Dressed in a floral-patterned tunic and baggy pants, her hair covered with a colorful head scarf, Sabie Djikova loaded a dozen bottles — 45 pounds’ worth of milk — into a knapsack and a handmade bag, heaved them over her narrow shoulders and headed down the unpaved road toward the nearby train station.
She carries less now than she did when she was younger. “When I was younger, I could carry up to 40 kilos,” she said — nearly 90 pounds.
Sabie and her relatives are part of a small, Bulgarian-speaking community of Pomaks. They are a group of Muslims who have lived for hundreds years in a remote, mountainous area of the country. Sabie, like many others in her village has a few dairy cows that she milks every morning before dawn.
Sabie has been making the daily trek from Ablanitsa, her village, to the Tsvetino station. From there, a small train takes her approximately 30 minutes to Velingrad. She then delivers fresh, unpasteurized dairy milk from house to house. Other Ablanitsa women also sell their products at the Velingrad open-market, including yogurt and honey.
The little they make helps their intergenerational families. The train is the best way to get their goods to market.
I first met Sabie in 2019, when, on a trip with friends, I saw her — among a group of traditionally dressed Pomak women — boarding the train in Velingrad. After we spoke for a while (my friend Ogy Kvachev translated), I had the idea to take photos of her daily rituals in order to show how important it is to the villager’s ability to sell their products.
Ogy, who rode the train just for the pure pleasure of it and loved Sabie’s milk, helped me to make contact with her. I was hoping to return to photograph her soon. Our meeting was delayed almost two years because of the pandemic, my teaching obligations and photojournalism.
My husband from Bulgaria and me finally took the train to Ablanitsa in May. There are only a few hundred residents who live on the steep slopes of a hill and walk along dirt roads. The village’s top allows you to enjoy the fresh mountain air and view the Rhodope Mountains from the valley. The village once had a rug-making plant, a school, and a medical clinic. There are no shops nor restaurants. There is only one public building, a small mosque, which was locked when I passed it.
Sabie welcomed me with a warm embrace. Musa, her grown son brought chairs into the yard. Sabie’s daughter-in law followed with glasses of homemade ale and a huge jar of blueberry juice. (The Pomaks are well-known for making products with wild blueberries that they have collected. Musa showed us the barn, which houses two cows and a calf. He also showed us the rest the small homestead where the family raises chickens and rabbits.
Sabie was modest and shy but she eventually allowed me to photograph her daily life. I gained a better understanding of the importance of the train to local residents by following her lead.
The Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway has 27 stations serving the Rhodope Mountain range. The railway was built in the first half century of the 20th century. It has a track width of 760 millimeters (or around 30 inches), which is about half the width of standard railroad tracks. (The narrow gauge is good for climbing steep terrain and allows for tighter curves, lighter rail and smaller tunnels — all of which are critical to its route through the mountains.)
Many narrow-gauge train lines used to run through Bulgaria at one point. These lines were meant to connect small villages and important trading towns. Ridership dropped after the collapse communism. Large numbers emigrated from the countryside. The country was in economic crisis and the Bulgarian National Railways stopped investing in narrow-gauge railways.
Today, the Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway remains the only one of its kind in the country. Its existence is at risk. At one point, the track conditions were so bad that it made the train travel painfully slowly. “You could walk beside it at the same speed or faster,” said Ivaylo Mehandzhiev, 27, a member of the nonprofit group Za Tesnolineikata, which means “For the Narrow Gauge.”
Beginning at Septemvri Station, the line’s northern terminus, the track follows the course of the Chepinska and Ablanitsa rivers. It travels through a scenic gorge before it emerges and climbs a forested slope. From there, it makes a hairpin curve followed by a spiral and then an eight. It continues climbing towards Avramovo. Avramovo, at 4,157 feet, is the highest Balkan Peninsula train station. It offers wide open views towards the snow-capped Pirin Mountain peaks. From there, the track descends to the ski resort towns Bansko and Dobrinishte. The trip covers 78 mi and takes approximately 5 hours. It costs 6.60 Bulgarian leva, or $4.
Sabie pays just 54 Bulgarian levs ($32) for a pensioner’s trimonthly pass, making it a very affordable form of transportation.
The railway has faced closure threats for many years. Ridership is low. Maintenance costs can be high. The area has seen new asphalt roads that have made it easy to travel between villages.
Many local residents still find the railway a valuable and inexpensive service. “The train gave our community access not just to education, but to jobs and hospitals,” said Fatima Ismail, who grew up in Avramovo and, as a teenager, took the train to high school. It also contributed to teenage romance, she stated, blushing as a memory of a boy who used take the train from Tsvetino, and meet her at station.
It has also provided local employment. Fatima’s cousin, Mehmet, was a station manager, and two other cousins were engineers.
Kristian Vaklinov (now 26), was a teenager train enthusiast when he heard that the government was considering closing down the Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway in 2014. He organized and circulated a petition to save his beloved train line. He was surprised to find that he had collected more than 11,000 signatures within 30 days.
Together with Ivaylo, he founded Za Tesnolineikata. This non-profit organization had the goal of saving the train and increasing ridership through tourism.
“The train has a Social function,” Kristian explained to me. “It belongs to the people and is our national treasure.”
The group created a website to post train schedules, photos, and a history of their line in English and Bulgarian to attract tourists and increase ridership. They built a museum at one station and filled it up with historical artifacts and old photos. People can book special train rides for their wedding on holidays weekends.
The group organized a special trip between Septemvri, Velingrad to commemorate the 100th anniversary the construction of the railroad line. Five train cars were pulled by an old, coal-powered steam engine. The cars were packed with tourists as well as train enthusiasts. Folk singers performed along their route.
Despite the line’s popularity, anxieties linger about its future. People are particularly concerned about the new asphalt roads, which make it difficult to predict how long the train will run. While some locals are happy with the new roads, others, including women like Sabie who don’t drive, continue to ride the train.
Sabie and others who travel daily from Ablanitsa to Velingrad could be the last of their kind. “The older women work really hard,” said Hatije Mircheva, a 58-year-old resident of Ablanitsa, who also sells dairy products at the Velingrad market. But what about the younger generation. She explained that they have different priorities and routines.
And yet the young train enthusiasts, including the members of Za Tesnolineikata, may be the rail line’s only hope for survival. In fact, they’re already planning a celebration five years from now, in 2026 — with singers and dance groups at every station.
“We hope to keep it running until then,” Ivaylo said.
Jodi HiltonShe is a Boston-based documentary photographer and photojournalist. You can follow her work here InstagramAnd Twitter.
Source: NY Times