Day 10: graves, trains and mountains
Every journey must have a low point even if the low is fairly high. For me this point was almost exactly halfway around, in Skopje station.
We had to take a bus from Sofia – a four hour journey notable only for the banal dance of the border guards between Bulgaria and Macedonia. On reaching Skopje we spent some time in the old Muslim quarter, and ate some astonishingly bad kebabs. Then the bus took us to Skopje station.
As a symbol of the decline of infrastructure in some of the places we’ve passed through, Skopje train station was pretty terrifying. There were no signs to suggest it was there at all, as if the city itself were ashamed of it. Ancient cracked stone steps led up to crumbling platforms. A train indicator showed perhaps four trains over the next 24 hours – none of them ours – and the toilets were encrusted with limescale and faeces.
You may think I exaggerate. I do not. The railways and stations south and east of Prague are horribly neglected – ancient Soviet engines pulling even more ancient Swiss and German carriages. Transport investment is obviously going into roads and not rail – the petrol stations are all gleamingly new. Only the poorest seem to take the train. The decline which began in Budapest reached its nadir in Skopje.
This is to say that the railways are worse than the towns. Skopje itself is obviously seeing investment though of a rather odd kind. There was highly sophisticated billboard advertising, but it was all for a single advertising company. Which is about as meta as capitalism gets.
Skopje feels right on the edge of Europe. It’s a town in a valley dotted with minarets watched over by an enormous cross on the hillside – a clenched fist (or two raised fingers) against the Islamic empires to the east.
Our train for Belgrade did indeed arrive, and departed on time, which is something that has constantly astonished me about this trip. However decrepit the infrastructure and however tense the international relations, European train officials still manage to get a carriage to arrive at a decaying platform in Skopje with the names of nine exhausted Brits attached to it. This is bureaucracy sufficiently rarified as to be magic.
All that was still day 9 – ie, yesterday was quite a day. I wrote most of this on the phone while waiting for the narrow-gauge Sargan 8 railway, a fragment of the old narrow gauge line which used to run from Belgrade to Sarajevo. It’s
more like a Blackpool Pleasure Beach attraction than a railway, but it travels through deep woods which i can’t help imagine bristling with guns when this part of the world exploded in the 1990s.
That thought was in part sparked by the sprinkling of very new cemeteries along the valley between Belgrade and Uzice. Were they the awful traces of an awful war? Or is that that the product of a rather tired imagination?
We reached the narrow gauge railway after a four-hour train journey from Belgrade – standing in the corridor all the way – and an insane taste of Serb taxi driving which has aged all of us at least a decade. This was followed by a massive taxi snarl-up between the bus we’d ordered from Sarajevo and the taxi drivers from Uzice, both of whom claimed us as their fare. It took a while to resolve and provided plenty of entertainment for the passerby.
Eventually we climbed on the bus to
Sarajevo. The border crossing into Bosnia was a good deal less edgy than we expected, and on the other side of the border we drove through a spectacular mountain range with a green river running through it. I don’t know which is more astonishing: Europe’s capacity to produce mountain ranges, or my capacity to be completely ignorant of them until I’m in them.
Reading through this post, it’s all a bit frantic, isn’t it? Well that’s how it’s been these last couple of days. From tomorrow, I hope things calm down.