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Head for the Border

Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria to Bucharest, Romania

semi-overcast 38 °C

Before I recount the unparalleled agony of the border crossing into Romania I want to quickly dispel any potential false impression this entry’s title may provoke. Though it would have been a welcome sight, there was no fast food oasis on the horizon, no cheap Mexican treat to soothe my pallet as my Bucharest bound train sat motionless at the border for what seemed like, though may actually have been, an eternity. I did my best to ration the small reserve of chips – both the bagel and potato variety – I had purchased at the train station with my remaining Lev (Bulgarian currency) but my growling stomach quickly defeated any such effort, and then didn’t respond too kindly to finding out there was little more I could offer it anytime soon.

It was not as if I had not been warned by other travelers, had not heard rumors of the excessive wait times to be expected, but having seen how efficient, how pain free every other border cross through the Balkans had been to date, I couldn’t help but proceed a little skeptical. Bulgarian and Romania are notoriously not the best of friends – perhaps an important factor in the equation – but how difficult could it be if Serbia and Macedonia can handle the same task in a 5th of the time? Though the Danube’s breadth forces all traffic to one crossing point – and the word traffic is misleading, there isn’t an extraordinary amount of movement between the two countries – wouldn’t concentrating the resources be a boon for efficiency, not a detriment?

It probably didn’t help the situation that the train – originating in Istanbul – arrived in Turnovo more than two hours later than expected. I found a seat in the emptiest of compartments with a Romanian man on his way back from Istanbul. We exchanged simple introductions, and continued to communicate sporadically across the trip using whatever hand gestures and facial expressions in our repertoire to express frustration over the trip’s length, the oppressive heat, and any basics facts about each other like where we are from or headed. Over the course of the trip it slowly became apparent that he was either smuggling jewelry across the border or was deathly afraid of the border guards taking his watch, necklace and such – more later.

We were soon joined by, oddly enough, two separate Japanese travelers, probably both in the 18-22 range whose refusal to engage in conversation baffled me to no end. Compatriots, thousands miles from home, are prime candidates for small talk on an excruciatingly long train ride with a three hour wait time sitting at the border. I, by no means an extrovert, passed the hours attempting conversation with a person with whom I shared no common language, no common vocabulary – and would have been quite pleased with someone to speak to in English. It just seemed very awkward for 2 solo travelers to refrain from conversation - even if it is out of character; it is part of the beauty of traveling solo, a necessity to maintain sanity.

The train proceeded along smoothly until we hit Ruse, Bulgaria’s fourth of fifth largest city which rubs up against the Danube. Time drew to a stop as one border guard boarded the train to check/stamp passports – meanwhile, four of his buddies remained sitting idly on a track bench talking among themselves, oblivious to the train’s presence. Eventually one stood up, grabbed a giant hammer which he used to pound the under side of the train – seemingly checking whether anyone was clutching on in hopes of earning him or herself a free ride across the river. After more than an hour of patient waiting – the train lurched forward. Soon the mighty Danube emerged in the distance whose crossing afforded a few fleeting moments of entertainment.

The Romanian side turned out to be much worse. We sat idly for twice the time – just north of two hours – much of which was spent with windows forced closed and thus limited air circulation. The reason which was provided by my new Romanian friend was to prevent people from jumping out the windows, or that at least is what I gathered from his mimicking a person diving into water with the window as his prop. I never realized charades could be so fun, so useful, a game – a training ground for later experiences. My food was now long gone, hunger beginning to strike me down and fully aware that dinner was at minimum few hours away in Bucharest. Used to many a long journey, my impatience was astounding. Sitting idly is no fun.

But, just when I thought we could wait any longer, we began to move. The train’s occupants let out a giant, collective sigh of relief, one of surprise, one of disgust for the wait, and one of anxious hope that we would reach Bucharest – two hours away – by nightfall. At the first town, my new Romanian buddy closed all the blinds, got down on his knees, and reached deep into a crevice behind the garbage can to grasp some item he seemed to have been storing across the long trip. Seconds later he pulled out a giant ball of tape. When we then made I contact, and he saw my look of confusion on my face, he pointed at my necklace, shook my hand, grabbed his bag and moved out of the compartment. It was a very strange series of events.

I finally arrived in Bucharest’s Gare de Nord sometime past 8pm, anxious for a snack and exhausted from a long day on the road. The map gave no indication of the pain I was going to go through this day, and to be honest, having done so many trips like this – whether all day or all night – I wasn’t preparing, or expecting, to feel so worn out from it. The only logical explanation is that there must be something far more deflating about spending as much time sitting in one spot than moving at a consistently slow pace for hours on end. The only silver lining was the few seconds I had to view the astounding breadth of the Danube at this stage of its flow, almost approaching its end at the Black Sea. It’s wide in Budapest, it’s a monster here.

As I set off on foot from the train station I dreaded the fact that I would be taking that same course to get to the Black Sea coast in two weeks time, on my way, on this very same train, to Istanbul. What a nightmare..



Romanian Countryside - an Industrial Wasteland:


Posted by AAY 09:34 Archived in Romania Tagged train_travel

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