#16103 – A Trip to Remember
Text & Images by Nikolay Bratovanov © 2020
The idea of riding “Tesnolineykata” – the last narrow-gauge line left operating in Bulgaria – has been around for already more than nine years! It has been discussed on many different occasions, with many different people (especially with my best friends from the university) ever since I had moved to Sofia back in 2010, but incredibly – we never made it on board for all those years! The reasons for this negligence could be of all kind (most likely lack of organization), but one thing can be said for sure – it’s a shame to have been missing the opportunity for such a long period of time! Nevertheless, I have always been deeply convinced that this long dreamed trip of mine will eventually be accomplished!
I don’t remember when and how exactly the “Tesnolineykata” topic was brought up for the first time between my friend Tsvetelina and I (sometime during the summer of 2019, I guess…), but what I do remember is her totally positive reaction and pure excitement about it! Being aware of Tsveti’s adventurous spirit and her never-ending enthusiasm for new experiences (especially associated with nature, traveling or hiking), I wasn’t surprised at all by her almost immediate appreciation of my ‘railway’ proposal. Moreover, not only she had accepted to join the trip, but she actually did quite an impressive job on adorning my relatively ‘routine’ concept by suggesting an inspiring hike up into Pirin Mountain in between the two train rides – a hike that would turn out to be one of the most magnificent I have ever did in my life! All that being said, it didn’t take long before we had pretty much everything planned, so by the end of September 2019 we already knew the precise date and arrangement of our forthcoming journey – a journey that I had been expecting for so many years!
Startled by my phone alarm, set off at around 5:00 am, I felt completely helpless against the power of sleepiness, combined with the total darkness of the mid-October morning. However, the exciting reason for this early wake forced me out of bed in no time, as if I’d had more than 10 hours of sleep! After an improvised breakfast took place, I got my backpack (carefully arranged up until midnight) and headed out towards Sofia Central Station, where I was supposed to meet Tsveti at around 6:00 am! The plan was to take the 6:30 train to Septemvri – the very first station of the “Tesnolineykata” route – and then transfer to the narrow-gauge train itself at 8:35. Despite the time-consuming nature of this decision, we wanted our trip to be a completely railway-based experience, exchanging the comfort and swiftness of the car for the train’s romantic, dreamy and nostalgic atmosphere! It must be remarked, though, that the message I received from Tsveti at 6:06, saying “I’ll be there at 6:20! Don’t worry – we’ll make it :D”, actually got me a little bit doubtful about how successful our ‘no-car’ intentions were really going to be! Of course, keeping my spirits up, I went to the nearby booths, got two ‘Sofia-Septemvri-Dobrinishte’ tickets (Dobrinishte is the last stop of the narrow-gauge train), and headed towards the exit area where I could check the actual track of our train and meanwhile wait for Tsveti to show up! It was as late as 6:25 when I finally saw her running in the distance – just 5 minutes before departure! On her very first question: “Which track?!”, I confidently said “fourth”, and we rushed to the alleged number. Once on the platform (one or two minutes later), we were kind of surprised to see no train on the line. “Well, there might be a delay” – I suggested, and so we started waiting – relaxed and pleased with our successful ‘on-time’ arrival. At this point, a nearby whistle was heard and I noticed a train leaving on track one, but didn’t really pay any attention on it – I was absolutely sure that we were on the right place (the “Septemvri: 6:29” message, shown on the platform display could only prove me right). As the minutes were passing by, though, I gradually started to feel that something had been terribly messed up! Unfortunately, my suspicions were confirmed as soon as I decided to talk to some of the very few people on the platform – it turned out that a train COMING FROM (not going to) Septemvri was expected on track four at 6:29. Only now I realized the absurd misunderstanding that had happened while waiting for Tsveti – instead of “Departures”, I had been looking at the “Arrivals” screen, where the “Septemvri, 6:29” caption was displayed (the same one that I was seeking out!). In other words, we became victims of such a ridiculous coincidence (aided by my sleepiness) – a coincidence that I had least expected to happen! The funnies part (not funny at all back then) was that the actual train, which we had to get on, departed right behind our backs and there was nothing we could do about it!
Well, almost nothing…! In fact, we had a ‘secret’ plan B, which – you guessed it – involved a car! Yes, it was kind of sad to forfeit the trip’s ‘railway-only’ concept, but the last thing I wanted was to see this long-awaited, potentially unforgettable adventure ruined, especially once it had already been initiated! In order to make it, though, we had to meet a single, very simple condition – be at Septemvri Station no later than 8:30! Considering it was already passing 6:40, we had about an hour and a half for commuting to the other side of Sofia (to the block where I live), getting my car keys from the apartment, driving to Septemvri (about 100 km away), leaving the car, and eventually getting on the narrow-gauge train at 8:35! Thanks to the still early Saturday morning, the nearby electric car available for rent, and my determination – we reached my place remarkably fast, got the car and successfully arrived in Septemvri at about 8:20. Noticing the train, which we had already missed entering the station at that very moment, was a somehow amusing situation that made us both laugh and forget about our earlier ‘railway’ troubles 🙂 After a quick rest, a cup of coffee for Tsveti, and ‘banitsa’ with ‘boza’ for myself (there was enough time even for that), we headed towards the narrow-gauge railway area of Septemvri Station – cheerful and excited about the forthcoming adventure of “Tesnolineykata”!
“Rodopi” Train #16103
In just a couple of minutes we had already reached the so-called “small station” and the beautiful narrow-gauge train (number 16103, entitled “Rhodopi”) could be finally seen – standing on its 760 mm wide rails and getting ready to cut through three different mountains! Being our first time on this special train, we were kind of hesitant about which of the seven cars exactly should we get on. Suggesting that it might be more exciting near the end, we headed towards car number seven. At that very moment, however, we were told that the last three cars were “reserved” for some groups, so we ended up in car number two, right next to the buffet car. And so, 8:35 – the “Rhodopi” train sets off for its five-hour journey to Dobrinishte, expected to arrive there at 13:40.
I am not really sure if it is possible to describe with words how I felt during these very first moments after the train’s departure! It was some fascinating mixture of pure excitement, satisfaction, contemplation and delight… and of course – not to forget the everlasting desire of taking photographs! Indeed, rarely I am granted the chance to end up at a place as atmospheric as this train car was! It literally looked like an old movie scene – the light, the sounds, the people! Everything a person could possibly perceive was part of a unique harmony – a harmony that is becoming more and more difficult to witness throughout the hurried, multi-tasking nowadays life. I was completely aware that representing such a magical atmosphere by means of static, two-dimensional images was quite a challenging task, but still, it was my duty as a photographer to give it a try. Probably a little bit shy and uneasy about taking pictures in a completely new environment, the initial relatively short roaming around the train didn’t produce any impressive results. And once again, it was Tsveti’s original idea (and also bravery this time) that contributed to the creation of one of my favorite frames for the whole trip – Tsveti hanging out from one of the doors, as the train was cruising through a beautiful gorge!
Learning from a nearby passenger that we could have actually been removed from the train because of our ‘adventurous’ photography session, we were pleased to see that the two pictures I had taken came out really good – apparently, it wouldn’t have been wise to risk any further attempts, considering the warning. Nevertheless, still pushed by curiosity and excitement, we decided to visit another ‘dangerous’ spot – the open air gangway, connecting two adjacent cars of the train. Having previously read/heard about this rather popular ‘attraction’ of “Tesnolineykata”, we really wanted to experience the open air ride, at least for a while. Since it wasn’t officially forbidden (as far as we were informed), we actually spent quite some time there – enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery, getting some fresh air and, of course – taking some nice photographs.
Being in a constant state of exploration, observation and excitement for probably more than an hour, we felt it was already time to slow it down a little bit. After all, not to forget that we had woken up at 5 am, while a relatively difficult hike in Pirin – one of the most challenging mountains in Bulgaria – was awaiting! In addition, there were four more hours for the train to reach its final destination of Dobrinishte – plenty of time for getting some rest. Before we do so, however, we decided to make one final visit – much ‘safer’ than the previous two – the train’s buffet car. Not surprisingly, we stayed there much longed than we had intended – this time captivated by the car’s impressive interior and the scent of herbal tea! After a nice chat with Maria – the lady at the buffet, as well as talking to some interesting people nearby, it was already time to move back to our seats. Relaxed and warmed-up by the hot tea (and the pleasant October sun), it didn’t take long before the two of us had fallen asleep, carried away by the monotonous railway noise and the soothing buzz of car number two.
Despite the absolutely certain need for sleep, it took me as little as 40 minutes to feel completely revived and ready for the next portion of exciting scenes, people and… train stations. That’s right – the route of “Tesnolineykata” features a number of quite interesting stations, one of which, called Avramovo, is actually the highest railway station on the Balkans, at 1267 meters above sea level. Being a relatively major station and also one of the landmarks of the route, the train was scheduled to stay there for the ‘remarkable’ three minutes. So, as soon as we reached Avramovo, I decided to take my chances and hopped off the train for the first time since departure. The reason..? Taking some pictures, of course 🙂
Unfortunately, due to the tight schedule (which was actually quite strictly observed), the huge photographic potential of Avramovo Station including all the people going in-and-out the train, the train itself, and other interesting subjects, was far from fully assimilated! Still, happy with my stretching along the platform, revived and refreshed I got back to car number two where Tsveti, already woken up, was also progressively getting livelier. Besides, it seemed like the whole train had become a much busier and vibrant place once Avramovo Station had been reached – probably due to the plenty of newly arrived passengers and their cheerful mood – after all, it was a beautiful and sunny October day! Two of these newcomers – a lady and her little granddaughter – took their seats right next to us, and, considering the neighborly atmosphere of “Tesnolineykata”, it was a matter of minutes before a conversation had been initiated. Indeed, it’s really amazing how sociable this train’s environment was, inspiring you to discuss virtually any topic with the person nearby – even a complete stranger! In our case, it was Tsveti who did most of the talking. Not that I wasn’t interested, but I had myself occupied with another photography challenge – take a portrait of the lady and the girl without being noticed! I know it might sound strange, but there were two main reasons for this ‘secretive’ approach of mine. First, the people’s expression would certainly turn completely unnatural if they knew I was taking a picture of them, and second – there was a great chance that they won’t let me do it anyway! Either way, I didn’t want to miss this charming, like-an-old-Bulgarian-movie scene, so I had to patiently observe and wait for the right moment, while Tsveti was making a conversation about the train route, the weather, the news, you name it… Luckily, shooting from an almost perfect angle, it wasn’t that difficult to stay unnoticed and at the same time be able to produce the images I was striving for (pretending to be taking pictures out of the opposite window was quite an efficient strategy)! Satisfied with the results, I could already join the chat more actively, enjoying the company of our neighbors for some time – at least until the station of Yakoruda (their final stop) had been reached.
It’s probably around this point that the extended duration of the journey had actually been comprehended for the first time! We were traveling for already more than three and a half hours, with an hour and a half still to go before reaching the last stop of Dobrinishte. Looking for some distraction, I decided to pay another visit to our favourite buffet car – stretching out a little bit, wasting some time and getting ourselves another cup of hot tea. Unfortunately, the last could simply not be done at this particular time – it turned out that there was a temporary electricity issue with the buffet car, making the tea preparation practically impossible. Nevertheless, the lady at the buffet suggested that we could try one of the outlets in our own car number two, which were most likely operational! It must also be remarked here that I won’t forget Tsveti’s reaction when she saw me approaching our seats not bringing cups of tea, but carrying the whole electric kettle instead – obviously we were about to make the tea ourselves this time! And there we were – comfortably settled, contemplating the beauty of the outside world, while heating up water for our afternoon narrow-gauge train tea ceremony!
Occupied with the relaxing tea experience, once again we didn’t feel the passage of time (something far from extraordinary when inside “Tesnolineykata”), as the train – already passed Belitsa Station – was entering the spectacular Razlog Valley. Traveling amid the two highest mountains in Bulgaria – Rila and Pirin, we could now enjoy the breathtaking views to either of them, resulting in another intensive, ‘must-capture-everything’ photography session for myself, and a much more peaceful state of contemplation through one of the windows for Tsveti.
The appearance of the two magnificent mountains was a certain indicator that the train was very close to its final destination – the station of Dobrinishte. Having less than half an hour before we get off, I kind of switched back to the same ‘hyperactive’ mode that I had at the beginning, striving to comprehend (and capture) all the views and scenes offered by route, which, at this final stage of the journey were particularly amazing! The perception of being in an old movie from the 60’s (something I’d had from the very first step inside this train) was now becoming especially vivid, augmented by the spectacular landscapes of Razlog Valley, the atmospheric stations featuring all kinds of interesting people, the abandoned buildings of all sizes and shapes, the overgrown roads along the line, and… the horse-drawn cart full of little kids – waving at us, excited by the train’s appearance! Indeed, recalling all the colorful and nostalgic events that had taken place for less than five hours, it wouldn’t be exaggerated to say that “Tesnolineykata” was one of the most, if not the most dramatic and authentic time travel experiences I have ever had in my life!
Being just a couple of minutes away from Dobrinishte, it was already time for packing up! Despite the originally compact arrangement of our stuff, we had plenty of our things taken out throughout the nearly five-hour long trip. In addition, the train’s luggage racks weren’t quite large (corresponding to its size, of course :)), meaning that all the bulky equipment, externally attached to my backpack (tent, sleeping pad, etc.) had to be removed and separately stored here and there in order to fit it all in. Now, it was time to put everything back together, and I was really careful about it – forgetting some of the sleeping gear when planning to spend the forthcoming night on the outside, at 2500 meters, in the middle of October, was going to be far from amusing experience.
And there it was..! After five hours full of pure excitement, breathtaking views, positive vibes and inspirational people, we have finally arrived at Dobrinishte Station. As the train had come to its terminal halt now, it was amazing to find the whole interior suddenly absorbed into a complete silence! The atmospheric buzz of car number two – a magical combination of characteristic railway noises, passenger conversations, radio sounds coming from the distance, and many more – was now replaced by the eerie absence of nearly any signs of life! It almost felt like the train’s spirit had already left its steel body, departing together with the dozens of people of all types and ages that were now anxiously roaming around the platform, like bees flying off their hive! I had no idea what was the exact purpose of their travel to Dobrinishte, but it seemed as if every single person on that platform was somehow deeply concentrated on a very special task or place that had to be attained by the end this beautiful and sunny October Saturday! While not being 100% sure about the others, that was definitely the case for us – we were preparing ourselves (physically and mentally) for the next adventure of this already quite long and full of various emotions day – the sublime Pirin Mountain was now calling for us!
A Piece of Heaven
The concept of my website suggests that any hiking experience would be created and presented as an individual story, focusing mainly on route descriptions and technical information associated with the specific hike (something I haven’t had the chance to do yet, unfortunately). However, there are two particular reasons for not sticking to this approach this time – first, I treat the hike to Tevno ezero (one of the highest and most beautiful lakes in Pirin Mountain) as an inseparable part of the adventure of “Tesnolineykata” (both physically and emotionally), and second – the mesmerizing, surreal, even unearthly aura of this unforgettable hike imposes that the story is delivered in a much more inspirational manner, rather than just concentrating on trails, times and directions!
Still, for the sake of completeness, I feel obliged to share at least the essentials concerning the itinerary of our forthcoming journey – this time in the mountain! As already mentioned, the goal was reaching Tevno ezero and the eponymous shelter right next to it (both situated at 2515 meters above sea level), spend the night there and get back to Dobrinishte on the following day! There were two absolutely mandatory things that had to be done in order to successfully reach the lake before dark – take the Dobrinishte chairlift that would take us to Bezbog Hut (2240 m) – the beginning of our trail – in less than 50 minutes, and more importantly – find a quick means of transport to the chairlift itself, which was situated 11 km away from the town (quite inconvenient for no-car tourist enthusiasts). We didn’t have any concerns about the first issue – it had been confirmed that the lift was regularly operating during the weekend. The problem was how to get there on time! It turned out that, despite being a popular hiking destination and a well-developed sightseeing region in general, the town of Dobrinishte didn’t provide any official transportation to the lift (i.e. shuttle or bus), so we had to find a way on our own. And once again, it was Tsveti who did most of the job – she had previously managed to contact a local who agreed to wait for us somewhere in Dobrinishte, drive us up to the lift, and get us back to the station on Sunday in order to successfully take the 14:25 train back to Septemvri. We would only later find out that not a small amount of cash will have to be spend for this pleasure – obviously, the local was taking a full advantage of this weird lack of regular transport (and I cannot blame him). Meanwhile, it turned out that he was actually quite a character – around the age of 70, talking almost without interruption about any topic that you could possibly imagine! At the end of the day, it was a really interesting encounter that will definitely be remembered!
In less than just an hour and a half after getting off “Tesnolineykata” (this precious time travel machine), we could now find ourselves in a completely different environment! Surrounded by the majestic ridges, beautiful lakes and crystal clear streams of Pirin Mountain, we were more than pleased with having the chance to see these magical landscapes once again. Despite I have always associated Pirin with extreme exhaustion and bad weather (including more than 12-hour long hikes, thunderstorms and hail), it wouldn’t be exaggerated to say that this is the mountain that I feel most excited about getting back to! Of course, I always check the forecast before I do so, but the truth is that it hasn’t done much good in most of the cases, as the weather at such elevation is usually quite unpredictable. Encumbered with my previously unlucky Pirin adventures, I, once again, felt completely disappointed at the view of the thick clouds looming overhead! The fact that the route was supposed to feature some breathtaking views (which we most likely won’t be able to enjoy) made the situation particularly bad for me! However, as we moved further (and higher), more and more afternoon sun rays could be seen shining through the clouds, indicating that we might actually get lucky this time. At this point of the hike, both of us had absolutely no clue about the heavenly experience that we were about to be granted in just a couple of hours ahead!
It is really amazing how strong exhilarating effect could the mountain have upon a human being! We had been awake for more than 12 hours, almost all of them spend in a state of traveling, and yet, we felt as if the day had just begun, carrying those 10+ kilogram backpacks along the progressively steeper path with relatively little effort! The already quite well-recognized sensation of going back in time (successfully acquired from the narrow-gauge train adventure) was somehow enhanced by the desolate trails and monumental peaks, distorting it now into a more of a spiritual and meditative experience! For quite a while we would just walk, listen to the almost complete silence and contemplate the beauty all around – simple activities, which are unfortunately so often ignored, even forgotten by a great percentage of the nowadays hurried population!
This ‘in-reflection’ state of ours was about to be ‘disturbed’ by the appearance of the magnificent Popovo ezero – the largest and deepest lake in Pirin Mountain. Being quite excited about its silvery waters and the impressive “priest cap” in the middle of it (a source of various myths and legends, as well as of the lake’s name itself), we would spend quite some there, enjoying and photographing the glamorous views from various angles. In fact, we were kind of ‘forced’ to do it, as the route to Tevno ezero was going around almost one third of the lake’s circumference, some sections of which were not particularly easy to pass through! Still, compared to what was awaiting, Popovo ezero seemed like a walk in the park!
Having previously researched the route to Tevno ezero, both of us associated the passing of Popovo ezero with only one thing – the beginning of the most difficult part of the hike! Considering the fact that there was not a single source of information (hiking guides, web-sites, tourism forums, etc.) not to explicitly stress on the challenging nature of this specific section of the route, we were more than certain that it was really going to be tough! Our expectations were instantly confirmed as soon as we had figured out (visually) where we were suppose to end up – it was a ridge way too high and far away! And despite being mentally prepared for it, I felt a little bit concerned about our physical abilities – after all, regardless of the adrenaline and excitement caused by this full of positive emotions day, it was obvious that our strengths were already beginning to give up at this point! Still, with the help of some energizing food and the frequent stops for taking a breath, we somehow managed to find just the right pace, and this quite exhausting section, featuring extremely steep trails and rocky terrain, was beginning to be slowly but gradually overcome!
Such tough terrains are, of course, nothing extraordinary for the mountain – especially when we talk about the second highest mountain in Bulgaria, and – in my opinion – definitely the most difficult and demanding one! What made this section particularly hard, though, (besides its slope and the harsh environment) was its duration! Struggling with the steep trail for already more than an hour, it almost felt like we were walking on a treadmill – our energy so quickly drained, in contrast to the barely changing perspective of our goal! The situation got even worse as the initially thin fog was now becoming thicker, to the point where the target spot of this challenging ascent could no longer be observed! Meanwhile, despite physical strength and stamina were apparently the decisive elements here, we were also working on our positive thinking, knowing that the right attitude and mindset are of no less importance in such difficult times!
Eventually, in just a couple of trail turns, I was so glad to realize that the highest point of the ascent had already been reached. And this is when the miracle happened! Being almost completely hopeless about the alleged panoramic views (considering the current weather conditions), I was absolutely astounded to observe the fog clearing away literally in seconds, revealing what was to become one of the most staggering views I have ever experienced in my whole life! Still a couple of steps away from the ridge, I could certainly tell that something gorgeous was on the other side, simply by perceiving Tsveti’s sudden excitement – she was enthusiastically waving, urging me to hurry up! Agitated by her reaction, I almost started running towards the spot where she was standing, nearly forgetting about my total exhaustion! And there it finally was – a heavenly view to the west, unveiling majestic peaks and fascinating lakes, still partly covered by the progressively scattering clouds! The unearthly scene was completed by the beautiful October sun that was slowly making its way down to the horizon, soothingly illuminating everything around with its warm deep red autumn glow!
Similarly to the various narrow-gauged train encounters earlier on, the two of us reacted quite differently to the appearance of the breathtaking landscape! While Tsveti, in her inherently peaceful manner, almost immediately decided that she would quietly sit down, contemplate the views and meditate, I had just the opposite intentions in my mind, once again dictated mostly by… guess what – my photography ambitions! Totally captivated by colors, shapes and textures (which were getting more and more vivid as the sun was sinking down), I had been looking for the best possible perspective that would allow me not only to create a series of remarkable photographs (hopefully), but also to completely dive into the scene, getting the most out of this otherworldly experience that the good mountain spirits had pleased to grant us! Another reason in particular was the desire to see the majestic Vihren (the highest peak in Pirin) in its full glory, as it was only partly visible from our current position. In summary – I was supposed to go higher! Fortunately, there was this quite steep peak right next to where we were, and considering that all my recent fatigue was now miraculously vanished, it didn’t take long before I leave Tsveti focusing on her meditation and hit the rocky trail up to the top!
Already on my way, I was totally astonished not only by the increasingly expanding views, but also by the overwhelming effect of adrenaline and pure excitement, miraculously boosting the physical capabilities of an individual. At some point I even realized that, enraptured by the scenery, I was actually running along the steep and narrow trail, solely concentrated on reaching the very top as fast as possible (the fact that it was already kind of late must have also contributed to this hyperactive behavior of mine)! And when I was finally there, I couldn’t really believe my eyes – it was a marvelous, almost cosmic 360-degree panorama, which words are barely capable to depict! Let’s see if some of the most vivid photograph that I took from the top will do the job:
Completely satisfied with what I had seen and captured, it was already time to get back to Tsveti and continue with our hike – not to forget that we still had another half an hour before reaching the shelter of Tevno ezero, while the sun was very close to its setting point. Similarly to the ascent, it took me remarkably little time to go down the rocky path, and very soon the two of us had rejoined and started to prepare for the final section of the route! However, considering that it would only take a few more minutes for the sun to completely set, we thought it would be a shame not to wait for it and enjoy the final rays of sunshine for this vibrant, full of colorful emotions day! And just as we were ready to go, a source of silvery light was suddenly noticed to appear right behind our backs to the east – obviously the Universe had decided to give us another of its magical performances! The main role was played by the moon this time, which, being in its ‘full-moon’ phase, had just begun its rising at the exact opposite side of the setting sun! The most surreal part of it was the relatively brief moment during which both celestial bodies could be simultaneously observed on the horizon – a purely interstellar scene that without a doubt marked the culmination of this totally spectacular hike!
The last 30 minutes of the route were characterized by much more gloomy spirits, mostly due to the progressively falling dusk, the eerie silence and the deserted landscape everywhere around – it almost felt like we were the only living creatures wandering about some distant rocky planet in another universe. The sleepiness and exhaustion were also quite palpable at this point, gaining the upper hand over our hiking capabilities. Eventually, after 4.5 hours of backpacking (and more than 13 hours since the beginning of this so intensive day), the shelter of Tevno ezero and the lake itself would appear right before our eyes! A brief rest, hot lentil soups under the brilliant full moon, followed by a tent set up procedure – we were finally ready for the long-awaited, potentially chilly night into the open, right next to the pitch black water of the mystical Tevno lake!
Waking up as early as the sunrise amidst a breathtaking landscape at 2500 meters above sea level could be remarkably easy, even right after a completely exhausting previous day (another proof of the mountain’s healing effect). Besides, considering that exactly the same challenging itinerary back to Dobrinishte had to be done in order to make it for the 14:25 train to Septemvri, we definitely couldn’t afford any oversleep! The two of us were furthermore tempted by the word of hot “mekitsi” and tea, supposed to be prepared at the Tevno ezero shelter early in the morning – another contribution to our effortless wake up! And it turned out to be true – pleased with a lavish breakfast, we felt completely revived and ready to hit the yesterday’s paths towards Dobrinishte! Hopefully, our fellow local guide would also be waiting for us at the lower station of the chair lift, as we had previously arranged.
If I have to describe our hike back to Dobrinishte with just a single word, it would most likely be “peaceful”. Despite being strongly dependent on time (missing the 14:25 train to Septemvri would be completely undesirable), the last thing we wanted was to rush it, especially during this absolutely beautiful, warm and cloudless early-autumn day! Already quite well-familiar with the route, we knew exactly what was awaiting, making it feel as if we were moving much faster compared to yesterday (which wasn’t far from the truth). Not surprisingly, one of the spots that I was really curious to see during daylight was the panoramic ridge, whose magnificence I still hadn’t been able to fully assimilate! Of course, we were once again fascinated by the appearance of the lovely view! The overall emotion, however, was just a fraction of the enchanted mixture of fog and light, exhaustion and delight, sunset and moonrise, which we had experienced during the final stage of our hike to Tevno ezero!
Getting over the most challenging rocky terrain (which actually felt quite pleasant this time), going around the tranquil Popovo ezero, and passing through the slightly annoying up-and-down ending section of the route, the Bezbog hut was finally reached – much faster than we had expected! This steady-pace of ours allowed us to grant ourselves a pleasant lunch, right next to the Bezbog lake, enjoying the beautiful mountain landscape for as long as we could before going back to civilization! Forced by the passage of time, however, we would soon find ourselves on the windy Dobrinishte chairlift, bidding farewell to the majestic Pirin – respectful and grateful for all those fascinating sights, moments and emotions that will hardly ever be forgotten!
Back to Civilization
As we were approaching the end of the line, I was relieved to notice our friend’s car, parked right next to the lower station of the lift! A few minutes for loading our gear, and the trip towards the town of Dobrinishte had already begun… in quite a leisurely manner (which I didn’t mind considering there was plenty of time before the train’s scheduled departure). True to form, the local almost immediately initiated some of his passionate discussions about various topics, this time even more serious – World War II, the Holocaust, the Macedonian Question (not to forget that we were in the southwestern part of Bulgaria), US foreign policy, you name it… Concisely sharing our opinion on the matter, the almost one-sided conversation continued for as long as the station of Dobrinishte had eventually been reached! Saying goodbye to the charismatic fellow and thanking him for the ride (essential for the realization of the magnetic Pirin adventure), now it was about time to get our tickets to Septemvri and head to the station platform, where the same old lovely narrow-gauge “Rhodopi” train was peacefully awaiting.
In contrast to the yesterday’s arrival, the atmosphere now felt completely still and silent, as if we were the only passengers in the whole train station. Driven by the original desire of riding closer to the train’s end, this time we managed to successfully get into car number six (the last but one). Only now I had realized that this was actually the exact same car that we were travelling in on our way to Dobrinishte the day before (car number two had become car number six as the locomotive was coupled to the reverse side of the rolling stock). Happy with our ‘on-time’ arrival (untroubled this time), we picked our seats out of the almost completely uninhabited car and, relaxed and warmed by the pleasant mid-October sun, we submerged into the already well-familiar nostalgic ambiance of “Tesnolineykata”! Not really in a sleeping mood, however, at some point I decided to stroll around the train and eventually capture some interesting frames depicting the station of Dobrinishte and the narrow-gauge train itself.
After doing one or two full circles around the train, I felt it was already time to get back to Tsveti and prepare for the supposedly quite melancholic and potentially sleepy ride back to Septemvri (considering the accumulated exhaustion and the overall drowsy mood). It was on my way back to car number six when I had just realized that ‘sleepy’ was actually going to be the most inappropriate description of our forthcoming journey – the pleasant surprises of this absolutely incredible weekend seemed to be never ending!
The Cheerful Train
As I was entering the train, I was surprised to hear live traditional Bulgarian music, obviously coming from the neighbor car number seven. In just a matter of seconds I could already find myself rushing into the alleged car, attracted by the unexpected tunes. And what I saw and experienced there was something I will hardly ever forget – a car full of cheerful ladies and gentlemen, some of them playing accordion, others singing and dancing, third simply observing and enjoying their friends’ performances. My immediate (and purely instinctive) reaction to this totally unanticipated scene was lifting my camera up to my face, seeking to capture the passengers’ still completely natural and unchanged expressions, regardless of the consequences (shooting random people in Bulgaria without asking for permission can be one of the most challenging and potentially troublesome activities). To my greatest surprise, though, not only that my photography attempt was so warmly and enthusiastically accepted, but I was actually welcomed to take more pictures, and even ended up invited to join the ongoing narrow-gauge train jamboree! Euphoric by the opportunity I began introducing myself to the cheerful group while simultaneously trying to take portraits of them. It was quite interesting to notice that it wasn’t just me to feel excited by this unforeseen encounter – my sudden show up in car number seven resulted in the appearance of additional musical instruments, various types of treats, and even booze (shame I had to drive in just a couple of hours).
Spending some time inside the musical car and getting familiar with the charismatic personalities (who initially thought that I was coming from a foreign country), it came to my mind that Tsveti must definitely be a part of this spontaneous event – after all, singing, dancing and listening to live music inside a narrow-gauge train is something that you don’t get to experience every day! Excited by the unexpected invitation, she almost immediately showed up, bringing a bottle of fig rakia (which we couldn’t have dealt with the previous night). Without a doubt, Tsveti’s appearance was the culmination of the improvised train party, resulting in an even more enthusiastic mood, festive conversations and livelier music (enhanced by the introduction of a second accordion). The cheerful atmosphere was completed by the initiation of various types of horo (Bulgarian national dance) alongside the narrow car!
Witnessing all these people (many of them in their 70s or even 80s) enjoying life in such a pure, sincere and unpretending manner was something I will always remember – a firsthand evidence of the ageless nature of the human spirit! For a while it felt like car number seven had turned into a capsule where space, music and emotion blended together to form this unique perception of timelessness! The whole scene, particularly emphasized by nostalgic accordion melodies and vintage train atmosphere reminded me so much of the popular Soviet song “Goluboy vagon” (“The Blue Train Car”), performed by Gena the Crocodile in the eponymous stop-motion animated film.
After more than an hour and a half of energetic musical and dance performances, it was finally time to get some rest and take the chance to actually make a deeper conversation with the enthusiastic group. Attracted by the unanticipated appearance of two relatively young newcomers, most of the people seemed quite interested in having a chat with us. As a result, we were repeatedly invited to joint different seats inside car number seven, where various topics (most of them quite sentimental and inspirational) were brought up. Absorbing all the personal stories, misfortunes and life perspectives, shared by people that had just met us, was such a touching experience – an experience that marked the approaching finale of our precious railway journey!
Moved, satisfied, inspired, and at the same time already quite exhausted (both physically and emotionally) by the unexpected train encounter, Tsveti and I withdrew to our original seats in the neighbor car number six probably an hour before Septemvri – the final station of the route – was expected to be reached. Carried away by the progressively falling dusk, enchanted by the dim railway noises, and charmed by a nearby romantic scene, it was now time for rest, contemplation, assimilation, and appreciation of all the magical events, people, stories, landscapes, feelings and emotions that we were granted throughout this relatively brief, but full of vibrant and unforgettable experiences adventures! There will always be a spot in my memory for #16103 – the trip that will definitely be remembered!