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was a relaxing day for me, doing little apart from walking around Chisinau.
People are friendly and warm. Not surprising. After all, they
are Romanians – a Latin people similar to Italians and Spanish – peoples
full of laughter and fun. I visited the National History Museum, where
curators raced ahead of me, in order to switch on the lights. This
is a common scene in the FSU, where museums keep electric bills low by
only switching on lights only when visitors came. The statue of the
foundation legend of Rome – that of Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf – stood
in front of the museum, as the symbol of Moldova’s Roman and Romanian heritage.
I had seen similar statues in Rome and Bucharest.
Among Russophiles, Chisinau, or rather old Kishinev does have a claim
to some fame – it’s where Pushkin spent three years in exile, during which
he wrote some of his greatest works – The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The
Bandit Brothers, and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. His house
here, like all other Pushkin monuments all over the FSU, is a shrine for
Russian and CIS tourists. I decided to give it a miss.
I had a great lunch today. For US$5, I had sturgeon and liver
desert. Great stuff ! I am ready for the evening train ride to Kyiv,
capital of Ukraine. I would arrive there smelling like a pig, for
the Chisinau's water supply has been shut down for repairs and I couldn't
take a bath. The well-trained staff at Hotel National, supposedly
one of the best in Chisinau, had taken the liberty not to inform me in
advance. The smiling front manager told me that I was lucky as I
had washed up the day before. I am indeed impressed by their fantastic
level of service and kind consideration.
Twenty Dollars Less On the Border
Chisinau's All Saints Church
After a relaxing day in Moldova, land of good food and wines, I took an overnight train to Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. I was fortunate to share the compartment with two English-speaking scientists returning home from a conference in Chisinau – Alexei, Russian from Novosibirisk, and Svitlana, Ukrainian from Kyiv. They are fun-loving people, and we had a great time together, sharing jokes, food, wines, and of course the latter accompanied by rhetorical toasting. As Yevgeny told me in Crimea, one should never drink without a reason. Invent one if you don't have any !
At one stage, we ran out of wine, and at a bizarre station in the middle
of nowhere called Ungern, we decided to buy some wines at a duty-free shop,
which again, is located in this weirdest of locations. And strange
enough, we couldn’t find the entrance to the shop, and we searched the
main station building. Unable to read the Russian signboards, I entered
a door strictly meant for the station-master, with Alexei running after
me. A rail employee asked him “Stor ?” meaning “what ?”. He
replied in English, “Shop, shop !” and then raced ahead.
With Alexei and Svitlana on the train to Kyiv
At about 4 am, I was suddenly woken up by the Ukrainian border control, who obviously were interested in the only non-CIS citizen on this train. I had no idea why the Moldovans did not check – were they too drunk to be bothered with a midnight train ? But one really can’t blame them for that. After all, they live in this wonderland of good wines. I was “invited” to have an interview in a separate compartment, and my new Russian friend, Alexei, came along to interpret. They looked at my passport, especially at the numerous colourful visas and border stamps, had a pretty long conversation with Alexei in Russian, asking his questions like “Does he (meaning me) earn a lot” and “Do you think he carries lots of cash around ?” Well, the bottom line was standard. They wanted some money. The excuse was, although I held a valid double-entry Ukrainian visa, my entire visa, in their opinion, was invalidated when the border official at Odessa Airport (where I first departed from Ukrainian soil for Moldova a few days ago) stamped it on a corner of my visa. They said it should be stamped on the next page. According to regulations, or so they claimed, I was to be put on the next train back to Chisinau, Moldova, and have to apply another visa from there. Of course, there was another alternative... US$20 would do the trick. OK, that wasn’t a problem. Luckily they did not start from US$100. What reasonable nice chaps they were – they should be given awards for Most Friendly ex-Soviet Border Guards of the Year.
As the border control people left the train, they asked about Maggie Thatcher and the Queen, knowing that I am now living in the UK. They even said “Say hello to the Queen on Behalf of the Ukrainian Border Guards”, and if she doesn’t mind, they would love to invited by the Queen for tea.
11 SEPTEMBER: KYIV: First Impressions
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