Articles tagged with "train journey"

Novi Beograd

Novi Beograd

Early the next morning we headed down to the station to catch the train to Belgrade. I slept most of the way, waking only to see endless flat green fields occasionally. Last time I’d crossed a border into Serbia, the guard had been remarkably jovial considering it had been 2am. This time, it was the middle of a beautiful spring day but the man who stamped our passports was definitely not happy. He looked at my battered document with some disgust, but stamped us in eventually.

We got to Belgrade in the early afternoon and checked into a hostel. At first it seemed incredibly welcoming and cool. Over the next few days, though, we’d find that the Swedish owner was pretty weird, vaguely racist and generally a bit unpleasant to be around. Still, they made me a coffee and that made me happy, and it was good to be back in Serbia.

We headed over to the Belgrade Arena to pick up our tickets. Last time, I’d only crossed the Sava briefly, to go to a club on a boat, so I hadn’t seen Novi Beograd at all. Under clear blue skies I really liked it. It was quite quiet, and we stopped for coffees and snacks at cafes along the way to the stadium. We got hold of our tickets with no problems, and it was nice to actually have one this time. Negotiating my way past layers of security in Lisbon when my ticket never arrived had been challenging enough; I was glad I wouldn’t have to do the same in Serbia.

St. Pancras

St. Pancras

The Eurostar used to come into Waterloo Station. The terminal there cost a vast amount of money to build, and was then only used for 13 years. The new terminal is at St. Pancras, which cost an even more vast amount of money, but at least has a good chance of lasting for more than a decade and a half.

Train to Skopje

Train to Skopje

Early the next morning I walked down from Velania to Priština’s train station. I’d checked it out the day before, and found that one train a day left from here to Skopje, at 6.24am. The station was tiny and grotty, and I did not have any particular faith in the timetable. But I got there at 6.15am, after a nice walk in the dawn light through the deserted city. And the train left exactly on time. I was the only person on board.

The train wound its way through southern Kosovo, through forested valleys and alongside rivers. Only an hour and a half later, we were at the Macedonian border. I got no Kosovo exit stamp, but luckily I got a Macedonian entry stamp. I also made the acquaintance of an elderly Albanian man, who appeared at the door to my compartment carrying immigration forms and passports for himself, his wife and his daughter. For a moment I thought this might be because he was illiterate; in fact it was because all the forms were in Macedonian and English only, despite the large Albanian minority who live in the country. I filled in all the forms, and we all made it across the border.

It was a bright sunny morning. About half an hour after we left the border, we pulled into Skopje station. I wouldn’t have minded staying here but I didn’t have that many days left before I needed to be in Thessaloniki. So I just bought myself a great espresso from the station cafe, a snack from a shop, and a bus ticket to Ohrid.

Train to Belgrade

Train to Belgrade

The train was about an hour late arriving in Budapest. I’d been getting paranoid that I’d missed it. On board, it was busy. I found my way to a six seat cabin, in which I met two Serbs going to Subotica, two English girls going to Novi Sad, and a Hungarian who got off somewhere near the border. I chatted to the English girls for a while, then slept very badly. When we got woken up for the borders I felt so tired I hardly knew what was going on, but the Serb official who stamped me in was as jovial as any border guard I’ve ever met.

At dawn we reached Novi Sad. The English girls got off, and I had the compartment to myself. Dawn was breaking as we crossed the Danube, rumbling over a bridge that replaced one destroyed by NATO bombs in 1999. I slept until we got to Belgrade at eight.

Dublin

Dublin

By the time we docked in Dublin it was cold and raining. There was snow on the hills along the Irish coast. I got a bus to the centre of town, where I had a couple of hours to kill before the Belfast train. I walked along by the Liffey, took a few photos and felt like I’d seen pretty much all there is to see in Dublin on my previous two trips here. I walked up to Connolly station and got on the train heading north.

Ireland overland

Ireland overland

The annual National Astronomy Meeting was being held in Belfast. Having never been to Northern Ireland, I thought I would go, and feeling environmentally conscientious I decided to travel overland. My train/boat ticket from London to Belfast and back was the same price as a flight, and I’d see all the nations in the British Isles on the way. My journey started with a train from Euston to Holyhead. It was raining when I left London, but sunny in Wales, as I got on the ferry for the three hour journey across the Irish Sea to Dublin.

Nyugati

Nyugati

I walked towards Nyugati station. I didn’t have much time left in Budapest, and I wanted to try and get hold of the soundtrack to Kontroll. But I was out of luck – none of the shops in the huge shopping centre by Nyugati station had it. I would have to come back.

My flight was not until the morning, but it was leaving at 6.30am, so rather than pay for another night in the hostel and get up at 3am, I decided to go and sleep at the airport and get up at 4.30am. I got a late train out to Ferihegy, but when it got to the station I almost didn’t notice. We stopped for only a few seconds, and by the time I’d spotted the sign and got to the door, the train was already accelerating rapidly. I had to make a split-second decision – jump or not? I jumped, landed with a jolt but intact, and didn’t even have to do the combat roll I’d been planning mid-air.

It was an uncomfortable night at the airport. Sleeping on a hard bench would have been tiring even if I didn’t have a broken rib, and even if one of the cleaners driving around throughout the night hadn’t crashed into my bench with his floor-washing machine. Feeling injured and exhausted, I headed back to London.

Halmstad

Halmstad

We saw the sun setting over Denmark across the water. We arrived in Halmstad after dark, with our main aim being to check out the night life. But before we could do that, we needed somewhere to stay. My guide book said there was a place 4km out of town, towards the E6 motorway, so we headed out in that direction. We walked, and walked, and walked. My feet began to hurt. We walked on, and I started cursing Eldrik for travelling with a ridiculous wheely suitcase thing instead of an obviously more practical backpack. The constant rumbling got a bit tiring after a few kilometres, and eventually he started wheeling on the grass.

After about an hour, we began to think that we weren’t in the right place. The hostel was supposedly on Växjögatan, and Eldrik grabbed a passer-by to practise his Swedish on. I could just about follow the gist of the conversation, and it went something like “Excuse me. Do you know if Växjögatan is near here?” “Växjögatan? I’ve never heard of it” “Um.. ok. Do you know of any hostels near here?” “Nope”

So we had definitely gone wrong. We were near a huge shopping centre, and there was a fast food place open, so we boosted morale by eating dirty burgers, then got a bus back into town to reconsider our options. Plan B was to check prices at hotels in town, but they were way beyond our means. We then moved onto Plan C, which was to skip Halmstad and head on to Gothenburg. We headed for the station, only to find that the next train wasn’t for almost two hours. So we quickly put together Plan D: we found a map of the town at the train station, and it appeared that my guide book had sent us out of town on the wrong road. We would head down what we thought now was the right road, and if we hadn’t found the hostel within 45 minutes, we’d get out of this place and head on. So off we went out of town again, and this time after about half an hour we found what we were looking for, the Hostel Laxen.

Once we’d recovered from our explorations, we got a bus back into town, and went out. After a few hours in the town centre I decided to head home. There were no night buses out in our direction, so I walked another three miles back out to the Laxen. In the morning, we walked back in, again, and headed north. We’d walked thirteen miles during our stay in Halmstad.

Helsingør

Helsingør

When we got to the station, we found that the next train to Halmstad wasn’t for another hour and a half. We decided that as it was only a couple of miles away, we might as well pop over to Denmark while we were here, and so we got on a ferry heading across the sound in the howling gales. Once we’d docked, we had about twenty minutes to spare for a quick walk around town, before we had to get on the ferry back over to Sweden.

Sinaia

Sinaia

Braşov had a laid-back vibe, and I spent another couple of days there doing nothing much at all but enjoying the fresh mountain air and sunshine. Eventually it was time to move on – I wanted to see a bit of Bucharest before flying back home – so I got a train to Sinaia, another mountain town on the line to Bucharest. I wanted to go up its cable car, which takes you up to 2200m in the Bucegi Mountains, but I’d picked the wrong day – it was closed on Mondays. So I just went for a short walk into the hills and a look at Peleş Castle, which was massively more impressive than Bran Castle. Then I walked back to the station and got the train to Bucharest. The sun was setting and I had a great journey under blazing red skies. I got to Bucharest late in the evening, jumped on the metro and headed for a hostel.

Transylvania

Transylvania

At Bucureşti Nord station I said goodbye to Cristi, bought a strong coffee for breakfast, and then got on the first train to Braşov. I found a window seat on the top deck. A lot of the Romanians crossed themselves as we pulled out of the station for the three hour journey into the heart of Transylvania.

We rolled through Bucharest’s northern suburbs under deep blue skies, and before long hills were rising from the plains. After an hour or so we were in the forested Bucegi mountains, where wild bears still roam. Rocky peaks towered over the train lines and although I was tired from the overnight train journey, I didn’t want to miss the scenery by sleeping. A couple of hours later we arrived in Braşov.

I liked the town straight away. The air was cool and fresh, the sun was shining, and the atmosphere was friendly. I spent a day ambling around narrow streets lined with grand old buildings, and took a cable car to the top of Mount Tâmpa. The mountain towers over Braşov, and once you’re up there you can’t see the very garish hollywood-style BRAŞOV sign attached to it, which reminds everyone which town they are in. In a blissed-out tired haze after my overnight train journey, I stayed up there fore a while in the sunshine, enjoying views over the town and its surroundings, and also enjoying being in Romania, which depending on how exactly I define ‘country’ and ‘been to’, might be the 60th country I’ve been to.

Night train to Bucharest

Night train to Bucharest

After a couple of days I’d pretty much covered Chişinău, and so I walked down to the station and bought a ticket for the night train to Bucharest. The train was quiet and I thought I might get a compartment to myself, but a few minutes before the train left someone joined me. When the train left at ten past five, I spent a while looking out of the windows at the beautiful Moldovan countryside rolling by in the evening sun, and then I got talking to my travelling companion.

He was called Cristi, and luckily he spoke quite a lot of English. He was Romanian but married to a Moldovan, and he said he thought Moldovans were friendlier and more honest than Romanians. It turned out that he was on the first stage of a journey to Italy, where he was planning to work for at least a year. Romania had been a member of the EU for nine months and he was taking advantage of the free movement of labour that this brought. He was leaving behind his wife, and didn’t know when he would see her again. As we approached the border with Romania, he said he was just starting to realise how much he would miss Moldova. Like the currency man, Cristi was bemused that I’d come to Moldova as a tourist, and particularly that I’d been to Tiraspol.

At nightfall we reached the border with Romania at Ungheni. We were leaving the broad tracks of the former USSR for the narrower ones of the rest of Europe, and our train was shunted into a yard where each carriage was raised, and the wheels changed. My passport was taken away by the first person to check it, and after an hour or so when the wheels of the train were back on it still hadn’t reappeared. Cristi went to ask the train attendants what was going on and they said that it was nothing, and we’d be getting checked again by immigration shortly. And soon enough another border guard appeared. He wanted to know why I didn’t have a Moldovan entry stamp, and it was really lucky for me that Cristi was such a friendly guy and spoke English. They had a conversation in Romanian, the approximate gist of which was “So, how come he doesn’t have a stamp?” “Because he came via Tiraspol.” “Why did he do that?” “Oh, he’s a tourist.” “Really? Get away!” “No, he really is.”

And with that I was into Romania. Cristi shared a colossal bag of Romanian chocolates with me to celebrate his return to his homeland, and I felt terrible that I had nothing to share with him to thank him for his help. He asked me if I could name any famous Romanians. I managed Dracula, the Cheeky Girls and Ilie Nastase – the last one made up a bit for the first two. In return, he named most of the royal family. His knowledge of Britain definitely beat my knowledge of Romania, but surely in a few days time I would know more.

L’viv

L'viv

The next day it was raining heavily. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Ukraine had been in the grip of a fearsome heatwave with temperatures well over 40°C, but it had broken now. L’viv in the rain was not quite as enchanting as L’viv in the sunshine, and I decided to book a train to Kiev for that evening. To do this, I went to the ticket booking office in town, and reused a method which had worked a treat when I was in Moscow – I wrote down my destination in Cyrillic, the time of train I wanted, and the word for ‘sleeper’, and handed it over. The woman behind the counter passed back a demand for a modest number of hryvnia, I handed it over, and I got a ticket for the night train to Kiev in return.

The train was at 10pm so I had all day to kill. I met Johan and Brianna for lunch, which we had at a place that Johan had wanted to try out. It was called Kupol and the decor was pure 1930s. It was like having tea round a very old person’s house. After lunch I wandered around randomly, taking whichever street looked the most interesting and covering a lot of central Lviv in the process.

By now it was dark, and I set out to walk back to the station. I passed the impressive church we’d passed on our way in to town, took a slight wrong turn into a dodgy part of town, quickly backtracked and made it to the station unscathed. I left for Kiev at 10pm.

To the East

To the East

We arrived in Lviv in pitch darkness at 4.45am. I hardly remember arriving as I was tired beyond belief, but I know I found my way to a warm waiting room with my two travelling companions, Johan from Sweden and Brianna from the US. We slept in the waiting room for a couple of hours, before heading into the city at about 6.30am. As we walked out of the station the sky was just starting to get light.

We didn’t really know which way town was, but we guessed that it would be in the direction of some huge church spires we could see down the road, and we headed off. Our instincts were right, and after about twenty minutes we found ourselves in the centre of town. I found a hostel and straight away went to bed. I woke up at 2pm, anxious to get out and see the sights. It was a warm afternoon and I headed out to Svoboda, the main street, to check out the atmosphere. Then I walked up to the historic centre, Ploshcha Rynok, and looked around there.

In the evening I met up with Johan and Brianna for a meal. The first place we went to said they were sorry, but they had a power problem and so couldn’t do any hot food right now. So we went to a place a few doors away, but they said the same thing so this part of Lviv seemed to be having a power cut. So we stopped at the second place and had a salad.

After the meal we decided to have a look at Castle Hill. This proved to be quite an expedition as the paths up it were unlit. From the top, though, we got some great views of the town. I took plenty of photos. One long exposure was ruined when a large spider walked across my hand but some others came out OK.

Train to Hong Kong

Train to Hong Kong

It took me a while to buy my ticket to Hong Kong. The easy bit was knowing I needed to ask for ‘Jiulong’, the Mandarin for Kowloon. The much harder bit was finding the ticket office. After lengthy periods in three different queues in two different buildings near Shanghai train station, I finally got my hands on a ticket.

While I’d been in Beijing, watching China’s English-language news channel, one of the stories was that the national rail network had just been upgraded and all journeys were now quicker. If I’d taken this train a week ago it would have been a 24 hour journey, but today it was down to 20 hours. I got a China exit stamp and boarded the train. We headed out of Shanghai, and for hours we passed through its vast suburbs. I didn’t see any significant area of green land before the sun set.

It had been sunny when I left Shanghai. In the morning, we were in the rice fields of southern China, under heavy skies and with rain lashing down. I watched the terraces go by and we approached Hong Kong. I went in search of breakfast, and found the restaurant car just as they were packing away what looked like a magnificent feast. Luckily there was a small shop selling snacks, and I bought some small cakes to see me through the rest of the journey.

We stopped in Guangzhou for a while, then pushed on towards Hong Kong. Soon after Shenzhen, we reached the border, which couldn’t have been clearer – the concrete of Shenzhen abruptly stopped, and the green forests of the New Territories started. The train wound through the mountains, past small villages which became larger villages and towns and eventually the suburbs of Kowloon. At 1pm, on time to the minute, we pulled into Hung Hom Station.

To the north

To the north

On my first trip to Finland I hadn’t seen anything of Tampere beyond the train station. Arriving back there three years later was like a bizarre and intense déjà vu experience. As I had last time, I struggled for a while with ticket machines that unfortunately only display Swedish and Finnish text. I thought I could work out how to buy a ticket in Swedish, but was not quite confident enough to actually put my card in the machine and so I decided to buy a ticket on the train instead.

With a couple of hours to kill, I went for a walk around Tampere. It was late on a Friday night and things were pretty raucous. My guide book described Tampere as ‘the Manchester of Finland’, and just like northern girls back home, Finnish girls were wearing amazingly few clothes given the near-freezing temperatures. I walked up the main street beyond the centre, through a park, down to the river and then back into town, found a take-away pizza shop and took a giant vegetarian pizza back to the station.

My train arrived just after 1am. I got on board and sought out a conductor, but none seemed to be around. The train pulled out of the station and set off on its amazing journey north, and after a while a conductor appeared and sold me a sleeper ticket. I was sharing a compartment with a fisherman called Mikko, who kept on cursing himself for speaking terrible English though we were having a perfectly good conversation. He was quite drunk, and offered me some of his Finnish vodka, which he said was the best in the world. But I had to leave him to it, and I went to the restaurant car for a late night snack. When I came back, Mikko was snoring heavily.

I slept pretty well, and when I woke up at 9am we were in the far north of Finland, in an endless scene of forests and lakes, under a dark blue sky with just a hint of daylight in it. There was a bit of snow on the ground but barely any cover. Mikko said that in 20 years he had only known such good December weather a couple of times before. I got up and went for a coffee in the restaurant car, and spent the next couple of hours watching the sunrise set the sky on fire. Twilight seemed to last for ever and the Sun didn’t actually rise until well past 10am. In full daylight the boggy landscape looked a little bit more prosaic, and before long we were in the grim industrial outskirts of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lappland. It was 11am and I was three miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Plovdiv

Plovdiv

I got a night train back to Bulgaria. There were no fun people to share my compartment with this time, just an angry Hungarian who hadn’t much enjoyed Turkey and thought that more or less everyone had been ripping him off. The border crossing was quicker than it had been in the other direction, and we were more or less on time when we reached Plovdiv at 9am the next day. I met a Swiss girl in the restaurant car who was also going there, and we both got confused when the train stopped at a station in the outskirts of the town. We thought we needed to get off, but there was a very large woman with some very large bags blocking the exit, and the train only stopped for a few seconds. We thought we might not be stopping again until Sofia, but luckily we soon stopped at a much bigger station that was clearly Plovdiv’s main one.

The station was still quite a way from the centre. I walked up Ulitsa Ivan Vazov to the central square, and without any particular aim in mind I walked up the main street, eventually reaching the reedy Maritsa River. I crossed the river but soon realised there was nothing but suburbs up here, so I wandered back into town. I stopped to look at the incredible Roman Amphitheatre, which lay hidden for centuries, right in the city centre, until a landslide exposed it in the 1970s.

Back to Europe

Back to Europe

It had been a long day, starting as it had at 5am in Aydın. I was tired as I boarded the train, and would have loved to go to sleep straight away. Bu as we pulled out of Denizli, my carriage filled up with boisterous young Turks. The three in my carriage were very friendly, sharing food and practising their English. This mainly consisted of the two boys pointing at the girl and saying “prostitute!”, which she responded to by pointing at one of the boys and saying “wanker!”.

Night fell over central Turkey. In the morning, I woke up feeling angry with my guide book, which claimed that buses were always better than trains in Turkey. This was nonsense – I’d slept fantastically, and as I had a morning coffee in the restaurant car, we were rumbling along by the Sea of Marmara, with curls of mist rising from the waters. This was far better than the night bus to Denizli.

We got to Istanbul at 10.15am. We were two hours late but I was in no hurry. At Haydarpaşa station, I looked at the departures board, saw that a train to Tehran was leaving soon, and thought about what a fantastic journey that would be. But I had to leave Asia behind, and I got on a ferry back across the Bosphorous, to return to Europe for the time being.

Night train to Istanbul

Night train to Istanbul

As the sun was setting I walked north to the train station, to catch the train to Istanbul. At the station there seemed to be an organised scam operating, with people latching onto unsuspecting travellers, saying there were ‘tourist information’ and then demanding money for ‘help’ given. One of them spotted me looking at the departure board and ended up walking with me to the Istanbul platform. I tried to get rid of him but couldn’t, and ended up giving him a couple of leva, worth about 60p, at which he looked pretty offended. I saw another one further down the platform demanding five euros from a group of travellers.

We left Sofia at 7.45pm, and for the first few hours I had a sleeping compartment to myself. At 11pm we reached Dimitrovgrad, and suddenly there was a lot of noise in the corridor. I could hear a lot of American accents, and from what I could gather there was a large group of them all trying to find spare beds. I had two, but I had liked having the compartment to myself and so I was considering quietly locking the door and ignoring them all, but then my conscience got the better of me. I opened the door and asked if anyone was looking for beds.

And I was glad I’d asked because I ended up sharing my compartment with Dorna and Lauren from Iowa. They were part of an orchestra touring south-eastern Europe, and they were fun company. We talked for the next few hours, until we got to the border with Turkey at about 4.30am.

Leaving Bulgaria was easy, but getting into Turkey proved to be more long-winded. At every other border I’ve ever crossed by train, the border officials have walked down the train to stamp passports, but here at Kapikule everyone had to get off and file into a small building, where a couple of guards slowly processed the queue. If it hadn’t been for the crowds of Americans I’m sure we’d have been through within minutes, but as it was we spent almost two hours there. At one point, guards started shouting and blowing whistles, and it turned out that Lauren had almost got everyone deported by taking a photo of the train.

Finally I got my Turkish entry stamp, and we got back on the train. By 8am it was a bright sunny day, and we finally left Kapikule and headed into Turkey. I slept for a while. We finally reached Istanbul at about 1.30pm, five hours late after a journey of just 300 miles.

Florence

Florence

I met up with my girlfriend in Florence. She was in Perugia for a month but was soon going to be moving to Florence for nine months, so we went househunting there. It was phenomenally hot, and massively over-crowded, and I didn’t really like it that much. The best thing about the day was the views of the countryside as we passed through on the train.