Nearing the end of our incredible two months in Romania, the time had arrived to move on. This time to neighbouring Moldova, a wonderful, though tiny, former Soviet nation. Seeing as our final days were spent in the bustling hub of Bucharest, we had several transport options to choose from. Though for the sake of adventure, and love for the rails, we opted for the Prietenia: the vintage Soviet sleeper train from Bucharest to Chisinau.
Why Choose the Night Train from Bucharest to Chisinau?
At a little under 400 kilometres away, the drive, even on these often questionable roads, would have been around 6 hours. A bus or ride-share would have been an inexpensive and relatively manageable journey. For a little extra cash, we could have skipped almost any wasted time with a speedy one-hour flight. In this case, the 13-hour duration of the journey is certainly not convenient.
So why did we go for the train into Moldova? From a logical standpoint, sleeper trains make sense. Sure, you’ll usually pay quite a lot more than a bus or other land-based transportation; but that cost includes your daily accommodation. But the real reason is that so many people said to avoid it — of course, we had to give it a try!
Stocking Supplies for the Journey
Thankfully our hotel was only a few blocks from Gara de Nord, the main train station of Bucharest. We avoided having to navigate the metro — with our packs — during a Friday afternoon rush-hour. Under an already darkening sky, we made our way to the station to pick up a few supplies.
By supplies, I’m referring of course to food and booze. With no services (or Michelin-starred dining car) on the train, we had to provide our own gourmet meal. There were several options available, including a small grocery store and a number of takeaway spots in the station. Due to it being our final day in Romania, we decided to celebrate in style. McDonald’s it was… Don’t tell our chef friends….
Settling Into our Room
Stocked with cheeseburgers, nuggets. and far more beer than was required for such a trip, we boarded the empty carriage and found our room. From outside, the train resembled any other train we’d encountered in Romania. Upon entering, however, things appeared a little more… dated
The carpet and antiquated drapes in the dimly-lit corridor resembled something out of The Shining. Inside our room, small but comfortable, the decor was much the same. Crude bench seats appeared to have been haphazardly upholstered in flea market bed sheets. The drapes and tablecloth joined the sheets in colours just similar enough to — I guess — be considered a matching set.
A Toast (or two) to Romania
No sooner did we stow our bags and settle in, we noticed the subtle rocking of the carriage as it slowly pulled away from the platform. Cans of Timisoareana matched the clink of wheels to rails as we toasted our farewell to Romania.
Aside from a family in a cabin at the far end, the entire carriage was empty. This not only gave an eerie feeling to the journey but avoided any concerns of bothering other passengers. With no WIFI and, if I remember correctly, no power outlets, all we had was music from our powered phones to our Bluetooth speaker. So we threw our own little private, two-person party. The beer flowed as the steel serpent wound its way through the Romanian night.
I’m not sure what time we eventually called it a night, though I remember waking in a blurry haze to a pounding on the door. I found the light switch and opened the door to find a stone-faced official looking down at me. He spoke gruffly in Russian, though not out of contempt, it sounded almost apathetic.
Now, I can’t speak more than three words in Russian, but for some reason, I just assumed he was a border guard of sorts. So without thinking further into the issue, I handed him our passports. He mumbled something as he walked away. As we waited, the train shook, and a loud pounding of metal on metal could be a heard around us. Though we couldn’t see anything through the windows, it eventually occurred to us what was happening.
We’d read previously that this happens near the Romania-Moldova border. See, the Soviets designed their railway with different dimensions than those of Europe. And while this may have been advantageous to them, strategically speaking, at one point in history, it’s proving to be an inconvenience to cross-continental travel. At the meeting of the two rail systems, the entire train is lifted off its European wheels and re-mounted with those matching the Soviet tracks.
The Casual Baggage Search
The guard soon returned with our passports and, in the same gravelly tone, said “Luggage.” He pointed to our benches-turned-beds. There is a fair bit of storage in these rooms, some of it above the door, the rest in compartments beneath the seats. This is also where we found the surprisingly comfortable (though questionably clean) pillows and bedding.
Slightly frustrated by the process, but understanding, we struggle to maneuver ourselves in the tight room to access our bags. Appearing equally frustrated, the guard points at my already open day bag. He flips through it briefly, uncaring, as if merely going through the motions, before turning to leave.
Before long, the train is rolling again, and its calm, subtle rocking has us sleeping immediately.
Arrival in Chisinau
Another knock on the door wakes us, followed by that same voice announcing our arrival in “Kishinev” – the less-common name of our destination.
The early morning sun blinds us temporarily as we walk the nearly deserted platform. As we enter the even less populated station building, it’s clear we’re somewhere new. The digital timetable shows only three departures: St. Petersburg, Moscow, or back to Bucharest.
Though we’re still in Europe, a feeling of remoteness rolls over us — as if we’re in some curious place of geopolitical limbo.
We head outside to meet our waiting friend, who is about to show us everything Moldova has to offer!
The Practical Bits
Bucharest to Chisinau Train Tickets: How Much and Where to Buy
Tickets must be bought in advance, (best to do it the day before) and can be purchased at the international booth of the Bucharest train station (Gara de Nord). The ticket booths are found in a separate hall, behind the strip of fast food restaurants, opposite the train platforms.
The cost of the overnight journey, for a two-bed cabin, is 106 lei (22€ / $25) per person. The cost is cheaper than flying, but considerably more than other ground-based options — and at 13 hours, certainly not the quickest.
However, we found the train from Bucharest to Chisinau experience to be worth spending a little extra. And considering it’s also a night of accommodation, you’re likely saving overall.
What to Bring
Food and water are important, as there are no services on board. There are several fast food options, as well as a small grocery store, at the Bucharest train station.
Bedding is provided, and found beneath the seats of the cabin. It was more than enough to stay warm for the duration.
There are washrooms on board, but bringing an extra roll of toilet paper is always a good option for long train rides. Especially unserviced ones like this.
When you Arrive in Chisinau
The train arrived in Chisinau almost exactly when expected, which isn’t always so common with other transport methods. If you have someone picking you up on the other side, there should be no issues with waiting. If your on your own, taxis will be waiting at the Chisinau at the station and buses are very inexpensive and easy to navigate in Moldova. As well the station is relatively close to the city centre for those who love walking.
Welcome to Moldova! It’s time to get out and experience Chisinau, drink some local wine, and explore the rest of this fantastic country!Featured Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay