Back to Istanbul - not that we expected it!
Oct 27, 2007
|We had planned on catching the 2:30am train from Edirne to Bucharest. It would take 14 hours or so. We were told it was just a matter of arriving at the station at 2:15 to confirm our arrangements.
Much to our surprise when we hopped on the train and it was moving we were told that there was no room available until after the Bulgarian border (ie for 12 hours). We could stand during that time though! No thanks.
At the next station (on the border)we got off to assess our options. There appeared to be few options at 3:30 in the morning (the train had been late). Many conversations between Nick and anyone looking affiliated with any sort of transportation out of Turkey confirmed this.
And then it happened... the worst case scenario that I had teased Nick about in our years of planning. Being caught at a border in the middle of the night with no solution in sight and having to sleep on a bench.
Wow - I had not expected that that would be our style of travel. I mean we having been living it up. Sure there have been dorm rooms and shared bathrooms but we have stayed in a villa in Crete, took a 4-day mediterranian cruise on a gullet, even stayed at pensions which provided us with towels!
Given that we were at the border we were awaken many times throughout the night by guards asking to see our passports. I have never been so proud of a visa in my life! It is really pretty - lots of blues and purples and a really nice design. Oh and it noted that we still have 60 hassle free days in Turkey if we wish!
So at 7 am we boarded the train to Istanbul knowing that we could catch a flight or the beginning leg of a train... to somewhere.
We think we will now take the night train to Budapest - Nick is looking into the arrangements now. We hope we will have better luck!
On that note I will sign off for now. I need a shower. I need some food. I need my Mommy!
Update from Nick - a few hours later. We have tickets confirmed direct on a train to Budapest, we have food in our stomachs, we have had nice hot showers, and we have a nice hotel booked for two nights in Budapest, so all is well with the world. Now there is just that 34 hour train ride to polish off!
We will write from Hungary!
Some final thoughts on Istanbul (by Kyla on Nov 8, 07)
Without a doubt Istanbul is one of my favorite cities - if not my favorite. How to describe it? How about historic, modern, cocky, cheeky, exotic, spiritual, edgy, non-stop, confident, crowded, charming, in your face at all times... and friendly and welcoming.
Instanbul's population is said to be 15 million. That means that it is always rush hour on the transit, in the popular areas, like Taksim. A walk down Taksim's streets is like Canada Day in Ottawa. We took in the area on a few occassions and the first time we were completely overwhelmed by the crowds, the music coming from all corners, the smells of food wafting through the air, the energy that a simple walk could contain. Party-goers were dressed up for a Saturday night on the town like us Canadian's would dress up for a birthday celebration, New Year's eve, or Halloween. We thought that perhaps there was a holiday or particular celebration and asked our friends Elif and Ozgay what was the occassion. They replied that as the summer had come to a close and everyone was back in town but that it was not yet winter that people were once again meeting up with friends for a night out. Essentially, it was just a regular night out on the town - in one of the world's most exciting cities. It was way too cool to be part of it!
As a resident of Ottawa I had seriously Istanbul public transit envy. If I could give up my car and rely on a system that the environment would appreciate and that would get me where I need to be with just a reasonable effort, I would be very happy indeed. Well of course a city of 15 million is set up to do just so. From Ozgay and Tugrul's apartment Nick and I would set out on our adventures - first taking the metro, then the funicular and then the tram. I think the tram made us the most envious because we swear Ottawa could accomodate such a system. We felt like real locals with our Akbil in hand - a plastic device in which you load up liras on and then tag in as you enter your transit of choice. Of course getting off the transit was always a bit of a challenge. On a few occassions we needed to rip through the crowd to make it to the doors, at times knocking out an elder women in the process. Think of a Sens player in the corner fighting to get the puck out of the corner and up in front of the net. It always made me smile when I would turn around to apologize - pardon- to an elder women only to find her already ahead of me and knocking out a person or two in the process. Elder people in Istanbul are used to playing defence!
Leaving Istanbul and Turkey
Having spent more time in Turkey than we had originally planned meant that our future travel plans had to be adjusted. We decided to forego time in Bulgaria and Romania. We found a train that would take us from Istanbul to Budapest. The train would take 40 hours. However, I had rather high expectations of this journey. Our train would depart from the station that the Orient Express, the most lavish journey on the continent at one time, departed and arrived. Well let me say this, the Transbalkan Express is no Orient Express!
We arrived on the train to find that our assigned cabin had been overtaken by an entire family and the train conductor instructed us to find another room. We did find another room but the 2 older women who had already set themselves up had taken the best spots. You really do need to take a peak at the photo of Nick standing up because he is standing up in front of what is meant to sleep three adults. I ended up sleeping in the middle row, and Nick likely suffered from altittude sickness given how high up his top bunk was. In the mornings I would take down my bed so that it was possible for us to sit on the bottom bunk. Had I not done this, there would have been 4 of us lying in our beds for the 40 hour journey.
Have I ever mentioned that I am mindly claustrophobic? This train journey, as well as a few walks up to church look out towers, not to mention a significant number of Turkish caves, are helping me through this fear.
But back to the train.
When I say 40 hour train ride, I really mean stuck on the train for 40 hours because the train certainly did not move for 40 hours. There were 4 countries in our journey, meaning 3 borders were crossed, requiring 6 separate custom inspections. The Turish border departure wins the prize for lengthiest process. Recall that Nick and I were in the know about the process, having watched it unfold from the bench the night before that we ultimately spent the night on. We were so in the know. As the train crawled into the station at 3:00 Nick and I were ready, passport in hand, boots strapped on, all warm clothing working all of their warmyness. The train had barely come to a stop when we sprinted to the kiosk that would award us with our Turkish departure stamp.
You would think that as we were the first from our train to arrive at the window that we would have been the first to be served. No... there was a bit of an international incident as one women our age, and a few of her friends butted in front of us, and then there were the elderly people that I was certainly not going to try to keep my stop in front of - keeping in mind that they are skilled like defensemen. From behind, there was much shouting and waving of hands and some hand expressions that I had not seen previously - an in languages that I had not yet heard before. Better to stand on the sidelines a bit and avoid any physical confrontation.
So within 20 minutes we had our arrangements in place and were able to make our way back to our cabin and back to sleep. I was surprised when 2.5 hours later we finally left that station, only to travel for half an hour more and then be struck at the Bulgarian border for an hour. At least for the remaining crossings we could stay in bed while the guards come on the train. Oh and the funny thing? For some reason every single crossing took place during hours that one would normally be asleep. There were no day time crossings. It kind of added to the mystic of it all to tell you the truth.
And we were pretty much the celebrities of the train because everyone else had EU passports. We often overheard -Canada- from the guards talking to one another, the other travellers. It was as though we alone were causing the hours of delay at the borders. Oh and I can comment on it now but I certainly was not going to mention it then, but did you know there is a bit of a spat between Canada and the newer EU nations re visa requrements? From what we had read online there is likely to be some significant changes in the new year - not good changes for travelling Canadians. So we were a bit nervous each time we crossed into a new country because for all we knew, there might have been a visa requirement enacted that very day. (Way back in the day of Gorbechev's new Russia I had had an unfortunate Mafia/customs guards experience when departing St Petersburg that kept creeping into my mind).
But back to the train itself and the other delays. While our train car was the Transbalkan Express and we had started the journey off with 7 or so carts, one would be incorrect in assuming that the train cars that were originally joined to us were also headed the same way. We believe there was also a Sofia Express, perhaps a le tour de former Yugoslavic nations unexpress. Regardless, train cars were removed and then added on at random times throughout our journey. Sometimes the timing of these additions did not match up and we believe that at one point we spent a solid three hours in Romania sitting on a side track just waiting for our new addition cart to arrive. Of course like all activities, this happened in the night.
It was kind of fun to tell you the truth. Nick and I would play the guessing game each morning and before heading to bed - has a new cart been added on since the last time we checked? It did feel lonely though that one time that our cart was all alone. It was as if we had been abandoned and that our destination was not as exciting as those that the other carts had headed off to.
But 40 hours on the train we spent... oh excluding the 5 minute adventure in Romania (see Nick's story on that). We spent our time making new friends from Hungary. Some spoke little English, some spoke German, some spoke only Hungarian. Through these 3 languages as well as some serious attempts to create a new dialect of sign language, we manged to communicate. We shared food and beverages, played rounds of UNO, shared details of our travel adventures as well as photos of our friends and family... and in the end we were invited to stay in an east Hungarian town that we had never even heard of - Hajdúnánás! And I think that is my favorite part of this crazy trip we are taking... the unforeseen opportunties that pop up. And it is just a matter of having an openess to receive those unexpected events.
5 minute adventure - getting a beer in the middle of Romania - Nick writing
We stopped at one station in the middle of Romania, in the middle of the night, waiting for another car to be added. We had "15 minutes" to go to a store that was close, if we wanted. We threw our shoes on, not nearly fast enough, since everyone else had taken off already. We trudged across the train tracks, behind the dark station, into the middle of a muddy town. There was a wedding going on at the first bar we ran into, so the group of about 8 of us kept on going to the general store. The general store had lots of items for sale, but not a lot of Hungarian was spoken, so the Hungarians on the train had to do a lot of pointing to get the beers, wine, and meat that they wanted. And then there was a general confusion around the exchange rates. Our Hungarian friends wound up paying in Euros, and paying vastly inflated rates for their beers that would likely keep the town afloat for a number of years.
Kyla and I realized that, in our haste, we had departed the train with a 2 Euro coin, and 8 dollars in Bulgarian money that was about as useful as soiled Kleenex at the store. The 2 Euros bought us a Milka chocolate bar and a piece of bread. We then walked back to the train, secure in the knowledge that our group had brought years of prosperity to the town, only to find that other cars had been added to our train in the dark, and our car was nowhere to be found.
Then the train started moving.
We ran around a bit, and finally saw our conductor waving to us from a distance. Other cars going to Budapest had been added, and we were ready to go. A jump on the slowly-moving train got us in safely, and now with chocolate!
(Turns out the trains were just shuffling around, and not actually leaving. In fact, we stayed at that station for over an hour.)