Casting one last glance at the charming old streets and striking neo-Gothic buildings in Bucharest, I took a brisk stroll, with a heavy backpack strapped to my shoulder, slowly navigating my way to the train station. From there, I was about to embark on a long-haul overnight journey to Istanbul. Having walked incessantly for days in Bucharest, I was looking forward to long hours of doing nothing at all, just sitting still on the train and getting my much-deserved rest.
I booked a sleeper cabin for about USD 65 to satiate my craving for a little luxury. The cabin was much spacious than I had expected. It has berth beds with clean sheets and blanket, a mini refrigerator, luggage storage space, a sink to freshen up and a power outlet to charge your mobile devices and computer.
The train conductor was very congenial and endowed with a sense of humor. He broke the good news to me that the train was less than half full today. In other words, I would have the whole cabin to myself!
I rejoiced at the news and almost jumped in exhilaration. He showed a genuine care for every passenger, constantly checking on everyone and did everything possible to make sure we were comfortable and had everything we needed.
Fearing that the train might not have food serving facility, I bought plenty of food, snacks and bottles of water prior to boarding the train. As soon as the conductor left my cabin after a short briefing, I immediately propped a pillow against the headboard and climbed into bed, losing myself to the moving landscape outside the train window.
The only flipside of this train ride was the unavailability of WiFi. That, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise by offering an unplugged time for me to live in the moment. I spent the next several hours in bed reading a book I was addicted to, watching a couple of blockbusters and listening to some music I downloaded on my phone.
When my stomach was growling with hunger, I unpacked the food and set them on a countertop and started a little picnic by myself with my favorite tunes blasted out from my phone.
Time flies when you are having rockin’ good time! The train slowly settled to a stop at the border between Romania and Bulgaria. The immigration officers came onboard and knocked on every door, asking passengers to hand over their passport. It took quite a while for the passport inspection to be done. The air-conditioner was turned off, the air was stagnant with a musty odor, driving everyone to step out from the comfort of their cabin and hang out on the walkway for some fresh air.
There was a diverse mix of travelers – A couple of eastern Europe tourists who were taking a short weekend getaway to Istanbul, some holidaying Turkish families on the way back to their hometown and a Japanese guy who was on a sabbatical traveling around Europe. Everyone mingled like they’d known each other for years. The atmosphere was buzzing with lively conversations and laughter, despite the differences in language and culture. When the train blew the horn for departure, everyone went back to their own cabin and called it for the night.
The familiar door knock was heard again at the stroke of the dawn. The bleary-eyed conductor announced that the train had just pulled into the Turkey border, and every passenger was required to leave the train and walk to the immigration post nearby. Braving the chilly morning air, I dutifully joined the others in a walk to the immigration office. The office, to everyone’s trepidation, was dingy and dimly lit, looked much more like an interrogation room in a movie. Sitting behind a counter protected by an iron-wrought partition were two grim-faced officers. They appeared cranky as if they were just woken up from their fitful sleep.
Going through the passport control and customs turned out to be a breeze, despite the intimidating setting. I could not go back to sleep after that. I sank my head into the pillow, trying to soak in the remaining hours of the trip. It had been fun so far.
When the morning light streamed in through the window, the scenery behind the star-and-crescent emblazoned curtains changed to vast expanses of sunflower fields, along with many exquisite and intricately designed mosques.
The view was a far cry from what I saw just a few hours ago, where the buildings were dominantly influenced by European style architecture.
There is a chapter in Harry Potter’s story where the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry one by one disappeared into the magic wall at the train platform. The train I was onboard was nothing short of magic. It connects two continents through the rail track, bridging the geographical gap and bringing people from different cultural backgrounds together, and all of that was evidenced by the pleasantry exchange beyond the language barrier that is still ringing in my ears … until today.