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“Your passports to Russia, please…”

…said the imposing figure in khaki colored uniform resplendent in red stripes, a few stars and crisp military creases who had opened the door to our sleeping compartment in the wee hours on what we thought was the train from Niç, Yugoslavia, to Sofia, the capitol of Bulgaria. That woke us up. We fumbled out said documents and surrendered them to our interrogator conductor who pivoted on his heel and disappeared. Only to return a bit later with our proper visa freshly stamped for entry to Bulgaria. Well, I thought, they do speak Russian here.

Yugoslavia had formed a good buffer between western Europe and Bulgaria. While not as developed as the countries we had just left, it was a good bit more in the western vein than its poorer cousin to the south. We were forced to cash a $20 traveler’s check in Sofia and even after buying to train tickets to Turkey, we couldn’t spend all that money in one day in Sofia. So we stocked up on what food we could carry and drank all the hot, sweet tea we could hold to ward off the October chill and wait for that train to get in. And not that it was any warmer, but at least we were moving.

Now, here’s where the story gets complicated, in a way that wasn’t uncommon, traveling as we were on the advice of anyone we met who was coming back from wherever we were headed.

What the Australian we met in Sofia said was, “Get off the train in Edirne instead of taking it all the way to Istanbul, because if you don’t, the train will cross from Turkey into Greece for a few minutes and then the Greeks will charge you for a visa. In Edirne you can catch a bus the rest of the way for about the same price and save the $6 for the Greek visa.”

But when we hopped off the train in Edirne at a forlorn looking station, an official quickly ushered us back on and we figured the main station must be further down the track. Except, it wasn’t. We just chugged on with Edirne fading away behind us. I’m sure the agent must of thought we were two lost Yanks…what tourist ever gets off in Edirne?

Sure enough, at one point a Greek Customs official came up and started badgering us in broken English to pay for that visa. Strangely enough, the trauma of our predicament robbed Nelson and I both of our ability to speak or understand any known language for about half an hour. By then we were back in Turkey and the Greek official and grumbled his way out of our car. But he was replaced by a Turkish conductor, who, noting our tickets were only good to Edirne, collected another fifty cents from us and kicked us out at the next town, Uzunköprü, where we went through Customs, declared our clothes and cameras and were turned out onto a gravel road that lead to the town a couple of kilometers away.

We asked anyone we met, “Autobus Istanbul?” but only got pointed down the road for our efforts. After we’d walked a short way, a local man called out to us and made it understood we could share a taxi ride into town with him…a one horsepower taxi…

If I hadn’t known it by then, this was all the confirmation I needed that we had stepped into the pages of National Geographic. And Uzunköprü confirmed it. Every corner seemed to sprout small boys with shoe shine stands and tea houses with what must have been the entire adult male population of the town lounging in the hazy afternoon sunlight with tiny tumblers of sweet Turkish tea or smoking cigarettes. We must have been a rare diversion from their strenuous exertions with all the attention we got. Everyone was friendly, if curious, and we soon elicited the needed bus information to continue our journey to Istanbul, or as it seemed to be called, Stamboul.

The bus departed at 2:30 for the five hour drive to the fabled city. Not overcrowded, either. And a decent paved highway. The drive couldn’t have been more romantic. On our right was the Sea of Marmara, red and golden in the light of the setting sun a few hours into the trip. On the left, rolling hills were bathed in the blue-violet light of a rising full moon that glowed softly off the white minarets that were visible in all the towns. Turkish music played though torn speakers in the bus roof and we traded smiles with all the curious passengers for the remainder of the evening.

And then we were deposited at the ancient 20 foot high wall of this old city. Istanbul, Stamboul, Constantinople, whatever you want to call it, we were here. And now our adventure would really begin.

 

 

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"Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

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