Railway mafia groups fight over territory along the thousands of kilometers of track across Central & Eastern Europe. The most lucrative connections are those between major cities which are most frequented by foreign tourists who are filthy rich, naive, gullible, and can afford to shed some of their wealth, in the eyes of the criminals who specialize in robbing sleeping victims.
…˜The mafia groups fight amongst themselves for territory and they use sleeping gas to subdue their victims,’ said the sheriff of a Polish railway station on the Polish-Czech border with over 30 years experience in his job who requested that his name be withheld. …˜They are very skilled and use the ventilation system to gas their victims or quietly inject the fast-acting gas into their cabins through a slightly opened door.’
Foreign tourists are followed and carefully watched. There is no easier place to rob them than in a train which they essentially control on some tracks way out in nowhere. They attack you when you are asleep, that’s their style and that’s their specialty.
—Central & East European CrimiScope
THAT READ, we traveled exceptionally lightly for our week-long research trip to Prague. One change of clothes, computers and camera equipment, money, passports, and plastic watches each.
We boarded the Venice-to-Prague overnight train at 8 p.m. on a Saturday. After being forced to surrender our tickets to an unidentified man (who we eventually learned was our “attendant”), we were shown to a gritty compartment. Dust clumps the size of rats swirled around the floor. Sad brown floral curtains of a coarse material hung above mismatched cushions and general grime. The bunks had been opened and made up for sleeping, with bed linen that seemed fresh and clean enough. But it was stifling hot in the un-air-conditioned train, and the stale air was of suffocating stillness.
There was no choice in the sweat-smelly and sweltering compartment but to leave the window open for air, despite the deafening, rackety-clackety clamor which made sleep all but impossible. In the dark hubbub, aromas told a tactless tale. The smell of sweet wood smoke rushed in, then fresh-cut hay, and later cow manure. At every stop the train’s brakes sliced the rhythmic clatter with ear-piercing shrieks. I clamped my palms to my overly-sensitive ears in agony.
Then, stationary in a depot or switching yard, sometimes for half an hour or more, I worried about that open window. Could someone reach in and grab a bag? Voices shouted, neighboring trains clanged and clattered: but even in the relative quiet, I was afraid to drop off to sleep. And without the circulation of air, our somber cell quickly grew hot and sour-smelling.
We had read so much about East European train robbers I was, frankly, petrified.
- Bolt your door from the inside, I read.
- One common, square-hole key opens all compartment doors, I read somewhere else.
- Bring wire with which to secure your door, and tie down your belongings.
- Sleep on top of your bags.
- Don’t sleep!
What scared me most were the tales of the gassers, who knock you out in the dead of night by fumigating your compartment from under the door. Then they break in and help themselves to your belongings. My doctor friend Ann had said there was no gas she knew of that wouldn’t wake you up with its smell, or make you gag or throw up, or kill you. Was that supposed to be comforting?
I was primed for panic when aroused from a light and fitful nap by the quiet rattling of our door. I heard a key jiggle in the lock and the bolt was thrown. The door was yanked open an inch and stopped by the safety chain, which held. A flashlight shined at me through the crack and several male voices mumbled quietly.
Not very sneaky, I thought. But maybe they have knives! They couldn’t have expected as light a sleeper as I. Or—I sniffed the air—maybe they’ve gassed us, not expecting an open window to dilute the chemical.
“Passports,” Bob murmured from the bunk below me—not the night-train-novice I was. We were at the Austrian border.
Thus experienced, I was prepared for the repeat performance several hours later at the Czech border. We were not well-rested when we arrived at Prague at 9:00 in the morning.
But arrive we did, with bags and tickets intact.
This is Part 1 of 3. Part 2
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Three: Getting There—With all your Marbles