Two graffiti covered carriages and a pair of rotund guards loomed out of the murky fog like buoys in a sea mist. One nonchalantly confirmed it was the train I wanted with a booming “yar, Belgrad, Belgrad,” and waved me into a dingy, damp, freezing corridor of stained, patched-up walls. I slid open the door of a compartment occupied by two young women and dropped onto the frayed seat.
As we left Sofia, the guard arrived and demanded our tickets and passports. Shivering, I handed them over.
“How you like Bulgaria train, huh? Not like England, no?”
The question hung awkwardly in the cold air, blending into the grey strata of cigarette smoke idly drifting around the compartment. I could only nod in response as the thud of the wheels pounded through the thin cushion and into my spine. Patting his round, waistcoated belly, he grunted and handed my documents back.
As he left a large, burly man in sunglasses appeared with a dozen bright yellow, biscuit tin sized boxes and began stashing them under our seats, on the luggage racks and on any other available surface. Bemused, I watched as another man, dressed entirely in furs, stuffed mysterious sock-wrapped parcels into the walls of the corridor by removing the light fixtures or simply cutting a hole with a knife.
The man in sunglasses reappeared with three sacks of fireworks and carefully slotted each rocket inside the framework of the luggage rack above me. Silvija, the petite, blonde Croat sitting opposite, plucked up the courage to ask what he was doing. He glared at her, and then laughed.
Apparently, the boxes were filled with cheeses and the fireworks were for his son, all bound for Nis over the border. I began to wonder what would happen at the next check-point. After insulating the compartment with the mild explosives, he lit a filterless roll-up, pushed his sunglasses up onto his shaven head and slumped onto the seat beside me. His jeans were covered in oil smears, suggesting he’d been playing with an engine. Silvija, now acting as translator, confirmed my suspicions: “They hijack truck, like in film.”
He introduced himself as Gahgar and when I gave my name in return, he grinned, showing off a row of gold teeth.
“You are Hendry,” said more as a statement than a question. “One, two, dre, five, six, seven, eight! You are Hendry eight!” And we exchanged an awkward, oily high-five.
Several cold, uncomfortable, smokey hours passed with little conversation, before the train juddered to a halt in a bleak, floodlit railway cutting surrounded by watchtowers and razor-wire. Stony faced guards stood on the icy gantries like medieval gargoyles, machine guns in hand and clad in full combat gear and balaclavas. German Shepherds panted obediently beside them as clouds of vapour rose around the shadowy figures.
Dogs and heavily armed police burst onto the train demanding documents and pulling bags from the racks. My passport became an object of suspicion and torches blazed in my face as officers barked the terse accusation of “British?” I don’t think they could comprehend why I was alone on an unheated, unlit night-train in the depths of winter.
An officer suddenly suggested looking under the seats. Gahgar laughed nervously, stood up and offered them the chance. It went eerily silent. No-one moved. Eyes furtively glanced around the compartment. Even the dog was still, staring at Gahgar. Another guard shook his head and slid the compartment door shut and moved on.
Later, Gahgar revealed his father had been in Tito’s government, a prestigious upbringing, but Silvija explained the wars of the ‘90s had interrupted his education, leaving him “part of lost generation.” He showed me a shrapnel scar on his neck whilst explaining that smuggling was the only way to earn money for his family, adding ruefully: “EU make it now harder for smuggler.” Perhaps sensing the mood, the lights, which had been flickering all journey, failed completely and plunged us into complete, icy darkness (the heating had never managed to come on).
Silvija pulled out a bottle of Rakia. We silently drank to the sound of metal wheels clanking on frozen rails. The fruity, potent liquid warmed me up a little as I huddled in my coat trying to stay warm and avoid frostbite. Beyond the grimy window, the orange lights of anonymous Serbian towns slowly drifted across the black landscape, disappearing beyond an invisible horizon.