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.
Rooster in the box.
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…
Road trip with a manual transmission car means Billy Jac Shaw (ex Nascar driver – google Billy Jac Shaw) thinks that every car (competitor) and every mountain pass (road course) is a RACE!!! Thank goodness our car has not one but two “oh shit” handles for me to white knuckle. Where’s my helmet??
Divine coincidence found us in Calcutta learning by chance about the Mother House where Mother Teresa started her selfless missionary work with the poor. Growing up we were able to witness only on the television – pure joy to see it in person – her bedroom, place of work and resting place. Again – by chance, while walking in Skopje, Macedonia we learned that Mother Teresa was born there. Birth place to place of death. It means nothing but everything.
Started our 10 hour long road trip with a dead camera battery – the first time – the on button left on all night. Bummed.
If the border crossing process says anything about the government of these EU countries – they are in big trouble. Pure chaos – LONG lines – some upwards of 3 hours. They make the Mexican border crossing look like a greased wheel.
Hungary, Serbia, Kosovo (two times), Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro (worst borderline), Croatia (two times) and Bosnia Herzegovina were our stomping grounds so far. Tomorrow we hit Slovenia before returning the car back to Hungary.
Our pit stops – Skopje, Macedonia – Dubrovnik, Croatia – Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina and Split (just south), Croatia.
The race car driver talks to his fans…..
Dubrovnik old town must be the frosting on the cake (until we see more}. The town and port are made entirely of marble and white limestone – from ramparts to churches to substantial villas and hotels. It is like a movie lit up at night and crowded with fun/sun seekers. The advertisements claim that the Adriatic Sea is the only water which shows blue from satellites it certainly does from eye level.
Climbing about one km out of Dubrovnik we hit the Bosnia and Herzovina border and another landscape. It reminds me of Baja Sur in May or June, and particularly the road from La Paz to Buena Vista – dry, with the same white rock and wilted flowers and bushes – even the narrow patched road and rusted – through barriers that won’t stop a car from careening into space.
Almost as sudden, after an hour, we crest into Yosemite. No dirt can be seen – green begins at the edge of the pavement and continues to the sheer rock walls at 7000 ft. in the distance. Wildflowers tangle profusely up against meadows which run to forests and rivers. It’s quite a shock.
As pretty as it is, 3 or 4 hours is sufficient and we’re ready for Sarajevo. Hard to believe they held the Olympics here in 1984, we have dropped back down to 1550 feet.
After Prince Franz Joseph was assassinated here in 1914, lighting off World War One I think it was pretty quite until 1984, and then again until it’s famous one seige and bombing as Yugoslavia took nearly 20 years to come undone.
Pock marked wall
It still shows the signs of war, lots of buildings pock marked, shot up and burned. Then of course there are the cheap ugly replacements which down help dispel the tired and worn out look of the city. But the people still get out at night and fill the old center cafes adjacent to the quite dirty and stagnant river.
It was always referred to as the Jerusalem of Europe because of the co-existence of churches, mosques and synagogues —- but the mosques, old and new, win out now.
A similar trip out of the mountains back to Baja took us through Mostar, a historically and architecturally noteworthy city, but still recovering too. These places just don’t seem excited to wake up in the morning.
Then we experienced evidence of entry into the EU. The two lane road, always behind 30 kph trucks and busses gave way to a 4 or 6 lane divided autobahn straight along and through the mountains with a 130 kph “advisory” limit. So the EU loans the money, or guarantees it, some German company builds it, and some of the toll proceeds [steep] left after the local skim go to pay down the loans at too low a pace and we have the markings of a debt crisis!
Back near Split Croatia we are at a nice hotel on the Adriatic (we haven’t seen a ripple on the sea here in a week) and the navigator is programming the GPS for our assault on the final Balkan piece–Slovenia.
Another few days and we are back to the Western European capitals of Vienna and Prague—–which we KNOW will be overrun with turistas, hot humid and rainy-but we’re still looking forward to them.
So I was led on this string of thoughts while writing. The Balkan countries all have broad selections of home grown wines and we didn’t have a bad one. This made me think that they are all better than virtually all the wine I drank in Paris while attending a semester of law school 40 years ago (tearing into the Treaty of Rome, and wandering if this dream of a “European Union” would ever materialize,
and “Contract law with the Eastern Bloc countries” which has disappeared).
This led me to think just about doing this trip– and how many of our friends have preceded us – some for much longer and some much longer ago! At least Joe, Clark, Clint and Barb, Scott, Preston, Chloe, George (probably 3 years cumulatively), Rich, Steven, Shannon, Sally and Kayla have all lived and travelled in Europe for long periods of time. Quite a well – travelled group of friends we have.
Of course the Nazi ghost is still everywhere in this area. Internment and extermination camps are big tourist draws. The whole thing is just hard to grasp.
In Krakow we spent a few hours at Schindler’s factory and a well-done tour and recreation. It seemed that to go on to Auschwitz or Birkenau after would have just been morbid. We understood history’s lesson.
So, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube. Multiple World Heritage sites live here, as well they should. The river at night, with miles of stone monuments up-lit on each side may be the prettiest we’ve seen.
My Dad spent months or a year here in 1932 or 33. Let’s say 80 years ago. His Dad Dr. Shaw was doing advanced medical training, and brought Nana and the three kids along for maybe a couple of years. Dad was 9 or 10. So I am having fun imagining him on the bridges and ramparts, talking to the fishermen and stealing fruit from the stands.
We had a very good two person sleeper car from Krakow overnight. Early we passed through and changed trains in Slovakia . The train station in Budapest provides a fun introduction to the city….being a huge Art Deco glass and steel envelope built by the Eiffel company from Paris.
We did the on-off bus thing for a couple of days which proved to be an efficient way to see the grand and frequent masterpieces of the city. Hanoi, of course, still has it’s statue of Lenin. Here they enjoy telling the story of tearing their’s down.
We’re off now to get Paige a haircut and talk to rental car people. We’ve kind of decided that maybe it’s the best way to see the seven or eight Balkan countries which used to comprise Yugoslavia.