Thursday, September 10, 2009

As fantastic as Istanbul was, now I am in Budapest, Hungary. Travelling to Budapest by train from Istanbul is a two-part process, with a change of trains in Bucharest. The Istanbul-Bucharest train, named the Bosphor Express, leaves nightly (at least Monday nights) at 10. There were maybe 20-30 passengers on the platform in the small, ornate international train station. In the car I got on, with room for 90 passengers, there were 5 passengers, and two of them were conductors. I got an entire compartment to myself and dealt entirely with the car's conductor, who called me "mister" and looked like the captain from Law and Order SVU. He was a Russian or Romanian who spoke English except that he always said "da", never "yes".

We rolled on through vast, endless countryside into Bulgaria at 5 am. I woke up at around noon to find us stopped at a crumbling but once-beautiful train station. I asked the conductor where we were. He gave me the name of a city that starts with G. "Is that in Bulgaria?" "Da." I had only bananas and cookies to eat, but there was no one at the small shop on the platform, only a stray dog shivering in the cold rain. Eventually, the owner showed up, but he would only take Bulgarian money, until I produced some Euros, which earned a very enthusiastic "DA!" (Note: it is entirely possible that the Russian language consists of more than this word and "nyiet anglisky"). He ended up selling me bacon chips, which I fed to a pack of sad, obedient stray dogs, one of them limp.

Eventually, after having seen only the conductor, border guards and a couple of people on train platforms in Bulgaria, I arrived in Bucharest, Romania, a 19-hour trip. The 15-hour ride from Bucharest to Budapest was notable only for the remarkable similarity of the cities' names. If you have any doubts as to the completely placid nature of this trip, consider that I read about 200 pages of Rousseau's Confessions over the 36 hours.

Budapest is not a place I put at the top of my list in the year I spent day-dreaming about this trip, but I am very happy to be here. It has excellent architecture, ranging from the beautifully to hauntingly classical, as well as a neat and efficient feel to the whole place. The nearest subway station is the Oktogon, for the clever shape of the intersection at which it is found.

Reflecting on Istanbul, it's a bit like Japan, a place so well-appointed and fascinating to visit, that you don't even realize it until you leave. The combination of history, architecture and scenery are fantastic enough, but even walking around at night on a bridge, past an impromptu night market of furs, Lacoste shirts and various kinds of fish, past the crowds of men still fishing at 10 pm, no longer in a tourist zone, you get the comforting sense that you could have wandered this city for days and not run out of things to do.

Okay, not so well-appointed: floods have killed 29 people in Istanbul.

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