I woke up at four on the morning I went to Moldova. Snow had started falling overnight and the streets were already slippery with slush by the time we reached the bus station on the edge of Pryvoz Market.
The sticker on the window read Quality and Comfort, but there was precious little of either once we got onboard. The seats were low-slung, saggy and permanently half-reclined, and the air so cold that no-one took their hats off. The driver had a black leather cap pulled down low over sunglasses. "When I was travelling in India," began an American voice from the front seats.
The roads were straight, flat, pot-holed and snow-covered. It took twice as long as normal to get as far as the border, where we waited half an hour on the Ukrainian side, motored forward a few hundred metres, and then sat for half an hour again before getting into Moldova. The border guards were all in one jeep, dressed in combat fatigues and fur hats. They watched half the bus rush to a concrete toilet block by the side of the road where you paid 18p to stand over a skittle-shaped hole in the floor, holding your breath all the while.
We made it to Chişinău just before three. A pack of stray dogs was roaming the bus station and there were brown puddles as big as garden ponds. "Which way into town?" someone asked, stepping around a muddy pile of snow. "Taxi?"
In and out of the Hotel Cosmos, it didn't take us long to see the sights of Moldova's capital: statues and casinos, an Orthodox cathedral, rubble and squash courts where the Republic Stadium had once been, and an Arch of Triumph built to celebrate a Tsar's victory over the Ottomans. A TV station was blasting dance music from the road in front of the Communist Party HQ, but all the lights were off in the fire-damaged Parliament. There were billboards everywhere, but most carried slogans instead of adverts: Moldova: My Homeland, EU Yes, No to Drugs, a huge picture of a woman breaking a cigarette in two, and an even larger one of a peasant holding a basket of vegetables welcoming visitors to the city.