A week ago we went for our big ski trip to the Alps. While Hungary lacks any large mountains, the eastern edge of the Alps in Austria are just a 3 hour drive away from Budapest. Or so we thought. As we were preparing for the trip, Dora’s Dad warned us that a snowstorm was passing through Europe and the forecast didn’t look good for the western part of Hungary. Naturally, we paid little heed to his advice; he’s usually nervous whenever we go on big trips and has given similar warnings before.
As expected, the snow began to fall as we set out on highway M1 (Thursday, 2:30 PM). About 30 miles into the trip, the snow began to pick up even more, and the traffic slowed accordingly. Eventually, we hit a long stretch of stop-and-go traffic, undoubtedly due to an accident up ahead. Then finally, at 6:30 PM, as we were still less than 60 miles into our trip, the stop-and-go turned into a just plain stop. As we sat and waited, I put the parking break on and turned off the engine. As time passed, the possibility that we might not move again became more and more of a reality, and we began to make plans for the evening. The apartment in Austria needed to be contacted as we would not be arriving as planned (forturnately, Dora’s dad is fluent in German and called for us, since they spoke neither English or Hungarian at the apartment). Everyone bundled up — fortunately we were dressed for skiing so everyone had plenty of warm clothes available. Panka and Daniel were a bit apprehensive at first (Matthew was safely at home with Dora’s mom, fortunately), but we convinced them that there were plenty of other people around us stuck in exactly the same situation and there were no other alternatives (do you really want to walk out there?). Turning back was never a possibility, as the Hungarian highways don’t have any turnarounds built into them, and besides the opposing traffic back to Budapest slowed to a stop a few hours after we did.
And so it was. All night we sat there, and it continued to snow and the wind continued to blow. We all managed to get some sleep (the kids are more adaptable than the adults, fortunately). We had 3/4 of a tank of fuel, so we idled the engine every couple of hours to pump a bit of heat into the car.
The next morning we awoke with the rising sun. It was no longer snowing and slowly people began to emerge from the cars and mill around. From atop the neighboring fuel tanker truck, I was able to get a view of the surroundings — traffic (and snow) piled up, both lanes in both directions, as far as the eye could see. The hourly news on the radio confirmed this — thousands vehicles stranded on the Hungarian roadways, with the most serious situation on M1 near Győr (our location).
At any given time, the roadways contain an interesting cross-section of the population, and this occasion was no different. Stranded along with us were other cars and tractor trailor trucks carrying young and old, from a variety of countries (primarily Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia, but also several others) with different languages. People were traveling for different purposes, with widely varying levels of preparedness. We were among the most fortunate: access to plenty of warm clothes, food and water, and a full tank of fuel. Ahead of us was a young Austrian businessman, just trying to make his way home and without any food or water. Next to him, a young couple with thin jackets and no gloves, along with a small dog than needed to be taken out every couple of hours. Ahead of them was a family that ran out of fuel overnight.
Information and rumors spread through the stranded travelers. We were told that the preschool in the neighboring village of Nagyszentjános was open, heated, and had hot tea available. The exit was a little over a kilometer up the road and there would be vehicles that would take you from there. There was a rest stop McDonalds a couple of kilometers back that some toward on foot — the local trucker behind us said it was actually 6 kilometers. We later learned that, not surprisingly, there wasn’t any food left to be purchased there. Soon villagers from Nagyszentjános were walking amongst the
vehicles, gauging how much food and help was needed. We were relieved to see some fireman walking down to survey the situation, but later learned that they were only walking because their truck had gotten stuck, and besides they had no food until one of our neighboring cars gave them some. And everywhere people wondered when it was that we would leave; the prevailing opinion (and confirmed by several “authorities”) was that we would be there another night.
Through the midday, the wind died down and the temperatures became bearable, so the family spent some time out of the car. Dora borrowed a shovel from the trucker behind us and she and I took turns shoveling the area around are vehicle, imagining that if everyone around did the same we could be free sooner. Our skiing adventure seemed in jeopardy, so we put the rented skis on Daniel and Panka and had them ski down the small embankment along the side of the road (vertical drop < 2m), much to the amusement of the other stranded travelers. We took a walk up the road and realized that the situation up there was worse; ~100m ahead the highway travelled adjacent to an open field and snow had drifted to a height of over 1 m across the highway. Interestingly, there wasn’t really that much snow that had fallen, but with the high winds and the “snow fence” created by stopped traffic it all seemed to be concentrated right on the highway.
As the day passed, we continued to ear our supplies: a loaf of bread, fruit, crackers and chocolate, along with Székelykáposzta (cabbage, Székely-style) for dinner (surprisingly good when cold). Night began to fall again and it appeared that the predictions were true and we would be there another night. A final walk to large drifts ahead brough a glimmer of hope though; ahead lights were visible from a large frontloader furiously clearing the road. In short order, officials came and instructed all the cars (no trucks) to get in a queue and be ready to go. Soon, at 7:30 PM, 25 hours after we stopped for good and 30 hours since we left Budapest, we were moving again. All the cars traveled a narrow path cut through the drifts, winding along the side of the road and between tractor trailers. After about 2 km, we were at the exit, were all traffic was directed toward the city of Győr using side roads. Győr itself was packed with vehicles, all stranded and waiting to get on M1 toward Budapest (which still wasn’t moving). But clearing M1 of vehicles was top priority, and there were lots of police directing traffic and keeping our line moving. Eventually, we reentered the M1 highway northwest of Győr, this part was pristine without a speck of snow or ice. The opposing direction was still lined for many kilometers with tractor trailers, which were no longer being diverted into Győr. We called our accomodation in Austria to let them know that we were moving again and would be arriving between 10 and 11PM; they were very understanding and said they’d wait.
And so, just before 11 PM, over 32 hours after our start, we arrived at the village. We couldn’t find the apartment, but the older woman that runs the apartment spotted us and direct us to our location. Following a well-deserved night of sleep, we were excited and ready to hit the slopes, which I’ll talk about in my next post!
Here’s a video blog about our experience: