The People That You Meet – Inside Serbia: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #24)

I should have known by now. My most vivid memories of long train journeys rarely have anything to do with the scenery or sights along the way. Instead, it is always the strangers I meet who remain most familiar to me. There was the train attendant on the Lviv to Budapest express who asked for a bribe to give me my own compartment, only to later buy me bubble gum while we waited for a rail gauge change at the border crossing into Hungary. He had a pleasant smile that defeated his hopeless attempts at petty corruption, a paradox in human form.  Another favorite was the Croatian train attendant who told me not to put my leg up on the seat across from me. This bit of unsolicited advice was given to me despite the badly torn leather seat in terrible disrepair. This attendant taught me a sense of manners and etiquette no matter the conditions. Pride triumphed over poverty.

Then there was the Bulgarian berth mate on the night train from Belgrade to Sofia. The young man’s feet emitted a smell not unlike rotten eggs. He apologized to me for the profuse odor, then followed that up by asking if he could use my blanket for warmth, even though it was over 80 degrees in our compartment. All of this while his beautiful girlfriend looked on smiling. And how could I forget the Ukrainian man on the Budapest to Brasov night train who was so drunk that passport control was barely able to rouse him. When they did manage to awaken him, the man could hardly speak. Passport control officials yelled at him, “you don’t come into Romania drunk.” He was already in Romania and he was very drunk. All these people remain deeply embedded in my memory. As do the two Serbian men that sat across from me on the latter half of my Bar to Belgrade railway journey.

Young Serbs – A couple of new friends after arrival in Belgrade

Back To School – Student Life
One was very tall, the other just a little shorter but well built. Both young men were Serbian, university students studying in Belgrade. They were headed back to school, traveling from their hometown of Priboj to Belgrade. Our conversation started while the train made several futile attempts to move forward in the Goles Tunnel. It looked like we might be stuck here for at least an hour or two so all previous social inhibitions fell away. One of my initial questions was why they did not take a bus to Belgrade rather than this notoriously slow train. The taller of the two told me the bus took longer. I instantly understood why they chanced a journey on this train despite having experienced many delays in the past.

Almost anything was better than a bus, even a train that might or might not complete the journey. Being stuck in the tunnel was irritating, whereas being stuck on a bus would be exhausting. The two young men seemed to be old hands at sitting through delays. Neither looked particularly worried about our plight. I asked them what they thought would happen with the train. They did not know, but neither looked concerned. Their indifference was impressive and gave me confidence that everything would be fine. I asked the two why they were traveling on Christmas Day in the Orthodox world. The shorter of the two shrugged and said, “we have school tomorrow.”

Talking with them, I understood that Belgrade was integral to both their studies and future career prospects. Provincial Priboj would always be home, but Belgrade offered the best future career prospects. Meeting these two university students gave me a better appreciation of life for those Serbs who do not go abroad. Serbia is not in the European Union and will not be gaining entry anytime soon. Young and upwardly mobile Serbs have a stark choice, either apply for a visa to work abroad or try their luck at home, usually by relocating to Belgrade. Fortunately, sanctions on the Serbian economy have long since been lifted. Though the economic situation has improved dramatically, it could certainly be better.

Stuck in the middle – Map of the Bar to Belgrade Railway (Credit: Pechristener)

Future Prospects – Engineering Hope
My new acquaintances, Matija and Svetozar, were both engineering students. From what they told me, their job prospects after graduation would be good. Every nation needs more engineers, Serbia was no different in this regard. The train we were stuck on certainly could have used the talent of these two engineering students to extract us from the tunnel and get through the mountains. After a good half hour wait the train finally began to pick up speed. By the time we left the tunnel it was almost dark outside. The sightseeing was now over. I would spend the rest of the evening in conversation with Matija and Svetozar. When I asked if either of them liked sports, I unexpectedly discovered their real passion was not for engineering, but basketball. 

Somewhere deep in my past I faintly recalled Yugoslavia as a powerhouse in international basketball. My earliest awareness of this was from the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. The Yugoslav team upset the Soviet Union before losing in the final to the United States. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, with the United States boycotting those games, Yugoslavia won the gold medal. Then in a sort of last hurrah, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) took home a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Balkans were still basketball mad after all these years. Yugoslavia may have disappeared from the map, but basketball was one of the most popular sports in the successor states. A tie that still binds all those countries together.

Hoopserbs – Serbias 2019 Basketball World Cup

A Transcendent Topic – Following The Bouncing Ball
Matija and Svetozar were fanatical in their love for the game. They began to talk in-depth about both the professional and college games in the United States. Svetozar mentioned the Slovenian Luka Doncic, who is now one of the top stars in the National Basketball Association. When I mentioned that my favorite college team was the University of North Carolina, Svetozar began to name players both past and present on the team. One of those players now starred for a Serbian professional team in the city of Nis. The two young Serb’s knowledge of American basketball players astonished me.

Sport flows across borders, a shared favorite team or player can spark an instant kinship. Basketball turned out to be a transcendent topic in our conversation. Matija and Svetozar were strangers to me when they boarded. I was a foreigner to them. Now we were speaking the same language, it may have sounded like English, but it was really basketball. Our separate national identities hardly mattered. Sport had a way of defeating all resistance and creating memories that would last a lifetime.

Click here for: Off The Grid – A Balkan Back of Beyond: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #25)

Tunnel Vision – The Bar to Belgrade Railway: Yugoslavia’s Greatest Achievement (A Balkan Affair #19)

I selected my accommodation in Bar based on only one thing, its proximity to the train station. The apartment was within a one-minute walk of the station entrance. The proprietress informed me during check-in that I had plenty of time to purchase my ticket for the Bar to Belgrade journey the next day since this was the off season. I nodded in understanding, finished our conversation quickly and proceeded to immediately walk to the station. Bar’s railway station was an elongated, two story functionalist structure that could have been found almost anywhere and used for anything. The style was architecturally anonymous. It just so happened that this structure was the point of departure/terminus for one of the world’s great railway journeys.

Climatic Conditions - Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Climatic Conditions – Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Lending an air of exoticism was a circular island in front of the station with two squat palm trees. I was suddenly reminded of the palms that framed Split’s station further up the coast in Croatia. The palms were likely a nod to the coastal climate, but they endeared me to these otherwise forgettable ex-Yugoslav stations. Another exotic twist was the station name in both Latin and Cyrillic characters posted above the entrance. I stepped inside wondering what I would find. The answer was a place that looked more like a driver’s license examiner’s office than an end of the line for Montenegrin Railways. A beefy woman behind a glass window said something to me in Serbo-Croatian, which I assumed was, “Can I help you?” I handed her a paper with tomorrow’s date and Belgrade written on it. She proceeded to begin creating a ticket for me.

When I asked for a seat reservation on the left side of the train, she stated in broken English, “left, right I don’t know which on the train”. Her voice was a combination of indifference and annoyance. She had that good old Communist era customer service ethic which refuses to die in state run railway stations. The lady handed me the ticket after I paid a grand total of 24 Euros for what amounted to a Montenegrin version of the great train robbery for tourists. I now had my long-awaited ticket for the next day’s journey. At 9:10 a.m. the train would depart for Belgrade.

Barring the Way - Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Barring the Way – Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Rolling Stock – From The Mountains To The Sea
The Belgrade to Bar railway has possessed the imagination of railway enthusiasts ever since it was completed in 1976. To bring the idea to fruition took a quarter of a century. A great deal of blood, sweat and toil were expended in constructing what turned out to be a magnificent feat of engineering. It would not be an exaggeration to state that this was one of the greatest achievements in the history of Yugoslavia. The terrain it crossed, especially through Montenegro, was formidable in the extreme. While the distance to be covered was daunting. By the time of its completion, the railway threaded its way through 455 kilometers (296 miles) of canyons, alpine terrain, mountain passes, farm fields, villages and cities. On one end was Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. On the other was Bar, a jumping off point for the sublime seafront along the country’s Adriatic coast.

To construct the Belgrade to Bar railway, it only took the most expensive public works project in the history of Yugoslavia. It is not hard to understand why? To make the route viable, 254 tunnels and 435 bridges were built through some of the most rugged terrain a railway line has ever crossed. It is little wonder that the railway was built in sections, starting out with easier terrain in Serbia and getting progressively more difficult as construction proceeded. And difficult was the operative word when it came to the railway’s construction. Beginning in Bar, just a few meters above sea level, the route slowly climbs up to 1,032 meters. Along the way it crosses three different mountain ranges. Even though the route winds it way through mountain valleys, the gradient reaches up to 25% in places. Though the railway length is much shorter through Montenegro (175 kilometers) versus Serbia (301 kilometers) it is also where the most difficult construction work took place. Specifically, along the karst terrain in the Moraca River canyon.

Waiting on a Train - Tracks at Bar Railway Station

Waiting on a Train – Tracks at Bar Railway Station

An Ironic Achievement – A Communist Era Vanity Project
I was looking forward to seeing the Montenegrin portion of the route more than any other. Since it was winter, there would be a lack of daylight during the final third of the journey for me. By starting in Bar, I would see the most impressive sections before sunset. I could hardly contain my excitement. After purchasing my ticket, I went out to see the lines of track and platforms adjacent to the station. For a major railway terminus, the Bar station was eerily quiet. I knew Montenegro’s railways network was quite small when compared to other European countries. I had noticed a poster in the station listing all the different routes and their timetables. It was the shortest list I had seen in any country. Nonetheless, what Montenegro lacked in rolling stock, it more than made up for with the attention bestowed upon its stretch of the Bar to Belgrade railway. It was the lucky recipient of a communist era vanity project. No private enterprise would have undertaken such a financial albatross, only a totalitarian state with the ability to harness massive resources could make this work. The little country of Montenegro would certainly not have attempted such an infrastructure project.

The railway line was also an ironic achievement. These days not many kind words are spoken about Yugoslavia. The violent breakup of that ill-fated polity in the 1990’s led to the loss of thousands of lives, millions of refugees and the splintering of Yugoslavia into seven different nations. In retrospect, it looks like an ill-conceived idea bound to fail. That is just what happened without Josip Tito to keep everyone in line. Many people living in its successor states, such as Montenegro, are uneasy with the idea of Yugoslavia. That does not mean everything the country did was bad, but its violent dissolution casts a shadow over some of its more notable achievements. From everything I read the Belgrade to Bar Railway was one of Yugoslavia’s greatest triumphs. Just how great, was something I planned to find out on my journey.

Click here for: Titotecture – The Bar To Belgrade Railway: Mountains & Monstrosities (A Balkan Affair #20)