Sunday, November 9, 2014

25 Years After the Fall of Wall: What Was It Really Like Behind the Iron Curtain for an American?

I Traveled Alone Behind the Iron Curtain
During the Cold War.

By Paul Iorio
This is the transit visa that enabled me to get through the Iron Curtain,
August 20, 1976. The border crossing, as shown on the visa stamp, was
Edirne, which is at the intersection of Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece.
I was entering Bulgaria from Turkey.

The uber-notorious Iron Curtain began to fall 25 years ago this week and stories abound about the oppression behind it.

But what was it REALLY like to travel behind the Iron Curtain as an American at the height of the Cold War?

As an adventurous 19-year-old American college student, I traveled alone (via a train that made mostly local stops ) through the Iron Curtain in 1976, journeying non-stop from Italy, to Istanbul, Turkey, crossing the entire length of both the former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria
and venturing through Thrace and European Turkey.

And then I took the whole trip again in reverse!

My starting point was Florence (where I was studying for six months). And my non-stop trek spanned fifty-two hours, two time zones and over two thousand miles in August '76, following the route of the original Orient Express, though this train was a ramshackle thing, barely better than refugee boxcars for much of the voyage; through most of Yugoslavia, I couldn't even find a seat and had to sleep on my suitcase in the crowded corridor.

I also soon found that the tough reputation of the cops of Communist Eastern Europe was well-deserved -- though I was skeptical about that fact before the trip. As I naively joked
in my journal when I passed into Slovenia: "I must be in Yugoslavia by now. It's dark, so I can't see the oppression and lack of liberty."

My attitude was less jokey several hours later in Zagreb when the Yugoslav police took me off the train for no apparent reason (probably because I was one of only two Americans on board the
train that day), forcing me to leave my luggage onboard. Through the language barrier, I think the cops were claiming I didn't have a transit visa -- even after I showed them my transit visa.

As I wrote in my journal at the time: "And so off the train I went" -- to the harsh glare of people who had stony "Tito/Khrushchev" expressions on their faces.

The only other person booted from the train was a bearded hippie who claimed to be a Stanford University student; he started getting loud about what he called the fascist behavior of
the cops, and I asked him to shut up before he got us in deeper trouble.

We were detained outside a small side building, a sort of mini-police station, where an officer confiscated my passport. After waiting for around ten minutes, the train made noises as if
it were about to leave Zagreb, so, impulsively, I bolted toward the tracks, even though I didn't have my passport and hadn't been given an ok from the police to re-board.

But no one stopped me. I wasn't hit by a hail of bullets! And just before I reboarded, some stranger handed me my passport. "Mysteriously received my...passport again as...I was running back to the train and was handed it by a man," I wrote in my journal at the time. "Mysterious
totalitarian forces at work."

I didn't see the Stanford student get back on the train and assumed he was now in the clutches of some nasty Croatian cops.

As the train left Zagreb, I sat down and started writing about what had just happened. But a Yugoslav police officer came into my train car and stood a short distance from me, staring at me in a menacing way. When I put away my pen and paper, he walked away.

Through the train window, parts of northern Croatia looked sort of like a Communist Norman Rockwell painting, with peasants, in classic red style, harvesting a field by hand with sickles.

As the train approached Belgrade, the landscape became increasingly urban in a very gray way.

"The entrance [to Belgrade] is utterly filled with trash, and as you approach it, one sees drab but...modern buildings and a superhighway," I wrote in my diary.

I snapped this photo of Belgrade, then the capital of
Yugoslavia, from the train in '76.
[Note: my original photo was a slide,
which I shot a photo of in order to post here.]

After Belgrade, the scenery became unexpectedly spectacular, thanks to the thrilling peaks of the Balkan Mountains (one of the most underrated ranges in all of Europe). But just before
Bulgaria, the landscape became downbeat again, full of "empty roads, solemn faces, dreary check points," as I wrote in my journal at the time.

This part of southern Serbia, between Bulgaria and Kosovo, remains the most desolate, lonely and abandoned area of the world I've ever seen.

Despite the oppressive presence of police and soldiers, the civilians on the train were lively and uninhibited throughout the Balkans.

At one point, in southeastern Serbia, five very friendly (too friendly!) rural Serbians (with a couple black puppies) insisted -- absolutely insisted -- that I take a picture of them and their dogs, so I did.

In return, they gave me a couple Yugoslav cigarettes, three swigs of vodka -- and their addresses so I could send them the pictures.

Here was the scene on the train in southern Serbia just
before the Bulgarian border when five Serbian guys insisted
I snap their pictures!
[Note: my original photo was a slide,
which I shot a photo of in order to post here.]

Just before the Bulgarian border, I found a seat in a compartment that was like a mini-United Nations. I sat across from a confident and exuberant Libyan man (with extremely white teeth) who said he was on his way to study electrical engineering in Bulgaria. Also in the compartment were a soft-spoken guy from Copenhagen and two French men. One of them looked like rocker Ron Wood,
the other said he was a Sorbonne professor of Islamic civilization and French. They were talking to each other in English, French and other languages.

As the train crossed into Bulgaria at Dimitrovgrad, I experienced the toughness of the Bulgarian border soldiers, widely regarded as the most ruthless in all of eastern Europe at the time.

With rifles at the ready, the Bulgarian guards were harsh and humorless. "At the Bulgarian border, the guards had Hitler mustaches, as all traces of Western Europe (as well as humor or smiling) disappeared completely," I wrote in my journal after entering the country.

Passing from Yugoslavia to Bulgaria, I could feel the difference between a police state (the former) and a military state (the latter). The first was harsh, the latter potentially lethal.

I soon passed through Sofia, which seemed like an extremely insulated and subdued city; the locals at the train station, in old-fashioned clothing and uncomfortable-looking shoes,
approached the train and gawked curiously at the train as if they were looking at visitors from another planet.

This is the farthest behind the Iron Curtain that anyone could
get back in '76: Sofia, Bulgaria. I shot this from the train.

>[Note: my original photo was a slide,
which I shot a photo of in order to post here.]

Several hours later, at the exit border -- the tense checkpoint near the three-way intersection of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece -- the armed Bulgarian cops became even more unfunny than they
had been at the entry border.

"Long wait at the Bulgaria/Turkey border," I wrote in my journal that night. "Soldiers all around checking bags, shining lights....It is pitch black and probably midnight."

In the distance, I saw the silhouette of a tank. A rumor, later proved false, circulated that the train was being delayed because war had broken out between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.

After an anxious period, we were finally allowed to proceed into western Turkey, back into NATO territory. "The train starts into the Turkish black night, soldiers waving goodbye, and I go back to my compartment and sleep," I wrote in my diary.

To my surprise, a few yards away at a train window, there was that Stanford student who I had mistakenly thought was left behind in Zagreb the day before; he was looking out the window
and singing the Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction."

It was a few hours before sunrise on my third day of travel, but Istanbul was still over 12 hours away.

After Bulgaria, entering western Turkey felt like someone had opened a window and let in light, air and birds. I was now in westernmost Turkey, aka Thrace. After the monochromatic Balkans,
Thrace seemed to come alive in vivid Technicolor like something out of "The Wizard of Oz." .

"At sunrise, I wake and see...Turkey," I wrote in my journal. "The train is moving at a snail's pace, stopping every twenty yards or so. The scenery is unlike anything I've seen before. The
mountains are sometimes rocky or green or barren like a desert...There are great stretches of huge yellow sunflower fields stretching for [what looks like] miles. The people all wave as the train goes by, and the animals get more exotic and plentiful: goats, gazelles, unnamables, roosters, huge flocks of sheep."

Western Turkey and Thrace came alive in color after traveling
through the gray Balkans. Here's a photo I shot of the area
west of Istanbul.
>[Note: my original photo was a slide,
which I shot a photo of in order to post here.]

Fifty-two hours after boarding the train in Florence, I arrived in Istanbul at three on a hot afternoon in August, burping Lambrusco, profoundly tired and somewhat dehydrated. I checked into
a cheap hostel ($5 a night) in the Sultanahmet neighborhood where American hippies -- who had almost certainly taken a plane, not a train, to Istanbul -- were outside singing Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" as someone played guitar.

After five days in Istanbul, it was time to return to Florence. I considered taking a quick flight back, but (being a broke student back then) went to the train station and took the whole trip behind the Iron Curtain all over again.

This time, I fell sick just before the Bulgarian border and remained sick all the way home (and for a week after returning to Florence), sleeping through most of the ride back.

No food or beverages were sold onboard and Americans weren't allowed to exit (except to change trains) before their destination, so I was left with nothing to eat or drink except
whatever I had with me (which was some bad carbonated Lambrusco wine and stale cheese-bread (don't ask)).

In retrospect, I now see that the larger risks of the trip came not behind the Iron Curtain but in running afoul of Muslim traditions in Istanbul. (For example, some guy chased me down the street with a stick in Istanbul for shooting a picture of veiled women gathered in a doorway;
another man almost became violent when I didn’t show more respect than I was already showing at Istanbul’s Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, where the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s hair and teeth are on display (according to the Pavilion).

All told, the everyday oppression is experienced behind the Iron Curtain was about as bad as the totalitarianism in Islam.

After a 52-hour train ride, I finally arrived
in Istanbul.


Above, a photo I shot from Istanbul's Galata Bridge, August 1976.

* * * *

After crossing through Bulgaria, I arrived at the first stop over the
border in Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia), Dimitrovgrad, via this visa
stamp (left).


I got behind the Iron Curtain using this American passport.
But I applied for my transit visas (to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia)
through a third-party country -- Italy. Otherwise the visas
wouldn't have likely been approved.


Above are various items from my trip behind the Iron Curtain; at
center is my visa for entry to Bulgaria; clockwise from the top left
are a card for the hostel I stayed at, a pack of Turkish cigarettes,
an August 1976 calendar, my own notes about entering Bulgaria, a
ticket to the Topkapi, and a couple logos for regional publications.

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