The Wheels on the Intercity Bus go Round and Round


As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been riding a lot of inter city buses lately as well as speaking with fellow passengers who are “old hands” at the system. And I have to be quite frank – the inter-city bus system in Romania is pretty awful.

The only bright spot is that there is a rather comprehensive website that details just about every bus in the country and what the various schedules are. Sadly, it’s a little clunky but it does have the option of choosing between nine (!) languages, including both Russian and Bulgarian (click on the little flag in the upper right-hand corner).

After that I’m afraid things get steadily worse. While the posted schedules and destinations seem to be fairly accurate, what actually happens on the road is a gamble.

The Autogara

In every city of any decent size, there is an autogara or main bus terminal. In several cities, like Brasov and Sibiu, these are literally next door to the gara (de tren) or the main train station. In other cities, like Timisoara and Cluj, the autogara is close by but not in direct sight of the train station. Bucharest, needless to say, has an entire constellation of bus stations.

Some autogari in mid-size towns, such as Alba Iulia or Medias are woeful outposts of humanity. The one in Pitesti looks like a bomb went off in the parking lot. Some of the autogari in larger cities will have a modicum of stores to serve the needs of the traveler, such as food shops, a place to buy a coffee or other drinks, and a bathroom. Sometimes these autogari have fairly decent facilities and seem more or less tolerable in terms of spooky people hanging around, stray dogs and scowling gypsies. Sometimes however you feel like you’ve reached a way station in outer Mongolia.

In all cases, as far as I am aware, be advised that there will always be someone “manning” the entrance to the bathrooms and charge you a fee. The posted fee in the Medias autogara was something like 2 lei, which I felt was ridiculous and so I negotiated the price down to 1 leu but you will always pay to use the restroom.

Finding where your bus is, however, and boarding it and knowing where it will arrive at is an onerous undertaking. Sometimes there is a helpful dispatcher slash information office with perhaps the (accurate) information posted on a board or sheet of paper. Other times you have to scout around for your particular company’s logo and ask their own specific staff members. Still other times, you just have to walk around and pester people until you find your bus.

Note: it is extremely difficult to find information in English or someone who speaks anything but Romanian.

The Ticket

Sadly, there is no uniform method of acquiring a ticket. The majority of buses require you to queue up for the bus when it arrives in the station, board the bus and if there are seats still available, you buy your ticket directly from the driver.

Still others require you to make a phone reservation ahead of time and then buy the ticket from the driver when you board. The only advantage to this is that you’re “guaranteed” a spot on the bus, something that might not happen if it is a popular route. Some companies now allow you to reserve (but not buy) your ticket online directly from the website.

Still others require you to buy a ticket from a separate office in the bus station and then present it to the driver when you board. In these cases, the driver will absolutely refuse to sell you a ticket unless you board the bus at a very small town or location (see below).

Assuming you acquire a seat and a ticket, you’re basically set. Or are you?

Note: on some rare occasions, the driver will assign you a seat on the bus but the norm is just everyone sits where they want to.

The Vehicle

There is absolutely no way to know what kind of vehicle you will be riding in. I have ridden in two vastly different vehicles on separate occasions on exactly the same route with exactly the same company. You just never know.

Sometimes it will be a large, full-size coach with over 50 passengers and full amenities, including air conditioning and a movie to watch. Other times you will be riding an oversized van that is in terrible condition and barely seems roadworthy. Sometimes the vehicle will have a spacious capacity under the bus for you to stow your larger bags. Other times you’ll have to cram your bags either in the (sometimes pitifully undersized) overhead racks or else any which way you can in the aisle between the seats. I’ve seen people have to perform Olympic-level hurdles to get to an open seat as they cross over mountains of luggage.

Sadly, in just about every case, be aware that even on the modern, large coaches there will rarely, if ever be onboard restroom facilities. This means you better be able to hold yourself high and dry for several long hours of jolting and bumping over Romania’s patchy network of roads.

Note: regardless of whether you are riding the world’s rustiest rattletrap of a van or a sleek, modern coach, it is mandatory that the radio will be on the entire way. A Romanian driver cannot operate his vehicle without the radio playing! This is the law!

Theoretically the major stops that the bus is taking will be posted on a sign in the vehicle’s front windshield. But not always! Sometimes you just have to ask.

On The Road

Theoretically your bus will only stop at certain cities (usually mid to large ones for longer trips) and only at the official autogara or bus station. In practice however, the bus can and will stop just about anywhere. Savvy passengers will rise as their desired location approaches and pester the driver to drop them off at unmarked locations. Furthermore, in larger cities the driver will always stop at completely unmarked locations to pick up or drop off passengers.

In some cases, including at the posted last stop of your route, the driver will not stop at the autogara at all. This happened to us a couple of weeks ago when the driver unceremoniously threw us all out in the rain instead of going to the Cluj autogara, where we had someone waiting to pick us up. Nice!

Despite all the stopping at strange places to pick people up or drop them off, usually the bus will only make one stop that’s long enough for people to get off the bus, stretch their legs, buy a snack or use the restroom. Where will this stop be and for how long will it last? There is no way of knowing!

I speak Romanian just fine but what happens every time is the driver will suddenly kill the engine (your clue if you don’t speak the language) and mutter something. I’ve sat two seats behind him and barely understood him but it’s something like pauza de X minute (break of X minutes). Again, you have no idea where this will be or when and you had better hustle to the crappy (paid) bathrooms if that’s what you need to do on your sole break. Only on extremely long trips (over 6-8 hours) will there be more than one break.

Therefore I have been on a four hour trip on a bus full with more than 50 passengers and had exactly one rest stop of about 5 minutes, meaning there was a tremendous scrum for the bathrooms. Not very nice but hey, that’s how it goes.

During the trip, aside from the radio, you have no idea what will happen. Sometimes the air conditioning (or conversely, the heat) will work and sometimes just barely and sometimes not at all. Sometimes you’ll be swung all over the road as the driver hot dogs his way to the next stop. Sometimes you’ll get burned alive as the sun scorches through the windows. Sometimes it’ll rain and water will blow through the driver’s window onto your face. Sometimes the driver will light up a smoke and you get to enjoy it second-hand. You just never know!

Note: they are cracking down on this now but it still exists for shorter routes – the existence of the paying passenger who has no seat and so is forced to stand up in the already crowded aisle. This could be you as well ;)

Illegal/Weird Stuff

I’ve seen everything under the sun, including the driver stopping at his girlfriend’s apartment, the driver sleeping during the 10-minute break, the driver picking up weird packages at unannounced spots in tiny villages, the driver smoking continuously while driving, the driver helping some old peasant woman board the bus in a tiny village, the driver going over twice the posted speed limit to the driver jamming on the brakes as he failed to notice a road obstruction until the last minute, pitching all of the passengers into the seat in front of them.

I’ve seen drivers transport nearly everything except for live animals and people slip the driver cash to take their packages. I’ve seen buddies of the driver board and ride around for free. I’ve seen just about everything and if you ride the bus long enough, you will too.

Your Destination

The driver will never, ever announce where you are. I’ve heard even Romanian passengers shout out to the driver to ask where we are because it is often difficult to determine unless you are going to a very large city. Many times the autogara is located in the outskirts of a city or town and signage is nearly non-existent so if you’re not sure where you are, ask someone.

Furthermore, be aware that not all bus routes even go to the autogara at all. Check the website to see where the bus picks up passengers as a lot of shorter routes skip going to the official autogara altogether.

Note: do not count on the driver to stop at smaller destinations even if you’ve told him that’s where you want to go. I saw one poor Romanian lady break into tears as she realized too late that the driver had just barreled past her stop, leaving her no choice but to get off at the next city and take another bus or taxi back to where she wanted to go.

Conclusion

Between unmarked buses, decrepit vehicles, unscheduled stops, unannounced and surprise breaks, lack of adequate climate control and a raft of surly drivers making bizarre unplanned stops to the lack of English (or other language) information from just about anybody, riding an inter city bus in Romania remains quite an adventure and is not recommended for the timid or the cautious.

So why do people ride the bus? Well frankly, it is far cheaper than the train for comparable routes. Not only that, but in just about every case, the bus route takes far less time than the comparable train route. As much as I love riding the rails, sometimes riding an intercity bus is faster, more economical and a better choice.

If you’ve got a choice and prefer your comfort over saving a little time or money, always choose Romanian railways. But if speed and economy are your driving factors, roll the dice and hop aboard an intercity bus.

DRUM BUN!

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