02 June 2012

Full Steam Ahead!

The engineer puffed on a cigarette while he waited for us to embark.  Elvetia, the 1954 Romanian built locomotive he was perched in, puffed along with him.  Heavy mists were slowly lifting from the Carpathians and the lightened clouds, having shed a good amount of rain the night before, were moving across the sky.  It was 8:30 in the morning and we'd maneuvered around potholes and horse-carts to make our train - one of the last wood-fired, steam-powered trains in Europe.  You could smell the lumber in the smoke, its brown bark adding sweetness like the burnt caramel on crème brûlée. The smell reminded Merlin of sugaring in Vermont.  At 9am, with the shrill whistle of a gargantuan teapot, we were called on board.
The CFF Vișeu de Sus, also called The Carpathian Forest Steam Train, is referred to simply as "mocăniţă" by locals and the signs they have posted along the road. It's a derivation of the Romanian word "mocan," which means shepherd or mountain dweller. The mocăniţă which begins its journey in Vișeu de Sus snakes its way up into the Carpathian Mountains to collect timbre and shepherd it back down to the village. Its narrow gauge track follows the Vasar River toward the Ukrainian border, up into the Vasar Valley. The valley is unique to the Carpathians in its lack of habitation - well, human inhabitants at least. Deer, bears, sheep, abound. And those quickly proliferating beasts known as 'tourists.' 
Okay, now's the time to say it. This was a tourist ride, as are all of the wood-fired, steam-powered trains that leave this and any other station in Europe.  They are such rarities that it only makes sense to utilize them in this way - to offer a technicolor experience to people's sepia toned dreams of old-timey travel.  A Swiss nonprofit helped turn this railway into an attraction, to preserve the track, the trains and offer aid to the community around it in an ingenious way.  Merlin and I talk about foreign aid like this a lot, likening it to buying someone a cow instead of giving them milk money.  The 'cow,' being tourism.  Because of this, we assumed the "CFF" on the side of our train referenced the Swiss Federal Railways.  It actually stands for Calea Ferată Forestieră, "forestry railway" in Romanian.
In most of the world, roadways began to push locomotives out of business in the 1950s and 60s.  Romania isn't most of the world, though, and steam locomotives were still being built as late as 1986.  Along our way, we saw two of these re-jiggered vans moving right along next to us.  For loggers and livers in this neck of the woods, the train track is still the only access route.  We'd actually seen one of these on our first day in the country, crossing from near the Serbian border to Cluj Napoca.  What a crazy thing to see sidle up next to your passenger window.  On that modern diesel-powered bullet of a train, the van putted alongside and then fell back into the distance.  During this ride, it smoothly moved forward beyond us. 
At least two people are needed to run a steam locomotive.  Ours was staffed with five.  You had the engineer, the boilerman and a third fellow who swapped places with both of the others.  In addition, two young women acted as conductor and kitchen car cook.  One donned a lop-sided cap when collecting tickets, the other was in charge of grilling hot dogs at our lunch break.  They chatted the whole time, along for the joyride.  The other three had no choice but to run this thing like they always would, whether it was just doing a loop with some foreigners with cameras on board or not.  That's the amazing thing about this ride, to actually feel the mechanics of this bad boy.  To feel it jut and spurt, to watch them feed logs into the boiler and gather water from the river to replenish the locomotive tanks.  It's like watching men re-cobble a street - outmoded skill sets that become lost arts.
The Vaser Valley has had economic significance since the 1700s, when it was still a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.  When the railway was built at the beginning of the 1930s, German speakers and Romanian Jews were running the show.  They would cut down trees up in the heavily forested mountains and then send them down to saw mills in Vișeu de Sus.  The two World Wars affected both ethnic groups in some really dire ways and the lumber industry diminished - almost vanished.  Even with modern transport, the area is not the cash cow that it was in its heyday.  It was amazing to see the loggers' settlements along the river.  In just under three hours, I think we saw four.  The bridges made us gasp - two long logs strapped together with a railing.  Don't be fooled, it was actually just one log, until it bent toward the water. 
At the start of our journey, we passed more houses.  At each one, someone stood outside to watch us go by.  We waved, they waved back.  I wondered how many of the very old ones had watched the first wave of trains pass by.  How amazing they must have seemed.  How amazing they still are.  The Maramureş region is still a part of the world that remains mostly car-less.  Houses do not have driveways, horse-drawn wagons are the norm.  It only makes sense that these locomotives would draw a crowd.  Especially with a bunch of foreigners on board.  A German couple who were so intent on picture taking that they reminded me of that video of Britney Spears attacking a car with an umbrella (yes, I've seen it. so what?)  Cultural paparazzi these two were.  For all our grumbling, they elicited smiles and waves from everyone we past.  Their photos were probably amazing.
Diesel trains that run along this same track do most of the dirty work these days, leaving these antiques for lighter loads. We saw weighed down carts awaiting pick-up and the trains that retrieve them sliding down the track on neutral.  This is how this line was designed, allowing small trains to move upward at a steep enough pace that their return trip (with looooaads of wood now attached) would be aided by gravity.  Our own train picked up small delivery of its own - all tourist rides are still working trips for the local logging industry.  If no one shows up, they still go up to get the logs that are waiting.  We wondered how our train was going to turn around to go back in the direction from which we came.  It simply didn't.  The main cab disattached, moved back and around and joined back up with our cars on the other side.  The conductor navigated our way back in reverse.
We may not have needed to be on the train for four-odd hours to get the point.  Sure, I may have begun to think of The Kinks' song "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains."  And I don't know where I'm going/Or why I came.  I wasn't the only passenger that napped.  But don't they say it's all about the journey and not the destination?  Isn't that basically what our lives right now are all about?  It was amazing to have done it, especially in Maramureş County, where boarding a steam locomotive didn't feel all that unusual and it being anything other than wood-fired would have been bizarre. They use wood for absolutely everything here. As I'm sure we'll explore in greater detail really soon. 

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