Deep in Danube country (1): The long takeoff

Deep in Danube country (1): The long takeoff

Sirkeci Station (PHOTOS: TODAY’S ZAMAN)

June 07, 2012, Thursday/ 17:23:00/ ELSIE ALAN

This year’s “Big Trip” began and ended with “Big Weather.” During the hardest part of this last winter, there was a lot of news coverage of Bulgaria and Romania.

Thousands of villagers were trapped in the mountains of both countries, and the Danube froze so hard and so quickly that ships were trapped in the ice. Turkey had a hard winter, too, but something about the trapped ships and villagers really caught my attention, and before I came to my senses I had done a lot of work on the travel involved to get to eastern Bulgaria and Bucharest, Romania, so I could take a look at serious weather. Come to my senses I did, and a good thing it was; hundreds of Bulgarian and Romanian trains were cancelled during that period, and we would probably have been frozen in somewhere, hungry and cold, just like the poor village people.

In my defense, I grew up in southern California in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when just plain old rain was a big event, and snow, lightning and thunder were unheard of. Earthquakes, wind and fires, yes; serious weather, no. Even though since then I have experienced some significantly heavy weather, including a hurricane in Florida, blizzards in western Massachusetts and five winters in Gebze with no natural gas, I am still fascinated by Mother Nature’s large-scale tantrums.

Not long after the demise of my storm folly, my pal Beverly in California announced it was time for her to come to Turkey, with her husband and friend Chantel, for their yearly adventure fix. That bunch travels a lot, a WHOLE lot, but usually on cruise ships, so they like to rough-ride with Elsie and Lütfü sometimes to keep their back-packing cred current. They are pretty terrific travelers for a bunch of cruisers (see my “Turkey’s Mesopotamia” series, Today’s Zaman, May-June 2011), who, granted, take all the more adventurous on-shore trips. Remembering all the time-tables and routes I had written for my abortive whim, I suggested Bulgaria and Romania as logical vacation destinations for people coming to Turkey. Bev immediately went for it (I love that girl) and the plans were re-activated.

Three months later, it was time to pick up our friends from İstanbul Atatürk Airport. This had all seemed like such a good idea months before -- we would take the Gebze/Haydarpaşa banliyö (suburban) train, still hanging in there during the big construction projects (Marmaray and fast train), then ferry and metro to the airport to meet them. From the airport we would go briefly to Sultanahmet and then hit Sirkeci to catch the 10 p.m. night train to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. We had got tickets for a sleeper compartment, so our friends could get a good night’s sleep after their marathon trip from Los Angeles. And it was a good plan, except...

Catching up with the train in Pendik

First of all, the banliyö had been truncated the day before we left, at Pendik, some miles west and north of us, so we had to catch a gargantuan, accordion-pleated double bus at Gebze train station. The bus was built for nice roads, which we haven’t got in the part of Gebze we had to traverse, so I was good and car-sick by the time we hit Pendik, what with all the rocking and rolling in the big, slug-shaped bus. We caught the amputated train in Pendik (paying again, of course) and proceeded as planned. We got to the İstanbul airport and of course the flight was delayed, but I think it was Amsterdam’s fault this time, not Atatürk’s. But it wasn’t a problem; the wait is always worth it for friends. It was a wonderful treat to see our three California buddies once again in Turkey, and we hit the road. With no further problems we arrived at Sultanahmet, where other friends had agreed to keep some luggage for us which we wouldn’t need for the next few weeks (our pals came bearing gifts of Best Foods mayonnaise and Tabasco sauce, as well as renewed driver’s licenses and credit cards, etc.). We drank tea as we re-packed and double-checked, and left, refreshed, for our Sirkeci train date.

We had been warned that sometime around spring, there would be work on another train project which involved the tracks between İstanbul and the Bulgarian border at Kapıkule. We had hoped nevertheless that our train would go as planned, that the project would be off-schedule in our favor, but no; instead of a train from Sirkeci, the home of the old Orient Express, we had to take another bus, albeit a nice one, to the Bulgarian border. Our three cheerful travelers took it in good spirit, and slept all the way to the border, which was a blessing.

The Kapıkule border crossing, with its Bulgarian counterpart, Kapitan Andreev, is according to Wikipedia the busiest land border crossing in the world, both for people and for cargo. Well, you couldn’t have told it by our experience: At about one in the morning, there was nobody there except railroad and customs employees and our half-full bus’s passengers. It was actually pretty neat and cinematic -- the dark, empty train station, echoing footsteps and distant shouts, bright border lights highlighting the gloom, empty rooms furnished with bleak iron benches and nothing else; a space designed, it seemed, to make one re-examine one’s desire to leave Turkey. It turned out that the public WC was actually in Bulgaria, and with typical Turkish politeness about these things I was directed to Bulgaria to powder my nose with not a word said about my actually entering as an illegal alien, seeing as how my passport hadn’t been processed yet.

Everyone there was really quite nice. During the two hours we were waiting for the train that would take us to our various destinations, we enjoyed the company of some interesting folks. There were two Bulgarian business colleagues coming back from an IT conference in İstanbul; they had come from Sofia the night before to İstanbul, attended the conference, and were returning now, with no sleep since they had left home! And I thought my former employer was tough! They would arrive in Sofia at about 10:00 a.m. the next day, and I sincerely hope they got the day off. We also had a group of Turkish children with three or four of their teachers, heading to Sofia for some sort of presentation. A happy if weird impression of that night was the group of high-spirited youngsters blithely running out into the open area of the border crossing and organizing a practice of their dance or athletic presentation, singing the while. Their more sedate teachers broke out the Turkish travel goodies -- cookies, börek and stuffed vine leaves -- and shared them with us. Lute and I were proud of this evidence of Turkish hospitality, in the middle of the night in a grim border station, in front of our visiting friends. We whipped out our own dried fruit and hazel nuts, while Bev offered water around. It was a good experience shared by a lot of sleepy, tired grown-ups as we listened to the shouts and excited laughter of inexhaustible youth.

Finally, after leaving home five hours before their flight left, flying 20 hours on planes, taking the metro and tram to İstanbul and riding a bus for three hours to the border, our friends joined us in the long-awaited sleeper car, and our spirits revived. We excitedly made up our beds, ate a few more snacks, toasted to the success of our trip so far with a surreptitious glass of wine, and curled up in our tiered bunks. After one more passport check, this time by Bulgarian officials, but on the train, we all slept like babies, next to and over and under each other, happily anticipating seeing our first Bulgarian city, Plovdiv, in the morning; it was a slumber party for grown-ups, on wheels.

Next stop: Plovdiv, Bulgaria

* Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.