Tax Evasion on the Orient Express...

So, in the previous instalment, we were at the main railway station in Istanbul, waiting for our “train”. We only found out that afternoon as we were buying our tickets that the first leg, to the border, was actually by bus, not train. It didn’t seem like such a big deal, as we had heard that the busses were actually quite good, with back of the seat entertainment and refreshments served. Unfortunately, the only serving you got was if you accidentally sat in the seat that one of the four staff members (not sure why they needed a driver and three conductors, but anyway) wanted to sit in, as one fellow traveller found out. This particular traveller made a bit of a fuss and somehow managed to stay in his seat though. The annoying thing was that he was an Aussie, and like many of the Aussies that we have come across, always tended to act up a bit in a way that drew attention to themselves and of course the fact that they were Australian. Oh well, what can you do.

The bus ride was fairly uneventful, and I actually managed to sleep for almost two hours of the 3.5 hour journey. We arrived at the border, just west of Edirne, and got off the bus into the train station. It was very difficult to find out what the actual process was going to be, as we had never crossed a border on land yet. So, we stood around, and finally managed to find out that we were here for two hours, and that we would be called into an office off the platform to get our passports checked and stamped.

While we waited, we struck up a conversation with a woman from the States who happened to be a journalist. She had decided to write an article about the carpet salesmen in Istanbul, as she had gotten talked into almost two thousand dollars worth from one vendor and she still wasn’t entirely sure how. One fact that I enjoyed was that apparently the carpet salesmen are considered to be almost godlike for their incredible powers of persuasion by the other traders in the bazaars.

Finally we get called into the passport office and went through the usual “look at the passport, then us, then the passport again just in case we shapeshifted” thing, and proceeded to the train. We only found out later that we were supposed to go through the customs building on the platform first, but as there were no signs, no barriers and nobody directing us, we just boarded directly from immigration. We decided to go into the sleeper compartment with the aforementioned journalist, and just as we were relaxing we were told by the conductor that we were on the wrong carriage. So, moving from a nice sleeper car to the last carriage, a soviet era (and I will probably use this phrase quite a bit for this writeup) carriage with more conventional seating and a layer of grime that was rather unsettling.

We could hear the Aussie guy speaking to someone else about his travel plans, and about this incredible sourdough bread that he bought, very loudly and without much interest from the other party. A couple of slightly dodgy looking people came into the carriage and appeared to leave something behind, but at this point we didn’t pay much attention. We only noticed them because Jess and I had heard some stories about this train being a target for thieves, and still had the energy to be semi-vigilant at this stage.

The train finally started moving, and crawled slowly over the border to a half built station on the Bulgarian side. A stern official comes on board, and collects our passports without saying anything and walks off. This was a bit unnerving, as we had no idea how long the process of getting things stamped would take, or if we would even get our passports back. As we waited, two other officials came on board and asked if anyone else had been in this carriage. We replied no, completely forgetting the slightly dodgy people mentioned earlier.

Finally we get our passports back, and the train noisily pulls out at a roaring 50 kilometres per hour into the heart of Bulgaria. After about 5 minutes, the two slightly dodgy people came back into the carriage and started” looking under the seats. They retrieve what must have been at least 30-40 cartons of cigarettes from various hiding places, including under the seat of the aforementioned Aussie, who had to be woken up, and when he realised what was going on, started loudly declaring “illegal, illegal!”. This obviously had no effect, and the dodgy blokes left and presumably got off at the next stop. Welcome to Bulgaria.

After some hours of crawling squeakily through the night, the sun rose and we were presented with some quite nice countryside. At around 7am we stopped at a town, and I decided to get off to stretch my legs. Jess was worried about the train leaving again, but as I stood up, I noticed the front half of the train had separated, and simply replied “I don’t think we are going anywhere in a hurry”.

The Sofia Express..ish

I found the conductor, and he told us we had about 45 minutes before we would be departing, so I made a quick dash to a nearby ATM and cafe to get some drinks. I returned and some time later as the train departed, a fellow passenger asked us “what happened to the Aussie Guy?”. Sure enough, he wasn’t sitting where he was earlier, but his stuff was still there. Even looking into the other compartment of the carriage, it became clear that he had missed the train. Jess and I discussed it and decided we would take his stuff to the station staff at Plovdiv, which was another scheduled stop. Only a few minutes later the conductor came in and asked about the missing guy and where his stuff was. We pointed it out and he grabbed it.

After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at Plovdiv, where we had a two hour wait for the connecting train. We just bummed around the station, and eventually made our way to the platform as the departure time grew closer. Somewhat nonchalantly, the Aussie guy that had missed the train earlier wanders up and says hello, almost like nothing had happened. Turns out that the had only missed the train by a couple of minutes and was able to get the station to radio ahead, so that his gear was taken somewhere safe, and he caught a bus to Plovdiv. Apparently his beloved bread was in a separate bag from the rest of his stuff, and was left on board, because he seemed more upset about losing his sourdough bread than potentially being stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Not our train, but not much better.

The train was late (of course), and when it finally arrived, it was an even worse condition carriage than before. The top speed of the train seemed to be about 60 kilometres per hour, and would stop at tiny villages where I don’t think anyone got on or off. It was only after about 17 hours since leaving Istanbul that we arrived at Sofia, tired, cranky and just wanting to get to the hostel. We walked out with the Aussie guy, and as it turns out we were planning on staying in the same hostel. We went to share a taxi, but the one that we first went to completely over quoted (as we were warned they would do), and the Aussie guy literally laughed in his face, stating “No thanks mate, that’s really expensive!”. It’s hard to explain how I felt, as I think I am almost too polite sometimes, to the point where I would knowingly get ripped off before I would offend someone in that way. We walked 100m down the road and found someone who provided a more reasonable quote, and headed for the hostel.

After getting checked in and putting our baggage away, we relaxed in the common area for a while, and we both decided that Bulgaria would be a good place for some rest and relaxation. We had discussed this before we left Turkey, as we both felt we needed to recharge our batteries after the semi-controlled chaos that is Istanbul. Having to keep your wits about you, and constantly refusing to buy carpets and other shit we don’t need was really quite exhausting, and as we sat and listened to the Aussie guy tell a fellow hosteller about his beloved but lost sourdough bread, we welcomed a good nights sleep.

Although we had decided to take it easy, we did go on a walking tour on one of the first days there, and found out about the cities history. One notable part was when we were taken down into a subway station and were shown actual parts of an ancient city gateway that was excavated during construction. We were also shown the church that was blown up during a funeral in order to kill the King who was supposed to attend. The King, however, was late, and survived the ordeal. This was back in 1925, and legend has it that this is where the Bulgarian tradition of being late comes from.

The aforementioned church.
Church of St. Alexander Nevski

I must give some comment to one of my favourite aspects of Bulgaria, and that is the cheap beer. While the beer is not the best, it isn’t too bad, and it is actually cheaper than soft drink. It even comes in two litre bottles, which just completely blew my mind, and available everywhere in 7-11 type shops rather than being restricted to bottle shops. Even the beer from a pub is cheaper than what you get in a bottle shop back in Aus.

A few of the nights during the week we went out on the hostel organised pub crawl. Some of the places we were taken to were fairly conventional, others not so much. One of the first places on the first pub crawl was a fairly ordinary type of place, but was unusual in the way you had to go into a mini shopping arcade type place, go through an unmarked door, and up some grafitti lined stairs. Unless you knew about it, you would never find it.

Another place we went was the coolest bar I have ever been to. We were led down a darkened alley off a small side street, and stopped at a large but unmarked wooden door. Our guide knocked three times, and after a small delay we were let inside. The place was a two story wooden building, lit only by candlelight. As we entered, it felt like everyone turned to look at us, but then returned to their drinks. It was like when the new sheriff walks into the grubby old saloon for the first time. The music didn’t stop though, and instead of some kind of a shootout, I was actually expecting a procession of hooded figures to walk out, holding black candles and surrounding us, chanting in a long forgotten language. I suppose my imagination can get away from me sometimes.

After relaxing for a couple of days we felt guilty and decided to actually do something. The hostel organised tours to the Rila Monastery, which is up in the hills about an hour and a half from Sofia. The drive up was delightful, full of twisty mountain roads and farmhouses. We had one other person on our tour, another journalist/editor who was originally from the states, but was now based in China.

We stopped on the way at a smaller monastery and had a look around. They had grapevines that were apparently 400 years old if you believe our guide. The artwork on the inside of the chapel was gorgeous, and the first orthodox style art I had come across. However, this place seemed incredibly quaint when later on we arrived at the Rila Monastery.

Not far from our destination, we stopped to explore some caves that the founder of Rila Monastery reportedly lived around the time he founded it, sometime around 930 A.D. You could walk and then climb through from one end to the other in a rather claustrophobic but thankfully brief act of spelunking. The whole area was in a beautiful mountainside forest that was incredibly lush and green. It would have been a fantastic place to camp had there been any flat ground.

The exit of the cave.
From the small chapel near the cave entrance.

Finally, after another short trip in the car (driven by our tourguide, not us) we ended up at the Monastery. The architecture of the place was magnificent, and was very tranquil, with the mountains in the background and a small river flowing past one of the walls. Every surface of the chapel was decorated with beautiful and cololourful artwork representing (as far as I could tell) passages from the bible. The interior of the chapel was incredibly atmospheric. As I was standing there, taking it in, it seemed as though I could hear the sound of someone chanting something in another language, although there were no priests around. As I left however, I noticed that there was actually a priest behind a pylon, reciting some prayers aloud. After exploring the area for a while we had lunch and I tried tripe soup, the first time I had ever had tripe anything. This was followed up by a delicious dish of trout.

This is that year Santa outsourced his list checking.

As we started the trip back to the hostel, we were chatting with our fellow traveller. Among other things, she ran tours into North Korea. Along the way we have met many people with some incredible stories, and it makes you question your own perspective. At first, I feel a little like I have been knocked back a few pegs, from the interesting, well travelled person that I would like to think I am becoming, to my old boring self. But then I quickly realise that hey, I'm on the trip of a lifetime, and I'm only just at the beginning of making my own stories. People such as the journalist actually provide inspiration to go on even greater adventures. Even at this point, I was beginning to look back at the train trip into Bulgaria as an adventure as opposed to an ordeal. Hindsight is apparently 20 20, but you look at it through rose coloured glasses.

In the following days, we didn’t really get up to much; we attempted to look inside an ancient church that we had seen the outside of on the walking tour, but they were holding mass so we were unable to do so. I wanted to ride one of the soviet-era trams, and so I did that on my way to buy some new headphones. We visited a local Bulgarian restaurant where we had the best meal bar none of the entire trip. It was nice to have some quality, hearty food.

After a week, it was time to go, and we boarded the bus to Skopje, Macedonia. All in all, I quite liked Sofia. The people there were relaxed, and nothing seemed like a big deal. The city itself was quite run down, with large holes in the footpath a common occurrence, and many old soviet era buildings all over the place, but at the same time, there were plenty of trees everywhere, and it was generally quite clean. I don’t think we could have picked a better place for some downtime.

— Thomas, 2015.07.07