Fairy Tales.

Is Transnistria an unrecognised breakaway state in Moldova or the name of an unused fantasy land from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings? If someone had asked me a year ago I would have confidently laughed at the former and guessed the later. Yet here I was, paying for goods and services with plastic coins and notes that looked more appropriate as makeshift extras in a Monopoly board game missing the money branded with their iconic top-hated, cane swinging white-collar criminal.

It’s a bizarre place; not unlike a discarded fantasy land. Monuments to the soldiers who fought in the war of independence glorify the hammer and sickle. Government buildings with giant granite pillars and intimidating Soviet-esque architecture look like they’ve been transplanted out of Stalin’s dreamland and plonked into the capital city Tiraspol – a city of only 130,000. These glamorous state buildings were jarringly juxtaposed next to dull, grey, uniform, block-shaped apartment buildings. In short, everything was out of proportion. The state’s stature grotesquely overawed everything in the city. It was like Washington, London or Moscow moved their most iconic buildings and monuments to a small city in Iowa, Hertfordshire, or Siberia. Think Big Ben in Bolton or the Empire State building in Waco, Texas. The contrasting opulence of these buildings with the ramshackle appearance of others may well be what a living game of monopoly would look like – The few grotesquely rich and the many comparatively poor.

So who lives here? What do they think of this seeming madness? Our curiosity overpowered our trepidation at venturing into an unrecognised state.

This blog is the tenth of a series tracing our journey over land and sea to Australia, starting in Ukraine. We’re hoping to make the foreign familiar for you by showcasing the unique and universal details of the places we go and the people we meet. To get all our posts, videos, and exclusive content subscribe to our weekly newsletter here. For short, absorbing snippets of our adventure follow us on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram. Some of the names and details in this blog post have been altered to preserve identities.

Making an entrance.

After two weeks lounging in Odessa, taking a break over Christmas and New Year, we sought to blaze a trail through Moldova and into Romania. Looking at a map, Transnistria occupies a thin long slither of land running north-south on the eastern side of Moldova squashed between the Dniester river and the border with Ukraine. To avoid going through it to get to Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) would require a detour skirting the southern tip of Transnistria and heading north into Moldova. It looked a pesky detour and we decided that Transnistria was too alluring to miss anyway.

But where there aren’t detours there are other annoyances.

We were expecting difficulties at the first border between Ukraine and Transnistria. And if not that one, then the next one or the one after that. You see, Transnistria butts right up against Ukraine and as a result, or so we thought, you can’t get an entry stamp into Moldova coming from Ukraine into Transnistria. Confused? We were. Apparently, what we needed to do was get stamped out of Ukraine (straight forward), get a docket from the Transnistrian ‘border guards’ (Basically a small receipt that shows the time you entered the country and the time you need to leave by – Transnistria is not allowed to stamp passports), then when you leave Transnistria into Moldova there’s no Moldovan border guard (obviously, because they’re of the opinion that you’re already in Moldova – like the rest of the world except Transnistria), so you need to go and get an entry stamp in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau and provide proof of entry into Moldova in the form of a bus, plane or train ticket.

If you don’t follow this procedure, according to Lonely Planet, you could face a fine or worse when trying to leave Moldova. Or worse?! Ambiguity is not something to be desired when learning about the consequences of entering a country illegally. Adding to this were rumours on forums that bribes and hassle were part of the landscape. Suddenly this seemingly straight route through Transnistria seemed at best a hassle and at worst, well, that was left to our imaginations.

The Border.

After a couple of hours driving through Ukraine’s ubiquitously flat, grey landscape our minibus arrived at the border. 15-20 cars were lined up and we drove past them to the front of the empty bus lane. We first stopped to get stamps exiting Ukraine. The professional, efficient guard got on our minibus and collected our passports while I enquired about the bathroom (I have the world’s smallest bladder, which is an amazingly irritating superpower to be given, especially while travelling).

Walking the 100-metres or so across the empty tarmac, the bathroom grew grimmer with each step. It’s clear that funding for the maintenance of toilets at the Ukrainian side of the border has fallen off the bottom of the financial spreadsheet at an office in Kyiv. I opened the toilet door to find a floor of cracked tiles that looked ready to cave into what I can only describe as an open vat of faeces. Unnervingly, the only thing separating me from drowning in the most horrible circumstances were said tiles that looked ready to disintegrate upon my unzipping. It was the most nerve-racking pee I’ve ever had; the fragile floor creaking like I was standing on thin ice while I tried to stuff my nose into the shoulder of my jacket which went no way in alleviating the smell. Dry-retching back to the bus, Beth informed me she needed to go too. “No, you don’t,” I replied, traumatized. Beth promptly sat back down, hearing the pain in my voice.

The rest of the border was surprisingly smooth. We got stamped out of Ukraine, our incredibly pragmatic driver managed to find a Moldovan border guard and got us stamped into Moldova (we’d read that this was possible but unlikely), and then we got our receipt into Transnistria – miraculously being ushered to the front of the queue by our driver whom I now admired and adored. There were no complaints about our seemingly blatant violation from the 30-odd people waiting in line or the Transnistrian ‘border guard’. The friendly Canadian in Beth was mortified by the dismissal of such an engrained social construct. I felt a bit guilty also but neither of us objected to the surprise bump.

Nostalgia.

As we proceeded through the arbitrary border formalities we got chatting to Ana – a fellow passenger. I happened to notice that she had a Transnistrian passport (which gets you nowhere except back into Transnistria) and asked if I could see it. It was like being handed a travel document from 50 years ago. Transnistria’s national logo was emblazoned on the front complete with hammer and sickle along with other strangely Soviet-esque iconography. “There’s a lot going on here,” Beth noted while trying to interpret the mishmashed images. Opening the front page revealed Ana’s photo in black and white followed by dozens of unstamped pages. The pages looked like they had been stained with tea to look old and the font appeared to be from a vintage typewriter. The whole passport seemed more appropriate as a museum artefact. I got the impression that the Transnistrian authorities were playing into their citizens sentimentality for the USSR.

We were curious about Ana, she had got on our minibus with what we assumed was her mom in the middle of seemingly nowhere just outside Odessa, Ukraine. She explained she had visited a market for the day to get a coat for her mom; crossing the border into Ukraine throws up more options for approximately the same price apparently. Ana’s English was fluent which has opened up a lot of doors for her. She’s a flight attendant with a major airline and lives in the Middle East. She was back home visiting her mom for the Orthodox Christmas (7th January).

Ana later confessed that she thought Beth was some sort of mail-order bride or escort initially. She heard me speaking on the bus but couldn’t hear Beth. Beth does have some Slavic roots which could pass her easily for a Ukrainian and might explain Ana’s misconception and I guess I look ugly enough to require hiding behind a screen and paying for a partner on the other side of the world. We laughed about it later but, sadly, sex tourism is apparently rife in this part of the world. I wasn’t offended that Ana reached such a conclusion given it’s ubiquitous nature.

Ana was baffled as to why we would choose to come to Transnistria. To an extent, I think we all can be pretty hard on how boring our hometown is if we feel we’ve left to go on to bigger and better things. But Ana was particularly baffled by our decision. In truth, we couldn’t really justify the decision beyond sheer curiosity for an unrecognised state. Ana just shook her head in resigned confusion. We did exchange phone numbers though and agreed to meet for lunch the next day and explore Bendery castle – Transnistria’s only appeal in terms of traditional tourism.

Aptly named.

We said bye to Ana who was staying on the bus until the next town and stepped off our minibus at Tiraspol’s underwhelming bus/train station. One small window in the station offered currency exchange services and a small fast food stand that looked like it hadn’t done business since the Soviets were in town were the only businesses present.

We walked the 15 minutes through Tiraspol’s dull, grey outskirts to our accommodation: The irresistibly named Lenin Street Hostel. It was essentially a two bedroom apartment converted into a hostel in one of the many nondescript soviet-era apartment blocks. After 3 weeks in Odessa in an apartment Beth needed more conversation than the three words I speak a day and insisted we stay somewhere where we could chat to people. Alas, we were the only ones checked in but despite no other guests we did chat to the owner for an hour or so. It was illuminating to speak to someone who was very much pro-transnistria.

Our hostel owners political views were on show all over the walls so we felt comfortable diving straight in.

An engineer by trade, Dmitri was well educated and fluent in his English. He started this hostel as a hobby to practice his language skills. He has a keen interest in Italian and is still greatly anticipating his first Italian guests who he insists he will spend every waking moment with if they ever arrive. I hope those Italians like to talk.

The rational side of Dmitri’s brain seemed to become obsolete while we discussed Transnistria. Dmitri informed us that yes, in fact, Russia does essentially fund this state. They provide gas for free that Transnistria turns into electricity and sells for a profit to neighbouring states. In exchange, Russia gets a compliant government that allows Russian military bases and personnel to be dispersed throughout its territory. Dmitri was understandably skeptical about this arrangement. He wants Transnistria to be independent and self-sufficient. I asked how he envisions that happening and he replied, half-jokingly, “sell weapons!” Dmitri then went on to explain that he thinks Transnistria should adopt the “Chinese model”: allow no immigrants but have a totally free market. When we talked about the EU, Dmitri expressed that Transnitrians don’t want to join due to the widely held opinion that multiculturalism has failed there. When discussing Moldova, Dmitri insisted that Moldova has no territorial claims over Transnitria because the war erupted as a result of the Moldovans not allowing Russian to be adopted as an official language when the USSR broke up despite the high percentage of native Russian speakers living in Moldova.

His views only threw up more questions in my mind as his responses exposed an incredible amount of contradictions to me but I didn’t want cross a line I wasn’t aware of and didn’t challenge much of what he said. I came because I was curious and wanted to remain in that state throughout my time in this unique place. I do wonder how widespread Dmitri’s views are shared throughout Transnistria though. My preconceived perception was that the country would be full of ethnic Russians (which it is) that want to be a part of Russia and bring back the ‘good-ol’-days’ of the Soviet Union. Dmitri’s desire for an independant, self-sufficient Transnistria surprised me a bit. He is younger so perhaps doesn’t have the same personal experience of living in the former superpower’s orbit and doesn’t feel the same nostalgia that’s expressed by older Transnistrians. Beth and I mulled the conversation over while we got ready to stroll the city and grab some dinner.

A second Christmas (for us).

Being just a few days short of the Orthodox Christmas, Tiraspol’s overly glitzy lights and gaudy decorations added to the already surreal environment. Walking down the main road reveals Transnistria’s bizarre character. Modern, brightly lit retail shops line the street but fail to hide the grim reality of the apartment buildings scattered behind. The corporate glimmer leads to a large public square that boasts a tank – looking rather self-conscious – elevated and glorified atop a memorial to soldiers who died in the war. The 15-metre high, overly-decorated Christmas tree filled centre stage with wooden huts selling plastic trinkets and sugary treats scattered around it’s base. Overshadowing the scene: Transnistria’s soviet-esque, gargantuan parliament building and other government buildings that looked over us all ominously.

At the same time that we strolled around in awe of this unusual place, life went on as usual completely oblivious to how farcical it all seemed to us. Kids rode mini electric cars with flashing lights around the main square with parents looking on or engrossed in their phones – all parties with a mulled wine served in a paper cup in hand. Traffic hummed along. People sat in cafes and restaurants chatting and enjoying the season. Life seemed swell.

At this realization that everything around us was business as usual, I started to wonder how we would act in a hypothetical scenario. If we didn’t have any context and showed up to Transnistria looking through the same lense of legitimacy that we look at almost every country, would Transnistria arouse so much interest? For sure, we would have found Tiraspol an unusual place, but would we question the legitimacy of our hostel owners views as much? Would I be curious to see Ana’s passport? Are we subconsciously looking for signs to confirm what we’ve been told – that Transnistria is illegitimate? Would I be so hesitant to change money into the only accepted currency here? As I reflected on the legitimacy of Transnistria in the larger geopolitical context, I remembered that Transnistria only accepts the Transnistrian Ruble and we had none. Legitimate or not, we weren’t going to be getting any dinner without some.

I exchanged about $50 into the local currency (nowhere takes card payments – credit card companies and international banks not recognising the country or currency means cash is king here). The notes I got back we examined closely out of interest and perhaps searching for more signs of illegitimacy. It’s safe to say by the time the Transnistrian government got down to the five ruble note, they were desperate for significant buildings.

The Transnistrian five ruble note unashamedly boasts a local cognac factory. The photographer didn’t even wait for the street to be clear as a van and car can be seen in the bottom right corner.

I found myself hesitant to exchange too much hard currency. I was fearful that the whole charade might come crashing down when I went to pay the bill at dinner and envisioned the whole restaurant erupting in laughter at my attempt to pay with such ludicrous bills. Like every country though, the combined belief in notes and coins meant everyone accepted my cognac factory and tank clad notes without a hint of skepticism.

After a reasonably good dinner washed down with some complimentary schnapps that tasted like they were more appropriate as jet fuel we called it a night. We didn’t know it but tonight we’d learn exactly how blasé Transnistria is with its gas consumption.

Roasting.

Central heating is a relative term in former Soviet states and Transnistria is no different. We’d learned from our Airbnb host in Kyiv that the heating infrastructure built by the Soviets means the temperature in your room is not controlled by a little dial by the door. It’s not even controlled by anybody in your apartment building. The heat is distributed and regulated from the utility companies headquarters. I envisioned Stalin being dismayed by a nationalist uprising in some satellite state and reaching under his desk to dial the heating down a few notches in response. Perhaps not dissimilar to Russia’s current foreign policies.  

All this to say, Russia’s clearly holding up their end of the bargain as we cooked in our hostel room overnight. As Beth got up in the night to open a window to allow the chilly yet relieving air in to our sauna I wondered if perhaps paying the true cost for gas and allowing individual control might be more progressive. It took us a couple of attempts, but we managed to find the right angle to leave the window open to allow enough cold air in but not too much. Like all citizens here probably do, we created our own individual dial out of our window. We drifted off to sleep trying not to think about Transnistria’s carbon footprint.

Bendery Fortress.

The next morning we waved down a passing minibus to take the 20-kilometre ride west of Tiraspol to Bendery fortress. We boarded and sat, staring out the window still in awe of what a strange place Tiraspol is. Some sort of classic Russian ballads blasted out of the radio which added an air of authenticity to the experience. After ten minutes, Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb abruptly interrupted the melodies which struck me as such a stark contrast that I found myself occasionally humming the tune and mumbling “and baby you can turn me on…” for days after. It might now be stuck in your head and I apologize.

We met up with Ana (from our previous day’s bus ride) at the entrance to the newly renovated, yet still slightly shabby, Bendery fortress. The fortress was relatively small but quaint enough to justify the short bus trip. We wandered it’s stone walls that looked out over the river where Ana confessed her misjudgement of my intentions of visiting Ukraine and Moldova (IE a tourist but with the sex prefix) and we got Ana’s perspective on Transnistria – namely that it’s absurd and she wishes to be apart of Moldova. Ana is ethnically Romanian like many Moldovans and fails to see how Transnistria qualifies as a nation. She refused to get a Transnistrian passport initially but eventually caved; She visits her mom at least once a month in Transnistria and was finding the border formalities getting into Transnistria too onerous with a Moldovan passport.

She expressed her views somewhat carefully and quietly even though the castle was almost empty of visitors. I wondered how many ethnic Romanians lived in this little sea of ethnic Russians and what the general feeling was amongst them. Ana might be an outlying perspective with a more global view after living in the Middle East and globe-trotting for her work though. I marvelled at how nuanced the situation was with all the identities, ideologies and ethnicities mixed in as we crossed the castles lawns into it’s small museum.

Two things struck me at this otherwise fairly bland fortress. Firstly, the inner courtyard of this castle was just a grassed area with nothing except for an incredibly elegant flat-white horse carriage. It looked like it had fallen out of the sky from Cinderella’s fantasy. I had no idea what it was doing there, and no information explained its presence. I was getting oddly used to such sites in these parts though. So often things don’t make sense but you just move along like everybody else without questioning it. Every time I’m unsure if I’m the only one that thinks it’s perplexing and there’s a key piece of information I’m missing or if there’s an unwritten rule in Eastern Europe that we all just accept the arbitrary. My best guess is that the Transnistrian Tourism Board (if one exists) found it somewhere in their borders and thought it looked glamorous enough to sit in their only real tourist attraction. It was like if Spain dug up some dinosaur bones and were so excited by it they plonked them in the Sagrada Familia just so people could see it.

Secondly, and I’d like to point out that I don’t intend to complain – merely observe, while the English translations on most of the walls and inside the tiny museum showcasing the castle’s history were so poor that they were rendered unreadable, the torture chamber showcasing all manner of horrific devices that was located in a dark basement under one of the walls had perfectly accurate, articulate and detailed translations of each torture device. It seemed that the restoration team had decided that English speakers wouldn’t care about Ottoman, Swedish, and Mongol invasions as much as we’d like to know exactly how one does drive a stake up a victims rectum and ensure the longest possible painful death by ensuring the stake avoids all vital organs and protrudes out the victims shoulder. Perhaps they were right, I skipped over the history but was morbidly engrossed in the details behind how to encase someone in a coffin with spikes strategically placed through to ensure maximum pain without piercing any vital organs. Torturers of the day must have been quite the dinner guests.

We left the castle and had lunch with Ana. We chatted about Transnistria, life in the middle east, and what it’s like to come back to such a jarringly different place. Ana wasn’t sure where her future lay. I got the feeling her heart wasn’t in the Middle East but I couldn’t picture her living in a place like Transnistria. She seemed too worldly and progressive for what felt like such a nostalgic, decaying place. I got the feeling she was a rarity here – while we walked the streets over our two days in Transnistria there were very few young people. Most fit the stereotype of what your imagination would conjure up when I say they looked like Soviet loving grandmas and grandpas who don’t understand why Communism gets such a bad rap.

We bid farewell to Ana and headed back to our hostel full of Lenin busts and hammer and sickle logos to pack and leave this strange place. We decided two days was ample time to satisfy our curiosity.

Tense lines.

We headed to the same dull bus station that dropped us off in this fantasy land. As we boarded, a solo tourist who had just arrived excitedly asked us questions to help him explore Transnistria for the day he was there. I saw that glimmer in his eye; the one that’s insatiably curious and excited to be somewhere so unfamiliar. The same glimmer I seem to be forever chasing. I know how fleeting that glimmer is and I was envious of him as he strode off into the depths of Transnistria seeking adventure and something so alien that it engulfs ones mind in wonder. The glimmer of curiosity for Transnistria had faded for me however and I just hoped for easy passage back into the recognised world.

Leaving Transnistria and entering Moldova (or were we already in Moldova?) was straightforward. A Transnistrian ‘border guard’ boarded our minibus, glanced over our passports and our little receipt showing when we entered Transnistria and when we stated we would leave, got off the minibus, and casually waved us on.

We passed a few Russian soldiers 50 metres further along, apparently here for ‘peacekeeping’ purposes. Another 50 metres or so we were stopped by some sort of Moldovan authoritative figure. I couldn’t figure out if it was a border guard, customs agent, or the police. They took a look in the back of the van and, seeing no contraband or weapons I assume, waved us on. That was that. By all accounts, Transnistria included, we were now in Moldova.

My two cents.

I despise borders at the best of times; Figments of our imagination; Arbitrary lines on a map drawn by greedy empires; Excuses to deny some and not others; thinly veiled racism and xenophobia. Borders destroy our humanity, they label us as Us and them as Other. In that dehumanising process, states use these invisible lines to commit crimes on a maniacal scale. Read any headline and change nation identifiers to human ones. Switch US Invades Iraq to Humans invade Humans or Russia annex’s Crimea to People occupy People and the absurdity of our borders and national identities is illuminated – at least for me anyway. If that doesn’t speak volumes about our invisible lines then perhaps read every news headline like this for awhile and the nonsensicalness of it all might sink in.

That’s a pretty heavy paragraph I know but these are the thoughts swirling in my head when I sit at a border, waiting for permission to cross another invisible line. I keep these thoughts to myself of course, but barely. I find it difficult not to be terse with border agents. I try to remind myself that these lackeys are just that. And they do, in this messed up world, hold the power to decide whether I cross the unforeseen line before me.

I’m aware of my privilege while stating these thoughts and that only fuels my fury. I’m merely a curious tourist who loses little by being denied entry. Others are destined for death or poverty if their path is obstructed. Preposterously, I’m also more likely to be granted entry because I’m going to pump some money into the economy. The toxic mix of nationalism and capitalism fuels this mind-bogglingly unjust situation.

I look at Transnistria and although I see it’s illegitimacy, it’s existence questions the legitimacy of every nation. Who is anyone to draw a line in the river, sand, mountain range or dirt and say this is mine and that is yours? Certainly nothing in nature respects our borders unless we make those invisible lines visible with walls and wire.

To me, Transnistria is no more or less valid than any nation. Although that feels radical to type, well, you know the Orwell quote…

(Well, you might not know it and now I’ve googled it he might not have actually said it but it’s “In a Time of Universal Deceit – Telling the Truth Is a Revolutionary Act.” So, yeah, there I go ruining my dramatic ending to this blog post.)

Maybe I can save it by showing you a picture of me outside the famous cognac factory which we found on the walk back to the bus station. Perhaps I can submit it to the authorities and they’ll use it for the five Ruble note – could promote tourism?

←Ukraine part 9: Armed for Armageddon

Moldova part 2. Chisinau and Odorheiu →

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Joel & Beth

We're two lifelong, wandering nomads who make videos and blogs about our travels. We try to connect with, support and understand local people while learning about how history impacts them. We also love a good meal and learning about how food impacts culture. We hope you love what you're watching and reading so much that you shut your laptop, grab your bag, and come and explore this beautiful, delicate planet.

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