On The Beaten Track – Travels In Eastern Europe

My new colour e-book as titled above is now available to download from Lulu.com, Amazon and Nook. It is also available as a paperback from the same retailers.

  
To mark the occasion, I have re-blogged the five extracts below that I have originally posted on this blog since January. I hope you like them……

Extract One – Bedlam

To set the scene, Hamish and I had taken the twenty-five hour train journey from the Crimea to Lviv near the Polish border. This episode takes place after breakfast, seventeen hours into the journey………..

An announcement instructed passengers to bring their bedding to the end of the carriage. We didn’t understand a word of course, but as everybody rose in unison, bundled their sheets, blanket and pillowcases together and carried them towards the large lady (a Hattie Jacques lookalike from the film Carry on Nurse), in starched white uniform, white peaked cap and the sort of slippers given away free at up-market hotels, stood open armed at the end of carriage, we quickly got the message.

We followed suit but encountered a problem. Hamish could not locate his pillow so had no pillowcase to return. Hattie J was counting everything in and demanded to know where my mates’ pillowcase was.
Again we did not understand the demands but knew instantly what the problem was and that it presented an issue for us.

There were at least ten people behind us now straining under the weight of their bundles that included thick blankets. It was Hamish’s turn to feel eyes piercing into his person. He could only go bright red and shrug his shoulders. I really hoped that this body language universally meant ‘I don’t know’ rather than being some sort of insult in Ukraine.

In any case, Hamish was commanded to stand aside and wait. He understood the hand signals and imperative tone perfectly and obeyed instantly.

I had to stifle an enormous belly laugh welling up inside me as he stood there awaiting his fate like a naughty schoolboy.

My four items were counted in and I was free to go. Taking pity on my friend, I joined him in waiting. The expressions of the fellow passengers as they handed in their bedding were unforgiving. I wondered whether in previous times Hamish’s crimes could have led to a spell in some Siberian salt mines. You would have thought so by the stern looks that were now pointed in our direction.

The rest of the bedding was counted in without incident and Hattie then beckoned us to follow her to our seat. When there she bellowed to our section companions, clearly asking who had the missing pillow. Either nobody had or were not admitting to it anyway. You would have to be pretty desperate to pinch a Ukrainian Railways issue pillow that had lost all ability to cushion your head comfortably many years before.

Thankfully we were spared the ignominy of everybody in the vicinity having to empty the contents of their luggage, boxes and bundles. Now that would have been embarrassing and caused a complete and abrupt end to any goodwill towards hapless foreigners.

Hamish searched his area one more time but no luck. We were then beckoned to follow Hattie once more, me going along for moral support (more like not wanting to miss what promised to be a very humorous spectacle)! The couple opposite shook their heads as if to say ‘this is no way to treat a visitor to our country.’ This worried us somewhat and made the walk behind Hattie seem like the long march to the electric chair. We had no idea where we were going or what the result would be.

After eight carriages of gawping faces, we arrived at the guard’s room. Hattie explained the misdemeanour. ‘You must pay fine’ was the guard’s instant command. Not the most welcome news for Hamish, but at last some English instruction (no doubt well practiced), so at least now we knew that Siberia was off the agenda.

The swarthy guard with steel rimmed spectacles and cap several sizes too small, then stood on a wooden box to allow him to reach the shelf above him. He brought down a large black book, blew away a cobweb and leafed through its pages until he found what he was looking for.

He pointed out some Cyrillic writing with a number and symbol next to it indicating an amount of 80 Hryvnia. Hamish was about to get upset until I pointed out that this was about €5. Not too bad we supposed. However, he was not finished.

He then pointed to another line, about €2 and finally a third line, about €1.

We figured this to be pillow, case and admin fee for €8 in total. Of course the guard had no change for a €10 note so that is what the episode cost Hamish.

I found the whole experience hilarious but Hamish did not yet find it funny and wanted to find the toe rag that had pinched his pillow and caused him such hassle. The fact that every now and then I started laughing uncontrollably, did nothing to lighten his mood!

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The Monster Journey

Extract Two – Frozen

This was a train journey memorable for all the wrong reasons…….

Our train had started in Belgrade and was destined for Istanbul. Despite starting in the same country (Serbia) it arrived over an hour late for the 163KM leg from Niš to Sofia.

We waited impatiently with hordes of luggage laden Serbs, as snow fell heavily around us. The train had been due to arrive in Sofia at teatime for a last evening hurrah before our flight home. As it eventually set off, it was very clear that the train was moving decidedly slowly, so we soon started speculating about the actual arrival time – predictions were pretty bleak by all accounts.

Hamish & I shared our carriage with what appeared to be the only other English speakers on the train – a couple of Canadian girls and an American guy.

Our transportation eventually crawled into the border station over three hours late. By this time it was starting to get extremely cold and it soon became clear that the heating system had packed up.

We were then treated to an episode straight out of the Keystone Cops as we moved forward out of the main train station and stopped just outside in a siding.

Surrounded by razor sharp barbed wire, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, we were to stay parked up for over two and a half hours.

The train guard and driver considered it their duty to try and fix the heating for the suffering passengers, many of whom were pensioners.

Armed with one screwdriver and some pliers, they proceeded to open every panel above the compartment doors to locate the wiring. They then proceeded to bang and prod blindly in the forlorn hope that somehow miraculously their actions would inspire the heating to start working again. Of course they were unsuccessful.

Why they had not phoned through to Sofia to request a heating engineer and just got there as fast as possible I have no idea. At least that would have saved us 160 minutes of misery.

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Heating Engineer, Not!

As darkness fell and the temperatures dropped below freezing, we were now wearing much of the contents of our rucksacks. Jumpers, scarves, hats, gloves, thick socks, fleeces. All five of us now resembled Michelin men. I hadn’t noticed that Hamish was the only one of us not to put a hat on – he was to pay for this mistake later on.

I tried to speak to the guard to find out their full plan but he did not speak English, German, French or Greek, so we remained totally in the dark in more ways than one.

The cold and gloomy conditions got us talking to our companions. Food was shared by torchlight, travel stories told and jokes concocted about our current predicament.

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Getting Colder!

We even resorted to riddles to keep ourselves entertained, for example – ‘a man walks into a pub and requests a glass of water. The barman reaches for a gun and points it at the man. The man says thank you very much and leaves the bar happy. Why?’*

* The man had hiccups

After a couple of false starts we finally left. No heat or light, but at least we were moving. The whole train cheered.

Our ‘express’ was still travelling way below optimum pace and was now over five hours late.

We had run out of food, conversation and any inspiration by the time we finally crawled into Sofia an excruciating six hours late.

Bading our fellow travellers farewell, we went off in search of a taxi to take us to our reserved hotel. It was now after 11 p.m., so all notion of a last night jolly was blown out of the water. The train still had to get to Istanbul, another 550KM. We felt really sorry for the two old ladies that we saw board as we alighted. At this rate it could be days before they reached Turkey!

There was no signage to speak of at Sofia Central, so we went off in search of a taxi rank in what we thought was roughly the right direction. The North Americans went to the main concourse to try and arrange some accommodation. I wished them luck.

It was then that I properly realised that Hamish was struggling somewhat. He had got so cold that his lips were blue and he was shivering uncontrollably. The early stages of hypothermia had set in – we needed to find somewhere warm quickly.

We staggered up some steps and found ourselves stood beside a six-lane highway that now separated us from the train station. The taxi rank was infuriatingly by the station across the carriageway and we were just about to walk back down the steps when I noticed a taxi driving by, which I exuberantly flagged down.

Thankfully he knew where our hotel was and agreed to take us there. We slumped onto the back seat where I listened to Bulgarian radio and the chattering of Hamish’s teeth.

After fifteen minutes we stopped and the taxi driver gestured that our hotel was somewhere on the left through a pedestrian zone. Beanless, I quickly found a cashpoint to draw some Lev, but by the time I returned Hamish had already settled up with a €2 coin.

We slumped off in the general direction indicated in search of the hotel. I could see that Hamish was in a bad way, so when we stumbled across an Italian restaurant I ushered him inside – the hotel could wait.

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Hamish Warming

A pizza and some red wine later and the world seemed an infinitely better place.

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Wilbur Warmer

Our waiter knew our hotel and offered to lead us there, an offer we were grateful to accept.

When we arrived we were dismayed to find that they had treated us as a ‘No Show’ and given our room away. Fortunately they had a sister hotel that had a twin-room free. A taxi was ordered and we eventually arrived there around 1 a.m.

The hotel receptionist was curled up on a sofa asleep so had to be woken to take our booking. We had to be up again in four hours or so for our flight home, but still had to go through the ritual of handing over our passports for photocopying.

We had the foresight in our tiredness to arrange for the taxi driver to meet us at six to take us to the airport – the last thing we needed was more transport dramas!

Barely able to get undressed, we were soon sound asleep and stayed that way until the evil alarm clock blasted out its rallying call at 05.30. Bummer!

Extract Three – Trampled

To set the scene, Hamish & I were headed to Odessa bus station with dread in our hearts as we were booked on an overnight bus to Sevastopol due to all the trains being fully booked………

Odessa Train

We had arrived by train from Moldova, but there was no onward train available……

The tram ride to the bus station was hell. The tram was as packed as before (we used it previously to go and purchase our tickets), but this time we had our large and heavy rucksacks too. To say we were wedged in was an understatement. Incredibly more people got on at subsequent stops so we were now packed so tightly that we resembled one huge creature with dozens of heads & limbs!

For the entire journey I was dreading the moment that it was time to alight. Through the mass of shoulders, backs and heads packed around me, I somehow managed to spot our stop.

I was unable to get any where near a call button, but thankfully someone else requested the stop and I made my move, shoving all out of the way as I yanked my bag up and embraced it in my arms. Hamish preferred the dragging it behind him method, but the result was the same with bodies unceremoniously bashed out of the way. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I kept repeating with no idea whether anyone understood or believed me.

After what seemed a panicky age, we were at the top of the open door, just two metal steps between our goal and us.

Impatient new passengers were already clambering up those steps but if we didn’t get off now, we would be whisked to the next stop. There was nothing else for it but to dive for the exit. I virtually catapulted out to the pavement below, taking one of the ascenders with me, but miraculously somehow managing to stay on my feet.

Suddenly Hamish popped out behind me like he had just apparated using some of Harry Potter’s floo powder.

The startled passenger that I had taken with me gave Hamish the full force of his ire, much to my amusement as I recovered my composure. Hamish was a few seconds behind me in the composure recovery stakes and he simply went from red to redder in the face of the Ukrainian tirade, made worse by the fact that the tram doors had closed and left the commuter behind.

Hamish apologised on my behalf as I attempted to hide my mirth.

Footnote: The bus journey was every bit as bad as we feared, contributing to a hellish time in Sevastopol upon arrival….

Extract Four – Catastrophe

To set the scene, Hamish & I were embarking on an overnight train from Batumi on the Black Sea Coast of Georgia to Yerevan, the splendid capital of Armenia. We had booked a berth each on the overnight sleeper on an Armenian language website and were hoping against hope that we had a private compartment…..

We were therefore somewhat displeased to find four berths were awaiting us, but started hoping again when the train left with us remaining the only two occupants……..

Batumi

A Room With A Pew

Nineteen short minutes into the scheduled sixteen-hour journey, we pulled into a station named Kobuleti and were dismayed to see a crowd of people on the platform. Our worst fears were confirmed when our fellow occupants revealed themselves to be an eighty year-old Armenian lady who travelled with her daughter, who was herself aged in her mid to late fifties.

They were clearly unhappy to be travelling with a couple of ‘young’ foreigners. Much discussion was held between the pair followed by fractious debate with the train crew. They either wanted out or wanted us out. This would never have happened in Turkey where you had to enter your gender when you booked, so strangers of the opposite sex couldn’t even sit next to you in broad daylight, let alone be up close at nighttime in a sleeping compartment.

It was tough luck on us all. The train would be full, so we were staying put whether any of us liked it or not.

The daughter then revealed they were travelling with their cat and asked if we had a problem with this. As she asked this, she unzipped one of her bags and the cat’s head popped out. All the while she had been bartering for a compartment change, the cat had been shut inside a holdall.

Tiddles seemed OK with that arrangement however, emerging with a meow of greeting and a lick for her owner. Neither of us objected, even when the truth of what would inevitably happen when the cat’s toilet was placed on the floor dawned on us both. I had smelt enough cat poo & piss in my time to know that it would not be a pleasant experience if the litter tray (a plastic bowl with newspaper inside it actually) was used at any time, especially in the wee (excuse the pun!) small hours.

It would most probably have been futile to object anyway, although a cat flap would have come in very handy. At least then the feline facility could have been left outside in the corridor.

It also transpired that the cat was blind, so it had to be picked up by the owners every hour or so and placed by its pussy pisser just in case the need had arisen. After four hours of our co-existence, the daughter decided it was time for forty winks and clambered up the fold out ladder to the top bunk. Mother lifted up the moggie, who was soon fast asleep beside her mistress.

Batumi2

See No Evil

As night fell, Hamish and I downed the blonde beers we had bought in Batumi and soon afterwards my big-eared pal drifted to sleep. In the time it took for him to then wake up for a pee, Tiddles had done her own business. You guessed it, the inevitable happened!

My sock footed friend, kicked the half full latrine and ended with cat urine soaking into his right foot. Yuk!!!

The ladies apologised and handed Hamish some tissue. He was all of a fluster, whilst I was sniggering like Mutley from Wacky Races. Off to the loo he then hopped, left boot on foot and right boot in hand. He returned ten-minutes later without both the offending sock and it’s twin, both now lying on a Georgian railway line. I wondered how long it would be before some urchin had Homer Simpson adorning his feet!

Fifteen-minutes after sockgate, we arrived in Tbilisi right on time at 21.40. According to the timetable that I had printed at home we would be here for over thirty-minutes, so decided to go on a mission to find us some more beer to quell the cat pee smell, whilst Hamish contemplated whether there was indeed room to swing the cat!

Extract Five – Think Big

In 2011 I visited Bucharest for a day at the start of the journey to Moldova, Crimea and Northern Ukraine. Whilst there we visited a big building……..

The Palace of the Parliament in central Bucharest is the world’s largest civilian building with an administrative function and the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington DC. It is also the most expensive administrative building and heaviest building.

Romania 3

Huge House

The Palace was planned by the Ceausescu regime as the seat of political and administrative power, though wiping out a large section of the central city and at the same time flattening many important religious buildings.

This was all at the behest of the former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who commissioned the building in the early ’80s that was to cost an estimated $4 billion to build.

We took a ninety-minute guided tour of the palace (independent visits are not allowed) and discovered that the palace measures 270m by 240m, is 86m high, has 1,100 rooms, two underground parking garages, is twelve stories tall and has a huge nuclear bomb proof shelter.

The floor space is 340,000 m2. On our tour we were only able to see about 5% of its total area and that seemed large to me. If the guide had merely stated, “it’s a huge building,” it would have done for me; number facts invariably go in one ear and straight out the other!

The Presidential Palace is used now for civil matters and houses Romania’s parliament, but is primarily seen as a reminder of the madness of Ceausescu. It remained incomplete at his death and it is assumed that it will remain this way forever.

The guide was very proud of her country and the palace, even if it had an unsavoury past. She was full of instantly forgettable statistics, although I do remember that she said it would take one person over a month to change all the light bulbs in the 4,500 chandeliers (more than double that were planned)!

The balconies gave a fantastic view right over Bucharest and as I stood there taking it in, I imagined hundreds of thousands of protesting Romanians baying for Ceausescu’s blood.

Romania 2

Room With A View

Apart from the vastness and incredible opulence of the place, my lasting memory was of the great hall where Ceausescu planned to meet all the visiting dignitaries before whisking them off to a sumptuous banquet and important meetings concerning affairs of state or international relations.

The hall featured twin spiral staircases of finest marble with Nicolae and wife Elena planning to making sweeping entrances from opposite sides to a fanfare of trumpets to impress their waiting guests. Alas for the Ceausescu couple, they were never to have the pleasure of this experience before their show trial and execution on Christmas Day 1989.

4 comments

  1. Fantastic extracts, to what I am sure is a really interesting book. I love your style of writing – it’s so descriptive from the expressions of faces to your thoughts. Wishing you all the best with it. Thanks for sharing on #MondayEscapes

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    1. Thanks for your wishes and kind words. I hope that the book makes some people smile….

      Like

  2. Sounds like a very interesting book! Great extracts 🙂

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    1. Thanks Tara. It was a labour of love and now I just have my fingers crossed that people like it. Now to work out how to market it! Good luck with your poster project -nice innovation. Wilbur.

      Liked by 1 person

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