Note: This text, about a trip I took through Eastern Europe in 2006 is actually still surprisingly up-to-date. This is particularly true of the text’s main message – that actually visiting the places you’ve studied in college and written term papers professing your knowledge of is essential to actually knowing what you are talking about. Therefore, the text is republished here, slightly edited, to encourage our students and readers to get out and travel. (Originally published Jan 5, 2007).
I took some vacation time this November. Being the adventurous type, I forsook the usual destinations from Russia: Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and other sunny, warmer, resorts where Russians often travel due to visa-less regimes and low prices. My Russian colleagues looked incredulous as I explained that I was going to see places I had long wanted to see – in Eastern Europe.
In college, I read a book called Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan. He journeyed through Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece beautifully describing the people, the landscape, and the history. He did this apparently for no other reason than he was personally curious about these places whose modern history was largely missing from most standard textbooks. He instantly became a hero of mine.
Many of these places could be easily seen from Moscow by flying there for a weekend trip. The route I took was different, as I was coming from Moscow and wanted to travel by land to see the maximum of the countryside of Eastern Europe and its people. The plan was to travel to Odessa in Ukraine, through the troubled region of Transdnestria to Chisinau in Moldova, then Bucharest in Romania, then to Ukraine’s “other half” in Lviv, and back home to Moscow. It would take about two weeks, and I would save some money (by not paying commissions) and add adventure by buying my tickets as I went.
Traveling overland does carry a certain amount more risk than flying. By flying, you hop from major urban area to major urban area, typically traveling with other foreigners and more well-to-do locals. When you are on trains and busses, you travel through rural areas that are less-well-served by law enforcement and you travel with folks who are more likely to find a foreigner an attention-drawing curiosity. However, I encountered no dangerous situations during the trip (despite what spy and action movies might lead you to expect of Eastern Europe) and I would guess that most travelers would have a similar experience to mine.
I should also say, however, that 1) speaking Russian, which is still a lingua franca through much of Eastern Europe and 2) traveling with a friend were definitely assets on the journey. One or both of these were useful, for example, in negotiating with the Transdnestrian border guard and in avoiding a small sales scam where a young girl tries to sell you insurance as you enter Ukraine, implying that it is mandatory but in the end conceding that it’s not.
Russian is also helpful because, just before and after each border, the train or bus will stop. Officials will check and stamp your passport, and often check your luggage and question you about its contents. This was done in Russian at all points except Romania (where they knew English).
Ukraine requires no visa for US citizens who will stay in the country for less than 90 days.
Odessa was highly enjoyable. The central city is well developed with tasty, cheap restaurants of various ethnicities, shops, and several decent hotels. I stayed at Hotel Pasazh, which my Lonely Planet disparaged, but which I found to be reasonably priced, reasonably comfortable, and staffed by friendly people. Granted it was a bit run down and the hallways reminded one of the hotel from The Shining, but one does not travel Eastern Europe for the luxury. (Another thing I learned on trip was that Lonely Planet can be more than a little haughty.)
The main highlight of Odessa was seeing the Potemkin Steps from Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin. However, other highlights were just as enjoyable – walking down the main streets and seeing economic growth flood the city, shopping in an outdoor market that looked like it was housed in a bombed-out train station with the Victorian walls still surrounding, tasting these strange but deliciously savory waffles with cheese and olives from a kiosk vendor. The most enjoyable part of traveling for me is always just the wandering in search of new sights, new food, and new people.
The man at the Moldovan embassy in Moscow had emphatically stated that of course Transdnestria is part of Moldova and a Moldovan transit visa (about 40 USD, good for three days of travel) will be sufficient when crossing into the region. However, as expected, the Transdnestrian border guard disagreed. The story as to why the tiny entity has proclaimed its independence and why the entire rest of the world still considers it part of Moldova is a long story (read about it here). It’s also one of the main reasons I wanted to travel there – to see what happens when such a situation occurs (there are four such cases in the FSU).
The officer in charge took us to his office and explained that because Transdnestria is not recognized by any other country, they have no embassies and thus no visas and hence, is only officially open to Transdnestrians. The only way we could pass through is if he chose to “look the other way.” He would not state how this would happen, but presented with twenty dollars, he protested slightly that it was too little, and eventually wrote out a special twenty-four hour transit pass – a small stamp and his initials on a 1″ x 1″ piece of receipt paper. I considered it a well-priced visa and given the circumstances, I also didn’t mind buying it in such an unofficial manner. (Amusingly, a man we would meet in the Moldovan capital would inform us that he regularly travels through Transdnestria and pays the guard a Snickers bar for his visa. Perhaps next time I’ll try for the discount.)
Besides, Transdnestria itself obviously needs the income. There are crumbling, Soviet-era factories, homes, and concrete walls with patriotic slogans such as “Transdnestria is our Pride!” spray-painted on them. There is little else. Political uncertainty has contributed to economic stagnation now for more than a decade. A little girl entered our bus at the station and gave a long story about her father being disabled and her family not having any food. She accepted no cash and gratefully thanked everyone who gave her something edible. She shared it with her small brother outside.
Transdnestria was not the most aesthetically pleasing destination, even for Eastern Europe, – or the easiest to get into. But I do feel that I understand the “frozen conflict” there better because I’ve not only read about it, I’ve traveled through it. I wish I had had more time to explore it.
At the “border,” the Transdnestrian guards took our “visas” and the Moldovans did their own passport checks, indicating the two do consider each other de facto separate entities.
Moldova’s capital is also not the grandest. An ineffective government and a lack of substantial resources has kept most of the city a museum of sorts for gray Soviet architecture. Lonely Planet, in a manner that I eventually learned to just roll my eyes at, only recommends spending a couple of days absolutely drunk in the city. I didn’t bother with the drinking, but I did meet a very interesting man at a local café – a New Yorker that had built a successful business helping governments and companies build infrastructure in Moldova. (Read an interview with him here.) He also pointed out the best places to see in the city – the Stefan de Mare Public Gardens and the Sun Shopping complex on Pushkin Street.
Entering Romania is like entering a completely different world. Romania is striving to become a part of the EU and while its economy is not performing as well as the local population would like, it is attracting considerable foreign investment and its stability seems to have spawned a hope that is flowering into development, especially in Bucharest. The general population (including the friendly border guards) speaks little Russian but is largely fluent in English, even in more rural areas of the country. As an aspirant to the EU, Romania requires no visa for American citizens.
Romania is a beautiful country full of great, fabulously cheap food, great pubs with good music, and friendly people who not only give friendly, professional service, but who will stop on the street if you are looking at a map (this occurred about sixty percent of the time I stopped to look at my map) and ask (in English) if you need directions and then give them as best they can. I went hiking in Transylvania, heard good rock music over tasty, cheap beer surrounded by intellectuals, and had a generally fantastic time. In short, if you get the chance to go to Romania, do it!
However, be advised that there is no direct connection between Romania and western Ukraine. This epiphany was one of the biggest adventures I encountered. Due to the mountainous country and the historical development, the USSR chose to route almost all Eastern Europe’s traffic from the Balkans through Chisinau. Moldova does still require a visa, even if you don’t plan on getting off the train while you travel through. My visa to Moldova had already expired (good for only three days!) and, having already spent longer in Romania than originally planned, I couldn’t afford to spend more time on another Moldovan visa – nor did I want to return to Moscow on the same route I had come in on.
The solution was a surprise visit to Budapest. Hungary requires no visa and provides direct access, through Ukraine, to Moscow. I was only able to spend a few hours in the actual city as the route added about twenty four hours more on the train. Therefore, I can’t say much about it except that the part known as Buda is a lovely tourist attraction filled with restored buildings and, well, tourists, and the Pest side is largely a gray concrete monstrosity. Both sides have very lax working practices which means nothing is open on Sundays and on weekdays nothing opens until at least 10. If you are hungry at any other time, you will probably be at McDonald’s.
Returning to Moscow several shots of vodka later, compliments of a friendly Ukrainian construction worker who shared our sleeping car, we were tired and dirty after so many hours on the train. The trip had entailed destinations that many would consider odd, and was certainly not part of a tidy tour group. However, I feel that I understand Eastern Europe, a part part of the world that I’ve studied for years, a little better in addition to enjoying some great meals, meeting some good people, and exploring several new cities. Call me a geek, but how much more fun could I ask for?