“What is wrong with this country?” became a droning mantra in my brain, as I grew increasingly hungry, cold and sleep-deprived on an overnight trip through Romania. Like so many tourists, I began judging the country by how comfortable and accessible it was for me, an outsider who didn’t know any of the language or customs. In the end, however, the fact that this trip didn’t go exactly as planned made it a useful mirror for myself, testing my patience, resourcefulness and open-mindedness.

The Bosphorus Express from Istanbul to Bucharest via Turkish National Railways (TCDD)

This train trip was planned very pragmatically; I was just settling into life in Istanbul, but I needed to return to America to move out of my apartment. The least expensive way to do this was from Budapest. The least expensive way to Budapest was via train. Purchasing the ticket at Sirkeci station was straightforward enough: I would arrive in Bucharest in the afternoon on Sunday and catch a Hungarian train to Budapest. This train would get me to Budapest in the early morning on Monday, giving me plenty of time for sightseeing before my early morning-flight on Tuesday. There was just one point of confusion: The saleswoman at the station told me that because the trains are not operated by Turkish National Railways from Bucharest onward, I did not have a reservation between Bucharest and Budapest. I was worried that after spending 222 Turkish Lira for a ticket, I would be asked to purchase another ticket in Bucharest. From what I could understand, the answer was, “No but yes but no.” I remembered that the train attendants often ask for money in order for you to stay in a couchette. I asked if this was what she was referring to. She nodded, and I left the station feeling somewhat reassured.

Learn How To Purchase Turkey Train Tickets

Purchasing train tickets online is possible for domestic routes but when going international routes you have to buy them in person or thru a travel agency.

You can go directly to the TCDD (which is as helpful as outdated encyclopedias – just check out the FAQ section) TCDD

Or you may want to check out the Turkey Planner Blog.

We departed from Istanbul at 10:30pm on Saturday. I dozed for five hours and awoke at Kapikule, the border crossing with Bulgaria. The process of getting our exit stamps was painless—I got off and right back on the train, practically. After dozing for about an hour, however, I was woken back up by the Romanian train attendant. “Get off train, get off train. Police search.” Everyone was annoyed, but the attendant’s only response was “Police Turkish, no me.” The Turkish police, indeed, came through with a drug dog and we waited for about forty minutes on the lonely platform. “Why do they care about drugs as we’re leaving the country?” someone asked. “Don’t you know?” someone joked. “Turkey has some of the best drugs in the world. They don’t want anyone taking them out.” After boarding again we all got back on and went back to sleep. After about two hours I woke up again and we were still in the same spot. I believe we spent about four hours at the border of Turkey and Bulgaria.

The next day the train attendant came to my cabin to let me know that there would be no train to Budapest from Bucharest when we arrived. He said that the ticket I bought in Istanbul was very good because I could use it to get from Istanbul to Bucharest with any combination of trains. So, he advised me to get on an overnight train from Bucharest to town called Arad on the border. There, I could catch a train to Budapest at 11:30am. When we got to Bucharest I looked at the train schedule to confirm his instructions. It turned out that “there is no train” actually meant “we missed the 5:30 train because we spent four hours at the Turkish border.” Regardless, this new itinerary would get me to Budapest with an afternoon and evening before my flight.

During my four-hour layover I went outside to get a sense of the city. The first thing that greeted me was a man being lifted off of the pavement by a team of paramedics. He looked to be in his sixties, but he didn’t seem to have any injuries. I suspected that he might have been taken away for alcohol poisoning, which seemed more likely when I noticed back inside the train station that two-liter bottles of beer were being sold approximately every five feet. Although I enjoy drinking in public, something about the large amounts of people gathered around drinking in the station in this impoverished country was sad and unsettling for me. I got the same feeling each time a man approached me, whispering, offering to sell me a stolen cell phone. This happened four times during the four hours I waited.

Bucharest to Arad – Romanian National Railway Company (CFR)

When I got on the train I was unpleasantly surprised to find that it was dirty and smelly, the floor littered with beer and soda bottles. Confused about what car to go into, I checked the sleeper compartments. They were quickly filling up with rowdy Romanian teenagers, and I decided that there was no other place to be than here. I settled into a seat and noticed that those filing into the train all held little yellow tickets. I finally understood what the ticket attendant in Istanbul had meant when a girl holding a ticket with my seat’s number on it told me that I needed to move. I got up and sat down in another seat, waiting for its owner to show up, feeling embarrassed. A group of men came and wondered what I was doing in the seat that one of them had bought. I couldn’t communicate with them, so I just looked confused and they got the picture. One of the them decided to just stand in the isle and chat with people while their blond, crew cut friend with blue eyes whom I thought looked like Bruce Willis look-a-like sat down next to me.

The train departed, and the attendant came through to collect tickets. I tried to show the attendant him the notes on the back of my ticket that the attendant on the previous train had scribbled about taking the train to Arad. I couldn’t, however, because he had already begun having a heated argument with the Bruce-Wilis-like Romanian next to me. I had no I idea what they were fighting about, only that it had to do with me and my ticket. Eventually the attendant just nodded, gave me back my ticket and left in a huff.

Bruce Willis turned to me and asked me in Spanish if I spoke Spanish. “Si, un poco,” I said. He explained that he had been arguing with the train conductor because he wanted to see if I knew any language beside English, which the attendant thought surely must have been impossible. But here we were—both of us speaking Spanish. Throughout the conversation I learned that he worked in Spain for a number of years, that he and his girlfriend were having problems, and from the smell of his breath, that he was quite drunk. When I mentioned that I was living in Istanbul, he leaned in so close that I could almost distinguish the brand of beer he drunk and explained, “Turkish guys like Romanian women. They’re always trying to marry Romanian women…Eighty percent of Romanian women,” he said, “are liars!” “They’ll leave the family to go run off with some foreign guys!”

All around us people were playing cards, drinking beers, bursting out in laughter and singing songs. It seems everyone on the train was having a party except for me and the old couple right across from me, who were fast asleep in the midst of the chaos. I have to admit that I was shocked because this was the polar opposite of overnight travel in Turkey. Breath to loud on an overnight bus in Turkey and you are guaranteed to get the stink eye from other passengers. Buses and trains are supposed to be dead-silent places where people can try to sleep. Looking at the situation from Turkish, American and just plain sleep-deprived eyes, everyone on the train was guilty of inexcusable rudeness.

I tried to sleep. The seat-back was high, straight and stiff. I tried imitating the couple across from me, just sitting with my feet up and letting my head flop down. That didn’t work. I tried leaning my head against the window—too bumpy. I tried curling up in the fetal position with my feet on the seat—not much luck. Eventually, the seat next to me emptied, and I was able to curl into a question-mark shape using my arm as a pillow. I had to flip a lot in this position, because my arm kept going numb. Did I mention that the overhead lights were on throughout the trip? It was like sleeping in a Wal-Mart. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my eyes to try to block it out.

After getting some semblance of sleep, I woke up to see the sunrise as the train passed through the pine-covered Transylvanian mountains. The pink glow of the sun made the mountains into hulking black giants at first. As it rose higher it illuminated them in dusty shades of pink and blue. Mist hung around tiny villages nestled into valleys. Silvery, curved spires of churches peeked out and reflected the rays of the sun like beacons in the fog. A voice within nagged me to drink up this extraterrestrial view despite my exhaustion, knowing that in another twenty-four hours I would be back in my homeland, where everything would seem normal and I would take it for granted.

Watch Breathtaking Views of Transylvanian mountains

As we passed into the plains, I thought we must be near Arad, based on the time, which was 11am. Bruce Willis came back and sat down next to me. I asked him how much time was left. He said, “Oh, about two hours.” I felt a rush of alarm. When I told him that I had a train to Budapest in a half an hour and a flight to America in the morning, he left and brought back a friend who spoke English. This new Romanian listened to my dilemma and immediately he, Bruce Willis and another friend were on their phones using the Internet to find a way to get me to Budapest. My heart melted at their thoughtfulness. It turned out there was another train at 1:30pm, so I would get to Budapest by the late afternoon. When we got in the English speaking Romanian came with me to make sure I got a seat reservation this time. The reservation was thirteen Romanian Lei. He gave me two lei because I was short. “Remember: Even if things don’t work right in Romania, at least the people are nice,” were his parting words.

Like in Bucharest, I stepped out of the station to see the town. Preoccupied and trying to pull something out of my bag, I heard a couple call out to me just as I began to cross the street. I looked up to see a big, yellow tram coming toward me. I stepped back just in time. I don’t know Romanian, but I’m pretty sure the couple were cursing at me for my stupidity as they crossed the street. In that instant it seemed silly for me to criticize anything about their country when I was almost equal to a baby here. I would be lost or dead without the Romanians’ help! Sure, there was rampant noise and drunkenness on the train, but if I were a Romanian traveling with my friends, it would have been a blast. In that moment I understood that my condemnations were based on the standards of an outsider who wants things to be safe. The locals on the other hand, might prefer flavor and spirit. My memories of that there are many ways to measure the value of a place: not just how accommodating it can be for foreigners, but also how the people treat you and what they teach you.


  1. Oh boy, it can be very nice or very unpleasant. Seems you got a taste of both 🙂 Glad you made it through Romania. Now I’m thinking twice if I should take this train to Istanbul.


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