The Bulgarian Bootleg Bus to Istanbul
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
The coach arrived only 30 minutes late to Plovdiv station which, by Bulgarian standards, is remarkably punctual.
With limited English and a bit of charades, the bus hostess brought us free hot drinks and snacks. I felt like I was on a plane:
A couple of hours into the journey, the hostess returned to serve another round of drinks – we were even offered alcohol! We declined given it was only 11am and asked for tea instead. This caused confusion and she suggested alcohol again. After we repeated our tea request, the lady just stared blankly for a few seconds before walking away.
5 minutes later, we were approaching the border to Turkey where we stopped at a duty-free centre. Everyone rushed off and came back ladened with items.
The hostess returned, not to bring my long-awaited tea, but to give me one of her bags. She garbled something at me in Turkish and sauntered off giving bags to other passengers who seemed quite unperturbed. I peered inside mine to see a bottle of Jim Beam.
Slowly, realisation dawned that I was expected to smuggle this across the border for her. I was not happy about this prospect but felt as if there was little choice given the limited language barrier.
Nervously, I stashed the bottle in my hand luggage and guiltily lurched out of the bus to the customs check, sweating. The Turkish Inspector barely looked up from his phone as I passed through.
Back on the bus, the Bootlegging Hostess removed the bag from me with a cursory ‘thank you’ but still didn’t bring my hot drink.
The coach continued on except that we seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Suddenly, without warning, we pulled up abruptly on the side of a dual carriageway.
The hostess, now carrying two clinking black bags of booty, got off the coach and walked over to a shifty looking man parked on a slip road.
She returned grinning with a wad of notes, the bus driver did a U-turn and finally we were headed towards Istanbul.
That evening, we were charged an extortionate price for our beers (although the passionate live music somewhat made up for the cost).
Later, we discovered that the inflated prices are because Turkey imposes very high taxes on alcohol.
I think I’ll stick to tea in future.