Often travel writers will romanticize traveling by train at night. My guess is they're Brits for the most part. They compare train travel at night to traveling by ship at sea. The gentle rhythm of the rail. That kind of crap. What they don't tell you about is stopping at numerous stations at night with bright lights, loud speakers and noisy people getting on and off the train. They never mention your train stopping in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night(we light sleepers are awakened by the cessation of the rhythm of the rails), only to have the silence of the countryside broken by having a much faster express train roar by you like a cyclone. And, they don't mention border crossings.
While I have spent a number of nights sleeping on trains, only in the past 5 years have I become soft enough and had a surplus of cash to travel by couchette. I can remember 4 trips by couchette, although I have more in the near future. I hope my luck improves.
My first two couchette experiences were on a train trip from Prague to Istanbul in the spring of 2002. From Prague to Budapest, a short night anyway, midnight to 7am, we crossed six borders. How did we cross 6 borders in 7 hours when the train passed through only 3 countries? A question I asked myself each time there was a knock on the door by some official wanting to see my passport. As near as I can understand, the railroad was built sometime before current borders were established, so the train entered, left and re-entered the same countries. In any event, 6 passport checks in 7 hours made sleep that night impossible.
After standing in line wet and freezing, I came to its head. All I could think about was returning to my meat locker to put on dry clothes. The official looked at my passport, looked at me, shook his head and said I had to go to another line to get a tax stamp, which I did, at the end of the line of course. When I got to the head of that line, the official said that I had to pay 5 euro for my stamp. I had not been in any countries that were on the euro, so I had none. I did have plenty of dollars and assorted other currencies. But, the official would only accept Euros. I asked him where I was supposed to get Euros at 4 am. He said there was a currency exchange office around the building. So, Back out in the rain, running around a building in the wee hours, starting to worry about getting back on the train before it left. Naturally, the exchange was not open at such an hour. I was starting to get worried. When I went back to speak with the official, I bumped into a German man in the next compartment to me on the train. We had chatted a little earlier in the day. When I explained my predicament, he gave me the 5 Euros and I was saved.
After getting back on the train, changing out of my wet clothes, but not getting warmer. The conductor came by to ask if I wanted breakfast. I thought that warm food was just what I needed. When it arrived, it consisted of a large piece of bread that had the flavor and consistency of an adobe brick, a few sausages drowned in grease and a large tube of white stuff. The white stuff looked and felt like lard. It smelled worse. I can't comment on the flavor. My experience was not quite like the Orient Express.
The third couchette ride was from Saigon to Nha Trang. On it, a daypack with my camera and other assorted things was stolen in the middle of the night. Remarkable, since the bag was no more than 3 inches from my head. I'm glad whoever took it wasn't inclined to cut my throat while they were at their business. The adventures had with the Vietnamese policy is another story, but very interesting.
The most recent ride was a few days ago from Budapest to Warsaw. The usual noises and distractions, but only 2 border crossings. The first, into Slovenia, came early enough that it was not inconvenient. The second, into Poland, came in the middle of the night. I was sound asleep when the knock came. It was very chilly in the car. I had left my window open for some fresh air, but there are mountains at the border of the 2 countries. I answered the door in my underwear. The trip from Prague to Budapest had taught me that there was little sense getting dressed every time they wanted to see a passport. Border guards were all men any way. Until I got to Poland. I opened the door and I swear there a blond goddess in a uniform wanting to see my passport. Even though I had been asleep only seconds before, I was immediately having thoughts of her searching me for contraband. But, given the temperature in the compartment and the fact that I was standing there in my under shorts, it was obvious that the only thing that I could be smuggling into Poland that might necessitate a "pat down", would be a Vienna Sausage, which apparently was not on the contraband list.