Let’s talk about trains, but not just any old train – the phenomenon that many Brits will not have experienced known as the night train. My home for tonight is the rafters of a train compartment on the 16-hour journey from Budapest to Bucharest. I must say, I’m very impressed with CFR, Romanian Railways.
To fully understand my relief when I stepped onto this train, we must travel back a week to my first night train experience – the 22:26 service from Prague to Krakow, arriving at the lovely time of 06:29 with Céské Dráhy, Czech Railways. Czech Railways seem to be the only non-western country that utilises an online booking system – very helpful indeed. Unfortunately, we left the booking a little late [the day before], so there were no beds and no couchettes available. After an hour of looking for accommodation in Prague for an extra night so that we could get the three-train journey during the next day, I remembered that seats exist on night trains. At less than €3 reservation charge, these are very much a bargain for the thrifty traveller.
We’d taken a Czech train before, which was my first experience of travelling in a train compartment, and had a lovely journey – six people per compartment in comfortable seats and, most importantly, only a three hour journey. I expected this to be a similar experience, albeit slightly longer. Walking to our carriage along the train that never ends, we could see that we’d either be in a compartment with four seats or six – we assumed six, as we had previously. Wrong! We were greeted by four very wide seats – ideal for curling up and catching 40 winks. Alas, no. This was an eight-person compartment.
I was sat in a seat with Kasey, a delightful American woman, who was teaching English in Prague, and with her friend Tori, was travelling to Krakow for a long weekend. The other inhabitants were the Polish hippy Bart and two Polish girls who didn’t seem too sociable and spent all the time with earphones in and jumpers over their faces. A few hours passed, and two bottles of wine and some beer had been consumed by the Americans, and Eleanor and I had cracked open a bottle of Czech plum vodka, which had cost us each less than a small bottle of water on a British train. After a scary Czech conductor told me off for being in the wrong section of the train when I was looking the restaurant car, only to reveal that it was, in fact, a small cupboard, we sat in the corridor with Lewis and Adam, two acquaintances from Sunderland College who just happened to be in the next compartment [fate!]. A few hours of being squished into the foot-and-a-half-wide walkway later, the polish girls finally moved into the quiet compartment next door, into the seats previously occupied by our friends from Wearside. Hurrah! We were all in the same compartment – now, to commence the drinking, singing and games [everyone loves Cards Against Humanity]! Needless to say, we made the best of a cramped and long train ride and had a wonderful night. I think it’s also quite clear that copious amounts of vodka, added to around one hour’s sleep would leave one feeling a tad worse for wear. I certainly felt like death. Now, if you add on a forty-minute walk to the Goodbye Lenin Revolution Hostel in very heavy rain at 7am, only to find that we were meant to be at the Goodbye Lenin Hostel at the other side of town (we opted for a taxi there), then a wait to check in over five hours [as we arrived so early], our first day is Krakow wasn’t very active.
In an effort to get more than one hour’s sleep on the next train journey, we booked our couchette in a six-person compartment as soon as we could. This was a very good idea.
Our next night train was Krakow – Budapest, lasting 10½ hours. Couchettes are a kind of poor-man’s bed. They’re really quite hard, and there are usually six per compartment. One cannot sit up in them, as the next one [or the roof] is too close. Lewis had observed that the top bed has access to a small shelf that the other beds don’t, and recommended it to me, so I thought I’d go for it. However, heat rises. This Polish train had various knobs and switches above the door, one of which was the light switch, but the others seemed to do absolutely nothing. The only air conditioning was opening the window and the door. It was quite unbearable to start with, but after we started moving faster and a few degrees dropped off, I started to drop off [without the help of alcohol, this time]. Again, no restaurant car, so we were immensely glad that we’d brought with us several bottles of water and a bag of snacks – something that the two London lasses in the same carriage envied with their mostly empty water bottles (we did top them up). The person on the middle bunk, directly in the line of the tornado coming from the open window, froze a bit, while I was melting two feet above.Despite booking three days in advance, all of the six-bed couchette compartments were full on the 16 hour Budapest to Bucharest EuroNight, so we ended up paying a few thousand forints extra [~£5] for a couchette in a compartment of four. The cabin is the same as the six-bed, but with the middle bed folded away, giving a very spacious seating area during daytime. Sitting in Budapest Keleti Palyuadvar and realising that the MÁV-Start [Hungarian Railways] train in front of us, clearly built in the Soviet Union, which looked like it hadn’t been cleaned under the free market, was our train, didn’t fill us with confidence.
Every single night train that we’ve been on has been comprised of different parts, which go to different places. That is, at some point in the journey, the train splits and each section goes on its respective route. Thankfully, this MÁV-Start section was not our destiny. Our compartment is situated on the well maintained, recently refurbished, air conditioned, LED lit, comfortable, spacious Romanian section,including restaurant car and 240V sockets in the compartment! We’ve just crossed over into Romania, had two passport checks, first by a friendly woman who we think was Hungarian, second by a stern looking Romanian man, who spent longer than was comfortable verifying that Eleanor is the same person as is on her passport from 2010. The ride is smoother, the train is quieter, the temperature is adequate [but still hot on the top] and the beds are comfier. Hopefully this should be a decent night! I shall get to sleep now, and try to ignore the creepy rural train stations that we stop in, that seem to have various people just milling around, without any luggage or look of purpose about them. Yes, the door is locked.