Monday, January 30


It's been a long week.

After leaving Transylvania, I caught a night train to Moldova, between Romania and Ukraine.

It's officially the poorest country in Europe, but that's mostly because much of the economy is illegal. They're much more developed there than Albania, for instance.

Moldova is known mostly as a route for people smugglers, meaning trafficking girls that have been abducted and forced into prostitution. Most of the tourists that go there have less than pure motives. Laws there are lax at best, and easy to get around. Corruption is everywhere, and even if the police catch a foreigner doing something illegal, they'll usually just hassle him till he gives them some cash.

I spent most of my time there in the capital, Chisinau. I stayed with Irina, a nice girl that works in a travel agency. We had a great time talking, and she showed me around town quite a bit.

The poverty in the country is pretty easy to see. One thing that was striking was walking around the outdoor markets, and seeing the old ladies standing at their booths, despite the horrible weather. The temperature was around 17 degrees below zero.

Most of Moldovans associate themselves with Romania, and speak the same language. However, there is a significant Russian speaking minority, and many have clustered along the border with Ukraine, in a region called Transnistria. Thanks to military aid from the Russians, they fought [and won] a war with the Moldovan army for succession in the early 1990's. Yet ever since that time, Russia has been the only country to recognize their independent status.

Although it's quite long, parts of Transnistria are only 15km wide, and every problem in Moldova is hugely magnified there. It's completely lawless, and completely poverty stricken. Still, I wanted to see it. I'd heard stories that they have people acting like border control as you cross into it from the rest of Moldova. They even have their own currency.

I caught a bus to Tiraspol, the capital of the region. Everything went fine till we got to the border. The thugs calling themselves border guards charge everyone 7 Moldovan Lei (50 cents) entry. They moved quite quickly through all of the locals, but things didn't go so smoothly for me...

As soon as they saw my passport, they pulled me off the bus and shut me in a little room. The one person in their outfit that spoke a bit of English came in, and told me that I was trying to smuggle drugs. Keep in mind the lunacy of someone coming from a first world country to smuggle drugs into the biggest shithole in Europe. I didn't have any bags with me, but he demanded that I empty everything out of my pockets. He then reached inside each of them and pulled them all inside out. Next, he went through everything that I had, including pulling apart my dirty Kleenexes. Since I didn't have much on me to search, he ran out of things to do, and had to let me go. He was obviously hoping for a bribe, and I imagine that if you're carrying baggage, he spends so much time dissecting it that people cave in and give him money.

When I went back out to where the bus was, it had already left. If I had left any bags in it, they would have been long gone. Keeping in mind the temperature, I was fast losing any enthusiasm that I had left for going any further. I decided to take the first bus that came along, regardless of it's direction. That bus happened to be going back to Chisinau.

After leaving Moldova, my next stop was Odessa, a port city in the south of Ukraine. I arrived in the middle of the worst cold snap in 80 years. -22 degrees. As well, the wind was stronger than anything that I have felt at such a cold temperature. It was almost enough to knock me over. While going from a taxi to the ferry terminal, I accidentally left a small part of my nose exposed. Within a minute, it was completely frozen. I couldn't feel it for ten minutes after I got inside.

I went to the counter to buy a ticket for the ship leaving on Monday to Istanbul [I had checked the schedule on their official site on the internet], but was told that it was cancelled. The next ferry going to Istanbul wasn't until Saturday. A very long time to wait in a city that's too cold to walk around and explore. And my visa for Moldova was only good for one entry, meaning that even if I wanted to go back there to get to Romania, I would have to go to Kiev to get a new visa. And Kiev is 12 hours from Odessa by train.

The woman working at the counter was not helpful at all. After some yelling, she told me about a ship going to Bulgaria that left the next day from Illichevski, a village a bit south of Odessa. Although it was a freight ship, they took a few passengers as well. She had no idea where exactly the port was, though.

So I took a bus to Illichevski, and from there asked a cab driver if he knew where the ship left from. He said that he didn't, but would ask around the port once we got there. Luckily they charge a flat rate for destinations, and don't work on a meter. After half an hour we finally found it.

As I was boarding the ship, they mentioned something about a possible delay, as the elevator for loading freight was being fixed. But it shouldn't take more than two hours. But the two hours came and went, and still the ship didn't budge. When I asked them how much longer it would be, they again said two hours. After which, still no sign of departure. Now they were saying that we couldn't leave until the next morning.

To add to things, the other passenger, who was sharing my cabin, was quite possibly the most bitter person that I've ever met. A middle-aged Brit, he had been living in various countries in Eastern Europe for the last several years, looking for a place to 'drop anchor', as he said. But every country that he tried turned sour for him after a few years. He had just lived in Bulgaria, and was now moving to Ukraine. The reason was because he couldn't take the corruption in Bulgaria anymore. The irony of moving to Ukraine to escape it seemed to elude him. He was only on this ship to go pick up his dog in Varna, on the coast of Bulgaria, where the ship was going to dock. He absolutely hated Bulgaria, and decided to tell me about every bad thing that had happened to him during the last three years. He kept talking, and talking. And talking. And then he talked some more. If I ignored him, it didn't make any difference. Even if I pulled out a book and faced the wall, he didn't notice in the least. And the passenger cabin was the only warm place on the ship.

After the morning came and went, with no sign of us leaving, I asked to get off. They told me that I couldn't. Customs had already stamped my passport saying that I had left Ukraine, and until I had a stamp showing that I had arrived in another country, I couldn't come back to Ukraine. So İ was a prisoner.

After 47.5 hours of delay, the ship finally set sail. Incidentally, the Black Sea is well named. At least in the north. The water is completely black. Though as you go south, it turns into more of a lime green.

Upon arriving in Varna, we had to wait for the customs officers to finish their tea and biscuits. After which, they finally put themselves out enough to check our passports [it took them an hour and a half to get comfortable enough to do it], and we were finally able to set foot on land again. From there, I took a bus six hours to Sofia [which is in the wrong direction, but trains and buses going to Istanbul leave from there], and managed to arrive 15 minutes after the night train had already left. So instead of getting a bed on a train, I got a cramped seat on a Turkish night bus, complete with old man hacking and wheezing just behind me. I didn't expect him to survive the trip. Also, when we passed the Duty Free shops between borders, the driver took advantage of the opportunity to open up a bunch of secret panels under each of the seats, and load them with contraband alcohol. On and on...

A full five days after leaving Moldova, I finally arrived in Istanbul. The sad part of this is that a train from Odessa to Kiev to Bucharest [thus avoiding Moldova] would have only taken four.

Istanbul is a huge city, by far the largest that I have ever been to. It's population is around 17 million. I've only been here for a day, and so haven't had a chance to properly digest it yet.

A brief comment about the elections in Canada... At least the Conservatives didn't get a majority. In fact, it may even work out for the best. Martin resigned as leader of the Liberals, which makes me very happy. And the Conservatives probably won't last long, as forming any coalitions would mean having to betray their base. So they either become moderate, or their government falls before too long. My biggest concern right now is who will win the leadership of the Liberals. Some of the front runners are even worse than their predecessor...


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