Odessa/Moldova/Transdniestr: Odessa, Where Art Thou?

May 3rd, 2010: Scrutiny On Their Bounty - 5 Things I've Noticed

My Dish Comprised Entirely of Pork Fat... and 7 slices of garlic (Kiev)
My Dish Comprised Entirely of Pork Fat... and 7 slices of garlic (Kiev)

Day Three I spent wandering the city while waiting for an overnight train to Odessa. Kiev has all the earmarks of a big Eastern European city: skyscrapers, litter, imposing Stalinist statues, opulent shopping malls and signs of obscene wealth amongst the much poorer masses. Brand new Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches dominate the streets - and all of them black, always black. But Kiev also has numerous outstanding churches, sandy city beaches, and a youthful, energetic vibe that permeates the streets and makes it a very fun place to walk around for a couple of days.

I spent that day sightseeing, viewing a couple of the churches, taking in views from the bell tower at the gorgeous St. Sophia church, and relaxing along the waterfront of the Dnipro. Being the May Day holiday weekend, I also watched concerts in the city's centre, Independence Square. This included cultural dance and choral performances and a show by a band best described as Ukraine's Nickelback. Rough. Even worse, I actually kind of enjoyed it, which begged the question: just how strong is Ukrainian beer, anyway?

In my time in Kiev, I noticed a few things:

  1. They Let Sleeping Dogs Lie. This is quite literal. There are stray dogs - mostly German Shepherd X - all over the city, relaxing in the sun or any patch of dirt or grass they can find. They are shockingly well behaved for strays. I wonder if they too find the huge amount of police presence imposing?
  2. The Girls Are Like Flowers. Wait, a correction: the girls like flowers. I've already hinted at the general attractiveness of the Ukrainian girls, but for this I refer to the fact that at night the streets are filled with girls holding long-stemmed roses given to them by boyfriends or suitors, all purchased from wandering flower sellers.
  3. They Are Creative Capitalists. Ukrainians have long since embraced capitalism after their separation from the USSR, and they are apt show off some inventive sales tactics. On top of flower sellers throughout the streets, I saw one fellow who was clearly down on his luck get onto the Metro and began speaking loudly to the passengers, saying what was very obviously a sales pitch. He dipped his tattered sleeve and cigarette-stained fingers into a ratty, crumbling plastic bag and pulled out his merchandise: Tampons. Times are clearly tough all over, but thankfully not so much that anybody bought some.
  4. They May Be Spies. The prevalence of English here is much higher than in Moscow, at least when I was there in 2003. I had hung out in Kiev on Day Three after spending the previous night having some vodka with a group of Swiss & Russian ex-pats and chatting to a group of Ukrainians. "When you came in to the bar," one of the Ukrainian girls told me, "I was quite certain that you were a compatriot of mine." I can't possibly trust anyone who claims to be Ukrainian whose English supersedes my own.
    But her comment leads me to:
  5. I Could Be Ukrainian. My high levels of swarthiness generally allows me to blend in wherever I travel in the western world, but in Kiev it's been a little crazy. I was asked for directions by Russian travelers assuming I was a local three times on the first day and a half dozen more on Day Two. At one concert I attended a policeman came over and told me I was doing something wrong. Assuming I was a local, he spoke in Ukrainian for about 30 seconds until I finally cut him off by saying, "I don't speak Russian or Ukrainian," for which he gave me a long, hard "Are you fucking with me?" look before giving up and letting me go.

On Day Three I even got to have a little fun with it. While standing near a central market, a young American couple came up to me and asked:

"Vy gavarite pa angliyski? (Do you speak English?)"

I paused.

"A lee-tull," I said, affecting my strongest Ukrainian accent while pinching my thumb and forefinger together.

They continued on, slowly and deliberately, "Do you know where we can change money?"

"Change... money? I don't..." I carried on in my accent, pausing while I searched for the right word, "...know."

They thanked me profusely for all my kind help.

I broke down. "Sorry, I'm just messing with you. I'm from Canada."

The couple were great sports about it and we enjoyed a laugh over the whole thing, sharing the joke with slight embarrassments and complicit smiles. It was a fun moment.

"Seriously, though. I have no idea where idea to change money."

Enough horseplay. Onto Odessa!

Food Photos
My 7 a.m. Breakfast Beer (Amsterdam) Veal in Cherry Sauce, Stuffed with Fruit (Kiev) Real Ukrainian Perogies (Kiev) A Genuine Moldovan Pizza Cone (Chisinau) Tempting Pork Products (Chisinau)

May 5th, 2010: Odessa, Where Art Thou?

City Park (Odessa)
City Park (Odessa)

Sunday morning, I bought a ticket from the Kiev ticket office, which was surprisingly easy (for me, anyway. It was likely a thoroughly harrowing experience for the poor ticket girl who had to deal with me). I trained overnight with a Russian-born Israeli who was heading south to compete in an international chess competition. He was a Russian Master but was quick to point out that, sadly, he wasn't a Grand Master and never would be. I let him know that I was very disappointed in him.

I arrived at 6am into Odessa and walked for 25 minutes to get to a hostel that the guidebooks made sound absolutely perfect in every way and would have been even better if it hadn't turned out that it had closed in 2007. I grabbed my iPhone, wandered till I located a wireless signal and found a new hostel to go to. God bless modern technology!

Odessa is called "The Pearl of the Black Sea" and it's easy to see why. I instantly fell in love with its relaxed vibe, its ocean views, its parks and its tree-lined pedestrian-only streets where there's nothing to do but relax with a coffee or a beer. Odessa is really more about atmosphere than sightseeing; I went walking at 10am and had seen everything I wanted by 2pm, and that included falling asleep in the park for 40 minutes. There are the Potemkin Steps, an impressive opera house, and the Mother-in-Law Bridge, to which newlyweds affix padlocks as a symbol of their lasting love. It might be my old legs talking, but Odessa seemed less about sightseeing and more about being a place to just relax and sit.

I spent a couple of fantastic days there, just chilling and hanging out with a group of American ex-pats, having coffees in the park while over some public loudspeakers music that sounded dangerously like techno-beat Tetris blared. It's a very touristy town but it's easy to see the appeal; I, and everyone I met, loved the place.

Odessa Photos
Opera and Ballet Theatre Sidewalk Cafes of Odessa Potemkin Steps Odessa Harbour Weird Baby Statue (Odessa Harbour) Myself in Reflection Mother-in-Law Bridge Mother-in-Law Bridge Mother-in-Law Bridge

May 6th, 2010: An American, A Dutchman, A Pole and A Canadian Walk Into Moldova...

Rural Traffic Jam in Moldova
Rural Traffic Jam in Moldova

After a few great days in Odessa (which included eating a shockingly bad Mexican meal. In Ukraine, who'd have thunk it?) it was time to pack up my backpack and move on. I let the exceptionally nice hostel owner - a 20-something year old Pole named Peter - know that I was heading out to Moldova.

"I'm driving to Poland tomorrow, actually," he told me, "I could go through Moldova if you need a ride."

The fact that he didn't know the way didn't deter my enthusiasm in the least, nor did it scare off two fellow backpackers - Jay (an American) and Stellian (Dutch) - who also took advantage of the free ride.

Riding in Peter's truck was luxury, especially compared to take the decent but quite cramped local buses. In a few short hours we were at the Moldovan border. There are constant stories of bribery and corruption or generation-length waits at the Moldovan border. We had no issues whatsoever. Peter, whose language skills were the best, dealt with the guards. They charged him a $2 fine for something semi-suspicious, though if it was a bribe was surely one of the crappiest ever. The guards were actually extremely jovial and friendly and one of them knew limited and poorly taught Polish, but he was still eager to use it with Peter as much as possible.

"See you later!" he smiled and waved to Peter as he left. "Fuck you!"

We arrived in Moldova's capital, Chişinău (pronounced kish-i-now) later that evening. I wasn't sure what I envisioned from Moldova as I hadn't read up on it much (read: whatsoever) before visiting, but I half-expected a western propaganda version of a Communist state: drab clothes, dour people and skies that are thunderous and pitch black at noon on a summer Saturday. What I found was a modern, clean, westernized city with stylish shopping, friendly people, blue skies and green trees. Chişinău's streets have trees everywhere and the city centre features numerous large, meticulously-maintained parks, which are Chişinău's sightseeing highlights. For a city of nearly 800,000 people there are very few things for a tourist to see, so, much like Odessa, many travelers just spend the day with a coffee or a beer in the park which sounded just fine by me.

Jay and I spent the night at the Chişinău hostel which was named "The Best Hostel in Moldova" by hostelworld.com, a title made marginally easier to achieve by virtue of the fact that it's also the only one. That said, with friendly staff, a huge common room and a fully equipped Wii it was pretty hard to argue.

Chişinău Photos
Jay, Stellian and I Get Across The Moldovan Border Sunset in Moldova Cathedral Park Public Garden Chisinau's Arc de Triomphe (the lesser the victory, the smaller the arch, I guess) Presidential Palace Office Building (Chisinau)

May 7th, 2010: Notes From A Country That Isn't A Country

The Flag of Transdniestr (Tiraspol)
The Flag of Transdniestr (Tiraspol)

On our second day in Moldova, Jay and I hopped on a minibus (known here as a "maxitaxi") and hoped to make our way to Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestr. Transdniestr (pop. 537,000) is officially part of Moldova but is also a self-declared republic and one of the world's last communist enclaves. After a bitter civil war with Moldova, they have gained a form of independence and in so doing have their own president, army, currency, licence plates and more. With the republic having a huge emphasis on both Communism and Sovietism, Jay and I were eager to check it out.

The border crossings into Transdniestr have been described as "nightmarish" and "bribe factories", especially the crossing where Jay and I had to cross. Horror stories abound about the journey to Transdniestr and most sources recommend avoiding it altogether. I consider this sort of review a selling point and one that should be put in tourism brochures; we were on our way.

In the end, the border crossing was a breeze: extremely quick (in a relative, Eastern European sense) and the guards were friendly, trying to help us out in what English they knew. Other backpackers we talked to had the same experience as well, leading us to believe the horror stories are from a worse time, or are simply the newsworthy minority of such crossings.

We soon arrived in Tiraspol, which Lonely Planet describes as "surreal" and "mind-bending". At first blush I'd have called that description a stretch. It was definitely odd, with statues of Lenin and Soviet heroes everywhere and the majority of advertising being propaganda posters. Even getting change from a store felt strange - what we were spending was official currency, but currency that you can't spend or exchange anywhere else in the world, not even in the rest of Moldova. The autonomy of a country that isn't really a country felt weird indeed but besides that, it was actually still quite westernized and not exceptionally different from Chişinău, just smaller. Tiraspol has a modern supermarket, an Adidas store and a fashion conscious population. It was a very interesting place, but not a surreal one, at least not until that afternoon.

As our last stop before we left Transdniestr, Jay and I headed down to see the presidential palace. As we arrived there we noticed some bleachers were set up and a large group of soldiers were forming on the closed-off streets. Something was up, so Jay and I plunked ourselves down to see what it was. Soldiers kept appearing, hundreds upon hundreds of them, in formation. Then a few army jeeps showed. Then Soviet propaganda started blaring over the loudspeakers in authoritative Russian. And then a tank rolled in. We eventually realized that this was a state-organized 65th anniversary celebration of Victory Day, the day World War II was won for the Soviet Union. There was clearly a massive military procession planned. The propaganda continued to obliterate our eardrums as what we can only guess was the entire Transdniestrian army marched through the streets. A couple of thousand soldiers stood at attention, showing off their military might as the head of the army was driven past in a jeep, dressed in his full regalia, standing and shouting into a microphone as the soldiers barked back in an deafening echo of salutes that had an extremely eerie and powerful effect. The tank rolled through the streets as this was happening and brass band played to add to the cacophony, playing Soviet marching tunes as the procession continued. It felt like being trapped in the Soviet army in the 1950s. Stranger still, Jay and I were to of maybe 100 people watching this display; almost nobody was in attendance despite the massive fanfare, adding to a weird sense of displacement and desolation. It is without question one of the strangest things I've witnessed and the highlight of my trip for sure.

Transdniestr Photos
Putin, An Old Fave in Transdniestr (Tiraspol) Lenin, Another Old Fave (Tiraspol) The Dark Skies of Tiraspol Beautiful Architecture (Tiraspol) The Mighty Transdniestrian Army The Mighty Transdniestrian Army Me and the Head of the Transdniestrian Army (Tiraspol) Soldiers of the Transdniestrian Army (Tiraspol) Tiraspol