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Overland by train from Skopje, F.Y.R. of Macedonia to Niš, Serbia

Phespirit reports - September 2006

The Plan

The Journey

The sensible city planners of Skopje have combined their train station and bus station into one colossal, multi-tiered concrete complex a short walk from the centre. It is a hideous sprawl, but convenient. When Phespirit first arrived in the city by coach, he nipped down to the railway ticket office to find out the price of a one-way single to Niš, so he would know how much money to set aside for his last day. In trying to be helpful, the woman behind the counter wrote "10 €ur Niš" on a slip of paper. Phespirit was carrying U.K. pounds sterling, U.S. dollars and Bulgarian leva - and he would return with Macedonian dinars - but he had no euros. Mental arithmatic was needed. So, with roughly 1.4 euros to the pound, €10 is about equal to £7.20, and with approximately 90 dinars to the pound, £7.20 works out to 648 dinars, give or take a dinar. He set aside 700.

On the day of his departure, Phespirit arrived at the station in plenty of time to catch the quarter past seven train to Belgrade, calling at Niš. He returned to the ticket office (which was surprisingly free of customers) and bought his ticket without even having to queue. The price: 597 dinars, with no change offered from 600. Entering the belly of the station, he ascended the stairs to platform three and there awaited the arrival of his train. Like Phespirit, the train turned up with plenty of time to spare. Phespirit idled around, in no great hurry to board as he knew he had the thick end of five hours' travelling to endure. Whilst on the platform he observed railway workers practicing the mystic art of wheel-tapping; striking every wheel of every carriage with a long-handled hammer. Each blow sounded a reassuringly solid note. This train would definitely not be involved in a high-speed accident.

As the designated departure time drew nearer, so other passengers started boarding the train. Phespirit decided he'd better do likewise if he wanted to secure a reasonable seat. His move was well-timed as he managed to get a whole compartment to himself for the entire duration of the journey. When, at last, the train heaved away it was just a couple of minutes later than scheduled. Early progress was ominously slow with several stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A full fifty minutes had elapsed before the pace started to pick up noticeably, but this was only relative to the tedious crawl that had gone before. At quarter past eight the train stopped at Kumanovo; Phespirit recognised the name as that of the town he'd passed through on his way from Sofia to Skopje by bus. A little over ten minutes after Kumanovo the train halted again, this time at Tabanovci for the commencement of border-crossing entertainments.

The process began with two men walking the length of the train, handing out small square cards to all passengers. These cards have to be completed with details of name, date of birth, nationality, country of birth, vehicle registration and address (Phespirit simply put the name of his hotel in Skopje). After a short while the card was collected with no questions asked. Then, an unexpected development: at ten to nine the train started moving again, apparently straight into Serbia. The Macedonians were allowing him to leave, despite having had no customs check, no passport check, no passport stamp; nothing.

Shortly after nine o'clock the train eased to a halt at Presevo, adjacent to a gently flapping Serbian flag. That it took over ten minutes to get from Tabanovci to Presevo is not due to the vastness of no-man's land; for some reason the Macedonian engine had to be swapped for a Serbian one. And now for Serbian procedures. A huge fighting-fit young male border guard, resplendent with khaki uniform and a holstered pistol, arrived on the scene and accepted Phespirit's passport. He scrutinised both Phespirit and the passport, asking: where he's going; where he's coming from; tourist or business? All was acceptable. The passport was stamped and the huge fighting-fit young male border guard moved on. The train itself moved on at 9:17am; the total time for all border formalities was a reasonable fifty minutes.

Progress through Serbia was not significantly faster than through Macedonia, even with the new engine up front. Phespirit made a note of the stops along the way: Ristovac at 9:53am; Vranje at 10:08am; Vladicin Han at 10:36am. It was around this time that it dawned on him just how wildly optimistic it had been for the experts who draft railway timetables to attempt to predict the arrival time of this train to within one minute of accuracy, when quite clearly it would be lucky to get within one hour. The main advantages of trains over buses are the additional leg-room, and that it is possible to stand up at any time, go for walk, use the toilet, and so forth. In the Balkans, however, for speed and reliability the buses beat the trains every time.

Pressing on further north into Serbia, passing field after field of maize, the train loosely followed the course of the River Moravica through pleasant semi-mountainous countryside. The stations continued: Leskovac at 11:39am; Doljevac at 12:12pm; Medjurovo at 12:30pm. Then, at last, Niš itself at 12:49pm - exactly fifty-five minutes late. Phespirit intended to leave Niš at five o'clock the same day, which meant his five hour visit had already been cut by twenty percent, but he'd made it to his destination and experienced international rail travel, Balkans-style, so was happy as he headed into the city.

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