After having been in Bucharest three times I’m still not sure what there is to do in that city. My perceptions may have been colored by a very uncomfortable incident with Bucharest bedbugs on my Holy Week trip to Transylvania, but without the little critters biting my skin I admit I enjoyed it somewhat more this time. The city used to be known for having over 20,000 stray dogs, but I heard after they mauled to death a four year old boy in 2013 they were all killed.
From Bucharest I took a 13 hour overnight train to Chisinau in the Republic of Moldova, a former member of the Soviet Union. Back in the USSR! They put all the foreigners in the center of the train, which included two Scottish guys, a girl from Hong Kong, and me. That might not have been the best idea because we annoyed others with our chatting.
The Moldovan carriage attendant came in to tell us some safety tips as well as the great things about his country.
“Close windows. Fucking gypsies come in, steal you, kill you. You love Moldova, no gypsies! And bitches is cheap. Very cheap.” Okay, weird pronunciation of beer. That’s okay. A lot of my English students used to tell me how great the bitches (read:beaches) were near Barcelona.
“In England bitches is 200 euros an hour. In Moldova they 20 euros an hour. Very good. Beer and cigarettes cheap too.” So it wasn’t a mispronunciation….just very strange. Hopefully I wouldn’t get stopped by soldiers in Moldova and asked for cigarettes like I was in Bucharest.
Entering Moldova was very easy. A woman came in and said, “Doctor. Problems? Problems?” Another guy came in and asked, “Arms? Drugs?” Luckily they couldn’t hear or understand our jokes about this once they left the room.
The main reason backpackers stop in Moldova, often on the way to or from Ukraine, is to visit Transnistria.
Back in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, war broke out between Romanian-speaking Moldova and Russian-speaking Transnistria. A ceasefire was agreed upon later that year, but the politics side of things was never settled. Transnistria is a de facto independent country with its own currency, army, police, and border control. However, it’s not recognized by any other country on the planet with the exception of some Russian separatist puppet states (note to self: erase this when I apply for my Russian visa).
For all intents and purposes, the Soviet Union never died in Transnistria. It’s as close as you can get nowadays to seeing the old USSR in Eastern Europe, and is an easy day trip from Moldova’s capital of Chisinau (pronounced kish-ah-now).
The Chisinau Central Bus Station gave me flashbacks to Ethiopia and all its chaos. I can more or less read Cyrillic, having had to learn it during my last two trips to the Balkans, and found the area for buses to Transnistria’s capital: Тирасполь (Tiraspol). Some sketchy guy tried telling me his van was really the minibus, but I knew this was insane and managed to find the real bus and pay the real fare ($1.50, two hours).
The Transnistrian border has a decently sized military presence provided by both Moldova and the wannabe Soviets. Foreigners have to get off the bus and go talk to the KGB agents (yes, seriously) and ask for permission to enter. Bribery used to be rampant to enter and walk around Transnistria, but things have calmed down over the past few years. As long as you don’t take pictures of the border guards, military outposts, and palace you probably won’t get arrested. This is basically a Soviet police state, but it seems to have gotten better for tourists.
Seeing my American passport, the guard yelled back something involving ANGLYSKY. Some guy came out of the back office and asked, “You day visit?” I said yes, and got my visa.
The border crossing was quick, painless, and without bribes. A Moldovan hostel worker in Chisinau told me it’s harder for Moldovans to cross, and that when she went to buy a hog with her grandmother (???) they had to pay the officers to be let out of the country.
The minibus from Chisinau dropped me off at the Tiraspol train station. The only legal tender in Transnistria is the Transnistrian ruble, which seems to be pegged to the US dollar. Dollars and euros seem the easiest to change, but I had no issues whatsoever converting Moldovan lei into “commie fun bucks” as they’re popularly known.
Transnistria is very small, and four hours in Tiraspol was plenty. The Soviet imagery was everywhere.
I caught the 4pm bus back to Chisinau, and was in the center of the city by 6pm. It wasn’t as strange as I’d thought it was going to be, but was definitely worth the day trip from Chisinau. Where else can you get interrogated by the KGB and enter a country whose flag has the hammer and sickle on it?