If a tree falls in the forest on a non-existent border, does it make a sound in Transnistria? The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (Приднестровская Молдавская Республика), or Transnistria, was never really on my radar. I started hearing murmurs about it after visiting former Soviet strongholds like Belarus and Ukraine and the more I heard, the more intrigued I became. The country is only officially recognised by an illustrious group of 3 other non-UN states; Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. You’ve heard of them, right? Me neither…
Still clinging to the “glory” of its USSR past, Transnistria presented an interesting opportunity on the path between Odessa, Ukraine and the Moldovan capital of Chisinau (Kishinev). A five-month war on the border with Moldova in 1992 killed approximately 700 soldiers. The ceasefire called in July of 1992 has held to this day, and Moldova no longer exercises any control or influence in the region. Transnistria continues to try to join Russia through various annexation votes but has yet to succeed.
While I’d easily found and read up on the history of Transnistria, it was a bit trickier determining exactly how to enter/exit the country, how long I could stay and what it was going to cost me. Some of the information online was a bit mixed, with people warning of illegal fees/bribes that worsened if you didn’t have your papers in order. In fact, (current as of July 2017), I had no problems whatsoever entering or leaving on my Canadian passport (entered Ukraine as a Canadian rather than as an Australian – less hassle).
I had booked accommodation at the Lenin Street Hostel and, having relayed that information to the guard at the Kuchurgan-Purvomaysk border (no pictures allowed), I was granted 24 hours (23hr 59min 24sec actually) in Transnistria with no money changing hands. If I wanted to stay longer than that, the man who ran the hostel (a converted apartment on the corner of Karl Marx and Lenin streets) made it sound like a straightforward process down at the Migration Department office in Tiraspol.
With my entry permission in hand, the bus laboured on to Tiraspol. Another no-photo zone was encountered a few km in from the actual border – an active Russian tank under camouflaged mesh with its barrel pointed towards Ukraine, with several Russian guards dotted around the outpost. These “peacekeepers” made for an interesting introduction to Transnistria– the war in Donbass was (and is) still being fought between the Ukrainians and Russian-backed seperatists 750 km away and the conflict in Crimea remains fresh in everyone’s minds. Crossing the line of active Russian troops prepared for hostilities with Ukraine certainly gives one pause for thought.
A 1km walk from the bus station to the hostel had plenty of heads turning as they caught sight of me making my way down the road, laden with a full backpack. After finally locating the hostel, I borrowed a phone from a youth (does it make me old if I use that word?) who was hanging around the front to call the management to let me in. I had an hour to wait but couldn’t even buy a coffee since not even my specially chosen traveller’s card would allow withdrawals from an ATM in Transnistria. This was also a dilemma when it came to paying the hostel, since I had no access to the local currency. More importantly, I had to eat! Eventually, I resorted to a late-night exchange booth that relieved me of my leftover Ukrainian Hryvnia.
At the time, 1 USD was worth about 11 Transnistrian rubles. The currency is useless outside of Transnistria – not even Moldova will recognise it for exchange, and it’s not hard to see why! Along with conventional bills and metal coins, there are a series of other “coins” that were like a cross between a guitar pick and a poker chip. These came in 1, 3(!!), 5 and 10 ruble denominations.
The next day, having been briefed on some local etiquette (Smiling at strangers is weird. Westerners are uncultured; keep your feet off the table to relieve this stereotype. Girls will be 15-20 minutes late to a date – keeping you out in the cold proves your good intentions!), I was ready to explore the city.
There’s only one main street in Tiraspol so that was easy to navigate. Heading East along 25 October Street (the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin took place on this day) brought me to the House of Soviets (Дом Советов), where the government of Transnistria meets. A tasteful bust of comrade Lenin sat in front of this building, glaring at passers-by (or looking to the future, depending on your disposition) – beneath images of the Transnistrian and Soviet flags, as well as the ubiquitous Soviet star,
Turning around and heading west took me past the row of restaurants in town, down to several memorials, commemorative billboards and the Presidential Palace – with who else but your boy Lenin stalking out the front, this time with a Russian flag over his left shoulder. I then walked around the markets in search of some elusive plastic rubles to add to my collection.
I met an artist who draws post cards depicting prominent local sights. He told me he was hoping for Transnistria to gain acceptance in the international community and that, really, the people are just the same there as anywhere else – trying to live their lives. He signed one of his cards for me, the Adventurous Antipode(an) ?.
I left that afternoon, making sure that the bus would cross into Moldova proper ahead of my allotted hour of expulsion. It was a brief, whirlwind trip into a little-explored time capsule of the Soviet past. I really wish I’d had the time to stay a little longer and the chance to meet more locals to get a feel for what their perception was on outsiders, modern capitalism and Transnistria’s relationship with Russia. Firmly on my radar now, I look forward to seeing how this region develops in the future and whether Moldova can reach a peacuful resolution that permits them to continue pursuing their inclusion into the EU.
On to Chisinau!