There’s a slow train a’coming driving me around the bend.

It is 392 kilometres from Sofia to Belgrade and another 600 kilometres from Belgrade to Vienna. From Vienna you are on the fast rail networks of western Europe but these first two legs of my journey are about 200 years in the past in terms of train technology years.

The trip from Sofia to Belgrade in particular, is the railway equivalent of slow boat up the Nile. The Nile slow boats are a sailing boat called a Felucca, a boat, incidentally, that I know well (more of that in another post).

Felucca
Felucca, Nile River

Faster by Felucca

These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.

The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station

This is serious regret country. Where you think “was this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by train”. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.

Not much joy from the fellow passengers either

To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we don’t arrive in Belgrade until about 8 pm. The average speed is 30.15 kilometres per hour. Consider this – the average male marathon runner covers the 42 kilometres of the marathon in about 2 hours or around 21 kilometres per hour.

In other words this inter-city express would win a Boston Marathon but only by around half an hour. Or alternatively the marathoner could theoretically reach Belgrade only a few hours after the train if s/he could keep going – and the trip would probably be more comfortable than the train trip, since it seems that these trains were probably once used to torture their occupants via sleep deprivation. If you do accidentally fall asleep the lurching, bumping and grinding will have you on the deck in a matter of minutes.

There are, by my count 46 stops between the two cities which, if you work it out is one stop every 8.52 kilometres. Most of these stops, apparently, require that the driver or guard, possibly both, get off the train have a short winter holiday and then re-board before leaving the station. On average 0.75% of a person boards or descends at each stop.

From Belgrade to Vienna things decline further, other than the speed which is a little faster. We board the Vienna Express at Belgrade Station. The Vienna Express is likely the East European version of the Marrakesh Express of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.

It consists of a single locomotive and carriage and an assortment of co-passengers that look as if they stepped off the set of Midnight Express. The Avala only travels as far as Nis, where we change trains to a the more modern version of our Felucca. To ensure that we are not, however fooled by this impression of modernity, our express journey includes an unscheduled one hour stop in the Serbian countryside just after we have changed trains.

Here we wait in a small town with several other trains while they repair the railway tracks. Apparently they started work on the track the night before and forgot that trains were supposed to run on it the following day (or something like that given that my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem). It does have the advantage that we are all able to take a short tour of the village, have a smoke, get extra supplies, or whatever takes our fancy, etc.

The average passenger is also psychologically traumatised since the train, from Belgrade is called the Avala which sounds like it should be some slick modern train. In my brain it sounds a bit like Areva which is, of course, the French company which builds nuclear reactors. It’s the power of association. Even though nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60s technology.

The psychological dissonance suffered by the passengers who believe they will be boarding something the name of which sounds like the TGV but which operates like the train in the accompanying photo (below, at Nis station) is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.

Nis station (right) another model of modernity and (left) the fast train from Nis

For the first world, western European/Australian, traveller the journey through the Serbian countryside is, in itself, also a blast from the past in various senses.

Even the names of the towns such as Dimitrovgrad, where we stop on the Bulgarian/Serbian border, are reminiscent, to my ears, of the greyness of the planned cities of the Soviet Union. And, as it turns out Dimitrovgrad  was exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Dutton’s mind. Devoid of anything pleasant.

Here, we have a Bulgarian/Serbian repetition of my experience of crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria which you can read about here. Multiple border guards mount the train and make off with our passports to perform some secret police ritual in the offices of the adjacent buildings. Satisfied that any potential Syrian refugees are not, in fact, on board the train but are back in Ghouta enjoying being murdered by the Assad regime, we are allowed to proceed.

Later we will have a similar border experience at Subotica on Hungarian border, a border which is replete with a 2.5 metre, razor wire topped anti refugee fence. This stop involves not just the standard passport control but also involves the border police getting on their hands and knees and searching under each seat bench for errant refugees.

Despite its shortcomings the trip is scenically quite spectacular as we pass along the Danube River valley gorges near Gradište. The Danube swollen by full floodwaters from the recent storms surges through the gorges past the cliffside forming a spectacular backdrop to the rail trip.

We also pass a plethora of small towns each with its own unique railway building and railway staff who perform the railway rituals that seem to come with the territory in most of the Balkans and eastern Europe. These involve a variety of uniforms, strange hand signals, flag performances and assaults on the train using strange looking hammers.

 

Railway guards each with their own ritual and the railway stations – about 46 of them

Many of the cities are a different story, especially along the train lines. Here, in every country in the world, seem to be the areas that are full of the most impoverished looking, dingy parts of each city.

This is particularly so in many of the major cities of Eastern Europe where every passing kilometre is littered with dead trains, carriages and buildings but, worse, sometimes for tens of kilometres, are ground zero for seemingly uncontrolled rubbish dumping as far as the eye can see.

Abandoned buildings, trains and things. And abandoned hope.

Piles and piles of household, industrial and building waste, much of it plastic. Whether it is the absence of recycling facilities, an historical or current disdain for the environment, the absence of tipping facilities or the cost of disposing of waste it leaves an unpleasant vision of a form of industrialised hell.

Rubbish central. For miles. As far as the eye can see. Here near Belgrade.

As we near Belgrade our train comes to another halt. After half an hour we are informed that the train has broken down. Soon after another train pulls alongside us. The doors are opened and we all climb off, onto the tracks, with our luggage and board the relief train which takes us to Belgrade Center Station.

Now, one might imagine that Belgrade Center might be in the centre of Belgrade but no such luck. It turns out that this is merely a suburban station some 5 kilometres from Belgrade, where some tricky apparatchik has decided to fool all the capitalist visitors by naming it Belgrade Center. Apparently, there is track work between Belgrade Center and Belgrade Central Station, so you can’t get between the two.

Moreover Belgrade Center station is devoid of any immediate public transport connections or even taxis and there is zero signage or information. So I and several fellow passengers mill around wondering how we get from here to Belgrade proper. Eventually we find an office and the staff there order a taxi for us. This signals the end of our journey and where I and another lost passenger share a taxi to downtown Belgrade.

As my AirBnB host says to me, sarcastically when I explain my delay “Welcome to Serbia”

Recent posts published on this blog:

The Iron Rule: thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

Making In-Rhodes: more than just a colossus

Images from this blog and others from this trip may be found here on Flickr

The Iron Rule – thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

TEN THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT BULGARIA

Sofia coffee rating (note, based on limited sample) – 6/10 at 2 locations (for ranking system see here):

  1. Братя Хлебари / Baker Brothers, ulitsa „Georgi S. Rakovski“ 44, 1202 Sofia Center, Sofia – 6/10
  2. The Rainbow Factory ул. Веслец 10, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria – 6/10

The train which we boarded in Istanbul stops at the Turkey – Bulgaria border – and, refusing to be outdone by the Australian rail system, this train is old and slow and leaves from some part of Istanbul far from civilisation – a 45 minute bus ride from central Istanbul – what Australians would call woop woop.

The station which is not a station (Sirkeki)

The train, itself, is some form of exercise in Turkish logic. My carriage is numbered 483 even though the train contains just four carriages. One assumes this is designed to confuse foolish yabangee (foreigners) since, no doubt, Turks understand this logic.

The border is where modern nationalistic, autocratic Turkey meets the remnants of the centralised monolithic communist state and its obsession with bureaucracy and control. Never let it be said that the era of easy globalised travel has reached the Turkish, east European and Balkan borders.

Here the obsessive nationalism, paranoia and xenophobia of some or all of these countries conspires with an antiquated infrastructure, and a disregard for the modern desire for speed, to ensure that no traveller shall go unpunished for daring to cross the border.

Pulling into Kapikule on the Turkish border we are first disembarked at 2.30 am. All of the 30 odd people on the train to Sofia are woken and de-trained in the dead of night. There is no purpose to this that could not be achieved by a single immigration officer boarding the train and politely requesting passports and ID cards so that they can be checked against the database to ensure that we haven’t just fled from Daesh controlled Syria. Having evicted the passengers from the depth of their sleep and the warmth of their beds, those passengers arrive on the platform only to find that there is nothing that resembles officialdom anywhere within rifle shot and no sign of a passport office.

Eventually we discover that they have hidden the passport office on the other platform cunningly hidden by the train. On discovering this we all head, sheep-like, for the crossing over the rail lines where, we have noted, various railway staff and security personnel are crossing.

They shall not pass. Turkish and Bulgarian customs posts

But, no, this is not acceptable since there may be a train passing this way sometime between now and Christmas. A phalanx (well 3, at least) of Turkish security/police shouting “you shall not pass” and waving their AK47s, ALRs or Uzis blocks our way.

So, we are forced to march 100 metres east, through a tunnel with harsh, flashing, white lights which would, undoubtedly, have sent survivors of the Gulag Archipelago into a frenzy and then 100 metres back to the passport office which is, as the crow flies, a mere ten metres across the lines and platform from the train.

Here we queue as the indolent passport officer scrutinises us at his leisure, while his colleague standing next to him is, presumably, taking his annual leave. Very slowly, presumably to avoid RSI, he checks each person off against a list of passengers after which we are allowed to return to the train.

Should any of the passengers marked as being on board the train not appear at the passport control the train shall not leave. In their wisdom, however, this turns out not to be a problem, since our train sits at the station for a further 90 minutes while the Turkish locomotive which, clearly, does not have a visa for Bulgaria is changed for a Bulgarian locomotive.

This gives Turkish immigration plenty of time to search the train for errant passengers. In the process they wake us twice, for light entertainment, presumably to check that no passenger has transmogrified into a refugee or alien from space or smuggled a refugee on board while the train was standing at the station.

In addition, presumably to ensure that no one actually has the presumption to try and sleep, the locomotive changing exercise takes the full 90 minutes and involves, apparently, smashing the new engine into the carriages repeatedly. The purpose of that ritual is unknown unless it is some form of crash test using live passengers as dummies. As it is the entire train suffers a form of horizontal whiplash with their heads being violently catapulted side to side.

The end result is that what could have been a pleasant nights sleep is turned into the sleep equivalent of coitus interruptus where what is, theoretically, pleasurable is interrupted to ensure that Turkey does not lose anyone which it wishes to protect in its internment centres and that Bulgaria is not impregnated by the arrival of unwelcome guests.

The detritus of the Communist era. Decaying building and half finished buildings everywhere

Arrival into Sofia is at 8.30, an hour later than scheduled. Mussolini clearly never visited Bulgaria. Here we are disgorged into a railway station that appears to be a practice run for building Bangkok which, as any person who has visited Thailand knows, is the world leader in ugly concrete structures.

To ensure that every passenger knows that they are in an ex-Soviet satellite state the front entrance to the station is adorned with a large-ugly-concrete-something that apparently served to use up the spare truck of concrete when they had finished the station.

Sofia – welcomed by a very concrete station and an large ugly concrete something

Bulgaria can’t quite decide whether it is Sovexit or Eurentry. The result being a sort of schizophrenic society which retains large slabs of the former Soviet society, culture and architecture, like a brutalised lover that can’t quite bear to throw out the photo of their tormentor; someone s/he didn’t really love or even, really, like but to whom s/he has a type of sentimental love/hate relationship. On the other hand s/he doubts the bona-fides of the EU, the new flash lover who promised much but has so far delivered far less than the marriage vows described.

This is reflected in the visual and economic aspects of Bulgaria and, even Sofia. Rural Bulgaria is old agricultural Europe. Depopulated with abandoned houses everywhere as people have fled to “better” lives in the cities. Then as you approach Sofia you move into the old Soviet Union. Abandoned factories and warehouses and, everywhere, piles of litter, building waste, industrial poisons, the detritus of a society that cared/cares little or nothing for the environment.

Then, finally, there is central Sofia a pleasant, small modern city strewn with the monumentalism of the Soviet Union and the religious fervour of a part Catholic and part orthodox Christianity.

In this context symbolism is everything and the bigger the better. From the massive Orthodox Cathedrals, the latter with more gold on the roof than that hoarded by every Indian on planet. For the environmental and social destruction wrought by its obsession with gold and gold leaf, the churches should be doing penance until the second coming.

Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Church

When it’s not the churches hoarding the wealth of society in its land and buildings it’s the grandiose neo-fascist symbolism of the ex-Soviet Union and its satellites celebrating the theft of millions of lives in their monuments to their so-called communism – that communist society being more akin to that which is feverishly being pursued by modern day neo-cons – in other words more a controlled klepocracy than anything resembling socialism.

The Russian Orthodox (Alexander Nevksy) Cathedral. More bling than Sarkozy

If, however, you ignore the religious and political follies that created these various buildings they are undoubtedly fine specimens of their type. The Russian Church, the St George Rotunda, and the Cathedrals of Sofia are all worth a visit if you are passing through, as is the Russian memorial, the Presidents Building and the ex-Communist Party headquarters. At the Presidents Building if you arrive just before the hour you can enjoy a remnant of the Soviet era in the spectacle of the goose-step driven changing of the guard.

Always hard to leave your authoritarian past behind. The changing of the guard at the President building

The nadir of this obsession with big and grand can be found at the Eagle Bridge which though by no means the largest symbol of stalinist excess is a suitable folly. This fine bridge adorned by four magnificent eagles spans a concrete drain containing a rivulet. This rivulet contains about as much water as the Darling River after Cubbie Station, in Australia, has extracted its billions in water to be wasted on a cotton crop. It’s a typical Australian plan. Take one of the world’s iconic rivers on the world’s driest continent and suck it dry for a crop that would be better grown almost anywhere else in the world.

Monumentalism everywhere both ancient and modern, including the famous Eagle bridge and the river (ditch) it runs over)

Cubbie, for non-Australians, is a cotton “farm” in Queensland which has been allowed by Government to pretty much destroy the Darling River by extracting so much water, along with some other culprits, that the second longest river in Australia is now an empty ditch.

Nevertheless, despite being burdened with a large quantity of cynicism I found Sofia, a pleasant city to visit. Most of the major attractions within the city centre boundary can be walked around in a day and the city is clean, open, populated with numerous gardens, has a good public transport system if you don’t feel like walking and is stacked with interesting buildings, if that’s your thing. It does have its idiosyncrasies among which are the paving of streets and public areas with large quantities of yellow pavers.

IMG_7365
The famous yellow pavers. More slippery than an Australian politician. Old communist party headquarters at rear.

These pavers not only are a distinct vomit yellow but are specially designed to ensure that, should it be wet, no visitor to Sofia shall walk the city without sliding and falling on them at least a couple of times. This presumably is an economy building exercise since injured tourists, unable to walk, stay longer and spend more money. While I didn’t witness the large number of rear end collisions that presumably occur when cars try and brake in the wet, these accidents, one assumes, these also add to the GDP in much the same way as wars and earthquakes.

Most recent posts:

Making In-Rhodes: More than just a Colossus

Ai am the Wei and the truth and the life -inside Ai Weiwei’s Istanbul exhibition.

Images from this post can be found here:

En route to Bulgaria

Bulgaria

Sofia

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: