While dispatches are my absolute favorite form of post, I understand that sometimes a more succinct “how-to” post can be a lot more helpful when it comes time to plan your travels. Travel journals are wonderful for (hopefully) inspiring you for future adventures; but, when you are already on the road and trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B on terrible wifi, you probably want something a little more straight to the point. On that note, it seems only right to start with one of the more off-the-beaten-track trips I have recently done — taking a Soviet-era train from Bucharest to Chisinau, Moldova!
I, personally, love train travel as there is something so romantic and ‘old-school traveler’ about climbing into your carriage, settling down, and getting ready to watch the world go by through the window. Whenever I can, I choose to take an overnight train, as it is great for your budget (movement and bed in one!) and is also a truly local experience. If you are traveling around Eastern Europe, you may be tempted to hop on-board a Soviet-era train from Bucharest, Romania to Chisinau, Moldova. This particular train has been in use since the 1950s, and HASN’T CHANGED ONE BIT, which makes it unique.
Where to Catch the Train
The train from Bucharest to Chisinau leaves from the central train station: Gara du Nord. You can reach Gara du Nord easily by metro (either line M1 or M3 will take you directly to it) or by Uber which is exceptionally cheap in Bucharest. You can purchase tickets for the metro at all metro stations, and a card valid for two journeys will cost you 5 lei ($1.17). If you opt for a pack of ten rides, it is only 20 lei ($4.69). You can also buy a daily ticket for 8 lei ($1.88), while a weekly pass is 25 lei ($5.87).) Once at Gara du Nord, make your way to the International Ticket Office. It took me a little while to find it as I didn’t see any signs advertising it, so hopefully, this helps you. While standing at the entrance of the station, you will see a middle row of shops/stalls that divides the large entrance hall into two. Walk down the right side about 3/4 of the way (if you have reached McDonald’s you have gone too far). Here you will see a hallway on the right (same side as McDonald’s), go in there, past the little convenience stand, and the ticket counters will be on your left. It is also the same area where you can store luggage.
It isn’t currently possible to buy a ticket online, but I showed up an hour before the train left and there were plenty of tickets available. My ticket lady was grumpy as hell but spoke English, and somewhat begrudgingly sold me a ticket for the train which cost me 155 lei ($36). The trains run like clockwork, and this one leaves at 7:15 pm and arrives in Chisinau at 8:45 am the following morning. Thirteen and a half hours! (Yes, it is a rather long ride.) There is no food cart on board, so make sure you stock up on food and drink before boarding. Watch out for guys who are hanging around and offer to help you out. They will ask you for money and then get pi**ed off when you don’t give them any! At 7:00 pm the train will pull up to the platform, and you can board. Find your car number (it is listed on your ticket), make your way there, and then present your ticket to your carriage’s conductor who will lead you to your room. Don’t be alarmed when the conductor takes your ticket — this is routine, and they will give it back to you upon arrival in Chisinau!
Rooms have four beds in them (two bunk-beds); but, because this route isn’t too popular (frequent flights have taken over), there is a good chance you won’t have anyone else in your room. I shared my room with a lovely older lady and therefore felt no need to move. However, if you want to, slip your conductor a small tip, and a private room is almost guaranteed to appear for you. Upon boarding, you will be given a clean set of sheets (they come wrapped in plastic) and a blanket so that you can get snuggly overnight. Given that it was winter, I was concerned that I might be freezing; but, I was surprisingly way too hot during the night, so the heaters work! The beds were comfy, and the whole room turned out to be a lot more luxurious than I had initially anticipated. One of the cool things about this train (that I haven’t encountered anywhere else) was that underneath the bed was a large storage unit that could only be accessed by lifting the mattress. So, if you are sleeping, there is no way anyone can hoist you (and the bed) up without you noticing enabling you to sleep peacefully with the knowledge that your belongings are safe! WIN!
Your passport will be checked twice; once when you leave Romania, and once when you enter Moldova. While Moldova is not part of the European Union, passport holders from Europe, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and some other countries do not need visas to enter — making the border crossing quite painless. Neither Romanian border patrol or Moldovan border patrol knew what to make of me traveling on this train, on my own. They were very confused! The Moldovan officers didn’t speak any English, meaning I didn’t receive much questioning — although they did motion for me to open my suitcase.
Changing of the Wheels
The border crossing can take a few hours because they have to replace all the wheels on the train. Stalin was a paranoid dictator and wanted to slow down any invasions of the Soviet Union, so he ensured that neighboring countries had different sized rail gauges (didn’t stop the Germans!). Now it means that the carriages have to be individually lifted off one set of wheels and placed onto another. A rather tedious and extremely loud process that was entirely the reason I decided to have this travel experience. The changing of the wheels usually takes place around 1, or 2 am, so I highly recommend getting your sleepy self out of bed and taking a glimpse at the process out of the window. Hearing the creeeeeeaaaakkk of the old hoisters (is that the name?) and the resulting jerk of each wheel as it gets changed is undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once that is complete, it is a straight shot to Chisinau!
Arriving in Chisinau, Moldova
Upon arrival in Chisinau, I suggest immediately going to change some currency at the station’s money exchange. The Moldovan lei is different from the Romanian lei (neither place accept Euros or Dollars, but a lot of places accept card); however, you will need some Moldovan lei to be able to catch a taxi to the city center. My recommendation is to go straight to Tucano Coffee, for a much-needed cup of joe and some breakfast. From there, you are in a central location and ready to take on Chisinau!
I hope this is helpful for any of you thinking about taking the Soviet-era train from Bucharest to Chisinau. Or maybe it will convince some of you to add it to your bucket list? Let me know if you have any other questions!
++ You can watch my vlog of the train journey here.
*Originally posted on March 13th, 2017*