Transnistria – Brides and Bribes in Eastern Europe’s Breakaway Territory

O

h, Transnistria. At the miltarised border crossing closest to Tiraspol, just metres away from The Republic Moldova (which unlike Transnistria, actually exists) I really was deep in former Soviet lands. And, away from prying eyes, sitting inside a very small room. Two uniformed militia men had asked me to step in for “chat”. The door shut behind me. They glanced at my stack of passports – mine, and my four travel companions who were waiting outside. It wasn’t exactly good cop bad cop. A young guy, who spoke a little English, and his boss – an older man – thick mustache, chest full of military medals, perhaps his overall look and demeanor could be described as nonchalantly dictatorial. The location, the cheap wood paneled decor, the men – all genuine Hollywood material. But this was real life, in the so called nation of Transnistria.

 

Transnistrian brides
Transnistria. This is not what I was expecting.

 

The older guy enjoyed looking over the rim of his glasses. I was asked to sit down at the little table, and explain just why I hadn’t checked in earlier with the militia in the capital city of Tiraspol. It seemed that an important stamp was missing from one of my in-triplicate carbon copied documents that I had received four days earlier at the very same location. But really, all we were about to discuss was how much cash I would need to hand over, before I would be allowed to leave Transnistria. Not enter, but leave. After spending four days in Eastern Europe’s most magical breakway militarised territory, at this point nothing surprised me.

I was bribing my way out of a “country” that isn’t recognised by anyone except members of the two or three other former-Soviet breakaway nations. On a small piece of paper, it was suggested that I pay 18 Euro per person (there were five of us). Or, the alternative was to go back into Tiraspol city and register with the militia – who would charge me 345 Euro per person. After I paid that, we could all return to the border, at which point we would all be allowed to leave. I told the militia we didn’t have access to 345 Euro per person, and suggested that I would rather just live in Transnistria forever. He basically said, yes, that’s the only possible alternative to coming up with one thousand, seven hundred, and twenty five Euros.

Considering my options, and speaking on behalf of four others, I suggested to the guards that Transnistria wasn’t such a bad place, and would they mind if I thought about it for a minute before determining where I would live out the rest of my days. Or, maybe, they would be interested in accepting the crisp twenty Euro note that I had earlier placed in my right pocket (four days in Transnistria had taught me to be prepared for such situations). I pulled out the note, snapped it twice, and used both hands to carefully place the money on the table, aligned perfectly in front of the older guard. Cold, hard, cash. Take it or leave it buddy. Your move, old man.

Neither seemed impressed with my flippant attitude to bribe negotiations or systemic militarised corruption. They didn’t look twice at the twenty Euro note. The young guy translated – in summary, twenty Euros would simply not be enough. Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d played the old “bribe the corrupt official” game in Transnistria. In fact, it was the second time this week. So I decided to play hard ball. He was at 1725 Euros, I was at 20. Time for me to get some hand in this game, and wrap up this little charade.

I showed him a page that I had prepared in anticipation for this eventuality.

Flicking through my notebook, I said out loud “ahh there it is”.

I held it up, so he could clearly see where I had written in large letters – “TRANSNISTRIAN ANTI CORRUPTION OFFICER”.

Below that, a local phone number. In big numbers. I tapped the page repeatedly, nodded, and raised my eyebrows up and down. Yes buddy, that’s right. Check, mate. I told him I knew the Transnistrian official who oversaw this sort of thing, and that perhaps I would need to give him a quick call as I was sure he really didn’t like the very few tourists that dare visit Transnistria being treated like this.

Translated, the old guard said he didn’t give a shit. He told me to get out of his office, and that I should take my friends back to the city and pay the 345 Euro – per person. I walked out, gathered my thoughts, and gave an update to my friends who were also waiting to leave Transnistria. After a few minutes, I walked back in with a new plan. Once again, the guards asked me to sit down at the small table.

“Did you call your friend?”

“What did he say?”

They were both smirking.

I told them that, no, I hadn’t yet called the Anti Corruption official, but the good news was that I had found some more Euros in the car, and I now had 30 Euro to offer him, to cover all five of us.

Him, 1725, and now me, 30.

I looked up at them from the small table.

They scoffed.

Looking at each other, a few words were exchanged, and they both shook their heads.

Thirty wasn’t going to be enough. However, after the amazing time Transnistria had showed me over the last four days, I was feeling that it would be wrong to end this visit on a sour note. Despite not being surprised by this situation, a feeling of annoyance was building inside me. This was starting to get old. There was driving to be done, and it was time to get moving. It upped my insolence levels, and basically said look old man, that’s all you’re getting, seriously, what the fuck, I’ve had enough of this place and want to just get the fuck back to the real world.

Now, buddy, now.

After a bit of discussion with his colleague (in Russian, the local language of choice) the old man pointed out the window, towards the Transnistrian border line and slowly, firmly, disappointingly, slightly angrily said – get, out. I thanked him, walked back out to the cars, saw my friends, and said let’s go.

We drove across the border, two cars, one with Dutch plates the other with French – through no-mans land past the tanks and the men with big guns. Then, we just kept driving as far as we could. Back into normality. Crossing back into the official countries of Moldova (where a border guard had just four days before offered the advice of “good luck”, as we drove into Transnistria) and on into Romania, heading South through Bulgaria, into Skopje Macedonia and finally stopping in Berat, in a remote part of Albania.

 

Transnistria, downtown Tiraspol. Lenin statue in front of Soviet style architecture.
Transnistria, downtown Tiraspol. Lenin statue in front of Soviet style architecture.
Teenagers, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Teenagers, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
MiG, Tiraspol, Transnistria
MiG, Tiraspol, Transnistria
Tiraspol Militia.
Tiraspol Militia.
Kids with guns. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Kids with guns. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Heavies, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Heavies, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Heavies, Transnistria.
Heavies, Transnistria.
Of course. Transnistria.
Of course. Transnistria.
Grapes hang in the streets of Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Grapes hang in the streets of Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Fishing, downtown Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Fishing, downtown Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Brides on parade. My favourite part of Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Brides on parade. My favourite part of Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Uncaptionable, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Uncaptionable, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Kids, soldiers, heavy ammunition. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Kids, soldiers, heavy ammunition. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Not quite Russian brides. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Not quite Russian brides. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Soviet architecture, Transnistria.
Soviet architecture, Transnistria.
Could they be any happier? Transnistria.
Could they be any happier? Transnistria.
Typical street scene, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Typical street scene, Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Dude.
Dude.
Dancing in the streets, Tiraspol.
Dancing in the streets, Tiraspol.
There are children in there. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
There are children in there. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Really. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Really. Tiraspol, Transnistria.
This guy seriously said "please delete that photo". I told him no I wouldn't, because he was awesome.
This guy seriously said “please delete that photo”. I told him no I wouldn’t, because he was awesome.
Tiraspol. Where soldiers walk in front of important people.
Tiraspol. Where soldiers parade in front of important people.
Pay phone on October 25th Street, Tiraspol, Transnistria. Yes, 2013.
Pay phone on October 25th Street, Tiraspol, Transnistria. Yes, 2013.

Like the pay phone on October 25th Street in downtown Tiraspol, Transnistria has been around since 1990. The territory declared independence from The Republic of Molodova and a devastating and brutal war erupted. There were many casualties on both sides. Wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, the issue of Transnistrian independence remains unresolved to this day. When the breakdown of the USSR occurred in the early 1990’s, the situation was only exacerbated as the two factions were left to their own devices – but in 2013 it’s the very presence of the Russian military forces based in Tiraspol that help to keep the peace. Despite this, the occassional border skirmish breaks out, and word on the street is that should the Russians ever leave, sadly, the war may be back. Long, complex, and convoluted, the history of Transnistria is worth checking out, and Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start.

Sure, in many ways Transnistria appears to be the last bastion of the 1950’s Soviets.

But Transnistria has more to offer than Lenin statues, hammers, sickles, and associated communist imagery.

I mean, take a look at the photos, and draw your own conclusions.

 

 

Practical Information About Transnistria

I’ll just offer my own experience here. Transnistria is definitely an area of flux, and at the borders things change frequently. I drove into the area, crossing the border between Chisinau (capital city of The Republic of Moldova), and Tiraspol (capital city of Transnistria). Hot tip – when you are asked if your car is a company car, say yes. In that case, the fee payable is just 5 Euros. There is no fee for the visa. Everything at this border was straight forward, even professional.

However, I would suggest you register with the militia in Tiraspol if you intend on staying overnight. The guys at the border will give you the address. Day trippers need not worry. There are different procedures involved with regards to catching the train into Transnistria from either Chisinau or Kiev, so perhaps do some current research – or even better, ask the question in the comments below – I’m sure someone will help out.

Additionally, if you’re planning on staying overnight, my opinion is that the Tiraspol Hostel is pretty bad accommodation. I would need to go back to Chunking Mansions,  Kowloon circa 1993 to recall accommodation in that state of cleanliness and comfort. That is to say, dirty and uncomfortable. However, the Vodka was free, and I did get to learn a few things about the many unknown breakaway nations chatting with like-minded nerds who specialise in former Soviet breakaway territories. So, if you’re into that sort of thing, contact Tim. But, I would suggest registering with the police/militia in Tiraspol, no matter what Tim suggests is the “best” thing to do.

I would also add that as a driver of a foreign car, you may be seen as an easy target for bribes. It happened to me. Long story. But hey, when you’re in an unrecognised militarised area deep in Eastern Europe, you sort of expect to pay a bribe here and there. No big deal.

There’s a restaurant on the main street of Tiraspol called “7 Fridays” (written in Russian, maybe just look out for a big “7”), on the main drag – October 25th Street. Great for food or just drinks. Good service and prices, with nice food. Head down the side and around the back to a cool outdoor space. Steer clear of Andy’s Pizza (average food at best, with terrible service). Also – the local Vodka is really cheap, and actually a tasty drop. The cognac called “Kvint”, is locally famous. Supermarkets and mini-supermarkets are dotted around the city.

It’s just like home.

Only, in a country that doesn’t really exist.

Transnistria.

Go there.

Nate.

PS, I’m still in the middle of a European road trip. There is plenty more to come – but, due to my inconsistent posting schedule I recommend you follow along not on here, but by putting your email in this box. Always free, no spam, and one click unsubscribe. Try it out. As a bonus, email subscribers receive larger photos in each article. And, you will then have a direct line to me. Ask me anything. Any. Thing.

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PPS, if you have a half-decent camera and you’re not getting the results you expect – you probably need to really learn how to get out of auto. Check out the ebook my friend Bethany has made – I’ve long called it my “secret weapon” for better travel photography. It’s easy to follow, and will get you shooting better in no time. At the moment, it’s less than $10 but word on the street is – the price will be doubling soon. It comes with my personal recommendation. Take a look at the link, and see if it seems right for you.

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55 thoughts on “Transnistria – Brides and Bribes in Eastern Europe’s Breakaway Territory

  1. Following you venturing even deeper to Eastern Europe, including to territories such as Transnistria, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day you write a post on other breakaway regions, i.e. Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia. What an interesting adventure you had in the Moldovan breakaway region, despite the bribe! And hey, I have never expected to see such festivities in Tiraspol’s streets.

    1. Hey Bama… yes, I had a chat with a few people about Nagorno-Karabakh, it’s on the list. Tiraspol was a bit of a shock, I had no idea there would be so much happening (even though it was independence day). I expected a standard Soviet-style military parade, but not all the other festivities!

    2. Your writing and captioning on all of these stories is fantastic and often a funny pleasure to read. You do a great job of enabling us to visualize the details- like the snapping of the 20 Euro note!

    3. I traveled to Tiraspol in October 2011 and never had to pay to enter or exit the border. Very surprised you guys were bribed like you were. I’m American but doubt that makes any difference in their decision. You can reach me at *******. My name is Tim. Thanks!

      1. Hey Tim.. I think the problem was – we had two cars with foreign license plates, and we must have looked like easy targets. That, and we didn’t register with the local militia (we were advised, incorrectly, not to). Transnistria sure is a great place, I’m hoping to return sooner or later…

        Nate

    1. Cheers buddy, couldn’t think of a better travel companion for such a place. Except for the other three travel companions we had (in case they are reading this) ;) See you on the next adventure.

  2. I love that you just keep getting off the beaten path and find cool and interesting, out of the norm, places to check out. It’s such a great reminder that there is just so much to see and experience on this planet we call home. Love seeing the unusual from your perspective.

  3. My brother married a lady from Ukraine. If you had posted this earlier he would stop in Transnistria first lol.

    My daily buzz posts are morphing into every other day Buzz post…to keep my sanity :-)

    Ever been to that other non official country in Cyprus? Would love to see your pics at Famagusta!
    http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com/2013/03/varosha-famagusta-rare-photos-inside-northern-cyprus-ghost-city-abandoned-resort/
    If you go, please be very careful!

  4. Just wanted to give my 2 cents here.
    My and my travelmate (Russian girl) went to Transnistria about a week after Nate.
    We took the train in from Odessa and hitchhiked out to Chisinau.
    Neither leaving or entering was any problems at all, went really smooth, no questioning or bribes etc. (Im Swedish btw)
    We stayed at Hotel Aist which was really really Soviet hotel (or as wikitravel says: “Hotel Aist is a Soviet museum of a hotel”).
    Everything was old, it was smelly and it felt like the elevator would break down any second.. but hey, atleast it was clean and I actually think it ended up cheaper then staying at the Hostel!
    We also ate at 7-Fridays, awesome and cheap restaurant! :D

    1. And oh yeah, when we got of the train we went over and registred that we arrived just at the train station then walked into town and tried to find a place to stay.
      The next day we found the place where you have to register if you stay more then 24 hours, it was a bit of a weird place, no people around whatsoever and drapes infront of all the windows, we knocked on one window and after a while someone appeared, took my papers and closed the drapes again.. waited for like 15 minutes and then they opened quickly and gave me the papers back and that was it.

    2. Makes a hell of a difference going with a russian/ukranian friend. Going there purely as a Western the chances that a “bribery” will occur are quite high…

  5. Hey Nate,

    Great photos! :) As I have visited Transnistria a couple of times now and have not been in a situation where I was expected to pay to a bribe, could you please elaborate on the ‘stamp’ that was missing from your documentation? I haven’t tried to cross in and out with my own car yet but will definitely do so in the future to see what happens. :)

    Best of luck with the rest of your time in the region!
    Conor

    PS I also wrote a short article on Transnistria for my blog: http://goo.gl/nSuRbr and made a short video for my YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWh8jTfFWg0 Let me know what you think! :)

    1. Hi Conor – the “stamp” I refer to, was the process of registering for being in Transnistria overnight – which I was incorrectly advised not to do by my accommodation provider. I’m not sure whether the bribes were due to driving in a car with foreign plates, or because I didn’t register, or both. I’ll just need to go back to make sure I guess!

      1. Ok. Yes, you definitely need to register if you stay longer than 24 hours (the staff at the reception of Hotel Russia did this for me when I was out sightseeing). Irresponsible that you were told not to register! The immigration rules are clear on this. But I guess you got an interesting story out of being ‘illegal’ in Transnistria in the end! :D

  6. Sorry mate, just can’t buy that border story as true one. I’ve been to Pridnestrovie (Transnistria) have reported from there few times, have never seen tanks and big guns at the border, never seen any official with medals across it’s chest at the border. And closest border to Tiraspol is one at the Bender, second largest city in Pridnestrovie (Transnistria) and there is some 40 km drive from the Tiraspol to Bender. It’s kinda strange mentioning 40km distant Tiraspol when mention border with Moldova, and not mentioning second largest city of Bender, which is at the border it self… Sorry, just can’t buy this story as a fully true and credible…

    1. There are a lot of men with medals across their chests on specific holidays during the year. My father-in-law would be one of them. I have driven across the border on many occasions where there are Russian tanks with the peacekeeping force. If you are driving you have to stop there before continuing. You don’t see these tanks on the main border crossing, but they are there on some of the smaller border crossings. Since when was Tiraspol 40 Km away from the main crossing on the road from Chisinau to Tiraspol? After the border turn right into Bender and left to Tiraspol – that is less than 5km and takes you past the Sherrif stadium. To get to Tiraspol you don’t have to go into Bender at all.

  7. Enjoyed your report, and I agree that Tiraspol on their national day is a fun place to be. Last years celebration were good, but the best one was in 2010 when they even paraded their tanks as well. I loved your pictures, and I even found myself on one of them…

    You should visit the NKR as well. You get a very different feeling in Stepanakert than in the PMR. And fun to visit the frontline to Azerbadsjan.

      1. On your “brides on parde” pic, in a green t-shirt… And I probably got you on some of my pics as well ;-)

  8. Nate….dude,…your story sure brings back memories man…I spent 3 years in Moldova (chisinau) 2002-2005..Transnistria was still a weird ass place man…no rules apply… We too had to bribe the border guards multiple times back then even… Back in the day, i was familiar with romanian (so called mother tongue in moldova, half the natives speak russian anyway), the border guards/local militia were pissed off seeing an Indian dude(by the way, i am an Indian) conversing in romanian offering them a bribe,,,But, tiraspol is something else…people sure were friendly and curious.. To be frank, didnt see too many people on the streets though… only saw little old ladies with traditional colorful scarf’s and old men (dawning medals) on their uniforms and all…We were at an auditorium somewhere near the central square (NGO i worked for had funded a cultural exchange programme). I was mistaken many a times for looking like a gypsy(the local work was Segan, if memory serves me right).. Anyway ….this was a blast from the past….This truly is the road less traveled nate…keep us up to date on your adventures man…Safe Travels….
    p.s dunno if i posted this multiple times…my internet is going bonkers today.. In case i did….ooops

  9. Great article about Transnistria, I always love a good “paying a bribe at the border”narrative. Excellent.

  10. Great article about a “country” no Americans really know about. My wife is from a small village in Transnistria and we had a visit there in May 2012. We stayed for about 3 weeks going in and out of Transnistria into Moldova, mainly from Rybnitsa in the north.
    Never had a problem since her uncle is higher up with the border agency. I was told a few times though it would be a very different situation without him insuring our safe passage back and forth, so I take the authors account as very factual. Luckily I was always treated as one of the family and was offered copies amounts of home grown wine. Vodka is still a staple there but local wine seemed to be the beverage of choice when visiting friends and family in the villages.
    Unfortunately we never made it down to Tiraspol, I would have loved to have seen more of the Soviet era architecture and urban design. We plan on visiting again next spring, when our son will be a litter older for traveling that far. That is unless Putin uses Transnistria as an excuse to push further westward beyond Ukraine, which my wife’s family believes could be a developing situation if NATO membership is offered to Moldova…

    Cheers

  11. Great pics and nice descriptions. Thanks! I was expecting to see an image reminiscent out of that old move “Euro Trip” where when they get to Slovakia they see a dog in street with a severed human hand in its mouth. :-) I’ve actually been there and it’s not that bad. Terrible shame what’s happening in Eastern Europe these days. Be careful!

  12. Nice pics and useful information for the travellers. This part is awesome:

    “It’s just like home.

    Only, in a country that doesn’t really exist.

    Transnistria.

    Go there.”

    Nate, I’m curious what will you say about my blog about Transnistria. Check it out: transnistriais.wordpress.com
    Thank you and keep blogging!

  13. I, too, have had a similar issue exiting Transnistria. I went on a day trip to Bender travelling from Causeni in Moldova by bus and was only in Transnistria for 6 hours. I was really nervous about entering Transnistria being a foreign lone traveller who speaks limited Romanian but entering was actually quick and easy. So I wasn’t expecting any hassles when it came to leaving the border.

    However, upon exiting, I was taken to a small room and questioned. The issue seemed to be that I hadn’t registered myself. But as far as I was concerned, you only need to register if you intend to stay more than 10 hours (some people are also saying either overnight or more than 24 hours). Regardless, I was only in Transnistria for 6 hours.

    Nevertheless, the main topic of conversation did not seem to be about me not registering, but more about how much money I should pay. His first offer was 420 Moldovan Lei. I told him I was not paying anything. And funnily enough, the only English he knew was “pay fine, pay fine”, which I’m sure comes in handy fairly frequently! After a while, he brought it down to 320 Lei which I still refused. Then he said I’ll either have to pay it or go back to Bender and pay a bigger fine. So I actually said I’ll go back to Bender but he sounded very reluctant (obviously as the money wouldn’t be going into his pocket). Eventually I gave in and emptied my wallet onto the table in front of him. I only had 300 Lei but he still took it and let me go.

    Despite problems with the border, I still enjoyed my time in Bender. I thought it was a very interesting and peaceful city that is still behind in time, the people I spoke to were friendly and the River Nistru is beautiful.

  14. Hey, what is the action wih all the brides at the first shoot? Do they just dress up and meet on the street, waiting to be picked up by anyone? =D

  15. Until this very moment, I had no idea that this place existed. Not sure if it’s a place I would like to visit, but what a story this is. Also, I love your photos and the captions to them. I was cracking up while going through them.

  16. I realize this is a travel blog. However, to mention anything about Transnistria without mentioning the systematic mafia like corruption that controls the entire nation, is doing your reporting a disservice. Transnistria’s economy is based largely on arm sales to both terrorist organizations and drug cartels. Elections are rigged, and the largest corporations in the country are controlled by a few organized crime families. This may be an interesting place to visit, but poverty, exploitation, and a disenfranchised population shouldn’t be ignored.

    1. Point taken Phil, it’s why I have a comment section. Feel free to start your own website/blog, and provide less of a “disservice” than I have provided to my readers. Cheers.

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