I Went to Transnistria: the Country That Doesn’t Exist
Officially, there are 195 countries in the world today. I just visited the 196th.
When bringing up my holiday to Transnistria, I usually get a blank look, followed by the same old bemused line of questioning; so let’s start with the basics.
Q: Did you see Dracula’s castle?
A: That’s Transylvania.
Q: What the fuck is a Transnistria?
A: One of four unrecognised states comprising the remains of the USSR, a crew of comrades nobody remembers inviting to the communist house party, still doing rachiu shots on the balcony after everyone else has left. They refer to themselves as the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, but everyone else calls them the far less glamorous “Commonwealth of Unrecognised States” (savage).
After the dissolution of Red Russia, tensions in the region culminated in a 1992 quick-and-dirty conflict ending in ceasefire and the birth of a nation. Well, kind of. The ceasefire remains honoured, but the political status is still a very much “It’s complicated”. If you want to get technical, it’s an unrecognised but de facto independent semi-presidential republic.
Q: Why don’t you just go on holidays to Bali like normal people?
A: I played too much Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego as a kid, and now I always travel on “hard mode”.
You’d be forgiven for not being able to point to Transnistria on a map, and Google Maps won’t throw you any clues here (it doesn’t even get the privilege of a dotted line around it, like the disputed state of Kosovo does); but you’ll find it on the east edge of Moldova (well, in Moldova, if you ask the UN) bordering Ukraine.
Back to my holiday.
Like all aspiring countries, Transnistria has a National Day, celebrated annually with a military parade and big party. We were visiting to celebrate with them.
We had entered the region via a dodgy road from Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, through a border checkpoint that was remarkable for several reasons. For a start, it seemed to be somewhat optional, which arguably contravenes the core concept of a border checkpoint. A nearby unmanned dirt trail granted passage to those disinclined to say “Zdravstvuy” to the guards, and seemed to me to undermine the very bordercheckpointiness of the operation. Then, there was the sizeable hammer and sickle emblazoned front and centre of the station. Here’s an icon as potentially offensive as a swastika to some, which is much cherished around here. Finally, there was the paperwork itself. In lieu of a passport stamp, we received a small receipt as if from a minimart, admonished not to lose it, and welcomed to the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.
Tiraspol, the not-quite-a-nation’s not-quite-a-capital, is dominated by a large, clean, main boulevard: no dodgy Moldovan roads here. Out of town, various derelict monuments to a fallen empire abound — a Palace of Culture here, a Collective Farm (featuring Big Brother guard towers) there — but the city is safe and modern by contrast… albeit a little unusual.
On the morning of National Way, I woke up and flung the curtains open to be greeted by the inside of an ice rink. The hotel was nice enough, but for unknown reasons an ice rink had been built to almost envelop it. “Deregulated” is a word one could use to describe Transnistrian architecture. I had no idea what the weather was like, but the score was 0-0.
I dresstimated for summer, put on my Transnistrian flag pin — green and red stripes with a hammer and sickle and red star in the corner — and met our group outside.
We were an eccentric team; when you travel to places that are literally off the map, you’re going to encounter off-the-map people. Our tour guide was Joel. Within an hour of his first trip abroad, he was assaulted at gun point by a Russian taxi driver. He’s never looked back, and now he works with Young Pioneer Tours, a company specialising in “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from”, including Chernobyl and others. We were joined by Lachie, a Canberran baker with “God is a lie” tattooed on his right buttock, and a troupe of Swedish medieval combat re-enacters. The film “Argo” springs to mind.
We hustled to the main street to get a good spot for parade-watching, some of us armed with snacks from the local Sheriff supermarket. One could say that Sheriff has good market penetration in Transnistria. One could also say it’s a monopoly owned by former special service members controlling a dozen industries, including the national football team, with such power that it has significant political swag. From a distance, Transnistria looks vaguely communist, but it’s really capitalism gone wild. Sheriff offers affordable knock-offs of popular brands, including Captain Jack Sparrow, which is much cheaper than Captain Morgan. I picked up some “Red Level” whiskey for later, receiving my change as plastic chips, the local currency.
The military parade featured various units from the armed forces marching in circles on the boulevard, including the Transnistrian Navy, notable for their attendance in that Transnistria is landlocked and has no port. Special forces performed rifle tricks and everyone looked formidable. Female police officers and army personnel marched together and looked as deadly as one can in heels.
Once the formalities were complete, it was time to party. Street food vendors, pop-up bars and singers lined the streets. I fought through clouds of bees to enjoy some very sweet yet hoppy mead, a local speciality, and watched break dancers perform to extremely explicit US gangsta rap, unbeknownst to the Russian and Romanian-speaking families looking on.
Our evening ended with an extremely rowdy boat cruise, fireworks, then dinner and more drinks at a restaurant named, without irony, Mafia. Life was normal(ish) on street level, and I couldn’t perceive much criminal/political weirdness — just some sushi, beer, and blonde Transnistrian twins asking how many spiders there are in Australia. You know, normal travel stuff.
Alas, we were there for a good time, not a long time; the next day we would be “back in not the USSR”, and I’d be in a hostel asking my throwaway housemate “Where are you from?”, the “How ya goin’?” of hostels. This was a pretty straightforward conversational gambit before I got to the pointy end of Europe: here, the answer is complicated by shifting borders, mixed backgrounds and sometimes personal preference. Passports don’t strictly define nationality in the wild east.
What’s a country, anyway? Sure, the currency is plastic, but people died fighting for said plastic. If a flag, national anthem, local number plates, autonomy paid for in blood and a big annual soviet military parade as a reminder give you enough ID points to count as a nation then Transnistria is as ‘nationy’ as anywhere else around here.
Wanna go to Transnistria? The easiest way in is via daily public buses leaving from Chisinau. You’ll need to know where you’re staying and when you’re leaving to satisfy the border guards. You can also go with a tour group like I did. Smarttraveller.com declares the region code orange (“reconsider your need to travel”), but it’s stable, with low crime rates. Behave, be nice and you’ll enjoy it.