GoldFanger ~ Winter Wonderland

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Moldova  ,
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Regular readers will remember the cheerful way I recounted tales of buying a train ticket in Kiev. Silly, silly boy. 

The train from Lviv to Chisinau originates on the Polish side of the border in Przemystl. The key ramification of this is that the Ukrainian railways are unable to sell any reserved tickets (not knowing how many the Poles may have sold)... for a train departing at 12:10a.m.... just get to the station from 10:00p.m. and see what you can get. Bear in mind too that the train goes on 'odd days', definitions of which may include (a) dates of the 13th, 15th, 17th and so on, (b) Monday, Wednesday, Friday, being the first, third and fifth numbered days, or (c) something unfathomable to do with the Eastern Orthodox calendar.  

This would be fine but for the fact that Lviv station was staffed by the ever-unsmiling female incarnations of Larry, Curly and Moe. We had, courtesy of Kosmonaut Hostel, all our requests written down on a tidy little piece of paper, replete with more pleases, thank yous and through-the-great-majesty-of-your-everlasting-benevolent-kin dnesses than you could poke a phrasebook at. They are all needed.  

To commence what we knew would be interesting proceedings, with no advance warning the woman at ticket counter two went apocalyptically apoplectic at the sight of the little bit of paper. So enraged was she that in standing up to lean into the window to yell her views at us and direct us away she skittered her chair away behind her. "INFORMACIE. INFORMACIE. IN-FOOORR-MMMAAT-CCCIEE!". An inauspicious start. Claude looked to be close to returning fire and, oddly, it was left to me to counsel caution. She may yet be the friendliest one here, and we wanted no repeats of Greece.  

At 'Informacie' the attendant seemed baffled by our daring in coming up to her. She couldn't read the carefully written piece of paper with all our hopes and dreams in neat cyrillic, replete with train number, time of departure, request for coupe compartment, messages of gratitude etc. What she could do was make absolutely clear she didn't sell train tickets, that we were idiots, and that we absolutely had to go to counter two. I really hope that's what those finger gestures meant anyway.  

Its at times like this your head can fall a little. We were clearly doomed to bounce back and forth between the two counters. The one ray of light was that Little Miss Informacie had scrawled a big "2" on our paper, something we hoped would be a trump card with the ticket seller. A poor, poor assumption, not worth belabouring.  

With an hour or so remaining until the train was due to go, we took the logical approach of trying the process of elimination by queuing up in every ticket line, showing our paper, and crossing our chilly fingers. Counter three was next on the bill.  

Queueing in Ukraine very nearly occurs. The men are very good at it, the lines behind me straight and true. However, the demographic of weathered women over 60 has perfected the I'm just standing here looking at the high quality of Soviet era light fittings nonchalant loiter which then - as the prior customer departs - transforms into a dropped shoulder barge that should be enough to earn them a starting jersey with St Kilda. As we got to 'next' in the queue Claude took up a mirroring position on the left to counter the latest lingering baba to my right. As with all rookie contests, anger and enthusiasm were no match for guile and experience, and Claude was left with the same bewildered look of a young footballer unaware Barry Hall was three feet away and closing. I had assessed the woman's fine, flowing beard and declined the contest.  

The key reason this lady features so heavily is that what had looked like a fine selection of queue - moving quickly, people walking away with tickets rather than bewildered looks a la counter two - quickly degenerated into a bad one as baba insisted on a ticket for the train to Kiev leaving in 3 minutes. In a country still with a regulation for everything, there is no way that was ever going to happen and she got told so in no uncertain terms. The situation was best summed up when Claude, who had been chattering into the old lady's ear about the need in the civilised world for manners and respect, changed tack with a dry "yeah, that will help - please just make her nice and angry before she serves us. Thanks love".  

Our wouldbe ticket seller was indeed a fearsome woman, a Shrek Princess by any yardstick. And while she may have looked outwardly like Laurie Oakes after a drunken fight, as she calmly proceeeded to nod at our bit of paper and thence to print out tickets for us I was ready to kiss that woman from head to toe.

Do I always start with these transit elements in this blog? I am aware I write disproprortionately about the journey rather than the destination... but it has become a big part of daily life, figuring our which hurdles will come up and how they are best resolved.  

On the station, our train due at 12:08a.m., the temperature a friendly minus four degrees and falling, a train duly arrived on the platform and we sought our carriage. It is very hard to communicate, but it turned out that what had arrived was half of our train, and the half we wanted would be along soon. 'Soon' being an hour and a few more degrees later, and while our winter clothing is quite good, it did lead one very nice and funny old lady to point at Claude shivering, then unzip her jacket and make like she was sweating and too hot. Quality comedy, appreciable even as your heartrate slows as death approaches.  

Amazingly, our source of information again came from Claude's German skills - I continue to be dazzled at how widely spoken German is, and how useless my equivalent level of pidgin French is. Once aboard the train, we attempted sleep secure in the knowledge that at least we were not to be stranded here any further. At least the journey was a short one, with both Lonely Planet and the web confirming we would be in Chisinau in eight hours or so, nicely in time for a late breakfast.  

In the first genuine botch in a long while, thats actually an 18 hour train trip. An 18 hour trip we embarked upon without food, with limited water, and without a dining car. The positive side is how long the body can go without meals and sustained only by three old chocolate biscuits. The negative side is everything else, particularly in a wagon heated high enough to melt the light fittings. Claude sweated it out, while I chose to stand in the gangway between carriages to get some frosty relief.  

The train trip was still, surprisingly, quite a lot of fun. We shared our cabin with two Moldovans in their early 50's, Aleksander and Galena. Aleksander had learned English many years ago, and was keen to try it out. We had our Russian phrasebook out and tried to contribute, but really it was Aleksander's perseverance that took the conversation everywhere. Charades, as ever, was handy as well.     

Every time I meet someone old enough to remember the Soviet era I ask them how they remember the changes. Aleksander was concise in summing up "we had no idea it was all failing, just one day, it was all gone". These two clearly adapted fast, opening a steel trading business in 1991. Interestingly, he did look back fondly to an era when the trains were much cheaper and it was easier to go anywhere within the Soviet Union.  

The snowy landscape we enjoyed has provided the landscape experience I had hoped for when we did the Trans-Mongolian railway trip to Moscow a few years ago. Then it was summer, and Siberia was as lush and welcoming as Terrey Hills. I wanted frosty wastes... and on this journey we were to have them in spades.  

Frosty wastes were not limited to the journey, they extended through to the destination. We reached a station and a scene that I hope to remember for a long while. The endlessly long train halted, and being in the first wagon we were at a tiny sliver of platform far from the station building. Everyone hopped off one by one into nearly foot deep snow. We found a partly cleared path and headed back to the station building. On approach was the fantastic scene of a 40 year old train, a simply designed small semi circular terminal and a creamy layer of snow covering every part of the view, with just the soft light of the station neatly filling the semi circle. Had we not been tired, sweaty, dirty, hungry, bewildered and cold we may have taken the camera out. A tautologically 100% unanimous decision to not bother. Which I now regret.  

Aleksander and Galena insisted on dropping us at our hostel - a gesture we massively appreciate. On first appearances, our "hostel" owner was a fearsomely gruff looking man. Wrong guess.  

With five words of each other's languages we managed to settle in. In a place with no readily apparent tourist bureau, he was smart enough to provide his own photocopied street map. He was also smart enough to make the words in English he learned be "food", "internet", "museum", "foot" and "minutes". Each time we went out into the snow he would giggle, his nubs of golden teeth glinting until the smoker's cough took over. But in a quality of hospitaility I have found in no other hotel, whenever we came back in I noted the kettle being boiled despite him already having a hot drink steaming away (duly alerted by the laborious process to unlock the doors). In a world without customer service or smiles, there were numerous amazing touches like this.  

That first night we really discovered the facts about snow and ice. Ice has two roles in the world: in drinks, and for penguins to sit on. As a pavement lubricant it strikes a new fear in the tourist, one of pain and death at any second. Its hard to see the town when you spend your time looking at the ground. Each of us had majestic death wobbles - I hit a particularly excellent streak of ice running down near a curb and managed to do two full helicopters with the groceries but remained on my feet. Claude, having lectured me about care, and slopes, and paying attention, provided me with immense fulfilment by then lapsign into buffoonery and being the first to hit the deck really hard on exactly the slopes she had earlier warned me about, then backed up with a great near miss in the exact same spot later in the afternoon. Normally one does not take pleasure at one another's injuries: ice suspends that rule.  

The ice was also oddly loved by the city's residents: young and old. In a spectacle we had to video, you could watch businessmen or stylishly dressed young women walking along and then, gently spying some primo ice, would childishly slide along it. We found an A-grade piece of ice and staked it out - the results being attached. This ice was an amonaly, being in the wide open environs of a park... its even more incongruous when they are just little 4ft streaks amidst the bustle of the city pavements. Unofrtunately thats not easily captured on video.

We visited all the sights of the city, all made better by the increasing volume of snow getting dumped down. Visiting the statue of national legend from the 1500's, St Stefan cel Mare (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jebediah Springfield), it was made the more memorable by the pelting we were taking from the heavens. Equally, the Parliament House building would have been just another bland monolith but for the fact we were staring at it iced like a cake with just one speck of colour - the national flag - in our whole field of vision.  

While Chisinau has not been a fine dining location, it has been a fine wine location. We made the astute decision not to spring $125 to visit the Cricova caves winery 15km out of the city centre, instead focusing our investment on sampling the local product. It is impossible to "overspend": a bottle of fairly high quality ran $4. A 1991 vintage was as high as $10, and both were up with the finest wines I have ever tasted.  

Chisinau is a place I would never have bothered to visit had they required a letter of invitation and a visa - a US$100 overhead and a hassle with no apparent return. But since 2007 it has been visa free for EU passport holders, and its been a fun little place to spend some time as we head ever eastward. I know when we return we'll stay with our little gold toothed friend again.

* * *

Imagine wandering onto an ice skating rink wearing your normal boots?  Slippery, huh?  This is Chisinau!  Pronounced Kisinev by the locals, mispronounced all too often as Chizzy-Now by me.

This must have been the slipperiest city I have ever visited.  It would snow overnight and every morning we would emerge into a delicate, enchanting winter wonderland-scape.  Only a few hours later, human foot traffic would enable the compacted snow to form menacing, shiny, icy patches.  After hitting the deck on day one and spending the rest of the week tracking the formation of a huge, black bruise on my hip, I spent the rest of my stay walking with both eyes firmly planted on the ground.  I feel as if I may have missed a few of the sights Chisinau had to offer as I spent most of the daylight hours locating the most stable patches of snow to walk upon. 

For this reason, I was completely flabbergasted by the national pasttime of ice-patch-skating.  I looked on in utter disbelief as every local Moldovan (both young and old) actively sought out the shiniest, slipperiest bits of ground to run, jump and then skate across.  These were the same patches that Iain and I were walking 10 extra metres to avoid (even if it meant walking through muddy slush or knee deep powder snow).  I was flabbergasted, which is  why we tried to capture some of these antics on video.

Walking around in a beanie, every top I own, a jumper and then 3 overcoats with a giant fluffy, hood meant that I constanty felt like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man - only even slower to respond and with even less peripheral vision.  Crossing the road became an exercise requiring extreme caution as I would look left and right and realise I was only able to see the inside of my giant hood.  I would stop, pull my hands out of my warm pockets, struggle to lower my hood with my fluffy, mitten clad hands then look left and right.  Before venturing onto the road I would try to locate the least slippery looking surfaces and then double check the traffic flow once more before proceeding.  You can see why I can't recall actually doing too much in this city.  It was all much too dangerous.

Our lodgings with our friendly Moldovan hostelier were warm and cosy.  [I use the word hostelier generously.  The only aspect that made his house a hostel was his black and white printed home made sign sticky taped to his window: Central Youth Hostel].  As this was another part of the world where it becomes pitch black at about 4:30pm, we made sure to use those slender couple of daylight hours between 11 and 4ish wandering around the city avoiding the slippery patches and by nightfall (or realistically early afternoon) we were ready to cook dinner, sample the local Cricovan wines and settle in for the evening with an.... English movie.  What better city to be reunited with English language TV/cable?

Our next steps are to head to Trans-Dniester: Moldova's breakaway republic not recognised by anyone but themselves.
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