TiraspolAugust 30, 2018 in Moldova ⋅ ☀️ 27 °C
Transnistria represented everything I love about travel, that addictive feeling of awe and wonder, where you lose yourself in a different and alien world. If travel is a drug, chasing that addiction has become ever harder as the world contracts, caught between my growing body of experiences on one side and increasing homogeneity on the other. Yet Transnistria was a glorious hit of that ever elusive high, a place like no other place I have ever been.
A land of mystery and contradictions. A final Soviet enclave, clinging desperately to the glory days of communism, yet almost entirely owned and controlled by a single private company called Sherriff, which is everywhere and is everything, owned by an ex-KGB oligarch of who only one known photo exists. A place where the KGB still exists and corruption reigns supreme, but where seemingly open and free democratic elections happen every 4 years. A land with one of the lowest GDP’s in the world and in dire economic straights, yet with a complete lack of the overt poverty and homelessness you see in either Moldova or the Ukraine on both its borders. A country that has lost 50% of its population since it declared independence 25 years ago and where 98.5% of budget revenue is spent on pensions leaving the rest of the tab to be picked up by an ever growing budget deficit. An economy that is based on 3 major ex-soviet industrial plants, running on Russian gas from the east and exporting power, textiles and steel to the west, with the beautiful irony that Transnistria pays nothing for the gas, because Russia doesn’t ‘officially’ recognise Transitria (despite having a permanent military presence there) and are thus billing Moldova for the gas (an unpaid ‘bill’ that now exceeding $5 billion) - Putin is nothing if not an ingenious bastard. A regional soccer powerhouse, with the best stadium in Eastern Europe, which houses the Sherriff football club, which plays unbelievably acrymonious sounding games in the Moldivian league and winning the last 12 of the last 13 years.
It’s best to think of Transnistria like Crimea in 2038. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova started flexing its nationalistic muscle, forcing the population to speak Romanian. The local Russian population, which had been forcibly resettled there through the Soviet’s extensive efforts to increase Russian influence throughout the region and as a result of Moldova being a Soviet manufacturing centre requiring a continual supply of Moscow educated engineers, took exception to this and in 1992 rose up. The war lasted about a year and was largely a stalemate, until the Russians intervened as ‘peace keepers’ and never left. No peace treaty was ever signed and no UN state has ever recognised Transnistria’s sovereignty, however, you can visit the South Ossetia embassy in the Capital, Trisapol, if you ever feel the need for a visa. Today, the uneasy truce remains, the international community still recognises it as part of Moldova and you won’t find it on any official maps, but this doesn’t stop Transnistria from having it’s own heavily militarised border (complete with pill boxes and tanks), it’s own military (backed by a very heavy presence of Russian troops), it’s own central bank and currency (including plastic coins) and it’s own parliament and president.
For us, Transnistria could easily have become a whistle stop tour, a passport stamp (well a visa slip, as a stamp would invalidate your passport) and a cool dinner story, if it weren’t for Roman. When I was first planning on Transnistria all evidence suggested that all that was possible was a 24 hour visa, with an extension to 48 hours if registered with a hotel. With such limited time I explored the best possible ways to see as much as possible, which led me to the only American in Transnistria, Tim, and his local sidekick, Roman. Tim offered us Roman’s services for the day to show us around, which was unbelievably fortuitous and single handily made Transnistria a highlight of the trip. Roman and Tim appear to be the main local media fixes and logistics specialists in the country and Roman was an awesome tour guide, a young local who speaks excellent English and the son of the former body guard of the first Transnistria President. As a sign of the older generations indoctrination, he also told us at length of his grandmother’s repeated and fervent warnings of the dangers of the west and glory of the past.
This was also no ordinary tour, after meeting us in the morning, we started by doing a lap of Tiraspol’s Main Street, where Roman seemed to take our lead as to where to go and what to see next. A loop took us to Transnistria’s university, which is frozen in all it’s Soviet glory, and where Roman warned us we may get harassed by security, but on this particular day they were chill, which may have been because it was the university’s admissions day, so the place was filled with prospective students and their parents trying to secure a spot, probably with the help of a healthy bribe. When I asked whether this is where Roman went to school, he laughed and explained that no and that the corruption is so ingrained that it was impossible to pass without paying off the lecturers and administration, which, of course, makes the expensive piece of paper completely useless at the end of the day. This corruption runs deep, Roman himself avoided compulsory military service by paying off a doctor $1000 (in a country where the per capita GDP is a bit over $2000) to falsify a medical exam.
He then took us down the main drag, past the Sheriff football club’s fan shop, the prominent office of Putin’s Russian political party, a fantastic little soviet book store (complete with side by side photos of Stalin, Putin and Transnistria’s current president), the flea market, parliament (with the obligatory statue of Lenin out front) and the memorial to the 1992 war of independence. Somewhat annoyingly, Transnistria’s Independence day falls on 2 September, which I only realised a few days previously and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t make our dates work to ensure we were in Transnistria for the big day. This hurt, but the city was in full swing, sprucing up the place by painting curbs and fountains, lining the main drag with Transnistria and Russian flags and the Presidents’s podium had been set up, which provided an unmissable photo opportunity.
Roman also took us to the main city markets, which were amazing. Made even better by the villager stall holders who were full of smiles and insistent on us tasting their wares and posing for photos. The meat market was particularly impressive, where Roman took us to the back corner, where the biggest, scariest looking Russian dudes stood waiting by their enormous butcher blocks for the next beast to be brought in to be butchered. The size of these guys meant we were hanging back and giving them plenty of space, but they called us over, asking Roman where we were from and insisting we take photos of them and Sophia wielding huge axes and sides of meat.
After exhausting the city sights, we jumped on a bus and headed to a village of 1000 people 20 minutes out of town. As a testament to the ridiculousness of Soviet economic decision making, this tiny village had in the middle of it a massive community hall (again complete with original Lenin statue), where, by chance, we caught a class of young ballerinas, who were only too happy to let us sit quietly in the corner watching their lesson and pinching ourselves that we hadn’t just been teleported backwards in time 40 years. This was followed by another time capsule, the village store. Manned (womanned?) by the loveliest babooshka, who, somewhat surprisingly, waxed lyrical (well translated by Roman) about politics, the craziness of man and her desire for everyone to just get along, while plying us with assorted local snacks (mostly of the dried and smoked fish variety), beer and cognac (which is the Transnistria’s equivalent lent of Cuban cigars, highly regarded around the world, and very hard to get, except when you are in Transnistria, where it is less than $10 a bottle). The village also boasted the largest and richest Orthodox monastery we had seen so far, a place so big and wealthy that it has two seperate churches, one for winter and one for summer. It also had extensive vegetable gardens that Roman explained was free for the villages to come and take what they want when they want.
Back in Tiraspol, I had my second minor celebrity experience of the trip as we were joined by two Polish travel vloggers (Bart and Tomas) who were in town filming their next vlog. Bart had made his name filming vlogs in Venezuela, amassing over 200,000 subscribers, which is very impressive for a Polish language vlog. From Tiraspol we headed out to another village, which is the old workers accomodation for an abandoned collective farm. I had always pictured collective farms as basic and primitive, but this place was mind blowing. The accomodation blocks gave the first indication of the scale as we went inside and explored the large crumbling apartment blocks, went to the local store for some homemade wine and had a really special moment taking a breath and hanging out in the old playground, watching the local kids running amok and the old men playing dominos. From there it was on to the farm’s shell of a university, which was built to educate the next generation of farmers. The building has been torn apart for anything of value, but from the vestiges of what remain, this was obviously once a grand and ornate building for the Soviets, full of intricate tiles and mosaics. A lone security guard on a bike prevented us from going any further into the grounds of the farm, but we got a sense of the farms scale by the regular sentry towers that you could see going off into the distance. These towers were fitted with spotlights and manned by soldiers, not to keep people out, but to prevent the workers inside the farm from stealing crops. The piece de resistance though was the power plant. This farm had its very own power plant with two turbines built especially for it. The place was mind blowing, a testament to the insane soviet economy model and the ultimately futile industrial might that came with it.
Back in town once more it was time for dinner and drinks, before Roman, loaded up with bottles of cognac and coke, took us on a romantic night river cruise up the Dniester river. We were joined by three other local girls for the trip, where we were serenaded with Russian techno music blasted at 11, while drinking cognac and coke out of plastic cups and trying desperately to distract the drunk locals from causing mischief to themselves and others around them.
It’s always a risk to build up expectations of a place. The entire reason I am back in Eastern Europe this year was to go to Transnistria, and this is where Sophia was joining me based on my overly excited descriptions, so there was even more riding on a destination than normal and I can’t say I wasn’t a little concerned. In the end though it exceeded my expectations. This place is beyond wild, a place that exemplifies and yet simultaneously defies generalisations. A place where I feel we barely scratched the surface, left me begging for more and memories for a lifetime.Read more