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?
What not to do in Transnistria
“We just want people to think of our country as a nice place, not with, like, tanks and soldiers on every corner…”
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.
Cognac and caviar
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.
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.
Taking a standing tan
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.
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.
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.
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.
Find out more about the region on the official government website: Transnistria Ministry of Foreign Affairs.