The Good, The Dramatic & The Ugly – In The Mountains of Montenegro: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #22)

After over an hour of climbing, the train finally found its way to reasonably level ground. We were now deep in the mountains making our way through pine forests that looked much more alive than the spectacularly barren landscape we had just traversed. The forest was a world filled with shadows and intermittent showers of light. I found this landscape much more comforting. Perhaps it was the fact that we were no longer clinging to the edge of a cliff or breathlessly crossing rocky ravines while seemingly suspended on air. There were still hundreds of bridges to cross and tunnels to glide through, but the forests looked vaguely familiar. I had been in this landscape before, albeit on another continent. It looked and felt the mountains of western North Carolina.

Snow began to appear in patches, then covered the ground. The railway was bounded by several inches of snow on either side of the tracks. Nearby flowed the clear waters of an alpine river. The railway route through Montenegro might be termed a tale of three rivers, as the line follows the Moraca, Tara and Lim Rivers. While the terrain here was less spectacular than an hour earlier, it was still entrancingly beautiful. Not far from where the railway ran was the Biogradska Gora National Park, which protects one of the few stretches of primeval forest that still exist in Europe. This was a land that humans largely forgot to inhabit. The railway offered a window into the way much of the world was before the triumph of “civilization.”

A Wintry Outpost - Kolosin

A Wintry Outpost – Kolosin

A Wintry Outpost – Waiting On A Train
Towns were few and far between along this stretch of the line. Kolosin was one of the two largest, a wintry outpost, slumbering beneath the snow. Houses were scattered around the lower reaches of a small mountain. Much larger mountains, growing more spectacular with each successive range, could be seen looming in the distance. Kolasin looked like one of the most peaceful places I had ever seen. This was the opposite of a past checkered with nasty conflicts, first to expunge the Turks, then a recruiting ground and base for World War II partisans. The wounds from previous wars were now hidden away. In the past, Kolosin had not been able to escape history. At present, it was an escape for outdoor enthusiasts and winter sports enthusiasts. Kolosin had excellent road and rail connections that bring tourists to experience its clear mountain air, mineral springs and the remarkable nature which besieges the town on all sides.

The only unsightly thing in Kolosin was its railway station which reminded me of an American truck stop at its most forlorn. Of interest, were three Montenegrin Railway workers, two of which stood bareheaded in the freezing cold. They were indifferently watching the train, probably because they had nothing else to do. One of those three was the sharply dressed stationmaster sporting a red cap. I never cease to be amazed by these stationmasters, looking proper and purposeful while standing in front of an architectural eyesore. Like clockwork, the stationmaster is there to meet the train, never showing anything other than a sense of duty.  It is a job that they are bound and determined to do. These stationmasters are the very definition of pride, both personal and professional.

Waiting On A Train - Railway Workers at Kolosin Station

Waiting On A Train – Railway Workers at Kolosin Station

Intermittent Nightmares – A Stationary Decline
Being on a train in the Balkans amidst a snowy landscape is fertile fodder for the imagination to conjure up a Murder On the Orient Express scenario. The region and a snowstorm both make notable appearances in Agatha Christie’s murderous tale which takes place on a snow trapped train. The elements of mystery, intrigue and danger were all missing from my journeys at this point.  The sun was burning brightly in a clear sky while the snow had fallen days before. There was no chance of being detained by anything other than border procedures. On the other hand, there was precedence for a train along the Bar to Belgrade route being stuck in a snowstorm. In 2011, an avalanche trapped a train close to Kolasin for three days before the passengers could be rescued. I was enjoying this trip, but I could not imagine spending three days trapped in a train car. Eleven hours would be good enough for me.

Beyond Kolosin the train made its way toward the border. Passport control was at Bijela Polje, a town that had another atrocious railway station of concrete and metal trimmed with a sky blue color scheme. It was yet another striking example of Yugoslavia’s old railway stations that left a lasting impression, none of which were good. There was an interesting dichotomy between the landscape and stations all along the route. On one hand there was spectacular nature, on the other contrived artifice. The railway stations did not stand, as much as they loomed. Appearing like an intermittent nightmare, the ghost of a failed economic and political system. They were representatives of a deformed ideology that eventually warped itself into irrelevance. A fortune’s worth of resources, both natural and fiscal had been expended on creating the Bar to Belgrade railway. The exact opposite of the determination and vigor that saw the railway to completion went into the design and construction of its stations.

Leaving Montenegro - The Station at Bijelo Pole

Leaving Montenegro – The Station at Bijelo Pole

A Worrisome Sublimity – Keys To The Kingdom
I always find border crossings to be both sublime and worrisome. Sublime because one side of the border hardly looks any different from the other. I would soon discover this was especially true between Montenegro and Serbia which in many ways – language, religion and culture – are indistinguishable from one another. Worrisome because crossing a border means entering a netherworld. The traveler is in the hands of officials that hold the keys to another kingdom. Whether or not one gets to cross a border depends on a passport issued by an anonymous official back home. This document is then handed to a foreign official the traveler meets for the first and likely last time.

Fortunately, leaving Montenegro was quick and easy. Border officers entered the train, one of them scanned my passport and handed it back to me without so much as stamping it. The officer gave a quick smile and thank you. I was a bit shocked, so much so that I asked if they could at least stamp it. The officer looked pleasantly surprised, took my passport again and had his partner give it a nice, firm stamp. Procedures for the entire train were over in a matter of minutes. That official bit of formality was the way my week long adventure in Montenegro came to an end. It was now time for the beginning of a new one in Serbia.