Monday, 2 July 2012

"Nonsense, Bucharest is miles out of the way" An epic train Journey and a Sandwich

I recently read my friends excellent blog post about Sandwiches having Stories and this reminded me of one of the greatest sandwiches I ever had, which also has a pretty humourous story behind it. It has already been told on an older blog which is now defunct, I thought I would tell it again. It takes place largely in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. It concerns the trip we took from Thessalonika, Greece to Budapest, Hungary.

This event was early in my proper backpacking career on the first trip I took. I learnt two very important lessons in regards to travelling; 1. Never trust Dave with the timetable and 2. Jacob is actually insane.

Tanks on the Street in Athens... Signage to Thessalonika

The whole thing started badly as we waited in Thessalonika for 13 hours, we tried to find the beach which we knew was nearby but failed in the heat with our heavy backpackers and a seemingly endless construction site with walls blocking our path. For an international train station it was rather rudimentary, with a horrible Cafe and small shop to boot. It also appeared to be home to a large number of tramps, I refer to this time as Purgatory, endlessly waiting for yet more waiting. I bought a Greek Maxim to use up the last of my Euro's which would be fairly useless in Hungary.

First tell-tale sign of the impending problem that was too come - the board for the information for trains going to Budapest said 'Via Sofia/Bucharest. This appeared to be our train, we commented that Bucharest was miles out of the way.  In fact in my journal, Dave actually is quoted saying these (now) immortal lines "Nonsense, Bucharest is miles out of the way" Dave, was very much correct, it is miles out of the way, about 24 hours to be exact. Yes we were that arrogant to believe that the screen and the train company was wrong. We for some deluded reason believed our train to be taking a more direct route through Serbia Montenegro.
I don't see our train... oh phew its the arrivals
Finally it was time to board our train to Budapest, a nice affair with proper sleeping cabins much like the one from Paris to Rome. This was our second overnight train of the whole trip and it was a rather different affair. So we began are overnight trip to Budapest through the adjoining countries. First shock to the system, being rudely awoken by big burly immigration officers with big boots demanding passports at 3am. In a sleep filled haze this was achieved and we returned to sleep and we assumed we had crossed into Serbia. None of the peace and quiet of the Paris/Rome leg but we thought this would be good practice for more strenuous immigration issues crossing in to Russia and China further down the line. For reference, China/Russia border crossings are a hoot, with blackmarket currency exchanges, bizarre markets and being stranded for 2 hours.

You'd think we may have figured things out earlier, but without crossing the second border point (or the third for that matter) we awoke the next day and we figured we were nearing our destination as Dave had confidently asserted after checking the timetable that we should arrive in around an hour or two. He proceeded to ask the attendant what time we will arrive... "1130, Tomorrow" - Dave became rather puzzled,
"You mean today? Obviously thinking it was a language barrier problem.
"1130, tomorrow" the repeated answer.

Dave returned to tell us the bad news, and rechecked the timetable book.... oh yeah we noted we are on a train that goes to Sofia and Bucharest as previously stated and it quite clearly takes two nights not one. Armed with this new information that we were in a whole different country to the one we expected to be in, the daunting prospect of being vastly under-prepared for 48 hours on a train began to sink in. Although not the end of the world, we had limited food, money and water.

Not having eaten anything for the whole day we were beginning to get rather hungry. Luckily we stopped at the border for immigration checks. Some entrepreneurial kids came to the window and began to offer to sell us stuff. We scraped together a measly six Euros and asked for food from the keen grafters. What we were furnished with was beyond anything we expected. They returned with three kebab style sandwiches laden with meat,lettuce, chips and sauces that spilled out everywhere... it was a veritable feast. It also tasted fantastic and was hard work to finish. Salvation had come in the form of sandwich. This is the sandwich of my story, provided by budding kids trying to make a few bucks off the daily train that comes through town. So far it has been my only contribution to the Romanian economy. However the the train journey didn't end there and there are a few more events still to happen.

Late in the afternoon we pulled in to a station, a barron station with one small building and what passed for a platform. The attendant happily hopped off an we followed suit. As the attendant didn't get back on the train we didn't either. What happened next was also completely unexpected. The majority of the train pulled off leaving the last two carriages(one being ours) alone stranded in the middle of nowhere. We were left here for 3 hours. On the plus side there was a water fountain we could use to top up our water bottles. It was at this point that Jacob had his mental breakdown, something about a frog that we couldn't kill or stop that would kill us all. Im sure he still has nightmares about it to this day.
In the small writing (if you can read backwards it says via Bucharest)

Quaint Station

"Hey, Where'd the Train Go?"

Meanwhile... in Eastern Europe
When we arrived in Budapest we booked the correct train to Warsaw then and there. Having learnt a valuable lesson.
1. Check where the train goes.
2. Have some additional snackets
3. Romanians make awesome sandwiches

I never board an overnight train without at least one pot of chinese instant noodles, some fanta and plenty of money for the beer trolley! Optional extras... cards, mp3 player to share with the other people on the train. Seriously playing Drum and Bass to middle aged Chinese people is really quite amusing. Anyway we made it, and then the Danube flooded. Observe...
Holocaust Memorial... Budapest 
and the Same shot two days later (or as close as I could get)

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