Encounter: Mihai Barbu

Mihai Barbu has been travelling by bike for ten years. The freelance photographer grew up in Petrila, within the Carpathian Mountains and only a few hours’ ride from Romania’s famous Transfăgărășan pass. It’s something of a ‘mecca’ for motorcyclists now, but assorted political regimes with varying levels of paranoia have historically implemented travel restrictions for Romanian citizens, so international travel wasn’t something Mihai could experience while growing up.
Education led to University and then work as a press photographer for various national papers and international news agencies, but getting his first bike in 2004 awakened a desire to just ride and to see things. Combining this with his obvious photographic skill and ability to capture social imagery, is something we’re all grateful for, as the next few pages illustrate.
In 2009 he planned to arrange some extra time off work to undertake a larger than normal trip, but was actually fired, so loaded up his F650 Dakar and headed overland to Mongolia, a 26,000km, four-month journey, which inspired his first book ‘Vand Kilometri’. The literal translation is ‘Selling Kilometres’ and it’s done rather well itself, selling over 10,000 copies in five editions! It’s not yet available in English, but may be one day.
Life changes for us all of course, that’s what makes it interesting, and when Mihai and partner Oana Leulescu had their son Vladimir, getting a third wheel seemed obvious. Travel broadens the mind of everyone but offers a terrific educational start for children so the decision was made to purchase a 750 Ural outfit known as ZAIR, with a single wish: ‘that it would keep us away from home for as long as possible’. It proved an admirable chariot.
After his 2009 firing, Mihai had become a freelance photographer so arranging to take another extended holiday, this time with the whole family, was straightforward. Oana however, quit her accountancy job in 2014 to enable the four-month pan-European family trip to happen.
The limited stamina of four-year-old Vladimir meant reduced speed and regular stops to see things and meet people, but then ZAIR contributed to that too. There were in fact no major breakdowns although meeting Ural dealers and the extended Ural ‘family’ throughout Europe, became very much a part of the trip; drinking coffee and chatting during oil changes and the couple of warranty jobs. Of course you don’t ride an Ural if you’re in a hurry and a cruising speed of 50mph kept them on smaller roads, opening the door to more visual and social experiences even though there were only two real goals for the trip, both set by Vladimir: to see reindeer and camels. And then, while riding through a forest in Morocco, they came across some wild monkeys by the side of the road. Feeding them with what they had, Vladimir was ecstatic. Seeing his smile and incredible enjoyment was one of those special, cherished moments, one that reassured Mihai and Oana that what they were doing was indeed good and that even the cold wet Scandinavian days were worth it. Of course the moment was captured by Mihai.
Although a professional, well versed in DSLR use, many of the images overleaf are actually taken with a GoPro for one simple reason. He sourced a fantastic Ortleib tankbag which never let a drop of water in, but was also difficult to get into in a hurry, so the DSLR remained dry and the handy GoPro was employed to great effect for stills as well as video. It helps when you’ve got an artistic eye of course.
They travelled from Romania through Hungary, Austria, Czech and Slovak Republics, Germany, Poland and all the Baltic states on their way to Nord Kapp, before riding south through Norway and Sweden, Denmark and the Benelux countries, the British Isles, France, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav countries, Albania, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. Ever-changing landscapes and passing through a huge variety of cultures, I asked Mihai which was more important, people or places, when he travelled.
“People come first, always. I always said that there are far more good people than bad out there. And then there are the places, also. These two go hand in hand. And then, there’s always… the motorcycle. For me, the places I get to on a plane or car don’t count as travels. I just love riding motorcycles and I consider them the best thing that ever happened to me. And so, the motorcycle is part of the lust for travel. The thing is, there’s this guy that rode alone to Mongolia and back and then took his family all around Europe in a sidecar, and he always avoids metaphysical questions like ‘did you find what you were looking for?’ I never look for anything. I just love riding motorcycles.”

Paddy Tyson
This article appeared in issue 15