Riding the “rails” in Bulgaria can be quite an experience. Most of the PC volunteers take buses rather than try to cope with the “older” trains. They can be late, slow, unreliable, and uncomfortable. However, the easiest way for Lynn and I to get from our Pre Service Site to our permanent site in Plovdiv was to take the train. We made the 5 hour trip on Saturday July 25. It was approximately 45C (110 degrees F) that day. Most of the trains are old - - which means they don’t have air conditioning. In fact, many of the windows are “stuck” in the closed position. Our train was an “express” train that crossed the mountains, and then moved along the central valley of Bulgaria. This blog talks about that trip.
Clicky – Clack is the way a train sound is generally described. However, that is not the way that I heard it as we moved slowly through the Balkan Mountains. There would be a quick TA-TA followed by a different DUM sound with a little more time between the TA and DUM than the TA-TA. But the sound is not really what you focused on because the mountains that you were passing through were gorgeous. We followed the Iskar River through the mountains for almost two hours. We were in the Iskar river gorge with the mountains all around us. The Iskar is the longest river in Bulgaria, and the only one that actually flows through the Balkans.
Every so often you would see part of the mountains cascading down toward the river, and wonder where the train was going to go. That is when it would descend into the darkness of one of the 22 tunnels we passed though during the first two hours of our trip.
The mountains we were passing through are part of the Balkan mountain range which runs East and West through the Northern part of Bulgaria. The Balkans are also in several other countries to the West and North of Bulgaria. In the states, you sometime hear this larger area of several countries referred to as the “Balkan Peninsula”. The mountains are slightly higher than the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern part of the US. The highest mountain is approximately 7000+ feet. My guess is that most of the ranges on either side of the Iskar gorge were 4,000 to 5,500 feet - - but I’m not sure.
The pictures show the awesome beauty of this one train ride, and help give you an idea of the spectacular scenic resource Bulgaria has. As we climbed into the mountains on the slow moving train, the temperature dropped into the high 90’s. I spent most of the first two hours hanging out the window snapping more than 100 pictures.
This train ride also highlighted some of the stark differences about Bulgaria. Yes - - you can see all the beauty that is almost everywhere in this country. But you also pass by some of the economic realities of Bulgaria. They are everywhere along side the train lines. During the Communist period (1944 – 1989), everyone worked, and there were functioning factories everywhere in Bulgaria. But with the change to a democratic – capitalistic society almost all of those factories shut down. According to some Bulgarians, this happened “almost overnight”. The result is that you find factories through out Bulgaria which almost look like they have been bombed out. The windows are all broken, and everything is in disrepair. Lynn or I will talk more about this in other blogs. However the symbols of bleak empty factories along side of the tracks were a constant reminder of some of the economic issues in Bulgaria.
From a personal perspective, this train ride may have been like a train ride across the US 80+ years ago. It was very hot. We had a compartment to ourselves. Each compartment has six (or eight) seats in them. Smoking has been stopped officially on the trains now - - but it can still happen in some compartments. We did not have that problem. We did get the window in our compartment to go down. But most of the windows along the “walking side” of the train car did not go down. They were stuck in the “up position”. That stopped most of the “cross draft” from one side of the car to the other. However, the temperature was so hot that even a breeze felt more like a blast furnace. As we watched the Bulgarian country side move by, we noticed that any sheep, or cows or goats were all clustered together under the shade of the one tree in the pasture. I even saw a hawk on the ground standing in the shade of a pole - - instead of sitting on top of it.
After the relative coolness of the mountains, Lynn and I just sat quietly in the seats sipping water, and watching the world go by. It seemed to be better if you could somehow enter into a type of “Zen-like” zone, and just try to block all the heat away. All of the heat made me think of the times I had been stupid and gone for a long (four hour) bike ride on days when the temperatures were close to 100. But just like all those rides, we survived it, and it was not that bad.
When we got to our permanent site, all three of our partners (counterparts) were waiting to meet us. They had two cars. One was for all our baggage and the fan we were given by our host families, and the other was for passengers. They made the short ride to our apartment. When we first saw our place a month ago it was not finished. It was just bare walls and tile floors. The land lord did a great job of completing the kitchen area, and we had a bed and a kitchen table. It was great to finally get to our own place - - and be able to start the next step in our Peace Corps adventure.