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Overland by bus from Niš, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria

Phespirit reports - September 2006

The Plan

The Journey

The coach from Niš to Sofia was scheduled to depart at five o'clock in the afternoon and, indeed, it did depart promptly at five o'clock in the afternoon. Such promptness was something of a first for Phespirit in his travels around the Balkans. During the first three-quarters of an hour, the coach passed through a steep gorge that provided some of the most spectacular scenery Phespirit had seen anywhere on this travels between Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia. Afterwards, the valley broadened and landscapes became a little more mundane, coinciding with a slow fading of the light.

At around twenty past six the coach passed through the town of Pirot, and, twenty-five minutes later, through the town of Dimitrovgrad. Just before seven it arrived at the frontier with Bulgaria, having overtaken a staggeringly long line of container lorries parked nose-to-tail along the roadside pretty much the whole way from Dimitrovgrad. Whilst the lorries were going nowhere fast, other traffic seemed to be receiving relatively swift attention at the border. A young Serbian border guard entered the coach and collected passports from all six passengers without so much as a word. Then together with the driver he disappeared into the gloom to make everything official-like. The driver returned in record time, all passports stamped, and the coach was able to clear the Serbian side with just ten minutes' delay.

Before tackling the Bulgarian side there was shopping to be done. The coach parked next to the little Duty Free stores in no-man's land and the other passengers piled off to buy fags and booze. Phespirit wasn't going to bother but after a minute or two he decided he might as well see what was on offer. His descent from the coach coincided with an unfamiliar blonde woman climbing aboard. He thought little of this until, having finished browsing through shop windows, he noticed the blonde was standing in the coach aisle, rummaging around the seats near to where Phespirit had left his jacket and bag. This was a bit alarming, so he quickly got back on board and checked his bag and his pockets for contraband. He had no desire to be an unwitting smuggler.

As it turned out he became a witting smuggler. The blonde had not planted anything with his stuff, but when the other passengers got on board she asked each in turn if they would mind taking a bottle of spirits and/or a carton of cigarettes through customs for her. As at all international borders, there is a strict Duty Free allowance when travelling between Serbia and Bulgaria - the blonde was transporting goods that amounted to at least eight times the legal allowance. Phespirit, sitting at the rear of the coach, watched as each passenger cheerfully agreed to help out by carrying a legal amount. When Phespirit's turn came he reasoned 'When in Rome' and ended up with a carton of ten cigarette packets and a bottle of Cinzano. Doubts immediately took hold, and these strengthened when the blonde began reciting prices, just in case Phespirit was questioned. When she returned to the front of the coach he moved her stuff onto an adjacent seat, thereby putting a little distance between himself and the whole business.

All these events unfolded in a very short space of time. By a quarter past seven the coach had reached Bulgarian Passport Control. The routine from the Serbian side was repeated with equal efficiency here, enabling the coach to move quickly on to customs. This is where, if anywhere, things could get a bit sticky. The driver got out, did his thing, and whatever it was, it was good enough to enable his vehicle to move off without any further checks. The coach was clear and away. Phespirit's watch showed just past half-seven.

The time spent at the border was sufficient for the black-iron curtain of night to complete its descent. In spite of the darkness, Phespirit would have been able to tell that he had returned to Bulgaria by the onset of juddering as the coach bumped its way along the Bulgarian roads. The blonde had remained on board, in familiar conversation with the driver, and eventually set to reclaiming her items from all the passengers, thanking each in turn. She then set to rummaging around the seats once more. It dawned on Phespirit that in addition the goods carried by the passengers, other cartons of cigarettes had been broken open and individual packets had been hidden around the vehicle.

As the bus neared its final destination in Sofia, the blonde seemed increasingly frustrated that she was missing a couple of her hidden items. Phespirit fumbled down the side of his own seat and, no surprise, he found two packets of fags. He was in two minds whether to return them or keep them as a windfall. Eventually, however, the blonde approached Phespirit and began, "Excuse me"; at which point he held up the two packets and her face filled with joy. Conversation ensued, and she asked Phespirit if he had a hotel booked in Sofia or if he needed help finding one. The answers should have been 'no' and 'possibly yes', but Phespirit decided that since for all he knew this woman was working for the local mafia, it was probably best if he didn't accept any more of her offers, however well intentioned. He answered 'no' and 'no, thank you'.

The coach reached Sofia Central Bus Station at 8:35pm Serbian time, 9:35pm Bulgarian time. Phespirit walked off alone into the night. Armed with the map in his guidebook, he moved along dark streets until he found Hotel Pop Bogomil. This hotel of only eight rooms had just one room vacant. Phespirit took it. His luck had held throughout this trip and stayed with him to lucky room number seven.

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