Sunday, July 10, 2011

Moldova, Transnistria and Romania

We have now returned home and in the next few days I will write a summary of our trip to Moldova, Transnistria and Romania.

We have now returned from a two-week trip around Moldova, Romania and Transnistria, a country that doesn’t exist, using public transport. Whilst back packers often travel on buses and trains, what on earth were an English grandfather and grandmother doing? The answer is filling in gaps in their travels around Europe and the former Soviet Union. We have visited most European countries but had never been to Moldova. Before 1940 when it became part of the USSR most of Moldova was in Romania. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 it became independent. However, in 1992 a small area to the east of Moldova next to the Ukrainian border broke away by force and declared itself independent. It is not recognised by any other country, has peace keeping forces from Russia and venerates the Soviet Union. This strip of ‘no man’s land’ leads to problems for travellers but just like the old East Berlin it can easily be visited with a day pass.
We flew from Luton to Timisoara in northern Romania by Wizz and then onto Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, by Carpatair the same afternoon. Border formalities were quickly completed with the all important entry stamp and the word ‘welcome’. We returned from Bucharest (Banaesa) again by Wizz just two weeks later. All three flights left on time and arrived early and the only complaint was the chaotic check in for the return flight.  
Moldova is said to be the poorest country in Europe and in recent years there has been very little investment in public transport or infrastructure. Chisinau, the capital, was badly damaged in WW II and was rebuilt to the standard Soviet pattern with very little other than the language to suggest a Romanian past. Now all Russian public notices and street signs have been replaced in a city where many of the people speak Russian. There is still a large trolleybus network with three depots and an intensive service on the main street where private minibus competition is restricted. Each depot seemed to have a few of the new trolleybuses on one of its routes. The trolleybus fare is about 12p and, as in many former Soviet cities; conductors are used to collect cash fares. The privately owned minibuses have slightly higher fares collected by the driver, cash in hand. The busiest trolleybus route has a 4 minute frequency but in the past it has been every 2 minutes. There are few full size diesel buses.
For me the country buses were more interesting. Moldova has few railways and they are Russian gauge. There is an overnight train to Moscow and another to Bucharest (with bogie changing at the border) and two or three other trains so people rely on buses. There are three bus stations and tickets for the longer services can be pre-booked. We had to show our passports to buy tickets for a minibus to Iasi in Romania but were able to buy tickets to Tiraspol in Transnistria with no formalities. Many of the buses obviously serve rural communities and park up for several hours during the day. Destinations are displayed in a mixture of Romanian and Russian presumably indicating the dominant local language. Again most of them are minibuses.
The day of our visit to Tiraspol we simply went to the bus station and bought two tickets for the next minibus departing at 08:40. On boarding the bus we were given two ‘control’ forms which were printed in Russian and English and asked for passport details, purpose of visit etc. There are no controls on the Moldovan side of the border but all passports were collected at the first Transnistrian checkpoint. After 10 minutes or so they were returned and the bus moved forwards to the second check point where non-locals had to get out and go into an office and join a queue. My passport was examined by a young lady who seemed happy to practice her English and explained that our day passes were only valid until 19:50. The control document was duly stamped and countersigned and returned with our passports. We then returned to the minibus and waited until everyone had been processed. The whole process took about an hour and we arrived at Tiraspol just after 11:00. No the exchange office didn’t accept Pounds so we changed 20 Euros into Transnistrian Roubles for spending money. Our first impression was that Tiraspol was poorer than Chisinau and that the trolleybuses were infrequent. We walked down the main street which must have changed very little in twenty years. In addition to the trolleybuses there were a few minibuses but there was far less traffic than in Moldova. We visited a local market and this confirmed our views on the economy. We had a nice lunch in Romanian owned Pizza chain and then coffee and ice cream during the afternoon and the spent the last of our Roubles on tickets for a bus back to Chisinau at about 17:00. The border controls for the return journey seemed less stringent and we didn’t have to leave the bus. Our passports and control forms were collected and then just our passports were returned. There were no stamps to indicate we had been to Transnistria and our Moldovan entry stamp was untouched. There was no hint of the bribes reported in many travellers’ tales.
Two days later we took a minibus from Chisinau to Iasi in Romania. This involved two and a half hours on awful roads to the border. As this is a recognised border the Moldovans checked our passports carefully before stamping us out. Everyone then had to take their entire luggage to the customs hall and every bag was opened. The customs officer wasn’t expecting English grandparents and wanted to know about our travels and how we would get home. We didn’t mention Transnistria and were soon on our way with a friendly wave and wishes for a pleasant journey. The minibus crossed a river bridge and then we joined the queue for entry into the European Union. Our status had changed. The Romanians processed EU passport holders first and we only needed to identify our baggage and explain that some English grandparents actually like Romania. The road from the border to Iasi seemed remarkably smooth and we arrived at about 15:00. We were now in familiar territory as we had visited Iasi four years ago.
We were surprised how little Iasi and its tramways had changed in four years and conversations later confirmed our view that this is now one of the poorest parts of Romania. There is still quite a lot of trolleybus overhead although the network had closed just before our previous visit. Romania has a reasonable rail network and a computerised booking system. Train times can be found on the DB and Romanian Railways websites and tickets including seat reservations can be booked several days in advance. So on arrival in one town we simply bought our tickets to the next. We had already booked hotels through the website.
The steel making town of Galati was our next destination. First we noticed that trams no longer passed the station and then although there were tracks near our hotel there was no overhead. About half the Galati tramway has been abandoned in recent years and minibuses are endemic. Most of them are smart and modern and some are route branded. The trams are from Rotterdam and Berlin and in reasonable condition. There are three tram routes left and as a lot of the track is worn out I suspect they will close fairly soon. In Braila the situation is very different with a significant part of the tramway closed but this time for reconstruction in the town centre.  At present there is only one cross town route operated by trams from Vienna and Rotterdam with both track and trams in reasonable condition. Then there is an hourly suburban service to a deserted industrial complex which was surprisingly busy although we suspect that fare evasion was rife on this route. It was operated by an ex Berlin Tatra KT4D. There was an interesting selection of buses including Ikaruses, Dutch DAFs and some newish BMC midibuses.
In all three of these towns tickets are sold from kiosks and cancelled in traditional ‘komposters’. Day tickets are also available although you have to produce photo id to buy one in Iasi. Single fares varied from 26p to 40p. In Bucharest things are very different with a difficult to understand smart card system and traffic inspectors who obviously revel in catching out and fining visitors on the airport express bus service. The ticket blanks cost 33p which is added the cost of the ticket.
It is obvious that Bucharest has received far more public transport investment than the other three towns we visited. Those sections of the tramway that we saw were in acceptable or good condition and lots of stops have passenger refuges and platforms. The trams are old but in quite good condition so that all that is need now are some modern low floor cars. The city buses were nearly all air conditioned low floor Mercs. There are also some trolleybus routes with quite modern looking vehicles but we didn’t have the time or the energy to look at them as it was 36 degrees C and quite humid.
I have published pictures of our trip on this blog and between 25th June and 9th July.

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