RAILROAD, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off. For this purpose the railroad is held in highest favor by the optimist, for it permits him to make the transit with great expedition. — Ambrose Bierce
A train to somewhere from Asia to Europe – the yin and yang of travel.
Vietnam – Trains packed tighter than sardines in a can. In first class, windows are open hoping to catch a breeze to lighten the stifling air – cushioned seats are full (wooden benches in 2nd class) – aisles are filled with passengers, perched in a near fetal position on a child’s plastic stool. The 6″ area behind the rear seat shelters a body, curled up on a woven straw mat, toes peeking out.
Boxes are filled with crickets, snakes, roosters and God knows what else. The food car serves up cupfuls of slime, something that would tangle our fishing line in a still warm lake.
India – Smiling, friendly, religious zealots, who kissed our toes and touched our foreheads. Merchants cruised up and down the aisles hawking every item imaginable from sarees to nail clippers – 6 beds to a room with no doors on a full train.
Eastern Europe – Backpackers galore, train cars from 2 person personal sleepers to a 100+ sleeper car with no air and sweltering heat poaching our skin. Generic.
Europe – Cushioned seats are full and that is that – no poachers. The air conditioning hum can hardly be heard it runs so smoothly. Windows closed. No color, sterile… vanilla 😉
The absurdity of the brain – In Vietnam we imagine the cleanliness and civility of European train travel. As we traveled west in Europe we longed for the lively stimulating train travel in Vietnam. Go figure…
We rented the car and got out of the city of some million with no trouble. Paige is a tough but fair navigator…..very tolerant of pilot error (you believe that)?
The toll road to the Serbian border was a piece of cake…….divided and well-maintained. It seems that most of these countries have a capital city with about 25% of the total population, maybe an industrial/business city, and the rest composed of villages, agriculture and a hundred year old lifestyle.
This certainly continued into Serbia, where the roads deteriorated and the evidence of more recents war is evident. The landscape was flat as a pancake to Belgrade, which has small hills aside the Danube.
Among some bombed and still un-repaired buildings we found the Orient Express Balkan Hotel…..build in grand style in 1936, about three years before Hitler’s war. I don’t think it has had much done since…..a real poor old grande dame, but if you squint your eyes in the restaurant and listen carefully…..the grand times can still be imagined.
People are happy and try, but even the 20 something desk clerk apologized for not being able to offer great “tourist sites” like other countries. However, the old quarter, castle and hundreds of outdoor restaurants were plenty for us. We also met an Australian tennis coach who was either teaching or poaching the next “Rafat”.
The countryside to Kosovo and Macedonia looked like great bird and duck hunting country. It just gets more pastoral and tranquil, even at harvest time. But the towns are unfortunately cheap new unimaginative stuff thrown up after the war, which may have been over in 1999 but I guess post-peace bombings continued for a few years, like in Iraq presently .
I recall Clint talking about going to Greece from Germany when he was there more than 40 years ago. I don’t know if Joe ever did. At any rate, half of Germany passed us speeding to Greece and the other half of Germany and Austria flew by us to Macedonia. At least that many Italians are driving to Croatia and Albania. The people, the immigration workers, and truckers are all frustrated.
Our zigging and zagging has taken us through four borders one day…and one was a three hour ordeal. Add to this a Cyrillic map and road signs, half a dozen currencies and the local wines really begin to go down well.
All of the ex-Yugoslav countries seem to have one foot in the Eu…but not both. Some take multiple currencies, some only their by law……authorities are fighting the grey economy in order to increase tax collections and reduce their debt. One guy told us every cash register in the country is connected to the capital, and if he doesn’t balance to a dinar they will close him down.
From Macedonia we went back through Kosovo and over the mountains to Albania. The teeny road passed lots of good trout fishing streams and rivers, and was adjoined by a number of war memorial/cemetery locations. We got through verdant forests to summit the tree line and head down to dry coastal Albania where it was 37.5 degrees and looked like central California with no water, except for the grape orchards.
The number of abandoned buildings along the tracks grow. Because the language and alphabet are foreign, not Latin-based, we don’t talk or visit much – or read the signs or newspapers.
The railroad guys are thick! Their arms are like tree trunks and necks to match……. I think there was an Olympic wrestler from this area who was huge – maybe Greco-Roman.
There are more dirt roads, and storks in nests on many abandoned industrial chimneys. The grain has been harvested and the straw is in windrows – that stuffy pungent hay fever odor permeates the train.
We crossed the Danube. Interestingly there was some industry and a power plant on the Bulgarian side, but just ag. fields on the Romanian side. The fields of sunflowers and corn continued….with a little alfalfa. The fields got bigger and the horizon further off in the distance. It was flat. The Romanians burn their fields…… like Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico and some in Carson Valley. At this magnitude the impact is real.
Bucharest was really fun. It is a romance-based language…. some claim the purest Latin derivation. There is a lot of French and of course Russian and techno vocabulary. The city has a real and pleasant railroad station. Downtown is a mix of serious architecture, along with new and abandoned. The banks and government buildings are almost baroque…. Buff and strong like the people.
Of course the country is still coping with the freedoms offered after the 1989 revolution and the world economic crisis. Prices are cheap. Wages are cheap. The people are quiet and introspective but the city gardens and the stores are colorful and lively.
We’ve seen many Detroits in Eastern Europe and this is just another one…..but they seem to be trying.
The average age on the ship was 62 here it is 22. Riding along were a 63 year old Swede who has no home and has been on the rails or wings for 3+ years (woman problems) and a 50 something Scottish couple who opted for the train over flying home from holiday. Ours was a 4 person sleeper with them….and he snored (“Get in my belly….!”)
We had stayed in Western Turkey……trains were very slow to the east, and Syria and Iran loomed large as the neighbors. We still felt guilty…….and even more so when we met a 24 year old new teacher from Germany. She had taken the bus from Berlin to Istanbul, met her sister and they took busses to the Syrian border to help Syrian refugees for a few days before launching her career in inner-city Berlin —- she will have no Germans in her 9th grade class although some families have lived there 30 or 40 years. She helped us out with language later on the ride.
We got rousted out for about an hour at 1 a.m. to check out of Turkey and about 40 minutes later to get checked in to Bulgaria. It was cool and fresh like home.
At about 6:00 am we stopped but most people continued sleeping. By 8:00 am most were up. So far as we could determine, either the locomotive or the engineer had quit.
For 2.5 hours we sat at a remote station which had no services, no coffee, no language other than Bulgarian. The setting looked like 1960′ s Russia. Bulgarian train people have no uniforms….so the 50 year old workers in shorts and t-shirts blended right in with kids.
Eventually we rode to a larger station, mostly deserted, hooked to a larger train,rode it for awhile , got directed off and told to run to another train which was a “local” and arrived at 6 pm. The best explanation was that our train got lost. At any rate, that’s how 14 hours equals 20 in Bulgaria.
The countryside stretched from horizon to horizon with a carpet of sunflower, grain and cornfields. The grain is ripe. And golden, so it stands out from the green….literally 100’s of thousands of acres… dry farmed in rolling foothills which eventually gave way to mountains, irrigated fields, alfalfa, evergreen forests and fruit trees laden with ripe fruit. No cattle though……just a few milk cows.
It’s about 73 degrees, blue skies with brilliant white clouds building and cat tails growing in the drainage areas…… very reminiscent of a Carson Valley afternoon in late July. So the ag production looks big and modern, but we are told the owners live in Germany.
Train stations are closed or deserted. In just our few hours we saw abandoned rolling stock….literally 1000’s of rusting train cars and locomotives rotting away. Many stations have 11 tracks but only 2 get any use. At least they are beginning to tear up the extras….. but by thieves or the RR who knows?
Someone told us that the release from communism just re-aligned the 1%. There is a new ruling society, more millionaires and a few billionaires. There are more freedoms and product choices. But for the masses, communism was better because at least they worked and ate. Quine sabe?
Sofia is clean and quiet except for what appeared to be a small protest opposing government corruption. The center of town is full of heart-warming pre WWII houses, office buildings and churches.. pleasantly or apocalyptically uncrowded. At 7:30 a.m. the metro has empty seats and no one standing. No jobs I suspect.
Paige is at the train window snapping shots of meadows, corn fields, mountain rivers and the sheer cliffs behind them as we go east to Bucharest. She said something about Count Dracula’s castle.
The language and alphabet are very foreign, and the locals don’t speak English, so our ride is pretty quiet. A partially filled three car train from Sophia to Bucharest. Could you imagine such between Paris and Geneva in July ?