The Long Road to Chisinau


CHISINAU, MOLDOVA — Earlier in the day, I donned my rain gear and prepared for the 300-kilometre slog up to Chisinau, the capital of Europe’s poorest country. My friend Ion Ghilescu, whom I hadn’t seen in eight years, was back home for a few weeks from self-imposed exile in Australia. He claimed there’d be home-cooked meals courtesty of his mom, which had me pretty excited. I chucked my rucksack on the back of the bike and said goodbye to Sparky, a young drifter who’d taken to hanging around the guesthouse. He was the closest friend I’d made in my waterlogged three days in Galati.

Keep on chasing them cats, son

And off I went, nervously rattling my way down rain-slicked, cobbled streets to the main road northeast out of town. I stopped to fill the Hamburglar up, and the gas jockeys there were very curious about my bike and where I’d been and where I was going. I told them Chisinau, and one of them winced and said “Bessarabia! Be careful.” He then made that throat-slitting gesture that’s so popular in this part of the world. If I might editorialize for a minute, this is definitely a trend, people having funny ideas about people in neighbouring countries. I’ve had Hungarians warn me about the hazards of Slovakia and Romania and Serbia and Bosnia, Croats advise me not to go to Montenegro — it’s full of “bad people” — and even had Canadians tell me that they’re leery of driving over to Buffalo or Detroit. (Well, Detroit I can understand.) Sometimes people even prejudge their own countries: I once had a guy at Scooter Center, Germany’s biggest scooter parts emporium, refuse to ship parts to me in Serbia, even though I was a repeat customer and my friend had been a loyal customer of theirs for 18 years. The Scooter Center guy, it turns out, is a native-born Serb who emigrated when he was young, and he told me in no uncertain terms that he was convinced my friend and I were running some sort of credit card fraud ring between Hamburg and Belgrade. All this would be funny, were it not so sad.

I took the gas jockey’s warning with a grain of salt, and sped off. I had to take one last picture while I was still in the EU:

So long, Romania!

And then, on to the nearby Moldovan frontier. Getting out of Romania took about two hours. There, I encountered my first taste of officialdom disapproving of what I was doing on this trip. “You’re entering Moldova on that?” said an incredulous Romanian border guard as he shook his head and made clucking noises. Screw you, pal, I made it this far. Getting in to Moldova took another two hours. The Moldovan entry process was especially complex: there was the military border guard with the giant peaked cap who examined my passport, then the border lady with the freakishly ornate fingernails who stamped my passport, then the customs guy who had me half-dismantle my bike just to look at the chassis number, and then the bank, where I paid my road tax (about 75 cents), after which I took the receipt back to the customs guy who then let me through. It deserves saying that they were friendly enough during this bureaucratic run-around. I then drove a kilometre or so into the country.

The Republic of Moldova, similar culturally and linguistically to the next-door Romanian region of Moldavia, is a hunk of Romania the Russians sliced off and Sovietized after the Second World War. It apparently occupies a part of the Russian imagination as a land of milk and honey, where the rivers run red with sweet Moldovan wine and tables groan under the weight of impossibly delicious tomatoes and cucumbers. For now, though, it occupied a part of my own imagination as a land of Vespa-destroying roads. I had stopped at the border town of Giugurlesti to figure out which route to take north to Chisinau, and as I surveyed the scene, I let out a long, low whistle. Here I was, at the main thoroughfare into the country, and it was little more than a rutted back-forty road with sheep wandering on it. It turns out that this road to Chisinau was the only road, period, which made my GPS unit more or less redundant.

On the road to Chisinau, my GPS was not to be trusted

For 70 kilometres I slalomed around mud puddles and cows and burly, frowning babushkas on the way to the town of Ciumai, where the road allegedly would become more of a, well, road. I had to pay extra close attention to the driving. The pothole situation was actually worse than in Romania, and every once in a while a slight discoloration in the road ahead — which seemed like it hadn’t been paved in decades –would turn out to be a deceptively deep and sharp undulation. These were hard to detect and they sent the Hamburglar’s rear suspension bottoming out with a sickening BANG!, again and again and again.

The M3 road took a detour on the way to Ciumai. I duly followed it, and then after a few turns the road simply ran out at the edge of what looked like a freshly-ploughed field. Cars were careening wildly across it, spraying muck in their wake. A beat-up old Moskovich was way out in the middle of the mess, earnestly doing doughnuts and not really going anywhere in particular. I increasingly find myself trying to match musical themes to events in front of me on this trip, and if this particular tableau had a theme song, it would’ve been The Entry of the Gladiators.

A section of the road to Chisinau

It was my turn to become part of the gong show. I gingerly eased the Hamburglar’s 10-inch wheels into what looked like a well-packed rut, and it instantly sank up to the axles. Dang. I then tried goosing it, which got me moving after a fashion, but it took a lot of footwork. I started to get the hang of it, pulsing the gas at high RPMs in first gear, enough to keep the bike moving while working my boots in the mud to keep my 170-kilo combined load from falling over. There were several near-dumpings of the bike. I kept at it until my legs and arms ached, and decided to take a break.

I looked back, and to my dismay I’d gone maybe two hundred feet. I was drenched in sweat and mud, and the end of the mud patch — if there was in fact an end — was at least a kilometre away, beyond the treeline. Off to my right, a farmer sat perched on his tractor, staring at me.

Clearly the brute-force approach wasn’t going to work. I looked around for a solution, and saw that at the edge of the field there was a narrow strip of tall grass and brush, maybe five feet wide, beyond which ran a very deep ditch. With no other options available, I worked the bike over to it. It was still muddy there, but the grass and roots held the muck together enough for my wheels to grip it. This was much, much better. I eased my way down the headland, careful to not go so fast that I’d wipe out, and not so slow that I’d sink into the mud. After about a kilometre of this, I reached pavement again, and couldn’t help but pump my fist in the air in triumph. I parked the bike and sacrificed my beach towel in clearing the front disc brake of twigs and stones and mud.

The Hamburglar: not one to shrink away from rough terrain

The front brake pads barely worked for a while after that, but eventually they started gripping again. I stopped at the next town to find somebody to hose off the crud in my wheels, and took a break and actually had a Kit Kat. Some local toughs hanging around at the gas station were curious about how I’d gotten all the way there on what they assumed was a crappy little bike, and they all wanted to pose for a picture.

It was late in the day and I still had over a hundred kilometres before I got to Ion’s. I hit the main road to Chisinau, which miraculously was brand-spanking-new for half its length, and raced north. The countryside became genuinely beautiful at this point, with rolling hills and neatly-tended sunflower fields on all sides. One lengthy stretch of road was lined with ancient, massive trees whose canopies met evently above the road’s centreline, and the red light of sunset streaming through the dust lent it a fantastic cathedral-like feeling. Soon, though, it was dark, and I had another 25 kilometres to go to. Geographically, the Moldovan capital sits in a bowl, and I had to get over the edge of that bowl. This last bit made me resolve never to drive in the dark again. I won’t bore you with the details, but there was unfinished construction all along it, my bike took an unbelievable beating, and going downhill was especially hair-raising because my Vespa’s headlamp doesn’t throw up that much light when the engine is idling. During downhill portions, I took to shifting into neutral and revving the engine just to see where I was going.

At last, I reached the Welcome To Chisinau sign, a massive piece of Soviet futurist art that’s so common in these parts. I was so close. And then, a policeman at the side of the road pulled me over. We quickly established that we had no language in common, and he wanted to see my bike’s registration papers and insurance. I exasperatedly pulled them from my jacket, and he pored over them, his eyes blinking in bovine incomprehension. Eventually he looked up at me. “Hundred dollars,” he said.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Hundred dollars.”

“Um, why?” I said. “Is there something wrong with the papers? They’re all in order. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t speeding.”

Silence. After the day I’d had, I was in no mood for this. “You don’t speak English, right?” I said. “None at all?” He had no idea what I just said, and continued staring at me, imploring me to relieve my wallet of a hundred dollars.

“Well, then, officer,” I said, mustering my best, friendliest shit-eating grin, “I do declare that you can go fuck yourself.” If I had to grease this cop’s palm with a hundred bucks, I might as well have some fun while I was at it.

More silence. Then, apropos of nothing, he handed me back my papers. “Ciao,” he said with a wave.

Instead of feeling triumphant, I was embarrassed at my own stupid temper. That could’ve easily gone quite differently. I started the bike and slowly followed my GPS to Ion’s house in the suburbs.


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