Transdnistria (A.K.A. ‘Transdniestr’, A.K.A. TransD, A.K.A. ‘Cyrillicgobbltigook-cyrillicgobbltigook’) was a memorably surreal experience. I’m not gonna lie to you, it was by far the dodgiest trip I have ever taken. In forty countries I have never felt so watched and on the brink of being in irreparable trouble during every waking moment.
The social, economic and political situation in TransD has never been rosy, but since the Ukraine started their trade blockade in March of this year (with devilish support from Moldova) the situation has bottomed out. Being unable to ship their goods to the outside world and being incapable of civil negotiations with Moldova (who are no angels themselves) TransD is heading for renewed domestic turmoil. No exports, means no money. No money, means no pay for workers. No pay for workers means even more poverty in a place already renowned for poverty. More poverty means desperation. And desperation means an eventual showdown with Moldova and with the wounds of 1992’s civil war still wide open, nothing good is destined to come from this. The locals are decidedly edgy. All train service to and from TransD has already stopped – Moldova owns all the trains, TransD just maintains the lines in their territory. Buses and private transport are the only way in and out.
TransD has never been particularly fond of visitors. Indeed, if the border guards didn’t have a vested financial interest (bribes) in allowing visitors through, I’d hazard a guess that the area would still be largely inaccessible to all but the most determined of souls. In the weeks before my trip I’d read and heard several accounts from other visitors, some of whom reported being followed by poorly disguised members of the Ministry of State Security (a modern KGB), harassed at the border for breaking imaginary laws or being the victims of creative interpretation of existing laws. Others had been detained for speaking English or, ridiculously, giving blankets to the poor. And God help you if you linger at or even look sideways at any location of ‘military importance’…
So, on the whole, not a welcoming place. A visit, particularly for a solo tourist, is guaranteed to feature one or more of the following events; multiple bribes, lengthy questioning, usually while trying to exit, suspicion or outright ostracism by merchants, hoteliers and people on the street and possible detainment. Indeed, when asked the reason for your visit at the border, if you say ‘tourism’ you just bought yourself a trip to a tiny interview room in a hut where several guys happily intimidate you while mentally calculating a generous shakedown price for your release.
So why do people go to TransD? Well, if you have any curiosity about life in Soviet times, it’s a 3567 square kilometre museum to that effect. While there are a few forlorn museums and a celebrated brandy factory to visit (but not tour!), the real attraction is just walking the streets, particularly in Tiraspol, and absorbing the sociological spectacle. It’s as bizarre a sensation as you’re likely to encounter without a time machine.
The streets are wide, very clean and orderly. Police stand watch at intersections like overlords, monitoring their minions. At night, the city is largely deserted, save for teenagers dry humping on park benches. I stopped in at the liveliest club in Tiraspol at 10:30PM on a Friday and there were only three people huddled in one corner. Generally, it’s not a locale that invokes visions of unbridled merriment. I’m told that economic restrictions force people to stay home, socializing with neighbours on the weekends rather than going out and boozing it up in a club. I certainly hope so.
I had been dreading my visit to TransD for weeks and admittedly I was primed for anxiety episodes. A Westerner wandering around, snapping a few pictures is usually enough to peak stares and suspicion on the street, but a guy running from hotels to restaurants to the bus station, asking questions and taking notes is an outright threat. I was only 24 hours away from going to TransD alone after my Chisinau host had fallen ill when a new acquaintance, Tanya, volunteered to go with me. She had never been to TransD and, being a journalism student, she seemed keen to shadow an LP author and learn about the electrifying drudgery and tedium of my coveted job. I would have preferred to have a TransD veteran at my side, but I was in no position to be picky. In the end I have Tanya to thank for, well, everything.
On the way in, we dodged the first imaginary infraction (“You’re supposed to stop there, not there!”) and bribe opportunity at the first check point because the officer noticed that he and Tanya shared the same last name. She sweet talked the border guard, who was hinting at turning us away due to us not having a supposedly required letter of invitation to enter TransD, and got us through with a stunningly small bribe (US$7 for the two of us). After tense moments at the first hotel, she took over, did all the talking for the rest of the day (Russian is all but required to function in TransD) as I hung back, taking mental notes that I would later furiously tap into my Palm in a quiet corner. It was deception all the way. The mere mention of ‘tourist guidebook’ would have probably landed us in the hoosegow, so stories were fabricated about us wanting to see rooms which we might like to book later on. Restaurants were the same. We’d retreat with a menu on the pretext of ordering something, Tanya would translate, I’d note the prices and then we’d skedaddle before anyone was the wiser.
Tanya had already regaled me with the tale of when her friend visited TransD with her American boyfriend. When a busybody on the street heard him speaking English, she called the police and they were held for hours. After lots of stares in the street, I ceased speaking English whenever anyone was in earshot. Later, I was barred entrance to a café that I needed to review after the owner spied me taking a quick photo down the street.
The situation in Bendery, the second largest city in TransD and the border town with Moldova, is strangely more relaxed. I found this odd as this was where some of the worst fighting took place in the early 90s. Buildings are still pocked with bullet holes. Nevertheless, people were out strolling, street cafes were busy and (hardly) anyone gave me a probing look.
Despite a slightly less paranoid end to the day, I decided not to push my luck by taking a short drive through the Transdnistrian countryside, as I had originally planned, in favour of heading straight back to Moldova.
We got a little turned around and rather than leaving TransD the way we came, an infrequently used, two checkpoint affair, we somehow ended up at a different, much more rigorous border crossing. There were four checkpoints in 300 metres. At each checkpoint, seeing my Romanian license plates, officers stopped us, performed a thorough search and did their darndest to intimidate and scare us. We were pulled in for an attempted interrogation at one point, four guards, Tanya and I in a room the size of a train compartment, but Tanya was ready for them. Earlier she’d removed the long-sleeved shirt from her ensemble and was now wearing the daylights out of a half-length fuzzy sweater, revealing an eye-popping amount of stomach and shoulder. In less than a minute, the subject of conversation switched from what we’d done wrong to how beautiful her eyes were. We were on our way five minutes later without so much as a hint of a bribe. I was in total awe of how she played those guys. She’s going to be one hell of a journalist.
To be fair, people have insisted that my TransD experience was not typical and that usually this level of harassment and personal anxiety does not occur. They may be right, but equally, I maintain that the tension levels in TransD are skyrocketing and my experience was just a sign of things to come as the blockade situation worsens. Of course, Lonely Planet will (almost) never write ‘don’t go there’, but I’m not going to pull any punches about TransD. It’s only fair that travellers be prepared for the worst.