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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.