A train journey to remember by Val Poore
It’s hot in Cluj Napoca. Very hot. The mercury’s hovering somewhere around 37C in the shade in this beautiful Romanian city. We sit wearily on the station platform with our backs against one of the columns supporting the overhanging roof. Other passengers, mostly young people, sit in circles on the paving, talking animatedly. Meanwhile, they’re using anything available to deflect the heat from their faces: magazines, pieces of folded paper, newspapers and even real Spanish-style fans. I’m using a train timetable. It serves the purpose, but not all that effectively.
My partner, Koos, and I chat quietly about the trip we’re about to make. We’re on a ten-day tour of Transylvania and we’re waiting for the train to Timisoara, a journey that will apparently take some four hours. We’re supposed to have left at three forty-five, but it’s already after four. I muse briefly on the wisdom of our decision to go by rail; we could have hired a car and been half way there by now.
“I wonder why it’s so late,” I comment, looking at the schedule. “It must be quite slow if it only gets to Timisoara at eight. It’s not all that far, is it?”
“It’s somewhere around 330 kilometres, I think, so yes, four hours is quite a long time!” Koos agrees.
In our home country, the Netherlands, we’re used to main line trains travelling at 160 kph so we’d normally expect to do this sort of distance in well under three hours.
“Well, I hope it’s got air conditioning, anyway,” I sigh, wafting the timetable up and down in front of my cheeks.
About half an hour after the expected departure time, our train finally crawls into the station, disgorging dozens of exhausted looking passengers. I’m a bit shocked at the state of the train. This is supposed to be a major inter-city service, but the locomotive and carriages look ancient, as if they’ve been dragged out of the back of a museum, and a very dusty and dirty museum at that.
We’ve reserved our seats, so we climb aboard the carriage that bears the number on our tickets and squeeze our way along the passage until we find our compartment. This type of carriage is like something from my childhood. It’s old and shabby and the window is so grimy we can’t see out of it at all. There’s condensation trapped between the double glazing, which adds to the problem, and the opening part at the top is stuck closed. Still, at least we have seats.
When it eventually leaves, the train is forty five minutes behind schedule, but then Koos tells me it’s already come more than five hundred kilometres through the mountains from Iasi on the other side of the country. Is that a reason to forgive it? I suppose so.
We seem to crawl the first hundred and fifty odd kilometres, but the upside is that it’s through stunning mountain scenery. We can only see the views by peering out of the sliding window in the passage, taking turns with the other passengers who are also desperate to inhale some fresh air. The poor train lumbers heavily up hills pulled by its old diesel powered (or under powered) locomotive. For me it’s like going back in time. I haven’t been on such an old-fashioned train since I left South Africa in 2001.
As might be expected on such an antiquated system, there’s no air conditioning. The afternoon temperature is rising and it’s becoming almost unbearable in the close, fetid air of our compartment. If it’s 37C outside, it must be well over 40C in the train. The heat thickens the air making it hard to breathe. Perspiration pours off us and my summer dress clings to my legs and back, but there’s nothing we can do except endure it. We take our cue from the young Romanians by using anything we have as fans. My Cluj guidebook is bigger than the timetable and comes in very handy; Koos uses a map of Romania.
To find some relief we spend as much time as possible alternating with our fellow passengers at the windows in the passage. Then someone, a young student type, has the bright idea of opening an outside carriage door to smoke a cigarette. It’s a long journey and he’s desperate. Some of our compartment companions follow suit and after hesitating only a moment we join them. I’m not a smoker, but the lure of the fresh air is irresistible. I glance at Koos and grin.
“No one at home would believe this,” I say, gesturing to the gathering by the open carriage door. Our partners in crime laugh.
“Where are you from?” one of them asks.
“The Netherlands,” Koos says.
“Ah, I expect they don’t allow this on the trains there,” he winks.
“You have great trains in Holland,” another young man says, flicking his ash onto the tracks passing beneath us. “Fast and clean; not like this. I’ve been to Amsterdam. Such a beautiful city,”
This illicit activity proves great for contact and conversation and friendships, however ephemeral, are formed. We share stories round the open doorway, laughing at the contrast between our respective countries: the Netherlands, so fresh, modern and efficient, and then Romania, a bit ramshackle and unorthodox but somehow more charming. What also strikes me is how nice these people are and how it takes very little to make real and warm connections even if we don’t know each other’s names.
As we turn to go back to our places, a female conductor approaches us along the passage. We all shuffle past her guiltily, but she realises immediately what’s been happening. “No comment,” is all she says, with a smile. It’s too hot for admonishments.
The carriage door remains open, swinging on its hinges and banging intermittently against its frame.
Sitting down again in the sweltering compartment, I realise we’ve run out of water. Never imagining it would be so hot and take so long, we haven’t brought anything like enough with us. My gesture to show Koos my empty bottle is noticed by the girl sitting next to me.
“Have some of mine,” she offers. “Here, I’ve got plenty.”
How incredibly kind. I smile and accept gratefully. Once again, the contact leads to more conversation. The girl tells me she’s going to Arad, the last stop before Timisoara.
“The diesel train ends there,” she says. “The last part of your journey will be much faster as it’s electric from there to the end of the line.” She smiles as if to comfort me.
After Oradea, the land flattens out and we follow the Hungarian border south to Arad. The train picks up a bit of speed on the level ground, but whereas before we were just plodding slowly through the mountains, now we stop at several villages along the way. I’m fascinated by the stations. They look like private homes and the platforms are just a few short metres of wooden planking near the line. The only things that distinguish them as stations are the name boards and the smartly uniformed station masters standing to attention like soldiers on parade. Most passengers have to climb down from the carriages onto the grass between the tracks and walk to the station yard across the rough terrain. The young people help the older folk over the humps, but there’s no official assistance for the elderly or disabled. Clearly, EU regulations haven’t reached Romania yet. As for Health and Safety, well, we won’t mention that.
By now we have our own club in our compartment: sharing water, snacks and more illicit visits to the open carriage door. The heat has provided the cohesion, and we feel united in endurance. But at least the conversation is lively and we learn more about our new friends. Four of them are students; the other two work in Cluj and are on weekend trips. Life in Romania is improving now they’re in Europe, they say, but there’s still a long way to go before they can achieve the same standard of living as we’re accustomed to. We listen with interest to their accounts of how things are developing here.
At Arad, where we change from diesel to electric, we lose most of our lovely fellow passengers.
“So nice to have met you,” they say with big smiles before leaving the compartment. “Have a great holiday!”
“Keep this,” says the girl, handing me the bottle of water. “You’ll need it.”
Each of them shakes hands with Koos and me on their way out. I find myself beaming with the pleasure of it all, although I’m sad to see them go.
The two remaining passengers keep us entertained for the rest of the trip. They are students at the university in Timisoara, and they tell us stories about their country and their city, of which they are very proud. It’s uplifting to hear their enthusiasm and optimism for the future of Romania. Then the discussion takes a new direction into more philosophical areas. One of the pair is studying psychology, but he looks more like a top tennis player than a social sciences student. “If you could have a choice between living inside someone's head for a day, or flying for five minutes a day, which would you choose?” he asks. It’s that kind of conversation, both exploratory and fun.
We eventually arrive to a stifling, humid night in Timisoara six hours after leaving Cluj. It’s ten thirty, we’re two and a half hours late, and it’s still around 30C. But apparently this is normal, or so our companions tell us; both the lateness and the temperature.
The trams to our hotel have stopped for the night, so the students lead us to a nearby taxi rank.
“If you catch one outside the station, it will cost twice as much,” they say before waving goodbye and disappearing off into the sultry gloom.
Our Romanian travel companions have been so friendly and so full of goodwill I don't think I've ever enjoyed a train ride as much; nor, I admit, have I ever been quite so hot and sticky. But somehow the physical discomfort has contributed to the emotional satisfaction of this unique journey.
“Wow,” I say to Koos, pulling my damp dress away from my back and legs. “What a simply amazing trip!”
“Yes,” he nods, “truly memorable.”
“It was incredible, wasn’t it? So much kindness and interest from total strangers. That would never happen at home. Mind you, neither would that train…,” I shake my head and laugh.
“That’s why travel like this is so good for us,” Koos says. “It’s such a unifier.”
And he’s right. It was criminally uncomfortable in that hot, airless compartment, but somehow it brought out the camaraderie in all of us; we were united in our suffering, so to speak, regardless of age, background and nationality.
In fact, despite the awful conditions this train ride has been one of my peak life experiences. We’ve learnt things about Romania and its people we’d never have discovered by being cocooned in an air-conditioned car. We’ve shared our lives, albeit briefly, with some lovely, charming and generous individuals, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“Come on,” Koos nudges me. “Time to move on to the next phase. Timisoara, here we come!”
And so gathering ourselves and our bags together, we head for the line of waiting taxis.