Thursday, October 27, 2016

- The Iron Curtain Ramble: Moldova -

I once read Moldova is felt as soon as you enter it. A dim border between Ukraine and Moldova through the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria confuses me for a few minutes, but as the train slows down and the carriages proceed to constantly balance sideways, the pace of the trip also reduces its speed, entering a land claimed by many and also nobody.

Behind are left the nuclear-powered lit villages and fields of the Ukraine. Transnistria seems to somehow learned to exist submerged under the gloomy lights of yellow street lamps and enclosures of desolated dirt roads leading to silhouettes of soft hills. The powerful electric locomotive kissed our train goodbye at the border and was swapped by a dirty blue diesel one. 
As the train pulls into the main station at Tiraspol , the capital of Transnistria, a horizon of smokestacks topped by weak red lights announce both the start and finish of a urban sprawl consisting of dull apartment blocks, their lifts broken and windows shattered.
The train tracks dribble piles or rubble and roads riddled with potholes, the dew-covered wet asphalt reflecting the full moon of the clear night in the plains of Moldova only a few miles away.

I  reach Chisinau Gara Nord at nearly midnight, having conquered just little short of fifty miles in over three hours. The station is clean and desolate on the main platform but bursting with a waiting crowd of taxis just on the other side of a silver fence. 
I grab a taxi. Its cheerful driver speaks no English but is happy to announce his last run before heading home for rest. He blasts the electric tones of Romanian 'europop' on the car radio, slightly opening his window to let the cold air in and speeding up through a wide avenue lined with a disturbing number of slot-machine houses and arcades into the city centre.

Once checked into the hostel , a newly-built house just across the road from the University of Moldova and next to a 'posh' restaurant, I grab a dinner of grilled fish, vegetables, chocolate cake and wine for a little over six Euros. Across the red-tile covered dining room, the youth of Moldova enjoys the cold evening in a party of seven, pouring red wine out of a fancy decanter and munching on small elaborate entrees, whilst on the table next to me, an attractive couple sits around a solitary crimson rose and photographs their food before proceeding to eat it.



In the morning, Chisinau shows its face as a city of unremarkable beauty, yet as a city that posses an incredible sense of serenity.
The grid-like structure of the city centre is a combination of low-rising houses built in Baroque style and painted in pale colours and whitewashed walls. A few small parks dot the area with pine and birch trees, usually leading to the grounds of aggressively Soviet-style mono block buildings in which the countless bureaus of the Government have found a place and role in this small country's economy.
The sun pleasantly shines through the bare branches of trees aligned in the deformed pavement of the Boulevard Stefan cel Mare, Chisinau's proudest street, and the blue sky of the clear day turns the tinted windows of the Parliament building into a colander of clouds.

Entering Moldova through Transnistria technically means an illegal landing into the country. Transnistria being a region in dispute between those who claim it as an independent territory from their desks in Tiraspol, aggressively claimed as Moldovan territory by Chisinau and slightly dismissed by Kiev, it also falls into the category of non-official countries, meaning stamps into this grey area are not given, so the entry to Moldova is never officially registered.

I am addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs office, a shy slim door squeezed in between the shiny lights of a slot-machine house and a coffee shop. A marble staircase leads to a narrow hallway in which about fifty refugees cram dossiers of documents under their arms and await for a call from the overworked young receptionist.
Ten minutes later, I am fast tracked and a friendly clerk stamps my passport and staples a piece of paper with some vague immigration information on it. She smiles and timidly affirms that I should have no troubles leaving Moldova now, suggesting no bribes should now be requested at the border.



I find hard to find photogenicity in Chisinau. The fascination of this European capital lays on the bleakness of its landscape, on the European traces of the city centre opposing to the Tartar nature of its suburbs. 
I decide to spend the day walking around the city with a map in hand as I run my own private errands. A visit to the local supermarket to stock on supplies for the train journey. A stroll down the hill where the main street flows empty on a esplanade of abandoned twenty-something story buildings and travel agencies offer work visas in countries oceans away, opening up to a modern yet desolated shopping center in which bored saleswomen silently await for the odd customer.
Gypsy eyes prey on my backpack next to the train station. Their makeshift fair selling  worn second-hand jeans, stuffed animals covered in first-world baby drool and broken mobile phones laid in the cold gray pavement on square spaces of tarpaulin sheets.

I return to the hostel to pick up my backpack. The friendly Italian owner briefly asks for a good review and explains how hard it is to open a hostel in a country that seems to have just opened to tourists, his words also connoting a disappointment in the 'transit point' nature of the country. 
Around the corner, I climb the twenty-two meters of the Chisinau Water Tower for privileged views of the city, extending its arms through leafy affluent neighborhoods of the North and the countless apartment blocks in the proletarian South.



The afternoon takes the city into a gentle transition of commuters rushing into trolleybuses. The gypsies withdraw their makeshift stalls from the pavement and head into the unknown, whilst I finally make it to the train station just in time to catch my next train.
Burgundy-coloured chipped melamine coat the interior of a fifty year-old carriage and impede the stale air of thousands of trips to circulate, almost like I am breathing the same air as those who traveled on the same 'Moldovan Railways' carriage two decades ago.
Once in my compartment, I am joined by a tall Belgian guy, his belly proudly protruding from his black shirt and his greasy hair somehow inviting youthfulness. In contrast, an old Irish man exudes resignation from his blue weary eyes and his thick Liverpool accent and a another Irish man introduces himself with the enthusiasm of an eighteen-year old on tour.

It is a cold and stale evening when the sun hides behind the undulating fields of Western Moldova. The train cutting across the hills at a speed no higher than fifteen miles an hour and rocking passengers into a state of somnolence proper to the landscape framed by the dirty train windows.
I am invited to the next compartment, where four other Irish men laugh out loud and down shots of cheap vodka, liters of beer and some sort of dark-coloured champagne.

Silence invades the carriage with the weight of drunk philosophy. The sky outside as black and dark as the villages of rural Moldova. The train stops and an immigration officer demands for passports and documents. Her cheekbones enhanced by the dimmed old lights of the carriage, frame the face of a beautiful young woman in a tight military uniform. 
With the alcohol still flowing in the carriage, the Irish men flirt and find an abrupt response given with a polite smile: 'Moldavian woman and proud'.
The carriage is pulled in many directions until finding a crane. The windows and toilets are locked and the floor grows distant, the operation cannot be seen but felt.


Couplings are disengaged manually and a new broader pair is attached to the bottom of all four carriages in the convoy. Although Moldova and Romania share an international train service, their tracks have different gauges, Romania enjoying German-built lines, standard across most of Europe whilst Moldova is lined by Soviet-built lines. Someone suggests that Germany was not able to invade Moldova because they could not transport their troops due to this peculiar railway feature.

The hermetic nature of the operation suggests restraining. A psychosis originated in an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and accentuated by the empty nature of the night at the border.
A total of three hours are spent at the border alone with no access to fresh air or toilets, tallying three passport controls, one alcohol-induced casualty, three empty bottles of vodka and one irritated carriage stewardess.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

- The Iron Curtain Ramble: Ukraine -

I leave the solitary desk in West Dublin behind and skim through the stale autumnal evening, through the busy traffic of the M50 and the light mist setting in the horizon dominated by the Dublin Mountains.
The brand-new Ryanair aircraft arrives and replenishes with a new load of weekend commuters in no time. A weak rainbow draws a colourful rainbow just at the end of the runway, and the sun sets as we land over the greenery of the fields surrounding Luton Airport.

Luton is one of London's five airports. The thick walls of the hangar-like terminal enclose spaces in which boarding gates pile up and connect through blunt blue corridors with poor lighting and a food court that has seen better days. 
Luton is also the reflection of a global city. Next to me, a group of British ladies sporting undersized pink dresses and inflatable dolls scream their way to their Tenerife flight, whilst a couple tightly places their boarding passes amongst the pages of a copy of the Qoran waiting on their flight to Ohrid.
Across the dirty Starbucks' table , a couple drowns the sorrows of living in the concrete jungle of the British Isles with mini-sized bottles of whisky and a blueberry muffin, religiously looking at the Departures board for any updates on their delayed flight to Rhodes.
The direct link between the soft plains of suburban London and the soulless chimneys of the Ukrainian capital takes over three hours. The passengers are a mix of families on the way over to visit relatives, carrying heaps of Union Jack-themed bags filled with souvenirs, businessmen cramming their laptops in the tiny tray table and working on elaborate projects, and the odd backpacker flicking through a travel guide.
The lights of the Kiev guide our smooth glide through the frozen sky whilst our arrival is announced in the most solemn Russian style, followed by a few applauses.

As a low-cost airline passenger, I arrive in the small yet cozy Zhuliany Airport, which for my convenience has good wifi, a small bureau de change, an ATM and a row of ready-for-bargaining taxi drivers.
The airport is also closer to the city centre. A 15-minute drive along broad avenues opening to long boulevards that seem to vanish in a horizon of square apartment blocks, the silence of their inhabitants and the dimmed lights adding drama to the black fog covering the empty streets and the hollow smoke coming from the old cars.

I reach the hostel, which is embedded in an old building with thick ocean blue walls. A young girl with big green eyes greets me and shows me the basics of the property with a smile, desperately trying to conceal the fatigue of an ongoing night shift. I make myself a cup of tea and grab a couple of pastries filled with blueberry jam and covered in sugar crystals before falling asleep.



The scale of Kiev is evident in the morning. A maze of concrete blocks slowly cruising over plains at the edge of Europe, covered in morning autumnal fog. The street layout is square and bleak, just like the building lineup of grey and yellow walls splattered with square dark windows.
The metropolis is cut right in the middle by the wide and murky Dnieper River, running through the country like an artery supplying the inland countryside with goods from the Black Sea.
It is a Saturday, and the city takes longer to find its pace. As I walk through the empty streets, I spot the elderly. Their bleak scarves and coats contrast with the colourful socks worn under rubber sandals, their facial skin crumbled by years of cold weather and their arms vigorously waving plastic brooms. Legacies of the Soviet era perhaps: the streets of Kiev are spotless whilst every single member of the population has a function.

A golden female angel spread her arms and holds a guelded-rose branch over the main esplanade, a representation of Ukrainian Independence, now taken over by a modern department store shining through tinted glass and watched by the stiff concrete lines and solemn windows of the Ukrainia Hotel dominating the hill from behind the tall Baroque pedestal.
An accurate analogy of the country perhaps, where freedom of speech is still a luxury and reminders of civil fights hit the eyes with pictures of young residents killed in these same cobblestone streets in 2014. The rare trees surrounding the square have become makeshift shrines oozing with cheap candle wax and printer ink.
Just on top of the nearby hill, a steel rainbow hugs the statues of two well-built men symbolising the Reunification of Ukraine and Russia and their eternal friendship. The monument as bleak and grey as the relationship itself.


Despite the stillness of the Soviet legacy, Kiev still mesmerises with its spotless street layout which cuts through soft hills covered in amber autumnal foliage and crowned by Orthodox churches with golden onion-shaped domes, scratching the grey sky like delicate pale hands covered in shining bracelets.


I rush to the main train station along a boulevard bordering the University of Kiev, weaving through students carrying heavy backpacks and listening to loud music on their mobile phones. The city vibrates on the main streets, cruised by a mix of old Lada cars and fast BMWs, whilst meters away dark and narrow alleyways lead to derelict-like apartment buildings covered in graffiti.


At the train station, the ticket officer speaks no English. Her pronounced cheekbones might hide her real age, but not the frustration of years behind the counter, lit by neon lights flickering in the background of a room painted in light green and heavily infested with the smell of cigar smoke.

-'Kishnau'

- (Types in Cyrillic, turns the screen around and points to four numbers).

My mind numbs at the thought of leaving early and spending 14 hours on a train. Blood rush through my brain whilst the attendant blankly stares at me with her wrinkled blue eyes.

-'Ah ok. Odessa?'

- (Types in Cyrillic, turns the screen around and points to four numbers).

-'Yes'

-'Passport'

The printer machine loudly screeches and the attendant hands me a train ticket tucked in the pages of my passport before releasing a small grin.

Only hours are left in the capital. The grey skies turn heavy in the afternoon and discharge a layer of light rain which gives a glossy coating to the cobblestone streets. Puddles of water on the uneven footpaths mirror the pale buildings and the dull sky over Pechersk Lavra, a monastery built on the side of a hill with privileged views over the sandy Dnieper River banks and the horizon of suburban Kiev blending with the infinite sky through fog and industrial smoke.
The monastery was built in 1051 as the 'Kiev Monastery of the Caves' and it is now the most important religious complex in Ukraine, featuring several edifications built in the Orthodox style such as bell towers, praying rooms and fortification walls.



The wind increases the chill factor of the already dull rain. I find shelter in a coffee shop next to the Independence Monument, before the rain turns the city into a cold mirage of lights floating in the border between Europe and Asia. A couple next to me kisses whilst flicking through each other's Instagram accounts and a young blond man sips on craft tea, gluing his eyes to the screen of his Macbook, his legs crossed forward in skinny trousers sported rolled up the ankle.

I take a last look at Kiev before hiding from the cold night in the tunnels of the musty metro, emerging only at the dark main lobby of the train station amidst travellers carrying canvas bags, suitcases, fur coats and plastic bags exploding with fruit, drinks and elaborate sandwiches. A scene of the dynamics of rail travel in Eastern Europe unfolding in front of me.

I share a four-couchette compartment with a young local couple and a woman with a rasp smoke-induced cough. No words are spoken. The lights go off as we hit the suburbs and the red melamine panels only reflect the odd street light flickering through the window, just as the train gains speed in the rainy night.
Compartment lights are lit and bags are swiftly packed as the train pulls into the main train station at Odessa.
The cold wind in the platform cuts through the skin of my bare legs. I desperately try to keep warm by briskly walking around the station for information and away from the domains of the station towards the centre of town.

The weak sunrise seems to freeze in time, slowly revealing the street landscape of  the 'Lady of the Black Sea'.
It is the city that all Soviets cities want to be: clean, leafy, rough on the edges but with a bourgeois heart in the centre. Elegant within its streets lined with upmarket shops, bakeries and coffee shops, flamboyant with its Opera House dominating the most expensive hill on this side of the Black Sea with its pastel colours and pseudo-Baroque lines. It is the 'Soviet Riviera'.



The early Sunday morning see few locals heading to church and many cafes closed for the day, perhaps the entire season.
The port sits still on a sheltered bend of the Black Sea, which glisten blue under the clear sky, cargo ships in a procession towards the Bosphorus draw white foam lines in its pristine water body.
From the top of Tarasa Shevchenka Park, an obelisk reminds locals of the atrocities of the war, whilst four soldiers perform a sacred daily ritual of saluting the monolith and loudspeakers hanging off surrounding trees enunciate military hymns in dramatic Ukrainian, smothered in a warlike soundtrack.


I walk to Langeron Beach, where entire houses sit empty in the sandy wind and wooden decks announce parties extinguished months ago. The essence of Odessa lays here. A beach town ready to embark upon a long lethargy. The frozen winds from Siberia soon battering the blue and whitewashed empty wooden shacks, the pile up of chairs from the French-style cafes closing down for the season and being used as overnight shelter for the homeless, the silent halls of the Opera House and the overnight trains crowded with locals looking for jobs in Kiev or Lviv.



Locals and tourists alike enjoy the erratic dance of the water fountain next to the Opera House, rendezvous for selfie sticks, snacks and one of Ukraine's obsessions: coffee.
An instrumental concert is played by the military band under the weak afternoon sunshine, providing a melancholic touch to my last hours in a rather melancholic country.

At 17:48pm, the steel wheels of the train screech as we pull out of the station and turn West towards a landscape of dry flat fields extending as far as the point in which Ukraine claims as the border between its domains and Moldova.
The train stops in some sort of makeshift station seconds before the sun finally sets. The staleness of the heated air inside the dark carriage is cut by a sturdy policeman wearing an olive green coat and sporting Ukrainian flags on each shoulder.

He sits next to each passenger, his deep blue eyes stare and compare the passport pictures with the people in front of him with a rather disturbing grin. The pages are abruptly stamped and returned before a word is spoken.
An hour later, the train starts its slow march through a new territory. Ukraine has now been officially left behind, and just as I feel like my every action is not being watched anymore, I am slightly relieved.