Even those who didn’t spend their school years sitting on ears have hard time to recall anything about Transnistria. Officially named Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic and also called Transdniester, Trans-Dniestr, Transdniestria, or Pridnestrovie, is a self-proclaimed state on a territory squeezed onto a tight strip of land between Ukrainian border and river of Dniester. Only around city of Bender its territory stretches west of the river. Although internationally unrecognized with exceptions of also unrecognized state entities of Abkhazia, Republic of Artsakh (known formerly as Nagorno-Karabakh) and South Ossetia, it is a country on its own, quite different from Moldova despite the fact that both Moldova and United nations address it as part of Moldova called Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status. I guess independence is a special legal status. And Transnistria fought for its independence.
We didn’t know much about this country either when we crossed the Dniester river at the town of Dubasari, just a few kilometres to the south-east of our sleeping place near Orhei Vechi. We passed camouflaged army vehicles that were parked at the bridge. Only then has it dawned on me that the river represents the borderline between Moldova and Transnistria. In mere seconds we were at the border checkpoint (N47° 14.360′ E29° 10.187′) and the entering procedure to the country began.
I can’t be exactly sure but I think that customs officials and the Transnistrian border police were even more in shock than we were. Firstly, we didn’t enter the country on the popular route for tourists (meaning the officials there are accustomed to seeing a tourist or two per week) going from Chisinau to Tiraspol, secondly, we came in an overlanding self-dependant vehicle filled with so much stuff that shoukd be thoroughly inspected by the customs, and thirdly, we had a baby and a dog on board. Not speaking Russian didn’t help much either.
When the officials finally decided we were no threat to their little country, even equipped with our photo gear (we hid the UKW transciever of course), they took our passports and I was invited into the quarters. There I was explained, with extensive help of smartphone interpreting apps, that we have to pay 6 EUR of entry fee per adult and of course customs fee for importing our car. After an hour of filling papers – in cyrillic and in multiple copies! and the payment of 20 EUR for the car they let us enter, with strict instructions that we have to leave the country by the evening of the next day.
To enter Transnistria by car you have to pay customs duties that vary on the value of the car and on the period you intend to spend in the country. You are obliged to fill in customs forms in cyrillic, entering all the details of the owner and driver of the car and of course all car details from VIN (chassis) number to motor block number and type of fuel it guzzles. The copies of the passports and registration papers are also made. Even the severe customs lady I dubbed “Ice Queen” was at least so nice that she wrote extensively over my attempts at filling their formularies and finally allowed us to proceed. The 20 EUR we paid for our Landcruiser allowed it to stay in Transnistria for a period of 60 days, which was 59 days longer than we were permitted. No special insurance payment was required. We didn’t pay any bribes, nor were they required or hinted at. For all the money we payed we got printed receipts and all major currencies (euros, rubles, dollars) were accepted. All the officials we met were strictly professional and very helpful, regardless of the language difficulties. But it was expressively explained that we can only photograph natural, cultural and historic landmarks, nothing else. Photography of state infrastructure or military objects was strictly forbidden.
Having so little credible information about Transnistria, coming from people who only stayed in the country for a single day, we only planned to stay there for a day too. We had information that you have to register with the police if you spend the night in the country and obtain special permission to stay longer. Somehow we didn’t expect the police would encourage or even understand our wildcamping sleeping habits. Hence our stay in Transnistria was rather short. We’re now sorry that we didn’t stay longer.
Immediately after finishing the customs ceremonies we found ourselves on the M4 highway that connects the length of the whole country, and we headed south towards Tiraspol, the capital and the largest city. Obviously our papers were OK, because as soon as we started to drive the police control stopped us and checked them. They just wished us a safe journey. I can’t say that the landscape drastically changed comparing to Moldova. There were still large fields with huge machines ploughing them, still we drove on wide roads surrounded with walnut trees. But the towns seemed cleaner and better maintained. We had some trouble deciphering the road signs in cyrillic, our school years being long gone.
We stopped in the shade of the walnut trees and made lunch. People drove by in their cars and old Kamaz trucks and smiled when they saw us. A huge harvester came along, passing between our Landcruiser and the road, and the driver waved. Kea Pika had huge eyes. Not long after that the road, just north of Tiraspol, literally touched the Ukrainian soil.
Tiraspol was something totally different. A vibrant capital, the downtown full of cars, shopping centres, cafes and restaurants, well-dressed people and even dogs on leashes, a sight we didn’t see often in Romania and Moldova. I’m not sure why people often describe Tiraspol as an old communist-era metropolis or Transnistria as the last living remain of the Soviet Union. We didn’t have that feeling. Yes it is a small city, even compared to Chisinau. Yes there are still statues of Lenin visible, same as old Lada cars, and Transnistria is the only country that still uses the hammer and sickle on its flag, but that is all very superficial. The vibe of Tiraspol seemed no different to me than that of Ljubljana or any other larger city way further west. It’s no Paris, that is true, even if it has its own Arch of Triumph, but that can be good, too. You can get shisha there. For two cold local beers we paid less than one euro. Two ice creams were even cheaper. And we ate a pizza that had just perfect crust and was topped with good cheese and black olives. We couldn’t believe you can get a pizza of such quality so far away from Italy (and Slovenia, for that matter ;)).
Our main concern during our visit of Transnistria was the divine Kvint. Short for Kon’iaki, vina i napitki Tiraspol’ia, this company produces ten million litres of alcoholic beverages per year. Not only is Kvint the oldest company in the territory, operating since 1897, and one of Transnistria’s largest exporters, but Transnistrians consider it a national symbol. The Kvint factory is depicted on the Transnistrian’s five-ruble bill. We stopped in one of their shops to buy some of their famous cognac. This was not an easy assignment. First we had to choose from many many different brandies of different ages, and when the choice was finally made, we tried to pay for our selection. But no credit cards work in Transnistria. Being internationally unrecognized country can lead to that. Furthermore, even if they have ATMs in Transnistria, Slovenian banks (and pretty sure all other banks of the “free world”) block all your tries to get some of your hard-earned money. At the end we had to do it the old-fashioned way going to the exchange shop and exchanging paper euros for Transnistrian rubles. We got 356 rubles for 20 euros (exchange rate of 17,80 rubles per euro), and then ran back to the shop to get our divines. Half a litre of three-year-old cognac cost 42,40 rubles, five-year-old 48 rubles and a ten-year-old 83,70 rubles.
What you can see in all Transnistria, especially in Tiraspol, is the seemingly unrivalled monopoly of the Sherriff company. Gas stations, logistic companies, shopping centres, media, construction, automobile, football club… you name it, Sherif has it. The rumor has it the company controls half of the country. Only the steel industry company owned by Russians named Moldova Steel Works brings more revenue than the Sheriff.
After the magnificient pizza safely in our stomachs and with cognac bottles stashed safely in the crates on the roof of our Landcruiser, we set off from Tiraspol towards Bender and back to Moldova. Border formalities (N46° 51.706′ E29° 26.025′) were extremely quick and uneventful, just a check of the papers from Transnistrian side and that was it. Our short but intense visit of Transnistria was finished.