It’s about 4am and the train hasn’t moved for at least an hour. It had been rattling along at a consistent but leisurely pace for a while, but I’ve been drifting in an out of sleep so it’s hard to know if we’re making good progress. We’re somewhere between Istanbul and Bucharest. Could be Turkey, could be Bulgaria. In reality, I have no idea. I’m far more concerned by the sudden knocking on the cabin window.
Before night fell the countryside views had been beautiful, but the smell and heat now trapped within the full capacity six-berth couchette has made it a distant memory. Now, its inhabitants – me, my girlfriend and four Romanians on their way home from a military re-enactment event – have a visitor. I’m thinking it must be border control and this is our wake up call, but there’s only one way to find out for sure. One of the military re-enactors, while swigging from a bottle of vodka, pulls back the curtain.
I switch ends on my top bunk to get my head nearer the window. It’s a boy, about 15 years old. He’s skinny, and has on him a bag of crisps and a bottle of coke, which he looks to be offering to sell. There’s an exchange between the boy and our representative, and before I know it the youngster is being helped in through the window. I jolt upright in shock, but decide not to contest the actions of a drunken man wearing military regalia who’s being urged on by three friends in the same state. The boy, it seems, is joining the party.
If only my girlfriend and I had known what we were letting ourselves in for.
Flash back about ten hours and we’re making a decision over which city to visit next, and with Turkey the eastern-most point covered by our Interrail tickets, the only option is to go west. It’s been a fulfilling three days in Istanbul; belly dancing, hookah pipes, the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, all ticked off the list in the city bludgeoned down the centre by the Bosphorus. We decide to bypass Bulgaria and head straight for Bucharest for some cheap beer and communist architecture.
We arrive later than we’d like at the station and rush to get our tickets. Luckily there isn’t much of a queue so before too long we’re settling into our couchette, which to our delight is empty. We’ve both developed a fondness for the rocking motion of the top bunk, so bag ourselves those slots. It’s liveable, comfortable even; we have our privacy, our books, a bottle of red wine, a couple of slices of bread and a sachet of chocolate spread – all we can afford, all we need. We’ll get some sleep, and wake up fresh as a daisy to explore Bucharest in a few hours time.
Then the first of two bombshells lands. I take a closer look at the ticket to see the arrival time the next morning. It says 20:00. That isn’t morning. That isn’t even afternoon. That’s 22 hours away. I look again to see if I’m reading the wrong column, but the Turkish train people, being as helpful as they are, have even printed the ticket in English for us. Turns out we’re in this for the long haul. And worryingly, because our knowledge of long-distance trains through Eastern Europe has grown from zero to some over the past two weeks, we know it’s unlikely there’s a buffet cart. We look at each other. “Er, we’ll be fine. We’ll just have to ration the bread,” I offer. She’s unimpressed.
But there’s more. We hear needlessly loud banging and shouting rumbling up the corridor. We hope whoever it is will be taken in by a neighbouring couchette before they get to us. They aren’t. It’s the military re-enactors. They barge into the previously tranquil cabin that we’d begun to make so homely, and ruin the vibe.
They’re drunk, but initially very friendly. The English speaker amongst them introduces himself and his crew with a salute, as they swing their backpacks onto their bunks and open their beers. One of them has clearly been heavily on the booze, and scatters every sentence uttered by his mates with a loud cackle and a knee slap. My girlfriend and I, peering in disbelief over the tickets which have just brought us our last piece of bad news, smile nervously and take stock of our prospects for the next 22 hours. This wasn’t like two stops next to a sweaty bloke on the tube, this was to be an entire day of our lives.
They seem to be enjoying their own company, so we decide to keep ourselves to ourselves. We kick back with some reading and begin passing the bottle of red back and forth across the top bunks. As night draws in though, the tiny bulbs above our beds get dimmer before fizzling out completely. Disaster. Our phones are both dying, so we have no music between us. We’re both wide awake with little to do but listen to what we assume is the blokey banter of four hammered Romanians.
Six hours later, and aided by a couple of generously offered swigs of vodka, we’ve managed some poor-quality shut eye. However we’re now wide awake after the boy’s banging on the window. He’s just boarded the carriage and is nestled an unsettling distance away from us in amongst the luggage rack. As it turns out, we would’ve been woken soon anyway. We were about to meet border control.
We can hear the panting of the dogs at the door before the armed guards knock and shout ‘passports’ in several different languages. We have ours to hand and get ready to hand them over for a check up, but this isn’t enough. All six of us are frogmarched down the corridor, with German Shepherds leaping behind us. I’m the last to leave, and as I get down from my bunk I glance up at the luggage rack. I get a glimpse of the boy’s eye. He’s staying put.
Standing in the border control queue at the tiny station and we’re both rightfully concerned. There’s a boy hiding in our couchette with access to all our possessions. We consider telling a guard but realise that’d mean involving our fellow travellers, then possibly continuing the journey on with them. Triggering an investigation isn’t on our agenda right now, so after getting our passports stamped we hurry back across the tracks to the couchette.
The boy is still there, and thankfully, so are our bags. The men seem to have sobered up a bit and are lying on their beds talking quietly, with the boy chipping in. They’re obviously planning something, but I have no idea what. The train begins to move again, very slowly, and an hour later we’re being ushered off again. This is Bulgaria, but their border control is managed in a similar way to their southern neighbours. There are dogs, armed police, and a lot of waiting around.
But this time, on arrival back to the couchette, the boy has gone.
My girlfriend and I begin rifling through our bags to see if everything remains intact. It is. Our companions come back into the couchette and one of them conducts a quick search. They seem content and get back into bed. I make eye contact with the English speaker, and I know he knows we want to find out what’s gone on. He sighs and explains.
“He just needed a bit of help getting back. He was Romanian but lived in Bulgaria. He’d been in Turkey. We didn’t think the guards would check the room after all the people have left so we hid him while we crossed the border. We told him if he took anything with him we’d hunt him down.”
I think about asking if he does this sort of thing a lot, but decide to act blasé about the whole thing in case he starts to suspect I might grass on him. “Cool”, I say. “A real-life military operation.” They don’t laugh.
Soon after, it’s started to get light out and we’re speeding along through the Bulgarian countryside. Rather than try and join our fellow travellers in some sleep, my girlfriend and I decide to sneak off into the corridor to try and enjoy the scenery. Sliding off my bed I notice the boy left his crisps and coke in amongst the luggage. I like to think he left them as a thank you for not giving him up. We enjoy them while the sun rises. It’s only 14 more hours until Bucharest.