Friday, April 8, 2016

"Never take the train in Bulgaria"

This was one of the first things the Traventuria tour leader, Martin, told me - in Bulgaria, don't take the train. Advice is good but first-hand experience is better, so let's find out what Bulgarian trains are really like.

Information gleaned from websites about travelling from Istanbul to Sofia by train was contradictory and confusing. Only the briefest information was given (reluctantly) at the station when I bought my ticket the day before - yes, you wait here, the bus (bus?) leaves at 10.00pm, you will arrive at 11.00am, no sleeper. sitting only. One ticket. No seat numbers. The Man in Seat 61 warned there would be no food available.

My personal lesson from the whole experience was not to waste energy on making so many contingency plans, things always work out in their own time and fashion. Of course, I had plenty of time to ponder on life's lessons during the trip. Some anxieties

  • there wouldn't be any seats
  • the train would be delayed for hours (it happened to one blogger)
  • I wouldn't be able to go to the toilet without taking my luggage along
  • the toilets would be disgusting
  • we might have to get out at the border - would my things be safe
  • did I really not need a visa
  • I'd be cold
  • I would sleep though my stop or get out at the wrong station
  • I wouldn't have access to Bulgarian money when I arrived
And so on. 

Was I only doing this because the trip departed from the Orient Express station? Well, yes. 

There is a Salon for waiting.

At first it was just me, a two old Turkish men snoozing and couple of cats fighting at the door. Then an older Australian couple with hats and enormous backpacks turned up, and a young backpacker from New Zealand who had been teaching English in the Ukraine. Next an older American man travelling around the Balkans for three weeks with just a light duffle bag. He has been living in Cambodia for 17 years, where he runs a christian school that is getting out of the orphanage business and having great successes getting kids into universities especially to study medicine. He was refreshingly candid about how dangerous the do-gooder element could be and was also very frank about Cambodian politics. He speaks Cambodian and has always wanted to go the Transylvania, which is on his agenda for this trip. By now we had been joined by a pair of girls from San Francisco who were planning to hire a car when they arrived in Sofia and were waiting with fingers crossed for visas to be able to go to Jordan, the real purpose of their trip. Oh, and Madame. A well-dressed woman around my own age who is from Sofia and had come to Istanbul to work for five days, while one of the ladies from Istanbul went to Sofia. I think she is a surgeon, but maybe she's a surgical nurse or aide. Madame speaks turkish and bulgarian, also russian, french and german. Not english. So we spoke in some sort of french and that's why I'm not really sure. Still, she seemed to have done the trip before and know what to expect, and by this time we seven foreigners had pooled our collective knowledge about how it was going to roll. Basically we were all as unsure and confused as each other.

At around 9.50 the eight of us are loaded into a large bus by two surly men who don't speak any english and we set off, heating turned up to the max. About 50 minutes later we pull up at a roadside cafe. "30 minutes!" the driver growls. The kiwi says "It's going to be a long night then."

It's another couple of hours until the border, where we are ousted from the warmth and directed to a small bare cold room with few seats. Madame tells me we won't be leaving until around 3.30am, maybe 4.00. We are set upon by a bunch of pleading, laughing women speaking Turkish and thrusting Euros at us. They pick us off one-by-one. "Passport. No problem. Please. Cigarettes. No problem. You come. No problem. Passport only. No problem" With the help of the SF girls' Turkish phrase book and my discussions with madame, we slowly piece together what we think is going on. There's a tiny duty-free store just outside, but you need to show a passport to be able to buy cigarettes, and there's a limit. We use their 110 Euros, show our passport, collect 10 cartons of cigarettes that they immediately put in their bags. The customs men seem to accept this is how it is and everyone is happy. Except none of want to get involved in some illegal dealings at the Turkish border. Madame does her bit, and after lots of persuasion the kiwi gives in too. When I try to explain, through madame, that smoking is a health issue, they say are quick to respond 'we no smoke, only for business'. As the long night draws on, they become more insistent.

By now all the foreigners have their ears and eyes glued to devices in an effort to ignore them. Some of us are trying to memorise some of the Cyrillic characters that are going to be critical to getting around in Bulgaria. Finally, at around 3.00am, we are shunted through to the room next door. Where we need to show not only our passports, but that Turkish visa that had seemed to be irrelevant when arriving in the country. Yes, I still had mine, thank goodness.

At last we board an actual train. One carriage and an engine. No heating except in the small compartment at the back which we are not allowed to sit in. Our flimsy tickets are scrutinised and notated for the third time.
Not so bad. The seats don't recline, there is a WC, and we can spread out. But no relaxing yet. The Bulgarian border is still to come.

It takes around 15 minutes to get to the next stop, where our passports are collected and taken away. We sit and wait. Eventually a burly man comes around and hands them back and we are finally travelling through Bulgaria by train. By now it's time time known as the darkest hour and I can't make out much of the country.

We stop at stations where people get on and the women with their tiny haul of contraband cigarettes get off. I'm closest to the door of the carriage which keeps sliding open and letting in cold air. There are stops where we shunt and extra carriages are added. As dawn starts to lighten, a girl takes the seat in front of me and pulls folders and an ipad out of her back. She spends an hour or so playing snatches of what might be Bulgarian folk music and following pages of complex notations and making movements with her hands. Is she a student of music? A choreographer? Learning some traditional dances? And why doesn't she have headphones? She gets out at the station that says Plovdiv, except it doesn't because the sign is only in cyrillic.

Then it's light and we are travelling through rather mountainous landscape. It is a sunny spring day, workers in the fields have their shirts off, and the heating has come on in our carriage. I crack out my bread and cheese and olives.

Snatches of sleep are all I have had when we eventually arrive in Sofia, end of the line for this train, at around 11.30am.

So despite Martin's advice, I'd say go for it. Bulgarian trains are an adventure not to be missed. It really wasn't so bad.

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