Searching for silence in Romania
Winter in the Eastern Bloc, it’s about 9pm, the night sky outside is blacker than hell. We are just about to cross the border by train between Hungary and the north of Romania; this is the frontier land before we reach Transylvania.
The train slowly grinds to a halt and a couple of brutish looking Magyar border guards approach us and bark the singular word “passport”’ in our faces. We oblige and hand over our British documents and the transaction passes without further incident. An American Jew named Brian who had become a travelling companion of ours is not so lucky; he is met with deep suspicion. Apparently the Hungarians don’t like the Yanks very much, something about too many Hungarian immigrants arriving in the United States. They look him up and down with a vague sense of ritualistic tradition and with unnecessary theatrics hand him back his passport.
The train begins to crawl into the darkness once again. An hour later my head is out the window and I am dragging on a cigarette, watching the bluish gray smoke swirl away into the night-lands as we pass them. Something feels different, something in the air. Through the murk of the landscape I get the sense that something is towering over us. As the tobacco exits my system and my airways clear up a little, it suddenly occurs to me what the difference is – it’s the atmosphere, the air is mountainous; we are in the Carpathians. I know from what little I’d read back in Scotland that our destination is somewhere in the middle of three vast ranges which are within these mountains. Some time later I fall asleep. Can’t remember what I dreamt.
Suddenly I am jolted awake by my travelling partner, “We’re here” he shouts. Sleepily, I respond, “Where?” “Cluj-Napoca!” I grab my backpack and my guitar case and jump onto the concrete of the dimly lit platform. Cold air smacks me in the face like a son of a bitch.
You know now how we arrived, for clarity’s sake I will go back in the narrative and explain why we were there in the first place. The two of us were art students at the time and in our 3rd year of study we were given the opportunity to escape on what is known as an Erasmus Scholarship. In the office the ‘coordinator’ handed me a slip of paper which had a list on it, a list of destinations. As I scanned my eye down the paper I saw the words ‘Cluj-Napoca, Romania, (Transylvania)’. My mind recoiled at the thought that Transylvania was even a real place. I thought it was from the archives of fiction. I had to find out for myself.
Cut to the train station in Cluj-Napoca. We enter into what I can only surmise is the waiting room. It is thick with cigarette smoke and foreign language. We walk through instinctually and emerge into the street. A gaggle of taxi drivers sharing stories raucously gesticulate and laugh. We stand blinking. 30 seconds later we hear the crack of a whip and some hollering and through the smog from right to left pass a horse and cart carrying around seven passengers being pursued by a pack of rabid looking dogs. I turn to my travelling partner, “It looks like the dark ages.” He nods grimly.
Within two minutes of arriving we are in a taxi speeding towards an unknown neighbourhood with an address written on a match box. We also have a phone number. The driver tells us in broken English that the address doesn’t exist. He proves himself to be a really nice guy by phoning our ‘contact’ on his mobile and not abandoning us until he knows we are ready to be abandoned. Eventually we find the international student halls and we wave goodbye to our driver. We walk through the door and are met once again by an authoritative looking man demanding our passports. He has been expecting us evidently but just wants to make sure we are who we say we are. Once he is satisfied we are shown to our rooms, or rather room. The distance between our beds was no more that a metre. We were going to get to know each other pretty well.
I have not yet told you about my travelling buddy and new roommate. His name is Kern, which comes from Scottish Gaelic and means ‘The Dark One.’ He was in fact a very jovial character, although he was always confused. His mind had difficulties in processing, names, dates, language and places which at first I found rather irritating. I did not understand. He is to this day the single most indecisive person I have ever known, but this was part of his charm. I will say one thing, he was fucking brilliant at poker because he had no idea himself that he was bluffing. You could never tell.
Over the next week or so all of the students had pretty much arrived. There were 2 Spaniards, 4 Poles, a Slovenian, 2 Lithuanians, a Hungarian, a German guy, a Mexican, 2 French, a Belgian girl, 2 Czechs, a Colombian, a Serbian and of course us 2 Scots. We were quite a mixed bag.
Our first venture out of the city as a group was quite extraordinary. I will tell you the tale. A few Romanians that we became acquainted with invited us to join them on a trip to a place known as ‘Retezat’. To this day I still have no idea where it is. All I know is that we got there by two trains and one minibus.
Around 20 of us piled into the train compartment and we sped away. The Romanians successfully managed to bribe both ticket collectors on both trains and the whole two hour journey came to about $5. We eventually alighted, after changing once, at some tiny village in the middle of nowhere and sat down at the village’s only bar/shop. It soon became clear that the owner also had a business of driving people up into the mountains. He closed up his shop up and we filled up the two minibuses.
We moved through the countryside and started climbing up through the hills. The hills became mountains and the road became ice. It was as if the road itself became a frozen river. The vehicle began to slide around and the passengers became visibly nervous. The bus that I was in was mainly full of boys, the other contained the girls. We reached a bridge that spanned a terrifying chasm. It was made of concrete and looked ridiculously flimsy. As the minibus crawled across we received a call, the bus behind was having severe issues with traction; it couldn’t go on. We were instructed to get out and walk from here on; the girls were getting our bus.
I walked very cautiously, placing one foot softly in front of the other. I felt like I was walking a tightrope, a ten foot wide tightrope made of concrete. The 1 foot high railing either side was twisted and broken in places and I was shitting myself. When we made it to the other side we discovered a row of graves, some even bearing the same second name. The driver with the girls pulled up, smiled and made a gesture which confirmed my suspicions. These poor bastards had plummeted the 400 feet or so to their deaths, probably in very similar weather.
We walked up and up for what seemed like miles until the bus came back down to retrieve us. We arrived at the first of three lodges and were treated with a thoroughly underwhelming meal of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and tinned hot dogs. There was no road after this, only a path leading up through the eerie looking pine forests.
We arrived at the second of the lodges, the one at which we would be staying. They were mountain cabins made of logs and had no electricity or running water. The wood for the stove was frozen solid and it took great effort to get warm. The temperature outside was probably about -3. After some snacking and chat we all settled down for the night double-bunking for warmth. I thought I heard the howling of wolves somewhere up the valley but dismissed it as paranoia.
By morning spirits had hit rock bottom, the Spaniards had never before experienced snow and refused absolutely to get out of bed. We left them to their misery and climbed up the valley. The snow became thicker and at some points was close to a metre deep. On we went.
We reached the 3rd lodge at around 10 in the morning just as the sun was rising. This was the timberline. We were at about 1200m. The sun cast an orange glow as it rose over the vast mountain cliffs to our left which blazed on our right. After a real struggle we reached the 2000m sign-post which was on the edge of a frozen lake, completely covered in snow and invisible to those who didn’t know of its existence.
Some of the group went on to see a glacier which was further up but I remained where I was, alone. There were some huge boulders that were presumably swept down by ancient ice which I climbed up onto. From here I could look down the valley and past miles and miles of snow and dark pine forest. Mist was creeping up the valley, soon to engulf us. I suddenly realised how silent this land was. There was not a sound to be heard. I thought back and realised that I handy even seen a bird up here. There were no airplanes, we were far from any flight path, no telephone masts, nothing. It was the most profound silence I had ever experienced and it gave me an almost inexplicable feeling. I don’t think there is a word for it. I lit up a cigarette and inhaled the smoke mixed with mountain’s air. I’ll be searching for that silence for the rest of my life.
Written by Omar Zingaro Bhatia
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…