Border crossing hell: Romania to Moldova

Border crossing must be the most hated part of travel. Even the most experienced backpackers dread it. I’m surely not the only one who has stayed in a country several days too long, procrastinating going to my next destination just because of the border crossing.


I was tempted to do just that in Suceava, Romania. I’d just spent a couple days exploring the painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina. There was plenty more to do in the area. And I was a little nervous about heading to Moldova — I’d never met anyone else who had traveled there and hadn’t been able to find any information about it.


The one problem: I’d run out of Romanian currency. I only had 10 leu (about $3) left. And I didn’t want to pay another $5 ATM fee to take out more.


So I sucked it up, bought my bus ticket to Chisinau, and prepared for what would become the worst border crossing of all my travels.


Border Crossing Hell Part One: A Romanian border guard takes my passport


When I showed up to the bus station, my hopes were high for a seamless border crossing. The bus was modern-ish. It left on time. The roads were good.


But my blood pressure shot up when arrived at the Romanian side of the border. A border agent took all our passports off the bus while we were told to stay put. I forced myself to think, ‘okay, this is fine. Everyone else is doing it.’


The most nerve-wracking thing about travel in remote Eastern Europe is you never quite understand what’s going on around you, and no one speaks English. And nothing’s worse than being in the no-man’s land between two countries and being separated from your passport.

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The Romanian border agent returned a few minutes later. I started to relax as he handed out all the passports. It was taking awhile to get mine back, but I didn’t think much of it.


Then, the border agent got off the bus and the bus pulled away from the building. Without my passport.


Border Crossing Hell Part Two: The Moldovan interrogation room


The bus driver ignored my desperate pleas to stop. He sped over to the entrance to Moldova.


The next thing I knew, I was being shouted at (always shouted at; these people don’t use inside voices) in Russian, by a Moldovan border guard with an uzi, to get off the bus and go with him into the Moldovan customs office.


Moments later, I found myself in a tiny room surrounded by Moldovan guards. The walls were plastered with posters that said “Stop corruption: Don’t pay bribes.”


I was separated from my bus-mates. In fact, at this point I was pretty sure the bus left me there. And from what I could tell, I was in an interrogation room.


Border Crossing Hell Part Three: A Stand Against Corruption


My initial reaction was relief. One of the border guards had my passport! My border crossing from hell was over! I had no idea how it got there, but there it was — unmistakable USA. I pointed to it excitedly and gestured that it was mine.


But the Moldovan border guards had other ideas. The man with my passport put it back in his pocket. Then he held grinned at me, up his hand, palm up, and rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together — the international symbol for “pay me or you’re never seeing your passport again.”

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Now, I strongly oppose bribes. Corruption has done a lot of damage to the former Soviet countries. It feeds an oligarchical political system that hurts the vast majority of citizens.


So I smiled right back at that border guard and shook my head. No money for you.


He never stopped smiling. He just kept staring right back at me, stupid grin on his face, not moving a muscle. It went on like this for what felt like eternity.


What can I say? I cracked. I broke out my wallet and handed him the whopping 10 leu of Romanian money I had.


By some miracle, it was enough for him. He handed my passport back to me, one of the other guards stamped it, and they let me go. Even better, the bus didn’t leave without me!


Such was my welcome to Moldova — known for being “Europe’s unhappiest country.”


The passport I almost lost at the border crossing
The most beautiful sight in the world


Have you had a horrible border crossing experience? How could I have avoided paying the bribe? Leave a comment with your stories and thoughts!

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Agness of Fit Travelling

I completely understand you. Borders can be a real nightmare!

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