Last month I travelled 800km around Transylvania. It was sick. I’m going to share some bits I’ve written about it since I’ve been back.
Towards the end of our trip we take a last minute decision to go horse-riding. Alongside skiing it’s what Hannah names as one of her main reasons for existence, and alongside skiing it’s something I do not really know how to do and of which I am slightly afraid. We phone the only place with an internet presence - we can ride in an hour. We must wear trousers and ‘not our favourite shoes’.
It’s a half an hour drive along an increasingly unkempt track to reach the large stables where we’re greeted by a very small sexually excited dog and two of the huge shaggy farm dogs that are ubiquitous in Transylvania. The owner “call me Mike” comes out to say hello and is strangely magnetic - long curly hair pulled back in a ponytail and very tight jodhpurs. We ram on helmets and mount our horses. Hannah gets one with “just a little demon inside”.
I learn a lot of things from Mike as his voices echo back at us in valleys, or is absorbed and deadened by forest. (I think Hannah misses most of them.) We ride in convoy through a pastel village crumbling around one church steeple and a sulphurous stream with alleged healing properties. He points out a shell of a cottage and asks if we want to buy it for €6000 - he bought it for 3 but the papers alone cost that. He tells us he grew up in downtown Bucharest, and used to run one of the largest show horse events in Europe. He shows us a patch of swamp he lost a digger to when trying to build a jump. As we ride through woods whose trees curl over the path to meet overhead, he tells us about bears in Romania - officially only 3,000 left but more like 10,000 if you ask a ranger. He points out a bear print, fresh from the previous day, and tells us to talk louder, and perhaps sing if we want to. There are wild boars here too - a riding group at new year encountered a pack of them - but no wolves. Around here. A fact we’re particularly pleased to hear as we’ve been listening to Dracula in the car, and there’s a whole lot of howling outside dogs in Romanian cities through the night.
As we descend down towards the village, Mike points across the hills at a flock of sheep and their shepherd, warning us about the sheep dogs and how they might panic the horses if they choose to attack. He calls the shepherds bastards - they graze on his land and ruin his fields until he’s forced to buy hay for his horses as there’s nothing left for them. He points at a scorched 100m of blackened grass and tree stumps. “One of those bastards playing with a lighter. Wanting to see what fire looks like. Idiot.” Mike tells us he’s threatened this shepherd, telling him he’ll run over his sheep. He just brings the flock back to graze at night. Mike leans back over his horse conspiratorially - since there’s nothing the courts will do he has decided to get together some men and go and beat the shepherd up. Teach him a lesson. He winks. It’s hard to know how to react.
This turbulent dynamic between shepherds and the rest of society is a common theme throughout Romania's history; often they are men with nothing but their sheep and a winter coat, no possessions to forfeit when fined and no identification papers for judges to call upon in convictions. Sometimes landowners let shepherds graze flocks on their land in exchange for some of the cheese they produce, or small payments. Sometimes they don’t ask permission, and they are easy to scapegoat in the same way that most nomadic peoples have been scapegoated - there are parallels with the often-horrible history of the Roma people in Romania. It’s lambing time, and we pass many shepherds sitting in the fields flanking the roads or ringing bells over the hills in the distance, watching over flocks with nothing but a crook and the usual huge shaggy dog. It’s a way of life that has not changed in centuries.
On the way back into the stables we pass a husk of an old brewery, which Mike says is being knocked down this year. Peering through smashed windows as we clop by we see tattered and broken-down carriages and buggies, fancier versions of the ones we've seen farmers and Roma drive nonchalantly alongside lorries on the highways, piled high with wood and young men. There are rows of beautiful, glossy show horses in the stables, who would strike a very different sight brushed and gleaming and drawing one of these than the mangy and exhausted horses we see on the roads.
We dismount and pay Mike, and he wishes us a good rest of the trip, and we wish him a good life. We drive back to Sighișoara as it starts to rain.
Bisexual culture is asking your girlfriend the next day if she too was powerfully attracted to the Romanian horseback guide.