28 Days Later
Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
124Trip End Ongoing
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It's nine am. We slept well on the train last night considering there were 8 separate passport checks and 6 ticket checks. Each time the custom guys look at out Russian and Chinese visas they stare for ages and look at us funny, as if trying to decide whether it's worth picking a fight over.
We're on the train now from Belgrade to Sofia. We didn't want to get any Serbian money as we're just passing through. Unfortunately this means we have one and a half pieces of chewing gum each and half a bottle of water to provide nutrition until the train arrives at six tonight. We also don't have anywhere to stay when we get to Sofia, but that's not as much of a concern as everyone here's pretty forthcoming with offers and such.
It's 6pm. We've been on the train for 9 hours and we're only at the Bulgarian border. Our bottle of water got hot and was forced down a couple of hours ago, and now I'm in possession of a banging headache. Our chewing gum food ration hasn't lasted as long as we would have hoped.
However, not all is bleak, as we have just been witness to one of the most entertaining spectacles of the journey thus far - the Serbian Smuggling Ring.
Everyone in our train car seems to know each other, and they all seem to be smuggling cigarettes and alcohol over the Bulgarian border. We had a compartment to ourselves for the first few hours, but were then joined by a nice Serbian chap who deposited several bags under the seats and then left. Every ten minutes or so he would come back, make some polite conversation, say "Don't worry, be happy", and then leave again. Literally everyone in the whole car is doing it.
There was one rather hairy moment when, due to a communications error, he became convinced that Vinny was an English Government Official and I was a Catholic Minister. As I'm sure you can imagine, this gave him an awful lot to talk (shout) to us about.
The Serbian border crossing was a bit edgy, as the customs guys tore apart the compartment next to ours, but we got lucky... I say 'we' like we had smuggler's solidarity, but it was more a wish to get the train moving again that motivated us.
The Bulgarian side things took a dramatic turn. About eight custom officials boarded the train, with torches and screwdrivers. Apparently this is the fault of the English - because Bulgaria is trying to get into the EU, the English have come over to tell them how to do customs checks.
Anyway, there was lots of fevered running back and forth, moving bags into different compartments and under seats and into the overhead compartments. They were trying very hard to stuff their bags in between our backpacks, to make it look like they were ours. Again, not a great concern.... they were just so nice about it.
At the last minute, the guy in our compartment ran off, grabbed someone else and threw him into his old seat. The conversation was in Serbian, but it went something like this -
"Sit here. These are your bags. Good luck getting through customs".
So then the inspection came. The cops come to our compartment, ask the two old dears who had been crossing themselves for the last ten minutes where they're from...
"Bulgaria" they say in unison.
"OK", the guy says.... Then to me.
"British", say I.
"OK" Vinny follows suit, then to the poor, buck-toothed, sweating patsy next to me.
"Serbian", he says.
The custom guy actually grins. They take the guy off the train with his bags, shout a lot, and then we have to wait.
The guy did get back on the train, and he still had both bags with him.... Strangely though, one of them seemed a little lighter be around five cartons of cigarettes.
Still, all's well that ends well, that's my motto.
A couple of hours later and we're still on the train. We haven't eaten in over 30 hours, haven't washed, brushed our teeth or changed our clothes in two days. We separated the chewing gum wrapper and licked half of it each.... And then joy, when we found a few Werther's Originals in our bag!
The train got into Sofia around half nine. Within an hour we had found a hostel, had a shower, gone out and were eating the world's biggest pizza and drinking cold beer.
So like I say - all's well that ends well.