Riga-Chisinau – 2640km travelled. Distance from home – 1150km.
Before visiting the previous capitals on our way – Minsk and Kiev, I already knew at least something about them but the next stop – Chisinau was a blank page in my book. In Europe, Moldova is known as the country of wine, poverty and the land of dark-haired people, but the first impression Chisinau gave me was that it is the capital of poor road infrastructure. The street from our hosts’ home to the city center was the same kind of old military road which we’d experienced just recently on our way from Ukraine to Moldova. There were freight trucks constantly rumbling down this street, honking at the tiny cyclists. “OK, maybe let’s ride on the sidewalk,” we thought “but wait, where on earth is it?” The sidewalk was simply non-existent in many parts of this street. Actually, I discovered that Chisinau is just not meant for pedestrians nor cyclists. Sidewalks are in terrible condition or just non-existent in many parts of the city. I have no troubles getting around the city on foot but I can imagine that it could be a real pain for a mother with a baby carriage. On the bright side, I found one bicycle lane! I started to ride it, excited, but after a few minutes I just ended up in some random street against an enormous curb. After that – nothing, no bicycle lane, no sidewalk. The feeling when you are really excited about a mail but end up being rickrolled…
I was left with the impression that no one really uses walking as means of conveyance in Chisinau – everyone takes the public transport or just drives a car. After all, it’s not really safe to be a pedestrian here – the using of rear-view mirrors, brakes or blinkers is not meant for the average driver and pedestrians should be on guard. I was taught that motorists should always act in a way not to put the others in danger but the typical sentiment here is that every driver is the center of the universe and everyone else should look out for them. Those who don’t, well it’s all their fault. An attestation of this sentiment can be seen when driving down the roads of Moldova – there are numerous tombstones located on the sides of the roads.
But when I got to a park called Valea Morilor, I discovered where are all the people I didn’t see walking the streets. It was a beautiful park, a lake surrounded by forest-like slopes that ranged from mildly steep to mountain-like.
And the park was full of life – newlyweds, fishermen, strollers, joggers and even a surprisingly large number of cyclers. On one side of the lake there was a fair, on the other – an open-air stage that filled the air with some Moldovan music. Going deeper I found a water spring which was like a social hub, surrounded by picnic parties and people working out. But the downside to this liveliness of the park is the heaps of trash lying all around it. But it surely didn’t seem to anyhow affect the joys of grilling your meat, sitting around in trash. Overall, there are plenty of smaller and bigger parks around Chisinau and I can only hope that not all of them are so trashed.
Once more, as many times already during our trip, I was mistaken for someone who knows all the places better than locals. Pushing my bike up the steep slopes I noticed that I’m being followed. A dark-haired girl, also pushing her bicycle, struggled to get up a very narrow and steep pass and awkwardly waved in my direction. I stopped and was greeted with a question in gibberish (to my ears, at least). Having found out that I don’t understand or speak the Romanian language, she was a bit puzzled but we managed to find a common tongue and she told me she’s looking for the freshwater spring. Well, for once in our journey, I could actually help her with the directions how to get there. I didn’t find the geocache I was actually searching for here before our small talk but, at least I helped someone else to find something.
By the way, I also found out that Moldovans are fans of Latvian chocolates. In a supermarket called Fidesco, the selection of “Laima” chocolates was even bigger than in Latvian shops. Likewise huge is the selection if you want to pick up a dog from the streets and make it your new best friend. When touring around the city, it was a normal sight that I was constantly being chased by barking stray dogs. They just randomly appear, bark at you, chase you, eventually stop and then others come and take their place. As it was an oft-discussed topic in our conversations, we realized that we need a term how to call them in one word. While you pronounce the official ‘free-ranging urban dogs’ by the time one of them will already have free-ranged up to your leg and had a taste. OK, ‘stray dogs’ is shorter but that’s still a phrase. So we coined the term ‘dubossari’ / ‘dubossars’ which is borrowed from the name of the first city we went through after the border confusion with Moldova and Transnistria. Those of you who happen to know Romanian or how to use the Wikipedia, may outline that the name of the city Dubăsari in fact translates from archaic Romanian as “boatmen” but have no fear, young warriors of interwebs, and be welcome to the world where one word can have different meanings. The world, where one word can mean completely different things in separate languages and the cruel world of dubossari.
After this journey in linguistics I must, however, point out that the question of dubossari is a serious problem in Romania and our visited – Moldova, also here, in Chisinau. The only people who seem to care about this are a handful of volunteers. The only two shelters are created as a European Voluntary Service project and rely purely on donations. There are no governmental programs and even no laws that would somehow protect the animals. That leads to the dogs being just left on their own or just exterminated in inhumane ways (poisoning, smashing their heads in, skinning alive – there are a lot of horror stories on the internet). The number of stray dogs is large – thousands, tens of thousands – no one really knows.
For the article not to get completely grim, I should talk about some brighter experiences again. For example, our visit to Chisinau was perfectly synced with the time when the Chisinau City Day celebrations took place and what’s even better – we moved to stay at a place just off the main celebration area. The first two nights we spent with Kristina and Vlad, who I could describe as the most professional Couchsurfing hosts we’ve met so far. Professional in a good way – there was no confusion about where we would sleep, where we would put the stuff and what should we do – everything was thought of. And they were prepared to entertain us too – with board games and Xbox Kinect.
At first we didn’t understand, what the received message: “Our house is shown on GPS, don’t be afraid while looking for it,” meant but that became clear when we saw the house itself. From the outside it just looked like a huge unfinished building but turned out to be nicely decorated on the inside. Kristina cooked some delicious placintas (plăcintă) for us – one of the business cards of Moldovan cuisine. Sounds like placenta, right? Truth be told, that is right because, as we all know, ‘placenta’ means ‘cake’ in Latin. Placinta is a pastry resembling a thin, small round or square-shaped cake, usually filled with a soft cheese, apples, mashed potatoes, raisins, well anything but meat. If you are going to take the same dough and fill it with meat, it will not be placinta with meat, it will be just a pastry with meat.
But on with the story – how we moved to the heart of Chisinau celebrations.
While Dainis and Laura went to the bicycle shop DAAC to get our horses back in shape (pristine Moldovan roads were responsible for a broken spoke) I went to meet our new hostess – Aliona. For the next three nights in Chisinau we stayed right next to the main street – Stefan the Great Blvd. (Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt) so when we woke up in 14th October, the very instant we left the house, we were in the heart of the celebrations of 578th Chisinau City Day or Hramul Chişinăului. It is celebrated on October 14th each year, in honors to the first written evidence about Chisinau which dates back to year 1436 but it is also a very important Russian Orthodox religious festival commemorating The Intercession of the Holy Virgin. All six lanes of Ștefan cel Mare Blvd. is closed to traffic and filled with food and wine, served on numerous places along the boulevard.
National music, dance (especially the hora, a traditional Moldovan folk dance), and other folkloric traditions are all around. Vendors sell local handicrafts. There was even a fitness clubs’ demonstration and fighting competition.
Then, add the thousands of thousands of citizens walking around and turn the volume of all the activities up to eleven and you get a small glimpse of what it’s like to be in the Chisinau day. Oh, and did I mention the enormous carpet exhibition and the kettlebell lifter, standing on a pedestal, posing by his numerous medals, and the European Union flags everywhere (even woven on one of the big carpets)?
In the evening the holiday program culminated with a concert on the grand stage where Thomas Anders a.k.a. The Gentleman of Music singed the good old Modern Talking ballads and did some awkward dancing in his white sneakers. Also, Moldovan own superstar (and my secret godfather) Horia Brenciu did some equally bizarre singing and dancing, looking like a slightly older Seth MacFarlane.
Aliona told us about a curious tradition during these festive days in Chisinau – you can go to whomever you want and be their welcomed guest, and your chosen “host” mustn’t refuse to receive you. For reasons unknown, we didn’t test this out… After visiting the celebrations, we were a little tired and just rested at home writing Facebook posts and getting ready for the 200km cycle to Odessa. I tried my luck once more and went after the geocache I DNF’d previously, unfortunately I didn’t find it the second time either.