“They carry on as though they are part of the old USSR,” said Alex, our Moldovan guide from JayWay Travel. “They have repeatedly asked to join the Russian Federation.”
Unrecognized by the United Nations or any other sovereign nation, Transnistrians could not care less. In spite of being one of the poorest places in Europe, they love Mother Russia and cling to days-gone-by when they were aligned with the Soviet Union.
Landlocked between Moldova and Ukraine, this tiny sliver of territory self-declared its independence from Moldova in 1991. The breakaway state has its own government, parliament and military. It has its own currency, the Transnistrian ruble, which bears images of Russian heroes like Catherine the Great. They have their own postal system. Their flag proudly displays a hammer and sickle.
While Moldova does not recognize Transnistria’s de facto independence, it does permit it to coexist with autonomy. The population of Transnistria is overwhelmingly Russian, yet the 2006 vote to become part of Russia was turned down, accompanied by Moscow’s rebuke that they resolve their issues with Moldova first.
Our little band of two Americans and four Europeans, accompanied by Alex, arrived by minivan at the Moldova/Transnistria border checkpoint. We were “welcomed” by a large roadside billboard depicting a Russian soldier brandishing a machine gun aimed right at us. I don’t know what the caption said, but I really didn’t need a translation and I didn’t exactly feel welcomed. I did feel excitement, though.
“Whatever you do, do not attempt to photograph that sign or anything at the border!” commanded Alex, nervously. Apparently photographing anything or anyone remotely resembling military or strategic importance can get you in serious trouble. I did not want my next selfie to be a mug shot.
After the 1990-1992 independence war between Transnistria and Moldova, a contingent of 1,200 Russian soldiers, currently referred to as “peacekeepers,” now occupy the border checkpoints and other positions within the state.
We were asked to exit our automobile and stand in line to hand our passports to the authorities, who took them to the second floor of the border control building. We waited. And waited. And waited. Finally we were awarded our entry card allowing us a day pass into the controversial territory. We all checked and double-checked our entry card to make sure they were legit. No one wanted to risk trouble leaving the territory which would almost inevitably be remedied by having to “buy” (aka bribe) our way out.
The fascinating thing about the card was seeing the Russian version my name in Cyrillic.
The road leading to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, was not inspiring. We slid past block after block of communist utilitarian-looking apartment buildings and abandoned commercial structures.
Arriving in the city, however, was entirely different. Here, we were greeted with green public squares, colorful European architecture, and monuments that were both traditional and quirky.
And statues of Lenin were… everywhere! A bust here, a statue in his flying coat there, in front of the parliament and other government buildings.
At the main parade square we discovered an old Soviet tank, circa World War II. Just beyond was an ornate orthodox church, and if you position your camera just so, you can get the quirky iconic photo with both in it (see top image).
Did I say quirky? Oh, that’s just the beginning…. In the city center is a photo op of a giant heart which translates to “I love Transnistria.”
“That sign across the way says ‘Welcome to the USSR’,” said Alex. And off we ran for photos, with Alex in high pursuit.
“You cannot just run across a major road!” he chided us, fretfully. “It’s illegal. You’ll get us arrested.”
We heeded his advice, not wanting to create any kind of political provocation. Even though jaywalking would likely not be considered sensitive, I preferred avoiding a KGB interrogation. Because Transnistria is not recognized by the U.S., I was unsure how much leverage my embassy would have.
We toured Aquatir, a large sturgeon-breeding and black caviar-processing industrial complex. Aquatir uses a recirculated system (RAS), based on water regeneration for the fish breeding system. The methods employed in the plant were fascinating. The fish are not exterminated to extract the eggs, as is commonly done.
Instead, the fish are removed one-by-one from the tank and then an ultrasound machine is used to determine if they contain eggs. When the time is right, the eggs are then massaged out of the belly. With this kinder method, the fish remain alive and can be used to harvest roe at multiple intervals during their lifetime.
One thing that Transnistria does right is produce some of Europe’s finest brandy. Chief among the distilleries is Kvint, Transnistria’s oldest distilling operation, established in 1879. Kvint also produces wine, vodka and gin, but it’s their award-winning “cognac” that garners the most attention. They apply the same process to their grapes as is used to make cognac in France, employing copper pots and oak barrels, but since they are not located in Cognac, France, they “officially” refer to this liquor as divin. However, as they’ve proven, Transnistria doesn’t consider itself bound by other country’s customs or laws, so Kvint’s brandies are commonly referred to as cognac. Many of Kvint’s competitors did not survive the prohibition effort of the 1980’s – another reason they are the lead producer. We enjoyed an educational tasting in which several types of cognac were presented.
Despite scare reports, Tiraspol is very welcoming, mainly because it gets so few tourists. We had a scrumptious lunch a Kymahek, a small outdoor restaurant which has earned the #1 spot on TripAdvisor for Tiraspol. The eatery was festively decked out in local décor with Russian-sounding instrumental music in the background. The booths were cozy, with fluffy, colorful cushions. The folklore-clad waitresses didn’t speak much English, but smiled shyly and asked to have photos taken with us.
They first served us complimentary appetizers – shots of grape vodka and balls of lard covered in chocolate. Yes, I did say lard. They looked appetizing, so I was surprised that I was the only one of our group willing to give it a try. I gingerly pinched a ball of the brown fat between two fingers and sank my teeth into it. Between the texture of the lard and the piece of pickle inside, I nearly gagged. The chocolate hadn’t made a bit of difference…it was bad.
Luckily I had the vodka to chase it away.
Thankfully, the rest of the meal was delicious. I took advantage of the opportunity to try borsch for the first time. The deep red beet soup was beefy and savory and I loved it. Chicken Kiev followed and then tartine, a mouth-watering desert made of layers of paper-thin sesame seed wafers, rich mascarpone cream, and sweet glazed strawberries.
Later in the afternoon we patronized Mafia, a surprisingly upscale and fashionably decorated bistro in the city center. Sitting on toile print chairs under an extravagant crystal chandelier, we sampled the coffee and snacks while we planned the remainder of our day.
There’s not an abundance of goods to buy for souvenirs, Russian chocolate and Vodka for $2USD per bottle seemed to have a magnetic pull on our group. Perhaps it was the tasting we had at the lunch restaurant which rendered it smoother and tastier than any vodka from my past, but I went with a bottle of grape vodka.
Note: You’ll need to use the local currency for your purchases, but be sure to exchange only what you will need while you are in Transnistria. The rubles can only be used within Transnistria, and changing them back into other currencies such as euros or US dollars should be done before you leave. No money exchange outlet outside Transnistria will touch them.
Transnistria is somewhat of a land in limbo. It’s been accused of being a haven for human traffickers and arms dealers. The Ukrainian and Moldovan governments, allegedly following orders from the U.S., have contrived a way for Moldova to regain control over its border. One joint border checkpoint has been opened in Ukrainian territory, with twelve more slated for the future.
It’s hard to predict how Russia will react since around 200,000 Russian citizens are living in Transnistria, the ever-present Russian peacekeepers, and the lingering results of the 2006 referendum in which 90% voted to join the Russian Federation.
Transnistria is certainly a county worth visiting… while it still exists. However, it’s highly recommended that you go with a local guide, like Alex from JayWay Travel, who knows the area and customs, and can keep you from committing an inadvertent international faux pas.
For more about Transnistria in Unfamiliar Destinations.
WATCH THE QUIRKY TRANSNISTRIA VIDEO!
HERE’S YOUR PIN:
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Transnistria, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.