It has been awhile since I had a good story for you. But then we found ourselves on a midnight to train Bulgaria, and I have one that is long if nothing else.
We went to the train station in Istanbul to book our ticket to Plovdiv, our first stop in Bulgaria. We read that it would be ten hours in a two-bed sleeper car leaving at 10 p.m. We envisioned a romantic cabin where we could open a bottle of wine and have a little Turkish late night snack plate then settle in for a cozy night of sleep. Our hopes were dashed when the ticket agent told us that, due to work on the tracks, we would have to change to a bus at some point on the trip, then change back to a train, with a stop somewhere in there to walk across the border. Oh, and the first train would not have sleeper cars. Dylan said, “Maybe we should look at flights.” I said, “Maybe we should look at the bus.” We bought the train tickets.
We got to the train station nice and early so we could try to get good seats. It was completely deserted, so much so that we were nervous we were there at the wrong time. The only other guy in the waiting room was snoring at top volume. We did enough hand signaling with the two people working there to learn that we were fine, our train was on Platform 2, and we were welcome to board when the conductor opened the doors. At about 9:35, we climbed in and were pleasantly surprised to see that one car had sleeper compartments. It had six seats below on two benches and two beds up top, so we could actually sleep bottom or top if we were alone. Dylan said, “I hope we don’t have to share.” It became apparent we wouldn’t have to share when ten minutes in, there were only two other people in the station.
At 9:45, Dylan jumped out to buy us some waters from the station mini-mart. There was a knock on the compartment door, and a young, single, male traveler was standing there. We exchanged pleasantries of the “I’m from San Francisco and going to Plovdiv” / “I’m from Japan and going to Sofia” variety. Then, boom, he asked if he could share our compartment with us. We had our luggage up top and I pointed to the bench seats and said we wanted to sleep, was that okay? He said sure and went back next door. Dylan returned and I told him what happened and that I was completely guilt-stricken over saying no to a fellow traveler who had worked up the nerve to ask a favor, but I had panicked. Dylan, with me on not really wanting to share but equally sympathetic, agreed with me that I should tell our neighbor that he could become our bunkmate. I knocked on his door and asked him if he still wanted to come over, and he hopped up, grabbed his bag, and joined us.
It was a bit weird, but it was also fine and guilt-free. We didn’t have wine and cheese or any chance at romance anyway. We exhausted easy topics then Akito, after bashfully admitting this trip was his first time traveling alone, climbed up top, we lay down on the benches, and we pretty much went to dozing as much as possible for the next few hours. As far as I could tell, we were four travelers, one conductor, and one attendant on a four car train. I figured we’d pick up more people along the way as our rickety, noisy old train seemed to stop to wake me up every half hour. After cranking up the heat as high as we could – I was covered in my towel and all my jackets and scarves – I was actually asleep when a pounding on our door roused us from our stupors. Dylan opened the door, and the attendant shouted at us “KAPIKALE! KAPIKALE!” We didn’t know if this was the bus or maybe the border, or maybe a snack cart? We tried to ask, and the response was “KAPIKALE! KAPIKALE!” but he also made a rolling over motion with his hands, and we figured out it was time to get out.
We disembarked at 3:00 a.m. to discover that in five hours, our train had picked up one, lone Turkish guy, making the travelers a party of five. We all stumbled into the train station expecting passport control, only to be directed out the back door after ten minutes, where a bus pulled up. We boarded and our passports were inspected on board. Now we were five travellers, one driver, one passport guy, and one attendant. We ambled to the border on the bus. A Turkish border agent got on board and checked our passports again while we waited. We ambled into no man’s land between borders. We were told to get out and walk through the Bulgarian checkpoint ourselves. We got in line behind two guys who had appeared from somewhere else, and when the agent finished with them, he decided he needed a smoke break, so we were sent back to the bus. Ten minutes later, we were fetched for try #2.
Dylan went through while I was spaced out. Our two original fellow travelers were looked at with suspicion as their Japanese passports were studied intensely – yes, despite the fact that were was another twenty-something, single, Japanese dude who was wearing nearly identical sand-colored bucks and hip clothes to his also on our train, somehow Akito wanted to bunk with us – but they each got through next. When I got up there, I felt like the agent spent five whole minutes studying the extra pages that I’d had sewn into my passport and the tape that the State Department used to hold it all together, but he eventually let me through. Dylan said the same thing happened to him. As soon as I was through, the four of us walked to the bus to wait for a few minutes. I can’t deny a thrill at walking across a border, even if it was past 4 a.m. We were in Bulgaria! We then took off without the Turkish guy! We asked the attendant where he went, and the driver, too, but no one could answer. All four of us were sort of deliriously, amusedly worried, but to no avail. We never saw him again.
After an hour on the bus, we pulled up to another train station and left the bus for our second train. This one was the one that was not in fact a sleeper. It was also not clean, new, comfortable, smooth or anything else you might want in a train. We were removed from the first train so abruptly that none of us had time to use the bathroom for hours, which was a real shame because the only bathroom on our four car, four person train had evidently had many crimes committed inside of it. We settled in for what should have been two but was instead almost four-and-a-half hours of devil train. The best part was that at about 9:30, eleven-and-a-half hours into our journey, the other two guys finally spoke to each other and were chatting away when we finally exited in Sofia at 10 a.m.
Our hostel had given us good directions, so one more short bus ride and an uphill hike later, we got to our candy pink temporary home. The young woman at the desk told us that the room was not ready because it was only 10:30 and we should come back at noon. Defeated, we left our bags in search of breakfast. We eventually found an open cafe after stumbling upon Plovdiv’s magnificent Roman amphitheater (more on this soon), and we dragged ourselves back up the hill at noon. We got checked in and Dylan, exhausted, told the clerk that we were very happy to get to our room, because we hadn’t slept in two days. Her eyes got huge and she blurted out “Sorry!” as we were going upstairs. We were two of maybe four guests in a hostel that had four rooms on the third floor alone. We surely could have started our day of sleep when we first got in. But after the night we had, we just had to be grateful to get into a bed at all.