Although Moldova was strictly off the route from London to Istanbul we couldnt resist taking a week out to experience this relatively undiscovered country. Tourism is in its infancy and with flights expensive and major historical sites reletively limited most backpackers bypass this mainly rural country. To get there inexpensively the best way is to take the overnnight sleeper from Bucharest in Romania to Chisinau, the capital. We easily bought tickets at Bucharest station, which worked out at around £44 return for a second class bunk. The first class carriages were 2 berth instead of 4 however the opportunity to meet people and a doubled fare meant we had top and bottom bunks to sqable over for a very reasonable rate.
The Prietenia sleeper train, in its heyday (1950) was the epitomy of Soviet luxury. It has been well maintained and, so I am led to understand, undergone very limited modernization other than to seal the windows in the sleeping compartment. By todays standards the facilities were basic, however the decor is wonderfully kitsch and certainly comfortable enough for 1 night. If you have ever travelled on Indian trains the toilets are exactly the same appart from being sit down rather than squat. I recccomend you treat them as the latter anyway.
The outside ambient temperature in late August was 38 degrees but I can safely say that the temperature in the stationary train was closer to 50. As we shuffled our belongings into place in our sweedish sauna for 4, I assured John and our fellow passangers that the air cooling system would come on when the train started. This, sadly wasnt meant to be. The train moved off and I could honestly say I could have fried an egg on my forehead. The compartments have no windows that can be opened but the corridor has so we soon joined an array of sweaty folk and josstled for a bit of breeze. Although initially I thought that this might be the journey from hell ( or into, if it got any hotter) mingling in the corridor was a highlight of my trip. We met some great characters that night as we cooled ourselves and watched the dusk descend. Avia is an Israeli girl who was travelling with her Moldovan father and brother back to his motherland for the first time. He had first left on the night of the Romanian revolution, 25th December 1991, with his wife and young son, hoping for a better life in Israel. Not knowing the political situation in Romania they had arrived in Bucharest to no welcoming party from the Israeli embassy and the city in chaos. Little did they know that this was the day that ousted president Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were to be shot. 24 years later, he was returning to see how the country had changed and was worried that nobody would speak Russian anymore, the language he grew up with. As we discovered Russian and Romanian are completely interchangable in Moldova with different families in different areas usuing one or other as their home launguage but being profficient in the other.
Through his daughter he told me that the train was exactly the same as it was that night apart from the windows in the cabins and better service from the stewards! In 1991 there were 2 or 3 per carriage and they were very attentive. It was wonderful to watch his face with the passing of the landscape and to see him recognising places along the way to show his family. They didn’t have any family left there, all had emigrated to Israel over the years, however he hoped to show the children something of their herritage and put some demons to rest. I hope they did, they were a lovely family. We also had long discussions with various Romanians about their families, living in Romania, the property, market, prejdices they encounter abroad and thier feelings about the Roma ( the later requires a seperate post)
Our steward was a comedy character with seemingly 4 changes of clothes. He went from a crisp white shirt and official regalia through to a small pair of shorts for a midnight vodka session and back again thorough the course of the night via various other garments. We were quite worried when he took away both of our return tickets and refused to return them to us for a few hours however this was unfounded and essentially just fear-mongering from a girl in our carriage who said that he would demand a bribe for their return.
As the temperature cooled we were much more comfortable and were able to get some sleep. They provide a mattress and gorgeous stripey linen as well as a blanket so you can make your bed up yourself. The border crossing and customs takes around 2.5 hours or thereabouts. Between each inspection the wheels of the train need to be completely removed because the tracks in the respective countries are different sizes. This involves all of the carriages to be separated and elevated for engineers to perform the change which is absolutely facinating. We were able to watch this on the return journey as its performed in the early evening. At 4am I’m afraid I was more interested in the customs official turning of the light and leaving me in peace!
We arrived at around 8.30am to an eerily quite and pristinely clean marbled beauty of a station in Chisnau.
The return journey was significantly cooler, autumm just appeared out of nowhere it seemed. We had a compartment to ourselves this time and apart from a group of middle aged British trainspotters the train was all but deserted. Its a wonderful experience on a train thats like a little piece of history. Most of the others that we saw in Bucharest were modern, air conditioned and fast. I would imagine that it won’t be too long before the route between these two countries changes significantly so take the trip on the Moldova Express. What you will find at the other end will not disapoint.
See my post ‘A weekend in Chisnau, stylish people, great food and even better wine for further details
For more information on taking the train see http://www.seat61.com/Moldova.htm#.Vf7oqIrXenM