Moldovan National Emblem

Moldova 2002

Transdniestran National Emblem

 

I decided to visit the Republic of Moldova in June 2002. Don't ask me why; probably because it was one of the few Eastern European Countries I hadn't been to yet and I didn't know much about it.

My first problem was getting there. Firstly, there were only two flights monthly from Western Europe and no direct bus or rail links.. Secondly, at the time Moldova required Western visitors not only to obtain a visa in advance but also a letter of invitation from a Moldovan citizen or an approved business. Thirdly Moldova didn't have an Embassy in the U.K.Political Map of MoldovaHotel Chisinau

 Luckily the Moldovan Government dropped the letter of invitation requirement for EU Citizens. I next found out there were daily flights from Bucharest to Chişinău, the Moldovan capital, although these had to be booked in Romania. I was able, after a couple of months, to obtain a Moldovan visa from their Belgian Embassy in Brussels by post.

Saturday 1st June: I flew to the Netherlands at 6 am. I then got a connecting flight to Bucharest and got a room in my usual basic but central hotel. After a walk and a meal I went to bed for the first time in almost 48 hours.

Sunday 2nd: Absolutely pouring with rain. Went down to the TAROM airline office to check out their opening hours for the following morning. After lunch it was getting obvious that the Bucharest sewers had long since given up. Even getting back to my hotel with dry feet was impossible; the road was under six inches of water overflowing onto the pavement.  I retired till the evening to read and catch up on sleep. In the evening the rain was just as bad. Crossing the road was unthinkable  due to the water. I found a cafe round the corner then splashed my way back for the night. All Saint's Church, Chisinau (2)

Monday 3rd: Fortunately it had stopped raining. In the morning I went round to the Airline Office and bought a flight to Chişinău for the following afternoon. After lunch I took a trip round central Bucharest and revisited the Civic Centre and took a tour round the enormous House of the People. Later I tried to find the Ceauşescu's graves, it seemed simple enough on the map but I couldn't even find the graveyard. Torrential rain started again so I found somewhere for dinner. The rain got even heavier so I hailed a taxi back to my hotel before the drains packed up again.

Tuesday 4th: Off to Moldova. I got the Metro and a bus to the airport after lunch. Everything went smoothly, and the twin prop took only an hour to ChişinăuAll saint's Churcn, Chisinau (1) Airport. At the airport I changed US$100 into Moldovan Lei and the woman at the money counter got me a taxi into the city. Driving along the road I resigned myself to the fact that the first billboard I saw was advertising a new "MacDonald's"; you can't escape the bastards anywhere nowadays; in fact it was the 2nd they'd opened there in the last 12 months. The driver, as requested, got me to a reasonable and more importantly authentic hotel (i.e. not the "Holiday Inn"). This proved to be the originally named "Hotel Chişinău", one of those decaying old Russian hotels whose fading and slightly crumbling decor still holds a reminder of Stalinist days. Time was getting on, I only had time for a quick something to eat and a walk up the main street before dusk fell and not surprisingly it started pouring with rain again. I retreated to my room.

Wednesday 5th: The rain had stopped and the sun come out so I explored the main street, "Strada Ştefan cel Mare" (Stefan the Great Street). Stephen cel Mare was obviously the national hero here, in the late 1400's he temporally kept the Ottoman Armies at bay, allowing Moldova a short period of relative independence. He was also a cousin of the infamous Vlad "The Impaler" Tepes (the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula) and was, after Vlad himself, probably the Balkan's number two most prolific impaler of all time. However unlike Vlad, Ştefan seemed to have been a more eco-friendly impaler; by skewering several Turkish captives together on the same stake he must have saved innumerable hectares of Watertowerin Chisinau (not required due to the rain)trees while simultaneously inventing the TurkishThe Great Man Himself - Stefan cel Mare (with Crucifix) Kebab.  I also visited the Cathedral and the pristine, domed blue white and gold All Saints' Church next door to my hotel. After a snack lunch in Ştefan cel Mare Park, I walked to The South of the City past the statue of Ştefan cel Mare himself, holding his crucifix outstretched, no doubt as all good medieval "Christian" sadistic mass-murderers did, and on past the University to Lake Valea. This is the main recreation park for the populace at weekends; they'd even made an artificial beach here for sunbathing. Unfortunately, miles from the nearest cover the skies opened and it started pouring again. I spent the rest of the afternoon dripping my way round the History Museum.

Thursday/Friday/Saturday 6th/7th/8th: I visited most of the rest of the city sights and on the Friday took a trolley bus out to the outer Lakes where I hired a rowing boat for the afternoon. I also visited the huge central market where you could buy anything from spare car parts to newly hatched chicks by the crate. I also visited the memorials to the second world war and those killed in the nationalist fighting in 1992. Next to this was the Outdoor Military Museum, several rows of obsolete Soviet tanks and artillery. My guide book had been right to pay a visit to the outside of Chişinău Prison, which was just across the road. As the prisoner’s first floor cells directly adjoined the main road, relatives of the prisoners gathered outside on the street and held "conversations" at the top of their voices with the unseen prisoners behind the blacked out windows. In a way rather funny, but also rather sad.

Campanology seemed very popular in Chişinău. Several times a day, at seemingly random intervals, the cathedral bells would peal forth with an enthusiasm matched only by their total disregard for harmony, synchronization or the slightest hint of a tune. Perhaps bell-ringing had been suppressed by the Soviets or something, but the Chişinău Ring-a-Ding Society, or whatever they were called, made up for their complete lack of technical ability by half hour bursts of joyous cacophony that would have made Quasimodo proud. Brilliant!

In the evenings I tried to make heads or tails with the one fuzzy black and White TV station I could get which may have been a Romanian or even UkrainianChisinau ParkChisinau Cathedral station, it certainly wasn't Moldovan.  Some of the programmes were bizarre copies of ones familiar in the West. "Who wants to be a Millionaire" easily transformed itself into Romania's "Who wants to be a Zillionaire"; after all a million Romanian Lei would only be worth about GBP £40 while Turkish "You've Been Framed" showed that there are people all over the planet who are easily amused by endless home videos of people falling over. However the most bizarre of all was Romanian "Candid Camera". The entire programme involved a small rat-like man with a beard (Jeremy Beadleşcu?), dressed in a kilt, sneaking up behind people using public telephones, then frightening them by playing the bagpipes. How I Laughed!

The World Cup Football Competition was also on. Unfortunately due to it being in fuzzy black and white, and with the lack of an English commentary or any screen captions it was impossible to know who was playing who.

I also discovered that the hotel had an Internet Cafe underneath it where I could pick up on the latest European News, the World Cup and send emails of my progress back home.

Sunday 9th: Finally, a hot and sunny day. I decided to try and make it to the self-proclaimed Republic of Transdniestr.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Moldovan independence, the Transdniestrans, still wishing to remain under the Russian wing, declared independence fromChisinau Lakes (1) Moldova. Despite being offered a degree of self-government, a mini-civil war broke out. Several hundred people were killed, and peace was only established by a UN-backed Russian Peace-Keeping force in the strategic town of Tighina (Bendery in Russian), on the Dniestr River. Although the Russians were mostly gone, the "Republic" still existed with its own government, president, currency, police, border guards and army. I had heard that there could be problems for western passport holders entering the area, there were strict and ever changing border controls to be negotiated, permits to be issued, and like bureaucratic nonsense. The fact that no other country recognised Transdniestr only added to the fun, as it was impossible to get entry permits outside of the country or even at Chisinau Lakes (2)the border. You could only obtain them once actually inside the country but you needed one to get in in the first place. Catch 22? Well I could only try.

At the Chişinău bus-terminus none of the buses would take me, but a taxi driver offered a hire me as far as Tighina (Bendery) about 50 miles, for USD $10. As we approached the border the roads became increasingly pot holed. Fortunately, at the border checkpoint, the guards just waved us through; I kept my head down, they probably thought I was Moldovan. I was dropped off at Tighina bus station early afternoon.

The first thing that struck me was how quiet it was. The streets were wide and pot-holed but there were hardly any cars. Walking through the bus station I came to a small Sunday market, I changed a whole USD $10 (too much it turned out), for around 70 Roubles and began my tour of the town centre.

Once again huge, wide streets but hardly a soul about. Those you saw were mainly pensioners who made up about two thirds of the population, no doubt part of the reason they harked back to the relative security of Soviet days.  There were very few shops, although the few there were, were actually quite modern, and sold western-style goods atTighina (Bendery) Transdniestr - Goverment Building almost western prices, totally out of the price range for the average Transdniestran who earned about US $50 a month (about a third of that for pensioners). Everything was almost spotlessly clean, no litter or rubbish strewing the street as I sometimes found in other small Eastern European towns. Also, unlike in Moldova proper, the cult of Ştefan cel Mare had either not caught on or been repressed. Instead of Ştefan, every second street here was named Central Tighina - Transdniestrafter Lenin or Serge Kirov. The street signs were still in the Cyrillic Script, imposed on Moldova after WWII, but replaced elsewhere after independence. Although the peacefulness had a certain charm to it, it was pretty obvious there wasn't going to be much happening here so after a picnic lunch in the park, under the shade of the obligatory statue of Lenin, I decided to get a bus onto the capital, Tiraspol.

Getting a bus ticket was an adventure in itself. After queuing for ages I had to buy my ticket through a hole in the wall. This comprised of a small semi-circle, about four inches in diameter, conveniently situated at waist level. Crouching down I perceived through the hole an aged crone, huddled in a shawl, and reading a book in semi-darkness. At the sight of me, and before I could open my mouth, she started yelling and screeching, while boarded up the hole with dirty rags and the copy of "Das Capital" or whatever it was she'd been reading. Investigation of the other holes revealed more raving octogenarians and the same reception.Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - Tighina. (The 1990 conflict) Eventually a friendly local offered to buy a ticket for me; I hid round the corner until Stalin's great-great granny relented and sold.

The mini-bus trip over the secured Dniestr Bridge was interesting; I resolved to check it out on the way back. The journey took only about 30 minutes, unfortunately the bus station was miles out of Tiraspol town centre and I didn't have a map (seemingly town maps were illegal for foreigners, considered to have military importance). None of the streets had names on them either.

By carefully counting the streets I finally made it to the town centre, bigger and more lived in than Kiriv Park - Tirispol, Transdniestr (1)Bendery but without the surrealism. Paranoid about getting lost and unwilling  to risk trying to book into a hotel without the unobtainable entry permit, I started retracing my route back to the bus station when I heard the sound of very loud music coming from Kirov Park. I went to investigate.

This was even stranger still; Most of the park was made up of thin woodland with small paths through the trees. It seemed that the whole town had turned out for a Sunday afternoon party. In the middle a huge gold statue of Sergey Kirov (I think it was him) had been covered with streamers,Kirov Park, Tirispol, Trandniestr on either side a sound-system was booming out disco music and people were dancing. Walking through the trees I came across a clearing with fairground roundabouts, in another people were ballroom dancing in full regalia. Stalls were selling food and drinks, in one area a makeshift restaurant was in full swing with chefs dressed in whites and tall chef hats cooking kebabs over barbeques amongst the trees. It was a great atmosphere especially in such an unlikely place. I wandered around for a bit, took some photos, had a kebab and counting the streets again made it back to the bus-station.

Back in Tighina, I walked down to the river, past the war memorial and eternal flame to those killed in the fighting in 1991. I approached the bridge cautiously (camera hidden) but the patrolling soldiers Party in Kirov Park, Tirispol, Transdniestrignored me and I was able to walk across without being shot at, despite my guidebook’s predictions. There were a lot of people on the East Bank fishing, and playing football and volleyball on the artificial beach. There was also a fair amount of traffic on the Dniestr but I didn't have time to enquire about a boat trip. On the way back I sneaked a couple of photos from the bridge. River Dniestr

Mission accomplished, it was time to get the bus back to Chişinău and the real(ish) world. At first all went well, that was until the bus reached the "border". The bus driver must have told the guards they had a Westerner on board; I was summarily ejected from the bus and into the Office. Fortunately, I had been talking to a Moldovan guy who spoke English, he was also ordered off to act as translator. The conversation went like this.

"Have you an entry pass?"

 "No, you only need an entry pass if you are staying in Transdniestr for over 3 days".

 This threw them, and they took out an enormous book of regulation. Sorry, THREE enormous books. After 10 minutes of aimless leafing through the pages  they decided I neede a pass after 3 hours not days. "OK, can I buy a permit here?” More consultation, "No, we don't have any permits here".

"So where can I get one?”

 "From the Transdniestr Police Office in Chişinău".

 This was nonsense; Moldova didn't recognise the existence of Transdniestr, and there wasn't any "Transdniestran police office" in Chisinau.

 "But there isn't any office in Chişinău".

 This threw them again. More leafing through their tomes. After about fifteen minutes they decided I would have to pay a fine, based on the number of hours I had been illegally skulking around their dominion.

 "Where in our country have you been?”

 "Oh, only Bendery", I lied, while remembering to use its Russian name.

 The fine was to be US$10 dollars - peanuts to me but a nice little backhander for them (so I thought) and I asked for a receipt. They didn't have any.

"OK, I'll pay without a receipt" (anything to get back to Chişinău).

I passed the note over the desk: they threw their hands up in horror.

"No we can't take money here, you have to pay in Bendery".

Damn, that meant going all the way back, but it would only take an hour, so needs must... and for goodness sake, I was offering them a weeks pay, no questions asked. Trust me to meet the only incorrupt officials in the region.

 "OK" I said "but it's now Sunday evening. Will it still be open?" They didn't know.

"What's the address in Bendery I've to go to?” They didn't know that either.

This was getting stupid. I couldn't leave Transdniestr without first buying a pass to enter it, or paying a fine . However they couldn't  sell me the permit, accept the fine or even tell me where to go to do this. They didn't even seem to have the initiative just to throw me out of their country either, which would have involved escorting me for about four paces in a westerly direction. An impasse had been reached! Was I was doomed to spend the rest of my life standing by the roadside; a terrible reminder to future travellers contemplating flouting their border regulations?

Fortunately one guard spoke a little English and asked me what I did back home. I told him I was a high-up border security guard, and he actually believed me: "An Officer!" he exclaimed, then they all saluted me! After that it was handshakes and cigarettes all round. They then  flagged down the next bus, and waved me off after refunding my bus fare, so I must have profited by about half a dollar after all this.

Monday 10th: It was raining heavily again. I spent the whole day trying to work out how to get a train ticket to Romania for the following morning. Although theChisinau main street Outdoor Military Museum, Chisinaujourney into Romania was only 50 miles, what with two sets of Customs checks and a bogie change (Romanian and Moldovan tracks use different gauges), I expected it to take at least twelve hours. It did.

Tuesday 11th: The train trundled very slowly through the rain all the way to the border. I got into conversation with a Moldovan guy who was working in Italy. When I told him I had been in Transdniestr he became quite animated. According to him, when the Soviet Union broke up the Transdniestran part of Moldova inherited a huge underground military base. A Cold War relic, it had had nuclear silos, and accommodation for 120,000 Soviet troops, with food and arms for six months. Although the Russians took the nuclear weapons back, Moldova kept hold of the bunker, plus most of the obsolete weaponry and the supplies. The Transdniestran "rebels" reckoned they could use these as a bargaining tool to secede from Moldova and join the C.I.S. However Moscow rejected this idea and since then Transdniestr has survived by selling this hardware "probably to Iraq and Pakistan". Whether there was any truth in this I don't know,  he was hardly an unbiased source, although I did know that the bunker at least existed.Central Iasi, RomaniaA Building (Can't remember which one), Iasi, Romania

Moldovan Customs, with typical ex-Soviet Bloc robotic thoroughness, spent about two hours dissecting everyone's luggage (and most of the compartment) without finding anything. While this was going on, the carriages were separated and jacked up by hydraulics and the wheels changed to European gauge. Then the train was put together again and we were shunted into a siding and left for four hours. Finally we moved over the border to the Romanian side, where the Romanian Customs repeated the same minute dissection of our luggage.  By the time we finally pulled into Iasi it was about ten at night and I needed a hotel. I got a taxi, explaining I wanted a cheapish hotel, I wasn't surprised when he dropped off at the most expensive in town, charging USD $180 per night. However the staff directed me to the more reasonably priced "Hotel Moldova" where I checked in for two nights.

Wednesday 12th: This hotel had one of best views I have ever had, looking down over the lovely Gothic Town Hall, now used as some sort of crappy business and exhibition centre - although it was supposedly a technical museum - on the originally named "Piata Stefan cel Mare". Not surprisingly, there was a statue of Ştefan as well, which led off onto the town's mainCentral Iasi street, which (surely not!) was called View From my Hotel Window, IasiStrada Ştefan cel Mare. This place was even more Ştefan mad than Chişinău,  Stefan statues, all these bloody statues of Stefan brandishing his bloody crucifix! I wondered what would happen if the local youths, after a liquid Saturday night, substituted a stake with a couple of skewered prisoners on the end for the crucifix, in the same way that drunks put parking-cones on the heads of statues in my native Scotland.

  I spent most of the day wandering around town, which was full of large churches and a beautiful cathedral. But time was running out and I reckoned if I left early enough I could probably make it to the Bicaz Gorges the next day. However I took a mental note of this town, it appeared to have a lot to offer and would certainly be on my "must see" list next time I was in the region.

Thursday 13th: My hotel had made enquires about getting to Bicaz, so I got a taxi to the railway station for the six o'clock train next morning. I was meant to change trains at Pascani, unfortunately it turned out the train was cancelled. The only possible alternative was a bus South to Bacau, then a train to Bicaz Village. After the train journey from Moldova, and the early morning rise I was beginning to get discouraged - I was tired, and I needed to get to Bicaz by early afternoon at the latest which seemedEarly Morning Train From Bicaz impossible. So I decided to try negotiating a some long distance taxiing. It worked! By the time my taxi was half way to the bus station I had struck a deal with the driver. He would take me all the way to Bicaz for 800,000 Lei (about USD $25). which was not bad for a journey of about 90 km. At the edge of  town we stopped up a lane and unscrewed the taxi-sign from Bicaz, Romaniathe car's roof, and stashed it in the boot as it was illegal for him to operate outside the city limits. Then we were on our way.  OK, we did get a bit lost towards the end, but we arrived in Bicaz by lunchtime. I booked into the local motel and set off to the Gorges, about 20 km away.

Unfortunately my luck finally ran out. Despite the Gorges being one of the most spectacular natural sites in Romania there were no buses to them or even any taxis in Bicaz! I tried everywhere but with no success. I did think trying to bribe a local with a car but none was to hand. And if I had known this was going to happen I could easily have kept my Iasi taxi-driver for the day. Still,  you win some, you loose some and I'd had a pretty good run for my money. Instead, I settled for a walk in the woods, despite the "beware of the wolves " signs.

Friday 14th: This was my last day so I had to get back to Bucharest. Perhaps Bicaz was a commuter village, although God knows to where, certainly not the gorges, as the trains only operated before seven a.m. and after six p.m. I caught the local train to Bacau, a pleasant journey through the mountains, but had to wait 4 hours for my connection at a rather scary railway station, in yet more rain. Unfortunately the Bucharest Express didn't live up to its name, and we were two hours late getting into the city. By now it was early evening and still coming down in torrents, although at least this time the drains were working.

Saturday 15th: In the morning I caught the bus to the airport, and the flight back home to Scotland. It was pouring with rain.

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