Advantages Unusual travel destination, crazy but kind locals, kvint
Disadvantages Kvas, time-consuming entry process
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
Of all the places I planned to visit on my three month trip around the black Sea this summer, I was looking forward to none more than Tiraspol, the capital of a tiny breakaway Republic in the east of Moldova. I have always enjoyed visiting unusual places and the crazy republic of Transdniestr really fits the bill. It even has its own currency which is totally worthless outside its own borders.Moldova is lucky enough (from my twisted point of view) to have two breakaway regions but Gaugazia in the southwest is more moderate than Transdniestr and in return for being quite reasonable is allowed to be fairly autonomous.
Transdniestr is a different kettle of fish however. It is a state not recognized by any other country in the world, not any international body; not even the Russians who back it financially (unofficially of course) recognize its existence. It became independent (or so it thinks) in 1991 not long after Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union because of the demands of a high number of ethnic Russians living in the region who feared that their rights would be overlooked in a future Moldovan constitution.The move was not without violence; many died as a result of the declaration and the situation remains uneasy. In fact, the day we arrived there had been a blast on a bus in the centre of town in which two died and several more were injured. The situation, though, is largely safe for foreigners; the incident on the bus was very rare.
HOW DO I GET THERE?Most people get to Transdniestr from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. All roads may lead to Rome but in Moldova they lead to Chisinau and it is virtually impossible to make any journey within the country without venturing into the capital. Regular minibuses ply the route between Chisinau and Tiraspol, via Bendery (Transdniestr's second "city").
To get into Moldova EU, US and Canadian citizens need a visa which is best applied for in advance but can be gained at a couple (but not all) of the land border crossings. All of these are on the border with Romania. Although there is a border crossing with Ukraine on the east, visas cannot be issued here since this is an entry to Transdniestr and those wishing to go on to Moldova afterwards would be turned away unless they had a multi-entry visa or had acquired a visa in advance.When you get to the border - just a shabby barrier and a shed - a soldier gets on the bus (I am presuming you are not driving) and has a look around at the passengers. Identity cards and passports are then handed over for checking. Foreign visitors are then asked to disembark and enter the shed where the soldiers will ask to know how much money you have on you. This is not unusual; may countries want to be sure you have enough money to cover your stay when you cross the border. In Transdniestr, however, they do this to decided how much to "tax" you. There isn't actually any fee for coming into or going out of Transdniestr (though you do pay a small fee to register your visa at the office in Tiraspol) but the soldiers will try to make you think there is. My tip is to hide most of your money and leave only a token amount in your wallet or pocket - Transdniestr is cheap so it will look believable.
They wanted quite a bit from us and we were reluctant to pay so I tried to explain that I would only give the money in exchange for a receipt. At this point they decided they didn't know any more English and when I tried to look up the word in my Russian phrasebook they tried to take it off me. By this point everyone had got off the bus and was getting some fresh air while they waited to hear how much we'd been taxed. I opened the window of the hut and shouted "Does anyone speak English?" at which three young women rushed forward. The alarmed soldiers, seeing that help was on its way, thrust the phrasebook back at me and told us to get on the bus. When the people on the bus heard that we had got away without paying anything they all cheered loudly!When we got off the bus, one of the English-speaking girls offered to show us the way from the stop into town and through her we got to learn lots more about this odd place. Her mother was bewildered by our rucksacks - she couldn't understand why we would carry so much when one could buy everything one needed in Transdniestr. She couldn't understand that we had come from the UK to travel around the Black Sea and so needed all kinds of things that we would not wish to buy new. She seemed very anxious to demonstrate that Transdniestr has what other countries have and she kept pointing at things she wanted us to photograph so that we might be able to show people at home the things she was proud of.
But I digress…..About half a mile down the road, the bus stops again at the official border crossing and foreigners must alight once more, this time to complete a short form which is stamped and you are given instructions to go to register your visa the following day if you are staying more than twenty four hours. If you are staying less than twenty four hours you need to register your visa at the police station as soon as you arrive.
Where can I stay?It is entirely possible to spend a day in Tiraspol and get a feel for the place but it is much more fun to stay at least one night. Most budget visitors stay at Hotel Druzhba, a former Soviet affair that hasn't really stepped out of the Soviet era. It is staffed by jobsworth middle-aged ladies who have no customer service skills or common sense. The floor lady doesn't communicate with the receptionist so the receptionist gives you a room and when you find the floor lady she tells you the room is not in use (at least half the rooms in this kind of hotel will be out of use at any time). The floor lady will nbot use her common sense of course and find another room; she will make you go back to reception for the receptionist to issue you with another room number ….fingers crossed.
The rooms have all seen better days and so far none at the Druzhba have been renovated like in other ex-State hotels. There are about ten categories of room available and the price of each varies not only according to whether you are from Transdniestr, Russia or Moldova, but according to how much the receptionist likes you. There is a story among backpackers that a Greek man managed last year to pay the equivalent of about $3.00 US for his room. Is it true? Nobody is sure but if it is he is about the only guest who paid the true value of the accommodation! Seriously, the rooms are clean and security is good; the night receptionist sleeps on a saggy sofa in reception and wakes up when you rattle the doors. If you can pay about $14.00 US for a double room you've done OK.There is a rather glitzy hotel over in Bendery that might suit some peole better; its run by a guy called Sheriff - ever heard of the football club Sheriff Tiraspol? He owns that too. Oh, and just about everything in Bendery which has more new buildings than you can shake a stick at. When you see ordinary people repairing their roofs with scraps of corrugated iron it makes you pretty angry.
A few enterprising individuals find accommodation for visitors and will also help you register your visa. Be aware that if you are staying the night, you will probably have to go to the police station for an interim registration before you can get into your accommodation. You will then present this to the hotel or property owner to get your key. We met some guys who were renting an apartment through a young woman who can also arrange drivers and sightseeing tours; the standard was basic but sufficient enough to be clean, comfortable and have basic cooking facilities. The hotels always have vacancies, there is no need to book in advance. For apartments you need to make arrangements in advance as this is one place where people do not wait for the buses to arrive full of back-packers.
Well, to be honest, not a great deal. However, you could fill in around three days pottering around, maybe seeing a village, registering your visa, drinking kvint, looking at terrific Soviet-era public buildings and meeting the locals. The Dniestr river runs through the town and makes a pleasant place to stroll; a girl we met said that people often bathe in the river although she would never do so because she suspected it was not very clean.Meeting locals is really the key to getting the most out of Tiraspol. And to do that you have to put out of your mind everything you may have heard about Transdniestr being populated by gun runners and Russian mafia bigwigs. There is no denying that this is true to a large extent but to take a personal stand against such obvious corruption would be to miss out on some great opportunities. Just don't ask anyone where they get their money from!
Fans of Soviet-era architecture will be able to spend time admiring loads of grey and grim (but sometimes quite impressive) public buildings but will always be turned away from entering them. There are always plenty of soldiers on the streets but you never get the feeling that things could turn nasty. Not having much in the way of employment, many in are in the army but here they go to work in the morning and go home in the evening. It's really just a job creation scheme.So long as you are not picky there are plenty of places to eat and drink. Some are quite smart and modern (guess who owns them!) some are quite divey but OK nonetheless. Food is a cross between Moldovan/Romanian (see my Moldova review) and Russian but inclines more towards the Russian with staples like"varenky" and "pelmeni" (a bit like large ravioli) appearing everywhere. One or two places are very good with some unusual dishes such as ostrich that you would probably never expect to see in a place like Tiraspol. Prices are pretty cheap and those on a very tight budget will not have any problems.
For a real taste of Transdniestr, though, one must try "kvint". It's a rather superb brandy and, since Transdniestr does not exist, one which you can only buy over there. Our new friends taught us that it's best drunk in sips, alternating with sips of fresh orange juice and they were quite right. Kvint has quite a kick and is a truly memorable experience. We liked it so much we stopped off at the kvint factory shop to buy some to take home. Alas, one can not visit the factory itself - this would make a rather good tourist attraction.Kvas is another drink that is popular in Transdniestr, no doubt because of the Russian influence since it is relatively unheard of in neighbouring Moldova or Romania. It is brewed from rye and is only vaguely alcoholic, a fact that makes it popular with the whole family. It is served from metal casks on the street and a huge lorry comes each day to top them up. It tastes not unlike root beer but, since it made me ill in Armenia, I chose not to try it again in Tiraspol.
DO I RECOMMEND A VISIT?Of course, it very much depends on what you like to do and how independent you can be. Transdniestr and its government have no problems with tourists though they don't make it easy for them to come and they don't seem to be doing much to attract them either. I have heard about many people being put off by the rigmarole of getting in that they have turned back or stayed only a few hours even though they had planned to stay over. As a stop off between Moldova and Odessa, say, this would be great - a restful couple of days but still somewhere really interesting and worth the minor hassle of getting in.
If you are willing to meet the locals you will be able to do so much more but I can understand that many people are not that trusting when it comes to this part of the world and fear that they may be the target of a scam. When the bar we were in closed for the night, one of our new friends volunteered to go and buy some kvint for us to drink by the river but my partner and our American friend wanted to go with him, fearing that the Sascha might return and try to extract vast sums of money for the alcohol. We all felt quite guilty when he returned with kvint, juice, chocolate and cigarettes and would not accept a single rouble for them.Although the guidebooks describe Transdniestr as the last Communist bastion in Europe, this is nothing of the sort. Transdniestr may have money from rich Russians but it is not a puppet state and outwardly looks like any Moldovan city. The shops may not be exciting but the average tourist would be able to find anything they needed. Food is not scarce and most people look no poorer than in Moldova. I am no expert on the political situation but I can see no signs that anything will change soon. As things stand, Transdniestr is managing, For the moment, to look after itself though common sense would say it can't go on forever, especially when its young people are able to study at the university in Chisinau and will have no hesitation in finding jobs outside of Transdniestr using their qualifications.
Nobody would make a special visit just to see Tiraspol and Transdniestr (prove me wrong!) after all, it doesn't have an airport or even a train station so you would have to travel via Moldova or Ukraine. However, I would recommend it to broad-minded travelers doing something else in the area. Who knows what the future holds? I know that if the Transdniestran dream falls flat on its face, I will be proud to say I went there when I could.
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