We Abandoned the Bikes in Moldova!
“Rust never sleeps.” Neil Young wrote about it, and Moldova is living proof! A tiny country, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has a population of just over 4 million. Not so long ago Moldova, the former Soviet Republic enjoyed a booming wine industry. But, in 2006-2007, the largest importer of Moldovan wine, Russia, placed a total ban on it. It did the same thing in September 2013, and while health and safety concerns were the official reasons, it was generally seen to be in response to Moldova seeking closer ties to the EU. Recent EU sanctions on Russia only worsened their plight for one of the poorest countries in Europe. Unfortunately, this is painfully obvious to anyone visiting– like us!
The lack of funds has led to a neglect of public infrastructure and is immediately apparent in Chisinau, the capital. As you land at the airport, rusting hulks of decommissioned passenger planes litter the long grass at the airport. Downtown streets are the worn and rutted and lined with crumbling facades of the Soviet-style apartment blocks.
Even before our departure from Vilnius, alarm bells were ringing. We had tried to book several apartments through Airbnb. Our first attempt expired after 24 hours. Our second attempt was declined. Our third attempt was successful, but we then found it impossible to get accurate directions from our host, despite very clearly stating we were on bicycles and would be riding in from the airport. It became blatantly apparent that one or two people manage many of the apartments listed. Agents perhaps, that obviously hadn’t worked out the usual protocols expected of successful hosts. The address provided and the subsequent Google Map showed that we would be living in a large park! Unfortunately, there was a “STRICT” cancellation policy. I didn’t want to cancel and book something else as we would lose our money. Eventually, I rang the Airbnb helpline who promised to help and then didn’t. (Feedback has been given, and subsequent interactions with the help desk have been excellent). Nothing to do but just turn up and sort things when we got there.
Thankfully, the helpful ladies at airport information were able to call the host, and they said they would come and get us. Once again we reiterated we had BIG luggage. He promised he’d be there in 15 minutes – he wasn’t! Eventually, Alina, an agent, (who thankfully spoke English) turned up 30 minutes later in a small four cylinder taxi. Here we were with two large, heavy bike boxes and two big bags of our gear – no chance! After a lot of stuffing around, she arranged two cars to bring all our gear, including the bike boxes, to the apartment. Despite their protestations, we split up and rode in separate vehicles. At that point wee just didn’t trust them. It hadn’t been a great introduction to the country. Still, we’ve seen worse and weren’t too bothered and were just glad to be leaving the airport.
The “VIP” apartment was a real eye-opener! It was huge and resembled a 70’s playboy pad. It had dozens of downlights scattered around the ceilings of each room as well as up and down some walls. The apartment would not have been out of place on “The Strip” in Las Vegas! The only problem – out of about 50 lights, only about 3 worked. None of which were in the bedroom. The large flat screen TV wouldn’t turn on, the faucet in the spa bath (No shower) wouldn’t work. There were ugly brown stains on the towels and the toilet seat had an awkwardly placed crack that would pinch your bottom bits if you weren’t careful. The water heater had filled up a well-placed bucket and was leaking all over the kitchen floor, and there was a half eaten pizza fossilized in the microwave. Apart from that, the apartment was great! Except, the internet didn’t work, Alina said she’d look into it and swiftly departed.
HANDY HINT: Moldicell provides cheap SIM cards with excellent value data options.We never did get the apartment internet to work, but I was able to use my phone as a wifi hotspot. You may have to ring the helpline, however, and get them to guide you through set-up. They have English speaking operators who were very helpful and guided me into my settings on my phone to make it work.
Despite all the issues, we didn’t see much point in getting uptight about it and promptly hit the cracked and crumbling pavements of Chisinau. It wasn’t long before some dodgy character was beside us, hassling us in Russian and shouting Pro-Russian, Anti USA gibberish. We played dumb for a block and then co-ordinated a deft crossing of the road to escape his attentions. We watched him as he turned the corner of a park and met with his co-conspirators. It seemed to have the makings of an organised scam. What it was I guess we’ll never know. We made a promise to be extra careful ourselves!
The city centre, neglected as it may be, isn’t utterly charmless. We checked out most of the notable monuments and statues around town, seeking out photo opportunities. There’s quite a lot of green space and large trees line the streets and soften the impact of the crumbling buildings. The parks, especially, are a meeting place for the people. Families, seniors, lovers, dog walkers and chess players, all take refuge in the calm, peaceful surrounds. They’re a great location to spend some time and get a feel for the place. After all, buildings don’t make a city, people do!
All the parks, indeed, nearly every street corner, are populated by groups of kiosks, small shops selling everything from cigarettes to bus tickets. These are the lifeblood of the locals, a sort of mini 7 Eleven, where you can even buy alcohol to drink openly on the street or in the park – no-one seems to care. The park is a sort of neutral ground; everyone is equal there, and nobody hassles you – it’s a welcome retreat from the not so glamorous city beat. A pedestrian street leading up to the park has some nice cafes and restaurants serving decent food and nice cold beers.
Although they do have a MacDonald’s which is incredibly popular with cool, young things, the national dish appears to be pizza – nearly every second restaurant sells it. The best bet, though, is to order the “business lunch.” You’ll receive a generous, serving of local food at a very reasonable price. Beer is cheap (the mass produced variety) and wine (of course) is plentiful, and great value.
Although there are a lot of very dodgy looking characters getting about, we had no troubles. We made sure we got home reasonably early (before 10 pm) and didn’t frequent any “girlie bars” etc. The condition of our street was so bad; it made it difficult to negotiate in the dark. And then there was the pack of stray dogs that roamed the shadows and barked all night.
The only marked cycle path was in terrible condition, required negotiating steps and ended abruptly in the middle of a street. Traffic didn’t seem particularly bike friendly. Needless to say, we didn’t do much cycling around town.
Independent Tourism appears just about nonexistent, so finding cheap and interesting activities is quite difficult. Visiting wineries is relatively expensive or requires a lot of planning if you want to do it by yourself. Without some Russian it’s pretty damn difficult without finding an upmarket Tour company. The central bus station is quite chaotic and while I’m sure we could have worked things out to visit some of the closer towns, getting to the most historic places like Orheiul Vechi, required at least an overnight stint. With the bikes, it would be several days ride, and when we weighed things up, we decided to give it a miss.
After just a couple of days, we eagerly started to make plans for our ride into Romania. Rather than take the reportedly boring route south into the plains of Moldavia (in Romania), we hoped to ride almost directly West to Iasi. That was easier said than done. Despite only being a comfortable three-day ride, it seemed there were more than a few obstacles. The first was where to stay overnight. The towns along the way appeared to have absolutely NO accommodation options. A fact confirmed by an English speaking tour company. The best we could manage was a Sanitarium, 14 km off our direct path and up in the mountains for the first night. There were small places at Calarasi and Bahmut but were fully booked. Emails about other options went unanswered. Of course, we could just roll up and play charades until we got a bed for the night but that might be a lottery.
Wild camping didn’t seem to be a valid option. When Tim zoomed in on Google Maps, the best he could find was one cluster of trees, just over half way. The rest was open farmland, which probably meant big, black Moldovan farm dogs to contend with. We would also need to board a train at Ungheni, the town before the border as there was no international border point on the road crossing to Romania. The straw that broke the camel’s back, and made us abandon all thoughts of riding into Romania, was a bout of stomach cramps for Shazz. They rapidly developed into a close relationship with the bathroom for a good 24 hours.
Once able to ride, we cycled to the train station to book tickets to Iasi rather than attempt the three-day trip. That was also easier said than done. Limited English meant we had to show pictures of the loaded bikes and try and work out if we needed tickets for them as well. It seemed we didn’t. Nor did we apparently have to book ahead!
However, the reality was far, far different. Convincing the conductor and railway staff to let the bikes on the train became another task in tactical negotiating in mime (a skill we’re getting quite good at!) “No our bikes do not fold, but if you can work out how to do it be our guest.” The standoff that ensued broke in our favor by the fact that we were holding up the train and the ticket office had said it wasn’t a problem. I wouldn’t like to be the next cyclists that try it, however. The staff weren’t happy at all. And, there was no way any of them were going to lift a finger to assist us. A narrow entrance with almost vertical steps, high off the platform made just getting the bikes into the train a challenge.
Tim dismantled the bikes as much as possible and walked them up the narrow corridor on the back wheel. They both fitted in the cabin – JUST! But then it was a challenge to get us in there as well. There was no way anyone else and their baggage was coming in. In hindsight, we should have booked all four tickets so there would be no problems with other passengers. In the end, we made ourselves unpopular and thankfully the train wasn’t full. Getting them off the train in Iasi was a similarly difficult process and once again, no-one lifted a finger to assist. Subsequent reading leads us to believe they may have been expecting a small “gift” to make our lives easier.
As it turned out, what would be a two or three-day ride to Iasi wasn’t exactly riveting. Km after Km of tedious cultivated fields rolled by. A protracted wait at the border with Romania ensued as the train changed bogies (wheels) as the two countries have different gauge tracks. At that point, we discovered we were in the cabin that required adjustments under our floor as they made the change. It required some slick contortions on the part of Tim to move the bikes around to allow access and appease the Engineer If you’re going to attempt this trip with bikes, don’t book the end cabin in a carriage!
Our week in Moldova hadn’t been the smoothest we’d had on our travels. But, everything taken into consideration, it wasn’t our worst either. If you’re like us and just want to see places for what they are (good, bad or otherwise) then why not take a visit. Just don’t expect the red carpet to be laid out for you. English is sparse and unlike other places we’ve been to, people didn’t go out of their way to understand you. Service, in the main, was pretty poor on the scale of friendly and efficient, but you’ll get what you want eventually or learn to live without it. Just be content to listen and watch and learn about life in this seemingly forgotten, ex-Soviet backwater. We are thankful for the small insights that presented themselves, happy that another obscure part of the world has revealed something of itself to us.
If we visit again, it will be without bikes so we can get out and about in the countryside. Something tells me this is where the real charm of the country might lay.
How about you? Have you visited Moldova? What was your experience? Love it or hate it? What do you recommend?
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