None of us really enjoy travel days. Most of them are just the usual pack everything up, get to the airport, wait, fly to wherever we are going, find the place that we are staying, and start getting settled in. There is a lot of stress involved in relying on others and ourselves to navigate a, sometimes complicated, world transportation system. Today’s travel day was far from usual.
Following our rather expensive few months in Europe, we were looking to go somewhere and make up the difference in our budget. The plan was to head to Southeast Asia after a short visit to Japan. Flights to Japan ran nearly a thousand dollars out of Istanbul and flew through Ukraine, which has a bad reputation. However, a short $20 train ride away in Sofia, Bulgaria and the prices dropped to $400 each. Winner! According to the Internet, the train ride would be an easy overnight train with sleeper cars. We would board in Istanbul, fall asleep, and wake up in Sofia. The internet isn’t always right.
As the time of leaving Istanbul came closer, I did further research into our train travels and learned about the Marmaray project. Apparently, Turkish trains run on a narrower gauge rail system than the rest of Europe. In an effort to be more European (partially in their bid to join the EU) and to connect the train systems more smoothly, Turkey is rebuilding their train lines from the Bulgarian border, through Istanbul, and ending in Ankara. With train lines out of commission, they had to have a workaround.
Our airbnb host happily allowed us a late checkout so we spent our day relaxing, packing, and cleaning the apartment before heading out around 6 PM. We took the city bus to Eminönü and walked over to Cirkeci train station. We bought corn on the cob from a street vender and sat in a park and enjoyed our last look at the Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara. I even enjoyed a last cup of Turkish tea served by a man who came around with a tray of glasses and hot tea. Then we walked around the old city looking for dinner and a way to spend our last 60 Turkish Lira. We found a great place serving Tavuk Döner Yarim (chicken sandwiches) for dinner and bought a few things to eat on the train for breakfast. Then we headed back to the train station to wait.
While we waited, we met some of our fellow travelers and compared expectations. We also overcame our American values and paid a lira each to use the bathroom. The woman’s room had both a squat toilet and a western toilet and was clean and had toilet paper. The kids entertained themselves trying to pet the many cats that are consistently around everywhere in Istanbul. Around 9:30, a bus pulled up outside the waiting lounge that would serve as the first part of our trip.
The bus was perfectly nice. It left right on time at 10 PM and headed for the border. We left through a part of Istanbul that we hadn’t seen before so we all enjoyed seeing new things including a 5M Migros grocery store (The Migros chain labels its stores with the number of M’s based on the size of the grocery store. An average store might be a MMMigros while a corner market is only a Migros, so a MMMMMigros must be huge!!). We also solved our question of why there are wires strung between minarets at many mosques. Seeing them on the last night before Ramadan, one ran lighted words welcoming people to the mosque on Ramadan.
After the city lights died away, we all settled in to try to sleep. My bruised knees from a minor bus accident that Carver and I had been involved in a couple days earlier made the cramped space particularly hard to sleep in but I dozed a bit. At an hour into the trip, the bus pulled into a service station for a bathroom/snack break. We had 20 minutes to stretch our legs and buy drinks with our remaining lira and there was even a small playground to play on. After reboarding the bus, the lights were turned out and we headed on our way.
Around 1:15 AM, we started seeing signs of the Bulgarian border. The miles leading up to it were lined with semi-trucks parked and waiting on the side of the highway. Must have been hundreds of them. Our bus took us to the train station and unloaded us into a waiting room with rows of seats where it left us with no information. The eurail app that some of the other travelers used said that the train would be arriving at 2 AM and leaving the station at 4 AM. Around 1:45, a train pulled in and unloaded passengers who went through passport control. When they were done, we were led into that same room to get stamped out of Turkey. Then we had our luggage xrayed and were left outside and told to wait. Fifteen minutes later, the same official told us to hurry up and led us to the train where we got to take seats and wait some more. As we were the start of the line, we had our pick of seats. They were basic but reasonably comfortable.
At 4 AM, the train finally pulled out of the station and began our trip across Bulgaria. The conductor came through and collected all of our passports and checked our tickets. Turning over passports was uncomfortable but it seemed to be the thing to do. At this point, the kids and I went to sleep while Erich stayed up worrying about our passports. I only know for sure that I fell asleep because around 5:30, the conductor woke me up flashing money at me and repeating some question in Bulgarian. I’m not fast to wake up and so it took me about 5 minutes of groggy back and forth to figure out that he wasn’t asking me to pay something, he was asking me for change for 10 euros. Not a pleasant thing to wake up to and so I cut him off and went back to sleep.
Around 7 AM, the sun rose and so did I. The flipside to so little sleep is being awake to see the beautiful countryside as it passed my window and the sunrise. Arriving into Sofia Central Station around 10:45, we found our subway station and made our way to the Royal Thai Consulate. Since an upcoming destination will be a 50 day stay in Thailand, we need more than the standard 30 day visa that you get on arrival. The plan was to visit the Thai Consulate in Bulgaria to get 60 day Visas. Carver had studied the maps well and got us to the Thai Consulate with little trouble. However, once there, we were told that we couldn’t get a visa there unless we were Bulgarian residents. This is not what the Thai govt says, but there was no point in arguing. We hit the road again, picked up some amazing pizza for lunch, and made our way to the bus station where we would catch a bus to Bistritsa.
Getting subway tickets had been easy; getting bus tickets was a challenge. Everything was printed in Cyrillic so we couldn’t read anything, and nobody spoke English. We got lucky though, found bus tickets, and waited a short while for our bus.
The bus that arrived was probably the dirtiest, most poorly kept bus we have ridden, which is saying a lot given some of the countries we have ridden in. However it got us from point A to point B. We afterwards learned that the Bulgarian Government chose to implement austerity measures following the fall of the Soviet Union in order to fix their economy. Though part of the EU now, they have chosen to retain their own currency and have one of the lowest costs of living. The people we met seem happy though and we were pleased with how safe things seemed. And Bulgaria has the second lowest debt to GDP ratio in the EU so if dirty buses are the worst of it, I can live with that.
45 minutes later, we arrived at the bus stop near our house. The mountains surrounding us were amazing and made us look forward to many happy hikes. A walk down a long dirty road led us to the house that we were renting for the week. Our host’s friend arrived a short while later to let us in and show us around. He didn’t speak English but had German as his second language so I got a bit more practice with my German and we managed to communicate. He then left us to our own devices and we picked bedrooms and settled in for the evening and for an early bedtime. We managed to put together a dinner with what little was in our packs and crashed for the night, glad to be in a new home and settled for a while at least.