Visitor Amazingly Survives CFR (Actually MÁV) Ride


Although this post was actually written in August, I just found it. Apparently it’s the report of an American who “amazingly survived” a ride on Romanian MÁV Hungarian state railways, which were nothing like the real old days on CFR but still scared the pants off this traveler.

Something wasn’t right…this didn’t look anything like the photos I viewed online. This train looked more like something out of Dr. Zhivago before the revolution. As I boarded the train’s three steep steps up to the coach, I wondered what I had gotten myself into by taking this train to Romania. Surely all the rumors I had read about being boarded at random hours by local police doing passport checks didn’t happen anymore. Gassing the compartments during the night and breaking in to rob and plunder were a thing of the past.

To begin with, the train she’s sleeping in is clearly a Hungarian train car. I don’t care if it’s called the “Dacia Express”, I can see the photos and I’ve ridden that train several times. It is what it is, but it is a Hungarian MÁV train.

As for “gassing the compartments” during the night to “rob and plunder”, that has to be the most hilarious rumor I’ve ever heard. There are plenty of dangers and risks in Romania but someone freaking gassing a train compartment is not one of them.

With the exception of a few quick visits to the bathroom located at the other end of the car, I wouldn’t leave my room for the next 25 hours.

Jeez! Poor bastard. Didn’t even stand in the halls to stretch her legs or meet nice people. The Budapest-Cluj route especially always has a lot of English-speaking people on it, some of them quite nice.

In the darkness of what I thought must be somewhere in Romania, the train came to a jarring halt. I awoke to men pounding on our doors and yelling, “Passport photos, show passport photos. Open doors now!” Startled but not totally panicked, as I remembered the rumors about passport checks as we crossed the border into Romania. Cautiously I opened my door and saw a pistol-packing, quasi-uniformed guard. “Passport photo, you have passport photo?” I immediately handed over my passport. Then he requested my train ticket, which I surrendered. Several minutes passed, which seemed like hours, and as he handed back my documents, he added, “Have a nice trip.”

Once again under the thin but soft duvet, I quickly fell back to sleep only to be awakened minutes later when the train again abruptly stopped. Once again, men were shouting in the corridor and pounding even louder on all the doors. Since I thought we had already met the Romanian police, who were these men?

Nastier, louder and even more severe-looking as I viewed him through the peep-hole, I knew I’d have to open the door or I was sure he’d break it down. With my trusty pepper spray in one hand that I kept behind my back, I opened the door. “Show passport!” he demanded. I handed him my documents. This man was dressed similarly to the last inspector; dark clothes, pistol in its holster and an un-official-looking neon orange ”patrol boy” belt.

Laboring over every page of my passport, he asked, “Where are you going?” I replied, “To Bucharest (duh).” He wanted to know why I was going there, for how long, where I’d stay, where I was from and my occupation. Being the only American on an 16 car train and traveling solo, I complied with his questioning. I hoped he’d pivot and leave. Still shaking, I extended my free hand and accepted back my newly stamped passport. He didn’t leave. Instead, he stepped into my compartment. He looked under my small wooden platform bed and standing on tiptoe, peered into the overhead storage area. Finding no one and nothing of interest, he said, “Have a nice trip.”

Let’s see here. She crosses an international border (at 1am) and is surprised that she’s woken up for a passport check? And not to be gauche, but isn’t maintaining border security like a manic obsession in the United States? With shoe removals and all the rest? And yet this Romanian border guard, speaking English, asks a few basic questions and glances around and suddenly it’s the Third Reich?

Nice trip, indeed. It was an incredibly frightening experience that could have been avoided if the conductor had told me that both the Hungarian and Romanian police would board the train in the middle of the night. Whether or not the other passengers knew it would happen, I’ll never know. By morning, when I opened my door for the jaunt down the hall, almost every compartment door was open and no one was inside.

Yes, the other travelers did know because the Romanian-Hungarian border is the end of the Schengen Zone (set to change in March 2011). That doesn’t happen between Vienna and Hungary, or Germany and France (an earlier trip she took) because those countries no longer have a legal “border” as such.

And the passengers decamped because most of them were traveling inside Hungary. More passengers will get on as the train crosses through Oradea, Cluj, Brasov and then down to Bucharest.

It’s a journey that I am very sad to say I’m not yet ready to repeat. It is still lawless in the darkness of the countryside of Hungary and Romania.

With the hinges placed on the outside of the compartment doors and no door at all at the entrance to our coach, you feel like a sitting duck just waiting for the hunters to descend. I would love to revisit this corner of Europe and hopefully I will once conditions improve and train travel in Romania is safer.

Hunters? Safer? Folks, traveling by train in Romania is incredibly safe. The border guards might have “patrol boy” visibility belts and be “packing” pistols, etcetera but it isn’t lawless. They’re just doing their job, and pretty damn well considering how long it takes me, a citizen for life, to get back into my own country.

Well… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. People come to Romania expecting a lawless safari and will invent it if it doesn’t actually exist :P

DRUM BUN!

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Alastair says:

    Perhaps this traveller had heard tales from the past and felt the need to embellish the truth in order to compensate for the lack of any noteworthy incident on what used to be a much more ‘adventurous’ route. I haven’t been to Romania since 2006, and even then it was already quite civilised by comparison to the late nineties, when those trains were filthy, administered by utterly corrupt ticket inspectors and border guards, and packed with colourful characters of all stripes. You never knew what kind of absurd scenes you were going to see in those days. While I personally mourn the passing of that era, Romania is clearly the better off for having moved on.

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  2. ada says:

    haha I really love these posts (just discovered this blog by accident).
    I’ve been a passenger on that Dacia train from Bucharest to Vienna on more than one occasion and the romanian sleeping car (the first class one,double)is new and modern so that was definitely not CFR. The border thing was hilarious ! Everyone does indeed know that you cross the border in the middle of the night(if on time)but I think she’s also exaggerating the whole thing because I’ve never even seen those officers spend more than a minute looking at the passports,even of foreigners (as a romanian,on more than one occasion I just showed my passport by personally opening it to the picture and holding it) .
    To be fair though, there were some incidents on that train but they occurred in Hungary not Romania, it was in the newspapers .I rememember about 3 years ago when we went to Vienna the guy in charge of the train car “nasu’ ” told everyone to avoid going out of the cabin after we crossed the border into Hungary and until we reached Budapest and make sure we use the internal lock.

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  3. Mircea says:

    Hahaha :) I was thinking the same thing about entering the US:
    Isn’t maintaining border security like a manic obsession in the United States?

    You keep referring to the traveler as a he, but if you look closer at the blog, you see he
    is actually a she. If you really are more Romanian than everybody, you should also be a misogynist and blame the constant whining in the story above on the writer’s gender :P

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    1. Sam R. says:

      :-O! :D

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  4. Poor guy got scared of a few guards. I wonder if he ever left his room when he got in town considering all the kinds of police we have around here.

    And from what I understand from him, if I ever get to the U.S.A., I’ll be flooded with sweetness from all authorities. I don’t think I’ll be able to take all that over the top politeness and crazy smiling all the time.

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