To set the scene, I was on my first interrail trip in 1987 aged twenty-two with my mate Poll. Three days into the trip, Poll had lost his passport near Munich and had to be issued an emergency one by the British Consulate, designed to get us home by the most direct route. Undeterred, we had carried on to Austria and were now headed for Yugoslavia………
Guard Against Complacency
The border guards entered the train at Spielfieldstraß, the archetypal scruffy little border station. As the guards approached, our hearts were beating hard. Would Poll’s documentation pass?
It was pretty much a paper form, a mug shot of Poll plus a few ink stamps accompanied by the signature of the British consulate in Munich.
The guards were in our carriage now and just as they reached us the train started to move. At least they could not throw us off in Austria now. Once we were in Yugoslavia perhaps they would let us continue.
Well, I was no translator of Serbo-Croatian, but by the look on the guards faces and the fact that they passed the ‘passport’ between them whilst shaking their heads, was a sure sign that all was not well.
“You must get off in next station and see chief guard. This not good papers. He will decide what to do.”
There were four guards in total, all four being six-feet plus with dark complexions, muscular build, square jaws, stern expressions and black moustaches. Only one of them was female.
They all carried firearms and to two young travel virgins they were extremely intimidating. The fact that the rest of the train seemed to be staring us only added to our discomfort. We felt like criminals for sure.
We shortly arrived in Maribor train station, another shabby affair.
No sign of the guards. Perhaps they had let us get away with it?
“Come with me,” boomed the English-speaking border policeman as he approached where we sat. Bummer, hopes dashed.
As our train went off into the distance towards Zagreb, we were led to a small office. All four guards accompanied us into the cramped space where a balding man sat behind a desk. He had a bigger moustache, larger gun and a lot more decoration on his shirt pocket than the others. He was obviously head honcho.
He grabbed Poll’s paperwork and studied it in detail for what seemed an age.
The silence was broken with a Slavic discussion that lasted a good five minutes. They seemed to be debating something. Was this a good sign? We soon had an answer to that one.
“Where are you going in Yugoslavia, how long will you stay, how much money do you have?” Clearly only one of these questions was important to them.
The guards did not care that we were going to Pula and may stay for three or four days. They did however care that we only had a few dinar & twenty pounds sterling in readies and had zero interest in the fact that we had some Eurocheques, with a credit card for emergencies only.
With no cash to speak of to bribe our way in (there was no way that our flexible friend (Access Credit Card) could have helped, despite our predicament), our fate was sealed. In any case, our intended connecting train to Ljubljana had also just left the station.
More Slavic debate followed by stilted English. “You can not continue Yugoslavia. You return Austria with guard. Train go fifteen minutes.”
There was no more debate. We didn’t even try to argue, as we were savvy enough to know that this would be futile without at least £100 in ready money to buy our way in.
I just had time to spend the few dinars I had brought with me at the station kiosk to buy two beers and a packet of crackers. Some small comfort at least.
Then our transport back to the West arrived. A huge snake of a freight train with what can best be described as a wooden cattle car attached behind the locomotive, directly in front of the countless container carriages that stretched further than the eye could see in the dimming light.
We were beckoned aboard the cattle car (a good four-foot climb) to join the four guards for the journey back over the border.
Having clumsily heaved ourselves aboard, we could see that seating was a choice between sacks of grain or the wooden floor. A weak light came on once the loco fired up again and we were on our way.
We made out our musty smelling surroundings in the dimly lit wagon. Grain strewn across the floor, empty sacks piled up to the ceiling, gaps in the floorboards revealing the tracks below, a pile of broken glass, dozens of dead flies and an equal number of living gnats, together with the odd fluttering moth head-butting the bare light bulb.
It was the sort of place where they torture people in films – dark, dank and away from civilisation. I was just pleased to see that there was no wooden chair and rope lying around!
As the guards drank vodka and played cards, we sat on our lumpy designer armchairs (we opted for the grain sacks), consumed our beer & crackers and discussed our experience. We agreed that we would laugh about it one day. Not yet though in case this could me misconstrued by the guards as contempt or something else that may lead to more hassle.
Poll spent the rest of the journey drooling over the chiseled features of the female guard (she would be lovely once she had a shave apparently), whilst I flicked through TC (The Thomas Cook European Timetable) and batted away midges. TC’s small print was hard to read in the dim night-light. I thought I made out that the next train out of Spielfieldstraß was six next morning, some eight hours away. We really hoped that I had misread.
After twenty-five minutes we had arrived back in Austria. The guards marched off into the darkness, deep in conversation and seemingly now oblivious to our presence. We watched them leave through the light of their torches until we could see or hear them no more……….
[…] For my Letter M, I chose Maribor in the then Yugoslavia in the late ’80s, which is now part of Slovenia. I told the story of how we were refused entry and escorted back under armed-guard across the border into Austria. Could can read that account here. […]
Great story, well told. You would probably have got away with it today. A few years ago (pre-Schengen) I forgot our passports when taking a train from Bratislava to Vienna. The border guards found the whole thing amusing and amazingly let us continue. They did warn us however that they couldn’t guarantee the return journey. That spoilt the day in Vienna a little but we needn’t have worried we didn’t see a single border guard on the way back.
Great story – I went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem once and did not realise it was in Palestine. Armed guards boarded the bus and demanded to see my ID. All I had was a British Telecom phone card, which they accepted!
Oh dear, some reminders there – shocking manners and no customer culture at the borders of old Yugoslavia – not much different in most placed inside it…everyone looking to make a buck and control other peoples lives – just as well soon after 1987 it all came apart at the seams