By Brianna 12/September/16 Moldova & Transnistria
Where is Moldova? The board game of the same name chose this title for a reason. Consistently the winner of 'the least visited country in Europe' award, it would seem the most popular answer is 'Who cares?'. And why should you care about Moldova? In truth, its fun-loving, good-natured culture and its intriguing, politically complex separatist region were reason enough to make it an unmissable stop on our whirlwind European tour.
Alex's fascination with Transnistria began 3 years ago, while watching his man crush, Simon Reeve, investigate the breakaway nation on a series called 'Countries That Don't Exist'. Although a civil war for Transnistrian independence ended in a stalemate more than 20 years ago, the region still actively seeks closer ties with Russia and remains a controversial topic that dominates domestic politics. With its own borders, currency, infrastructure, passports and political ideals, it seemed as if Moldova and Transnistria were united by bureaucracy alone. But we weren't going to take our wannabe-mate Simon's word for it. Now, 3 years later, we were on our way to do some investigating of our own.
It didn't take us long to fall in love with Moldova. I would say it happened the moment we crossed the border, if there was in fact a border
to cross. The train from Odessa left Ukraine through a section of open, unpoliced land without a problem, allowing us to enter the country
illegally. Rebels, we know. The horrendous recounts from other travellers of bribes and suspiciously KGB-like interrogations at the land
border convinced us that entering the country illegally was the safest option. Fortunately, our journey couldn't have been further from these horror stories; we spent the hours to Chisinau chatting away to Transnitrian and Moldovan locals, sharing biscuits and cultural anecdotes. One family even offered us a place to stay in Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, which we regretfully had to decline due to pre-booking commitments. Being prepared had betrayed us again! Still keen to reunite in two days time, we made plans to be taken on an unofficial tour of the unofficial country. It was the best welcome to a country we had ever received and we went in seach of our hostel in high spirits.
'Bri, if you ever make me sleep in a glass box in the middle of a night club again, I will nibble holes in all your socks.'
Cheddar's ranting worked well as an alarm clock, not that we needed it in our 10 bed dorm with the chorus of drunken snoring filling our ears. His description of our hostel room, although that of a grumpy old man's, was pretty accurate, and we were feeling less than fresh after seemingly crashing a Moldovan house party. Luckily, Chisinau is a city that's easily explored in a day. We covered the Natural History museum, main street and points of interest within a few hours. Worth the day detour, as well as giving us ample time to recover before making our way to Tiraspol. We were joined on our hunt for a Transnistrian-bound combi by a guy who'd been to more countries than Cheddar! A great achievement, we quizzed him for insider knowledge on what we call the 'Stans' (Central Asia to most people) all the way to the Military check point. The nightmare traveller tales at the front of his mind, Alex was on edge crossing onto Transistrian soil. I, on the other hand, was nodding off. We passed through seamlessly, however, and when I woke up, typical 'Moldova' was nowhere to be seen. Our journey to the capital went something like this:
Bender the border town ⇨
Tanks stationed by more armed military check-points ⇨
Bridge painted in Russian and Transnistrian colours side-by-side ⇨
A multi-million $ Sheriff* Stadium home to 'FC Sheriff*, Tiraspol, complete with its own Mercedes garage ⇨
Tiraspol train station ☭
*Sheriff is a Transnistrian monopoly that owns everything from stadiums and television channels to supermarkets and petrol stations. Rumoured to have an ex-KGB agent for a CEO, the company envelopes the would-be nation at every turn, along with the local cognac producer, 'Kvint' .
Gazing around at the hammer-and-sickle spangled banners decorating every flag pole, we remembered that toilet paper we almost bought in Lviv with Putin's face on it. Not the kind of humour we imagined would be appreciated here. We departed from our well-travelled friend to change up some Moldovan Lei into Transnistrian Roubles. The Transnistrian Republic Bank sets the foreign exchange rates and since the currency is unrecognised anywhere else in the world, it effectively acts in the same capacity as a voucher. Fun for us, not so much fun if you're earning a living here. Already losing our grip on reality, it just so happened that on our search we bumped into a man from my home town of Bromely! He and his family were lovely and generously bought us a coffee while we waited for Dmitriy, our AirBnB host, to come and collect us to register with local 'militia'. What would have been a troublesome process by ourselves was made easy with the help of Dmitriy. He showed us his Transnistrian passport and explained to us that the majority of residents have dual citizenship to get across the border without any issues. Arriving at his very modern, comfortable home, him and his beautiful, very pregnant wife were unbelievably hospitable and we enjoyed every moment of our stay. The wifi network 'Putin' made us feel ever-more part of the Transnistrian revolution.
The next day we had plans to meet up with Irina, one of the women we had met on the train to Chisinau. Charming, youthful and with extraordinary English for this part of the world, we were very excited to get the see the kind of Tiraspol she envisaged. Like Chisinau, the Capital is centred around one street, although from a superficial glance it would seem that the quality of the roads and public transportation surpassed that of the rest of Moldova. Irina took us to see all of the city's eclectic selection of monuments: a tank with 'Motherland' branded on the side, where some wedding photos were taking place, a memorial to commemorate those that died in the war of independence, a couple of Lenin statues in front of administrative buildings and 'Soviet House'. We'd heard reports that you can't take photos of certain buildings and so were a bit camera shy at first but Irina made us feel very comfortable and told us about Tiraspol in a way we felt was truly authentic and reflective of many people's views.
There are two sides to Transnistria. You cannot ignore the allegations of illegal arms smuggling, use of secret military forces, hidden military bases and the probability of Russian manipulation. But the average person that lives here just seems to be in search of their own national identity, one which clearly does not reflect the same values as the rest of Moldova. Moreover, any unethical and illegal activity could be reduced by an official border, which you could argue is the fault of its stubborn adversary. Either way, as one of the world's destinations less travelled, it's safe to say Moldova isn't your typical tourist spot, and we were glad to receive a mixture of perspectives on a country that had only come onto our radar from our mate Simon (love you Simon).
So friends, that's it from us. We have a date with Dracula next and he's not a guy to keep waiting.
Pana data viitoare!