April 2, 2012
The seemingly never-ending flatlands stretching east from Budapest go by various magic-sounding names – the Alföld, the Pannonian Steppe, the Great Hungarian Plain – but the best of them is the Puszta, which translates as ‘the bare,’ ‘the mere’ or ‘the empty.’ The Puszta is the westernmost of the Eurasian steppes, and modern Hungarians are descended from nomads who swept across these steppes into Europe the same way as the Huns and the Mongols. Today it’s mostly agricultural land rather than empty grasslands, and when I started planning this journey, someone – I don’t remember who – gave me the impression that crossing the plain would be mind-numbingly dull, a scrappy waste of farmland and urban sprawl crisscrossed by highways.
Often it’s a good thing to begin a journey with low expectations. Yes, the landscape was monotonous, stretching levelly on and on towards absolutely no horizon, but the feeling that it could go on forever, in any direction I looked, wasn’t dull at all but deeply thrilling. The Puszta felt like another world, a vastness of open space and silence, in which I often walked for hours without seeing another person. I followed country roads, rivers and occasionally railway lines, or navigated by distant church steeples visible across many miles of uninhabitation. The cloudlessness of the sky began to feel quite unnatural, as if the workings of nature had stopped, the weather as unchanging and endless as the landscape. During the days there were almost no sounds apart from skylarks and the wind, the clattering of yellow reeds, and the steady crunching rhythm of my boots in the dust. I saw deer so frequently I almost stopped seeing them, and in amongst trees found their yellowing skeletons, the tattered remains of foxes and hares, and once, beside a railway line, exactly half a dog.
For several of these nights I camped, pitching my tent beside the Körös River in the uncertain hour between daylight and dusk. Each evening became a period of adjusting my senses to the new surroundings, my nerves familiarising themselves with the local night noises. The rustlings of small beasts in the undergrowth, magnified by the silence, sounded as big as horses. Sometimes there came a furious cry, somewhere between a grunt and a scream, from some unknown hunting bird, and one night it took a long time to relax to the sudden pop-clunk of plastic bottles on a driftwoody beach as the temperature dropped, releasing mysterious pressures. There was always the comforting chorus of birds settling in the trees, the evening outrages of dogs, the church bells of distant villages – birds, dogs and people all marking another day’s death with their own forms of music. One morning I woke to the shadow of a polecat leaning up against my tent, its little clawed hands outstretched, peering at me through the mesh like a person gazing through a shop window.
For various reasons, both conscious and unconscious, I returned to Budapest for a few days after almost reaching the Romanian border – the distant outline of blue hills the first intimation of a new land – jumping on a westbound train and unravelling in a few hours a week and a half of walking. It was a strange sensation. The land was reduced to a yellow-brown smudge, a blur of ‘scenery.’ Once I was back in the neon-lit streets I could suddenly empathise with the people I’d met in the Alföld who practically shuddered at Budapest’s name, saying, as country people always do, the capital was too big, too crowded, too frightening, too noisy. Almost immediately, that emptiness started to feel like a dream – a desert squeezed between two different cities – and, in the way of dreams, it altered my perception of the present, defamiliarising the streets I thought I’d come to know. After the expanse of the plain, the silence, the hugeness of the skies, I was suddenly aware of the way in which buildings hem you in, channel your movement, control not only where you walk but where you see as well. Perhaps most of all, I was aware of the sudden reappearance of horizons – in every direction, as far as the eye can’t see.
This article can also be seen on the newly-designed Dark Mountain Project blog – a cultural movement for an age of global disruption.