I was the only tourist in Moldova.
Probably. I was visiting Chisinau, the inelegant, yet chaotically transfixing capital of this small state on the edge of Europe and there wasn’t another visitor in sight. That meant that all the abandoned theme parks, socialist statues and golden beaches of this landlocked former Soviet nation were uncrowded and uncontested.
I’d arrived in Chisinau early. Too early. An ancient Prietenia train from the Soviet days plies the route between Bucharest and Chisinau, and geographically, it’s not that far, but logistically, it’s a long, long train ride, with small chance for sleep. With the early morning sun shining, I stumbled out of the train station and into the chaotic flurry of a new and unfamiliar city.
I’d had an entire sleeper cabin to myself for the overnight journey, few people seemed to be heading towards Moldova at all. At the border, I’d been awakened by the sound of a monstrous grinding. Stalin, in his paranoia, had decreed that Moldovan trains would have to run on a separate gauge to Romanian trains. This would surely stop any invaders dead in their tracks- although it didn’t quite keep the Germans at bay in World War II. Mr Stalin’s schizophrenic policy meant that the train carriage I had failed to fall asleep in had to be lifted up into the air, before being slammed down onto new wheels that could run on the wider tracks.
At around 2am that night, the border officials had stormed into my own personal sleeper cabin. The Romanians had asked if I had any guns or narcotics. So did the Moldovans. I said no, not that anyone bothered to really verify this fact. Then the Moldovans seemed curious as to why I was bothering to leave Romania at all. I said I was a tourist, to which the immigration officer said- ‘In Moldova?’- before stamping my passport and walking off with a dry chuckle.
Moldova is a poor country. Despite most of the population seeing themselves as Romanian rather than Russian, the region found itself under the direct control of the Soviet Union until the 1990’s. That legacy is very much still visible in Chisinau, through the architecture and the low GDP. Most people are forced to get by on only a few dollars a day. Outside the train station, a flea market was in full swing, as vendors laid out second hand goods and antiques that any Soviet memorabilia collector would sacrifice an arm to even see. I forced my way through the crowds and along fractured pavements and dingy underpasses into the city centre.
As this fine city’s sole visitor, I set out to thoroughly explore Chisinau’s touristic trappings. I was instantly met with statues. Monumental socialist statues at every intersection and open space.
Outside the station was The Pain Train, a memorial not to the train ride I’d just taken from Bucharest, but to the horrific deportations carried out during the Stalin era.
And then there was this lady, watching over the city’s roundabouts with her giant flaming communist torch, while heroic heroes toiled ardently at her feet.
I was then confronted with the pigeon man of Chisinau. This wisened fellow was embracing the flying creatures of the city from his bench in the main square, but to what end, we may never know.
The old pigeon man was hanging out near Chisinau’s Arc de Triomphe, a patriotic statement, but one which was originally dedicated to a Russian victory over the Ottomans many years ago.
In front of the government buildings a few democratic protests were going down. Unthinkable in Soviet times- they would have been thrown straight on the pain train- but unfortunate that even today they are still fighting corruption.
Despite the grey and conformed architecture, Chisinau has a surprising number of vibrant green spaces, which evens out the dull colours tremendously. I took a trolley bus down the main avenue, crammed in with hundreds of others making their own way around the capital, and paid the small sum of 2 Lei- around 10 cents- for the pleasure. I disembarked at the main park, and found this delightfully welcoming communist style petal cup, the socialist red still gleaming as bright as ever.
The citizens of Chisinau were of course wondering what the hell I was doing photographing such a tasteless piece of old work, and I received a few quizzical looks from passers by as I strolled through the park.
As much as I was enjoying my jaunt around the sights of Chisinau, it is a tumultuously disorganised place. I decided it was time to escape from the noise and pollution of the city centre- the lake would be the perfect getaway.
The way down to the lake wasn’t exactly promising though. A few disused buildings lay derelict by the entrance and some empty plastic beer bottles were hanging from trees. But as the only tourist in Moldova I persevered. Down an almighty set of steps.
The lake was a rather pleasant distraction. Perfect for a bitingly cold winter’s walk.
Half way around the lake I stumbled into Parc Aventura- I presume that translates into English as Adventure Park. It looked like a small theme park, except unfortunately, there was no one around to run the rides. Maybe they weren’t expecting Moldova’s only tourist to turn up on today of all days. The park was rather abandoned, in a rather strange setting between the lake and suburban Chisinau.
I decided to explore anyway. There were some rusty looking rides and empty ticket booths.
The go-kart track was completely devoid of any traffic.
While the climbing wall was completely devoid of any climbers.
The whole place was empty, so I strolled back to the lake when it became clear the park wasn’t opening any time soon. There would be no dodgem rides for me today. Unfortunately, this would of course bring down Chisinau’s average Trip Advisor score.
One of the perks of being Moldova’s only tourist, was that I could enjoy the golden lake beach all to myself. It was too cold to go swimming, or even to really lie down. But it was glorious to have the muddy brown sand all to myself.
The last stop on my in-exhaustive trip around the city was the war memorial. The eternal flame flamed into the air while soldiers stood guard. It was a sombre experience in comparison to the revelry of the lake and the theme park, but a necessary stop to get a sense of the history and struggles of the Moldovan people.
Chisinau has experienced it all- through World War II and then the brutal oppression of communism, and even now as one of Europe’s poorest nations, the country is struggling with corruption, poverty and breakaway territories like Transnistria.
There aren’t a lot of visitors to Chisinau, or Moldova, but perhaps that’s exactly why you should visit. Chisinau is a hectic city, the market place is lively, crammed daily with locals buying and selling goods, and the ride on a trolley bus down the main street is an experience in itself. Don’t forget to bask on the beach, enjoy the unique socialist architecture and slam some vodkas back in the bar. You might be the only tourist in Moldova, but you might not want to leave.
When I did finally leave Chisinau- after days of spent enjoying the mad streets of the city- the chaos and indeed, the troubles of Moldova were displayed emphatically at the bus station. A mad driver, probably drunk- correction, definitely drunk- attempted to pull off a crazy manoeuvre moments after standing on the roof of his car, arms raised high, and singing to the whole bus station. He wiped out into a line of parked mini buses, the police rushed over, and everyone else just got onto their respective buses.
Ever heard of Transnistria? It’s a country which doesn’t, technically, even exist. You can read about my trip from Chisinau to the breakaway Republic here!