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.
Having recently (Sept 07) visited Transdniester/Moldova with the Lonely Planet Romania & Moldova guidebook accompanying me, I was most interested to read this topic. I wonder whether there are two Transdniesters and we visited different ones!
I didn’t find it unwelcoming, and as a solo, non-Russian-speaking tourist, didn’t encounter any of the horrible events you darkly warn are “guaranteed”. In fact I’m so pleased that I didn’t read this piece before I went, as your tales of intimidating inteview rooms, multiple bribes, outright ostracism etc would have put me off going. But I experienced none of these – and also found many of the things you state in your Lonely Planet guide, particularly in the “Tread Lightly in Transdniester” box on page 336, to be wrong.
I had no problems at the border. Going in, on the bus from Odessa, I had to fill out a form – but the bus driver hassled the border guard into processing me quickly! I had a letter of invitation through http://www.marisha.net which was a wise move. Going out, on the bus to Chisinau, I also had no problem, though I had registered with the police in Tiraspol which I think was also a good move. Registering with the police (which one of Marisha’s friends kindly did for me) cost a few cents but I wasn’t asked to pay anything at the border, in or out.
“Social ostracism of foreigners”? Not at all. People were delightful: friendly, kind and honest. “Watched at all times”? Not at all. People didn’t stare at me as if they’d never seen a westerner, nor with suspicion, paranoia etc. I don’t speak Russian, I certainly looked like a stranger, but got not a single funny look (and I’m quite observant). Nor did I get hassled, robbed or conned – and (unlike in Chisinau) never felt in any way that I was going to be. “Frosty merchants rush through transactions without a word”? None of the merchants I bought from: no different from buying stuff anywhere you don’t speak the language – except that several times when, through lack of understanding or disbelief at prices, I attempted to pay well over the odds, the merchant always put me right – no-one tried to take advantage of the rich foreigner.
Several police heard me speaking English, and saw me taking photographs. Not a problem. Only one time, when I took a photo of a Russian guard at a hydroelectric plant, he told me off. I didn’t have a single experience of being harassed by a policeman or any other official.
I hold no brief for President Smirnov (although a dictator who goes on foot to the Independence Day parade, makes no speech there and has no guards outside his palace is a novelty) but I didn’t get the feeling that people were scared or intimidated. They spoke openly about and against the government, and (except for some of the elderly whose pensions, like in so many ex-Soviet countries, are worthless) didn’t appear to be downtrodden or fearful – and often seemed to be having fun! I definitely can’t see that Transdniester is any worse a place than the rest of Moldova (which has an admittedly communist government and is rife with corruption), and many of its problems are, as you say, down to its isolation and lack of outside investment.
So how come my experiences were so different from yours? I asked a few people whether things had changed much in the past year and nobody seemed to think so. Of course you can only write from your experiences; but it seems a pity that Lonely Planet readers do get a very one-sided impression of the place.
Are you yet working on the next edition of the LP guide? If so, I hope you will take another look at Transdniester, and get to see a bit more of the “country”. And/or, I’d be happy to contribute some of my experiences to your Transdniester chapter.
As the text states, when I was in TransD, the diplomatic situation between TransD, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia was dire. Everyone was on edge. And we certainly felt it at every turn. Even my Moldovan escort was nervous, so it wasn’t a case of me having missed my meds.
Incidentally, I just got a note from Marisha saying the border into TransD was worse than ever and her friend in Tiraspol had been brought in for questioning due to the abundance of visitor invitations she was requesting. She was sternly asked to cease this habit and informed that tourists were not welcome in TransD. This was just in September, so it must have been happening at the same time you were there. Seems as if you got in and out on a rather lucky lark, though I hear entering via Ukraine is a cake walk compared to entering from Moldova, so that’s part of the reason.
Glad to hear you had a good time though. I don’t know if I’m doing the next book, but if I do, as always, I am obliged to visit TransD and I will once again have to report to the best of my abilities on the snapshot environment at the moment, which as we have seen, changes constantly.
You may have been lucky, Roger. In August 07, having just crossed the border by road, I was pulled over by a traffic policeman in a big Russian police car and a very big hat. He led me up a spiral staircase into a kind of watchtower and pulled out a green, leather-bound copy of Transdnistrian law and pointed out the relevant (cyrillic) clause, which apparently rendered my Moldovan green card (unquestioned at the border) invalid. With chilling manner, he threatened to arrest me and impound my car. Didn’t quite get the $500 he was asking for but I was still stung. And as I left he pulled over a French motor caravan. Nice little earner.
Indeed, Roger must have been very lucky! I made similar experience like Mark, although I was just crossing Transdnistria by bus from Kishinev to Odessa. At the border on the moldovan side I was taken alone to small room. The border guard tried to find a way to get a bribe and told me that I didn’t have an exit stamp of Moldova. I got rid of 10USD there. At the Transdnistrian/Ukrainian border at last I was taken out of the bus into a small house again. Due to any weird reason they were asking me to pay a fine of 400 Euros. Luckily my girlfriend is ukrainian and she could deal with this guy pretty well. We still had to pay 25 USD in the end…I can imagine that a foreigner without any local support easily has to pay a few 100 bucks. I wouldn’t want to spend a night in a transdnistrian prison. Moreover, be aware of the fact that you wouldn’t get any diplomatic support in transdnistria since countries have to diplomatic relations with this place…
Wow, I wish my entry into TransD went as easy as Rogers!
Me (Dutch) and a friend (Portuguese) visited TransD in april 2008. Getting in we paid 20euro for the two of us. The borderguards set the price by simply grabbing my wallet and see what was in it, that was the entrance fee.
In Tiraspol we were followed for the first hour/hour and a half by a guy in military uniform. We didn’t talk to people much, just one young girl, who was keen to practice her english. She was friendly, helpfull and showed us some sights. But everytime we took a picture she got a little skittish and she refused to be in a picture with us, saying that wasn’t ‘smart’.
Leaving TransD we had learned from our mistake getting in, and hid all our euro’s and moldovan Lei’s in our socks. I just had 5 TransD ruble in my wallet. But when the guard grabbed my wallet again in the small interragation room, he also found 100 romanian lei, which I had forgotten to put in my sock. Not quite knowing the currency probably, he chose the 5 ruble over the 100 lei (25euro)…
It was an interesting but somewhat scary trip!