Friday, 3 January 2014

The Missing Link: Introduction

world-map konotop


And welcome to 2014 and the first post of my new travelogue, ‘The Missing Link’. Today’s offering gives an introduction to what will follow and explains why I made the trip. I have to say that this was one of the ebst trips I’ve ever done and I cannot stress enough how much I recommend both Romania and Moldova to anyone interested in visiting. And as for Ukraine, well, it was where I went on probably the best day trip I have ever enjoyed. If not the best, then certainly the most surreal. That though, is for later, now step right up and help complete the missing link…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip


The Missing Link

Travels through Ukraine, Moldova, Transdniestria and Romania


A Note on Spellings of Place Names


As with any language not using the Latin script, transliteration of names into English can at times prove problematic. In Ukraine however, things are doubly so because there are usually two ways of rendering a name depending on whether you are calling it be its Russian or Ukrainian title. These days Ukrainian is the official language of the country, but large parts of the population don’t speak it and in many of the areas that I visited, (e.g. Odessa and Bolgrad), Russian is still the lingua franca as it was in the days of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. That said, the two languages are extremely similar; I cannot tell the difference between them when spoken and often on Ukrainian TV there can be a debate with one person speaking in Ukrainian and the other replying in Russian, but unfortunately when written in Latin script they can often look quite different, (and one suspects that this is deliberate).

For the purposes of this book I have merely used the spellings most familiar to people which are generally Russian. This should not be taken to indicate that I have anything against the use of Ukrainian spellings although conversely, as a fervent opponent of nationalism, they don’t overly impress me either. But, for reference purposes, here are the names of all the places in the travelogue in both Russian and Ukrainian:

















Finally, one other point of note: if I had been writing this travelogue ten years ago, I would have undoubtedly referred to the country as ‘The Ukraine’ whereas throughout this work it is simply ‘Ukraine’. The article ‘The’ was always added to the country’s name until very recently but no one is quite sure why. One theory is that because it is thought that the meaning of the name is ‘The Borderlands’, (or to give a British example, ‘The Marches’ as in the sense of the Welsh Marches), the ‘kraine’ having the same route as ‘krajina’ such as was heard frequently during the Yugoslavian Wars. Here using a ‘The’ makes sense but Ukrainian nationalists dislike it and argue that the name might just be an ancient name for the people of that region and so the ‘The’ is inappropriate. Whatever the case, around 1993 attitudes towards the name in English began to shift and so I too refer to the place without its ‘The’. After all, I’ve used the Russian placenames throughout so one should do something for the other side…

If you find all of this rather interesting, check out this article on the subject:

Country Names and “The”: The Ukraine or Ukraine

Moldova and Transdniestria

Like with its big brother to the east, this tiny country – or ‘countries’ depending on how one looks at it – can also cause us a few linguistic headaches.

Again the problem stems from there being two languages competing for the soul of the nation. Back in Soviet days Russian reigned supreme, but before that it was Romanian, but before that Russian and so on. These days Moldovan, (essentially a dialect of Romanian), is the official language of the Republic of Moldova whilst in Transdniestria you will only hear or see Russian. In Gagauzia the Gagauz language also has official status as a recognised regional language, (like Russian). In this travelogue I have used the Moldovan names for places within Moldova and the Russian names for those within Transdniestria. Here’s a table of place names in both Russian and Moldovan:











The complications continue however with the names of the countries themselves for few subjects are fraught with more difficult. Firstly, Moldova. They refer to themselves as ‘Republica Moldova’, (lit. ‘Republic of Moldova’). This name is derived from the mediaeval Principality of Moldavia which included present-day Moldova as well as the province of Romania nowadays called Moldavia and lands now in south-western Ukraine. To make things complicated, the Soviet name was the Moldavian (not ‘Moldovan’) SSR whilst today Romanians refer to their ‘Moldavia’ as ‘Moldova’ and the other country as the ‘Republic of Moldova’.

And then there’s Transdniestria. The official name for that unofficial country is the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ (PMR), often shortened to ‘Pridnestrovie’ in Russian. Whilst ‘Transdniestria’ is perhaps the most commonly-used name in English, you may also see ‘Transnistria ‘ or ‘Trans-Dniestr’. All the names refer to the lands ‘Across the Dniestr’.


After all that, Romania is a doddle since they use the Latin script. I have used the correct Romanian terms throughout this travelogue except with the capital where, instead of the Romanian ‘București ‘ I have opted for the commonly-used English name, ‘Bucharest’.

Finally, the pronunciation of Romanian words is phonetic and extremely straightforward but the following letters may require explanation for English speakers:




‘zh’ as in ‘Zhukov’


‘sh’ as in ‘shampoo’


‘ts’ as in ‘bits


Thanks are due to the following without whom either the trip or the travelogue would never have been so good:

Genaidy for the long chat on the train to Odessa and an excellent introduction to the Bessarabian Bulgarians

The staff at the Hotel Cosmos in Chișinău for more than exceeding in their jobs

Delia in the Iaşi TIC

Sebastian for showing me around Suceava

Anton Bremer for the excellent welcome and friendship in Vişeu de Sus

Johannes Elmendorp for help with the Moldova and Transdniestria sections

Marcel Dumitru for Romanian translations

A Decade Before…


“We don’t need them!”

“Yes you do! Come out here!”

Back in 2002 I went on the trip of a lifetime. After finishing a job in Japan and before starting a job in Bulgaria, I travelled by sea and land all the way from Toyama, my former Japanese home, to Varna, my new Bulgarian base, taking in the delights of South Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Ukraine and Romania en route.

Well… that had been the plan, but what did the philosopher once say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? And even the best-laid plans can quite easily get derailed in the succession of states that emerged from the implosion of the USSR. My well-laid plans had been followed to the letter though, all the way through Korea, China, Central Asia and Russia. Then however, our train pulled into the nondescript town of Konotop just over the Ukrainian border.

“You need a visa to visit Ukraine!” the policeman had said.

“But we’re transit; your embassy said that transit passengers don’t need one!”

“That is a lie! You do need one and you must pay a fine as well! $200!”

The upshot of it all was that we got locked up in a police station for a day, paid $50 to the police and for our pains got put on a train headed straight back to Moscow from whence we came and from where I then flew to Bulgaria. My Trans-Asian trip was never completed.[1]

That would piss most people off but for me it was far more than simply being denied the privilege of spending an extra couple of days on sleeper trains trundling across the former Soviet Union. You see I am a big believer in linking up all my travels by land, (or if that isn’t possible, sea), getting a feel for the scale of things and how cultures evolve from one to the next, where those subtle changes take place that transform east into west, north into south, Europe into Asia.

And so it is that most of my travels are linked physically on the ground, (or water). Although not in a single trip, I’ve linked my home in Stoke-on-Trent with Ireland, Switzerland, Central Europe, the Balkans, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and the Caucasus. So too can a line be drawn all the way from my former home in Japan to that lonely railway station in Ukraine. But between those two lines was a gap, a gap that bothered me. It was the Missing Link.


But what had I missed exactly due to that corrupt policeman? Ukraine, a vast, empty land which my geography teacher once taught me had the most fertile soil in the world, the only thing that seems to make it distinguishable from its even vaster yet less fertile neighbour, Russia. I’d missed Ukraine with its capital Kiev and I’d also missed another country, Romania.

Romania I already knew a little of. I’d visited Bucharest on a couple of occasions and found it a hot, dusty and largely charmless city with only Ceauşescu’s Palace of the People as a saving grace and then in 2003 I’d crossed the country by train with the Sibling and we’d stopped in Braşov, Transylvania, a beautiful city straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale surrounded by incredible mediaeval villages and castles associated with Dracula.

Yet despite that, Romania remained an unknown quality. Most academics include her within the Balkans yet Braşov had been more Brno than Belgrade and her language is Latinate. Beautiful as Transylvania had been, it had not sent my Balkanophile pulse racing as do Bulgaria, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina. For the most part, I was content to simply look at Bulgaria’s northern neighbour from across the Danube.

Until one fateful day in 2011 when, browsing through the shelves of the City Central Library, Stoke-on-Trent, I chanced upon a copy of William Blacker’s ‘Along the Enchanted Way’. I picked it up. “When William Blacker first crossed the snowbound passes of northern Romania, he stumbled across an almost mediaeval world…” ‘Romania, hmm… s’pose I should learn more about that place,’ I thought to myself and popped it in my bag.

What I read over the weeks that followed was, quite simply, one of the most remarkable travel books that I have ever encountered. Part of it was Blacker, an eccentric of the type that England has so long excelled in. He visited the northern region of Maramureş and was so enchanted by the traditional mode of peasant life which was still practised there that, like Levin in Lev Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ – and indeed Tolstoy himself – he gave up everything, bought a scythe and became a peasant for several years in the only bit of Europe left where such a lifestyle was still possible. And if that wasn’t enough, he also hiked around the mediaeval villages of Transylvania which we’d seen from the train, set up a fund to protect decaying Saxon churches and hooked up with a Roma girl – and then after her, her sister – eventually starting up a family. He was incredible but his descriptions of the country in which he’d lived out such an eccentric life were even more amazing. It began to dawn on me that there might be more to Bulgaria’s dull northern neighbour than I’d initially realised. Even before I’d finished the book and begun a correspondence with Mr. Blacker, I knew that my next trip would be to Romania. Add to that the Missing Link which still niggled after all these years and you will understand why, on the last day of May, 2012, almost ten years on from the last time I found myself there, I was stood on the platform of Konotop railway station waiting for a train.

Filling in the gap was one thing but when planning this trip I’d decided to make it very different from the route I’d mapped out back in 2002. Back then I’d been in a rush and the money was tight. I’d already been on the road for two months and was getting fed up of backpacking. When planned then to stop one night in Kiev and then take the train straight to Bucharest and thence Varna. Now though I had time, a little money and a desire to see a little more. Plus there were now visa policies in all the countries I’d be passing through which made things easier; these days you simply don’t need them. But what to see? Kiev definitely, and whilst in the area, Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat which was evacuated after the 1986 disaster and left to nature ever since. After that the intriguing little country of Moldova, a slither of land tossed back and forth between Romania and Russia until its independence in 1991. Even then though, things weren’t settled; in 1994 Russian-speaking eastern slither of the country declared independence and fought – and won – a war. The state of Transdniestria is on no world map and is represented on no international bodies yet it has its own border posts, passports, government and currency. For a bona fide Lord of Sealand[2] that was surely worth checking out! And in Romania itself, Maramureş where Blacker lived, the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina and perhaps the Danube Delta too… for starters. That was the rough plan, but all that was concrete was a flight into Kiev on the 30th May and a flight out of Bucharest on the 16th June with a day trip to Chernobyl and Pripyat scheduled for two days after my arrival. The rest was up in the air…

Next part: Konotop

My Flickr Album of this trip 

[1] For details of this trip including another account of our confrontation at Konotop, read my travelogue ‘Across Asia with a Lowlander’.

[2] The Principality of Sealand is an unrecognised entity, located on HM Fort Roughs, a former World War II Maunsell Sea Fort in the North Sea 13 kilometres off the coast of Suffolk.

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