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Romulus’ Tales

Chisinau   This 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.
 Statue of Stefan cel Mare (Stefan the Great)
Statue of the Roman Foundation Legend in front of the National History Museum
Monument to Soviet Victory in the WWII - called War Against Fascist Agression on the monument.  Ironically, this very victory tore Moldovans from their Romanian compatriots

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.
 Chisinau's Arc d'Triomphe 
Chisinau Cathedral
Cross at Chisinau Cathedral

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.

  Old Moldovan banknote (issued shortly after independence)

 Eventually we got our vintage 1987 Cabernet Collection Wine, for only US$4.  Great stuff.  More drinking, more toasting.  Hurrah…although this was to have some negative impact on my ability to deal with corrupt officials hours later.

  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.

On the train to Kyiv
I agreed, but insisted that they get the customs officer to issue me a currency declaration form, for I did not want to get into trouble when I finally leave Ukraine without such a form.  It didn’t take long for them to locate that guy for me - he was probably having a nice nap somewhere.  It's a fair exchange and I got the declaration form.  Ah, one more thing was wrong - the receipt I got from the compulsory purchase of Emergency Medical Insurance when first entering Ukraine was not an insurance receipt - I was conned on my first entry a week ago.  So I need to get another one.  This time, it was only UAH 12, or US$2.50 for a certificate-like slip of paper in English, with so many exclusions and qualifications that you probably couldn’t claim for anything should the need arises.  Alas, ESUWA !  Ex-Soviet Union Wins Again!

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