Night time border crossings, mountain passes and Turkish tea

The days in Scotland are shortening rapidly, frost is taking a hold in the ground and there is a distant scent of snow in the air. The time is right to close my eyes and remember my long train journey when the days were long and light, and hats and scarves were resting in cupboards. It is time to pick up the story, and remember when I was safely on board the night train from Istanbul to Bucharest – the next part of the journey


…Now confident that I was either on the right train, or in company that would help me find my way to my destination, I was able to relax into the 22 hour journey ahead. Well, to a certain extent – I knew from prior research and reading that we would arrive at the first border, leaving Turkey in the early hours of the morning and this would likely entail leaving the train to get our passports checked. Nonetheless, I settled comfortably into conversation of a sort with my travel companions.

Now confident that I was either on the right train, or n company that would help me find my way to my destination, I was able to relax into the 22 hour journey ahead. Well, to a certain extent – I knew from prior research and reading that we would arrive at the first border, leaving Turkey in the early hours of the morning and this would likely entail leaving the train to get our passports checked. Nonetheless, I settled comfortably into conversation of a sort with my travel companions.

How you like Istanbul?” my new friend enquired. Before I could respond, he told me very clearly that he had not liked Istanbul. He didn’t like the food, the train, the city was dirty and to top it all, his wife had insisted that they take the train. And he really didn’t like the train. It took too long and did not have food. Fortunately he had a supply of food and beer, so expected to survive the return journey. I told the couple that I was travelling all the way back to Scotland by train, which the husband had particular difficulty understanding. We continued to chat, and through the conversation I learned that he had travelled quite a bit through his work, which was connected with shipping – the couple came from Constanța on the Romanian coast. I said that I had lived in Asia for many years, and my new friend told me he had been to India. He didn’t like it at all. ”I stay four days. then finish. Very dirty, food not good, too hot. Never go back. Finish.” Somehow, my year in Africa came up in conversation. He had been to Africa too but couldn’t quite remember where. Not even the country. He didn’t like it there either. “I stay four days, do my work. Finish. I don’t go back ever. Very dirty, food not good. Finish”. It was some half an hour later, that in the middle of another conversation he paused and said with pride “Ahhh, Mobmassa. I go Mombassa, Afreeca. Finish.”. His wife was keen to go to New York, but he was less keen. I would love to know if they ever do go, and whether he likes it there.

The train departed on time, drawing gently out of Halkali in the dark. As well as a dearth of information and signage in the station there was also a complete lack of any shops so the only food I had with me was what I had brought with me in the form of nuts and seed snacks, water and some health bars. The Romanian couple told me that there was no catering at all on the train. “No good”, the husband told me. “It’s not like that in Romania”, he announced.

It was only a few minutes later, our conductor came into the carriage with water, a pack of cheese biscuits and a small carton of apricot juice for each of us. I now had a small feast to see me through the journey.

Not long after 10 pm, the train slowed and came to a halt at some kind of station without a name. With no access to data for my phone (being out of the EU) I had no way of knowing where we were. There was no sign of the reason for our stop and the only sign of life that I could see was a dog snoozing on the platform. Every so often it would get up, wander along the platform a little, with a lolloping action due to the fact that it had only three legs, before finding another comfy spot, circling and settling there for a while.

Time ticked on, and there was continued sign of no activity or action accompanied by no information. My Romanian companion decided to go and investigate. I assumed that he was investigating the reason for our extended, unscheduled halt and a possible update on when we might get moving. He returned some ten minutes or so later, rather pleased with himself. The information he had gained during his investigation along the train was that there were empty carriages and it was unlikely that there would be any more passengers joining the sleeping compartments. He had earlier expressed his dissatisfaction that the compartments had four berths and there was a lack of privacy for him and his wife. Privacy would be the least of his concerns once I started my earthquake inducing snoring. I asked him if the conductor had mentioned when we might be leaving, at which he jumped up from his seat, and announced that he would go and find out. Now, he didn’t actually confirm that he was going to find out details about our stop, which was now approaching two hours, so I should not have been surprised when he returned and announced that he and his wife were moving to the empty carriage, as the conductor said it was ok!

They quickly gathered their bags, the beers and snacks and with a warm farewell, headed up the carriage towards their peaceful space for the night. For my part, I breathed out a sigh of relief too. While I had been expecting and prepared to share my sleeping quarters with up to three strangers, it was rather nice to have the whole compartment to myself. It was also nice to be able to get my bed made up and prepare to settle for a few hours until the first border crossing.

It was not long before the train started up again, and drew slowly out of the station, the sleepy, three legged dog watching us depart from his platform vantage point.

I knew that we had been stopped for over two hours, and that our arrival at the Turkish exit border was usually around 2 am so I prepared for a fitful sleep and to be woken abruptly when we were at the border. Indeed, it was nearly 4 am, after only very short episodes of light sleep that we rolled into yet another station, bright lights blazing. There was a knock at my cabin door

Lady, please get up. Go to Police Office, passport checking

As my compartment was right next to the conductor, and I realised at the very end of the train, I was first to be woken in this carriage. I confirmed that I was to leave my luggage, so just brought my small bag with essentials and valuables and headed out into the heavy night air at Kapikule Station . I followed a few other passengers ahead of me who had been in the front of the train, under an underpass and onto the platform on the other side, as most of the other passengers were getting themselves out of their bunks, rubbing eyes and picking up their passports. Passengers with children were taken to the front of the queue in the sparse really police office and we all stood patiently in a line behind them while absolutely nothing happened. Eventually, I heard the welcome sound of a passport stamp on paper, and the line started to move slowly. Before long, I was leaving the counter with a Turkish exit stamp in my passport, and I headed back to the other platform and my comfortable berth. Only when I got back on the train, did I see a shop on the other side with neon lights announcing “duty free”. I was not in the slightest tempted, despite my curiosity, to see what interesting goods might be for sale in that little Aladdin’s cave.

I had forgotten that these border crossings take time. it was nearly 2 hours when we finally pulled out of Kapikule Station, officially in no man’s land between Turkey and Bulgaria. I had not expected my phone to come to life at that point with a message welcoming me to Greece! Looking closely at my large Europe map, I realised that we were travelling along a narrow strip of land which hugged Greece’s north eastern border as well as Turkey and Bulgaria.

Soon we were drawing into Svilengrad, the entry border into Bulgaria. To confirm our arrival, my phone chirped “Welcome to Bulgaria” at me “Great news! While you are in Bulgaria, you can use your plan minutes…” I can also use my internet, I thought. Great news indeed, as I checked my whereabouts with Google maps. Less good news was that it was just after 6 am with light slowly seeping into the sky, causing the crescent moon to fade. I had had very little sleep so far. I also had to be ready for the passport checking at this border. It was a while before the border guards came to my compartment and took my passport away with them. I always find that unsettling, worrying that it will never come back and either the train will leave and I am passportless, or worse, that I am stuck in some remote border town with no passport and no train! I am always a good worrier, and of course my passport came back to me before long, unstamped this time, but I was now officially in Bulgaria. An hour or so later, we were on our way into southern Bulgaria, and I settled down for a couple of hours of rest before I had to do some serious looking out of windows.

I managed to sleep until just after 9 am and looking outside I could see wispy clouds and wooded hillsides. Far too interesting to carry on sleeping. I treated myself to a breakfast of water, a cereal bar and a ration of cheese biscuits once I had visited the washroom. A gentle knock on the door, and the conductor asked me almost conspiratorially if I would like some Turkish tea. Tea? Hell, yes! He brought me a steaming glass of black tea, which needed the two accompanying sugars to soften its bitterness. Delicious, and very welcome.

I had now been on the train for almost 12 hours, and would cross Bulgaria from south to north, climbing and snaking through the Balkan mountains and towards the Danube, the frontier with Romania. The consistently hot, dry weather of Turkey had disappeared, to be replaced by sweeping cloud and rain showers as we passed through mountain stations.


I had brought books with me to read, but they lay neglected beside my bags, only the Bulgaria Lonely planet being able to draw any attention from me. That is, when I could bring myself away from either staring out of the window, or following the route on my fold out map in just the same way as I had followed my journey 20 years earlier on the Trans Siberian railway. Google maps are convenient, but nothing can beat the experience of following a trail on a paper map.



The day melted into images of hill stations, small villages, farming lands and orchards. Later in the afternoon, the conductor came to my compartment and handed me a strong black coffee. I rarely drink coffee, far preferring the aroma of freshly brewed coffee to the taste. His kindness was welcome, and I received the tumbler with thanks. It was possibly the strongest coffee I have ever tasted, and I sipped it slowly. I had soon had as much as I could drink without inducing palpitations and a week of insomnia, but could not bear the thought of the conductor finding that I had not finished it. I emptied the last of the coffee into an empty water bottle, and packed it away in my bag, not wanting the conductor’s kindness to be insulted. Later that evening I would pour it away, once safely out of sight in Bucharest.

There is always a sense of anticipation and nervousness when approaching an international border on a train, and I could feel this building as we traveled through the plains of northern Bulgaria towards the Danube. And soon we drew into Ruse Station. Again,I patiently waited for the border police to board the train to carry out the passport and customs checks. Again, the time gently moved forward, and again my passport disappeared, and again I pretended not to worry. The border police returned with a bundle of passports and handed them out to the conductor. Mine was not visible. And as the pile of passports shrank and disappeared, I tried to calm the sick worry and racing thoughts of being passportless on the border. I shared my worry with the conductor, so that the border guard knew before he stepped back on to the platform, that I was still without my passport. It was another twenty minutes or so before he returned with a smaller bundle of passports and of course mine was there. I don’t know why I torture myself so but I do. And I am rather good at it. There was probably a completely rational explanation – such as nationality and Schengen citizenship or not. I never found out what it was, but it did not really matter except as a lingering puzzle.

The passport and customs procedures complete, we finally drew out of Ruse, and towards the Danube. My friend, the conductor tapped on my door again. “Lady,” he said “after 5 minutes, look outside. It is very beautiful, the big river, the bridge for train and above, the bridge for cars”. We were approaching the Danube, the natural border with Romania and I had insider intel about the views. The carriages the other side of my carriage had been removed earlier as they were destined for Sofia and my carriage was the end of the train. The door was mostly glass, and provided a spectacular vantage point to view the scenes coming up. I stood poised as we started to move over the bridge, leaving Bulgarian soil, and approaching Romania.




The late afternoon sun was sinking in the sky as we arrived into the Romanian border station of Giurgiu North and another set of passport and customs formalities. There seemed to be a lighter air in the train though, as the passengers, the conductor and even the border police knew we were approaching the last couple of hours of the journey. It seemed a quick and easy crossing and we were very soon on our way towards Bucharest.

I gathered my belongings, packed away my books and camera and readied myself to disembark as we approached Bucharest, memorising the details of my hotel so that I could make my way smoothly there. I had been on this train for 22 hours and it had proved to be more than a warm and welcoming home. I stepped off the train, onto the platform of a new country, with a warmth and confidence that had not been with me when I boarded. This had been the part of the journey which had most worried me, and it had been a delight. I had much to look forward to after a few days rest in Romania when I would take the next part of my journey, with the Voldemort birthday already under my belt.


Romanian border, 2 am, awaiting passport checks

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.

Istanbul 1

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.

Orient ExpressTurkey-map

Photo credit –

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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 …


Romanian border, 2 am, awaiting passport checks