WORD COUNT: 1240
Ever since writing my seminal piece about riding Romanian trains five years ago (with many follow-up tales, like this one), I’ve been burning with desire to ride some trains in (the Republic of) Moldova.
Luckily, this week, I finally got my chance!
There are a lot of differences, the most important being that Romania is a huge country with hundreds of train routes, while Moldova is the shape of a banana (or ginger root) and so there are really only four routes, all of them connecting Chisinau (which would be in the #5 position if RM were a Trimline phone):
- West – Chisinau to Orhei, and then on to Iasi in Romania
- Southwest – Chisinau to Ocnita and then onto Bucharest
- North – Chisinau to Balti and then onto Moscow
- East – Chisinau to Tiraspol and then onto Odessa in Ukraine
I myself had the opportunity of “enjoying” the last one on the list, which is interesting because it crosses the invisible border of Transnistria, a country that doesn’t exist, except of course that it does ;)
I’ve heard the trains to Bucharest and Moscow are popular, but the train to Odessa is essentially a ghost train. There were a grand total of two passengers going east, and a total of two going west, and one of those passengers was me. That was during the time we were in Moldova. Once we crossed over into Ukraine and got to Kurchurhan/Кучурган, the train was packed with Ukrainians.
Nonetheless, I had a wonderful and engaging time, getting up to all kinds of mischief, breaking the rules, resisting attempts by a Ukrainian border guard to extort a bribe, drank piping hot tea made by a samovar, etc, etc, but managed to keep from inciting a riot in Tiraspol by not screaming милиция, милиция! at the station guards (even though I really wanted to), and arrived at my destination safe and sound.
Odessa, by the way, is an awesome city, as you can see by this picture here:
I went there partly to see the famous Potemkin Stairs, which neither my wife nor my fellow train passengers nor the CFM (Moldovan Railways) officials had ever heard of, even though they’ve all been to Odessa many times. What a shame! It’s a really cool place, and if you ever get a chance to see the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, then you’ll understand why I was so excited.
Cool stuff, but we’re here to talk about CFM, not Ukraine! So let’s get onto the really interesting differences:
- Samovar – After befriending the “conductor” and charming him with my ineffable style, he offered to make me some tea from a built-in samovar. Holy cow! So cool. Essentially it’s a big tank of water that’s heated up (in my train’s case, via electricity) and then you can make unlimited hot drinks on the journey. Super cool! And I even got mine served with a slice of lemon. Nothing was more hilarious than seeing the train car packed with Ukrainians marvel as I got served a hot cup of tea by the conductor. Oh well, learn Romanian, people! :)
- Third Class – Romanian train cars (Ro: vagoane) come in either first or second class. Moldovan (and Russian and Ukrainian) trains feature third class. What’s the difference? Well, third class “seats” are just hard wooden benches, identical to the ones you might find in a public park. That’s fine for a short ride but after a few hours, ouch!
- Coal Heat – Romanian trains use electric heat, but riding the Moldovan rails, you get to enjoy heat from a coal-fired boiler. My buddy the conductor showed me all around the train, and let me check out the boiler room. I even got to shovel a bit of coal into the furnace, which made me totally stoked of course! Seriously, how awesome is that?
- Clean Bathrooms – Yep, you didn’t see that one coming, did you? But the bathrooms are far cleaner than on Romanian trains, and come with a proper faucet with hot and cold water, paper towels for drying your hands, and soap. Civilized!
- Living Quarters – Partly because of the hugely long train routes, and partly because it’s the Russian/Soviet system, every train car has a little room (or two) where a person lives. On my car, for instance, there was one room set up as a dining room for the workers, and one was the bedroom of the conductor. He had a DVD player and TV set up, and it’s nice and cozy. My guy was quite friendly, but I’ve heard lots of tales about mean Russian ladies/guys who live at the end of the train car and then make sure all the passengers are being good, etc.
- Feed Yourself – Romanian trains sometimes have a dining car, but if not, there’s always a million little stores on the platform at each station. Not in Moldova or Ukraine! If you’re hungry, you better pack your own lunch, kids. Either that or befriend the conductor and his buddies and then sit in their secret dining room and have fun :)
- Cheaper – The prices are waaaaaaaaaay cheaper than trains in Romania. Crazy cheap. Round-trip Chisinau to Odessa cost me about 18 bucks.
So, that’s about it for my first trip on Moldovan railways. Maybe one day soon I’ll get a chance to ride some more trains, but first I got to brush up on my Russian.
In case you’re in Odessa or Chisinau, and thinking of taking this train, there are a couple of things you should know:
- Ukraine is a beautiful country, but the border guards are paranoid, heavily armed folks who are suspicious of everybody. Even when they’re not trying to shake you down for a bribe, they make you feel like a terrorist.
- The train crosses the border between Ukraine and Transnistria, not Moldova proper. Transnistria (at least for now) doesn’t give a shit who crosses their border, so the only border check is done by Ukrainians. And since Moldova doesn’t recognize Transnistria, passengers effectively ride into Chisinau without ever having officially “entered” Moldova.
- Therefore, if you’re a foreigner coming into Moldova via Odessa (or by any route that crosses Transnistria), you won’t get that entry stamp in your passport. Instead, you have to go visit (if you’re in Chisinau) the devils at 124 Stefan Cel Mare Boulevard, press the Romanian-only computer button that says “Inregistrarea Strainilor” and then get your entry stamp (in about 2 minutes) from those guys.
- The train stops at Tiraspol for about exactly five seconds. If that’s your destination, be ready to hop off the train quick!
- On the other hand, you’ll get a full 25 minutes of doing nothing in the city of Bender, which is sort of the halfway official border between Transnistria and RM.
- Buying train tickets at any train station in Ukraine is fucking crazy, and that’s IF you speak Russian/Ukrainian. I’d rather juggle knives than do that again. Far better to buy your tickets online (yep, in English) or like I did, round-trip from Chisinau.
- The train tickets are printed in Russian only, and once you’re on board, the train guys will take it from you and never give it back, even if you beg them because you want to keep it as a souvenir.
- There are a ton of (often armed) guards at every station in RM, Transnistria, and Ukraine. Why? Who exactly are they keeping out? Or what are they preventing? Nobody knows. Just ignore them.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!