Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Falling Over

If Vylkove is the end of the world, then by going to Moldova you've truly fallen over the edge. The greater rurality hits you as soon as you cross the border and donkeys with their carts begin to vie with cars for road space, the number of stray dogs increases, time turns to treacle and grannies line the roads sitting on benches observing passing traffic with the studiousness of trained scholars. Moldova tapers towards its southern end until it hits a lazy, northward bend in the Danube where its measly 480m of river bank hosts the country's only "international port". This quirk of political geography must annoy Bulgarian truck drivers no end as they queue for hours at customs to get from Ukraine into Moldova, trundle along for 3km, unable even to reach any speed of note, before having to queue for hours at customs to get from Moldova into Romania. I bet being a border guard down there is one of the best-paid jobs in the country.

Traffic is not particularly heavy on Moldova's roads.

I was fortunate enough to spend my first couple of days in the country with a local guy named Constantin who lives in a small village just outside the regional capital of Cahul (it even has a university, though precious little besides). Proper touristic sights are thin on the ground in Moldova, but the charm of visiting lies in observing everyday life, which, with no exaggeration, is possibly as close as you are going to get to experiencing what rural Europe was like a century or more ago. One thing that has struck me is that, despite officially being the poorest country in Europe by quite a margin, many people in the countryside take a great deal of care maintaining their houses, which are often a variation on grey, even facades, sometimes with pretty decorative effects, sky-blue wooden window frames, doors and gables (the latter can, again, have more elaborate decorations), and green fences and gates. Constantin's village and house were pretty typical, with a modest garden out back affording picturesque views of the Prut valley and Romania on the other side - so near and yet so far. In a country where median incomes do not even reach 4 euros a day you are unlikely to see any gardens with well-tended lawns, instead they are an important supplement to one's income. The garden was roughly the same size as that of a typical 2-up 2-down in suburban England, and yet was chock-full of grapevines, aubergines, tomatoes, chickens, rabbits, squash and apple, pear and walnut trees.

Staying there reaffirmed why, for me, the end of September and beginning of October are the "sweet-spot" as far as travelling in southern Europe is concerned. (I do not get why anybody who doesn't have to i.e. due to school holidays, would want to travel around the region in July and August: prices are exorbitant, it's far too hot to do anything semi-strenuous, places are crowded and the mosquitoes can be particularly voracious.) Now the weather is mild and pleasant, there are few other tourists about (admittedly this probably isn't a huge problem in Moldova), the mozzies have calmed down and, perhaps even more importantly, it's harvest time. All manner of fruits and vegetables are now ripe, markets are overflowing with cheap, fresh produce, and even roadsides are lined with a multitude of snacks ready to be plucked from a low-hanging branch or off the ground (Moldova seems to specialise in walnuts). And so it was with Constantin who was planning to harvest his grapes to make this year's batch of homemade wine - for personal consumption and resale in the village. I was more than happy to help and spent an enjoyable day picking away (there's a trick whereby you can easily remove a bunch using just a single hand), chatting and popping the odd, black sphere of sweet juiciness into my mouth. Not only was it a pleasant change from churches and musea, but I also got to partake in an important Moldovan activity that is currently occurring up and down the country, as pretty much every single family, with even a single square metre of land, makes its own wine. I also got to witness the crushing, pressing, filtering and storing processes, and am only sad that I won't be around in 40 days to try the finished product. (At the end of the day we had a little over 200 litres, more than enough to satisfy the needs of Constantin and his mum for the coming year and sell a good chunk besides - at around 60p a litre. Not bad for a mediocre year.)

Constantin squishing the hell out of another bucket-full of grapes.

Heading north (and veering ever-so-slightly east) from Cahul you pass through one of the most anomalous anomalies in world geopolitics. Scattered, non-contiguously, over an area of 1800 km2 (about half the size of Rhode Island) and comprising 3 towns and a handful of villages is the Autonomous Republic of Gagauzia. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it, pretty much nobody outside of Moldova (and a good number of people inside it) haven't either. But this isn't some joke gimmick like Hutt River Principality or Sealand, but a fully fledged autonomous region within Moldova, with its own constitution, parliament and president. So what, and perhaps more importantly why, the hell is Gagauzia?

Gagauzia is home to the Gagauz ethnic minority, a Turkic group descended from those that came over to the Balkans during the Age of Migrations during the 8th-11th centuries AD (this is the official history, however I've seen a few other theories bandied about). They set up camp in what is today eastern Bulgaria and had their own kingdom with cordial links with the Byzantines, from whom they adopted Orthodox Christianity (they are one of only two Turkic peoples to be Christian, the other being the even more obscure Balkars of the north Caucasus). Then the Ottoman empire came conquering through and the Gagauzians became incorporated into that, finding themselves in the odd position of being suspected by their Christian co-religionists for being Turks, and by their Turkish lords for being Christians and possible apostates. Nevertheless things were pretty stable until the Russians kicked the Turks out of the region at the end of the 18th century. Whilst doing that they also removed the pesky Moldovans/Romanians, Bulgars and pretty much everyone else from what is now southern Moldova and sent them off to Siberia (a tactic that would be used throughout Russia's various incarnations) and so invited the Gagauzians to settle the fertile, yet underpopulated land, where they have lived to this day. However, when Moldova seceded from the USSR the Gagauzians were worried that it might rejoin with Romania (during the interwar years Moldova was part of a larger Romania and it was not a particularly happy time for them) and so started their own secessionist movement. It is quite amazing that the dispute was settled without bloodshed and nary a shot being fired, and gave the few majority Gagauz settlements in the country autonomy and a bizarre-looking map.

Gagauzia's parliament looks more like a provincial high school than a seat of temporal power.

Without knowing this you could easily drive through Gagauzia without noticing anything different from the rest of Moldova: the villages and landscape are identical, there are some signs in the Gagauz language (though if you find Romanian unintelligible then you probably wouldn't spot the difference) and there is a slightly higher proportion of people with darker hair. Nevertheless there are significant differences, the most marked being language. The Gagauzians refuse to learn Romanian and only speak Gagauzian or Russian, often switching between the two multiple times within the same sentence (a bewildering experience when riding along in the local marshrutkas). There is significant investment from Turkey, which, in its self-appointed role of promoter of Pan-Turkism, has built a new (I hesitate to use the word modern) university, schools, roads and others besides. And whereas most young Moldovans look to the west for their future opportunities, namely Romania and Italy (more on that later), young Gagauzians look east (and perhaps need to cross their eyes while doing so) towards Russia and Turkey.

The capital, Comrat, is a typical, boxy little Soviet town, albeit one with a national parliament. There's the ubiquitous Lenin statue (striding forward, purposefully, book in hand) on Lenin Avenue, a monument to the Great Patriotic War featuring a tank, another, more understated one also for the soldiers that died during the Afghan War, and the national museum. The latter is a rather sad affair, run by a trio of bored ladies. I was probably the only visitor that day and had my own personal doyenne following me about variously switching lights on and off and listlessly pointing out random oddities. The next day I decided to visit the village of Besalma, supposedly the most "typical" in the republic. To be honest it looks like any other village in Moldova, but it does have a lovely ethnographic museum ... which was closed because it was a Monday. So instead I had a wander around, watching the people go about their daily business, enjoyed the sun, and tried to brush up on my Turkish (çok soğul). Whilst randomly taking some pictures of some quaint houses a young guy who was pressing his year's harvest of grapes spied me from his yard and started chatting to me. It turned out that his father knew the director of the museum and so he gave her a ring and she agreed to come over and open it for me. So for the next couple of hours I got a personal, and very thorough, tour of the museum from the director who was boundlessly enthusiastic about her work.

On a completely different note I thought I ought to share with you an event that got me more than a little panicked and shows how things don't always go super-smoothly whilst on the road.

Many people ask me how long I plan to travel, and the honest answer is that I don't know (though certainly not indefinitely). There are any number of things that could happen that might make me radically alter my plans and I have said on numerous occasions to anyone who will care to listen (and possibly a few who didn't) that if I am no longer enjoying travelling then I will stop. It is not a prison sentence; I don't want to be just going through the motions. I get a huge buzz out of learning and experiencing new things and if the fizz were to evaporate then I would call it a day. However, there is one thing that scares the bejeezus out of me, and that is having to stop for reasons that are out of my control, when I still want to carry on. A week ago I was afraid that just such a situation had come up.

Whilst in Odessa I was running after a marshrutka that would take me into Bessarabia. I had already dallied too long and didn't want to miss this one. Whilst running along the not-so-even road I twisted my ankle. Badly. Straight away I felt it and could barely walk anymore. Luckily the driver saw me, I hobbled aboard, clenched my teeth and held my ankle during the hour's ride, and then hobbled off again at my destination. I didn't really want to look at it, but knew that I had to do something ASAP. I took off my shoe and sock and winced when I saw that it had swollen to the size of a tennis ball. I was, however, pleased that I had finally got a chance to use the bandage in my first aid kit that I carried about for 3 years during my previous trip without ever needing it (you always have to find the silver lining, no matter how small). I strapped my ankle up tightly, having had some experience of how to deal with such situations from a previous, frisbee-related accident, took a couple of paracetamol and slowly limped into a nearby field to pitch my tent for the night. That night I was afraid that my trip would be aborted horribly early and worried myself to sleep. I refused to look at it the next day, afraid of what I would see, and decided to give it a week before deciding whether I should go on or not. It was not a particularly easy day and I was thankful that I carry a walking stick with me; but over the past week the swelling has markedly subsided and I can walk reasonably comfortably over even surfaces now. I'm just thankful that I had not intended to hike in Moldova, though I may have to alter my plans for the Carpathians in Romania. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel and that it looks like I got away by the skin of my teeth.

1 comment:

lfrantisek said...

Doufam ze se ti kotnik uzdravi. Dej si panaka :)