Night Train to Bucharest

As late July approached my plans to undertake this long dreamed of journey finally sat comfortably in place. Tickets and hotels were booked – the various train segments and reservations, one flight, stays in the corresponding nights in cities along the way homewards – all accompanied by carefully selected reading for the journey. But my nervousness was not reduced by the careful planning. I still harboured not inconsiderable disbelief that I would actually travel on this journey, or even that I would arrive in Istanbul.

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The various components would see me travel from Edinburgh, a relatively short flight to Istanbul, stay a few nights there, and then begin my journey back. Firstly I would catch the night train to Bucharest, through Turkey, Bulgaria and southern Romania. After a few nights in Bucharest, I would board the afternoon and overnight train through Transylvania, Hungary and Austria into Vienna, to catch the day train the following day all the way through the Alps down to Venice. After a couple of nights in Venice, I would board my next train for a 36 hour journey through the Italian, Austrian and Swiss Alps, Liechtenstein and France before crossing the channel and heading London-wards. A couple of nights in London then, before the East Coast Train up to Edinburgh.

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Photo credit – https://www.seat61.com

But indeed, the days did pass smartly, and grandmother’s suitcase started to accumulate the necessities of comfortable clothes and books, in its little corner of the bedroom in preparation for the flight to Istanbul and the homecoming journey.

It was early afternoon four Thursdays ago, when the lock was snapped shut, and grandmother’s suitcase was howfed down the Edinburgh stairwell, up the cobbled street and onto the tram for the Airport. I swiped my travel card, for the very last time. Part of this journey would see me transition to the Voldemort age which, in addition to not being permitted to speak out loud, magically provides free travel on Scottish buses and trams. I checked in for my flight, nervously instructing grandmother’s suitcase to go straight to Istanbul, unlike its mysterious adventures at Christmas where it took its own holidays, and refused to accompany me.

The flight to Istanbul was uneventful, if late, and arrival at an almost deserted airport made for a smooth arrival. To my relief, grandmother’s suitcase had decided to catch the same flight and we were happily reunited.

It was well after midnight when I arrived at my first destination, the renowned Pera Palas.  This hotel is an icon of quirkiness and eccentricity, built in 1892 for passengers disembarking from the Orient Express. This was intentionally selected to set the tone of my rail journey back to Edinburgh, all the way by train over the two weeks of my return journey along the route of the Orient Express. The Pera Palas was rich in character and history, and is featured in the Lonely Planet as a sight rather than a hotel. It has a distinguished literary pedigree. Agatha Christie reputedly wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” in room 411. The main character of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” stayed there as did the protagonists of Graham Green’s “Travels with my Aunt”. The place was steeped in literary and other history.

Once I had checked in, the night porter took great pride in showing me the drawing room and lounge areas before taking me into the glorious elevator instructing me to sit on the velvet bench as the metal cage took us up to my room.

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To my delight there was a little balcony, and even at that late hour, the views over the Golden Horn with the illuminated mosques took my breath away.

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The Pera Palas is a wonderful institution with a museum, libraries, photographs and the celebrated Agatha Christie Room as well as little display cases dotted around with original Orient Express tickets, and memorabilia as well as many original fittings. The perfect setting to prepare for a memorable train journey.

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Para Palas – original house phone

I planned to stay four nights in Istanbul, exploring and absorbing this magical city, nestled on the cusp of Asia and Europe. While exploring the city, I was accompanied by Orhan Pamuk’s glorious book “The Museum of Innocence” gifted by a friend with the recommendation that I visit the museum itself while I was there. Reading the book, and visiting the museum brought an expected depth to my experience of Istanbul. As well as Pamuk’s sizeable work, I had also brought Paul Theroux’s “The Ghost of the Orient Star” where he recounted the journey he had made by train across Europe, Asia and back on the Trans Siberian in 2006. In this he retraced the very journey he had taken himself thirty years earlier (told in “The Great Railway Bazaar”). These books were the perfect travel companions, grounding me in the right frame of mind for the forthcoming rail journeys, evoking the spirit of the Orient Express and also giving me the sense of being absorbed in Pamuk’s Istanbul life. Both books (one fiction, one non- fiction) had references to and descriptions of the Pera Palas, and on the Saturday evening there was a wedding reception, which could easily have been the very one described in Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence.

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Timeless – Saturday at the Pera Palas

The days passed too quickly and in no time, grandmother’s suitcase was being packed carefully for the first train, and the start of my journey by rail all the way back to Edinburgh.

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My first challenge was to get the right train, from the correct station. Traditionally the train would arrive in and leave from Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station. However, this station in central Istanbul, has been under major renovation for some time, with a completion date of at least two years hence. Long distance trains are currently leaving from the little known Halkali Station out in the suburbs. I had to somehow get myself to this station.

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Sirkeci Station, Istanbul – under long term renovation

I had been told that a bus shuttle ran from Sirkeci to Halkali but getting timings or information about this bus proved to be impossible. Eventually I was told that the bus did not run, as the metro suburban train ran to Halkali. With my bags, arthritic hands and difficulty with stairs, I was not too comfortable with the prospect of howfing grandmother’s suitcase on the metro, so I decided to take a taxi which I was promised would take less than an hour and not be expensive, less than 90 Turkish Lira.

Of course, I was nervous. That is the appeal of such travel. The sense of achievement when you navigate the complexities of unusual travel is more than worth the anxiety. Usually.

My first concern was that the taxi driver would try and take me to the airport, as this would be the normal destination for a departing passenger. I was worried that be would not believe that I really was trying to get the night train to Bucharest. As we passed more and more signs to the airport, I realised that the moment to clarify my destination had passed, and that if I did turn up at the airport the time to raise this would be then. Eventually though, we turned off the main highway, and I was relieved to see a sign for Halkali. I was less reassured when after a few minutes, the taxi driver slowed down, rolled down his window and asked a fellow driver where the “train istaysion” was. This happened several times, as the clocked and meter ticked on, and we headed onwards, with no sign of a train line or station at all.

Finally, the driver spotted a train line in the distance, but in the opposite direction. More directions and a ticking off from a policeman, heading down a very welcome exit route and round a roundabout more than once and we drove past a building that seemed to house train platforms and an escalator. Another few wrong turns later, and both myself and the taxi driver were satisfied that this indeed was the train station, just hiding up an escalator, and I was confident enough to thank my taxi driver and head into this strange building.

Grandmother’s suitcase and I trundled up the escalator to an empty concourse. Clutching my ticket, I headed to find the details of the train’s departure from the information board. There wasn’t one. No departure or arrival information, no information desk, no signs, no clues. Nothing. Only a little ticket office, where I turned to for help and information. I handed my ticket through the window and asked about the Bucharest train. “Ah, Sofia”, responded the railway staff. “No, no, Bucharest”’ I responded. “You go Platform 4 at 9 o’clock”, he responded.

Much relieved, I dragged Grandmother’s suitcase along to the stairways leading to the platforms. All were blocked off by those tape barricades that exist only in airports and railway stations. Peering down the stairs, I realised that not one of the platforms had numbers. Each platform did have a waiting room at the top of the stairs, but absolutely no clue as to the identity of platform or destinations served. As it was not long after 8.30 and my train was not due to actually depart until 9.40, I was comfortable to just wait patiently in one of the waiting areas. Another woman joined me in the waiting room and in broken English we chatted. She was heading in the opposite direction, past Ankara I gathered, at 10 pm. The fact that she had arrived so far in advance of her own train both reassured and troubled me!

She disappeared after a bit, and I took Grandmother’s suitcase to have another look around and see if I could gather any more clues, and also any snacks and water in addition to what I had brought. I could see a few more people now, and overheard one man asking about the Bucharest train. Perfect! I immediately locked onto his path and followed him into another waiting room. By now it was almost 9 pm, and there were probably a dozen folk in the waiting room. Perched on the edge of my seat, and ready to move I kept the fellow Bucharest passenger in my sights at all times. My search for sustenance was completely futile. There was not a single shop, stall or sign of nearby. Just as well I had packed a stock of snacks and enough water. I was fairly sure that there was no catering on the train so wanted to be prepared.

One of the station staff came into the room soon after 9 pm, and announced something in Turkish. I asked another passenger who did not get up to follow the station man, if that was the Sofia train. “No”, he responded but couldn’t remember which train it was. “Bucharest?” I asked hopefully? “Yes, yes!!” he replied. I joined the small line of passengers down to one of the platforms and a rather short train consider it was to take 22 hours, cross 3 countries and arrive in Bucharest. My ticket said that I was in wagon 479 and that was the first carriage as I reached the train. Reassuring except that on the side of the train was the insistent sign –

Istanbul – Sofya Ekspress “Istanbul (Halkali – Kapikule – Svilengrad – Sofia”.

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I walked along to the next carriage, which had a different number so I returned to the one with the matching number of my reservation and attempted to drag myself and grandmother’s suitcase up the steep steps. The conductor was at the top, and helped me with myself and my baggage to clamber properly on board. He took both my ticket and reservation, along with grandmother’s suitcase, and led me to the second compartment where a large man was dragging his own and his wife’s luggage into the compartment. “Your berth”, the conductor told me, pointing to the bottom bunk on one side. I breathed out in relief. I had been silently dreading finding out which berth I would be in, knowing that there was precisely a 50% chance of being on a top bunk and trying not to consider the antics that would entail getting in and out of bed however often that needed to happen.

The couple managed to stow their bags, and settled in the seat opposite me. And to my relief they told me that they were were Romanian and also travelling to Bucharest.

I sat down and relaxed. I now knew that I was safely aboard the Night Train to Bucharest.

To be continued …

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Romanian border, 2 am, awaiting passport checks

I have a dream …

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Romanian border, 2 am, awaiting passport checks

I have many dreams, I have to confess. Not a bucket list, but a wish bucket which I can dip into and draw out a wish. Not always something extravagant or sophisticated, but often something quite minuscule.

I have previously written about a cute little pot I bought while visiting Poland. It was a deep blue colour, about the size of a miniature scone and had stars and a cat painted on the side alongside some writing. I was not in the slightest troubled by the fact that I had no idea what the wise words said but later learned that they described the little pot as “a place to keep your dreams”. How very perfect. This little pot has travelled far, and suffered some breaks, but it is still mostly there and held together with glue. And happily the dreams do not slip through the gaps. They do form my metaphorical wish bucket.

My wish bucket contains a number of dreams, those which I still hold on to experiencing, and those which I treasure now as memories or precious items. And there is always space for more dreams …

Some of the dreams which have been realised from my wish bucket are:

  • Meet a blogging friend in a new place
  • Buy a picture/piece of artwork at a gallery opening and watch them put the red sticker on it.
  • See a kangaroo in the wild. I saw many during my visit to Australia over Christmas and New Year 2015/16.
  • Visit a country with the letter ‘Z’ in it. Tanzania, and its magical island of Zanzibar
  • Sail through the Norwegian Fiords
  • See some of my writing in print.  In a book, with real paper pages!
  • Get funky, colourful nail art on my finger and toenails just for fun, just for once.

There are still more dreams which I hold on to:

  • See the Aurora Borealis (northern lights)
  • See the rings on Saturn through an astronomy telescope
  • See an iceberg
  • Book into the Oriental Bangkok for a weekend.  Or maybe a night.  Or maybe just have afternoon tea there given the price! (So far I have managed an afternoon tea and a decadent dinner).
  • See a starfish in the sea

There are also dreams which I am wary to articulate. When I was diagnosed in October 2009, the very obvious wish was to hang around beyond the treatment and return to a reasonable level of health. Reaching the five year mark a few years ago was an emotional milestone, and one I marked with thankfulness.

Now, my diagnosis came at a time of a personal Milestone Birthday those years ago. It was my 50th birthday, and plans to do something memorable were thwarted by visa constraints. My milestone birthday dream had been to travel to Bhutan, and indeed that is still to be met. But as I reached those 50 years back in 2009, I had recently moved to Myanmar and our visa was still in process. We were not able to leave the country, and not even able to leave Yangon. I had a beautifully memorable evening, with friends and colleagues in a wonderful space in Yangon, but travel plans were put on hold. For a very long time, it turned out.

Ten years earlier than that, as the arithmetic demonstrates, I marked my 40th birthday. With a great deal of dream nurturing,  and then planning, my wish to travel on the Trans Siberian railway became a reality. I had the most amazing trip, across the Siberian taiga, alongside awe-inspiring Lake Baikal and through the Mongolian steppe before the train descended dramatically, as it snaked past the Great Wall of China into Beijing. That had been intended to cure me of my debilitating wanderlust. It was not exactly successful, as a few months later, I found myself at Edinburgh airport with a one way ticket to Kathmandu, and a three year contract to work in Nepal. The rest is history, and seventeen years later, I returned to Scotland (now two years ago) with the petulance of a spoiled child whose trip to the seaside had come to an end.

That trip for my 40th birthday, all those years ago remains ingrained in my memory. It was a truly pivotal, and I find that even though health and energy are not what they were, the dreams are just as vivid.

Why am I dreaming so much at the moment? There is a swirling of memories and moments in the atmosphere. I realise that I am on the brink of two important milestones. One is the Next Milestone Birthday – the Voldemort Birthday. The age which must-not-be-spoken-out-loud. This is the year I receive my free Bus Pass and can qualify for some senior citizen discounts. The other life marker 10 years later was equally memorable, but was not in the slightest planned or even anticipated. That was when I heard those life altering words “this is highly suspicious of cancer”.

Just over a couple of weeks ago, late in July I a glance at the date showed that it was exactly 20 years since I embarked on that railway trip from Europe to Asia. I realised that 20 years ago to the day, I had been in Russia, watching the kilometre markers pass, one by one, telling me exactly how many kilometres I had travelled from Moscow. Every marker I passed told me that I was a kilometre further east than I had ever been before. I remember looking at the map unfolded constantly beside me, and marvelling that immediately due south, if many miles, from that point of the journey lay India! India. I could see it clearly on the map, but my mind was utterly incapable of absorbing that fact.

Twenty years later, I have found that as I was approaching this Voldemort birthday, I was increasingly compelled to embark on another journey. A gentler journey than that odyssey across Siberia and exploring Asia. A journey which I had long yearned to do, one which whispered temptations in my ear. One which I have not been able to resist.

So, I have just returned to Scotland from what has been almost a mirror image of the Siberian journey. Just a few weeks ago, one Thursday afternoon late in July, in less than five hours, I flew from Edinburgh to Istanbul, that mystical city where Europe meets Asia on the banks of the Bosphorus. I spent a few days exploring this new city, embracing Asia briefly with promises of a return. Then, inspired by the tales and legend of the Orient Express, I embarked on a journey which traced its route back to London (and on to Edinburgh) on the “other Orient Express”, as Paul Theroux calls it, by train all the way. Keeping true to the spirit of the journey, I stayed in the hotel originally built for passengers disembarking from the original Orient Express. This is where Agatha Christie reputedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411, where I had panoramic views across the Golden Horn, of the Blue Mosque and where I was captivated by the melodic prayer calls and Turkish delight coloured sunsets.

Now safely back in Edinburgh, having travelled on six trains, through ten countries, spending 92 train hours and covering over 2500 miles, I have treasured memories and many photographs of this journey which helped me to step into this new decade. And stories to tell …

Here is the opportunity to relive the past weeks, as I begin to put this whole experience into words, to share.

Many happy returns – a European birthday for a change

Many happy returns of the day, is the expression. One I like a great deal since my diagnosis. Already this is my fifth “return of the day” since I heard the words which made me think I would not see another Christmas, never mind another birthday.  There is another story in there which I am also picking up, but for now, I am looking at a birthday policy of “no return” which I have stumbled upon in recent years.birthday bean

In 1999, I travelled on a rare adventure to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had never been out of Europe, save to a short holiday in Tunisia so the thought of a train trip to Asia was a huge step into new territory, literally as well as metaphorically.

In mid July 1999, I flew to Moscow and then caught the Trans Siberian Express.  The rest is history, and was a great part in the shaping of my own history. This was the first time I had travelled to Asia, and to make this all the more meaningful, I ventured into Asia one kilometre at a time, as the train moved forward and spent that magical 40th birthday in Southern China, cycling alongside paddy fields. In 2000 I had started work in Nepal and spent my birthday there, and from then on developed a kind of tradition.  Spend the birthday in Asia, if possible in a new country.  And as a result I have spent every single birthday in the intervening birthdays in Nepal, Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. Cambodia and Malaysia.

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This year looked a little different.  For a start there are important family events which I have to be here for.  No question.  And now for the trivial, but practical.  My bank card expired on 31 July and the new card would be delivered to a UK address. Hmmm. Of course it is possible to get from Asia to Europe and then back again for a birthday in Asia.  Possible yes.  Realistic, less so and sensible –  almost certainly not. I would definitely be booking a birthday trip from the UK.

The only option which looked viable was to book a few days in Istanbul, the cusp of Asia and Europe, and celebrate my birthday there.  I looked at options, and was particularly encouraged by the fact that I could fly direct from Edinburgh. I could also fly back into London and then see family in the Englandy side of the UK.  It all looked good and feasible.  So I then looked at hotel options, initially highly surprised at the ridiculous costs, but managing to find some reasonable options.  Next step is to do the “side-by’side” crab approach to booking.  First the flights, then the hotel, not confirm one nor the other until both appear to be workable.  Fights were available and so was the hotel, so I moved to the next step.  Booking and Paying! Now, if it takes time to search for options, that is nothing compared to the challenge of paying for them online.  Our weak connectivity always brings a challenge and was true to form when I tried to pay for the flights.  The payment process would almost complete, but a dropped connection for a second would bounce me back to the start of the process. After the third attempt, the inevitable happened.  A message appeared advising me that my bank card was not accepted.  My heart sank, as although I knew it was probably due to the repeated attempts at payment, it always stresses me when the card refuses to work.  By this time it was late in the evening and after an extremely expensive phone call resolving the card I decided to call a halt to the long and tedious proceedings and try again the following day.

The following day was Friday 18 July and we woke to the news of MH17, a commercial flight which had been blown out of the sky on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Suddenly, selfishly, the thought of booking flights which were strictly speaking “unnecessary” became very unappealing. I did not make a conscious decision not to book, but I made no move to take forward the planning and confirmation of the previous evening.

My appetite for booking the birthday break had disappeared, and conveniently I was buried under the necessary tasks which have to be done generally before depart on leave. Time ticked on and by the time I arrived in Scotland all I had was a great deal of confusion, far too many ideas and wishes and very few days to plan and book. There were a number of options and my criteria were clear.  Firstly, I wanted to go to a country I have not been to before and secondly I did not want to fly. But translating this into a booking was somewhat more difficult. There were so many options – even Istanbul by train, Budapest, Vienna and Prague.  Riverways in Europe were another option and I have also not been to Portugal, Sweden or Finland and they were also accessible over land and sea.  In my mind, an exotic journey on the Orient Express was what I was hankering after, but that is but a dream.

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Fantasy aside, amongst the many options, the biggest challenge was in pulling all of the information together and making sense of it.  I really just wanted to go into the International Bookings Office which used to exist in mainline railway stations and find out what was possible, and for them to hand me an exciting ticket. Sadly, these facilities no longer exist and a complicated phone call to London would be the only way forward. With only 48 hours before I wanted to leave, though, many of those options were reducing dramatically as was my will and capacity to organise anything at all complicated.

There was one very simple option which emerged and gathered favour, however, and one which did not need a complicated booking or reservation. And – it was to a country I have not been to before………. If I caught Eurostar (easily bookable online) to Brussels, I could then catch an onward train to Luxembourg which would arrive 3 hours later.  These trains departed hourly and did not need advance booking!  I could leave London in the morning and be in Luxembourg in the afternoon!

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I realised that I knew very little about Luxembourg, but from a quick image search I knew that it would be a good fit, even if not near Asia.  Luxembourg city is highly impressive and looked very appealing.  Before I booked it, however, my attention was drawn by one image on the Visit Luxembourg tourism site and before I knew what had happened I was off on another hunt! I had seen images of beautiful woodland and wanted to spend my birthday, right there!

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I soon learned that Luxembourg is a very small country and to get to this village very near the eastern border with Germany, it would take less than an hour. Finally, a decision had been made, tickets were rapidly bought and a characterful guest house booked.

And that is how I came to decide how to spend my first non Asia birthday in 16 years! And that is a tale for the blogging morrow!

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