Transsiberian, Day 3: The Soviet cross-border train adventure

Thursday, January 29th, 2016

My alarm wakes me at ten in the morning and I gather my things. As I’m getting ready, I hear male foreigners in the hallway chatting and playing various American pop songs, singing the along with the lyrics during the chorus with thick accents. I grab my things and by the time I leave the room, the source of the voices are gone. I check out of Wonderland Hostel, leave my luggage, and Machmud asks me if the Italian cleaning crew woke me. Nope, but I’m sure they, along with my luggage rustling, will wake Mark!

I head straight to the train station using the metro. I love riding metro systems in other cities. As usual, it was super simple to navigate, unlike one other city I know of…*cough* New York *cough*. Romanian is a Romance language, so many words are easy to understand as they are similar to Spanish. I love riding with the regular people, not tourists, everyone heading to their jobs, their classes, their everyday lives. Across from me sat a mother and her two young children, one of which was a six-year-old boy wearing an “I [weed leaf] WEED!” hat. How adorable. Meanwhile, a beggar and her two young daughters walked the length of the train (all cars connect without doors between, like those in Spain), singing a sad Romanian song, holding out a cup for money.

Once I got to the main train station, Gara du Nord, I purchased my overnight tickets to Chisinau, for the train departing later this evening. Tickets were only 140lei, or 35 USD. The train departs at 7:15pm so I have time to wander around town until then.

I headed into old town, stopping at Andrea K bakery, one of the many to-go bakeries along the streets in Bucharest. I heard about this one from Spotted By Locals, which said it was one of the best. I got a blueberry-filled pastry and off I went to a local coffee shop cleverly named THE COFFEE SHOP to take advantage of some WiFi. I used it to make plans with Becca and the gang, who woke up around noon after the late night, for lunch.

I meet up with them around 1:30pm and they indeed look weary from the few hours of sleep they got (almost unnoticeable from all their natural beauty, of course ;) ). They apparently headed back to the hostel around six in the morning. We look at food but the more traditional places are pricier and a tad too fancy for our weathered looks. After much hemming and hawing, we skip the more famous (and therefore crowded) Caru Cu Bere and instead we go to Taverna Covaci. I get mici, or spicy sausages, and sarmale, or cabbage stuffed with meat and potatoes, and mamaliga, or polenta, all eastern European dishes (our walking tour guide informed us that there isn’t one specific Romanian dish, as all the foods in this part of the world are a blend of various cuisines). I order a shot of the palinca liquer, described by my guidebook as “fearsomely strong.” It smells faintly of fruit and tastes bitter like whiskey. I get all of this, water and bread for less than seven dollars.

Off we walk to parliament, hiking around the perimeter of the behemoth only to discover that they closed at 4pm, and now it is 4:15pm. What a bummer. I was looking forward to checking out the legendary building but alas, we stupidly didn’t look at the hours it was open before planning our visit. And of course, the guard was sure we didn’t forget our stupidity, chiding us that it’s usually the French who don’t understand the hours, and how can we know English and not understand the hours on the sign!? Dude, don’t kick us when we’re down.

It’s getting late and I part ways with the New Zealanders one final time, but not before Becca and Sarah generously invite me to visit them in New Zealand and London, respectively. My heart was aglow with new friendship love!

I head off to the souvenir shop to get my requisite patch and sticker, which were surprisingly pricey given the setting. I could buy three shots of palinca for these prices!

Off I go in search of a red mailbox on the street, any street, to no avail. Therefore I walk all the way back to the post office to mail my postcards, then try to head to the National Museum of Romanian History. In front of the museum is a statue of a man holding a dog, whose head has a banner coming off of it from the side. According to our walking tour guide from yesterday, the statue was unveiled and everyone’s reaction was something like “oh. I see.” I can completely understand as it’s not only hideous, it’s also super weird. There is a Facebook page dedicated to photos of people mocking it by standing in front of it holding their own dogs, cats, or other random objects. I run up the steps of the museum only to find that it also just closed, only seven minutes prior. As Vampire Weekend once sang, I’ve “got the luck of a Kennedy” today.

I returned to the Humanists bookstore again for a tea and WiFi to plan my days in Chisinau. Mark messages me to let me know he went on the afternoon walking tour per my recommendation and didn’t make it to Parliament at all. I recommend he check the hours, and not be stupid like me.

On my way back to the hostel (why I didn’t leave my luggage at the train station, I don’t know) I stopped again at Andrea K bakery, this time picking up a raisin challah roll for the train. I grab my bag from the hostel and head off to the metro once again. The metro station attendant refuses to allow me to pay with a credit card, so I instead pay with a large bill to get some change, knowing there may be some bribing later.

I get to the Gara du Nord station and make my way to the platform and squeal with glee upon seeing a Lego-blue and yellow train before me. I ask several passersby to snap a photo of me with no luck. The passengers are working-class folk with lots of bags, eager to get to their destination.

After asking every engineer standing outside every car, I get on the right one. This train is definitely old, judging by the wood paneled walls and worn gold and red carpeting. There are a couple guys just outside the room next door that I nearly knock over with my backpack in the narrow hallway as I shove past.

I enter my room which is full with three women in their thirties and a toddler. One woman is on the phone, and the one sitting across me tells me in English that I can stow my luggage under the bottom benches. It is quite cramped, so I go into my bag and grab a fifty lei bill (just over ten dollars). I walk to the part of the train car where the conductor sits and hold it slightly hidden in my fist.

He immediately spots the edge of it peeking out and stares at it during our entire conversation.

“Do you speak English?" 
“No” (he smiles)
“Can I move into an empty room?” This requires lots of gesturing, and I reveal the bill.
“How many?”
“Just me.”
He takes the bill and asks me where I’m at. I walk back to my room and grab my bag, and we walk back towards the empty rooms and he gestures to one. I plop my bag down and lay back in my own, personal room.

The train takes off right on time (about 7:30pm), just as the conductor comes by to check my passport. He is wearing a hat this time and for a moment I panic that I bribed someone who isn’t in charge. But then I realize it is in fact the same guy and all is good. “Amerika, da?” He flipped through the pages of my passport and returned it to me, then took my tickets. About fifteen minutes later he returns with a large trash bag filled with folded towels and bedsheets, takes out a plastic-sealed stack and leaves it on my bench.

Around ten, I hear a toddler’s giggles through my shut door and it’s a proven fact that all toddler giggles, regardless of nationality, are adorable. I step out in the hallway and it’s my former roommate and her daughter. The mother is on the phone while the little girl is running up and down the hallway, grabbing at anything within arm’s reach. I step out to take pictures out the window and the girl takes interest in my camera, asking me to show her the pictures. I crouch down to show her, and then stand and return to take photos again. She gets frustrated and tugs at my pant leg, repeating some word that I assume is the Romanian word for “down” as she points at my knees and then the ground. We play this back and forth game of me wanting to take video out the window and her wanting to see everything I record, until her mother gets off the phone and we chat.

I learn her mother is Romanian, and she speaks English very well. She explains how she’s used to taking the bus from Bucharest to Chisinau, since the train is more expensive. However, when traveling with her daughter, the train doesn’t require that she pay for a seat, so it’s the train is the cheaper option when they travel together.

I asked her about the wheel change (more on that in a moment). She said that you sleep right through it, the only time you really wake up is when the train cars are pushed back together again. I look at a train schedule posted on a wall, and see that the wheel change will occur around four, so I set my alarm around 3:30am.

So by now it is ten at night and I want to explore before waking myself for the wheel change, so off I go to the neighboring arks to see what the dining car looks like. I never do find it, but I enjoy the sense of danger as I open the car door to the neighboring car, revealing nothing but darkness, and hear a deafening rumble of metal wheels on tracks. I step my foot forward to ensure it hits ground before proceeding to the neighboring car. I walk through a few cars, both second and then first class, before giving up on finding the dining car and returning to my cabin. Oh, and along the way, I saw the furnace with a pile of coal beside it… because this train runs on coal.

I use the bathroom before bed and it is… well, it makes those public park bathrooms look glorious. I don’t even mind exiting to the hallway, where the coal fumes in the air are like a sweet perfume in comparison.

Just as I am dozing off to sleep, I hear the first the coal refills of the night: a light metal clink, and a dull digging grind scooping up the coals.

So, regarding the wheel change… Stalin changed the widths of the trains country to country, because he wanted to slow down supply shipment across borders if the trains were ever pirated. Therefore, at the border crossing between Romania and Moldova, the train needs to get lifted up, the wheels need to be removed, and the train cars are reconnected. I am curious how this entire process goes down in one hour.

I wake up to my alarm at 3:45am. It is so hot in my room, especially now that I’ve shut my door to the hallway. No one needs this much heat. I know I’ll be thinking otherwise once I’m in the tundra that is Mongolia, but my lord…a thousand degrees of radiator heat AND a wool blanket? I find myself resting my hand on the glass of the window just to remember what cold feels like.

We are at the border, so the train rolls to a stop as we hit passport control. A woman in uniform comes in to ask if I need to declare anything, I say no, and she leaves. A man comes by and takes my passport. Twenty minutes later he returns with a stack of passports, mine being the only American blue passport in the set. I flip through the pages and discover my first ever train passport exit stamp for crossing the border via the railroad.

Around 4:45, the train moves again. I realize my new international burner phone had a radio, so I enjoyed some Romanian pop music…and Ed Sheeran… until a man in plainclothes enters my room and starts talking in Romanian. “English?” “doctor.” He responds as he points to himself. “No problem?” “no.” I don’t really know why he was there.

An officer enters and speaks Romanian. “English?” He asks me where I was born. “United States.” “Tourist?” “Da.” “Armdrahg? “What?” “Arms?” He makes shooting gestures with his hands. “No, no.” “Drugs?” “No.” He didn’t have to make any gestures for that one, but I’m curious what he’d do if he had to.

At 5:15am, a woman enters with a laptop strapped on her neck and waist like a ballpark beer vendor. “Passport?” I hand her the passport. “Tourist?” “Da.” She scans my passport on her laptop, asks for my reservation, which is in the possession of the conductor. She stamps the entrance into Ungheni, Moldova.

At 5:30 we begin moving again. There are loud clanks and the train moves backwards and pulls into a train yard. Around six, the train gets listen onto steel stilts and workers climb under the train to slide out the wheels. I watch from my window in amazement as it appears the workers remove and replace the wheels with nothing more than a wrench and steel hammer pulled from an average-looking toolbox. The train is lowered from its stilts and by 6:45am, we’re moving again, and I drift off to sleep until my nine AM arrival.