To set the scene, I was on my first inter-rail trip in 1987 aged twenty-two with my mate Poll. Three days into the trip, Poll had lost his passport near Munich and had to be issued an emergency one by the British Consulate, designed to get us home by the most direct route. Undeterred, we had carried on to Austria and were now headed for Yugoslavia………
Guard Against Complacency
The border guards entered the train at Spielfieldstraß, the archetypal scruffy little border station. As the guards approached, our hearts were beating hard. Would Poll’s documentation pass?
It was pretty much a paper form, a mug shot of Poll plus a few ink stamps accompanied by the signature of the British consular in Munich.
The guards were in our carriage now and just as they reached us the train started to move. At least they could not throw us off in Austria now. Once we were in Yugoslavia perhaps they would let us continue.
Well, I was no translator of Serbo-Croatian, but by the look on the guards faces and the fact that they passed the ‘passport’ between them whilst shaking their heads, was a sure sign that all was not well.
“You must get off in next station and see chief guard. This not good papers. He will decide what to do.”
There were four guards in total, all four being six-feet plus with dark complexions, muscular build, square jaws, stern expressions and black moustaches. Only one of them was female.
They all carried firearms and to two young travel virgins they were extremely intimidating. The fact that the rest of the train seemed to be staring us only added to our discomfort. We felt like criminals for sure.
We shortly arrived in Maribor train station, another shabby affair.
No sign of the guards. Perhaps they had let us get away with it?
“Come with me,” boomed the English-speaking border policeman as he approached where we sat. Bugger, hopes dashed.
As our train went off into the distance towards Zagreb, we were led to a small office. All four guards accompanied us into the cramped space where a balding man sat behind a desk. He had a bigger moustache, larger gun and a lot more decoration on his shirt pocket than the others. He was obviously head honcho.
He grabbed Poll’s paperwork and studied it in detail for what seemed an age.
The silence was broken with a Slavic discussion that lasted a good five minutes. They seemed to be debating something. Was this a good sign? We soon had an answer to that one.
“Where are you going in Yugoslavia, how long will you stay, how much money do you have?” Clearly only one of these questions was important to them.
The guards did not care that we were going to Pula and may stay for three or four days. They did however care that we only had a few dinar & twenty pounds sterling in readies and had zero interest in the fact that we had some Eurocheques, with a credit card for emergencies only.
With no cash to speak of to bribe our way in (there was no way that our flexible friend (Access Credit Card) could have helped, despite our predicament), our fate was sealed. In any case, our intended connecting train to Ljubljana had also just left the station.
More Slavic debate followed by stilted English. “You can not continue Yugoslavia. You return Austria with guard. Train go fifteen minutes.”
There was no more debate. We didn’t even try to argue, as we were savvy enough to know that this would be futile without at least £100 in ready money to buy our way in.
I just had time to spend the few dinars I had brought with me at the station kiosk to buy two beers and a packet of crackers. Some small comfort at least.
Then our transport back to the West arrived. A huge snake of a freight train with what can best be described as a wooden cattle car attached behind the locomotive, directly in front of the countless container carriages that stretched further than the eye could see in the dimming light.
We were beckoned aboard the cattle car (a good four-foot climb) to join the four guards for the journey back over the border.
Having clumsily heaved ourselves aboard, we could see that seating was a choice between sacks of grain or the wooden floor. A weak light came on once the loco fired up again and we were on our way.
We made out our musty smelling surroundings in the dimly lit wagon. Grain strewn across the floor, empty sacks piled up to the ceiling, gaps in the floorboards revealing the tracks below, a pile of broken glass, dozens of dead flies and an equal number of living gnats, together with the odd fluttering moth head-butting the bare light bulb.
It was the sort of place where they torture people in films – dark, dank and away from civilisation. I was just pleased to see that there was no wooden chair and rope lying around!
As the guards drank vodka and played cards, we sat on our lumpy designer armchairs (we opted for the grain sacks), consumed our beer & crackers and discussed our experience. We agreed that we would laugh about it one day. Not yet though in case this could me misconstrued by the guards as contempt or something else that may lead to more hassle.
Poll spent the rest of the journey drooling over the chiseled features of the female guard (she would be lovely once she had a shave apparently), whilst I flicked through TC (The Thomas Cook European Timetable) and batted away midges. TC’s small print was hard to read in the dim night-light. I thought I made out that the next train out of Spielfieldstraß was six next morning, some eight hours away. We really hoped that I had misread.
After twenty-five minutes we had arrived back in Austria. The guards marched off into the darkness, deep in conversation and seemingly now oblivious to our presence. We watched them leave through the light of their torches until we could see or hear them no more……….
The backdoor to the station was locked – oh no, you don’t say, surely not?
Thankfully the front door was open – we turned on the light to reveal two benches, a timetable and a closed ticket window.
The timetable confirmed our fears, eight hours until the first train out of there. We then eyed the benches again, resignedly imagining them as our uncomfortable beds for the night.
Poll had noticed some lights up the hill so we headed that way hoping to find a bar open. After a ten-minute struggle up the steep incline with our rucksacks seemingly gaining in weight as we strained, we reached our goal. There was indeed a bar, right in the middle of a number of houses. Hallelujah!
In fact the bar was a converted house and the drinking area was clearly once a lounge. We gratefully ordered a beer & pickled egg each and slumped onto the sofa.
It was nice and warm, so we hoped that it was one of these stay open until the last man leaves type bars you get on the continent. The sofa was infinitely preferable to the station benches after all.
Sadly our hopes were soon dashed as the surly bar lady tersely informed us that we had to drink up and leave. She resembled an East German discus thrower from the ‘70s and was clearly not open to negotiation, let alone a sneaky after hours half.
We played it out for as long as we could whilst the owner tapped her fingers on the bar tutting loudly. We had outstayed our ‘welcome’ by some stretch, soon having no choice but to load ourselves back up once more to head downhill to our ‘accommodation’.
It was now raining, but thankfully it didn’t take long to get into the dry once more, the heavy rucksacks giving us forward momentum down the hill.
We clambered into our sleeping bags and Poll placed an empty drinks can against the door, supposedly to act as an alarm if anybody else should have the temerity to enter our bedroom.
This alarm was sadly not required as only a couple of moments later we heard voices that grew louder as they approached.
Even though they were Germanic voices, we could tell that they were the slurred voices of drunks and by the sounds of it there were at least three of them…..
The first grubby bearded tramp peered through the window and was soon joined by his three almost identical mates.
The pair of us were clearly on their manor; uninvited guests who would not as it happened, spoil their party. Poll and I looked at each other. Blast, there goes any notion of sleep!
The tramp troupe entered the dry fray each clutching a bottle of schnapps. The stink was almost unbearable, making both of us instantly nauseous and regretting having a second pickled egg!
The obnoxious quartet chose to totally ignore us, lost in their own inebriated world. A noisy, dirty, smelly, drunken world.
We could no longer chance sleep for fear of being robbed blind or worse. Poll stood to his full six-foot plus frame, as if to show he was not to be messed with.
Hurriedly we hatched a plan for a one-hour watch followed by a one-hour kip in rotation. The plan was fatally flawed due to A) a rock hard bench that was not long enough to take a whole body unless you happened to be a flat race jockey & B) the stink and noise coming from the vagrants.
It was gone four by the time the last of the bums fell into a snoring drunken stupor and by that time we were both wide awake, all chance of sleep long since gone.
Instead we viewed the snoring heap of failure before us. As if in uniform, they all had filthy thick grey overcoats, sturdy but well-worn steel-capped black boots, stained jeans, ripped V-neck jumpers, worn out shirts and thick black beards.
We could only wonder what state their underwear must have been in, a thought that was hard to dispel with the smells and involuntary noises emanating from their sweating bodies. Disgusting.
The whole place would probably need fumigating; we surmised that the station staff would need to use a whole aerosol can of air freshener spray at least!
Eventually after three excruciatingly boring & uncomfortable hours and despite there still being over an hour until the train was due, we decided to venture outside, the sub-zero cold being preferable to gas poisoning – at least it had stopped raining.
We soon had the entertainment of the station staff arriving to kick out the unwelcome visitors. This was clearly a daily ritual.
Prodded with a stick, enticed to stand with the offer of a bread roll before eventually after ten-minutes of waking up grunts and stretches, the tramps staggered out once more into their daily routine.
Cue mop, water and the predicted air freshener!
I asked one station-worker why they did not lock at night and he explained that cleaning products were cheaper than repairing broken glass and door frames!
The sight of the early morning train to Graz was one of the most welcome sights I have ever seen. Right on time our escape arrived. Our reward for our endurance was the wonderful luxury of a heated train, takeaway coffee & croissant and ninety-minutes sleep in a compartment all to ourselves. Bliss!
This episode and hundreds more are all contained in my book, On The Beaten Track – Travels In Eastern Europe, available now as ebook or paperback from Amazon.