The Busteni Death March

Last Friday I got a first-hand experience of the state of tourism here in Romania, and it wasn’t very pleasant. I also had a chance to see it from the perspective of some (truly) foreign tourists and all I can say is that my hat is off to them as I respect their hardiness and determination to make their experience pleasant.

The Woman and I were staying in the town of Sinaia, a lovely little mountain town that is both home to the residence of Romania’s most famous musician (the guy on the 5 lei note) as well as one of the most beautiful palaces in Europe, the former home of the ruling king.

The Good – Years ago when I first went to Peles, there was a (real live, full grown) bear staked to a chain at the northern entrance. The poor bear was forced to sit there in order that people could take pictures “with” it. Thank goodness that bear is no longer there.

The trees and setting are still gorgeous, with lots of fresh, piney air to be breathed in and falling into a deep and relaxing sleep at night is still an amazing experience.

Whomever is taking care of Enescu’s house is doing a tip-top job and the guided tour is definitely worth the 6 lei admission.

Peles is still an amazing palace, despite my feelings about the people who had it built at a staggering cost (during the time when most Romanians were feudal serfs), and while the tour guides are amazingly fussy and rude, it does seem like they’re doing a good job of preserving the furniture, interior and buildings fairly well.

The Mediocre – As usual in places which are tourist destinations, a lot of the prices are inflated, especially food. Nearly everything has a sign which (in Romanian) says that there is a cheaper price for Sinaieni or residents of Sinaia. Certainly that’s nice for them and all but really it gets tiresome to discover over and over that outsiders are admittedly paying more. There can’t be more than a few thousand official residents of Sinaia and yet the entire town’s economy is based on tourism, paid for in various ways besides the higher prices for outsiders, such as all hotel bills coming with special taxes (including one for the search and rescue team).

Most of the shops on the “main drag” (Brit: high street) are of very low quality, including a few in what has to be one of the oldest malls I’ve ever seen still functioning in Romania. It looks exactly like Cluj’s Central shopping center as it was right after Communism ended – large marble staircases and dismal secondhand goods.

The “guided” tour throughout Peles is barely guided at all. True, there is a person who leads the group throughout the various rooms and sections but they were dressed in rumpled, casual clothes, wore no identification, barely spoke loud enough (and could not be heard from the back of the group) and rushed us through, often not giving enough time for everyone to move into the section so they could hear the description of what we were seeing.

I took the tour in Romanian but at one point I could hear a different group taking the tour in English and the guide could barely speak the language. The “English speaking” guide was clearly a Romanian and sounded like they had memorized the tour’s talking points phonetically much like I can “sing along” to certain German songs.

There is a fancy touch screen “information center” near the Primaria (City Hall), in Sinaia, which might be nice when it works properly. But it was stuck permanently in Italian language mode and I couldn’t figure out how to actually get any useful information out of it.

The Bad – The price you have to pay in order to take photographs inside of Peles is 32 lei (10 USD/8 Euro). You’re not allowed to use a flash, you can’t use a tripod (someone got yelled at for trying to bring one in) and you have to promise not to use any pictures you take for commercial purposes (if you want to do that, the fee is 2000 lei!). And then even after you pay the fee there are hordes of attendants who constantly eyeball you and occasionally tap you on the shoulder to make sure you are wearing the “photos permitted” badge.

Mind you, every tourist is already paying substantially for the “guided” tour so why this photo fee has to be so exorbitant is beyond me. When I went to Peles in 2002 we just slipped the guide a few lei and took all the pictures we wanted.

Just about everyone, from the lady operating our pensiune (hotel) to the taxi drivers to several cafes were doing things “off the books”, charging us a slightly lower fee and then not giving us an official receipt so that they could avoid paying taxes. That’s nice for them (and us) but it’s symptomatic of a much larger problem in Romanian, which is that tax avoidance is becoming (necessarily, for most people) a national sport.

When we got out of the gara (train station), there was not a taxi in sight, despite it being the middle of the day. There were no signs or information for phone numbers of taxi companies to call (and indeed, we were told by a local that there were no companies, just independent operators). Then 10 minutes later a taxi showed up with one broken door (couldn’t be opened) and nearly all the taxis we took were operated by guys who refused to use the official meter and instead just “calculated” the rate from their car’s odometer.

There were stray dogs almost everywhere, some of them cute and friendly and fun to play with (if that’s your thing) but some of them clearly ill and mangy and looking absolutely miserable. There were even signs (in Romanian) at some restaurants saying “please don’t feed the stray dogs”.

Despite the fact that there is a staircase across from the gara leading right into centru (the main drag of Sinaia), there were absolutely no signs telling you this. Instead there were about 20 signs advertising different hotels and restaurants, as well as the ubiquitous pink ones advertising the telegondola.

Sinaia and the nearby town of Busteni are in a valley that lies alongside the Bucegi Mountain range, which includes some of Romania’s most extensive ski runs, hiking trails and natural monuments. Therefore access from the valley to the upper ranges of these mountains is why the tourists flock to these two towns.

Earlier this year, Sinaia inaugurated (link goes to Click!) the “telegondola”, advertised everywhere in town with luridly pink signs. The only problem is that this “telegondola” is no longer operational as the owners lost their license to run it. Absolutely nobody tells you that this “telegondola” doesn’t operate until you speak (in Romanian) to some locals and they warn you.

Whether due to budgetary cutbacks or some other reason, the town of Sinaia no longer turns on their street lights at nighttime except for alongside the “main drag” in downtown. Therefore walking around anywhere else in the town is an exercise in bravery as you can barely see enough to avoid cars, potholes and dogs.

While the street compromising the “main drag” seems to be fine, most of the secondary streets in Sinaia are in abysmal condition with huge gaping potholes filled with water and broken asphalt. During many stretches, the cars would slow down to a crawl in order to bump and jolt their way across. At one point I saw a gaping hole in the road that was “marked’ only with a few tree branches sticking out of it.

The Downright Ugly – The true horror of our vacation occurred as we headed to Busteni in order to ride the telecabina lift up to the top of the local mountain. To begin with, there is some kind of traffic control problem on the highway north of Sinaia as the 7km (4.3 miles) journey takes about an hour. We spoke to several people (including some taxi drivers) who told us that this is “normal” for the area.

The telecabina (cable car lift) at Busteni is very, very popular because it goes directly to several sets of natural rock formations that are extremely famous and beloved in Romania. These are the Babele (supposed to look like old women hunched over) and the Sfinx (supposed to look like the Sphinx on the Gaza Plateau in Egypt). Personally I don’t think any of these rock formations really look like what they’re advertised as, but they’re extremely famous in Romania nonetheless.

I noted that the machinery for the telecabina is all directly imported from Italy and seems in good condition although it is evidently fairly old and well used (including a World War 2 era field phone, a picture of which I’ll post here soon).

The problem with the Busteni telecabina is that it is incredibly poorly managed. There are two cars in operation at any time (one going up, one going down) and each holds approximately 25 people. The duration of the trip (including loading/offloading) takes about 12 minutes, meaning that roughly 125 people are being transported in one direction per hour. There were easily 500 people in line when we made out way to to the end of the queue to wait our turn.

Indeed, there were far more people waiting to go up and down the mountain than the system could handle. We waited two hours in line (Brit: queue) to go up the mountain and over two and a half hours to go down the mountain on this telecabina.

I thought the line waiting to go up was a nightmare, what with people jumping the line and “sneakily” trying to insert themselves in front of you, gypsies constantly coming around hawking things or vending things, poor, miserable raggedy dogs and the lack of seating, but the line coming down was much worse. At least on the bottom of the mountain we were outside in the fresh air (including a few drops of rain falling on our heads) and could duck out to go to the bathroom (which cost 3 lei to use, absolutely exorbitant and ridiculously expensive).

The line for going down the mountain however, was an exercise in endurance. The hundreds and hundreds of people were all herded through a long hall and a winding staircase, jammed in tight as sardines in a can, each of us breathing on each other, with absolutely no restroom facilities, places to sit or any respite whatsoever. Even many of the windows were covered in opaque glass so that we had nothing to look at for hours on end except each other and the bare concrete walls.

I was staggeringly tired, clutching onto my bladder and wondered how in the world someone who might have been more elderly, or in less good physical condition, could handle it. We were jammed in there with children crying, people sneezing and coughing, and it felt akin to some kind of refugee processing center instead of a wait in line for an expensive cable car ride.

The group directly in front of us was composed of two British men (who spoke next to zero Romanian) with six very young children in attendance. Taking care of them was clearly exhausting to the two men as the kids were penned in the enormous line, wanting to play and squawk and climb and explore and eat candy and all the other things young children want to do. Luckily for them, the two adults had an iPhone to distract them and lots of treats on hand. I can only imagine the chaos that would’ve ensued if they had entered the line empty handed.

So here you’ve got an enormously popular tourist destination with thousands of people per day wanting to visit, a cable car line which has a technical limitation (I am presuming) on how many people it can transport per hour, and absolutely piss poor management of how to ferry these people up and down the mountain without causing them all to suffer needlessly.

Since I’ve been to Disney World many times, it struck me as patently obvious that the solution to Busteni’s problems with regard to waiting for the telecabina would be a Fast Pass system. For those of you who have never experienced it, I’ll quote directly from their patent application:

There are a number of circumstances where people have to wait in line in order to do something. At amusement parks, for example, a customer often needs to wait in line to ride an attraction, and the most popular attractions usually have the longest lines. When such a situation occurs, a line forms.

Although customers wait in line, none prefer it. People feel that time spent in line is time wasted. A customer would much rather come back later when there is no line so that the customer can do other things instead of waiting in line. This problem is particularly acute in an amusement park.

There are a number of techniques in the prior art to handle the problems associated with waiting in line. One approach to dealing with people in lines is to attempt to make the waiting more enjoyable or to make the time go faster. In some arrangements, customers waiting in line are entertained, such as with television, music, reading material, and so forth, so as to distract them and take their mind off of waiting in line. However, such schemes do nothing to prevent the need to wait in line.

Except for the gypsies (if you count that), nothing whatsoever was done to provide “entertainment” or make waiting in line for the telecabina in Busteni more enjoyable.

What Disney’s “Fast Pass” system does was revolutionary (in 1999) because what you do is you go up to the entrance, pay for a ticket and then scan it in a machine, which then tells you what time to come back in order to ride. With Busteni’s telecabina regularly causing people to endure hours and hours of waiting in line, it seems abundantly obvious that a similar system needs to be introduced.

The two lifts operated at extremely regular intervals (The Woman timed them) and they clearly hold a given number of people. Therefore it’d be extraordinarily simple to calculate that if 250 people are ahead if you then you need to come back in exactly two hours and waiting in the line would be kept to a minimum. You could then spend those two hours doing something else, such as having a nice lunch, or browsing the souvenir stands or anything else.

Considering this telecabina is bringing in at least 3000 lei per hour via tickets, it seems like they could actually afford to install such a device.

Conclusion – We both had a wonderful time, but that was in large part to the beautiful place we stayed, the fresh air and the fact that we speak and understand Romanian. We were also fortunate enough that we could afford some of the inflated costs (such as a staggering 132 lei for us to visit Peles – prices can be found here although only in Romanian and the “photo fee” is not listed, which is 32 lei per person), the telecabina prices (64 lei roundtrip per person) and restaurant food. I cannot imagine that such a visit would be in the reach of an ordinary Romanian group without some extremely careful budgeting and planning ahead of time.

Stray dogs (and even a few cats) did not bother us so we were fine in that regard as well but that’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. We also stopped at Brasov on our way back to Cluj, my absolutely favorite city in Romania, and had an absolutely wonderful time on a beautiful sunny day.

Clearly Sinaia and Busteni need a lot better management. Advertising services (such as the ‘telegondola”) that do not operate, failure to illuminate street lights and roads in bad conditions, lack of useful signage and ripping off people (i.e. 3 lei for a public bathroom) all need to be addressed. The telecabina at Busteni badly, badly needs to be better managed in order to handle the daily crowds of people wanting to ascend the mountain. And whatever is causing the huge traffic delays on the main highway between Sinaia and Busteni needs to be fixed.

But these are two beautiful mountain towns with gorgeous views in every direction and definitely should not be missed just for this alone. As they are only a short ride north of Bucharest (about 1 hour by car, 1.5 hours by train) they clearly have the potential to be even better tourist destinations than they already are. We were not there during the winter sports season (obviously) but with the presence of the fabulous Peles Castle, this area could be a top spot for European tourism with a little better management.

Note: While I am being overly facetious (in retrospect, although at the time it felt appropriately onerous), the title of this post comes from here.