May
19
2010

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No Bikes Allowed: A Train Story, Part Two

by Tyler

12:29 AM

Four hours since our train left us behind, we're back on platform three, waiting. A train whistle sounds in the distance, and people start filing across the rails to join us. The station agent who promised to help us is nowhere in sight. I am considering running back to find him when our train appears in the distance. The last one stopped for what seemed like less than a minute. We have no time, and no idea what we're going to do next.

12:30 AM

A cacophony of metal grinding and squealing fills the night air as our train pulls in. When it comes to a rest, our bikes are near the last few cars. We see neither the conductor, nor the station agent who was meant to help us speak with him. People are boarding. If we don't take matters into our own hands we're never getting out of Romania, much less into Munich.

12:31 AM

We wheel our bikes towards the second to last train car, smack the green button to open the door, and cringe together at the narrow stairwell that appears behind it. We have to move fast. The train could well leave at any second, possibly separating us from our bikes.

Together, we hurriedly heave my boat anchor of a bicycle haphazardly into the doorway. My panniers and handlebars are scraping the edges of the entrance; it barely fits. As we shove it up the steep steel steps into the tiny space at the end of the train car, the front end falls roughly into the stairwell on the other side.

I jump in behind my bicycle and wrestle it upright while Tara gets her own. When she approaches, I grab the steel support arm of her bike's front rack and pull with all of my might. Tara lifts and pushes from behind, hoisting her rear wheel into the doorway. With much grunting, pulling and pushing, we successfully get both crammed into the narrow space.

12:34 AM

Tara joins me in the train car. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest, and there is sharp pinch in my lower back (did I pull a muscle?). The door closes behind us. What now? I look around, trying in vain to ascertain how we can make our giant bicycles unobtrusive. The train slowly begins pulling away.

12:40 AM

The conductor is now approaching from the car in front of us. He does not look pleased. I begin tearing panniers off bikes, putting them into the stairwells on either side of us, trying to make room for him to pass. When he arrives, he makes annoyed hand gestures, indicating that we need to move everything to the end of the train.

As we attempt to comply, he pulls out a ratty sheet of paper full of numbers and measurements, and begins to calculate what we owe him for this trouble. After arbitrarily determining our bikes are 20 kilos each (hah!), he informs us that we owe 35 lei per bicycle. I have enough lei for one bike, and try to pay him in euros for the other. This really seems to upset him. No, he is definitely pissed off. He starts gesticulating like crazy and storms off. We won't see him again for the rest of our ride.

12:50 AM

We manage to get Tara's bicycle into the narrow hallway of the car we've boarded. As she pushes down the corridor to an equally tiny space on the other side (why are we doing this again?), a friendly passenger with an entire cabin to himself indicates she can leave her bike with him. Perfect!

The train clacks and sways rhythmically as we ferry Tara's panniers up and down the passageway, stowing them with her bicycle's new home. As we do this, I am briefly overcome with vivid memories of a video game I played years ago, The Last Express. I can hardly believe this adventure is really happening! It feels unreal, but in a good way. For the moment, anyway.

The Last Express Motorcycle The Last Express

1:00 AM

Now, it is time to figure out what to do with my bike, and more importantly, ourselves. The ride will be many, many hours, and it is beginning to look like we may wind up spending it on the floor, in the space between cars. Ugh. I don't see the point in moving my bicycle, so Tara goes in search of somewhere suitable. I stand guard.

A few minutes later, she returns triumphantly. She's found an empty cabin! We rush down the hall, into the next car, and manage to squeeze my bicycle in. Then, we repeat the pannier ferrying process, this time to our very own room.

1:20 AM

After taking some time to decompress from the insanity we've just experienced, we decide to retrieve Tara's bike from the kind stranger. We'll both rest easier knowing everything is in one place. It takes some doing, but we manage to fit both bicycles, all of our panniers, and ourselves into the cabin. One of the many skills bicycle touring forces you to learn: how to pack a lot into a small space!

Touring Bicycles in Romanian Sleeper Car

2:00 AM

Now stuffed like a couple of sardines into our cabin, we try to get comfortable. The pinch in my back still hurts, making every uncomfortable position we try doubly so. Laying on top of each other, laying beside one-another, curling up into little balls… we try everything.

Eventually, I give up on the idea of sharing one side of the cabin, and slither into the row of seats across from us, behind our makeshift bicycle wall.

Touring Bicycles in Romanian Sleeper Car

And then, somehow, we manage to sleep. The muted sound of train-wheels clacking over the rails beneath us lulls me into a shallow, dream-filled slumber.

5:00 AM

We're awakened by a passport checker who knocks loudly, says good morning in a jarring manner, and flips our light on, blinding us. We're at the border of Hungary! He seems annoyed about our bicycles, spitting rapid-fire Hungarian(?) at us while waving his hand in a sweeping/shooing motion.

When he realizes we don't understand him, he marches down the hall without another word. We sit, half awake, staring at one another through the spokes of my bicycle wheel, confused.

A few minutes later, he returns with another ticket agent who speaks English and is much friendlier. He charges us 10 euro for each bicycle, and gives us tickets for them, saying they'll be valid for the rest of Hungary. Apparently we'll have to pay again in Austria and Germany.

Romanian Sleeper Car

10:00 AM

As our train approaches Budapest, we wheel our bicycles back into the tiny opening at the end of our car and reassmble them like some life-sized ship-in-a-bottle. The train comes to a halt, and we find getting our bikes out is a lot easier than getting them in had been. With Tara on the platform, we maneuver one bike down the stairs and out of the cramped confinement of the hallway. Tara rests it against a bench, and we repeat the process. Only one more train to go!

Hungarian Rails

10:30 AM

Tara goes off to buy us some food while I wait with the bikes. She comes back saying that no one in the station will take euros. We switch places, and I go find a place to change currency. With ten euros worth of Hungarian money (we don't even know what its called!) she buys a couple of kebabs, pastries, coffees, and an iced tea. We realize we're starving, and eat our fill as we wait for a train to take us on our final leg of this ridiculous journey.

11:00 AM

Not long after we finish eating, our ride arrives, a RailJet train that will send us directly to Munich! There doesn't seem to be a bicycle car, so I begin the process of tearing our bikes apart yet again. While I am loading our luggage into the train, one piece at a time, a conductor appears.

With what is becoming a very familiar hand gesture, the smug conductor bars my entrance from the train with a wag of his finger, inches from my face. He says, "No. No, no no! No bicycles. Impossible!". It is a fucking train, I think. A giant, several thousand ton machine made for the sole purpose of ferrying things from one place to another. Nothing about putting two bicycles on it is even remotely impossible!

When the conductor won't move, I begin to worry that the train will leave with all of our belongings inside it. I try twice to get on and he shuffles in front of me, sidling around like some bully in a schoolyard! So, I yell at him to get the hell out of my way, making quite a scene as I retrieve our panniers. Will we ever make it to Munich?

Budapest Train Station

11:30 AM

Upset, tired, and very, very frustrated, I plant myself on a Walkstool and "tap out", asking Tara to make the next move. She goes to rectify the situation, standing in line at the information desk.

12:00 PM

Armed with a stack of papers and a triumphant look on her face, Tara returns, cheerily informing me that she stumbled upon someone who actually knows what they are doing! We now have a complete bike-friendly itinerary to Munich. It comes as no surprise when she reports that it is very convoluted.

There are several more stops we must make, and even a change of train stations once we get to Vienna, Austria. Oy vey. Tara assures me that she made the lady swear repeatedly that we wouldn't be denied access if we followed her plan. We feel a little better, but steel ourselves for more disappointment.

12:50 PM

Our next train arrives, and miraculously, it is easy to board!

Bike Friendly Train

1:00 PM–4:00 PM

The next several hours are a blur of transfers at various stops in Hungary. All of the connections are easy! We load and unload our bikes repeatedly, push them up and down stairs at stations, and watch the huge schedule boards flip-flip-flip-flip through times and destinations as we slowly make our way west.

Hungarian Train Station

During one of our brief lay-overs, Tara calls her mom to wish her a happy birthday. Happy Birthday, Lisa, we love you!

4:30 PM

We board our second-to-last train which will take us to Vienna. Safely underway, we spend our time reading and taking naps.

Bike Friendly Train Tyler Reading on the Train Tyler Reading on the Train

5:40 PM

We arrive in Vienna, and though we want more than anything to be done, now is the time we really have to mobilize. We are in Vienna's Sudbahnhof station, and must catch our final train at Wien Westbahnhof. This is the only part of the itinerary the woman in Budapest was unsure of, so we stop in an information desk for directions.

A man quickly outlines how to get there on public transit, involving several changes on trams and subways! Good god, will this ever end? I pull up "Transportation" waypoints on my GPS and search for Westbahnhof. Success! Knowing what we have to do, we dismiss the tram/subway plan, roll up our right pant legs, put on our rain jackets (it is raining here too) and hop on our bikes.

5:50 PM

Helmets strapped to our heads, we wheel out of the train station, and head out into rainy Vienna. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, with twenty minutes until our train is due to leave, we bike as fast as we can. While I call out turns, it feels like we're in the Amazing Race. We yell to one another —"Hey look! It's a weinerschnitzel stand! It's a bike path! Pastries! Sausages!" Our legs are like jelly, and we're running on pure adrenalin at this point.

We arrive at Wein Westbahnhof, and look up to see yet another gigantic staircase! Together we push one bike up, then the other, legs and arms burning with fatigue. We rush to the platform, and look around for a monitor to show us what trains are coming when. Confused and not seeing ours, Tara rushes over to the information desk. She returns bearing the news: we've missed our train… but it doesn't matter anyway because it was a NO BIKES ALLOWED RailJet!

What to do now? Tara, who has become the designated ticket handler, goes back to the office, and tries to figure out how to get us to Munich. The man at the desk prints out every possible itinerary for us, starting with a train leaving in about two minutes involving 3 changes, and finishing with a train leaving in the morning that involves just one.

6:30 PM

Tara knows which one she wants: she wants the morning train. We'll find a hostel, enjoy our one night in Vienna, and take the sensible one-connection train in the morning. She can't bear another cold, wet night of sleeping in a train station.

I, on the other hand, want to go, go, go and be done with this whole process even if it means leaving immediately and changing trains all night. We are tired, we are frustrated, and Tara shoves the papers in my hand and says, "fine, pick whatever you want, but you deal with it." I go to make reservations.

On the way to the office, I realize that Tara is probably right. This is a hard decision for me, but I reserve seats and buy bike tickets for a train at 9:50 AM the following morning. It has only one change in Salzburg. Feeling complete, and wanting to rid myself of paperwork as I often do, I foolishly ditch the stack of alternate train schedules and return with the news. Tara is thrilled and thankful. We go off in search of a hotel.

7:30 PM

Back into the rain. We stop at the first hostel we see. We are horrified to find that a room for the two of us will cost �30 each, making our one-night stay for less than 12 hours a whopping �60. We've grown so used to Romanian prices (a really nice hotel for �25-35, or a cheap one for much less) that we have a huge case of sticker shock. They also don't have a good place for our bikes.

Dejected, we wheel our way to the next one, and it is even more expensive. There is no way we're spending that much for a few hours inside! It is now dark, and it is still raining.

8:30 PM

Forget it. We decide we'll just sleep in the train station. But first, we need food. We are starving. Heading back in the direction of the train station, Tara spots the perfect place, marked with a chalkboard menu. We wheel down a side street, and find a warm pub, with long wooden tables shared by multiple parties, lots of locals, and huge mugs of beer.

Vienna, Austria Tunnel

A very jovial waiter comes to serve us, and we place our order. Two huge beers first. The asparagus cream soup (sparglecremzuppe!) for Tara, along with an order of bratwurst with potatoes and sourkraut. I order roast beef in mustard sauce with fried onions and roasted potatoes.

This meal is the greatest thing that has happened in our lives in days. Every single thing is piping hot, delicious, reasonably priced, and home cooked on the spot. Our beers are revelations. Tara's, a Radler (Almdudler) is light and flowery, almost sweet, while mine, a Gemischtes is smooth, and quenching. Hunger may well prove to be the best sauce, this was the best beer I've ever had.

Austrian Beers

We relax and eat until we are completely stuffed. When we ask the friendly waiter how late they are open, we are pleased to find the answer is 1AM. So, we bring out our laptops and work for a bit, trying to journal about what has happened so far. We are cozy, warm and happy. Coffees and a powdered-sugar dusted apfelstrudel finish off our delicious meal.

When the bill comes, we don't bat an eye; the whole meal is paid for, thanks to an incredibly generous donation from our friend Debbie Black. Thank you so much Debbie!

11:45 PM

We say goodbye to our waiter and wheel out into the cold, dark night once more. We enter the train station, and make our way to the ticket booth in order to change trains. We are disappointed to find that the office is closed until 5AM.

It is possible we could've taken one of the other itineraries anyway, making reservations as we went along, but I have prematurely thrown away all of our paperwork. We now have no idea when the trains are, where the changes are, etc. This is probably for the best, as we are both completely shot. One connection it is.

Looks like we're stuck here all night.


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