Now, not to be presumptuous or condescending, but the chances are if I said to you the word, Transdniestr (trans-d-nee-strah), you probably wouldn’t be able to tell me that it is even a place, let alone that it is a self declared independent, communist country nestled between Moldova and the Ukraine.
Yet why wouldn’t you have heard of it? After all, Transdniestr, or the Приднестрóвская Молдáвская Респýблика for short, has, for all intents and purposes, everything an independent country needs. It has its very own government, parliament, army, passports, border control, police force, flag, national anthem, and a somewhat natty and battered currency, the Transdniestran Ruble. Those who are currently scrambling for their atlases will find it no help either, because although Transdniestr has declared itself independent since 1990, with a bloody war of independence against Moldova in 1992, it is still not internationally recognised, and is still lumped into the same landmass of its bigger brother. I am not going to pretend to be an expert on politics, and the reasons for the refusal of the world to recognise Transdniestr’s long hoped for independence are too long and convoluted for me to fully comprehend, so I won’t try to write about what I don’t know. What I do know however, from my visit to the little bit of this earth they so fervently want to call their own, is that isn’t going to stop the Transdniestran people from continuing, with or without the rest of the world’s blessing and although I do not necessarily support their political views, I have to admit, I admire their pluck!
Now, allow me to backtrack a moment and set the scene, of the moment when my boyfriend and I have found ourselves stuck in Romania, with a 27 hour train ride between us, and our flight home from Kiev. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for new experiences and trying new things, and hey, one day I really do fancy the Trans-Siberian, but after 5 weeks of constant train travel, a 27 hour long marathon was more than I could stomach. A mistaken belief that we still needed a visa had kept me steering forlornly around Moldova before this point,* so when corrected in my folly by a fellow Brit, the path from there seemed excitingly obvious. Thus I was now able to fulfil not only my long suffered desires to go to Moldova, but perhaps even more titillating, I would now be within tangible reach of this exceedingly fascinating little bastion of communism!
A couple of days later therefore, we found ourselves the only foreigners, on a hot and stuffy bus from Chisinau to Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestr, nervously clutching our 10-hour visitor passes.** We had be warned by many, including my trusty Lonely Planet guide, that getting into and out of, Transdniestr was the tricky bit, as corrupt border police would often ask for extortionate amounts (stories tell of those exceeding $150) before they would allow you entry. It was said they were particularly fond of using cameras as an excuse to ask for more money, so I kept mine stowed in the recesses on my handbag in the hope it wouldn’t be discovered, which was unlikely seeing as items often get lost in there, never to be seen again.*** That coupled with the warnings that they were generally very suspicious, bordering on hostile, towards tourists in Transdniestr, we were left feeling really quite apprehensive and wondering if we were making a wise decision.
At the border, all those without Transdniestran passports were ushered off the bus, where an official looking man stood barking something in Russian. Unable to decipher, but assuming what he was asking, my boyfriend reached reluctantly for his wallet, only to realise a few seconds later he was simpily repeating the word ‘Tiraspol’ over and over. We nodded gratefully that we were indeed headed for Tiraspol, and he happily pointed us over to a small room, crammed to bursting with people bustling to get to kiosks, where yet more official looking men waited. Speaking in English got us a few confused looks from those in the crowd, but no more than we had had in Moldova over the past few days. Then, all of a sudden, the crowd parted with a chorus of cries of, “eenglish, eenglish” and we were lead to the front of the queue for no apparent reason other than good old human kindness. Suspecting another instance for bribery, our hands were never far from our wallets, but after a few minutes of scrutinising out passports, they were handed back to us without so much as a hint of greasing any palms.
With that we were in, my first communist country! Stopping first in the rather amusingly named Bender, we saw from our window a camp of Russian peace keeping soldiers, complete with tank, keeping ominous watch. We had been told that there had been increasing political unrest brewing just beneath the surface since late 2006, which accounted for their presence and also meant that now was a time to tread even more carefully than ever in Transdniestr.
I am sure I have built you up to believe that Tiraspol was either going to be some undiscovered, spectacular place of beauty, or a drab, dire and Soviet one…but it was neither. In fact, it was decidedly ordinary; one might even venture to say an anticlimax after the adrenaline rush of passport control. It was also however, refreshing. After all the dark and frightening tales we had been told of xenophobia, political rumblings and corruption, we were delighted to find, although Tiraspol was pretty strange and quirky, (with road names such as ‘Lenin’ and ‘Communism’ Street) there wasn’t actually anything sinister lying in wait. Although ordering food in a restaurant prompted the staff to not so subtley gawp at us for the entire meal, we never encountered any hostility. In fact, when buying a drink from a small roadside kiosk, the woman was not just astounded to hear English, but entirely delighted. Her face lit up as we struggled to convey to her for a good 3 or 4 minutes that all we wanted was a bottle of Fanta, (yes they have Fanta there, and Coke and even Sprite) and she enthusiastically pointed at all of her goods in turn with a look of wonder on her face. At my clumsy attempt to say thank you in Russian as we left, it looked like her face was going to split open with delight her grin was so wide! As we walked away she jabbered in an intonation which we could only assume meant she was pleased to have met us.
The only hint that we encountered of the Transdniestrans disliking photographs was when we were stood before the President’s Building, taking snaps of the giant statue of Lenin, and a security guard felt it necessary to warn us away. Understandable however when you consider that this is quite commonplace in any country when it comes to important political buildings.
Lonely Planet guides claim you always have a feeling of being watched in Transdniestr and that Tiraspol is particularly unfriendly. I vehemently disagree with both of these comments and never at any point felt unsafe, or even unwelcome in Tiraspol. I did perhaps feel a bit of an oddity when people would stop in their tracks at the sounds of a foreign voice and stare as we went by, but I don’t believe it was hostility that they felt. I think it was just genuine shock that anyone would want to come and visit their little pseudo-country, perhaps mixed with a little bit of fear that the Western World was knocking at their door. Now I am not saying that visiting Transdniestr is a walk in the park and is somewhere to visit lightly. My boyfriend and I were very careful whilst we were there and because of this we were lucky that our visit went smoothly. Those acting differently might not be so fortunate as this is an area of a lot of political unrest and one should be careful to check what the say and do. At the same time however, I think it is unfair to see these people as being so very different from you or I. The TV in our restaurant blaring out MTV was certainly a hint that they aren’t so disconnected from the rest of us after all, Lady Gaga certainly wasn’t someone I expected to encounter in Transdniestr!
After a few hours wandering, we headed back to the bus station and caught the next bus back to Chisinau. We were somehow unfased by passport control by now and almost disappointed about how smooth our trip had been. This time when we stopped at the border and were ushered off by ourselves by a Transdniestran policeman, we were sure this was our moment. “Any drugs or guns!?” he asked with a cheeky smile, we laughed before hastily replying that no, we did not have any about our persons. Then, whether this was his attempt to bribe us or not, it was very half hearted, he asked if we had any dollars or livra (we assume he meant pounds). We shook our heads. “Any Ukrainian? Lei?” Again we shook our heads. “Visa?” I nodded. “Ok,” he said handing back our passports with a big grin, “well how do you say it? Bye-bye!”
* They had actually abolished visas for all but the Aussies in 2007, but helpfully my travel guide was one published just 2 months prior to this decision.
** Moldovan and Ukrainian citizens are automatically issued with a card which allows them quick and easy access to the Transdniestran area (unless there are 2 stupid English tourists on the bus, in which case they have to wait too.) Tourists are only allowed a pseudo-visa (basically a sheet of paper that you fill out with an unofficial looking stamp) which allows the bearer to stay for up to 10 hours from the time of entry. As we were only there for a few hours we never had to look into it, however should you wish to stay for longer, it is possible to contact the OVIR to request a longer period of stay.
*** Not really. They usually resurface after a couple of weeks.