The Night Train

My first time in Istanbul, Turkey was March 2002… over two decades ago. I was an exchange student in my 20’s living in Paris at the time and a few of my friends decided for a long-weekend, spring break trip. The attack on the Twin Towers was only a few months before and I will admit, I was a bit nervous about traveling to a muslim country as three blond American-ish women. My fears couldn’t have been more quickly dispelled. It was a vibrant, bustling city filled with warm and generous people… albeit a bit too welcoming… I had to turn down at least one marriage proposal.

My memories of the trip stayed with me, particularly the architecture and the amazing tile work. The colors, the patterns the vibrancy… all resonated with me decades later. So, when our daughter had a volleyball game scheduled in Istanbul, we decided to take the night train from Sofia. I approached this trip with the mindset of a twenty-something backpacker… but in reality, as a forty-something backpacker, it didn’t hit in the same way.

I was encouraged to travel by train from an article that I read in the Guardian, which promoted the trip as one of the best trips for 2023 according to Lonely Planet. While I have traveled by train before, never in a sleeper carriage. When we slid the door open there were two seats a cabinet/table with coat hooks above it. In the corner was a sink and mirror with our own hand-towels. The beds were folded up above the seats and each had a fresh sheets and pillow cases. There were blankets, but they are not covered with a duvet, so I found them quit skeezy… not knowing their level of cleanliness. There was a temperature controlled thermostat for the cabin, but it was comfortable enough to go without the blanket. In the cabinet, there was a mini fridge with snacks, water, juice, pretzels and a chocolate for each of us. We had bought some meats and cheeses from the Bila near the train station to make some sandwiches for train snacks.

As this was a first for me, I was filled with anticipation for what the night might hold. We were supposed to depart at 6:40pm, but left about an hour behind schedule. Once we had surveyed our digs for the night and settled in, I couldn’t wait to put on my comfy clothes and climb into the top bunk. Despite the noise and the lingering aroma of cigarettes wafting through the carriage, I passed out and woke up at the Bulgarian border. We arrived in Svilengrad about 00:30. A customs officers went to all of the cabins and collected our documents, while still in the top bunk and half asleep he verified that my face matched my ID and I closed my eyes. About 40 minutes later, the officer returned with our documents and we were on the move again. When we arrived at the Turkish border crossing, we needed to not only disembark to have our documents checked, but we also needed to bring all our our bags to be scanned. The process was pretty streamlined and straight forward. We were moving quickly till we got to the passport counter, when the officer asked me for my visa.

I told him that their site wasn’t working and that I hoped to just purchase one at the window. He told me this was impossible… To be honest, I have known that I needed a visa to enter Turkey as an American since 2002 and then again when we went to the sea in around 2007. Each time I just payed about the equivalent of $10 and boom done. I figured this e-visa system was more for efficiency and convenience, but boy was I wrong. I really slacked off on my research and was arrogant enough to think I could just wing it… The officer told me I couldn’t enter without a visa and there was no way to get a visa at the border and I would need to go to the consulate. Bear in mind that this dialogue is taking place over Google translate… he is typing on his phone and I am typing on mine. He tells me that the only way to get a visa immediately is to use their poorly functioning site. I try to load the page on the spot to show him that it isn’t working, but he shrugs and takes the next passenger. I am having a mild meltdown… all of which I am responsible for. Angel on the other hand is cool and collected and tries to load up the site from his phone and boom… he is in. The only conclusion that I can derive from this experience is that their site is not comparable with Apple’s Safari. Angel with his Samsung and Google Chrome app were moving along.

By this point the line of passengers at the customs window was dwindling and we were still inputting my data into the site, which was working albeit slowly and needed to be refreshed multiple times. It wasn’t accepting certain credit cards, so we are shuffling through different cards and different currencies to find one that stuck… Luckily, despite being at the Turkish border, we were still on our Bulgarian carrier, so we had 4G. While we were still fiddling around with the app, hoping to secure me a visa, the customs officer and another traveler got into his car and drove away. I ran up to him and showed him my phone, which is set to Google translate asking him if he is coming back? He says in 5 minutes. I have no idea where he was taking this passenger, but felt glad that I wasn’t being taken to customs jail… or wherever he was going. As soon as he left, Angel was successful. I had my visa, which now cost a bit above $50. We waitied partiently hoping that the customs officer would actually return.

While all of my drama is unfolding, the other passengers were waiting on the train. I felt really bad about all of the delays, which were my fault. About 20 minutes later, the officer returned and looked at my visa. He didn’t scan it, just glanced at it, scanned my passport and we were done. We were back on the train and it was now 3:15, but I am unsure if it was 3:15 Turkish or 2:15 Bulgarian. Apparently Turkey no longer uses daylight savings time, which was a bit of a surprise.

I crawled back into my bunk and fell back to sleep satisfied in the fact that I was not going to get kicked out of the country. When I woke, we were about a half an hour outside of Istanbul. The sun was up and it seemed we were only two hours behind schedule. Which I am not sure is only my fault, but at least the sun was out and the weather was warm. I am not sure what was so special about this train trip or experience to inspire its ranking with Lonely Planet or the Guardian. It was dark 95% of the time, so you didn’t get to see any of the landscape, and you didn’t actually get a full nights sleep…


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