Thursday 1 September 2011

August 12-13 :: Budapest » Sofia

The journey from Budapest to Sofia should have been simple. A train to Beograd, a 40minute stopover then depart Beograd in a sleeper compartment for the overnight journey to Sofia.
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, …
Keleti pályaudvar…,    from Balkans 2011

All starts well, we take the metro to Keleti pályaudvar, a rather rundown station that demonstrates that not all of Budapest has yet been modernised. We find our seats on the EC 345 train that leaves on time for a scheduled 7½hour journey to Beograd.
The journey south was through a largely flat agricultural area which was pleasant if unremarkable. We arrive at the Hungary-Serbia border a little later than scheduled and then just sat there, no apparent activity, so presumably all bureaucracy for the train operator. We then move a short distance across the border into Serbia and have a long wait while immigration officials "do their thing". Eventually we get going again but we are now more than 2 hours behind schedule. During this time we were sitting and chatting with a Serbian student on her way home to Novi Sad. She tells us lots about Serbia and Novi Sad in particular which suggests that it might have been a good place to stop if we'd scheduled more time. She also said that the time we spent at the border was not unusual.

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After a slow journey in which we progressively lose time during each leg we finally arrive in Beograd at 23:05CEST, i.e. 2½hours late, and, no surprise, we've missed our connection, the D 293 is long gone. 10 hours after leaving Budapest we have covered ~200miles.
The late arrival is not a surprise to Serbian Railways and to be fair they are ready for a lot of passengers who have missed their connection. They rebook us on to a train the following morning and provide us with accommodation at a nearby hostel reached by walking west long the railway tracks. The hostel is not very salubrious but I've slept in worse. Since we hadn't planned on stopping in Serbia we had no local currency (Serbian Dinar) though it wouldn't have helped much as nowhere was open at midnight.
We get a reasonable nights sleep and get up early to be sure that we catch the 7:30 train, the D 491. I manage to change a few Euros for Dinars and we grab some breakfast at the station. We have no reserved seats on this train and get on early to ensure that we get some. The train is crowded and many are standing in the corridors as we depart on time.
The train is of the old communist-era variety with only two carriages consisting of compartments for six. Compartments had windows that could be opened which was great later when the temperatures got up to around 40°C. In our compartment there are two Bulgarians in the window seats and a Serbian lady with two children who kindly squeezes into two seats to make room for the two of us. The train is very slow as we head south from Beograd, it meanders its way to Mladenovac and then we go a little quicker. As we head south the terrain is very like that we encountered travelling from Budapest to Beograd but as we get closer to Niš we start to move into more mountainous terrain. We arrive in Nis roughly on time and take on a lot of passengers. The Serbian lady and her children leave and we are joined by a Dutchman and a Serbian. Now there are lots of people standing in the corridors.
The Serbian proved to be friendly and talkative. He talks about Niš, his home, which sounds like another place worth visiting. He also shares some interesting information about the railway system. We observe that the train is very full and he explains that is because they only schedule as many carriages as there are passengers. The explanation is corruption, the train is always packed to overflowing because people do not buy tickets, locals instead slip the conductor some cash when asked to present their ticket. In practice there are more than double the number of people travelling on the train than have tickets. The track we are using used to be part of the route followed by the Orient Express but has fallen into disrepair, hence the slow speed. Investment is on hold hoping that the EU will one day pay for the improvements.
Railway workers are not the only ones who are corrupt, border guards are also on the take. He tells us about smuggling cigarettes between Serbia and Bulgaria, these days it is from Serbia to Bulgaria, in the past it was the other way. There is small scale smuggling with individuals carrying 5-10 packets and larger scale moving 10 times that. Little did we know that we would get to see such smuggling in action.
Just before the border a lot more people joined the train, seemingly the smugglers. A couple of old ladies squeezed themselves into our carriage and stowed all their belongings. We watched a guy constantly moving along the corridor in a real sweat. Our Serbian fellow passenger said that he was one of the larger scale smugglers secreting his goods in the train. When we got to the border it was just our luck that the officials were a little more thorough than usual and searched the train. One of the ladies was caught with a couple of packets in her socks and was carted off. The other lady in our compartment was used to the procedure and just raised her clothes so that her bare middle and bra were exposed to demonstrate that she wasn't hiding anything. We finally got moving again after about two hours at the border, it had been very hot what with the outside temperature combined with the crush of people and we were thankful for the old fashioned windows that we could open.
As soon as we left the Bulgarian border post the smugglers started retrieving their contraband and immediately started selling it on the train. The old lady who had exposed herself turned out to be smuggling and had carefully secreted about 10 packs under my seat.
We eventually arrived at Sofia at around 19:30CEST, a couple of hours late. A 12 hour journey to cover ~250 miles. Slow but it turned out to be anything but boring!
From the station it was a simple 20 minute walk to Scottys Boutique Hotel. We found somewhere to eat and I enjoyed my first Shopska salad which we shared along with a very good pizza and some beer!

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