Cycling from Chisinau to Odessa, via Transnistria

It’s funny how life can change rather quickly sometimes. I had found a housesit in Nottingham that was advertised for about 5 weeks. I was looking forward to spending some time cuddling with two dogs and stay put for a short while. When I arrived, the owner mentioned coming back on Sunday, which I thought was odd… I asked her if we were talking about this coming Sunday and when she answered yes, I knew I had a bit of an issue. She had made a typo in the listing, and instead of needing someone for five weeks, it was only for five days.

To say that I was disappointed would be a very big understatement. I had a general idea of maybe heading to a less expensive country after that housesit, but I thought I would have a month to think about it and plan my next destination. I tried to find another housesit in the UK, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything suitable. I had to make a decision. I could go back to Scotland and stay at my friends for a few days. Or I could spend about the same amount of money and fly to Moldova.

I do love Tiraspol

Leaving the UK, again!

My decision wasn’t really hard to make. I was in Moldova about three years ago and I had really enjoyed my experience. I looked at the flights and found one that was not too expensive, leaving on the next Tuesday. We were Sunday night. This meant I had to repack my bags to fly and find a way to reach the airport. Luckily the homeowner offered to drive me to the airport when she came back from her trip.

After a short direct flight from Stansted, I arrived in Chisinau Airport. When I was waiting in line at the immigration and the officer was asking the guy in front of me a few questions about the length of his stay and where he was staying, I realized I was a bit crazy. I had booked a bed in the same hostel I stayed at last time, but that was as far as my plans went. That’s also the moment I realized I hadn’t told any of my friends in the UK that instead of being in Nottingham and being possibly able to meet up for day trips, I was no longer in the same country. When my turn came, the officer didn’t ask me any question, only wishing me a nice stay in Moldova.

Arcul de Triumf in Chisinau

I picked up my bags and walked out of the terminal. There was a guy coordinating taxis, but I had read online that the minibus no 165 was going from the airport to Ismail Rd, right in the center of the city, for only 3 Moldovan Lei (about 0.20 CAD). I told the men I was looking for the minibus and he tried his best to remember his English to tell me I would have to wait for about 10 minutes. When the right minibus arrived, he made sure I was ready and helped me carry my bag to the bus stop. When the minibus picked up some more people and I saw change being passed around to the people now sitting behind me, I quickly remembered how lovely and different it was, and how it would never happen in Canada or the UK.

When I arrived in the city, I started to recognize some buildings, and as I made my way to the hostel I felt as if no time had passed at all in the last three years. The holes in the sidewalk were still there. I was also quite proud I could remember the way after such a long time and so many countries visited!

Parcul catedralei in Chisinau

The next day, I was sitting in the hostel kitchen when a Swiss brother and sister walked in. We started talking and I learned that they were cycling from Switzerland to Kirghistan! Kim’s leg was hurting so they asked the receptionist if he knew of a doctor who spoke English in Chisinau and he simply answered no. He was obviously not really willing to find out the information for his guests, so I did a quick Google search and found that the American embassy was listing some English-friendly clinics. I shared the information and they left.

When Leila and Kim came back from the clinic, after being told he needed to rest his leg for about a week, they started to look for a way to bring Kim and his bike to Tiraspol and then Odessa, where they would get on a boat to Batumi in Georgia. We were half-joking when I said I could bring Kim’s bike to Odessa for him, and come back to Chisinau later on as I would have time anyway before my next assignment (a workaway gig I had since found in Rosu, a small village in the south of Moldova).

After talking to them the next morning, I decided I was going to give it a try and go with Leila and Moritz, their friend who was now joining them, to Ukraine. I would leave my bags in Chisinau, cycle to Odessa and catch the bus or train back before heading to Rosu. I knew it would be very challenging and probably very cold to cycle but I did also think it would be quite the experience! Another unplanned experience just like I love them!

Getting Moritz’s bike ready at the airport

First cycling day

It’s quite funny having no plans at all and being on my own. As hard as it is sometimes to be traveling by myself and not knowing what will happen, I really do appreciate it when it allows me to join Leila and Moritz for that cycle experience. Moritz was landing in Chisinau airport at around 11am so Leila and I set off to meet him. Chisinau is far from being the most cyclist-friendly city, with the traffic and potholes so my first 12km to the airport were a good warm up. We arrived and saw Moritz with his big box, getting ready to assemble his bike. Locals at the airport were very curious to see what we were doing. We ended up with a group of people looking very puzzled standing around us, watching us put a bike together.

We left shortly after lunchtime and made our way to Transnistria, a region of Moldova which declared its independence in 1990, but is barely recognized by anyone else than other breakaway regions. They do have their own currency, borders, government etc, yet according to many countries, it simply doesn’t exist.

Cycling to the border went pretty smoothly but we were getting worried to be facing a closed border as we had read it was closing at 4pm. When we arrived shortly after 4, we realized it was actually closing at 5pm so we had time to catch our breath. We went through the first control; the Moldovan police had a look at our passports and just as I was coming down one step, after being on a bike for a few hours, my legs had forgotten how to work. They went soft and I actually fell right on the ground. What a way to make an entrance!

Main road in Transnistria

We cycled through the no man’s land and stopped at the Transnistrian immigration to get our 24-hour visa. At the border, there were a lot of barking stray dogs which can be quite scary when you are surrounded and on a bike! The officer didn’t speak English so we used a lot of gestures and Leila’s Russian skills. The officer pointed at the buses to know which one was ours, we pointed back at our bicycles. The puzzled look on her face was great, she could clearly not fathom the idea to cycle all the way from Chisinau to Odessa.

As soon as we crossed into Transnistria the road was so much smoother, and drivers a lot more careful. We had booked a night at Dmitri’s Go Tiraspol hostel where Kim was already waiting for us. Leila and I went to change some of our Moldovan Lei into Transnistrian Rubles, but unfortunately, the three different changing offices we found were closed. Leila asked a shopkeeper where we could change our Lei and she agreed to change them into Transnistrian rubles, at the official rate. We went back to the flat to meet with Dmitri and followed his restaurant suggestion.

Tank monument in Tiraspol

Second day of cycling

The next morning we went for a walk in Tiraspol to see the war memorial, the Dniester River, and the super Lenin statue before following everybody towards the green market. Very busy on a Sunday. Dmitri decided to cycle with us to the edge of the city where the Tiraspol sign is located and we did a little photoshoot. It was already past lunch time when we finally set off.

Tiraspol (picture by Dmitri from GoTiraspol)

The roads in Transnistria are actually quite lovely to cycle on and people drive quite carefully. When we crossed into Ukraine, things changed! People were driving a bit more recklessly and there were potholes everywhere. Crossing the border was quite simple but both the Moldovan/Transnistrian police and the Ukrainian asked if we had drugs and weapons. As if we were going to carry that on a bicycle! It took a while to enter Ukraine and we ended up chatting with one of the guards who turned out to be quite nice even though that was definitely not our first impression. The road to Odessa is fairly flat with a few hills and very few villages. When we were getting tired after one such hill, we started to look for a place to pitch our tent, not too close from the road but somewhat sheltered from the view.

Our home for the night

Time to return the bike to his owner

After three days of cycling, we arrived safe, sound and a little sore in Odessa. Our last cycling day was quite uneventful except for the moment we decided to buy some apples with our leftover Transnistrian rubles (impossible to change anywhere else than Transnistria). The lady was filling up the bag, really wanting to give Moritz his money worth of the 16 Rubles, not understanding why he just wanted three apples! We had to stop her from filling the bag and as Leila and Moritz were leaving she added 3 oranges to the lot. We ended up eating apples every meal for the next few days.

We arrived in what felt like a busy Odessa with old cars and buses shortly after lunch time. As we were looking for the Babushka Grand Hostel, again not really well indicated with only  a very small sticker by the door bell, Kim was walking back from his Russian lesson so he could show us in the right direction.

Along the road in Ukraine

Exploring Odessa

I spent the next couple of days visiting Odessa, seeing the nice touristy area around the Potemkin stairs and the pedestrian street, enjoying some dumplings and borscht.

I discovered Odessa the same way I always discover a new city: by walking around without planning what I’m going to see. It did end up in me doing an extra long detour after coming back from the bus station to the hostel, but I did discover new shops and restaurants I’ll make sure to visit next time I am in the city. Odessa seems to have quite a lot of unexploited tourism potential, just like Moldova. After a couple days in Odessa, it was time to say goodbye to Leila, Kim, and Moritz and head back to Moldova, with yet another stop in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria.

Potemkin stairs, Odessa

When I went to the bus station to buy my ticket for the next day (with the help from a nice Russian speaking guy from the hostel) I learned that my options were a lot more limited than I expected. While there are frequent Marshrutkas from Chisinau to Tiraspol, the same can’t be said when it comes to returning to Moldova from Odessa. My options were either 7:30 or 12:30. I picked the 12:30 minibus knowing that it would give me enough time to arrive, find the flat and relax before meeting with Dmitri’s friends.

Back again in Tiraspol

I left the hostel in Odessa early because I wanted to make sure I would find the right bus. Bus stations are so busy they are already confusing places but when you add everything written in Russian it can quickly become overwhelming. It’s also a lot more challenging when you are on your own as nobody else can help you understand what people are saying!

Irina and I wearing our lovely skirts and scarves in Noul Neamts Monastery

After quite a bumpy ride on the Ukrainian side, I made it to Tiraspol. The road was almost more comfortable on the bicycle than in the minibus. I met up with Dmitri once again and at night, some of his friends came to the flat to have tea and sweets. We had lovely conversations about our respective countries and travels. At one point someone suggested I should cycle to the all-male Orthodox Noul Neamts Monastery in Kistkany village. It was quickly decided that Irina, Denis, Alexandr and I were going to meet in the morning, cycle to the monastery, borrowing Dmitri’s bicycles and come back early enough for me to have time to catch my minibus before my visa expired. I had so much fun cycling again. The road was fairly flat and when we arrived at the monastery, Irina asked if we could go up in the tower. It was very nice to see the village and monastery from up there. When we entered one of the churches, locals were attending the service. It was really interesting to see. Everybody was dressed very modestly. Irina and I wore a skirt on top of our trousers and a scarf for our visit. I’m really glad I got the chance to meet Dmitri and his friends, they are really fun and interesting people and I once again really liked my experience in Transnistria.

Noul Neamts Monastery

My return to Chisinau was very straight forward, even at the borders, the officer just picking up all the passports in the minibus before going back to the office. When I arrived in Chisinau it felt chaotic and disorganized, especially in the market area after Tiraspol where people actually followed the rules.

After all those adventures, I must admit I’m quite happy the housesitting in Nottingham was only for five days as I would not have decided to come back to Moldova and had all my recent great experiences.

Super Lenin statue in Tiraspol

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