Inside the fight to save Bulgaria’s last narrow gauge railway
Dressed in a floral-patterned tunic and baggy pants, her hair covered in a colorful scarf, Sabie Djikova loaded a dozen bottles – 45 pounds of milk – into a backpack and handmade bag, the hoisted onto her narrow shoulders and walked down the unpaved road to the nearby train station.
At 65, she wears less than before. “When I was younger I could carry up to 40 pounds,” she said – almost 90 pounds.
Sabie and her family are part of a small community of Pomaks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims who have lived for hundreds of years in a remote mountainous region of the country. Like others in her village, Sabie owns a few dairy cows, which she milks every day before dawn.
For more than 20 years, Sabie has made the daily commute from her village of Ablanitsa near Tsvetino station, where a small train then transports it about 30 minutes to the village of Velingrad. There, she goes from house to house delivering bottles of fresh unpasteurized milk. Other women from Ablanitsa sell their products, including cheese, yogurt and honey, in the Velingrad open market.
The little money sellers earn helps support their intergenerational families. None of their business would be possible without the train, which is the most convenient way for them 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 – get on the train in Velingrad. After talking for a few minutes (my friend Ogy Kovachev translated), I got the idea to photograph his daily rituals to show how important the train line is to the villagers who depend on it to sell their products.
Ogy, who often took the train for sheer pleasure and loved buying milk from Sabie, helped me get in touch with her, and I plan to come back to photograph her soon. But between the pandemic and my obligations to teach photojournalism, our meeting was delayed by almost two years.
Finally, last May, my Bulgarian husband and I took the train to Ablanitsa. The village is home to a few hundred people who live along the dirt roads on a steep hill. From the top of the village you can breathe in the fresh mountain air and see clearly across the valley to the nearby peaks of the Rhodope Mountains. There used to be a carpet factory here, as well as a school and a medical clinic, but it’s all gone now. There are no shops or restaurants. The only public building is a small mosque which was locked when I walked past.
Sabie greeted me with a warm hug. His adult son, Musa, brought chairs into the yard, and his daughter-in-law followed, carrying glasses of homemade ayran and a huge jar of blueberry juice. (The Pomaks are known to make products from the wild blueberries they harvest.) Musa showed us the barn that houses two cows, a calf and a horse. He also showed us the rest of the small farm, where the family raises rabbits and chickens.
Although modest and a little shy, Sabie finally agreed to let me photograph her daily routine. Following her gave me a better understanding of how important the train is to local residents.
The Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway serves 27 stations across the Rhodope mountain range. Built in the first half of the 20th century, the railway has a track that is 760 millimeters wide, or about 30 inches, or about half the width of a standard track. (The narrow track is great for climbing steep terrain and allows for tighter curves, lighter rails, and smaller tunnels, all of which are essential to its route through the mountains.)
At one time, dozens of narrow-gauge train lines crisscrossed Bulgaria, helping to connect small villages with important trading towns. After the collapse of communism, ridership declined as large numbers of villagers migrated out of the countryside. As the country suffered from economic crises, the Bulgarian National Railways divested in narrow gauge lines.
Today, the Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway is the last of its kind in the country. But its sustainability is threatened. At one point, the track conditions were so bad that the train was moving painfully slowly. “You can walk alongside at the same speed or faster,” said Ivaylo Mehandzhiev, 27, a member of the non-profit group Za Tesnolineikata, which means “For the narrow way”.
Starting at Septemvri station, the northern terminus of the line, the track follows the course of the Chepinska and Ablanitsa rivers. It crosses a picturesque gorge until it peels off and goes up a wooded slope, making a hairpin turn followed by a spiral and then an eight. It continues to climb towards the village of Avramovo. (At 4,157 feet, Avramovo is the highest station on the Balkan Peninsula; it offers an unobstructed view of the snow-capped peaks of Pirin Mountain.) From there the track descends to the ski resorts of Bansko and Dobrinishte. In total, the trip covers 78 miles, takes about five hours, and costs 6.60 Bulgarian Lev, or about $ 4.
Sabie only pays 54 Bulgarian Lev ($ 32) for a retiree’s quarterly pass, making it a very affordable form of transportation.
The railway has long been threatened with closure. The ridership is low. Maintenance costs are high. In recent years, newly constructed asphalt roads have made it easier to travel between villages in the region for those with a car.
Yet the railroad provides a valuable and affordable service for many local residents. “The train gave our community access not only to education, but also to jobs and hospitals,” said Fatima Ismail, who grew up in Avramovo and as a teenager took the train to go to high school. And it contributed to the teenage romance, she said, blushing as she remembered a boy who would take the train from Tsvetino and meet her at the station.
It has also created local jobs. Fatima’s cousin, Mehmet, was station manager and two other cousins were engineers.
Kristian Vaklinov, now 26, was a teenage train enthusiast when in 2014 he first learned that the government was considering shutting down the Rhodope Narrow-Gauge Railway. He responded by organizing and circulating a petition to save the train line. To his surprise, he collected over 11,000 signatures in just 30 days.
With friends like Ivaylo, he formed Za Tesnolineikata, the nonprofit organization; its objective was to save the train by increasing ridership on the line, mainly through tourism.
“The train has a social function, ”Kristian explained to me. “It belongs to the people and it is our national treasure.
In order to attract tourists and increase ridership, the group created a website where they posted train times, photos and a history of the line (in both English and Bulgarian). They set up a museum in one of the stations and filled it with old photographs and historical artifacts. Special event trips are organized on holiday weekends and people can book a special train ride for their wedding.
This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the initial construction of the railway line, the group organized a special trip between Septemvri and Velingrad, with five wagons pulled by an old coal-fired steam engine. Folk singers performed along the way; the cars were full of tourists and train enthusiasts.
Despite the line’s popularity, concerns remain about its future. In particular, the new paved roads lead some to wonder how long the train will continue to run. While some locals are happy with the new roads, others, including women like Sabie who don’t drive, continue to take the train.
Sabie and the others who travel to Velingrad daily may be the last of their kind. “The older women work very hard,” said Hatije Mircheva, a 58-year-old resident of Ablanitsa, who also sells dairy products at the Velingrad market. But the younger generation? They have other priorities, other routines, she says.
And yet young train enthusiasts, including members of Za Tesnolineikata, may be the rail line’s only hope for survival. In fact, they’re already planning a celebration in five years, in 2026 – with singers and dance groups at each station.
“We hope to continue operating until then,” said Ivaylo.