European Times Budapest: Journey to the centre of a lost world

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The Independent Online
WISPS OF steam rise from the platforms, grey-white tendrils snaking a path into the night. Under the orange lamps, the station air is sharp with the smell of mittel-Europa, a heady cocktail of coal-burning fires, pungent cheap cigarettes and diesel fumes.

There is a sense of journeys now finished, and others yet to begin. The golden shadows from the lamps fall on a scene from a Thirties film noir, or an Eric Ambler novel, but this is in fact midnight at Budapest's Keleti (eastern) station.

The staccato sound of the announcer is in sharp contrast to the babble of passengers' voices. Here Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, Russian and Ukrainian all mix together in a great east European linguistic goulash. The announcement of the next departure cuts through it like a blunt, hacking knife.

In the distance, locomotive wheels rattle on the maze of train lines that snake their way out of Keleti station, the hub of eastern Europe's rail network. The lines offer a sense of adventure over the horizon, hard to find on Britain's contemporary railways.

There are no delays here on the 8.14 to Vienna or Dresden because of the wrong kind of snow. Not even armed revolution or the wrong kind of government slows down the network. The departure board displays the destinations on offer: Istanbul, Kiev, Sofia, Moscow, St Petersburg, Warsaw, Prague, Bucharest, Bratislava, Berlin, Belgrade.

And each train journey encapsulates a different aspect of a continent in transition. Border crossings and customs checks reflect, it seems almost week by week, the rise and fall of governments, the flowering and fading of ideologies.

Just a few months ago, travellers to the Slovak capital, Bratislava, could expect to have their passports and baggage checked by archetypal Soviet-era border guards, surly and unfriendly, accompanied by muscle- bound young policemen with hard, unflinching stares.

Now that the authoritarian former prime minister Vladimir Meciar has lost power, and a new liberal government has taken over, the policemen have vanished and friendly frontier guards take the opportunity to practise their English on the British traveller.

The endemic corruption in Romania, whose officials are renowned as among the most venal in Europe, begins on the train from Budapest to Bucharest.

While honest - or naive - Westerners, either untrained in, or unwilling to participate in Balkan shenanigans present genuine tickets, locals buy a ticket to the Hungarian- Romanian frontier, after which, once in Romania, they simply bribe the conductor for passage to the capital, for a fraction of the price of a genuine ticket.

And even in the chaos that sometimes engulfs the region, some institutions remain reassuringly stable. None more so than Russian carriage attendants, those awe-inspiring queens of the samovar and ticket punch.

Once travelling with a friend on a train from Hungary to Lvov in western Ukraine, we were surrounded by drunken Russians, keen on some sport with two Westerners. One kept tapping my face with his fist, calling me, extremely disconcertingly, his friend.

To our rescue came Bela, an ethnic Hungarian from the border region. Five feet tall and seemingly five feet wide, he picked up my "friend" and hurled him 10 feet down the carriage. My relief soon turned to apprehension when the Russian returned with several friends and surrounded my bunk.

Bela reappeared with his gang, and the scene looked all set for an almighty brawl, or worse, until the female conductor appeared, barked a stream of Russian orders and expletives, and the would-be belligerents all instantly slunk away, shamefaced.

In the morning we were served glasses of steaming black tea, and woke to a scene from the carriage window from Turgenev: a vast expanse of whiteness, with a blanket of winter snow that stretched across the horizon. Tiny figures, some tall and thin, some rounded babush-kas wrapped in many layers, picked a path across the snow in the distance. A few scattered hamlets zipped by and the trees were stripped to their winter bleakness.

Memories take longer to fade here: in the station barber shop at the Black Sea port of Batumi in Georgia, I saw a three-foot high picture of Stalin. The country was then engulfed in civil war. Armed raids on trains, especially at night, were common. The arrival of half a dozen armed men in our carriage on the train to the capital, Tblisi, was not reassuring.

"Don't mind us," said one portly gunman, "we're the national guard in case the train gets attacked." He placed his pistol on the carriage's tiny folding table, where it slid back and forth all night as we trundled our way through Georgia.