Budapest, Hungary and onwards

Posted on March 3, 2011


A confusing train alight to get to the airport in the early hours, Sami and I said our sad farewells and I took the short flight to Budapest.  One not-so-cheap taxi ride later and I’m greeting Bob, someone I’d not seen in seven years for a week of relaxation and acclimatisation for what’s to be a long solo travel through to the Middle East and beyond.  I was hoping for a little departure from the norm coming into Hungary, but the billboards dispelled any preconceptions as the familiar logos of C&A, Tesco, Lidl, KFC and others pass by and I lose count.  A warm welcome and we’re acquainted once more – the week I planned here wasn’t so much for the travel factor as it was gearing myself up for what was to come.  The city itself isn’t just one but two cities – Buda and Pest – myself staying in the former but crossing over the Danube via one of the many connecting bridges that join them.  Walking around you get a feel for how the landscape hasn’t been altered much, and that the seeming lack of renovation to the housing in the suburbs is unnecessary as it makes the place what it is – a beautiful unhurried landscape to live in or visit.  Travel is simple and cheap with the metro, trams or bus, but far more enjoyable by foot – the only time constraint for me being dusk’s arrival, all too soon coming into the winter months.  The view from one of the bridges gave me time to play around, some nice shots including one of a couple sitting on one of the struts.

While there are restaurants around, the eterems (eateries) are cheaper and cosier than any other place I’ve been or seen, although the cafes are not to be sniffed at for a warming hot chocolate.  Chicken kiev being the order of the day in Bob’s local eterem, a welcome meal when a scarf is needed to brave the cold of dark.

My plan to go east meant heading down into Pest to the imposing train station, finding which trains to catch, price brackets of each class and being assaulted by a variety of sounds from Romanian families playing their repertoire of instruments and songs.  Knowing it was two trains to Istanbul, I didn’t factor the time it’d take – a fearsome thirty six hours in total if all ran smoothly taking in all of four countries in the process.  Stopping along the way would’ve been nice as I’ve heard great things of Brasov and Sofia, but my time is precious when it comes to visa expirations, I daren’t miss out on my plans for the Middle East after the hassle and cost for one of them and how much I was looking forward to getting there.

Friday night, and Bob’s workmates congregated in Szimpla – a watering hole with a twist – all the furnishings adorning the floors and also the walls were donated by anyone and everyone with something to part with.  Half a car in the middle for people to sit in and drink away the week past, rusty old bicycles somehow attached to the wall, and quite a variety of different chairs to park yourself on.

A heavy head in the morning and a train later on in the day, I head out with dry food bought at the supermarket in preparation for few opportunities to nourish myself en route to Istanbul.  My suspicions – created by a twenty four hour train journey from Hong Kong to Beijing a few years ago – were bang on: any stop we made was either in the middle of nowhere or dead at night, the only respite being three bottles of water and a Sprite for US$5 I’d convinced them to accept, having spent my Forints before leaving Hungary and not possessing any Romanian Lei.  In the four-bed compact room were a German lady and her daughter and Caitlin from Canada, as well as some kindly-provided bedsheets with free colourful stains to boot.  Myself and Caitlin stayed up ’til the wee hours with our drinks and swapped books before crashing out.

Going through small towns, stopping in cities, I saw how uninviting Romania appeared with dogs strewn out waiting next to the carriages for scraps, burning rubbish piles incensing the air, delapidated houses lining the route and later finding out Caitlin was skimped out of money on her taxi ride in Bucharest made me thankful I didn’t stick around.  The train from Budapest terminated in Bucharest midday, where an ATM offered numerous amounts of Lei meant I could draw out enough for the 176 fare to Istanbul.  I had to take a couple of hundred out with no idea of the exchange rate, so employed my shaky guesswork using a comparison with the price of water and the McDonald’s on the corner to figure a rough price in Pounds.  24 Lei in less than an hour on snacks and sustenance and I wanted to go, but not before one of the train conductors – each with a carriage to man – relieved me of €15 on top of the fare as a supplement to ride in a cheap sleeper car.  Seemingly, you pay to get there, not to sit down or sleep.  A ‘First Class’ one was just over twice the price, but couldn’t see the point in paying more when all I wanted was a surface to sleep on and attempt to use overnight travel as a means of saving money.  I had the room on the Bosphor train to myself – listed as the Bucharest-Sofia service on the train exterior – which runs direct from Bucharest to Istanbul due to arrive nigh-on a full day later.  With few other passengers on-board, I tried striking up conversation with the Korean guy in the room next door but he mumbled something and retreated to only be seen at border crossings when he had to make an appearance as the various officials along the way tried to work out his visa situation.  Thankfully there was someone on the train to allay my boredom with – the Turkish conductor with not a jot of English and a smile that meant the ride went quick enough.  He’d offer cigarettes he’d acquired on his travels, some bits of meat from his personal stove – which made a change from the dry biscuits and room temperature water – he’d offer çay (chai), a orange-red tea sweetened heavily with sugar in a small bell-bottomed glass with a small spoon, then return with more when he did his rounds and noticed I’d finished my last.  With eventual success he tried explaining how before Istanbul, we’d have to take a bus as there was something wrong with the line, or a train, or something of vague importance – the explanation of playing musical vehicles came thanks to a scribbled diagram on a bit of notepaper with a particular likeness to me drawing a spider with a pen between my toes.  Bridges and waters crossed, people, animals and burning heaps of rubbish passed, two very different sunsets dropped as I felt the itch of not having washed in two days get to me.  The Turkish border arrival awoke me to darkness and a train exacuation for the inevitable visa hoohah.  £10 imparted for a three month visa (€15 also accepted but works out pricier due to exchange rates) and I come across Josh and Eric – Ecuadorian-English and Belgian respectively – giving relief of being stuck in my own company for too long.  One of the conductors needed to borrow me, although it was more my passport he was after as he wanted to stock up on cheap cigarettes before crossing over.  Eric made the early-rising (it was still pitch-black) duty-free shop rifle through all their tobacco in an attempt to find the darkest and strongest they had – unless it was pure tar I don’t think he’d be completely happy with what they had to offer.  Starting to scratch, my socks feeling over-used, the back of my thighs, my head, arms, face and the bridge of my nose where my under-powered glasses sit had started to bother me all at once, I head back in to catch a little more sleep.

Shouting all around and we’re shephered off the train, left to a bus for the final two hours, getting into the warmer Istanbul nearly on schedule and with dire need of somewhere comfy to sit, something to drink and a place to stay.  We find a cafe, ponder a while, then head our separate ways.

Dogs congregate along the tracks where trains stop in the hope for scraps

My room from Bucharest to Istanbul, apparently with enough space for six people

My newest friend, the ever-present Turkish train conductor

The sunset before Istanbul

Posted in: Hungary, Turkey