The dog days of Romania

The line between sleeping rough vs. an adventurer’s definition of stealth/wild camping is a blurry and fine one at the best of times; it varies greatly on each individual’s idea of creature comforts vs. bare necessities.

However, following months becoming used to sleeping in hedges, or waste land near villages, I crossed this line even by my own rough standards, this was in Romania, where I had my worst night ‘camping’ to date.

There is a massive stray dog problem in this country, not a few here or there, but thousands of them; 65,000 according to official estimates.

They mostly roam in packs of three to seven, sometimes up to a dozen or more, scavenging for waste from bins, neither scared nor respectful of humans. Unfortunately every year several people are killed across Romania when one of these packs turns territorial and attacks.

Without being prepared there is little you can do if such an attack occurs but try your best to cover your windpipe and face with your arms, try to stay in the foetal position and play dead, however I doubt most of us could actually play dead or keep our arms in place while being attacked!

Needless to say camping in Romania was something I tried to avoid, a tent provides zero protection from attackers while also rendering you blind to defend yourself!

Also, a tent that you have cooked near and or had food in, will attract animals who may not even consider the possibility of your presence. There’s really very little difference between a plastic tent and a plastic bin bag to a pack of hungry dogs when they can smell food inside; but when they tear it open and you startle them, they will be very scared, fear which will quickly manifest as aggression.

Lying on the floor underneath a pack of scared hungry and aggressive dogs is not somewhere you wish to awaken!

I stuck to good roads, which meant frequent access to shops and restaurants and most nights cheap guest houses, well within budget. Having to throw the odd stone towards dogs a few times a day didn’t bother me too much after a day or two.

However on my worst night sleeping out so far, the only pensineau (guest house) shown on the map was 34 miles away from where I woke, I made the miles, but the place was now a building merchants!! The nearest place was some 15km back the way I’d came. No chance!

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a major problem; I’d just run out of town, find a quiet patch and sleep. But there was no “out of town” on this road, between this town and the city of Bacau, there were  28 miles of houses and buildings both sides!

I had to find somewhere in town to sleep; this isn’t wild camping, it’s sleeping rough on the streets. I’ve had to do it before and no doubt will again at some point during this run I’m sure.

The only rough ground I could find was near a storm drain, but with all the dogs I could hear fighting near the area there was no chance I was putting up my tent, as explained above it just renders you defenseless to attacks!

I ended up after much deliberation placing my roll mat underneath a bridge which spanned the storm drain, plenty of broken glass on the floor meant I wasn’t risking puncturing my air bed and so it was just a cold mattress for the night!

That night I lay down not planning on sleeping but simply to rest a little before continuing in the morning. To maintain some warmth I had to do static exercises such as the bridge and plank inside my sleeping bag. After eight hours running the last thing you want is to exercise to stop your teeth chattering, but needs must.

There were three main packs in this area and they fought, chased, howled and growled incessantly until 4am before starting up again at around 6am.  A little after this I waited until sun-light at 7.30am and packed away my kit for another marathon.

Its nights like these once or twice a month that lead to a mounting fatigue when combined with the running, the running itself can be tiresome but the other factors hugely compound the effects.

The scariest point had been when a large Alsatian cross had appeared approximately four metres from me; luckily being startled caused him to turn tail rather than attack! I was lying there with my torch in one hand and a large stick in the other but he had surprised me, if he’d attacked I probably wouldn’t have had time to prevent being bitten.

However this same dog turned out to be my guardian angel. For the remainder of the night he barked an ominous deep chesty growl whenever any other dogs made a noise anywhere in the area, protecting me from their onslaught.

New friends in the Ukraine

The Ukraine was going fine, roads with hard shoulders, so although the conditions were terrible for drivers, on the whole I felt safe running.

The weather, although cold, was dry and crisp and as I was on a main road there were frequent stops throughout the day so I could warm up in a cafe. Perhaps I was too relaxed this day and for whatever reason, after arriving in the town of Manevichy, I couldn’t have been concentrating.

After visiting the cash point I found a pizzeria and was served by a friendly girl who tried her best to speak English and made me feel very welcome as a stranger in her country.

A few kilometres out of town I checked my pockets as I regularly do throughout the day, there was a big problem! No cash card. By the time I ran back to the town a couple hours had passed from first using the cash machine which was in the wall of a supermarket. The girl by the desk nearest to the machine wasn’t at all impressed with me trying to mime that my card was probably in the machine and could she check? A hugely exaggerated shrug of her shoulders and several sighs in succession she told me she understood. But was it her problem? No!

Luckily, a gentleman overheard and decided to help, he phoned the police who passed me through to a translator, who explained I should visit the bank office. The man who had phoned for help gestured to show me the way, it was clean across town, and I don’t think I’d have found it without his assistance.

After a long wait the bank’s line was “if the card is there we will send it back to England, but we won’t check until 5pm”. It was 11am!

I dragged myself back to the welcoming cafe for somewhere warm to sit for a few hours. With tea costing only£0.30 a mug I could afford to waste away a few hours without having to worry about spending too much.

Natalia, the girl working there earlier was now joined by her friends, another Natalia and Vlad. They all made me feel like an old lost friend and even used their phones to translate so we could talk more.

After a few hours, Natalia passed me her phone which read “today we feast, invite us”. I understood I was being invited for a feast! And there was plenty of delicious food which I was very grateful to enjoy.

By 5pm, it was dark and colder than earlier. Vlad offered to drive me to the bank, being in a vehicle sure felt odd after running every day. The bank said they didn’t have my card, but through the translator I had the exact time I’d made the transaction. They checked the CCTV recording and recognised the man who’d taken my card. He happened to be the next door neighbour to the bank manager and he’d taken it thinking he’d pass it to his neighbour later.

As great as these intentions were, it now meant my card was some 40km away in his village! Vlad came to my rescue before I even knew of the situation. Vlad passed me the phone and the translator explained what’d happened and that my friend had said he’d collect the card. I couldn’t believe it! Vlad took some petrol money for his 50 mile round trip on snowy roads but wouldn’t take a penny more.

Can you imagine being stuck in the Ukraine for Christmas without any food or cash?!

By the time I was reunited with my card it was part way through the evening and time to think of where I’d camp or if possible, find a cheap local hotel.

Vlad would have none of it. I was to stay with him! It’s so heart-warming when strangers bend over backwards to go out of their way to help you.

I was fed, able to wash and had a warm bed for the night, all after being rescued from my own stupidity of being careless when using the cash machine, and all by the kindness of strangers.

I left Manevichy a day late and several new friends later.


Camping in the Ukraine

Ukraine easily had the worst roads in Europe. They appeared to have just put asphalt on top of mud, with little to no foundations. These aren’t just potholes but rather the whole road collapses under trucks, and you’re left with a ridge, sometimes a foot clean above the rest of the road. This is the level the road began life, but either side of this ridge there’s a foot deep 10-30 yard long channel.

There are plenty of regular potholes alongside these depressions but most would take your wheel clean off if you drove over them. I’m not exaggerating!

As a runner it caused a few problems, not directly, but in so much as you can never guarantee which lane the traffic ahead or behind of you is suddenly going to swerve in or out of to avoid losing a wheel!

Often this meant two cars squeezing into one and a half lanes and no room for me to run!

Luckily there was always a hard shoulder and I kept my ears as well as eyes focused on the traffic. The horse drawn carts often caused some scary overtaking I’d rather not have been present to witness as I ran.

I found food prices in the Ukraine to be incredible value, very generous and tasty. The traditional Borscht soup was the best thing I’ve ever found to warm you up after hours in the cold.

Hotels were also great value but not present as frequently as I would have liked at those prices. However, wild camping was very easy in the Ukraine as there were plenty of woods, and also most of the roads had trees for hedge rows. I also seemed to always find a couple of restaurants between miles 20-28. Here I could sit for a few hours warming through and drinking tea at 30p a cup and having two main meals at £2-3 each before donning my warm jacket, hat and gloves and shuffling up the road for an hour or so to bring the miles up to 28/30 before setting up camp.

Winter camping in the Ukraine isn’t a joke! The only really cold bit of camping is sitting around cooking or striking camp. If you’ve already eaten a hot meal or two, all there is to it, is just to set up the tent, jump in the sleeping bag and then you’re toasty and warm all night.

There was always a cafe within the first hour or so in morning for coffee, which saves on cooking time first thing. Life here is not at all like England with supermarkets; every little village has its own shops and likely a bar or café which suited me perfectly! I was eating two or three hot meals each day and enjoying plenty of stops for hot tea (rather than unappetising cold water) throughout each run then camping for free in the woods or in a hedge!

Seriously, a hedge was all I needed to camp discreetly metres from the road.  It was barely visible even if someone had been looking for it, and with drivers flashing by at 50-70mph. I was as good as invisible.


Crossing Belarus

In my last post I spoke about crossing the border into Belarus and the challenges I faced due to a lack of maps, limited language skills and cultural differences. Little did I know that that was just the beginning…

How on earth had I ended up having to run almost four marathons in less than two  days in order to avoid having to pay large fines and waiting to see if I’d be imprisoned or deported?

I had planned to exit Belarus early on the Friday, a day and a half before my visa expired at midnight on the Saturday. I had requested an eight day visa although I only needed seven days to cross the country. It seemed prudent to have a day or two extra, in case of unforeseen delays.

Thank goodness I added the extra day or instead of writing this blog I may well have been sat in a prison cell which would’ve spelt the end of the world run attempt.

Unfortunately during this week I experienced my first bout of food poisoning so I made the correct decision to take the day off with bed rest. This allowed me to continue running the following three days, and I was perfectly confident of leaving Belarus 12 hours early.

As you can guess this didn’t happen. I only made it to the border a mere 90 minutes before my visa expired!

The Thursday turned out to be a complete waste of a day, with 11 of the 29 miles I planned to cover along a road that no longer exists! I had no choice but to double back on myself, continued on the main road I had left many miles earlier and set up camp in the dark. Needless to say, my heart sank when I thought about what was to come the following day.

I had originally planned to cover 61 miles over the next two days, setting forth from the town of Ivanvitchy, however, I was now a full 23 miles from there! I also didn’t trust the route so had no choice but to stick to the main road, meaning a total of 95 miles in two days!

I’ve completed 50 mile runs many times before but not pushing a buggy and certainly not two days in a row! I knew I could do it – with fresh legs – certainly, but it’d be tough, on legs pre-fatigued with over 3000 miles of running. It’s the first time I’ve ever faced an ultra-endurance run with a well-founded niggling doubt in my head, and it was unnerving.

The problem wasn’t really the distance alone; 36 hours earlier I was still lying in bed crippled by food poisoning. The real concerning factor however was the rapid and persistent deterioration in the weather. From Friday morning the winds rapidly grew in strength seemingly in direct disproportion to that of my legs. They were heavy, slow and unresponsive; a week of not eating anywhere near enough will do that to your legs, no matter how hard you tell them to run.

By lunchtime visibility was terrible as snow showers became heavier then constant. I was barely able to keep above 5kmph as the wheels of my buggy fought the ice and snow piled in front. It’s incredibly dispiriting to put in inordinate amounts of energy for seemingly negligent gains in speed, fighting headwinds and the resistance on the wheels. But I couldn’t afford to succumb to worry or doubts if I intend to make the finish line in time.

Friday was a 12 hour slog, 42 miles to a hotel. It was no weather for camping and I wanted to hit the pillow for a few hours and then get back on the road.

At £30 a night instead of the £11 average throughout Belarus, the hotel was far nicer than every other place I’d stayed. Just a shame I couldn’t make the most of it since I planned at rising at 5.30am to leave at 6am.

Not only was the hotel nice and modern there were a bunch of guys mainly German, Hungarian and a Belarusian who all spoke English. They were staying there while rebuilding the local power station.

Spotting my buggy and the world run signs they asked to pose for photos and invited me to join them for dinner.

Before bed they ordered me a pizza. The English speaking company was most welcome but hesitantly I dragged myself to bed around midnight for my five hours of shut eye before heading back out into the blizzard.

When I woke, there was I thought, about 55 miles left to the border and less than 27 hours on my visa. I estimated it would take 15 hours.

A half marathon complete just after sunrise wasn’t too bad a start to the day, then the pain started. First case of shin splints I’ve had since I began running and I couldn’t place my left foot on the floor without clenching my teeth.

With over 35 miles to go I had to ignore the pain and the intense cold and keep moving.

After 10 hours I was desperate for a hot meal or at least a caffeine fix. I had to stop. Spotting a bus shelter I took out my stove and began heating some water for a brew. It was more for morale than warmth, I needed hydration and caffeine. It was getting dark again and there was still 18 miles to go!

Pre and post tea was literally night and day but the difference in my step was very noticeable. You can only imagine my annoyance when less than five minutes running further down the road I ran past a café!

If I’d had the energy, I’d have been infuriated. As night fell, so did the temperatures and the blizzard returned.

The next four and a half hours were some of the worst I’ve ever ran through.

There was very little traffic on the road, and for good reason. It was too dangerous to be out in these conditions. I saw many vehicles abandoned at the side of the road. Vehicles slid off the road, crashes between cars and horse drawn carts.

The weight of my buggy, usually a curse, was here a blessing as it kept me weighted down! Without the buggy it would have been almost impossible to run on the road with the cross wind.

I finally arrived at the checkpoint after 10.30 with less than 90 minutes to spare.

I must have looked in a bad way. A stranger jumped out of his car and poured me a thermos of tea. The customs and passport control officers ordered me into their office. I was worried at first, then realised they were worried about me.

Placing a chair inches from the radiator they ordered me to sit and brought me some hot food and lemonade.

I didn’t need to worry about crossing the border on foot here. The guys were seriously impressed with the 85 km I’d covered that day in those conditions, my paperwork proving where I’d stayed the night before.

But I guess there’s no faking how rough you look running 95 miles in the snow in under two days with just five hours sleep!

They asked to see my route through the Ukraine, I wondered why? They explained they wanted to check if I was avoiding the mountains, where temperatures would be too dangerous. I was, but it was nice they wanted to check!

They kept me there thawing out until five minutes before midnight when my visa would expire.

I couldn’t believe how warm I felt from the inside just from the care these guys showed.

The ‘cold scary Belarus’ I had ran through the previous week erased, as these ‘scary Soviet guards’ shared their food and shelter with me, a crazy stranger in their land.

From Belarus with love

Belarus is a completely different world. It has definitely been the most stressful country I’ve experienced so far, but I’m glad I braved it.  It was how one might imagine Russia in the 60s, the only real tell-tale give away being that some people had mobile phones!

My first fears came when running from Vilnius, Lithuania, to the border. During the final four miles I passed by a line of trucks patiently queuing, bumper to bumper to access the check point, security here is meticulous to say the least!

It’s very unusual to cross borders on foot and I’d read conflicting postings on Belarusian advice boards, many proclaiming checkpoints blankly refuse pedestrians, insisting you find a bus or a car to take you on board. This option was not possible for me as it would have forfeited my whole circumnavigation on foot if I boarded a vehicle, even for a few yards! However my ability to negotiate in Belarusian or Russian is as strong as my ballet dancing skills (non-existent). I was very apprehensive passing through each stage of the checkpoint but after a huge amount of paper work I was eventually let across the border.

With the checkpoint behind me, I just had the tiny issue of navigating an entire country without any maps! The app I’m using had been brilliant so far, but for some reason the Belarusian map was nothing more than an outline of the border and the position of the capital city – no roads, towns or points of interest to guide me.  I can tell you first-hand that the thought of crossing an entire country on foot, with no concept of the language and no decent map, is one to keep you awake at night! Nonetheless, this is what I signed up for after all.

As I set off, I realised that the country appeared to be “more Russian, than Russia”. That might sound odd, but these days Russia seems to have a far more European outlook in terms of enterprise, and trade than Belarus.

Here, almost everything is state owned and controlled, which makes it very difficult for outsiders from the West.

Businesses, shops, government buildings and civic offices are virtually indistinguishable from one another and they also all have netting and or blinds over the windows. When arriving in a town, unless fluent in Belarusian/Russian, it’s a lucky dip. You literally have to walk inside every door to find out what’s inside – not ideal when you’re looking for a hot meal or a hotel and you’re literally running against the clock!

The disparity between rich and poor was also surprising, considering the supposed socialist political and economic ideology. Out on the road I saw horse drawn carts being overtaken by Mercedes and BMW cars that represent some 15-20 years of the average citizens earnings!

Most places also seemed to use electricity very sparingly. Twice I walked into hotels in the pitch dark, through unlit foyers and entrance halls to find a receptionist lit by a lamp barely brighter than a candle.

When I did find a hotel there was usually Wi-Fi available but I was never granted access! (I don’t think foreign nationals are allowed)

The food in Belarus was incredibly well priced at about £0.12 for a cup of tea and £1-£2 for a tasty hot meal…the problem was finding a hot meal in the first place since I couldn’t understand any of the signs and there was nothing to distinguish between a DIY store and a café. With the short days of winter I can’t afford to waste an hour’s daylight to find food and drink.

Not all was bad though, most of these difficulties came from my lack of Belarusian/Russian language skills, my shortcomings.

I felt incredibly safe in Belarus, 10% of the population are employed by the army or police forces so there were  low levels of crime there.

It’s also very beautiful in parts; several areas reminded me of my home playground of Exmoor, the place I first became obsessed with running. For a fleeting moment this warmed me from the inside but also meant having to fight off pangs of homesickness!

Despite all these challenges, the lack of maps, lack of language skills, homesickness and the culture shock, I somehow manage to stay motivated to continue on this incredible journey.