Despite it being Burke’s dream and Christmas present, we were not able to make Italy happen this winter.  Our plans fell through just one week before we were supposed to go, during which time I was in the hospital.  So when I came home that Monday afternoon I set to work straight away at rerouting us to a new destination.

We decided on Istanbul, Turkey, and being the ever frugal travelers we are, we decided to go via train (approximately 43 hours each way).  The way there was pretty typical for a long train ride in this part of the world.  In Belgrade we got on a new train and sat with a nice high school girl.

One time when Burke went to the bathroom, he came back and said he had repeatedly noticed a man tinkering with things on the train, but he wasn’t dressed like a repair man and every time he walked by, the man would immediately stop.  The girl explained to us that he was, in fact, a cigarette smuggler.  Apparently cigarettes sell for twice as much in Bulgaria as they do in Serbia, so people make a living out of buying them in bulk and sneaking them across the boarder.

The closer we got to the border, the more cigarette smugglers there were.  They were old, young, male, female, nicely dressed, or rugged, but what they all had in common was that they either rushed back and forth in front of our door or they were one of the few posted in the hallway.  Eventually our Serbian friend left us and we realized were two of the less than ten actual passengers on the very full train.

One thing that surprised me of the experience, is that everyone knew each other.  What we first thought was a one man operation ended up being a seriously big-time endeavor.  A new family joined us in our cabin, including two young boys, about 11 and 8 years old.  I thought surly they would be innocent of this operation, but once they got settled we saw that the youngest boy was the one who actually carried the cigarettes onto the train under his jacket.  So immediately they started rationing them out, two cases to the mom’s big purse, three cases to the dad’s backpack, and then they broke up a final case and let each of the boys put a couple of packs in their pockets.

That was our first experience with Bulgarians.

Our second came when we had to switch trains in Sofia.  I had read that sometimes there are “ticket inspectors” who check your ticket and try to charge you for a seat reservation when it’s not really necessary, being used to travelling, I didn’t think much of it.

We basically had to run to catch the train to Istanbul and we were so rushed once we got on the trian, the man telling us information about the train didn’t have the best English and we were unsure if we had to be in a sleeper car for the night or if we could just sleep in the regular compartments.  So this man insisted that we do need to buy a sleeper car, and it would be 20 euros for both of us (although we’d heard 40 previously).  Burke gave him our twenty euros and then he said he needed our tickets too!  I was already suspicious because I’d never heard that it is necessary to buy a sleeper car anywhere, but when he tried to take our tickets I told Burke no.  DON’T LET HIM TAKE OUR TICKETS.  Basically it sounded like the best scam ever: take the money, tickets, and get off the train while we’re pulling away from the station.  I ran over to a few people talking nearby and asked if it was legitamite and they said it was.  Burke says he knew the man worked on the train the whole time.

Later we talked with the group who I asked about the tickets.  They said they were Turkish and his name was Aras, as in Toys R’ Us.  I am very thankful that they helped us straighten out a super stressful situation.

Burke and I have a ton of stories about the train with cigarette smugglers.  Please ask if you are interested:)  Also, the next post will have all of our pictures and details of the actual trip in Istanbul!