Wandering Romania: Mocanita – A Trip Back in Time

Up until a week or so ago, I’ve never been particularly interested in taking a ride with what’s known to be the last forestry narrow gauge steam train in Europe, widely known as Mocanita – up north in Maramures, Romania.

But what do you do when you’re behind with work and someone invites you on a week-long vacation? And what if that someone happens to be an adorable girl? You politely refuse and get back to work, right? Oh well, wrong. Fuck it, you can never have enough vacation time, so you jump at the opportunity and hit the road.

sunset on the road

Driving in Circles and an Innocent Joke From Google

So we did exactly that. Me, my girlfriend and her sister, plus their car of a dusty white color and a little smelly on the interior. But who cared? We didn’t. It was a wonderful Friday afternoon and time for a vacation.

sun setting seen from the road

So off we went. From Sibiu all the way to the north part of Romania, close to the border with Ukraine. All was well until we got on a newly built highway and ended up driving in circles. We had to get off the first highway and onto another road towards our destination but somehow ended up on the new highway leading us in the wrong direction. We took the next available exit, carefully following the Google Maps directions to the road we wanted to and ended up on the first highway heading right back where we had come from.

Puzzled, we took yet another exit to the road we should have been in the first place this time ignoring all directions from Google. But guess what? At some point Google kept pointing us back onto the new highway through a myriad of highway entry lanes which on the map looked like a… uh… widely recognized geometric shape. Thanks Google. Very kind of you.

funny figures on google maps

We got to our intended destination at some point after midnight and a few more detours later, tired but laughing. We were staying at a friend of my girlfriend, somewhere north of the town of Baia Mare, in an area called Tara Oasului, at the border between the Satu Mare and Maramures counties, three driving hours away from Mocanita.

mocanita train leaving the station

A Little Bit About the Mocanita

Located in the north of Romania, on the Vaser Valley – Wasser as named by the Germans who were the first workers there, Mocanita is a narrow gauge railway built between 1933 and 1935 for the purpose of hauling wood back from the thick forests of the Maramures mountains and down into the little village of Viseu de Sus, where it was much needed. Today, it’s job hasn’t changed. Sure, there’s tourism to make and tourists to transport up and down the valley, but the railway still serves its original purpose.

The train is also the only means of transport for the people who work on the valley. Well, with the exception of a few old vans converted for railway use.

van converted to use train tracks

Although narrow gauge railways like this were widespread around Europe in the 1930’s, the one on the Vaser Valley is the last one of its kind on the whole continent. At the end of the second world war, when most western states decided to transform these lumber railways into forestry roads, Romania still kept them for a little while more and continued manufacturing steam engines until the 1980’s, with the last one being built in 1986.

a steam engine called mocanita

In the notorious year 1989, Romania still had around 15 narrow gauge railways like the one on the Vaser Valley, but all of them except this one were dismantled in the first years of the new decade and the majority of the steam engines were sold either complete or as scrap heap.

Nowadays, some of those old similar railways in various other parts of the country are getting rehabilitated for touristic purposes, but Mocanita from Maramures is the most famous among them all.

The line was built to use a gauge of only 760mm, which is almost half of the standard gauge of 1435mm of the railways today. The reason for that is to ease the access through the dense forests and the rocky valleys of the mountains. The narrowness of these valleys required small radius turns, hence the narrow tracks. The Vaser Valley stretches on a length of a little less than 60 km but the train goes only about 21km up on it before turning back.

People in Viseu de Sus have used this railway for generations and are still using it today, only that today, there are a lot of tourists curious enough to go back in time with a ride with Mocanita.

mocanita ready to leave

The Name

The name Mocanita is a generic endearment title given to all these small mountain trains, which comes from the name ‘mocan’ worn by the members of the pastoral communities living their lives in several mountainous regions of Transylvania.

These shepherds used to spend their waking hours into the wilderness of the mountains, therefore, the narrow steam engine trains that go up and down mountain valleys are called Mocanita, the diminutive and feminine version of ‘mocan’.

Getting There

After a Saturday full of lazing around on the lawn in the sun, Sunday morning we woke up a lot earlier than a sane person ever would, as early as half past four, to leave towards our intended destination at five o’clock. We were supposed to reach Viseu de Sus, where the train station is located. You can imagine we woke up each to his own powers and left as planned. Plus at least a half hour delay.

After about three hours on the road, we reached the place one hour earlier before the train would leave in order to find out to our own surprise that there would be no more room in the first train – it seems that you need to book in advance by phone – so we took the second train, one hour later. Why not wait for two hours in the cold October morning if you get the chance to do so, right?

If in the beginning I was so enthusiastic with the idea, well, when I noticed how many people would gather for the ride, I realized I won’t like it that much anymore. It was Sunday after all. It’s not like I hate people, it’s just that I hate it when there’s too many of them.

If you ever want to go for a ride with Mocanita, make sure you take a look on their website, check the days when it’s open for public, check the prices – as they vary depending on the season and do call in advance for a seat, since there will be a lot of tourists, especially in the warm seasons.

riding the mocanita

The Ride

When our time came, the train arrived and left in the usual way of the trains in Romania. Late. But at least the car had a little stove inside and quickly got our souls back to normal temperature. It was perfect, only that I stayed outside the car for most of the trip because, you know, pictures. No, I didn’t really freeze. We were going around the phenomenal speed of no more than 10-15 km an hour, so the wind wasn’t too strong. You could’ve ran faster than the train.

looking down between the train cars

going fast with mocanita

What I liked though was the smell. The smell of wood in the train station, the smell of burning wood on the train, the smell of smoke in my clothes after the ride and the steam engine and its mechanics – with their almost black hands, dirty from making that machine puff and whistle up the tracks, an impressive sight in today’s world full of connectivity and touchscreens.

steam locomotive mechanic

mocanita locomotive mechanics

The ride was slow and bumpy, but it’s understandable when you think about the technology of that age. Everything is simple. The engine needs steam, so the mechanics burn wood that makes water boil, creating steam which pushes levers that are connected to the steam engine’s steel wheels, making the whole thing slowly roll on the tracks. The train stops in a few halts along the way to replenish the much needed fuel – water and wood.

The final stop was way too commercial for my liking. A picnic area, folklore music, three groggy dancers and a lot of sausages and french fries. Not too traditional I would say.

In addition to that, I noticed that there’s a trend among young girls to take selfies in yoga positions on the train tracks. Although there was nothing dangerous in that – even if you’d spot the train coming, you’d still have about half an hour to get away from its path, no pun intended – I still didn’t get the point of those pictures.

And no, I don’t have pictures of them doing yoga poses on the tracks, so don’t ask.

As enthusiastic I was on our ride there, as bored and tired I was on our ride back, so I dozed off most of the time.

Probably a lot better than taking the touristic train is somehow obtaining a permit to go with the timber workers and get the real meaning of the train’s existence. The touristic part is too commercial, but the lives of those lumber workers and locomotive mechanics is what really impresses me. Imagine going there during winter time and seeing those people working in the cold from the break of day to the dark of night.

mocanita train stopping to refuel

Get Ready. Set. Shoot.

In terms of pictures I couldn’t do much because of the people. Yes, those pesky humans. When the train stopped in a station, if you wouldn’t jump from the car a minute before reaching a complete stop and run to take some shots right before everyone else rushed to take selfies with the steam-engine, you had no chance of catching a nice artistic shot without any human parts in it. That’s because the moment when the train stopped, at least half of the passengers were trying to take a selfie with whatever part of the train was available.

If you spent even a few seconds to think and plan your frame, when you looked through the viewfinder, for sure there was someone taking a selfie in the middle of your frame. So good luck with that.

Yeah, I know I’m mean. And that I was part of the problem.

the smoke from a steam engine train

mocanita stopped in a station

Did I forgot something? Oh, yeah, right. The price. The price you pay for the ride isn’t worth it in my opinion. Only if you’re too curious to resist. Like we were. The valley isn’t particularly spectacular to be worth the ride and the donuts and tea they give you on the way don’t justify it either. But the whole thing would be different if it weren’t for the touristic train, which isn’t authentic at all. Maybe one day I’ll go back and try to obtain some sort of permit to go when the workers go. I don’t even know if that’s possible, but I guess it shouldn’t be a big deal.

Our day ended with a wonderful dinner at our friend from Borsa, for whom home meant a lovely house and a superb garden on the slopes of the Viseu valley, on the opposite side of the mighty Pietrosul Rodnei peak – 2303 meters, the highest peak in the Rodnei Mountains and the Northern Romanian Carpathians. It’s the best childhood home I’ve ever had the chance to visit. Half of our time there, my eyes were set on the peak and the magnificent view. That while my friends were devouring delicious fruits in the orchard.

pietrosul rodnei peak seen from borsa

The sunset caught us right there and the night on the road back home. We got back tired as hell and eager for another day of lazing on the lawn in the sun.

P.S.: Our next trip – after getting tired of being lazy – was hiking the Pietrosul Rodeni peak. Follow my blog to get the next post. Or don’t, and do something productive instead.

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