Wide Awake on a Sleeper Train

I took my first sleeper train! It was fantastic. I decided to start on a high note, with one of the most spectacular train lines (according to the internet) in Europe: the Belgrade-Bar line.

I did a bunch of reading first, of course, and in the process I learned that sleeper trains (at least in Europe) are disappearing. Cross-border railway fees increased in 2000, making the trains more expensive to run. They hold fewer people than regular seated trains, so even when they’re full there’s less revenue. The rise of low-budget airlines makes them less popular, and faster modern trains means that trips now don’t take nearly as long, so many runs that formerly only made sense if you could sleep on the train can now be accomplished in less than a day.

With that in mind, I feel exceptionally lucky that I got to take not only *a* sleeper train, but this particular one. It was like a trip back in time, with a distinct Wes Anderson flavor. 

28 April, 2018: My adventure started a couple days early, because I decided to buy my tickets in advance. Serbian Railways isn’t quite modern enough for things like online ticket sales, so it has to be done in person, and I thought that might be best attempted on a pleasant day when I had lots of time and no luggage in tow.

I chose a time when no trains were scheduled to leave so that there wouldn’t be a line, and made my way to the station. There were three ticket windows open when I arrived, so I started with the one labeled “international”. I explained that I wanted to go to Bar, in Montenegro, but the lady at the counter just shook her head and gestured with her cigarette toward the other counters — the ones labeled “domestic” in Serbian, which were both occupied by other customers with either complicated transactions or long conversations, I couldn’t tell which due to the language barrier. I went to the first window that opened and explained my goal again, but this ticket agent also shook her head, and gestured at the one window I hadn’t yet visited. I must have looked very confused at that point, because she decided to explain: “English.” Ahhhhh, got it, understood. I went to that counter, and after the conversation in front of me wrapped up, I made it to the window and tried again.

This agent did speak a little English, and confirmed the date and destination. Then she asked me if I wanted a berth in a cabin with four beds, three beds, or two. “One bed?” I asked hopefully (this being my first sleeper train, and given the exchange rate, I was willing to splurge for luxury). She looked skeptical. “No… one bed is only for first class” she replied. “That’s ok” I replied, “what is the cost?” She shook her head, so I asked again, in case she hadn’t understood me. “How much for one bed in first class?” She finally tapped a bit on her keyboard, then turned back to me. “No. It is too expensive” she said. “You will have two beds. Do not worry, it is a woman cabin. And maybe you will even be alone.” Two beds it was — her decision sounded final, and I didn’t want to argue. I paid, got my ticket, thanked her, and went home to work. Two days later…

30 April, 2018: I checked out in the evening, stopped by the 24-hour bakery near my apartment for some snacks, and headed to the station. The trains to Bar leave from the old central train station in Belgrade, which is in the process of being decommissioned in favor of a modern one — only a few trains still use the old one. It’s faded and decrepit, but with quite a bit of charm. There are the usual cops wandering around with machine guns, a couple fast food restaurants, a couple money changing booths, a small convenience store that sells things you’ll need on the train like toilet paper and snacks (excellent foreshadowing of the level of luxury to expect, regardless of the number of beds in your cabin), a tiny souvenir shop, and the ticket counters. The toilets are in a separate building, and are of the squat variety — best avoided.

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I was quite early because I had checked out at 6:30pm and the train didn’t leave until a bit after 9pm, so I had a light meal at the train station and then spent another 45 minutes or so slapping at mosquitoes and people-watching.

I watched cars being loaded onto the last car of a train on the furthest track from the station, and another train arrived and left on the nearest track. I had checked the departure board (translation: I had checked the faded piece of paper scotch-taped to a pillar in the station), so I knew my train was leaving from track 3. I waited there patiently, and watched the train on the far track. I didn’t think much about the cars being loaded, other than that it was interesting. I started to get a bit more curious when I could see train attendants making up beds through the windows, but I still didn’t quite put it together. I got slightly more confused when people started boarding the train in fairly large numbers — I had done my research, and I was fairly certain the only train leaving the station within an hour of my train was… my train. I decided to wait until about 15 minutes before it was time to leave, and if my train hadn’t arrived on the expected track by then, I would go investigate this other mysterious train. Needless to say, that was in fact my train — I suppose the moral of the story is sometimes it’s better to follow the herd, and also maybe don’t trust paper schedules without dates on them that are taped to walls and pillars.

I boarded my train about ten minutes before it left, and discovered that my ‘woman cabin’ was going to be shared. My roommate was a stern-faced and remarkably unfriendly Russian girl — I think she was mostly unfriendly because we didn’t share a language, but that aside, she never smiled once. She had claimed the bottom bunk, which made me happy because I always prefer the top bunk, and had also taken over the sink area (the sink has a little lid that closes!) with her luggage, but I didn’t mind.

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I heaved my bag up onto the high luggage rack, and once we were in motion I visited the bathroom to change into my pajamas and brush my teeth.

Had I been in my own cabin, changing there and using that sink would have been far preferable, but I didn’t know that at the time. Suffice to say that I’m lucky to be blessed with excellent balance, and was able to complete a full costume change without touching my socks or any parts of my clothing to anything in that bathroom. Flushing the toilet (above which you should hover, though that’s easier said than done on a moving train) involved stepping on a pedal that opened the flap at the bottom of the bowl and ran a tiny stream of water in it, so that any contents of the bowl can hopefully make their way through the flap and into the sewage tank on the train (haha just kidding, it all goes right onto the tracks). My research had warned me to come prepared with toilet paper, as the trains don’t have any. The [tiny, rusted] sink did have running water, fortunately, though it also had a large red sign warning not to drink it, and there was of course no soap.

It was dark when we left Belgrade, and we went through some small towns and villages for the first hour or two. I was far too excited, and it was too early, to even consider sleeping, and the top bunk wasn’t comfortable for sitting (though it was remarkably comfortable lying down). Between that and my less-than-friendly roommate, I spent the first several hours in the corridor, where the windows were open, staring out at the surroundings and [very carefully, only when looking in the direction of travel and only when it was bright enough to see] sticking my face out like an excited puppy.

Each car has an attendant. Ours was a sweet older Serbian man who didn’t speak any English, but who was very kind. He closed most of the windows when we headed up into the mountains, as it started to get cold, but he smiled at me and left mine open so I could keep poking my head out. We chatted (well, made very animated charades) about the weather and the rain. He also told me what time to expect passport control at the border.

The mountains were beautiful — the moon was nearly full, and it was very misty. The train traveled most of the time in remote areas, with no roads or towns, so it was pristine and magical and dark aside from the moon. The trees came close enough to the train that you could reach out and touch them, as I did when we stopped a couple times to let oncoming trains pass (only some sections of the track are doubled, from what I could see).

The cabin next to ours had a group of four younger folks — two guys and two girls — and they brought a plentiful supply of alcohol. They were a little rowdy, but they passed out fairly early, aside from one boy who got a bit too drunk and spent a good portion of the night weaving back and forth to the bathroom and then forgetting which room was his on each return trip. The cabin on the other side had a mother and two young children, and the one beyond that had a sweet older couple.

Around 1am I decided I should probably try to get some sleep, since I didn’t want to miss any of the scenery in the morning — the main reason to take the sleeper train (as opposed to the daytime one that arrives at night) is because the most beautiful part of the journey is in Montenegro, and best experienced in daylight. The train also passes briefly through Bosnia, but as there are no stops in that country, there’s no passport control, so you don’t really notice.

I climbed up onto my bunk, pulled up the sheet and blanket, and tried to sleep. It was more difficult than I expected (normally I sleep very easily on planes/buses/trains). The main trouble was that I was laying sideways, rather than front-to-back as you normally would on a bus or in seats on a train, so the motion was different. The train sways side to side, in a way that doesn’t bother you so much when you’re standing or sitting, but when it’s between your head and your feet, it’s disorienting. There’s also the fact that the top bunk had no rail, so whenever the train stopped there was a very real fear of getting accidentally tumbled over the edge in my sleep. I think it was mostly paranoia (the top bunk was also very high), but on one particularly sudden stop I did have to grab hold of the luggage rack, and I was a little afraid to sleep after that. It was also quite hot and stuffy in the cabin with the door and window shut, but the train passes through tunnels constantly, so with the window open it’s quite loud (and my roommate had already closed it, so that option was out). All that aside, though, the bed was quite comfortable and the blanket was cozy, and eventually I dozed off.

Not for long, though — the train stops for passport control twice, because there’s no town on the actual border. You stop at the last town in Serbia for Serbian passport control around 2:30am, then about 90 minutes later you stop at the first town in Montenegro and do it all again. Both groups of border officials were pleasant. They came through the train and gathered up everyone’s passports (I’ve learned that this is normal in the Balkans, but it still makes me a little panicky every time I have to watch someone walk away with my passport). They took them away to do all their scanning and stamping, then came back through and returned them. I wasn’t asked any questions at either border crossing, though the Montenegrin official thought that an American girl and a Russian girl sharing bunk beds was just about the funniest thing he had ever seen, and kept pointing at us and saying “Russian! American! Sleeping in same room! Ha Ha Ha!” with great enjoyment. I didn’t mind, but I don’t think my roommate appreciated it very much.

I napped briefly before and after each border crossing, but then around 6am I decided it was time to get back to the scenery, and returned to my puppy-at-the-window pose, to the amusement of the train attendant. I was glad I did — the rumors of spectacular views in Montenegro were accurate. The mountains are truly gorgeous, and much of the track was blasted out of the sides of cliffs. There are constant tunnels which makes it a little tricky to take pictures, but here’s a sampling:

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Eventually the train crosses one of the highest rail bridges in the world, the Mala Rijeka Viaduct. It was built in the early 1970s, and is over 1,600 feet long and 660 feet high (for reference, that’s over 50 feet taller than the Space Needle). For an added bonus, the train loops around after crossing the bridge, so that you can look back at it.

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After that the train descends fairly quickly, following the river, through pretty rolling lowlands and past more dramatic rocks:

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Finally we passed through Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and then went by and over Lake Skadar (aka Shkodër), the largest lake in southern Europe, before ending in Bar. When I got off the train I was far too tired to attempt to navigate the local bus system, so I figured I’d take a taxi. Taxi services in Bar are slightly… casual. Multiple drivers greet the train with laminated paper labels reading “Taxi” pinned to their shirts. If it’s laminated, it’s official, right? I broke the first rule of taking taxis in other countries, and failed to negotiate the price before getting in, so my five-minute ride cost me a whopping 10 Euro. I briefly considered arguing, but I was eager to get into my apartment and put down my bags, so I just paid and thanked the driver.

My lovely host Ivana checked me in, and the rest of that day is a blur — I had to work in the afternoon, so I went for a walk and got some coffee and lunch and explored the town. I learned that spending 12+ hours on a moving train, particularly when part of that is lying down sideways, gives you the equivalent of sea legs. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and I was a bit disoriented and nauseous all day. It was worse when I laid down in bed that night, but I was so tired I eventually fell asleep anyway, and it was mostly better the next day.

All in all, I loved my first sleeper train, though I certainly didn’t get much sleep. I would definitely take one again, though I think I’d try harder to get my own cabin (unless I was sharing with someone I knew). I hope I get the chance to take others before they all go away!

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