The gentle rain of the previous evening had grown more persistent overnight and was a most unwelcome sight this morning. Whilst the Central Bus Station was located only a mile from our apartment reaching it would prove to be a soaking experience. Unable to locate a bus stop we hail, what we are reliably told, will be a slightly corrupt taxi (typical of Chişinău) for the extremely short ride. With no English we ask for that universal destination ‘McDonalds’ knowing that it is close to the Bus Station. Unfortunately, the driver takes us to an alternate branch of this fast food chain, further away than our original location. With no, apparent, way to explain we want the Bus Station nor of correcting his mathematical errors in giving us our change we have little choice but to walk the now two miles to the Bus Station.
The Republic's flag
Arriving like the proverbial sodden rats we are soon on a dry minibus heading towards Tirapol, the capital of the breakaway Republic of Transdniestr. A veritable melee of cultural, political and economic turmoil engulfed Moldova after declaring independence, from the Soviet Union in 1991. As the former USSR collapsed, the Turkic Gaguaz and Soviet orientated Transdniestr declared their respective independence almost simultaneously. Following a bloody civil war, a shaky truce was declared, although the ‘Republic of Transdniestr’ still asserts independence from Moldova, recognized by no other country except Russia, who maintain a 5,000 strong ‘operational group’ to ensure this ‘independence’. With the military forces of Russia set against her Moldova has little choice but to accept the current situation or risk invasion in a similar manner and with similar excuses as Georgia in August 2008.
House of Soviets
Today, the Transdniestr is a narrow strip of land covering some 2,000 miles on the eastern bank of the Nistru River – the world’s last surviving bastion to the Soviet Union and all it stood for. This idiosyncratic region has developed its own currency, police force, army and borders with Russian as the predominant language. Tourism is both encouraged and discouraged. Border officials will often state that tourists are ‘not welcome’ whilst official websites will boast of Transdniestr being ‘Europe’s hidden jewel’.
Lying some 50 miles east of Chişinău we were quickly at the official (but unrecognized by any other country, except Russia) border of Transdniestr. As the only tourists on the Bus we were soon asked to disembark and talk to the military clad border control guard. Our research for this trip had warned of numerous border ‘shakedowns’ with guards often demanding 200 USD fines for ‘Visas’ or infractions of fictitious rules. Tourists taken into huts with several looming armed guards where one’s infractions are documented, with indecipherable Cyrillic script. If you resist, bags are theatrically pulled from the Bus and a request to know how much cash you are carrying made, so that the size of your fine can be determined.
Transdniestr Stamps - Can only be used to send letters within the Republic
Knowledgeable of this process we were travelling light. A small bag and sufficient cash to cover only our direct needs for the day – which if we had to surrender in a fine would be worth the cost of the story! As it was the military clad guard, clutching our prized passports, wanted only to know if we had any coins from our home country. He was simply an avid collector. I had none but offered a 10 USD bill. This was eagerly re-buffed. Still amazed it was Trey who was able to offer a single ‘lucky’ one US cent coin that she was carrying. Happy with this new addition to his collection, our passports recovered, we returned to the Bus to await smokers to re-board and those staying in Transdniestr to complete their, separate, immigration process. A requirement we did not need to satisfy as we were staying in the Republic for less than 10 hours, or so we had been led to believe. What the actual, ever changing rules might be we will never know. However, it was this oversight that was to warrant our deporting when we subsequently tried to leave the Republic that afternoon.
Transdniestr Money - Only of use in the Republic
Perversely disappointed that the anticipated Border irregularities had not occurred we soon reached Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestr. Arriving later than anticipated our pre-arranged guide Julia was still waiting for us. Grateful that she had been forgiving of our tardiness, we began our tour. Whilst the capital is extremely poor on tourist sights the Soviet style buildings and statues of Lenin that pepper the main road were more than acceptable substitute. Starting at the Soviet style National Theatre, on ul 25 October, we continued on to a statue of Ukrainian poet Shevchenko where a small crowd had gathered, we know not why. As with the majority of locals that we pass the onlookers are dressed in drab, Soviet style clothing. With the Hammer and Sickle still forming part of the Transdniestr flag, the plethora of Soviet style buildings and the dour fashions, one almost expects an informal rendition of the ‘Red Flag’ or a KGB officer to approach at any moment. Yet, our guide Julia confirms that the Republic is not communist. Glorifying all things Soviet, capitalist cracks are showing on this Lenin loving idiosyncrasy. It is clear from the cars on the street, where battered Ladas reside next to brand new German Mercedes and BMWs, that the gulf between the different levels of society is widening.
Typical luxury Tiraspol apartments!
Yet, for us our Tour continues as many have before – just with fewer sights! The House of Soviets, once again resplendent in Soviet architecture, has Lenin’s angry-looking bust peering out from prime position. Passing the Kvint factory we purchase some of Transdniestr’s proudest export. Since 1897 the Republic has been making some of Moldova’s finest brandy. A half liter of the ‘reserve’ Cognac costs us 30 roubles (the currency of Transdniestr that cannot be used or exchanged anywhere else!) which converts to about 3 USD. We have yet to taste any but are assured of a pleasant experience.
Soviet Tank at the War Memorial
At the western end of ul 25 October lies perhaps Tiraspol’s most imposing monument. A Soviet tank (from Hungary) flies the Transdniestr flag. Behind is the War Memorial with its eternal flame at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier – remembering those who died on March 3rd 1992 during the first outbreak of the Civil War.
Eternal Flame at the War Memorial
Progressing past military memorials and graves we reach three statues commemorating the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Civil War and Mother Peace. Opposite is the Presidential Palace. Loitering and photography of the Palace is not permitted, so of course, we have to take pictures.
The Presidential Palace
Photographs dutifully taken and without being caught we cross into Suvorov Square to view the statue of the Field Marshall we founded the modern city of Tiraspol, in 1792, with victory for Russia over the Ottoman Turks. One of the few generals in history who can claim never to have lost a battle his image can be found not only on statues but also the currency of the Republic. From here we walk through the Square to the Eastern Orthodox church of The Nativity. Built in the early 1990s the freshness and quality of the icons and fresco’s within the church are startling. Familiar with the faded images of comparable but much older churches this young place of worship provides a startling insight into how churches such at St. Sofia in Kiev must have appeared when first completed in the 11th century.
Inside the Cathedral
Throughout our tour Julia has been explaining these sights in a sporadic combination of English and German. Familiar with very rhythmic tours that often occur multiple times in the same day, Julia’s impromptu additions to our schedule are welcome. Expressing an interest, we visit the Post Office and Currency Exchange to obtain stamps and bank notes from this breakaway Republic. Neither stamps (which cannot be used to send letters outside of the Republic) nor bank notes are of any practical value outside of the Republic, however, they are an appropriate memory of this surreal Republic.
Our Tiraspol Guide - Julia
After a long morning of travel we opt for a late lunch at a popular café – 7 Fridays. The Republic’s version of TGI Friday’s, we assume! With Julia’s help, understanding and ordering from the Russian menu is straightforward, ensuring we are able to try, most importantly, the local Transdniestr beer (a Live beer, called ‘Old Palace’ that must be consumed within 10 days – no problem there!).
TGI Friday's Tiraspol Style
Our lunch is tasty and amazing value. Disappointed that we will not be able to return to this excellent culinary establishment we make our way to the Bus Station for our return to Chişinău. With Julia leaving us at the Station it is only when we reach the Border that problems arise.
Riding the bus in Tiraspol
The local bus
A pretty Immigration officer dressed in the Soviet style of authoritarian official, orders us to get off the Bus at the Republic’s Border. We are quickly taken into the office of, what we assume to be, the Commander of the Border. He certainly appears upset with us. However, with no English his words mean little to us. Frustrated by our inability to understand his tirade a second, pretty Immigration Officer is brought into the relatively small office. Her English is much better. As Trey and I await the inevitable ‘Shake-Down’ we are told of our terrible crime. It would appear that on entering the Republic, earlier that morning, we should have completed an Immigration Form. Obviously, as someone in a military uniform had verified our Passports and allowed us to re-board the Bus we were unknowing of this requirement. Should we have completed the forms, on arrival, I am sure various ‘fees’ would have been required. As it was we were now in the Republic illegally and needed, therefore, to be deported.
Broken soda dispensers - no cans, just use your glass
As we were trying to leave the Republic anyway, neither Trey nor I, sounded much concern to this, especially as Transdniestr is not a country so deportation from the area would not affect our ability to enter any other country. As promised during our research long, undecipherable Cyrillic documents were placed in front of us which purported to be the documents required to deport us. Of course they could have been application forms for a new Supermarket Loyalty Card but we were assured that the matter was serious. Eager to rejoin our minibus, which given the animated comments from the Driver would depart soon with or without us, we confirmed that we were happy to be deported and that our minibus seemed like the perfect vehicle to affect this departure.
Appealing youth centre!
Aware that their threats were not overly concerning us the true and of course expected nature of the conversation began to surface. We would be allowed to leave without being deported, just this once, for the payment of a ‘fine’, in Transdniestr roubles. With our minibus to Chişinău now departed there was less urgency to extricate ourselves from this position. The ‘fine’ we finally fixed upon was 5 USD, each. However, with insufficient USD to pay this paltry amount the ‘fine’ was finally paid in the hated currency of Moldova, the Lei.
Once agreed our passport details and home addresses were taken down on scraps of paper to be ‘logged in the system’ or more likely thrown into the nearest rubbish bin as soon as we left the office. Should we enter Transdniestr again without completing an Immigration Card then we would be deported, we were sternly told. Still unsure where the downside of this agreement lay we were again given an official talking to about the need for an Immigration form, by the pretty Immigration Officer. More concerned that our infraction might have led to a missed passport stamp, my question on the matter, invoked yet another stilting diatribe before our passports were unceremoniously returned and we were cast out into the ‘No Man’s Land’ between the Republic and Moldova. Fortunately, and as expected another Minibus was completing Border formalities. Boarding we were soon on our way back to Chişinău having had the Border experience we had read about.
On previous journey’s we have been ‘shaken down’ predominately in Africa and Central America. In Africa, we were ‘shaken down’ twice in the same day, in separate countries for fictitious infractions. Yet, the practice, in our experience, is relatively rare in Europe. Today though must have been ‘shake down day’ for even our Minibus driver tried. Arriving at Chişinău Bus Station, the only passengers left, our disembarkation was blocked until we paid him for the journey. Having already paid in Tiraspol we showed our ticket. As this was for a different Bus he demanded we pay again. Clearly, as a ‘Cash for the Driver’ scheme we offered to go and pay at the Cashier, to solve the problem. Annoyed and frustrated at the realization that we would not just hand over money to him, directly, he waved us off with a Russian/Moldovan phrase that we were glad we could not interpret…for certain!
With the incessant rain having stopped, earlier in the day, when we arrived in Tiraspol our walk back to the apartment was simple and dry. As had been promised we had experienced the corrupt border guards of the Transdniestr but also seen the last bastion of Soviet Russia that remains in Europe. Perhaps not warranting the proffered title of ‘Europe’s Hidden Jewel’ in terms of its sights, the experience was as we had hoped surreal and admittedly unforgettable.