I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Are we there yet?

"What d'you mean you haven't slept?"


6am and we're trundling through the Bulgarian countryside, a limestone valley on the way into Sofia. I haven't slept, not in any meaningful way. Things are a bit weird.


We got on that Ukrainian carriage, couchettes with 4 beds each, I was on the top bunk, but not tired yet. Everyone else was, pretty much, and there was no desire for a trip to the buffet. The cabins were roasting so most of the doors were left open. Steve and I chatted for a bit but our voices were carrying and disturbing people, so we descended into silence.


Border crossing started at about 1am. At the Romanian side there was a fair racket. British passports were waved away but everyone else's was taken in a vast stash, returned about an hour later. Disappointing, because Stoy had promised us a stamp. The old guy who had been in the corridor most of the time, talking loudly with impunity, even at one point taking a loud phone call on speaker phone, got booted off. Then a crawl across the actual border, aka the Danube, to the Bulgarian control point. Another hour or so here, combined with some violent decoupling and coupling. The train was apparently splitting into three.


I was a bit tired now, and thought about going to bed, but I couldn't get to sleep. Literally. Too clumsy to navigate the tiny 3-step ladder up to the bunk, I decided to just not bother.


Bad idea. It started off being fine, but after a while, with no data and no power to any of my devices to give me something to read or be otherwise occupied by, I started to go a bit mad. Felt at turns lonely, miserable, upset, bored, depressed, ruminative, etc etc. Fleetingly, I wanted to go home. That was the first time I felt like that.


It didn't last long, because soon the bad unhappy thoughts were replaced by full-on sleep deprivation insanity. My blinks started getting longer, 5, 10, 60 seconds. I was dreaming with each one, vividly and instantly, with the images and sounds staying around after my eyes opened, virtually to the point of hallucination. I had full conversations with people present and absent, ever more bizarre. I was in a train, a flat, work, in Australia, elsewhere, all over the place. I almost spoke out loud a few times. My legs tried to give way once or twice. The conductor shouted at me to move.


I thought about trying once more to actually get some proper sleep, but it was now broad daylight and people were getting up. What's more, the scenery was lovely, very very lovely in fact. I managed to keep up, engaged in conversation, telling people I hadn't slept as they all rose and said how comfortable a sleep it had been. The dream/hallucinations kept coming, but not as frequently or vividly. One cabin became empty, and I sat in it for a bit, getting about 15 minutes sleep. Nodded off a bit when in our proper cabin, but after a while we reached Sofia. I blundered my way at the back of the group through Sofia's sparse, 2-line metro system - at least Bucharest had printed a lot of "these would be handy, eh?" lines on their maps - to the 15 minute walk along the main shopping precinct and into a back street where we had a hostel booked. It was about 11am, and we checked in to our accommodation - a loft with mattresses on the floor and some working electricity.


Everyone showered. After that, I have no clue what they did, because I laid down on a mattress and was spark out. For a whole 90 minutes, because we had to leave. Not that we were being kicked out, but we really were only in Sofia for a couple of hours. There was a bus to catch, to Skopje in Macedonia.


Stoy got us on the bus and then said goodbye. Ever the international man of mystery, he had Things To Do in Bulgaria. To be fair, he is Bulgarian. Hopefully he will rejoin us in Rome, but for now we are nine.


I spent a lot of the bus journey asleep. When awake, I had some of the food and drink that was purchased early in the trip, another supermarket sweep. There were sausages and things. I don't remember much. I do remember being in the middle of a double data free zone - not in an EU country and unwilling to pay eye-gouging £6/mb data rates, and anyway, Three had turned off roaming for 36 hours for everyone. Mind you, they said this would mean no SMSes, but I had a few conversations with folk in Blighty, telling Nige about our delay (which wasn't a delay) and getting cricket scores from Mike.


29 to win from one wicket and Finn bowling terribly.

A 14 run victory. 1-0 up in the Ashes. YES.


About 25 yards over the Macedonian border there was a toilet break. Very very rank toilets. Ugh. I said this was the first time I'd ever hung around so close to an actual international land border, apart from at Gibraltar. Lester looked at me like I was mad, until remembering that I mostly travelled like a normal person, y'know, by plane and stuff.


The delay which wasn't a delay wasn't a delay because of two things. First, we twigged that the timezone had changed back to +1, giving us an extra hour. Second, our driver was largely ignoring things like speed limits and "no overtaking" signs. Macedonia was pretty but not gobsmackingly so. We reached Skopje with 3.5 hours 'til our train.


Parked up and went for a wander. The old town is bloody small, but moderately picturesque. Headed up to the mosque, which at dead on 5pm started emanating chants. It was sunny and warm. There was barely anyone around. Walking back down, Jason and I were engaged in conversation - opening gambit: "WHERE FROM?" - by a man who had been all over the UK and found us to be a very poor country. I was left unable to decide whether he was friendly or not. Back at the bottom the 10 of us took up tables in the square, drinking good beer and eating bad kebabs. Very bad kebabs. Shame. I was last to finish my drink, being admonished "Darren, shut up and drink faster" by Dave.


There was a travel agency with a load of destinations marked in their window, mostly big cities etc, but also Namur. Why Namur? Curious. Also a New Orleans theme pub called Bourbon House. Seemed an odd thing to spot in such a tiny, empty, non-touristy place.


A short ride back to the station and in we went. Wow. This was by far the bleakest, grimmest, most desolate station yet. A couple of shoddy cafes, a few taxi drivers - "Belgrade! 50 euros per person! I take you all!" - as Mark tried to sort out our reservations on the sleeper. It was dark and dank. A disused and derelict casino of sorts called Insomnia Cafe was above the ticket office, pretty much the only thing with any colour. The platforms were sparse. A few people were there, but not many. No trains were listed running at the time ours was meant to be. A flickering black and white monitor showed 4 trains in the next 12 hours, none of them to Beograd, which I'd now learnt to recognise in Cyrillic. Skopje is alien in every way. I loved it. Most of the others considered it a real low point.


I did get bitten to fuck by the mosquitoes though. My ankles swelled up to twice their normal size and I had to borrow antihistamine cream. Bastard little shits.


There were still 2 hours to kill. Dave, Jason, Mick and I headed to one of the shady cafes where we drank cheap beer and watched London buses go past. Skopje's beggars were particularly unenterprising, just walking up to us and holding their hands out while saying "Money! Euros!". C'mon, make an effort lads.


Back up on the platform, it seemed like our train must exist, or else there would be a few more disappointed people than us. Not masses, but a few. It's always heartening, I've learnt, to see people waiting around when there is no other evidence of a service being due. But along came our train, on time, a tiny 3 carriage job to take us to a Belgrade. We had 12 reservations, two 6-berth couchettes, but there were only 9 of us. The conductor was a bit miffed by this, until some currency cheered him up.


It was the end of day 9. There are 9 days left. I guess Skopje was "there", and now we'd been there it was time to make our way home.

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