The Post-Soviet Road Back to Denmark

With Transnistria behind us, I and my friend and work colleague in crime Michele plodded forth in my twelve-year-old tank of a Peugeot back to Denmark. We had three days ahead of us to get back to Denmark before work on Monday and didn’t want to lose a second of adventure going back.

While Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, may have given me a bad taste, I felt that Moldova deserved a second chance. Maybe the countryside would be better. Bucolic hills, cows grazing in pastures, and rolling vineyards with rosy-cheeked mustached men sipping wine. So we drove North about two hours from Tiraspol, towards Orhei: the wine capital of Moldova.

Haven’t heard of Moldovan wine? That’s alright — they get guzzled up by the Russians and Poles with only the occasional barrel making it past Berlin. Yet wine has been enjoyed here for millennia. Moldova is the 11th largest wine producer in Europe by volume and at one point 12th in the world, which is pretty impressive for a country its size. Flavor-wise, they are similar to other Romanian and Eastern European wines, coming mainly in sweet varieties but also offering fairly delicious bolder flavored red varieties and contrasting fruity whites. That’s about all I can pretend to know about wine.

But the Moldovans know an awful lot about the burgundy sipping syrup. They even market it as one of the main reasons to visit Moldova. They want to be the next unknown wine destination, the next Georgia. But we would soon learn that there is work to be done in this ambitious undertaking.

Orhei, the cheery-eyed wine capital of Moldova, was unbelievably dreary. Dead trees lined grey streets, the sky grey from smog of the fumes of countless depressed souls and factory plumes. Our stay, a winery cum fancy hotel that we got a room for half off in low-season, was located just a quick drive up the hill. To get there, we had to weave through local neighborhoods with shivering shaded faces eyeing our Danish licence plate probably thinking “what are these idiots doing out here?”

Indeed, I’m not sure either. We pulled into our wine stay, in a parking lot filled with several expensive Russian plated Mercedes’ of local oligarchs and my rusty Peugeot. Even the attendant at check-in seemed confused by our arrival. Maybe she thought we would have cancelled, having seen the village. Am I being too harsh? I don’t know, you go to Moldova and let me know.

“Checking in?” The nice attendent said, looking at us behind large plastic frame glasses. “So that will be two rooms, and you still need to pay $120.”

“No, I only booked one room.” I said back, thinking she was trying to grift me.

“No… our reservation says two rooms. You are four people, correct?”

“Just us two. I booked a room with two beds.” I showed her my email confirming the reservation.

“You two…” her confused eyes peered through her glasses at the two traveling gentlemen of ambiguous sexual orientation in front of her. “You want to share a room? Together?” The concept was absolutely foreign to her. I suppose she thought our girlfriends were outside taking selfies, waiting for their men to get the hotel room keys. Homosexuality is still pretty taboo out here, but when two gentlemen appear at your romantic vineyard getaway at the beginning of winter, I can understand her suspicions.

After clearing up the misunderstanding, she gave us the room I had booked online. She took us out to see it, the bottom floor of a nice two-story log cabin hut. Across the way were the wine facility (more like a factory) and restaurant, the plume of industry looming over our cute little hut. “Are you sure this will be okay?” She wanted to give us one more opportunity to escape before calling the cops to report that two men had a serious case of gays.

What we did next was the straightest thing two men could do together: take baths, sit in our bathrobes, and drink two bottles of red wine gossiping and watching Moldovan soap operas before going to dinner together.

So is Moldovan wine good? Yes. It does its job, and in a way that doesn’t suck. The wine is actually pretty tasty, and I’m no wine expert but I could definitely find some notes of blackberry and bouginess. But is it worth a trip to Moldova? If you’re in the area, may as well pop in for a class of Fetească neagră on your way out.

The wine is fantastic, but it feels as if this establishment is trying to hard to be like wine tours in France or Northern California. The rock-hewn architecture of the place looked like something straight out of Napa or Margaret Valley. When I drunkenly rode a rented bicycle up the highway during a Mendoza wine vineyard hop with a rocket scientist, I felt like I was in Argentina. When I went into the basements to shoot back clay cups of sweet red wine in Georgia, I felt like I was in Georgia. But when I sat in this gigantic modern building eating coq au vin served by a waiter in a bow tie, I didn’t feel like I was in Moldova. The quality of the wine is there, but perhaps they just need to embrace their Moldovaness to really make the wine stand out. If I had a babushka serve me wine in a barn covered in hay, or have wine drunk straight from the bottle with a cigarette smoking farmer with the constant fear of being mugged, I would have probably had a much more unique experience. Filling up a plastic bottle with cheap wine at the grocery store in Romania felt like a Romanian experience, so all I want is for Moldova to really take this beautiful wine to the next level. I hope they can do it.

Michele and I, once again having gotten a bit too drunk, had to sleep off the alcohol for a long drive ahead. The next day would be another beast, driving up to the Polish-Ukrainian border. A nine-hour journey on good roads, but as I’ve said before, Ukrainian roads are some of the worst I’ve seen. As we crossed back over into Ukraine, I felt a bit of weight come off my shoulders. I was unable to connect with Moldova at all. Transnistria was a different story, with locals showing us nothing but warmth and curiosity. Moldova felt oppressed and unhappy. The happiest person in the country was me, as I was leaving.

Usually, I can find redeeming qualities in countries I don’t enjoy. Of the 70+ countries I’ve had the amazing privilege to visit, only a few stand out as countries I would not return to. Brunei, Azerbaijan, and the UAE jump out at me immediately. Yet they all have a redeeming quality, and while they wouldn’t be my first destination to return to, there are still reasons to go back. Brunei, while I can not agree with their ruling party, has some of the warmest people I’ve met. Azerbaijan is stunningly gorgeous, and the UAE is just an interesting example of what people can do when they have way too much money. But I regret to report that I can not find a redeeming quality to return to Moldova. There are no stones I feel I left unturned, no remaining questions. And as an inquisitive traveler, this worries me. Have I become jaded, or is there really nothing to redeem Moldova? I suppose the wine was pretty delicious, and if you really want to go as far off the beaten path as possible, then Moldova is the place for you.

Western Ukraine is not particularly attractive either, but the cute towns with forested hills and lovely Ukrainian locals make it worth the drive. Towns seem to have a bit of charm, even if they are dreary and un-updated since the collapse of the iron curtain. In the dark, driving is another story. I had to drive my absolute slowest, not able to see the gargantuan potholes in the un-lit streets. I definitely gave my car, Sasquatch, a bit more bumps and bruises than it was used to on the flat roads of Denmark. But we made it to our destination, on the border with Poland and Ukraine in a mountain resort town. The air was brisk, and we got into the hotel restaurant just before closing. Some Kyiv residents, also spending the night, asked us what on Earth could have possibly brought us here. They were in town on a friend reunion, and could not see why two foreigners would come this far out. My answer was it was cheap and close-ish to the highway. I hope they are well.

Our second to last leg of the journey was to be a bit more relaxed. We only had to cross Poland to get to the German border. We pushed forward, stopping briefly in Tarnow for me to go to the climbing gym and grab some lunch of grandma-cooked bland food from an iconic Milk Bar. After pushing on, we finally made it to the Western Polish town of Bolesławiec.

The town, like all Polish towns I’ve been to, was absolutely adorable. A small square lined with ornately decorated and reconstructed buildings, cute restaurants, and a surprisingly lively vibe. We were walking around, and all of a sudden I realized that everyone was speaking English with American accents. Why were there so many Americans here? Certainly, this town was not on the tourist map.

Yet as we walked, I was getting visibly irritated having to listen to contrite conversations by Americans going out to get drunk in a Polish city (I was there for the same reason, so I know I can’t say much). We sat at a restaurant to eat some goulash, and I noticed an older man, an American, eating alone at the table next to us. He ordered an entire duck, polished it in the amount of time I ate my small bowl of goulash, and when the waiter came to ask if he wanted anything more the only word he uttered was a gruff: “Dessert.”

Where were we? Why is this cute Polish town swarming with single American men? I got my answer from the bartender at a bar next door. “Why are there so many goddamn Americans?!” I pleaded for her to give me a reasonable answer.

With a smile, she said “The military!” Lo and behold, on the map just south of town was an American military base just about the same size as the entire town itself. Now it made sense, all of these young buff American men running around with money to burn in their pockets and a desire to let off some steam. As we walked home, I noticed the still-sober Polish locals shaking their heads in disgust at two American soldiers pissing on the street, completely inebriated beyond saving at 10 PM. I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed to watch my tax dollars literally being pissed onto the streets of Poland, but I suppose those who work hard also need to play hard.

The next day we woke bright and early for the final leg of our journey, across Germany and back to Aarhus, Denmark. It felt as though we had fit a month’s worth of experiences and travel into one week, but I suppose that’s exactly what happens when you force your way through half a continent in just 3 days.

What I didn’t know at the time was that this would be my final European roadtrip for the foreseable future, and certainly the last fortunate view of a peaceful Ukraine for now. I can only hope that this story will be a testament to the transformative force of being able to travel across Europe, and the tremendous value this undertaking has on those who take it. One of the greatest parts about an open Europe is that people of different backgrounds, languages, and cultures can easily pass over their neighbors borders and have the ability to see and learn from a different way of life. If we keep partitioning off our little invisible lines in the sand, we just become xenophobic and fearful of the people that act and talk in a similar but slightly different fashion just over the hills. While Moldova and I did not connect, I thank them and the people of Transnistria, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany for safe passage through and for sharing all that they have to offer with me. I only hope that those who quest for freedom will have what they fight so hard for soon.


The road from Aarhus to Transnistria

Hello darlings! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my rambles. I’ve made some life changes, and have recently moved back to the United States from Denmark after eight years.

This, however, will not stop the rambling!

Currently I’ve been taking a break from the road to cook up more good content for you all. If you can do me a favor and like or share if you enjoyed the article, it will really help me to grow the platform and get these stories to more folks.

Thanks and stay curious!

Exploring The Paradoxical Capital

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, has it made a sound? If those who know do not speak, do those who speak not know? If you visit the capital of a non-exist country, have you visited a capital at all?

This paradox, among many other things, is one of the reasons why I have been drawn to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria squeezed in between the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. The last bastion of communism in Europe is host to a bizarre capital city trapped in the amber of time before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Simpler times, when you could only eat an orange once a year and had to be on a waiting list for five years to be able to buy a car. Tiraspol, for the Western European, is an intriguing time capsule into an unknown world that many have only experienced in textbooks and TV shows.

For the average person born before 1989 anywhere East of Berlin, Transnistria is a stark reminder of a painful past. The parents of my Romanian roommate were shocked and confused when I told him I was driving to Transnistria. “It’s just as shitty as Russia there!” My mother’s flamboyant dance teacher, Sascha, who was born in Tiraspol but moved to Israel with his family as a child, was also confused.

At the time of writing this, he and his Ukrainian wife are holding a dance fundraiser to raise money for their family members in Ukraine and Transnistria. Transnistria is caught in between two worlds at the moment. They depend so heavily on Russia that almost all of their imports and economy rely on Russian involvement. By being locked in between Moldova and Ukraine, Transnistrians have no way to get access to vital supplies.

Beyond that, they find themselves in a tricky position culturally. They speak Russian, maintain a Soviet-inspired government, are part of the Russian minority in Moldova, use their own brand of Ruble, and depend on Russia for almost everything…yet many of them are Ukrainian citizens and have family across the border. This puts them in a bit of a pickle at the moment. I make a point to stress this because while Transnistrians may be very close to Russia, they most certainly are not Russian — and some do not hold the same opinions Russian citizens do about the war.

But let’s take a step back and look at the Tiraspol that was, and hopefully will be again once peace arrives.

After three days of driving and shenanigans across Poland and Ukraine, Moldova and its depressing dead fields were a rude awakening. We had come from the beautiful historic metropolises of Wrocław and Lviv, into the dry vineyard-lined hills of Moldova. But everything seemed to look up once we paid our police bribe to get into Transnistria.

The roads feel the same, but there’s a very different feeling. I can’t quite put my finger on it… it’s a bit like freedom but different. It’s the freedom you get from living in a country that doesn’t exist, where anything goes. Can you mine cryptocurrency, sell drugs, traffick humans, and launder billions of Russian Rubles into a local business? Probably. It’s a bit how I imagine the Wild West would have been but set in Communist Eastern Europe.

Michele and I rented an apartment just a few blocks away from the main street in Tiraspol, 25th of October Street. The city was absolutely buzzing with energy with the approach of the Inter Milan – Sheriff Tiraspol football match, with locals coming out in droves to the Russia Hotel to get a peek at the Inter Milan players. And by droves, I mean about 20 or 30 people, a lot for Tiraspol.

We only had a good few nights to squeeze out as much as we could from Tiraspol, which isn’t a difficult task. The town is quite small and easy to navigate, regardless of Wikipedia saying that about 130,000 Transnistrians call the place home.

We wandered, taking as many photos of the nostalgic architecture as possible and taking in all of the strange sights. The city feels like you just walked into a film set in the Soviet Union. The dated architecture, the locals with that particular worn-out look, and the strange attention to pageantry and parading of the country’s might through elaborately decorated public spaces.

The town reminds me a bit of Baku or Skopje in its pure strangeness. These are two other capitals that have decided that they need to show off their power, and have done so in the tackiest way possible. To visit these cities provides nothing but a strange sense of pleasure, like the same kind of pleasure you get from going to an American 50’s dinner. Everything is kitschy and fun for a bit, but you wouldn’t want to live there every day.

There are, however, people who like living here. We met one through Couchsurfing, a local who I personally believe should be paid by the Transnistrian board of tourism for her pure delight in the country. We’ll call her Veronika. We arranged to meet her at Bro Burger, a local hangout for Transnistrian youth who want to live the Western dream by eating American burgers and drinking watery beer before heading out to the next party. Veronika arrived late, wearing a fur hat with a sickle and hammer badge attached to the front. “I wore this so you would recognize me!” she said with a grin.

The next few hours were a blur. Michele and I said 3 or four words in edgewise the enter night. Never have I met someone so enthusiastic about their country. “Isn’t this burger amazing?” She would say excitedly.

“Ya it’s goo—” Two and a half of my three words spoken

“What I really love about this country is the respect for the ingredients. I know in the rest of the world, food is so fake and plastic. But here it’s the farmers who do not use pesticides and just grow things organically and…”

It was as equally exhausting as it was insightful. It felt a bit like trying to talk to a history documentary.

Her mother was born here, but moved to Latvia where she had Veronika back in the Soviet days. She grew up in Latvia, but when her mother realized she could live for less on her pension by simply moving back home to Transnistria, she and Veronika decided to pick up and go back to Tiraspol. Here, they can live cheaply on their pension and savings, enjoying the cheap healthcare and cost of living.

She was quite frankly smitten. She even gave the waiter, a young lady of about 17 or 18, a bit of a hassle for not being as proud. Veronika told her that we were visiting from Italy and the US, and the waiter gave us a thumbs up and a Harasho! When Michele said back, that Transnistria was in fact Harasho, she shook her head and gave us a “no no no no! Transnistria is nothing!” This peeved Veronika a bit, leading her into a discussion about the good qualities of the country. But I can understand that the waiter may want to get out, especially when the coolest place to hang out in town is a greasy burger restaurant.

Veronika took us on a little tour to walk off our Bro Burgers. We wandered around the park, new movie theater, and the statue of Harry Potter in front of Tiraspol University. Why Harry Potter? Because like Transnistria, he’s a fantasy. Yet he’s strong and courageous and saves the world despite his shortcomings. Also, education is magic. I just made that up but it sounds good.

Tiraspol has that kind of communist grandeur you see in videos of military parades in Beijing or Pyongyang. The wide empty streets, the hammer and sickle flags, the austere looming buildings lining the streets, and the made-to-be jolly faces of the everyday folks looking on.

To get a bit outside of the city and experience Transnistria off the beaten path, Michele and I took an abandoned building tour with Hostel Like Home. Run by a kind local husband and wife, the hostel is also a fantastic place to stay and meet other travelers if you have the chance. It’s the perfect backpacker kind of hostel you find at other less-visited locations, with like-minded travelers tired of the “normal” destinations. Our guide fed us some breakfast, and we were off to the tour in his little car.

Our guide, a bulking Ukrainian stopping for a cigarette every several minutes, spoke little English, so we ended up communicating mainly through Google Translate, which worked just as well as it did with the Russian convicts I got drunk with in Georgia. He was kind and generous, working hard to support his family while simultaneously treating us with the hospitality of someone who truly loves their work. But still, he got a bit offended when I tried to buckle the broken seatbelt in the back. “No need!” He said with a grin.

Our first stop was a monastery out near the town of Bender. A Romanian orthodox church, ornately built and lavishly designed in hand-painted frescoes. Our guide asked the priest to take us on a tour of the bell tower. The wiry, thin priest with a mousy beard and thing long hair smiled at us with yellowing teeth. When the guide told him that I looked like Jesus Christ, he covered his smile with a veiny hand and giggled. He took a liking to me after that, taking us up into the clock tower and explaining the history of the location in Russian with splashes of English here and there. “Here, very big war. Many people die.” He said, pointing at a field. “Come,” he would shuffle me to the other side of the building. “Here, many cows. Use to have garden for church. Now, no more.” He said, pointing out over another field. “Come…”

The priest took us back downstairs to the gift shop to buy some honey made in the monastery. Outside, our guide was smoking a cigarette. “Good? Davai!”

Our next stop was the abandoned theme park, with a snack break of the classic creamy delight of Russian ice cream. Packaged in thin plastic, Russian ice cream always comes uniformly served in the blandest cardboard flavored cone that’s been pre-smushed during shipping, but the creamy industrial vanilla flavor always enchants. The taste probably hasn’t changed since the embalming of Lenin — a pure nostalgic experience.

At the rusty theme park, just a few steps away from an equally rusty children’s play place laid the remains of all the half-hazard designed rides that any average Ivan or Ivana would enjoy back in the day. Thin sheet metal merry-go-rounds with chains to keep you tied in, and a Ferris wheel with the structural integrity of a house of cards built by a rampaging chubby toddler.

Here, our guide struck up an interesting conversation on the finer points of our contrasting cultures. “In Germany, Momma-Papa. In Italy, Momma-Papa. In Transnistria, Momma-Papa. But in America, Papa-Papa?” He said with a grin, rubbing his two index fingers together as if to start a fire. “Momma-Momma too?”

“Ya I guess sometimes,” I said with a shrug.

“Crazy!” He said waving his hands a bit. He didn’t seem to be too opposed to the idea of gay marriage but was more surprised that it actually existed. Of course, in countries like Moldova, homosexuality is allowed but not expressly accepted. This seemed to always be a bit of a challenge for Michele and me — two platonic straight friends traveling by car on a budget and sharing rooms — and both of us being a little more flamboyant on the masculinity scale than our Eastern peers.

With this conversation past us, we continued on with a break of cheesy greasy flatbread and fresh kefir served out of another thin plastic bag. The final stop was what Michele and I had wanted to see this entire tour: a long-abandoned school untouched and filled with Soviet propaganda. Every inch encased in thick institutional dust, likely never cleaned since closing. Brilliant industrial Soviet paint chipping off the walls, the halls still filled with the air circulated through the tiny lungs of countless young Transnistrian minds. Now, kids only come to smoke weed and get drunk with the broken glass and chipped paint in the corridors.

“Kids don’t care.” Our guide lamented to us, “they throw trash around, don’t care to pick up. Is terrible.” He said before tossing his empty plastic kefir cup on the floor of the abandoned school. There’s something about this guy not giving a fuck that I really love… you go, good sir, keep not giving the fucks.

A visit to this abandoned school, and indeed Tiraspol in general, feels a bit like going to Chernobyl or any other great Soviet town, but without the radiation.

This day completely exhausted me. So much old history and energy in one day can get really tiresome, a bit like going through a big museum like the MET. Michele and I went back for some drinks with the folks from the hostel. Local Transnistiran beer has this delicious metallic taste you only find in fine South American or West African beers, the kind of taste that can only be imparted by brewing the beer in old metal oil barrels. But it always goes down easy and makes for a better time. A Russian man staying at the hostel brought some cognac to share with us, and a flock of German football bros got pumped for the Inter Milan – Sheriff Tiraspol game as if they were going out for a hunt.

I had completely forgotten that we came here to watch the game! We had asked around everywhere but learned that locals bought tickets the moment they came out, for about $30, only to resell them to tourists for $150 (or more) a pop. Because of course, there was no way to buy them online, and they could only be bought at the stadium. So we gave up our mission to watch the game, which Michele ended up watching on his phone and I ended up sleeping through.

So the entire reason for coming to this land, the catalyst that began this trip, was just lost in a few moments with some snores and dreams of abandoned buildings and bulky Transnistrian tour guides. But this journey was the definition of stopping to smell the roses. With every stop, we made a vital memory and a deep love for the place we had visited.

Now, our main destination would be behind us, with another three full days of driving ahead of us to get back to work on Monday. Next, we would leave Transnistria to venture into the Moldovan wine country, to see what all this Moldovan wine hubbub was about. As two straight men going on a wine tour in Moldova, we learned we didn’t blend in as well as we could have.

Driving to a Non-Existent Country

Note: this trip was taken in November of 2021, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I am humbled to have had the privilege to travel through the beautiful country of Ukraine and visit on multiple occasions, and my heart goes out to the wonderful people who are fighting to preserve their families, culture and sovereignty. Slava Ukraini!

What do you do when you have a week off, a car, and a nonexistent country to go visit with one of your friends? You drive 25 hours across Europe to go to the last Communist non-existent country in Europe, of course.

If Yuri Gagarin’s face plastered to a wall doesn’t sell you on Transnistria, I don’t know what will.

(Writer’s note: I’m writing this from Mexico right now, and have absolutely horrible internet. Please ignore the videos above, because the internet is too spotty for me to properly remove that at the moment. Thanks!)

Let’s begin with the why. One day, me and my former coworker and cowboy-in-crime Michele (Mee-kel-ae), bored from work, would discuss the weirdness of the “country” of Transnistria was. They had plastic coins, a slender border, a flag with a hammer and sickle, and a very strange existence indeed. Apparently as well, a football team propped up by Russian oil oligarchs that beat some of the biggest names in football during the Euro cup qualifiers.

We were talking about how funny it would be if we decided to drive there, to watch Inter Milan play Sheriff Tiraspol in a qualifying match. A painful silence followed. A long silence, followed by a slow turn of heads and a lock of eyes. “Why don’t we….drive there next week?”

We told our boss that we would take a week off, to drive to Transnistria to watch a football match. He perhaps questioned why he was even paying us in the first place. I told my roommates, both Romanians, and they decided I must certainly be a spy. “Dude, why would you go to a country so shitty? It’s even worse than Romania.”

Because I make terrible rash decisions and love to live in the moment, that’s why.

So we hopped aboard sasquatch, my 12-year-old Peugeot boat-sized 407, and drove as far as we could the first day. Germany is a real treasure to drive through in the fall. Tree-lined country roads dazzle with constant confetti of amber leaves, falling and blowing in the wind as the driver plunges deeper into winding roads.

The roads ramble through hills and lakeside towns with houses that seem to be made of graham crackers and powdered sugar. After roughly six hours of driving from Aarhus, we stopped in the sleepy town of Neustadt-Glewe, somewhere between Hamburg and Berlin, with just enough time to grab a beer from the local pub before it closed.

A small town with an adorable unique charm, we booked the cheapest room in a small hotel and watched the lunacy that is German television. One channel will feature an intense political conversation with beer-bellied men and walrus-like mustaches that act as a filter for soup, and immediately the camera will pan to a drag queen dressed like a resplendent neon cockatoo who will give their opinion. Flip to the next channel, and sassy jazz music will play as a young couple runs through a field of wheat. The man tackles the woman, they give each other a lustful tender look, and she beckons him forth. The man pulls her towards him to allow their soft lips to touch and enchant one another. She’ll remove a supple breast, and I’ll hurriedly flip the channel before having to deal with the social dilemma of watching soft porn with my friend in a roadside German hotel.

The next day, we drove roughly six hours to Wrocław, a city I have had on my list for quite a while. We would have driven further, and perhaps we should have, but Wrocław has been the last major Polish city I have wanted to visit before leaving Europe. We arrived fairly late, having stopped for a lazy cheap lunch of schnitzel served with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and beer on the Polish border. The joys of having all the team in the world mean you can stop where you want, enjoy a little roadside indulgence, and continue on without regret.

The night started innocently enough when we arrived in Wrocław. Michele and I ventured to the communist nostalgia bar, Setka, for cheap beer and heavy goulash sandwiches. We exchanged a shot and planned our night. “Well,” Michele began “my friend who lived here recommended Przybij Piątaka.”

Deep in thought, I looked out the window. “You mean that place across the street?” This was a singularity that the night must go on. Przybij Piątaka was a small bar filled with emo college kids, dressed up in vampire costumes for Halloween. The chairs were boring and probably from IKEA, but the drinks were cheap which explained the crowd. As the only foreign, non-college vampires in the bar, we felt the sting of many onlookers toward these two outsiders. Another few beers and shots passed, and we were ready for our third spot. We wandered through the city, and as I often do in my drunken state, I began to tout upon how much I love this country to Michele. “I mean, look how cute it is. Look at that building. I fuckin love Poland man.” The exquisite architecture, the wonderful people, the cheap alcohol. All things needed for a perfect city outing.

We found a seedy-looking bar, my favorite kind, where I had told a local on Couchsurfing to meet us. A local band, playing Polish cover versions of Rage Against the Machine songs began to thrash and some more vampires began to thrash in the middle of the bar, making it difficult for us to talk to our new Couchsurfing friend…who we’ll call Mika. Mika was exuberant to meet us, more Michele than me because it allowed Mika to practice his Italian. Mika, from a town nearby, used to be a cigarette smuggler over the Polish-Ukrainian border. Now he lived in Switzerland, doing a more lawful job, but lamented on the days when he earned more and lived well smuggling goods across the border. He told us, if we didn’t want trouble at the border, that we should slip a few Euros into our passport to make the crossing easier. He also told us where to find the best happy-ending massage parlors in Warsaw, and then got us talking to a couple of women out of place women at the table next to ours. He leaned over to us, “Which one do you want? They’ll be ready soon!” Couchsurfing is always full of surprises.

Michele and I, not wanting to be involved in this imminent legal disaster, decided we had seen enough for one night. And a good thing too, because by this point we were so sloshed that we were playing cops and robbers, running around Wrocław shooting each other with finger pistols. My final memory of the night was taking off my shoes in front of Michele’s bed, pulling a garbage bin next to mine, and fading into a wishy-washy sea of black.

The next day we woke, barely alive with splitting hangovers. We ran to the nearest Zabka drugstore to buy the ancient Central European hangover cure: factory-made borscht with a side of instant ramen noodles. This would be our second longest driving day, not made easier by our queasiness. We would drive to Lviv, Ukraine, a city I know well for its baby-slapping good time. The drive across Poland was smooth, without any major delays until we hit the Ukrainian border. Then the real waiting began, and we wished we had taken Mika’s advice and prepared a good bribe. Eventually, we did cross the border, after a fairly smooth interrogation process. In the dark, we could only see Ukrainian vehicles around us, and as we exited the border crossing we saw one lonely German car on the side of the road, with the driver slumped over his steering wheel as if shot in the back of the head. A good omen for the future.

Lviv is only an hour or so from the border, but an hour on dark Ukrainian roads can be difficult for the most experienced road warrior. Ukrainian roads are some of the worst I’ve experienced anywhere, filled with potholes and waves of asphalt sloshed to the side of the road by the accumulated weight of thousands of truck drivers.

Soon, however, we were in Lviv, a city I love deeply. We went straight to my favorite nostalgia bar, a bar where you have to knock on the door and say “Slava Ukraini” to an armed guard who hands you a shot. Here, we got drunk off a liter of 11% beer with a name roughly translated to “Putin’s a dickhead” while eating pig ears served with raw onion and mounds of pork lard spread thickly on dark sour bread. A relatively easy night, compared to the one before.

Yet still, we woke up hungover, our room smelling of regrets excreted with tremendous force through our sour pores. Putin was indeed a dickhead, for more reasons than our brutal hangover prolonged for another day — a hangover that would test us for our longest day of traveling ahead.

Not many people travel to Moldova, and even fewer do so by car over the Northern border with Ukraine. In the Soviet days, there was no border between these two countries. Cars passed through willy-nilly across a border made difficult by the waviness of the zigzagging Dniester River. Few trucks even make the journey, with most supplies being sent from Odesa in the South East or Iasi to the South West in Romania. The roads going from Lviv through Ternopil and into the dense forests and hinterlands are not well preserved and certainly off any trodden travelers path. The roads have not been repaved in the past few decades, making us swerve through waves of asphalt and potholes while trying not to run over Farmer Грегори’s chickens. We woke early, and even still made it to the Ukrainian-Moldovan border just before dark, only stopping in an abandoned log cabin along the way which was able to serve me a plate of freshly grilled shashliks — Georgian skewered and grilled meat.

The border control was an easy process, with only a skeptical look from the border guard holding the passports of an American and Italian in a car registered in Denmark entering Moldova “for tourism.” Michele drove the remaining three hours to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on dark unlit Moldovan highway roads.

I revel in off-the-beaten-path destinations and often make a point of going to these countries to prove that they are worth visiting. Kosovo, Armenia, North Macedonia, Albania, the list goes on, as I can usually see the best in any place. I consider myself a forgiving traveler, able to see the brilliant aspects of a destination and balance them with the harsh realities and inconveniences prevalent in any less-traveled location.

Chisinau is another story. We arrived late at our hostel, located in the quiet center of this capital city. The young man who welcomed us was stand-offish, awkward in his mannerisms in a way you would expect an alien to be if they had just arrived on Earth and were learning how the humans do. Nothing was open in town, aside from a fast food kebab restaurant and an Irish pub where Michele ate a burger with waffles for buns. Perhaps, we thought, the city would be better in the daylight.

We had anticipated that there would not be much to see in the city, so we only planned to stay a few hours before going to our next destination. We woke early, fending off the stray cats who were trying to crawl in through the hostel door, to go for a stroll around the city in daylight. The center is compact, with a gigantic promenade in front of the main government buildings made for tanks and military parades to strut down. We walked through the dusty Moldovan history museum, having only paid $2 to enter, and learned that Moldova has a rather unremarkable history. It seems to me, as an outsider, that Moldova has always sat in the shadow of its neighbors. The language they speak, the food they eat, the way they grow their wheat, is all largely related to the way they do it over the border in Romania. They drink wine like Romanians, curse like Romanians, are depressed like Romanians, but have the unfortunate gift of being so close to Russia, with a huge Russian minority, to never be allowed into the EU. Yes, there was indeed a time when Moldova wanted to be a part of Romania, especially when they learned that Romania would be joining the EU. But that movement was quickly shut down by the Russian minorities, wishing to connect more with their relatives to the East.

Moldovans with Romanian ties often leave, and those with Ukrainian passports usually leave as well. Those who stay seem bitter as if they have pulled the short straw in the Post-Soviet breakup, reflected in the sorrowful looks of the locals as they shuffle about their daily duties. Those who leave are not really accepted fully anywhere. Most Romanians look down on them, and Western Europeans look down even more so. This means that Moldova is a bit trapped: the country with one of the lowest GDP’s in Europe, smushed in between the East and West while trying to carve out enough respect by throwing money into their wine industry to attract tourism but not receiving much more than a dribble of wandering backpackers who crave the unknown.

I had been warned of this by the father of my Romanian roommate, a hard-working man from Timisoara. “Why would you want to go there! It’s like it was back in the Soviet days, and it’s even worse than Romania.” He was not wrong, but this was exactly why I wanted to visit. Back in the town square, Michele and I side-eyed each other and decided it was time to head off to our main destination. But first, a coffee, which was unexpectedly delicious, along with a rare view of innocence in this otherwise dreary city.

Our main destination, the Mecca to our Hajj, the Santiago de Compostela to our Camino, was Transnistria: the country that doesn’t exist. Yes, most pilgrimages are holy but ours was ideological. I wished to see the last bastion of communist hope in Europe, to see how they lived and why they decided to continue living in this way. Long have I been fascinated by this oasis of communism, locked forever in a Soviet time capsule between Moldova and Ukraine. Yes, this was the Russian minority that opposed joining Romania, and even got into a brief civil war in the 1990s after the breakup. Now, they have their own borders, military, currency, and a big support budget from Russian oligarchs. And it only lies an hour and a half away from Chisinau. We hurried onto the road, passing through dead wheat fields stopping only for a bowl of polenta and thick beef stew, racing towards the border with a fake country.

We were greeted by a tank and a few military personnel, chilled by the crisp autumn air. I handed them my documents, and they began going to work writing up our visa for the stay. The portly soldier who was going through our documents looked at me, and with a bit of a smirk uttered “Uh oh.. problem…” I wondered how much he wanted as a bribe.

He pointed his chubby finger at my car insurance. “Ukraine, Moldova, no Transnistria! Transnistria is a country, why not have insurance?” I said I was very sorry, that my insurance provider must have made a mistake. Of course, I didn’t say that under no circumstances would my insurance company sell insurance for his “country,” let alone even know where it was.

“Is ok.” He said. “Go to the car, put 50 Lei, bring back, no problem.” He gestured by folding up my insurance document to hide the invisible bribe and handed me back my documents.

Somehow in years of backpacking, this was my first police bribe and only $3 worth! I rushed back to the car with a bit of naughty excitement, threw in some Lei, and gave him his bribe. I was surprised and impressed, as this was the smoothest border with the best English-speaking guards we had experienced since leaving Denmark.

With our bribe paid and our visa stamped we sped off towards the capital city of this non-existent country. Our Transnistrian adventure, after the long hungover journey, was finally beginning.

Oppulent Yerevan

Yerevan offers a stark contrast from the rest of Armenia. When you go to any other city in Armenia, it will most certainly feel unlike anything else you’ve previously experienced. Most cities feel as though they have not been updated since the 1980’s. Megalithic brutal skeletons of Soviet decaying buildings loom over cities, casting shadows upon any chance of progress. Movie theaters and Soviet malls, which once were bustling with young Armenians going out on the town now have broken windows and a man selling a hacked-up sheep from the trunk of his Lada in the parking lot.

Countryside Armenia is decidedly more rural and drastically more conservative and shy. Aside from Gyumri, the second biggest city, there is hardly another city to mention, just a few towns with people who look at you asking themselves, “why are you here?”

It is rare to find anyone who speaks English, and who can blame them. Most tourists that come out to these parts are Russian, Iranian, or possibly lost. The result is a landscape that can appear hostile. We did not converse with many locals beyond pleasantries, and most cities felt unwelcome to the non-Russian speaker.

Dilijan was a prime example. The government has put a lot of money into making this city feel like the “Switzerland of Armenia.” And it is cute and gorgeous. There are adorable boutique shops, and we even stayed in a beautifully built wooden cabin house with a family of rats living in the ceiling. But get outside the city, and you will find dilapidated abandoned Soviet buildings and locals who don’t really know what to do with you.

But Yerevan is different. People are gorgeously built and put extraneous effort into the clothes they wear. The women look as though they have never touched a plow, their nails recently manicured and their hair recently conditioned. Their male counterparts keep their untamable beards modestly trimmed and only drink the socially acceptable amounts of vodka. The streets are decidedly more metropolitan, filled with hip cafes and bars, packed with the handsome youth of the upper echelons of this country. There are vast art museums, gorgeous parks, and smiling people who are willing to help and be kind. For someone who had spent ten days in the hinterlands of Armenia, Yerevan felt like an entirely different world.

To be honest, I loved Yerevan. It is certainly my favorite city in the Caucacus region and by far the most hospitable. While Tbilisi is beautiful, it’s a bit too spread out to be enjoyable for the walking nomad. Baku is disturbing in its fakeness, a playground built only for the oil-lubricated elite.

Yerevan is perfectly sized to walk around, the locals are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and there is a fair amount to see and do. The buildings are all built from a similar pink shade of stone, giving the architecture a beautiful unity. Here as well, you will find people who speak excellent English. A lot of people who were born in the Armenian diaspora, like Beirut or Southern California, move back here for the affordable living costs and the ability to bring their families back to their homeland. We met some American-born Armenians who had moved here, and I have heard that a lot of American Armenian retirees move here as their pension can go quite a bit further. These diasporas support the city in its art and cultural escapades, helping to make the capital in the mountains stand out from its neighbors.

Yerevan, with its pleasant metro system and easy walkability, is perfect for a several-day city break. We perused the many local book shops and wandered aimlessly for hours around the cute rosy streets. For those who want a taste of the old Armenia, I can do nothing but recommend the GUM market to sample the local flavors. Hawkers will sell their walnuts and dried fruits to you, giving you delicious samples to win you over. Here you can also find any form of meat, pickled veggie, or cheese product you could ever need.

Flip the Yerevan coin back over, and you’ll find a city filled with art and culture on par with any “Western” city. The most famous art installation of course being the Cascade, a large staircase leading to a viewpoint over the city with holy mount Ararat in the distance. Take a peek inside for a walk through modern art galleries and historical exhibitions.

Along with the modern comes a tremendous amount of history, such as the traditional mosque. This building was once buried under rubble, until discovered and given to the Iranians to restore and beautify the city.

But perhaps with all cities, my favorite aspect comes in investigating the humans. All cities are dusty and noisy at the end of the day, but every city is filled with its own breed of folks who work hard to make ends meet, and create a distinct way of living in the process. Yerevan is a town of delicious foods, upscale boutiques, and a lot of people trying to survive by the best means possible.

For me, this will be my everlasting image of Armenia. A country that has endured so much, yet still finds a way to be proud through all the dust as it settles. This is a group of people who have waited far too long to have their chance to shine, and hopefully, that time will come soon.

Special schools are now open to younguns, which allow them to come in after class to learn anything from coding, language, music, or whatever else their interests may delight in. Armenia takes its future generation seriously, knowing that the only way forward is to create a country of people proud of their land and of the knowledge they have acquired. They look ahead while trying to hold on to the past they have worked so hard to grasp in the first place, and they have done so with a tremendous amount of empathy and loyalty to what lays ahead.

The Grand Armenian Winter Roadtrip

Armenia is most decidedly, a very unique and worthy place to visit. The people, who have been sitting up in their Shangri La mountain fortress, have been idling by writing poetry in their own language while sipping the oldest wine in the world, praying to a Mr. Jesu Cristo longer than any other country in the world.

This is a place of ancient wisdom, a place most decidedly undiscovered by many other travelers, and often overlooked for unfortunate reasons.

Reason 1 is the big “Why Armenia?”

I received this question a lot. Why would you and your girlfriend go to Armenia rather than somewhere nice? Shut up — You don’t know me, and you clearly don’t know anything about Armenia. This is a land of sublime nature, a culture older than anything you’ve probably experienced, and a place so far off the beaten path that anywhere you go makes you feel like Indiana Jones.

Reason 2 has more to do with its past.

Armenia has not had a lot of time to be independent, aside from the time their empire stretched to the Mediterranean around 70 BCE. Since then it has been taken over by everyone from the Persians to the Greeks to the Mongols and Soviets and a whole lot of other non-Armenian Kings. That hasn’t left a lot of time for the Armenians to be independent, yet their culture has outlived even the most formidable of Empires.

If you are from the United States or another Western country, chances are you know some folks of Armenian descent. You may have noticed that these individuals hold on to their culture stronger than many other diasporas around. This is of course because there are far more Armenians living outside Armenia than living in it, due to a mixture of factors including the Armenian Genocide. This act of systematic extermination and forced exodus committed by the then Ottoman Empire displaced millions of Western Armenians, out into neighboring Syria and Lebanon or even further afield to places like Glendale, California. This is a subject I do not have the necessary titles to lecture on, but I do encourage you to dig into the subject under your own discretion, and to go to Armenia yourself to understand the depth of this country’s history and many painful memories.

But like all countries that have suffered, there is a boundless sense of pride in the culture they have created and successfully held on to through it all. However, this and the ongoing conflict with neighbor Azerbaijan (if you have been reading this blog for a while, you know my feelings on Azerbaijan) have made Armenia a bit off the beaten path to those exploring the Caucasus. Roughly 90% of the country’s land borders are closed, meaning one must come from Georgia, Iran, or a bumpy plane from East Europe.

But for me, these reasons absolutely make the case for why one should visit Armenia. Beyond that, the nature is absolutely sublime, and the lack of tourists makes every site you visit feel as if you are its sole discoverer. But to get the most out of Armenia, I believe a car rental is the best way to go.

I love public transport. But Marshrtukas, the local bus “system” in Eastern Europe which are always too tight, drive with a deathwish, and wait until the bus is packed like a can of salted fish before leaving the bus parking lot, are not great for winter in the midst of a pandemic. So, the obvious response is to rent a car. For me, the cheapest place ended up being Caravan Car rental, and to my surprise, the process was incredibly easy. The cheap options, a Lada Niva or a Dacia Logan, are surprisingly good and came with winter tires.

We opted for the Dacia Logan (because it has airbags) and made our way North of Yerevan Zvarnots Airport as soon as we landed. Immediately, we learned that these roads, these streets were no longer Western European.

Countries outside the “west” have a wonderful way of doing math. When we, in the West, see two lanes, we see two lanes. When drivers in many Eastern countries see two lanes, they see five. Driving in Yerevan is most certainly hectic, and you must keep your whits about you 100% of the time if you want to get your rental car deposit back in full.

However, the roads are surprisingly well maintained. Even in the countryside, roads are surprisingly good, and most certainly better than they are elsewhere even in the Caucacus. Traffic is relatively small as well, and most of the time, your biggest traffic jam will be a shepherd with his flock.

Our first stop was the one and only major ski resort town in Armenia, Tsaghkadzor. Covered in the slush of the previous snow, we arrived at our sleepy little hamlet hotel. Snow drifted down daintily in the dark, lit by only a large flood light attached to the roof. There was no main check-in or desk, but after a bit of poking around I found an old man living inside a hobbit hole of the basement. Russian TV blared on the television as he used an old Nokia to call the owner, the only person who spoke any English. His nose red from a combination of the cold and a lifetime of clear alcohol.

When I was connected, the nice owner told me how much to pay and wished me a good trip. We had come here to ski, so I obviously asked how easy it would be to rent some ski equipment. “You want to ski?” She asked. “Sir, there’s not enough snow… you can not ski.”

Time for a Plan K.

We had booked three nights at the ski hotel, expecting to be able to ski. So now I’ve learned to be flexible in Armenia, and I’ve learned that even if the locals on the ground tell you that the ski slopes are open, it may not be true.

But being the intrepid travelers that we were, we powered on and used the three days to explore the country. We left no stone unturned as we visited every major monastery and every dusty Armenian town in between. If stranded in Tsaghkadzor, some easy close destinations include the Hellinistic Temple of Garni, and the monastery built into a cave at Geghard Monastery.

For me, Geghard Monastery was a truly magically Indiana Jones experience. Fat globs of snow drifted down from the sky as we arrived at the temple, driving through a canyon of high cliffs. At the bottom of the cliff sat a small grey wall, and in it a small ancient grey temple with black robed monks. Armenia is quite special in that it was the first country to officially adopt Christianity as a religion, and thus have a very unique approach to Mr. Christ and the art of church building. Armenian temples are cold, devoid of the gold-clad walls and ornamentation or other Eastern-Orthodox churches. Most churches are made of raw earthen or stone walls, and may only feature a small painting of a diety and a few carvings or prayers scratched into the wall surface.

But be wary of the snow, dear reader. Armenia’s response to heavy snowfall is two men in the back of a semi with shovels quickly throwing old asphalt chips onto the road. Roads ice over quickly, drivers drive like maniacs, and winter roads are prone to a good pile up.

Driving back from Geghard Monastery to our skiless ski resort on the main highway, we hardly realized that the road had completely iced over as a thick fog obscured the path ahead. Before I knew it, the people ahead of us who had been driving a brisk Armenian 90 kmh halted to a complete standstill, and they were doing so on an ice rink. Our breaks creaked as I quickly noticed that we were about to hit a wall of cars. I pumped the breaks and luckily the drivers in front of me pulled over to avoid their own collisions, making a small thoroughway for me to needle my ice skating car through. Crisis averted, but those Dacia Logan airbags were sure looking useful if this had gone south.

So if you decide to rent a car in winter in Armenia, be sure of a few things. Know how to drive in a busy city, and know how to drive in the snow and ice. Even a week after the snow, roads were left icey and unplowed.

Besides being able to see every destination by car, Armenia is the perfect size to travel easily. Within six hours, we drove from the northern town of Dilijan down to the peaks of Tatev. Along the way, we found dramatic peaks and gorgeous roads of arid nothingness.

Down in Tatev, one can really go off-the-beaten-path. For example, a well-preserved village of cave dwellers, inhabited as recently as 1952, lay a bumpy gravel drive off the main road in a random city near Tatev. But the experience yielded one of the most genuine, and most under-visited sites we had seen during our trip.

To add to the Indiana Jones effect, we even had to cross a long suspension bridge that swayed precariously with each step.

So rent your car and explore Armenia as thoroughly as physically possible. You won’t regret it. Up next, we explore the chaotic metropolitan capital of Yerevan.