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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

For no apparent reason whatsoever, I've decided to start publishing bits and pieces of a travelogue I wrote during an overland trip from Istanbul to Prague in September 2001. It's wordy and there's not much point, so don't feel compelled to read the whole thing unless you're bored. I'll try to edit out the more boring bits. I last posted a bit of it here, a few graphs of which I'm going to repeat for continuity's sake. Back to the train from Istanbul to Plovdiv, Bulgaria...

I am convinced that one day somebody should write a horror story that involves Eastern European train stations. Like about some guy that wakes up in the middle of the night and doesn't know where he is, the train is stopped at some abandoned border junction, the entire wagon is deserted and all the passport controllers are phantoms or zombies who say things you don’t understand in a threatening or ominous way, and everything's written in Cyrillic.

I shared the ride with a shy Japanese guy who barely spoke English, but made a good effort. He was nice. I never learned his name. It seems wherever you go, there’s always that sole Japanese male traveler.

The train was loud and rocked back and forth pretty hard, and we left the window cracked open in case some bandits tried to pump poison gas into the cabin, which is what you always hear about. At some point (in Bulgaria or Turkey, I'm not sure) a horrendous industrial-strength smell came into the cabin. I wondered if it was the sleeping gas. I would have closed the window but I wanted to air out the cabin -- still, the smell kept getting worse and worse. It was almost unbearable, yet there was no escaping it. It was smelled like a cross between industrial sulfur, rotting food, and something that had been dead for two weeks. The stench was truly horrendous.

At the Bulgarian border, they made us all get out to have our passports stamped, instead of coming around. I thought, My god this is it -- this is what they tell you about. I'm going to come back to the cabin and all my stuff's going to be gone, or I'm not going to be able to figure out which cabin is mind, or the whole train's going to be gone or something horrible and I'll be stuck there at the Turkish-Bulgarian border in the middle of the night, not even wearing socks. That didn't happen. Everything was fine.

The train seemed like it was stopped for hours and hours at the border, and I seem to remember at least four sets of passport officials coming round, which I found strange for a single border crossing. But everything was fine.

I arrived at Plovdiv about 11am.... I found an office upstairs at the train station and tried to get some money on my credit card but the woman just nodded her head. I realized it must be true what they say -- this means "no" in Bulgaria whereas shaking the head side to side means yes. Very disconcerting. They didn't have a credit card machine so I had to change Deutsche marks....

I spent about three hours walking around Plovdiv. My impression was very much like that of Odessa, and not just because it's a medium-sized city where everything's in Cyrillic. In fact it's quite leafy, like Odessa. And there are quite a few historical sites that seem pretty ignored by the locals, and everything's a bit dusty. In the along the main boulevard there are some Roman ruins, including part of a small amphitheater that was apparently uncovered in the 1970s by a freak landslide... There didn't seem to be any banks or bank machines, but at least there were the ruins, and an awful lot of nice antique shops as you climbed up the hill toward the really historic part of the city. Alas, I didn't have room in my bags for any souvenirs. Up the hill at the end of town opposite the train station were some ruins of the ancient city with a view of the town, and some Bulgarian teenagers hanging out.

On the way back down I saw a building with Arabic script on the side. Intrigued, I walked around to try and figure out what it was, and I found a big beer garden filled with young people on a hillside above of a fantastic Roman Theatre with huge columns overlooking the town.

I had a pleasant “chat,” if you could call it that, with a three locals on the train to Sophia (only two hours from Plovdiv). I used a combination of my phrase-book and my Czech (Czech and Bulgarian are both Slavic languages and have about one word in ten in common). I opened my Romania-Bulgaria map, and they pointed out where they were from. Two were from a town near the Turkish border, and the other was from a northwestern town called, no kidding, Montana. I immediately thought of Sam Neill: "I would like to have seen Montana!" When they found out I was American they all wanted to know about Sept. 11. This was indicated repeatedly in sign language. One of the guys made a building in the air, and then he stuck his hands out like an airplane and flew into the building. It was clearly formed as a question but I didn’t know what they were asking, so I didn’t know what to say. They may have been expressing sympathy, or perhaps they just wanted to know if it was really true, or if I had any first-hand news about it. I tried to say yes, it’s true, and said "tragedy" which is the same in Bulgarian as it is in Czech.

Sophia is a city of amazing contrasts. I didn't go into any museums or anything but there are lots of historic things to see, and it seems pretty big, especially considering it's only slightly bigger than Prague, population-wise. There's this incredible Stalinist neo-classical plaza, below which are the ruins of the old city walls from the original Roman outpost, and right next to that, a Turkish mosque. I found the following items on sale in the open-air flea market: daggers, scimitars, forks with fold-out switchblades inside, Nazi items such as a watch and a canteen flask with swastikas, busts of Marx, Lenin, Laurel and Hardy, typical Russian hats, chessboards, painted wooden eggs, icons, medals and pendants, old gramophone records, an antique microscope, lighters, watches, cameras, piles of old Yugoslav dinar, a plastic camera that said on the side "Return to Wal-Mart for quality film developing," huge antique wall clocks that my parents would have liked, two saxophones, a clarinet, and four violins...

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