Romanian Logging Train
Three trains in Romania
The train lurched and shuddered away from the scruffy edges of Bucharest, on into grasslands, where families went out of their way to look photogenic in horse drawn carts. Then there’d be a lake, a cute village or the compellingly bleak operations of a quarry to watch from the wide train window.
The instruction notices on the small sink cabinet suggested that our sleeper had come second hand from Germany, probably a good while ago. Although the décor was tatty, the bunks were comfortable, with clean white sheets.
My friend had insisted on the top bunk. Let her have her way. To me it looked dangerously close to the ceiling. I’d sleep snug; she’d have her head split.
There were no refreshments on board but the guard knocked on the door with a free bottle of water and a plastic bag of miniature toiletries. This included what I thought was a yellow duster. Were we expected to give the cabin the once over before leaving? I realised it was a species of towel.
Darkness began to fall on the scenery rolling past the foot of my bunk. My friend was silent. Either she’d be needing brain surgery in the morning or was fast asleep. I pulled down the blind. Goodnight Romania.
It seemed, perhaps some job creation scheme left over from the days of communism, that there were people in Romania paid to stand on country station platforms all night, shrieking at each other. I heard them at every one of twenty two stops in the night. I felt every weld that the old train bumped over, every wheeze of the brakes and jolt to a halt. I arrived in the town of Sighet on the Ukraine border, exhausted.
We crossed overgrown tracks to a tumbledown station. A large family greeted a weeping old man as he clambered down from a second class carriage. Wherever he’d been, he would have been sitting up all night to get home again.
Housed in Sighet’s once notoriously brutal prison is the Museum of Arrested thoughts and International Study. This is where the Ceausescu regime tortured and killed its opponents. A group of Romanian teenagers on some sort of group outing grew silent and awkward as they looked at the exhibits in white washed former cells, detailing miseries from their parents and grandparents lifetimes.
East of Sighet, are the densely forested Rodna mountains. From 1932 around 3,000km of rail tracks were built in the forests to bring lumber down to sawmills. As late as 1986 Romania, economically isolated, was building steam engines for use on these narrow gauge tracks. Today some loggers still use the railway but mostly it’s been handed over for use by passengers on scenic day trips.
The forestry station was an interesting place to wait for a train, watching the shunting and refurbishing of brightly painted steam engines. Just as well, because signs all around the station warned: There is no guaranteed transport accomplishment or fixed timetable on this railway even if there are any published. Departure times, routes and stops can change spontaneously without prior notice.
Our departure time spontaneously changed to two hours later than published. Finally we set off in the wooden and glass carriages, tickets checked by a teenager wearing a tracksuit and an oversized military hat.
People waved as we passed them working in vegetable gardens, or washing their clothes in the river. Much of the river was being used by loggers, offloading tree trunks for water transport from those picturesque horse drawn carts.
At the end of this journey were the hills of Moldavia, home to exquisitely painted Byzantine monasteries and churches.
A night train from the ornate station in Suceava took us back from these wonders. The station was full of huddled, gaunt people clutching carrier bags who didn’t look as though they’d be getting on a train for an entertaining ride.
Four lolling, chain-smoking policemen stood at the end of our sleeper car. There was some special mail delivery in their cabin that needed protecting. This meant nudging past their intimidating bulks to use the bathroom. Shared between a dozen cabins, the toilet wasn’t the best part of the journey.
After a coin toss, I slept well and unconcussed in the top bunk. I was further from bumps along the track and the people paid to shout on the platforms must’ve had a night off.
Bucharest station was littered and neglected; only the poor used the trains. The streets were full of shiny new cars. Tourists used the trains, of course, because to us they were, mostly, entertaining. They revealed glimpses of a Romania that wasn’t new and wasn’t the holiday brochure picturesque older world of country people with horses. The trains travelled on the edge of change.