Having spent the night in a hotel in Iasi on Friday in which the only English language news channel was Sky, I’d like to retract that panning. It’s not that Euronews has got better. It hasn’t (though I have to confess I have become slightly more fond of it). But, god, Sky. Why, oh why is it shown outside Britain? It’s the most parochial one-eyed bollocks ever committed to “journalism”. You’d think nothing goes on outside the UK, and even what goes on inside my homeland is defined as things that happen to C-list celebrities. “Last year’s Big Brother runner-up breaks nail” wasn’t a story on it on Friday, but that’s the kind of level we’re talking about. With CNN International turning into a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration (how did that happen? CNN in the US has always been a bunch of right wing propaganda, but CNNI used to be good. Did some right wing fundamentalist whackjob actually travel somewhere and see it, and then go back home and whip up some kind of lobbying campaign against “liberal bias”?), and Sky News being “Things that happened today in London of no great importance”, Euronews is most definitely in second place in the “commonly available English language news channels in Europe” category, and with the Beeb slowly going Blairish since the Hutton Report, it still has the chance to go top. Not a comment that ought to fill anyone with pride, even those at Euronews.

Crossing the Carpathians

Driving home from Iasi on Saturday, I got every piece of bad luck going. Every level crossing was down (and in Romania level crossings go down 15 minutes before the train arrives), herds of cows and flocks of sheep wandered across my path seemingly every time I passed a field, trucks, bad roads, everything. But worst of all was getting caught behind “Turul Moldovei”, the “Tour of Moldavia” cycle race. I’m very impressed by how fast cyclists can race, but when you’re in a car behind them travelling at 30 km/h most of the time, it can be a little frustrating. Especially when it goes on for mile after mile (about an hour, for me). Thankfully they took another route when we got to Piatra Neamt, and I didn’t have to follow them up the hill to Bicaz which was my route.

I had chosen this slow route (as opposed to my “normal” route down the Csango Valley) because I wanted again to see the Bicaz Gorge road. This is one of the most dramatic roads I have ever seen. It runs through the upper stretch of the Bicaz river valley - the river cuts through huge rocks and the road follows along the path it has carved. It’s well over 1000m up and it really has to be seen to be believed. Amazingly it may not even be the most dramatic road in Romania. I have never travelled on it but it seems to be commonly accepted that the Trans-Fagaras Highway is even more stunning. The Trans-Fagaras runs from near Sibiu to Arges across the highest part of the Carpathians. I think it was one of those monuments to power beloved of dictators [Old Nic: I want you to build a road here (draws line on map with finger). Engineer: But that’s a ridiculous place to build a road, it’s the highest mountain range in Romania. Old Nic: And how are your children doing at school these days?]

Once you make it through the gorge the road continues to climb, although now, as you have entered Hargita County (ie the county in which I live) the road surface is absolutely shocking. This time around I knew I was fully settled in here as my reaction on driving along this pockmarked disaster was no longer one of amusement or annoyance but of embarrassment at my own home county. The gorge had been full of tourists and I imagined them continuing on over into Transylvania and wondering what the hell they had let themselves in for. The road finally peaks at 1256m, which is, I believe higher than any mountain in the UK [Edit: I've just looked it up and it's not, coming in at 87m lower than Ben Nevis]. For those nostalgia buffs still living in the British empire, that’s approximately 4120 feet. (The Trans-Fagaras peaks at 2034m. Two thousand and bastard thirty four! 6,673 feet!).

Finally, after a few more livestock delays I made it home. 6 hours on the road when it had taken me less than 4½ to go the other way the day before. I was knackered. But still, I made it back in time to see the FA Cup final for the first time since 1996. I don’t think I’ve missed much in those years. God it was rubbish. I could have been drumming my fingers behind the wheel while all the farm animals in Romania crossed in front of me and it would have been more interesting.

[More on the Trans-Fagaras: An article from the Guardian, and a blog post from Halfway Down The Danube.]

Bicaz gorge pics

stalls selling cheap tat

note car and children specifically placed here for scale

view from the top down into Transylvania


Anonymous said...

If you search our blog, you'll find four or five entries for the Trans-Fagaras. It made a _deep_ impression.

Yeah, it was one of Old Nick's megalo things. One of his first, actually.

Definitely worth a trip. However,

1) Don't do it if you have height issues.

2) Be aware that it's quite completely insane, in that it goes from nowhere to nowhere. Really. It's not on the way to anywhere at all. So you'll need to set aside at least half a day to do it.


Doug M.

Anonymous said...

The official statement was the "Romanian state paid no ransom", that does not exclude somebody else (group of people, organization) paid.

Nice pictures.

Transfagarasan highway, many believe, was build for military reasons with a WWII strategic mindset, with large convoys of equipment and soldiers that have to be quickly hauled over the mountains. If you take a map you can see that there are only a handful of valleys and gorges you can pass from Walachia (Muntenia and Oltenia) and Moldavia into Transylvania and not all have the both ends in convenient strategic places. And millitary planners at that time had in mind invasions from all directions (like in WWI and WWII combined). Also, maybe was built to assure better access to the mountains where until 1963 were still anticommunist resistance fighters. Also just some big project after Bumbesti-Livezeni railway (it goes on Jiu Valley) until some better idea comes like demolishing the Bucharest or Danube - Black Sea Chanel.

Anonymous said...

I'm aware that Ceausescu claimed a "strategic" justification for the Trans-Fagaras. But I don't believe it for a moment.

One, the T-F highway is only open from May to September. In the other 7-8 months of the year, it's closed by snow and completely useless.

Two, it's very questionable whether that road could handle heavy traffic loads for long. I don't know what the "official" rating of the bridges is, but I wouldn't care to drive a 50-ton tank over one. Or even a 20-ton bus.

Three, it's fragile. Trucks and buses don't use it now, not only because of the load issue, but because one bad truck accident would shut the whole thing down for days.

Four, it's incredibly vulnerable. One bomb in the right place, and goodbye T-F highway. (And you have a 40 km traffic jam.) That last series of switchbacks below the tunnel on the north face? One explosion and the whole thing would slide right down off the mountain.

Oh, and to reach it from the south, you drive over the top of a big hydroelectric dam. Which would also be a large, hard-to-miss military target.

No. The military justification was just that... a justification. Old Nick built it because he wanted to.

Doug M.