Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Trouble with Trains

I've heard from several of you now that you often get pangs of jealousy while reading the blog, wishing you were us. This blog's for you...

So all of us were looking forward to our overnight train trip. We were travelling from Istanbul to Belgrade, Serbia. The train would take 22 hours. We would leave at 10pm Sunday evening and get into Belgrade at 8pm Monday evening. We bought our tickets in the very quiet Sirkeci train station and waited with the cats for our train to arrive.

It was everything we could have hoped. There were several cars and we had a sleeping compartment all to ourselves. Our car was marked Istanbul Beograd, which I took to mean Belgrade. Our compartment slept 6 people. Yes, 6. Fortunately, we had booked the whole thing for ourselves. The train wasn’t that busy. You sleep three deep. The bottom layer are the seats you sit on during the day. Then there is a middle and top layer of berths. It was fortunate we had the whole place to ourselves because we crammed the bags on the top layer. I have no idea where 6 people would put their luggage otherwise.

We made up the berths almost immediately, with the children commanding the middle/top layers. The berths were very comfortable and it was marvelous looking out the window as we said goodbye to Istanbul. We went past the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque both gloriously lit up against the night sky as we travelled around the Golden Horn on our way out. The train was surprisingly quiet and Tom announced it was an electric train.

That’s when we noticed the heat. From beneath the seats, the heat was pouring out creating a heated bottom bunk. This may sound lovely but not when you are in a tiny room that is already 22 degrees. We couldn’t get the window open so the conductor came by with a large wrench. He forced it down. The children sat with their heads out the window as Tom and I lectured them on the dangers of this. The heat continued to pour out. We found a thermostat and cranked it off. No difference. We asked the conductor and he cranked it all the way the other way. No difference. I took my blanket and crammed it along the wall side of my berth to block the heat. That helped. We stripped down to underwear for sleeping and as the train moved faster, the fresh air helped balance the sauna effect. Mind you, the children on the top bunks were directly in the wind from the open window and huddled shivering under their blanket enduring the arctic freeze as their grumpy overheated parents wouldn't let them close the window. Shades of Jane Eyre...

It was an experience trying to sleep. Try to imagine your bed on a mechanical bull, gently jerking you in odd directions. Now add the loud hum of train wheels spinning and the wind of an open car window. To this add the odd flashlight beam striking your face periodically and I think you have got a fairly accurate image of the lulling effect of sleeping on a train. Naturally, we all fell asleep.

I was awakened by a pounding on the door and when I opened my eyes the conductor was standing outside my train window indicating I needed to get off the train. Hmm. Unexpected. It was dark out and I could see other passengers climbing off the train. Tom and I pulled on some clothes and decided to leave the children to sleep. We guessed we must be leaving Turkey so brought our tickets and passports with us. Is this common practice in communist states? I frantically tried to remember things I knew about Turkey and Bulgaria but could only remember scenes from Midnight Express and that wasn't helping. We walked across several train tracks, climbing down into the cement track pits and out again to get to customs. We asked one of the officers if we needed to bring the kids here or if it was okay to let them sleep. He said to let them sleep.

We reached the window and the officer looked very unhappy the kids were not with us. He sat staring at their passports some long seconds, imperceptibly shaking his head and forming a sad moue with his mouth. Finally he stamped the passports as I privately thought this would be the perfect way to smuggle nasty people across the border. Of course, that is assuming you want to sneak into Bulgaria. Don’t people generally try to sneak out of there? Tom and I climbed on the train and Tom suggested we wait to get undressed until the train was moving.

Sure enough, about five minutes later there was a knock at the door. An officer stood there and asked to see our passports again. He flicked on the overhead lights to look at both children and both of us, checking to see we all had the exit stamp. After he left, Tom got undressed and got into bed. Ten minutes later there was a pounding on the door. Tom opened the door wrapped in a sheet. The conductor flicked on the overhead lights and asked to see our tickets. We settled back in and the train began to move out of the station. Just as I began to drift off, there was a pounding at the door. Tom opened the door and a security officer flicked on the lights to announce it was a customs baggage check. He then switched to what I can only imagine was Bulgarian to ask us a question. Tom and I froze, staring uncomprehendingly at the man. The silence lengthened.

Tom said, “English?” and the man seemed to relax and stated, “Tourists?” Tom and I both nodded vigorously and the customs officer backed out of the compartment and shut the door. Apparently tourists don’t smuggle.

I began to feel sorry for the kids. So much for uninterrupted sleep! I drifted off again and this time when the pounding began I thought it was the top bunk collapsing. I was completely disoriented. In the amazing way our brains have of meshing chaotic sensory overload into complete understanding, I realized yet another Bulgarian welcome wagon officer was at the door. Tom had managed to unchain the door at this point and yet another friendly official flicked on the overhead lights and asked to see our passports. We produced these and he said, “Family?” in a confused manner. This begs all sorts of analytical thought but I won’t get into the somewhat disconcerting ideas floating through my brain at the thought that a family travelling through Bulgaria was confusing the customs officer. He stamped all our passports as the train rattled along. As he left I asked Tom if he thought there was anyone left in Bulgaria who did NOT know we had arrived.

That did seem to be the final interruption and we all slept peacefully undisturbed through the rest of the night. Around 8am, I opened my eyes to the grey drizzle of a Bulgarian train station. The kids were both awake. Julia said, “Are we STILL here?” and Rhys responded with, “I don’t think we’re in Turkey anymore. I don’t see any Turkish flags. Ah, the sleeping ability of youth. They had both slept through the ENTIRE thing!

Rhys decided to get dressed and go explore the rest of the train as only the well-rested can while the rest of us lounged in the sauna preparing to enjoy the Bulgaria show out our front window when the train started again. Once we got past the bombed out looking industrial building detritus littering the landscape, Bulgaria was quite beautiful. The soil looked lush and well tended. For the first time this year, we saw evidence of autumn in the changing deciduous (or as Rhys used to call them “loser trees”) leaves. I saw two beautifully coloured birds: one had a striking white V on its back of dark blue. Another had a yellowy-orange back with brown tipped wings. Tom noticed a variety of berries in blue, red and pink. We saw fields of cabbage and dying sunflowers.

Around this time we began to get hungry. There was no dining car and we weren’t scheduled to get into Belgrade until 8pm in the evening. Where were we to eat? Rhys finally broke down and asked the conductor who told him to wait three stops. As Rhys was hanging out in the hallways he was our go-to guy for information. He met and chatted with all. It seemed to take forever but finally around 1pm we pulled into Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria.

We came out to ask the conductor how long the stop would be so we could jump off for a bite to eat when we heard another English speaking couple discussing the same thing. The conductor spoke very little English and seemed to be quite agitated. He kept throwing up his hands and saying “Bulgaria problem!” This didn’t sound good. A Bulgarian conductor came on the train to help and indicated we should all get off. Hmm. Unexpected. The other English speakers (Charlie and Efa) told the Bulgarian they were headed to Belgrade but he kept motioning them off the train saying 8:40pm. Sadly, this was not the time we were to arrive in Belgrade but the time the car we were on was to LEAVE for Belgrade. In a mass of confusion and frustration we all piled off. The Bulgarian conductor was being ever so helpful, suggesting we take a bus, but we were having none of that. We had booked a ticket to Belgrade and the train would take us to Belgrade.

Over the next hour or so, we established several things:
a. Bulgarians in Sofia speak VERY little English
b. Bulgarians in Sofia have a different approach to the hospitality field of tourism than other countries.
c. Our train was late getting to the station so we missed the connecting train to Belgrade and the NEXT train wouldn’t leave until 8:40pm.

In discussions with our new friends Charlie and Eva, we all decided to wait for the train. Our tickets were good for that train so no extra cost. The cabbies here are notoriously dishonest so trying to take a cab to catch the missed train in the next city probably wasn’t a good idea. The next bus left in an hour so wouldn’t be able to connect with the missed train anyway. We would actually wind up saving the hostel costs for a night by spending a second night on the train. FINE.

With little ability to communicate and the hospitality equivalent of “who cares?” in the tourist information booths, we spent an exciting 7 hours camped out in the bus station playing back gammon and trying to get online. We caught the train as scheduled and spent a better night as we now knew what to expect. The Bulgarian leaving party boarded the train to individually knock to say goodbye. Hot on their heels were the Serbian welcome wagon who also took the opportunity to individually visit our compartment to each welcome us in their own way. I sort of wonder if they all stood down the hallway giggling and waiting the allotted five or ten minutes before traipsing on down.

And then we reached Belgrade, Serbia.


Steve said...

Trains, planes and automobiles! Ain't it grand. Gotta have a few days like this to appreciate the good days I suppose. And of course it makes for great stories...
Nancy says hi, and Sophie wanted to visit Sophia until she heard your story.

maryanncart said...

I am laughing hilariously. With your birthday coming up, let's hope there will be grand celebrations, no matter where you are!!! I'm glad you connected with the other two English folks. Are you going to Budapest, then Vienna or straight to Vienna? Ian's face surgery was fine.. won't even see the scar by the time you're home. All growing bad tissue gone. Flu shot for me tomorrow, P.E.O. here, Ian in Whitehorse...Love to all, Mom

Sophia said...

ya, that does make me feel better.:)