Friday, 8 November 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: 3n: Konotop to Varna

world-map varna


And here we are, the final post of Across Asia With A Lowlander, (except that by this post, the Lowlander has disappeared…). Two months after starting the trip of a lifetime, I rolled into Varna for the very first time, ready to embark upon a new stage of my life there. For those interested in reading about that, check out some of the early parts of Balkania or my various postings on Bulgaria here:

Nazdravei! A Guide to Drinking in Bulgaria

However, for those who do read this, you will note that the original aim of crossing from Japan to Bulgaria entirely by land and sea failed and there’s a bit missing. Never one to leave a jigsaw with a few pieces still in the box, I rectified that in the summer of 2012 and you can read the updates of that trip that I wrote whilst journeying from Konotop to Bucharest. However, I have also written up a full-length travelogue of that journey which I shall begin posting in January. But for the meantime, I hope you enjoyed hearing of my journeyings with a Dutchman just as much as I enjoyed revisiting them whilst posting this and, as ever, comments are extremely welcome.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

european russia 2

1st September, 2002 – nr. Konotop, Ukraine


“I'll warn you now,” Yevgeny had said, “they'll probably try and intimidate you at the border. Just slip them some money and you'll be ok.”

“We don't need them.”

“Yes you do. Come out here!”


But we did. I decided to follow our travel agent's advice. Surprisingly however, it didn't work. And when we were in a small room with our train already left for Kiev, then we knew that this was not just a little problem.

“But we're legal!” said the Sibling.

“I know that, we've checked enough fucking times!” Tokyo, London and Moscow say we're legal!”

“But that is there, this is here,” replied the police officer when I later related these facts to him.

“And the rules here state that you must have a visa,” added he.

Was he telling the truth? Who knows? I think not however. I think that it was all a big money-making scam. And talking to the Russian officials at their consulate in Varna later on, they agreed with me. 'It happens all the time,' they said in despair. Ex-pat Ukrainians and Russians agreed too. 'I went back to the Ukraine last summer,' said one lady who has lived in Bulgaria for twenty-odd years, ' and I couldn't believe it. Just because I now have a Bulgarian accent when I speak Russian, they treated me as a foreigner, tried to take money off me at every corner, even the police. Especially the police. Do you know what, I was in tears when I left at how that country, which used to be my country, could have gone downhill so much. When my husband met me at the airport he couldn't believe it, there I was, tears streaming down my face!' But that's only one person's account, and ex-pats do often have a skewed vision of their homelands.

But if he was acting, to be fair, he was acting bloody well. And my experiences in Uzbekistan had taught me that these days in that part of the world, no one knows which set of rules are valid at any particular time.

God this was like Uzbekistan all over again! Bloody Uzbekistan with its corrupt police, stupid rules and general populace solely out on the take, had returned to haunt me in another country beginning with 'U'. Arrgh!!

“If only we had known,” said the Sibling. “We were prepared to buy a fucking visa and they said that we didn't need one. We had the money ready!”

Surprisingly it was Hazel, the travel novice, who stayed cool.

But annoyed and exasperated as we were, there was no way that we were giving up without a fight.

“You must give us fifty dollars and then we will put you on a train back to Moscow.”

“No, we're going to Bucharest.”

It soon became obvious however, that we were not.

“We are not going anywhere until you let us phone the Embassy.”

“No phone calls.”

“Fine!” And so we sat, played cards, laughed and joked and annoyed greatly all those trying to work. In the end, about four or five hours later, they gave in and I was hauled off to a phone box.

Ring! Ring!

'Hello, you have reached the Embassy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Republic of Ukraine. I am sorry, but we are closed at present. The Embassy is open from...'

Shut! Shit! I'd forgotten that it was Sunday.

I dived into the guidebook and picked out several EU embassies. The same. Then I tried to Americans.

“Hi, American Embassy, can I help you?” said a very welcome trans-Atlantic voice.

“Yes you can, sir!” And I explained the woeful state of affairs that we had got ourselves into at Konotop railway station. The answer however, was not what I wanted to hear.

“Listen, sir, I'm sorry, but this happens all the time. That border is renowned for it. There was even some of our Embassy staff with diplomatic passports held up there. I don't really know what to say to you, I'm only the caretaker you see. You could wait until tomorrow, phone your own embassy and see what happens, but to be honest, I doubt that they'd come down to Konotop to help you anyway. You are legal, they are wrong, but they're the ones holding all the cards right now. I know it's not very nice, but I'd advise you to just cut your losses and return to Moscow. I know that it's wrong, but...”

“I understand. Thanks.”

Oh God, why did they have to hit us on this day. If I had not been through Uzbekistan and was fresh and with Mr. 'I won't yield an inch' (or should that be 'centimetre'?) Lowlander, then I'd have fought. Or if it wasn't a Sunday I'd have got some action out of the embassy. But I was tired, sick of travelling, sick of the bloody police... just get me to Varna, to a life of settled routine once more where I can unpack my bags, even if it means going back to Moscow. Plus, was spending a night in a police cabin a good idea with a twenty-year old girl in our party? Yes, we were weak. Yes, we gave in.

“That's two hundred dollars each, not fifty, because you phoned the embassy,” said the policeman.

But we weren't that weak. Or stupid.

Sat there waiting for the seven o'clock train back to Moscow, we started to feel hungry. Then one of the men in our room brought us some food. We'd assumed him to be a policeman or friend of one too, but it transpired that he was a turned back traveller too.

“I'm from Azerbaijan,” he said, “but I've only got a Soviet Union passport.” He didn't look dejected about his rejection however. If anything he seemed to expect it as par for the course and looked a regular visitor to this police cabin. I later wondered if it was perhaps his job, and if he was expecting to be turned back, since when we arrived in Moscow, he had his car waiting in the station car park. Once travelling from Romania to Bulgaria, I'd seen loads of goods being thrown from the train as soon as we'd entered the country and before we'd hit the customs post, with locals waiting by the trackside to retrieve them. Konotop is deep inside the Ukraine. Was he involved in a similar operation? I guess that I'll never find out.

To pile on the misery, our train back only went as far as a place called Bryansk, and there we had to wait several hours for our steed onwards. Bryansk was a big and apparently famous railway junction with a huge mural in the station foyer depicting the places that one may get to from the station, (assuming you have the visas that are not required). I explored the building fully, brought some beers for our Azerbaijani friend who was by now going out of his way to help us, by telling us when and from which platform our train was to leave, and helping me buy the tickets at local prices. Although he looked decidedly dodgy, he was proving to be a real Knight in Shining Armour to us which proves that one never can tell.

Eventually, around one, our train arrived and we entered our carriage which was supervised by a large lady of unparalleled grumpiness whose name was 'Marina'. Even by post-Soviet standards, she took service without a smile to new heights and clearly resented having to do anything connected with her job whatsoever, let alone having to deal with foreigners who speak only halting Russian. It made us glad to be who we are again! Indeed, our moods had improved immensely, we were back in Russia, heading towards Moscow and hopefully a plane out to Bulgaria, and I fell asleep virtually as soon as my head touched the pillow of my gently-rocking bunk.

SAM_0030 Konotop Station

2nd September, 2002 – Moscow, Russia

“What are you doing here?!”

Yevgeny clearly was not used to having clients return so quickly from the Ukraine.

“The Ukrainians.”

“They didn't let you in?”


“You tried bribing them?”


“Well, that's a first.”

Once he'd got over his initial shock however, our travel agent proved to be an angel. “We've only got until tomorrow left on our Russian visas and we've got to get to Bulgaria!” I stressed. We were whisked off in his plush new Lada to 'travel agents for travel agents' as he put it, and after some intensive investigations, we were booked onto the next Aeroflot flight out to Sofia, departing Sheremetovo airport the following morning. And so, it was back to the Ismailovo fifteenth floor for us and our baggage.

Thus we had one final day to kill in Moscow. And it was a Moscow thick with smoke. “You know why?” said Hazel. “Last night, whilst you were sleeping, we passed through a massive forest that was on fire. It was quite exciting.” This fact was later confirmed on TV and for the following week or so, the Moscow air was apparently thick and unhealthy.

I decided the visit the Pushkin Gallery, but it was shut, so we mooched about, walked the famous Arbat, (Moscow's Covent Garden), bought furry KGB hats, browsed through the tomes in ANGLIYA and sipped tea by the Kremlin, grateful for this oasis of peace and order amidst the vast desert of customs men and police-infested, corrupt desert that is the post-Soviet world.

3rd September, 2002 – Sofia to Varna train, Bulgaria

So here I am, sat on a train thundering through the fields of Northern Bulgaria. I’m looking out of the window, but what I see doesn’t interest me. The spectacular scenery; the magnificent Iskar Gorge where the track coils itself around the steep slopes of the valley side, high above the fast-flowing river below, is long past now and these fields, unspectacular at best, I have seen many times before and shall doubtless gaze upon countless times again over the coming year.

I am tired. Physically tired. Little sleep last night, up early, a long metro ride, and then the bus to Sheremetovo. And after that, passport checks, waiting around and then boarding the plane that was to take a mere three hours to reach the Bulgarian capital. This was the modern travelling that I knew only too well. Fast, convenient, comfortable, and with the pleasure surgically removed. The Sibling, sat in front next to a Kazakh businessman was happily chatting away to this new-found friend. I however, could not be bothered any longer. I just sat and read.

And once in Sofia, and baggage retrieved, it was a car, (courtesy of the aforementioned Kazakh), into the city centre and then a taxi to the railway station. My two younger comrades’ eyes were wide open, drinking in the sights of this new city and country. But for me there was nothing new. This was my fourth time in Bulgaria and she held few surprises. She is the land, (excluding my own of course), which has maintained the greatest hold on my affections of all those on Earth that I have had the good fortune to be able to visit, and I suppose that I should have been overjoyed to greet her once more. But I was not. As I said before, I was tired, mentally as well as physically.

Booking tickets for the 13:30 departure for Varna, and ordering food at a station café, I discovered that my Bulgarian was rusty and spattered with Russian invasions. Oh well, that was only temporary, it would soon change. We boarded the train and settled down. Eight hours until arrival. Short compared with so many of my recent journeys, but oh how it is dragging!

I run through the trip in my mind. Japan, Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, the Ukraine and now Bulgaria. Nine countries and uncountable memories. That’s more travelling than most people do in their entire lives. It took me less than two months. So why do I feel so downcast? Is it because I failed? I’d aimed to travel from Toyama to Varna entirely by land and sea and I’d failed. At the last hurdle. And failure weighs heavily indeed.

Yet is it the failure? If anything, that failure is mixed with relief. I am mentally tired, too tired, unable to take it all in anymore. Nine countries in two months is far too much. I can’t take it. I wonder at how the likes of Brian Connellan can enjoy staying on the road for six months or more. That would drive me round the bend.

No, my travelling is over for now. I want to settle down in one place for a while. Do a job, get a routine, live in some sort of normality. Even the prospect of a day trip sounds horrific. Perhaps I’m glad that I failed in a way. If I hadn’t, I’d only be mid-Romania by now, with a lot more than five hours to go. A sobering thought indeed!

Yes, indeed. The Sibling and Hazel, card-playing and lively, still have half their trip ahead of them, but mine is now over, consigned to photographic images, the words on this paper and the memories in my head.

And so like at the beginning of this work, I realize that an era has just died and that a new one is about to be born. I rise from my seat and cross the compartment, sitting down once more in the direction of travel. A life in Bulgaria awaits.

It is time to look forward.


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