Tag Archives: Moldova

Transnistria: guests of Suvorov

It is not only Moscow that is well connected to Comrat by minibuses. There is a minibus going to Tiraspol every hour, indeed Comrat is better linked to Tiraspol than to Chișinău. That shows an emotional connection between Transnistria and Gagauzia, united by their pro-Russian geopolitical stance. So it was easy for us to find a minibus to Transnistria and off we went on the cold sunny day though the Moldavian hillocks.

I’d heard a lot of horror stories from fellow travellers about the corrupt chaos that used to rule the border of Moldova and Transnistria. The Transnistrian border guards would demand completely unjustified bribes from Western tourists and delay them forever. The new president who recently took over in Transnistria apparently put an end to it. Anyway that was our experience – the border guard simply looked at our passports with obvious curiosity, gave as an entry coupon to be stamped in Tiraspol if we were to stay over 24 hours, repeatedly explained the rules and wished as a nice trip. Wow! Did it help that I speak Russian? Soon we were walking on the streets of Tiraspol.

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Comrat, the capital of Gagauzia

Few people have ever heard of Gagauzia. And yet in the early 90s this little republic almost became a second Transnistria. The Gagauz are a unique Turkic ethnic group which happen to be Orthodox. Nowadays most of the Gagauz live in the South of Moldova. The Gagauz have been historically pro-Russian, in contrast to the Romanian-speaking Moldovans. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1990s and there was talk of a nationalist Moldova, Gagauzia experienced popular demonstrations and even clashes with police. There was a genuine risk of a conflict along the Transnistrian lines, indeed fighters from Tiraspol were already present in Gagauzia. Eventually the Gagauz leaders found a compromise solution with the Moldovan authorities in Chisinau. Gagauzia obtained an autonomous status within Moldova with some key competences devolved to the local authority level.

It was my dream to see this curious geopolitical entity for myself. In Chisinau though the question “How to get to Comrat?” was met with stares of incomprehension. (Comrat is the capital of Gagauzia.) “Why would you go there?” they asked us. Finally we determined that minibuses to Comrat left from the South Station (Gara de Sud). Like in any town in Romania, there are at least three different bus stations in Chisinau. Gara de Sud happens to be about five km out of the city. We took a taxi to get there, although later we discovered that a minibus from the centre takes you there even quicker. At the bus station we came across a minibus heading to Comrat in some 30 minutes, and there we were sitting in the chillingly cold minibus waiting for departure.It was fascinating to look at the landscapes of this poor yet beautiful country from out of the minibus window. 2,5 hours later we were in Comrat.

The Comrat bus station, despite being very small, manages to look distinctly chaotic. Rows of minibuses heading in uncertain directions: there are even daily minibuses all the way to Moscow! Some of the minibuses are taken by siege – the free market isn’t too efficient here.

Obviously the election campaign was being waged here too, and you can see which parties expect to get the most votes. First thing we see as we exit the bus station:

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An unsuspecting English speaker would read Chișinău using the sounds as in “child” and “sin”. That’s pretty wrong. The correct Romanian pronunciation is more like “Kishinau” – indeed it sounds similar to the city’s name in Russian, which is Kishinev.

We arrived in Chișinău late on a Sunday night. Everything was closed and even to exchange money was a challenge, unless you were ready to pay 20% commission. Finally we stumbled across an abandoned-looking exchange bureau and I got some Moldovan lei. These are very strange looking notes, they seem like currency from a board game, as they’re very small and the quality of the print is low. It was pleasant to use them though as Chișinău is very cheap.

We stayed in the Adresa aparthotel, again booked on the day before arrival. It has a reception like a hotel but the actual units are flats in a typical Soviet apartment block. We immediately felt that we were no longer in Romania when the lady at the reception met us with an icy stare and complete lack of smile. The flat however was comfortable and cosy.

First thing we went to a supermarket and bought all kinds of products alien to Western Europe, or even some of the East. Among the discoveries for my friend were for example сушки, a kind of a small and dry Russian bagel (in a blue package below), as well as a waffle cake from the famous Latvian Laima factory – he couldn’t stop devouring it! As for me, I could not resist an impulsive acquisition of a can of cacao condensed milk (not on the pic but a strong catalyser of my childhood memories). Wonderful Moldovan wine and of course mushrooms.

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To Moldova via Iasi

On my second visit to Romania I promised myself to visit Moldavia. I use the word Moldavia on purpose – as I mean as much the country of Moldova as the historical region of Moldavia. The latter is significantly larger than the current independent country.

It seems that if a geography of an area is defined by a strict natural border, say a shoreline, then the definition of historical regions, their names and borders have a significantly more persistent nature in historical perspective. By contrast on endless plateaus without clear dividing lines, the borders of regions keep swimming back and forth in a chaotic dance. Eastern Europe is one such area where the borders of empires would clash like waves of transparent oceans and then disappear without trace. As a consequence the structure and relationship between various historical areas here is particularly nuanced and complex.

Honestly, it was beyond fascinating to delve deep into the intricate web of destinies all mixed up in the region. The historical Principality of Moldavia for example included such regions as Western Moldavia, Bessarabia, Budjak, Bukovina and Pokuttya. To some extent the borders of these regions overlap. Today’s Romanian province of Moldavia roughly corresponds to Western Moldavia. The country of Moldova corresponds to Bessarabia (however without its constituent part Budjak – which mostly belongs to Ukraine). Transnistria was not a part of historical Bessarabia. Romanian Moldavia is larger than Moldova in terms of both area and population.

How did it come to be that Moldova ended up as an independent country? The Romanian-Moldovan border is the limit of historical expansion of the Russian Empire at the expense of the waning Ottoman Empire. The Russian expansion was stopped by geopolitical factors, of which the main one was the counter action by other Great Powers. As a result, the border cut the Romanian-speaking lands in two.

We decided to start our lighting tour of historical Moldavia from its capital – the proud Romanian city of Iași. A couple of times it has even risen to the status of the capital of all of Romania, but was eclipsed by Bucharest each time. To truly appreciate the feeling of the journey and to look at the fields and forests and mountains, we decided to travel from Cluj to Iași by train. The trip takes 9 hours – all day – and it was a genuine post-Soviet train, with peasant grannies eating their simple fare and offering some to us, without a single word of English.

Finally the train arrived in Iași. An unpleasant surprise was in store for us there. Even though it was October, in Iași it was terribly cold. Some Siberian anticyclone covered all of Moldavia. I was visibly shaking from the cold as we were walking in my wind jacket in the dark to our hotel. The next day the weather was again sunny and bright and terribly cold, and so it remained for the next days. As a result the temptation to escape to some café or restaurant was quite irresistible 🙂

Here are some photos of Iași nonetheless. The main sight in the city is the Cathedral of the Three Ierarchs. It has been recently restored in following the historical original exactly. Indeed inside the church the work is still ongoing. This place was magical! A special atmosphere of secrecy and participation reigns there.

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