1. First Days in Moldova
2. Crazy Drivers and Hand-Kissing
3. Grilled Fish in a Winery
5. Should we cross Transnistria?
The Republic of Moldova is one of the lowest economy of Europe with Albania and Kosovo. The country is world famous for its delicious wine, but also sadly famous for human trafficking and organised crime.
Moldovans speak Romanian. Because many Russians and Ukrainians moved to Moldova when it was part of USSR, Russian is also widely spoken across the country.
In Romania, we were told that we will not be allowed to cross the Moldovan border by bicycle, so we got a little bit worried. What if they say we cannot pass and expect a bribe? We don’t even have 5 cents with us, we gave all our coins to the waiter after our last coffee in Iasi.
When the first officer sees us with bicycles, he asks us to wait and call his colleague… “Quel est votre but dans notre pays?” (What is your goal in our country?) is the only question they asked us, in French with a very distinct Russian accent.
A minute later we got our stamp and we were in Moldova
It’s still early in the morning and we follow a pretty flat road until the town of Ungheni. We cross villages and see people working in fields, amassing corn on carts or trailers attached to an old Lada. Like it was the case in Ukraine, about half of the cars are old Soviet cars…
We usually refill our bottles in wells and when it is too dusty we filter it with a tee-shirt or anything at hand, but today every time we try the water it has a very weird taste. Not that we’re picky on how it taste, we’re rather worried for our stomachs 😉
Tina: My first impressions of Moldova are really positive. Wind whispers its autumn songs to the crowns of old walnut trees along the road. It flows East, so do us. It’s a sunny autumn day and the wind in our back makes it really pleasant to pedal.
JP: When we arrive to Ungheni, I see a lot of kids wearing traditional clothes. It’s obviously a school so I decide to follow them and start talking to the teachers in French and English. The kids are very interested in my bike and the fact I am a foreigner. There aren’t that many tourists in Moldova. A little girl is asking me couple of questions, then I discuss a little with the teachers: “Are you sponsored by TV?”, haha, “Well, not really.”. They want to take a picture with me, then I take a picture with them and hurry back to Tina who saw me leaving and probably wonders what takes me so long…
After crossing Ungheni (which is famous for its bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, but we just missed it), Tina experiences her first real fall this year. While crossing a railway, her front wheel get caught in the rail…
Tina: I only have to warn you, dear fellow cyclists, those who haven’t experienced countries with very bad roads, be sure that the state of railways isn’t any better 🙂 and if they’re not at a right angle to the road, crossing them might be very tricky! So be careful cause I fell down there like a sack of potatoes and was quite lucky – a train arrived only one minute later when I was back on my feet checking the bike by the road. As for me, nothing broken just some bruises 😉
Tonight, we pamper our stomachs and cook raviolis in a field overlooking the road and the “tricky” railway. Once more we try to sleep without the tent but in the middle of the night the sky get covered by clouds, lightning are illuminating the sky from time to time…
JP: “Do you feel like leaving now and cycling?”
Tina: “Now?! Are you mad?”
JP: “Well, it’s almost 4am, we can make it to Chisinau today if we leave now…”
Tina: “No… let’s pitch the tent and sleep…”
Well, that’s how we ended up sleeping in the tent that night 😉
The next day we realize that Moldova isn’t that flat as it seemed at first. Drivers in Moldova aren’t used at all to see bicycles on the road. Very often, they simply drive by us as if we weren’t there, staying comfortably in their lane even when nothing is coming in the opposite direction. Often also, trucks and cars drive at “highway speed” and simply honk to warn us they are coming. In that case they expect us to leave the road and let them go. In all cases they won’t brake so better leave the road when it looks dangerous but this is extremely stressful and annoying.
JP: So far Moldova is the country where we felt the most endangered on the road. I was angry at Serbian drivers, Bulgarian and Romanian drivers but here the roads aren’t that nice and yet people race… This afternoon while I was cycling in front, I heard Tina scream my name so I checked my mirror and saw a small truck coming, I wasn’t so worried and simply cycled on the very right of the road, I thought this would be enough but when the truck arrived at my level, I realized he would just crash me and I jumped on the verge! I saw his wheels perfectly aligned to the side of the road. After that I stopped for a moment, I was so frightened… I still don’t know what made him come so close to me. Cycling in a wine producing country at the season of the harvest isn’t maybe such a great idea 🙁
In Moldova like in Romania, it is very seldom that women and men shake hands, especially if they don’t know each other, but Tina is very used to shake hands with the people we meet. This is very funny because most often, people wonder for a second what to do with her hand, then they bend courteously to kiss her hand instead of shaking it 🙂
JP: When we reach Calarasi, we make a quick stop at the town market. Tina mistakenly throws a crate of garlic to the ground with her bike but the seller smiles at us and assure it is fine… As he looks to be a kind man, we buy from him 2 kilos of grapes, an onion, two apples and a bag of tomatoes. This would cost at least 5 Euros in Western Europe, maybe even more but here we paid only 70 cents of Euro… “How is this possible?” we wonder. People here accepted it like “the way it is”. Imported products such as computers and cars cost of course about the same price in every country (mainly depending on taxes) but locally grown vegetables probably reflect the country’s economy. This morning we bought some delicious honey to a bee-keeper who had beehives in his garden… so yummi!
While we are eating at a table by the market, a man comes to us an greet us with “Salaam Aleykum”. We didn’t expect this but we smiled and answered “Aleykum Salaam!”. Now, he was even more surprised than we were 🙂 The man is from Turkmenistan. He tells us how the president was a great man but it is so sad that he did… We can’t believe our ears as this man describes his adoration towards one of the most famous dictators in recent history!
By the road we stop to buy some fish to a local seller. They are still alive on the shelves and people stop by to buy them!
“No no! We cannot take a big fish!”
“It’s not so big! Only 2.5 kilos!”
“No! Please give me four of the small ones instead… and can you kill them too, please?”
Tina: We would be probably able to reach Chisinau tonight but we want to enjoy a simple night just the two of us. To find some calm place to camp, take a refreshing shower with our dromedary bag, grill fish on fire and drink some wine. Yes, we are the wine region with some of the biggest cellars in the world!
In the evening we cycle on paths between vineyards looking for a place to camp. A young guy passing by with his car wonders what we are doing there but he speaks only Russian and Romania. He calls his friends who speak English and they eventually invite us to sleep in the garden of their winery. His friends are coming tonight for a barbecue and we are of course invited too. Most of the guys here are in their twenties or thirties but they are also very hospitable.
We eat delicious shashlick (meat brochettes), drink their own wine and discuss about Moldova. We are so glad to hear Moldovans telling us that the gypsies are nice people in Moldova.
Our host is passionate about cooking and prepares our freshly bought fish! Yummi! Overall this was a great evening, nobody got stupidly drunk and we learned a lot about the country.
In the morning, the owner of the winery suggests we use the compressor to dry our tent… and it works!
We were fed, had a safe place to sleep and now we are leaving with a bag full of walnuts, another bag of biscuits, apples and the equivalent of two bottles of wine. Before being here, we heard a lot about the legendary hospitality of Moldavians and well, here we are and we love it 🙂
Our last mission before cycling to Chisinau is to find a hidden place to finally take a shower. Somewhere between trees we suspend our 10 litters dromedary bag and wash ourselves… we badly needed it! 😉
Chisinau is the capital of Moldova – just in case someone forgot it ;-). Thanks to Couchsurfing we get in touch with Marion, a French girl working at the Alliance Française of Chisinau. When we meet Marion, she tells us: “Guys, this weekend is the Festival of Moldavian wine in Chisinau so you have to stay here! I will find you a place to stay… and she did! Half an hour after we met Marion, we are invited to stay with her friend Marine, another French girl living in Chisinau.
Tina: The moment we arrived to the “city centre”, I was relieved. After hours of struggling between cars overtaking us by left and right in the same time no matter what, we were finally sitting on a terrace of the Opera house surrounded by trees. There’s nothing like a main square for pedestrians only in Chisinau but there are parks all around where you can escape from the buzz of traffic. This moment became my best memory from the Moldovan capital…
We stayed three days in the city, three very busy days during which we met a lot of people, mainly French and Moldovans. We tasted delicious dishes cooked by Marine and strolled the narrow lanes of the market where you find hundreds of farmers selling natural products…
One night we were invited to a party in a luxurious flat rented by some expatriates (French guys living in Moldova and Russia). Sadly most of the guys here work for a big French company which we won’t name but is one of the of the world leading company of dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese, fresh cream,…). One guy tells us that his job consists in going to villages and collect milk. To collect milk means to buy the milk from some pretty poor grandmas and sometimes listen to their protests because they are paid so little…
I have to say I almost felt sorry for these guys because they are also the victims of this system. They are young, looking for experience and trying to build their careers but on the other hand I’m sure they sometimes feel miserable, they can’t be in peace because they know they serve the bad ones. They know that they contribute to a big machine which takes money to the poor to give it to the very rich, they know they work for a company whose ultimate goal is to make as much money as possible, often by swallowing all their competitors and selling the same products all over the world… Why don’t they leave their jobs? I wondered… I had the feeling that they are afraid to leave their job because they do it well and they earn a lot of money, so much money that they can spend in one evening 4 times the average monthly salary of a Moldavian worker.
Spending an evening with expats, we were drinking wine, eating foie-gras and prosciutto on a leather sofa, knowing that in this very building some people can’t afford to have hot water at home.
Chisinau is a city of contrasts, a city where a cappuccino cost the price of approximately eight kilos of vegetable on the market just round the corner. Walking in the busy streets we struggle to find a “normal” café where we can have a rest. In every café, there is a TV and loud cheap music… Are the cafés sponsored by TV channels? We think so…
Stas, a really friendly Moldavian guy explains us that if you want to be cool in Moldova, you need to have muscles and short hair, you need a tall girl to walk by your side and ultimately you need a big Mercedes or any bigger car… At home it is cooler to listen to Russian TV than the Romanian one. The Russian TV basically shows you how cool you will be if you have a big car! Stas is an architect so in the eyes of most people he is some kind of artist, and in this society an artist is often perceived as a lost case. Most people think something is wrong with you if you want something else than money.
Stas explains us that if cars are so important here, it is also because for very long nobody could afford any. The only cars in town were those of the army and some very rich people. The car is more than ever a symbol of power and being a pedestrian you are not as important as the people driving.
Stas: “It will take time for people to realize what’s going on now. During the communism, people knew against whom they were fighting. Now, they simply don’t know…”
During our last evening in Chisinau, we witness a pretty amazing scene: A Lada from the police is passing by with the siren on when suddenly one of the doors open and a young man jumps out of the car and starts running. The police car turns back and two police officers start to run after him loosing their caps on the road, this is the kind of a scene you can imagine in a movie… They finally caught the guy, he was about 15. When we told this story to our friend, she said that in Moldova, there are jails for kids and the conditions there are horrible… “you don’t want to know” was her last sentence on this topic.
It is raining when we leave Chisinau. I am deadly tired because I was reading Maus most of the night. The next time I will know I shouldn’t start to read a book of 400 pages in the last evening…
We cycle by a pizza restaurant called Pizza Berlusconi, next to it is café Snob (which in French means posh café), a bit further some other surprises which help us keep smiling despite the heavy traffic.
We’re heading south-east in the direction of Tiraspol. If you look at a world map, Tiraspol is in Moldova but Tiraspol is also the capital of Transnistria (also called Transdniestr), a territory you might have never heard about and don’t worry, very few people know about it out of Moldova. Transnistria proclaimed its independence about twenty years ago but till these days, they haven’t got as far as for example Kosovo in Serbia… Actually, most of the nations (apart from Russia) don’t recognize Transnistria as a country.
Should we cross Transnistria?
For months we have been gathering information about it and thinking of it. Many people including the embassy of Moldova advised us to avoid crossing Transnistria. We often heard it is a dangerous and unpredictable place but we also heard the opposite and after discussing it with a friend who crossed it recently by bicycle. After all, it looks like the only problem we might encounter is actually corrupted officers at the border. So we have to get ready for this…
That evening we put our tent in a field couple of kilometres before the Transnistrian border. We’re sitting in our tent, listening to the rain outside and wondering if it is really a good idea to enter Transnistria…
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