I’m off again, off to the far reaches of Europe and off to investigate life in Europe’s last, newest and only communist state – Moldova. It’s Easter and we have a free week from Uni so it’s rude not to really. OK, I should have gone back to Slovenia but this time I’m following my head not my heart.
So, we left on Thursday and after three hours on a train to Budapest and a long wait for a coffee that never arrived – we boarded at 6pm and in doing so, entered the familiar and fun Soviet night-train experience. I was traveling from Budapest to Chisinau via Vihnnica (central Ukraine) in a creaky by working Russian owned carriage and Maria was heading to Kiev in a separate Ukrainian owned creaky-carriage two down from me on the same train. Actually, the carriages perfectly represented Russia and Ukraine as I had an angry cabin assistant but functioning power sockets and Maria had no power but friendly staff, shinny silk-type curtains and kitschy but cute plastic flowers.
I was to share a cabin with Viky and Peter (vivki and piotr? or Petuska as Vicky affectionately called him), two Russian speaking Ukrainians who live in Budapest. Peter was a likable and friendly 13(ish) year old who asked me in perfect Slavic English (with a strong Russian R) if I was German? I said no, English and he said ‘veRy nice’ and squeezed passed to meet his mum – Vicky. Vicky also spoke perfect Slavic English with a broad UkRainian accent. She had stereotype blonde hair, was enthusiastically friendly and took exactly the right amount of cigarette breaks. Vicky happily told me about how much she loved Chisinau because it was such a green city with no big buildings and then proudly boasted about Peter’s private school where he studies in a class of 7 “6 now” (peter interrupts) because “one boy gone”. Peter was enthusiastically setting up his DVD player but did kindly offer to help with my customs declaration. As it was in English I didn’t need any help so I let him continue with his DVDs. I did however, ask if he studied German as well as English and Hungarian? He said no, by “I’m like” suggesting that he’d happily talk to me in German if I’d wanted.
After we set off the less-angry of my cabin crew offered me the spare cabin next door to us so it would be less cramped and so Maria (who had become my girlfriend by assumption) could join me. She did just that and naturally they tried to extort 10 Euros from her if she wanted to stay. So much for the friendly offer…
Anyway, we wobbled our way to the border Chop where we left the EU and rumbled back into the Russian ‘sphere of influence’. The English speaking Hungarian guard wished me a happy journey and as I type, the Ukrainian commando-style military woman in doing something with my customs form and passport. Last time a Ukrainian made off with my passport it also took 3 hours.
I’m now waiting to be lifted into the air so they can change the wheels (for those who don’t know) train-tracks in the ex-USSR are wider than the European standard and the solution is… to change the train wheels! (yes, really) and then we’re off to Ukraine. Maria modestly asked my not to make her ashamed by complaining that Ukraine is shitty. I’ll try not to and, as I enjoy this part of the world anyway – it shouldn’t be difficult.
Saturday 11th April
If economic development could be measured in military uniforms, the amount of leather jackets/trousers/hats or indeed the circumference of police hats – Ukraine would be on top of any world development indexes. Sadly, it’s not but if you’re used to a life in the ‘West’ it offers an interesting experience and despite the absence of customer service it’s not a bad place.
Anyway, I’m here – happily installed in my Moldovan apartment and although I’ve had a headache all day and lost my sunglasses (this will be no surprise to most of you) – everything is good.
After our train-wheels were swapped in Ukraine and I had my passport back (yes it took 3 hours again) we bedded down and woke up somewhere in the middle of the incredibly large territory of Ukraine. I guess we were somewhere high because there was snow outside. Luckily this is not a problem in a Russian night-train carriage as they simply fill the fire with more coal, serve tea in fancy glasses and everyone continues on as before. With a quick stop in Lviv so Maria could buy her onward ticket to Kiev and my ticket to Chisinau, we spent the rest of the journey watching DVD’s, drinking beer and eating some Ukrainian pasta/potato dish with sour-cream that we bought from a track-side babushka.
I spent an hour in Vihnica (probably not spelt like that) shopping for food at a crazy but busy little market, being messed about by the ‘information’ office who sent me to the wrong platform and people watching. In front of the station, proudly smoking a strong smelling cigar was an old Military man who’s hat was as wide as he was tall and all around him were communist grandmas, men in leather and girls in miniskirts, tight jeans and high-heels. On the opposite side of my platform was a teenage girl dressed as a pink fairy and next to me was a man in a leather suit jacket. I asked a young guy if I was at the right platform for Chisinau and he said yes and then shouted something victorious sounding and punched the air.
I sat on my suitcase until the train arrived and I clambered on Plus-Car (cheap carriage) number 10. The rest of the trip was as uncomfortable as it was amusing. Firstly, I caused quite a stir simply for being English and although nobody spoke English this didn’t stop them from forming a semi-circle around me and asking question after question which of course I didn’t understand. All I had was a note book with the following written in Russian…
“I’m a student studying in Hungary”
“I’m going to Chisinau to visit some friends” and
“Which is the platform for the train to Chisinau?”
Thankfully this was enough and after much debate and after everyone had read my passport they let me read make my bed (if you can call it a bed) in peace. The conductor was a short guy with big eyes, scruffy black hair and a big mustache, the guy at the end was a stocky, mean looking guy in a vest, black tracksuit and leather flat-cap and opposite me was a civilized looking woman in her late fifties. The train, with its open carriage full of metal beds (filled in turn with bored looking people) and ‘old’ smell reminded me of hospital, of a war film and of a Michael Palin pole-to-pole episode all at the same time. The passengers were more like characters from from creature comforts.
After the initial excitement died down, I got some sleep, read my book and at 9pm I was treated to cake, tea and honey by the civilized woman and her friend, another civilized looking old woman.
I was a little worried about the border crossing, firstly because of the political trouble and riots in Chisinau (after the communist party won the (rigged?) election last week*) and secondly because I didn’t have an exit stamp in my passport from my last trip here. I didn’t have an exit stamp because I left via the unrecognized territory of Transnistria and Moldova doesn’t recognize the borders however, it wasn’t a problem because the border guard didn’t see the stamp (probably because it’s upside down) and he happily stamped me back in to Moldova. However the Ukrainian guard too a little more convincing to let me out of Ukraine. He was a nosy shit asking all sorts of questions and seemed unconvincingly concerned by the fact that I didn’t have a Moldovan visa which, as he probably knows – I don’t need. Anyway, I played along and paid him off with a huge bribe of one British pound. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get the chance to spend it but – he seemed happy enough.
So, although I barely slept and it was uncomfortable as hell – my super cheap train (15 Euros for a 16 hour ride) was pretty uneventful. I arrived at 7.30 and within an hour I was exchanging money with Silvia my landlady for the week. I’m back in Moldova.
* See here for an interesting article about the Moldovan election