Night Trains and other Misadventures
24th September 2018
Welcome back! I hope you enjoy this post – it was one of the more difficult ones to get out here. I began typing it up in a slightly dodgy upholstery atelier somewhere between old and new Mardin, a town in south east Turkey where, as I have learned in the past week, it is still rather frowned upon to buy tampons as an unmarried woman.
Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be working and volunteering out here, bringing circus to refugee kids and local ones who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to try it, build confidence and hang out together upside down, but someone, please give me a break from the scorching sun and the patriarchy, would you kindly?
My mission to find an internet café this morning failed, but asking a friendly man on the street about the one internet place I had been looking for led to him inviting me to use the laptop in his atelier. Two glasses of sweet tea and the obligatory inquiries about my country of origin as well as my marital status later, it dawned on me that I would never get an hour’s worth of writing done here and I continued the quest for an internet café until finding this hidden spot with internet, a small bubble of anonymity where I can write in peace and the relative quiet of a broken fan stirring hot air above me and the loud noise it makes every time I forcefully push the jammed space bar down, contemplating whether I am susceptible to early onset arthritis of my finger joints.
Due to the difficulties of blogging on the road, I am still struggling to keep everything in order and will write more to you about Mardin another time, but for now, let’s continue the story of how I ended up here.
20th-21st of August 2018 – Vidin to Istanbul by train
It is around mid-day when I board the train from Vidin to Sofia. I would have loved to cycle for another day, another week even, but I shouldn’t risk missing the night train from Sofia to Istanbul if I want to meet up with my little brother on the 21st. He has kindly agreed to cycle my borrowed bike back to the starting point of my journey, Szentendre, near Budapest, and I don’t want to make him wait.
At this point, I am longing to finish the second leg of the route – Vidin to Istanbul – but alas, I am here, in a small, stuffy compartment on a narrow gauge train to Sofia, just for me and my bike. Eventually, we have developped a sense of friendship over the last week and a bit, after more than 800km together. The temperature in our waggon lingers at a cozy 40 odd °C and I am sweating profusely. On a trip to the bathroom I dıscover that the rest of the train is at least 5°C colder but I enjoy the solitude of my compartment as much as I don’t want to leave my bike unattended. The carriage rattles reassuringly and every other minute or so, a horn toots at painful volume for no apparent reason.
In the meantime, I stuff my face with chocolate, meat paté, bread, apples and a can of coke – all the edible leftovers I am carrying – in an attempt to fill the temporary gap inside that opened up with my road partner’s departure and a substantial, sudden lack of cycling, movement and adventure. Soon my heart will be full to the brim again with gratitude and new experiences, the yet unfamiliar scents of Sofia and Istanbul, the anticipation of a trail to be hiked, kids to be taught in the circus and of course the reunion with Simon in Turkey’s capital. But for now, I enjoy the time between the chapters, the very reason I love airports and train journeys, and indulge in this decadent second breakfast that my body has come to expect during the long days of cycling.
I think back to the last night, the empty, dull ache in my legs at the end of the day, riding into Vidin and the sudden surge of adrenaline as a dog appears in the darkness, barking loudly and chasing me and the fully loaded bike up a small hill in no time…
When the chocolate and coke are finished, I get my notebook out and begin journaling, not quite sure if in an attempt to make the moments of my journey last a little longer or simply to not forget a thing, to somehow ensure their reality by documenting them. I send pictures to my friends by the dozen, with long messages about all that has happened since leaving London a few weeks prior, because how can I be sure that any of it has really happened if I don’t tell the story?
My bubble of heat, words and the lingering taste of coke bursts when the train rolls into Sofia and I disembark, a little dazed, disorientated. I ask the conductor where we are and he confirms my arrival in the capital of Bulgaria.
Buying tickets to the night train is easy enough with the help of a small family who actually speaks some German and Bulgarian, thus being able to communicate with me and the counter clerk. At first, she seems unwilling to sell a night train ticket to someone with a touring bike, but I explain patiently that it can be disassembled, the wheels and saddle removed and the frame shoved under the bed. In my naivety and total inexperience with nightbusses, I fully believe this to be true until a few hours later, when I have rearranged the contents of my panniers into a backpack and a half, removed the saddle and am trying to remember how to take the wheels off. As I am carrying the still somewhat cumbersome bicycle up the stairs to platform level, my foot slips and I smack myself hard in the face with the handlebar. A wail of pain escapes me before I can stop it, but this being an international train station, luckily, noone seems to care, Optimistically, I think I will be sitting on a train in a few minutes, free to tend to my nose (it still clicks a little a month later, but doesn’t appear to be broken), but as soon as I try to board the train with my trusty two-wheeled friend, the Bulgarian conductor pushes me back and forth, releasing a torrent of angry sounding Bulgarian words on me. I gather that he isn’t happy about the size of my bike and when I attempt to remove the wheels, he ushers me to my cabin. The ridiculously tiny compartment is already occupied by an Italian family of three, looking perplexed at the new arrival and her massive luggage in form of a touring bike. The Bulgarian conductor attempts to shove me and the bike into the compartment, demonstrating that the sliding door doesn’t close properly behind us.
The stout choleric man still shouting behind me, I am desperately trying to remember how to release the brake pads that are keeping my wheels jammed firmly in place – the quick release had hardly taken 20 seconds a wheel when Dani demonstrated it to me over a week and a half ago – but the salves of Bulgarian anger and the prospect of getting kicked of the train do nothing to jog my memory or calm me in the slightest. Luckily, the dad of the Italian family comes to my rescue, wordlessly explaining to the conductor that my bike will fit, no problem. Somehow, after about twenty minutes of Italian-English-Bulgarian charades and a combination of kindness and intensive tetris skills, my bike disappears, partly under the bed, partly on top of the luggage rack. At one point, the wife of my Italian hero offers to share her bed with the giant suitcase of hers to make enough space, however this turns out to be unnecessary. Eventually, peace is restored and my helper declares our carriage completed with three Italians, a Germano-Portuguese and a bicycle. Our hands are greasy and black and I happily return to journaling, equal parts inspired and not willing to let the memories of this trip simply fleet away like that…
Around four or five passport controls – one rather comical one in which a singing Turkish officers discovers and pokes the saddle of my “bee-cycle” as he lovingly dubs it – and a handful of hours of fitful sleep later, I arrive in a part of Istanbul that deserves the name as much as London Luton Airport deserves the London in its title. My conductor friend makes it clear that the shuttle bus to the centre is not an option for me, and in my mind I am already pushing the 25km from Istanbul Halkali to the centre when I finally find the wheel-cap I had deemed lost in the previous night’s stressful tetris session. The Italian man helps me once more with the reassembly and after a few adjustments, I am actually battling through Istanbul’s morning traffic on a bike! The outskirts of this metropolis, not exactly famous for their laid-back, cautious style of driving, are the only part of the route that I had considered skipping right off the bat, but here I was, cycling into the old down like it was meant to be. Surrounded by cows, blaring horns and 3.5 parallel(ısh) lines of cars crammed into what was built as two lanes on the road, my average speed hits a new low.
Whenever a car overtakes me, I silently thank the universe that it has found enough space to do so without crashing into me – often to find it reversing back at me at full speed, a peculiar Turkish road habit that I still haven’t fully understood.
Tired and exhausted, I eventually arrive at the hostel that my little brother has booked into. He is half asleep when I enter the dorm in the early afternoon and mistakes me for the cleaning lady. Realising his mistake, he greets me with a cheery “What are you doing here?” He is as jetlagged as can be, having arrived from Malaysia the night before and we spent the first hour chatting, laughing, exchanging travel stories and simply taking a break from reality. It couldn’t be more perfect.
Eventually, we go for a long walk through the city, overwhelmed by the streets teeming with tourists and locals alike, too shell-shocked to properly appreciate the city’s historical relevance, the grandeur of its buildings, the beauty of its atmosphere. After travelling on small Serbian backroads, wild-camping and the select company of only a few people at a time, the 15 million people megapolis is like a hard blow to the head – with a fragrant, ornamented, most exquisite baton.
My brother makes friends easily and soon we are drinking tea with a local who scams us over laundry. By the end of the night, Simon is receiving marriage proposals on my behalf, despite my rugged, sleep-deprived laundry day appearance. I leave exploring Istanbul for the next day, excuse myself to return to the hostel and sleep for the next 10 hours.
More about Istanbul, our escape from it, how I came to make friends with a part time king, break my own rules and work on a Turkish farm next time!