Last transport of my trip – overnight bus from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey. This was quite the trip. Finding out information about this journey before leaving home was nearly impossible. I could never figure out where I was supposed to leave from, Veliko Tarnovo has two bus stations. I was able to get some bus company names, but they had no internet presence.
There is a train, but the schedules I came up with were so beyond contradictory. I also found a bunch of websites saying the train wasn’t in operation right now because of construction. I would really prefer to take the train but all of this research getting me nowhere was really making my head spin.
So I left the USA without having any clue how I was going to be doing the last leg of this trip.
I took advantage of a free day in Veliko Tarnovo the day before to simply go to a bus station and ask in person. I hit the jackpot on my first try. Yug is the south bus station in Veliko Tarnovo. I walked from my hotel. The walk was about half an hour, I am shocked I did not get lost. From the main part of town, it is a downhill walk. So if you have luggage and arrive at Yug, keep in mind you will be walking uphill. There is a local bus that stops right outside the station. You can take that. Or you can take a cab. A cab will cost you under 5 BGN, which is under $4 USD.
I walked into the bus station. I saw no English anywhere. Everything was in Cyrillic. I looked to my left and right and before I could look left again, a woman came out of a store to walk over and offer me help. Bulgarians, nicest people on planet Earth.
I got to buy a ticket to Istanbul! I was really happy with how easy it was.
The bus company was Huntur Turizm. The ticket cost 40 BGN, which was around $27 USD. They only take cash. The woman actually writes you out your ticket on a book that uses carbon paper. The office is super dark and paneled in wood and there is an ashtray on the desk. It was like the 1970’s all over again.
My bus was scheduled to leave at 8:30 pm. I got to the bus station early, just because that’s what I do. I paid to use the bathroom so I could change into clean clothes (remember, I just sweated 7348 gallons of sweat at the Tsarevets Fortress). Good thing my change of clothes was in my handbag because the attendant had a fit when I tried to bring my suitcase into the bathroom.
I wait out front of the station, where the ticket seller had motioned to yesterday. I assume the bus stops here. There are no people out here and no signs. For some reason, this just does not freak me out. It normally would. But when I am in Europe by myself, I just get in this zen mode with transportation. I am really not sure what causes it, but I like it.
The bus shows up about 15 minutes late. Every person on the bus gets off to smoke, save for the bus driver who chose to do that on the bus. I have a window seat, thankfully. The girl next to me says something to me. I tell her I only speak English, then she asks me if I am American. Yes. She stops talking to me at this point, which I am grateful for. I am exhausted, I do not want to talk.
The bus ride is supposed to be ten hours. There is no bathroom on the bus. I start flashing back to my bus trip from Sarajevo to Nis.
Little did I know, this would be worse.
The bus driver’s assistant came and said something in some language I do not understand. My neighbor spoke back and gestured to me and said “American”. I then had to give up my passport, which is completely normal. That is something that happens on long distance buses in Eastern Europe. I got it back shortly.
The bus made a few stops. Every time, everyone would get off and chain smoke. My seat neighbor was the only person who did not smoke. Of course.
The woman in front of my seat neighbor had her seat reclined all the way back so she was basically laying in my neighbor’s lap. So every time I wanted to get out, there was no room. This was annoying the first time, it grew more annoying as time went on.
After a few hours, the view outside my window began to look a lot like Stephen King’s “Maximum Overdrive”. There were 2398473289473289427 trucks lined up on the side of the road. I mean literally, 2398473289473289427 trucks. Time to Google on the flip phone!
I find it absolutely bizarre that I am stuck in traffic with Depeche Mode (WHAT) on the border of Bulgaria and Turkey. Life is so strange.
Other than it being a really weird happening, it had no effect on my trip.
We finally make a stop around midnight near the border of Bulgaria and Istanbul. It’s a weird little store type of place. Everyone gets off the bus again. Some man approaches me and announces in perfect English “So you are the American!” Yes, I am the American.
I went inside to use the bathroom. This was the most traumatic experience of my life. You walk through the back room of this store. It is typical back room of a store type thing. Shelves full of crap and it is dark.
I find the bathroom. I go inside. It’s a squat toilet. I can do this, no problem. There is nowhere to hang my bag, which is fine. I can still do this. Then I look up and I see the biggest spiders I have ever seen in my life. Now I start flipping out. This room is so small. My knees are just about touching the door. It is burning hot. The lights in here are BURNING florescent. I do not know how the spiders are not being burned to death. Oh no. What if they ARE being burned to death? What if they burn to death and these enormous spiders turn crispy and start falling on me? Oh my god. OH MY GOD. How long have I been peeing that I have had the time to have all these thoughts please stop peeing oh my god I am going to scream HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
When I was done, I burst through the door like a maniac, gasping for air. My heart was pounding, I was sweating from fear. I have never been happier to exit a room. Ever.
When it is time to board the bus again, I notice that every person except me has bags full of liquor and cigarettes. I should have bought a bottle before using the bathroom.
We travel only a tiny bit further before we stop again. This time at a duty free shop. Everyone gets off the bus, everyone goes inside, everyone exits with bags full of liquor and cigarettes. Only this time I notice that the bus driver’s assistant is paying for everyone’s stuff. This is when I realize that this bus is less public transport and more of a liquor and cigarette smuggling operation. Everyone is expected to purchase the per person limit for crossing the border. I am exempt, presumably because of the lack of ability for the assistant to communicate with me.
We get back on the bus. A tiny bit later, back off the bus for customs. Then back on the bus. Then off the bus AGAIN for customs. Here is where I get my first visa stamp in my passport! Back on the bus. Back off the bus. Now I am getting mad. We are exiting the bus every three seconds. It is so annoying because the woman in front of my seat mate has her seat blocking my path. I am sick of getting off the bus, I am sick of getting on the bus. I am so fucking tired. I hiked up to the top of Tsarevets Fortress today. I am exhausted. I can’t sleep on the bus because we keep getting off the bus and then back on the bus.
I start yelling out loud “ON THE BUS, OFF THE BUS, ON THE BUS, OFF THE BUS”. My “You are the American!” buddy from the spider filled toilet store found my outburst amusing and told me “Welcome to Istanbul!”
We finally are done with all customs and places to smuggle liquor from and we take off again. AND STOP AGAIN. This time at some fast food restaurant. I didn’t bother getting off the bus this time. I tried to sleep and as soon as it came, I got woken up by this loud crashing on my face. Oh hey, someone is washing the bus and the power washer just hit my window and scared the shit out of me.
This bus ride sucks so bad.
Finally we got to Istanbul. Much like Sofia, this bus station had a whole lot of entrances to bus company’s individual ticketing offices, which is confusing when you are looking for then entrance to the main bus terminal.
Finally I found where I needed to be. I found an ATM, I used yet another squat toilet, I got a can of Diet Pepsi, I was golden.
I had to buy tram tokens to get to my hotel. These are actually called Jetons. Jeton machines are mean. They yell at you! I was so dead asleep from my experiences in the past 20 or so hours. I was not in the mood for any guff.
The machine began yelling at me to insert money, I began yelling back “JESUS CHRIST, I AM. SHUT UP ALREADY. I HATE YOU!”
Finally, I have my Jetons. I am on a tram. I get off at my stop. And here is where my commute finally ends. I survived to tell the tale.
Good morning Istanbul!