Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 20, 2015

Transiting Moldova

For the 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 land 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!)

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