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Travelling through the ashes of the Empire from Chisinau to Odessa

Odessa: Visiting ODessa by train

I have not been to the Republic of Moldova for a long time. Uh, since 2003, it has been nine years already… I guess a lot has changed since then… but, probably, not the  very sweet way of speaking of the Moldavians, the good food, the excellent wine and the Bucuria candies (even if you can now find the latter also in my hometown, in Bucharest).

But this time I will write about a journey by train and not about Chişinău. At a certain time, someone told me that I should go to Chişinău by train. I have never travelled there by train, by plane only, however I went by train to Odessa in one of the most memorable trips … it was in October 1997.

October 1997, Chişinău –in a business trip. Chişinău looks good, it is stylish, it is clean, it is airy, although the economic crisis is felt. I entered a restaurant on the Stefan cel Mare si Sfant Boulevard. It was empty. Instead, there was a music band that played for the waiters … I take a look around, I was the only customer. The waiter came instantly and, with a carefully repeated gesture, he put the menu in front of me… Two words were enough for him to realize that I was from “beyond thePrut”… From the land where millions were flowing on ProTV… and millions of lei impresses Moldavian … the dollar is about 4 lei here, while, inBucharest, it is about 8,000. Hardly had the waiter got near the band when the lead singer said: “To our dear guest inRomania, from the restaurant staff …” and Dan Spătaru’s hit “All Our Paths …” started.

My work around Moldova finishes on Friday evening. As there was no Saturday flight to Bucharest, I decided to take a one-day trip to Odessa, about which I had only heard good things, and I was going to return home by the Sunday noon flight. A few days before the Saturday dedicated to the expedition, I quickly went to the railway station in Chişinău. I reach the information stand… on the counter, there dominates a piece of plastic that reads “Information – 50 bani”. I ignore it. I ask … “What time are there trains to Odessa on Saturday?” “At 7 am and 5 pm”. “What time does the 7 am one reach Odessa?” (50 bani so far, 1 leu = 100 bani) “12”. “At 12?????” (I had checked the map, there were about 150 km, how on Earth could it take 5 hours to cover 150 kilometers). “Yes, it reaches Odessa at 12”. Hmmm .. “What time can I return the same day? ‘” At 5 at twilight “. “And it gets here at 10?” “Certainly” …. 5 hours to Odessa, 10 hours by train? Why not…

Saturday, about 6 am. I am rather lightly dressed, it was quite warm in Bucharest, winter came here … I put on about 2 shirts, a shirt and the jacket. In the bag, some water, the camera and that’s about it. In front of the hotel, taxi drivers sleeping in the cars frozen stiff. I knock on a window… no answer… When I knock on the second one, the driver with a fur hat and wrapped in a fluffy winter jacket stood up… “To the station” I tell him. “GDE??? ‘” Na vokzalu “. Ah … now he got it, in a few minutes of driving down the the deserted, frozen and dark streets of Chişinău, we reached the vokzal.

The ticket office… there is not really anyone there. I ask for a return ticket to Odessa. “Let me give you only a one-way ticket, 11 lei” says the seller. “Couldn’t you sell me a round trip ticket? I am coming back today, too.” “Yes, it is possible, but it is cheaper to buy it from Odessa.” “Madam, I’m from Romania, I do not know Russian too well, I would rather buy it from here.” “No, it’s cheaper in Odessa” … after 2-3 refused requests on the grounds that it is cheaper in Odessa, I pay 11 lei and I take the ticket… it looks like a grocery ticket from the time of Ceausescu regime. And I remember that butter price was 11 lei … I have a butter ticket .. but, in fact, it is a ticket for an international fare Chişinău – Odessa! Needless to say that the ticket bought from Odessa was the the equivalent of 10 lei… I saved almost 20 US cents !

I try to get to the quay… A great net with hole here and there as access doors. In each one, a soldier who touches all the young women who pass in even the most intimate places. One protests. “We have information that a female person, probably under 30 years old is trafficking drugs and we have orders to search all the suspicious persons.” And I wonder if that information has cost 25 bani ? I am not in the target group, so I pass smoothly.

I reach the station quay… I do not even notice the classical architecture of the station – probably built during the time of Great Romania… half of the population of Chișinău is on the station quay at half past six in the morning.. And Chișinău is not a railway junction… it is just a stop on the Ungheni – Chișinău – Tiraspol – Odessa line! I’m starting to pray that all these people should go to Călărași or Ungheni, to the west …  A train stops at line 7… no one moves … I ask where that train is going to. “To Odessa” is the answer I get. Wow, what a piece of luck, I skip over the lines, I reach the train… A babushka, a wagon attendant, is chasing me away – that’s a train coming from Ukraine and transiting through Moldavia on its way to Chișinău without taking along travelers and probably without customs control… I am going back… There goes my good luck.

A few minutes before 7 o’clock, a frozen train with balshoi wagons in which tens of people throw themselves as it slowly enters the station… I was in luck … a door of the train stopped precisely in front of me. I burst inside… wide, large wagons, with wooden benches as in the park. On the right, there was probably room for 3 to 4 people, to the left for 2. I sit on the larger bench by the window. There will be around eight passengers sitting by me, with children and all. I make the mistake to sit by the window … it is as cold as ice and I will be turned into a poster…

But all is well … the train immediately heats up thanks to the huge masses of people crowding the train … not even a needle would fall on the floor … all are going to sell something to make some money … apples, sausages, detergents, potatoes, vinegar, anything that can sell boxes and bags is found in the boxes and bags of the travelers … We set ourselves in motion … There appear the cakes, the vodka and the wine … the atmosphere cheers up… I look out of the window … the train is moving along as slowly as a snail, we finally get out of Chişinău. Frost has set in, but corn is untouched in the field. And the newspaper “Literature and Art” is right – “In Moldova, corn grows like the telegraph poles …Not as high, but just as rare.” Instead, the neighbours are super nice, so time passes easily… The ticket inspector appears…  I would not have realized he is an inspector  – he is a stout man with muscles on it and a patched leather jacket, the latest fashion in Istanbul Bazaar . There are probably thousands of people in the wagon… I am the only one who has got a ticket… Up to me, they were all kind of heroes (heroes of war, of the family, of labour, of agriculture and of culture), students, unemployed people, pensioners, teachers, nobody has to pay his/ her ticket … I even feel bad when I hand in the ticket… I am only one who has a ticket in a wagon full of heroes. Even the inspector looks at me as if I was an alien, but the neighbors (and the ones I share the wagon with) confirm I am from Romania. Aaaaa ….

We arrive at Tighina. Or Bender, as these Turk guys from Transnistria call it. The train gets empty, almost everyone is getting off. The Chişinău residents seem to go to Bender to sell things. Could they be richer? No way, in the very place where thousands of people from Chişinău get off, other thousands of people from Tighina get on instead. I move quickly and I do not sit by the window anymore… Uff … better cramped between bodies than squashed by dirty and cold windows. Near me, crouching near the window, a blonde girl with blue eyes. She takes out a notebook and begins to do her homework. She writes in Romanian in Latin characters but they are rather weird… Instead of “u” she writes “ou”. I start talking to her … she is a Romanian from Tiraspol, a student in the Moldovan school, but there they are not allowed to write in Latin script, but only in Cyrillic script and she has learned French and now is struggling to write in Romanian, using her knowledge of French… And, in French, “u” is “ou”… I take her notebook and we begin writing the Romanian alphabet together where “u” is “u”. And I especially explain to her the rule of â. Â from România…

Among alphabet lessons, I glance out of the window … We cross Nistru river, the Transnistria knot. At the bridge, tanks and the Transnistrian militia… Uh, I entered the enemy territory, I hope no customs officer will come… No way, he would not even have a place to go through. I continue the lessons. In front of me, a grandparent with tons of decorations on the jacket was looking carefully. When the inspector passed, he said, in a quite bored tone, that he was a “Hero of the Great War of Defense of the Fatherland”. That is of the World War II for ex-USSR. He fought on the side of the Russians. We reach the outskirts of Tiraspol. High, haughty, windowless blocks are welcoming us, looking like the bombed cities of Bosnia. I take a better look… they have clothes hanging at the window. I ask “are those blocks inhabited?” Sure… But why do they not have windows? Because the inhabitants are very poor and sold them… Anyway, they did not have heat and what else could they to do with them…

We reached the station in Tiraspol. The girl said “Thank you so much” and left. I finished my homework… almost everyone is getting off the train… pff … no more cramming. I am left alone with the hero of the Second World War. A breath of relief and I look out of the window … I haven’t seen so many people since the big football matches in Bucharest… for twenty-five minutes, they will keep on getting on and off. In front of the window, a fat woman pushed by crowds, falls. Her apples roll out of the bag and they are trampled by the crowd that storms the train. She can no longer react … Until the train leaves, she will sit on the platform, fallen and crying… and I am stepping on the ashes of the empire…

I have seen documentaries on the trains of famine in the Moldova of 1946 with people on trains, the famous “Hey, wire”. I’ve seen movies about India where they travel the same. I have traveled quite a lot in India, I have not seen people on wagons … Instead, there are hundreds leaving Tiraspol on wagons … A train called hope to the Ukrainean border. I am getting more and more tense. If, up to Tiraspol, I could hear some Romanian, now only Russian is heard. And all complain about money … in Transnistria, there are no Moldovan Lei in circulation that are looked upon as hard currency … here’s the Transnistrian “coupon” … but what can you do when your monthly phone bill costs as much as the average salary. You do not pay it and you go to do trade in Odessa. I am getting more and more tense… I do not know, maybe the Russian environment, maybe the fact that I am on enemy territory … I look at old man who is a hero… he looks at me, our eyes cross … he feels I am tense … Smile, there’s not problem.

We reach the border. It is in full field, I see no buildings, not even one. Only hundreds of people selling water, cookies, milk bags, things to eat. Many get off of the train to buy odds and ends … There may be a tax-free flea market on the strip. Moldovan border guards appear. It is a live scene from the Romanian films with Stephen the Great’s yeomen, brown-haired, blue-eyed, as tall as a fir tree. They have huge hats on their heads, with a Romanian tricolor as big as their forehead … But they do not know a Romanian word! Zero! I am lucky to meet the Ukrainian customs officer lady … A blond lady, witty, with good knowledge of Romanian – she will be Interpreter. “Where you going?” “To Odessa”. “What are you going to do there? ‘”I am going to spend my weekend “. I see she is confused. “I will be a guest.” Ah… she got it. “Are you selling anything?” “No, I am not a merchant.” I show her my bag – my camera, water, an untouched sandwich (the brothers between Chisinau and Tighina have fed me well). She takes my passport and leaves. It needs to be stamped. I am the only one in the train that is neither Moldovan, nor Ukrainian. Anyway … I start thinking, the train may leave. After a few tens of minutes, there appear two guys elbowing their way through the crowd, using their fists and muscles. They brought my passport… already stamped. We are leaving, I entered Ukraine. Hooray!

I am more than 90 minutes away from Odessa. As I am more relaxed, I start talking to the old hero… it is a walking history book. He is born in Transnistria in a Romanian village on the Nistru bank. Until the war, that used to be the border with the bourgeois Romania and they were not allowed to go anywhere near the river … they would have been shot. After the war began, he was taken in the Red Army. He fought on the upper front, but, as he was Romanian, he was assigned to guard and instruct the Romanians in the prisoner camps who had decided to form renegate division “Horia, Closca and Crisan”. All the girls in the area were mad for the Romanians, as the Soviets were boors, and the Romanians, even the soldiers, were highly educated… virtually, any Romanian soldier could have had any girl any time and anywhere, while they were refused… and the fight afterwards… The also tells stories of the feasts of Ana Pauker and of the way Vasile Luca was going to die drunk in a ditch … and the post- phase. He will be a teacher  of Moldovan at Tiraspol University. The way he used to secretly get hold of Romanian literature. And at what risks … I told stories about history and literature, about the dark period of Grosu as first-secretary of Moldova and about the national revival battle, the switch to Latin script … The man knows much about Romania. “Have you ever been to Romania?” “No, it’s too expensive. Although I would not want to die before I go to Iasi and Putna “. But it is expensive in Romania. He has a pension of about 100 lei ($ 25). Here, he does not pay for transportation, he has all sorts of facilities because he fought in the war …

I arrived in Odessa … I get off the platform. It’s sunny, blue sky and, beyond the station building, one sees the “onions” of a church…  the typically Russian spiers. I exchange some dollars for hrivnas, I buy a train ticket and I find a shortcut through the flea market near the station. I read somewhere that the fair of Odessa is the largest one in the world. If you sit in the middle and take military binoculars, you do not see the end of it… I do not have binoculars, it is not that I could not buy … You can buy anything here, including kalashnikovs. The saddest is the area in which it is obvious that people sell things from their homes – pianos, harps, even knives and plates … I just buy some audio tapes… Prodigy.

I left the flea market … I entered Wonderland. Odessa is beautiful. When the Russians conquered the land between the Bug and Nistru, there were simply tiny and poor villages with Tartars and some Romanian ones on the Nistru river. They decided to build a city that was erected by French and Austrian architects… is a combination of Paris and Vienna, but a very Russian one. I reach the commercial street. Bucharest is a small village compared to the wealth here. I cannot believe it. I take a walk among the  monuments of the city – I am left stunned. Not because of the palaces, but because of the weddings. Today is Saturday, the wedding day. And it’s a pilgrimage of the couples that pose in front of the main places in town – the Potemkin stairs, Vorontsov Palace, etc. And what is shocking is the pilgrimage of cars (a few Rolls Royce-s, vintage cars of the 1920s, I even saw a Ford T from 1908!). And the outfits … any fashion show in Paris and Milan would pale… Welcome to the Ukraine of the millionaires!

5 hours will pass quickly. I will not even be able to tell. When I look at my watch, I realize I have to run to the station. I do not have any time left to walk. I jump on a trolley that writes “Vokzal“. I try to buy a ticket, but everyone, including the driver, tell me a decided “niet“. Only later was I going to find out that trolleybuses, trams and electricity are free in Ukraine… A compensation for Chernobyl … I get to the station, I get on the train. It is empty … where are all the people I saw this morning? I do not know … I sit comfortably… I will have a whole wagon for myself … How nice… How terrible…! It will be terribly cold and I will do exactly what the few other souls on this dark and frozen train will do… I will run through wagons and share a bottle of vodka … Even at the border between Moldova and Ukraine, they will stamp the passport without any comment… And Tiraspol will be a dark spot … cold, cold, so I feel like going to the toilet. I go to the end of the wagon. No toilet. One more wagon. Nothing in the next, either. I ask … Someone recommends to go on the buffers between wagons… I go there … a woman is already going there… I had not even noticed her.

Finally, 10 pm, Chisinau … I feel as if I were at home, able to read in Romanian everywhere. Unfortunately, it is pitch dark. Only on the Stefan cel Mare si Sfant Boulevard, one lit bulb every 3 posts. I get on the trolley to go to the hotel. I can read on a window that those caught without a ticket will be fined half the minimum wage! What a precision. I wonder how much is the minimum wage in Moldova? I do not want to know. I am going to buy tickets from the driver. He looked at me as if I were an alien … I’ve seen the same look on the train this morning … A fusion reply in Russo-Romanian – “Hand in the money”… I hold the ticket, I am, probably, the only legitimate traveler in that trolley! I arrived at the hotel where it is warm and cozy…

What a day !

Pictures of Odessa:

Wedding in Odessa

Buildings of Odessa

Church of Odessa

Ukraine: travel by train to Odessa

Chisinau - Odessa train

Până acum există "2 comentarii" la acest articol:

  1. Bobby Somodi says:

    What an amazing story. I am planning a train ride from Odessa to Chisinau in May. It sounds like your experience was incredible.

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