How do you spend 24 hours in a country that doesn’t exist? Where do you go if you aren’t on official maps? Where do you stay if the country isn’t even listed on Expedia? How can you try the national dish if it’s not a nation? Just how do you spend one night in Transnistria?
This post is all about our time in Transnistria, how we felt etc and so it is not really a quick guide to the hot spots. If you want to read all about the best tourist sights in Tiraspol, click here to read our other post about Tiraspol.
Where is Transnistria?
Let’s break this down:
- Between Europe and Russia is a large country called Ukraine. It borders the top of the Black Sea and is 603,628 km².
- To the south west of Ukraine, is a tiny country called Moldova. That is just 33,846 km², a twentieth of the size of Ukraine.
- That sounds pretty small, but sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova is a little blip. This is Transnistria. Sometimes called Trans-Dniester due to it’s proximity to the Dniester river.
- Transnistria is just 4,163 km². That is another seven times smaller than Moldova. Monaco and Vatican City are the only “official” countries smaller than Transnistria. Growing up the UK, I have always been taught to compare things to the size of Wales, so…
- Transnistria is a fifth the size of Wales.
What Exactly is Transnistria?
OK, I’ve been to Transnistria so it clearly does exist. Nevertheless, according to the United Nations, and most maps, Transnistria is a myth. It sounds quite magical too. “The Kingdom of Transnistria” sounds like it could be an isolated Disney-esque place, topped by a glittering castle. However, this isn’t “The Kingdom of Transnistria”, this is “The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”. It is much more communist and a lot less glittery.
After the collapse of the USSR, changes ripped and resewed Eastern Europe. Transnistria had a large Russian population, due to migration during the USSR era. Moldova’s move away from Russia was incredibly unpopular here, leading to a separatist movement. Transnistria declared independence from Moldova as a breakaway state in 1990.
Tensions escalated into war. In 1992, several months of increased hostilities ended in a successful ceasefire. Much like the Korean war, nothing has been resolved, things just sit in stasis.
Transnistria self-governs, has its own borders, currency and flag. It isn’t communist, it has a multiparty system, but other USSR memories still echo through the country. For example, Transnistria has its own police force, and they are called the KGB!
“You should exercise caution if you travel to Transnistria and avoid getting into difficulty with the Transnistrian authorities. If you do get into trouble, try to contact the British Embassy in Chisinau at an early stage. The embassy will do its best to provide consular help where needed. But in practice this will be very limited” – https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/moldova/safety-and-security
Why Would You Want to Spend One Night in Transnistria?
First and foremost, doesn’t that sound fascinating!!? For most millennials, the USSR was dissolved before they were born, or it is a fuzzy childhood memory. Stepping into a time machine and having even a small sense of what the world must have been like is incredibly interesting.
Why 24 Hours?
We may give off the impression of being free and easy travellers, but when it comes to holidays, I like to be organised. I don’t have an extra week here or there, as work beckons; hence the need for certainty.
You can arrive and depart Transnistria by road, but doing this, you can miss out on getting your entry stamp. When you then try to leave, it will look like you entered the area illegally, and you’ll have to pay a “fine” for not having it. I didn’t fancy trying to make the arrangements whilst we were away, or being shaken down for a bribe. Thus, we needed to catch the train. This only runs once a day, so you catch it in on day one, and out on day two. It was either a fleeting glance or we could spend one night in Transnistria.
The train departed Odessa in the early afternoon. It wasn’t the plushest of carriages but then we were building ourselves up to be swallowed by a new utilitarian world so it wasn’t all that surprising.
Our nerves began to jangle as the train clattered and bounced along the tracks, passing small, stone cottages and vast rolling fields.
The train slowed to a stop and we pushed our foreheads to the windows to get a view down the train’s side. Border guards were climbing aboard. Skittering nerves gave way to a rush of adrenaline. Here it was, our first encounter with the KGB. I envisioned darkened rooms with bright lights shone right into my eyes, maniacal laughter and a slow torturous end. I should really watch less James Bond.
“There are many checkpoints along roads leading into and out of Transnistria. You should avoid taking photographs of checkpoints, military facilities, and security forces or other sights of strategic importance, including buildings used by the de facto authorities and power plants. If you’re caught taking photographs of such installations or personnel you may face arrest or detention.” – https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/moldova/safety-and-security
In the event, the guards looked at our passports with mild interest. They took their time reading them and then passed on through the carriage. We really had let ourselves get overworked, we would be fine.
The train pulled in just over two hours after we left Odessa. We stepped down onto the empty station and breathed in the air of our first breakaway state. Two or three people had also disembarked, but they were clearly locals, quickly picked up by loved ones and driven away. It was just us. We had to get our entry stamps but we couldn’t figure out where to go. The station building was mostly shut, and where we could see was deserted.
We finally found a way into an office of the station building. Two guards sat behind a desk chatting. They gave us an entry form to fill out and we got them stamped. Note: They won’t stamp directly into your passport and if you want to travel freely in the future, this is probably a good thing.
The sky started to darken as evening began to take hold. We started to worry that our pick up wasn’t going to show up. The train was long gone, leaving that sense of abandonment that an empty train platform does so well; so many people heading on without you…. I digress.
(More internal panic)
Eventually an old car came whizzing up to us and thank goodness, it was for us. We piled in and made for Tiraspol Hostel.
The car that dropped us off at the hostel wasn’t the hostel owner or hostel staff, but a friend/taxi/other-car-related-thing. Into the hostel we walked and discovered that the reception of the hostel was just the hall of the house.
On entering we saw one other guy. This wasn’t the hostel staff either, just another person staying over. He welcomed us and we made small talk. Five minutes went by and through the door walks the guy that owns and runs the hostel.
“Have free vodka”, he insisted, and so we chatted some more as I pretended to sip my neat vodka.
Our room was very basic. Tourism was in its infancy and with no competition, there wasn’t much reason to upgrade the facilities. Now, you can find much more luxurious options. However, as we were only staying for one night in Transnistria, a cheap, basic room didn’t bother us. After we dropped off our bags, and forced as many drops of vodka down our throats as possible, it was time to go out into Tiraspol.
Looking Around Tiraspol by Night
First things first, we had to get ourselves some Transnistrian Rubles (yay, soviet style rubles). Credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere so hard cash is your only option here. You can’t exchange your rubles outside of the state so don’t get more than you need. Knowing the cost of the hostel, and giving ourselves a reasonable budget for dinner, we ended up spending everything we changed. This made sure we didn’t need to waste time going back. If you are spending more than one night in Transnistria, you may need to work out a proper budget.
Just outside the money exchange, there was weirdly large number of teenage guys dressed in bomber jackets, and their stunning girlfriends. What is it with the gorgeous women in Eastern Europe, with their flawless physiques, and the poor selection of chaps they have? Making sure that we maintained our English distinctly average physiques, we decided to go for dinner at Andy’s Pizza. It is right on the main street of Tiraspol and so a very easy choice. The Hawaiian was also distinctly average.
Looking Around Tiraspol by Day
It was time to do some serious touristing. Our hostel owner took us out for a free sightseeing tour around Tiraspol. It was quite a grey day, a bit chilly but we loved taking in the city.
Tiraspol’s whole day time vibe was so strange. For a city, there was very little traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. It didn’t feel buzzy and I am sure our pre-formed opinions informed on it quite a bit. We knew that we would be seeing a world that hadn’t changed much for so many years and so we were on the alert for those things much more.
Wandering off the main drag we got a small glimpse into people’s lives. We stopped into a corner shop. It seemed terribly old school for all of the products to be behind the counter. Everyone had to ask for the items they wanted. We loved seeing all the different brands but having spent all our pocket money on some Kvint brandy, we didn’t have any left for Russian sweeties.
I was so nervous about passing through this unknown place, but I am incredibly glad that we decided to spend one night in Transnistria. In the first instance it was seriously fascinating. OK, so it is not actually communist, but it really did feel like a living museum…without the threat of being thrown into a gulag for being an imperialist.
Secondly, who knows how long it will be there as a breakaway state? To be recognised by the world, it must be recognised by Moldova, and I can’t see that happening in near future. They asked Russia to annex them a few years ago, but their mother country said no. That’s awkward! However, you never know!