Friday, July 09, 2004

Trip Report - Moldova

7/7 –7/8/04

Photos may be viewed at

Now where was I? Oh yes! I had found my train, coach and seat in Minsk and was on my way to Chisinau, Moldova.

I had booked a first class sleeper cabin (two beds) for the 25-hour train ride from Minsk via Ukraine to Chisinau. As the train pulled out of Minsk I was pleased to see that I had the cabin all to myself. However problems with communications/language started immediately when the conductor entered my cabin and started asking me a lot of questions in Russian. Fortunately a gentleman/businessman in the next cabin came to my rescue. He spoke some English and explained that if I wanted sheets and a blanket for my bed there was a $2 fee. I paid the conductor and she was happy. Since it was shortly after noon I asked my neighbor if there was a dining car/restaurant on the train? I had assumed (hoped) that a train that took 25 hours would have a restaurant? Bad assumption – no restaurant – in fact, no food on the train! I could buy tea, coffee, beer or pop from the conductor but no food. Fortunately I had a Plan B – I had considered this possibility and had packed six Power bars for emergencies. Heck – I could have a power bar for lunch, dinner and breakfast!

But again my new neighbor/friend came to my rescue. He invited me to his cabin to share a lunch that his wife had packed for him – bread, cold meats and some kind of pancake stuffed with fruit. It was delicious and much better than a power bar. In return I went to my cabin and brought back a treat which I had packed as Plan C – a bottle of Crown Royal to wash down our lunch. Boy, could that guy drink! I mixed my whiskey with pop and still couldn’t keep up with him as he downed his whiskey straight! As the train traveled southeast towards Ukraine we drank more whiskey and asked each other questions about our respective countries. Funny – but the more he drank the more he spoke in Russian and the more I seemed to understand him? What a great learning tool?

The countryside in Belarus is very similar to Ontario and upper New York State. The scenery became pretty boring after a few hours. As we approached Chernobyl, Ukraine I noticed that there were very few farm animals? My friend explained that there was a
100 km restricted zone around Chernobyl that nobody was allowed to enter. The zone will not be habitable for another 200 years? The train actually passed very close to this zone and he explained that many people still lived and farmed just outside the zone but he thought they were crazy. There are still many people (especially children) dieing from various types of cancer. Russia has forgotten the incident and Belarus does not have the money required to clean up the region properly. Both he and my guidebook said not to eat mushrooms in Belarus because they store radioactivity. Too late – I already had mushroom soup in Minsk. So don’t be shy/embarassed to tell me if I glow in the dark the next time you see me?

Soon we approached the border and the typical customs process on a train. First the train stops on the Belarus side and the Belarus border/custom police check your passport and baggage. Then the train proceeds across the border to the nearest town/station and stops again for the Ukrainian customs police. I was lucky that I had my new friend to help me because neither police spoke English and he either translated for me or answered all questions for me and I was passed through both customs easily and with no hassle.
The countryside in Ukraine is more like Iowa and Nebraska – i.e. really boring so I ate a power bar for dinner and went to bed early.

The next day I woke early and my Belarusian friend invited me to his cabin for breakfast – more of the same bread, meat and pancakes. But still better than a power bar. By mid- morning we reached the border of Ukraine and Moldova. This time I had a harder time with the Ukrainian customs police. They wanted to know how much money I was taking out of the country? This seemed to be a point of paranoia with them? I played the old innocent/naïve tourist part “English – I only speak English”. So they radioed for an English-speaking officer to interview me. He was actually very nice and polite so I explained that I had no Ukrainian money and $1000.00 in US funds. That was fine and he cleared me through customs. After we crossed the border and stopped in Moldova the Moldavian customs police didn’t even ask me for my passport? Soon we arrived in Chisinau and I said goodbye to my Belarusian friend and thanked him for all his help and hospitality.

As I stepped off the train in Chisinau, Moldova I was greeted by another friend, Dmitry. Dmitry is a 2:20 marathoner that I had met last year in Belgrade and Podgorica. He is one of the best runners in Moldova and works for the Moldova Sports Federation. He had been instrumental in helping me obtain information and organize this trip. Because the other race directors didn’t speak English, Dmirty would email or telephone them to get the necessary information and pass it along to me. It would have been impossible to put the trip together without his help. And Dmitry had spent two years in San Diego, CA and spoke good English! He escorted me to my hotel and helped me check in because again the front desk staff did not speak much English. I invited him to lunch – the first real meal I had eaten in 24 hours – and than we walked over to his office at the Sports Stadium to discuss our plans for the marathon. Since there is no ‘official’ marathon in Moldova Dmitry had agreed to support me to run a solo marathon. We planned to use the same course that is used for an ultra/24 hr race in Chisinau – a 1.6-mile loop around a lake in a city park. Dmitry had measured the course and determined that I needed to run 16 loops plus another 200m at the end to complete a ‘certified’ marathon. He offered to run part of the marathon with me but I figured that it would be too slow and painful for him so I suggested that he just show me the course and I could do the rest. But he insisted that he would provide support for me during the marathon – he could bike along with me or just stay at one point and give me water. We decided that we would run a few loops the next morning (Tue) so I could check out the course.

Then I decided to explore the city on my own while he caught up on some work in the office. Chisinau is a small city (pop –700,000) with one main street that is about one mile long. I knew it very well by the time I left. Chisinau, like Minsk had been totally destroyed in WWII and rebuilt by the Soviets in the ‘grand Stalinist’ style. There were maybe a few statues and one church that were older than 60 years – everything else was ugly, gray concrete built after the war. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and I had expected it to look poorer and dirtier/filthier than some of the Balkan countries that I have labeled as the ‘shitholes’ of Europe. I was pleasantly surprised to find the city clean and few signs of poverty. Yes there were beggars (more than Belarus where I saw very few) but they didn’t bother or hassle you. The country and city has absolutely no tourist infrastructure. There are no tourists! As I explored the city center and shops for my standard souvenirs and postcards I quickly realized that they have no need or understanding of such products. There were lots of shops selling new fashions and jewelry so there must be some money in the country (more on that later). But most residents are poor and prices reflect it. I enjoyed a great dinner in a fancy restaurant for about $10 including beer and wine.

The next morning Dmitry met me at my hotel and we took a taxi to the city park. He explained that most of the people frowned and cursed at him when he ran through the streets. They considered it frivolous to run. One should be digging ditches or picking vegetables, etc (to survive) instead of wasting time and energy on sports! It makes it difficult for him to train. We ran two laps around a paved path that looped around a lake in the park. There were very few other runners or walkers but lots of stray dogs and a few dogs that owners did not leash. They were my biggest concern. We decided to start very early (6am) on Wed to beat the heat.

I had arranged a tour with a private guide and car for that afternoon and invited Dmity to join me. Our car was quite humorous – it was an old Russian limousine left over from the Soviet days that had been used to chauffeur Soviet diplomats around town. The interior (seat, floors and doors) was upholstered with multi-colored Turkish carpets. Looked like something you might find in the Bronx ghettos?
Our guide toured us around the many districts of Chisinau while explaining some of the history and culture of the country and city. There were only a few ‘tourist’ sites to see.
When I tried to ask Dmitry and the guide about politics and the government they just clammed up and said they did not want to discuss politics? They stated that the government was corrupt and there was nothing they could do about it? They also said the same thing that I heard in Belarus. The majority of the people feel very strongly that they would be better off if they could rejoin Russia and go back to the good old days! Moldova is several years away from emerging from the ‘good old days’ and becoming a dynamic, entrepreneurial, capitalistic country with a strong economy (in my opinion). I don’t know the reasons why because the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are not having the same problems?

After we finished the tour I told Dmitry about my problems finding souvenirs and he insisted on helping me to shop for them. As we were going from shop to shop without much success I asked why there were so many currency exchanges on the main street when there were no tourists? Simple explanation. Because of the poor economy in Moldova about 25% of the population works outside the country and they send money home – thus the family has to exchange the currency to buy food, etc. After many hours of shopping/frustration we finally found a silver charm of a buffalo –supposed to be a symbol of Moldova but no silver teaspoon that represented Moldova. So I improvised and bought a plain silver teaspoon and had a jeweler engrave “Moldova” on it. The last thing I wanted was a T-shirt with ‘Moldova’ or ‘Chisinau’ on it since I wouldn’t have a marathon T-shirt. In spite of our efforts to find such a simple tourist item it did not exist in Chisinau. Even Dmitry couldn’t believe it. He promised that he would have a solution by tomorrow? Like most good shoppers we decided it was time to eat after a day of shopping. I had to find the Italian restaurant for a pasta dinner because Dmitry never eats in a restaurant (too expensive)!

On Wed morning Dmitry met me at the hotel at 5:45 am and we took another taxi to the park. I had purchased two –2 liter bottles of water plus a smaller bottle to drink from. I started my solo marathon at 6 am. I didn’t see any sense in killing myself and ran easy - I quickly discovered that it took about 14 minutes to complete a loop. Dmitry sat at the start/finish line and handed me a carbo gel and water after every second loop. Unfortunately it took about 30 to 60 seconds to swallow the gel and wash it down with water but there wasn’t anything I could do about it so I decided not to let it bother me. He also recorded each loop and the time. He sat there for four hours! I had no problems until the very last loop when a stray dog decided to challenge me. But as soon as I turned and became the aggressor he took off! I finished the marathon in 3:50:55.
I took a taxi back to the hotel and Dmitry went to his office. We agreed to meet at 3 pm for a celebration beer.

At 3 pm Dmitry showed up at the hotel with a friend. He had prepared an ‘official’ diploma certifying that I had completed a solo marathon in Moldova in 3:50:55 and it was signed by both Dmitry and his boss – the President of the Moldova Sports Federation! The next surprise came when he introduced me to his friend Sergei. Sergei was his coach and the coach of the Moldova National/Olympic Running Team. Sergei congratulated me on my marathon and presented me with a T-shirt that had been given to the Moldova Running Team. It had the Moldova crown and Olympic rings on it – I think I am now an honorary member of the Moldova Olympic Team? Needless to say I was overwhelmed with the hospitality and friendship of the Moldova people. They may be poor but they are very friendly and sincere.

Unfortunately Dmitry had plans for Wed. evening so I had to enjoy my celebration dinner and last night in Moldova by myself. Probably a good thing since I had to catch a train to Ukraine at 6:40 am. I was at the station by 6 am to ensure that I could find my train. My ticket said that I had a 2nd class seat but unfortunately Dmitry had been right. The train was a local milk run that only had wooden bench seats and no reserved seating (for a 6-hr train ride)! No problem getting a seat in Chisinau but as the train stopped at every little town it filled up with farmers carrying boxes and baskets of vegetables and fruit. They were taking their produce to Odessa because there is more money in Ukraine and they could sell their produce for more. A few tried to talk to me but all I could say was “English” and that ended the conversation. The train traveled east on the same route I had entered the country and after a few hours we entered a region called ‘Transdneister’. This region declared independence in 1992 and a civil war followed. Transdneister emerged as an autonomous state and now and then will flex its muscles by stopping all transportation going through its territory and giving travelers a hard time. Our train was stopped and their police came on board. However they didn’t even ask for my passport – they just asked to see my baggage and walked away when they saw it was full of dirty clothes? I was expecting to have to pay a ‘bribe’ to pass through the territory. I don’t care to go back there although with my luck it will become another independent country and I will have to run it?

A few hours later we stopped across the border in Ukraine and I had to go through the same customs ritual about money. Fortunately they called in the same customs officer I had met a few days earlier and he recognized me and cleared me without any hassle. During these discussions my fellow passengers discovered that I was an American. Most had never met an American before and were very curious about me. Unfortunately nobody could speak English but a few of the kids approached me and asked me my name. I would ask them their name but that was about as much conversation we could carry on.
I had a bunch of American change with me so I gave all the kids some change. Boy – did that ever make their day! The parents wanted some to return it but I said no and so they gave me a bunch of their fruit and vegetables as a gift. I didn’t really want it because of the risk of bacteria and parasites in uncooked food but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings so I accepted it. I later gave it to a beggar in Odessa.

Soon we were in Odessa and I said goodbye to all my new friends and stepped off the train for my next adventure. Stay tuned! (unfortunately it will be longer because I spent 10 days in the Ukraine and visited three cities.)

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