Mys­te­ri­ous in its crum­bling glory

Want to re­ally go ‘‘off the beaten track’’? Con­sider Moldova, the sec­ond-least vis­ited coun­try in the world. By

The Southland Times - - TRAVEL -

Vicki Kirker and Paul Heath love noth­ing more than ven­tur­ing into farflung corners of the Earth, but they re­cently found them­selves 17,000 kilo­me­tres from home in an ob­scure part of Eastern Europe that most of us have never heard of.

‘‘We ex­pe­ri­enced things you couldn’t make up if you tried,’’ laughs Heath, aged 65. ‘‘And that is ex­actly why we love trav­el­ling.’’

The Welling­ton cou­ple is back home af­ter an awe-in­spir­ing trip to Ga­gauzia, a sliver of land three towns long that is so re­mote tourism has yet to gain a foothold.

It’s an au­ton­o­mous re­gion of Moldova, a land­locked coun­try be­tween Ro­ma­nia and Ukraine that is renowned for be­ing the sec­ond-least vis­ited coun­try in the world (be­hind Kiri­bati, na­tion of 33 coral atolls sur­rounded by thou­sands of nau­ti­cal miles of Pa­cific Ocean).

For­get ‘‘off the beaten track’’. Moldova, which has a pop­u­la­tion roughly the size of New Zealand, doesn’t even know the track ex­its.

It’s an enigma of a coun­try, where most of its res­i­dents are trilin­gual – speak­ing Rus­sian, Ro­ma­nian and a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered tongue, Ga­gauz.

Flank­ing it on one side is the self-pro­claimed state of Transnis­tria, an­other for­got­ten king­dom, which has its own gov­ern­ment, army and colour­ful plas­tic cur­rency - but isn’t recog­nised by the United Na­tions.

‘‘We love vis­it­ing places un­spoilt by tourism, and see­ing how the other half live,’’ says Heath.

Shared love of in­trepid travel

Travel ce­mented their re­la­tion­ship when they met on­line in 2006. ‘‘I saw his pro­file on­line and he said he loved trav­el­ling and I was like, ‘yep, you’ll do’,’’ laughs Kirker, 63.

Af­ter mar­ry­ing in 2010, the cou­ple jour­neyed to in­trepid places like Egypt, Jor­dan, Al­ba­nia, Gu­atemala, Kenya, the Arc­tic, Botswana and Myan­mar.

‘‘We both still work full­time so we can travel,’’ ex­plains Heath. ‘‘There’s no point wait­ing till you re­tire, we might be dead by then.’’

Adds Kirker: ‘‘We love trav­el­ling in small groups and go­ing to un­usual places other tourists don’t go.’’

Moldova def­i­nitely falls into that cat­e­gory. Men­tion its name and most peo­ple will say, ‘Mold­where?’ Last decade, it was fa­mously named the ‘least happy place in the world, in the best­seller, The Ge­og­ra­phy of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Hap­pi­est Places in the World, and it’s con­sid­ered to be one of the poor­est coun­tries in Europe.

Per­haps that ex­plains why Moldova re­ceived only 11,500 vis­i­tors in 2015, a 10th of the num­ber who trav­elled to tiny Bhutan, iso­lated high in the Hi­malayas.

Once un­der the con­trol of Rus­sia, Moldova de­clared its in­de­pen­dence and took its name af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in Au­gust 1991.

Its vis­i­tors en­ter a strange time warp as Lenin mar­ble busts frown down from above, and trendy bars, cafes and restau­rants slowly spring up in its cap­i­tal, Chisinau. Only a three-hour flight from Lon­don, the world may be start­ing to wake up to mys­te­ri­ous Moldova,

Eerie waste­lands of Ch­er­nobyl

For ad­ven­ture trav­ellers Kirker and Heath, the draw­card to Eastern Europe was the eerie waste­lands of Ch­er­nobyl, less than an hour’s flight from Moldova.

‘‘A lot of our friends couldn’t get their head around the idea of us head­ing to Ch­er­nobyl as a des­ti­na­tion, they thought we were mad,’’ says Heath. ‘‘But it was only opened to tourists in 2011, and we wanted to tread where few had been be­fore us.’’

The melt­down at the Soviet plant in 1986 was the worst nu­clear dis­as­ter in his­tory, of­fi­cially killing fewer than 50 peo­ple al­though the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion pre­dicts the death toll from ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure could run as high as 4000 as more cases of in­ter-gen­er­a­tional can­cer emerge.

In a grow­ing phe­nom­e­non known as ‘‘dark tourism’’, about 10,000 vis­i­tors a year visit Ch­er­nobyl’s 50km ra­dius con­tam­i­na­tion ex­clu­sion zone and its sur­round­ing ghost towns.

Kirker and Heath say al­though it was a sober­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to be part of his­tory. The nearby town of Pripyat had 60,000 res­i­dents who had two hours to evac­u­ate af­ter the ex­plo­sion.

‘‘We saw dolls in the preschool, desks in class­rooms, an empty swim­ming pool, an aban­doned amuse­ment park,’’ says Kirker.

The ra­di­a­tion lev­els have dropped enough to al­low vis­i­tors into the ex­clu­sion zone, but re­main 10 times higher than nor­mal lev­els. Be­cause of the risk, the cou­ple went through three se­cu­rity points to get into the ex­clu­sion zone, and was told to not touch any­thing, eat or drink, or even sit on the ground.

‘‘We saw cat­fish in the river as big as sharks, af­ter they ex­plo­sion they were left with no preda­tors and ap­par­ently grew due to the ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial in the wa­ter,’’ says Heath.

While some ar­eas have been

Glimpse of Moldovan his­tory

In Moldova, the cou­ple vis­ited the coun­try’s most im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal site, Orheiul Vechi, a crum­bling open-air monastery that is a Un­esco her­itage site.

Kirker says they were en­thralled by the com­plex, which in­cludes eerie caves carved into the steep lime­stone cliffs by monks 800 years ago.

The area’s small ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mu­seum houses arte­facts un­earthed on the vast site, such as ceram­ics, head­stones from the Ot­toman Em­pire, and frag­ments of stat­uettes. To get to there, it was an hour’s up­hill walk for Kirker and Heath, through the vil­lage of Bu­tuceni.

Along the way, they saw tra­di­tional home­steads, brightly coloured like quaint gin­ger­bread houses, and each fam­ily used ev­ery inch of avail­able land to plant veg­etable gar­dens. They were of­fered ice-cold wa­ter drawn from the vil­lage well, and passed lo­cals still us­ing a horse and cart.

‘‘It was like step­ping back in time,’’ says Kirker.

An­other high­light for the cou­ple was a visit to the win­ery, Chisinau Milestii Mici, which ap­par­ently houses a stag­ger­ing mil­lion bot­tles of wine – plac­ing it in the 2005 Guin­ness Book of Records for the big­gest wine col­lec­tion in the world, much of it in bar­rels pre­pared from Crimean and Krasnodar oak.

Like an un­der­ground wine city, the net­work of gal­leries stretches a stag­ger­ing 200km – it’s so vast many of the un­der­ground pas­sages even have street names, and you can travel through them by bus or car.

While much of the world has no knowl­edge of Moldova, it’s a coun­try that’s firmly placed its pin in the world map for wine-lovers, even be­ing named by Bloomberg as The World’s Next Big Wine Re­gion.

It’s con­sid­ered to be the 22nd big­gest wine pro­ducer in the world, and ex­ported 90 per cent of its pro­duce to Rus­sia un­til a diplo­matic dis­pute in 2006 dis­rupted busi­ness. Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, Moldova is also the sec­ond boozi­est na­tion on Earth (be­hind Be­larus) with each per­son over the age of 15 drink­ing 16.8 litres a year.

Kirker and Heath say they re­turned from mys­te­ri­ous Moldova with their eyes wide open to a part of world few get to see. ‘‘We saw no other tourists, apart from our group of 12. We got lots of funny stares, and we spent a lot of our time pleas­antly sur­prised,’’ says Heath.

‘‘Isn’t that what it’s all about? We don’t go away to hol­i­day, we go away to travel and have an ad­ven­ture some­where new.’’

For more in­for­ma­tion con­tact Ad­ven­ture Travel on 04 494 7180 or email info@ad­ven­ture­travel.co.nz

PHO­TOS: VICKI KIRKER AND PAUL HEATH

Orheiul Vechi is a crum­bling open-air monastery that is a Un­esco her­itage site.

Travel ce­mented Vicki Kirker and Paul Heath’s re­la­tion­ship when they met on­line in 2006.

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