Some people call it “a cold war relic”, others describe it as “the last remnant of the Soviet Union”. There are even those who like to say it’s “the only place in Europe that didn’t get the memo about the Berlin wall coming down.”
I first visited Transnistria — as it’s most often known — in 2010, when my travel company, Young Pioneer Tours, started to expand out of North Korea into some of the lesser-visited corners of the former Soviet empire. It was just one of the stops on an epic overland journey from Beijing, China, to Tirana, Albania.
Once you’ve survived the Trans Siberian across the vast Russian expanse, there are dozens of ways to get through Eastern Europe by train. But after hearing words like “relic” and “remnant” and “memo-missing”, I knew what route I had to take.
So that November, I brought the first ever tourist group into the country. And, by Stalin’s moustache, wasn’t it an adventure? Strange flags, statues of Lenin, vodka for a dollar, and more hammers and sickles than you could shake a stick at. And if all that wasn’t enough, a cop pulled a gun on us. (But, like they say, he was more afraid of us than we were of him… and anyhow, it’s a long story, best said another day.)
So here I am now, five years later, writing this — and my love affair with this strange little place gets stronger every day.
So what is Transnistria? If you want to know the details, get on Google — but read multiple sources, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.
But if you want my pocket-sized, abridged guide, here you go: Transnistria is a breakaway state populated mostly Russians and Ukrainians who fought a brief civil war against Moldova because they didn’t want to be part of their post-Soviet nation (Moldavians essentially are Romanians). It is a sliver of land on the far bank of the Dniester river (hence “Trans-Dniester”). The capital city is Tiraspol.
It is a largely unrecognised state. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh have diplomatic missions, but these little-known places are also described as “Soviet remnants”. Apparently, they all “missed the memo”. In all these countries, there is a substantial passport-holding Russian population, and so the Kremlin tends to keep a paternal eye on their welfare.
Until 2012 Transnistria was run by President Smirnov, who despite often being accused of being a dictator, left peacefully after being democratically voted out of office. They miss him now.
So fast forward to the summer of 2015. I’m trying to chill out at my mum’s house in London, where despite the free accommodation I’m haemorrhaging money. If you like smoking, drinking and all the fine things of life, England just doesn’t work.
So, with a month until my next travel job, it dawned on me — Tiraspol in July!
There are exactly eight “expats” living in Tiraspol. Seven of them are professional footballers, who are paid ridiculous sums by the local oligarchs for their FC Sheriff Tiraspol vanity project. The eighth man is my mate, Tim.
Quite why he arrived here eight years ago to found a hostel, not even he can say. But he opened a new frontier in tourism, and it’s no surprise that he is now known as Tiraspol Tim. We became friends and business partners when I first visited, so when I called him from my mum’s house, he had all the answers. “No worries, I can sort an apartment, just $200 a month.” Perfect. He casually added that it would be typical “Soviet Style”. Sounds great, I thought.
As Transnistria doesn’t officially exist, it doesn’t have an airport. And because Moldova — the country it fought to be freed of — is the least visited country in Europe, getting here ain’t easy. I opted for Ryanair to Bucharest.
From here you can jump on the old Soviet train network to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. This train goes once daily in both directions. It takes up to 16 hours, and is usually empty enough to mean you get your own room.
There used to be a great hostel in Chisinau run by a British guy, but sadly it closed a few years ago. The ones that are left are great if you love bedbugs, and hot water.
But it ain’t a problem, Chisinau is cheap. Hostels are less than ten bucks, and a double room in a classic old Soviet-style hotel won’t set you back much. If you want to splash out, go for the Hotel Cosmos, near the train station, for 25 Euros. It’s got all the “missed-the-memo” ambience you’d hope for, along with a splendidly cheap bar crowded with unusually friendly and beautiful women. Not the best place in the world, but fine for one night….
So three days later, I got a taxi to take me to the bus station. He was a young lad who had no issue with me smoking in the car. He seemed pretty cool, so I asked what he would charge me to drive me the two hours to Tiraspol.
“Twenty-five Euro”. Ok, I said. Let’s go. It was my first time crossing the border in a car, but the border was a doddle, and before I knew it I was with Tim at Tiraspol’s iconic 7 Frydays bar.
Time rolled by, and soon it was past 10pm. No so long ago, that meant ‘no more booze’. Well, technically. What it actually meant was knocking on a certain window in a certain alleyway… Soviet Values 1, Capitalist Decadence 1.
For the first few days, my pocketful of change did me proud. By God, it’s cheap here. But then, as it does, my cash ran out.
In a world with Visa, MasterCard, Amex and the rest (I even have UnionPay, the Chinese version), this isn’t usually much of a problem. But in this country that doesn’t officially exist, it is. Trans-Dniester has its own currency, the Transnistrian Rouble, a currency that is pegged to the dollar at a fixed exchange rate. It’s a currency that can’t be used anywhere outside the country, and it’s the only currency any place will take within the country. You simply can’t use cards anywhere. Apparently, there are a few cashpoints that dispense Russian Roubles (that then have to be exchanged), but they’re hard to find. I called Tim to ask him what I was to do, he gave a suggestion, and I went out to give it a try.
I headed to the Sheriff supermarket (we will talk about these guys later) armed with my bank card and my passport, queued about for half an hour, handed my card and passport to a lady, who took another half an hour filling in forms and signing scraps of paper. It was a very long 30 minutes, but I eventually had a pile of local Roubles. and like magic after a mere hours of waiting had my cash.
Flush with cash, I decided to do a little shopping in the Sheriff Supermarket. Remember that word Sheriff? Well Sheriff is THE company in Transnistria, and they own everything, car shops, gas stations, every supermarket and much more besides. They are what in the old times would be considered the state monolith, except they are private, and owned by ex-President’s son Smirnov Jnr, who — by sheer fluke, no doubt — created his business empire at the same time his daddy was president. To give him credit though, he also created a kick-ass football team — Sheriff FC — that win the league every year and have a great stadium.
Tiraspol Tim had told me that he would be busy for a few days as he had a group of Norwegians visiting for three days, and he would be showing them around. The next day I happened to bump into them and they told me that when they entered the country, the border guards had kept them for three hours thinking they were spies.
I found out the next day that the local KGB had been to check on them again, so they had decided to leave early. I found this a shame, not just for Tim, and the Norwegians, but most importantly it was a massive kick in the balls to the local tourist industry. Tim advised me to lie low for a few days, so I complied, chilling in my house using the surprisingly fast internet and catching up on work.
Following the lying low period, I decided to venture about by myself to check out my neighbourhood. This was actually extremely pleasant. It’s often a forgotten point about Soviet places, but they always have lovely parks and open spaces to liven up the often dull architecture.
As we rolled into my second week, I was starting to fall into my little routine — working throughout the day, doing a supermarket run at night, co, and then repeating the next day.
On that point I will briefly discuss cost of living. It’s insane. Food costs next to nothing. Vodka is $1 a litre, beer about $1.10 for 2 litres and cigarettes are less than 35 cents. Tim explained that wages here average around $200 dollars a month. He also said that on occasion he had arranged Russian classes for foreigners for $10 an hour, only for the teachers not to show up. This is down to the old red curse — there’s very little to buy, what there is to buy is so cheap there’s no real yearning to work or earn more money. Positive, or negative? I guess it depends on your take on things.
After my self-inflicted exile, Tim insisted that we went to ‘the beach’. There are two beaches connected to the Dniester river, both with a sludgy muddy sand littered with Soviet era fairgrounds, swimming pools and cool little food and drink kiosks. Without wanting to come across as dirty old man (I’m still only 34, after all), the women of Tiraspol and Transnistria are frankly out of this world. They dress to the nines just to go to the supermarket, so a trip to the beach tends to be quite a treat, with the latest thong fashion being a definite nod to western decadence. Sadly for the ladies, they don’t get the same visual treat, as the gent’s beachwear of choice is usually tight budgie smugglers teamed with mighty bellies.
After the beach, we went for dinner and beers. Including transport I had spent $8 all day. And that was for two people, who were often surrounded by beautiful women. Not a bad result, all considered.
When I eventually did leave (vodka delayed my departure) I decided to take the bus. When I last did this four years ago, I had to pay a lot in bribes to get out, but this year I did things differently. I’d registered with the police and was given a special piece of paper. What was written on it, I don’t know, but it got me though the border without a word being spoken. And that was that, I no longer lived in Trans-Dniester.
To summarise, living in Transnistria was a lot more fun than I expected. I also found that it was even more Soviet than it appears. There are a lot of positive aspects to the country, which the government of the PMR can be proud of, such as the cost of living and decent public transport. But on the other hand there are the corrupt police registering your every movement and the local KGB hounding tourists out of the country. While the country get called the “last relic of the cold war” a more apt description would be that Transnistria looks like what the USSR would have done had Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika worked and the Union been saved. In that respect that it reminds me a lot of China. Mao, Lenin, or any number of Communist heroes might be looking at you from everywhere, democracy might be of secondary importance, but the actual political system is Wild-West capitalism where anything goes. Just don’t slag off the president, or his son.