You may or may not have heard of the country of Moldova. It’s a tiny country, only 34,000 square kilometers and with only three and a half million inhabitants, located in Eastern Europe, to the northeast of Romania.
But, that’s not the question right now. The question is – have you heard of Transnistria?
Transnistria is a Moldovan breakaway territory, located between Ukraine and the Dniester River in eastern Moldova, a territory that declared itself an independent state back in 1990, and has basically continued to operate as such despite not being recognized by any other country. The territory of Transnistria has it’s own President, it’s own Parliament and even it’s own currency, Transnistrian rubles. It has its own flag, it’s own license plates and all visitors to the region must pass through a heavily secured border, complete with an immigration and customs inspection.
And while fighting did take place between pro-Moldovan and Russian-backed pro-Transnistrian troops during the War of Transnistria in the early 1990s, things have been quite quiet ever since mid-1992. That is when a ceasefire was called which established a joint force of Russian, Moldovan and Transnistrian troops to control the region’s security, and the agreement has so far held up.
My Visit to Transnistria
Last week, while in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, I decided to visit Transnistria because, well, there is no way I would turn down an opportunity to visit a breakaway region, wherever I may be in the world. So, early one morning I walked down to the bus station with two other travelers I had met and within five minutes, we found ourselves sitting in a minibus, on our way to Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital.
After filling out a form at the border, presenting it to the Transnistrian immigration official and then answering a few questions (how long will you stay, what’s your father’s name, why do you want to visit the region), I returned to the minibus and settled into my seat. There would be another forty-five minutes until we reached Tiraspol and I was eager to catch my first glimpse of this interesting destination that so few people visit.
And of course, as one would naturally expect from a breakaway region of Eastern Europe, my first glimpse involved a massive ferriss wheel, located behind some houses in the first community that we drove through.
During the rest of the drive to Tiraspol, I noticed massive Communist-style power plants, dilapidated, decades-old buses, a brand new football stadium (apparently the Tiraspol team is quite well known and good), a road block manned by a bored Russian soldier, the ruins of what appeared to be an old fortress, crumbling apartment buildings and homes, well-manicured gardens, well-maintained train tracks and more 1970s Ladas and Volgas (Russian cars) than I’ve ever seen before.
And it was generally the same contrast once we arrived in the capital. After being dropped off in front of the train station, the three of us proceeded to spend our time roaming around the town, without any idea of what to do or where to go. However, Tiraspol is very small (only 160,000 people) and we were able to walk up and down every major and somewhat major street in just a couple of hours.
The one thing I also noticed from the moment we crossed the border was that Transnistria is an exceptionally quiet place. I know there are only half a million or so inhabitants in the entire territory, but walking around Tiraspol felt quite eerie at times, with not so many vehicles and not so many people in the street at all.
During our wanderings, everything we came across gave us an interesting, but still very general, view of life in these parts. We passed simple shops, many parks, buildings in major need of repair and a sprinkling of brand-new modern buildings that were usually selling items such as farm machinery or furniture. We would also walk by the occasional soldier and the occasional policeman, but, contrary to what we had heard from other travelers, not one of them ever approached us asking for a bribe. In fact, even though few foreigners make it to Tiraspol, nobody in town really seemed to pay any attention to us at all, and we definitely stood out.
Lunch Time in Tiraspol
When we became hungry, we looked all over but couldn’t find a single place to eat. And so, I stopped a young guy, with long hair tied back in a ponytail, on a street corner and asked him if he spoke English. “Of course” he said and so I asked him if there was a cafe or restaurant nearby.
He told us about one restaurant a couple of blocks away and then, just as I was thanking him for his assistance, he pulled out a color brochure from the plastic bag he was carrying. Just like that he asked me if I would like to buy some art, showing me several photos of paintings from an apparently well-known Moldovan artist. Now I couldn’t tell if he was actually the artist or if he was working for the artist or what the deal was, but he insisted several times that I call the phone number on the back of the brochure in order to place my order.
I thanked him again, shook his hand, and off we went for lunch.
Lunch turned out to be excellent, although it did take the three of us about twenty minutes to place our order. The menu was only in Russian, the one waitress and the one chef only spoke Russian and we had no idea what was on the menu as a result. Eventually, after much laughter, a few slaps of the forehead and a great deal of hand gesturing, we somehow managed to understand that there was a chicken soup and a chicken and potato dish available. So we all quickly ordered these two items, unwilling to spend another twenty minutes deciphering more of the menu’s offerings.
This actually proved to be the situation most of the day as the local population consists of approximately 30% Russians, 30% Ukrainians and 30% Moldovans, so most of the people we met spoke Russian, making it very difficult to communicate. At least my limited Romanian language skills comes in handy when talking with those who speak Moldovan but with Russian, I’m lost.
Of course, language is not the only way to communicate and throughout the day there were plenty of smiles and handshakes exchanged. But I would have been very interested to dive into actual conversation with those who live in this territory in order to learn a little more about life in Transnistria, something I simply was not able to do.
Final Impressions From My Visit
Parts of the town, and its outskirts, seemed quite gloomy while other parts seemed a bit more cheerful. There was a good amount of construction and road-building taking place where it was common to find ancient trucks being used alongside sparkling, brand-new bulldozers. One moment you get the sense that Transnistria is much poorer than the rest of Moldova (which is the poorest country in Europe) and the next minute, you see all of the road construction, and the high quality of the roads being created, and you think the opposite. Similarly, one minute you think you’re in 2012 and then you turn a corner and you would swear you just went back in time 20 or 30 years.
And while the people I did interact with were polite, their faces generally remained expressionless most of the time, almost as if the entire city was a movie set and everyone on the streets was an ‘extra’ in some film.
Transnistria certainly didn’t feel dangerous, even though many travelers seem to be afraid to visit. While it might be a breakaway territory, so much time has passed since it did break away that a certain way of life has definitely been established, and people just go about their business as they do anywhere else on the planet. And with so few soldiers around, at least in Tiraspol, the chances of more fighting taking place any time soon seems quite slim.
As a result, while there really isn’t much to do in Tiraspol, I still think it’s a fascinating place to spend a day for any traveler who visits Moldova. Will such a visit give you a full understanding of the current situation in the breakaway territory? Not really, and in all honesty, I left Transnistria that evening only slightly more educated about the situation than when I had arrived.
But hey, it’s a breakaway territory nonetheless and how many times do you get an opportunity to visit such a region!
(Map of Transnistria by Serhio)
Have you been to this region? Have you heard of it? Would you travel there?