Freeloading on The Székely Express
I was standing on Csikszereda’s Train Platform at 7:00am. Grandma and Lalika had gone to go get a cappuccino from a machine for grandma’s routine morning coffee, while Mum and Dad skipped from one place to another, trying to warm up in the spots where the sun was shining. Despite it being the very middle of summer with blistering heats during the day, in the morning it was chilly, and the wind had a sharp bite to it. This is what you get from living in the Carpathian Basin where the local saying goes: “For six months of the year it’s cold and the other six months it isn’t hot.” My cousin Katinka and I were now seated on a bench chattering away with two charming older ladies whom we had just met; everything was quiet….too quiet…
Then a startling platform announcement came over the loudspeaker, scaring away the small family of birds that had gathered on the building’s roof. We knew it was time. All of us abandoned what we were doing and raced to the train platform just as a sleek, retro locomotive chugged its way into the station. It was the famous “Székely Gyors” or the Szekely Express. It had indeed travelled all the way from Hungary in Budapest, and today it was heading to the border of Hungary. Not the modern day border that is recognized today, no, the thousand-year-old border, originating from the times when Hungary was one of the largest and most influential kingdoms in Europe.
This train only goes once a year, and it is part of a Pentecostal Pilgrimage to Csíksomlyó. As part of the four-day tour, on the Monday after the weekend’s Pentecostal celebrations, it takes the touring pilgrims to the thousand-year-old historical site. Today we were going to join it on its penultimate leg of the journey before the train makes its way back home to Budapest.
We rushed to get aboard before everyone else; Grandma jostled her way to the front pulling Lalika along with her while he tried to keep Grandma’s precious coffee from spilling. Once aboard, the adventure had truly begun for we would be ‘roughing’ it all the way to the “border”. The truth is that this train gets completely booked out every year and let’s just say that we don’t really have anywhere to sit because we don’t have tickets. But neither do all the other passengers boarding the train with us. Tonnes of people ‘freeload’ all the way to the border for a day of entertainment, discovery and traditional food. All the train attendants already know that every year this happens, so none of them ever take notice of all the extra people. They all turn a blind eye!
We managed to secure our standing spots next to the door and got ready for two hours of standing while trying not to fall over as the train wound its way up, out of the basin and into the surrounding Carpathian mountains called, the “Gyimesek“ in Hungarian. For Mum, Dad and Lalika travelling this way would be no big deal, and they really didn’t mind, but I won’t lie, Grandma, Katinka and I weren’t too happy about the standing arrangements. That is until the train started moving out of the urban area into the countryside. I looked out the window to gasp at the magnificent views of the mountains surrounding us.
By the time we were 20 minutes out of Csikszereda, the views had held us all in complete rapture. It was only broken when I felt a tap on my shoulder and whipped around to see two older ladies who told us that we were more than welcome to sit on the arms of their chairs! The arms are quite wide and could almost be considered half a seat! It was like heaven to sit down again! I know, it’s only been twenty minutes, but with all that Chimney Cake in my backpack weighing me down, it felt good to let out a deep sigh of relief.
The seating arrangements are in fours – two seats facing each other and so after the section of older people gave up their armrests, a younger woman stood up to let grandma sit down. She was so grateful that she unintentionally lightened the load of my pack by offering the ladies the traditional sweets I had inside. Soon there was a full party in swing in our small booth! We had Chimney Cake, Chocolate, Sparkling Water, Magnificent Views and Comfortable Seats that we switched out of at regular intervals. The trip was off to a great start!
And it only got better. Every five minutes the views got even more picturesque and panoramic and with grandma leading the conversation and interactions with our kind seat neighbours, we got lost in our own world. Without even realising it, the two hours sped by, and it was a total shock to us when we heard the intercom and the conductor yell: “WE HAVE ARRIVED!” The excited roar of the passengers was deafening. As a lover of anything historical, I was caught up in the moment, and it felt energising to be part of the atmosphere, going back to the ancestral roots of Hungary. This was the ancient frontier of the land that my Great-Great-Grandparents lived in. In coming here, I wanted to see if I felt a connection to this place. I was about to step outside and experience it for myself!
The crowds swarming the train were unreal, and I had to blink a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was so packed that you could only take baby-steps forward. Picture your average Waterpark in the summer time, packed with hundreds of people and the lines to get on your favourite ride stretch as long as you can see. I’m sure you can imagine how long it took us to get off the train.
On exiting the train, we were greeted with homemade cakes freshly baked, and grape juice from locally grown grapes. We were then ushered out onto the road where a speech began. It focused on the fact that Gyimes used to be part of Hungary, with numerous patriotic embellishments singing the songs of a homeland lost. I noticed Grandma wipe away a quiet tear, and she was joined by the various other ladies that stood around us. For me, however, the message was a bit unclear, but I wasn’t able to think for too long. As the deafening cheer followed the speech, we were all boxed into the crowd that now started its collective march out to the gravel road that would lead us to the border.
The trek to the frontier was only about 2 kilometres (1 1/2 miles) away. Leaving the cool shade of the silver pine trees, the searing sun took us by surprise, and it was so hot that I began having hallucinations of large, resort-style swimming pools. Sharply awakened from my daydream, a Romanian sound barked “Keep Moving!” It was the Romanian police. I sighed. Despite the fact that this is an approved event, the Romanian police seem to dislike the fact that all these Hungarians come to commemorate this celebration of their ancestry. I look into their eyes and feel that to them, this event is a political demonstration, rather than a cultural remembrance. It makes them uncomfortable. Transylvania is a land where cultural accuracies as to whose land this is and was, is debated heatedly to this very day. Up till now, I haven’t encountered anyone rude from this beautiful country but these Police could be described as being a little impolite. They glared at anyone who dared look at them, and they patrolled the whole trip from the train to the border, with a contingent of police numbering around 100. They kept a close eye on everyone with what seemed to be permanently etched scowls into their faces.
At one point, I did feel a little bit like a cow being led to the slaughterhouse. When we stopped to have a drink in the line, numerous police informed us loudly and brusquely that we were not permitted to stop. We either had to keep moving or step out of the line. Before grandma erupted in anger, we distracted her with a large sign displaying ice-cream. Five minutes later we were feasting on icy poles and ice cream cones, along with ice-cold sparkling water, courtesy of grandma, who was also excitedly eyeing her own little treat. These sweets cooled us down until we made it to the end of our pilgrimage, and the borderline was in sight.
At the frontier, there was a stage set up where live music started playing. The majority of the crowd shifted over to listen and while they did, we took advantage of the lessening hordes and raced over to the famous wooden bridge that signifies the border of Old Hungary. We took some pictures but mostly we just stood, leaning against the blistering hot bannisters and marvelling at the Gyimes Mountains and their forests around us, as the music played in the distance and heated speeches were given. To be truthful, this day was turning out to be one of those “the journey is better than the destination moments.”
When I looked around at the frontier, all I saw was a set of stairs leading up to an old border house, and I thought ‘what was this day all about?’ Sure, my background is Hungarian, but I don’t believe in ultra-nationalistic pride for the sake of it. Too many wars, even to this present day have been caused due to this kind of thinking. I questioned whether this event was a celebration of the Hungarian culture or a wake for the loss of a place that was once part of Hungary, disguised as a celebration. There is no denying that this land was once part of Hungary, but in my mind, I could not make the connection that the people here were so desperately wanting me to make.
I questioned why we were here? All I could see was threatened Romanian Police, who were acting as if we were here to steal something that cannot be stolen. The earth belongs to every human being. There is enough of it to go around. People using nations, to this very day, forcefully take from others what is not theirs to take. They present well-constructed arguments that in a crazy way might be considered reasonable if they were based in truth. But my truth tells me that no good can come of taking something away from someone forcefully.
Here we are today, almost 100 years and four generations later from when this land was taken away, and there are still only hard feelings felt on both sides. Literally, nobody here can see the forest from the trees, and the forest is so beautiful. Why can’t we all enjoy this forest, Hungarian, Romanian or even Martian if they were here?
I am not sure if Mum, Dad, my brother and Grandma have been reading my mind, or whether we have all come to a conscious moment together because we all agree… It’s time to leave, as there is more to be seen here in the surrounding nature.
We walked away. Grandma just made a decision that we would start by finding a cafe or restaurant and eat some lunch! It was such a welcome thought and had us running down the mountain in seconds. To find the restaurant, well, this was no easy task. To start with, we felt something like salmon swimming in the wrong direction, as streams of people were still pouring in towards the frontier. After walking back about half way to the train, we saw a sign advertising a newly opened eatery that was arranged almost in a traditional ranch style setup. It looked inviting in the mid-day heat, and all I could think about was drinking an ice-cold glass of Transylvanian natural sparkling spring water.
After looking around though, we realised that there was actually NO place to sit down, as it was overflowing with other people who must have had a similar idea. Grandma went to inquire from the proprietor if there was anything that could be considered as vegetarian, which to our surprise was about six servings of yesterday’s vegetable soup, the exact number of portions we need. She promptly bought six meal tickets for all of us, and with her customary ability to make things happen from out of nowhere, was able to secure us a table and motioned for a huge bottle of mineral water to be brought to the table, along with a large glass of cold beer to be brought for her. The rest of us could do nothing but watch, eyes wide in surprise.
We ate lunch and sat underneath the shade for as long as we could. However, the mountains above us seemed to be calling our names and so after taking our plates back to the overly busy kitchen and thanking our hosts, everyone, with the exception of grandma who opted out, climbed the beautiful luscious green mountain that towered above us. This way, we also managed to find a way to work off the calories from our hearty soup meal. Amidst the flower fields and rocky plateau, we sat and enjoyed some of the most magnificent views. The lookout was so pretty that we lost track of time and seemed to meld into our surrounds!
We were gently brought back to reality by a wandering cow, who was as deft as a mountain goat navigating the sheer slopes while grazing on the sweetest of the floral blooms decorating the hillside. Mum decided to climb further up the steep gradient slope to take pictures of the valley below and fed the placid cow as it came to her. The cow had directed our attention to the roadway below, which now had the swathes of people in their neatly organised lines, heading back toward the train. We did not want the train to leave without us and so picking up our belongings we hurried as fast as gravity allowed us, down the mountain.
We did not want to rejoin the horde, so we decided we would walk along the train tracks until we would reach the train station, where we met up again with grandma. To pass the time, Katinka, Lalika and I occupied ourselves by exploring the train and to our absolute delight we found a treasure chest!
Not literally. It was a treasure chest of a train car. We had found the dining carriage, and there were seating booths, used for the meals served on the train. We pushed the adults into the coach and all of us immediately occupied a booth. We sighed in sync; now we could relax on the way home. There was no noise in the carriage and it was peacefully quiet. But the delicate silence was broken when numerous people staggered up onto the train loudly, talking at the tops of their voices. Soon, more and more freeloaders like us began arriving, and the cart became a loud and boisterous party. Beer jugs clinking, the sound of the conductor’s whistle, the cheering crowds outside the train that had come to see us off and finally, the deep echoing of the train’s horn from the surrounding mountains, all combined in a symphonic cacophony announcing our impending departure.