When I say leaving Moldova wasn’t easy, it wasn’t because we’d fallen in love with the place and had to leave too soon. Although the landscapes are beautiful and it does contain an element of mysticism, we weren’t feeling as though we were missing much by leaving Moldova after only a few days. Sure standing on a hilltop looking out at beautiful green nothingness and standing in awe at a 15th century church so well preserved it looked like it was built last year was unforgettable. Exploring thousand year old monasteries built into caves, and villages where time seems to have stood still were rewarding at the very least. A village that still gets their water from community wells up the road, a village where folks get around by a horse and cart definitely made us grateful for our position in life. Simply put, Moldova just isn’t an easy country to get around and being a bit beat down by six months of travel by that point, I guess we just weren’t really up for the challenge. Whatever the real reason, we decided to get out but who’d have thought getting back to civilization would mean going back to Romania?
So if it wasn’t for the love of the country, why was it so difficult to get out? Well, we opted for a mini bus from Moldova’s capital city Chisinau to the Romanian city of Iasi (pronounced Yash). It was about a two hour drive to the border, then just about twenty minutes or half an hour to Iasi. The other passengers seemed to be made up of another traveller like us, and some young Moldovans who were studying at university in Iasi. As we approached the border, one of the passengers started handing out 2 packages of cigarettes to each of the others, except for us. It was obviously something to do with how much you’re allowed to cross the border with, but whatever, who hasn’t figured out a way to take an extra bottle or something, right?
At the border, the bus drives up and over a mechanic pit type of thing where a customs officer inspects the bottom of the vehicle, while all the passengers are instructed to get out, and take their luggage inside the building for passport control and inspection. As we made our way through the passport line, then the inspection line and out the other side, we noticed that our bus was still where we left it, but all the other vehicles had moved up to collect their passengers and continue on their way.
Our bus driver disappeared with a customs agent and once they were out of sight other agents started removing cartons upon cartons of cigarettes from the van. We had no idea where they had been hidden as nothing seemed out of the ordinary inside the vehicle. The officers started filling cardboard boxes and it became clear that we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. As the time passed, other passengers got fed up with waiting and hitchhiked with other motorists coming through the border.
Our numbers dwindled as more and more opted for this method. We, however, were stuck, and decided to wait for the next bus to come thorough and try and continue that way. When the next bus finally came through the border, it seemed that the border agents informed him of the stranded passengers but we had to pack in tight for the rest of the way which was mercifully short. Had the others not found their own ride, there would not have been enough room for everyone.
The new bus driver spoke remarkably good English and informed us that a package of cigarettes in Moldova costs about 0.80US and in Romania the price is closer to $5.00, so this is quite common. He said the driver had indeed been arrested for smuggling cigarettes but would likely be released with €1,000.00 fine. He said this activity was so common across the Moldova and Romaia border, and they’ve gotten so good, that they will take just one package of cigarettes less than the fine or jail term threshold. Just one more and he would have gone to prison, but clearly this was not his first rodeo!
We spoke to the other passengers on the second leg on our cramped new bus and as it turned out, the passenger who was handing out packs to other passengers had no idea. The allowance is just two packages per person and he was just trying to bring a few back for himself and didn’t know the other driver.
Have you got a great/crazy border crossing story to share? Post a link in the comments!