A quick end to my first attempt at backpacking the Balkans
This article is the first part of a piece that I published back in March called “An Initial Dispatch”. Click here to read the second part or the click the link at the end of this article.
That night Theresa and I had stayed in what would go in our personal histories as possibly one of the worst hotel rooms known to man. We rented a room for one night at an aparthotel in Bursa, an hour south of Istanbul. I idiotically booked the room for the same date as our last night in Izmir. I contacted the hotel and through Google translate rearranged the booking and got a different room. I remember leaving the Pergamon ruins and telling Theresa, “I’ll bet you any money this hotel is under construction, in the pictures it just does not look complete.” Lo and behold the hotel was nowhere near being finished. We were moved to a different room where we witnessed a true hotel horror. The bathroom was full of black mold, the kitchen was completely torn up and unusable, and worst of all I found a cockroach literally waxed into the hardwood flooring. Yes, I did check the bed for bedbugs. But after surviving this ridiculous and honestly hilarious hotel nightmare we drove the rental car back to the airport, marking the final day of our nearly 20 day long road trip through a wide swath of Turkey. Theresa had a flight back to Germany in the afternoon while I had a bus to catch. Flights to Kraków or Warsaw from Istanbul were quite pricey. I had flown to Istanbul for $74 on a budget airline with a layover in Ukraine, and I certainly didn't want to spend some multi-hundreds of dollars on a flight back. So I decided with about a week remaining before I had to be back in Kraków for a government appointment, I’ll just take buses and trains back and have a Balkan misadventure along the way.
So I said my goodbyes to Theresa and got on the city bus to go to Istanbul Esenler Otogar. One thing they don’t tell you about Istanbul is that it’s humid. I mean Alabama in the middle of July type of humid. In the winter the city is still humid as ever, but it only snows a small handful of days, as the city never gets cold enough to get significant amounts of snow. Vehicles and buildings have a thick condensation on the inside of the windows. The roof of the bus was dripping water onto the passengers as it cruised down the highway to Taksim Square. At the square I got onto the metro and rode the train out to the bus station. Now Esenler Otogar (otogar meaning “bus station” in Turkish) is unique in a variety of ridiculous and unsavoury ways. Esenler station (also called Bayrampasa station) is the only bus station in Istanbul that has standardised international bus service to Europe. There are buses that run to Europe from other stations but they tend to be slow and unreliable. Regular services run to Greece, Bulgaria, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Germany, and a variety of other countries. This consistency in transportation services covering two different continents makes the station extremely busy. Because of the high volume of traffic, they built the bus station as an absolutely mammoth 4 level hexagon. The centre of the station is the metro stop, as well as a full size shopping mall of vendors selling everything from mystery meat iskender kebab (I tried it, I do not recommend it), fake Louis Vuitton, and cheap electronics. The first ring around the centre shopping area is a wide parking lot. The outer ring is a hexagonal ring of six storey buildings that hold the bus ticket windows, service desk, small hotels, clinics, prayer rooms, etc. On the outside of this hexagonal ring is where the bus platforms are located.
Walking out of the metro station I was never so confused in my life. I had no idea how this bus station worked so I attempted to go down one level where I immediately ran into a concerned shopkeeper who stopped me. He speaks Turkish to me but I have no idea what he is saying. The only word I knew was “Bulgaristan” which is Bulgaria in Turkish. I said Bulgaristan once or twice and translated the rest on my phone. The man calls to someone from the next stall over and he talks to and signals me to come with him. I have no idea what’s happening and praying that I’ve been taken into the arms of a Good Samaritan and not some goon from the underworld of Istanbul. The man walks me over to one of the service desk on the outer ring with a sign saying “MetroTurizm”. The man cuts in front of the line of people waiting to buy tickets pulling me up with him and he starts talking with the manager of the service desk, and he starts speaking to me. It became one of those moments where there’s two people that do not speak each others languages but somehow the conversation still works flawlessly. A few minutes later I had a ticket for the 9pm night bus to Sofia, Bulgaria, platform 121.
At 8:45pm the bus finally boarded, not without its problems of course. I was seated on the bus and we were ready to go until some lady starts fighting with the bus driver in the aisle way. The yelling goes on for the greater part of ten minutes. I have no idea what the hell is going on so I voice record the argument on WhatsApp and send the recording to a Turkish friend of mine. “They’re fighting over her assigned seat. From their accent I think they’re Gypsies/Roma.” he texted me back promptly. I ask the Bulgarian - Turkish (Bulg-Turk) man next to me the same thing using Google translate. He tells me the same thing. At almost 9:30pm we finally hit the road. The bus ride is uneventful for the first few hours. The electrical outlet in my seat was broken so I asked the guy behind me if I can plug into his. He’s a younger guy, early 30’s maybe. But he speaks English. “Why the hell is an American on a bus to Bulgaria?” he says jokingly to me while I start to wonder about that question with a bit of seriousness. “Where are you from?” he ask. “Detroit, it’s near Chicago”, “Oh Detroit! We work for Ford in Plovdiv!” as he gestures to the two other guys sitting around us. It turns out that some Bulg-Turk factory workers with Bulgarian passports that work at the Ford plants in Turkey will take 2 week shifts assembling headlights at a factory in Plovdiv to make extra money.
From that moment on every time the bus would stop I would hear two questions. Espresso? Marlboro? The issue is that it’s not a question, even if you say no you’ll still have both in your hands in less than a minute. Having done this bus ride many times before, they knew that you cannot sleep on this bus no matter how hard you try, so the best tactic is to flood your system with caffeine and nicotine to survive the chaos. At this point we had arrived at the border station. The Turkish side of the border crossing is a scene from The Matrix. One booth in the dead center of an all white room that’s bright as the sun. You have to look into a camera above the border guards head the entire time you speak to him, and he’ll yell at you if you look away. The camera moves up and down a little bit, automatically focusing to your height and the position of your eyes. God knows what kind of biometric data they collected in that short moment. The Bulgarian border station paled in comparison to the Turkish station. It looked 20 years neglected with nowhere to sit and barely room to stand. They stamped me into the EU without a question asked. I turned around and there is a doctor and a nurse asking for my COVID card. I didn’t have an EU Green Card so I showed the American CDC card to their immediate confusion. At this point the border guards start harassing me. None of them speak English. They keep pointing to the “expiration date” for the vaccine vial as if it’s the expiration for the vaccine itself. I continue my confused argument with them until my English speaking Bulg-Turk friend intervenes and starts chewing out them inside of the customs booth. He waves me out of the booth and tells me ‘Don’t worry I’ll take care of it.” Questionable Bulgarian yelling ensues behind me. God bless that man.
After three more hours the bus stops in Plovdiv and the factory workers bid me goodbye before they step off the bus. The bus driver slammed the doors shut and turned around screaming “Sofia!!!”, like the bus had any other final destination to begin with. It was me and four others who would finish the trip to Sofia. I arrived in Sofia at 6am having almost no sleep at all. I had no reservations in any way, shape, or form either. No further tickets, hotels, nothing. I stumbled into one of the open bus stations booths and asked the lady if I can get a bus to Belgrade the next day. She checks my passport and tells me that I shouldn’t go because of COVID issues. I check the Serbian government’s website and discover that all American’s with a CDC vaccine must isolate for 10 days at their expense at the border. I had five days to get home for my government appointment. Belgrade would have to wait. I found a cheap hotel on Google and reviewed my options as I walked there. A bus to Vidin and from Vidin to Cluj-Napoca by train was totally possible, but it would be a three day trip minimum. I’d have to fly from Cluj to Krakow or bus through Budapest all the way back. Transportation networks are not very solid in the Balkans, and even worse if you don’t have a car. At this point I figured I was frankly screwed and had little choice but to fly back to Krakow from Sofia. The government appointment is way too important to miss and rescheduling it would be a disaster.
I bought one of the last seats on the once daily flight to Warsaw from Bulgaria. My adventure of backpacking through the Balkans to Poland was now officially squashed. I slept a few hours and figured I should buy my airline ticket and enjoy a day on the city. Sofia is a curious city. It’s the type of city that has a variety of monumental buildings and neighborhoods such as Plac Nezavisimost which host massive government buildings and the Tsum shopping complex, which lie adjacent to Roman ruins and an Ottoman mosque. Boulevard Vitosha extends south creating a pedestrian avenue of cafes and restaurants with a view of Vitosha Mountain looming over the skyline. The boulevard spills out into a square that host the National Palace of Culture, a stunning example of socialist-realist architecture in the city. Other reaches of the inner city include buildings from the Second Empire period and Neo-Byzantine churches such as the famous St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The National Art Gallery contained paintings of 18th century boyars and bucolic scenes of vineyards and grain fields. But when you step out of the area that constitutes the city center the realty changes very fast. The Eastern European stereotype of massive concrete panel sided buildings that reach 20 or more stories tall was suddenly fulfilled. The buildings stretch out like a checkerboard across the landscape. Gardens in between the buildings were dominated by dead shrubbery, children’s playground that would fail safety inspections with barely a glance and old Fiats illegally parked on sidewalks turned to rubble by time. To say it was s city of contrast is an understatement. After a pretty uneventful day in the city I retreated to my tiny hotel room to pack and rest before my flight the next morning.
Continued in… An Initial Dispatch.