Tourism Travel

The Trip to Transnistria: A Country That Doesn’t Exist

A breakaway, ex-Soviet region that issues its own passports and isn’t recognized by the rest of the world? That’s only half the appeal of visiting this nation in limbo.

Small men in big hats boarded our bus to ask for passports. Our guide hissed out a warning: “No photos! No photos!” We were about to cross a border that isn’t a border, into a country that isn’t one. As the guards finally waved us through, our guide smiled with relief. “Welcome to Transnistria,” she said in Russian-accented English, “A place that does not eeeeks-zeeest.”

Unrecognized by the international community, Transnistria, aka the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a skinny Rhode Island-sized breakaway enclave from Moldova that borders Ukraine. Ethnically Russian, it is enthusiastically Soviet in spirit, circa 1957, where Lenin statues and propaganda posters punctuate streets lined with decrepit state apartment complexes.

It prints its own money and issues passports—neither of which are accepted anywhere outside its borders. There’s limited internet, few places accept credit cards, and the ATMs are “connected to what, who knows?”

So what’s a traveler to do in this state-sized, retro-communist theme park?

Posters of national heroes line the wall of Transnistria, serious faces that remind us that humor is not to be taken lightly. Photo: Bill Fink

What not to do in Transnistria

We were told plenty of things NOT to do in Transnistria. I had joined a newly launched trip with Intrepid Travel which offered unique access to explore the country—albeit with some cautions. We were warned against taking photos of people, buildings, signs, bridges, vehicles—pretty much anything aside from our sad fried egg breakfast at the Russia Hotel (and even that might be viewed as suspicious.) We were not to disobey instructions, or take notes that might imply we were journalists.

“We just want people to think of our country as a nice place, not with, like, tanks and soldiers on every corner…”

But climbing on a tank was OK—or maybe it wasn’t. On display in the capital city of Tiraspol, a WWII-era T-34 tank stands with the Russian script “For the Motherland” painted on its turret. With the approval of our trip leader, I climbed to the top for a photo, which I later showed to a local woman. “Oh, you can get arrested for that!” she said.

Bland if functional architecture in Transnistria's capital, Tiraspol.
Bender Fortress is one of Transnistria's only tourist attractions.
Standing atop a tank for a photo opp could get your arrested in Transnistria, according to one local.
Touring the sites of Transnistria’s capital: the architecture in Tiraspol, Bender Fortress, and a WWII-era Russian tank. Photos: Bill Fink
We toured Bender Fortress, pretty much Transnistria’s sole historic tourist site. There, a cheerful local guide proudly talked about her homeland. “We just want people to think of our country as a nice place, not with, like, tanks and soldiers on every corner … Transnistria has an open and kind people. We are polite and smiling.”

She then looked nervously at a couple of us taking notes and asked us not to use her name. We were cautioned against taking photos north from the castle ramparts—due to the Russian tanks and soldiers stationed right there.

Barrels of cognac, one of Transnistria's biggest exports, line the floor at a local factory.
Participants on the Intrepid Travel tour look into a pool as part of the caviar tour in Transnistria.
Caviar is an important export in Transnistria.
Cognac and caviar are two of the region’s greatest exports. Photos: Bill Fink

Cognac and caviar

In a land with virtually no economy, it’s surprising Transnistria’s main exports include cognac and caviar (and perhaps pole dancers, given the many street ads).

Thanks to our organized tour, we received excellent treatment at the Aquatir Sturgeon Farm, an impressively large, high-tech facility producing five tons of caviar per year—that sells at over $40 an ounce. We watched sea-monster-sized sturgeon circling in 100-foot-wide pools controlled by scientific light and temperature systems. After the tour, we sipped champagne and munched caviar-covered crackers, like we were on a Russian oligarch’s family picnic.

… We discovered a bit of the real Transnistria. It was two-parts surly Soviet misery, one-part pride, with a surprising little dash of friendliness, if you knew where to look.

At Tiraspol’s huge Kvint Cognac Distillery, an exceedingly polite and smiling guide took us through the red-carpeted, squeaky clean production and storage areas. As part of our VIP tour, we retired to a wood-paneled boardroom to sip decades-old, thousand-dollar bottles of premium cognacs (or, more accurately, “Cognac-style brandies”).

We finished our tourist day with a traditional Ukrainian meal, heavy on meats, potatoes, pickled vegetables, and vodkas. For a nightcap, our group let loose with cognac-infused disco bowling in a hot new nightspot.

Church of the Nativity, the largest and newest church in Transnistria’s self-declared capital of Tiraspol. Photo: Elena Shamis

Taking a standing tan

Between the gleaming distillery and the gated caviar plant—and a world away from disco bowling—we discovered a bit of the real Transnistria. It was two-parts surly Soviet misery, one-part pride, with a surprising little dash of friendliness, if you knew where to look.

The philosophy of our Intrepid tour was to experience local culture, so we used public transport. Aboard one old diesel-spewing bus, we jostled along just like the locals. A Russian-speaking member of our group eavesdropped on our fellow passengers and reported back that they were apparently disgusted with our cheerful ways. “They say we are a disgrace,” she said, shrugging.

I watched old men in Speedos playing chess, and young men in jeans concluding a drug deal. A large party boat floated by, cranking Europop music as customers chugged cognac like it was water.

As we exchanged dollars for the local Monopoly money at a streetside kiosk, an unseen man in a crumbling building nearby shouted at us. “Those are not good words, we need to leave, NOW,” our eavesdropper said. “It’s hard to tell if these people are angry at us—or just angry.”

And yet, when a few of us stopped on a side street to admire a pristine 1960s vintage Soviet Volga car, its owner welcomed us with a hint of a smile. He beckoned us inside for a ride, checking with our guide about our destination. With pantomime zeal, he proudly showed off his car’s classic features.

The owner of a vintage Volga car was cautiously happy to show us its mechanics. Photo: Bill Fink
Since a popular Transnistrian summer activity is to “take a tan at the beach,” I decided to spend my last day wandering on my own along the Dniester River that flows past downtown Tiraspol. Here, older men and women with the bodies of winterized T-34 tanks were “standing-tanning,” the slow-rotate routine popular in Russia.

 

Kids were frolicking in the water and sand, just as you’d see anywhere, except under the watchful eye of both their parents and a military guard tower at the strategic bridge. I watched old men in Speedos playing chess, and young men in jeans concluding a drug deal. A large party boat floated by, cranking Europop music as customers chugged cognac like it was water.

Locals head to the beach by the Dniester River for a 'standing tan' in Transnistria.
Men play chess by the Dniester River flowing past downtown Tiraspol, Transnistria.
Locals head to the beach by Tiraspol’s Dniester River for a ‘standing tan’ or a game of chess. Photos: Bill Fink
After asking a local teen to take my photo, I swam to the middle of the Dniester River. Much of the river’s path marks the border between still-bitter rivals Moldova and Transnistria, an unofficial divide where hundreds of people were killed in the 1992 Transnistria War, and with a future still very much in doubt.

But for that day at least, all was peaceful and friendly. The cheerful kid waved that he had completed the photos, so I swam in to thank him and he answered in English under the proud gaze of his mother.

I walked back to our hotel with a smile on my face—and with the sneaking suspicion that a small man in a big hat, who stopped every time that I did, was following me.

Welcome to Transnistria, a country that very much exists — for now.

—-

More info

The writer traveled on the Moldova, Ukraine & Romania Explorer trip from Intrepid Travel (part of the same parent company as Adventure.com.)

Find out more about the region on the official government website: Transnistria Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Story and Pictures by Bill Fink – From biking the backroads of the Philippines to sipping cognac in French chateaus, Bill Fink’s global adventures have appeared in over 50 outlets, including National Geographic Traveler, AFAR, Frommer’s and BBC Travel.
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