Europa on Rails

Back and forth with the Orient Express

I am 34 years old. I have never ever been on a real interrail trip, with sleeping bag and foam matress slowly rolling and rocking trough Europe. Each year a new summer comes, the train stations fill up with young people with big backpacks and even bigger dreams.

Each summer I was dreaming of going too. But I couldnt, cirumstances were never auspicious.  At some point the young people stopped looking at me as “young”, and together with this change in perception the dream faded slowly away.

Until this summer. 2010.

On my daily commute to work, I have been passing a poster every morning “F*ck the plane, go Interrail“.

Power of marketing?

I bought an Interrail ticket. The best kind – one month of continuous travel – total freedom, no restrictions. And one for my 15 year old son as well, whom I managed to convince to go with his old mamma on a holiday, that involves changing lots of trains.

This is how a magic adventure started, that took us from Scandinavia to the Orient, and back, filled all senses, and left an impression of Europe as a single landscape, interconnected by culture, languages, family ties, rail roads, power lines, long black stretches of asphalt and fields of corn and wheat and sunflowers.

We went as far as we could go – to Istanbul in Turkey – and then came all the way back to the North.

It was a trip of many discoveries …

In search of European Longdistance Walking Path E3

I have a special love for long roads and paths that wind, spanning its own reality, leading a wanderer trough villages and cities, trough space and trough time, in a series of arrivals and departures, on a journey that quickly becomes internal as well as external. A couple of years ago walking the Camino de Santiago left a strong imprint on my mind and my feet. Where can I have more walking magic?

The European Union has a webpage, with so called Longdistance Walking Paths. I found one called E3. I dont know why I fell in love with it.

Maybe it was the one with blank spots on the map? Maybe because it starts in Istanbul – the easternmost possible corner of Europe, and runs across culture, countries and history, all the way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, the westernmost corner of our continent.

Maybe as a preparation to walk this fantastic route one day, I had this romantic idea of tracking down the eastern (blank, uncharted) part of E3 by train, and spending a few days here, a few days there, hiking the most scenic parts.

The E3 goes roughly like this:

  • Turkey – Bulgaria – Romania – Hungary – Slovakia – Poland – Germany – France – Spain.

Given a non-existent amount of information, like a map of Europe with a winding line, no travel accounts, blogs or description, I thought we can just go along the winding line, and try to find a path. Having choosen thecountries, I did a little bit of planning by looking for nice Couchsurfing hosts in each of these countries. And I thought that you can always buy a better map, ask people around, and hear more about the trail once in a given country.

How do you pick whom to meet of the thousands and thousands of possibilities? You dont pick, just trust that you will meet exactly whom you are supposed to meet:

David, an active himalayist from Budapest, that happened to be gone, but left os directions to his yurt.

Georgi, a construction engineer from Bulgaria, that dreams of standing on the highest point of each european country.

Kubilay, a security engineer from Turkey, that understands how to link psychology with the war on terror and information security into a bunch of cool new ideas.

Let me admit it at once. We didn’t find the E3. But we found so much else, that it didnt matter. E3 is for walking, anyway.

Hungary

I was really struck by the beauty of Budapest Keleti, the Eastern train station. Like a temple of progress, like a belief in a better future, created by steel, rail, and working hands. 9am, crawling out of a delayed sleeper train, sweaty and weary by 48 hours of travel.

The day before I was sipping a Mojito toes buried in the sand of a river-beach-bar in Eastern Berlin, close to the Gallery and whats left of the Berlin Wall.

The day before that I was sipping a capuccino at Nyhavn, a historic port  in Copenhagen, trying to get a hectic work week to disappear, and tune into the concept of holiday and adventure.

First things first. Money, bathroom, luggage store, food.

Beautifull secession architecture, the Fos, termal bath.

Stroll around, look at how Buda and Pest mirror each other.

What kind of money do we need here?

We follow the classic route of the Orient Express.

Ours is worn down and shabby, but we are rolling.

Hungary.  Serbia. Bulgaria. Turkey.

In 36 hours of travel, from leaving Budapest until arriving in Istanbul, we go in and out of the European Union. The language is changing from hungarian to serbian to bulgarian to turkish. Money is changing from Forinth to Dinars to Levi to Lira.

I have to write the exchange rates down on a piece of paper.

Istambul

East meets west over a small glass cup filled with çay.

Bosphorus is spanned by several bridges, and criss crossed by ferries, that carry people from one shore to another.

Haga Sophia and the minarets of the Blue Mosque on one shore, the Galanga tower on the other, a breath of fresh air in the dusty warm city.

We are met on the station by our Couchsurfing host, Kubilay, and he looks nice, and I dont know that he will be such a fantastic friend, such a wonderful addition to my life.

He drives us trough the city, we pass the famous bridge, and we are in Asia. I am a little disappointed, its not allowed to walk there, and stand with one foot on each continent, its a highway with dense traffic, no room for romantic pedestrians.

We are in our hosts spacious apartment, where we are met by Ozan, the house mate, and we drink a cup of çay, looking a bit surprised at each other, still strangers.

But soon we arent strangers anymore, and even trough the boys are busy with work during the day, the nights are ours and fill quickly with laughter, and joy, and sheer happiness. A few days later I discover,  that what I thought a cliche is so true, and happened to us –  we were picked up from the stations by a stranger, when we left, it hurt because we were leaving a friend.

Our hosts give us directions, and everyday we go exploring this vibrant city, with its eternal clash of culture. The turkish flag is so proud, it is waving in the wind from every imaginable importan position, the red background and the moon. The city is crowded, the traffic jams are traditional, every word and concept has a deeper meaning.

Our hosts play a traditional turkish instrument called baglama, and my son is soon hooked into learning a simple tune. We learn lots of concepts about nazar, intuition, soul – and about hospitality. The words are so complicated, almost nothing is recognizable from other languages I know, and I have a hard time sticking a few courtesities to my brain.

But we have patient teachers. We leave after having stayed longer than originally planned, and with a brand new baglama strapped to the backpack.

Definitely the most amazing thing about Turkey is its people.

Bulgaria – enchanted by the mountains

We are in Devin. Rodopi mountains are lush green, full of herbs, birds, bees, smells.

Farming is done with the power of back and hand, horse carriages move with dignity up the winding mountain roads.  We go exploring into the wild country side, discover a termal swimming pool, and get lost on a pretty easy trail. When we climb up to the top, we see the country around us, we are pretty high, its wild, isolated. Range after range of mountains spans the horizon, everthing covered by green vegetation, and far far away gray-violet shapes mark the tallest mountains in Bulgaria.

Georgi, such a beautiful human being, full of dreams and determination is here in the little town of Devin to build a dam. We laugh that its a long flashmob, a thousand men came, spent 5 years building a dam, and will soon go away.

Learning, sharing, giving. That is what Couchsurfing is about.

Istambul take two

Back to civilization after a wonderfull time spent in the mountains. We bumble with bus from Bansko to Sofia, find the Central Train Station, and have a long look at the list of train departures, in all directions, everything written in the cyrillic alphabet.

We can go there. Or there. Or there. We had plans of going to Romania, we have left Istanbul.

At least we tried to leave, because we find out that we have to go back to our new turkish friends. An invisible power is pulling us back, and soon we are in the little glass booth that sells international seat reservations. Friendship has its demands.

The woman has such an unintersted face when she tells me, that I cant go to turkey because  I am a woman, and the train has only reservations left for men.

– No problem.

No, no, you cant go.

– But I want to go to Istanbul.

Cant, cant be done. Only for men.

The feminist inside me wakes up. This is gender discrimination! We are inside the European Union, where my right to free movement is restricted because of gender. I decide to tell this unparticipating lady, that I want to report the incident to the police.

– Little english, little english.

But in the end she produces a ticket. I can go – my son is a bit worried.

– Mamma, maybe you have to wear a fake moustache? Otherwise everybody can see that you are a lady.

We roll trough Bulgaria, a full moon is accompanying us, spilling a flood of white light on the corn fields, the roads, the power lines.

Everything is so connected, we move along lines planned by others, new roads built on old ones, for thousands of years people have moved on this road, like a river.

The ceremony of getting the right stamp in the passport at the Bulgarian – Turkish border is repeating itself, just as entertaining and surreal as the previous time.

And in the morning we are back in Istanbul, the city-desert full of houses, the horizon cut into pieces with tall minarets from all directions.

Back together with our two new friends, more sightseeing, more museums.

A full moon is shining for us on our night walks.

There is more of the singing, playing, laughing, nagre, rake – turkish people know how to enjoy life.

All the way back

I am talking with one of the room mates in the sleeper, a middle aged lawyer from Argentina, and I discover that 1o minutes, talking non-fluently in spanish, you can drill down to core of thing, the essence of life, and purpose in life. We are like naked to each other, and seeing the reflection of oneself in the eyes of the other brings a new clarity to the understanding.

We are talking about love, about divorcing, about integrity.

The Argentinians leave us in Sofia, the train is running late, we cant leave it to power shop some food supplies, so we ask them to do a favor, and they come back from the food run with new supplies of chips and ice tea.

The next new friends in the sleeper room is a couple thats romantically in love, two jewish-russian-american college students reunited after a year of studying abroad and self-realization. We make lists of countries we should love and hate, its a competition, the couple with the longest hate list will loose the game.

– Germany, Russia, Gypsies, …

– Aussies, Mexicans, …

Time flows, we pass a border, stamping game, passport control, and the dicrete 3 men in suits, that slip a bunch of money into the pocket of the controller. Its the only compartment that doesnt get a thorough check.

We have left the European Union, and rolled into Serbia.

The trail is winding trough mountains, high faces rise on both sides and shadow the sun. Its grey rocks, emptiness, a hard land to live in, a hard land to fight for.

The train pulls into the station of Nis. Serbian railways havent discovered the concept of a restaurant car, but they will change the engine, and we have a little less than 10 minutes to make a food run. With a loudly beating heart and using hand gestures and a mix of polish/english we make a quick order of two gigantic hamburgers with freshly grilled meat the size of my plate at home. I forget that I am semi-vegetarian, and enjoy the sight. Breathless from running back we are at the coach just in time for departure.

We keep rolling, the sun is lower and lower, the turkish train conductor pays us a lot of small visits, he gives us tea, and fruit, we show each other family pictures and talk in a mixture of sign language, and the few turkish words, that we managed to learn.

The train creeps trough Serbia, and is unbelievably sloooow, but we learn from the turkish conductor, that this is a record trip, we are only a couple of hours late, and not the usual 18. Its dark outside when we finally pull in to the station in Belgrade.

– Train to Budapest?

– It left 3 hours ago!

– When is the next one?

– Tomorrow!

We have to admit it, we are stuck here in Belgrade.

A couple of desperate phone calls isnt enough to arrange an emergency-couch, and we decline the conductors kind offer of letting us sleep in the train. Instead,  we check in for the night in the youth hostel thats just opposite the train station. 6 Euro for a dorm bed and  hot shower after such a long train ride – thats gooood value.

Smiles come back on the tired faces, and stay there until we discover lice in our hair – the seats were suspiciously looking in the sleeper from previous night.

So we have to find a pharmacy-after-dark, and a restaurant, and try to find the main walking street, and also do some sightseeing, now that we are here.

So strange to be in a city that has been at war not so long ago, now its vibrant and modern, full og highrise building, glam shops, fashion and open air cafes.

Back in the hotel we improvize some lice-extermination attack with plastic bags and a chemical potion that has a very acid smell, and gives tears in the eyes just from bein near it. My son goes to sleep, but I cant resist the tempation of joining a happy party of people sitting on the balcony, overlooking the roofs of Belgrade, sipping wine.

They are so amazed, that I am here just by coincident, moving on the very next morning.

Warszawa Rising

After 48 hours of hardcore train travel, we arrive in Warsaw Central. We have an unmovable deadline with history, that my son doesn’t want to miss.

Its August 1.

A day full of emotions in the city of Warsaw.

The anniversary of the Warszawa Rising.

During II World War, in 1944, when the russian red army was camping on the left hand bank of the Vistuala river, a desperate military action started in Warsaw. For 63 days thousands of young boys and girls participated in a desperate effort to liberate the city, and threw out the german oppressor. Really not armed with weapons, but with songs and love for the homeland. The new untrained soldiers were beaten, shot, deported. The city was burned down to the ground, the population carried away on trains to unknown destinations. Unbelievable loss of life, of everything that was beautiful. Warszawa has been rebuilt, but the old one is gone forever.

We go together to the military cemetery, Powazki, to participate in the memorial.

Exactly at 1700 the traffic stops, and every driver in the city makes a long noise with the car horn. The infernal sounds go on and on, everyone knows, that  it was exactly at this hour 61 years ago, that the fightings started.

– We are proud that you dared.

-We remember you, that you died fighting for our freedom.

-You didn’t win – but we admire your courage.

Red-white flags, red-white flowers, red-white ribbons.

A sea of solemn faces, in deep thoughts.

North, north, north

Next day comes, and I am going further north.

From Warszawa to Berlin, we pass fields of wheat, and small villages, I pass the time practicing my few japanese words with three wonderfull ladies that were in Poland to play Chopin. Japanese love Chopin.

In Berlin i try to buy a ticket for the sleeper train to Sweden, but there are none left. I ask the train conductor, but he says there are none left. I decide to stick around the train anyway, because I have set my mind on going to Sweden. Another woman with a backpack looks like she is doing the same thing. Combined magic of two determined female travelers works, and the train masters hushes us into the train. I share the tiny cubicle with Margita, she is returning home from a circuit of Mont Blanc.

We discuss the different sizes of our backpacks, compare shoes and blisters, what a fabulous meeting on platform 26 in Berlin Hauptbahnhoff. When we wake up, we are in Sweden.

I have to switch trains in Lund, a hurried hug to Margita, and I have 1 hours to drink a cappucino, and see the famous Lund cathedral.

Cathedrals are so inspiring – this effort of thousands of uneducated people, that made them dream and transcend from stones and mortar into a world of timeless beauty.

Next train goes to Stockholm. Like the last frontier of civilization, Stockholm is the city where I always spend time between trains running around for last minute shopping – fuel for the mountain stove, new trekking socks.

The next train, from Stockholm to Kiruna is full of people dressed for the fields, backpacks, boots, light in their eyes.

I share the appartment with 3 old friends, they invite me to their meal of cheese, pears, bread and wine. We make mixed english-swedish conversation, and go north, north, north.

Sweden is full of woods, unending stretches of dark green woods.

The sky is different, higher, lighter, the air is cooler. It doesnt really get dark that night. I lay in my berth, and I think that its time to get ready for the next challenge.

A challenge of a 110 km adventure run in Lapland, a frozen country above the polar circle, the Fjellrevan Classic 2010.

The interrail ticket is due to expire. End of one adventure, a new one is beginning. But thats the next story

Indian rail travel – Worst case scenario

I am travelling around South India alone with my 2 kids. It is quite fun and intensive. I would like to tell you about my worst case scenario regarding booking tickets. From home, I tried to book rail tickets for the train from Chennai (MAS)-Mettupaliyam (MTP) on the Nilgiri Express – an overnight train, and then from Mettupaliyam (MTP) to Ooty (UAM) – which is 5 h beautifull ride up the mountains with a century old “toy train”. I attacked the reservation page several times, without great success. I gave up when I after making a credit card payment got an e-mail that “your transaction was unsuccessfull” The problem is probably due to the new verification of credit cards by my bank – but nobody wanted to aknowledge the problem. Anyway, departure date was approaching and I decided that I will book the train tickets once in India. The first hotel we stayed at was in Mamallapuram, 50 km outside Chennai. The travel desk told me, that “no problem”, they will book the ticket for me. I was happy. Next day, the told me “no problem” they will book the ticket. Next day, they told me, that there were only waiting list tickets left. I think the 3AC class had a figure saying W20/W18. I decided to purchase a waiting list ticket – the bought it in the Tatkal quota. They didnt buy the toytrain ticket to Ooty – it was not necessary they said, I could just get it in Mettupaliyam. And told me there is “no problem”, I can just change the wl ticet it into a real reservation once at the station. So far so good, we arrived at Chennai, checked the luggage into the cloak room, and started looking for where to get a real reservation. The very helpfull station master told us to go to another building. We went to the office, waited in line. Come back in 30 minutes. We went back in 30 minutes. Come back in 15 minutes. We went back in 15 minutes. Then we were told to go to another office. We went there. They told us to go back to the first office. I tried to play the helpless foreign woman with 2 kids, by invading the office of the Station Master once more. Got a lot compassion, but nothing could be done – we should wait for the Train Master to give us seatings. The train arrived on the platform one hour before departure. It was so looooong, going from one end to the other (in search of the Train Master) took about 20 minutes. No, the train master could not do anything – the train was fully booked, we were on the waiting list as #3, #4, #5 respecitevely. He said, if we want to go, we have to go in the unreserved compartment. At that point, we were VERY determined to get aboard that train! So, we went to the other end of the loooooong train where the unreserved coaches were. Tried to enter one – but people were hanging outside the door. Tried the womens compartment – full. 5 minutes to train departure we decided to just PUSH into the train, hoping to sort things out. So we mashed, and squeezed, and were inside a very crowded carriage. The seats are organized in compartments in the open carriage, with wooden seatings for 2*5 people in each compartment, and 2*1 next to the window. Above all the seats,there is a luggage shelf. Every single space was full, people sitting on the luggage rails, and about 10 on each of the 5 man seats. I was standing on one leg, the kids before me, nobody could move. The train rolled away from the station. People shuffled a bit, a man offered half a seat to my 9y old daughter. she was able to reach it, and put her pack on the knees. Somebody whistled from the next compartments, and people waved at my 12y old son to come. He climbed up the luggage shelf where they made room for him, and had a great time. I was able to put the packs on the floor, and sit on top of them. What an entertaining night! People were singning,humming, playing, talking… I had a great conversation about capitalism vs communism with a furniture fabricant. The guy next to me turned out to be working as software engineer in Chennai, going home to see his newborn daughter. Not everybody spoke english, but they sought translation of those who did. As the train stopped at different stations, people shuffled and moved, and I even made it to a wooden seat Once in MET, the same problem. No seats left for us. We turned up in the “unreserved part”, people moved and made room for us. We rode with a bag of rice and garlig, an elder tamil grandma, and a tea fabricant, and a bunch of engineering students going home for the weekend from Chennai.

The train started to move, trough the lush country side. We went up, up, up, the mountains around grew taller. We had plenty of stops on the way for chai and water for the engine. The kids thought the steam engine was so cool! Like a caleidoscope, the landscape changed with emerald green tea plantations, high banana trees, steep cliffs. Our new tamil nadu friends didnt miss a single tunnel – each was greeted with loud whistles and cries.

The boys entertained my kids the whole way. Before leaving, this following conversation occured – I have been thinking about it since: – What do you think of the Tamil people? – They are so nice and friendly! – Well, if that is the case, what do you have to offer in exchange for their warmth and friendliness? So the worst case scenario for us was: not so much sleep, but a great experience, and so many new friends! And I promised the kids, that we will opt for a berth on the next trip.

The mighty steam engineNew friends on top row