- The train from Bucharest to Chișinău costs just over $32.
- For comparison, a flight between the two cities can go for more than $160.
- But the costs of saving money, an Insider reporter learned, are steep.
CHIŞINĂU, Moldova — I got on the train in Bucharest, Romania, just after 7 pm and got off in another country at 8:30 the next morning.
An “experience.” This is what everyone I’ve told of this ordeal concludes is the reason why I would voluntarily elect to spend nearly 14 hours on a train that looks and feels like something that carried dissidents off to Siberia in the time of Josef Stalin to get from the Romanian capital to Chișinău, the capital of Moldova.
The reason one would choose this mode of transportation, aside from getting a story to tell, is to be frugal: A ticket from CFR Călători, the state-run rail company in Romania, was just $32.34, compared to $160 for a 70-minute flight. There is also a bus — stated journey time: eight hours — for just over $26, but I can’t speak to what that journey might be like.
The “sleeper” train I fumbled my way onto is an old train. “Soviet-era” doesn’t really do it justice — it is, give or take, half a century away from being new. It is primitive. The ride is not as smooth as you might think a vehicle that glides on rails should be. Somehow it feels like there are potholes.
Still, it is not barbaric.
Each car is divided into cozy quarters that sleep four people, bunk bed-style, attached by a slim hallway. Each bed has two numbers above it — your ticket has one, which ostensibly corresponds to a bed, somewhere. I never found mine. However, through negotiations, largely occurring through body language, I eventually found a bed that someone else hadn’t already decided was theirs.
I was provided a mattress, with stains about which the less said the better; to pillow; and sheets that have the odor of a heavily scented detergent, which is to say they were clean. It’s fine.
There is a bathroom. That bathroom is fine, too, actually. As for the dining car? There is none. Bring your own food and water or you will be hungry and thirsty.
The real issues are privacy and sleep — or the lack thereof.
If, to fall asleep, you require peace, quiet, and a bed that does not sway and indeed violently rock as if the train decided to become an off-roading Jeep traversing the roughest terrain in Eastern Europe, you will not find it here.
Pure exhaustion won’t put you under, either. After midnight we arrived at the border between Romania, which is a member of the European Union, and Moldova, which is not. An agent boarded the train and collected everyone’s passport (do not do what I did and put your passport somewhere you’ve never put it before, frantically searching for it before the agent gets to your door, to the amusement and slight concern of the three grown men sharing your room).
It took about an hour for the agent to reappear with the passports. Inside was a fresh stamp with a little train on it. Cute.
It was now after 1 am and I thought I could confidently attempt to go back to sleep, assuming there would be no interruptions before Chișinău.
False. Inaccurate. We only just left Romania. Now we were entering Moldova.
Again, an agent boarded the train. They asked a question: “Why are you coming?” They got off the train. They came back an hour later. At this point, I was getting into the rhythm.
Now you could try to go back to sleep, if that’s what you are still trying to do on this train.
Just kidding. Now they change the wheels. Yes, trains have wheels that you can change, and not every country has the same width rails, which is why you have to change them. The popular explanation is that this was an effort to hamper foreign invasions and smuggling during the Soviet times. I learned this a little after 3 am
How do they actually change the wheels? Who knows. It was dark and I am not an expert on trains. I can only explain that it felt like the off-roading train-Jeep had popped its tires and the driver was now continuing, obliviously, rim-to-rock.
Throughout this ordeal, the 20-something guys in the room next to mine might well have been playing cards, discretely consuming booze, and listening to a mix of EDM and ’80s pop (“Right Here Waiting for You,” by Richard Marx, come to mind).
By 4 am I did fall asleep. But before we arrived, a man shook me a little bit, telling me to get up in either Russian or Romanian. I don’t know if he was an employee or a fellow passenger but I felt like a teenager who was late for school.
This was about 40 minutes before our arrival. What the heck? I hit the snooze button, figuratively. You’re not my real dad.
This time a man who definitely worked for the train company was waking me up, and he seemed disappointed. I didn’t see the big deal — isn’t this the end of the line? —but I hastily gathered my things.
“I thought it was going to be the new train,” my translator in Moldova, Andrei Rusu, said when I arrived at the station in Chișinău, where he was waiting at the platform for me.
It wasly decided not “the new train.” It was an experience.
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