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
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
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.
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
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 Chişinău 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
trees while simultaneously inventing the Turkish 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
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 Ukrainian 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 from 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
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
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 at
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
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,
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.
Eventually a friendly local offered to buy a ticket for me; I hid
round the corner until Stalin's great-great granny relented and
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
"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 the
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.
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
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
street, which (surely not!) was called
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
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 seemed
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
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 "
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
Saturday 15th: In the morning I
caught the bus to the airport, and the flight back home to Scotland.
It was pouring with rain.