Outside Terminal 2 at 4:30am at Dubai International Airport, ready to catch my flight to Moldova.
Being one of the few European countries left to visit, I had been looking at options to travel Moldova for a quite a while. In 2017 Air Moldova started twice weekly flights to the capital Chișinău from Dubai.
I was originally looking at a possible summer trip but at the beginning of 2018 the Air Moldova flight was reduced to once a week and then to be discontinued by April. I hence booked a one-way flight for $230 in February from Dubai to Chișinău on Air Moldova on their now once weekly Friday service.
Options for the return from Chișinău involved long layovers in Moscow or Kiev, or a relatively expensive flight via Istanbul. Another option was to fly back from Odessa in Ukraine for $150 on Ukraine International Airlines. I had wanted to visit the Transnistrian city of Tiraspol, conveniently located approximately half-way between Chișinău and Odessa so the flight back via Kiev seemed to be the best option.
Joining the queue to check-in for my flight to Chișinău.
With today's flight being served by an Embraer E-190 the queue was relatively short.
Next to the Air Moldova check-in was a Flydubai flight chartered by the US military to Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan.
I then headed to the Marhaba lounge where they had some Valentine themed cookies and cake.
In the Airport bus, looking across to a new Flydubai Boeing 737 MAX 8 with the distinctive sawtooth engine nacelle exhaust.
Climbing the stairs to the Air Moldova Embraer E-190.
The pilot doing some pre-flight work on his tablet.
The Flight Attendant finishing her pre-flight safety demonstration. I have flown the A320 before from the Middle East to Europe, but the E-190 was now definitely the smallest for such a flight.
A Flydubai 737 to our right as dawn has broken.
Looking out to Al Mamzar and Sharjah beyond shortly after takeoff.
A tasty breakfast of pancakes, cookies and salad that was served. I wasn't sure of any food was going to be served so it was a nice surprse. It was interesting Air Moldova charged for checked luggage but provided a meal, while Ukraine International Airlines charged for meals but provided free checked luggage.
Reading the inflight magazine which had a six page comic in Romanian.
Looking out to the beautiful Mount Ararat as we cross over into Turkey.
Disembarking at a snow covered Chișinău International Airport just after 10am in Moldova.
And my UK passport stamped after my entry into Moldova. Using my EU passport I thought immigation would be a breeze but the immigration officer peppered me with questions regarding my visit before finally stamping into my 115th country visited.
Catching a taxi for the 10 kilometre ride into the city for a very reasonable 100 leu ($6).
I arrived at my hotel, London Boutique Hotel, for my one night stay in Chișinău just before 11am and although I was slightly early I was able to check-in.
I then went out to explore the city.
Plenty of fresh snow still about.
Walking through Piata Centrala.
It was interesting to see the busy market selling a wide range of meats and cuts. Much more photogenic than a supermarket!
In the fresh fruit and vegetable section.
Lots of different produce for sale.
Dried fruit and nuts.
Live fish from the Black Sea.
Looking across to the Moldovan Ministry of Internal Affairs building. I then walked through the city up Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfânt Boulevard.
Mihai Eminescu National Drama Theater, named after the Romanian poet.
Chișinău Oficiul Central Postal (Central Post Office).
The Triumphal Arch in Park Katedralny, built in 1840 to commemorate the victory of the Russian Empire over the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War (1828-1829).
The flag of flag of Moldova flying outside Casa Guvernului (Government House).
It was my first time seeing snow since our trip 14 months ago to Sighișoara so it was a bit of a treat after coming from Dubai where 'winter' means slightly cooler summer weather.
Looking down on Stephen the Great Central Park, named after the Prince of Moldavia 1457 to 1504.
Just off centre inside the octagon is a monument to Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet and one-time resident of Chișinău.
A panorama of the city centre coated with snow.
Bottom-right is Casa Guvernului (Government House) with its Soviet-style architecture.
Park Katedralny (Cathedral Park) with Catedrala Naşterea Domnului (Cathedral of Christ's Nativity) centre.
Casa Guvernului (Government House) is where the Moldovan cabinet meets.
I love you Moldova. I then continued my walkabout through Chișinău.
For lunch I enjoyed a tasty omelette at Delice d'Ange.
And I couldn't resist a bit of a chocolate fix too.
Walking down Strada 31 August 1989, the date when a law was adopted making Moldovan in latin script the state language. Moldova was the only Soviet republic with a Romance-language majority.
The Centre of Culture and Military History on Strada Tighina.
After walking around the building I managed to find the entrance to the Military Museum. After handing over 10 leu ($0.60) to the lady at the front desk, she went through each of the museum rooms to turn on the lights as I was the only person visiting at the moment.
A display on the independence of Moldova and its secession from the USSR.
And the subsequent Transnistria War with the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.
A display dedicated to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. More than 3,500 Moldovans were involved with the disaster clean up in neighbouring Ukraine.
In the basement was a section dedicated to the time of the Soviet Union.
Terror pushes people to think politically - better than months of propaganda.
Stories of Red Terror, forced famines, mass deportations and gulag slave labor were told through photographs, videos, newspaper clippings and dioramas.
Hammer and sickle.
A Soviet-era T-34 tank on display outside with an eight-wheeled BTR-60 APC and a six-wheeled BTR-152 APC in the background.
And in between the trees a MiG-21 jet fighter.
After the very interesting visit to the Military Museum I headed back to the hotel for a rest.
I love Moldova. At about 4pm I headed out for a walk through Chișinău again.
After a short walk along Strada Ismail I arrived at the Eternity Memorial Complex. The Memorial consists of a pyramid of 5 stylised rifles with an eternal flame at its centre.
The monument was created in 1975 in honour of the memory of the soldiers who died in the liberation battles of Moldova and Chișinău during the Great Patriotic War.
155 marble slabs engraved with the names of soldiers who died during the battles.
The beautiful blue and gold Ciuflea Monastery.
Lines of trees in Rose Valley Park.
And the frozen Rose Valley Lake.
The park origins date to over 1,000 years ago, where it was a sanctuary dedicated to Slavonic tribal gods and dead ancestors.
The sanctuary was called Ross Valley in honor of the mythical ancestor of the Russian people, Rus.
Concrete dams built in the 1960's that separated the lake into three sections.
A snow-covered amusement park closed for the winter.
Despite it being a cold winter afternoon, there were still a few people out walking, pushing strollers or on a bicycle.
The Soviet-era and slightly grim looking Hotel Chișinău with rooms from only $30 a night. Just in front is the Liberation Monument, with a bronze statue of the goddess of victory to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Moldova in August 1944.
A very colourful underpass.
After walking back into the city centre I headed to a Japanese restaurant, Kotobuki, for some dinner.
It seemed to be quite a popular place so figured I couldn't go wrong.
Teriyaki chicken to start.
A tasty Philadelphia roll for the main.
And some delicious matcha (green tea) ice cream to finish.
Great value for only 188 leu ($11.40).
And back at the London Boutique Hotel after a great day exploring Chișinău.
I checked out of the hotel just before 7am and started the short walk to Gara Centrala Chișinău.
Stopping to buy a couple of pastries for breakfast at Piata Centrala.
Todays plan was to head east from Chișinău to Tiraspol. After enjoying the sights of the capital city of Transnistria I would then head to the border with Ukraine and then onto the port city of Odessa.
At the correct parking bay for the marshrutka to Тирасполь (Tirapsol).
Just in time for the 7:20pm departure.
And on our way to Tiraspol.
At the border with Transnistria there was a checkpoint where I handed over my passport and was given a migration card for my short transit. As Moldova considers Transnistria as still part of the country, there was no exit immigration.
Transnistria is a non-recognized state which controls part of the geographical region Transnistria, the area between the Dniester river and Ukraine.
Outside Tiraspol Railway Station just under two hours after departing Chișinău.
Transnistria stretches ~200 kilometres from north to south, averages no more than 20 kilometres across and thus lacks ‘strategic depth’ — the ability to retreat without automatically suffering defeat.
Transnistria has its own currency, the Transnistrian ruble, which is approximately the same value as the Moldovan leu.
Transnistria had one strategic advantage over Moldova however that proved crucial enough to win its de facto independence over 25 years ago; the Russian 14th Army that was then stationed in and around Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol.
There were only three marshrutka's a day to Odessa so I bought a ticket for the 2:10pm departure for 61 rubles ($3.70).
After World War II, Transnistria was heavily industrialised and was responsible for 40% of Moldova's GDP and 90% of its electricity in 1990. The industrialisation attracted workers from all over the Soviet Union, resulting in a Russophone majority in eastern Moldova.
I then walked into the city. The Presentation of the Child Jesus Church in Kirov Park.
The end of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of Moldovan nationalism which included laws promoting the national language (to the detriment of Russian that was predominant east of the Dniester), prompted a rebellion to establish the independence of Transnistria.
The Stalinist Dom Sovetov (House of Soviets) with Lenin's angry-looking bust peering out is Tiraspol's City Hall.
Walking west along 25th October Street, named after the date of the October Revolution of 1917.
Transnistria is one of four post-Soviet frozen-conflict zones. The others being Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the last of which I had visited in 2016.
Outside the local cinema where both Russian and Western movies were playing.
Stopping for a caffeine fix at the local coffee cart.
And I couldn't resist a sticky donut too.
The Church of the Nativity, a Russian Orthodox Church built in 1999.
Nearby on Strada Karl Liebknecht was Zeleny Market.
Beans, peas and corn.
A great place to mingle with the locals.
The indoor market looked very new and even had an elevator up to the second floor.
Fresh white cheese for sale.
Looking down on Transnistrians doing their shopping.
A couple of Lada's in the parking lot.
A statue of Alexander Suvorov, the Russian Generalissimo who founded Tiraspol in 1792. Also in the background is the flag of Tiraspol (front) and of Transnistria (back). Transnistria is also interestingly the only flag of the ex-Soviet republics that still includes the hammer and sickle.
Pigeons waiting for lunch. Later when I was walking past someone had brought some bread and they were all feasting away.
The Great Patriotic War Tank Monument commemorating the Eastern Front of World War II with Saint George Chapel in the background.
The Eternal Flame at the Memorial of Glory on Suvorov Square.
Names of those killed during the Transnistria War for independence.
As well as the Great Patriotic War and the Transnistria War, the memorial is also for Veterans and the dead of the Soviet–Afghan War.
I then walked across the bridge over the Dniester river and was now crossing from Transnistria to the Căușeni District of Moldova. The immediate area was still under de facto administrative control by Transnistria however and it was another 10 kilometres to the town of Copanca before you would reach proper Moldovan control.
Looking over from the south side of the Dniester river and over to Tiraspol.
On the left is 25th October Street and the Dniester on the right.
Transnistria Parliament building with a statue of Lenin standing in front.
Lenin again with his coat 'fluttering' in the breeze.
Walking back east along 25th October Street. On the top left is a billboard for the then upcoming 2018 Russian presidential election. In Transnistria, ~220,000 people or over half the population have Russian citizenship and the Russian Election Commission opened 24 polling stations and sent 192,000 ballot papers to Transnistria for the election.
On the reverse side of the billboard was the Coat of arms of Transnistria with the initials of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in three different languages, ПМР (Russian), PMH (Moldovan written in Cyrillic) and ПМР (Ukrainian).
Red Star. Although Russia also does not officially recognize Transnistria, it provides the country with significant financial support. As well as money, Russia provides natural gas for Transnistria, but instead sends the bill to the government in Chișinău. In 2017 Moldova owed the Russian energy giant Gazprom $6.5 billion, of which $5.8 billion was for Transnistria.
Just after 12:30pm I headed to Andy's Pizza on the main street for lunch.
Andy's is a Moldovan pizza chain but there didn't seem to be any issues having a restaurant here in Transnistria.
One of the more interesting options on the menu!
And enjoying the Supreme pizza with mozzarella, pork, onions, ham, salami, tomatoes, bell peppers and tomato sauce all for only 110 rubles ($6.60) including two drinks.
A Sheriff badged supermarket. Sheriff is a conglomerate amusingly named after the two co-founders previous occupation, working for the KGB! It dominates the economy of Transnistria with a chain of gas stations, a TV channel, a cell phone network, a car dealership, a building company and the country’s top football club, FC Sheriff Tiraspol.
And some locally produced Kvint cognac for sale inside.
Passing by the Kvint factory on the way back to the railway station.
Two soldiers from the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova. Russian soldiers are still based in Transnistria as 'peacekeepers'.
With the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, Russian officers who were previously able to get to Transnistria through Odessa now have to fly to Moldova directly.
Recently the Moldovan authorities have also deported many back to Russia upon their arrival in Chișinău. Hence it is thought that now approximately 90 percent of operational Russian troops are actually Transnistrians who also have Russian citizenship.
Boarding the marshrutka to Odessa.
All seats were taken on the last bus to Odessa so I was lucky I had purchased my ticket earlier in the morning.
After exiting Transnistria, we headed over the border to Ukraine. After collecting our passports we waited almost an hour to get stamped in. There wasn't a big queue of vehicles so wasn't sure of the reason why they took so long.
My passport finally stamped with entry into Ukraine, neatly next to my stamps from my previous visit to Kiev back in 2014.
And arriving at Odessa Central Bus Station just after 5pm.
I love Odessa with a ships anchor in the shape of a heart for the port city. Odessa is named after the ancient Greek town of Odessos (though Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, is said to have insisted on a feminine ending, making it Odessa).
The magnificent Odessa-Golovnaya Railway Station.
After walking down Rishelievska Street I arrived at the UNO Design Hotel.
And the slightly amusing interior design as I exited the lift on the second floor and on the way to my room.
Quite a spacious room and very reasonable for $58 a night.
I then headed out to find some dinner. A lit-up Snowman on Derybasivska Street, Odessa's most famous street and named after José de Ribas, the founder of the city of Odessa
I settled on some tasty and inexpensive borsch, chicken, salmon, garlic bread, buckwheat and a glass of tomato juice at Puzata Hata, a Ukrainian cafeteria-style chain restaurant at the end of day 2.