This story begins in Istanbul. Before it was a destination most of the world had dismissed as a dangerous terrorist hotspot targeted by both ISIS and Kurdish fighters. Before Bulgaria and Turkey had tightened their borders to restrict the crossing over of refugees, and before the southeastern parts of Europe became the route of choice for those trying to slip into the richer parts of the continent.
It was a particularly cold and snow-stormy afternoon in Istanbul, in the winter of 2015. While the temperature had just dipped below zero, the snow was coming down furiously. Istanbul hadn’t been a city I’d associated with snow, let alone snowstorms of these proportions.
Armed with my American partner – his blonde hair signalled dollar signs and opportunity to many a pesky restaurant tout, though he fortunately came preinstalled with all the patience this trip would soon require – we gladly tucked ourselves into an old Irish street side bar watching the snow continue to consume the city, another inch of snow for every other pint.
There was no reason to stay sober – we had a long train ride to Sofia, Bulgaria, ahead of us. Bulgaria, a country I only knew of at the time because Viktor Krum, of Harry Potter fame, hailed from those parts.
The plan was to hop onto the Balkan Express at 10pm that evening; we’d arrive at Sofia central station at 9am the next morning. What could be more beautiful – more filled with wanderlust – than racing through such an exotic part of the world by rail, in the stealth of the night?
Spoiler Alert: The words ‘Plan’ and ‘Racing’ really shouldn’t be in this story. The journey would only live up to half its name – it was everything Balkan, anything but express.
An old, dingy train station, right in the heart of Istanbul. The waiting area is older and dingier still. The whole place smells of piss and despair. Everyone looks like the sort of person your mother warned you to stay away from: The grinning, toothless drunk; the angry grandma muttering to herself right out loud, arms flailing; rows of men relieving themselves along the wall. Might we soon all be strangers on a train together?
Spying a young man reading a book in English, we approached him and confirmed our similar routes. Now we were a team of three: A Singaporean, an American, and an Australian; a trio of hopeless young travellers, ready to take on a new border crossing.
Our troop was saved from the cesspools of the station and put on a tour bus, which would take us to the Turkish border town of Edirne, for the train just wouldn’t go that way today. For the next couple of hours, we found ourselves creeping along the highways of European Turkey; the roads were properly iced after the day’s storm.
Welcome to the town of Edirne. We were shoved into a waiting room, passports taken for processing our exit from Turkey. Even as our crew was deposited, homeward bound Turks took our vacated spots on the bus, perhaps unaware of the icy adventure ahead of them.
Our travelling circus – about 20 of us – piled onto the train and settled in. It was late. We were tired, and our trio wasn’t sure what was going on. We were just trying to do as we’re told.
The train was old, older than the ones we’d encountered in Malaysia, or China, or most places in Europe. Then again, none of it felt European in the generally accepted sense of the term. It was remarkably foreign, and for that, it was captivating. No rest for the wicked as before long we were being yelled at and shooed away into a different carriage.
Where everyone else is isn’t for us, you see. We weren’t sure how this would work, but they were going to Bucharest, Romania.
Our trio had grown: Three curious foreigners, and three old ladies with giant bags, bigger than they were, stuffed full. There we were, The Sofia Six, setting off into the night.
“Would’ve been cool to go to Bucharest,” one of us mused.
Enter the Bulgarian border crossing. The guards get on board the train, delighted to discover foolish foreigners who can’t speak their language. It’s playtime. They pry through every page of each of our passports. They smile in a way I could only describe as the smile of someone who knows better than you. We try to look pleasant and helpful. They get a bit of banter going. They ask questions we don’t understand, and they laugh. They march to their nearby office with our passports. We panic slightly. They return. They look smug, and they clearly think we’re the dumbest people they’ve ever met.
We get our stamped passports back, and now we’re really and truly off. No stops till Sofia!
The hassle was over. The trip was beginning. Until, of course, about two hours later when the train stopped. And then started again, without us.
Somewhere between Turkey and Bulgaria, our train left our carriage behind, taking with it the Romanian-bound passengers. Stranded in the middle of vast, flat land surrounded by seemingly empty houses and not a soul in sight, our wee carriage stood by its lonesome, freezing and immobile. Never mind bathrooms or food, the train had also taken its heat.
“Should’ve just gone to fucking Bucharest,” one of us sullenly swore.
A surprising calm came from the two old ladies. They looked like they’d been around; they’d done this before. They were also very heavily wrapped, and we could only admire their thick coats as we tried to wrap up, huddle closer or keep moving to stay warm. The wait was indefinite.
There is a certain beauty, forced upon us as it may have been, to being alone in such a strange space, silent on all sides and in sub-zero temperatures, stationary in the middle of railway tracks meant to take us from and bring us to. You try and get used to the cold, and then you try and appreciate the romance of adventure.
We waited in the dark for hours before an orange hue crept into view as the sun began to rise, illuminating the long road ahead of us.
With the rising sun came our salvation: A new train had found us and just like that, we were moving as if nothing at all had happened. The two old ladies kept chatting, calm and happily oblivious.
Lest you begin to think that the misadventures stop here, they don’t. Pulling into the station of central Bulgarian city Plovdiv, we were told by a friendly stationmaster that our journey would end here. “But…Sofia,” we mumbled feebly, exhausted by the misadventures of the night. “Find another train”, we were told. And so, we did.
This story began in Istanbul. And at very long last, it ends on a train to Sofia.