Sunday, April 24, 2011

How We Got to Tir Asleen

Getting from Slovenia to Turkey seemed like an easy task: we would catch a train to Belgrade, stay a few days, and then catch another train to Istanbul.

The first and second parts were very easy. The 10-hour train ride from Ljubljana to Belgrade was peaceful; we had a whole compartment to ourselves until the last hour or so, and spent the time reading and sleeping. The only excitement, if you could call it that, came when crossing into Croatia: the Slovenian border patrol questioned how we actually got to Slovenia as the last stamps in our passport were exit stamps from Egypt about 6 weeks before. We had to explain to her the arrangement that if an Australian citizen is evacuated to Germany (or possibly any EU country), they don't need to get a visa or even a stamp on entry. She looked a little puzzled but simply shrugged her shoulders, stamped out passports and went on her way.

In Belgrade, we spent a very relaxing week in a very small hostel which was basically a 2 bedroom apartment. We made good use of the kitchen and I even baked Jace's favourite chicken pie, which we shared with our lovely Icelander flatmates, Kristin and Emil.

Statue of a buff worker in Belgrade

Kalemegdan Fortress and Park. For centuries the population of the city of Belgrade was concentrated within its walls

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary outside St Petka Chapel

Looking out to where the Sava and Danube rivers meet

The final stage of our journey sounded simple. We checked departure times of the train to Istanbul and discovered it left every day at 7.15am. When we asked the lady at the International Ticket Office when it would arrive in Istanbul, she responded, "7.15." "In the evening?" "Yes." Too easy. A 12-hour train ride: no problem.

The morning of our departure, April 1 - our one year travel anniversary -, the train was an hour late. We checked with the ticket office, the information office and the conductor to make sure we were waiting on the right platform and getting on the train to Istanbul. We boarded on the second carriage of the 4-carriage-long train and settled into a compartment. Our tickets were checked and no one bothered us again for nearly 6 hours until a new ticket inspector asked for our tickets.

I plug in for the long ride

"You are wrong train. This train no Istanbul." WHAT?!

Through his broken English and a lot of hand signals, he explained that the train had split in two one station back. One half was heading to Sofia and Istanbul and the other half, the one which we were on, was heading to Romania. He bustled us off the train at the next station and we jumped on a waiting train heading back to Niš, from whence we could go to Istanbul.

Once in Niš, we discovered that the next train to Istanbul would not be leaving till the following day. Of course. We spent an uninteresting night in Niš, which is the third largest city in Serbia but is basically an industrial town with nothing else going on.

On April 2, we got to the station early and triple-checked which part of the train we needed to be on to get to Istanbul. Again we had our own compartment, but while we read, we were keenly alert as to where we were and what the train was doing until we reached Sofia.

A few moments after the train stopped in Sofia, a man with a grey vest and a red lanyard with a card hanging off it popped his head in the door and asked, "Istanbul?" We nodded and he motioned to us to go with him, saying, "Come, come."

As daylight faded from the sky, we followed him off the train, down and up stairs, onto a different platform, while he motioned to us to follow quicker. He showed us onto an empty waiting train where another man in a grey vest and red lanyard pointed to some seats, started writing on a pad that looked to be tickets, and said, "Reservation seats. 35 Euro."

Jace and I looked at each other and back at him. "We have tickets. No reservation needed," I said, showing him our tickets.

"You must have reservation. Special seats. 35 Euro."

"No, I don't think so." We set our bags on the racks while he continued to push us.

"See here," he insisted, pointing to the card covered in Cyrillic around his neck, "You buy reservation from me."

"No," Jace said firmly and we turned our backs to the man, who finally gave up and disappeared.

The first man, the one who had shown us to the train, was still hanging around.

"Euro?" he quietly asked.

"Ne Euro. Ne money. Ne cash." It was true, we had precious little cash on us.

"Coca Cola? Fanta? Chocolate?" he pleaded, trying a different tact.

"Ne," I responded shaking my head a little sadly but firmly. He gave up.

"I might've actually given him a Euro if he hadn't led us straight into a scam," Jace told me as a real ticket conductor walked passed us in a green uniform.

Of course, when he checked our tickets, he didn't ask for the "special reservation" tickets or more money. He did tell us, however, that we would have to transfer onto a bus at Svilengrad and assured us he would let us know when we got there.

It was after 7pm when we left Sofia, and as the hours passed, it became clear that we would be lucky if we reached Istanbul by 2am.

In Svilengrad, we must've waited an hour for the bus to take us across the border, and with the time zone change, it was 4am before we were boarding another train to take us the final stage of our journey.

We finally rolled into Istanbul's Sirkeci station around 10.30am, about 50 hours after starting our journey from Belgrade. We had made it to our Tir Asleen.

The only things we had to do now were to find somewhere to live permanently and to get jobs. But first: sleep!

No comments:

Post a Comment