CHAPTER 9: MOLDOVAN POLICE ACADEMY

 

June 15th

 

KM START = 20,641 (Trip = 10,271)

KM END =  21,050 (Trip = 10,680 )

 

Route: Istanbul > Kirklareli > Burgas > Sunny Beach (BG)

 

Berna is up way too early to go to work, but we manage to kick ourselves out of bed at the same time and get geared up for the days riding. Istanbul has been like the perfect first date for us, leaving us interested, aroused, and longing for our next encounter. But we will have to leave it behind and play the game of “Cross that border” for the next 4 days, with the first one being Bulgaria to the North.

 

Now my knowledge of Eastern Europe has been gained in dribs and drabs through a lifetime’s exposure to popular culture, as opposed to the more credible means of diligent research and caffeine enabled university cramming. As such I will begin each new country of the next few days with the starting point “Things I know about .....”, and maybe we’ll see if they are close to the mark or whether in fact I am a product of a vacuous and poorly informed society.

 

THINGS I KNOW ABOUT BULGARIA

 

  1. They have one of the highest per capita ownerships of Olympic weightlifting gold medals in the world, indicating either:

(a)   That the genotype and phenotype of the regions inhabitants result in the development of human muscle fibre that displays exceptional power to weight ratio characteristics, or

(b)   That Bulgarian biochemists are a few years ahead of the doping authorities.

 

  1. That it is becoming increasing popular with UK holiday makers and overseas home owners (Could weightlifting be the new mountain biking?!)

 

  1. That it is unwise to give motorists here the finger, as they will undoubtedly know certain “Security Consultants” (read “goons in tight fitting black suits”) who may take pleasure in the removal of said digit as well as other vital appendages and organs.

 

But we will have to wait to discover if there is any currency in the above, as the Turkish Border proves a right pain to cross. Turns out they have implemented a new electronic system for vehicle registration 4 days ago, and none of the guards have been trained in basic computer operation let alone the newly installed system. The old guy with the most gold stripes on his blazer is the least competent with modern technology, so naturally is designated as chief data entry guy and key user for the system.

 

After 90 minutes of hearing him barking down the phoneline at helpdesk staff trying to teach him how to use a mouse and keyboard, Pierpaolo and I resort to looking up our own records on his PC and typing the information in for him at the risk of denting his ego in front of his juniors. But the plan works and we cross the border into Bulgaria at last, leaving a conga line of cross border travellers wanting to jump on his computer and do the same.

 

This section of southern Bulgaria to Burgas is wonderful – the mountain air is cool and crisp, and the forests are made of monotone dark green trees that spear up, like giant broccoli into the skies above. From Burgas we press on to Sunny Beach – it is Friday night and this is one of two places on the coast where people from here and abroad come to party. Extra attention to secure parking (too many stories of Bulgarian Mafia theft rings in our conscience) and we check into a hotel, then go grab a local pint and a superb traditional mixed grill dinner.

 

After dinner its off to a Beach Bar where scantily clad temptresses are dancing on the bar tops, shaking their sculpted booties to booming music - much to the delight of the ogling male and strangely appreciative female crowd. There is a lot to like about this place! We meet some nice German girls on holiday and head out to a club with them – all fun and trips to the bar with some random outbreaks of dancefloor destruction. Just as we are heading back to the hotel, the sun pokes its head above the horizon and says welcome to the new day...not right now thanks, I’ve got a hangover to look forward to.

 

 

June 16th

 

KM START = 21,050 (Trip = 10,680 )

KM END =  21,236 (Trip = 10,866 )

 

Route: Sunny Beach > Varna > Costinetsi (RO)

 

Milking every possible minute from our 11 o’clock checkout, we leave the hotel, grab an enormous breakfast for pennies and head out North toward the Romanian border. Bulgaria has surpised me for a number of reasons – our bikes weren’t stolen, the Black Sea beach was actually quite decent, we didn’t meet any weightlifters and the road and countryside was actually rather pleasant. The blanket of green forest eventually fades to fields of wheat as the terrain flattens out, and there are moments where our glances to the East reveal a horizon layered in 3 hues – golden wheat against a cerulean sea, with corn blue sky above. Beautiful. Maybe the wave of British property owners have got it right and this is a decent place to head away to for a week or two each year.

 

THINGS I KNOW ABOUT ROMANIA

 

1. As a nation it is very prolific at turning out micro-elastic gymnastic 12 year old human pretzels.

2. Could probably use all of the allocated EU money and more.

 

Just 1 year previous, crossing the border here would have taken the better part of a day. But now thanks to the EU expansion program our UK registered bikes snake down the customs queue and are waved straight into the country. I was not expecting it to be that easy.

 

Now our destination, Costinetsi, is billed as the Monte Carlo of Romania. Sounds impressive, but its a bit like saying Watford is “the Paris of the M25”. Its absolute values we’re interested in, not relative. Cynicism put to one side, it is a very nice ride in, and we come to stop at a busy beachside bungalow where the owner makes room for us in a section of his house. And changes our money at the bank rate. Not something you expect from someone in a lounge suit, gold chains and white trainers but his smile and hospitality are genuine.

 

Today marks the last day of coastline on our trip, so we make the most of the situation and head straight on down to the beach for a swim and a sunbathe. The Romanian beach here is a revelation – the water’s clean, the suns belting down into the late afternoon, and there is a seeming abundance of gorgeous topless olive skinned local lasses frolicking by the shore. The afternoon is going so well, but a rancid grilled meat dinner brings us back down to the reality that we are in the former Eastern Bloc and not St Tropez.

 

Walking through town that night it is soon clear that if you want to make your fortunes in the world of Romanian womens underwear, it would pay to carry an extensive range of thongs (or bum floss as my brother calls them) and not to bother with the unnecessary overhead of carrying a bra range. They just don’t seem to sell that well over here.

 

All in all the Black Sea coast has been much better expected. In fact the girl staying next door to us was getting very excited about being there, with orgasmic shrieking and banging of bedboards all through the night with our bunglaow owning lounge suit lothario. He must have taken immense pleasure putting us up in house and taking our money, knowing he haid a paid audience for his nights activities.

 

 

June 17th

 

KM START = 21,236 (Trip = 10,866)

KM END =  21,795 (Trip = 11,425 )

 

Route: Costinetsi > Constantia > Galati > Chisinau (MD)

 

Another day, another border, but its not the one we thought. Looking at our maps over breakfast, we had believed it possible to cross from Romania into the Ukraine by crossing over the Danube. But on closer scrutiny, the bridge we imagined on the map is just a product of wishful thinking... if we want to get into the Ukraine, we’re going to have to go round the long way.

 

So when someone in the future asks us “Why the hell did you go to Moldova” the answer will not be the Edmund Hillary inspired “Because it was there”...more like “Because it was in the way”. Hardly an accolade to bestow upon Europe’s most forgotten country.

 

THINGS I KNOW ABOUT MOLDOVA

 

1. Shit this is hard...I thought that Tony Hawk fellas book was all a joke... does it really exist?!

2. Erm, if it does, then they probably take the Eurovision Song Contest very seriously.

 

So this is where the adventure element kicks in again – going where no man with 20 days holiday a year and an element of common sense has dared go before. Customs procedure at the border is a doddle (they must really want to join the EU and are out to impress their first visitors this year) and for 2 Euros they stamp our passports with fruity coloured ink and disinfect our bikes (read “riding across a soggy doormat”) and bid us welcome to their mysterious country.

 

Feeling the general swell of good feeling and unbridled border guard love, Pierpaolo warmly introduces himself to the new land by gently reaching out to one of its friendly looking hounds. “BARK! Grrrrrrrrrrrr........RRRRRUUUFFFFFF!!!” and the dog chases him out of the customs control area at full speed, fangs bared and saliva lasooing in the air left behind. Its the first incident of animal rage on the journey, and I am pissing myself with laughter at the 4 legged welcome committee’s reaction to our arrival. It would be too soon to take it as a bad omen.

 

Well Shakespeare could have scripted this one. The minute we collect ourselves together, a dark rumbling is heard off in the distance, punctuated by a snarling crack of thunder. Its coming up from the South and looks to be 50 km away – we have a long way to go, but figure we should jump on the bikes and try and stay ahead of it for today as there are not many places to stop between here and the capital, 300 km away.

 

So its open the throttles and try and make some decent progress on some roads that are abundant with character. Thats a Moldovan tourism euphemism for poorly signed yet generously potholed disintegrating ashphalt. The clouds above laugh at our feeble progress, and within 20 minutes this laughter turns to tears, which turns to universal jetwash.

 

I have never before SEEN rain like this before, let alone try to ride a motorbike through it, but we are in the middle of nowhere with not a single leaf for shelter so we try to push on as best we can. Visibility is down to 3 metres, and every 10 metres we have to take a hand off the handlebars and wipe the helmet visor so we can reclaim our paltry vision. When they say coming down in sheets, well this is the real deal. Its as if the rain came down in drops and someone upstairs had the bright idea of joining the dots. The 80 km/ hr gusts add to the general fun, but when the jets of water running off my jacket manage to prise their way into my boxer shorts, well its time to get off the bike and figure out what the hell we can do.

 

The last cloud above lingers around like a drunk after closing hours, but after 40 minutes of a total washout the weather behind us shows some sunshine poking through. So rather than racing the clouds behind us, we change our game plan to not catching the clouds in front. And what an easy job that turns out to be.

 

The next 60 kilometres of road rate as some of the toughest on the trip, right up there alongside the pistes of the Moroccan Dakar stage. The national highway has become some sort of Kick Start trials course, with antique roads broken and twisted, strewn with boulders and holding 2 feet of water on the surface in some areas. Its so ridiculous in some parts I just laugh like a maniac, hoist the feet up on to the handlebars (to stop the trousers from getting totally waterlogged) and gas it through the flooded streets and broken rivers. In terms of European infrastructure, I am already referring to Moldova now as “Leftovas”.

 

Its extremely slow progress and its tough to make any meaningful distance. This country feels like a step back into medieval times, with dirt roads and mud huts being the order of the day. But as we get to within 150km of the capital, a transformation takes place... the roads become less “charismatic” and more ridable, and before too long we are zooming through a landscape of perpetual vineyards and blue skies. A Utopian vision of New Zealand minus Richard Hadlee. Marvellous.

 

But you would be hard pushed to actually DO anything here. The Lonely Planet for Moldova is, unsurprisingly, one of the more slender volumes in that venerable series of travel guides. I think when you take out the History, Culture, Facts for the Visitor, and useful Moldovan phrases section of the book, you are left with approximately 20 pages of places to stay and things to do, 19 of which focus around the capital, Chis’nau.

 

The capital city really is the centrepiece of the country, with a soothing scarcity of 1960’s Eastern Bloc architecture. Instead it is a well laid out and well preserved town. After the chaos of our journey today, it is a welcome place to get ourselves back together, dry off, take a pleasant dinner and even check out what the local club scene has to offer. Its Sunday night so our expectations are low, but its plenty busy inside. The quality of the venue, the music and the girls dancing inside lead us to believe that this place will soon become a favoured location for many an Englishmans stag weekend. IN other words it will get ruined some day, but tonight it’s a fun place to be out.

 

June 18th

 

KM START = 21,795 (Trip = 11,425 )

KM END =  22,340 (Trip = 11,970  )

 

Route: Chis’nau > Kiev

 

Finding Moldova on a map is quite a challenge. Finding your way OUT of Moldova once you are in it seems to present even more problems, as demonstrated by our 40 minute Keystone Cops routine trying to find right road out of Chis’nau this morning. The general principal of infrastructure in these countries seems to be that if your roads are rubbish, then it would just be plain foolish to entice people into using them. Why squander public money on signs, traffic lights and other navigational aids when you can commission gigantic marble statues depicting either moustached leaders or well chiselled peasants staring off into an empowering horizon?

 

But who cares! It’s a blue sky day and the mercury’s touching 30, so riding a bike in the great European outdoors is not a bad place to be, all things considered. The roads today however are punishing – rough concrete with bomb crater potholes dotted all the way to the Ukrainian border. Coming close to the frontier, we pass through 2 military checkpoints where freshly starched generals put us through some formal inquisitions.  A crap job, but the military guys are very professional and courteous. Its as if the wheels of bureaucracy are greased freely and rolling our way all morning.

 

10 kilometres from the border, we come upon a roundabout in the road with 3 possible exits and no signpost. Not a problem! There is a police station located on one of the corners, so Pierpaolo pops in to ask directions. And like lambs to the slaughter, so the morning progressed.

 

“Which way to Kiev?”, is phonetically similar to the northern Moldovan slang of “Vhisssh vaaar, da key eiiiev”, which loosely translated comes across as “ Pigface asshole, please steal our money”. Well it didn’t take long for Captain Porky and his lean young assistant (why must cops always be paired with their circumferential opposite?) to demand seeing our documentation. Absolutely no problems here, we are well prepared and have every bit of paper imaginable. But with well rehearsed seriousness, he declares there is a major problem as we do not have a “Revisa Technica”... an imaginery piece of paper that all 4 of Moldovas motorists seemingly have stitched to their breast - unthinkable to pilot the nations highways without one!

 

15 minutes spent backing up our documentation with some very amateur charades depicting the process for registering a bike in the UK and we are getting absolutely nowhere.

 

The joy of taking 3 months off work is that in these instances, you have plenty of resources to play the waiting game. Its an old border guard trick – make concerned facial expressions, umm and arrggghhh about the grave consequences of the missing bureaucracratic stamp / form and keep it going until the victim loses patience and offers to buy his way out of the false predicament. Well sod that! I can feel myself chanelling the powers of my father, a man who never suffered a fool in uniform gladly. If this guy wants a bribe, then he better ring his wife and tell her he won’t be in for tea tonight.

 

I make myself extremely comfortable in a chair opposite his desk and practice my wistful “nice day outside, think Ill just watch the clouds go by...” stare off into the distance. After 45 minutes, we have a false Eureka...he will let Pierpaolo go (bloody Italians, get away with everything), but my crime is much more serious and therefore I must stay behind. 1 out of 10 for originality...divide and conquer won’t work here mate, we’re sticking together in your office and that’s that.

 

But sadly we do have a deadline ahead. We have arranged to meet a friend of Pierpaolo’s in Kiev thisevening, and this guy has travelled 9 hours across the Ukraine to get there. It would be a bit rude not to show up on time for an effort like that. With midday past and over 500 km left to go, we eventually succumb to the inevitability of giving this prick some money. 20 Euros will buy me a temporary Revisa Technica , a red ticket that’s probably his overdue fine for a late video – I can’t read Moldovan too well these days. Anyway I leave the money on the desk, dont even get the souveneir red ticket for the scrap book, and we head off to the border. Well for 20 Euros he did at least end up telling us which way it was!

 

Clearing Moldovan customs – has word spread around this nation that there are 2 guys on bikes who love a good bribe scam when they hear one? Well the guy stamping our passports seems to have got wind of it. We hand our documents to one gate, they get checked, then off to another to get the exit stamp. And wouldn’t you know it, the young guy about to clear me makes the same concerened facial expressions that Captain Porky was making 10 kilomtres ago. Is their a NADA academy course for Moldovan government officials? The Executive Acting MBA for busy yet bent enforcers? All the evidence points to this conclusion.

 

Pointing to the Moldovan stamp in my passport, it appears that one of the officials somewhere has penned over a small arrow and changed it from “>” to “<”at the Galati port of entry. Now quite why anyone would give a toss is not subject for discussion – the point that is trying to be made is that this is something that must be verified and corrected by the official in Galati – a two day motorbike ride there and back that frankly I would rather not embark upon. My back is well and truly up at this school boy scamming trick, so I park my bike in the middle of the customs lane and do everything I can to convey the idea that their life would be better off without me hanging around, which may unfortunately be for a very long time.

 

Hoorah! After 10 minutes of junior giving no quarter, the old captain comes out of his office and heads toward the port-a-cabin bottleneck with some purpose. Junior scammer resolves the issue instantly, stamps the passport and sends me begrudgingly on my way. A smal moral victory but the taste is sweet.

 

Oh shit, now the Ukrainian border. Not exactly researched to exacting standards, we think that as EU residents we do not need a visa for this country. Well what a pleasant surprise. It’s as if they are still drunk with happiness after winning Eurovision in 2004, and with a hearty thump of rubber stamp on leather bound passports we are whisked into old Mother Russia with smiles and goodwill pouring from the government officials. Countries wishing to join the EU, please take note.

 

500 kilometres to Kiev and its early afternoon...we need to make some swift progress, so we gun down the 2 lane highway that will link us up to the new Odessa > Kiev Motorway. And what a ride it is. The highway is constructed as slab concrete, with the joins between the slabs varying in height from 1 inch (good if you are biking over it) to 12 inches (good if you’re a local funeral director). All with the requisite potholes, rocks and gravel on the bits inbetween.

 

It’s one of those days where our choice of bike is completely justified... launching off the road cracks and getting air at 120km / hour on a trail bike is actually quite a hoot. Launching off the same cracks on a sports bike would be a rather short, expensive and painful way to go travelling. Our hands are holding onto the bars in a way that looks like we are holding down a kangaroo with Tourettes. Very physical riding, but we feel 110% alive and alert, hurtling down the road and scouring with our eyes for the bits that could leave us unstuck.

 

And the scale of Russia is becoming apparent. The sky has not a cloud in it – an endless corn blue horizon, and we are passing alongside plump golden fields of wheat.  In the distance, these fields look like giant sheets of brushed copper riveted across the surface of the earth. The colours are simple, rich and beautiful – I wonder if the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag was drawn from this image we are in.

 

After the National Highway Motorcross Section, we merge onto the Kiev motorway. You could not have a more contrasting stretch of road. The bumps, cracks, leaps and hazards of the previous section now become 350 kilometres of coal black tarmac, laid down like felt on a billiard table and pointing in one direction North. I love that about Eastern Europe and Russia. When these countries want to make a statement there is no faffing around. We need a motorway...Bang! Build a whopping great 6 lane racetrack all the way to the capital and have it done in 12 months. Next problem please? In the UK, adding a single lane to a 7 mile section of the M25 takes 10 years and counting.

 

The miles are disappearing, and by early evening we have successfully managed to get extremely lost in the concrete jungle of Kievs outer suburbs. Pierpaolo gives his friend Alex a call, and 1 hour later he pops out of a metro station nearby and jumps on Pierpaolos bike with the idea of guiding us into the city.Well pretty quickly there are 3 very lost people riding around Kiev. The cowboy spirit is however alive and well, and with a few kilometres of riding up sidewalks, crossing median strips and sneaking down some 1 way streets we get to a place where he has organised beds for the night.

 

There is one catch. As a hotel its also a bit of a cowboy operation - its actually just vacant apartments in a government housing area. The whole show is run by a very canny and inhospitable old duck, who takes our money (not alot) but then informs us that we have to be out by 7:30 AM the next morning as someone else is moving into the flat. We are totally shattered after a long and punishing day on the bike and tonight I would pay anything for a hotel room and a big sleep in the next day. But it’s not to happen.

 

Its around 11PM and we are famished, so we decide to grab whatever food we can locally and hit the hay as soon as we can. On the council estate there is a trailer pub setup which seems to have all the charm of a crack den, but as its the only option we go inside, grab a seat at the smoky tables and are surprised to have an incredibly tasty meal of chicken washed down with a few bottles of the outstanding local brews. The bill came to £1.20 each. There is no doubt we are in the cheap and rougher end of town, but with Alex alongside us we feel like we are well looked after.

 

12,000 kilometres down and we have reached the most Eastern point of our entire trip – after our rest day in the city it will be a case of turning left and pointing the bikes in the direction home.