He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Good trains and soggy fields

Plaque at Sátoraljaújhely station
Švejk's journey through North-Eastern Hungary in May 1915 was an on-going story of waiting for the promised goulash. The journey is not described in detail, and only in Sátoraljaújhely is there any development: the goulash and the potatoes are finally distributed. The stay in Sátoraljaújhely starts with a description of how honvéd hussars abuse a group of Polish Jews. Then another conflict erupts between Švejk and Dub. The idiotic  lieutenant claims that destroyed weaponry is Russian even though it clearly has the inscription Wiener Neustadt. Then Švejk pulls  an insanely long anecdote for Lukáš to the effect that the obrlajtnant makes the following comment: "I’m coming to the conviction that you don’t respect your superiors at all". Lukáš was getting to the core of Švejk; how would a through-and-through anti-authoritarian writer create a figure that would genuinely respect his superiors? The trip through Hungary also illustrates the bungling of logistics in the k.u.k army. Hašek hardly exaggerates in his description of affairs; historians can point to even more incredible stories! To be fair, this type of mess was not a uniquely k.u.k problem; it happened in all armies, particularly the Russian.
A fine Honvéd Hussar
This may also the moment to explain the term honvéd, which occurs repeatedly. This word is known to all football fans of the older generation, and readers of Švejk will be familiar with it. The term simply means Home Guard and is an equivalent to the Austrian and German Landwehr, and Norwegian Heimevernet. In English literature, the term "territorial army" is also used. The honvéds were in fact much more than a home guard, they took actively part at the front and was an integral part of the army. The term honvéd hussar refers to the cavalry of the home guard. Honvéd still exists and is now in effect the Hungarian armed forces.

The football team Honvéd referred to above was the famous 1950's team that provided players like Ferenc Puskás and was almost identical to the national team that crushed England twice in 1953 (7-1, 6-3). They miraculously failed to win the World Cup in 1954. How Hungary for such a short period shot to the top of world football is a mystery. Obviously there was a lot of talent, but the single-minded concentration of resources in one club would also have played a part. There were parallels to this scheme in the Dynamo Kiev of the 1970's and the Dynamo Berlin of the 1980's, but none of these were as dominant as Honvéd and Hungary. The football club Honvéd still exists but is not a major force any more, not even domestically. CSKA Moscow and Soviet Ice Hockey in the 1970's is perhaps the best comparison to the Honvéd football team of the 1950's.
The nearest I came to see a honvéd hussar was the sight of two statues by the entrance to the military history museum in Budapest. But now, it's time get rid of the smell of horse-dung and get back to  the diesel odours of the MAV locomotives. From Hatvan I set off early to continue my station hopping. The first stop was Kal-Kápolna, a place which is not mentioned in Švejk, but which Jaroslav Hašek mentioned in a poem. It distinguishes itself with arguably the ugliest railway station in the world. It is so hideous that only the Central Committee could have designed it. I missed out on the compulsory sör at this stop, because the only place open was a stinking dive with totally pissed gypsies. Enjoyment is an integral part of beer-drinking, but here I couldn't envisage this being the case.

Tracks by Tiszalúc
Füseszabony was more cheerful, and it is also a bigger place. There I finally indulged in a good Sopronyi. At Miskolc, which Hašek calls Miškovec, it was time for a meal. The station was clean and modern as befits the third largest city in Hungary. The city never saw any fighting during WW1 but was hit by a terrible cholera epidemic.

There were still three hops to go. Trains are good and frequent along this route so I normally had an hour at each station to nose around and enjoy the symbolic beer. Tiszalúc, the stop after Miskolc, is tiny. Hašek mixed it up with Tiszalök, which can be easily verified by looking at the railway maps. The station "facilities" here were so disgusting that I instinctively clenched my nose, backed out, and performed my smaller bodily needs outside.
Mezösombor is another small place, but here I had to walk into the village centre as the station was more or less out in the fields. There are three small churches in town which all look the same. I had my beer in a bar where I was regarded as biggest curiosity since the Ottomans were driven out. The people in the bar were very friendly and I regretted not knowing more than those ten words of Hungarian. "Nem tudom" was used all to often. As I moved further east, the damages from the recent floods were noticeable. Many fields in the Tisza valley were still under water. The railway line had also been damaged, so the last part of the trip to Sátoraljaújhely was by rail replacement bus service.
Sátorljaújhely and Sátor
Sátoraljaújhely was the final stop in Hungary, and this border town was already familiar to me. I stayed here on  my mini-Švejk trip in 2004. At the station there is a plaque commemorating the Good Soldier Švejk. Sátoraljaújhely is a pleasant if unspectacular town, set below the Sátor mountain. Sátor means tent and the name of the town is literally "New town below the tent".  After the treaty of Trianon the town was split and the part on the eastern side of the small river was given to Czechoslovakia. It was simply a move to give Czechoslovakia direct railway access to Zakarpatia (ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945). The population here in the Semplin region was then almost one hundred per cent Hungarian. The town is closely associated with Lajos Kossuth, the hero of the 1848 revolution and struggle for independence from Austria. Moreover it is the birthplace of two famous porn stars.

The hotel where I stayed in 2004 had gone out of business, so in the end I asked some men outside a bar if there were places to sleep. There was, and a  drunk man showed me the way, incredibly without any trouble or verbal diarrhoea (which I wouldn't have understood anyway). The pension was cheap and friendly, so many thanks to my inebriated benefactor! The next day I walked over to Slovenské Nové Mesto, the part of town ceded to Czechoslovakia in 1921. At the Hungarian side of the border there is a Trianon monument, and in the Slovak station someone had replaced the Slovak names on the railway map with Hungarian ones. Sandbags from the floods were still laying around, and the water levels must have been incredible. The whole lower part of the two towns had been under water.
Švejk and Hašek are very popular in Hungary, despite the authors general animosity toward s the country, or at least it’s officialdom. He is still not as hostile as he was towards the Austrians, and lets Švejk exclaim that some Hungarians can't help being Hungarians. My problem in Hungary was  entirely my own: I don't know the language, but in this I'm not alone. If it hadn't been for László Polgár and his friends in Budapest, it could have been a very lonely nine days in the footsteps of Švejk. The practical things work though, many  people know some English or German, so the tourist is not totally lost. I was impressed by the trains, a lot  faster and more comfortable than their Czech and Slovak counterparts and equally cheap. The highlight in Hungary will still be the days in Budapest, meeting a lot of people with the same interests as myself and otherwise  enjoying the beautiful Hungarian capital. 

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