I just ran across the travel blog that my friend Emily kept for our trip through Eastern Europe/Turkey in 2005. It was my first visit to non-English-as-a-first-language countries and while sometimes trying the experience was overall amazing. Emily relates a few of the happenings on our trip with incredible wit. Here's the link http://windspinner.blogspot.com/ (blogspot has a weird setup - you have to click the month on the left side to view each month of the trip. Otherwise you'll just get the last couple entries).
The Midnight Express
For those who don't know, last night we took the night train from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, to Istanbul, Turkey. Now, there are SO many witty little titles I could have given this post-- "Barnum and Bailey's" or maybe "Turkish Delight" or something... But, based on the movie Midnight Express, which I've never seen, and that people warned me not to watch before going to Turkey, I suppose I'll use that one.
We got a cab in Veliko to the train station... It was about a 10 minute ride for 1.78 leva--About a buck. Not too shabby. We got to the wee station in the middle of nowhere with a gypsy camp nearby, and sat. And waited. A man came up to us and started talking and being very VERY chatty. Uncomfortably so. After 5 long minutes of awkward "conversation" he asked if we had any foreign coins from Czech Republic or Slovakia or Serbia or something. He "had a coin collection" and wanted to collect more... We said that no, we didn't, and he just walked off. It was very strange.
In a short while, we saw a familiar face--The hipster owner of the hiker's hostel, where we stayed, and her hipster friend who has a car who gives lifts to travelers up the big-ol hill to the hostel. He was munching on snacks that looked like those packing peanuts we use in America that melt in water and smell like detergent. David played his ukulele, he bobbed and danced while eating his styrofoam snacky snacks. We told the owner of the hostel about the weird guy with the "coin collection" and pointed him out. She said he's someone who rents out rooms, he hates her because he says she always steals his customers (personally, I think she gets customers because he's sleazy and pushy, and she's way awesome). Very interesting. In any case, our train was late, by only 20 minutes or so, but still late. We said goodbye to the hostel people, and hopped on the train. Our tickets were checked, and a little pudgy balding Turk with a kind face directed us to our sleeper car. Each sleeper has 2 beds and a little bed WAY up by the ceiling for kids, I guess. So, he put the boys in one car, then opened up another pre-occupied and very dark room and gestured for me to go inside... Ladies first? I could feel my eyes getting wide and panicky, especially since the train was in motion, bumping along the track, we were in a very small hallway, and I had my giant backpack on... I felt like a bunny used in animal testing--frantic and a little confused. I pointed to the room with the boys, and the chubby Turk closed the occupied room and let me into the boy's room. YAY! I win.
Compared to the rest of the trains we'd been on, this one takes the cake as the best. By far. The rooms were nice and non smoking, the toilets in the bathroom were relatively clean, at least at the beginning of the trip, the toilets had seats, and the bathroom even had a shower. They gave us freshly pressed sheets in sealed plastic bags. We made our beds, honestly more comfortable than many we'd stayed in in the past, and enjoyed the ride. At first, david took the loft and read, and Justin and I took the bottom bed and promptly fell asleep.
At 2am, we heard a knock on the door--Bulgarian border cops. We opened it up, handed them our passports, and they took them, saying the all too common "Moment"... We got nervous. We WILL get these back, right? Sure enough, we did, about an hour later. The customs man came through, and we were nervous about our "national treasures" that we had stashed up top in the lofty bed. He couldn't speak a lick of english, sized us up, noticed that we were but lowly and, at this point, stinky students, and walked away. Hooray! The train sat there for a while for no good reason, and so we drifted back to sleep.
Another hour later, we were woken up by a clatter of people running down a train platform at 4am while our train was still in motion, ever so slightly. These people had obviously done the Turkish border before... We got up slowly, and pudgy Turk showed us that we had to get off the train, get our passports stamped, then get back on. So, we did. We stood in line in this very surreal situation... People crowded the front, a man outside kept wheeling a squeaky wheelbarrow back and forth, and it was freaking 4am. Finally, we got to the front, and the man looked at our passports, looked at us, and did that damn hand gesture direction thing that delivers the most accurate directions in the world. We walked out of the office, and all we could see were a couple of hot dog stand type things. Was this where we got our visas? We asked an official, and he told us to go back into the office we were just in. AHH!
I noticed a man inside who had an American passport and who had gotten through. I asked him where he got his visa, and he showed us this very small, unmarked, dimly lit stand. We literally ran accross the train platform to this place. Thank GOD David's dad had given him some euros. They don't accept Bulgarian money to purchase visas, but euros are all good. It costs 20 bucks each, we gave them 20 euros each... no change. Yes, we got a bit ripped off, but it's better than the 100 dollar visa fee that was in place until just this month, and it's better than not getting a visa at all. We bolted back accross the train platform. We were the last ones milling around. We got stamped and hopped back in the train. What an experience.
I believe it's because of the constant uneven and jolting motion of the train that makes your stomach unsettled... both Justin and I had tummy problems. I popped an immodium at the beginning of the trip because I didn't want to be in the toilet the whole time. Justin went to the toilet after getting our passports stamped. David and I waited. The train hadn't started yet. Very soon, Justin returned with a shocked look on his face.
"That was quick!" I said.
"I couldn't go. There is a family outside the bathroom--a couple men, a few women--and they're carrying sheets with animals in them."
David and I both laugh, thinking he's kidding.
"They have about 5 bags made of sheets that they set on the ground... There have to be puppies in one, it sounds like it. One of them is chittering." Justin said.
"Yeah, it sounds like ferrets or something."
Suddenly, there was a rush, and we heard the bathroom door open (we were the first car next to the bathroom). There were hushed voices, and we could hear the puppies in the bag through the wall... The "chittering" bag was left right in front of our door. We stealthily locked it. We listened harder and the sound was either birds or monkeys, but the way it was moving, we decided there were probably monkeys in this bag outside of our door... And then, as if out of a horror movie, my eyes focused in on the handle of our door... It slowly moved down, as someone--the man with the monkeys, tried to get inside. GOD I'm glad we locked that thing. We looked out the peephole, and watched as he rushed down to the other side of the car into the other bathroom and locked himself inside. What the hell was going on? We were, at this point, in fits of laughter... Sacks of animals hiding out in the bathroom.
A few men with flashlights surveyd the underside of the train, making sure nobody was stowing away. Finally, it began to go, and then, suddenly, one of the men with flashlights pointed to the entrance closest to the bathroom next to ours and yelled something in Turkish. The train screamed to a halt. YAY, they caught the animal smugglers! But no, it was just a train attendant who had forgotten to get back on... Now this revealing of the people was up to us...
Justin was brave enough to exit, once again, and he found pudgy Turk and told him about the situation.
"There are people hiding with animals in the bathroom!" Justin said.
Apperantly, pudgy Turk said "Yes!" smile "Cheep cheep!" making the sound of whatever the hell was in the monkey bag. He was in on this managarie! He did, however, go to the toilet closest to our car and made them get out. All we could here were dogs snarling and barking and then they were somewhere else. Good lord. We were in absolute stitches! What is all this??
Finally, we began to fall asleep again, though still often chuckling about the weird animal deal. Even though Justin and I were crammed in the bottom bed, we slept pretty well. Around 9, we pulled into the outskirts of Istanbul. My god, I never thought I'd be so grateful to see a large body of water. It's beautiful. It took nearly an hour to get from the outskirts of town to the final stop in the heart of town. We rode past a large fish market full of glistening silver fishes, seagulls hovering above with the hopes of scoring a quick nibble. We passed ruins of walls, and many mosques.
We arrived at the end of the line, pudgy Turk wishing us a good trip. We got off and were expecting to find the people from our hotel waiting to pick us up--no luck. We were approached by many people, hoping to give us a place to stay. We decided to get a taxi. The driver was very nice, although he did overcharge us a bit. I forgot you can haggle here, and I think he was a bit surprised that he got such a good deal as well. I'll remember that for next time. Regardless, the ride was 15 minutes or so long for about 12 bucks... And he really went out of his way to find our place. He'd never heard of Nayla Palace, and he periodically asked locals and even got out of the taxi to ask someone to show him where to go. Very good service. He tried to teach us a bitta Turkish, but in my tired state it was all lost on me. On our drive to this place, we saw so many beautiful rug markets--where we're staying is I guess in the central rug selling district.
We finally made it to our place. It's pretty shabby, but a good deal for the location. We're right in between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya--about 2 blocks away for each. We checked in, took showers, and ate the breakfast provided by the pension. There's a hostel/internet cafe directly accross... I guess you'd call this a lane... and we're thinking of staying here instead. It's VERY nice. Really beautiful. Anyway, we're gonna lug ourselves around Istanbul today, and crash big time tonight. Welcome to Turkey.
OH man, the animals-in-the-bag story. I've told that one more times that I can remember.