4 Oct 2016

Mad to go to Istanbul by train, or mad not to?

Having just competed a one week run from London to Istanbul on the train (mostly), I'm contemplating if it's a journey that I would recommend to others. Whilst just a modest 3000 km, it contains some real highlights, but also a couple of challenges.

The major highlight of such a trip is the huge cultural diversity that you can encounter in just a few days. Every day is a new currency, a new favourite beer, and a place that feels very different to yesterday. If you are unlucky you may discover a new top scam too. Living in Europe we are lucky to have such differences packed into a relatively small amount of space, east to west, north to south.

In terms of trains, Europe has really divided itself into three areas. In the core (rich) EU countries, heavy investment in rail infrastructure has given us a high speed rail network that can propel us effortlessly between member states. Whilst this is progress, the consequence is the slow death of the night train network, one of the huge pleasures of longer range rail adventure. In the second area - countries like Hungary and Romania, there are few high speed trains, but still great night trains and connections with other trains across multiple countries. In the third zone are the countries that have failed to invest in even maintaining their rail network. Travel in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey (and a few others) is much harder than it used to be - at the moment.

Travelling east it's possible to get to Budapest in less than 24 hours. After Munich things slow down, and in my view get much more pleasurable. I would commend travel to Central and Eastern Europe by train. I have recently found a new place in my heart for German beer, for Hungarian wine, and for Romanian cafe culture. I have found the trains to be reliable, safe and great to meet local people and admire the scenery of their countries. In Western Europe I think people have the wrong perception of newer EU members as they might just see migrants in their own country. Travel there and you find amazing cities, culture and heritage that isn't perhaps well represented in the media back at home.

Train wise, you can experience travel at about 300 km/h as far as Munich on the TGV and then a couple of classic sleepers between Munich, Budapest and Bucharest. There is great joy to be had sleeping on a train arriving ready for a new day in a fresh city. I have yet to try the Belgrade route, I understand while slightly faster, the sleepers are not quite as good.

There is a snag coming, and it's this. Things break down pretty severely from a train point of view as you head beyond Bucharest. The trains are fewer, they are of lower quality, and sometimes there are no trains at all. To be honest going to Istanbul on the train is a hard and difficult journey, and not one to attempt unless you seek the satisfaction of perhaps the biggest prize in European rail adventure.

Would I recommend it? No, not unless you enjoy old trains, multiple train changes, red tape and sleep deprivation. Take a plane from Bucharest or Sofia to Istanbul. But if you must, if you really have that burning "because it's there" desire, then good for you. Get plenty of rest, buy provisions, and be prepared for the need to crash out on a good bed when you arrive in Istanbul. You are a born again hard core rail adventurer. Bravo!

2 Oct 2016

On the route of the "Bosfor" from Bucharest to Istanbul

Bucharest Nord is a good station for the long range train traveller. It has loads of shops close to the platforms selling fruit, local pastries and fresh coffee. I'm sure it's not the safest place in the world, but on a sunny Saturday morning it feels just fine. If you are interested in rail travel you will probably know about the problems getting by train to Turkey. There is no direct service, and hasn't been for several years owing to extensive engineering works on the line in Turkey and also in Bulgaria. Over the next 18 hours I'm therefore taking the best "Plan B", made up of several trains and busses. One day the original sleeper train, known as the "Bosfor" will hopefully come back into service, but tonight I'm going to suffer in the interests of train based adventure.

When I find the departures board I discover that my train for the first seven hours is bound for Sofia. On platform 1 I spot two carriages getting pushed back into the station.  Where is the rest of the train? The guard confirms this is actually all of train 461, the only daily service to Sofia. One of the carriages looks pretty crappy and has no obvious numbers or markings. The other carriage, number 473 has international pedigree. It is Sofia bound and it is air conditioned. I'm relieved to see I'm in this carriage and not the crappy one. 

On board there are about a dozen passengers and the compulsory seat reservations have been issued so that we are all down one end. I sit opposite a slightly scary looking big man with a shaved head and a black leather jacket. It's actually against the law not to wear a black leather jacket if you are a Romanian man. Smoking and drinking lots of coffee are also mandatory. The inspector writes something on my tickets and it looks like all is in order. The next challenge will be the Bulgarian border in three hours time.

Giurgiu Nord, 15.30

I woke up at the Romanian frontier where in time honoured rail tradition a policeman checks our passports and takes them away. The border between Romania and Bulgaria is a massive flood plain and the Danube itself with a big metal Cold War bridge stretching over it, more than two kilometres long. On the other side we stop again and a Bulgarian policewoman repeats the passport process. On the platform a woman wearing rubber gloves writes our carriage number in her notebook. I wonder what her job is, but am afraid to ask. The locomotive Romanian locomotive was detached here and heads back to Bucharest. A new Bulgarian engine will power the two carriages to Sofia. The crappy carriage is still with us, and it's empty. Other than luck I'm not sure how you would avoid getting a seat in it. The only possible ticketing difference is that it is not air conditioned.

One we set off again the Bulgarian ticket inspector spots my cunning plan and checked I knew where I was going to get off. I suggested what I thought was the arrival time into Gorna Orjahovica and she said "maybe, around that time". I hope I make the connection, which I think is possibly 16 minutes, depending on which timetable you believe. There is just a single track on much of this line, which amazes me. You would think that two ex Soviet block countries would have better connections, but maybe that's part of the story of Romania's independent approach during the communist period.

18.29, Gorna Orjahovica 

Connection made, 15 minutes was plenty of time. The timetable supplied by the ticket office in Bucharest is useless. Fortunately I have a copy of the DB Bahn one printed out (don't leave home without one) and it's pretty accurate. I couldn't work out the Bulgarian departures board very well but got to speak to a helpful lady in the ticket office. Platform 4, 18.45 - I'm now bound for Dimitrovgrad.

On platform 4 I'm greeted by two old carriages, the style that have mini compartments. The engine is coming - I can see it in the distance. This is all good. I'm joined by a Taiwanese lady headed somewhere that neither of us can pronounce. She is lovely and we have much in common, so it's a shame she is getting off soon. Before we depart the woman from the ticket office hops on as well, she is now acting as our conductor. She brings with her an amazing bit of news for me. My next leg, that was to be by bus, will in fact be by train. That means I'm on trains all the way to the Turkish border. I'm not sure if this is because there are no engineering works at the weekend, but I suspect more likely is that the bit of paper I was given in the Bucharest ticket office relates to train travel in the Byzantine period.

As the sun sets there are some good views and I have an open window. This is great, but in my haste to snap something interesting I nearly lose my camera out the window. Schoolboy stuff, get a grip Woodward. It's an odd combination of open windows but overhead electric power, so from time to time I hear frazzling sounds and the smell the incineration of large insects or small birds. I settle down by the window and the day changes to night as the sun sets. I'm joined by two local lads who I can only guess are heading out for a Saturday night somewhere more exciting than Gorna Orjahovica. They are an odd couple. One is dressed ready for the full disco experience, right down to a diamond earring, the other has a strange emo haircut making his ears stick out through his hair at an odd angle. I'd like to know how they get on, but of course will never know. According to my timetable in 4 hours I shall be close to Dimitrovgrad, ready for my next change.

22.50, Dimitrovgrad 

Bang on time again, I'm one of only two passengers left, and changing trains here. The 465 train that brought us here turns itself round, waiting I'm guessing for the reverse operation in a few hours time. Dimitrovgrad looks brand new and you can see what I'm guessing is big investment in the new line. At this time of night there is nothing going on, but the conductor of the train suggests platform 2. Bulgaria uses the cryillic alphabet, so it's just like being in Russia - I have to guess the words, but on platform 2, none are obvious. Fortunately my fellow passenger, a Moldovian lady, confirms "Istanbul", so I relax as best as I can and wait for half an hour for our "Midnight Express" to arrive. 

This is getting even more crazy. The last two trains have been made up of just two second class carriages. Well now this latest train is made up of just a single (really crappy) one. It is the 493 train from Sofia. I imagined that it would be a big train full of InterRailers, but in fact there are seemingly none. There are five of us on board, and we make a very odd and diverse looking bunch. I read a book once called "Refusal Shoes". It was about how immigration at Heathrow airport select and deal with people based on their footwear. I'm in sandals tonight, but at least I'm wearing a shirt with a collar. This is the route of the Orient Express after all.

Three hours until we reach the Turkish border. The guard has taken down my passport number and nationality, so it will be interesting to see how they do this.

Kapikule, 02.30

I'm sat on a bus waiting to leave Kapikule with my four fellow adventurers, two Finns, a Moldovan and a chap who I can't place, but he needs a full visa. It's very dark and very hot on board the bus.

A man with a big moustache has been shouting orders at us and making us move around together between various police and customs buildings. If we had stayed any longer I'm sure he would have had us marching. One passenger does this every weekend, so I followed him. He's Finnish and very ably exhibiting his national character, he's as cool as a cucumber and very understated - he left his ticket on the train and was made to go back to get it. He explains to me in broken English that the train was moving away whilst he did this and he had to jump off. I tell him I'm pleased he made it back and he looks at me in a very deadpan Finnish way and says simply "Shit happens". 

I have discovered that the crappy carriage I was on for the last couple of hours has in fact come all the way from Sofia, no change at Plovdiv required. Normally I would be attracted to a direct train, but it was a really horrible local commuter carriage. My trains down from Romania today were much better, even though the journey has been six hours longer and I have needed to change twice.

Our bus first of all has to negotiate crossing the massive queue of lorries waiting to get into Bulgaria. There are miles and miles of them. Quite incredible. Once this is done we limp along the toll road in a top gear that doesn't quite sound right. My plan has been to stay awake until getting on the bus then catch some sleep for the 4-5 hour run into Istanbul. In reality sleep isn't possible on the bus. It's hotter than a sauna, my seat won't recline. The metal part of the heater by my feet is so hot that it burns or melts anything it comes into contact with. The hours pass slowly, but eventually I realise we are much closer to the centre of Istanbul than I had thought. It's a fantastic dawn over th Bosphorus and I tag along with the Finnish guy who shows me how to use the metro (not built when I was last here) and avoid the usual station taxi scam.

Unsurprisingly I'm not in good shape, and I'm relieved when my hotel organise a temporary room at 7am just to allow me to wash and sleep for a few hours. As my head hits the pillow I actually start to hallucinate. I see a huge swarm of flies in the room swirling all around me, then all flying together into one mass before vanishing. Am I on the edge of a train based breakdown?

29 Sep 2016

Train 473 - The "Istar" from Budapest to Bucharest

I'm on the Istar tonight and tomorrow, headed for Romania. I arrived at Keleti station nice and early, and my plan was to buy provisions and have a quiet beer before boarding the train. Some of the station food options looked a little scary on the food hygiene front, so all I ended up with was a cheese roll. In finding the sandwich shop I also discovered that under the station there is a migrant encampment, with people living in tents behind wire barrier fencing. Everything looked peaceful, but nonetheless a reminder of the difficult times we live in. 

Back in the main concourse I found a run down bar and treated myself to a Dreher beer. This was a big disappointment as it had the aroma of washing up liquid and quite an astringent taste. I didn't have time to identify if it was the glass or the beer, but I wouldn't drink that again. When I asked the concierge at my hotel about local beer he told me to stick to wine. I think he might have been right.

I could not understand much of the departures board. It's a sign I'm getting to the margins of the part of Europe that I know. I could however read the word "Bucharesti", and headed for platform 7 about half an hour before departure. 

From what I can see it's an all Romanian train, and I'm in the only sleeper carriage, number 422. There is also a couchette carriage next door, and beyond that a restaurant carriage. That's a good sign, and it's staying with us for the whole journey. Up front there are several more seated carriages. This is a much longer trip than the "Kalman Imre", leaving Budapest at 19.05 and arriving at noon the next day in Bucharest. Once again it's a train going to more than one destination, and only part of it is going to Bucharest. My first impressions are that its the perfect train for me. It's modern, clean and I have time to relax this evening and no dawn arrival. 

There is, however, an immediate problem after we depart. It's a minor point, but apparently I have no ticket. The person at SNCF who sold me a ticket has actually just sold me a bed reservation. I put my peaceful and positive hat on with the steward and we came to a special arrangement. I'm relieved that he's a good chap and speaks pretty good English. Another minor hurdle in the mission quickly solved. It's my fault for not spotting that this ticket said just "reservation" and not "ticket and reservation". I didn't spot it as the three other tickets SNCF sold me were fine. I did smile tonight when I heard the station announcer declare that "optional seat supplements are obligatory on this train" Glad that's clear then.

I had a picnic in my compartment consisting of my cheese roll, some pretzels and a rather fine Hungarian red wine made in a Portugese style. In a schoolboy packing error I forgot my plastic collapsible wine glass, so I purchased a plastic cup for 20 Florints. I seem to be rapidly turning into an InterRail peasant.

A morning update. I have woken after some reasonable sleep in a pretty comfy berth. After assuming that there would be no border formalities, I was glad that I hadn't gone to bed, as an immigration officer knocked on my door at just after midnight. Romania may be in the EU, but this is the end of the Schengen zone. My passport was scanned on the Hungarian frontier, and then we made a short hop into Romania, where a policeman just checked my passport and copied a few details by hand into his notebook. I worked out there was a one hour time change here too, so turned in just after 01.30am. It was a noisy night with lots of tooting and horn blowing and a few engine changes, but the ride is very good and the line is mainly straight. No suicidal breaking on this train. 

I headed to the restaurant carriage for breakfast. Sadly it's a fairly dead place, and the only thing buzzing were the flies. I had a luke warm thick black coffee, but didn't linger as the windows were to dirty to see out of, and the views of the Carpathian mountains were quite good. The staff were friendly enough, but chef didn't seem too keen to cook anything. Most of the other travellers got off at Brasov, no doubt off for some Count Dracula based tourism. The scene outside at first is of bare rock mountains, old steam engines, and wooden buildings, but this changes to chicken factories and petrochemical plants as we pass the open plains nearer to Bucharest.

We arrived in Bucharest Nord on time and I said goodbye to our excellent steward and also to the well travelled passenger in the next compartment, who by chance was English. My mission now was twofold. Firstly, not to get scammed (me, get scammed in a Romanian railway station?) and secondly, to see if I could get some onward tickets to take me to Istanbul, the next leg of my Orient Express journey. I'm pleased to say that I succeeded on both counts. 

After queuing at the ticket counter and fending off several people who didn't believe in queuing, I realised I was at the wrong ticket office. Never mind, I've done that before. When I finally found the hidden international ticket office, I got to speak to a younger and very slightly more friendly ticket lady through a little hatch. I had written my cunning plan on a card, so I just handed it over and let her read my transportation requirements. I'm clearly not the first to make such an audacious request as she immediately passed back a bit of paper telling what I knew, that the journey to Istanbul is currently using two trains and two busses and takes at least 18 hours. I smiled and told her that this was indeed what I wanted, and once she had done her best to talk me out of the idea, the booking was made without fuss. It cost 195 Lei, about £38, all major credit cards accepted.

Happy to have this done I then prepared myself for the station tourist taxi scam again, but with renewed determination and confidence in my ability to win. Bucharest station is world class in taxi scam leagues, and some would be horrified that I was attempting to get a cab without pre booking it. First the touts came, then the feeders, then the fake porters - they all converged on me and I swatted them off one by one staring ahead and making random swerving manoeuvres. Finally I came face to face with the kingpin, the commission tout himself, on the taxi rank. I ignored him and tried my first cab. He refused to take me. 1-0. The second cab wanted a fixed price, so I moved on, 1-1, and I got into the third cab before the tout could get between us. My fare was on a meter and about £3.50 for a 15 minute downtown journey. 2-1 to me.

I have a couple of days here to recover and prepare myself for the next leg. 

28 Sep 2016

Train 463 - The Kalman Imre from Munich to Budapest

Tonight's journey is my first taste of a Hungarian train. At first sight it looks quite unusual here on platform 14 of Munich HBF, surrounded by modern high speed (ICE) trains. The Kalman Imre is actually more than one train at this stage of the night. It is made up of just five carriages - a sleeper and a coach to Budapest, a sleeper and a coach to Zagreb and a coach to Venice. During the night there will be much railway shuffling. More of this later.

My carriage is number 263, in the middle of the train. It is a distinctive and rare looking Hungarian sleeper, painted light blue. At one end a steward called Oscar greets genuine passengers and stops drunk German's looking for the last train to Stuttgart from getting onto his carriage. His face says he is used to this. He studies my paperwork and ushers me aboard. I'm in berth 11, which happens to be the very first one in the carriage. That's bad news for me as it will be a bumpy night over the wheels, but at least the toilets are at the other end. The carriage next door is locked off to prevent any InterRailers heading to Croatia sneaking in. I have booked a single berth compartment, which in effect is just blocking off a three berth one and using it for single occupancy. As I booked it at the last minute I have had to pay an exorbitant "full" fare (£170), but all my other plans work around this train so I have taken the hit. By comparison, on the Romanian leg later in the week, the same set up and nearly twice the distance, cost me £80.

On the plus side the sheets are clean and the air conditioning works. It's slightly grubby, but not really dirty. The bin contains a few cigarette butts. So much for non smoking. I lay my things out and settle in.  We set off on time, and it's immediately clear I should have taken some sea sickness pills. The carriage bounces along, swaying from side to side as we accelerate. There isn't much to do, and it's been a long day so my plan is to sleep for as long as possible. 

Oscar comes to see each passenger to explain how the lights and the door locks work. There are three locks on the inside of my door, and I'm not sure why we need to be locked down like Fort Knox tonight. With that done he wishes me goodnight, but before he leaves I ask him for a spare pillow. He stares at me blankly, so I show him my single pillow and hold up two fingers. "One bed, one pillow" he says. "But I have paid for three beds.." I remind him. He ignores this and retreats down the corridor. I thank him for his help and go digging in my bag for the secret key. If you have followed my adventures before you will know that I can open pretty much any door or compartment on most trains. All I need to do here is unlock and pull down an unused berth and then get a pillow myself. I hope you don't think this makes me a bad person. With this secretive pillow hijack completed, Oscar then surprises me by returning with the fabled second pillow. I don't think he notices what I have done, which is just as well. This has happened to me before, and my guess is that he had not realised I had bought a single compartment, maybe he was thinking I was just a lucky lone passenger in a triple. After this incident he seemed much more helpful..

As directed, I locked up my door, and turned in straight away. It was a good plan but after about half an hour I had to rethink a few things. The problem was that the train was constantly speeding up then braking. Braking much harder than I had ever experienced on a train - this was the deceleration of a jet aircraft landing on a short run way. Surely trains would have seat belts if this were envisaged? I was okay as my berth was across the direction of travel, but everything else in the compartment was hitting me or something else as the driver braked. Even my bag was landing on my bed. I put the light back on and decided to just lay everything flat on the floor so nothing could fly away. With this done I wedged myself into the narrow bed and tried to drift off. 

The train had other ideas. Over the next six hours I was put through some fairly intensive Hungarian train passenger crash test dummy testing. Every time we stopped the steward dropped the steps to pick up non existent passengers. This made a noise like a small family car being dropped upside down onto concrete from about 10 feet. The alarm kept on going off - I didn't know what this meant, so like everyone else I ignored it. The train decoupled and recouped five times (that I counted) - with the unsurprising banging and crashing that usually accompanies such a procedure. Several times we must have switched engines as the power went off. In the compartment this was signalled by loss of lighting and air conditioning. The quality of my sleep was thus probably on par with a foot soldier on night sentry duty in the Vietnam (American) war. I only got few short bursts of fatigued sleep, but I made the best of it.  

For some reason I had imagined there would be border formalities during the journey, but of course I was wrong - this journey was all inside the EU and the Schengen rules were in play. We spent much of the night in Austria, and after leaving Vienna at 06.00 we then crossed into Hungary at about 07.30. I lay on my bed dressed and ready for action but dozing occasionally until Oscar served me a breakfast tray at about 08.00. This consisted of a risky chicken sandwich, a croissant in a sealed bag that was guaranteed to be fresh for several years, and instant coffee. I passed on the food, but needed the caffeine badly. We pulled into Budapest Keleti station at 09.24. As The Four Seasons would say, "Oh what a night"..

Oscar, still in nice first class mode, helped be get my bag onto the platform and wished me a good day. The sun was shining, and the station felt different to those of the day before - less ordered and full of people selling random things. This included lots of books. I contemplated picking up a cheap copy of "The Greatest Chess Moments of the Twentieth Century" before deciding I needed to find a shower as a priority. Shopping for exotic paperbacks could come later. Doing my best to avoid a classic train station taxi scam, I still managed to fall for a mild version of the train station taxi scam, but it was just a non metered slightly inflated price in Euros, nothing to feel too bad about.

Time to explore Budapest, which was looking amazing in the late September sunshine.

27 Sep 2016

The Duplex TGV from Paris to Munich

Paris Gare d'Est is a charming and rather old school French railway station. By modern standards it's simple, but perfectly formed. The atmosphere is relaxed, but there are signs of obvious tension around the edges. Paris has suffered so much and security is obviously at a heightened state, especially at railway stations. My immediate priority on arrival is an emergency ablution pit stop. I'm not well. As I have a first class ticket for my next train, I head straight for the SNCF Grand Voyage lounge. Outside the lounge are a pair of female soldiers dressed in full combats. They are armed not with assault rifles, but with heavy machine guns so large it makes them look like small soldiers. It's a sign of the times.

Like a puzzle from the "Crystal Maze" television show, the door to the lounge does not open. At first I think it's a door controlled by a sensor, so I move about, gently at first, and eventually even throwing some shapes. The door stays firmly closed. I look around feeling foolish, but there is no obvious sign of how to get in. The soldiers stare but offer no guidance. In the end I have to wait for a regular who shows me the secret button, hidden on a pole behind a bush. Very cunning.

I have an hour or so to wait for the 9577 TGV to Munich. Munich doesn't really feature much as a connecting stop in the original timetable of the Orient Express, as Vienna was the major rail junction. Here trains headed for either Bucharest or Istanbul. Today Munich is a better staging post for me going east, as it gives me access to a connecting sleeper train tonight headed for Budapest. There are several trains headed from Paris to Munich, mainly German ICE trains, but once a day there is also a TGV operated jointly by DB and SNCF. 

The "duplex" or "double decker" trains are huge, and the silver locomotives look very impressive. Just in case you might not be aware, the "Double Deckers" was a slightly cult and influential British children's television show in the 1970's. There is a catchy theme tune too, but I shall spare you from that here. My service today is the latest (third generation) version of this TGV type, known as the EuroDuplex. It's a cool train, and I don't care if you think I'm a train spotter for saying so.

I head for carriage 11, seat 93 - it's a top deck seat in first class. I had booked a seat facing the direction of travel, and seat 93 isn't. The reason for this as a I later discover, is that the train changes direction in Stuttgart. Right on time at 15.55 we cruise out of Paris, and once out of the suburbs we quickly break the 300 km/h barrier. It feels effortless and the ride is incredibly smooth. This is a journey to savour as the seats are very comfy and I'm pretty tired. I fall asleep almost immediately and wake up in Strasbourg, 1 hour and 40 minutes later. 

The staff on the train are great. They all speak German, French and some English. In the end I give up with my French, as I don't want to accidentally address a German in French, so I just stick to English. It seems best all round. A friendly chap with a cap at a jaunty angle and a pierced ear takes regular orders for food and drink. I'm just not feeling well enough to eat, but I manage to drink lots of water.

After a relaxing afternoon passing through some great scenery the train glides into Munich at 21.30, the end of the line for this service. Munich is not a particularly modern or beautiful station, but it has a huge number of platforms. This leg has been easy, comfortable and shows off all that is good about European high speed rail. 

My plan here is to hold my own mini Oktoberfest in the two hours I have before my next train. One of the helpful DB staff confirms that I need to be on platform 14 at 23.35 for Budapest. As I head for a beer keller I have to do a bit of a double take in the station concourse. Nearly everyone is dressed in lederhosen or traditional costume. The men look slightly comical and the women look just lovely. Oktoberfest is a big deal locally as well as internationally, and I feel quite underdressed. I hope to return to Munich later this trip, as the prices for rooms are incredibly high in September. Tonight I'm going to keep heading east.