11 Ukraine, Moldova, Romania
UKRAINE (УКРАИНА) August 1999
The guidebook said that one could get visas at the border, but we were sent back 128km into Slovakia. The Ukraine Consul first spoke of pre-booked accommodation and tourist vouchers but after much explaining and pleading he gave us two three-day transit visas. It was 36°C and humid. Before the border we found peaceful parking next to a lake. When it was cool enough to sleep, two discos started up and blasted mega decibels until 3 the next morning.
The next day the border procedure took 4 hours. It consisted of: forms for immigration, vehicle importation & other possessions, money declaration; hand-written registers; payments for medical insurance, road tax & ecological tax. 9 stamps had to be collected on one piece of scrap paper.
Ukraine: Soviet TankA huge Red Army monument welcomed us to this Ex-Soviet State. (Just larger than France). We read that Ukraine had been a cradle of Nationalism against Russian oppression. Stalin wanted to stamp out Nationalism. In 1932 he created a famine by setting unrealistic grain production quotas, and placed the grain silos under armed guard ‘until the quotas were met’. The population, including the peasants who toiled in the fields, starved to death. Between 5 and 7 million people died.
The scenery was of woodland and rolling cultivated hills. Rural villages were patchworks of flowers and painted fences encircling neat rows of vegetables. (Private ownership of agricultural land has been introduced but Ukrainians cannot afford equipment. Average monthly salary is $60 and pensioners receive only $2). We were inspired, for a change, to take lots of photographs but it was cloudy and it became darker and darker at midday. ? We realised it was the Solar eclipse!
We soon had to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet because most road signs had no Roman letters. The roads were patched and bumpy. Many roadside-parking areas had a large concrete ramp (so drivers could repair their vehicles!). Colourful mosaic panels covered the walls of bus shelters throughout the country; contrasting with grey houses and faceless apartment blocks. On the outskirts of cities there were abandoned factories with broken windows and collapsing walls. In the middle of nowhere large new houses were being constructed. Was this the joy of getting out of the concrete apartment blocks or is buying building material, a way of coping with rampant inflation? We saw churches being restored and new ones under construction.
In three days we could not get to the capital, Kiev in the East, or Odessa on the Black sea; and we did not want to go to Chernobyl in the North! We went to Lviv. Once past the huge Soviet monument we battled through the uneven cobbled streets with Cyrillic names, to the town centre. The palace that used to be the Lenin museum is now the National Museum with 15th to 20th century art from Western Ukraine. The sumptuous opera house is at the top of a large attractive parklike pedestrian area with benches and sidewalk cafes. We chose one, which said, “Welcome to Lviv” but only Ukrainian and Russian were spoken. Cherry juice, beer, mushrooms, “borscht” soup, grilled shishkebab, Odessa champagne, Cappuccino. All for $10. Round the corner was the market. Private trading was prohibited in the Communist era. Now there were many hopefuls waiting behind a sad little heap of wares. (We saw groups of up to five people by the roadside at night in pouring rain trying to sell one basketful of wild mushrooms). The handicraft market had reasonably priced embroidered cloths and blouses, also wooden articles and sets of nesting dolls (matryoshka). The large department store was still rather sparsely stocked but full of people; looked like a 1950s departmental trading store. In spite of the communication problem, we found people particularly friendly.
In the evening, we spoke to the “large cap” police, who said it would be safe to remain parked in front of the elegant, turn of the century Hotel Zhorzh. (George, for those not yet into Ukrainian spelling). There were 5 patrolling the area. At 3 in the morning we heard someone against Dipli. Leoné was scared. Jan whispered: “Nothing to worry about. It’s a policeman.” The tampering at the front of Dipli became louder. Jan shone a bright flashlight into the face of the man who had been trying to steal the spotlight. The uniformed policeman jumped back and slunk off... The next night we found a semi-abandoned camping ground in an overgrown ex holiday resort with large dilapidated buildings. One decaying wooden structure still had a just-about-functioning bathroom
Between Lviv and Chernivtsi traffic police on an open road stopped us. We pretended not to understand but were shown the primitive radar apparatus and the reading of 52 km/h in stead of 40 km/h. A construction machine parked next to the road, (but no actual work in progress) was their excuse for the low limit! $5 fine.Soon we were stopped again by a different uniform. Eventually we understood something about ecological (would you believe!) certificate. The Chernobyl disaster, polluted rivers, acid rain, contaminated soils, are a legacy of ruthless Soviet industrialisation. And we were asked for an emission control certificate! We showed him all the tens of other pieces of paper we had. He gave up and we could continue.
At the border, when we wanted to leave Ukraine, the boom guard, a real mean looking, sunflower-seed-spitting, character asked for a $5 bribe. We refused and were made to wait. When the next shift came on, we were able to proceed into Romania.
The second time we went through Ukraine (from Moldova) we chose the route along the Carpathian National Park with river and forest scenery. We went to the Saturday folk craft market in the small village of Kosiv, where there was much trade in everything from handspun wool to pink piglets and scrap iron. In a moment of weakness we bought two bulky hand-woven blankets which seemed to expand inside the camper. In nearby Kolomya was the regional museum of folk art. It had carved wooden tools, boxes and furniture, leather craft, musical instruments, basketry, weavings, embroidered dresses and waist coats, painted eggs (pysanki) and hand made ceramic tableware. (In the midst of Soviet rule the authorities even banned folk embroidery as ‘dissident nationalistic activism’).
We had easily obtained a visa for Moldova in Poland. The border post (from Romania) was very unusually (for a border) prettied with large beds of flowers. The procedure and payments for road permit, frontier and ecological tax took 21/2 hours. Then we were in the tiny ex Soviet state. (Like Ukraine it had been under Communism for 70 years). A mounted Russian military tank was the welcoming monument. All the villages had small concrete houses with grey asbestos roofs and again the colourful mosaic bus shelters. The cement roads had been partly covered with asphalt and at the expansion joints were quite high ridges; so J had to drive very carefully again, because of Dipli’s delicate axles. Young and old were collecting walnuts, from the trees planted either side of all the roads. Vineyards covered the hills. Moldova is renowned for good wine. That night in Chisinau, the tree-lined capital, we sampled some…
We had found a note on our vehicle to meet Alexis. “Hi, are you selling your truck? I went all over the Soviet Union & Mongolia with a French truck similar”. Following him to a restaurant, we were accosted by menacing traffic police who thought we had gone through a red traffic light (It had been amber). Our newly acquired friends (including the European Union representative) who all spoke fluent Russian helped us get off. Alexis had a lot of info to share. We were particularly amused by his description of the Trans Siberian Highway: “Think of your worst city slum suburb and stretch it out over 5000 km.”!
The official language of Moldova is now Romanian instead of Russian. Moves towards reunification have led to ethnic fighting. There is still even a tiny Russian Communistic area, the ‘Republic of Transdniester’. A local newspaper stated that over half of Moldova’s population lives in absolute poverty. There were, however many delicatessens selling Moldovian chocolates and wine. Our dog eared Lonely Planet guidebook of Eastern Europe did not have information about Moldova but we found an old Intourist map, welcoming us to the “Moldovian Soviet Socialist Republic”, “Lenin Boulevard”, “Museum of the Communist party”, “Republican museum of the friendship of the peoples”; none of which could be found any longer. The entrance fee to the Museum of History and Art was only 10 cents. It had lovely modern ceramics and tapestry weavings. Since it was 3 days before the independence celebrations, trees and kerbs were being painted white. Dipli got one ‘white-wall’ tyre in the process. Some of the drier grasslands we camped in, reminded us of South Africa. (Home sick)
The name “Rumania” was replaced by “Romania”, to emphasise the country’s Roman heritage.
After days of driving we were exhausted and searched for one of the many campsites indicated on the map. They did not exist. We took a muddy track into a forest. A car in front of us got stuck. Dipli enjoyed getting into 4-wheel drive again and pulled him out. As the car then returned, we gave the abandoned passenger of the car a ride to an isolated farming area, 10 kilometres further. Next to a lovely green field we parked in the road, but so that all the traffic could get past.
The traffic consisted of horse carts; some stacked high with hay. The horses all had red woollen tassels hanging like ear rings next to their cheeks. A woman leading a cow came past. Leoné photographed them. She was so delighted that she went off and returned with apples, milk, cheese, herbs and vegetables from her garden. We were in Bukovina, the northern area of Romania, famous for its marvellous painted churches. They were erected within defensive walls. Great armies used to gather there. To educate, entertain and arouse the interest of illiterate soldiers and peasants, biblical stories were portrayed in brightly coloured cartoon style frescoes on the exterior walls. The houses in the villages had decorative patterns and intricately carved gates. In the gardens were water wells covered by a variety of turreted roofs. Flocks of geese and ducks wandered next to the fields of sunflowers. We decided that Bukovina was one of the prettiest areas in Europe.
We eventually found a Romanian campsite. The cold showers were on the outside of the ablution block. We used their water and Dipli’s water heating, to catch up with the laundry. Leoné preferred not to use the bulky Sputnik washing aid. So it was scrubbing those jeans on hands and knees. The following night we parked high within the panorama of green hills and valleys. The fat sheep and lean shepherds gathered round and we “chatted”, using phrase book and sign language.
In the perfectly preserved medieval town of Sighisoara we had lunch in the house where Count Dracula was born in the 15th century. (The rest of the vampire legend came from the imagination of a 19th century novelist). We also visited what is claimed by some, to be Dracula’s castle. (Bran castle) It had been built 600 years ago and was lived in until 1947. It still had all the wooden frames and panelling and nooks and crannies, cosily furnished and decorated. One of the best castles we have seen.
Nearby in Brasov we came across a large supermarket (quite rare in Romania). At the meat counter we tried to decipher the labels. Leoné gestured to a fellow shopper: “Moo? Or Baa?”, she asked and pointed. He replied, in perfect accent: “Do you speak English?”…
We also found an ‘Hole in the Wall’ Internet Café which charged $1 an hour. (In Germany the charge went up to $4 to $6 an hour). This was still cheaper than using our satellite phone for e-mail.
We wondered why concrete apartment blocks often had adjoining stables and vegetable gardens. We read that the unpopular Romanian Communist leader, Ceausescu (1965-89), had transferred the population of about 6 000 farming villages to these faceless high rises, ”to systematise” Romanian agriculture. .
All of the 1500km of narrow roads we travelled on had road works. Apart from horse carts and trucks there were also the Romanian manufactured ARO 4WD. It looks very much like a 110.
Iasi has the Church of the Three Hierarchs (1639). The exterior is completely covered with intricate decorative patterns in stone.