October 2, 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 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?

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