Border Crossings, Smuggling Rings and Breakages

Sofia Travel Blog

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A local woman whom I befriended at the train station and gave the rest of my euro hamburger to

What was that?  Panic swept over me as I asked that question.

Something had just gone crack very loudly after I ran and jumped onto my bed and I was now greeted with a problem.  In my heart I knew what had happened, but I didn’t want to bring myself to admit it.

 

Arriving into Sofia, Bulgaria, by train from Nis had been exciting.  The train ride went as planned except the train was one hour and three minutes late.  No surprises there because in the Balkans everything seems to be a little more relaxed; the trains, the people, the border crossings …. or so I thought.

 

Serbia to Bulgaria border crossings are fascinating and could find itself in a place of fiction; something you read about or see in movies, but never in my entire life as a traveler had I experienced something so bizarre and wonderfully exciting as a smuggling racket.

This is an example of the train cabin which was to take us over the border from Serbia into Bulgaria - smugglers dream, note the easy access to the hiding places
 

 

The tax in Bulgaria is a lot more on cigarettes than in Serbia, so there is a huge business of importing cartons across the border by ‘smoke mules’.  Yes, the smuggling cartel I witnessed was all about the cancer sticks, fags, smokes, durries, whatever you like to call them and it surprised me who was doing the smuggling and who was involved.

 

Okay, so I’m not trying to deprive these people from clearly a valuable service to society, but I found the actions of individuals too interesting not to discuss.

 

It all started just one or two stops from the border. 

 

The station is packed with locals who get on with bags, suitcases, trolleys and sometimes rubbish sacks.

Just missed the cigarette cartons being thrown out onto the platform and then collected
  They walk past each of the cabins, not looking down into the cabin to see if there are seats, but above.  The reason is to establish whether it is easy to stash contraband there and once they recognize it is, they begin their task. 

 

Sounds from the empty cabin beside us entered ours.  Tape being ripped for affixing cartons, seats that were fixed, pulled away from the wall and the cartons were stashed and taped everywhere you could imagine, under the tables, in the holes already created by previous smuggling and on their person.  One of the lady’s, who was quite high up on the pecking order, lifted her top and revealed cigarettes, which had been stuffed in her bra and worn around her midriff.  Yes, they take their right to encourage the smoking habit very seriously here.

The taping of the contraband within the cabin by Madame X

 

As the train started to move, it sounded like the train was overrun with huge rats.  The noise was coming from the toilet, the room was next door to our cabin on the other side, and when some insulation from the ceiling started landing on my bag, it became quite obvious this was not a room we could use anytime soon.  I began to wonder how much were they stuffing into this toilet and would the ceiling collapse under its weight?

 

Finally after everything had been put into every place possible, the real excitement began.  We had arrived at the border and were undergoing passport checks.

 

The conductor came through asking to see tickets and as he did I noticed that this slight man started developing a small pile of money in his hand as he checked the tickets of people, including the smugglers.

Don't be fooled - these chairs can be removed from their fixed position and there are A LOT of cigarette cartons in here hiding
  Furthermore his shirt started to increase in size and shape, which began to resemble that of cigarette cartons as he received baksheesh from bribes and he had to put somewhere.

 

Obviously someone hadn’t paid enough baksheesh, or hadn’t played the hiding game as well as some others, as there was a flurry of noise coming from one of the other carriages as ten or so cigarette cartons where thrown from a train window to the awaiting platform and customs officials.  These cartons were collected and the individual responsible removed from the train.  I am still unsure whether they managed to talk their way back onto the train, or try again the next day as the people who make this run are the same over and over again.

 

I did happen to get some very sneaky photos of the whole event, which was quite the feat as there were people everywhere on the train, but it was the photos of the toilet I was most proud of.

Madame Z
  Hang on, come to think of it, I’m not proud of these photos – they are terrible and don’t show the utter decimation of the bathroom, and the smell doesn’t waft over the net hitting you hard in the face like it did to me with the stale scent of urine and faeces and because of this I have a little more admiration for the woman who went in there for quite a while stuffing the place full.  She must either have a gas mask she uses whilst doing this room, or perhaps she is made of tougher stuff than I am?

 

After getting through the border, the journey continued without incident until the whole process of unpacking began when we were to arrive in Sofia. Tape being ripped off after affixing cartons, seats that were fixed, being pulled away from the wall and the cartons, which were stashed and taped everywhere, removed and replaced back into their bags, suitcases, trolleys and even rubbish sacks.

Madame X almost snapping me snapping her - not sure what would have happened there, she was not a happy lady during this ride
  The ladies returned cartons back into her bra and around their midriff.

 

So after this welcome to Bulgaria I went to the hotel and was greeted by darkness at the train station and a drive through pot holed streets.  What had I got myself in for?

 

I was very pleasantly surprised with what I found at the hotel – luxury with wifi in the room, huge space for bags, a balcony overlooking the synagogue, a flat screen TV and most importantly one of the most comfortable beds I had seen for a very long time and that is why I now found myself in this predicament. 

 

I had gotten excited and did something a little preemptive – I ran to the bed and jumped on it from a height.  Not a gentle flop, but a swan dive, a starfish drop that quickly changed my mood of elation to one of panic and fear.

Look closely at the blue shirt of the train worker ....
  The crack I had heard was of the slats – six in total had fallen out of their sockets and after moving the mattress off, examining the situation, and after trying to heave them back into place, I had to admit defeat.  I had broken the bed. 

 

I finally had a nice bed and what did I do, I broke it and even though I had tried to trick the bed into thinking it was fixed by laying the slats on top of the frame, after I lay down and turned off the light, I fell down through these slats again and ended up propping up the mattress with the couch cushions.

 

Therefore I have started exploring the streets of Sofia after a good nights sleep, but not as comfortable as what it could have been. 

 

I have been impressed with what I have seen so far including the GUM Store (Central Department Store like in Moscow), the St.

There's nothing to see here - or is there?
Alexander Nevsky Catherdral, the Hagia Sophia Church, Boyana Church (only 10 LV or €5 entry for an adult or 2LV or €1 for students) and which has some of the most beautiful frescos I have seen dating back from the 12th century, and the National Museum of History which cost 2LV if purchased as part of a combo ticket with the Boyana Church ticket (normally 10LV on its own) or 1LV for students.  This museum has some dazzling displays from the Thracian culture and some outstanding artifacts of Medieval Bulgarian weaponry and church icons. 

 

But there is still one thing I really want to experience whilst in Bulgaria and that is a nice UNBROKEN bed.  Hopefully tonight …. fingers crossed, but if it is fixed I will promise I will not do one thing – I will not jump for joy.

Madame X

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A local woman whom I befriended at…
A local woman whom I befriended a…
This is an example of the train ca…
This is an example of the train c…
Just missed the cigarette cartons …
Just missed the cigarette cartons…
The taping of the contraband withi…
The taping of the contraband with…
Dont be fooled - these chairs can…
Don't be fooled - these chairs ca…
Madame Z
Madame Z
Madame X almost snapping me snappi…
Madame X almost snapping me snapp…
Look closely at the blue shirt of …
Look closely at the blue shirt of…
Theres nothing to see here - or i…
There's nothing to see here - or …
Madame X
Madame X
The fragrant toilet with cartons s…
The fragrant toilet with cartons …
Within the roof
Within the roof
I know these are not exciting phot…
I know these are not exciting pho…
The bed (before Cyclone Saskia swe…
The bed (before Cyclone Saskia sw…
Showing some of the slats which ha…
Showing some of the slats which h…
The cushions which ended up being …
The cushions which ended up being…
Sofia
photo by: Luci26