The arrival of Andrei’s taxi in Transdniestr was registered in a small hut and its empty boot inspected by a gruff border official. Then we drove on further, to a slightly larger hut, to register our own arrival. We joined a queue to fill out the forms that allowed us to visit for a day and stated our arrival and departure times. Our details were typed into a computer and the forms returned to us.
‘Don’t lose them,’ stressed Andrei ‘we’ll need them to get out again’.
Transdniestr (or Transdniestria) is a self-declared, breakaway state to the east of the Dniester River in Moldova. The rogue region decided not to ditch a Soviet-style system when it collapsed everywhere else; it has clung on to its monumental statues of Communist heroes and imposing billboards proclaiming pro-state slogans in Cyrillic. Old Ladas rattle along the streets and Russian is the local tongue.
It may sound like a quirky anachronism but Transdniestr takes itself seriously. It is not recognised internationally but has its own government, police force, flag and currency: the Transdniestrian rouble.
Cracks between Transdniestr and the rest of Moldova appeared in 1990 during the breakdown of the Soviet Union. At the time there was an expectation that a new, independent Moldova would veer west politically, but the Dniester region wanted to maintain relations with Russia. Protests led to a civil war which ended with a ceasefire in 1992. The Russian Army is now part of a joint peace-keeping force, although the Moldovan government contests their continued presence in what it sees as its territory.
The Transdniestrian border had a reputation for corruption but things have improved and the guards are now more surly than sinister. You can travel directly to Transdniestr from Chişinău, capital of Moldova, by public transport, however, as I don’t speak Russian and wanted to ask questions, I decided that I what I needed was a well-informed polyglot with a car.
Enter Andrei, a tall Moldovan taxi driver, translator and guide. His English is impeccable (as is his Russian and German) and his knowledge of his country’s history vast.
The drive to Tiraspol from Chişinău takes a couple of hours through villages, vineyards, and fertile fields. The border appears suddenly on a long, straight stretch of road. It may not officially exist, but there is no denying that it is there. There are Russian, Moldovan and Transdniestrian officials and controls.
Paperwork completed, Andrei and I drove on towards Tiraspol. On 25 October Street, the wide boulevard that leads into the city, stands the imposing former Communist HQ, now Transdniestrian government building; a statue of Lenin guards the entrance. On a plinth across the road is a Soviet T-34 tank.
Despite the rhetoric, Transdniestr’s leaders have embellished their system with some cherry-picked, capitalist tweaks. The result is a strange clash of Communist iconography and consumerist bling, battered trams and suspiciously flashy cars, poverty and conspicuous wealth.
The surreal experience of being in a Soviet-style state that officially doesn’t exist is perhaps Transdniestr’s greatest appeal, but there are other attractions, including the wide Dniester River (from which the area takes its name), the sombre 1990-92 War Memorial and the beautiful Orthodox Church.
The unrecognised Transdniestrian rouble cannot be exchanged outside Transdniestr but can be bought in small booths around the city. Or money may be obtained by stranger means. Outside the Orthodox Church an old, skinny, straggly-haired woman approached me with her hand outstretched. I thought she wanted money. She didn’t. Laughing wildly, she thrust a one rouble note into my hand and ran away without explanation.
Visitors to Transdniestr may have a slightly eerie sense that their presence is being noted, but shouldn’t encounter problems if they observe the formalities, i.e. fill in a form at the border, don’t lose it and leave within the stated departure time. The bureaucracy may seem archaic but is seriously enforced. And, it does all add to Transdniestr’s appealing strangeness. The region can certainly claim to be off the usual tourist trail; in fact, I would bet ten Transdniestrian roubles that I was the only tourist in Tiraspol that day.