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Bear Nation: Looking for Bear in Harghita County, Transylvania
This story appears in The Empire of Things by CJ Stone.
"It looked like a real bear to me...."
As we came over the mountain we could see the storm clouds gathering in the distant hills, dark and ominous looking.
Attila was angry. "Hell," he said.
"Why are you angry?" I asked.
"Maybe we don't see the bear."
I'd met Attila a few days before. He's this wiry, wired-up, fiery character, with a concave chest, with jet-black hair and pale, shrewd, intense eyes, always in a sort of fury of activity. He swears a lot. When he got out of the car he was clutching a beer. He shook my hand and said, "excuse me this beer. Yesterday was holiday in Romania, but I have to work, so today I will have my holiday instead. That is why I am drinking beer."
Later he admitted that it was because he was nervous about having to speak English with me. He speaks good English, very correct. "Oxford English." But this is part of the problem, that he is intensely aware when he makes a mistake, when his grammar is not up to his own high standards. This was why he was nervous. He felt the beer would make it easier to communicate.
He had Huni and Szabi with him, the cameraman and the guide. They were all in their twenties, henceforward to be known as "the boys".
Attila said, "I hope you don't mind it that we are so young."
"Why would I mind that?" I asked. "As long as you show me the bears I don't care how old you are."
Huni is muscular and handsome, with sparkling eyes and a cool, relaxed, self-aware presence. He is obviously very comfortable in his own skin. Szabi is tall and dark, with a hooked nose like a bird of prey and a sense of the wild about him. He was the guide. It was he who would be taking us into the forest later to see the bears.
We met in a car park in Baile Tusnad. Then we went to a restaurant and ate. We drank some beer. It was very relaxed. We talked about the Aves Foundation, their organisation. We talked about the problems with the bear in Romania. We talked about the wildlife in general. They showed me copies of the magazine they produce. I took to them all immediately. My face still bore the scars of a party the night before, when I'd tripped-up and fallen over in the dark. I had these red, angry-looking scabs all across my forehead. In the restaurant I pointed it out (although it was obvious). "Palinka," I said. Attila said that Huni had said it was the first thing he had noticed about me when he had got out of the car, and that he had said the same thing. "Palinka," he'd said. "This man likes to drink." And they'd all decided they liked me too.
Afterwards we drove to the far side of the city of Brasov to a bear sanctuary called Libearty near the village of Zarnesti. It was full of bears that had been in captivity, in zoos or in cages. The bears were in compounds behind fences, but out in the open, in a forest.
Attila said, "these are not real bears. They are more like dogs. You will see when you get there."
At one point he was struggling for a word. "This is not good for the bear... the bear..."
He was trying to find a word to describe the family of bears as a whole, frustrated at his lack of English.
He said: "This is not good for the bear nation. That is not the right word. The bear nation. What is the right word please?"
I said, "I think you mean species, but, I tell you what, I like ‘bear nation' better."
We drove up a steep gravel track on a hillside over looking some spectacular mountain scenery till we came at last to the gate. There was a snow-capped mountain hovering in the distance. The gate was a tree branch strung across the road. Then we parked.
Huni had his camera out and was filming everything.
Attila got out and went to talk to the uniformed wardens inside the sanctuary, after which he ushered us in through the gate.
There was a gravel path between high link fences, behind which was an electric wire. We were in the forest by now, albeit one fenced off into compounds. Even so there is a particular sound associated with the forest. A kind of hush. A whispered ripple of wind through the leaves. Your voice takes on a certain quality. A kind of muffling of the sound, a dampening, as if the forest is drawing close around you, as if it is wrapping you in its presence.
Suddenly Attila said, "there is a bear!"
It was walking on all fours with its back to us, maybe thirty feet away in the forest, this slow, ambling walk, rolling its shoulders. It was my first sight of a bear. It was ignoring us, looking casually indifferent.
We came to another compound on the left and there was another bear, only much nearer. Attila made a clucking noise and it turned and came to the fence. So now it was barely three feet away, this huge, dark creature with a wet black nose and claws.
"See," said Attila, "I told you they were not real bears."
It looked like a real bear to me.
We carried on walking. We passed another compound, this time on the right, and there was a medium-sized bear inside.
Attila said, "so this is the last chance for bears." He said, "it's not a bad thing for a bear in captivity to live here, but it's the last chance."
The bear had tan coloured fur on its back and was strolling up and down near the fence. It had a cleft-palate.
Attila said, "that's Lydia."
"She is another female. And that one there is Christian."
I looked and there was another very large bear behind.
"He is a real big bear," continued Attila. "But you can see like dogs they are coming here. That is the difference."
Szabi said: "That's a bear!"
I couldn't get over the fact that these bears had names, and, what's worse, that one of them had the name of the character out of Pilgrim's Progress.
I took it for an omen.
"He is about 400 kilos," continued Attila. "So that's a bear. And they are very good friends. He spends together winter, Christian and Lydia, and, you know, I know all these bears. When Lydia came here she was psychologically absolutely down, was moving like that, like that, like that" - miming a distressed bear stepping backwards and forwards on the spot - "and now you can see, no problems..."
But Christian was huge, a great hulking thing, twice as big as a man, at least ten feet tall, maybe more, though it was hard to say as he was on all fours. But he had broad shoulders and a rippling, muscular back, and you wouldn't want to meet him if he was in a rage. He could tear you to shreds. He could kill you with a single blow.
"How old is he?" I asked.
"It's about 24 years old," said Attila, "and he lives about 40 years. So it's like a 40 years old man. So it's in the best time. On the top, on the top. The strongest bear. And you know, if you shoot a bear like this as a hunter you pay about 10 or 15,000 EU. If you shoot a bear like Lydia you pay about 7,000."
"That's a bear," said Szabi. "It's needed in the nature. The number is very low, just, I think, maybe about 20, 50 bear. Could be about 30, 40."
He was referring to the fact that fully mature adults like Christian are a rarity in the wild, precisely because they are the greatest prizes: the biggest and most dangerous, the most impressive as trophies.
"This is the problem that I told you about, that the most part of the big bears are hunted, are killed, and this is the problem. It's good if we have got a little bit more bears, but I don't think it's true. But it's good if we have got a little bit more, but we have to select them, not just to kill the biggest."
"What I was say," said Szabi, "we could reintroduce in other parts that bears..."
"He's absolutely fantastic," I said. "Christian, you say his name is? Why do they call him Christian?"
"He is from the circus in Bucharest, and they gave him that name," said Attila.
It was after this that I first heard a bear speak. It was Lydia. She was walking up and down by the fence making this noise. It is a unique and unmistakable sound, like a plaintive nasal cry, slightly wistful, slightly melancholic. The Latin name for bear is "Urs" and that is exactly the sound they make. "Ur?" It's a question. There's a questioning tone to it, like something you might ask of the mountains, of the wind. Something slightly sad. "Why have you left me, Ur? Where have you gone, Ur? Why do all us creatures have to die?" You can hear the peaks of the mountains in its voice. You can hear the breathing nearness of the wind. You can hear the echoes of the forest. You can hear the lonely miles of travel. You can hear mortality and loss.
We carried on walking. Attila said that it was a pity we couldn't see bears in the trees. "Now is too cold," he said. "When it's warmer they are climbing the trees and playing in the wind to cool down," he said.
But it was like fate. No sooner had he said this than we turned a corner and there was a bear in a tree. It was kind of perched there, lodged in the branches halfway up a tree, it's forelegs jammed into the v of some small branches, it's back legs wrapped around the trunk, holding on with its claws. It was swaying in the wind, this incongruously heavy creature on a thin stalk of a tree, like a great fat cat with a black nose. Did I see contentment in its face? Probably not. But I saw a bear in its natural environment, halfway up a tree, kind of rubbing itself up and down against the bark.
It was growling at another bear which was prowling around on the ground below. Szabi said, "it was probably say something like, ‘go away'."
Attila said, "I don't agree." The boys started talking in Hungarian, and then they were laughing.
Attila translated for me.
"We was talking about the bears sexual habits. I was saying it was not ‘go away', it was something like ‘what are you doing there? Why don't you come here?'"
You may have noticed by now that Huni never speaks. Attila speaks, and Szabi speaks, but Huni never does. That's not because he can't speak English. His English is as good as anyone's. It's because he's filming, non-stop. Everywhere I go I have this camera pointing at me, at my face, at my back. Or he's filming from behind, as we walk. Or he's filming each of us as we talk, first Attila, then me. Or he's filming the bears as we look at them.
So now he came up very close and was focussing on my face. I was obviously looking delighted at the sight of a bear up a tree, which must have made an interesting picture. But I was slightly annoyed. "Not at me," I said, putting my hands up to cover my face. "At the bears."
"Ignore him," said Attila. "He's working."
Huni said, "I film you. I film the bears later."
It was only at this point that it occurred to me that they wanted to put me on TV.
"The last born children of Attila the Hun...."
We are in Harghita county, a wild, volcanic, mountainous region in central Transylvania. It is a Hungarian speaking part of Romania. When the boys are not speaking English to me they are speaking Hungarian to each other, which is the strangest language in the world. It has forty four letters, most of which are unusual vowel-sounds with an uncanny resemblance to someone having sex in the bathroom. a. o. e. ah. ahhhhhh. oo. oooo. oh. ohhhhhh. eh. ehhhhhh. uh. uhhhhhhh. er. errrrrrrrr. nyerrrrrrrr. unghnnnhuh.
The language as a whole sounds like someone talking backwards down a drainpipe. It doesn't sound like an Earth language at all. It has four tenses - past, present, future, and eternal - and all the different parts of the language - the tenses, the verbs, the various grammatical parts - are stuck onto the back of the word in a string of additional letters, meaning that all the words are at least a hundred and forty letters long. It shares no common words whatsoever with English, or any other language on Earth.
No, that's not true. It has about forty words in common with Finnish - for which reason the language group is known as Finno-Ugric - and another few hundred in common with Turkish - the Turks being their traditional enemy - and they do share one word in common with English. They say "hello", by which they mean "goodbye".
This is very disconcerting. They end every conversation by saying "hello, hello."
The odd thing is that they shared an Empire with the Austrians for a few centuries, but that Hungarian has no German words in it. And while many of them speak German, you can bet your life that no Austrian ever bothered to learn Hungarian.
Also, they didn't quite share an Empire as such. They were the junior partners. They got to do all the fighting, while the Austrians got to keep all the treasure. They got to do all the dying while the Austrians got to swan around in elaborate golden carriages, wearing wigs and doing the waltz. They were the foot soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, the cannon fodder. Brave but foolhardy you might say. Szabi told me that they invented underwear, and he was immensely proud of this odd little fact. But they are a strangely reserved, strangely diffident people. I was in a restaurant once with a friend and it was a children's birthday party, and the children all sat at the table and whispered to each other. I think one have them might have giggled once. It was hard to know as it was drowned out with the sound of polite, cautious whispering. I've never seen such a bunch of well-mannered children in my life.
But it's not as if they beat their children around the head to get them to act like this. They ARE like this. Polite. Well-mannered. Decorous. Disciplined. Restrained. It's in their blood. So it's hard to picture the fact that historically they were warriors, that they stood on the borders of Europe defending it against the Turkish invader. Perhaps it is these very qualities that define the warrior. Restraint in peace-time but all-out commitment in war. Disciplined because discipline is the first rule of an army. Decorous because they like to wear uniforms. Well-mannered, because this is another word for discipline. And polite because politeness is the mark of a person who has seen the savagery of the battlefield, and who therefore knows where to draw the line.
Actually they are not quite Hungarian either. They speak Hungarian - though a specific local dialect, about as different from common Hungarian as Glaswegian is from the Queen's English - and they identify with Budapest as their capital. Also they live in Transylvania which was once part of Hungary before it was ceded to Romania after the First World War; but they call themselves Szekelys and the region Szekely Land, and claim to have been here since Attila the Hun first passed by in about the fifth century AD. They are not Hungarians or Romanians, but something else entirely. The last born children of Attila the Hun, Attila being the most popular name for a boy.
This is disputed of course, as is every fact in history. But it is their myth. It is what they believe about themselves and therefore, in this sense, is entirely true.
So they are a stoic, hardy, self-reliant mountain people with the breath of the forest in their veins, practical and hard-working. It is mountain-forest air they breath and they share their lands with wolves and bears. They were schooled in the outdoors. They know how to make fires and how to barbecue meat. Meat is their favourite food. Meat in any form. A Hungarian meal consists of meat and two meat. Meat followed by meat followed by more meat.
Well that's not quite true of course. They do eat some vegetables. My favourite meal was something called a Hungarian platter. It consists of a large pork steak, two huge smoked pork sausages, two neat slices of some tangy, salty village cheese, with half a tomato and some shavings of onion and with a great, fat rubbery slither of pork fat perched on the top. And that's it: meat and meat, with cheese and meat and meat fat. The tomato and the onion are like an afterthought. Just in case there aren't enough vitamins in the meat.
I eat everything but the fat.
So their language is almost impossible to learn, but you soon pick up one word. Igen. They say it over and over again. Igen, igen. It punctuates their language with the regularity of a common verb. It's the first word they say when they answer the phone. Every sentence contains it, and when they say it they usually repeat it several times. Igen, igen, igen. And again. Igen, igen. It is their favourite word. It means "yes".
Which is the quality that is most admirable in them. They are an open-hearted generous people and their favourite word is "yes".
So, now, it's time to go back to the beginning and how all of this started.
A few weeks before I'd been staying in the region with some friends. We'd gone out for a meal with a young gypsy called Marton who was acting as my friend's caretaker at the time. Later we went to a bar. Marton was very drunk and was slurring and repeating himself in Romanian. Romanian was probably his third language, his first being Romany, his second being Hungarian. One of my friends, Aurelia, was Romanian, the other was English. So Aurelia was having to translate. Marton spoke no English and was hardly coherent in Hungarian, let alone Romanian, and he kept saying the same things over and over again.
At one point this wild Hungarian music burst on over the speakers. It was very fast, frantic, like savage punk music played on violins and accordions. This middle aged, unshaven guy with a black moustache and Wellington boots leapt up and started to dance, a crazy Hungarian dance. It was all elbows and knees and head-bobbing angular frenzy, accompanied by yelps and shrieks. His feet never seemed to touch the floor. Then he was joined by a young couple who were spinning each other round looking into each other's eyes, and after that everyone joined in. The whole bar was going crazy with this music. There were fights breaking out all over the place. They were kind of playful, and kind of not, slaps and jolts to the back of the head. You could see it all getting out of hand. And there was something in their faces too, like vast angry winds blowing over an endless plain. Something elemental. Something tribal. You could definitely imagine they were descended from the Hun, and you could picture them on horseback, wheeling and fighting their way across the mountains.
Suddenly Marton said something to Aurelia. She'd mainly given up bothering to translate by now since it was all variations of the theme, "you are my really good mates you are." He kept wanting to shake my hand.
"He said do you want to see a bear?" said Aurelia.
"Do you want to see a bear?"
Marton was rattling on excitedly. "He said he can take you to see a bear tomorrow if you like," continued Aurelia.
"Of course we would like to see a bear," I said. "You'd like to see a bear too wouldn't you?"
"He said it's a bit dangerous because the bears all have cubs now. But he can take you to see a bear if you like. He knows where one is."
"Yes," I said. "Yes. Yes, tell him we would like to see a bear."
The following day Marton came up to visit, but he was looking sheepish and confused. He obviously couldn't remember anything about the night before. We were all too tired anyway, even assuming he really knew how to find a bear, so we left it for the time being.
But the thought had excited me and when I got back home I did an internet search. I came up with a preliminary report from the Aves Foundation about the number of bears they had estimated were still in the wild. The report said that the official numbers were grossly exaggerated. There were not 6,000 bears, as was claimed: it was probably more like 2,500. There were also photographs with a contact address and an advert for bear-stalking holidays in the Transylvanian mountains. I sent off a note to the e-mail address and within a couple of hours had a reply from Szabi, which included his telephone number, and soon after that we spoke.
"I loved that Russian jeep..."
It was after that we'd arranged this meeting, for the week of the bank holiday when I was back in Harghita anyway. It turned out that the boys were based in Harghita too.
At the time I thought they were a campaign group. Later I discovered that they ran nature tours. But they were also a monthly nature magazine and a TV company. Hence the constant filming. They were planning to put me on Hungarian TV.
Actually the TV company belonged to Attila. He was the one running the show. He said that the previous week the BBC had been there too, filming a piece about the Romanian wildlife. They'd been to Libearty, but it was only at the last minute they realised they didn't have any footage of wild bears.
"So we gave them some of ours," he said.
"Did they pay you?" I said.
"Well they should have paid you," I said. "They are the BBC. They have lots of money. Why shouldn't they pay you?"
Anyway it was on the back of this that Attila was constructing his programme for Hungarian TV: this sudden interest in the West (in "the West Part" as he described it) for the Romanian wildlife. He had film of the BBC while they were filming at Libearty. And then he had film of me. Now he wanted more. So we were working together on this. I was trying to write an article about the Romanian wildlife, and he was trying to make a TV programme about western journalists being interested in the Romanian wildlife.
The day after the Libearty trip I went out with Attila and his father, Sandor - a doctor by profession, a hunter by conviction - to a private hunting ground to meet the gamekeeper.
This is so I had all sides of the story.
We drove out in the early evening, along the most potholed road I have ever seen in my life, in Sandor's Russian jeep, till we got to a village where we met the gamekeeper, Istvan, and then up the hill and into the woods.
I have to say I loved that Russian jeep. We were driving along rutted, skidding tracks slimy with mud, up fierce inclines, through stream beds laden with rocks, through thick undergrowth and dense funnels of foliage, with tree branches springing back and scraping the roof, bouncing over the broken landscape, and at no point did that sturdy Russian machine waver, not for a second. Sandor said: "they are cheap, so you don't mind if it gets scratched." I sat in the front next to Sandor, while Attila and Istvan sat in the back. We were all drinking beer.
I also have to say that I loved Attila's dad and his gamekeeper friend even though they were hunters and I was trying to write an anti-hunting story.
Sandor spoke English exactly like Bela Lugosi in those 1930s vampire movies: the same deep, rich, rounded, sonorous vowel-sounds, the same sombre expressiveness. He also had Hungarian eyebrows, thick and luxurious, and the air of a man who knew exactly who he was meant to be.
Istvan - whom they had described before I met him as "a simple and a good man", and who spoke no English at all - had this deep, ruddy, weather-beaten complexion and a look of true kindliness about his face. It was hard to believe that he made his living from killing animals; or not killing animals as such: from selecting which animals from the stock are to be killed, by pointing them out to the huntsmen. But, I realised, there was a kind of quiet reverence in the soul of this man; a commitment to the very environment that gave him his living, and that he truly loved his animals.
He had on a tweed hat and Wellington boots and was wearing binoculars.
After a while we came to a shady clearing in the forest. There was a metal container full of corn near a hide. It was then that I realised that this was a managed process. It was not "natural". This was not wilderness. They fed the beasts. They fed the beasts in order to shoot them. Istvan got out a bucket of corn and was spreading it around by hand. He showed us wild boar tracks in the mud by a glittering pool. After that we got back in the jeep and there were more twists and turns and skidding manoeuvres through the dense forest undergrowth, until we broke out into a ploughed field in the middle of which was a raised platform hidden in a tree. We parked on the edge of the field.
I thought the platform looked like one of those watchtowers you see in films about concentration camps.
They told me that Istvan had ploughed the field himself, had brought a tractor up to do so, and that it was planted with barley. It was for the boar to feed. So this was even less like a wilderness. They were planting crops for their "crop" of meat. But Attila's dad said that they had to plant grain up here in order to stop the game going down into the village below. He said that the hunters had to pay if the game ate the crops in the village.
Then he added, in that deep, rich, expressive Hungarian voice of his: "I like to come here. Here is natural. I am not a doctor. He is not a teacher. We all hunters here. It is an ancient feeling."
He was referring to himself and the other hunters and their relationship to the wild. There are no professions here, he was saying. Everyone is a hunter. The hunting takes over. It is like being thrown back into some ancient part of your soul.
After which he took a bucket of corn which Istvan had given him and was casting it about by the handful either side of a trodden track through the middle of the field.
That's when I had a realisation, as I watched Attila's dad spreading corn about a planted field for the wild boar to eat.
I thought there never was a time when the landscape wasn't managed, not as long as there have been human beings on this earth. Hunters manage the forest as farmers manage the fields. They always have. Even the most apparently wild places are marked by human intervention. From the most ancient times hunters have lured their prey with food and built platforms to watch them by. Maybe there is no such thing as wild nature, not as long as there are human beings in it. Maybe it is wild only so long as humans haven't touched it. As soon as humans enter the landscape, it becomes managed. It is always managed, always bounded, always circumscribed by human activity. It is the human who defines the wilderness. The wilderness is where the human hasn't interfered yet.
Or perhaps it is the other way round. Perhaps it is the wilderness that defines the human.
The human is what the wilderness hasn't yet entered with its presence. The human is the emptiness that's left over once the wilderness is gone.
"Darkness becoming darkness...."
Ok, so Attila, his dad, the saintly Istvan and I are still halfway up a mountain in the middle of a forest in an incongruously ploughed field.
It was about eight o'clock by now, and the sun was beginning to dip near the horizon, giving a blush of colour to the evening sky. Sandor had scattered corn about, and then we were told to be quiet and to not say anything from now on, as we began trudging our way to the concentration camp watchtower in the middle of the field, which we climbed, being careful to place our feet at the ends of the rungs where they were nailed, it being a very rickety platform. And then we stood and waited, four of us on this tiny platform hardly bigger than a toilet cubicle, huddled together like schoolchildren in an ice cream queue. And it was funny because, although I'd been told to be silent, the other three were all chattering together in excited whispers, exactly like schoolchildren, laughing and passing the beers around. At one point Istvan placed his tweed cap on my head, I guess because my grey hair would be visible from a distance. And we were just scouring the forest's edge for any sign of the boar.
This went on for what seemed like a long time. I kept thinking I could see the shadows of the forest moving. It was an optical illusion. Between the trees was a darkness which shimmered. I kept thinking it was wild boar.
And then, suddenly, it was wild boar. They sort of emerged from the darkness: darkness becoming darkness, darkness that moved, stillness merging into movement, a stillness that became alive.
It was Attila who saw them first. He pointed them out to us, these shapes emerging from the trees, muscular and huge with hulking shoulders and craggy heads like great black rocks, with curling tusks and wet noses, snorting and trotting up the hill with a sort of hungry wariness, cautiously looking around them for any possible danger. They were a family group of about ten individuals, snuffling about and rooting in the soil for the corn.
I immediately had a sense of them there, not just physically, but psychically too. There was an alertness, a bright keenness like a spark, hidden in that dark, mean-looking form. I was suddenly aware of being in the presence of another kind of intelligence than my own. I felt that they were communicating with me on some level that I have yet to access with my ordinary mind.
Istvan handed me the binoculars and I watched them, fascinated, for about ten minutes.
Attila was filming them, but he decided he needed another angle, so he climbed down the platform, and did a wide, circling sweep around the back of the platform, to a small clump of trees nearer to the boar. He was stepping slowly and carefully as this was a dangerous move, edging towards the protective shade with deliberate caution. The boar got wind of his presence and scattered. Then they came back. There was one extra brave one who moved nearer than all the rest. So it was mutual caution on both sides. Attila got to his shaded spot, and the boar returned for their corn, but they were spooked and kept scattering and then re-grouping, wheeling and turning in unison: all except this one, who was keeping a wary eye on what was going on. They knew Attila was there, of course. That was why they kept running away. That one was the outrider busily appraising the situation. The scout. Obviously the fastest and the meanest.
You had to admire the bravery on both sides. For all those boar knew Attila's camera was a gun. And Attila, meanwhile, was facing a severe mauling, and possible death, for the sake of a nice camera angle. Wild boar are a powerful creature, made out of black granite and engine oil with tusks like axe-heads and a formidable charge. They would break all of your ribs if they hit you at full pelt.
But eventually the boar had eaten all the corn and made their way from the clearing and it was time for us to go home.
So we drove back down the hillside to Istvan's village, where we stopped off for a beer in the local bar. It had a charcoal portrait of a naked woman on the ceiling - half finished and with nipples framed like targets - and multi-coloured fairy-lights that flickered on and off. It was like being at a disco. A disco in the Wilderness, only there weren't any wild women to contend with.
Which was a pity.
"Stepping into sacred time...."
It was the day after this that my brakes failed.
Between Odorheiu Secuiesc, where the boys live, and Lazaresti, where I was staying, there is a mountain. You go up one side of it and down the other. It's about 60kms, a good thirty of which are on a twisting careening mountain road, with hairpin bends overlooking sheer drops. Up and up and up, round and round and round, then down and down and down. After that you go through Miercurea Ciuc - which has a crazy bridge which is never finished, and where the by-pass appears to take you through some people's back yards - and onto the road to Baile Tusnad and Sfantu Gheorge. Lazaresti is about halfway to Baile Tusnad.
It was along this road that the brakes failed. There was a sudden smell of burning, and then, when I tried to brake, nothing happened. I went sailing on. I was approaching a village, so I geared down, and then pulled into the side, allowing the van to coast to a halt.
I stopped outside someone's gate.
It was only as I was drifting slowly to a halt along the dusty track by the side of the road that I realised - with a sudden burst of adrenaline that sent my heart racing with a bang - that had they failed as I was coming down the mountain I would now be dead.
On the other side of the gate was a little boy on a bike. I tried to speak, but he ran away scared.
I rang Attila. A teenage girl passed and went to go in the gate, so I called out and handed my phone onto her. Attila spoke to her. I was trying to find a mechanic. She was too young and didn't have any idea what it was I wanted. After that I went through the gate where the father and mother were sitting on a step outside their house. Attila spoke to the father and then the father was ringing round for a mechanic for me. I wondered if it was possible to drive without brakes. I thought maybe it was, if I drove slowly and kept my distance and used my gears to brake. After that I decided to try my luck and try to get the rest of the way home. It was only once I started out again - having thanked the man for his help - that I found out I was in the next village but one to Lazaresti.
So I drove home without brakes, and then, the next day, I drove back to Miercurea Ciuc to meet Attila to get the brakes fixed. It was afternoon, and the drive was all on this side of the mountain: that is, it was all on the level. We left the van in the garage, and then drove back over the mountain in Attila's car. We were going to see bears in the wild.
It was at this point, as we breasted the peak and were coming down the other side, that Attila said, "Hell!" and pointed out the ominous black clouds sprouting rain that lurked over the distant hills.
"That's where the bears live," he said. "In the forest in those hills."
Back in Odorheiu we met up with Szabi, who had Attila's dad's Russian jeep, and Huni, who had his camera. The clouds were looming in the late afternoon sky, like huge black turrets, with the sun bursting out from behind them, sending sprays of silver light into the air.
Szabi said that this was a good sign. "Bears love rain," he said. He said that there was more chance of seeing them after a storm.
And now we were driving back along that same potholed road we had followed to see the boar, till we came to a valley and took a turn. The valley was deeply wooded and scattered with new Swiss-style chalet buildings. There was a stream running through it, full of tumbling water. We took another turn and were going up a hill, on a gravel path now, as opposed to a road. At some point we stopped outside a compound, and Szabi got out to talk with the forest warden. I was watching. Attila said, "don't look. Maybe they are doing some business." Szabi got back in and we continued up the track, which got steeper and steeper, till we came to a barrier. Szabi got out, unlocked it, got back in, drove through the barrier, parked up again, and then locked the barrier behind.
After this the Russian jeep was in its element again: a rutted forest track wet with leaves.
After about half an hour we parked up and stepped into the gloom of the forest-cathedral, hushed and shady. It was like we were stepping into sacred time.
We were walking in a line, stepping over tree trunks and wading through slurries of mud. Szabi told us not to talk. Eventually he indicated with a gesture that we were to stop. He got out his binoculars and looked into the distant clearing. He made another gesture, a flick of the fingers that said that we were to duck in behind the trees. Then he passed me the binoculars.
That's when I saw it, peering out from behind a tree as I brought the binoculars into focus on the sunlit clearing ahead: the brown fur tinged with black quivering with flies, the long nose, the tiny myopic eyes.
I gasped for breath. It was as if the breath was yanked physically into my body. It was my first sight of a bear in the wild.
After that Szabi led us step by cautious step from tree to tree. A twig cracked. The bear heard us and stood on its hind legs to sniff the wind. It was at least seven and a half feet tall. It seemed to be looking straight at me.
I was caught out in the open. I was crouched down in the undergrowth holding my breath. Luckily bears have bad eyesight and the wind was in the wrong direction. It went back down on all fours and continued its feeding.
The process took about fifteen minutes, stopping and starting like this, ducking behind trees, melting into the undergrowth, but eventually we made it into the hide on a raised platform, from where we could see the whole clearing, with the bear and a family of wild boar snuffling and feeding, not more than twenty feet away.
As the bear approached the boar would scatter. He was definitely the king in this realm. You could tell by the walk, muscular and ambling, full of regal self-assurance.
The rain had stopped by now, but the bear was still wet. It shook itself and raindrops sprayed from its back. Szabi said it was a young male, about four or five years old. He handed me the binoculars and I watched it with intense fascination for at least thirty minutes. I couldn't take my eyes off it, not for a second. After that it slowly ambled its way from the clearing and was gone, closely followed by the boar.
Huni said, "you were a little bit afraid I think."
He must have heard the intake of breath.
But I wasn't afraid. I was awestruck. I was wrenched to the very roots of my being at my encounter with a creature of such awesome, majestic power.
I'm using a lot of superlatives here. They are all true. It was as if a part of me leapt from my body in that instant and went to join the bear in the wild.
Was this a "spiritual" experience?
Of course it was.
Take that expression "an intake of breath" for instance: it's another term for spirit. Spirit is breath. It is inspiration. In that moment I breathed the spirit of the bear on the wind. The bear and I were in communication. The word "spirit" is from the Latin and means breath or air. Every inspiration leads to expiration: to expression. I am expressing my feelings now. What is spiritual is the silent, invisible communication between beings carried on the breath of the wind.
Just like this story.
"Like industry park for killing..."
I can honestly say these were amongst the most exciting days of my life. It was like I was on a mystical journey to somewhere, an adventure, as if my life had just turned into a magical tale from a book. From abjectness and loss to high-flying romance. As if a spell had been cast over my life and my work and was transforming my very being by the minute.
That night I was put up in a pensiune with a warning. We would be going out again at 4am. They would give me a ring when they were near.
And then there was the 4am phone call, and I leapt out of bed, and we were on our way into the wild again, Szabi, Huni, Attila and me.
It was still dark, but people were on the streets.
I said, "how come people are out and about at this time?"
Attila said, "this is Romania. This isn't the decadent West. People here are happy to get up early for work."
A little later we met up with our contact, another game-keeper, an associate of Istvan and Attila's dad. He had his gun with him, and was wearing a tweed hat and Wellingtons We clambered into his Russian jeep (the vehicle of choice amongst the hunting fraternity) me in the front again, with that rifle lodged behind my back, and were off: back along that pitted road, through the village, and up the hill where we'd seen the wild boar a day or two before. Only now we weren't going through the woods, but were skidding about through open grassland. It was light by now, the sky a fragile blue, woven with cloud.
This was the strangest of journeys. It took a while for me to realise what was going on. We were beating through the hills, swerving and sliding on the wet grass, and every so often our game-keeper driver would skid to a halt and leap out to look at some creature of another. Mainly it was deer. He was saying, "look, look, Reebok. What is that in English?"
"Roebuck?" I ventured.
And we'd get out and look at these soft-eyed, delicate creatures with the strange bouncing spring bounding about all over the place. This kept on happening. We'd leap back in the jeep and go sailing and swerving once more, zigzagging between trees full of blossom, over ditches and along tracks, and then into open country again, where we'd make new tracks in the dew. And then we'd skid to a sudden halt, and come scattering out onto the wet grass, where we'd look at another Roebuck pirouetting about on the hillside, while the gamekeeper made clucking and cooing noises in order to attract its attention. Which worked, it has to be said. The Roebuck would stop and stand transfixed looking at him for a second or two before beyoinging off again.
We were doing this for about an hour maybe. It was only after about thirty minutes that I realised we were going over and over the same bits of ground, skidding about on the same bit of hillside. Round and round and round. In and out, in and out. I had no idea what it was for.
At one point we passed through a gate by which was some kind of a sculpture. It's hard to say. It was a totem pole of some kind, like a face, very crude, very ancient and pagan-looking. I realised it marked off the hunting territory, the place where the killing could begin.
And then - eventually - we drew up in a field by some woods and got out, and our gamekeeper friend leant on the roof of the jeep with his binoculars and pointed.
"Wolves," he said.
My heart leapt, but we were too slow to see them. They sensed the breath of us and were gone, like fleeting shadows, into the forest cover. Like swift grey ghosts they had melted back into the trees. The gamekeeper said (but in Hungarian, Attila translating for me): wolves are the most difficult to spot, the cleverest of them all. They are very swift and astute and they don't like to be near humans. But down in the trough of the valley where they had been there were the old bleached bones of a cow and I realised that this was food provided by the hunters, that this was, once again, a managed environment. And then we saw the tracks, by a muddy pool, just inside the wood: like large dogs, a tangle of footmarks by the pool.
"Look, look," said Szabi, "two of them. Large male, small female. You can tell they are wolf not dog by..."
And he indicated the difference with this display with his hands. Pad, pad. Pad, pad. Dogs walk splay-footed, feet landing side-by-side - pad, pad with the palms of his hands pointing away from each other - whereas wolves walk one foot in front of the other, like tightrope walkers along a wire - making a more delicate display with his fingers to show us.
Dogs are clumsy. Wolves are elegant.
"Like ballet dancers," he said.
And now we were all walking in single-file into the tangled woodland cover, like a party of hunters on an expedition, slow step by slow step, through the dense, wet undergrowth, the gamekeeper with his rifle slung across his back, and Huni with his equally predatory camera. On and on, through the muffled hush of the forest, only the occasional twig-crack or the swish of a branch amidst the trudging footfall through the leaf-mould and ferns, till we came to a place with low-slung branches and the tangled foliage of trees....
What strange ritual were we to perform in this out-of-the-way spot, where wolves lurked in search of prey?
We were going to be on the TV.
This was the first time I'd got a picture of the plans. Attila was going to interview the gamekeeper, Szabi and I, as representatives of different interest groups around the subject of hunting. I was the western journalist interested in wildlife. Szabi was the representative of the conservation lobby, and the gamekeeper was there to speak for the hunters.
So it was the gamekeeper first. He had his rifle slung across his back as a prop, and Attila went into TV interview mode, with his microphone lead wrapped about his hand, with the name of the TV company, Hungarian TV, as a blue clip around the stem of the mike to be kept in camera shot, and then he was shooting questions, waving the mike back and forth in front of the camera, with Huni standing behind him, occasionally adjusting his position to get a better shot.
I have no idea what was said.
Then it was my turn too.
I have no idea what I said either. I always go into a sort of daze when I'm in front of a camera.
I've seen the film since, but it has a voiceover in Hungarian translating my words, so I could transcribe them into Hungarian if you like. All I can say is that in the film my eyes are burning with a kind of fire, that I am speaking for the bears and the wolves.
There's only one thing I remember, and that's what I didn't say, because Attila cut me off before I had time.
"Why do you Romanians allow foreign hunters to come here and kill your wildlife for money?" I was going to say. "Why do you place such little value on your heritage? If a person's only power is money then he doesn't deserve to hunt."
I was very fired-up.
Afterwards the gamekeeper started talking to me in his broken English. I had obviously said something that had stirred him to communicate. He was saying - something like - "under communism it was in some ways good and in some ways bad. Under capitalism, now, it is in some ways better and in some ways worse. But it is bad for the hunting." And he said he had been out hunting in Belgium at the invitation of some of his foreign clients. "Not wild, not wild," he said. "Was like a park, you know. Like parkland. Not wild like this" - indicating the broad tangled expanse around us. "It was like industry. Like industry park for killing. I not like this way of hunting."
Later that day I was driven back to my pensiune where I fell asleep seeing the lush green of the hillside bouncing along in front of my eyes as in a countryside road movie. Green on green on green on green. I thought, "this is food for my eyes."
"How could they not be interested?"
I'd told the boys that I was hoping to sell this story to the Times newspaper. This was true. I'd had a sort of tentative letter of encouragement. "Once you are out in Romania let us know if you have any story ideas." But I was clear with them that this is all it was. An expression of interest.
And I wasn't using them. Or rather: it was mutual relationship. I was serving a story idea of theirs while pursuing one of my own.
I was fully convinced that the Times would want to buy this story. How could they not be interested?
This was made even more convincing by the fact that by now Attila had secured me an interview with the Minister of the Environment, Attila Korodi.
He was a Hungarian speaker, a Szekely, a local to this region, having been brought up in Miercurea Ciuc, only 30kms from Lazaresti.
So we drove over to Bucharest to his office to meet him.
We picked up the Manager of the Libearty bear sanctuary on the way - a clean-cut, healthy-looking guy in a safari shirt, who also wanted to ask some questions of the Minister - and then we were driving to the capitol.
There's not much need to go into this here. We got caught up in traffic in Bucharest and were about half an hour late. The offices were in the centre of the city, not far from Ceausescu's crazy oversized people's palace, the current parliament, and, once we were parked up and walking Huni asked if I had my press card with me. I hadn't thought of it. It was in my jacket back in the car, but no one asked in any case. We went into a cool, echoing building with a sweeping marble staircase, found the offices - which were panelled in dark wood in the usual governmental style - and waited. Then we were ushered in to see the Minister, who was this youngish-looking Hungarian with glasses and a tie. I did my interview and he was typically evasive and then Attila did his on camera. The Minister didn't want my interview to be on camera as he felt his English was not good enough. Afterwards the manager of Libearty asked some hard-hitting questions about the legal status of the sanctuary - it was in a sort of legal grey area, being neither a reserve, nor a zoo - and that was it, we went home. On the way home I interviewed the Manager about the history of the Libearty bear sanctuary and then spent another night in my favourite pensiune.
The reason there's no point in going into this is that, in fact, the Times never bought my story, so my interview with the Minister was never used. Attila's interview went into his film, and the Manager of Libearty had been given some reassuring answers. The journey wasn't wasted. But nobody wanted my story.
After I got back home I was writing proposal after proposal and sending them off to all the English newspapers, but all I got were rejections.
I couldn't understand this.
Are we so parochial as a nation that issues in a foreign country aren't of any concern to us, I thought? Are we really that arrogant, that stupid?
What got to me at the time - what still gets to me - is that this story is of huge concern to everyone in Europe.
Remember: the official estimates reckon on there being about 6,000 bears in Romania. The Minister had said as much. However, according to Szabi and the Aves Foundation, this might be an exaggeration, an overestimation due to the fact that the same people who make the estimates also want to sell hunting licences. There may be only 2,500 bears left in the wild, with perhaps only 20 or so of those large males that are of such vital importance to the genetic stock. Even now the bears may be being hunted to extinction. Surely this is an issue worthy of our attention: the possibility that soon there may be no bears left in Europe?
These are European animals, not only Romanian animals. Once upon a time bears roamed all over these lands, including England. Bears and wolves and wildcat and lynx. They are our own wild heritage.
Maybe, when the human race finally wipes itself off the face of the planet by our own stupidity, by our short-sightedness and greed - which is a distinct possibility right now - then these Romanian creatures will be the ones who will return to fill the gaps. It is from Romania that the rebirth of Europe will begin.
Or maybe - if we can wake up from our current nightmare and begin to think like true human beings again - we can begin the rebirth right now, and include both the bears and ourselves in the picture.
That's the choice.
And meanwhile I had seen things I had never dreamed of in this prehistoric Transylvanian landscape, in these wild mountains, under these wild skies.
I had seen the creatures of myth and of legend.
I had seen the primeval boar, like crag-faced angels emerging from the forest depths, and I had felt their presence in the wind like a dark, alien intelligence.
I had seen the bear and nearly seen the wolves.
I had been blessed by the moment, by the passage of time, with these meetings in the wilderness, and something strange was happening to me.
It was as if, with each new encounter, some part of me had flown away, had taken wing into the forest and been transformed, had become elemental beings, as if I was unleashing the spirits inside of me, the wildness of my heart, never to be caught again.
© 2008 CJStone