My Day on the Balkan Express

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We came around the corner and suddenly saw this huge, tall bridge kind of off in the distance. Not big, like, wide, or anything like that, though, just really tall and skinny, the kind of bridge that didn’t look like it should be able to hold an entire train. Maybe one of those little kid’s trains or, you know, a place where a group of shifty young kids might wander in the 1950’s, just looking for trouble, but not a whole train. But from what I could tell, we were heading straight for it. On a train. Not the biggest train around, but big enough. And old, so it seemed maybe heavier than new trains because, you know, everything is metal. Even the buttons on the doors between cars. Even the toilet. Then it took longer than I expected for us to make it around another hill and through another tunnel to get to the bridge, and in the meantime I got distracted by all the neat hills and cool gorges and stuff and we were already partially across before I even realized our whole train was already out on this tall, skinny bridge, no railings or anything. So I quickly held my breath, just in case, but it turns out that bridge, even though it was pretty skinny, well, it’s actually a lot longer than it looked at first, and I ran out of breath way before we hit the other end. Altogether I think I had to take at least 3 breaths, maybe even 4, I can’t remember now, I was getting a bit light-headed. Someone told me this used to be the tallest train bridge in the world but that it’s not anymore because people didn’t like Montenegro having the tallest of anything, so they went and built a taller one. Which is too bad, really, I would have liked to have been on the bridge back when it was more special.

Mala Rijeka Viaduct

Anyway, I should probably go back to the beginning. There is this place in Europe called Montenegro. And Montenegro has a really pretty bay called Kotor Bay. We’ve wanted to see Kotor for a long time, so one day we thought, you know, let’s go to Kotor. But we also wanted to go back to Nepal, because Nepal has super-big mountains and it’s awfully fun hiking in them. But, wouldn’t you know it, there weren’t any good flights from Kotor to Nepal. I don’t know if the Kotori don’t like hiking, or maybe they don’t like eating dal bhat, which makes sense, if you think about it, because dal bhat really isn’t very good, even though people really talk it up like it’s some great food or something, but that’s usually when they just eat it once or twice, I think. When you eat it a bunch of times, like, for two weeks straight or something like that, it gets pretty gross, I’m telling you. Anyway, the closest place to Kotor with good flights to Kathmandu was Sofia. That’s a city in Bulgaria. You probably don’t know much about it but that’s ok, I don’t either. I don’t think anyone does, really. Except that they have good flights to Nepal. So we needed to find a way to get from Kotor to Sofia and it turns out there is this really cool train that goes from a little city called Bar to a big city called Belgrade. Belgrade is in a totally different country – Serbia, they call it – but Bar was kind of close to Kotor. Actually, it’s almost all the way across Montenegro, but Montenegro is really small, like the size of a whole bunch of football fields. Actually, that sounds a bit small, I’m not really sure, but all I know is it didn’t take long to get there.

The train was supposed to leave at 9 in the morning, and it did. While we were walking to the train station a single train engine pulled up near us and stopped, then the conductor stuck his head out the window and started yelling at some guy working in his garden. I thought maybe they were just joking around but then the conductor got really worked up and his voice got all weird and cracky and the garden-guy was hollering back, too. We just started walking faster without even discussing it. We think they probably disagree on gardening stuff, like how much to prune tomatoes, or what kind of manure to spray on peas, but maybe the gardener had been diddling the conductor’s wife. It could have been that.

Woman walking next to a train

I don’t think the train has a real name, our ticket just said #431. But that doesn’t have much of a ring to it, so we started calling it “The Balkan Express”, because it sounds cooler and because a blog I read one time called it that. Nobody seemed to mind, although we didn’t really talk to many people, so who knows what they really thought? We also considered “The Yugoslavia Flyer” but thought people might get it mixed up with those old red wagons kids used to play with. And because people around here really don’t like being called Yugoslavia anymore.

Since the train starts in Montenegro but ends in Serbia, we figured we’d probably need Serbian money when we got off. We didn’t really want any because we’d already used 3 different kinds of money this week alone and weren’t really looking to try any more. Plus, we were hoping to use our credit card some because I think it’s nice to support them, too. Companies like VISA only make money if we buy stuff with their card, so it doesn’t seem fair to them to always use cash. But we asked around and, yep, basically everybody in Serbia uses Serbian money. So we traded some of our euros for Serbian dinar. We got, like, 1,000 dinar for just 10 euros, which is crazy. We’re going to be basically millionaires in Serbia. I’m thinking I might buy one of those super-yachts while we’re there. I could never afford one in dollars or euro but I’ll have so many dinar it shouldn’t be too hard. Plus, Serbia doesn’t have any ocean at all, so anybody with a yacht there will probably be pretty motivated to sell.

Our train wasn’t really all that full so there were lots of empty seats. Which was good because it seemed like half the seats were facing backward. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guy that put all those seats in and then had some boss guy come along and point out that half of them were backwards. That must have been a crap day for that guy. We found our seats but we didn’t want to sit backwards, and we didn’t really want to sit in 2nd class either, so we moved to the next train car instead. It was way nicer, with only 2 seats on one side and 1 on the other, bigger, more comfortable seats, too, and the windows were way cleaner, and not all foggy from people’s breath. You could tell someone had cleaned them more recently, like, maybe a week or two ago, not a month or two like in 2nd class. I think the air-conditioning was turned higher in there too, which I didn’t really like but, on the other hand, it smelled less like food and hair when it hasn’t been washed in a while. We were kind of worried someone might have tickets for those seats and that they might try to kick us out, or that the train ticket guys might get mad, or confused. We didn’t want to get them in trouble. But nobody tried to take our seats, and the train guys never said anything, although one of them did wink at Laynni after he checked our tickets. He was probably just being friendly, or maybe they had an inside joke or something. I asked her and she said they didn’t but, of course, that’s exactly what she’d say if they did have an inside joke because if she told me it wouldn’t be an inside joke anymore, just a regular joke, and those are never quite as funny.

We put our backpacks on the luggage rack in the 2nd class car, just in case it turned out we really were 2nd class people at some point, and got sent back, but we locked them up with our cable lock just in case anybody got any ideas.

Almost right away we crossed this huge lake on a tiny little land bridge, and even went right next to some old ruins that I read about, Fort Lesendro, built so long ago that they didn’t even use Gyproc or track lighting or anything like that. A lot of stones, though, from what I could see, although we went past pretty quick. I thought the conductor might slow the train down so we could take some photos and really enjoy looking at it for awhile but, man, was I wrong! We just went right by, as though this old fort was nothing special, just something you see when the train passes by everyday.

Lesendro Fortress in Montenegro

We went through a lot of tunnels. Sometimes it was hard to take photos because just as you got ready to take a picture – boom! – we’d be in another tunnel. Pitch-dark, too, not the fun kind of tunnels like in Disney or something, where there are always a lot of drunk animals along the sides to pass the time.

Train tunnel through mountain in Montenegro

For the first few hours the scenery was pretty amazing. Mountains and rivers and forests and more and more bridges, not just that one tall, skinny one, and the leaves were just starting to change colour because, you know, winter is coming (ha ha) so they weren’t just that boring green that everyone gets so sick of all the time. Most people spent a lot of time staring out the windows and pointing and taking photos and stuff like that, and standing a lot, I guess because on buses and planes and cars it isn’t so easy to stand all the time so people seemed pretty excited, some of them basically just stood the whole time. I found this pretty annoying, to be honest, but I guess they didn’t notice me scowling, or they did and just thought it was for something else, like the yogurt I had for breakfast was making me feel weird, or I was real worried about the Middle East.

Woman looking out the window at a lake on the train from Bar to Belgrade

One of the really nice things about taking the train is that you can use the bathroom any time you want, you don’t need to wait to stop for gas or buy some weird food at some strange restaurant so you can use their bathroom. Like St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Always know where your next bathroom is”. Actually, maybe that was Nelson Mandela. No, I think it was Aquinas, I’m pretty sure Mandela invented “Better safe than sorry”. On one of the bathrooms the door didn’t work right so you couldn’t lock it, even when you were inside and wanted some privacy. Luckily I was holding it closed while I went, even though it wasn’t easy, what with the train swaying and bouncing and me having only two hands and all, because some woman tried getting in while I was going and I had to shove the door back when she pushed it open, and I said “Occupied!” pretty loud, but she kept pushing, so I kept pushing back harder, then I yelled “Occupied” again, but she wasn’t giving up, she was determined, and I was doing my best not to miss the toilet even though the floor was the same metal as the toilet, and finally I shoved really hard and slammed the door closed. After I finished and came out I looked directly at the woman standing there, with a sort of stern look on my face, like a serious science teacher or something, and she looked a little sheepish but still made this lock-turning motion, like maybe it was all my fault, or like I wouldn’t have gladly locked the door if I could have. And like after the first push she couldn’t tell someone was in there. All in all, I didn’t like her very much. I thought about pushing the door open while she was in there so, you know, she’d see what it was like, but I decided to just sit down instead. I had noticed that the toilet paper had already run out so, you know, I figured she already had that to deal with.

Toilet on the train from Bar to Belgrade

The train had one whole car just for eating and drinking. The windows slid down for taking photos or letting out smell, from boiled eggs and things like that, probably, and there were booths instead of regular seats, so you could feel like you were in a real restaurant, I guess. They didn’t serve a lot of food like a real restaurant, though, just a couple kinds of sandwiches and lots of kinds of drinks. We brought our own food, though, salami and cheese baguettes like we always eat, that are kind of dry but also kind of good, and some other snacks. The Snickers bar was good, as usual, they’re pretty consistent, and even the really cheap Montenegrin chips Laynni bought were okay. They came in a round tube just like Pringles, but they were a lot cheaper, and the container said “Hrusty” instead of Pringles. I think the “H” is probably silent, but I can’t be sure. I did use my last couple euros to buy a beer when we got near Belgrade. It was nothing special, and didn’t really change anything.

Tin of Hrusty potato chips

It took us quite a while to cross the border. First we stopped on the Montenegro side and some officers came on and checked our passports. Then we drove for a bit and stopped again on the Serbian side and some new officers came on, they had guns but didn’t shoot anyone, not that I saw, anyway, although I probably would have heard it regardless so we’re pretty sure no one got shot. We did have to get our passports out again, though, which we were getting super-tired of doing, after Slovenia and Bosnia and Croatia and, well, you get the idea. It would be so much easier if they just combined all these little countries into one big country, then they could get rid of all these borders and all the different ethnic groups and just all be the same, at least as far as tourists are concerned. At least then we wouldn’t have to bring out our passports so often. I think I’ll mention my idea to someone around here, see if anyone’s thought of it yet.

Border officer on train from Bar to Belgrade

For a couple hours there was this fly that just wouldn’t leave us alone. He was pretty slow for a fly, but still fast enough that I missed every time I tried to smack him, or her, maybe. He, or she, just kept landing on different places, my leg, my arm, Laynni’s leg, Laynni’s arm, stuff like that. It made me think of that Breaking Bad episode, the one they called “The Fly”, where Walt and Jesse spend the entire episode trying to kill this fly in their underground meth lab. Now I could really understand why they were so frustrated.

The last couple hours of the trip things changed a bit. We were passing more towns and villages, and instead of big mountains and deep ravines and stuff it was more like just rolling hills and farms and things. The sun flickering though the leaves next to a lake was pretty cool, though, and everybody seemed to like the sunset, all pink and that. Mostly though, everyone was just looking pretty tired, nobody was taking as many photos as before, most of them were just kind of slumped and looking around grumpy, like maybe someone pushed in on them in the bathroom, too.

Eventually, though, we rolled into Belgrade, or maybe Beograd, I’m not really sure. Apparently it is called Belgrade in English and Beograd in, I don’t know, Serbian, I guess? But I don’t really get why, I mean, it’s a name, shouldn’t the name just be the name? It’s like the way everyone around here recognizes my name right away, I guess it’s a really popular name for guys, except they change it to Dejan which, I hate to point out, isn’t really my name. Yeah, I mean, I get that the two names are close but lots of names are close, like Julie and Julia, but you catch hell if you mix those up, so what’s the difference, really? I’m not sure, although once I thought about it more I kind of like Dejan better so I guess it’s fine. Whatever you want to call the city, though, we know we ended up in Serbia.

It was a fun day.

For more detailed info on this trip check out:

Taking the Balkan Express Train Between Bar and Belgrade

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