Things I learnt about Romania, Moldova, Transnistria, and Ukraine

I spent fifteen days travelling from Bucharest to Kiev through Romania, Moldova, Transnistria, and Ukraine. It was a fascinating and little visited part of Europe to explore. I’ve covered the specific areas visited in previous posts but here I capture some of the observations and insights I made along the way.

General observations
This part of Eastern Europe is generally incredibly flat, which explains why it has so frequently been invaded from both sides of Europe. There are some decent mountains in the Transylvanian part of Romania but Bucharest and the Danube Delta are flat, the highest point is Moldova is only 430m above sea level, and most of Ukraine (other than the Carpathian Mountains) is pretty flat. Kiev is the only place I stayed which had some hills to run up and down.

Almost every park and many monasteries are filled with colourful, well maintained flowers.

The locals love sparkling water, making it a little challenging in supermarkets to find still water, particularly in Ukraine and Transnistria where Cyrillic lettering is used.

It was pleasant and unexpected to find so few stray dogs wandering the streets, though there were still a few to avoid while running. Instead many places seem to be overrun with stray cats, particularly in Odessa.

Cars clearly take priority over pedestrians based on phasing of traffic lights, particularly in Ukraine where flash cars appear to take priority over anyone.

Service with a smile or any expression that doesn’t appear disapproving is rare.

There were few tourists around, particularly in Moldova and Transnistria, but I expect that to change fairly quickly. I travelled on Intrepid Travel’s 13 day Moldova, Ukraine & Romania Explorer trip, staying an extra day in Bucharest and Kiev. They started this trip three years ago, ran it 24 times in 2019 and have scheduled 29 trips in 2020 between April and October. The maximum group size is twelve so ~300 people isn’t that many in total, but other companies and more tourists will follow. I’ve also seen tours to the area run by Wild Frontiers, Travel the Unknown, and a ridiculously short one with Explore.

There were so many smokers around compared to what I’m used to. The last country I visited where I remembered smoking was as prominent was Switzerland five years ago, and I’ve been to be quite a few countries since then… It doesn’t help that a packet of cigarettes in Moldova costs 25 lei or €1.20 or NZD2.20, and the prices were similar in the other countries visited.

Supermarket checkouts are understaffed / too few judging by almost every supermarket I visited, with queues of up to 15 minutes not uncommon.

Romania
Bucharest apparently used to have a huge issue with stray dogs wandering the streets, to the point where there were frequent attacks and even three killings. Thankfully since 2014 the City Council has acted and I didn’t see a single stray in three days.

Bucharest seems to be one of the few major cities I’ve visited that didn’t have street art. In about 50km of walking around the city I literally only saw these two examples nearly next to each other, though there was quite a lot of graffiti around.

Museum entrances are rarely welcomingly open. Instead of open or sliding doors they have normal doors with no obvious way of telling if they’re open or not, other than attempting to go in.

Polenta is very popular. Basically corn with water and salt, it’s not the most exciting or tasty food but it is filling.

Moldova
Moldova is one of the least visited countries in Europe, attracting a few million tourists each year, the vast majority of whom are from neighbouring Romania and Ukraine. The tourism infrastructure is growing, with support from the EU, Sweden, and UK, and an increasing number of travel companies are running trips.

I knew a little about Transnistria, a Russian aligned region which seeks independence from Moldova, but didn’t know until I visited that there is a second separatist region in Moldova. Gagauzia is in south Moldova and is also Russian aligned, but has settled for autonomy within Moldova. Both regions are major stumbling blocks for Moldova’s desire to join the EU, or to rejoin with Romania, due to their alignment with Russia.

While running around Mill Valley Lake in Chisinau I saw a pair of red squirrels chasing each other around a tree trucks. Which was quite entertaining to watch but also good to see red squirrels in the wild. In the UK the introduced grey squirrel has almost wiped out the native red squirrel, while in NZ there are no squirrels. They must be one of the few species that the British didn’t introduce…

Fridays are a popular day for weddings. Exploring the churches of Chisinau it seemed that almost every church had a wedding taking place. Some had a couple outside having their photos taken, while another couple were getting married inside the church. Part of the ceremony involves both the bride and groom wearing crowns, and holding onto the priest as he does circuits of the interior, while Orthodox priests chanted.

Don’t take photos of the US Embassy in Chişinău. In front of it is a scenic bridge to nowhere, by which I saw a wedding party gathering. Nice photo opportunity I thought, until I took it and walked round to find a no photography sign and a man dressed all in black gesturing for me to come over to him. Which I did, and showed him the photo being deleted. They could do with a sign in front of the bridge…

Transnistria
It is much easier to visit than it was even a few years ago. The border crossing horror stories and photography ban you read about online are basically gone. At the border you get a slip of paper with details of your entry and conditions of stay (the timings are very specific) which was painless. Photos are allowed basically everywhere in Transnistria other than the usual places, e.g. military bases and borders.

Sheriff appear to own everything, including supermarkets, banks, refineries, distilleries, pharmacies, a mobile phone network, a clothing factory and a football team. The second largest company in Transnistria, it was established in 1993 by wealthy locals after the country struggled to find outside investers given it’s uncertain political status.

Tiraspol has the only Olympic sized swimming pool in Moldova.  

Ukraine
There is a clear difference between those with money and those without. Government salaries are modest but many of the flash cars and properties belong to them, making clear the levels of corruption sadly present.

Tourist animal scams appeared to be a theme, with pigeon wielding men in Odessa, and men with monkeys and ladies with pigeons in Kiev. Keep clear!

Ukrainian policemen always appear to walk around in threes, not the usual pair seen in most countries. I have no idea why, and neither did any of the locals I asked.

Ukraine Hotel has probably the most inefficient lifts I’ve ever come across when travelling, which makes a difference in a sixteen story building. There are four, but they’re not connected, so you press four buttons and four lifts hopefully make their way toward you. The result is usually a long wait…

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