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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Across the street is the war memorial. A tank and a chapel upon a small hill.
Faces and names of the fallen.
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.
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.
*The Wikitravel page has since been updated to state that Ukrainian troops will not let people enter Transnistria from their side.