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Midnight Express

A Bulgarian border crossing

overcast 13 °C

The original "plan" was to meet up with my friend Ahmet in Istanbul after the sailing/Ephesus tour, however he's in London on business, so we'll have to defer the meeting for some other time. We've decided to leave the tourism of Turkey behind and continue the journey through Eastern Europe which begins in Bulgaria. We have EU rail passes to get from Bulgaria to Germany but we need to get to Bulgaria first. The standard options are plane, train and bus. Flying in would probably be too expensive for the average budget traveler and we read that taking the train from Turkey to Bulgaria would be slow and sketchy in parts. Not especially wanting to deal with sketchy or slow, it seemed that the bus is the way to do it. So without knowing anything of Bulgaria, we booked an overnight bus to Sophia which is the capital of the Republic of Bulgaria. The bus ride was mostly uneventful with the exception of the Turkey - Bulgaria border crossing.

Leaving Turkey was pretty easy. It was around 1:00am when we got to the border and A Turkish border control person came aboard the bus and took everyone's passport. He mumbled something like "Kanada" as he read the passport and took it from me. A short while later one of the two bus drivers was handing the passports back and we moved on. We moved on about a few hundred meters and stopped at some large dimly lit, nondescript building and everyone started to get out. I thought this was part of the border control so I stepped off the bus with passport in hand and asked the driver what to do. He said it was a smoke break so I got back on the bus. A little while later I realized that it was a duty-free shop that we were in front of when I saw most of the passengers and the second bus driver coming back with bags filled with cartons of cigarettes. While all this was happening, the first bus driver was taking out black plastic bags from a compartment and getting them ready for something. We sat around waiting for a about another 20 minutes while the two bus drivers talked quickly in Turkish and started tearing apart the cigarette cartons and stashing them all over the bus. The smokes went under the stairs, in the top luggage rack and covered with blankets, behind empty seats and basically anywhere else they could stash them. All this happened while Arwyn and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. When the drivers had finished stashing the smokes, we moved on towards the Bulgarian border entry. This part took a long time as we were about 8 busses in line and it seemed like every car and bus was being searched. The first bus driver headed off with another passenger towards some building off the the left which had a sign that might have said traffic control or something like that. Its tough to tell because the Bulgarian language is part of the Slavic linguistic group and it has letters much like Russian. Anyways, these two took off and we never saw the passenger again. (There might have been an issue with his passport or something).

Eventually we piled off the bus and we started to go through the border crossing. Once we all passed through we stood around waiting for the bus to come through and get searched. This appeared to happen in two stages. First, a border crossing guard came on the bus and looked around a bit and chatted with the second bus driver who was moving the bus along at this point as the first driver was still MIA. We saw the second bus driver quickly slip something that looked like a pack of smokes to the border guard who quickly pocketed it, got off the bus and opened the gate. The bus moved to the other side of the gate and stopped. About this time the first bus driver returned and the bus got searched again by more officials with flashlights. They checked through all places I mentioned earlier but only seemed to come off the bus with a few bottles of water that I suppose couldn't be brought across the border for some reason. We all got back on the bus and headed on towards Sophia. A little while later we noticed that there was a black plastic bag with a carton of smokes in the seat pocket of our seat, as well as in the seat across from us where a Turkish girl was sitting. I'm assuming that some stuff got moved around while the second bus driver got some quick advice or something from the first border patrol.

Around the end of the trip when were were in the city limits of Sophia, the second bus driver came round looking for his stash. When he had collected it all, they made a quick stop at the side of the road and dropped it off with some guy who I think was a taxi driver.

That's about the extent of the excitement for the over night bus ride. I get stressed out at border crossings and if you've ever seen the movie "Midnight Express" you'll know why this one was a little sketchy.

Anyways, it's about 3:00 in the afternoon and much colder than Istanbul and the Aegean coast by about 10 degrees. I might need another sweater. Time to find some information about the country...


Here is a quick photo from outside our hostel window. Apparently the red lettering says "Garage"


Posted by jcobham 04:15 Archived in Bulgaria

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Wow, Karolina says it sounds like things haven't changed much at that border crossing and she was last there almost 20 years ago.

by Jesse

Border crossings like that always make me reluctant to hand over my passport. Especially if I don't have any cigarettes to bribe the guard with, don't speak the language and have no idea what other sorts of commerce are also going on ...

by ellen anderson

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