We had heard about the secretive state of Transnistria as we had been travelling through Eastern Europe. We heard rumours of a dangerous border crossing, bribing guards, Russian military and a currency that is only recognised within its tiny borders sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. But having a rather unhealthy obsession with Communism, sketchy border crossings and intimidating Eastern European men in large hats wielding automatic weapons we just had to make the trip! With a mixture of nerves and excitement we trundled along in a bus older than our combined ages towards this mysterious in limbo nation for a unique experience we would never forget!
What and where is Transnistria
Sandwiched in a thin strip between Moldova and Ukraine Transnistria is a section of land that lies over the Dniester River. It is still officially part of the Republic of Moldova having declared independence in 1990, it is not recognised by any UN member state and only by 3 other non UN members. However it is financially dependent on Russia as well as their troops keeping the nation in a state of ceasefire. In fact there have been talks over recent years of Transnistria becoming officially part of Russia. Moldova in particular have concerns over Russia officially taking over this area of land so close to its borders it has fought so hard over the years to keep, especially given the recent conflict with Ukraine (who are also concerned by this prospect).
Transnistria was involved in a short but fiercely fought war with Moldova from March to July 1992 in which an estimated 316–637 were killed. Since then the Russian authorities have forced Moldova’s hand with regards taking the area back and have used it as a strategic position in the region. Transnistria is what is regarded as a post-Soviet “frozen conflict” zones, being left in limbo after the split of the union. Unrecognised but de-facto independent the country has its own government, parliament, military, police, postal system,currency, flag and license plates. The main language in the country is Russian and residents have the choice between having Moldova, Russian and/ or Ukrainian official citizenship and passports for international travel, they do however have their own non recognised passport.
How to get to Transnistria
Getting to Transnistria is actually quite easy. Head to the capital of Moldova: Chisinau and then from the city’s central bus station (near the markets) you can take a regular bus to Tiraspol. The bus will stop to allow everyone to pass through the border and will also stop in a couple of other towns in the country. The best thing to do is go to the ticket booth and buy a ticket and ask when the next bus is coming as the bus station itself can be quite confusing.
The journey takes around 2-2.5 hours and costs around 30 Moldovan Leu, about £1.16. Make sure to check the time table for the returning buses in the station for the way back. You must leave before your 12 hours is up unless you extend your visa, so this is important to do before you explore the city! On the way back you could possibly pay in Moldovan currency but ideally you should have some Transnistrian roubles left in case the driver or woman in the station refuse it.
It is approximately a 20-30 minute walk into the centre of the city from the bus station so take this in mind too. You could possibly get off earlier in a more convenient location but if you do make sure you have a timetable before then.
Кишинев (Chisinau), Тирасполь (Tiraspol) – The names of both cities in Latin and Cyrillic!
Crossing the “border” into the last out post of the Soviet union
We had heard so much about how scary and intimidating the border crossing would be. After spending 4 hours at the Ukrainian border a few years back we envisaged this being even worse. However, it was actually quite comical! Despite the presence of the Russian Army the “border guards” here are left to do their job in peace. The bus stops… in our case the driver got off before putting his handbrake on and we nearly had the slowest crash ever right into the border!
They take everything quite serious but for those who have crosses many borders there are small details here that make it seem laughable. Signs on the doors have been badly photoshopped, printed off and sellotaped on, the guards have soviet style uniforms and excessively large hats, they also don’t smile or engage in small talk! There are also some comedy hand drawn mugshots of apparent “suspects” that look so ridiculous they could not be real people!
The process however is quite simple. You just fill out a simple form with no pressing questions and hand everything over to the guard in the booth. There is no fee for obtaining entry and your visa is just a printed receipt you must make sure to keep.
Your visa allows you to stay for 12 hours which you can extend for a few days once inside the country. When you leave the process is even simpler, the guard gets on the bus and takes your visa off you, checking the time and date. No one was pulled off on our bus! I have heard however overstaying is when you get trouble…some guards asking for bribes to leave rumours to be a few hundred euros!
Getting hold of the Transnistrian Rouble!
When you visit Transnistria you need to get hold of some local currency. Unlike other countries where you can get currency before you travel or via your card.
Here you can’t! So make sure you take enough Moldova Leu, Dollars or Euros to covert into Transnistrian Roubles. These are not recognised anywhere but here so swap them back before you leave…but save a few for souvenirs!
Exploring the capital: Tiraspol and it’s many Lenin statues and Hammer & Sickles!
Wandering around Tiraspol was a strange experience. We headed over there with images in our heads of everyone wearing bland and dated clothing, 30 year old cars and a country trapped in time. What we found was a weird combination of communist culture and artefacts combined with modern living, coca cola selling shops and propaganda on huge bill boards. It wasn’t quite the time capsule we had expected in all honesty, but I think the combination of huge Lenin statues and teen sat around on iphones made from an even stranger sight.
Of course, the first thing that hits you is the style of the architecture, the bus/ train station for example is a huge and intimidating boxy building with the standard imposing cyrillic writing emblazoning the front.
However the place was all but abandoned, the large marble hall and huge turning circle out the front had only one lone passenger and our comments echoed in the dark room as we checked the bus times. I did wonder if this was one of those places so easy to enter and yet a mine field to find your way out!
Walking down the main road into the “city centre” you would be forgiven for forgetting you are not in Moldova any more, especially with Russian being so commonly used over there. But it is when you look at the details that the strangeness of it comes out, the road we were on for example was named “Lenin street” and all the archaic soviet cars had little Transistrian flags, complete with hammer and sickles on the licence plates.
Where as most post soviet countries have gone through a period of de-communisation, here those same icons are still celebrated…but it truth communism only exists here on the surface and is isn’t the dictatorship we may have imagined!
But that wasn’t the end of the communist icons, as we got closer to the centre of Tiraspol we saw more and more propaganda proclaiming the closeness of Transnistria to Russia. On billboards, buses and signs there were red stars, hammer and sickles and soviet style crests in high numbers. This was what we came to see and despite the watering down of the state over the years it has to be the closest to the soviet union you could ever hope to imagine.
Wandering further and the statues of Lenin came into view beyond the large tank placed on the side of the main boulevard. A monument to the flighting against Moldova it stood like those famous war machines rolling through red square next to the eternal flame. But we pushed on to see the huge red Lenin statues.
Now over our explorations of Eastern Europe we’ve seen our fair few, but never in such a position being outside of the main government buildings. Here these icons are not hidden away, torn down or retained under some form of historical or artistic obligation (as is with the Moscow underground), but here they are still revered and treasured!
What we did discover through was how corrupt this tiny country is, a truer reflection of the influence of communist culture on modern Transnistria. The company “Sheriff” influences every corner of life here, they own the football team, super markets, petrol stations, a publishing house, advertising agency, mobile phone provider, spirit factory, hotel and even one of the only two available TV stations! Unsurprisingly they have become involved in the politics of this small and isolated nation through corruption and large amounts of money changing hands.
Taking a tiny local bus to a Monastery in the middle of this strange country!
Whilst in Transnistria we decided to take a tiny bus out of the capital to an ancient monastery in the middle of no where. Finding the bus itself was a challenge, on just a few loose strands of information we crossed to river to a tiny wooden shack. No one spoke English but a ramshackled and packed to the brim mini bus turned up, on we jumped hoping it was going in the right direction. Mimicking signs and hand signals to our perplexed fellow passengers just in the nick of time they understood our questions and told us to jump off here…. a dirt track!
We walked with no real idea where we were going and with our 12 hours in mind! Finally the shimmering bell tower of the Noul Neamț monastery came into sight and with no one around we crept through an open gate in the high side hall.
Wandering around the all but abandoned grounds we were unsure really want to see here. As a working Monastery it has an eery feeling about it and we did feel quite out of place.
Stepping into one of the beautifully decorated churches a man walked over to us, we expected he would be kicking us out. But instead this off duty monk took a shine to us, asking us where we were from and how we got here! Eventually he agreed to take us up the bell tower, on what would turn out to be a windy ascent on rickety open stairways.
Up here our conversations continued, one centring around our tattoos and how god would not to too pleased with us! Then Shorty spotted a large one on his chest…a girl he was in love with in a previous life before he escaped the slums of St. Petersburg for the church.
An interesting man to speak with, he then took us on a tour of the gardens of the complex. Here he picked pears and berries for us before one landed on Shorty’s back, next thing we knew he was being washed in the monks chambers… could this day get any weirder!?
Oh, and after this he offered us some holy water to drink, I wasn’t so keen on the eggy smelling liquid. But Shorty and Paul had enough to drink of it that they suffered the following day!
A crazy adventure to a place in limbo in both time and culture
Leaving Transnistria, having successfully got back over the boarder without paying any bribes, I felt like we had had one of the strangest days in our lives. Lenin statues, propaganda, plastic coin, selfies with monks, tiny buses, strange looks and culture shocks… it was somewhere that might not have been exactly what we imagined but a unique experience nonetheless!
What we discovered here is a country in limbo, one where we found their culture to be very different to both Moldova and Ukraine. A place which in many ways I feel sorry for and I do wonder what their future holds.
Having been a frozen state for so long it is hard to see when this situation could be resolved but clearly these people want independence and from our observations they have a culture and infrastructure of their own clearly distinct to that of Moldova.
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