CHASING THE ORIENT EXPRESS

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It is searingly hot outside on platform 12 of Sofia’s main railway station. My head still hurts from dehydrating slowly but steadily on the train from Budapest to Sofia the day before. As I board the train I submerge into a  pool of air that seems to be boiling. The train bound for Istanbul stands still, there isn’t the slightest breath of fresh air.

Only one carriage is going to Istanbul, connected directly to the locomotive. The remainder of the train has a different destination and as we progress our journey, carriages will leave and join the train. An African looking man with a black beard catches my eye as I am looking for my seat. There are not that many people of African descent in Bulgaria. Especially on trains. And even more so on trains headed Eastwards.

Travelling this route it was a strange thought to be on such quiet trains thus far, realising that headed the other way, they could be filled with hundreds of Syrian refugees. Two days before it had even been a challenge to buy a train ticket from Budapest to Sofia. Hundreds of refugees were queuing to get a ticket and at the counter they made no distinction between travellers headed East and those headed the other way.

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The hundreds of refugees trying to buy a ticket were not the only ones around. There were hundreds more camping outside the station. It was a disturbing, literally chilling sight. Time and desperation seemed all these people had taken with them. Tents and clothing donated by Hungarians provided some relief. Interestingly notices had been pinned to the walls clarifying that these were private donations and that in case a piece of clothing was not to the liking of someone, that they need not throw them in the garbage.

Two girls were there taking care of the children. Making sure they had something entertaining to do while waiting. According to information from the UNHCR over 38% of the more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees are children between the age of 0 and 11 years old. One of the girls explained that most refugees would stay at the station for about four days before moving on to Austria and Germany. But with every refugee leaving, new ones would arrive.

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I walked around a bit. Seeing children play. Some refugees were glad to have me take some pictures, apparently happy to get attention for their situation, but mostly people seemed tired, emotionless, stressed, tense. What struck me most was the sight of human beings stuck in bureaucracy to a point where there whole lives stand still.

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For how long would you be willing to put your life on hold? Waiting for someone to hand you food that you then have to fight over. Waiting in a smell of urine and under an unbearably hot sun. For reasons of paperwork, procedures, agreements that do not work yet seem impossible to change. And then still, thousands of refugees might be able to make it to Western Europe, but probably just as many, if not more, might never end up on a place where they can continue their lives or start over. In that sense being stuck in bureaucracy might still be better than being overlooked by it.

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Despite the long queues at the station and the station itself being closed down I had managed to buy a ticket to Sofia and was lucky the station was re-opened a few hours before departure. Passing by the refugees and the police to get to the train, I am taking along more than my small bag would suggest.

Among the other travellers on board are Bulgarians returning to their villages, two British backpacker girls who had been on the same train from Budapest the day before, two staff on duty that night, a Mexican husband and wife touring with the mother in law. I take a cooled can of beer out of my grocery bag and place it against my forehead and move its refreshing coolness along my neck. Ten minutes pass and as scheduled the train leaves precisely at 18:30.

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Unlike the other trains I had been taking the days before since my departure from Amsterdam, there aren’t any sleeper carriages on this train. Work on the new Marmaray metro line in Istanbul as well as a high speed train connection has led to the complete disruption of the international train services.

Just a few years ago one would sleep in a carriage which reminded of the days of the old Orient Express, with the typical warm wooden interiors, and awake from a comfortable night’s sleep to a magnificent sunrise above the Bosporus. The last part of the trajectory lay closed in between the Topkapi palace and the ancient city walls of Constantinople, which slowly passed by in the foreground, giving this train ride a unique historical touch. I remember how at the time the Serbian conductor responsible for our car enthusiastically woke me and my fellow traveller up to proudly show us the view. “The Bosporus!” he said and looked into my eyes to make sure I had understood the grandness of it all.

Today however, one has to make do with the few uncomfortable and worn down seats of a train that seems to have been abandoned decades ago and brought back into service by lack of a better alternative just for the occasion. Furthermore, this train will not bring you farther than the border station of Kapikule where a touring car arranged by the Turkish national railways company TCDD is waiting to bring you to Sirkeci.

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The train from Sofia is now an hour underway and the sun is setting. The landscape and the journey turn into a warm colourful scene. As the sky darkens and the landscape becomes no more than some small lights slowly gliding in the distance I look around in the train and notice that the African man has gotten up from his seat and is waiting in the space near the doors, with a small suitcase. He looks very nervous, seems to be talking but when I look around I see nobody near him he could be talking to.

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The train calls at one of the intermittent stations. Te man gets off with his suitcase, mumbling in French to the conductor that it should be possible to stretch ones legs for a while. Making this statement he is actually seeking confirmation from the conductor that it is all right to spend a few minutes on the platform. However, apart from myself nobody understands what he is saying so no one responds.

One of the Mexicans on board uses the stop to walk to the station’s shop and buy a sandwich. Although journeys can take over twenty hours, there is often no catering on board of the trains. To allow passengers to get some food or drinks, the train will have ten minute stops every now and then. Everyone gets back onto the train and we continue. The African man walking around suspiciously finds himself near the doors again, moving his hands nervously over his arms, opening his jacket, looking for something to put between his fingers to ease his mind.

At Dimitrovgrad the locomotive is being replaced. For a while the train is reduced to just two wagons. The African man becomes very anxious now. In French, he nervously asks what this delay is about, pointing at his wrist as if he is saying he will be late for an appointment. He then gets off the train with his suitcase. The two conductors follow him and try to convince him in Bulgarian to get back on the train again, explaining that this is a scheduled change of locomotives.

The message does not come across. The African man pulls out a knife starts shouting “You really don’t have a clue what you are doing! Look at the train, there is not even a locomotive!” The two conductors don’t seem to notice or are not impressed, keep calm and keep trying to talk the despairing passenger back onto the train

After a few minutes finally the new locomotive arrives. The man immediately calms down and gets onto the train. As he stands right in front of me I can clearly see the knife sticking out of his back pocket. I get up to notify the conductor who in turn doesn’t understand me until an English speaking Bulgarian interprets for me. “Aaah a knife” he responds in a way as if he is relieved. “Is that all?” “Come back on the train, we are going to Istanbul, what do you expect! Besides, this is Dimitrovgrad, whatever happens on the train is safer than getting off here.” says the young Bulgarian man smilingly.

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About an hour later we arrive at another station and there is another change of locomotives. I had almost forgotten about the whole knife incident when somebody asks whether there are any French speaking passengers on board. I answer in affirmation and ask what the problem is. “The African man has jumped off the train and ran into the darkness. We have to find him! If he is hiding close to the tracks, his life could be in danger!” one of the Bulgarian passengers explains.

I get off together with an English speaking Bulgarian and the two conductors. We start our search for the African man with small flash-lights. I am not convinced our passenger’s life is more in danger than ours having him on board. On the other hand, apart from myself everyone seems so relaxed about the situation that perhaps it is just me who is overreacting. Walking into the warm summer night I feel safe enough having three sturdy Bulgarians next to me. Shortly after starting our search however, one of the conductors gets the instruction to call off the search and get everyone back on the train. We wait for a while but there is no sign of our escapee. The train departs.

The Mexicans on the train tell me they had seen the man jump off throwing away his suitcase and running away in a different direction. After a minute we can indeed see the man’s suitcase lying in the grass between the tracks. No sign of the man himself. He disappeared into the night. And so does the train, until we reach the border this time without any further incidents.

At the Turkish border, all passengers get off the train and proceed to passport control. A young Mexican passenger has problems with his visa. He had joined us when a carriage that had arrived from Bucarest got connected to our train. We wait for about half an hour before he joins the group standing near the bus. It is 4 in the morning, one couldn’t be deeper into the night. The whole world seems to stand still apart from this little dark parking lot at the Turkish-Bulgarian border where a handful of people is boarding the bus in anticipation of the its departure.

The passenger who experienced visa problems is taken off the bus and taken away by a government car with black plates. The red lights of the digital clock in the dashboard are the only indication that time is still ticking. In fact, if it weren’t for the red numbers changing once every minute it would have been as if time really had stopped.

It takes about half an hour before our missing passenger returns. The bus departs and train tickets are checked. The passenger who delayed the departure of the bus, and thus delayed the long awaited tea moment of the driver and his two colleagues, has his tickets in his bag, which was placed in the luggage compartment of the bus. “Problems will never be over with this one!” the  driver complains jokingly.

The area near the driver feels like a cosy living room for a while where the two elderly men and their young colleague make a few jokes about their problematic Mexican passenger. When they start discussing food matters of the highest importance while enjoying their tea there is no doubt about it; we are in Turkey.

A few times it seems as if the bus driver falls asleep. Especially when the arrival of first sunlight brightens the horizon. I keep a close eye on him and the road, just to be on the safe side, until his two colleagues who are fast asleep wake up. At 6:30 AM we arrive in Istanbul. Even though we did not arrive by train, I enter the Sirkeci station for a short walk to take in some of the buildings history and ambiance.

There might be little left of the famous Orient Express itself – no longer is there a direct connection to Istanbul, nor are fancy restaurant cars such as in James Bond’s From Russia with Love to be expected  – yet, travelling its route by train is still very much worthwhile. Not to mention that for the refugees that crossed my path, part of the route is very much a lifeline, a road of hope to a better future.

It feels like the Orient Express route by train has turned into a slowly walking tired old man who has trouble meeting the finish line and who, just before arriving gives up and has to be taken the last miles by air-conditioned bus. One can read about glorious historical times in books, or visit its relics in a museum, where they are safe but static. On and off the tracks however, whatever reminds us of such times is in constant interaction with the present. Changing, decaying perhaps, but alive.

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On this route from the Orient crossing the Balkan Peninsula, remnants from the past, rather than providing a glance of what times may have been, seem to question the present. What is described as being one of the most modern stations at the time it was built, the Budapest-Keleti railway station, with its statue of the inventor James Watt in the façade, is now the backdrop of human tragedy evoking retrogression more than progress. At the same time I see hope, when people are giving some of their belongings or their time and affection to people they don’t know but who are in need.

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As the journey progressed air-conditioned compartments made way for ones that only offer some cooling by opening the windows and letting the hot outside air in. Personnel who were perfectly dressed in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland traded their uniforms for R&R clothing, wearing no more than slippers and shorts. Sleeper cars became regular cars and for the last couple of hundred kilometres, there was the bus.

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Nevertheless, looking back it were exactly the most run down trains lacking air-conditioning and going no more than 30 km per hour that gave this 5 day trip most of its charm. The pace and rhythm of old trains as well as the heat slow down the pace of everything, then comfortably lying on a made up bed watching the landscape slowly change, meeting people and running into life during stop-overs offer a window on the world and ones self that gives perspectives no other means of transportation would be able to offer. At arrival, the view over the Bosporus during sunrise is so spectacular that even the three hour bus-ride from the border is forgiven.

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ITINERARY

For the railway enthusiasts and ferroequinologists among you.

 

From To Sch. Dep Sch. Arr Delay
Amsterdam Munich 30 August – 19:33 31 August – 7:10 +1 minute
Munich Budapest 31 August – 7 :31 31 August – 14:49 +3 minutes
Budapest Budapest hotel
Budapest Sofia 1 September – 19:10 2 September – 17:00 +5 minutes
Sofia Sofia hotel
Sofia Istanbul 3 September – 18:30 4 September – 6:30

 

FURTHER READING

To put together a journey by train, I found the following website very useful. Not 100% correct, but good enough to get a global picture of the trajectory: www.nsinternational.nl/en/international-train-timetable

For more information about train travel visit www.seat61.com

Information used on Syrian refugees was taken from http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php