Bijelo Polje Montenegro
Kaliningrad Russia Federation
Las Vegas, Nevada USA
Greetings from Belgrade Serbia,
This story actually begins back in Sofia in the ancient railroad terminal where just locating the correct track became a challenge. While I had arrived sixty minutes early in the frigid late evening hours, I had plenty of time to figure things out. But, being so early also meant no one would be thinking about my train not due for another hour. After unsuccessfully searching for the correct track I returned to the friendly ticket seller for help in finding the platform my train would use.
She came out from her warm enclosure and walked me to the head of some working escalators and pointed down into the dimly lit area saying I should walk a short distance forward until I saw a sign pointing left to the "Track 5 West" and noting the word "West" would be in Cyrillic... and that I should look for a letter that looks like the number three. Back down I went and at the bottom of some long dysfunctional rusty escalator stairs beyond the sign containing a "3" and a "5" I climbed to the top and saw only one train, which I cautiously boarded.
Inside I managed to make another passenger understand my uncertainty about being on the correct train and he looked at my ticket and shook his head. Motioning for me to follow him, he went to an open window, stuck his head out to see better down the loading platform and announced with halting English and gestures my train would be found at the far far end of the platform on the other side and still in the dark. So, I walked the two blocks along the platform until reaching the other ancient train where someone apparently connected with the railroad confirmed I had found the correct cars. Boarding, I started searching for my couchette #51 without success.
Finally, walking back to a lighted compartment I tried to make the guy inside understand my confusion without any obvious success. Looking at my ticket he nodded, threw my ticket on a pile of what appeared to be a disorderly collection of personal belongings, picked up a handful of white "rags" and motioned for me to follow him. Protesting, I pointed at my discarded ticket and pleaded: "ticket?" His response was enigmatic: "Tomorrow." When we arrived at compartment #51 he threw the "rags" onto one of the bottom bunks in this six bunk compartment, turned and left without another word.
After struggling for ten minutes in the darkened compartment to get the rags which turned out to be a small bed sheet arranged on the bottom bunk without bumping my head on the low middle bunk too many times and the "horse blanket" positioned for ready use, I hoisted my pack up onto the unused top bunk. The train conductor returned and with gestures made me understand he could raise the middle bunk out of the way. With my acquiescence he inserted his formidable silver key, turned it with some difficulty and raised the low ceiling middle bunk up into a locked position, smiled and left. Now able to rest in a horizontal position I laid down and dozed until a half hour later I felt the train moving and noted the compartment lights had come on... at exactly 20:30! Trains do live up to their reputation for running on time.
My father spent most of his short adult life working for the Southern Pacific Railroad in California as both a brakeman and a switchman. Hopping off engines and dashing forward to mechanically move the switching mechanism tracks to change the engine's course is what got him killed. While he lived he liked to brag about how every member of the railroad crew took pride in keeping the trains on schedule. Every man knew the importance of doing their job with an eye on the pocket watch synchronized to a master timepiece.
He made it clear being on time was considered a religious obligation and that the worldwide brotherhood of trainmen all worshiped the same principle. At my young age I had no reason to think otherwise and through the years have always marveled at how trains somehow manage to be where the time tables say they are supposed to be at any particular moment. When I see a review claiming some particular line is never on time, I suspect the writer must have hidden ulterior motives for such cruelty. Whatever the reality, the Sofia to Belgrade train started it's run at precisely 20:30 as scheduled.
The over night train got into Belgrade around 05:00 with everything still closed and dark. The local people call it Beograd, but tolerate foreigner's use of the Belgrade form. I went hotel shopping and immediately became discouraged with the grungy old hotels and obscenely high room rates... until I found the four star 72 Euro Mr. President Design Hotel. The high room rate included both breakfast and dinner! The hotel takes its name from the decision to devote every room to a national political leader or president. My first room #406 featured a portrait of Mao Tse Tsung hanging over the head of the bed. My second room #704 honored Yasser Arafat and the third room #504 has a picture of Stipe Mesic, a Croatian head of state. The $93 per night seemed high until I considered the added value of the included dinner each evening. The food for both breakfast and dinner has been superb; the chef and F&B manager really have their craft perfected here!
WiFi is problematic and it has been next to impossible getting any work done; Yahoo subjected my log on attempts to additional security checks with the explanation unauthorized attempts to get into my account had been detected. The hotel has many wireless routers, but all fail to provide strong signals and are repeatedly reset, apparently at random; VoIP phone calls are subject to static and frequent interruptions.
This is one of the most unusual architectural designs I've ever seen in a hotel; most of the features work well, but lighting has been designed to create atmosphere rather than illumination. Welded iron decorations and railings add a bizarre Gothic feel to the interior of this architectural extravaganza. The staff is uniformly friendly and helpful. Directly across the street from the hotel is a college specializing in teaching economics. The hotel seems to be a popular gathering place for faculty and students every evening. Apparently the hotel has only one country western CD as the background music features endless repeats of songs like Tennessee Waltz.
Most of the staff running the hotel speak perfect English and have college degrees. Asked why such an over qualified individual would be working in a hotel, one receptionist noted he felt lucky to even have a job and that contact with so many international guests had its own advantages. When prompted to express personal feelings about the break up of Yugoslavia, two different people betrayed clear animosity toward the Kosovo Albanians who "stole a major part of their heritage." One pointed out the Patriarchate of Serbian Orthodox Church resides in Peje in the break away eastern Kosovo region. The status of Kosovo is a very sensitive and emotional subject with most Serbians and the whole subject of Kosovo independence remains a festering wound on the body of Serbia. Five years ago in 2008 Kosovo declared its independence, but large areas in the north of the new republic with a majority of Serbian inhabitants rejects the declaration, as does a number of other countries in the region. However, over half the countries in the United Nations has recognized Kosovo's independence, including the United States.
The central part of the city sits on the side of a hill above the train and bus stations, insuring a good workout every time I walk to the city center. Trams crisscross the city going everywhere people want to go. For the most part I walk, often following the tram lines to be sure I can find my way back.
On one of my long walks into remote parts of the city I found the Nicola Tesla Museum now housed in an old deteriorating stone building and saw some of the original massive coils he used in his demonstrations. During the time of my visit the museum featured a collection of his various awards and diplomas... pretty impressive. The father of alternating current machines, his ideas revolutionized electrical power generation and transmission. Standing before the huge crude devices he constructed to perfect his ideas, it is hard to imagine how such simple beginnings spawned an entire power industry and led eventually to electromagnetic communications technologies. Considering his achievements, his legacy deserves a grander repository.
There is a train down to Bar Montenegro at 09:10 and another at 23:00. I plan to take the daylight train arriving shortly after dusk. Getting into Kosovo will need to be by bus, however. The next epistle is likely to come from somewhere inside Montenegro.
Fred L Bellomy