Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Our journey east - to Moldova

Last week, Koos and I made the second of our summer explorations to south eastern Europe. This time the final destination was the intriguing, unrecognised state of Transnistria, a long narrow strip of land across the Niestr river (hence its name), and now sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. Koos had been there three times before, and now I could go too and I wanted to see it. So, courtesy of some bargain flights from Wizzair, we arrived back in Cluj Napoca, Romania on the 27th August. The trip had to start in Cluj as any other route would have been just as time consuming and three times the price, but I didn't mind as I'd already fallen in love with Transylvania (see previous posts) and was happy to return.

Morning traffic in Cluj

We spent the night at the same hotel we'd been to before. Located in a rather run-down, former industrial area, it is a surprise to the visitor as it's really quite classy, but very reasonably priced. I've spent more on nights at youth hostels in Ireland and Finland and those were several years ago! We were met by a male, Spanish-speaking receptionist, who didn't smile much but gave us coffee on the house - which made up for the lack of warmth. It felt good to be back and good to be familiar with Cluj.

We were only going to be there a night, though, and the next day we left early to go to the railway station by bus. Before leaving, we had to buy Euros to change to Transnistrian rubles later on...dumb of us as we should have taken them with us from Holland. This was not the recommended way of doing it.

In any event, the train left on time. We found our compartment easily and it was great to be travelling on a Romanian train again. This time a young woman joined us with her handicapped son. I was very touched by her caring concern for him. I say she was young because she must have been, but she carried the care and responsibility in her face. As with our last visit, it was very hot - well over thirty degrees - but we couldn't open the window in the compartment. Several people joined us along the way. They all tried to open it, but it wouldn't budge and we became increasingly damp and probably not very savoury to sit near. Mother and son absconded to another carriage where it seemed to be cooler. Better for him, so better for her.

Passengers cross the tracks to get off the train

Leaning out of the carriage is the norm

Hay stacks for winter feed

I have to say the scenery was some of the most beautiful I have ever seen from a train. We meandered our way through the Carpathian mountains and looked out on scenes from another world and an earlier time. Old fashioned farming was very much in evidence with horses, carts, and people lifting hay with forks and loading it into the farm's trailers. Many fields had fence-like constructions that acted as hay driers and then there were the charming haystacks built like small huts. According to one of our fellow passengers, these provide food for the smallholders' horses/goats/cows in winter. There was also fruit galore: trees heavy with apples, pears and peaches. It all looked so rich - and romantically charming too.

The start of lovely scenery

Every station we passed had its own uniformed attendant standing out front. Men and women getting off the train had to walk over the tracks to the station, which seems to be the norm. I just loved the whole experience. But the heat. It didn't let up. And no one, not even the conductor, could open the window. Eventually, two strong and very determined young men managed to force it open. We were all very relieved, but even so, the carriage doors were left ajar. Passengers smoked at stops and then as the train moved on hung out of the doorways as they'd done on our trip to Timisoara. I know, I know. It was totally unsafe, but somehow, it added to the feeling of adventure.

A smartly dressed station master standing to attention
A family transports their pickings from the forest

At one stop, a family of six climbed aboard with several huge buckets full of berries, both blueberries and red currants. One of the sons who could speak a little English told me they'd picked them in the forests and were taking them home to make jams and other preserves. At another stop, a man boarded carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms. He told us he'd picked them in the woods and was taking them to sell at the market. We figured that these people may have had free train passes as the distances were great and if they'd had to pay, it wouldn't have been worth it for them.

Leaving the door ajar even while the train is moving

Our very friendly conductor on both trips!

Eventually, the mountains gave way to flat lands. We arrived in Iasi, a large town in Romania's far east nine and a half hours after leaving Cluj, but feeling once again that we'd had a very special experience. We'd booked a youth hostel room as there wasn't anything else available in our price range. However, the owner was very kind. Seeing us and our collective advancing years, he gave us a room with our own bathroom as a free extra. It was clean but very basic. The only problem was the shower. It had no wall mount and the curtain rail was too big, so there was no way of avoiding a flood on the bathroom floor. Needless to say, our ablutions were necessary after our steamy journey, but they were very short. No luxuriating under streams of lovely water this time.

Iasi down town

The very fine station at Iasi - I loved it!

A host of golden daffodils - oh no, big yellow taxis...

We spent the evening people watching in the town square. Iasi is no Cluj or Timisoara, but its atmosphere is lively and very pleasant. There was a young couple playing with their dog and lots of children running around having fun. The kids seemed very free and uncomplicated. Fun meant playing hide and seek or just chasing each other, not having toys and mobile or electronic devices. Young people sat on benches talking, content with each other rather than their phones.

The next morning was very hot again. Well up in the mid thirties. We found our way to the bus station and on the way, I looked at daytime Iasi. It is not beautiful but it has a certain appeal. The centre is a bit modern and bland, but being hilly with plenty of trees, it looks attractive. At the bus station, we asked about transport to Chisinau in Moldova, our next stop. A driver told us it would be in an hour, so we went to sit in the large, cool waiting room. But then ten minutes later, he came to find us again. There was apparently another bus leaving shortly. We marvelled at the kindness of his gesture.

The bus was a minibus and the ride to Chisinau was crazy. The road was absolutely awful - full of potholes and ridges and the driver seemed determined not to miss one of them. We spent half an hour at the border with Moldova. There were two posts, so two inspections, but it all went smoothly and we didn't even have to get off the bus. The officials collected our passports, took them inside for inspection and then brought them back. A passenger at the front distributed them all to us, and we noted he seemed to know whose was whose without question. Then the road got even worse. I don't think I have ever had such a bumpy ride in my life, not even on the dirt roads in South Africa.  Luckily, it was only a three hour journey and we arrived safe but sore in Chisinau in the middle of the afternoon.

People enjoying life on the streets
Now this is a beautiful, elegant city. I loved it at first sight. Not only beautiful though: it is chaotic, messy, vibrant and noisy, but it buzzes with life. Africa meets Paris. Our hotel was out of town. It was a bit far, but very nice all the same with a sweet receptionist and an air conditioned room - bliss. Once we'd settled in, we got the bus back into the centre.

City of Trees

Locals relaxing in the afternoon sun
 I have dubbed Chisinau the City of Trees. They are just gorgeous - tall, arching and forming tunnels through the classical architecture of the buildings. The streets were full of people enjoying festivities that marked the end of soviet rule in 1989. We spent time walking with them. Then we tried to find out where the buses went. A young man helped us. In faltering English, he tried to explain and was so keen to make us happy, he even ran after us to tell us exactly where we should really go.

Many trees are painted at the bottom. I liked these stripy ones!
 At a street stall, we hoped to buy some Cuas, a local drink that Koos said was worth testing. But the stall holder had finished for day. He was so sorry to disappoint us he gave us a bunch of grapes instead with a big grin and a 'welcome to Moldova'. This was yet another example of how kind the people are. We walked on taking more photos in the side streets until it got dark. Eventually, realising we couldn't find the bus anymore, we asked some young people talking on a cafe terrace if they knew. Two of the girls told us they would take us - not just to the bus, but all the way back to the hotel. We were amazed at their generosity, and their trust. One of the girls only spoke Russian (one of the two main languages in Moldova) and no English at all, but the other was studying to be an English teacher, so she was very keen to talk. We told her we were going to Transistria...you won't like it there, she said, but then no one in Moldova likes Transnistria since it chose to fight and break away from Moldova in 1992. All the same, Chisinau would be hard to beat, I thought.

And indeed, the following days, while interesting and vivid with great encounters, would prove me right. And maybe her too, but for different reasons!

To be continued...


  1. What a wonderful trip - I loved the train (somehow overseas trains attract the most interesting people - in contrast to our British stand-offishness. I'll never forget the woman in Nepal, years ago, who tried to pay a bus fare in cucumbers!)

    1. I love that story, Jo! These are the memories that make us rich!

  2. I feel so geographically ignorant, Val, and I thought I was good at knowing where all the countries are! I have not heard of Moldova or Transnistria, but they look really interesting. I have flown over the Carpathian mountains a few times, and had no idea what was down there. Now I know there is pretty countryside, and forests with berries and mushrooms, by the bucketful - Wow. All of it is so interesting, I look forward to the next episode.

    1. Thank you, Patricia! I must admit I was a bit hazy about eastern Europe before I started going there. I knew all the countries by name, but would have been hard put to place them on a map! This travelling has taught me so much. I can't wait to go to Romania again and see the south. I'd love to explore the Danube Delta, but before that, there will be the next episode about Transnistria for you :)

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us Val. Moldova looks to be an interesting country, imagine picking buckets of wild fruit, almost unbelievable ! Those painted trees reminded me of my youth, when the fruit trees were painted with a lime wash to keep them free of disease; not sure that it's still done now.
    Looking forward to the next episode x

    1. Maybe that's why they do it, Mel. Most of them are just painted white, so that might explain it! Thank you!

  4. Hi Val, just catching up on all your travels. You've been busy! I love your descriptions of cities and the lives of ordinary people. The generosity does not surprise me, for it is often those with the least who give the most. I remember my brother saying how the architecture was such a beautiful mishmash of different cultures colliding, and I could see it in some of your photos from the previous Romanian post. Glad you've had such great summer adventures!

    1. Thank you, Anne-Marie, dear! I've really enjoyed this year's travelling. It's been a very enriching experience! And yes, the people have been just precious!

  5. Val, thank you for taking me to Moldova. Your descriptions are so clear and the photography is superb! What type of camera do you use? Also, glad that you survived the bumpy bus ride to Chisinau. Thanks for taking me to a new part of the world, Lynn

    1. Thank you, Lynn! I'm so glad you've enjoyed my journey. As for the camera, I used my phone (not a fancy smart phone, but still has a 3mp camera) on the train. In the cities, I used my travel camera, which is an old Nikon P80 with a nice zoom. I'm afraid I don't use SLRs very often. I have one, also old, but prefer to travel light. In all honesty, I think it doesn't matter what camera you use for posting on the internet. The only difference is the versatility of what you can do. For example, I could never take a night photo with my phone, and even my travel camera has trouble with low light, so it limits your range. That's all, really.

  6. Well, both of your cameras take really clear pictures. My phone camera isn't the best. However, the pictures add so much to a travel log and it helps us travel with you. Thanks, Lynn


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