“You’re going to where?” was the unanimous cry whenever we told people about our plans to make Transnistria the focal point of a 4 night journey through another corner of Eastern Europe. We could hardly blame friends and co-workers for not having heard of this small stretch of land between Moldova and the Ukraine – in a continent which boasts the romance of Paris, the jaw-dropping peaks of the Alps, the glistening coastlines of Italy and the majestic spires of Salisbury, the unrecognised state of Transnistria does not appear in your standard guidebook. This, of course, made it all the more appealing to us!
Transnistria (or Pridnestrovie, as it is known by its 500,000 citizens) broke away from Moldova shortly after the fall of the USSR. A short but bloody war raged during the first half of 1992, culminating in a ceasefire in July of that year which has held ever since. Effectively this is a frozen conflict zone, with noticeable military presence at both sides of the border, and its peculiar status – as well as a wealth of statues, vehicles and architecture from the Soviet era – makes it a favourite of some of the more niche travel vloggers and bloggers out there. If you’ve already heard of Transnistria, you’ll probably know it as ‘The Country That Doesn’t Exist’ – in reality, it’s so much more than that. We’re not sure that one blog post will do it justice, but hopefully this gives a flavour of how our 2 nights in Transnistria went down.
Day 1: Getting to Transnistria
Lucy has written a whole post dedicated to this very topic – if you fancy discovering this fascinating place for yourself, you can find it here!
The first stop on our trip was Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, where we spent one night in the Hotel Cosmos – a classic Soviet-style monolith – before heading off to explore the city for the day. Our plan had been to jump on one of the Marshrutka buses for the short journey to Tiraspol, which would have taken a couple of hours and cost very little (at least in comparison to public transport in the UK!). On trips like these, however, plans don’t always work out the way you’d like them to!
We’d arrived in Moldova during a heatwave, and 2 hours crammed into a sweaty minibus in the 35 degree heat, having just dropped 30,000 steps on the streets of Chisinau since breakfast, didn’t quite appeal to us. We accepted defeat, and asked the lovely reception team at the hotel to order us a taxi instead. When we saw our faces in the mirror, where we resembled very soggy tomatoes, we had no regrets about our choice.
Our taxi driver whisked us off towards Tiraspol at top speed, stopping briefly to top up on gas, fizzy drinks and nicotine for the journey. The drive to the border passed in the blink of an eye, with the roads becoming ever more deserted the closer we got, before the infamous hammer and sickle came into view and we began the manic fumble for our passports. [Lucy edit: Matt began manically fumbling for his passport, I opened the bag compartment where my passport always lives to check that it was still there].
Despite an outdated reputation for bribery and hassle at the crossing, we breezed through in less than 5 minutes, and were full steam ahead towards our apartment – or so we thought! As we arrived in Tiraspol, cruising down the main road past several monuments to Lenin, we realised that our taxi driver didn’t exactly know where he was going. The drive up to this point had taken just under 90 minutes – but the final quest to find our accommodation added literally another hour on!
Keep in mind that Tiraspol is not a big place. Our home city of Leeds would comfortably dwarf it several times over, and our apartment seemed to be just one block off the main road. We even tried pointing it out on the map, but the complete language barrier between Matt’s basic Russian and the driver’s very limited English meant that we were fighting a losing battle. Stopping every 2 minutes to yell out of the window to any passing stranger who would listen, our driver was becoming desperate to find what he thought was the name of our street. Cries of “LUGIANA?! LUGIANA?!” were met with universal blank faces – it was clear that ‘Lugiana’ street, much like Transnistria, did not officially exist.
After a while, the penny dropped – and we realised that our driver had mistranslated our Latin alphabet booking confirmation into his native Cyrillic. “Lunaciarski?” Matt asked, trying to put on his best Russian accent whilst showing our driver the booking confirmation for the 50th time. The penny then dropped for the taxi driver too, and for a couple of minutes we thought it would be closely followed by his head exploding with complete exasperation at having wasted the best part of an hour driving through literally every street of Tiraspol asking for directions to a fictional destination.
Thankfully, we were only 5 minutes’ drive away at this point, and we’d all calmed down by the time we arrived. We even got a smile and a handshake as we were dropped off – hopefully our company hadn’t been all bad!
We were met by the lovely Irina, who showed us around the apartment, which was in a classic block full of families and babushkas. A great place to stay and get a feel for ‘real’ Tiraspol. By the time we’d sorted ourselves out and had a much needed relax, it was already getting dark – we hadn’t eaten for a good 8 hours, and there was a bowl of Borscht with Matt’s name on it.
Mishap number two of the Transnistria trip very nearly happened at this point. You see, being an unrecognised state, Transnistria’s ATM network isn’t exactly ‘Western’ friendly. Don’t expect your Mastercard or Visa to work over here! The only way to get hold of local currency is to bring a supply of cash into the country (USD or EURO would be easiest) and change it at a currency exchange. Here’s where we hit a snag – remember we said that Tiraspol isn’t exactly the biggest place in the world? Well, that means that lots of places close much earlier than you might expect in your larger capital cities. It was ‘only’ 8:30pm, but we spent an increasingly desperate 45 minutes wandering up and down the main street and couldn’t find one single exchange that was still open. We’d pretty much resigned ourselves to having a dinner of our last few breakfast bars and biscuits, until we remembered that we’d driven past a pretty big supermarket a few blocks away during our manic taxi tour.
Miraculously, this Sheriff supermarket was open until 10pm and had its own currency exchange! So easy to use, and before we knew it we were bounding down to the lovely Kumanek restaurant with our pockets stuffed full of Transnistrian rubles. We each already had some favourite Russian-style dishes from our previous travels, so we celebrated our first night with a healthy serving of Pelmeni for Lucy and a classic ‘meat in pot’ stew for Matt. Washed down, of course, with some local wine and against the backdrop of a pretty spectacular thunderstorm!
Day 2 – Lights, (Lost) Camera, Action!
This was our only full day in Transnistria, and we’d decided to make the most of it by arranging a tour with Anton Dendemarchenko – a local artist and explorer who runs tours of Tiraspol and the neighbouring towns. After wolfing down our remaining supply of breakfast bars (mercifully still intact after yesterday’s dinner scare), we met Anton on 25th October Street, Tiraspol’s main boulevard, and began our explore!
Anton explained that this would not be a typical tour – his style is not to simply point at buildings and regurgitate facts (although he has an absolute wealth of knowledge!) – rather to treat the trip as an adventure and go with the flow. So it proved, as within minutes we’d already bagged our first Lenin bust of the tour and started rapping verses of Pushkin outside Tiraspol’s library! We explored back streets, main streets and everything in between, including unique viewpoints of the city which we’d never have found ourselves.
Perhaps the best aspect of the tour was how willing Anton was to interact with locals – stopping people on the street and translating whatever questions we might have. This really was a unique approach to a city tour, and it suited Tiraspol perfectly. We even used public transport – namely Marshrutkas – to whizz ourselves around the place; which was brilliant, because it gives folk like us the knowledge of how to use the system. In Tiraspol, you simply hop on the minibus, find a seat and pass your money down to the driver via the other passengers – and your change gets passed back up to you.
Having made our way down to the ‘business end’ of Tiraspol, we stopped for a quick break at a roadside ‘Kvas’ stall and had a nice little chat with the ladies who ran it (via Anton’s translation). What really struck us was how friendly everyone seemed, and how genuinely curious they were to hear why we’d come to Tiraspol! With our Kvas polished off (Kvas is a sweet root beer drink popular in these parts – the ‘Transnistrian Coca Cola’), it was back on to a Marshrutka heading out of Tiraspol to the town of Kitskany.
Kitskany is home to the Noul Neamt Monastery, one of Transnistria’s most famous sights, as well as another giant Lenin bust in front of a Soviet-era House of Culture. Inside the building was perhaps the most fascinating discovery on the tour, a one-room museum dedicated to the area’s involvement in WWII. We spent the best part of an hour looking through the exhibits and learning, via Anton’s translation, about the violent battles which were fought throughout the region. On all our travels through Europe, it still amazes us how deeply WWII affected every corner of the continent. Terrifying.
By this point, it was time to start heading back – 4 hours had flown by! Continuing the adventurous spirit of the tour so far, Anton decided we should hitchhike back rather than wait for the bus – and, impressively, the first car he flagged down stopped! This would have taken hours back in the UK, but apparently it’s the done thing here – which, in our eyes, is a serious plus point!
We bid a fond farewell to Anton, choosing to purchase some of his excellent sketched postcards as a nice souvenir, and headed off to explore more of Tiraspol ourselves. We couldn’t recommend this tour enough – it was a completely unique approach, which worked perfectly for Tiraspol. It felt like we were being shown around by a friend, rather than a guide. You can contact Anton via Instagram if you are in need of a guide for your trip.
Unbeknown to us when we were waving Anton off on to his bus, this was not to be the end of this particular story! As we were walking back to our apartment to drop our stuff off, I had a quick check in my trusty green bag where I’d put my camera. Or, at least, where I thought I’d put my camera. Anyone who’s ever lost anything knows the sickening feeling of realisation all too well, as the less rational part of your mind plays catch up with the rest, still thinking “surely I can’t have been that stupid? It must be in here somewhere?!”. Of course, I had been that stupid, and was pretty sure that I’d left my camera in the footwell of the car we hitchhiked back to Tiraspol in.
Despite rushing back to where we’d been dropped off, we couldn’t see any sign of the car – not that we’d really paid much attention to what it looked like at the time! Our conclusion came quickly – the car was gone, and we’d almost certainly seen the last of the camera. Safe to say, this was a particular low point – the day had been going so well, but now we were starting to wonder what else could possibly go wrong on such a short trip. I fired off a few messages to Anton, in the optimistic hope that somehow the driver might somehow get in touch before we left for Odessa the next morning, but resigned in my mind to almost certainly never seeing it again. I was even beginning to doubt I’d left it in the car!
Ultimately, we decided that we needed to move on fairly quickly and try not to let it affect the rest of our trip too much. Anton had already been an absolute star, phoning up places we’d visited to ask them if they’d spotted it – sadly, to no avail. We waved goodbye to our apartment WiFi and headed back out. First stop was the station, where we hoped to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s train to Odessa.
Tiraspol station is fairly small, and easy enough to navigate once you realise that the ‘Kassa’ for bus tickets is on the left of the building, with the ‘Kassa’ for the trains on the right. We approached the one functioning kiosk armed with Matt’s best Russian for “two tickets to Odessa, please”, fully expecting the exchange to go the usual route of writing down times and prices on a piece of paper thanks to the language barrier. Unfortunately, the lady behind the counter decided that this was not the time to be helpful, launching in to what might as well have been the complete works of Pushkin in unintelligible Russian. Whatever she was saying, the expression on her face was easily translatable – and the outcome was not going to be positive! This was confirmed when Matt kept picking out one word in particular at the end of every sentence – “пока-пока” or “bye bye” in English.
After this unique approach to customer service, it was clearly time for the bus option! This time, we were served by a lovely lady who couldn’t have been more helpful, and within 2 minutes we’d bagged ourselves our journey to Odessa. Things were looking up, and we decided to call in at the tourist information which we’d spotted on the way to the station – we wanted to see if they had any city maps, and Lucy was after a small Transnistrian flag.
There’s something nice about visiting a tourist info center in a place where English-speaking tourists are still somewhat of a novelty – Kaliningrad sprung to mind, where we were presented with an entire library’s worth of English-language literature and leaflets by an excited member of staff. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for how our mission to get a city map of Tiraspol would pan out!
Everyone inside was absolutely lovely (you should definitely drop in and say hi if you are in Tiraspol!), and within a couple of minutes we’d been asked whether we would come and help out with some of the English and German lessons which the language school were running later that day. Having both already taught English in Germany, this sounded right up our street – and on trips like these, you’ve just got to say ‘yes’ to everything! So, we quickly agreed to come back in an hour and take part in a class or two. The fun didn’t stop there, however, as there were a few manic phone calls being made to find out if they could squeeze us in for an interview at the state TV channel before the end of the day!
Within two hours of walking in and asking for a city map, we found ourselves in a taxi heading to the TV station’s headquarters, having just wrapped up an intermediate-level English lesson, where we’d hopefully given a bit of an insight into life in the UK and Matt had definitely confused the students by trying to explain the concept of an allotment. It’s a long story!
We rocked up at the TV station, where we had a whirlwind tour of the studios and met our crew – one cameraman and one reporter, both of whom were lovely. It was surprisingly easy (considering we’d had no prep, and no previous TV experience!) to get into the swing of things, and we spent 45 minutes or so heading up and down the street talking with Oksana (the reporter) about our time in Transnistria, what we liked best, and what we found challenging as a tourist. We also nearly broke our jaws by posing for a selfie – it turns out that smiling on demand is really quite exhausting! If you want to check out the final report, here it is!
As we wrapped up our time with the crew, we learnt that there was a concert taking place that evening on the main street, under the watchful eye of Tiraspol’s tallest Lenin statue. Post-dinner plans sorted, we headed back to Kumanek for more delicious food – including sampling Transnistria’s famous ‘Kvint’, a world class cognac distilled in Tiraspol which you’d struggle to find in Western Europe.
Fuelled by delicious Kvint, we zoomed back down the main street to the concert – which was a surreal mix of Russian language songs, and some extremely popular Tina Turner covers! There was a great atmosphere, with families and groups of friends mixing without a hint of anyone getting drunk or rowdy – as you’d so often find at such events in the UK! Mind you, it probably helped that a large proportion of the crowd was made up of the Transnistrian army in full uniform.
And so, our last evening in Tiraspol was over, and we followed the river of people back down the main street in the direction of our apartment. With an early bus down to Odessa the next morning, all that remained was to cram our stuff into our rucksacks (minus camera!) and try to bag as much sleep as we could. Putting aside the saga of the lost camera, our time in Transnistria had been brilliant – sure, it might not be Paris or Rome, but we think it’s a much more exciting destination for it! We very much got the sense that Pridnestrovie is a place which is clearly proud of its history, but is in no way stuck in the past – and it makes for a fascinating destination for anyone travelling through the area of Eastern Europe.
The Lost Camera – a quick footnote: Amazingly, a few hours after we’d arrived in Odessa, I connected to some WiFi and discovered a string of messages from Anton. He’d only gone and found the lost camera! We were seriously gobsmacked, having fully expected it to be gone forever. Anton had gone full superman to track it down, pulling out all of the stops and going so far beyond the call of duty – a true legend in our eyes. It’s no exaggeration to say that this would not have happened in many places. He offered to post the camera back to the UK, but Matt has decided that it would be much more fun to head back to Transnistria to meet up with Anton again and collect it in person. So, at the end of August, expect to hear more from Transnistria Part 2!