Where did we stop? Oh yes, Budapest. The last travelogue entry was about my final full day of sightseeing in Budapest, Hungary. So the morning after, we dragged our suitcases to Budapest Déli train station to head the next city: Zagreb, Croatia.
It was without a doubt the most nerve-wracking leg of my entire trip for several reasons:
1) I wanted to take a night train to save a travelling day and hotel cost (we could sleep on the coach and wake up in the next city) but unfortunately during winter only day trains are available. So we had no choice but to spend 8 hours of daylight staring at the window.
2) I couldn’t book the tickets online in advance. Had to wait till I stepped foot in Europe and bought them at DB office at Frankfurt Airport. I was so worried we couldn’t get a ticket, because we our travel date was 3 days before Xmas and there was only 1 train operating each day. If we couldn’t get on board, we would have to wait till the next day!
3) I read lots conflicting information on the internet about travelling from Budapest to Zagreb by train. Some said that it would be a non-stop ride, the only stop would be at the border to clear our passports. Some said that we would have to change train at Koprivnica, a small town just after Croatian border. Even worse, some said that we actually had to get off at Koprivnica, take a feeder bus to another station at Križevci and then only board the next train there. And we had to do it in 30 minutes, with our large suitcases!
4) Travelling from Budapest (Hungary) to Zagreb (Croatia) meant that we would be getting out of EU and entering a non-EU country. EU gives Malaysians a blanket visa (Schengen Visa) whereby we can travel freely in all 25 EU countries for 90 days. But Croatia is not in EU, so the rules are different. I did read online about travelers being asked to get off at Koprivnica and take a train back to Budapest, because they couldn’t provide enough documentation to enter Croatia.
Due to these various uncertainties, especially no. 3 and 4, I had to make myself mentally and physically prepared for anything.
Firstly, we had to be able to move quickly in case we had to change trains, or worse, change stations. So each of us should only carry one suitcase and one backpack, nothing more. No heels for me, only flat winter boots. And 10 minutes before the train reached Koprivnica, we must start putting on our winter jackets and gloves, get our suitcases from the rack and strap our backpacks on our shoulders. So when the train stopped we could immediately jump off and run to catch the next one.
Secondly, we would be entering Croatia by rail. Not many tourists enter a country by rail as compared to by air, so there was a good chance that the immigration officers at the border might never even heard of Malaysia. They might not be aware that Malaysians do not need visa to enter Croatia. So to avoid any hassle, I went to Croatian’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs website and printed the page that said no visa required for Malaysians – in both English and Croatian language.
So after all these preparations, what happened on the actual day?
Well, the start of the journey was already a bit dramatic. When we boarded the train at Budapest Déli station, a middle aged guy insisted to help me carry my heavy suitcase to the rack. I refused, but he did it anyway. Then suddenly he asked me for money! He couldn’t speak much English, but from what I gathered he claimed that he was the train’s porter (which I seriously doubted so) and he demanded EUR 1 for each suitcase.
Guess what I did? I pretended that I couldn’t understand what he said and brushed him off. After exchanging some incomprehensible words, he left our coach and went looking for his next victim. Thank goodness, or so I thought. Because about 10 minutes later he came again, begging for money. This time around I had a bit of sympathy towards him. He looked like a homeless guy, genuinely in need of cash. Being in the commercial world, I knew that European economy had been in a bad shape for some time. He didn’t ask for much, after all he did help to lift my heavy suitcase. So I scrambled through my coin purse and found some leftover HUF, so I gave him HUF 130, which translated to EUR 0.50 the most. He took it and left for good.
We performed solat in the coach and waited for other passengers to board. We took 1st class cabin, but honestly it was nothing much to gloat about. The train was very old and the facilities (seats, lights, toilets) were run down. I had taken many train rides across the continent so trust me when I said that even a 3rd class cabin in Western Europe looked far better. The truth immediately struck me – although Europe had always been seen as one, the east and west were still pretty much economically divided.
Each 1st class cabin accommodated six people. We were later joined by two South Korean girls dressed head to toe as if they were doing winter fashion show – long bright colored fleece jackets, spike heeled knee length boots, done-up hair and all. We tried to strike a conversation with them (we would have to sit together for 8 hours anyway) but they weren’t very responsive. Each of them had earphones plugged in, connected to Galaxy Note, playing K-Pop music.
|Travelling 1st class from Budapest to Zagreb ;-)|
5 long hours later the train arrived at Gyékényes, a village just before Hungarian-Croatian border. Hungarian immigration officers stepped onboard and stamped our passports to exit EU. A few minutes later Croatian immigration officers came along, together with customs officers. The two South Korean girls got their passports stamped immediately. But for us, as what I expected, the checks were much longer. The officer had to flip through some reference books, checked with her colleagues for something and then manually write down each of our names on her notebook.
Speaking of names, now let me tell you the trouble with Muslim names in Malaysian passports. In our passports, our names are written entirely as “first name”. There’s no “last name” indicated anywhere. For example if your name is Siti Aminah binti Ahmad, when the immigration officer scans your passport, it will appear as:
First name: SITI AMINAH BINTI AHMAD
Last name: <NONE>
For the rest of the world, say if the name is Brad Pitt, it will appear as:
First name: BRAD
Last name: PITT
This abnormality causes quite a problem when travelling overseas, especially in countries that rarely receive Malaysian travelers. I’ve been asked many times – What is your surname? What does “binti” means? Immigration officers often shocked to see the absence of last name. And the fact that I am a Muslim girl wearing hijab doesn’t make it any easier.
So back to passport control at Gyékényes, the immigration officer told me that she had to take our passports off the train to her office to do further checking. Then she ran off with our red books. I was very worried. We were in a strange lain, on board of a train that would be leaving in a few minutes, and we didn’t have our passports with us! I was really tempted to follow her, but I wasn’t sure if it was a smart move. Let he do her work, said the voice in my head. So I kept my cool, stared through the window with my eyes fixed at the immigration office, hoping that she would get out of there very soon.
|Gyékényes train station. The immigration office was somewhere in there.|
After the longest 5 minutes of my life, I saw the officer running out of the building with our passports in her hand. She jumped onboard, gave me the passports, and jumped off. The minute her feet touched the ground, the train moved!
I flipped through my passport. Glad to see Croatian immigration stamp on it. Definitely one of the most priceless stamps that I ever got. The journey continued for another couple of hours. At about 10pm we reached Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor train station.
So glad that the long dreaded journey was finally over.
Hello Zagreb, couldn’t wait to make the best of my stay here!