Great Train journeys Europe and USA (2005/2006)

Istanbul to Plovdiv

I am typing this at 8p.m. on a sleeper train to Bucharest, Romania. This was also how I travelled from Istanbul to Plovdiv in Bulgaria (why Plovdiv? because it was on the map half way to Sofia).

I chose a sleeper because it was only an extra £5 and provided me with security for my lap-top. The information desk at Istanbul station could speak English but none of the Turkish, Bulgarian, or Romanian "guards" could, much to the dismay of a couple of groups of backpackers who wandered up and down the platform 3 or 4 times trying to find out which end of the train they should be on (it was one of those which splits for different destinations) I don't think they ever found out.

The rolling stock was quite old (1940s/50s) and it was a bit worrying to see someone walking up and down the train with a lamp, mirror and hammer examining the bogeys (wheels and axles for the ignorant) presumably to ensure they weren't about to drop off, or he may just have been checking for illegal passengers!

my room

My 2 person compartment comprised a seat that folded down into a bed, and another pull down bed , sink, wardrobe etc. The fiver I paid for it was well worth it - I had it to myself and it was as good as a small single hotel room (in fact I had the carriage to myself bar the attendant).

The panorama presented to you as the train left Istanbul was like those you see on documentaries of great train journeys. Blue mosque, Sophia, Palace, other mosques etc all lit up about 50 foot up from the railway track - unfortunately my camera battery chose this moment to go on strike so I was unable to capture it.

The time between border exit guards doing their thing and entry guards doing there thingy seemed to take about 2 hours (I was asleep between the 2 so I'm not sure). Despite knowing no English the attendant was sufficiently switched on to get me to get some duty free for him at the border. The Lonely Planet guide reported lots of hassle by Bulgarian border guards and implied the journey was not worthwhile - but I experienced no problems.

I arrived at Plovdiv sometime between 8:30 and 10 am (I'm hopeless on this time business) and left my nice familiar cocoon for a real challenge.

Plovdiv - Sophia

Not a great train journey - but I can't be bothered to add an ordinary train journeys page. Most of you may not agree but its quite nice being in Turkey/Bulgaria/Romania where you can still smoke on the trains.

Plop Div

After leaving my hostel I walked to Plovdiv station and found next train to Sofia was in 2 hours at 1130. No English speakers so had to work this myself by translating cyrillic on timetable (Sophia is simple to translate) and luckily the 2 English words in the station were Arrivals and Departures. Although the departure display showed the platform number the platforms didn't!

Just after I bought my ticket the display showed my train would be an hour late. I saw from the display there was another train at 1200, eventually I found out that my ticket could not be used on it, because it was a slower and presumably cheaper ticketed train. The loos at the station were of the crouch type (do they still use them in anywhere in France; I know there were quite a few there in the 1980's?)

Like all the trains I have been on, the rolling stock is old (1940s/50s?). The journey was quite pleasant but slow, not helped by the fact that the track was being worked on because of the worst floods in 200 years. The track followed the river up to Sofia (highest capital in Europe) and along the "gorge" there was evidence of torn down trees, river debris, and the odd washed away road bridge or new wooden bridge. The countryside looked pretty much like that in Britain but then you would come across quirky things like a church the size of a large garden shed complete with dome.

Sophia Station

These are my experiences of arriving, a visit to book a sleeper and departure, not in chronological order.

Finding your way around the station:

Again no signs in Roman script (I wonder if the Bulgarians moan about the lack of cyrillic in London). There is an Information Office but it was shut on all 3 of my visits. The International Ticket Office is well hidden out of the way - the staff spoke good English, were friendly and helpful but as I suspected visa was not accepted.

I had forgotten to get more cash in the centre. Neither of the 2 station ATMs I found were in working order so I headed for what I thought was the bus station, but was just a coach park, from there I spotted the bus station a nice modern building just along from the railway stn but from where I now was an unpleasant journey through what seemed to be an abandoned under-pass, very long, T shaped and un-lit (I couldn't always see where I was putting my feet), minus drainage grid covers and smelling of urine. A muggers paradise if they could bear to stay down there. The first ATM I used in the bus station refused my card luckily the second worked.

Taxi drivers/touts:

As soon as you leave the train you are accosted by Taxi drivers asking if they can "help you". Some even have badges with "Tourist Information" on and introduce themselves as such. Even when you tell them you've booked somewhere they try and suggest another hostel. You tell them you are being picked up by the hostel they still try and get you to take their cab. You arrive AT the station and cross to go IN it (without any luggage) you are offered a taxi. You show them a tram ticket on exit etc. On leaving by train someone offers to show you to your train ("No thanks I know where it is" - "what carriage number - I'll show you to your sleeper" - "the train is not for another hour - I'm getting something to eat" - they then hang round while you are looking in the kiosk window etc until you stride off to the cafe.

On a positive note

There are probably more shops and eating places than you would find on a London station.

Sofia - Bucharest sleeper

This was the Moscow train again there was a maintenance man inspecting the under-carriage of the old rolling stock and occasionally banging something with a hammer. As I was carrying a laptop I booked a first class sleeper (£20?); guidebook advice was that passengers travelling in Romania sometimes experienced hassle or theft (often by Roma "Gypsies") but they would be too poor for first class.

The compartment was not quite as comfortable as the one from Istanbul, it contained 3 fold up bunk beds but luckily I did not have to share, although on this train quite a few of the compartments were occupied.

Unfortunately it was too dark to see any of the scenery. I suspect the crossing of the Danube at the border would have been quite spectacular. The river was quite wide at this point as we went across a clackety bridge, but all I could see were the shapes of cranes in the distance, a few ships and lights along the banks.

On this train through sign language I had managed to find out the times of the border checks, but still did not get much sleep. You are "woken up" by the attendant 4 times (for exit "visa", exit guard, entry guard, customs) It all went smoothly till either the passport check exit stamping or Romanian entry stamping (can't remember which). I opened my door when it was knocked by the attendant. As the guard went past to start his checks at the next occupied carriage to mine he looked up and down my compartment as if someone or something might be hidden there. He spent about 10 minutes on the compartment before mine shouting, and it sounded like he was giving the occupant (a Jap) the third degree, so I was dreading my turn - but luckily my check-up to a minute and the guard was quite pleasant.

Bucharest Station

In view of Bucharest's reputation, I was not looking forward to my reception at the Station; but here the Taxi drivers did take no for an answer, and I was able to get directions to the nearest ATM - apparently none at station.

When entrance guard are present you have to buy a "platform ticket" to enter the station - this means (as some travellers found out) you end up having to pay to find out train times or obtain tickets as both the Information Desk and the International Ticket Office are within the station! However, I found that by saying Casse International, I was not required to pay, though other travellers have been. I think the "platform" ticket is there to keep undesirables off the station and this works to some extent (but see comments on beggars and street kids on Romania Page).

Bucharest - Sinaia - Brasov and back

Went 2nd class Intercity to these destinations - modern carriages with compartments giving you more space than First Class in UK - very cheap from recollection about £6 for 150 km. You are supposed to book seats on these trains but this only caused me problems at Sinai where I could not buy a ticket straight away but had to wait half an hour (till train nearly due)before purchasing.

Bucharest to Chisinau (Moldova) - the carriage which travels in 3 dimensions

Bucharest has the reputation of being a city where tourists can have bad problems - even Romanians have told me they have been robbed here. So when Romanians say Moldoval is unpleasant and possibly dangerous I take the precaution of having a "secure" first class sleeper.

To Moldova - shades of the Great Western Railway

Travelled first class again - 2 bed compartment - bit more primitive, no sink or power socket. The carriage toilet either had lots of rust round the seat hinges or something worse - I didn't check too closely.

For the first time I had to share a carriage - luckily with a Kiwi who worked/lived in Romania, and had a Moldovan wife - so he was able to give advice and translate for border guards. The Moldovan customs guy on seeing the entries in my passport commented in Romanian "ah he's come to look at the aborigine's". My Kiwi companion said the Moldovans are conscious of being the poor of Europe - but I suppose there's truth in his comment - I want to see how people outside western Europe live/survive.

wheel change

Moldova was part of the USSR so does not use the world standard gauge but a wide gauge like the old GWR. So on entering Moldova at 5am each carriage was separated, lifted up, and the bogeys replaced by wider axled ones.

After the journey in an old and clanky carriage I was expecting to arrive at a depressing and derelict station. Chisinau Railway Station was an incredible surprise - it was modern, clean, airy, the interior was pleasantly decorated - including fish tanks. It is probably the same size as Swindon but with a hell of a lot less trains - the most relaxing station I've been in anywhere. station front

As you can see - it's a fairly quiet station - so no hassle with, to quote, "the scum" you normally get at international rail stations - there's so few travellers it's not worthwhile.

main platform

Moldova to Odessa - modern day border banditry

For an extortionate 32.7 Lei (£1.80 - I thought there were a few digits missing)I travelled from Chisinau to Odessa. This was a 5 hour journey on wooden seats, the last 2 hours were very overcrowded I could hardly move but at least I had a seat. Unfortunately I didn't pay extra for the Video Carriage

Moldova to Odessa

I had visited the non-existent "country" Transdniester the previous day, and despite its (old) reputation had no problems leaving or exiting. The train also passed through Transdniester, but here the "border guard" first took me to the end of the carriage to interview me ("beeeg money") - I "did not understand". He then took me onto the station platform where we went through the same charade again; I was then taken into an office where there were 3 other guards.

The guards were very friendly and not at all threatening. The English speaking officer(?) first mentioned i. I did not have a visa for Ukraine - "EU citizen I don't need one" (a new temporary rule whilst they were hosting the Eurovision Song Contest), ii. "no Moldovan exit stamp" (pretty sure I didn't ned this), iii. then "transit visa".

They asked me how much money I had - now this was tricky as if I declared less than I had they might "fine" me, if I was honest they might up the "visa" cost so I said wasn't sure "about $100". It was then explained to me that I could go back to Chisinau and go 200km to take an alternate route without the "transit" - in the end it cost me $40. They mentioned taking photographs in Odessa so I asked if I could take their picture - for some reason they declined.

When I got back on the train I saw the "locals" were also having to pay small amounts of money to differently uniformed guards.

I did wonder whether if I had "understood" "beeeg money" straight away I could have got away with less, as it may not have been shared with the guards in the office. I met someone in Odessa who had exactly the same experience, and $40 appears to be the going rate (it used to be $30) I also thought these guards were from the breakaway Transdniester republic, however he thought they were the Russian "peace keeping" army.

On arrival at Odessa, I thought it wise to wait for the throng to get off before exiting with both rucksack and day-bag which make me take up the space of 3 people. Unwise - exiting at Odessa is like a war zone - whilst waiting I suddenly heard shouting as people were forcing their way on the train (presumably to get seats) whilst most were still getting off. Violent pushing,shoving and barging broke out - so I thought it best to get off before sooner rather than later otherwise I might be stuck on the train - so I joined the shoving, scattering embarkees people onto the platform as I forced myself plus packs through the train door. A passenger who took the following morning train had exactly the same experience.

Odessa - Przemysl (Poland)

I had nightmares that I would be unable to leave Ukraine.

On my first attempt to buy a ticket the station was closed, police were turning people away. Of course I was unable to find out why, or for how long the station would be shut. On subsequent visits I was either unlucky, or there are no English speaking station staff. Luckily I had checked on the internet and found the Ukranian words for sleeper carriage etc, and instructions on exactly where to find the International Travel ticket "office" within the station (Cashier 7 - in a separate out of the way ticket office; and I wouldn't have recognised it as a "Kasse International").

Finding the cashier was the easy part, it took me 2 attempts and visits to get a ticket. On the timetables I'm pretty sure I found the cyrillic for Krakow but even showing my Europe map I just got blank looks. Eventually I wrote down the type of sleeper I wanted, Krakov, Warsaw etc and managed to get a ticket - she marked somewhere near the border on my map, and another customer translated for the cashier (in german) mentioned Uzhgrod, which was near the Slovakian border - but the ticket was for Przemyl.

I asked the only person in my hotel who could speak "reasonable" English where this was, but neither she or any of her friends had any idea. After a search on the web I thought that Przemysl was just across the Polish border. So I had no idea where my journey would end up end up. If Uzhgrod did it have a permitted foreign border crossing? Would I be allowed to cross - I had identified Poland as my exit on my Ukrinian entry card? If the end of the journey was Przemysl should I change trains there, was this the end of my journey even though the timetables show Polish cities?

The train was busy but I did end up with a "first class" sleeper to myself for most of the way. I can see why other European trains have sealed windows; on this one vast amounts of drink were consumed and despite the presence of bins - eceryone followed the example of the carraige attendants and chucked their rubbish and empty vodka bottles out of the window.

The train stopped just over the border in Przemysl, Poland, from where I got a 2nd class express to Krakow.