The Orient Express: Leg 4, Sofia to Bucharest

08:00. This is the second time I’ve made the 30 minute hike from Hostel Mostel to Sofia Central Station. Yesterday I got as far as the International ticket window before realizing that my passport was in the locker at the hostel. I came fully prepared today and there were no hitches. I leave Sofia at 09:00 on the No. 1152 BDZ train to Bucharest, Romania with a one hour layover in Ruse, Bulgaria. I have an hour to kill so I’ll head down the street and pick up lunch as there is no food available on the train and who knows what the station might offer?

08:30. Healthy snacks are not easy to find in Bulgaria. My lunch today will be a traditional Bulgarian phyllo pastry stuffed with cream cheese and broccoli.  At least it’s fresh out of the oven.  

08:30.  You gotta love a shop with six tightly curated product lines: lottery tickets, cigars, liquor, pastries, chocolate and caffeine!  

08:33. I don’t know if this sign is advertising a spa or podiatrist or simply a joke but if a business is going to poke fun at Trump over one of his reputed fetishes, I’m glad they chose this one.

08:40.  Spotted on the street near the station.  I have no further comment.


08:42. This guy was working behind a glass wall in the station. I didn’t have time to get a closer look but I am 99% sure that his entire scalp has been tattooed. It was simply too shiny and too smooth and the hairline too precise to be anything but. 

08:48. I have a prime seat thanks to the very nice lady at the ticket office.  She made a big deal of explaining that thanks to her ability with “compooder”, I will have a forward facing window seat with my own power outlet!  I thanked her with a $5 tip which is probably more than she makes in a morning. She then wrote out my itinerary by hand as the ticket was a bit confusing.  

09:10. We’re 10 minutes late leaving Sofia.  The guy in the seat opposite me is waving goodbye to his young family who have come to see him off. I get the impression that he’s going away for a very long time as his wife is on the platform with tears streaming down her cheeks and he is lugging the largest suitcase I’ve ever seen!  Either that or the mother-in-law’s body is in the suitcase.

09:14. There are four of us in the 6-seat compartment so there’s just enough room for the large wheeled suitcase / small SUV.  In addition to the guy with the suitcase we have a man and woman who would be in their 40s.  If I had to guess, I’d say they are real estate or insurance agents and traveling to meet a client.  They have just previewed a PowerPoint presentation and apparently it’s ALL wrong!  The woman is livid and the man is embarrassed.  They’re both on their phones screaming at whoever made the presentation.  Not a happy bunch!

09:24. We have left the sprawl of Sofia and are travelling at top speed through the countryside. It’s still February but there are only a few skiffs of snow along the fence lines and the fields have a tinge of green. With heavy rain in the forecast  for tomorrow, the snow’s time is just about up.

09:30. The power outlet worked for the first 15 minutes but it’s not working now.  

10:02.  The guy who left his wife crying at the station has answered his phone a few times with something that sounds like “Sluggo here.”  He’s currently sawing logs.


10:15. Sluggo suddenly woke up and got off at the last station.  I suspect that he missed his stop.  The PowerPoint couple have moved to the empty cabin next door where they can scream and curse in private.  I didn’t beg them to stay.

11:20. You don’t find a lot of public art along the rail corridor so this statue of a milk maid (?) and calf (?) must have some significance. I wish I knew the story. 

12:00. We are stopped in the rail yards on the outskirts of Previn and I smell what I think is creosote.  Whatever it is, it’s used to preserve wooden railway ties and it triggers many happy memories for me.  As a kid I spent a lot of time playing around the tracks and lumber yard in my hometown.  

1:08. We have stopped in Gorna Oryahovista and most if not all of the crew have gone into the station. I have reason to believe they’re eating birthday cake and I was not invited. 

1:20. I’m joined in Compartment 6 by a young Bulgarian guy who introduces himself as Emil or Emo for short. He’s very happy to practice his English.  Emo is 28, lives in Ruse and does website development for an American company that specializing in American and Canadian e-commerce sites.

3:20. I’ve enjoyed our two-hour talk about what it was like growing up in Sofia, Emo’s new life in Ruse, gypsies, Bulgarian food, politics, trends in e-commerce and what it’s like to work for and with Americans. As a kid he taught himself English by watching Hollywood movies with Bulgarian subtitles and later by reading in-depth programming manuals. At one point he asked if I had heard of a guy named Elon Musk. When I said that the name was vaguely familiar, we got into a long discussion about Space X, reusable Falcon rockets, the International Space Station, testing of Hyperloop prototypes, Power Wall, the Nevada giga-factory, Tesla’s roll out of the Model 3 and other equally nerdy topics. 

3:50.  I’m sad to say goodbye to Emo and sorry that I didn’t get his contact info.  He’d be a good person to know in a world where e-commerce is moving so quickly.   

3:37. The train station had a self-serve  coffee machine and a few arcade games but no place to buy food or water so I walked down the street and found a convenience store. I will have two apples and a large can of beer with my broccoli-cheese thing.  Only a Canadian would feel guilty about carrying a can of beer onto a Bulgarian train.


4:22. Ruse is located on the River Danube, about 75 km south of Bucharest. The Danube forms the border between Bulgaria and Romania so there will be a passport check within the next half hour. The next border that I cross (after this one) will be between Romania and Hungary and that’s where the clock will start ticking for me. I can spend 90 days in the Schengen Zone and since I want to be in Spain until about May 25, I have been delaying my next border crossing until after February 25.   


4:32. A French woman is seated opposite me in the nearly empty car and I’m pretty sure she just snickered when I took a photo of the Danube. Whatever, lady.  She clearly doesn’t realize that at 2.5km, the bridge over the Danube is the world’s longest steel girder bridge. 

4:35. We’re now firmly on Romanian soil. I don’t like to lose sight of my passport but there isn’t much you can do when a guy with a badge and a very large gun demands that you hand it over. 
 
5:00. The agent has returned my passport but I cannot see where it has been stamped. I really wanted a stamp! At some point I may scan the pages from two passports and create a collage.

6:01. We’re about 60km west of Bucharest and it’s starting to look a lot like Saskatchewan. Most farmers would have modern equipment but I have seen two teams of horses working in the distance. 

7:02. We have arrived in Bucharest. I get off the train and walk about 20 paces to find this:  


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