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June 27, 2014 Posted by Tahir in Travel

An Incident on the Border

photo (1)Sofia’s railway station must once have made a great many party men proud.

Built in the days when concrete was all the rage, its lines may be strewn with graffiti now, but they’re still razor sharp. These days it’s all but derelict – a tired vestige of cultural embarrassment, waiting for the wrecking ball.

We took the morning slow train towards Bucharest, arcing through countryside more lovely than any I can remember.
Pine forests with green young leaves, and streams swollen with late spring rain, ramshackle farmsteads, their terracotta roofs all forlorn and caved in. Sunflowers stretching from one horizon to the next, a million heads turning slowly as midday looms.

We feasted on sausage and on black bread, and listened to the old laughing men who came and went – from one unknown stop to the next.

And then, all of a sudden, the carriage slowed at an empty station.

A guard from the Bulgarian border force climbed up energetically, looked at our passports, grabbed them, and vanished across the tracks. He was gone a long while, as we wondered anxiously what was going on.

Forty minutes passed.

Just before the train moved away, the border guard returned. He ordered us to take our luggage off the train, and to follow him back across the tracks.

We did so, and found ourselves at a police car.

‘Get in!’

‘Is there a problem?’ I asked.

The guard didn’t answer. He drove very fast along a dusty piste, emerging at the actual border, fifteen minutes later.

Before we knew it, we had been taken into a small interrogation room.

A map of Bulgaria was glued unevenly to the back wall. A battered desk and a pair of cheap wooden chairs. An official with a cigarette clenched in front teeth. A sense of doom, as though many lives had been wasted answering inane questions within the yellowed walls.

The border guard from the train whispered into his superior’s ear. Our passports were brought out live evidence, and were inspected.

We were photographed – mug-shot style. Ariane, Timur and me.

Only then did the chief jab an index finger at a big visa stamp in each of our passports.

photo (2)‘This one!’ he yelled boisterously.

‘Which?’

‘This green one.’

Squinting, I leaned forward.

‘That’s a Cambodian visa,’ I said. ‘We all have them.’

The official mumbled something indistinct into his deputy’s ear, then looked at me hard.

‘When you go to Cambodia?’

‘Last summer.’

‘Why you go there?’

‘We visited Angkor Wat.’

‘Ank…?’

‘Angkor.’

‘Cambodia… it is… dangerous!’

I shook my head.

‘Good people,’ I said. ‘But they had a nasty war.’

‘War,’ the chief echoed morosely. ‘War. Bad. War Very bad.’

I poked a finger towards my passport.

‘Cambodia. No Problem.’ I said.

The chief stubbed out his cigarette and lit another, all in one movement.

‘Cambodia problem. Big problem,’ he corrected.

‘Problem to Bulgaria?’

‘Immigrant problem.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘But we’re not actually from Cambodia. We just went there.’

The chief frowned. He rubbed a set of nicotine-stained fingers down over his mouth.

‘You go back… to Cambodia?’

‘I hope so. But not right now. First we are going to Bucharest.’

Another hour passed, in which I revealed all I knew about Cambodia – which isn’t very much at all. The visas were photographed and photocopied, and our mug-shots were taken once again – for good measure.

Then we were driven in an armoured Land Rover at high speed across the Friendship Bridge, to the Romanian side of the border.

Once our passports had been inspected once again, we were informed that we were free to go.

‘Will you take us back to the train?’ I asked, limply.

The guards cackled in unison.

Then they shook their heads very hard.

One of them pointed to a red sign on the horizon.

‘Petrol,’ he said.

So, trudging and moaning, we lugged our bags to the distant petrol station, and, miraculously, found a cab. He took us to Giurgiu, the first railway station in Romania.

We were hot and bothered, and wondered if we would ever get a train.

At the single platform, a goods’ train was being checked over.

I asked the station manager if there were ever trains to Bucharest. He rolled his eyes, and led us across the tracks again, behind the goods’ wagons.

And there, like some apparition conjured from Arabian Nights, our original train was waiting.

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