The Trains of Transylvania

‘Would you like some drugs?’ I expected him to ask.

Chains jangled over worn leather pants and over a black shirt. Earrings caught the wan yellow light, and a grey ponytail was gathered in a band.

Instead he showed all four of his teeth in a magnificent smile. ‘May I help you? I speak English’.

It was 3:00 am in Oradea Station, Transylvania (Romania), and I was trying to buy a bread-roll and a coffee. The heavy-lidded woman in tight pants at the café was not about to grace me with a flicker of understanding. And so my friend stepped in. Graciously, he explained that the rolls were all ham and cream cheese, which one could have in two varieties, cold or softly warm after a brief zap in an ancient microwave. The coffee in the small plastic cup was at least black, although it tasted like its main ingredient was tar.

I found a table in the corner, cleared the debris, and sat down with weary relief. Had I wanted drugs, I knew whom to ask.

My other companions in the Orient Express Café – its glorious name signalling, via inverse ratio, its utter seediness – were not necessarily fellow travellers. Or at least those who were signalled the fact by slumping asleep at their tables. The proprietor would do a regular round, shaking them awake and telling them they would need to sleep elsewhere. The rest, with their beer bottles and smokes, gave the distinct air of eternity. They had been here for some time, a time that had not yet come to an end. At least the place was warm and it had a toilet, watched over by a solid, sullen woman in her fifties.

But what was I doing in Oradea at 3:00 am in the Orient Express Café? It all began innocently enough, with a missed connection in Budapest.

I had come through from Frankfurt, via sleeper then morning train to Budapest. I was to step off one train and onto another, which would take me across the border and into Romania – except that the connecting train was scheduled to leave a few minutes before I arrived. Which it did. Not quite sure what to make of this esoteric timetabling wisdom, I rebooked for a later departure, thought nothing more of it and settled into the peace of a favoured corner, the Etterem Barossa. Apart from breathing the glory of the long-faded Austro-Hungarian Empire, this restaurant also boasts the grandest toilets I have ever had the pleasure to visit.

Eventually my train departed, with an hour to Oradea on the other side of the border, where I was to be picked up and taken to Baia Mare – a beautiful spot in the mountains of Maramureš in the heart of Transylvania. But first we had to cross the Hungarian-Romanian border, where border guards ply you with questions, take your passport and then call some mysterious number with which an animated conversation ensues. An accomplice to take down details for a forgery? A security check to find out if I am who I say I am? A call home to ask whether the beer is ready? I would never know, but crossing that border has made me nervous for some years. And with good reason.

Red Hot Poker

A few years earlier a red faced, screaming border guard had thrown me off the train in the middle of the night.

I had set off in quest of the romance of the Transylvanian mountains and then the challenges of Bucharest. And the only thing that stood in my way was ranks of border guards and petty officials. They had all spent, I was to learn, many years practising the finely-tuned skill of knowing precisely when you had drifted off to sleep before knocking. One after another they came – ticket collectors, Hungarian border guards, Romanian border guards. On each occasion we had an advance warning, then a friendly guy who explains things, then the puffed-up boss with four or five muscle men crowding around.

It was the Romanians who put an end to my quest. We had blearily negotiated three levels of these guards, from advance party through junior guard to boss. All had the same message: ‘You need a visa to come into Romania’.

I questioned the boss insistently but to no avail, for all I managed to do was make him furious. It was as though I had stuck a red hot poker up his bum:

‘No!’ he yelled in Romanian English. ‘No visa, no entry: Australia, New Zealand the same. You must go back!’

I and my companion were escorted and watched by four guards from the train. Out in the cold autumn night I pondered our fortune … and then another train appeared, returning to Budapest and undergoing the same treatment.

The carriage back was a Romanian special – it had seen better days and closer relations with cleaners in the past. Yet we laughed, in disbelief maybe, at the extraordinary experience of being thrown off a train at the Romanian border at about 1.00 am. The serious guard placed at our door was less than impressed, but there was little he could do except scowl.

Six hours later we were back in Budapest, so I decided to call the Romanian Embassy.

‘But of course I speak English’ said smooth voice on the phone, almost as though he’d been watching old Hollywood movies of the Iron Curtain.

‘What do I need for a Romanian visa?’ I asked the smooth voice.

‘What is your purpose?’

‘I’m travelling through’.

‘Tourist?’

‘Yes’.

‘You will need to send me’, the voice said, ‘your train ticket through to Sofia, your hotel reservation, a recent statement from your bank, two colour passport photographs and forty Euros’.

‘When would the visa be ready?’

‘If you bring them by twelve o’clock today I will have the visa ready tomorrow’.

‘So much for Romania’, I said.

‘Express’ to Baia Mare

Six years later I finally made it inside Romania, landing by international flight in Bucharest. Too little time did I spend in the city, for I was to board the ‘express’ train to Baia Mare – ‘express’ not so much because it sped along in a sleek blur but that it stopped at every second station along the way. Its speed was much more a leisurely trundle, enabling long perusal indeed of the passing landscape. Often I had to look hard to ensure that the landscape was indeed passing and not simply stationary.

We rolled by vast fields recently harvested, towering mountains capped by snow, villages with their chickens and pigs, carts (both old and new) pulled by horses and even oxen, strange haystacks with sticks poking out of the top, and factory ruins in country towns. Intrigued by the ruins, I asked a fellow-traveller for a time, an engineer. Romania used to be the major producer of machine and tractor parts for Eastern Europe, he told me. But after 1989, the factories were swiftly purchased by companies in Western Europe and then closed down. Suddenly, factory workers were without jobs, the plant equipment was sold or simply left to rust, and the buildings fell into ruin. But what did the people do who had worked in the factories? Some went to work outside Romania, providing cheap labour to drive down wages and conditions in Western Europe. Others went back to the villages and farms of their parents, in a process of re-agriculturalisation. Life may have become simpler, with fewer of life’s luxuries, but food was always available, as was warmth and shelter.

The engineer left the train at Brasov, just as we entered Transylvania. Others joined and left – a man who sneezed a large gob of snot on his shoulder, a middle-aged woman who promptly fell asleep, gypsies hitching a ride for a while. But what struck me was how many do actually travel on trains in Romania, no matter how much people may criticise the railways. At all stops, no matter how small, people would disembark, pushing their way through a crowd waiting to board.

And I was intrigued again but the custom, or perhaps obligation, of stationmasters throughout the journey. No matter how humble the station might be – a chair and a small table in a white building, usually beneath a towering tree – the stationmaster would to attention out the front of the station as the train passed. He would wave a small, circular disk, or at night a light, perhaps to give clearance to the train for the track ahead, or perhaps to indicate that he was indeed on duty. I couldn’t help wonder about the sleep patterns stationmasters would need to develop.

Transylvania by Long Night

But that trundling journey across the length of Romania had merely whetted my appetite. So on that occasion I planned to leave early – somewhere around 4.00 am – for my departure from Baia Mare. My hosts pondered this suggestion with that look reserved for the naughty or the slightly mad: why would any sane person want to travel on night trains through Romania? They promptly drove me to the border and put me on a train to Budapest.

Denied that wish, my subconscious was to kick in at an unexpected moment a year later, the journey on which I ended up at the Orient Express Café. This time I had managed to cross the border without mishap – or almost. Relaxing in the comfort of a cubicle to myself on the train out of Budapest, I read, snoozed, wrote a little, but spent most of my time mesmerised by the twisting mountain tracks in autumn.

After the border crossing, the conductor came to check my ticket (once again). He clipped it, looked again, and raised his eyebrows.

‘Oradea!’ He said. ‘Oradea back – five minutes’.

‘Oh shit!’ I said. That was supposed to be my stop.

What had happened? How had I missed? I pulled out my pocket watch. It said ‘22:00’.

He shook his head, pointed to his watch – ‘23:00’. My stop had been at 22:50.

In the haze of jetlag and travel weariness, I had forgotten to set my watch an hour forward at the border. Add to that the fact that I had been lulled into the pseudo-security of Chinese and Western European trains, on which the next stop is announced myriad times before arrival, on which passengers are warned of time changes, on which stations blare their names with omnipresent signage. In Romania one needs to ascertain all such matters for oneself. I had neglected to do so. I was mortified at the thought of my friends waiting at the station or me. They were to wait a little longer, give up and return home.

The real journey had begun.

What to do? Much sign language later and consulting of timetables with two nervous conductors led to them pushing me off the train at the next stop, Cluj: Why nervous? I had no ticket for that leg of the journey and no local currency (lei) to buy a ticket on board. And railway staff had just endured a prolonged probe for corruption. They were not about to be caught with an unticketted foreigner after they had scraped through such a probe.

The outcome was the long route to my destination: three ageing trains, three country railway stations, fourteen hours of coming to know very well indeed the Romanian rail network, country stations and their edgy subculture. All at night.

And so I stumbled around the station at Cluj, managed to buy a ticket in my weary haze and staggered onto the platform to await the next leg of my journey. Now all my attention was focused on checking the next train, its destination, its platform. I obsessively studied each station we passed to ensure that it was indeed my stop. I allowed myself a catnap on the train, fearing a full sleep in case I missed that stop.

The denizens of Oradea greeted me next – the homeless stretched out on plastic seats, shady characters clustered in dark corners, the beer-and-cigarette ambiance of the Orient Express Café, with the leather clad and bejewelled dealer, the lukewarm ham and cheese rolls, the tar in plastic coffee cups.

By Satu Mare, achieved by a rail motor one would find in a vintage collection elsewhere, I was beyond weariness. Here gypsies streamed along the platform while I stayed awake by means of hunger and cold, for the mountain wind cut through me and chilled me to my core. A man walked repeatedly past me, muttering menacingly; women in shawls stood in clusters; solid, unshaven men asked me incomprehensible questions; conductors incessantly clipped my ticket.

The last leg, on the Baia Mare express from Satu Mare, covered 60 kilometres in two hours. Another ‘express’ – there seem to be plenty of these in this wonderful country. Once again, I had plenty of time to peruse the chickens, dogs, cows, and even an ox-drawn cart of the villages through which we passed – for they were all moving faster than my mode of transport.

Even the taxi – a rare indulgence – from the railway station at the end of my journey seemed a fitting close. As we sped off to my lodgings, the warning sign came on: ‘Fuel low – ABS brake system malfunction – electrical fault – engine service required’.

Washing off the grime of trave, I realised that at some point during the journey I had become rather fond of Transylvania, its mists, its mountains in the golden colours of autumn, its people. But above all its trains. Of course, I left the way I came.

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