“Now here’s my idea. Why not keep the journey times the same but make the trains so comfortable and relaxing that people won’t want the trip to end? Instead, they could pass the time staring out the window at all the gleaming hospitals, schools, playing fields and gorgeously maintained countryside that the billions of saved pounds had paid for. Alternatively, you could just put a steam locomotive in front of the train, make all the seats inside wooden and have it run entirely by volunteers. People would come from all over the country to ride on it. In either case, if any money was left over, perhaps a little of it could be used to fit trains with toilets that don’t flush directly on to the tracks.”
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson
A knock at the door. Lights on. We sat up, bleary-eyed. 03h30.
A black-leather-jacketed Romanian border guard stood at the open door of our train compartment.
“Pașapoarte!” We handed them over.
A welcome fresh breeze played into our 2 person compartment from an open window in the corridor. Old soviet trains are seriously over heated in winter.
“English?” he noted. We nodded.
“Tourist?” Again we nodded.
“You have something special to declare? Drugs? Weapons.”
“Welcome,” he passed our passports back … It was time for Moldovan officials to to have their go.
26th – 27th December 2019 – Sleeper train, București to Chişinău:
My Dad loved trains. Somehow I inherited that love. So, Hubby indulged me. We arrived in Bucharest, Romania, on Boxing day and immediately set off to the Gara de Nord station. For the next 13.5 hours we rattled and bounced along the tracks overnight heading west to Chişinău, the capital of Moldova.
I love trains. My Mama took me and my brother on several train trips to Johannesburg in the 1970s. I love the mechanical sounds, the wind outside and the rocking motion on the bunks. I love the shouts and chatter of station staff and travellers. I love the whistle blown. I love trying to read station names as they flash by, the blurred landscape out my window and the sense of adventure.
What I don’t love (in fact the opposite) are the loos.
Here’s one for the pub quiz: Did you know that between Romania and Moldova there is ‘break-of-gauge’ and the train must be lifted up and ‘wheels’ exchanged so that the train can run from the standard tracks of Romania (1,435mm wide) onto the Soviet tracks of Moldova (1,000mm wide) and thus complete the journey to Chişinău?
At around 4h00 in the morning we felt our train being hydraulically lifted and watched out the window as the carriage on opposite tracks was also lifted, had it’s wheels removed and new ones fitted – fascinating.
27th December – Mileștii Mici:
By 09h00 on 27th December, following our fascinating night on the train, we were comfortably seated in a wifi-and-water-equipped car with our tour guide, Nicolina, and driver, Vasilie, on our way to Mileștii Mici wine cellars. Mileștii Mici is one of 3 underground wine cellars in Moldova. It’s the biggest, with 200km of underground tunnels, 55km of which are used for storing wine, tasting and facilities including underground access roads and private, locked wine ‘casas‘ for special people who pay.
Our driver took us along the subterranean roads with some precision manoeuvres since many of them are very twisty turny. Roads are named after grapes varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot. Mileștii Mici was once a soviet limestone mine and now houses nearly 2 million bottles of wine. We saw, we tasted, we bought.
Next stop Transnistria.
27th December – Transnistria:
Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, as it officially calls itself – capital city, Tiraspol – is a breakaway country located on a narrow strip of land between the Dniestr River and Ukraine on the eastern border of Moldova. It is not recognised by the United Nations, is occupied by the Russian army, who call themselves ‘peace keepers’, has its own currency (the coins are plastic – see photo) and laws and is one of the major reasons why Moldova’s application to become part of the EU has failed.
Hubby and I visited Transnistria for a few hours – Hubby’s second visit, my first.
The Soviet feel is stronger in Transnistria. There are army tanks and guns on display, a large statue of Lenin in front of the parliament buildings (all Lenin statues in the rest of Moldova were destroyed over night on 27th August 1991 when the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union) and the hammer and sickle on flags and signage. All signage is in 3 languages: Russian, Romanian and the fictitious ‘Moldovan’. We also visited the Bendery fortress, which until recently housed the Russian ‘peace keepers’. They now have their headquarters on grounds adjacent to the fortress (have a peek in one of my photos) and the fortress, once Ottoman, then Tsarist, then Soviet, now Pridnestrovian, is now a museum.
P.p.s. I’m not going to tell you what I found in some of those loos, but when the water is cut off and loo paper on offer is down to just one square, you make the (easy) choice to risk death-by-dehydration in a hot train rather than to have to visit the bog!
P.p.s. To check out my ‘Loo Review’ from my trip to Russia.
P.p.p.s. Mileștii Mici was awarded an entry into the Guinness Book of Records in 2005 for the biggest wine collection in the world.
P.p.p.p.s. I don’t have a Transnistrian stamp in my passport because it’s not recognised as a country and therefore does not have the authority to put a stamp in a passport from a recognised country. Instead I have a small piece of paper marking my entrance and exit.
P.p.p.p.p.s. The language, Moldovan, is a soviet attempt to control the people and separate them from Romania. It was introduced in written form in 1920 and is essentially the Romanian language in Cyrillic script with some strange illogical translations (I’m told). It only exists in written form for obvious reasons – if you speak it you will be speaking Romanian!