Moldova. A country which in the last five years has reached the prestigious rank of “third most corrupt country in the world.” A country which, according to the Lonely Planet’s very first sentence on the region, “consistently ranks near the bottom of the World Database of Happiness.” A country which none of my American friends had ever even heard of – until I announced that I was going there.
Sounds like a potential adventure if I’ve ever heard of one 🙂
I was surprised to learn that with nearly 4.5 million residents, Moldova is actually the most densely populated region of the entire former Soviet Union – so despite some truly amazing-sounding sights a bit further afar (i.e. the world’s biggest wine cellars and a remote monastery complex carved into a limestone cliff), Peder and I decided to spend our one and only day in Chişinău, the capital city.
From Lonely Planet:
“In Chişinău, fleets of luxury cars rivaling Monaco dominate traffic, while fashionably dressed inhabitants strut down boutique-lined avenues, talking into state-of-the-art mobile phones, before retiring for lunch in fancy restaurants. How did this improbable wealth find its way into the capital of Europe’s poorest country? Answer: you don’t wanna know and we ain’t asking.”
To make our way into Moldova, Peder and I joined up with another pair of travelers at the taxi stand in Iaşi, the last major city on the Romanian side of the border. They happened to be going the same direction, so the four of us negotiated a private driver who agreed to take both groups straight to our respective hotels.
Something about the driver made me suspect he was more of a “random guy who learned English and bought himself a car” than a “licensed form of transport,” but the price was right and everyone at the taxi stand seemed to be operating about the same way – so we decided to run with it.
The moment we crossed into Moldova, it was immediately clear that we’d taken a big jump down the poverty line. Even the main highway into the capital was often unpaved, and the portions that were paved had so many potholes that at times it felt like we were riding a 1930’s rollercoaster. Outside the window were many of the same horse-drawn carriages, farmers hand-tilling their fields, and stray dogs as in Romania, but, well, I don’t really know quite how to describe it other than to say that it didn’t just feel rustic…it felt poor.
Because Lonely Planet didn’t list even a single hostel in Chişinău – apparently it’s not the most mainstream of backpacker destinations – we asked our driver to drop us off at Hotel Zarea, the budget-friendliest spot in the book.
When we first strolled through the door and approached the receptionist she was absolutely stonefaced, looking right through us as she chatted away on her cellphone…but she lit up almost instantly when we bent down and re-emerged from behind the desk wearing our new yellow bunny ears 🙂 From then on, despite her very elementary English ability, she treated us like a couple of friends – even escorting us into the maid’s quarters where she helped us explain that we’d like to have our clothes washed in time for an early-morning departure.
Despite the low-low price of only 20 euros for a double room, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Zarea was actually a proper hotel, with a lobby, elevators, and even a concierge.
Well, “proper” by my travel standards anyway – we did have to repair the shower spigot in the (communal) bathroom, and one of the locks on the toilets didn’t function. The big fat Russian guy roaming the halls in underwear and a pizza-stained tanktop only added to the authenticity of the experience 😆
Shortly after checking in, dropping off our bags, and laughing at the most oddly-placed refrigerator I’ve ever seen, we headed out for our very first taste of the former Soviet Union.