by TianjinPaul on September 29, 2012
Over the course of my many travels, and before touching down in Bucharest, there had only been two places that set really over-powering first impressions as I landed. The first was Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. I flew there from Shermetyevo in Moscow and, in so doing, passed over the frozen and unspoiled wilderness of Siberia. It was miles and miles of pure white snow. This was only broken by the huge smoggy cloud that hung over the Mongolian capital. It gave the impression that I was witnessing man's best attempts at sullying nature. The areas surrounding the airport were similarly tainted and dirty as they took in the majority of Mongolia's industry. The second place was Muscat, the capital of Oman into which I flew from Dubai along the coastline on the Gulf of Oman. All I saw from the window of the plane was golden sands and unbelievably blue seas. It genuinely looked like paradise and I can remember feeling a great sense of elation and curiosity as the plane banked towards Sultan Qaboos airport.Both Oman and Mongolia created extremely strong first impressions that still linger in my mind today many years after my first contact with either country. However, both of them actually proved to be slightly misleading as neither was Oman a paradise nor Mongolia a smog covered mess. Oman proved to be rather dusty once you moved away from the coast and the areas outside Ulaan Baatar were absolutely stunning. A country that created a similarly negative first impression was Romania. However, just like Mongolia and Oman, it managed to redeem itself somewhat.From the air, things in Bucharest didn't actually look too bad. The approach to the city was very rural, but it all looked rather pleasant. However, as we neared the runway, it began to look rather unwelcoming. The first aspect of this was the array of military aircraft parked close to the landing area as though ready for instant deployment against unruly tourists. This was not all that welcoming, but not particularly off-putting. However, as we then taxied around the runway for 15 minutes taking a tour of broken down Communist-era aircraft and decrepit Communist era hangars, I was beginning to think Bucharest was not my dream destination. Even thought it was 2012, it felt like 1987. The whole scenario conjured imagery in my brain from the excellent novel, 'The Last Days' by Patrick McGuinness that is set in Romania in 1988 and 1989 and paints a bleak picture of the airport as a pace to which people only go in order to escape the country.The terminal building managed to undo some of the damage done by the outside areas of the airport as it was shiny and new and - in the design at least - owned nothing to Communist planners. However, some of the sights inside were not what you would expect in a modern European capital. The first thing was the immigration officers who were frighteningly rude and obtrusive (they seemed genuinely loathed to let anyone into the country). The second was some of the advertising on show. Instead of ads for major banks or culture in the city as you tend to find in most airports, the only advertisements on show were for a casino. All of them featured scantily clad models apparently winning big and gazing out invitingly.As I stepped out into Romania proper, I was not feeling good about the place. And, unlike in both Oman and Mongolia, I did not have the chance to get to know it in intimate detail. However, as we drove into the centre, it quickly became clear that the city was badly misrepresented by its airport. The roads seemed to all be tree-lined boulevards with lush grass on either side. There were also scores of wonderful villas that are now used as foreign embassies. This whole area seemed far closer to images of Paris or Rome rather than an ex Eastern-Bloc capital. Then, the centre of the city loomed upon us as we began to see huge fountains, vastly wide boulevards and magisterial buildings. At this point I would argue that it would be wrong to paint Bucharest as akin to Paris or Rome, but there were certainly impressive elements to the city. However, to counter this, there was a plentiful supply of old apartment blocks that looked rather run-down. However, in general, the state of the city was far better than its horrific airport suggested it might be.
It may astound you to discover that not only can you catch a flight using Tarom or Lufthansa at Bucharest airport, but you can also enjoy a dose of time travel. Obviously, I do not mean actual time travel. That would be a rather ridiculous notion. However, taking a flight from Otopeni is something of a schizophrenic experience. It blended the ultra-modern and developed with an antiquity, chaos and squalor that I thought would have been confined to the last century.In getting to Otopeni we had driven through Bulgris, across the Danube and up to Bucharest in 40 degree heat. Without air-conditioning in the car, we were sweltering. Therefore, I was looking forward to stepping into the icy blast of the terminal building to check-in for my flight. Sadly, when we arrived we found that the temperature inside was scarcely different from the baking sun outside. We attributed this to the rather limp performance of the air-conditioning and the huge amount of people crammed into a frightening small area. Built during Communist times the terminal and the check-in area harked back to a time when international flights were not so common in Bucharest.Thankfully, there were electronic machines to ease the check-in process. However, after using these I still had a long queue to drop my bags at the desk. This queue was a particularly unpleasant experience as I was constantly having to stay vigilant in order to stop other travellers stealing my place in line. Once I was checked-in we decided to for a drink (it needed to be a cold one). However, the cafe was awful. There was no a/c whatsoever and the drinks were very expensive (3 Euros for a small iced-tea). There was also no partition between the main part of the cafe and the smoking section, which meant second hand smoke drifted through.After our uncomfortable drink, I bade farewell to my girlfriend and her family before battling my way through the crowds to Passport Control and the Departure Lounge beyond. After handing my passport to a rather grumpy police officer, I moved through to departures. The two areas were separated by just a small flight os stairs, but in comparison to what had gone before it was like ascending to heaven. The departure lounge was clean, bright spacious and, best of all, beautifully chilled. As I sauntered in to the duty-free area, I could not quite believe the contrast I was seeing.I had about 90 minutes before I needed to board my flight and I passed them serenely in Otopeni. First, I stopped by the food court, which bore no comparison the cafe outside, and enjoyed a rather nice sandwhich. Next, I headed to the coffee shop (which was operated by the chain Gloria Jeans) for a delicious cup of coffee. The, I did a little duty-free shopping, picking up some very reasonably-priced after-shave. As I boarded my plane I could not help but ruefully shake my head at my experiences in Otopeni. It really was like stepping between two worlds.
The premise of this article may sound a little far fetched. However, I am going to beg the reader to suspend judgement until the culmination of the next few paragraphs as I do believe the observations I am about to detail to be rather insightful. My main point is that after spending an afternoon in Bucharest, I found myself continually comparing it to China, where I spent four very happy years of my life. Perhaps I should a little more specific here before we move on. Bucharest reminded me of China when I first arrived in 2006 as the surge of economic growth really began to gain speed.As I already stated, I understand that this may all sound a little contrived and perhaps a touch stretched. Therefore, I will begin by acknowledging the raft of potential criticisms. The first would, quite obviously, be that the people are very different (dark hair aside). The second would be the distinct absence of any signs of Chinese language or culture. And, the third would be that much of Bucharest has a tremendously French influence. Many of the buildings look French and there is even a war memorial that looks remarkably like the Arc du Triumphe (It is called the Arcul du Triumphe). As an aside, to give some background information, the Romanian language is actually closer to French than either Italian or Spanish. All of the above are very strong reasons to declare that the premise of this article is utter balderdash. However, I am not so sure.After I have spent so much time describing why my assertions are wrong, I should probably begin to build my argument, which I believe to be rather forceful. I want to start from a historical perspective. Both countries spent the majority of the latter half of the past century mired in the stagnation of Communist rule. Both only managed to re-emerge into the outside world during the 1980s. China did this a little earlier and has been more successful in its growth into a market economy. Therefore, cities like Shanghai and Beijing are almost completely void of the signs of the Communist past - ancient treasures remain, but much recent history has vanished. Bucharest is not that far along and the signs of the past are clear to see.The first way in which the 1950s-1980s are still alive and well is the architecture. I found Bucharest to a rather pleasant, but slightly shabby city. Communist regimes across the world were fans of wide boulevards and intimidating blockish buildings. In many of China's smaller cities this style was king. In Bucharest too, the city planners did not seem to deal with single lanes. It was four roaring lanes of traffic or nothing. Along these wide expanses of tarmac - slightly crumbling tarmac - stood plenty of apartment blocks that had certainly seen better days. They were all built in the 1980s and looked like a child's building blocks. This reminded me of Tianjin in northern China when I first moved there in 2006. The final aspect of Bucharest that brought back memories of China was the prevalence of foreign logos. Just as in China they were everywhere. There were outlet stores, there were malls and there were small shacks all emblazoned with Nike, Calvin Klein and the like. This was the case in China in 2006 also. However, in both situations these brands were not housed in shiny boutiques in glistening malls - in China that would come later - instead the logos were sinply stuck, sdraped or even painted on. In gave the impression of a new market economy being super-imposed onto the old socialist system.
If someone were to ask me exactly what started my interest in travel and acted as the catalyst for my experiences in Mongolia, China and other far flung corners, I would argue that amongst many contributory factors was a book I read when I was 16 years old. I found 'Lambada Country' by Giles Whittel in a second-hand book-store in Scarborough in north-east Yorkshire and was transfixed. Whittel, who would later become the Los Angeles correspondent for The Times, took a bicycle journey through Eastern Europe just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. It was a fascinating book that did the job that good travel writing should always do: it made me want to get up and go.Lambada Country fostered in me a general desire to travel and to see the world. It also sparked my interest in the post-Communist world. This is perhaps reflected in my trips to China and to Mongolia. In Mongolia, I was absolutely captivated by some of the relics of the relatively recent past that were still on show. For example, there were abandoned Soviet army bases in the Gobi desert and small harbours on Lake Khovsvgul with elaborate logos and statues proclaiming Mongolian/Soviet friendship. In China, with its rapid development and increase in shiny new skyscrapers. Such aspects of the past were not so clear to see or easy to find. But, the souvenir stalls selling Chairman Mao souvenirs and the schoolchildren still wearing red sashes over their uniforms showed it was there.During my brief visit to Romania, there were plenty of echoes of the Communist era on show. The biggest and clearest of these was the lavish Parliamentary Palace constructed by Ceaucesu at the heart of the city that was designed to be the largest building on earth - by the time it was finished it was only big enough for second or third place. There were also scores of old run-down apartment blocks that provided a legacy that perhaps gave a truer reflection on the success of the Communist era. The staff at the airport harked back to a time before market economics as they grunted at travellers barely hiding their disdain for their jobs. As clear all these signs of the old times were, there was one other relic that probably caught my attention a little more: The Dacia.Currently, there is an advertisement on French TV in which almost every guest at a dinner party is astounded that a shiny 4x4 produced by Dacia and driven by one sharply-dressed dinner guest costs less than 10,000 Euros. Before my trip to Bucharest, I never really paid it much attention. It was just another car commercial. However, after seeing the history of the Dacia driving around the city, it placed what I saw on French TV into extremely stark context.For those who are unaware, the Dacia was the car produced by the state-owned factories in Romania during Communist times - the company continues to operate, although in a very different form. Dacia was similar to the Trabant in East Germany and the Skoda in Czechoslovakia. Just as with those companies, the cars produced were not of the greatest quality. They were slow, uncomfortable and prone to rust. All of these things were true of the Dacia. However, there is an another adjective we could add to the description, durable. 25 years after Ceaucescu was summarily executed and Communism rule was abruptly ended in Romania, the cars remain. We saw several still puttering around the city, all of which were doing so at a rather sedate pace and seemed to be followed by a small cloud of smoke. They provided a fantastic contrast to some of the city's noveau riche drivers. On the way into Bucharest from Otopeni airport, there are dealerships for Ferraris and other super cars. We also spotted Rolls Royces imported from Germany drifting around the city. The Dacia's looked like they were from a different world and a different era (which of course they were) and probably helped the roads of the city to serve as something of a metaphor for the transformation of the city itself.Seeing the Dacia's around Bucharest was not the most awe-inspiring sight in the world. If you wish to see something more dramatic, go to the palace. However, I found them to be a fascinating window into history.
As I grew up in the UK, the idea of crossing a border by land still seems a little alien (Scotland and Wales do not really count). When I hear such language, I always find myself thinking of Le Carre spy novels or of Bond movies with men dressed in black scurrying around and attempting to avoid the beams of massive search lights and the barks of ferocious looking dogs. Obviously, this is not really a fair reflection on the modern-day reality. In fact, since the formation of the EU, you barely notice passing between countries - going between France and Italy is the same as taking a regular train within either country. For example, the train from Nice (where I currently live) to Ventimiglia simply continues into Italy after the French town of Menton and no-one checks anything.My crossing from Romania into Bulgaria managed to maintain just a touch of the drama I had allowed myself to conjure up, although it proved to be a less than glamorous scenario. As we arrived on the Romanian side of the border we were greeted by a scene of complete squalor. The road was crumbling, the majority of the buildings were in a severe state of disrepair and wild dogs seemed to be roaming the area - it was a panorama that did little to make me want to return to the country. So, we quickly paid our fee of 6 Euros to cross the bridge that spans the Danube (You can pay the toll in Romanian Lei, Bulgarian Leva or Euros).The bridge itself was in a similar state of disrepair to the Romanian border posts. In fact, it seemed almost like a clichéd example of post-Communist decline. There were four large pillars erected to mark the start of the bridge that seemed to be tottering and were supported by scaffolding. And, the road was so badly worn in one area that the crossing was restricted to just one lane of traffic. However, the poor state of the bridge notwithstanding, the view it provided was immense. We were able to look west along the river past the Bulgarian town of Russe and watched the Danube - which, sadly, was not at all blue - wind away into central Europe. The one disappointment was that we could not stop to take photos. We were not allowed to do this and it would also have stopped traffic on the bridge.Thankfully, the Bulgarian side of the border was not anywhere near as decrepit as its Romanian counter-part. It was heralded by a huge white, green and red flag, which flew alongside that of the EU on one of two very imposing flag poles. There also seemed to be far fewer wild dogs roaming around. The whole scene just seemed far cleaner and whole lot less depressing.As much of an improvement as Bulgaria seemed to be. There was one moment that really opened my eyes. As we moved through passport control, the border officer stopped the car in front of ours for inspection. The car was full to bursting with shopping bags - the boot was not properly closed and there was no room for any passengers. The border officer clearly suspected there was a case of smuggling afoot. So, he appeared to be questioning the driver rather stridently. That was until the driver handed a shoe-box with a Nike label to the guard. The guard examined the contents of the box, walked to his office and put the box down and, miraculously, the problem went away. The car passed through the border having paid no tax on the goods, save for a pair of sneakers for the border guard.
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