Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chişinău, the concrete capital of Moldova

After our arrival in Targu Mures, we walked for about an hour with heavy backpacks in order to find the bus station. Arriving at the bus station, Jurjen and I found out that we missed the last bus in the direction of Moldova. There was no option for us but to spend the night in Targu Mures. With the Lonely Planet city map of Targu Mures, we walked for about half an hour more to find out that the cheapest hotel in the city, 'hotel Sport', turned into some kind of hospital a couple of months ago and that the hotel simply doesn't exist anymore. A lady from the next door bowling hall described it as: hotel Sport... finito! So unfortunately, there were no cheap accommodation possibilities left. We decided to spend the night in a three-star hotel right next to the bus station, as we had the intention to leave boring Targu Mures as soon as possible. We ended up paying 22 euro each for the room, which is expensive with my budget, but ok for just one night. And the hotel was really nice with good beds and a nice hot shower. During the evening, we bought some food in an XL Kaufland supermarket, which was a couple of minutes walking from our hotel. Later that night, we enjoyed our nice hotel room and watched a bit of Romanian television before sleeping. Next morning we woke up at 6 am, took a quick shower and had breakfast in the hotel. Our minibus towards the Carpathian mountains left at 07.30am, which we catched luckily. The ride was really nice, we traveled through the mountains and we passed several small villages. It was clearly visible that we were driving in a poor part of Romania, as the way of living there is still quite primitive. The scenery was amazing, with beautiful valleys, distant mountains and sleepy towns. Around noon, the driver stopped somewhere halfway in a village next to a mountain lake. We ate something and continued our journey further east, through a hilly area towards Romania's second largest city: Iasi (pronounce as 'Yash').

Arriving in Iasi, we directly searched for transportation to the Moldovan border. It appeared that our only option was to take a shared taxi to Ungheni, which is the first town on the Moldovan side of the border. Quite quickly we found a driver, who already had two Moldovan passengers and was willing to take us to Moldova. After negotiation of the price we left for the 20km ride to the border. The friendly driver had some contacts at the border post and managed to get us across the border very quickly. Our passports were stamped and before we knew, we were driving on an empty road in one of the poorest countries in Europe: the republic of Moldova.
Moldova is a small and quite an unknown country lying between Romania and Ukraine. The reason we went to Moldova is because virtually no tourists spend their holiday time there. Moldova probably is the least visited country on the European continent, which makes it an
interesting destination to us. Both culturally and ethnically, Moldova is quite similar to Romania. The main difference is that Moldova used to be part of the Soviet Union and Romania was ruled by the Ceausescu regime. The first place where we arrived after the border crossing is an industrial town called Ungheni. The people from the shared taxi helped us finding a marshrutka to Chişinău and we continued our journey eastwards. Being cramped on the tiny seats and being shaked around because of the bumpy road, we were happy to arrive in the Moldovan capital a couple of hours later.
The Moldovan capital really is a strange place. In a way, the city is nice because of its laid back atmosphere and cozy parks. But on the other hand, Chişinău doens't have any sights and isn't a touristic destination at all. Almost all buildings in Chişinău are uninspiring concrete monsters dating from the Soviet period. The city doesn't really have a cozy centre like other European cities have and because we visited Moldova in february, the city and its inhabitants looked rather grim.
However, staying in Moldova was a nice experience for a couple of reasons . First of all, we found a very cheap hotel and discovered that food and other expenses are quite cheap compared to Romania. The hotel were we stayed is a huge concrete Soviet building with unhelpful staff and dusty furniture, dating from the 1950s. But because of its low price and good location, we enjoyed staying there. The second thing which I liked about Moldova was the ability to practise my Russian. Lots of Moldovans speak Russian and Chişinău has quite a large Russian population. Studying Russian for over half a year already, it was a nice opportunity for me to practise. And although touristic sites in Chişinău are very rare, we did saw some nice churches and interesting buildings. Also the simple street plan made it easy to orientate around the city.
The second day in Chişinău we had lunch in the largest fast-food joint of the country, named Andy's Pizza. It is like a Moldovan counterpart to McDonalds and there are restaurants of Andy's Pizza spread out all over the city, almost at every streetcorner. The place where we went into was completely full, which is quite logical, because they serve huge pizza's for amazingly low prices. The menu consists, besides the pizza's, a large selection of vodka brands and other alcoholic drinks.
We left Chişinău on the third day, on a nighttrain back to Bucharest. Especially the ride before the Romanian border was really nice and we spended some time talking about Dutch football with a Romanian guy in the restaurant wagon. Also see the short video about the trainride below.
The bordercrossing to Romania however, was annoyingly slow. In total it took about 4 hours just at the border. One of the reasons is the changing of the carriages of the whole train. Romania uses European railway tracks, while Moldovan has Russian railway tracks, which are a bit more wide. Therefore, the whole train had to be lifted so that all the carriages could be changed.
The morning after, we arrived in Bucharest and walked towards the city centre for some breakfast and a bus to the airport. We catched our flight back to Dortmund and travelled back home by train.
Reflecting back on this journey, I would say that I like Romania more, as it is much more beautiful than Moldova. Our visit to Moldova however, was really interesting and I am also glad I visited that tiny country. One other highlight of our visit was the amazing weather. I expected heavy snow and february-like temperatures, but it was totally the opposite. Nice sunny days with a comfortable temperature between 15 and 20 degrees Celcius.