Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On To Moldova

The train pulled into Odessa at 5 am. Once again I found the left luggage place, and once again I set out on a short tour, this time walking the mile and a half from the station to downtown.

Now Odessa (if you're not counting the one in Texas)is one of those places that seem steeped in something or other. You know, a sultry, steamy port of hulking freighters and footloose sailors, a place where everyone is always looking for a shady deal and is trying to avoid the midnight stab in the back. Jews in long black beards changing money, and poverty stricken peasant women willing to rent you a baby and carriage that you can push down the Potemkin Steps.

Once again, blah.

Outside of a grandiose nineteenth century opera house, there wasn't anything of any architectural note here. The Potemkin Steps were some of the least interesting steps I've ever seen, and instead of even a Soviet era port at their bottom, there was just a semi-modern loading building.

No, it was just another boring Soviet city with a bunch of boring Soviet people walking around. After a few hours of this I headed out for the bus station.

Trains don't go to Moldova anymore, because the rest of the world is boycotting Transdniester. Boycotting what? Yes, there's a breakaway region of Moldova that is its own little country. It's called Soviet, and even Stalinist, but it's basically a bastion of goons and stooges. And it was another weird country for me to visit.

The buses still ran, and when I got to the bus station there was one running in about five minutes. I hopped aboard.

We passed about 50 miles of Ukrainian farmland and then reached the border at about 11:30. It took a while to get out of the Ukraine because there was a really old peasant couple who didn't realize that they needed passports. Once they were properly thrown off by the authorities, we continued.

I already knew that I was going to be shaken down for some money by the Transdniester border guards. The only question was for how much. First a guy took me into a secret office where he asked me how much money I had. I said $600. Then he asked me to count it. It came to $650. Now he started a long harangue on the 'big pvoblem' I had. I smirked and got agitated and all, and just about when I thought he was going to get me for something, he gave up, laughed, and shook my hand.

Now to 'immigration'. They gave me this bs about not having a visa (for a country that doesn't exist). I was getting tired of this by now, so I just cut them short and said, 'how much?' I talked them down to $25 and got back on the bus.

About an hour and a half later (including a fifteen minute stop in their woebegone 'capital' Tiraspol) we were now at their other border trying to get out. They didn't hassle me, but some other guy had 'document' problems, so we all had to wait another 40 minutes for him to sort that out. Finally, we got to enter the real Moldova.

Well, Moldova is certainly bucolic: all willows and meadows and gently rolling hills.
Not only that, but for the first time in my journey the signs were all in my native alphabet. (They speak Romanian here, which soundsa like-a Italiano.)

And then we got into its capital city of Chesinau. By now I had been up since 4:30 am and had been in an unventilated bus for six hours. The travails of my journey by now were wearing down my body, and I was looking forward to the nice hotel and friendly staff that the Lonely Planet said were waiting for me right at the central bus station.

Except that the bus dropped us off at the Northern bus station. Okay, find a minibus to the central one. Accomplished. Now realize that you don't have the 3 lei (21 cents) to pay the driver since there haven't been any places to exhange money yet. A nice Russian guy behind me paid.

When we got to central, I finally got my bearings and found the hotel. Except that the building hadn't been a hotel for years, and now housed a raucus flea market. Damn those imcompetent Lonely Planet people!

So now I'm wandering around Chisinau vainly looking for any kind of hotel. An hour later I finally found the Hotel Turist, another Soviet era establishment. The nice lady there told me, this time quite convincingly, that she had no rooms. She was so nice that in fact she called another hotel, who told her that they did have rooms. So off I went on another fifteen minute luggage pull.

When I got there the not so nice lady said that not only didn't she have any rooms (even though she was checking someone in) but that no one had ever called her. Back I went to the Turist, by now dreadfully wasted, hoping to guilt trip that other nice lady.

It worked. Magically a room appeared. And for only $20. Up the elevator I went to my new room, which was actually quite cute in a socialist kind of way, even with the Soviet era mattress. And it even had a bathroom! I sat in a hot tub for 45 minutes.

Then it was downstairs and across the street to an open air restaurant, where I totally stuffed myself (with the best food of the trip so far) for $7.50. And that's including the Russian non-alcoholic beer. At least I was back in cheapoland again.

To make things even better, around the corner was an internet place at 50 cents an hour.

I went back to the Turist about 9 and was about to enter the elevator when a young man in a suit who had been standing around the desk followed me in. 'U von guz?' he said with a weird smile. I shrugged and showed him my room key to let him know I was a paying guest. 'U von guz?' he repeated. About the fourth time I understood: 'You want girls?' I laughed and told him not tonight.

Five minutes later when I was lying there I wondered briefly how we were supposed to have gotten it on on such a tiny, uncomfortable bed. Then I fell asleep.

Eleven hours later I got up and headed to the train station to buy a ticket for the 5 pm train to Romania. Yay, they had one. Then it was back to the Turist area to just hang around for the day.

This made ten former Republics that I've been to. And if there was any realization to be had in 2006 as I was finally going to be leaving the former Soviet Union, it was that there was far, far less abject poverty than I had been expecting. Maybe I've been spoiled by Africa. But even Transdniester had been slightly less decrepit than most of Georgia and Armenia had been a couple of years ago.

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