In my view the best way to travel in Eastern Europe is by train. It is cheap, interesting and relaxing. But why, you might be wondering, would anyone want to travel across the Balkans in the winter, especially such a cold one as this? My mission was to sign a piece of paper in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. The job itself took about 20 minutes, most of which was spent hanging around, but getting there took me two nights on a sleeper train and getting back another two nights. I got the train from Bucharest to Bar, via Belgrade.
Most East Europeans seem to hate their railway systems because they are scruffy, slow and they remind people of the bad old days under Communism when the train was the only viable means of transport. For all their sins, the Communists did invest in their railway systems and the routes to the Adriatic sea from Belgrade, cutting through vast mountain ranges, are testament to this. Since the rise of capitalism in this part of the world the train systems have been neglected and all available resources are pumped into the roads (which are becoming increasingly gridlocked). But I’m glad to report that none of the Balkan governments have closed down rail services, however run down and shoddy they may be, as they don’t judge things purely in commercial terms (as in the UK where public services get closed down if they don’t make a profit).
I find trains in this part of the world really interesting. The train gives you a completely different view of a place than you get from a car and in some senses it is a step back in time. For example you will never see a banner ad, one of those huge outdoor posters, facing the train for the simple reason that the advertisers know that eccentrics like me, and the usual crowd of pensioners and peasants who use the train, are not of interest to their clients. But if you drive on the roads in Romania or Serbia you are assaulted by a constant slideshow of garish and loud banner ads.
I can understand that people get upset travelling in a carriage that was designed in the 1940s, smells of the 1970s and looks like something out of a museum. But for me it is a unique opportunity to see and feel how it was in the old days. I remember meeting an old Israeli man on the sleeper train to Moldavia. He hadn’t been home in 50 years and he couldn’t believe how the train system hadn’t changed in all that time; he was holding the same type of rough cardboard ticket that was first introduced by the Germans in the 1930s, the carriage was still heated by coal, and individual carriages were left at small towns on the way to our final destination.
Right now I’m on the train from Belgrade to Bucharest and I am seeing lots of interesting things: we just passed the majestic (and vast) fortress of Belgrade, which looks over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers — both of which seem to be full of big lumps of ice; now we’re passing white fields and trees which have been dusted with snow; there is nobody to be seen in this vast and pristine landscape. My cabin has electricity for users of electric shaving devices and this is ideal for sustaining my laptop for the rest of the evening.
I am also feeling very lucky that my sleeping cabin is heated, and that I am alone. Last night I was on the sleeper train from Bar, Montenegro, and the temperature was so low in the cabin that I didn’t take my fur hat and down-jacket off until I jumped into my sleeping bag. I don’t think I would have survived without that sleeping bag and the fact that there were two other guys in the cabin and between us, by morning, we had heated up the room. I was most impressed with the Montenegrians who don’t seem to notice the cold at all and can sleep in sub zero temperatures under one blanket. When it gets really cold in these trains I think of the scene in the film Dr Zhivago when the family were sent to the Urals by unheated cattle wagons, on a journey that took weeks. But Zhivago was so grateful for the opportunity of getting out of Moscow that a freezing train ride was an acceptable price to pay. However cold I may feel, I will never experience anything like that.
Railway systems can say a lot about a country. George Monbiot writes about how the train system in Wales, and much of Latin America, was built by the colonial Brits and was designed to take the raw material out of the country. In Wales, for example, he says you can’t get a train from the south to the north of the country without going through England. In Argentina the main railway lines go from the Pampas, where the great beef farmers were operating, to the port, where ships from western Europe were waiting. Barack Obama describes a similar process in Kenya in his autobiography Dreams from my Father.
If you were to judge Romania by its railway system you could conclude that the Government understand nothing about attracting international tourists; if they did they would ensure the police keep the hordes of glue sniffers out of Bucharest’s main railway station. And if you looked at the quality of the tiling, or repair work in any station you might realise that this country is in the grip of corruption as even the most routine (and important) public contract is bent and the result is new tiles on the platform that come up at the first rain, rooves which leak and stations which look like they’ve been bombed.
Compared to Serbia, however, the Romanian system seems to be doing rather well. Despite its shambolic infrastructure they do (just) manage to keep the show on the road, the heaters running, and there is a big acquisition programme going on with Siemens of Germany. None of this is true in Serbia or Montenegro where the only new train is the visting express from Zagreb and the state of disrepair is advanced. The last time I went to Montenegro the train arrived a staggering 10 hours late, and the thing that most surprised me was how calm and resigned the passengers were about it. In UK there would have been a riot.
Surely it is significant that the train from Belgrade to Bucharest is usually empty. I’m delighted to have a luxurious 1940s cabin to myself but What does this say about relations between these two Balkan neighbours? Especially when you consider there is only one train a day between these two big capital cities (and nominal friends) and no flights. My view is that the Balkan countries all want to be friends with western countries, not with their own crooked neighbours, so all efforts point westwards rather than in their own backyards. This is one of the many tragedys of the Balkans as real wealth and stability can only come from regional cooperation and these countries will never really be treated as equals by the big western countries.