Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Night Train from Hell

I had to check out of my place in Belgrade at 2:00 PM yesterday, and the train to Sofia was not leaving until 9:50 PM.  So I took my big bag, which had mostly just clothes and books in it, and left it at the Belgrade railway station left luggage facility (keeping my day pack, containing all of my valuables, with me).  I walked up to the window, and there was a lady eating a sandwich in slow motion.  There was also a guy sitting there in the office.  Moving in slow motion, he asked to see my passport, took my bag, and gave me a receipt for it.

Now I had the rest of the day to explore, while carrying around all of my valuables on my back.  I got some coffee and, while reading, managed to drag it out for a good long while.  I checked out some book stores.  Now, it was starting to rain and the wind was picking up.  I had a glass of wine that I managed to make last for over an hour.  Back out into the wind and rain, hoping my umbrella didn't blow inside out.  Went and had dinner, with (thankfully this time) slow service.  Back to the station.  I claimed my bag, and bought a couple of cans of beer (Jelen) because intoxication often helps with these kinds of trips.

Earlier in the day, before checking out of the apartment, I had become concerned that I might have problems at the border.  The concern came from the fact that I had not registered with the police on arrival in Serbia.  I just happened to stumble across this requirement while reading some of the horror stories about the train I was about to take.  A lot of the horror stories involved border police shaking down people who had not registered with the police for "fines" on trying to leave the country.  I contacted my host.  He was not aware of this law.  He called a police station and he said that a nice lady there told him that it was his responsibility, not mine, to register me with the police, and so if anybody was going to get into trouble it would be him.  He also told me that he had never heard of anybody getting into trouble for not registering with the police.  So I decided to hope for the best, but to also be prepared to demand an official receipt if anybody wanted me to pay a "fine".

In any event I got onto the train and found my compartment (a second class couchette).  There was only one other person in my compartment, a Swiss teenager from some town near Zurich who had just graduated from the equivalent of high school and was doing some traveling before doing his compulsory military service.  He also had bought two cans of Jelen, so we drank those before trying to go to sleep.

I was dressed warmly because I thought it might be cold on the train.  Cold wasn't the problem.  It was roasting hot in that compartment.  About 2:30 in the morning I couldn't take it any more and so I went and stood out in the corridor, looking out the window for about an hour.  The floor of the train was filthy and there was a pool of water standing in the corridor just a few feet from where I was standing.  At the other end of the carriage, the conductor was smoking, right next to the "No Smoking" sign.

I think it was about 5:30 AM that we reached the Serbian border checkpoint.  I was relieved when they did not ask me about police registration or where I stayed.  Mostly, they seemed to be after people smuggling.  There is a lot of smuggling on this train, I read, and a lot of lowlifes that take this train.  But we sat there for quite a while, as the police went from compartment to compartment, looking for smuggled goods.  After the train started moving again, it seemed like quite a while before we got to the Bulgarian border checkpoint, where the whole thing was repeated.  I was surprised that the train was only 15 minutes late, arriving at 8:30 AM.

Fake tour guides and taxi drivers were immediately on me as I stepped off the train.  Fortunately, my host Denislav was meeting me at the station and he was right out front in his red Skoda where he said he would be.  The apartment is nice.  Of course I had to brush my teeth and take a shower right away, and now I am washing some clothes before going out to see Sofia.


  1. The thing I remember about the night train from Prague to Krakow was that every station had speakers on a poles all along the platform that would bark loud instructions the whole time we were in the station. Every stop was a rude wake up call.

    1. Did the Prague - Krakow train have a real sleeping car or was it couchettes?

    2. It was a real sleeping car, I think each compartment had three bunks. There was a Japanese guy, a british guy and me. No place to sit up, it was all made up for sleeping, but that's ok because it left late. They gave you a little amenity kit including a bottle of water and a snack. The drill is, buy a couple of beers, read for a while, consume beers, snack and sleep as best you can between stops.

  2. Amenity kit ?!? Wow. I'm just glad the train was fairly empty. If that compartment had been full (6 people in bunks in the compartment) it would have been a lot worse.