Recent Entries

August 13, 2005

Rains, Trains and Automobiles

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Bucharest, Romania to Velko Tarnovo, Bulgaria:

I didn't know whether I should head straight to Belgrade or continue down to Bulgaria before swinging west toward the Croatian coast and, eventually, Italy. I had a slight preference for the latter for two reasons: (1) I felt that if I left Bulgaria out, I would never find a chance to get there in the future, having already visited many of the areas surrounding it, and (2) the only train to Belgrade was an overnight sleeper. I don't like the idea of taking a night train alone in certain countries. The stories of gassing and robbery on certain east European routes are just too common.

I slept until noon, missing my chance to catch the morning train to Sofia, so I decided to catch the 2:10 train to Bulgaria's old medieval capital, Velko Tarnovo, instead. Since I'd given Romania short-shrift by focusing only on the capital, I thought I'd see a smaller town in Bulgaria before heading to the city. Velko is considered a highlight of Bulgaria (along with, among other things, the Black Sea coast); it was the base of the old kingdom until, in 1386, the Turks conquered Bulgaria, keeping it in their hold for approximately 500 years. When the country was finally freed from the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the capital was moved to Sofia (then a small outpost of only 1,200 people), which was thought to have a better strategic position.

My taxi driver to Gard du Nord was a real joy to deal with. Within the first 45 seconds in the car, I could tell he was "taking me for a ride" --- the long way ---to the station. He pretty much did a full loop around the place from about a mile away before navigating lazily back and forth through some circuitous and by no means direct side streets to get there. Fortunately I had checked the posted rates on the car door before getting in and they were much cheaper than those for the cab I had taken from Gard du Nord when I first arrived in Bucharest. That meant that the total fare was still only 63,000 Lei, or only about $2.25. This is why I didn't pick an argument with the driver over his failure to take a direct route; the difference to me wasn't worth it.

When the car stopped in front of the station, however, the "argument" began nonetheless; the sort of argument I dreaded having previously in Prague, Krakow, etc..., but without me getting bludgeoned with a tire iron.

The meter in front read "6.3 Lei", meaning 6.3 New Lei, because the currency was recently revalued, effectively knocking four zeroes off of the end of all transactions. The old Lei are still far more prevalent in circulation, however, so you just have to remember that your 10,000 Lei note is equal to 1 New Lei, your 100,000 Lei note is worth 10 New Lei, and so on.

I began pulling out a bunch of 10,000 Lei notes, intending to give the driver seven of them, which I think is generous of me because he was inflating the cost of my ride to begin with. The driver, turning around in his seat, saw my notes and began forcefully telling me to give him "shesht [or whatever the right word for "six" is in Romanian] Euro!" I looked at him incredulously as I clutched my 70,000 Lei. "Shesht Euro! Shesht Euro!" he continued, not at all politely or good naturedly. He forcefully tore the receipt off the meter and pointed at it excitedly. It read "6.3 Lei." There was nothing else there; nothing about foreigners paying Euros (which is ridiculous) or any mention of Euros or anything else. He was completely full of shit.

"Shest Euro??" I said.

"Da! Shest Euro!" His eyes were angry and he was pointing his finger in my face.

In the space of about 2 seconds I turned aside, opened the door of the car, put my bag on the ground, and dumped the 70,000 Lei in a heap on his lap. He tore at my hand, grabbing one of my fingers for a second before I swiped it away. Then I was out of the car and he was still in it. He was a heavy guy, probably in his fifties, and not as intimidating as he might have thought he was, despite his ability to shake his finger and shout. Besides, I didn't think he was going to come out and take a run at me in front of dozens of people and police.

"Euro!" he shouted angrily. He shouted some other things too, which I didn't need to know Romanian to understand.

I picked up my bag and walked away. When I had a little distance I turned around and gave him a few internationally recognized hand gestures to let him know what I thought of him. I think he was too busy trying to scoop up the scattered Lei notes to notice, but some of the taxi drivers who loiter around Gard du Nord looked on with amusement. What a complete asshole. Sadly these guys sometimes get away with this behavior and that just encourages them to keep it up (keep reading for details).

Gard du Nord was busy and chaotic and it took me some time to find the ticket booth but, once I did, the woman behind the counter was helpful and I soon had a seat to Velko Tarnova. Leaving at 2:10 on the overnight train bound for Istanbul, I would arrive at my destination sometime around 8:00 PM. With about an hour to kill before departure, I set off to find some lunch. It was hot in the station and I took desperate measures; I headed for the golden arches. There, in the air-conditioned climate, I was able to calm down a little from the episode before. McDonalds the world over are nearly identical and the environment felt soothingly like home (which is kind of sad, isn't it?). Like a U.S. embassy, McDonalds feels like U.S. soil. Nevermind the fact that the menu included a Greek-style Big Mac with what appeared to be yoghurt-based souvlaki sauce on it. Nevermind the funky-looking spinach and cheese filo-dough wraps. English signs all over the wall reminded me that I was "lovin' it."

Since I wasn't going to Istanbul, I was in the regular coach car, which could fit at least 60 passengers but seemed to have at the time of departure less than 10. I had an entire cabin to myself, and spoke briefly with an American and Swedish guy, who had the cabin nextdoor to themselves. In fact, there were several cabins that remained completely empty for the entire trip. A passenger who stopped back briefly from the sleeper car ahead of us told me that the her car was probably one third of the way full, if even that.

Things were very quiet for the first couple of hours of the ride. I sat and read ("Five Seasons" by Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua) and looked out the window. Every so often I noticed a strange man in brown shorts, suspenders and a safari hat, who was pacing back and forth in the corridor outside the cabin, puffing on a cigarette. He would look in occasionally before moving on. I thought he resembled a paunchy Ralph Fiennes dressed up in the uniform of a 10 year-old Hitler Youth.

After a few hours the train pulled into the last Romanian stop on the trip for passport control. While we were stopped, I started talking with the American and the Swede in the nextdoor car. The Swede was travelling for about a month whereas the American, a recent graduate of Chapel Hill, was taking six months to travel in Europe and Africa before starting work in international aid and development (which would focus on Africa, hence a reason for that leg of the trip). The Swede was heading all the way to Istanbul but the American also planned to get off where I would in Velko Tarnovo. When the Romanian official came to check passports I went back to my cabin for a few minutes. I was going to head back nextdoor again but I overheard the man in the shorts and suspenders start up a conversation in there in awkwardly-phrased but generally decent English. I could overhear everything very clearly and something told me that it was better to stay in my seat then to go over and start talking with a guy who seemed nutty at best and quite possibly deranged. I realized that during his pacing and glancing into cabins, he had been looking for somebody to talk to. Better them than me, I figured.

As the train started to move again --- crossing over the Danube, past an island covered with huge smoke-belching furnaces, and into Bulgaria --- the stranger introduced himself as an independent Bulgarian "film director and producer." He began to dole out advice on where to travel in Bulgaria and why. For example, Varna on the Black Sea was highly recommended because (according to the director/producer), numerous foreign women came there for "how you say? 'entertainments' by Bulgarian men... and zey are never disappointed!"

After a few more minutes, the stranger began on a light but laborious anti-American tirade. "Ze stupidity coming from America, it iz unbelievable," and so on. The American guy just laughed through this, which I probably would have done at first, but the stranger kept going for a while with remarks such as "you have people suing people for everything," and so on (though he admitted he had never been to the U.S.). He mentioned the old McDonalds coffee-burn case, as if that kind of thing happened every day. "It is much more relaxed in Bulgaria than in America," he bragged. "For example, zhere is no sexual harassment law-suits!" He seemed particularly pleased by this.

We came to a stop in the first Bulgarian town across the border. We had to go through a passport check here as well. In the next cabin the stranger was going on about how America is overly in love with itself, as evidenced by movies such as "Independence Day," and "Born on the 4th of July." I couldn't quite work out the connection here, but the Bulgarian director seemed to have one. "And did you know, of course, zat zey were both directed and produced by Jews?" he asked his cabin-mates, with a pregnant pause at the end of his question. They laughed nervously. "All of the Hollywood directors and producers are Jewish, you know..."

"Come on, not all of them," said the American.

"All of them."

"Not all of them."

"Okay, okay. Not all of them. Ninety-nine point nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine percent of them."

I was looking for blunt objects in my cabin. If only I had a tire iron.

"Anyway, this is my stop, I must be going," said the Bulgarian Aryan. I had to concentrate to stay in my seat and refrain from shouting something at him as he left. This was probably a good thing because he came back a few minutes later with a very large and burly multi-tattooed friend of his and yelled through the window at the Swede and American:

"If you are going to Velko Tarnovo, you need to switch trains... Ze tracks are flooded so they are re-routing this train."

Oh great.

I was in the cabin with the American and Swede at this point and when the director offered to have his hulking neanderthal friend drive us to Velko Tarnovo we both flinched, wondering if (1) the story being given to us was correct, and (2) we wanted to trust this nut-case's friend, most likely a taxi driver out to make a lot of money for a three-hour cab ride. I certainly wasn't going to go, but the American guy (named Chase) thought about it. Then, realizing that it was a big gamble, he declined. The two men tried for a while to convince him but he refused.

A few minutes later a Bulgarian railway employee came by to check our tickets. When he saw ours he turned red and began to explain (in Bulgarian) that we were not going to pass through Velko Tarnovo and that we should get off at the stop we were currently at to find a taxi or bus. However, we had no idea how to go about doing that. We were in a fairly small town and didn't speak the language, nor could we even so much as read the signs, as that would involve deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet. We had no railway or bus timetable, no guide book information (as the town doesn't rate a review in any book) and no Bulgarian money ("leva").

I pulled out a map of Bulgaria and tried to explain to the man that we would prefer to stay on the train and get off at another major stop, perhaps one closer to the Black Sea, where there would be more frequent transportation back west and a higher chance of finding English-speakers. He turned red, muttered a few things in clear frustration, and left. Shortly after that the train began to move again.

"Maybe we're going to Istanbul," I told Chase, seriously.


At this point I had a really nice experience after using the bathroom. The door wouldn't open. It was sealed from the outside and after prying at it, kicking and pulling until my hands and fingers were red, I began to pound on it and yell, hoping somebody down the hall would hear me but not expecting much because of the noise the train was making at full speed. Then, after a minute, I realized I would have more success shouting out the window, which was open. The glass on the window was smashed in, however, and parts began to crumble in on me, so I had to stand back a bit. Finally the Swede opened the door with a curious look on his face. "Corporate lawyer get stuck in the bathroom?" he asked.

"Yeah, yeah." I was lucky he was only two cabins down, though, since he told me he could just barely hear me over the train.

After the Swede got through teasing me on the bathroom incident, it was my turn to abuse him a little. Recounting his experience in Bucharest, he revealed his run-in with one of the taxi drivers. Upon a late night arrival in Gard du Nord station, the Swede got picked up by one of the guys lounging around in the waiting area. I should stress that you should never do this anywhere because these guys make up the money they lose while waiting around (and then some) by finding foreigners and ripping them off. The Swede was a perfect example. He gave the driver the address of a hostel he reserved and was taken on a winding 20 minute drive through the frenetic midnight streets of Bucharest. On arrival the meter read approximately 200,000 Lei (about $7 and at least twice what a ride to anywhere in central Bucharest should cost) but the driver insisted that the Swede give him 20 Euros instead. The Swede, for reasons I cannot image, caved in and handed him the 20 Euros, effectively paying more than 3 times the meter rate and 7 times what the ride should have cost at the very most. But it gets better, much better (or worse); the next day the Swede woke up early and went out to explore. Taking a left from his hostel and walking less than a block ("not even one," he stressed) he noticed a familiar site looming above him across the street: It was Gard du Nord. His hostel had been a one minute walk from the station all along.

About thirty minutes later the Bulgarian railway worker came back with a fellow employee, a woman of perhaps 65 or 70. Patiently she sat down with us and explained once more (in Bulgarian) that we would not be going to Velko Tarnovo because the tracks were flooded (I knew that there had been unusually heavy rains in the area but when I bought my ticket in Bucharest, I assumed wrongly that the ticket agents knew where the problems were and what routes were affected). However, rather than getting flustered or annoyed with us, she tried (several times before communication was successful) to explain to us where we would need to get off and change trains. She pulled out a complex timetable and wrote down all the information we would need: In three hours --- at 8:30 PM --- we would reach the small city of Shuman. We would then need to wait for over three hours before catching an 11:50 train to Gorna Oryavitsa, arriving at 1:42 AM. Apparently we would then need to wait for over three more hours in Gorna in order to leave at about 5:00 AM for Velko. By the time we got there, the train we were currently on would be nearly the full way to Istanbul (though as it turned out, we later heard that this train was going to be delayed nearly five hours itself).

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled. Nevertheless, at least this woman had taken the time and effort to explain a lot of information to two clueless Americans who were completely out of their element. For the next few hours we chugged along, gaining altitude in the mountains and catching views of endless yellow-green fields and hills covered in tall grass and flowers. Flocks of windmilling geese, slate-gray rock ledges and stray pieces of decaying industrial machinery were also common enough sights. Finally, just before our stop, the Bulgarian woman strode back to our cabin with a maternal smile, just to make sure we knew it was time.

Few other people got off at Shuman. It was dark and the station was nearly silent. In the large waiting room the lights were dim and a lone taxi driver tried to offer his services to us. "ATM?" we asked him, but he shrugged and quickly grew bored with us.

At first we couldn't even find the ticket booth. A bored but very kind woman at the left-luggage booth pointed it out to us and, because she spoke a spattering of English (perhaps 100 words or so), she led us over to see if she could help out. Sure enough, the woman at the ticket booth didn't speak English. She was nice enough to us in spite of our complete befuddlement but gave us some bad news: Although our tickets to Velko would cost only about $4 each, (1) credit cards were not accepted, (2) U.S. dollars were not accepted, (3) Euros were not accepted. Only levas, in cash, were accepted. We had none and there weren't any ATMs in the train station. We would need to take a cab to a hotel down the road a few miles to find one. I did not like this idea one bit.

The generosity of the left-luggage woman saved us a considerable amount of hassle. I wish I had taken her name and address so I could thank her again. Although I couldn't understand her at first, I finally realized that she was trying to ask me if I had any small U.S. bills. I had a $20, which was small enough. She marched us back to the luggage booth, tore open a newspaper, found the exchange-rate, and proceeded to give me 32 Bulgarian leva for my $20. When I thought back on it later, I realized that the woman had given us 1.6 leva to the dollar when the rate in the paper was only 1.57. She received nothing in return. I wouldn't have blamed her at all if she'd charged a commission of some kind, but she didn't.

We bought our tickets and sat on the benches in the silence of the hall. A small snack stand was open and so, with 20 levas left, we were able to get a small junkfood dinner. I had a chocolate bar, some peanuts and a piece of flat bread stuffed with feta cheese. Along with a giant bottle of water, this set me back less than 2 leva. The 20 leva could pretty much buy out the snack stand.

As the hours ticked by the station began to show a few signs of life. People began to filter in. By 11 PM we were waiting with a crowd of several dozen. At about 11:30 the left-luggage woman came over and made sure we understood our schedule. Then she asked a young Bulgarian man with a backpack, who was getting on the same train, to make sure we understood which stop was ours.

The train pulled in on time. It was mobbed with Bulgarians coming back to Sofia from their holidays in Varna. As Chase and I walked from car to car to car we passed cabins filled with tired bodies and strange sights. Children in pajamas were sprawled across seats; one man was lying on a blanket on one of the floors; families were curled up into balls together and sometimes ten or eleven people were sleeping on top of one another in cars meant to fit eight closely. Another cabin held two little white puppies who were chasing each other in circles on one of the seats. Yet another had a cage filled with rabbits. Not finding any place to settle in, we kept walking up until we came to the first cabin of the first car. It was occupied by several police and railway workers who very nearly tackled Chase when he obliviously walked by, intent on opening the next door --- which would have taken him into the locomotive cabin (I grabbed his backpack and tugged him back until he stopped).

There was one seat free in the cabin behind the police and I gave it to Chase, who looked like he was about to collapse. He fell asleep almost instantly. I was happy to stand in the corridor and get some of the air coming in through the open windows. When I was tired I was able to sit on my backpack for a while. Once we were settled our dutiful, appointed Bulgarian chaperone came over to make sure we understood that we needed to get off at Gorna in about two hours.

The ride went by fairly quickly. After half an hour it started to pour buckets of rain down and thunder and lightening violently, illuminating miles of mountain landscape in long brilliant flashes of white light. More people piled in as we made other stops, and I had plenty of company in the hall (but was fortunate enough to be at the far end of the spot where somebody vomited). As I thumbed through my travel guide and looked at the timetable the Bulgarian woman had made for us, I realized happily that our stop in Gorna was very close to Veliko Tarnova... perhaps only 10 miles away. There was no need to wait three hours for a train when we might be able to get a taxi right away. I counted the remaining leva in my pocket: 16 and change, or about $10. I figured that should just about be enough.

We reached Gorna just before 2 AM. "Gorna?" I asked one of the policemen, not quite sure if we were there. He shook his head, confusing me greatly until I remembered that a nod in Bulgaria means "no" and a head shake means "yes." Just to make sure I understood him I asked "da?" "Da!" he said.

The train station in Gorna was a lot more lively and crowded than the one in Shuman. There was even a cafe serving beer to numerous waiting travellers. In the lot out front a man stood by a taxi cab. We approached him warily, hoping we would get where we were going for a price we could afford (there wasn no sign of an ATM nearby).

I gave him the name of a cheap hotel I had picked out of the Lonely Planet. "How much?" asked Chase.

The man held up one finger, then five fingers. He said a word in Bulgarian. Then he also said "quince."

My eyes lit up. Finally something seemed to be going right. "Quince?"

"Si. Quince."

"Habla Espanol?"

"Si, si, y usted?"

"Un poco."

"Bueno..." and so forth. In the car the driver told me about how his son was studying to be an engineer at the University of St. Louis. I regret not asking him where he learned Spanish but would assume he lived for a while in Spain because of his accent, expressions ("vale!") and almost total fluency.

We reached Velko Tarnovo after a 15 minute drive through rain-drenched hills lined with small houses and 19-century Othodox churches. As we neared the town center we passed the Tsarvets Fortress, an enormous walled complex surrounding the ruins of over 400 houses and 18 churches that were mainly built between the 4th and 12th centuries. Lit up at night, it seemed to stretch on forever on a hill overlooking a deep winding gorge below it.

When we finally reached the hotel at 2:30 I had exactly 1.25 leva left. After checking into my room I went back to the lobby and spent 1.20 of that on a celebratory beer. I then fell sound asleep until 2 PM the next day.

Posted by Joshua on August 13, 2005 08:22 AM
Category: Bulgaria
Email this page
Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Designed & Hosted by the BootsnAll Travel Network