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?
I visited Transnistria with my two kids in July 2017. Drove with friends from Chisinau. It took about 15 minutes at the border because a minibus had just arrived, but otherwise it was quick. If you plan to stay over night it’s more complicated. We all have US passports.
It was easy to change money in Tiraspol. Also was able to use Moldovan Lei at several places.
I recommend visiting Bender Castle which is on the route to Tiraspol. And two key transport points there were Russian soldiers.
Does Transnistria have a hotel and do you know what the entry requirements are for an American and Armenian citizen, if we wish to visit for one week?
I know for Americans you can just show up, go through immigration and enter the region. And there is a hostel and a couple of hotels there. Not sure the details for Armenians though.
I just wanted to thank you for inspiring me to visit Moldova and Transnistria. I went there about three years ago after reading this post and I am now back in the country. It’s very interesting to see how very little has changed since my last visit, and how I still like the country a lot. This time my visit included cycling through Transnistria and I would definitely recommend it, the roads in Moldova are not too cyclist friendly but Transnistria was great. And just for the look on the face of the officer at the border when she saw our bikes, it made it worthwhile!
Thanks again for the inspiration!
Hello everyone ! I am from Romania and i would like to explain to u some facts… First moldovan language doesnt existe, Romania and Moldova are one people, one language, only politics separated us… It s like the east and west germany if u like… Transnistria its nevertheless a breakaway region backed my russian army from 92 so without the russians never of this could happen… Please visit Moldova and Romania and never forget about the danger that Russiia is to humanity … Best regards from Constanta, Black Sea
I am thinking of moving to Moldova /Transnistria with my son-what are your thoughts?
Hey Kelly – There’s not much I can say…obviously I’m not sure of the reasons why you would move there so only you would know if that’s the right call or not.
I loved Transnistria. It is safe and the city of Tiraspol is clean with no beggars. They have a nice sandy beach at the river close to the parliment building, great for swimming. It was hard to find a souvenir shop but i found one by the blue medical building. The Transnistria border patrol was profession and efficient. I will definitely go back there. I only visited Tiraspol. How long does the train take to get to Chisinau from Tiraspol. It also appears thar people in Transnistria have a higher standard of living than in Moldova. Moldovans i talked to agreed.
About 2 hrs
Enjoyed your post. If you or any of your readers are interested, Dubassari and Ribnitsa are worth visiting also. They are not as built up as Tiraspol’ and Dubassari, at least, still shows the signs of the 90 – 92 war. I have been to Transnistria several times, each time for extended periods, and am constantly learning more about the country. If you are lucky, you may meet some Moldavians and be invited to their house and subject to overwhelming hospitality and food. Also, try to get to the national park where the President’s summer dacha is located. It is very scenic and unspoiled. Best wishes to all.
Hey Brod – Thanks for sharing that information. I hope to get up there again myself at some point and visit a little more of the region.
I stumbled across your website to find out you have been in Transnistria too. I can see you only went on a day trip, something that unfortunately many visitors do. I spent a few nights in Transnistria while Couchsurfing and had a great adventure and insight into the country. I also chose to go hitchhiking. I wrote about my adventures on my own website, have a look at it here if you may like. It offers also a portion of historical perspective, something I kind of miss in your piece. Nevertheless it was a good read and interesting to note you also found the streets a bit empty and eerie and people’s faces emotionless!
Thanks for reading Bart. And I’ve actually been back to Transnistria a couple of more times now. Haven’t spent the night there yet but hopefully will at some point.
Transnistria seems like an OK place …….definitely safer than parts of the USA or France …but, considering the demographics, that’s to be expected!
As a person living in Romania, I can relate to the friendliness of Eastern Europeans in general. The problem with Transnistria isn’t what happens to tourists, but rather how the government treats some of its citizens, particularly those who own or used to own businesses.
If you’re a regular citizen, you have very little to worry about, since most of the problems in the country particularly target business owners. It’s reminiscent of the Soviet era, where tourists were delighted visiting Russia, but the delight wasn’t shared by the farmers, manufacturers, and retailers.
If you ever come by Oradea, let me know. I’d love to have a chat! 🙂
Hey Earl –Greetings from Minsk. It is Oct 5, and I will be in Chisnau next week, after Vilnius. I’m planning to take a day trip to Transnistria on Oct 11. Plan to take the train from Chisnau (ok?). Do you have any “orienteering” tips? Like what direction to take from the train station, how to get local money (I get a set of local money wherever I go), how to find the restaurant, etc. etc. Love your website. Hoping to join your Yemen/Sorocco trip coming up. Any spaces left?
Hey Paul – I wouldn’t take the train. Minibuses leave from the main bus station in Chisinau every twenty minutes and the ride is only around 1.5 hours or so. It’s much faster and more comfortable and it will drop you off at the train station in Tiraspol. From there, just ask anyone for the center and it will be around a 10 minute walk. The city is quite small and if you spend an hour walking around, you’ll stumble upon everything you need. There are money exchange places scattered around the center too.
And yes, there are spaces left on the Socotra tour but bookings will close tomorrow actually as I need to know exactly how many people are on the trip by then in order to confirm some reservations. So, let me know!
Hey, Earl — just came back from a day trip to Tiraspol. What a great experience! I felt fully safe at all times. Border control was no hassle, just fill out the form top and bottom, and don’t loose the bottom half before you cross the border on the way back. Border staff were very professional. The parts of the city that I saw were much cleaner and well maintained than I expected. Lots of things to take pictures of. Currency exchange booths are all over, charge no commission, and have a narrow split. Be sure your currency bills are fresh, becuse they will reject worn or torn ones. Check out the bustling marketplace which is rather clean and orderly (a couple blocks off main street). Hint – if you take a picture of a main government building like the parliament, a military guard may come running out and say “no pictures”. But the guy who stopped me was friendly, didn’t ask me to erase any pictures, and then gave me the tip that they like people to take pictures of the statue of Lennin in front of the building and if the building happens to be in the background, oh well. At a bus stop, I asked a couple teenagers if they spoke English and could give me directions. So Dima and Kate spent an hour with me taking me around, and practicing their English. They said they are learning English in school and want to be an interpreter (sorry, not good enough yet), and I was their first native English speaker who spent time with them. I gave them my business card, and they couldn’t wait to tell their English teacher. Probably was an odd scene with two teenagers, and me, 61 years old, white hair and a goatee. If I had it to do over, I would stay another day (don’t forget to register if staying more than a day trip)
Hey Paul – Thanks for sharing your experience and glad that it went so well. Your experiences are very similar to mine there although I didn’t meet two English-speaking teens. It sure would be a neat place to spend 2-3 days.
Good day Earl, I have been following your Blog for a year or so now. I am fascinated by Romania since I have meet a few peoples from Romania while travelling. Very friendly. I enjoy every Blog you post, interesting, captivating and well written. On your last Blog about the Tour in Romania-Moldova-Transnistra you mentioned to Alex that you are planning another tour in this region in June 2014 …. Is that exact ? I may be interested to join if that’s the case.
Please let me know. Have a great day … Gilbert.
Wandering Earl says:
February 27, 2013 at 11:56 am
Here is your answer to Alex:
“”Hey Alex – It’s not that we see nothing, but as tourists who can really only stay for one day, there isn’t much to do in Tiraspol except walk around. I enjoyed my time in Transnistria and will be bringing people there as part of my Romania/Moldova tour in June”.
Hey Gilbert – I’m still working on the details for some of the tours in 2014 but once they are all finalized I’ll be announcing it all right here on the blog!
I visited the region as well under very similar circumstances (staying in Chisinau, wanted to explore a breakaway as I was already there, slightly scared by negative reviews and official travel warnings etc). What struck me was Jo remarkably ordinary life in Transnistria seemed. Yes it is very much an ex-Soviet region but so is Moldova and many th eastern European countries. The biggest learning is how people just want to get on with their life, whether they’re in Syria, Iraq, Russia, the USA or a breakaway region as a Transnistria, life is just life and we all just want to do the same thing; a safe home, somewhere to socialise with friends and the security to go about their daily business. An interesting and eye-opening experience, but I will definitely explore the region further during my next visit to Chisinau.
I know some things about Transnistria (not much). But there is 1 thing i know for shoure. We are all nothing but a bunch of hypocrites (and i am talking about our governments). We give the right to kosovo for declaration of independence but in the same time we say no to Transnistria. Why dont we recognise them ? Including my country (Greece).
You do not see in Transnistria nothing. I live here, but I have visited a lot of countries as a tourist. The standard of living is actually higher here than, for example, in Bulgaria or Moldova. I say this objectively, because I really do not here too local.
Hey Alex – It’s not that we see nothing, but as tourists who can really only stay for one day, there isn’t much to do in Tiraspol except walk around. I enjoyed my time in Transnistria and will be bringing people there as part of my Romania/Moldova tour in June.
In response to your question, South Ossetia in the north of Georgia (on the other side of the Black Sea) also claims independence.
They too first laid this claim back in 1990, and after conflict in the early 90’s, there been sporadic fighting over the intervening years.
They at least have 5 UN member states that do recognise them and if you’re after another example of a ‘country’ in this position, Somaliland in the north of Somalia has very valid claims to be recognised as an independent nation.
Thanks for that info Chris and I’m actually hoping to make it to Somaliland over the next few weeks if all goes well.
Hey dude, Having followed your blog intermittently over the last few years I have only just realised when reading this that I actually briefly met you in the hostel in Chisinau! How completely out of place was that cafe with the cat on the wall in Tirasol lol?
Hey Adam – Good to hear from you and yes, that cafe was very bizarre. Oddly enough though, I met some other travelers about a month ago who had eaten at the very same place about a week after we were there! Hope you’re doing well and having a good start to 2013!
[…] A short while late and I was off to Moldova where I spent time in the capital city of Chisinau, as well as an interesting day in the breakaway region of Transnistria. […]
I’d heard of the area as it is mentioned in the book The Game. I would like to visit it one day.
@tropkiwi – I did not know it was mentioned there but that’s another interesting way to have heard about the region.
I’ve never heard of that area. The pictures make me want to visit, and your story makes me want to learn Russian first 🙂 Thinking I need to add this area to my must-see list!
Hey Michele – Learning Russian would be ideal for a visit to Transnistria!
Fascinating read about an area I had no knowledge of. Excellent.
Thanks Lane and believe me, I knew practically nothing at all about the area either before I went.
The word Transnistria brought up memories of a talk I went to once given by the mother of a friend of mine.
She lived in the area when the Romanians declared the region of Transnistria during WW II after the Germans overran it during Operation Barbarossa against the Russians.
She described how an SS officer pulled her out of the line of Jews being herded to the concentration camps. He didn’t believe she could be Jewish because she was blond, so he pulled her out of the line.
She was hidden by families for the rest of the war, married an Englishman, moved to Canada and eventually to Israel.
Hey David – That’s quite a way to learn about this region…what a story. And she was definitely a lucky one as Chisinau was almost 60% Jewish at the time and of course, that was reduced to practically nothing.
Thanks for that information, Earl – I didn’t know about the region being so heavily populated by Jews.
Sad days, they were.
Hey David – I had no idea either before the trip, and I’m Jewish!
I’ve never heard of it before, but I’m definitely intrigued now! Eastern Europe seems absolutely fascinating to me.
Hey Andrea – This is a fascinating region and a shame that so few travelers make it over to this part of Europe!
Buna ziua draga Earl,
I came across your web site. How lovely to get to see the world in all its splendor.
Enjoy your staying in Romania. Hope you get to see Timisoara; I loved that city when I worked and lived there back in 1986 through 1995. Right now I am no longer in Romania.
Take care of you, stay healthy and happy.
Bunz ziua Miha!
I have visited Timisoara twice so far and I do enjoy that city very much. It was actually the first place I visited in Romania when I first arrived last year from Belgrade 🙂
Thanks for the comment and if you ever make it back to Romania, do let me know!
Earl, this kind of travel is really hard core in one sense. Everything works except the language barrier. I’ve been in similar language barrier places but it always seems to work out OK at the end of the day. I’m wondering if you couldn’t have hired the one guy who spoke English, for the afternoon. At least read the menu for you. Hind-sight.
Although I’m also not familiar with this “country”, or even this part of the world, if given the chance, I would certainly get on the bus to see what I could see! Even your day trip could have turned out altogether different if you’d gone the next day. Who knows what you may have run into. You just never know unless you give it a chance!
Yes, it might be a good idea to befriend or even pay someone from that place who speaks English to travel around with you to show you the place and culture in depth. Language-barrier problem solved. I’m sure many people there would be more than happy to show someone around and translate for a certain sum every day. It shouldn’t have to be expensive since most people there only make $300 per month or less and would certainly welcome a nice side income.
Hey Andy – Well, the problem would be half-solved as a Russian speaking person wouldn’t be able to help with the Moldovan-speaking people I met in many cases and vice versa! And due to the lack of tourism there, I think it would take quite a bit of work to find someone willing to take you around. You would just have to stop people in the street and see if you get lucky…or maybe there is someone on Couchsurfing. I never thought of it before but perhaps there is!
Hey Steve – Maybe I could have hired the guy to help us out but in the end, I knew that we would manage with everything. And it turned out that his English was quite basic so it might not have helped too much anyway.
Glad you would visit this region if you had the chance…I really think you would enjoy your time there, being in a place without any other foreigners around!
I’ve never been to that region or heard of the small land. Wandering around a non touristy place that .0001% (wild guess) of North Americans have heard of can only be interesting. I’m curious about costs of lodging and the chicken soup, chicken and potatoes.
@EarthDrifter – Cost of lodging is a tough one as few people stay over night. The main reason is that if you do stay more than one day in the area, a lot more paperwork is involved and you have to get registered with the local police. It’s quite a hassle from what I’ve heard and in the end, there’s not much to do for more than one day. But as for food, a meal consisting of chicken soup, chicken and potatoes and two beers, at what was definitely one of the nicest restaurants in town, cost 6 Euros each. (And if you do want to stay overnight, there is apparently one hostel in Tiraspol.)
I have actually been there for about 4 hours, its definitely a strange place going through a border crossing in the middle of a sovereign state. There was some very interesting statues and a big tank on the way into the town. There wasn’t to much to see after about 30 mins, so we went for food. Very interesting place none the less and I’m glad I went.
Hey Bryan – Definitely an interesting collection of statues and tanks on the drive from the border to Tiraspol and even though there isn’t anything specific to visit, even a few hours gives us a glimpse of a place that few people see and few people know anything about. And that makes it worth it to me!
Hi Earl – Thanks to a close friend, I have disproportionate amount of knowledge about Romania and it’s dubious breakaway provinces that call themselves countries. I also know why those places are filled with simpletons who ask you questions like ‘is there a water pump in your village’. I am merely quoting ofcourse, none of the adjectives used above can be attributed to me and I agree that the use of such language is impolite; plus I like the Transnistrian version of plum alcohol (Tuica?) so how can I not be happy seeing pictures of a rebel province! mulțumesc, Priyank
Hey Priyank – Transnistria is the only place in the region that declares itself it’s own country as far as I know. Do you know of others? But as for Tuica, yes, that is a nice alcohol they have in these parts and my local friends all share the bottles they receive from their parents or grandparents who make the Tuica out in the countryside each year 🙂
Never heard of this break-away region before. Now my curiosity, and your post, make me wanna visit. Thanks for sharing.
I actually know about Transnistria only because on my phone I have an app “flags quiz”… so I even know how the flag looks like! But I had no idea about everything else. It doesn’t seem like there’s much going on there, but of course it’s a very interesting place to see and I wouldn’t miss it if I were in the area!
Hey Giulia – That’s an interesting way to find out about a place! And yes, it is interesting, even just to walk around for a few hours as the atmosphere is quite unique.
I’ve never heard of that region, but it would be interesting to travel there!
Visited Transnistria in July. I agree with you, it seemed really peaceful! In comparison to Chisianau, Moldova where we came from. Not really much to see in Transnistria, but for westerners it is going to be a nice experience to see the statues of Lenin and Soviet heroes which were removed from other cities of the former Soviet Union.
I must admit that I have heard of Transnistria but have never known anything about it until reading your article just now. From the photos you’ve taken it looks like many parts of regional Russia, that is underdeveloped in parts and a throwback to the Soviet days. It’s interesting that you mentioned the ethnic mix because it reminds me of that article you did about that little town in Bosnia that is entirely run by the Croats. I think there could be some parallels to draw there. I liked seeing the picture of the trolley bus. They use to have those in Australia in Perth some decades ago before car ownership really took off.
Hey Matthew – There are some parallels there but I think in Transnistria, there is definitely a lot more harmony among the three main groups of people. It definitely seemed a lot more peaceful and without that slightly tense feeling in the air.