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7 myths about Moldova

Aside from the unenviable title of Europe’s least-visited country, Moldova is also the continent’s poorest. Due to a lack of information about the country and its culture, many travelers have concerns about visiting Moldova, and as rumors swirl, common misconceptions have spread about this tiny landlocked nation in Eastern Europe. In reality, though, it’s more than worth a visit. Here are the worst myths about Moldova that need to die — and why you should add the little country to your bucket list.

1. Moldova isn’t safe.

Chisinau, the capital city of the Republic of Moldova

Photo: Calin Stan/Shutterstock

Moldova is Europe’s most impoverished country. Most residents struggle to make ends meet, and foreigners typically come with a more valuable currency. Petty crime exists much as it does in any major city, certainly not aided by poor street lighting, widespread alcoholism, and dark underpasses. But with a dose of common sense, Moldova isn’t any more dangerous than the rest of Eastern Europe. Violent crime against foreigners is rare and terrorism is nonexistent. Keep your valuables close, be vigilant, and take care when it’s dark — maybe avoid walking under that overpass — but in general, the cities of Chisinau and Balti are safe to travel to. You can always ask the restaurant or bar to call an official taxi at night and bring a flashlight if you’re walking.

Moldova remains among the most corrupt nations in Europe. The Global Corruption Barometer discovered 75% of Moldovans think their police are corrupt, and former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was recently jailed for bribery. Travelers often feel concerned about this image, worrying the police will stop and ask for hefty “fines” or otherwise use their power to extort money from them. A decade ago perhaps, but it’s not the norm anymore. Tough anti-corruption campaigns aim to clamp down on bribery, and unless they break the law, police usually leave foreigners alone. Familiarize yourself with what you can and shouldn’t do before visiting. Crossing the land border into or out of Romania or Transnistria is another concern, but if you have the right to visit and your passport handy, even this shouldn’t cause any problems.

2. It’s difficult to get around Moldova.

Compared with Western Europe, getting around Moldova can be a bit of a challenge. Driving is a bad idea — think pot-holed roads in desperate need of repair combined with locals driving at breakneck speed. Rather than getting a car, a network of marshrutkas (minibuses) are available to zip you around to even the smallest of villages throughout the country. Many Moldovans rely on public transport to get to and from their hometowns. You don’t need to buy a ticket in advance. In most cases, you can turn up at the bus station and find a marshrutka heading to your destination. Get a seat, pay the driver, and brace for an uncomfortable trip — but hey, you’re going to get there. Marshrutkas regularly connect travelers heading from the capital city of Chisinau to Tiraspol in Transnistria, Balti, and Iasi in Romania.

3. There’s nothing to do in Moldova.

Moldova wine fountain

Photo: Sun_Shine/Shutterstock

This myth relates to the fact that many people have never heard of Moldova, and it’s far from the radar of most European tourists. There aren’t many travel guides, visitors, or active tourism campaigns. Most information comes from travelers’ experiences and blogs, which make it tough to find official info. But with proper trip planning, you can step beyond the initial uncertainty and find a post-Soviet nation frozen in time. You’ll discover Chisinau’s communist architecture and Moldova’s high-quality wine region, a part of the country that is slowly beginning to attract global attention. Visit Transnistria — the breakaway state with its own border control, currency, and police force — or travel to parts of Moldova that even the limited number of tourists who do come here often overlook, such as the northern city of Balti. Don’t expect medieval castles, old towns, and grandeur. Instead, relish in the adventure and the chance to see a unique and highly cultured part of Europe.

4. Travelers will be sent to prison for taking photographs.

It’s against Moldovan law to take pictures of both government offices and military facilities. This includes the airport and some public buildings, among others. If you see a guard in military uniform outside, don’t take a photograph. But you can snap pictures of just about anything else in Moldova. Going back to the point above, there are cultural differences, and it’s import to respect the law of the land. Don’t try to sneak a photo of restricted buildings or you might find yourself in trouble.

5. Moldovans are cold and unfriendly.

Moldovan Independence Day parade

Photo: SlayStorm/Shutterstock

This myth isn’t just about Moldova; it’s a stereotype extended to most Eastern Europeans. Visitors from extroverted nations like the United States often perceive the locals as cold and distant. Moldovans don’t smile in public, and people in the service industry aren’t too chatty. Rather, they speak directly, but this shouldn’t be taken as unfriendliness: It’s merely a cultural difference. Don’t expect conversations with the ticket seller or waiter. But you’ll get your ticket and your food will arrive. If you want information, ask a specific question. You’ll get a direct answer.

An assumption that communication with locals, including service staff and otherwise, will be almost impossible isn’t quite true, either. The younger generation of Moldovans speaks at least some English. Older Moldovans often converse in Russian. Not everyone speaks English, but you shouldn’t have too many problems getting around. You’ll likely hear about an ongoing dispute over whether the Romanian and Moldovan languages are the same or different, but regardless, learn a few phrases of Moldovan, and combined with the minimal English spoken in the country, you’ll get around okay. To make transportation easier, write the name of your destination on a piece of paper and show it to the marshrutka driver. Simple measures like these compensate for any language barriers.

6. Moldova has snail-pace WiFi.

Moldova’s connection speed averages just under 14 MB/s, plenty of speed for general use. More than 90% of the country’s three million residents have access to the internet. This means you can update your social media, watch videos, and make Skype calls without disruption from most cafes and hotels, especially in bigger cities. Moldova, like Romania, has surprisingly fast WiFi, with the added bonus of being very affordable. You can also get mobile data for your trip with either an Orange or Moldcell SIM Card with a data plan, available at shops throughout Chisinau and at Chisinau International Airport.

7. Moldova is still a communist country.

Traffic artery of a green city, Chisinau, Moldova

Photo: ungureanuvadim/Shutterstock

For almost 70 years, Moldova was part of the USSR. Though the Communist Party remained in power after independence in 1991, Moldova is no longer a communist country. It is important to remember, however, that the older population has lived a decent chunk of their lives under communist ideology, and for them, the old Soviet mentality still lingers. You’ll enjoy your trip much more if you embrace the formalities, strange rules, and quirky nature of travel. It’s part of what makes the experience of visiting this country unlike anywhere else.

The post 7 myths about Moldova that need to die appeared first on Matador Network.

How Bogota is transforming

Visions of Colombia are often shaped by the legend of drug lord Pablo Escobar — fueled by the popular television series Narcos — and stories of FARC-driven violence that, until recently, dominated international headlines. In the heart of Bogota, the country’s capital and the center of years of unrest, a Colombian university is working to change what was once the city’s most violent neighborhood for the better, and with that, the perception the rest of the world has of Colombia.

The Externado University of Colombia is sponsoring tourism classes for former gang members and equipping them to guide tours of Egipto neighborhood, the former center of Bogota’s gang violence. These tours are both bringing money and resources into the city and giving these locals valuable work. You can take part in the first incarnation of their efforts on a trip to Colombia by signing up for the Breaking Borders tour.

Travel company Impulse Travel coordinates the tour for you, connecting you with the guides and escorting your group through a piece of the city’s recent history. Along the way, you’ll hear stories rich in hope and promise to overcome a violent past. The tour’s fee, about $47 plus any tips you throw their way, helps the guides and their families build a financial foundation through honorable work.

Walking through a neighborhood rocked by violence

View of the neighborhoods of La Candelaria and Egipto in the historic center of Bogota, Colombia

Photo: Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

The tour starts with a history lesson. Calle 10, the artery of Bogota’s Egipto neighborhood, curves up a steep hillside on the eastern edge of the bustling La Candelaria barrio. But Calle 10 is much more than just a road — it’s a community that is home to 142 families and 600 people. The invisible border separating the two neighborhoods marks a line between the beating heart of Bogota — an area flush with colonial architecture and lined with restaurants, bars, museums and the historic Plaza de Bolivar — and one that, until the early 2000s, was the site of some of its most violent gang activity. This line also inspired the tour’s name, Breaking Borders.

In La Candeleria’s thriving nightlife and cultural scene, restaurants and bars occupy brightly painted one- and two-story Art Deco buildings. Museums and government centers surround the Plaza de Bolivar, and families huddle around busking musicians. The neighborhood’s streets are lined with Bogotanos, tourists, and students munching on empanadas and arepas bought from the area’s many vendors and stalls.

A far different vibe lurks across Carrera 1, the street that acts as an invisible border between the two neighborhoods. In Egipto, the second oldest neighborhood in Bogota, armed policeman stand on the street corners; there are bullet holes in the buildings’ facades and boarded shopfronts. Large murals about the barrio’s violent past are everywhere — a floral design signals growth and a buried past, a cartoonish-looking bear and alligator symbolize the coming together of different tribes around a glass of local chicha.

For 27 years, rival gangs controlled Egipto and effectively split the district into two warring factions. Gang members enacted disputes over territory, drugs, women, etc. and the violence often affected everyone in Egipto. Between 1990 and 2002, more than 1,200 murders took place in the neighborhood, nearly 70 percent of the kids between the ages of 12 and 18 and the vast majority carried out with homemade guns. During the height of Bogota’s drug-rattled violence, the gangs regularly robbed and kidnapped university students residing in La Candelaria, using violence and threats to extort money, run drugs, and assert their power.

Nearly everyone in Egipto has lost someone close to them to gang activity, and many men admit to having been a part of it themselves. Many aren’t shy to lift up their shirt to reveal bullet scars and stab wounds.

Giving former gang members agency and resources to better themselves

Street art in Bogota

Photo: Tim Wenger

In an effort to ease the tensions between the neighborhoods and prevent students from getting robbed, the Externado University of Colombia began a program in 2001 to sponsor tourism classes for former gang members, training them in the basics of the tourism industry and creating an opportunity for them to turn their community around. The program’s goal was to help Egipto improve its economic standing by building a solid financial base from a legitimate — and legal — source and keep clean from drugs and violence. It also transforms a controversial tourism industry, slum tours, into something that directly helps the affected locals, rather than exploit them for third-party gain.

In practice, the process is ongoing and still in its infancy after only two years, but so far the signs are positive. After completing the sponsored university courses, Jaime Roncancio formed the Breaking Borders tour along with four other former gang members.

Over the course of a few hours, Jaime and his colleagues walk visitors through the city’s 27 years of violence. The tour kicks off with a walk up the steep cobbled street, taking in the large murals, which provide a visual narrative of the area’s history.

One of the main stops is a small school for the area’s kids — the first of its kind in Egipto. The small schoolhouse, an open-air main room with an adjoining kitchen and restroom, services kids before they are old enough to enroll in public school. Contrary to most establishments in the area, it welcomes children from both rival sides of the neighborhood.

The tour then continues up to El Cuadrado, the community’s central square formerly used as the gangs’ gathering spot. El Cuadrado now serves as one of the main focal points of the Breaking Borders tour where Jaime and other former gang members sit guests down and rap their life story. That’s when visitors learn that Jaime’s whole family was sucked into the violence — he took his first bullet at age eight and in the ensuing years was shot another seven times.

Building a future for the residents of Calle 10

View of Bogota as seen from the mountains in the north of the capital

Photo: De Jongh Photography/Shutterstock

Funds from the tour go straight into the community — for schools, meals, and a well-groomed soccer pitch, which sits at the top of the neighborhood overlooking the high-rises of the city below.

The soccer field has become a central hangout for kids in Calle 10 — there always seems to be a game in progress. A large cement wall is visible from the pitch, marking the divide in the neighborhood established by the warring gangs. Violence is still raging on the other side of the wall, even as kids laugh over a game of soccer less than 100 yards away.

The tour’s final stop is Jaime’s home. As a token of appreciation, Jaime invites everyone who takes the tour into his living room for a shell of homemade chicha, a thick alcoholic drink made from distilled corn that he brews in a copper pot in his kitchen. Jaime’s self-constructed balcony offers a far-reaching view of Bogota’s sprawling skyline to the west and a striking spot to enjoy a drink. While violence is far from being fully eradicated in the city, Jaime and the rest of the Breaking Borders crew have embraced education and community development for the sake of the neighborhood’s positive transformation. He likes to leave his guests with these simple words: “Today, we’re rapping and singing instead of robbing.”

The post How former gang members are rebuilding Bogota’s most violent neighborhood appeared first on Matador Network.

6 famous regional Chinese dishes

China is one of the most diverse countries in the world when it comes to food. In the western part of the country, dishes are influenced by spices traditionally traded along the Silk Road while in central and southern China, food is often loaded with spicy peppers. Eastern China is home to dim sum and soup dumplings. This all goes to say that there’s no one “Chinese food.” These six regional foods give you a taste of China’s culinary diversity.

1. Shanghai’s xiao long bao, or soup dumplings

Shanghainese xiao long bao soup dumplings

Photo: HYS_NP/Shutterstock

According to legend, xiao long bao were first created in 1875 in Nanxiang, which is just outside of Shanghai. Unlike other dumplings, a rich, searing hot broth is inside the dumpling skin along with meat. They’re traditionally eaten with fresh ginger and vinegar. Xiao long bao have become the international darling of dumpling lovers around the world (and inspired a Pixar short film called Bao), but it all started just outside of China’s largest city. If you want to eat them in the city they’re from, the Michelin-starred chain Din Tai Fung has locations around Shanghai. A popular hole in the wall is Jia Jia Tang Bao just north of People’s Square.

2. Xi’an’s rou jia mo, or the Chinese hamburger

Xi’an was the capital of Imperial China from the 11th century BC to 900 AD. It’s famous for the archaeological site housing the Terracotta Warriors, but those in the know visit the Muslim Quarter for some of the world’s best street food. On the street within the old city walls, dozens of hawkers serve up a flatbread that’s crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and stuffed with spiced pork, beef, or lamb. It’s called rou jia mo, and it’s known as the Chinese hamburger because of its appearance. Rou jia mo, however, is much, much older than what Westerners think of as a hamburger.

3. Chengdu’s Sichuan hot pot

Chinese hot pot

Photo: norikko/Shutterstock

Chengdu is one of only a handful of cities in the world to be recognized by UNESCO for its culinary tradition. It’s the capital of Sichuan Province, and no visit is complete without a late-night outing at one of the city’s hundreds — if not thousands — of hot pot restaurants. Sichuanese hot pots feature two bubbling broths: a fiery, mouth-numbing red ma la broth of chili and Sichuan peppers, countered by a subtle white bone broth to cool off your scorched palate. You place the meat, vegetables, and noodles in the side you want and cook it yourself at the table. If you’re in the Chengdu and want to narrow your search for the best hot pot, Jordan Porter, owner of Chengdu Food Tours, suggests Bashu Dazhai Men or Qingnian Huguon.

4. Chongqing’s xiao mian in chili oil

Chongqing is a hilly city in the Sichuan province just down the river from Chengdu, and it’s known for its mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers. Xiao mian (little noodles) is a dish made up of thin wheat noodles and vegetables served in a broth with ma la chili oil. The main thing to know is that it’s spicy, and it’ll shock anyone unprepared to handle the extreme heat. It’s not just for lunch and dinner, either. Locals in Chongqing will eat these spicy noodles topped with a fried egg for breakfast.

5. Yangshuo’s beer fish

Beer fish traditional Chinese recipe

Photo: HelloRF Zcoo/Shutterstock

Yangshuo is a picturesque town in the Guanxi province near China’s southern border with Vietnam. It’s known for outdoor sports and its stunning green limestone hills. Though Yangshuo isn’t exactly famous for its culinary tradition, sometimes one dish is enough to put a place on the map. In this case, that dish is a deep-fried freshwater carp from the local Lijiang River that’s braised in beer with tomatoes and chilli peppers. The origin story goes that a fisherman overcooked his carp until its skin was dark and crunchy, then poured a bottle of local brew, Liquan, into the pan. Thus, a legendary dish was made. If you have a chance, try it at Meijie Lijiang Beer Fish and you’ll know why locals say, “You don’t know how delicious it is till you try it in Yangshuo.”

6. Gulin’s you cha, or oil tea

You cha (oil tea) is like nothing else on this list — and like nothing you’ve ever tasted. An indigenous dish of the mountainous people in the region, the Yao, Miao, and Dong all make their own version but all a similar preparation. First, a tea broth is made with tea leaves that are deep-fried before steeping. Then it’s served with puffed cereal, toasted rice, caraway seeds, and scallions. The deep green, herbal broth is a caffeinated pick me up, medicinal concoction, and breakfast cereal in a single bowl. Try it in any of Guilin’s local tea shops or take a day trip to the panoramic Longsheng rice terraces to lose yourself in the natural beauty of China’s tea country.

The post 6 regional Chinese dishes that show off the country’s culinary diversity appeared first on Matador Network.

Backcountry hut trip in Colorado

The Colorado backcountry is filled with breathtaking scenery, untracked powder, and huts hidden throughout that you can reserve. Huts are one of the more comfortable ways to head into this winter wonderland, and they’re readily available for all levels of experience and intensities. From floating on fresh pow to rum-shrouded game nights, hut trips in the backcountry are anything but boring.

As much fun as they can be, hut trips also come with dangers lurking in the crannies of adventure. It’s important to plan, know what gear to take, and learn safety precautions so that you and your backcountry partners can have fun. With some crazy friends, meals planned, skis on boots, and a wood-burning sauna waiting, the backcountry called us to its snow-covered expanse.

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Drew makes the final push up to the cabin. Engulfed by a snowstorm during our final mile, the tracks we are following are completely blanketed. It’s incredibly important to study maps and trip reports and take the necessary directional equipment – like a compass or a global satellite device.

2

At times, meals can be the epitome of hut life. After a day of shredding, you come back to a cabin filled with the smell of fajitas and toasting tortillas. Depending on your group size, sometimes it’s helpful to break meals up, assigning two people to cook for everyone. This maximizes relaxation time while minimizing lone cooking stress. Chris starts on breakfast while the rest of our group snoozes away.

3

Drew and Larry discuss slope safety and devise a plan for the day over a stack of pancakes. Avalanches are no joke, and it’s important to take the necessary precautions for your safety and the safety of your partners. Carrying equipment like a shovel, beacon, and probe in avalanche territory isn’t the only must. Knowing how to use this equipment is vital. You should also take an AIARE avalanche training course when traveling in the backcountry to learn about decision making, how to use your equipment, and to get some practice.

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Lindsay takes a breather near the cabin after making some beautiful tracks. With fresh snowfall the night before, we’re lucky to have a few days of pristine powder.

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Drew moves along a slope checking out the terrain in the distance. With all that untracked terrain, only avalanche safety concerns keep us from skiing anywhere our feet can take us.

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Lunch is a time for tasty treats and warming our toes. After eating, more avalanche safety is discussed. Huts are always well stocked with books, puzzles, and visitor logs, so the option is never just to ski. Peggy works away at a puzzle while Larry and Drew observe slopes now affected by the afternoon sun.

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Lindsay heads back out after lunch for a few more laps. Afterward she’ll head back to warm up in the wood-burning sauna. Huts around the Colorado backcountry come with a variety of amenities, sometimes including a sauna.

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A gully now filled with tracks lays behind us, and we have another whole day to ski to our heart’s content. The remoteness, ruggedness, and cold deter most people from winter hut trips – which also means sparsely populated, neverending terrain to explore.

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Another important planning step is to check on the weather conditions. We got hit with a snowstorm the evening before and wouldn’t have been able to find the trail had it not been for the route we programmed into our satellite device. On the way out, though, we cruised easily all the way back to our cars.

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Hut trips aren’t just for the winter. Vibrant greens and fields speckled with wildflowers give a stark juxtaposition to the snow-covered mountains. Summer also allows for lighter packs without bulky winter gear, but make sure to check into water sources! No snow to melt might mean you’re packing in your water.

The post How to do an incredible backcountry hut trip through Colorado appeared first on Matador Network.

How to make ponche navideño

Every year on December 16th, a nine-day Christmas celebration called Las Posadas starts in Mexico and other parts of Central America. It involves religious reenactments, songs, and community gatherings. But Las Posadas isn’t complete without one crucial ingredient: a communal cocktail punch called ponche navideño (which translates to “holiday punch”). Because like any holiday gathering, it’s all made a little better with a stiff drink.

It’s impossible to pin down the exact moment that ponche navideño became the ever-present drink of Las Posadas. For many households, it’s also impossible to imagine December without the punch. What is known is that the drink is directly tied to the celebration.

The Las Posadas tradition was brought to Central America by Spanish colonizers sometime in the 1600s. Las Posadas was then as it is now: part celebration and part lesson on the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph. At dusk, people in the town go out and sing songs outside of people’s homes, asking if they could stay (posadas means “inn”). This represents Mary and Joseph looking for a place to rest while she was pregnant, and happens for nine nights to represent the nine months of her pregnancy. The group of carolers is denied entry until they reach a designated house to rest for the night. That’s where the Mary and Joseph metaphor stops and the party begins.

Cups of warm ponche navideño are passed around along with empanadas, tamales, and other traditional holiday food. A piñata with seven spikes (one for each deadly sin to beat away) is brought out for the kids. And while the religious aspects of Las Posadas aren’t as emphasized in many households today, the gathering of friends and family over food and a bowl of ponche navideño continues.

“Growing up and even as an adult, Christmas in Mexico is not complete without a hearty pot of hot ponche navideño,” Jorge Baralles Jr., the general manager of Papi’s Tacos in Greenville, South Carolina, said. “I remember as a child in Mexico, around 20th of December, I would go with my grandma to the market for ingredients. It was a treat to pick out fruits that would go into the ponche.”

It’s impossible to know when punch became a centerpiece of the celebration. Punch itself likely comes from India and was spread around the world during the Age of Exploration in the 17th century. Cocktail historian David Wondrich traces the first written mention of punch to 1632, and the first recipe not long after, in his book Punch. Like all cocktail histories, however, people were probably making it long before someone sobered up and wrote it down. Regardless, a punch is always composed of something sweet, something sour, liquor, water, and spices, and the ingredients are usually inspired by what’s locally available.

“[Ponche navideño] is a must in almost every Mexican household,” Baralles said. “Each family will have ponche at one point in December.”

Think of ponche navideño as the Santa of Central American cocktails. It only comes around at the end of the year and is well loved, but don’t even think about bringing it out in a month that doesn’t start with the letter D.

“I’d say that ponche is just as popular as rompope (Mexican eggnog) and horchata during the holiday season,” said Richard Sandoval, the chef and owner of Toro Toro and El Centro D.F. in Washington, DC, as well as many other restaurants. “Horchata will always be a staple for me, and it is served at all my restaurants. But the ponche is very festive and is the perfect beverage to enjoy during the month of December. I’ve never tasted anything else like it anywhere else that I’ve traveled.”

Sandoval is serving ponche navideño at some of his restaurants to bring it to a wider audience. In addition to his DC locations, it’ll be on the menu in New York City’s Maya and Denver’s Tamayo and La Sandia.

If you can’t taste it there, the next natural step is to make it yourself.

How to make ponche navideño

Traditional mexican punch

Photo: Playa del Carmen/Shutterstock

There’s no one recipe. The essential ingredients are tejocote (Mexican hawthorne), cinnamon, sugarcane, apples, and raisins. Baralles’ family recipe also includes lemongrass, star anise, and lemon leaves. Rum — the most classic of spirits to use in punches — is a common liquor, but Sandoval likes to break tradition and add blanco tequila. If you can’t find an ingredient, substitute it for what’s available. Just make sure you hit the five necessary components of a punch: sour, sweet, liquor, water (from the melted ice), and spice. What ponche navideño tastes like largely depends on whose house you’re drinking it in.

“Papi now makes my grandma’s poncho recipe,” Baralles said. “For our family, we can’t go through the Christmas season without it. When we go over to papi’s house for the holiday, walking into the house brings me tears. The aroma permeates the home. It takes me back to when my grandma would make it back home. I now encourage my children to watch papi make it, so that they can remember the smell of the fruits and herbs. They will remember and one day keep the tradition going.”