Thursday, February 26, 2009

On the Road to Babin

The Road


The Car

The Field

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Village – Part 2

I spent the first forty minutes of the trip trying to decipher the driver’s Russo-Ukrainian rambling. Ukrainian doesn’t have a soft “g” sound, so every time he encountered the sound in a Russian word, the driver would replace it with an “h”. He told me about the region’s history—how it was part of Romania and then the Soviet Union and now Ukraine.

Eventually we got off the main road and headed deep into the rolling countryside. I felt like we were in the Canadian prairies, which prompted my Dad to remark more than once that the Ukrainians who got off the boat in Canada a hundred years ago must’ve felt like they hadn’t actually gone anywhere. There was one significant difference: the soil. It was as black and rich as I have ever seen. No wonder they called this place the Breadbasket of the Soviet Union.

The narrow paved road we were on led us through small towns, by magnificently restored churches, and past bustling markets. We stopped to ask for directions every once and a while (the people just pointed us further down the road).

We soon found ourselves on a dirt road heading to the middle of nowhere. There was no signage, save for provincial boundary markers. Our maps didn’t provide the kind of detail we needed, so we had to rely purely on local knowledge. We stopped to ask a woman where the village might be and she said that we had already passed it. I guess the old joke of a town being so small that if you blink while driving through, you’d miss it completely rang true.

As it turned out, we had to turn, go through another small village before descending into a small valley and the village of Babin.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Village – Part 1

After spending the first day in Chernovitse wandering around in the rain trying to figure out how to get to the village of Babin (how many people have the same name as a village?), we finally decided that a driver was the best option. There had to be some old guy out there with legendary knowledge of the region who was willing to take us around for the day.

Most people don’t often put much thought into taking a cab. The process is simple: stick hand out, get in taxi, go to destination, pay taxi, leave. I tend to look for the oldest car possible; the car with the most character. Why? Because anyone still willing to drive a car that old, must have character himself.

We walked out of the train station hotel and surveyed the line of taxis waiting to ferry the recently arrived away. You had your newer European cars, come older European cars, new and old Ladas (not that you can tell the difference), and an older Volga. Bingo!

A Volga is like the Soviet equivalent of a Lincoln. It’s built like an ox and sucks up gasoline like a fish. There is a certain element of class, though, so it ends up being a comfortable ride fitting for the region. The driver was as we hoped for: old. He took our map and immediately did us one better by bringing out his own map. Within seconds he had Babin pointed out on the map. “Why do you want to go there?!?!”

I gave him the story I gave everyone else and watched as in his eyes this trip went from simply carrying two tourists around to guiding people with genuine connections to the region. This fascination proved itself over and over throughout the day.

Once the price issue was settled, we took off into the countryside. I just hoped he knew where he was going.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chernovitse

The Centre of Town


Ghetto Cafe across from the Train Station

Train Station

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

And then Transdniestra Got in the Way… – Part 6

We couldn’t be bothered to wait around the border area for a bus to the next town. Locals told us one would be coming, but it was anybody’s guess when it would actually arrive. So we just starting walking. Past an ostensibly abandoned kolkhoz (commune), a real treat of the journey I might add, over hills, around corners. On such a pleasant fall day, walking was probably preferable to sitting in a crowded microbus.

Eventually we came upon a town with what we hoped was a train station. I asked some truck drivers what the best way was to get back to Chernovitse, but they just looked back at me and I imagined them saying, “Why don’t you just get a taxi?” when in reality they said, “Well, you can take a bus or the train. The train station was up a few hundred metres and then to the left.”

I asked another group of drivers further along where the train station was. They simply pointed across the road and said, “There.” It’s times like this when I’m glad the locals actually know where things are as opposed to just guessing and pointing randomly in different directions.

At the train station, we learned that the train wasn’t coming for another hour. For fun, we went back to the main road and tried to flag down a bus. I consider myself well-versed in the art of flagging down vehicles propelled by the internal combustion engine, but this task proved to be difficult. Bus after bus was either not going to Chernovitse, was full, or just had no interest in picking us up.

We finally opted for the train and left our spot in front of the ubiquitous Palace of Culture found in every town. There is nothing like a grandiose name to make a small building in a small town sound important. Such exaggeration is something only the Soviets and North Korean government are good at.

Our day trip ended with a sleepy train ride back to Chernovitse. This time we were in a warm carriage with reasonable comfortable seats. We sat, listening to the locals banter away, and prepared for our trip to Babin the next morning.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

North of the Border

The border complex from the Ukrainian side.


Road to the border.

We stumbled upon a Kolkhoz (Commune) on our way back from the border.

Friday, February 06, 2009

And Then Transdniestria Got in the Way… – Part 5

We were dropped off on the Moldovan side of the border. Our friend and the driver accompanied us right up to the guy who had the authority to let people through the gate. He was a young guy, but appeared to wield some serious power. We showed him our passports and he gave us a piece of paper with a stamp on it before letting us through. Our friend, wanting to go with us further, tried to talk the border guard into letting him through without a passport. Fat chance. So we said our “Goodbye’s” and went on our way.

For two fairly small countries, Moldova and Ukraine sure made a complicated mess of their borders. The first guy we passed, we soon realized, was simply there to prevent people without passports from getting to the second level. To get to the second level, we had to walk for about two-hundred metres. There’s nothing like walking across a frontier, is there?

At the second level of defense, we were approached by a Ukrainian customs official who asked us if we had our immigration forms. If not, we needed to fill them out here. She took a look at our passports and said, “Babin? That’s a Ukrainian last name. What are you doing here?!?!” This bought us instant credibility. She happily made sure our forms were in order, stamped our little piece of paper, and sent us on to the next checkpoint.

Another hundred metres down the road was the third level. Two Moldovan customs officials this time. They took our passports, incredulous at why two Canadians had come to Moldova by train and were now walking back to the Ukraine. What was this, a free country? These two guys weren’t nearly as interested in moving us on to the next checkpoint. They made some calls, recited our passport numbers and names into the receiver while no doubt Ministry of the Interior officials on the other end were checking to see if we were in fact spies. I swear the two officials asked me six times what we were doing and where we were going. “Ya, ok, I get that. But what are you really doing?”

I don’t blame border guards in remote places for having a little fun with foreigners. It’s all part of the experience. You never really feel threatened, but at the same time they keep you on edge. After all, they can either let you through or send you back to rural Moldova.

Eventually the two relented and stamped our passports and little piece of paper. We were in what appeared to be the Ukrainian border complex. Five metres separated the Moldovan booth and what we could only assume to be the Ukrainian booth. The only problem was that there was no one in the Ukrainian booth, so we just kept walking. I was thinking, “Hmm…that's odd. When are we going to get out Ukrainian entry stamps. How was I supposed to explain to the customs guys at the airport that we didn’t get an entry stamp walking across the border near Chernovitse. They’d think I was nuts and throw me in prison.” All of a sudden, a guy came charging out of the main border complex and yelling, “Come back!”

Right on cue, I guess. Border guards yelling is rarely a positive thing and should be avoided if at all possible, but I think this time it was welcome. The man took our passports and little piece of paper, asked us the usual questions, looked inquisitively at us, pondered the thought of playing a practical joke, stamped our passports and piece of paper, and then sent us onwards.

The end was finally in sight; there was one guy left between us and non-border area Ukraine. We got to him and, not having a clue what to do, we tried to show him our passports. In response, he just sneered, ripped the little piece of paper out of my hand, and said “Get out of here!” Welcome to the Ukraine.

So let me get this straight. We had to pass through five checkpoints (Moldovan, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Ukrainian) and get four stamps on a little piece of paper that was then collected by the last guy? I bet it was easier in Soviet times.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

And Then Transdniestria Got in the Way – Part 4

Eventually, the guy’s friend pulled up in a car fit for a mafia henchman. This was too good to be true. There had to be someone tied up in the trunk who, after a quick run to the border to drop us off, would be “taken care of” in what I could only imagine to be true Moldovan mafia style. But I digress…

We got in the car and maneuvered our way through the giant potholes and mud puddles before finally reaching the pavement. Our first stop was not in fact at the border, but at a local bar some 200 metres down the road. Some people were playing a Russian version of billiards outside the entrance. They greeted the driver and our friend as we walked by. I guess you really would know everyone if you lived in such a small village.

Inside, our friend greeted the waitress like she was his wife. It was borderline strange, but could be reasonably explained by the guy’s blood-alcohol level. The place, which was typical of the many post-Soviet establishments I have seen (characterized by being empty, having cheesy bar, and displaying an extravagant liquor collection), was deserted by even the optimistic of estimates. We were treated to some Moldovan banter between our entourage and the local staff. Such a curious language, Moldovan. Could’ve been Latin for all I know.

We were offered every liquor under the sun before finally ending up with a small glass of warm Moldovan beer. Surely vodka, or any other spirit for that matter, would destroy our credibility at the border. I could just hear the border guards…

“Look at these two Canadian drunks with Ukrainian last names. What the hell are they doing walking across this border. They must be smuggling,” would say one.

“Hey, let’s play a joke on them. I say we throw their drunk asses in a holding cell for the night,” would scheme the other.

Eventually we were back on the road. Houses that looked as though they had sunk into the ground passed by outside the car. Our time in Moldova was coming to an end. The last stop was the border checkpoint. We would be walking across this one, so it promised to be at least mildly eventful (if history had any say in the matter).

Monday, February 02, 2009

Good Things Happen When You Play Chess Against a Caucasian

After thoroughly pummelling me in chess, it seems the Georgian Finance Minister has gone on to greener pastures.

Keti says:
btw - remember our finance minister??? guess what?
President appointed him as prime minister and parliament is about to approve his candidacy

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Foreigners' Dilemma

A bus and a taxi are coming towards you. Your intention is to take the bus. If you stick your hand out to flag the bus down, you know the taxi driver is going to misinterpret your gesture as an attempt to flag him down. The taxi then cuts the bus off in an effort to stop close enough to you. Honks are exchanged before the taxi driver realizes his mistake and continues on. If you don't stick your hand out to avoid the aforementioned scene, the bus doesn't stop and you're left standing in the rain.