Dodging Authorities In An Unrecognized Country

When you are attempting to enter a country that does not formally exist, you might figure that you will encounter some problems. Maybe the Soviet-styled border guards will not like that you are traveling with an American in your group. Maybe they will demand a bribe before granting passage. Neither of those issues surfaced when a workation group I was leading crossed from Moldova proper into Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova that has its own everything — government, currency, passport, Lenin statues etc. Rather, it was our taxi driver who ran into trouble. Of course, that made for an interesting experience for us as well.

While driving on a bridge, literally crossing the Dniester River (Transnistria = across the Dniester River), we were greeted by flashing lights closing down on us from behind. We hadn’t even entered town and the Transnistrian police were already on our tail.

With a seemingly abandoned roller coaster off to our left and some apparently popular Transnistrian beaches to our right, we were held hostage on the bridge… well, not really. It turned out the police did not like the way our taxi driver circled through a roundabout before driving onto the bridge headed for the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol.

We had to double back and wait outside a Soviet-looking police station in the middle of the roundabout while the taxi driver got scolded, ticketed or received some combination of punitive measures for not initially stopping his cab.

In the interest of disclosure, or the driver’s defense, he was from Moldova and not overly familiar with the rules of the road in Transnistria. For that matter, he wasn’t too familiar with the roads either. Not only did he not deliver us to our end destination in Tiraspol, on the way into Transnistria, he nearly drove into a military checkpoint with a tank and angry soldiers with machine guns waiting, before changing course and taking us on a bumpy dirt road ride in some area where Moldova seems to end and its rival region seems to begin.

The lack of smooth transport did not put a damper on our trip. Along with riding Soviet-style hop-on, hop-off shuttle vans around Tiraspol, it is all part of the Transnistria experience.

That Transnistria experience, of course, also includes quality entertainment. In the country that only sort of exists, people like to party — not just in clubs, but also on boats. One of the biggest draws of Transnistrian nightlife is definitely the party boat. It docks somewhere near the “I love Tiraspol sign,” and it’s boarded by people — young and old — carrying bags or baskets of food and liquor. With music  (Reggaeton!) blasting and disco lights flashing, young people, grandparents and little kids all indulge in food, drink and dance as the Transnistrian equivalent of a cruise motors up and down the Dniester River. Much vodka is consumed on the approximately one-hour party boat ride. Maybe even the kids pitch in to the cause.

Sightseeing in Transnistria includes the giant Lenin standing outside the unrecognized country’s parliament and the Soviet tank parked across the street. We went off the beaten path a bit, visiting a monastery with an impressive bell tower view and a once-factory building that looks like it was just dusted off from World War II. We also stopped at the all-in-one, multi-nation embassy in Tiraspol.

While some people might lead you to believe that Transnistria is isolated and its only friend on the global stage is Russia, don’t believe the hype. Transnistria has strong allies. Their names are Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and together they have built a sanctioned embassy in the heart of Tiraspol. So, if you are considering a trip to a post-Soviet unrecognized republic sometime soon, you might want to pay visit to the downtown Tiraspol diplomatic post.

Our Transnistrian travels — albeit not really by choice — also included a visit or two, or three, or four… to a Sheriff’s station. No, we were not arrested, though we did have to go to a police station to register our stay. Actually, the “Sheriff” is not an officer, at least not by law. He is an oligarch — rather the oligarch — of Transnistria who owns everything from the gas stations to the supermarkets to the football club that has a modern stadium in golden colour on the outskirts of the capital. He is not on political power, though – suprisingly Transnistria has a working democracy many Western states should be jealous of. Well, if you do not think that the Russian KGB still runs the country in the end…

But, the authentic Transnistrian experience does not come from commercial enterprises. It really comes when you are interacting with the babushkas (grandmothers) sitting on a bench outside your communist-built apartment block. Those babushkas believe in one god, and his name is Vladimir Putin. While Putin has yet to do so, one day, he will surely deliver the exiled Russians of Transnistria back to the promised motherland.

For now though, Transnitria remains not-Russia, not-Moldova and not a recognized country. But it is a fun and interesting place to visit and a rather easy notch in a traveler’s disputed territories belt. Just remember to exchange your Transnistrian rubles before leaving. They’re not worth a whole lot elsewhere in the world. And if you are traveling with camera equipment, please dont tell the borderguards you are a “journalist” as happenend exiting the country to Ukraine…

 

Stay: There is virtually only one place to go – Tiraspol Hostel. Led by a nice young guy called Roman and his sweet girlfriend Nastasia they showed us all around Transnistria. Basically it is only a room with bunk beds – so if you want comfort, try to get a real hotel (which exist). Living in a Transnistrian-style communist apartment block among the locals had its charm, though.

 

Eat: No need to starve in unrecognised countries. Food is actually pretty decent, very cheap and plenty available. I particularly loved the Kiwi smoothies in the restaurant Pokrovskie Vorota – they virtually press out 20 kiwis for you for 2$.

 

Drink: Told you already about the party boat – not to miss. Transnistria has some other night clubs – and you may easily speak German as their seem to be a lot of ladies working in special establishments up there coming back to their home country occasionally. For a fun night try singing Russian songs during Karaoke at Mafia Restaurant.

 

See: Go visit the border town of Bender. It has a nice fortress with a pretty view from its tower (namely on the Russian military area – be careful with pictures) – and is famous for the German fable of Baron von Münchhausen, called the Lying Baron. My grandfather used to tell me his exaggerated stories when I was young. On that particular fortress one of the most famous stories happenend: riding a cannon ball over the Dniester River. A memorial commemorates this tale.

 

Do: Just take a random stroll through the streets – Transnistria is very safe nowadays. Just keep in mind that Putin is watching you – from virtually thousands of posters hanging everywhere.

 

Date: Brush up your Russian skills or do not even attempt it. Approaching is easy, but English non-existent. Exceptions prove the rule – you find them on Tinder. Well worth a look.

 

Go there: You do not need a visa for Transnistria, but need to register with the local police station when staying more than 24 hours. This is an easy process that the hotel can support you with, but it requires your personal attendance. Transnistria is best reached by chartering a taxi and driving around an hour from Chisinau, the Moldovan Capital. Odessa in Ukraine is about 3h away by bus. Well worth to visit both cities as well. Normally, you can fly to both cities cheaply via Vienna and Prague.

 

Go next: Chisinau ironically has much less to offer than the unrecognised capital Tiraspol. It has great, cheap restaurants and a vivid nightlife, though. Odessa is completely on another level as you can see in this blog as well. Big and bohemian, with a lovely old town and excellent restaurants, a long beach promenade with the not so inviting Black Sea and the party zone over at Arcadia.