Inside the Struggle to Save Bulgaria’s Last Narrow-Gauge Railroad


Dressed in a floral-patterned tunic and saggy pants, her hair coated with a colourful head scarf, Sabie Djikova loaded a dozen bottles — 45 kilos’ value of milk — right into a knapsack and a hand-crafted bag, heaved them over her slender shoulders and headed down the unpaved street towards the close by practice station.

At 65, she carries lower than she used to. “When I was younger, I could carry up to 40 kilos,” she stated — practically 90 kilos.

Sabie and her household are a part of a small group of Pomaks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims who’ve lived for a whole bunch of years in a distant, mountainous area of the nation. As with others in her village, Sabie owns a couple of dairy cows, which she milks every day earlier than daybreak.

For greater than 20 years, Sabie has made the every day trek from her village of Ablanitsa to the close by Tsvetino station, the place a small practice then carries her about half-hour to the market city of Velingrad. There, she goes home to home delivering bottles of contemporary, unpasteurized milk. Other Ablanitsa ladies promote their merchandise, together with cheese, yogurt and honey, at the Velingrad open market.

The little cash the sellers make helps present for his or her intergenerational households. None of their enterprise could be doable with out the practice, which is the most sensible approach for them to carry their items to the market.

I first met Sabie in 2019, when, on a visit with mates, I noticed her — amongst a bunch of historically dressed Pomak ladies — boarding the practice in Velingrad. After we spoke for a couple of minutes (my buddy Ogy Kovachev translated), I received the thought to {photograph} her every day rituals as a approach of displaying how essential the practice line is to the villagers who rely upon it to promote their merchandise.

Ogy, who usually rode the practice for the sheer pleasure of it and who preferred to purchase milk from Sabie, helped me to join along with her, and I deliberate to return to {photograph} her quickly. But between the pandemic and my obligations educating photojournalism, our assembly was delayed for practically two years.

Finally, this previous May, my Bulgarian husband and I took the practice to Ablanitsa. The village is house to a couple of hundred individuals who stay alongside dust roads on a steep hill. From the prime of the village, you may breathe the crisp mountain air and see clear throughout the valley to the close by peaks of the Rhodope Mountains. There was as soon as a rug-making manufacturing unit right here, together with a college and a medical clinic, however all these are gone now. There aren’t any outlets or eating places. The solely public constructing is a small mosque that was locked once I walked previous.

Sabie welcomed me with a heat embrace. Her grown son, Musa, introduced chairs into the yard, and her daughter-in-law adopted, carrying glasses of selfmade ayran and an enormous jar of blueberry juice. (The Pomaks are recognized for making merchandise from the wild blueberries they gather.) Musa confirmed us the barn that homes two cows, a calf and a horse. He additionally confirmed us the remainder of the little homestead, the place the household raises rabbits and chickens.

Although modest and a bit shy, Sabie ultimately agreed to let me {photograph} her every day routine. In following her, I received a greater understanding of simply how essential the practice is to native residents.

The Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway serves 27 stations throughout the Rhodope mountain vary. Built in the first half of the twentieth century, the railway has a observe with a width of 760 millimeters, or round 30 inches, which is roughly half the width of a normal railroad observe. (The slender gauge is nice for climbing steep terrain and permits for tighter curves, lighter rail and smaller tunnels — all of that are crucial to its route by means of the mountains.)

At one time, dozens of narrow-gauge practice traces crisscrossed Bulgaria, serving to to join small villages with essential buying and selling cities. After the collapse of Communism, ridership declined as giant numbers of villagers migrated out of the countryside. As the nation suffered by means of financial crises, the Bulgarian National Railways disinvested in the narrow-gauge traces.

Today, the Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway is the final of its variety in the nation. But its continued existence is in jeopardy. At one level the observe circumstances had been so dire that the practice traveled painfully sluggish. “You could walk beside it at the same speed or faster,” stated Ivaylo Mehandzhiev, 27, a member of the nonprofit group Za Tesnolineikata, which implies “For the Narrow Gauge.”

Beginning at Septemvri Station, the line’s northern terminus, the observe follows the course of the Chepinska and Ablanitsa rivers. It passes by means of a scenic gorge till it peels away and ascends a forested slope, making a hairpin flip adopted by a spiral after which a determine eight. It continues to climb towards the village of Avramovo. (At 4,157 toes, Avramovo is the highest practice station on the Balkan Peninsula; it presents extensive open views towards the snow-capped Pirin Mountain peaks.) From there, the observe heads downhill towards the ski resort cities of Bansko and Dobrinishte. In whole, the journey covers 78 miles, takes about 5 hours and prices 6.60 Bulgarian levs, or about $4.

Sabie pays simply 54 Bulgarian levs ($32) for a pensioner’s trimonthly cross, making it a really reasonably priced type of transportation.

The railway has lengthy confronted the risk of closure. Ridership is low. Maintenance prices are excessive. In current years, newly constructed asphalt roads have made journey between villages in the space simpler for individuals who personal automobiles.

Still, the railway supplies a invaluable and reasonably priced service for a lot of native residents. “The train gave our community access not just to education, but to jobs and hospitals,” stated Fatima Ismail, who grew up in Avramovo and, as a young person, took the practice to highschool. And it contributed to teenage romance, she stated, blushing as she remembered a boy who used to take the practice from Tsvetino and meet her at the station.

It has additionally supplied native employment. Fatima’s cousin, Mehmet, was a station supervisor, and two different cousins had been engineers.

Kristian Vaklinov, now 26, was a teenage practice fanatic when, in 2014, he first realized that the authorities was contemplating closing the Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway. He responded by organizing and circulating a petition to save the practice line. To his shock, he collected greater than 11,000 signatures in simply 30 days.

Along with mates like Ivaylo, he fashioned Za Tesnolineikata, the nonprofit group; its aim was to save the practice by growing ridership on the line, primarily by means of tourism.

“The train has a social function,” Kristian defined to me. “It belongs to the people and is our national treasure.”

In order to appeal to vacationers and enhance ridership, the group constructed a web site the place they posted practice schedules, images and a historical past of the line (in each English and Bulgarian). They created a museum in one in every of the stations and crammed it with outdated pictures and historic artifacts. Special occasion journeys are organized on vacation weekends, and folks can e-book a particular practice trip for his or her wedding ceremony.

This yr, to mark the a hundredth anniversary of the preliminary development of the rail line, the group organized a particular journey between Septemvri and Velingrad, with 5 practice automobiles pulled by an vintage, coal-powered steam engine. Folk singers carried out alongside the approach; the automobiles had been full of vacationers and practice lovers.

Despite the line’s recognition, anxieties linger about its future. In specific, the new asphalt roads make some individuals surprise how for much longer the practice will proceed to run. While some locals are proud of the new roads, others, together with ladies like Sabie who don’t drive, proceed to trip the practice.

Sabie and the others who journey every day to Velingrad could also be the final of their variety. “The older women work really hard,” stated Hatije Mircheva, a 58-year-old resident of Ablanitsa, who additionally sells dairy merchandise at the Velingrad market. But the youthful era? They produce other priorities, different routines, she stated.

And but the younger practice lovers, together with the members of Za Tesnolineikata, could also be the rail line’s solely hope for survival. In reality, they’re already planning a celebration 5 years from now, in 2026 — with singers and dance teams at each station.

“We hope to keep it running until then,” Ivaylo stated.

Jodi Hilton is a photojournalist and documentary photographer primarily based in Boston. You can comply with her work on Instagram and Twitter.

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