November 2008: As part of a larger two plus weeklong trip across the Balkans and former Yugoslav countries, my friend Dan and I visited Moldova for 3 days. I was excited to visit Moldova, the least visited country in Europe and to learn more about a country that before my visit I knew very little about and to visit Transdniestria, a break-away republic in Moldova.

Moldova is mostly Romanian speaking and was part of the Soviet Union and claimed independence after its collapse. Ever since then Moldova has earned the not so proud distinction of being the poorest country in Europe. Moldova has also been plagued with corruption, and organized crime that has taken advantage of Moldova’s location between Eastern and Western Europe and Asia to traffic stolen cars, organs, and women. Since independence, Moldova has also fought a civil war with the region of Transdniestria, a region that is primarily Russian speaking on the border of Ukraine. The conflict with Transdniestria was never resolved and Transdniestria has become one of Europe’s only break-away republics. On a brighter note, Moldova, once the number one wine producing region in the Soviet Union, is still known for making good and affordable wine.

 

 

Location of Moldova

To get to Moldova, Dan and I traveled from Bucharest, Romania to Chisinau, Moldova’s capitol via a night train. We had a sleeping cabin and were fast asleep when border guards at the Moldovan border awakened us in the middle of the night to remove all the passengers for approx. an hour to change the train wheels because of difference of gauge width in former-USSR countries and the rest of Europe. The Soviet Union deliberately established different train track sizes than western Europe to impede the possibility of an invasion from the west. 

Soviet Era hotel Turist

Once in Chisinau, Dan and I stayed at the Soviet era hotel Turist, once the only hotel where foreigners were allowed to stay during Soviet times. Now the hotel is like a time capsule peering into Moldova’s Soviet past. Hotel Turist was drab, built with few frills, and each floor was manned by a heavy-set woman with a light blue apron and orange dyed hair. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that these drill sergeant like women were best avoided. The antiquated elevator to the top floor lacked an exterior door and resembled more of a small metal cage big enough to hold only two people that was pulled upwards clumsily by a cable. The hotel and rooms reeked of cigarette smoke and was subject to random black outs. But it was exactly the kind of hotel that I loved staying at during my travels. 

Drab Interior Turist Hotel

Dan and I walked all over town trying to avoid corrupt police officers that would try and shake us down for money. Sometimes corruption on one hand can come in handy. One of my friends was heavily intoxicated in a park with an open bottle of alcohol when a police officer apprehended him and threatened to arrest him. This would be an expensive ticket in most countries but in Moldova my friend ended up paying the police officer only a few dollars’ worth of random currencies and the rest of his alcohol to be released. To avoid any bad run ins Dan and I would cross the street to the opposite side of the street of any police officers and avoid speaking English in ear shot of them. 

 

Soviet Monument

During our two-night stay in Chisinau, we visited a lot of Soviet era monuments and walked all across town visiting various forms of nightlife. true to Moldova’s reputation as being one of Europe’s least visited countries, there truly were no other foreigners and most people didn’t speak english but Dan and I were still able to find our way around. Luckily, we were able to purchase some dress clothes in Belgrade, Serbia which allowed us to be admitted into night clubs with strict dress codes. One night club was no doubt run by the mafia. Huge broad shouldered Romanian bouncers checked us for guns as we entered. Electronic music shook my ear drums, slick looking mafioso types in luxury suits and wearing sunglasses at night pulled up to the night club entrance in BMW’s and Mercedes vehicles, out of place for a country where most people if they are lucky enough to have a car drive a rickety Lada or in rural area horse carts. Prostitutes in fur coats waited in the nightclub for the arrival of such men. There was a strong aura of seediness that pervaded the nightclub. The bathroom urinals had a small television screen located over each urinal playing hardcore lesbian porn and mafioso men cast unwelcoming glances in the direction of Dan and I. because of this and the expensive drinks, we didn’t stay long and so we set off for a more down to earth welcoming place.

Our search didn’t turn up a bar that was any better. We ended up in a dungeon like dingy underground bar full of Gypsie prostitutes, and a mix of female and weirdly enough male strippers. For some reason a lot of clubs in this part of eastern Europe frequented by mostly male clientele would have female dancers and at some point, in the night random male dancers.  And again, the bar was full of track suit golden medallion wearing mafia looking types. One girl stole our room key from Dan and wouldn’t return it unless we paid her 100USD so I had to convince her that we worked for the US Embassy and would have our security team arrest her to get her to hand over our key. 

 

Police car

On our 2nd day in Moldova, Dan and I hired a taxi to take us to a medieval cave monastery in Tipova village a few hours’ drive to the northeast of Moldova through rural villages and forest fringed fields. Our drive in a Lada vehicle, produced in mass during Soviet times was mostly uneventful except for when our taxi driver was pulled over once and forced to pay a senseless bribe to a corrupt police officer. Tipova was an interesting town with a small river and cliffs that rose up along its banks where some eastern orthodox Romania monks in medieval times carved monasteries out of caves in the cliffsides. We visited several caves lo longer lived in by monks and we visited some caves equipped with more modern amenities that are lived in by monks.

 

Entering Tipova Village

Tipova Village

Tipova Graveyard

Tipova Mideivel Cave monasteries located in the cliffside to the left of the valley

Tipova Mideivel Cave monasteries located in the cliffside to the right of the valley

Cave monastery currently used by monks

Mideivel Writing by Monks on the Cave Walls

Monk at Tipova Cave Monastery

Tipova Cave Monastery

Tipova Cave Monastery

Tipova Cave Monastery-Abandoned Caves

Me at Tipova Cave Monastery-Abandoned Caves

Tipova Cave Monastery

On our last day in Moldova, Dan and I hired the same taxi driver who took us to Tipova Cave Monastery to take us to Transdniestria since we liked and trusted him, and he spoke a little bit of English. Our trip to Transdniestria was an interesting adventure.

 

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