And so it was that I set forth from Lviv – rested and well prepared for the next stage of my adventures: The Balkans. The way forward was through the little visited country of Moldova. In 2014, only 11,000 tourists visited – the lowest of any European state – even Liechtenstein, which is 1/5 of the size of San Francisco, gets 54,000 visitors! Perfect for achieving my objective of visiting places I would never normally visit.
Leaving Lviv I found this little beauty
I’d planned in a big day of driving to get there. It didn’t look too far to the capital, Chisinau on paper but all methods of navigation consulted suggested a 9-hour drive at best. How could it take that long I wondered. I soon found out.
It’s fair to say that if you drive along some of the roads in southern Ukraine, you’ll never complain about potholes in the UK again. To describe the roads as in good condition would be like describing the moon’s surface as an ice-rink. This was my first experience of driving truly exciting, challenging roads. It was an experience I’d been looking forward to throughout the planning. Despite this I hadn’t anticipated it to come while I was still in Europe! Put it down as first time overlanding naivety. Still, I was making good time.
And then I was stopped.
Coming off one of these craterous dirt tracks, I was softly gestured to pull over at a Ukrainian police checkpoint. Nothing to worry about, I had everything in order. Or so I thought!
My first offence and the excuse for pulling me over was that I didn’t have my lights on. According the Ukrainian Highway Code, which I was repeatedly directed to, all drivers must have their lights on. It was the middle of a clear day and when Pico’s lights are on the dashboard dims so I can’t see the speedo in daylight. To be fair, the majority of other drivers did have their lights on and it’s not the first time I’ve come across this. In the Scandinavian countries oncoming drivers consistently flashed me if I didn’t have my lights on. I’ve learnt my lesson now and always drive with my lights on but it came at a cost ;)
In addition to my ‘catastrophic’ lack of lighting, upon request I couldn’t produce a Green Card. A Green Card is a document guaranteeing you and your car are insured. It’s traditionally been used across Europe to reduce red tape for drivers crossing countries. Prior to leaving, I’d consulted my insurer back in the UK and they’d advised it was no longer needed – I just had to print my insurance certificate and that would be enough. Unfortunately for me, my jovial Ukrainian policemen were having none of it. Cue another fine for me.
With me half-jogging between their roadside station and Pico for the next piece of documentation required, we had quite a fun engagement. After much linguistically challenged gesturing we got down to the business end of how much these two fines would set me back. The fine for the lights was 2000 UAH and the missing green card was 2550 UAH – about £150. Unfortunately for them, I only had 550 UAH on me – nowhere near!
Next came my favourite bit – Did I have any other currency I could pay in? Dollars? Euros maybe? “Supposing I did have some, how much would that cost me?” I retorted. A juicy little negotiation later and we’d agreed that €100 would cover it. With the Brexit currency blip of recent months, this is slightly more than it would have been but it was still money off in my book.
Fortunately, I’ve carried some currency for moments such as these. €100 wiped out the Euros I had – what else could I do! Having handed over the cash, it was swiftly covered in paperwork and the paperwork gently slid into a freshly opened empty drawer. Funny place to put it ;)
Having discussed this experience with other travellers, I’ve since learned much more on the arts of bribery. Turns out I potentially paid over the odds and with a little more negotiation it could have been a lot less. Fear not, I’ve been honing my art in recent weeks - my best negotiation so far has been 82% off the asking price!
I couldn’t have enjoyed the encounter more. Although it was disappeared travelling funds, I’d been expecting it to happen at some point. So, with a smile and my lights on, I set forth again.
Almost immediately, the road turned despicable once more. I relished the next 4 hours of motoring – the kris-krossing, the puddle splashing and the delicate skill of navigating the humps were all I wanted to do. Turns out I was enjoying it a little too much and found wanting in my abilities. With too much speed, one of these bumps caught up with me.
I had a light on the dashboard.
And then it disappeared.
And then it appeared.
And then it went.
And then it came.
Just as I turned back onto tarmac for the first time in hours the frequency of the light meant it was on more than it wasn’t. The light wasn’t a phase for Pico: it was the oil pressure light and this wasn’t good. Pulling over I found a gushing engine casing and pools of oil collecting under us. The glossy black stuff came out in floods – misplaced tears of joy above the dusty gutter of the road.
Pico’s engine had an 8-inch crack in it. Bugger. This wasn’t something I could fix with a bit of Frozen-emblazoned duct tape.
In a moment of balancing raw emotion and a sensible planning head I debated the options I had. Things really didn’t look good and after only a few minutes I only had dregs of oil left. As I saw it some of my options were:
Wait around in the hope someone stopped, maybe spoke English or could help in someway
Leave Pico with the aim of returning to fix her – hitch a lift or catch a bus then find a mechanic with a tow truck in the nearest town
Gift the broken car to a local in hope of a lift to somewhere less remote
Abandon Pico – again, hitch a lift or catch a bus but with only my backpack; leaving behind my friend and a fair amount of kit
I was in a small village parked up at the side of the road. In my eagerness to inspect with a better viewpoint I took a risk with the engine and drove Pico up a very high kerb. I inadvertently grounded us. The situation was developing.
My decision was easy after applying a little logic – I had nothing to lose by waiting a day or two. I had plenty of water, food and things to entertain myself. The silver lining would be that it was great opportunity to get the slackline out! Once I’d waited for divine intervention I could make any other more saddening decisions later.
I started writing a sign on a piece of card I had in the car. Before I’d even finished the word English a car pulled up beside me. From the Polish registered car out hopped 3 sturdy Ukrainian men. With several pursed lips and disheartening noises they agreed I wasn’t going anywhere fast. And then the leader of the band whipped out his phone, had a quick conversation and disappeared, leaving me with his compatriots. In 15 minutes they smoked 3 cigarettes each. And I thought I was the one who should have been stressed!
My new best mate returned with a towrope and with a little to-ing and fro-ing plus the loss of some bodywork we freed the car and I was towed away. Where I was going I had no idea – I had hope though.
My saviors who towed me to a workshop
After just a couple of miles we pulled into a workshop – a fully-fledged, automotive cavern of godliness! Unlike any garage I’d ever been to, work began immediately. Before I even had a chance to say hello, the engine sump was off. After a swift photo with my saviors, they were off too and I was in the hands of the fine mechanics of an unknown town.
Moments later they disappeared with the cast bottom of Pico’s heart. How far the boss man drove I’ve no idea but two hours later he was back with a freshly welded engine casing. It had been repaired in three places including a tiny crack around the plug, which I’d created when servicing the car before setting off – numpty. Just half an hour later: the engine was back together, I’d filled her with oil and we turned Pico over. Pico’s bustling engine kicked into life and my smile grew wider than I knew possible. We were back in business.
In 3 and a half hours and at the measly cost of €35 Pico was in better condition than when we’d set off. There was some travelling magic at work.
All good at the workshop
I can’t thank those men enough – they saved Pico, our adventure and me. I gave them all the money I had, which unfortunately wasn’t as much as they deserved.
The drive continued onwards having been off the cards only hours before. The Moldovan border beckoned. The journey overland to China was still on.
There was no way I’d make it to Chisinau that evening so I crossed the border while it was relatively quiet and slept by the side of the road. I was challenged about the lack of green card again but with an Romanian-speaking Italian man at my side and some vague memory of Latin we managed to convince the border officials that if I bought road tax for $5 all would be ok! The next morning I continued onto Chisinau with remarkably little to report.
In an effort to catch up time, I hadn’t eaten while driving to Chisinau so when I arrived at the Funky Mamaliga - time to treat myself to a meal out. There aren’t many hostels in the country but this is certainly a good one. The staff were friendly and the setup was a classic affair with all rooms open at all times and creating a lovely communal atmosphere. A recommendation for local food from the staff sent me to La Placinte. This was an excellent choice. I went totally overboard and ordered 6 dishes, much to the waitress’s disbelief and eventually bemused look.
My banquet in La Placinte, Chisinau
The food came and it was wonderful. If you’re in Chisinau, La Placinte is the place to eat for a high quality, cheap eat. It’s just off the central plaza where Chisinau’s Arc de Triumph sits. The restaurant is large, has pleasant surroundings and the food comes quick. It’s good local grub that’s cooked well and flavoursome for very reasonable prices.
First was a dish of polenta - I’d seen a local eating it and followed their choice. It was ok but I put that down to my dislike to polenta – what came over me in choosing it I don’t know.
Next came the best salad I’ve eaten on the road – it seems strange to exult a salad but it was garden fresh and good produce is getting harder to come by. On shape, size and look, I’m becoming far less fussy – aesthetics aren’t nearly important as the taste and that perfect straight carrot rarely tastes any better. It’s been lovely seeing oranges with their natural green skin rather than the gas generated orangeness we’re used to seeing in the UK.
A selection of Parmesan topped wedges and some out-of-the-oven bread provided good hearty accompaniments. The piece de resistance was a curled sausage of vague deliciousness. Sausages aboard are never the same as home but this came pretty close – However, the vegetables that surrounded the dish were to die for. Just simple garden peas and carrots bought a curling smile and sigh of enjoyment. I really ate far too much but except for the polenta I polished it all off. The waitress couldn’t believe it and I left satisfied.
An evening of planning routes to Asia and what to do in Moldova/Romania came my way. I totally overwhelmed myself by looking at the border crossing procedures for some of the central Asian countries. I’d forgotten that they might be so challenging and as I drew closer to them I entirely wrong-footed myself mentally. Fortunately, I had a Romanian road engineer in my room that suggested lots of wonderful activities to do in his country and combined with advice from a new friend I’d met in Norway I was set to have a great time there.
A bit about Moldova now, it’s a country caught in a crossroads in its history. Settled amongst the traditionally Russian-friendly Ukraine and the pro-European Romania, its politics today reflect this juxtaposition. They are currently in the midst of voting for their first publicly elected president. Previously, presidents were voted for by their representatives in parliament. It’s creating much debate in the country as the two main candidates reflect both sides of their borders. After the first round of votes, it’s looking like the pro-Russian candidate may be elected unless the other pro-European Union candidates band together and remove themselves from the ballot.
Driving into Chisinau I passed a very curious looking building. Something in my memory stirred. A flight that I’d taken last year had a travel magazine talking about this building. It was the state circus of Moldova and the building had been left abandoned since it shut in 2003.
Being a circus performer in the Soviet Union was a desirable position. It garnered many of the benefits politicians and other state organisers had – better accommodation, quicker access to cars etc. As a result, the circus attracted the best talent and performances were highly attended, colourful events in the otherwise sometimes grey existences.
The Moldovan state circus outlasted the Soviet Union by 12 years before it folded. This was a very impressive feat considering Moldova’s economy collapsed to the poorest in Europe when the political union of the Soviets did. Despite its demise, the article I had been reading followed the efforts of a former employee to return it to glory. I knew I had to investigate further.
It turns out this man had succeeded in his dream, at least partially. The main arena of the circus was still abandoned but the training ring at the back had been restored and a circus performed every weekend, two shows a day. I was there on a Saturday and set off for a show :)
The carpet as you enter the circus - no photos allowed once you're in!
I was totally regressed to a childlike status once there. It was fantastic to be at a classical circus. There were acrobats suspended from ribbons, a child unicycling on a high wire and magic performing clowns. Out of fashion in the UK, there were many animals involved– camels, horses, bulls and others that escape my mind all paraded round the ring to varying levels of success. I even got pulled out of the audience into the ring to assist with a comic arrangement involving an elasticated rubber band and a clown’s rear-end. It almost went tits up when they grabbed and realized I spoke no Romanian so couldn’t follow the instructions. The show went on and we still got our laughs!
In terms of Moldova’s development, it is again fraught with contrast. From Pico’s window, I saw many people drawing their daily water from wells and horse drawn carts seemed to outnumber cars in the countryside. While I’ve been travelling I’ve heard it said that the UK is one of the only countries were that countryside is wealthier than the cities.
In Moldova, all the wealth and development is in Chisinau, which felt modern with its free Wifi at bus stops, designer butchers and emerging coffee culture. Wine is also an important commodity and gaining good ground in the international scene. Apparently Moldovan wine is some of the best – although they would say that! As a result, wine tourism is a developing industry for the whole country. In an evening of winding down after the windup of investigating border crossings the night before, I tried some in the hostel and I must say the glass or two of red I had slipped down a treat.
My evening was graced by a wonderful Dutch/Turkish couple, themselves on an expedition into the unknown. They’d travelled much a similar route as me on their motorbikes and where I headed to Asia, they were going to Africa. Ferry totally grounded me about the realities of the road and I felt much better after the local wine and some nuts. I could have stayed up talking very late into the evening but I had to be up for Glastonbury ticket purchases the nest morning – alas, no luck this year.
At this restoring round table I also met Anna: a young American gap-year traveller adventurously hitchhiking her way round the Balkans. She was off to Romania, my next destination, so I invited her along for the ride. You’ll hear of our adventures next time out ;)
My Romanian tour-planner and Anna over a few glasses of wine
Thursday 6th October – Moldovan border
Friday 7th October – Funky Mamaliga hostel, Chisinau
Saturday 8th October – Funky Mamaliga hostel, Chisinau