Nowhere in Between

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The Breakaway Republic of Transnistria – April 2014

Birdsong, then lawnmowers. This is the soundtrack of my walk from the train station to the center of Tiraspol. I pass a large, nearly deserted park. One couple strolls out as I stroll in. A chapel in contruction sits at the center, waiting to be crowned with its golden dome.

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Transnistria is a narrow strip of land wedged somewhere in between Moldova and Ukraine. It’s the main reason that I wanted to go to Moldova. I booked the trip back in January, before the events in Ukraine started. I’ve been keeping an anxious eye on the news. The Transnistrian government has asked to be annexed by Russia. In the past few weeks, I’ve read articles by journalists who have “snuck into” Transnistria as tourists. New York Times, Channel 8, and even the bastion of hip and edgy travel journalism, Vice, wrote of oppression and high tension. Undercover agents in suits. Military checkpoints. The Transnistria section in Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe guidebook warns of bribes and interrogations at the border.

The Russian owner of the apartment that I would rent in Chisinau said it was perfectly okay to go. No problem at all!

I figured that the reality was somewhere in between.

Two days ago, I was making final preparations for my trip to Moldova, gathering phone numbers and directions. My internet connection would be sporadic at best, so I needed to go old school. I needed to get the bribery hotline number for Transnistria. Just in case.

When I did a search for Transnistria tourism, this is the first page that came up. I had visited this page a few times, but the “warning” box at the top was new.*

Warning: Due to the current conflict in Ukraine, Transnistria is currently closed to all visitors. You are NOT allowed to enter the breakaway state at this time, as border guards will refuse you entry. Illegal entry into Transnistria might get you in serious trouble.

Wikitravel

My exclamations of despair were probably heard in the street below. They couldn’t wait two more days to close the border? My husband popped his head out of his office. While I searched frantically for other sources to corroborate this warning, he looked on the French goverment website for current warnings. I left a comment on Discover Transnistria, run by fellow WordPress blogger Susatir. She was kind enough to look at her local news and she also found nothing.

My husband emerged from his office. Transnistria was currently at level orange, which means that it’s strongly discouraged to visit except for an urgent reason. The same level as Eastern Ukraine and most of Iran, but higher than North Korea.

“So, does that mean you don’t want me to go, honey?”

Long, slow sigh through the nose. “You do what you want.”

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I continue my walk down Lenin street, stopping by the Kvint cognac factory to buy a souvenir bottle. Across the busy intersection, I pass strip malls and mini markets. A couple of dusty minivans are parked out front. On the corner of Lenin and October 25th streets sits a tiny stand that sells a lemonade-like drink. A white convertible cruises by, a bride and groom hold their arms high and cheer. They’re followed by a procession of honking cars decorated in crepe paper. People on the street clap and cheer as they pass.

Except at the border, I have yet to see military personnel or a police officer.

I was uncharacteristically calm on the bus ride from Chisinau to Tiraspol. The worst thing that could happen was that they would refuse me entry. I noticed that the minibus stopped for people who flagged it down. I would do the same if I was refused entry. If they tried to get a bribe from me, I would flash the bribery hotline number. I had only a small amount of money in my backpack. I had enough for the return bus ride stashed in my bra. If necessary, I would give them the money in the backpack, which was only a few euros. And pretend to be upset about it, so they would think it was the only money I had on me.

The first checkpoint was unmanned. At the second checkpoint, I was led from the bus to a small booth. A young female officer scanned my passport. She pointed at my name and flashed a metallic-toothed smile. “Yulia Maria!” From her gestures, I understood that it was her name, too.

At the third checkpoint, two officers checked the forms and passports. When it was my turn, the guard stared hard at me. “You stay only today? Yes?” It seemed more like a request than a question. Overnight stays involve more paperwork.

I nodded. Every account I’d ever read had warned that the border guards spoke no English. The second and third checkpoints had only a couple of officers and no visible weapons.

The guard’s expression relaxed into indifference. Surliness takes energy. He stamped the entry card and handed it and my passport back with a nod. As the minibus penetrated into unacknowledged territory, I leaned back against my seat and smiled.

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And now: the sound of music, and, underneath, children’s laughter. The music is rousing, operatic. I see no parade or concert. A shop must be having an event or something. I spot sign written in Latin script: Coffee Mania. I stop in for a quick espresso, paying with Transnistrian rubles, a currency recognized nowhere else in the world. As I continue my walk down October 25th Street, the volume of the music doesn’t diminish. I look left and right. Where is it coming from?

I cross the street to get a closer look at a Soviet-era mural. A Transnistria flag flies above the building. I’ve heard that taking photos of government buildings is forbidden. Two guys watch as I take out my camera. The older one says something. They both laugh.

I lift my camera. “Smile!” And be sure to get the mural in the background.

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The single male voice becomes a choir. Shoulders back, chests out, chins lifted high and proud. Gooseflesh rises on my arms. Then I notice the speakers that are mounted on light posts. The music is broadcast to the streets from some centralized location.

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A little further along, I find a hammer and sickle mounted on a wall. Just above, a large video screen flashes the Transnistrian flag and images of the Soviet-era architecture and Lenin statues.

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My eyes come to rest on an elderly woman wearing a head scarf. She’s sitting on a bench, looking around as if lost. The whites of her eyes are blood red and she’s trembling. She looks at me as if she wants to ask for help, but doesn’t know how. I walk past her a short distance and dig into my backpack for some rubles. A man places some bills in her hand. The expression on his face is one of shock and sadness. She is so incongruous in this pleasant city. Her hand is trembling too much to take the bills from me, so I place them under her thumb. She lowers her head as I walk away.

The street widens. In a large park that spans both sides of the street, there are pony rides, horse-drawn carts, and motorized ducky rides.

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And a flea market for the adults.

I scan the area for any sign of the military personnel about which I’ve heard so much, but find none. I vacillate between annoyance and bewilderment. This is Transnistria, right? Is Saturday their day off? How will I placate my travel blogger bravado? A momentary temptation to exaggerate arises.

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A retro building catches my eye. Soviet-era architecture is usually described in a disparaging way: ugly, functional, boring. While the block apartments so often found in this part of Europe are a blight on the landscape, I find the clean lines of the smaller buildings that remain from that era very appealing.

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Across the street is the war memorial. A tank and a chapel upon a small hill.

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Faces and names of the fallen.

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To the right I catch a glimpse of the presidential palace. Photos strictly forbidden. Lenin flies above the rose-pink building like Dracula dressed in drag. The Vice journalist described the building as “hideous”. I think it’s unique. An icon of this insubordinate place. There are surely surveillance cameras around, so I snap photos of the memorial. Deep breath, quick flick of the wrist to the right. Oops. Accidentally pressed the button.

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I put the camera in my pocket and walk to the sidewalk. And then, finally, I spot some military personnel. A young man and woman dressed in camouflage are sweeping the sidewalk. The sight is so ludicrous that my head spins. They don’t bother to look up as I walk by.

A small park appears on the left. I sit down on a bench and close my eyes. I contemplate the power of the media, the entity that has control over the information that we use to formulate our view of the world. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to discern what’s real and what’s distorted or just downright false. The truth is nowhere in between. The enormity of this floods my brain. If I reach out to touch the air, will it ripple and bounce back like an LED screen? I take a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. Calm down, girl. This is not the place for a panic attack. That’s the curse of too much cogitation. Maybe I need to start watching television shows such as this Honey Boo Boo about which I’ve heard so much.

After a few moments, I head back the way I came. Two more soldiers have come out to the sidewalk. They are painting the wall and doors a fresh white. Bright red stars are painted on either side. They are so vivid against the white. I stare at them as I walk by. One of the painting soldiers notices me and says something to the other. They lower their brushes and stare at me. Black, suspicious looks of recognition that say, Yes, we’re watching you. My heart skips a beat, but I keep my expression nonchalant. I’m probably the only tourist in the whole city today, and I was staring intently at a military installation. Of course I’m dubious, considering that so many recent visitors have written negative things. They are doing their job.

Still, as I walk back down October 25th street, I’m unable to shake the unnerved feeling. I’ve come and seen and I’m grateful. Now it’s time to leave.

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*The Wikitravel page has since been updated to state that Ukrainian troops will not let people enter Transnistria from their side.

48 thoughts on “Nowhere in Between

  1. Thanks for sharing! I have to admit I’ve never heard of this country before, and at first I was wondering if this is a post about a fictional country. I’m still not so sure about it. But either way, it says a lot about your storytelling skills, and it reminded me of something I wanted to ask you anyway.
    I’m part of the TravelBloggers.on.WordPress blog, http://internationaltravelbloggers.wordpress.com/, and I wanted to do a post about storytelling for non-fiction writers. And I thought of you as an example blog. Would it be ok for you if I quote some parts of your posts (for example how you start a story) to illustrate my point? If you want I can then specify which quotes I’m interested in. First, I just wanted to ask you for your general permission. take care, and thanks for your interesting post, KleesButterfly

    • Officially, Transnistria is part of Moldova, but they broke away in the 90s and now it is a totally functioning country with its own currency, government, etc. However, no other country, except for other breakaway territories, recognizes its independence.

      You certainly can quote some of my work. Thanks so much for asking.

      • Thanks, in the meanwhile I googled Transnistria. One never stops learning 🙂
        And thanks for your permission to quote your work. I will contact you when I’ve written it (probably in the course of the next two weeks).

  2. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I really like this post. The way you’ve written it, in first person present tense, gives it such a unique feeling. It was fairly surprising to read about something so recent, as opposed to adventures you’ve had previously. Thanks, as always, for writing!

    -Mandy

  3. Thanks for writing about your trip! Very interesting observations, and I love the photo of the two guys. I understand there was a language barrier, but did people seem friendly on the street, or more reserved? Past Russian major here, so the former Soviet Union obviously interests me and I’d love to be able to visit Transnistria one day.

    • Hi there – The people seemed fine to me, mostly just curious if they even noticed me at all. Tourists are really rare, but I look Slavic so I blended in except for the camera. It is a fascinating place, like an open air museum of Soviet-era memorabilia. If you’re interested in that you should definitely go and soon.

  4. This was a fantastic post! Having been to quite a few former Soviet republics, your well-written story brings my memories back to life (all of those hours wandering city streets, being under someone’s watchful eye, taking pictures of things I shouldn’t, crossing dodgy overland borders, etc)! I’d be lying if I wasn’t a bit jealous of your adventure. 🙂

      • Haha! That is exactly right! The good news is that the world is large and there will probably always be somewhere that I am itching to visit. If not, then there are many places I would happily visit again! Keep posting and I will keep reading!

  5. Great post. I only became aware of these ‘frozen states’ when I visited Georgia and Armenia last year. Parts of your pictures reminiscent of people I saw. We know so little of the complexities of this region. The people seem to have been pawns of various powers and local alliances for more than 600 years. It is also easy for us in the West to confuse the people and the politics.
    Our small tour group were made so welcome in Iran but many outside are horrified that we were there.
    Keep broadening pur horizons.

    • I know some people who have been to Iran and loved it. My husband and I would like to go and we will, hopefully soon. I’ve got very little patience with people in the West who think that they know about these places because they watch the news. Especially after this trip.

  6. Such a strange and times disquieting juxtaposition of the past and the present (going back to the past?) again-the title of the post is perfect
    -like you I find Soviet-era architecture and monuments fascinating-a great post Julie and terrific images- (I was quite taken with the motorized ducks-Jack Henry wants one)

  7. Such an interesting read, and an interesting experience you had. You certainly took a risk photographing the presidential palace. I was half expecting you to write that 20 secret service agents suddenly appeared from the bushes to arrest you. Should you ever stop writing/posting suddenly, I’ll know what’s happened. 🙂

  8. You said that you were going on an adventure! And you were right. We live in a world where truth is mercurial and nebulous. I thought of Ray Bradbury when I started reading your post.

    “See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

    • Ray Bradbury. What a compliment. It’s increasingly difficult to “see the world” with untainted eyes. From a very young age we are so indoctrinated on how we must view reality. It’s hard to see beyond the LED screen.

      • Indeed it is! There are so many messages that it becomes overwhelming – unless there is a concerted effort to use objective analysis techniques. I continue to learn…

  9. Thanks for writing this! It has been a most eye-opening experience living in Eastern Europe during the upheaval in Ukraine. I have been able to witness, first-hand and up-close, the distortions, sensationalism, and downright untruths of so many media outlets that I had previously trusted (including NPR – an old favorite that I always considered to be above the fray.) It is sobering and frightening sometimes to comprehend how little we question the sources which inform our opinions and perspectives on the world. Travel and the personal experience it brings seem to be, for me, the best method for truly bearing witness and receiving unbiased information. (Or reading lots of travel blogs!)

    • You totally know what I mean. And yet, when you return home, there will be those who feel that they know more than you do because they watch MSNBCFOXCNN or read Huffington Post (what a joke). I also used to trust NPR and Vice and other “alternative” news sites. It is a punch in the gut to realize that the sources we trusted are just as devious as the mainstream news outlets. You only need to do a quick check of where they get their funding to realize that they’ve got an agenda, too. Shame on them!

  10. Another fascinating adventure! I am agog. This morning on television in the USA, John McCain was warning us of the dangers awaiting society if soviet ducky rides are allowed to roam freely and bomb strikes are imminent. I am happy you escaped danger again!

  11. The media know how to lay carpet these days, not much is balanced anymore. But as for small countries, they can offer up some gems to explore and friendlier people, just takes longer than a day to experience while your head is tied in knots and many of knots seeming to be due to external false influences by media and government. How was Moldova?

  12. such an interesting post. I must say that i wasn’t sure about the social identity of Transistria. I don’t know a lot about it, except for the latest news that media show us. (and it’s probably not an objective view) Beautiful shots, as always.. have a great day. Cris

  13. Fantastic post! High on my list of places to go – in fact I was booked on a tour to Ukraine and Moldova for this month (right now in fact) which was unfortunately cancelled due to current events. So am very jealous! Love the architecture.

  14. You can add me to jealous list! Strange isn’t it how the disparity between reality and media events persists what with the social media superhighway that any of us can join in real time.

    • It’s funny that people are jealous about going. Except for the one street with the Soviet buildings, it could be any sleepy hometown. All that was missing were white picket fences. Then again, going to a place that’s said to be scary and finding it so pleasant is an eye-opening experience. I certainly look at the world in a different way now…and have totally stopped reading the “news”.

      As for social media, people instinctively gravitate towards the known and “trusted”. Very few are motivated or brave enough to look beyond. It’s safe in the cocoon.

  15. Great post, Julie. It’s ironic but not surprising that the best source of hard news concerning admittance to Transistria is a memoirist. In 1954, E.B. White wrote a brilliant satire that centers on a weather forecast and contrasts the disparity of radio news with White’s own perceptions in “The Eye of Edna.” If you get a chance, check it out; it’s not only good for a laugh but reassures us that inflation in the media is a time-honored tradition.

  16. You are intrepid! And so right about the news and views of those who are supposed to know, or be in the know. The best information these days seems to come from bloggers, such as yourself.

    • After this trip, I stopped reading the news. At all. As for traveling, I only look in travel forums and on other independent travel blogs for info. Everyone’s experience is unique and anything can happen, but I think it’s the best source of information.

    • Yes, that would have been the worst thing, but if I had truly thought there was a risk of that I wouldn’t have gone. I like adventure, but I have my limits. 🙂

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  18. Wow Julie you love adventure, I admire that. I get your comment you did on my blog about my sister in law- that she should follow her instinct on going to Israel. I think deep inside you knew that is was safe to travel. The photos exude this calmness the opposite of what the news said.

    • I do love a little adventure, yes. But I also try not to be stupid about it. There are places I’ve wanted to go and then decided against it, because my gut told me it was not the right time. I’m glad I listened to my instinct about going to Transnistria, because things can change so quickly in that area right now.

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