24 December 2014

The journey of the wise men

The tracks at Plovdiv.

This contribution is by Pierre MacKay, about a train trip from Vienna to Istanbul in August 1973.  

* * * * * *

It was already evening when we passed through Niš, and I do not remember Sofia at all, but we came into Plovdiv in full daylight and the state police came pouring onto the train as soon as it stopped. There had been nothing sinister in the way we were treated during our time in Yugoslavia, but we crossed into another world in Bulgaria. From that moment on, my trip on what was ironically called ``The Marmara Express'' seemed to belong more to a 1933 Eric Ambler novel than to 1973. 

They were large and grim-faced and went through from both ends of the car, silently inspecting the passports of the passengers, all of them foreigners. Along the way they arrested an arbitrary lot of them, but the Czech couple in a second-class compartment next to the sole first-class compartment of which I was the sole occupant may have thought they were safe. Then, at the last moment before the train started up, a group of police stormed in on them and dragged the man off onto the platform. The train was already moving slowly forward as the woman heaved two suitcases out the compartment window and ran to the end of the car to jump off.

There were two more removals of passengers at stations along the way, and, just before the Turkish border, an English girl was hauled off the train at a halt where there was not even a station. At twilight, I caught sight of a sign reading "Hudut Kap
ısı," and as we passed it, I thought that the Turkish language had never seemed so reassuring.

I had chosen the Marmara Express as the last leg of a research trip to investigate Arabic Script manuscripts. It was supposed to go from Vienna to Belgrade, and then on to Istanbul, and
it was only when we reached Zagreb, some 15 hours late for the connection southwards that it was borne in on me that the Marmara Express consisted of a single rather decrepit wooden railroad car.

The train from Vienna had been diverted almost to Salzburg because of a spectacular oil-spill and fire along the Mur river, which threatened the very fabric of the rail bridge near Graz, and when we at last appeared at the Zagreb station there did not seem to be any decision what to do with us. The car in front of us ``The Salonica Express,” was fairly soon attached to a train going south but for some reason we had to remain in Zagreb where we sat in lonely isolation about six tracks away from the station platform, with no food, no drinking water and soon, no water of any sort. We were told nothing, and offered no opportunity to get food and water from the station.

There was a group of Engli
sh students in a second-class compartment a little way down the car, and we got together and took orders in sign language from families like the Iranians with two sickly children in another compartment who were struggling with the fact that there was no more toilet paper. We got out of the car, raced across the intervening tracks and clambered up on the platform to buy what we could carry, especially drinking water, and even a large flask of wine, which I was later to regret. We presented the Iranians with a large amount of water, at least, and made two more trips before we were informed that we would soon be attached to the end of a train going to Belgrade.

At Belgrade there was less room for us there than there had been in Zagreb, so our lonely car was shunted into a side area not far from the freight yards and we were left in the dark—in all senses. The wine from Zagreb had by now given me a splitting headache, so I retired to my first-class compartment and tried to sleep on a bench too short for me by about 18 inches.

Very early in the morning, the English students and I arranged a sort of relay, placing ourselves within shouting distance, so that we could be called back if the car was hooked up to some other train. I was the only one who read Cyrillic, so I got to make the purchases, which consisted of more water and a great deal of truly delicious bread, just out of the oven. I also read the schedule, and could see that there was no train we could be attached to before about 9:30, four hours later. Even so we were cautious about staying too long away from the car, and got back to it a little after 5:00.

Some half an hour later, a ``luxury'' train for upper-level apparatchiks was rolled in beside us and left totally unguarded. We raided it, and took away all the water we could carry, all the soap, and all the toilet paper, most of which we offered to the now desperate Iranian family.  Fortunately our car was hauled off into the main passenger area, and at some time in the late morning we were on our way, at no great speed, to Istanbul.

1 comment:

  1. I shall avoid Bulgaria en route to Istanbul this July: hopefully they're not quite so cavalier nowadays! Ah, the Balkans!


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