Sabie Djikova wakes up at dawn to tend to her cows before filtering and bottling their sweet, fresh milk.
Just before 8 am, she heaves a military grade backpack containing 20 kilos of milk onto her back. Carrying some extra bottles in a tote bag, she walks from her family home 750 meters down a dirt road to the Tsvetino station. At the age of 65, things are harder for her than in the past. "I carried 30-40 kilos when I was younger," she says.
For more than 20 years she's been repeating the same routine, boarding the narrow gauge train at 8:13 to Velingrad. Arriving at 8:40 at Velingrad South station, she goes house to house delivering bottles of milk to about 10 clients, covering 3 km before meeting other Tsvetino women at the town's main station and catching the 10:14 home. Sabie works to help support her large family, which includes her husband, six grown children and two grandchildren. Each liter of milk sells for 2 leva (1 euro).
The train that makes this livelihood possible is the Rodopskata tesnolineika, the Rhodope Narrow Gauge railway. During WWI, Bulgaria urgently worked to develop infrastructure in order to shore up its territory against rival states, particularly in mountainous regions which were otherwise nearly inaccessible. Narrow gauge railways were amongst the quickest (and cheapest) to build and eventually 37 such lines crisscrossed Bulgaria. Most were eventually replaced by standard gauge tracks until only three remained.
Last narrow gauge line standing
State funding decreased after Socialism ended. As many people left the country, ridership decreased. From 2002, the Bulgarian National Railways (BDZ) let the line fall into disrepair. Due to track conditions, the train was obliged to travel "so slow that one could walk next to it at the same speed or faster," says Ivaylo Mehandzhiev, 27. Ivaylo grew up hearing his grandfather's narrow gauge train stories. "I loved hearing them each time. This was the best train I could imagine." By 2004, the Cherven Bryag to Oryahovo line - the 119 km line that was the other remaining narrow gauge railway in operation - was gone, following the fate of the other 35 lines. "The people still mourn their loss," Ivaylo adds.
The Rhodope Narrow Gauge is Bulgaria's last railway of this type (760 mm between rails). All the others have been converted to standard gauge. Four trains cross the Rhodope mountains and return daily, traveling 125 km each way. (Two others make shorter trips.) The train follows the course of the Chepinska and Ablanitsa rivers through a gorge until it splits from the river and climbs uphill and makes a hairpin turn followed by a spiral leading into a figure 8, before ascending to Avramovo, the highest station on the Balkan Peninsula (1267 meters). The narrow gauge makes all those tight turns possible. From there, the route proceeds downhill towards the mountain resort town of Bansko, terminating at Dobrinishte. The entire trip takes 5 hours and 4 minutes and costs just 6.50 leva (a pittance for tourists but for local people, a price that they can still afford).
More than a transport link
Every day, Fatima Ismail and her sister would travel from their home in Avramovo to Velingrad by train in order to attend high school. "The tesnolineika is connected to my education and development," explained Fatima, director of the Charity Association Margarity, which provides help to orphans and refugees in Bulgaria and beyond. "It gave our community access not just to education but to jobs and hospitals."
People would travel from the small villages to attend weddings in Yakoruda. And trains brought young lovers together. Fatima, who is now a 32-year-old mother of two, recalls her teenage years. "A boy used to come from Tsvetino by train to see me. We would meet at the station." The train provided employment to local people, many of them coming from the small Muslim communities. Fatima's cousin Mehmet was a station manager, and two other cousins Ali and Mustafa were both engineers.
Since riding the train as a small child with his parents, "I have loved this train," says Kristian Vaklinov, 26. When he was a child, the local branch Pazardzhik to Varvara had yet to be discontinued. Later, as a teenage train enthusiast, he studied the remaining trainline and learnt about the problems faced by passengers. One big problem was the lack of a night train from Dobrinishte to Yakoruda, which was needed by workers to return home. At the age of 17, he began writing letters to BDZ, the Ministry of Transportation and even the Prime Minister requesting the evening train. After much effort, his voice was heard. The revived evening train began running again in 2012.
Young man to the rescue
But by 2014, rumors were circulating that the Rhodope train line was going to be closed. Although it was expensive and served few passengers, for those who depended on it, the trainline was a crucial connection. "The BDZ had planned to cut the number of daily trains to 2, which would have been fatal," according to Ivaylo.
The train costs the state 10 million BGN annually and takes in about 1 million BGN. A lot of human labor is needed to keep the trains running, explains Vaklinov. As there is no automation, "everything is done manually." 300 people are employed to run the trains, including engineers, conductors, station masters, and track and engine maintenance workers. Another big cost is the fuel. It takes 500 liters of diesel for each round-trip run. Yet, the value of the train line can't be measured in leva, says Vaklinov. "This train has a social function. It belongs to the people and is our national treasure."
The prospect of the train being put out of service spurred Kristian into action. In 2014, at the age of 19, he organized and circulated a petition to save the train line. 11,300 people signed the petition in just 30 days. Kristian gave interviews on national television explaining why Bulgaria needed to save the train. Along with friends including Ivaylo, he formed the nonprofit organization Za Tesnolineikata ("For the Narrow Gauge") dedicated to saving the line by increasing ridership through tourism. They built a website and posted schedules, photos and the train's history in both English and Bulgarian. They organized and advertised special events, like an annual Gergiovden train trip to Yakoruda to celebrate the holiday at the Chapel of St. George. Ivaylo remembers that additional wagons were ordered for the occasion. When the 12 car train appeared, "Some old local men came to us crying, saying they had been dreaming of seeing a train this long."
Za Tesnolineikata also created a train museum in the abandoned Tsepina station. The BDZ eventually hired Kristian as a customer service expert. On Kristian's recommendation, the BDZ has installed a bistro car on some of the trains and renewed the stop Stoyan Mitev (named for the courageous young engineer who undertook the project after two others quit before him) at a remote part of the track, from which tourists can hike to an overview from where they can view some of the train's most dramatic twists and turns.
A centennial of service celebrated
This month, the centennial anniversary of the beginning of the construction of the Narrow Gauge is being celebrated. The process of building the route was difficult and dangerous and took more than 20 years, not including the last stretch, which was built later by the citizens of Dobrinishte, intent on having the train reach their town. (This way, goods from the mountains could reach Dobrinishte before being trucked down the highway to Gotse Delchev, where wood, tobacco and food production facilities were located.)
To mark the occasion, the BDZ put into service an antique coal-powered steam engine (a 1949 model 609.76) pulling five wagons full of passengers. The locomotive was decorated with pine boughs and a banner proclaiming Chestit Praznik.
The steam train pulled 5 wagons from Septemvri to Velingrad. Along the way, a trio of folk singers performed for passengers as they took in dramatic views of the Chepinska gorge and river, crossing through a series of hand dug and dynamited galleries along the way.
For most of the 21st century, the train served as the only viable transportation link for several of the smaller villages, including Ablanitsa and Tsvetino. However, this year a new asphalt road was built connecting Tsvetino to Velingrad, halving the travel time between the two communities. "It's starting to move things in a positive direction, says Leven Kahajov, also from Ablanitsa. But Vaklinov has mixed feelings. "If someone starts talking about closing the line, they will have a justification. They will say, now you have roads, there's no need to maintain the line just for tourists."
Sabie and the others who travel daily to Velingrad may be the last of their kind. "The older women work really hard," says Hatije Mircheva, 58, another Ablanitsa woman who sells milk, cheese and butter at the Velingrad market, but, she says, "the younger generation is not like this."
The train enthusiasts plan to celebrate another anniversary in 2026, with a really long train, singers onboard and dance groups at every station. "We hope to keep it running until then," says Ivaylo.