Yugoslavia, as a single country, no longer exists today. Before its demise, Yugoslavia was a federation not unlike Malaysia. It was made up of six different states : Serbia (including the autonomous region of Kosovo), Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The War of the Balkans that started in 1991 saw the collapse of this federation.
I had the opportunity to visit the city of Belgrade during the time I was a student in the UK. It was the summer of 1981. The whole of Yugoslavia was a peaceful and progressive communist country back then.
As is the norm with students in UK and I guess the rest of Europe, the summer holidays would mostly be spent traveling. It was (and I believe still is) very convenient to travel all over the Euro continent on efficient trains because we could purchase a monthly rail pass that is valid on almost all the trains in the various countries. That particular summer, me and two friends Gabriel and Hazim, went on a travel adventure to explore the length and breadth of this amazing continent.
The story of the whole adventure itself could probably fill a book but I choose to highlight on Belgrade because of the sad and horrific events that happened in the past decade against the memorable experience of spending just one day in that historic city.
Yugoslavia is a beautiful country. (Now, I guess I should be using the past tense here but, just for the sake of this post, allow me to imagine that the country still exists.) In our travels to the various countries in Europe, I've found the people of Yugoslavia to be one of the friendliest.
Actually, our trip to Belgrade was more like a stopover rather than a planned visit. We had planned to visit Athens in Greece and the train journey passed through Yugoslavia. At that time we didn't know that Yugoslavia was a federation but we knew it was one of the less restrictive communist countries in the Eastern bloc.
Our overall travel plan was not based on any fixed itinerary. Most of the train journeys were decided ad-hoc. When we decided to make the trip to Athens, we applied for a visa at the Greek Consulate in Munich. Since we would be entering Yugoslavia en-route, we would be needing a Yugoslav visa too. This we also did at the Yugoslav Consulate in Munich.
When the train stopped at the border town of Maribor, in present-day Slovenia, an Immigration officer boarded the train to check our passports. Although we already had a visa, we were asked to report to the passport control office. Gabriel, Hazim and I had to lug our backpacks and alight from the train. Apparently, only a handful of passengers had to alight for passport checks because most other European citizens need not require a visa to enter Yugoslavia.
A page from my passport showing the visa we obtained from the Yugoslav Consulate in Munich. The visa was applied on 6 July 1981, my 19th birthday. The entry stamp at Maribor checkpoint showed that we entered Yugoslavia the next day.
The passport check was quite straight-forward but the customs check was very thorough. We had to empty our backpacks and they inspected everything. It was understandable I guess, since Asians are somewhat notorious for being dope carriers. I suspect that this was the actual reason why we had to step off the train. But the overall process was pleasant enough and when the checks were completed, the customs officer smiled at us and said, `Welcome to Yugoslavia.'
We re-boarded the train and found a compartment that was occupied by a lone young man in smart military uniform. Gabriel asked the man if we could come inside. The officer did not reply in English but I guess he understood what Gabe meant because he nodded and gestured to us to sit down. As the train pulled out of the station, we made ourselves comfortable. Gabe, being the most sociable guy among us three, started to strike a conversation with the army officer. He did not speak any English and Gabe of course spoke no Serbo-Croat (the local language). But this did not deter the both of them to exchange sign languages to keep the conversation flowing. You could imagine the various hand gestures, facial expressions and head nods as they tried to make each other understand what the other was saying. Amazing.
I did not join the conversation for fear of adding to the confusion but just sat back and looked out of the window to enjoy the scenery. My, what a beautiful countryside we passed through as the train headed towards Belgrade. When we reached Belgrade or Beograd as it's known locally, Gabe said good-bye to his new-found friend. I asked Gabe what they talked about. He told me that the army officer was on his way back to his hometown near Belgrade on short leave from his posting at the border town. The officer also talked about life in the Yugoslav army. Trust Gabe to understand something from nothing.... he's that sort of guy.
As I mentioned earlier, we never really intended to visit Belgrade but since we had to break the train journey, we took the opportunity to take a walk around the city. The next train from Belgrade to Athens was late at night so we had a few hours to kill. We stashed our backpacks in the coin-operated lockers at the train station and proceeded to take a walk, basically to nowhere in particular. I didn't know what to expect since it was our first time in a communist country. Surprisingly, the city of Belgrade was modern and historic at the same time. It is situated on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. It soon became obvious that a single day would not be enough to see all the interesting sights in the city, so after having a look at the large city map at the train station, we decided just to go the Kalemegdan Park that was within walking distance.
When we reached the park, we first took a rest by sitting at one of the park benches. It was a beautiful day and the park was lively with visitors, both local and tourists. As we were sitting on the bench enjoying the nice views, a young local girl approached us. She was about our age and was dressed in denim jeans and jacket. She first said hello but the words that followed were incomprehensible. She offered a handshake and the three of us took turns to shake her hand eagerly. The rest of our conversation proceeded in typical sign language mode with Gabriel doing most of the `talking' on our behalf. The girl offered to guide us to visit some of the sights located within the park. Among these is the impressive Belgrade fortress.
After a couple of hours of sightseeing, we took a break and sat on the lovely green grass. I asked the girl (in sign language) if there was a shop nearby where we could buy some drinks and something to eat. She motioned to me to give her some money. I wasn't sure at first but I looked at Gabe and he nodded. So I gave the girl some Yugoslav dinars... how much exactly, I can't remember. As she walked away from us, the sceptic in me said that I probably won't be seeing her again.
Surprise, surprise... about fifteen minutes later the girl returned carrying a plastic bag containing four cans of Coke and a packet of biscuits.
As it was late evening, we told the girl that we had to make our way back to the train station. Before saying goodbye, I asked her to write her name down on a piece of paper and also how to say `Thank you' in the local language. Try as I might, I cannot recall her name but I do remember that `Thank you' in Serbo-Croat is `Xuala'.
The central train station in Belgrade is not really big when compared to stations in other European capitals. But outside the station is a large square where most of the passengers sat or mingled about while waiting for the next train to Athens. We joined the many backpackers who spread their packs on the floor and huddled in groups. The night air was mild and the atmosphere was cheerful.
As we sat there in the square leaning against our backpacks, I noticed a stocky local youth staring at us. The guy was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that showed his muscular arms. His face reminded me of a young Charles Bronson (to those of you in the younger generation, Bronson is an old-time Hollywood movie star).
He then started to walk towards us in a tough-looking swagger. Crap, I thought... we're gonna be in deep trouble. I whispered to my friend, `Habis la kita, Gabe...'
Gabe, ever so cool, replied, `Steady...'
When the guy reached us, he squatted in front of Gabe, pointed a finger towards Gabe's chest and asked, `King Kong?'
Gabe answered back, `Huh?'
I already had a lump stuck in my throat...
`King Kong, King Kong?', the guy repeated. He then moved his hands to do some karate chops in the air and added, `Jacky Chan!'
Gabriel grasped what the guy meant immediately. `Oh, you mean Jacky Chan from Hongkong? Kung-fu?'
`Ja! Hongkong, Kung-fu!' the guy echoed back, this time with a wide smile on his face.
Apparently he wanted to know if we came from Hongkong. Gabe, an Iban from Kuching Sarawak, had the most Chinese-looking face of the three of us. That was why he got the question asked first. Phew! What a relief!
Gabe explained that we were from Malaysia. Of course, the Yugoslav guy didn't know where Malaysia was so Gabe took out a piece of paper, drew an outline of south-east Asia and then marked out the relative positions of Malaysia and Hongkong. Pretty soon, Gabe was happily chatting with the guy, the topics - if I deduce correctly from the animated movements of his hands - being Jacky Chan movies, Bruce Lee movies and perhaps anything to do with martial arts. The guy seemed genuinely interested in Gabe's stories and soon gestured to some of his friends, who were watching us from the other side of the square, to join us.
And so there was that night, a group of about 8 to 10 Yugoslav youths crowding around three Malaysian chaps in a square in front of Belgrade train station, chatting loudly and freely as if they had known each other for a long time.
During our conversation, the guy who first approached us, said that he came from the state of Macedonia and his hometown was Skopje. I didn't fully understand it at that time but later realised that Yugoslavia was a federation of different states, somewhat like Malaysia. But unlike Malaysia, the people of the different states are ethnically quite different.
When the train to Athens arrived, it was time to depart. We said our goodbyes with the Yugoslav youths with firm handshakes and hugs. It was like we had been friends for a long, long time. I took the chance to say `Xuala' to all of them and this brought bright smiles to their faces. You should have seen the surprised looks of the other Mat Salleh backpackers around us.
I really wished that I could have spent more time in Yugoslavia. The country's scenery, like most of the European countryside, is breathtaking. But it is the people that makes the country truly beautiful.
Alas, Yugoslavia the country, is no more. Despite the terrible infighting between themselves in the 90's, I will remember the Balkan people as among the most friendliest that I have ever met.
And to my old Iban friend Gabriel a/k Mason, take care, wherever you are. It was an adventure to remember...