There is a country that hardly anyone knows about. This land is the last remaining Soviet Republic. Here, time stopped in 1990. In this country, it’s an official state of war and we have been there. Read the travelogue from Transnistria, a unique place in Europe.
Part 1 – Time for departure
– IT IS A VERY STRANGE PLACE!
This was the guide’s comment when I spoke to him over the phone the day before the trip to Transnistria. If he would have the mandate to decide our excursion, he rather wanted to take us on Moldovan wine tasting instead, but now he wasn’t in charge…
In the weeks before we arrived in Moldova, I had read all about the small breakaway republic Transnistria and the, since 1992, on-going war.
After spending a few days in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, it was time for a full day in Transnistria. Almost a whole day anyway. This year the Transnistrian authorities decided that visitors could stay in the country for 10 hours without registration at the Immigration Ministry. At the border, everyone has to be registered to obtain a transit visa.
For staying over 24 hours, you need to fill in a form. The easiest way is to let your hotel fill in this form and then leave it at the police station.
Part 2 – Towards Transnistria with a busy guide
The time is 9:00 AM and we’ll be picked up by the guide in Chisinau. It is possible to go with the regular shuttle from Chisinau to Tiraspol for a fraction of what we paid, but at the Transnistria border, it’s a benefit to having someone Russian speaking.
The guide is clearly stressed. It is noticeable that he agonized for this day but do it anyway for the money. You can hardly say that we forced him to go to Transnistria. Rather it’s he who with constant phone calls to our hotel, nagging about to drive us. He repeats again and again that his car is made in 2011 and have air conditioning.
After a while, we have reached the outskirts of Chisinau and the busy roads. Then it’s time for tens of kilometers in the Moldovan countryside. Driving on the bumpy Moldovan roads and swerve for horse carriages, seems to calm down our guide.
Part 3 – The border to Transnistria
We are now in front of the first passage of the border control between Moldova and Transnistria. Moldova has never recognized the border so officially it does not exist, yet it can not be mistaken that a new country is approaching.
We are fortunate to have taken the “right way” into Moldova. Some travelers had the misfortune to go to Moldova through Odesa in Ukraine. If they then arrive in Moldova through Transnistria, they would not have the required official stamp in their passport. Without the stamp, you will be considered as a criminal and must take the consequences thereafter.
At the border office, we enter a building to register our visit. There is a long queue to the door, and in the front, I see a framed portrait of Transnistria’s President.
Then it was our turn. I had read a lot about this part in forehand. At this moment the Swedish passport could be a disadvantage. Earlier, around 10-15 years ago, some with foreign passports have been taken into the “alien room” at the border office. Inside the room, their pockets were searched, and later on, the guards asked for an administrative fee for non-Moldovans.
Therefore, I had prepared with a € 5 note in my sock. I had heard that it would solve any problems painlessly. An average monthly salary in Transnistria is around 50 euros.
Gratefully, this scenario did not occur. Instead, we got out of the office with a piece of paper in the hand. The paper was small, about the size of a Metro ticket and easy to lose. But don’t do it. If you do so, they won’t let you out when it’s time to go back…
We are back in the car again. The guide looks at me with disapproval and asks what I have in my backpack. I answer that the backpack carries my SLR camera and water. The guide says that it is exaggerated to bring an SLR and because of me, we take an unnecessary risk. I do not care so much, and now we are running towards the first border post. Wizard exchanges a few words with border guards and then we drive forward again.
Part 4 – Roadblocks
Heavily armed soldiers staring at our car. At the side of the road stands an armored vehicle and on the opposite side a machine-gun nest.
I ask the guide what it is about.
– PEACE KEEPING FORCE, STAY CALM AND NO PHOTOS!
It turned out that we would pass the first of a large number of roadblocks. The checkpoints are used by the peacekeeping forces in the region, and these consist of around 6,000 Russian soldiers. In Transnistria, these control points are close together, sometimes only a few kilometers between them.
If you don’t behave suspiciously, it should be no problem to get through. At each checkpoint, it is important to stop the car completely.
Part 5 – Bender
The time is approaching 12 on the day and we drive into the city of Bender. It’s very light traffic in this gray city. The gray concrete is sometimes interrupted by something gleaming monument, which is usually in memory of the war in 1992. They are extremely well-kept and guarded by several soldiers.
Suddenly the car brakes.
In the center of the two-lane road, something is blocking. It’s an obese man. He seems to have started drinking already at dawn. Beside him is a bicycle. The man cannot stand up by himself. He lies in the middle of the road like a beached whale.
Another car stops and attempts to remove the man from the road. The man is big and more people starting to pull him off the road. The traffic can flow freely again.
We turn onto a dirt road and drive between the abandoned factories. Arriving then to a gate covered with steel. The gate is guarded by a police officer. Next to the gate is a small office. Apparently, it is the entrance to the famous fortress of Bender.
The guide asks us to stay in the car. He says that he soon will be back. At the gate stands the police officer and staring at us. Otherwise, you see nobody.
The guide comes back and seems relieved. He says that the fortress is open and we will get a guided tour. First, we need to withdraw more money. The guide wants us to acknowledge that the day trip will be € 20 more expensive. No problem, we say.
The next step is to get more money. Transnistria has its own currency, which is not accepted in any other country because the country doesn’t formally exist. This means that your Transnistrian money never can be exchanged back – not even in Transnistria.
The guide asks us to wait in the car, but give us permission to crank down the windows. He goes into the bank and comes out with a bunch of banknotes. Now we can pay for a guided tour at the site where the “Skirmish at Bender” took place.
Part 6 – The Bender fortress
We are rolling back onto the gravel road towards the fortress. We make a stop at the gate and into the car steps a female guide. Her English is poor and her nervousness is palpable. Most likely, it does not happen every day that she can guide tourists in English.
The gravel road continues behind the gate. We pass more shabby factory buildings before the famous fortress tone up. Our Moldovan guide tells us to leave the car and follow the female guide. He will remain in the car.
Now we are finally in place inside the walls and our guide trying to point which direction the Swedish king Charles XII camp was. Charles XII never got to camp next to the fortress or in the courtyard, instead got the Swedish delegation to camp just below the slope.
To have been a place of historical significance is the fortress of Bender in pretty bad shape. Renovation work going on, but it takes a long time.
After the guided tour, we get the chance to explore the fortress by yourself. Some safety devices on the walls are out of the question. We have the possibility to actually climb quite freely in the towers.
On one side of the castle, you are not allowed to take any pictures. Soldiers with automatic weapons walk back and forth at something that looks like a military building.
Our Moldovan guide smiles when he sees us. He has probably been pretty bored standing by the car in the hot sun, meanwhile, we have gone around. Now we will go towards the capital Tiraspol!
Part 7 – The capital Tiraspol
After leaving Bender we drive on straight roads towards the capital. At the entrance, we encounter the large newly built soccer stadium. Transnistria’s football team is called “Sheriff” like everything else.
“Sheriff” is in the Transnistrian synonymous with soccer, fuel, groceries, restaurants and so on. Monopoly is therefore only the first name when you realize how much the company Sheriff is behind.
It is easy to believe that Sheriff is a company owned by the state, but officially it is not. However, there are ramifications for people in the ruling layer of society in leading positions of Sheriff company.
After passing the soccer stadium the broad avenues dominating. These are made for parades and almost all the streets of Tiraspol is named after communist revolutionaries.
During the trip to the center, you are constantly reminded of where you are. The symbol of the Soviet Union, the hammer, and sickle appearing frequently on placards and poles. Transnistria is the only “country” in the world that still has the hammer and sickle on its flag.
We continue forward at the broad avenue named “25 October”. This is the main street of Tiraspol, with its 150,000 inhabitants. Our first stop will be at the biggest Lenin’s monument in Tiraspol.
Part 8 – In Tiraspol
Opposite the Lenin-monument is a very large war memorial that honors Soviet soldiers who fell at the offensive in Moldova in 1944. Though, the main part of the monument is dominated by name boards of all who fell in the war between Transnistria and Moldova in 1992.
Watching this is Mother Theresa statue in natural size. Large quantities of flowers adorn the boulders.
Below the war memorial is another monument. It’s has a Soviet tank model T-34. I don’t know if it’s a tradition in Transnistria but on this particular day a wedding couple and a photographer posing in front of the T-34.
The Soviet tank T-34 was the Second World War’s most produced model. It’s a common monument in the former Eastern Bloc. But in Transnistria, it’s in a clearly more tidy condition than in other countries.
From a wall ornament Stalin staring at me while taking pictures. From a car staring some policemen. Their heads look small in the large uniform cap from the 1980s. I walk toward the car.
The guide seems happy that we are back in the car where he’s been waiting. He worries that someone will suspect that we are spies, and it can cause problems. Now we go back along the street on October 25 towards the Transnistrian parliament.
When arriving at Parliament one more Lenin staring at us again. Inside here, the power Transnistria is located. It is a parliament with a chamber called “Supreme Soviet”. Supreme Soviet was the name of the highest governing body of the former Soviet states.
On the sides of the parliament building are paintings of people who controlled the area that became Transnistria and also those who are in charge today. In Moldova, the state never mentions Transnistria by name. Officially it is instead called “one area at the river Dniester”.
It’s time for a late lunch. The guide dislikes the capital of Transnistria, most of all, and suggests that we should eat lunch in Bender. Should we disagree?
Part 10 – Food
In Tiraspol are some really nice restaurants with prices equivalent to Western Europe. But you see no guests. The restaurants have nevertheless made the tables and are open. Instead of serving food, some people say that these are alleged to launder money.
We cannot go to any of these restaurants, but instead, we are transported to Andy’s Pizza in Bender. Andy’s Pizza is a kind of Russian McDonald’s and is everywhere. They serve not only pizza. There are many different dishes to choose from. In addition to this, there is also alcohol. A beer on Andy’s costs around € 1.
In Moldova, you can eat a full meal at Andy’s for around 4-5 € and then includes the main course, dessert, and a few beers. Everything is served to the table and the restaurant is fresh.
Before we leave Tiraspol, we wish to visit a few more buildings and purchase a souvenir.
The lunch at Bender is consumed in silence.
Part 11 – Back to Moldova
We leave Bender and drive back toward the Moldovan border. We pass several checkpoints with the peacekeepers, but no one put any notice that will concerning us.
We arrive at the absolute border, and a guard in a blue shirt and a big cap on his head collect our little notes from the time we entered Transnistria. The guard reviewing our notes and passports. The time limit of 10 hours was no problem when traveling by car, and after 6 hours in Transnistria, we leave the breakaway republic and runs through the buffer zone to the Moldovan border control. We show the passports again, and must then get a sign to continue.
Part 12 – “Back to Paradise”
What is this? Our middle age guide suddenly shines into a wide smile and exclaims that we are back in paradise. The guide is changed beyond recognition. He is very talkative and praise us several times.
According to our guide, the trip went so well because we listened to him and did as he said. I do not disagree, but I mostly sit quietly when he talks about both the one and the other.
Back in Moldova, we pay him the fee and then never meet again.
What will happen to Transnistria?
Since 2014 stands Transnistria indirectly on the brink of ruin. The extensive economic support from Russia has been suspended. The war in Ukraine has cost too much money. Transnistria’s population is just over half a million and support from them can be neglected if there are more important priorities.
Welfare cuts have been made in Transnistria, and the population is now at the mercy of Russian oligarchs who own many of the large factories in the republic.
Transnistria has some natural resources, including a mine that supplies a steel mill. In addition, there is a shoe factory and Transnistria is a major supplier of the local drink “Kvint”.
In periods Transnistria found it difficult to export goods to Moldova and Romania. The budget deficit is huge, but the country remains floating with the help of cheap Russian gas.
Which way will it turn?
It is uncertain. When Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, there were better basic conditions when a large majority in the Crimea are ethnic Russians. In Transnistria, it is not as obvious, although the majority places its hopes in Russia.
The problem is that Transnistria also has large groups with Moldovans and Romanians among its citizens, and how these countries will react to a possible Russian invasion remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure. Transnistria is still the world’s best preserved Soviet museum. Hope you learned something about the country you may not know existed?