The curious ‘country’ of Transnistria

In November this year, as part of a longer trip, I traveled through Transnistria. It is located between the southwestern border of Ukraine and the eastern edge of Moldova. To call it a country is, technically, a lie. It is a breakaway state seeking independence from Moldova. A few hundred years ago, when Moldova was part of Romania, and the territory that is now Transnistria was under Russian control. Moldova then separated from Romania and became part of the soviet empire. After the fall of the iron curtain, most of the countries that were previously independent, separated from Russia and around the same time, but  Transnistria saw an opportunity to break away and remain Russian. Legally, no other country recognises its as an independent state, however it has its own currency, its own democratically elected government and its own passport. Although the currency is not exchangeable or obtainable outside of the territory, the government is not acknowledged and the passport is not valid for travel anywhere, citizens must apply for an use a Moldovan passport.

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The border between Moldova and Transnistria

Crossing into Transnistria was relatively pain-free. The queue to the border was about 15 minutes at the border by Bender. The car was only very slightly searched (they only looked in one of our four bags in the boot) and our passports were checked in the hut to the right. There is no stamp, as the state is not recognised, only an entry permit is given, with a time limit. They guards even spoke a little English!

Corruption was not immediately apparent to us, despite having read everywhere that we would definitely be asked for a bribe, we were not once asked to pay money to any guards or police officers. There were, however, other signs that the country is not as free as the west. The economy is dominated by one company – Sheriff. This one firm owns all of the supermarkets, petrol stations, the football team and much more. Rumour has it that no firm is permitted to operate without its permission.

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Sheriff supermarket in Tiraspol

The supermarket we visited was enormous, and all of the shelves were neatly stacked or totally empty. It was bizarre to see such an enormous shop with only a handful of people in it. There was, however, a distinct lack of fresh produce; all of the bread was a few days old (hard as a rock!), all of the available fresh produce was locally sourced.

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Tiraspol at night

The capital of this little state is Tiraspol. The difference between Moldova and Transnistria is almost immediately apparent once you cross the border. Transnistria, while only occupying a tiny sliver of land, roughly 12% of the total area of Moldova, it has an economy roughly 1/6th the size of Moldova’s. Prices in the capital are slightly higher, everything is cleaner, newer and better kept than in Chisinau. There was also a distinct lack of people. The ‘city’ at night has almost no people out and about, although there were still a few bars, restaurants and clubs. We visited a restaurant / lounge called “Mafia”, on the recommendation of our Airbnb Host. Drinks were reasonably priced (around £1.50 for a pint of local beer) and we had sushi for dinner! As it was a Monday night, only one of the three night clubs actually had any people inside, although it was practically empty.

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Dinner in a night club!

It was less of a night club, and more of a lounge with deafening music and the occasional Russian karaoke ballad being butchered by a few hammered locals. Drinks were reasonably priced and even the coat-check was free! My friend Greg decided to make use of the kitchen, and had dinner, while others were dancing behind him! It was a strange experience.

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Uncle Len is still ever watching

The next day we had a look around the city in the daytime and the soviet relics were still ever present. Vladimir Lenin was present in a few places around the city, and the soviet past was very obvious. We stayed in an old soviet apartment block that we’d found on Airbnb. Similar looking concrete apartment blocks litter the city, looking ever shabbier and longing for repair. The ubiquitous Lada is still the most popular car, found all over ex-soviet countries. Just outside our apartment, three were parked.

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Our accommodation was a refurbished ex-soviet apartment, which was actually very comfortable. We found the post on Airbnb, but actually finding the apartment was a bit of a nightmare. Maps in the backwater streets on the outskirts of Tiraspol are a little vague, and often don’t reflect reality. It also didn’t help that our host was nowhere to be seen, none of the neighbours had ever heard of them either! We knocked on what we thought was the right door, and a bewildered Russian speaking elderly lady appeared. After heading back to the centre, we stopped for lunch and some free wifi in Andy’s Pizza, a chain found in both Moldova and Transnistria. We managed to contact the host and they checked us in.

The currency in Transnistria, as previously mentioned, is not obtainable anywhere else. We managed to get some in a supermarket as there happened to be a bureau de change. It’s the first currency I’ve ever seen that has plastic coins!

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I love Tiraspol

So what did I think of Transnistria? I think the photo above sums it up! It was a slightly surreal experience, totally out of the way of normal tourist destinations. I think we may have been the only tourists in the city, perhaps even the country! Sadly due to this lack of tourist traffic, there is a lack of souvenir shops, so all I have to remember the country by is the photos and the leftover currency I have. I hope to return someday, and spend a little longer getting to know the place better.

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