“What’s the wifi password ?”
“Yes, I want to connect to the Internet, what’s your wifi password ?”
“yes, the Internet, what’s the password ?”
“yes yes, but, oh, right, sorry”
This level of miscommunication would characterize my entire day.
We are in the Serbian capital . We’ve spent all night traveling from Skopje in the general direction of home. It doesn’t seem to have made a lot of difference. We make camp at a cafe in the station, replete with wifi (see above) and electrickery. The train is in a few hours, we can charge the dozens of things that need charging. A few scouting parties venture into the Serb capital. One makes it 50 yards before aborting, the other barely 100.
As we get to within half an hour of departure I investigate where our train is. I have no reservations. This is an alternative route to the now defunct direct Belgrade to Sarajevo train that was ditched as a consequence of Croatia’s unilateral war on international train travel. You didn’t need reservations on that, it was generally half empty anyway. My mate Ognjenka from the International Office of Serbian Railways, who I discussed the trip with at length, didn’t mention anything when I told her of my devious plan to get between capitals. My scheme for the day is to catch the train south, again, to Uzice, which is the closest to Sarajevo I can get to on a convenient train. Then get a pre-arranged bus to take us from there to Sarajevo via, I kid ye not, a preserved narrow gauge railway on the Bosnian-Serb border.
Our train is going to Bar, on the Adriatic coast. We are in Serbia. Montenegro is one of the few places these guys can go to these days and not be made to feel unwelcome and/or poverty stricken. The train is massively oversubscribed. I have a party of nine, with shed loads of luggage. As is the norm, no, the next train wont do. I dont even think there is one.
This is the essence of how scary it is to drag a whole bunch of guys round some ridiculous series of must-get connections. If there is anything wrong with your booking, or you are careless enough not to even have any, things can get messy. Getting yourself and a buddy on a train that isn’t expecting you is one thing. Finding space for half a carriage of not-so-slim blokes can be far more problematic. I fly around the station in a futile attempt to acquire reservations. I then fly back to the train manager who is marshalling the herd of people without any reservation trying to board. I make the internationally accepted sign for “I’ll make this worth your while mate” and signal that all we want is to block up the vestibule with 9 blokes and their luggage. He nods and waves me quickly in a “get yourself on now” sort of way. Of course I can’t. Everyone is lounging about on the blinking wifi. I fly back to the cafe, “Go! Go! Go!, we’re going now, get on NOW”. I then fly back to the given vestibule and proceed to mark out an area that we can all squeeze into. Where’s Paul ?. Paul doesn’t get “Go! Go! Go!” it’s not in his input vocabulary. He arrives. The train is full. Really full. He gets on, just.
When the manager comes by I, quite discreetly, offer him 10 euros for not being a railway tyrant. “No no” he says. I guess someone may have been looking, As he slides past me his upturned hand trails and I press my offering into his grateful palm. It was worth it just for the comedy.
We are consigned to 4 hours of corridor, it’s not ideal but we get through it. I spend as much time as possible with my head jammed out of the window, which I’ve been able to do for most of the way since Vienna. At Uzice I march out to locate the bus I have ordered from Asim, who I believe to be the hotel owner for tonight’s crash pad. We scan the car park. No bus. There’s a Transit. Is it a bus ?. No it isn’t. Oh bugger. The next phase of today is to get to Sargan Vitasi and negotiate the only remaining part of the narrow gauge railway that used to run from here to Sarajevo. We’ve got half an hour.
There’s three cab drivers. “Sarajevo?” they say. “Yeah, via Sargan Vitasi ?, 300 euros for the lot of us ?. Did Asim send you ?”. Perhaps I should have pushed him a bit more on the last point, but as he was fine with points 1 and 2 that was good enough for me. And this train would leave soon. Well it would if we drove there in a normal way. As it was, even stopping for a desperately needed beer from a petrol station, we make it with 15 minutes to spare. It is an “exhilarating” drive.
And what a lovely little railway it is. If you are looking to get from Belgrade to Sarajevo in a day while using as much rail as possible, this is a great route. The return fare is under 5 euro each. I have a delightful interaction with the conductor who doesn’t realise that we are more than happy to pay him 50 euros for the 9 of us to go just one way. The ride is akin to a roller coaster and to the uninitiated it may look as though it was really only built for fun. It wasn’t. It was a real railway once, one of the longest narrow gauge railways anywhere.
On arrival at Mokra Gora I march off to locate the three cabs with our luggage. There’s only one of them, but that’s better than none. But there’s this grumpy looking bloke with a face like a slapped backside saying “big problem” a lot. After a while it becomes clear that he is the booked minibus. Actually there are two of them. He has a younger guy with him who is clearly embarrassed about all this. He was late by 20 minutes at Uzice. If we’d waited we’d have missed the Sargan 8 railway, which was today’s prime railway activity.
I am now faced with two lots of people wanting 300 euros each to take us to Sarajevo. We are in Serbia, 10 minutes from the Bosnian border. Srebrenica is 15 miles away. Višegrad is even closer and we will actually drive through it later. On my left I have a grumpy old bald Bosnian who keeps telling me I have “big problem”. To my centre and right I have three Serb guys, one of whom is 7ft tall and appears to have anger management issues. Behind me I have eight compatriots, most of whom are keeping an ever increasingly respectable distance from all this. Steve is standing right behind me to make sure I don’t just do a runner with the kitty at this stage.
I make my stand, the guy was late, if we’d waited we’d have missed the days big event. But it is a tense situation and before long I am spent. In the end I pay the Serbs 150 and we all have a hug, including the younger Bos guy who clearly thinks his boss is an utter dickhead, and it is good. I think I have agreed a 50 euro fine for grumpy bald Bos. I haven’t. I am in the second mini bus with the young guy. As we drive through Višegrad we pass the old viaduct. The driver explains by mime what happened on that bridge. Just how tense the recent taxi negotiations must have been for all concerned has really only just sunk in.
We get taken into Sarajevo then right up a hill for no reason at all. This is obviously another of Asim the fixer’s client hotels. I am apoplectic. The e-fag ran out about 100 km ago and I am now not a man to be trifled with. After screaming at Big Problem, we magically appear back in town. Asim materialises, we share a Muslim greeting, and then he disappears just as quickly before I have had time to give him an earful.
So the day has cost 50 euros each. We get a cramped ride on a Serbian holiday special. 15 minutes of riding with a Formula 1 test driver. A world class preserved railway in the middle of the Balkans. An incident. And then a drive through genuinely stunning limestone mountainscape from Mokra Gora to the Bosnian capital.
In Sarajevo we go out for a fantastic meal. The cevapcici, so revolting in Skopje, are fantastic. It is an enchanting city, only surpassed by Prague on the “I must bring my wife here sometime” front. We have a dorm, for all of us. There is one existing occupant. I pity whoever this might be. From here on in, I make it very clear to the entire party. If I’m not spending enough on your behalf, go find a hotel.
Start: Approaching Belgrade
Train 19 – continued sleeper from Skopje
Train 20 09:10 Belgrade to Uzice
F1 cabs to Sargan Vitasi
Train 21 14:22 – Sargan 8 Sargan Vitasi to Mokra Gora
Big Problem cabs to Sarajevo
Finish: In a dorm in Sarajevo
Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634655051720/
Darren’s Blog http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/balkan-trips-and-balkan-kips-and-balkan.html and http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/the-incident-at-mokra-gora.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-latest-balkan-conflict.html