Posted by: Caroline | July 10, 2015

Late Nights & Street Art in Berlin

Berlin has more than enough sight-seeing opportunities and historical attractions to keep any visitor busy for their stay, but the city’s real charm is in its quirky, graffiti-smothered neighborhoods, easily accessible by the city’s public transportation. DSC03902 We met up with one of Chrissie’s friends at Neueheimat, a food market in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain. Long picnic tables are encircled by vendors selling vegan Yemeni wraps or Vietnamese pork buns. There’s a small cover charge; ours went to supporting the “food art” performance that evening. IMG_3898 Walking around Friedrichshain. DSC03917 DSC03905 We recharged in the area with some Lebanese food and a Club Mate. Although this mate tea soda has been around for a while, it’s recently become a hipster staple in Berlin. The high caffeine content is essential for going out in Berlin, where clubs don’t get busy until 3 or 4am. Once when we tried to head home at 6am, a girl we met on the subway looked at her watch in total shock and said, “It’s way too early! You have to get out at this stop.” She gave us directions to a nearby dance spot where the sunlight was already streaming through the windows and lighting up the dedicated dancers. IMG_3793 One of our favorite spots was this hidden rooftop bar in the neighborhood of Neukölln. Klunker Kranich offered an unbeatable view of Berlin. Here you can see the TV Tower in Alexanderplatz (you’ll see a close up later).DSC03920 DSC03927 DSC03937 The patio is a fantastic place to relax, drink some wine, snack on some antipasto or ratatouille, and watch the sunset. DSC03968 As promised, here is your close-up of the TV Tower in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood. This is home to most of the important sights. IMG_3896 IMG_6241 The Berlin Cathedral IMG_6247 Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburger Tor, to be more exact) IMG_6249 Reichstag (Parliament), just before it was blocked off for a rally in support of Germany opening its arms to refugees. IMG_6252 No matter where you are in Berlin, you’re never far from a great spot to give your feet a rest and enjoy a beer. IMG_6255 Checkpoint Charlie, once a crossing point between East and West Berlin. IMG_3906 There are plenty of other reminders of Berlin’s divided past. These cars–called The Trabant or “Trabi”–were the standard East German vehicle. In their second lives, they are colorfully decorated and rented out to tourists. IMG_3902 Remnants of the Berlin Wall stand in 2 places. The first is Mitte, where the wall is lined with a really informative display called the Topography of Terrors. IMG_3905 The wall is lined with glass hangings filled with photographs and short descriptions about each. The pieces of glass allow you to see the wall behind them and serve as a timeline from before World War II until the fall of the Wall. IMG_3900 The second place you can see the Wall is the East Side Gallery. While the Topography of Terrors serves as a lesson and a reminder of a dark past, the East Side Gallery’s kilometer of vibrant murals offer hopeful artistic expressions of freedom and peace. IMG_6265 IMG_3903 IMG_3907 It’s a perfect way to reimagine the wall in a city that loves its street art.

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Posted by: Alex | June 30, 2015

More Moscow

In my Introduction to Moscow post, I admitted that I had wondered if there was much more to do in the Russian capital than see Red Square and the Kremlin.

The answer: absolutely! Moscow is a great city to explore.

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For starters, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Moscow has no shortage of imposing Soviet-era buildings. This one, the Foreign Ministry, sort of reminds me of a more menacing version of the City Hall in Buffalo, New York.

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The hammer and sickle, as a massive architectural feature.

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Another of the Seven Sisters, a collection of distinctive skyscrapers Stalin built throughout the city. Each rises starkly in the background of many vistas.

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Scenes like this are straight out of 1984, with the strength and omnipotence of the government radiating over the city.

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Nowadays, the relics of old Soviet glory clash with the surreal towers of glass and steel in Moscow’s gas-fueled business districts. It might not match the sheer size of Shanghai’s Pudong, but it still packs quite a punch visually!

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I gathered that the Soviet style of architecture really embraces square, vertical columns meeting horizontal beams.

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The Lenin Library.

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Even suburban metro stations exhibit the exact same style.

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Moscow’s massive boulevards

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Moscow’s second most impressive cathedral: the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, unfortunately destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s and rebuilt only recently.

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A beautiful building.

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The biggest shame of all is that the building the cathedral was razed to make space for was never even built! It was to be a massive capitol building, taller than the Empire State Building, when construction was halted by World War II.

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A typical boulevard.

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A view of the Kremlin in the distance.

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Sitting across the Moscow River from the cathedral is an unusual place: the Red October chocolate factory. Originating in the Tasrist era and serving as a national icon throughout the Soviet era, the chocolate factory is now filled with trendy shops and clubs, with a more liberal vibe.

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A bit of Portland in the Red October factory.

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The nearest neighbor to Red October: a massively disproportionate tribute to Peter the Great. Taller than the Statue of Liberty but clearly lacking the benefit of any measure of French taste, the monument oddly exalts the man that moved Russia’s capital to St. Petersburg.

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Nearby, Fallen Monument Park includes a curious mix of quirky art and Soviet icons. “The USSR, a Haven of Peace”.

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Alas, no place is free of consumerism.

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My single venture to the suburbs (still no difficult journey given the speedy metro) took me to Izmailovsky market, at the Partizanskaya metro station.

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Beyond the prime hunting grounds for knick-knacks such a place was sure to offer, it was recommended to me as being the best place in the whole world to look for old Soviet stuff: a whole flea market devoted to it!

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Knick-knacks a plenty!

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The place actually is pretty much a big, bizarre Russian theme park.

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A big, bizarre, decrepit, mostly abandoned Russian theme park! Amazing!

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Unfortunately, not a Soviet relic in sight. The vast majority of the place sits empty, I was to quickly discover.

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Except for…a hostel? That’s what хостел means, right? Who would possibly voluntarily stay at this place? Besides someone crazy like me, I guess.

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On the more traditional, and less-deserted, end of the tourist shopping spectrum, Old Arbat Street is like the Nanjing Road of Moscow, only with a lot less tackiness and vice.

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But not completely without tackiness!

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The road definitely caters to the higher-ruble class of tourist than the current incarnation of Izmailovsky market (which largely just catered to the likes of me, apparently, and I’m not a high-ruble tourist by any stretch).

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Matryoshka dolls, in amazing varieties and forms. You can spend a shocking amount on these things–into the thousands of dollars. The finest ones are all handcrafted with a multitude of dolls, each with different inlaid images.

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An almost manufactured-looking touch of graffiti.

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I was legitimately surprised to find a Shake Shack!

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Moscow by night.

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Moscow’s quirkier neighborhoods, east of the center.

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The city’s backstreets and alleyways, filled with interesting glimpses of the past.

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Majestic architecture on the city’s main streets.

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The club and cafe scene of central Moscow, known for being legendarily judgmental. Bouncers employ “face control” to ensure only the most desirable customers are admitted. Getting turned away sounds like a devastating outcome to waiting an hour on a frigid winter night!

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And, last but certainly not least, the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines!

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A rather inventive set of arcade games that have little resemblance to anything I’ve seen as an American gamer.

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Most of the games either have to do with war, hunting, or racing. They use projections, screens, and lights in creative ways.

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And, to this non-Russian speaker, often managed to be completely incomprehensible!

Posted by: Alex | June 25, 2015

Red Square & the Kremlin: Moscow’s Wonders

For Russian tourism, Moscow may play second fiddle to St. Petersburg, but Moscow boasts two world-class attractions sitting side-by-side: Red Square and the Kremlin.

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Red Square is among the most visually impressive city squares I’ve seen, with architectural gems on all sides. (Accordingly, this post will consist mainly of pretty pictures!)

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In addition to visiting during the day to see the attractions, a stroll through Red Square at night is obligatory to see the buildings lit up.

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Lenin’s Mausoleum

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The Mausoleum at night, with the red walls and palaces of the Kremlin in the background. (Red Square is actually so-named because the Russian word for red used to mean beautiful, apparently. But that doesn’t negate the fact that much of the scenery in Red Square is, in fact, red.)

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The incredible spires and walls of the Kremlin.

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The Kremlin’s east wall lit up at night. The guards here are serious: a guy had jumped the rope to get a picture in front of the Kremlin and, after hearing the blearing of whistles, walked briskly away. The guards pursued the guy and gave him a stern talking-to.

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And there it is: the glorious St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most iconic buildings in the world.

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Stunning day and night, and from every angle.

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Alongside Lenin’s Mausoleum, a number of important Soviet figures, including Stalin, are buried.

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Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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Flanking the Tomb is a monument for each of Russia’s Hero Cities of World War II. To the left, the Crimean city of Sebastapol; to the right, Odessa.

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Once you’ve soaked in the (free) beauty of Red Square, you’ve gotta battle the crowds and pay the (rather reasonable) fee to get into the Kremlin.

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The red-walled Kremlin is a lot of things to Russia. It’s it Russia’s national capital, presidential residence, historical religious epicenter, and maintains a noteworthy chunk of the country’s historic artifacts.

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Munitions inside the Kremlin

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The Soviet-era Palace of Congresses, a massive building for government meetings in the Soviet days, which has since hosted performances for the likes of Mariah Carey!

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There’s definitely a clear protocol for visitors to the Kremlin. You walk exactly where they tell you to walk; step outside the boundaries, and a shrill whistle will goad you back in line.

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Larger than life!

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The Tsar Bell, replete with bizarre history. It’s almost 300 years old, and the largest bell in the world. It weighs about 220 tons. When Napoleon occupied Moscow in the early 1800s, he wanted to plunder the bell; but how in the heck would you move the bell 200 years ago?! On its original casting, the bell was threatened by fire right as it was being cooled; workers dumped water on it, causing a large piece to crack off. It was even used as a chapel at one point.

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The Kremlin’s fabulous gardens.

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Cathedral Square is the Kremlin’s main tourist spot.

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The Square hosts four major Orthodox cathedrals, each serving a distinct historical purpose: one for royal coronations, one for burials, one for prayer, and one for the storage of icons.

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Following the dutifully-enforced Russian tradition, however, no photos are allowed inside, leaving me only with photos of the square itself. A striking place, to be sure.

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Nobody could complain for a lack of gold domes!

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Alas, in a manner that reminiscences Topkapi Palace, a swarm of bodies floods each church entrance like it’s a Transnistrian beehive!

Posted by: Alex | June 25, 2015

To Russia For Fun

Longtime readers of this blog know I have a penchant for exploring huge cities, and a recent trend of visiting BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). I visited São Paulo in 2012 and Shanghai in 2013–why not try my luck with the economic powerhouse city of another BRIC country? This time, it was Russia.

I’ll be honest. Moscow had never really been on the top of my travel list. Russia has bureaucratic and expensive visa policies. Worse, I always imagined Moscow, up until the time of this trip, to be a dirty, drab sort of place. Once you see St. Basil’s Cathedral, what else is there? (I know Russia currently plays the role as the US’s main adversary globally, but visiting adversarial countries has never really deterred me, and has often proved quite rewarding.)

Truth be told, a big part of the reason I opted to go to Russia at all was pragmatic: airfares from Atlanta were almost $500 cheaper than other European gateways. Further, flights to other parts of Eastern Europe were dirt cheap, probably owing to the vast currency fluctuations against the dollar. All of this more than paid for the cost of a visa. I figured, why not give Russia a whirl?

So, the big question: does the real Moscow match my mental image as an ugly, unfriendly place?

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Absolutely not! I actually found Moscow to be pretty darned pleasant, and with a whole lot more to see and do than I had expected.

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After taking Moscow’s Aeroexpress train into town, my first image of Moscow was Belorusskaya Station. Nothing drab or unfriendly about that!

Next up, it was time for a crash course in Moscow’s metro. And what a metro it is!

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The stations are deep, deep underground, accessed by extremely fast-moving escalators that typically carry far more passengers than in this photo.

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Purely Soviet-built (except for the modern extensions), the metro is literally a work of art. The stations blow any other metro I’ve ever seen out of the water, aesthetically.

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These are not exceptional stations; these are typical!

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An art lover could surely spend an afternoon exploring station after station. (Given the Cyrillic station names, and the fact that most interchange stations on different lines have two different names, you just might end up spending an afternoon exploring the metro whether you want to or not!)

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Lenin.

That’s enough of the metro. So how does Moscow fare at street level?

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Pretty well, actually. A typical central Moscow pedestrian street.

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Splashes of color (and a single-file line of angry motorists!).

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Yep–they’ve got parks.

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One issue with Moscow is the cars. Some big roads with lots of cars pierce the heart of the city. Motorists are generally pretty deferential to pedestrians at crosswalks, but sometimes it can involve quite a walk to get to a legitimate crossing point. Fortunately, the metro is cheap and ubiquitous.

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The most striking thing about Moscow, to me, was the mass of high-end shopping in the city center. It’s something to behold: expensive boutiques and luxury stores as far as the eye can see.

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Expensive cafes, roads clogged with black Mercedes–the city has a rich, refined feel that possibly even goes beyond western capitals. Not dingy at all!

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A surreal sight: communist icons adorning buildings now filled with designer stores marketed towards a razor-thin segment of Russia’s elite.

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High-end frills abound. This is perhaps a contender for the world’s most elaborate ice cream stand, complete with a massive fabric totem serving no clear purpose, augmented with a large cage packed (perhaps symbolically?) with doves–just because.

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A plush cafe in a hidden alcove.

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One thing is for sure: all of the same natural, handmade, organic trends you see in the US are sweeping Moscow just the same. “Cold-pressed”, “local craft”, “superfood”–all of this is just as popular in Moscow as it is in Atlanta.

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Trendy cabana-style restaurants in the park sell the same retro-chic vibe so popular in America to a youthful, bike-bound clientele.

Honestly, the similarities between urban culture in Atlanta and Moscow were one of the most surprising things about the culture there. I expected a somewhat harsh, foreign, and possibly even anti-American edge to the people. Not so: many young people wear t-shirts saying New York, Brooklyn, or Los Angeles, and sometimes even with American flag patterns.

I told one Russian I was from Atlanta, and was expecting to hear, if anything, one of the city’s traditional claims to fame (Coca-Cola, the Olympics, the airport, MLK). Instead, I was surprised to hear: “Oh yes…the Walking Dead!” Nobody seemed to scoff whatsoever at the idea of me being an American; people seemed to respond a little more warmly than room temperature, actually.

Definitely not what I expected. I’m sure the countryside, or even the suburbs of Moscow, could be much different, harboring the country’s reputed nationalism and xenophobia. But I witnessed not a bit of it during my time in Moscow.

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American brands are almost as common as they are in Western European capitals (and provide helpful Cyrillic alphabet quizzes! Although Cyrillic does butcher the letter “J”, translated here as “dzh”). Clearly some significant degree of investment and commercial relationship with the US remains in tact.

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That’s not to say all is well; clearly it is not. A stone’s thrown from the Kremlin, this is the recently-assassinated Boris Nemtsov’s memorial. The liberal figure and Putin-critic was shot in the back four times as he crossed this bridge on February 27, 2015. The case remains embroiled in controversy and doubt.

A very sad event and unnerving spot indeed.

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Moscow does live up to its reputation handily in at least one respect: being expensive. Even with the marked devaluation in the currency of late, these prices are exorbitant. 625 rubles for a box of cereal? That’s $12.50. Yikes.

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$6 for a coconut water would sure have me rethink my health drink fads!

Next up: Red Square and the Kremlin!

Posted by: Alex | June 21, 2015

Odessa: the City on the Black Sea

Heading out of Transnistria, I took the old Moldovan-operated train that passes through the territory by special agreement for the 3 hour ride to Odessa, Ukraine.

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Inside the train, where I got a lengthy shakedown from border officials (probably the silliest border crossing I’ve seen outside of Africa). Transnistria, interestingly, doesn’t have any border authority on the train itself; by agreement, its border guards can only harass passengers at the station–once they’re on the train, they’re in the hands of the Moldovans. So at least that takes care of the Transnistrian immigration!

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Odessa’s train station, which is ornate enough to wow train station aficionados and regular folk alike.

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The main dome in the station.

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Odessa, a city of about a million, has architectural gems beyond a city of its population. Catherine the Great established the city to be the Saint Petersburg of the Black Sea.

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The city’s opera house is its most celebrated building.

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Right now you might be thinking…Ukraine? Isn’t there a war there right now?

Well, technically no–there’s a ceasefire. But, decent point nonetheless. As of June 2015, however, any conflict is hundreds of kilometers from Odessa, and the city is completely safe to visit.

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It’s also gotta be among the cheapest places in the world right now. Ukraine’s currency, the Hryvnia, used to be at 8 to the dollar; now it’s 22! Price adjust to these changes gradually, especially for labor-intensive services tourists tend to use. (Prices for traded goods and branded products change fast, however; I peeped into Hugo Boss to see what their jeans ran, and it was still north of $300 US!)

One might be inclined to think you should avoid Ukraine right now; on the contrary, this is the time to go! Ukraine’s economy has been on the brink for a while, and tourist dollars are one of the surest ways to help.

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Odessa’s monstrous Privoz Market, one of the largest in the former USSR.

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Similar to Latin American markets, its borders are fuzzy, and its tentacles extend into the city in all directions.

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Outside of the more refined center, Odessa definitely has its rough edges. It at no point felt dangerous; just a tad seedy at times.

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Since Odessa’s role in the tourist world is mainly being a beach town for Ukrainians, Russians, and Belorussians, and it was cloudy and quite chilly the whole time I was there, I was left wandering the pleasant streets and leafy promenades.

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The main pedestrian street.

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Language was a little tricky–Ukrainian is a similar but distinct language from Russian, and given the conflict I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. But Odessa is largely Russian-speaking anyways, and I failed to discern a single word that wasn’t Russian. Eventually I just gave in and put my embarrassingly limited Russian vocabulary to use.

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Odessa’s signature attraction (except for the beach, of course!) is the Potemkin Steps.

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One morning I ran down and back up for exercise. Pretty tough!

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At the bottom you’re treated to a view the of old port…

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…and the rail yard! Perfect for someone like me.

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And some wonderful Soviet architecture!

Posted by: Alex | June 21, 2015

Kitskany Monastery

While my first post about Transnistria may give off the impression that it’s devoid of any “traditional” tourist attractions, there’s a major exception: the monastery at Kitskany (technically the Noul Neamţ Monastery, but locally called Kitskany after the nearby village).

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Located a mere 4 miles outside of central Tiraspol (simply cross the bridge and take the only bus on the other side until the first stop–Kitskany), it makes an easy side-trip from town, and is totally worth it.

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The monastery rising out of the brambly ex-Soviet landscape of Kitskany Village.

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The huge bell tower that serves as the entrance. Unlike most notable monasteries I’ve been to, Kitskany has no entrance fee; you just stroll right in the gate and you’re strolling among the priests.

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The gorgeous church interior.

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In addition to the aesthetics, one fascinating thing about Kitskany is how open and authentic it is. You can stroll through their groves and fields at will. The place is self-sustaining.

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Cherries ripe for the picking.

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A longtime tradition of harvesting honey.

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Stockpiled firewood that would be good for years!

The monastery also raises orphans and provides education for local children–a noble institution.

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If you go with Tim from Tiraspol Hostel, he’ll get the gate to the massive bell tower opened. This stairway probably wouldn’t cut it in the US!

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High up in the tower, where this unfathomably large bell was somehow hoisted way back when. It was made in Saint Petersburg.

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A bird’s eye view of the monastery. Gorgeous!

Posted by: Alex | June 20, 2015

The Last Vestige of the USSR

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Welcome to Tiraspol, Transnistria, a place that has strikes the fancy of many-a geopolitics junky. Given my well-documented affinity for places of questionable statehood, I couldn’t help but stop by.

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Unlike essentially every other part of the former Soviet Union, Transnistria never acknowledged collapse of the USSR or the communist state.

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City Hall. “Domsovetov”–House of the Soviet. Note the Lenin statue–Soviet icons remain in full effect in Transnistria.

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To gain this status, Transnistria, backed by Russia, fought a liberation war against Moldova in the early 1990s and, to some extent, won. Nowadays, it has pretty much everything you’d expect a government with full autonomy to have: its own border patrol, currency, military, police force, license plates, and flag. Not bad for an unrecognized state with a population of half a million, huh?

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Not great either, though. Police spend most of their time soliciting petty bribes from motorists. (Actual crime is virtually nonexistent in this small city.)

I stayed at the Tiraspol Hostel, and was the only guest (the war between Russia and Ukraine has not been kind to Transnistria’s already-beleaguered tourism industry). The proprietor, an American named Tim, was my guide during my stay in Tiraspol, so I got the inside scoop on how the place works…

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…and I also got to stay in an original Khrushchev housing block!

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The Transnistrian parliament.

Transnistria is quite a misunderstood place and, especially given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, fodder for much sensationalism in the Western media.

Transnistria’s main source of differentiation from Moldova is a common one: language and ethnicity. While Moldova is primarily Romanian-speaking, Transnistria was the recipient of many Russian migrants under Soviet Russification. During the collapse of the USSR, Moldova wanted to be indpendent, Transnistria didn’t, and war broke out. We’ve heard this story before.

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This is where media reports sometimes get carried away. Transnistria may still cling to the Soviet political system and icons, but contrary to some assertions, it certainly is not communist in any meaningful way. Sheriff, a local for-profit conglomerate, controls just about everything of any meaningful economic value: gas stations, the football club, retail, etc, under the same exclusive licensing regulations prevalent across third world kleptocracies–nothing particularly novel about that.

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The ever-empty casino is probably a better representation of the economic system than the hammer and sickle: the perfect venue for money laundering.

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Another Transnistria myth is that the state functions as a Soviet police state, with a populace riled up with pro-Soviet hysteria, lest they be sent off to the gulags. True, the KGB still has a presence here (a fact dwelled upon by more than a few foreign journalists and bloggers), but it’s hardly the secretive, machiavellian organization tasked with eliminating enemies of the Soviet state. Seldom is discontent expressed among the population–not because of fear, but because of apathy. The idea that Transnistrians are especially political or brainwashed by the state is lunacy; English remains a popular major at the state university, and as soon as Moldovans were granted the ability to travel visa-free to the EU for 90 days, Transnistrians lined up for Moldovan passports.

Travelers often think of Transnistria as a particularly risky or adventurous destination, given the uncertain politics and policing, and the general tensions in the region. I can’t stress enough that this isn’t the case. Transnistria is perfectly safe to visit these days. The main problem with visiting used to be border guards soliciting big bribes; those days appear to be completely gone.

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From a global perspective, what’s happening within Transnistria is a lot less interesting than what’s happening outside. Vladimir Putin’s main aim in invading first Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine was ostensibly to protect Russians from persecution. Transnistria could be argued to be in a similar situation: a majority-Russian region claimed (and arguably oppressed) by a western-influenced state.

Still, any direct Russian play on integrating Transnistria into its borders remains a longshot. The war seems to have simmered down substantially and Transnistria is hundreds of miles from the nearest Russian-controlled territory. It has but a fraction of the population and economic clout of a Crimea, and major cities lie between Crimea and Transnistria. You have to wonder whether Transnistria would be “worth it”, by whatever calculus Putin is using to rationalize his latest round of military adventures. Transnistrians are all now eligible for Russian passports, as of the last couple weeks, but how much relevance this has in the grand scheme of things is anyone’s guess.

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So, no, Transnistria is not some hotbed of rabid communist militancy, nor is it likely to be the next geopolitical flashpoint. Instead, I look as Transnistria as a living museum of the USSR. Transnistria has a bit of the “lost in time” feel that Cuba has. The city is largely unchanged from the old Soviet days, and has avoided the redevelopment and investment experienced elsewhere. This alone makes it a worthy destination.

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The country’s economy is on display in the main market. An amazing assortment of local, organic vegetables farmed by hand.

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Transnistria’s Central Bank, tasked with maintaining the country’s currency. The Transnistrian Ruble is more or less fixed to the dollar (staying around 10- or 11-to-1), while the Russian Ruble, and, particularly, the Ukranian Hryvnia have lost massive chunks of their value. As war brewed within Ukraine, the Transnistrian Ruble gained value against regional currencies, and suddenly residents began leaving in droves for shopping sprees in Ukraine.

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One of Tiraspol’s two main city beaches. There’s a pretty neat beach culture on the banks of the Dniester, the river that generally separates Transnistria from Moldova.

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The modern version of old Soviet candy bar. Not very much sugar, and probably a lot healthier than Western ones!

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Strolling the backstreets of Tiraspol is probably the best way to get a feel for modern Transnistrian culture.

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Sleepy paths through the rumbling old housing blocks, still packed with residents to this day.

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Soviets had a pragmatic habit of planting fruit-bearing trees throughout their cities. Cherries are in abundance–just pick them right off the tree!

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Cats are everywhere, fed by the babushkas. Small-scale installations add color into the mix.

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A car parts store, putting the abundance of old disused cars to good use!

Posted by: Alex | June 20, 2015

Transiting Moldova

For conclusion of my “Four Corners of the Balkans” tour, five years in the making, it was time once again to depart this wonderful, varied region of Europe–this time out through the northeast corner. Through that seldom-visited vestige of European mystery (a metric in which it is clearly outdone only by Belarus, and only arguably by Albania) wedged between Romania and Ukraine. Through Moldova.

Moldova is, sadly, quite poor, according to the income lists. With barely half the per-capita income of tiny Kosovo, Moldova is by far the poorest country in Europe these days; it barely outranks Nicaragua in per capita income, which is near the bottom of the barrel of Latin American countries.

This meant that my assumption of nightly train service between Bucharest and Chișinău, Moldova’s capital, proved to be mistaken. (Not such an unreasonable assumption, given the two countries previously shared a country, and still mostly share a language, right? The train only runs Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.)

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Instead, I set off for a Romanian city on the Moldovan frontier: Iași. (If you’re wondering how such a place is pronounced, don’t worry: I never managed to figure it out myself. In Romanian, ș is a “sh” sound; my help ends there.)

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But, pronunciation difficulties aside (when has that ever stopped me?) I was off to Romania’s far northeast.

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As the train ride went along, the railcar emptied (eventually giving me my own little cabin in which to bounce around mirthfully) and the countryside emptied too.

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After the livening half-mile walk through the darkness to central Iași (the city’s train station area fails to buck the trend of overall seediness we’ve covered elsewhere), I wound up at a truly wonderful establishment: the Hotel Unirea. The Unirea is an old building from the socialist times that has been gradually upgraded into a western-style business hotel. The employees’ and management’s pride in the establishment is refreshing, and they offer a great service at a great price (dashing any chance I’d spring for the far pricier Traian, on the left side of this picture, even though its name is an anagram of one of my favorite cities!). It might not be the Hotel Florita, but the Unirea sure was nice!

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Iași by morning.

Seeing that potentially a four hour bus ride to Chișinău lay ahead of me (!), and noticing from my window that the city’s grand Palace of Culture was shrouded in scaffolding, I opted to move on from Iași rather than explore town. I made for the bus station.

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All I really saw of town was the route to and from the bus/train station.

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Starting to feel a bit more Latin American already!

I had carefully timed everything to coincide with a specific bus, and as I went through the unusually painful process of figuring out which bus was the correct one and when it was departing, which had naturally attracted the attention of a small group of people, one guy eventually came up to me and said “pirate taxi!”, nodding happily. I questioned this. Someone else typed the Romanian words “pirate taxi” into the translation app and held it up eagerly for me to see the translation.

The words were shown to be cognates.

I eventually surmised that they were trying to get me into an unofficial taxi to cross the border, something I’ve had luck with before.

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I figured what the heck, and within minutes I and a few new friends were off towards the frontier in a Volkswagen minivan. (For future travelers, the best way to get from Iași to Chișinău is to head to the Billa store about 400m northwest of the train station.)

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Flash forward a mere two hours and I was plopped on the outskirts of downtown Chișinău.

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My first step was obvious: find a nice restaurant, and bribe a server to keep my backpack while I milled around town a bit.

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Yummy Georgian food!

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Chișinău actually seemed quite nice from the glimpse I got of it: a far cry from Nicaragua’s rather rough capital. A ton of commerce being conducted everywhere.

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Linguistically, Moldova is an oddity. Its people speak a dialect of Romanian, and the two languages are mutually intelligible. But during the Soviet days, the Russian language was imposed on Moldova, so the country retains a lot of use of the Cyrillic alphabet, and a significant Russian-speaking minority.

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Central Chișinău has some historic buildings breaking up the ex-Soviet landscape.

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Communist insignia still shows on some buildings; westward from here, it has been all but entirely erased.

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The main square.

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Moldova’s government house. You see almost as many EU flags around as you do Moldovan flags; indeed, more EU flags than you see in the actual EU! Moldova has clearly thrown its anchor westward (well, at least the mainstream part of Moldova that includes the capital), and the EU is all too happy to support the country, looking to avoid a similar standoff with Russia that happened over Ukraine 18 months ago.

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Parliament.

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The ticky-tacky presidential palace, that looks something like a star-crossed foray into Eastern Europe by Donald Trump.

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This government building features waterside cabana to make the Venetian jealous!

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(Not to mention grass as green as anything Vegas can muster.)

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It’s always fun exploring a capital–even if this one has a lot less going on than buzzy Bucharest–but rain was setting in and it was time to be departing for the country’s oddball east: the breakaway region of Transnistria, still clinging to the USSR.

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And off I set in the rain to Tiraspol. (Actually тираспол, as the scraggily border of Cyrillic country has at this point firmly been breached!)

Posted by: Alex | June 19, 2015

A Day in Bucharest

Next up in Transylvania, I was planning on an ambitious hike on Piatra Craiului, a stunning national park near Brașov. But this started to feel a little too ambitious to set off on alone when I saw how fickle and chilly the weather was (in June!), and learned about Romania’s massive bear population.

Well, this blog is no stranger to wonton exploration of random capital cities; why not take in another in the form of Romania’s capital, Bucharest?

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Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s train station. Love the fact that Romanian is a Romance language, and thus relatively comprehensible to me!

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The urban form of Bucharest took an…interesting turn in the 1980s.

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In the post about Brașov, I noted that ex-dictator Ceaușescu for whatever reason really liked for main boulevards to be lined with a wall of highrises.

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Well, Bucharest is his masterpiece! It goes on and on like this.

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Every so often, a minor obstruction such as a historic church is granted a little break.

In other words, in terms of urban aesthetics, Bucharest was dealt a pretty crappy hand.

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But go through an unsuspecting tunnel under one of the high rises and something interesting happens.

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Suddenly you’re in Old Town, a bar and club district to rival the best of them. Ceaușescu’s manic superimposition of a grand socialist metropolis onto the existing city often only went as deep as the back wall of the new high rises, with the neighborhoods behind them ignored.

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The unexpected transitions between the bleak, masterplanned, aesthetic dystopia and random historic neighborhoods mark a unique part of exploring Bucharest. The only parallel I can draw is with Maputo, Mozambique, where Stalinist housing blocks rise awkwardly out of crumbling Portuguese colonial blight and modern shantytowns.

In this event, it’s certainly cool to see a city making lemons out of lemonade, with a decidedly chic ambiance that’s worth taking in if you’re passing through (perhaps on the way to glorious Transylvania!).

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This isn’t to say that Bucharest’s backstreets are all like the gingerbread, bass-thumping lanes of Old Town. Rough edges and bizarre juxtapositions are in full effect as you stumble through the ad-hoc districts of the city.

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Plus lots, and lots, of parked cars everywhere!

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You never know whether you’ll stumble upon a grand square full of statues…

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…or a church harkening the finer bits of Macedonia.

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Haphazard wiring.

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Shops of various types crowd all manner of structures. This building, which primarily seems to be a medical clinic, also hosts a bar, massage parlor, and beauty salon. (My theory is that, under communism, there was a whole lot less need for shops peddling good and services, leading to such space being at a premium in the modern era.)

Unfortunately, Bucharest’s rough edges cross over into the realm of being hassled on the street. I was asked pretty aggressively for money several times, and the city certainly has a reputation for pickpockets. Budapest isn’t perfect, but it’s far more easygoing in this department.

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One positive aspect of having monstrous boulevards slammed onto the city–there are some pretty generous recreational paths, and pleasant strolls to be had!

 

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A manmade canal flowing through town.

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Bucharest’s gorgeous main park, which, if this map is to be believed, features a permanent array of Easter Island statues! (It doesn’t.)

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Wild strawberries on the cheap. Yum!

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And Bucharest’s crowing feature: the it hosts the largest capitol building in the world! And supposedly the second largest building in the world period, after the Pentagon. It was originally named the People’s Palace, and was the masterpiece of Ceaușescu’s masterplanning adventures.

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Nowadays, in addition to being the capitol building, is serves as a screen for massive for projected lightshows, and a backdrop for other events. A pretty neat adaptation for the place, and perhaps a decent metaphor for Bucharest itself.

Posted by: Alex | June 18, 2015

The Fortified Churches of Saxon Country

Last post, we left off with me and a rental car in Sighișoara, Transylvania. And we didn’t even get to the actual reason I wanted a rental car: to explore Saxon Country!

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The area is famous for its countless fortified churches, each rising out of a tiny village with a lost-in-time feel.

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I, along with my buddy from the hostel (who rightly or wrongly trusted that I had some idea of what I was doing as we turned off the main highway and into the random backroads), decided to seek out Biertan, the most famous fortified church of all.

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It’s not hard to see why: Biertan is incredible!

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The town lies at the bottom of a gorgeous valley, and feels very little changed over the years.

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Despite the regular flow of tourists Biertan gets, the town is quiet and peaceful.

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Since Biertan actually gets tourists, the church is open to see!

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They let you explore all of the back rooms, including this ultra-securely-lockable room. I’ve never seen a lock like that!

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Moving on through the glorious, and often empty, Transylvanian countryside.

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Just about every town you stumble upon has a picture-perfect walled church.

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The roads wind through farmlands and forests. All very beautiful.

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A stork nest!

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Although there’s not a huge amount to say about it, winding through these little backcountry towns towns was a complete joy and definitely a highlight of the trip!

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