26.1.15

An Unlikely Journey from Bulgaria to Turkey


I woke as the train jolted over ancient tracks, half-asleep yet. The small of my back was coated in a layer of sweat where my shirt stuck; the heat in the once freezing train car must have kicked in, but with no one to monitor it had gone into overdrive. I peeled off my jacket, scarf, and sweatshirt in a daze, looking around the dim car. Phil was asleep on the bench opposite me, but blinked his eyes open soon after I looked over. I took the phone out of my pocket, checking the time. We were on our way from the former capitol of Bulgaria - Veliko Turnova - to the last stop on our trip - Istanbul, Turkey. Not wanting to waste precious daylight hours, we opted to take a night train. Which, as we discovered, was not a sleeper train but simply one of the regular decrepit trains used during the day, running at night.
"What time is it?" Phil asked as he sat up opposite me.
"10:45" I responded.
We had been on the Bulgarian train for a little more than three hours, and I had slept most of that time. I sat, noticing that there was no noise or movement outside our compartment.
"I think the next stop is Dimitrovgrad. We should get our bags ready" Phil mentioned. Earlier a woman had come to our car to check our tickets. Not speaking English, she had said "Metrograd", or something similar, and motioned something like change. Phil and I took this to mean we switched train cars at the stop at Metrograd, but after consulting our map we could find no such train station or city on our route. The closest we found was a city near the Turkish border marked as "Dimitrovgrad", which Phil determined must have been what she had been talking about.
I piled back on my layers, damp with the heat of the car, and put my multiple bags on top of that. I was still slightly groggy after napping on a sticky leather bench in a bumpy train for several hours. I wandered into the hallway, Phil behind me, as the train began to slow to a stop.
"Let's get our tickets out and have someone check them, just in case. I don't want to accidentally get off at the wrong stop and be stranded in the middle-of-nowhere Bulgaria on New Years Eve if we don't have to," I said, turning slightly to Phil. He agreed, and I stumbled forward down the hall.
Our trip to Turkey accidentally coincided with the New Year holiday, but neither of us was too bothered by it. Our primary concern was that places would not be open on the first of the year, leaving us with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
I glanced into the other compartments as we wandered towards the door, noticing that they were all empty.
"Wow, are we the last ones on the train?" I asked, turning to Phil again. The train had not had more than a dozen riders at its peak, but it was still strange to see car after car of empty benches. He said he was uncertain, and we walked forward to the door.
The train pulled to a stop just as we reached the exit. The woman who helped us earlier was nowhere in sight, and neither were any workers of any sort. We leaned our head out of the window, and saw a man walking from a small building over to the train.
"Istanbul?" Phil shouted down the train to him. He looked up and just shook his head, as if he didn't have time to deal with us.
"That's not a good sign..." I mumbled to Phil.
The man outside shouted past us in Bulgarian to someone else, and a minute later our helper-woman walked up. She said nothing, but looking surprised, smiled and motioned for us to follow her. She led us to the first class train, and motioned for us to take a seat.
"Sweet, upgrade!" Phil said as the woman walked off.
"This is weird. Why did she move us here?" I responded.
"I don't know, but don't worry about it. They don't seem too concerned."
I couldn't help but worry though. We could hear the woman further down the hall speaking rapidly on the phone to someone in Bulgarian. I heard her laugh, her stream of speech punctuated with Istanbulu. 
"I think she's talking about us, Phil" I said, turning to face him.
"So what? Whatever happens, we are going to get to Turkey tonight, I'm sure of it."
I prayed for some of Phil's omnipresent sense of calm and confidence. The woman walked back into our car, this time followed by another woman we had not seen before. They were both wearing similar uniforms, so we took her to be another train worker.
"Metrograd... bus" she said in broken English, followed by a motion for change.
"We change to a bus at Metrograd?" I asked. The woman nodded her head in affirmation, followed by a beckoning motion to follow her. Phil and I stood up and followed her back down the car, back into the second class compartments. She opened the door to one, and held her arm out, showing us to sit.
"Aww, downgrade," Phil said in mock sadness.
"Wait, why did we just get moved again? I'm so confused" I said to Phil. We could hear the two women in a compartment behind ours talking and laughing in Bulgarian.
"Maybe they just want to keep an eye on us?" he suggested. As the words left his mouth, the train shuttered and the lights went out, clearly having been shut off completely.
"Well, I guess that's our answer!" Phil said and laughed. "Isn't this exciting? This is so exciting!" he said again, looking out the window at two men doing maintenance on the train.
"I don't know about exciting... nerve-wracking seems a more apt description!" I replied with apprehensive laughter. This encounter, this experience, fully epitomizes our relationship. Phil approaches misadventures with the enthusiasm and spirit of a kid in a candy shop. I, on the other hand, am nervous with a mind full of 'what-ifs' and anxious worst-case scenarios. I attempt to mimic his excitement, but upon close examination it is clear that my act is a facade. A genuine attempt, at least.
I returned my stare out the window, watching the two men at work on the train. I could hear the women speaking on their phones, every once in a while hearing Istanbulu among a string of foreign words.
"Phil, I don't think this was our stop. I think Metrograd was someplace else, and we missed it. I mean, it's clear this train isn't going any further, and there is no city or buildings anywhere. We are at the end of the line, and I don't think there's a bus. I mean, look!" and I pointed to an empty parking lot, covered in snow. The window opposite us outside the compartment in the hall gave a bleak view of piles of rebar and old bricks collecting piles of white powder. Neither view was good, and left me with a growing sense of anxiety.
"Taylor, don't worry about it. I'm positive this is the stop. There wasn't anything else with a name even close to Metrograd, and besides, I think she said Dimitrovgrad the first time. They're nice people, I don't think they're just going to leave us out here." I had to acknowledge the truth in the latter part of his statement. These women wouldn't abandon us during a snow storm on New Years Eve, would they?
I checked my phone for the time again. 11:35 - we had been sitting in an empty, dark, and ever-colder car for over twenty minutes, with no change in sight. At least sharing our New Years Eve kiss in an empty train in Bulgaria during a snow storm sounds kind of cool, I thought to myself.  Positives, just had to recognize the positives.
I continued staring out the dark window next to Phil, straining to hear and understand the Bulgarian women on their cell phones. I could tell by their tone and soft laughter that they clearly found something amusing - presumably our situation.
"Whoa, look at that!" Phil said, pointing out the window.
A giant tour-esq bus pulled up into the snow-covered parking lot, opening doors to rows of cushioned chairs that could easily seat 75.
"I guess that's our ride! I told you it would all work out." Phil said to me, grabbing our bags. One of the women came and opened the door to our compartment, motioning for us to follow her. We quickly gathered the rest of our things and followed her, hopping out onto the frozen ground. The two men working on the train and a third from inside the building walked over to the bus, leading the small crowd.
"So.. is this like, their ride to get home?" I asked Phil confusedly. He shrugged his shoulders and we got on the bus, finding seats near the front with all the others. The bus had been empty until we entered, and a large portion of it remained so as our group took up only the first three rows.
The bus pulled out of the parking lot, driving through an empty neighborhood piled with snow drifts and dark homes. It took about ten minutes to reach the city center, though it was hardly a city and more like a town.
On one side of the road, there were several industrial looking buildings and a few blocks of old shops, everything dark at this hour. On the other side of the street, dilapidated apartments went on for miles. Unfortunately Bulgarian being a Cyrillic language, we couldn't read any of the signs. Before I had time to analyze the area any further, the bus pulled to a stop and the doors opened. Phil and I looked at each other questioningly - do we get off here? is this the end of our ride?
All the workers picked up their bags and began slowing filing out of the bus. The woman who knew a few words in English was the last to stand and move to the aisle, and she turned to us.
"You... stop" she said, and pointed for us to sit. We sat back down, and she smiled, saying "Ciao!" before disappearing out the door.
The bus driver said nothing, but closed the door and continued driving.
It seemed like this was promising sign, but I couldn't help but remain confused and nervous about our situation. We had somehow managed to ride the train to the last stop, never having had seen "Metrograd" or its equivalent along the way. At that point we had been the only remaining passengers, and the lady working had clearly forgotten about us, and had to call around to figure out our ride (I assume). We sat in an empty, dark train for nearly an hour before a giant, mysterious tour bus picked us up, and no questions asked, proceeded to drive us somewhere, with the driver continuing to mention "Metrograd" upon our questioning, with no further information.
I was skeptical of our fortune.
I returned to staring out of the window, and noticed that the old apartments were buzzing with activity. I glanced down at my phone, glancing at the clock.
"What time is it?" Phil asked.
"11:59. Oh! It's 11:59!" and before I could say anything else, fireworks began going off all along the horizon, and the Bulgarian national anthem floated through the bus from the ceiling-mounted speakers.
Somehow, it was perfect. I turned to Phil to exchange the traditional New Year's Eve kiss, when the bus driver cheered and shouted what I can only assume was "happy New Year!" in Bulgarian. I laughed and looked out the window, watching dozens of apartments shoot fireworks out of their windows and off their balconies in the cramped blocks of buildings.
I couldn't stop smiling; for a few minutes, all my anxiety about getting to Istanbul were out of my mind. It was New Years, we were witnessing a fantastic display of fireworks, and for now we were warm and happy in a big comfortable bus.
A few more minutes of driving led us away from the city and into the woods, blocking out all further views of the explosive sparks. It was only a few minutes of staring out to pitch black rows of trees before I realized how tired I was.
"Phil, I'm going to sleep... I'm so tired. Wake me when anything happens?" but of course he knew I was going to say this, rolling his eyes with a smile as if to say "of course you're going to sleep, and of course I'll let you know." I leaned my head against the rattling window, bundling my scarf as a pillow, and fell asleep.

Hitting a pothole woke me up; we were driving slowly down a lit road. Phil must have fallen asleep as well, because he looked as if he had just been woken by the jolt as well. I took my phone out of my pocket - 2:30AM.
Wait, had this bus really been driving us for nearly 3-hours?
"I guess I fell asleep somewhere a bit back... I tried to stay awake for most of the time though" Phil said.
"That's fine. But... where the heck is Metrograd? We've been in this bus for hours and we still haven't made it? I really don't think that train station was the one we were supposed to get off at... we must have been really lost."
"We've got to be close to the border - maybe that was the bus' destination this whole time?" Phil responded with.
"No way. I mean, we haven't paid any money, no one has told us anything... why would this bus take us to the border?" but before I could retort with further evidence, we passed a sign written with both English and Cyrillic, with "TURKISH BORDER" written in big, block letters.
"See? I told you this would all work out. And you were worried!" Phil said teasingly.
But why? How did this even happen? I couldn't figure out how we had managed to get here, it seemed like an unplanned miracle. Or maybe this was the plan all along, and my neurotic tendencies had me questioning everything because I couldn't understand the language.

The bus took us through border crossing, dropping us at one point to purchase our visas. I kept anxiously looking over in the direction of the bus, on the opposite side of the massive parking lot. The English/Bulgarian-speaking border agent laughed and said "Don't worry, it is waiting for you. It won't leave without you!" I took him at his word, still not understanding why it was obligated to wait for us.
We passed through customs with no problem, the bus taking us onto Turkish territory in a matter of minutes. As we crossed over into Turkey, the bus took a quick turn on the left side of the road, apparently back towards the border.
"Now what is he doing?" I asked Phil, who of course had as much understanding of the situation as I did.
The bus pulled into a parking lot with a government building where another large, dark tour bus was parked. It backed into the lot slowly, and then the driver stood. He gestured for us to get out, so Phil and I grabbed our bags and walked to the covered waiting area.
Ahh, this is the catch. Now we are in Turkey, but it's the middle of the night and we will have to wait till morning till we can find a ride to Istanbul. The snow continued blowing around us in flurries, reminding me how little I wanted to wait for the next several hours here.
The driver motioned to us something about driving a car, and pointed to the other bus.
"We change to that bus?" Phil said.
The driver appeared to note that this was correct, and pointed in to the building. He walked away, and Phil and I waited for his return.
"See, now we will be in Istanbul in no time!" Phil said happily. He apparently had been in on this entire trip, I was the one in the dark.
The bus driver returned with another man, this one fluent in Bulgarian and Turkish, but still no English. He pointed to the new bus, motioning for us to get on.
"Istanbul?" I said meekly. He looked at me as if I was crazy and nodded, repeating that that was the destination (or, at least I assume that's what he said. Turns out Turkish isn't much easier to understand than Bulgarian).
Phil and I got on the bus, dropped our bags, and plopped down on a cushioned seat. Like the previous bus, this one was well furnished and seemed much too nice - like a fancy tour bus - to be carting two foreigners back and forth from the border.
I waited till the bus got back on the freeway, heading further within the Turkish borders. I was exhausted. It was half-past three in the morning, and it wasn't long before I fell back asleep.

Heavy rain pelted the windows in sheets, startling me back to consciousness. Phil was still asleep, but I looked outside at our surroundings. Big buildings were lit up with signs in Turkish, and the minarets of mosques dotted the horizon. I slipped my phone out of my pocket again - 7:00AM. The sky was a hazy blue, still dark mostly, though that could have been from the heavy rain clouds. The bus turned down a main road, and drove only a few minutes further before turning into the parking lot of a large, imposing building.
I gently shook Phil, waiting for the bus driver's next move.
"Istanbul!" He said, and pointed for us to get off.
"Hey! We made it!" I said in disbelief.
"Of course we did, I told you we would!" Phil replied. "Welcome to Istanbul!"


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I applaud you for your diligence in making it not only to the end of this story, but in waiting nearly two months for it to appear. My trip to Eastern Europe was incredible, full of adventurous misadventures like our trip to Istanbul, and run-of-the-mill tourist stops alike. I still don't understand how we managed to take a tour bus all the way from Bulgaria to Istanbul for free, after paying a very small amount (i.e - $20 for us both) for seats in a Bulgarian train. I'm not complaining, of course. Also: it will be a tough New Years Eve to beat. Maybe next year we can get stranded in the jungle? We will see. 
I'll be telling more of our stories here over the coming weeks, and I hope you'll stick around to read them. 

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3 comments:

  1. One of my favorite parts of the trip! I was confident the entire time... haha

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  2. Wow. Good for you for keeping your heads in that situation! I would've been so stressed out. But you made it! And how cool that you still got to see New Year's fireworks! :D

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    1. Thanks! I would be lying if I wasn't stressed - Phil was the only reason I was keeping it somewhat cool. The fireworks were great! Definitely a memorable evening :) I hope your New Years Eve was a success, as well!

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