GEVGELIJA, Macedonia – There are no fancy dining carriages here, glasses of champagne or ace sleuth Hercule Poirot to solve a murder mystery. There are only hundreds of exhausted people crammed inside a dingy train, slowly moving along the same Balkan route where the legendary Orient Express used to rumble.
Day or night, rain or sunshine, tens of thousands of people are walking along Balkan train tracks or packing train carriages along the same famed rail line that used to connect Europe with Turkey and on to the Middle East.
Whether in Turkey, Greece, Macedonia or Serbia, those fleeing their homelands have been following the tracks so they don't lose their way in the vast fields and hills. The tracks give them direction and a sense of security.
In the 1930s, the Orient Express had a reputation for comfort and luxury, carrying elegant sleeping cars and restaurant cars known for the quality of their cuisine. Royalty, diplomats, business people and the bourgeoisie loved it. "Murder on the Orient Express," written by Agatha Christie in 1934, celebrated its exotic mystique.
Eighty-one years later, it's a different story. Now carrying desperate families with crying babies fleeing the Middle East, Asia or Africa, the trains rumble through Greece, Serbia and Macedonia with drab, worn carriages, traveling over rusty tracks that have not seen upgrades or so many passengers in decades.
On one train, a Syrian girl stuck her uncombed hair through a train window, giggling while hot air swept her face. A man without a leg tried to find a place to sit. One woman tried to put her 10-day-old baby to sleep, feeling exhausted but happy that she and her husband were getting closer to Germany, while another with two children cried desperately after losing her husband during a chaotic train boarding in a Macedonian town.
The ride through Macedonia to the border with Serbia now resembles the Wild West. Those who did not manage to get on a train — and many don't because thousands are trying to board — try to stop it outside the Macedonian border town of Gevgelija by placing wooden logs or large stones on the tracks. Others simply pull the emergency brakes once the train gets rolling so friends can jump on board.
"This is as crazy as in my country," said Rashid, an immigrant from Pakistan who only gave his first name because he was trying to slip into the European Union. "I never thought I would see something like this in Europe. But it's still better than being robbed for bus rides by smugglers."
Hundreds of kilometers (miles) away on the border with Hungary, two girls in pink shirts happily chased their elongated shadows over the rail tracks into that EU-member country. Their exhausted parents walked behind, carrying the family's belongings. A man hobbled by on crutches, careful not to stumble over the rusty train bars. Two men helped a friend in wheelchair over the wooden ridges. Young men with rucksacks chatted as they walked past. Others followed, their silhouettes emerging from the distance in the dim light.
At the Hungarian border, the railway is the sole part of the border not covered by a razor-wire fence. Taking the tracks means a longer but a safer route that does not involve paying hefty fees to smugglers to spirit you across the border in trucks and vans in the dark. Still, it also almost certainly means ending up in the hands of Hungarian authorities, who are known for their stern stance toward asylum seekers.
"People who just have had enough are taking the railway route," said Abdul Majeed from Syria. "Those who are poor, hungry and tired."
Hosny Al-Kahyari, also from Syria, said he no longer wanted to risk his life in the hands of smugglers. He said they already double-crossed him once in Serbia, kicking him out of a car on a highway shortly after setting off toward Belgrade, the capital. The 26-year-old student said he would rather play it safe this time.
"I'll just take the railway route," he said, heading to Hungary from the northern Serbian town of Kanjiza.
Yet trekking along the rails is also dangerous. Nearly 40 people have been killed in Macedonia by trains in the past year as they walked along the tracks. Those seeking safety in Europe also have to navigate the chaotic scene at the Gevgelija railway station, not far from the border, where tempers flare as thousands try to clamber on the overload trains from garbage-strewn platforms.
Some of the most violent clashes between migrants and police have happened on the railway tracks between Greece and Macedonia, where Macedonian police fired stun grenades to disperse a crowd that, frustrated after spending three nights out in the open, tried to charge them several times. Dozens of people were injured in two separate incidents. The reason for the blockade was, in part, the turmoil at the Gevgelija train station.
Further up the route, Hungary suspended all rail traffic from its main terminal in Budapest and cleared the Keleti station of hundreds of people trying to board trains for Austria and Germany. Migrants chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" protested outside the station.
Then it was the Austrian railways turn to shut down train service to and from Budapest, citing overcrowding. Taking matters into their own hands, thousands of people began to walk Friday to Vienna, 40 miles (60 kilometers) away, temporarily forcing a major highway to shut down.
Finally, over 12,000 asylum seekers stepped off their trains Saturday to a different welcome in the southern German city of Munich: clean beds, medical care and offers of food and clothing.
"Munich is doing the right thing. We have to help them," said Johann Hoerterer, a bus driver waiting at the city's central train station to ferry newcomers to shelters across Bavaria.
Gec reported from Horgos, Serbia. Paul Wheatley contributed from Munich.