Border Tensions

by Luis Alberto Alonso Clavero


This is a story that makes EU citizens appreciate being part of the Schengen group. It's the story of how a group of 11 people with passports of six different nationalities drove customs officers crazy trying to get free visas. Some questions will remain forever unanswered: Why does travelling in regular Mafia buses from Romania to Hungary make Western students suspicious to Hungarian police? Why do Albanians with service passports need visas to leave Moldova, but not to enter? Why can the price of the same Romanian visa, depending on the embassy or border crossing, vary from DM 60 to nothing?

The First Romanian Visa

For Romania our Albanian participant and all EU citizens needed a visa, while Austrians got it for free. The usual price at the border is $33 for a 30- day tourist visa.
First, we all received an official invitation letter from AEGEE-Iasi and AEGEE-Cluj-Napoca in order to apply for a free or discounted Romanian visa at the consulate in our own country. Following this procedure, one of us got a visa for DM 10 at the consulate in Bonn.
But at the Romanian embassy in Budapest, we were twice told to pay DM 60 - even for Austrians - and no one even bothered to read our letter. With those results we decided to try with the rest at the border.
There it was really easy. Without leaving the train, we produced all the passports, with the invitation letter and our best smiles, and in half an hour we got free visas. Excellent. The first battle was easily won.
To avoid the international train fares, we bought tickets good only until the last Hungarian station before the border. There we tried to bribe the conductors for the international part, which is always expensive. We couldn't do so on the Hungarian side, because the conductors sold us a ticket to the border right away, but in Romania we negotiated an agreement to pay just DM 60 for the entire group, then 10 persons. So we paid around DM 30 instead of the regular DM 60, which would have been a real rip-off.

From Romania to Moldova

On that happy day in Iasi, due to the many difficulties in reaching or crossing the border by public transport, we decided to split up the group. All public buses and trains cross border stations where Westerners cannot buy a visa. So the three of us who needed only an invitation to enter Moldova (two Poles and an Albanian) went by bus, together with the American, who had already bought his visa. The rest went in two private cars through the only border point where it is possible to get a visa: Leuseni. One of the cars was going to continue to Chisinau and the other one just to the Moldovan border, where a car from AEGEE Chisinau was waiting for us. All of this had to be arranged very late at night, because the cars and drivers were not available during daytime, and only around midnight were we able to leave Iasi by car. In all we had to stop something like a dozen times at traffic controls, border police checkpoints, waiting (for an hour) in the queue to cross the Romanian border, plus passport control and customs twice. The same process of getting the visas took over an hour, and afterwards we had to pay border-crossing tax and road-use tax (we were able to avoid the ecology tax). In all we needed around six hours for the 170 km which separates Iasi from Chisinau.
It was a very cold night. The customs officers needed some alcohol to warm themselves up a bit, as we could see in their eyes and their movements. Congratulations to the brave drivers from AEGEE-Iasi and AEGEE-Chisinau, who took us to Chisinau and who had to work the following morning (or rather, the same morning, because we arrived at 6 a.m.) Congratulations also to AEGEE-Chisinau and to Markus, whose negotiations got us one more free visa. That time we saved $30 each.

The Republic of Transdniestria

Very easy. Going there was one of the main objectives of the trip. After some discussion with the organisers about the risks of visiting Tiraspol', everything was much simpler than we thought. Since the civil war, the border has been controlled by Moldovan and Russian peacekeeping troops, as well as Transdniestrian militia. There is no real passport control, and even if there were any, nobody cared about a flock of Westerners coming to visit. They only checked the luggage lockers of the bus for weapons. This border gave us apprehensions, but not any real problems.

From Moldova back to Romania

This time we took a bus AEGEE-Chisinau had hired from Chisinau directly to Iasi, crossing the border once more at Leuseni. Of course we had to suffer all the usual controls, waiting a long time in the queue, though the main problem on the Moldovan side was that this time they did not let our Albanian friend leave the country, because he did not have a visa to get in (when in fact, with his service passport, he does not need a visa). An hour was spent with doubts, arguments, and waiting for the border-station chief to return from lunch. In the end, since our Albanian was also on the list of the persons applying for a free visa, they simply stamped one into his passport and let him go.
Then on the Romanian side there was a similar story. It had been very easy getting free visas to enter Romania the first time. But now that we needed only a transit visa we (well, Markus and Nicoleta) had to go through a lot of heated discussion to get them for free. We saved $23 more, making a total of $86 we saved in visa fees. It was worth the effort. Things were easier only for the Polish passport holders. These two did not need visas for Romania and only an invitation letter for Moldova.

From Romania to Hungary

Thinking that we could save some time and money, we took a direct bus from Arad (Romania) to Budapest, which cost only DM 18 and took only 20 minutes to reach the border. The only problem was that we spent at least three hours there. There are passport and luggage controls on both sides. Most of the passengers were Romanian citizens working in Hungary, legally or illegally. There were some problems with one of the passengers, who was not allowed to enter Hungary. They also kept the Western passports for a while, because it seemed suspicious for people like us to be travelling in such conditions, with such people. Once all this annoying border bureaucracy was finished, it was time to make another stop for lunch right after the border. And we saved an hour with the time difference between Romania and Hungary. Finally on our way to Budapest, the bus took minor roads via Szeged. Perhaps it was to avoid police controls. But after the bus stopped yet again for a drink, still 200 km away from Budapest, I could not stand it any more, so I hitchhiked with a friend the rest of the way, which took about the same time as the bus.


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