March 16, 2010

Budapest – Sofia. (The Balkan Expresi part 1)

The carriage for Sofia is that one there- the chickenshed at the back of the train with sacking windows and a big silver piece of graf on the side. Our train guard is a tired woman with a lopsided smile who speaks as much English as we do Russian. Our communication is in gestures and Euros, but it gets us to our very own cabin with fold-out bunks and a sink- our home as far as Sofia. We’re energized by the pasta and the spirit Lucy gave, and we yell out of the window into the night as the train rattles out of Budapest.

“To Egypt!”

We’re fast asleep within a very short time.

I don’t wake til 9.45, and Egypt is a long way off. A twitch of the curtains shows grey, and a litter-strewn ditch following the tracks. A fresh red Coca Cola car waits at a crossing, out of place. We rumble on, the landscape an endless floodplain. The pylons are low and old, and Billy sees a car half-submerged in a field. Everywhere is half-flooded, and there are no humans in sight. We cross a wide brown river. A heron stands among the rubbish on its banks. A yellow train stands at a derelict station. Two men and a horse carry scrap metal. A man with a flag stands by a hut.

Of course, the strip of world by the train tracks is always rougher than other places: the Serbia passing our windows is shabby, all metal yards and scrap yards and hills of litter. But away from the tracks, there’s fresh paint and satellite dishes, and even a vineyard on a distant slope. Stunted, flattened vines- I wonder what happens when they’re fully left to grow, imagining a field of huge, gnarled grape-forest sheltering a world of its own.

We stop at border control at Dimitrovgrad, where the sun is out and silence buzzes. I step off the train for air, a guard gestures at me to get back on. Billy films a flag flapping on a pole, a guard orders him to delete it. After an age, the train moves on.

“Fuck your father and your mother knows it” – Graf on a wall after the Bulgarian border.

Rattling into Bulgaria, there’s snow on the ground and dark forest on the hills- the kind of scenery wolves run through. The sun stays with us, and fuels us through mountain tunnels where we just pull our heads in in time, and finally across a high plain to Sofia, where we’ll change chickensheds for Istanbul.

An hour to stretch.

IMAGE: Curtains in a train carriage, somewhere in Hungary.

IMAGE: View from train, somewhere in Hungary.

IMAGE: Station manager, Bulgaria. (Image processed wrongly by photo lab in Syria. A happy accident - two shots of the same person are sandwiched together.)

IMAGE: Pedestrians waiting at a level crossing for the train to pass. Bulgaria.

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