Split Train Bulgarian Ordeal
I got up, hungover (blame the cheap Czech beer in Prague), gathered my backpack up, checked out of the hostel and made my way to the train station. I’m searching for the Thesaloniki (Greece) train which goes via Bulgaria. The signs are all in non-latin alphabet, so I haven’t a clue what’s going where. I enquire at the ticket office, why do all ticket sellers have bad tempers. They must be the least helpful people on the planet. Still I get a platform number at least. I proceed to the platform, jump on the train which has Thesaloniki (or a Check/Bulgarian variant thereof) written on the side. I ask a few people on the train who confirm the destination, so I plonk myself down on a double seat in the middle of the train and catch up on some hangover zz’s. I awake an hour or so later to have Czech guards asking me for my passport, then a few minutes later Bulgarian police doing the same – why do they all remind me of Gestapo? Only difference between the two was the uniforms and the Bulgarian police asking for cigarettes (to speed up your passport processing). I don’t smoke so had to wait to normal ‘processing’ time!
I then settled back to sleep, to be awakened occasionally by the train jostling and clunking in various stations en route. When I eventually surface out of fuzzy hangover, I look out the window and notice that we’re now not stopping at stations, but at trees and bridges! What’s going on? On further investigation I find that I’m now in the train ‘end’ carriage ! What? I distinctly remember getting on the middle of the train! Then the realization struck me like a bat out of hell – all of that clunking I heard (and ignored) earlier – the train had split in two, the other half proceeding to Greece (Thesaloniki) and the half I was on going to god knows where!
Ok try and think what to do (difficult with a brain going into alcohol withdrawal). I decide to get off at the next town – which happens to be the end of the line at a small town called Petrio. I step onto the platform, it’s boiling hot, and this place reminds me of one of those Clint Eastwood spaghetti western towns, I’m expecting a rolling bush to blow past any minute. I hear nothing, then a squawk and I look up to see a pair of Storks nested on a huge pole beside the railway station. There’s a little cafe near the station, I head there to get into some shade and get a drink as I’m severely dehydrated – shit I have no Bulgarian money (as I intended to travel straight through) I’m stuck in some God-forsaken shit hole of a town in South-western Bulgaria with no money and no immediate way of getting out – and dehydrated to boot!
Well I’d better figure where I am, and how to get back, so I pull out my map of Europe to try and establish my exact whereabouts. Some curious locals come and sit down beside me, they see my map and I presume in Bulgarian point at it to ask where I’m from. I point out Belfast on the map – they are amazed that I’ve come so far to come to their little town (I didn’t even try to explain that I didn’t intend coming here). I manage to communicate (via map names & lots of pointing) that I intend to get to Thesaloniki. They laugh, and now I’m beginning to see the funny side too! They tell me I need to go back to the previous town (Sadinski) and pick up the train to Greece from there tomorrow! Of course the next train to Sadinski is four hours from now. I contemplate a taxi (I have some US dollars I’m sure they’d take) – there are no taxis! Ok, I sit down again in the blazing heat and try and think what to do. Bugger it – this is all what the traveling experience is all about – getting out of challenging situations like this! I decide to hitch to Sadinski. So I put on my backpack get general directions off the locals and march off up the road (Storks mocking my every step !). Then I reach a fork in the road – which way? No signs of course.
There’s an old man digging in his garden, surely he can point me in the direction on the nearest town (Sadinski). Of course he speaks no English, but I’m thinking surely he knows the name of the nearest town. I say to him “Sadinski ? and point at the fork in the road – he shrugs his shoulders and says something in Bulgarian. I say again slowly “S-a-d-i-n-s-k-i ?” – still no response, repeat 5 or 6 times, then eventually he says “Ah Sadiinski !” Like that’s what I’ve been saying for the last 5 minutes (and it is after all the name of the neighboring village!) At last he points to one of the forks and I proceed up it and eventually arrive at a main road. I stand there hitching for half an hour of so then I pickup truck with 2 young Bulgarian guys stop – I shout “Sadiinski?” and they nod their heads. I jump in & throw my backpack in the back. They bring me about 10 miles up the road, and then stop, they’re turning off somewhere and set me down. I thank them and wave goodbye, then stand for another half hour before a car stops with a middle aged Greek guy in it. He has very little English, I try and explain to him that I’m going to Sadinski because I want to get to Thesaloniki on the next day’s train. He reply’s in Greek, but what he said I had no clue. I then notice we pass by a road with a sign to Sadinski – I say to him “Sadinski ?” he replies ‘Greekland”. I’m thinkin bugger it he’s passed Sadinski and is heading for the Greek border. I might as well go with him (like I had a choice!).
We soon arrive at the Greek border, where I quickly discover why the guy picked me up – because he could carry twice as much duty-free booze over the border with another person in the car (nice to feel used!) I quickly change 30 pounds travelers cheques to Greek currency, then hop back in the car with the duty free king. He drives about another 10 miles up the road then stops. He makes it clear in sign-language that he’s turning off down some side road, so I reluctantly get out and stand by the road again. This time I wait longer and longer…I see the sun starting to go down, so I’m looking in the bushes for a good place to sleep while it’s still light, as I prepare for the ‘no-lift today’ scenario.
Eventually a sports car stops and I cram myself and my backpack into the small backseat. I don’t know where they’re going but anywhere’s better than this desolate spot! It’s a young Russian couple, who again have little English, so the conversation doesn’t get much beyond where I’m from and where I’m going. I’m guessing Russian mafia by the plush car and clothes. Anyway they were quite friendly and left me in the next town, at the bus station (as they weren’t going on to Thesaloniki). So I went to buy a bus ticket to Thesaloniki – the cashier threw back my money “Bulgari, Bulgari” she shouted at me – what? I inspected the money, sure enough, I’d gotten 30 pounds of Bulgarian currency at the border checkpoint leaving Bulgaria! And you can’t officially change it outside Bulgaria, no one wants Bulgarian currency, its worthless outside Bulgaria – bugger! Another cock-up!
I had to change some US Dollars to get proper Greek money to buy a bus ticket. I got on the Thesaloniki bus and was there in about an hour. In fact (and this is where I got a real buzz) I’d actually beaten the original train I’d fallen asleep on which split up send me to downtown nowhere. I booked into a hostel with a real sense of achievement and an experience I’d never forget. I later managed to swap my Bulgarian cash for Greek money with another traveler heading that way, so it all worked out in the end, and I can’t remember anything significant about the rest of that Inter-rail trip but I will certainly never forget the ‘Lost in Bulgaria’ experience.