The Orient Express: Leg 1, Istanbul to Veliko Tărnovo

Sunday, February 12, 2017

9:55.  I was sipping hot tea in the little cafe in Istanbul’s historic Sirkeci train station when a female voice (quite possibly Wilma Flintstone herself) came over the loudspeaker and announced something that sounded like “Last call for Kapitan.”  Or was it “Kapikule”?  It doesn’t really matter as Kapitan and Kapikule straddle the border between Turkey and Bulgaria and that’s where I’m headed.  This is the first leg of what will be a four or five week journey between Istanbul and Paris (and eventually Seville, Spain) as I roughly trace the route of the historic but now defuct Orient Express.  

10:00.  We’re off!  Due to “ongoing engineering work” no passenger trains have operated between Istanbul and the border with Bulgaria since 2012.  Instead I will take a bus to the border, clear customs in Kapikule, then take a train to Veliko Tărnovo (Bulgaria).  This leg should be about 14 hours, putting me into VT by noon tomorrow.  

10:05. At least my ticket indicates that I’m going to “Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaristan.”  The guy collecting the tickets insists that I’m going to Sophia. I point to my ticket but he waves his hand and says “Sophia, good.”  Who knows?  At least I’m headed in the right direction.

10:20.  There are six of us on the bus.  The driver is having an animated discussion with two colleagues who are riding up front.  Several rows back are two grannies who are comparing photos of their grandkids.  I think they are all Bulgarian rather than Turkish but it’s hard to tell. I have claimed what I believe to be the safest seat – ditch side about four rows from the back. 

10:32. One of the grannies has moved to the back row and has lit up a menthol cigarette.  

11:00. We have stopped at a bus station for a 20 minute break. What I believed to be “grannies” are actually rather stout women in their 40s or early 50s. I suppose they could be grandmothers but they’re certainly not in their 70s or 80s as I had assumed.  The bus employees sit by themselves and drink tea while I have a 3-day-old cheese sandwich.  These bus companies must swap recipes as I had an identical sandwich at the Greyhound depot in Winnipeg.  Mmm!

11:19. We’re back on the road and I hear a familiar “pop” sound.  I think it’s safe to assume that one of the ladies is into the beer that she purchased at the depot.  I put on my earbuds and doze off with Diana Krall and Tony Bennett.

Monday, February 13, 2017

01:30.  We have arrived in Kapikule.  

01:38. The bus driver advises that customs agents won’t arrive until about 04:00 so we can sleep on the benches or the floor in the waiting room. What we cannot do is remain on the bus even though it will be idling in the parking lot until its next set of passengers arrives on the train from Sophia.  

02:20. We’re all huddled around the radiator in the station and the ladies are playing Eurovision pop music on their crappy phones.  If I had to wager, I’d put them as Bulgarian market vendors returning from a supply mission to the Grand Bazar in Istanbul.  They’re lugging bags of new fleece clothing, two space heaters, four crates of bananas, an open bucket of diced tomatoes and parsley, a dozen bags of canned fish, and about 200 bracelets on a curtain rod. 

2:40.  Earlier I made the mistake of muttering “for fuck sakes” under my breath when the ladies turned up the volume on their phones and I now realize that the two men who were asleep on the floor in the station when we arrived, and who would have heard my comment, are actually here to meet the women.  The men have a small speaker (knock-off Bose speakers are found in every market in Asia) and now the four of them are playing a game of Name That Tune.  There won’t be any more sleep tonight.  It doesn’t help that the floor is as cold as ice and the bench has armrests placed in a manner that makes it impossible for all but small children and Chinese contortionists to lay down.

03:15. The customs agent has arrived and I’m first in line.  If there’s an issue, I want as much time as possible to work things out.  That’s code for “determine who to pay and how much.”

03:35.  I handed my passport to the humourless agent and waited for the interrogation to begin.  He flipped to the page with my entrance stamp, examined it carefully, then slammed his hand on the counter.  Thump!  I initially thought that he was livid about something but when he handed the passport back to me I realized that he had a rubber stamp concealed in his meaty paw.  He said one word: “Bye.”

03:41. I sailed through the baggage scanner as well. Not that I had anything to hide, mind you, but I am carrying two antique bronze measuring cups that I purchased in Kathmandu.   I learned at the entrance to a subway station in Bangalore that round bronze objects look suspiciously like hand grenades when X-rayed.   This border agent didn’t seem to notice them, or if he did, he simply knows his hand grenades from his 18th century bronze measuring cups.

03:44. After much discussion amongst the train crew it has been determined that I will travel as far as Sophia on one coach, then switch to a second coach which will be uncoupled from the engine and left alone on the track.  I will wait for about one hour before a second engine will be connected and I will be taken to Veliko Tărnovo.  Unless they sell some more tickets in the next hour, which seems unlikely, I will be the only passenger on that train.

03:50.  I have known for some time that The Orient Express is no longer a luxury train.  In fact it isn’t a through train as much as it’s a number of different trains operated by various national railways that when combined will get you from Istanbul to Calais.  I will make a number of stops along the way (Veliko Tărnovo, Brasov, Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, Munich) and will purchase individual tickets for each leg.  And since it is no longer a luxury train, fine dining and turn down service will be rare if it even exists on any leg.  This particular train is without heat and one of the doors is only half closed.  I’m glad to have a down coat and down sleeping bag!

04:20. I’m not sure what the sign above this seat indicates.  Is this the seat for plus sized people?  Perhaps it’s the one seat on the train that reclines – all of two inches.

04:23. The train lurches violently as another engine is connected at the rear.  We’re off once again. 

04:50. A Bulgarian customs officer is onboard and he has spent the last five minutes examining my passport. I think he’s simply interested in international travel as he seems to be making grunts of approval at the various stamps.  He’s also three sheets to the wind.

04:55. I ask the agent about the decal on the window.  As there isn’t a diagonal line, I assume this is something you are encouraged to do.  But what?  Chill your vodka bottle in the sink?  The agent offers a curt answer but I have no idea what he said and it’s probably best to let it go.

05:40. We have stopped in Dimitrovgrad and the other passengers are transferring the boxes of bananas and the space heaters to the platform. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to get off here as Dimitrovgrad was never mentioned but the locals are insistent that I should get off with them. I’m skeptical but decide that it’s safest to stick with people who have space heaters and a large green garbage bag full of cookies with red jam in the middle.  

06:44. The new train has arrived and it has heat!  No train could be too hot after spending an hour on the windswept platform in Dimitrovgrad.  Somehow I doubt that Agatha Christie travelled like this.

08:50. We have pulled into the rather substantial station in Stara Zagora and the market vendors are disembarking once again.  This time they tell me to stay on the train.  “You Veliko Tărnovo.  Us Stara Zagora,” says one man.  I had to smile as it sounded like he said “You Veliko Tărnovo.  Us Sodom and Gomorrah.”  

08:55. I wave goodbye to the Bulgarians that I have actually come to like over the course of our 12 hours together.  We didn’t really talk and they never did offer me a cookie, but to be fair they didn’t eat any of the food either.  That’s business, I suppose.

09:50.  The others have left and I’ve been sitting on the train for an hour.  A different engine and a second passenger car have been added.  I’m the only passenger for the final two hours to Veliko Tărnovo.

11:59. Finally, Veliko Tărnovo. And we’re one minute early!  The station probably hasn’t changed since the 1890s and the cars parked outside are Russian-made models from the 60s.  I’m liking this city already!

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