Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Not all of Chisinau (pronounced key-she-now), the capital of Moldova, screams former Soviet provincial city. But its central bus station surely does.
It’s not properly a station, and at the same time it doubles as a market. Dozens of minivans (marshrutky, to use the Russian word in the plural form) are parked along several intersecting streets. Signs are displayed behind the windshields stating the destinations in the Latin alphabet of Romanian or the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian, or both.
Due to its complicated history, Moldova, one of the least visited countries in Europe (and once alleged to be the least happy), is bilingual. The principality of Moldavia was historically in the Romanian orbit, and the eastern section of modern Romania is still called Moldavia. But the Russian empire annexed eastern Moldavia in the early 19th century after the Russo-Turkish War and renamed it Bessarabia. After the 1917 revolution in Russia, Bessarabia or Moldova reunited with Romania, only to be ceded back to the Soviet Union in 1940 in the wake of rapprochement between the USSR and Nazi Germany. So even now, after independence in light of the collapse of the USSR, Moldovans almost all speak both Russian and Romanian fluently.
Luckily, I can read Cyrillic. Even so, there is no rhyme or reason as to where the marshrutky are parked. You simply have to run around trying to read every sign behind every windshield or ask for help. When I went there looking for the marshrutka to Orheiul Vechi, though, the help was less than helpful. There were supposed to be two different minibuses that could put me in the vicinity of Orheiul Vechi, the picturesque cave monastery complex that is, according to Lonely Planet, the number one sight in Moldova. These were to the nearby villages of Trebujeni or Butuceni. (A final “i” in Romanian, by the way, is silent.) It had been alleged to me that there were four different buses to Trebujeni but only one to Butuceni. When each of these buses would return to Chisinau remained mysterious. I spent a quarter of an hour looking for the Trebujeni bus, being pointed in all different directions, until I chanced upon the Butuceni bus and decided that it was fate. The driver, a younger man than most of the others, laughed at my less than stellar Russian and agreed to let me off at the entrance to the monastery complex.
When he did, I was presented with a spectacular natural setting. The entrance was just across a bridge spanning the Raut River, a tributary of the Dniester, frozen solid in this weather. And a short walk past the entrance led me to a rocky ridge. Closer to me was a bell tower, underneath which was the cave monastery itself. A little farther on was a church. And atop the ridge, the panoramic view of the area covered in snow was breathtaking. On one side, the sheer drop of a cliff face down to the icy surface of the river. On the other, a view overlooking the peaceful village beneath. Across the river, from the road where we drove up, I had been able to see the ridge side on, the honeycomb of the monastery dug into the rocks.
And the place had the sort of history to please me: setting aside the Getae and Dacians who lived in the area before and during Roman domination, the history of Orheiul Vechi traces back to, of all, people, the Mongols. Specifically, the Golden Horde, the Mongol Khanate set up to rule much of Russia, Central Asia, and a section of Eastern Europe. The original town was known by the Mongol-Turkic name Shehr al-Jadid.
But the marshrutka had arrived here at 11:25 in the morning. And the driver had informed me that the return bus would not leave until 4:30 in the afternoon. As lovely as it is, Orheiul Vechi does not require five hours to see. And in the depths of winter, not even the restaurants around here were open. I went up to a school bus that had deposited twenty or so kids earlier and asked the driver how I should get home. First he recommended that I walk over to the center of Trebujeni to try to catch a different bus. But I knew that he was talking about a thirty-minute walk along a slushy country road, so I was reluctant to take up the suggestion. Then he said a Russian word that I didn’t know. Seeing the look of confusion on my face, he demonstrated the concept by sticking out one hand. He meant hitchhiking.
So now I stood in the snow by the road and waited for cars to pass. There were not many cars on this lonely stretch. A van drove by. I stuck out my thumb. It immediately stopped. The door opened. Half a dozen teenager sat in the back. The driver wasn’t much older than they. He enthusiastically asked me where I wanted to go. I said Chisinau. “Oh, no,” he said, apparently disappointed not to be able to pick up a hitchhiker.
Five minutes later and a bit farther down the road, another car pulled up. I stuck out my thumb. Again it stopped immediately. A couple maybe a bit older than I were in the car. They rolled down the window. “Chisinau?” I asked.
“Mozhno?” I asked. May I?
They nodded. I got into the car. They introduced themselves: Marina and Eduard. Marina spoke pretty good English. Eduard, unfortunately, had studied French instead. But he understood me when the conversation was in Russian. Marina wanted to know all about my travels. France? Italy? Korea? Japan?
As I’ve said in the past, I don’t always hitchhike. But when I do, often it’s oddly among the most rewarding of experiences. And Moldovans have so far proven themselves very friendly hosts.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."