'I Went on Holiday to a Country That Doesn't Exist'
Getting off the beaten track is one thing, disappearing off the map altogether is something else...
Words and photos by Matthew Walker | @walkerswalking
What makes a country a country? A few weeks ago I didn’t even know Transnistria was a place, let alone a proper state. And yet here I am, driving myself along a dirt road in rural Romania that apparently leads to the border.
The country, if that’s what you can call it, has its own president, currency, army and police force. But neither the United Nations, nor any other internationally-recognised country on the planet acknowledge its existence.
Not that any of that matters to Transnistria’s 2.3 million proud citizens of course.
The UN doesn't acknowledge its existence, and even Google Maps is struggling to find Transnistria
As I bounce along though it appears that even Google, that fount of all knowledge, is struggling to pin-point Transnistria. It doesn’t seem to appear on their maps. I stop in one of the villages to ask a man with no teeth for directions.
Unfortunately I can’t work out if he knows where Transnistria is either. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Romanian.
So I hope for the best and continue down the road past the tiny mud houses dodging the geese and goats, and the kids playing football on the road.
Transnistria is one of a handful of countries that doesn’t technically exist at all. Yet it has declared itself an independent nation worthy of international recognition. As you’d imagine, its history is interesting.
The locals claimed their independence from Moldova, a small Eastern European nation sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, in 1990.
The decision sparked a long war between Moldovan forces that wanted to move closer to Romania and Europe, and Transnistrian militia groups keen to remain a part of the Soviet Union and close to Moscow.
Today it remains a frozen conflict zone, a pro-Russian enclave on the outskirts of Europe that reportedly still enjoys the protection of around 400 Russian troops.
The hire car company isn’t keen on me taking the Hyundai hatchback into Transnistria. Presumably their insurance doesn’t cover accidents in places that don’t officially exist.
So I’m forced to ditch it at the Romania-Moldova border and find another way in. Nearby I meet Vlad, a 40s-something bus driver who promises that for a small fee he can take me to the main street of Tiraspol, the capital city.
About an hour’s drive from Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, Vlad stops the bus and ushers me off. I enter a cramped room where I’m met by a surly Transnistrian guard who asks me what business a young westerner has visiting a frozen conflict zone.
I explain gingerly that I just want to walk around town and learn about his country. I have heard stories of foreigners having their passport confiscated and demands for bribes as they crossed the border, and realise my reasoning may sound implausibly innocent.
But the expected barrage of angry questions never comes. Apparently sightseeing is a legitimate-enough reason to visit a frozen conflict area and so, to Vlad’s relief, I am allowed back on-board the bus and into the country.
The whole process, given the circumstances, is remarkably smooth.
I’m hungry, so when Vlad drops me off somewhere in Tiraspol my first mission is to find something to fill my belly.
Unfortunately I don’t have any Transnistria rubles on me, having failed to find anyone outside the country that doesn’t exist willing to trade in a currency that also, technically, doesn’t exit.
I've failed to find anyone outside the country willing to trade in a currency that also, technically, doesn’t exit.
But I hope my remaining Moldovan currency will do the trick. On the recommendation of an old, and very Soviet-looking lady in a fur hat in the street, I head to the unlikely-sounding Andy’s Pizza.
The waitress is very friendly as I take a seat and order, but explains that I will have to find some way of paying her in Transnistrian rubles as they don’t accept any other currency.
Their ‘leadership’, I am told, hasn’t yet organised transactions with the international community.
Surely my credit card will work? But it is politely explained that because the currency doesn’t technically exist major banks and card companies don’t recognise it, so won’t make payments in Transnistrian rubles. It’s cash only.
My waitress points me to a dodgy-looking currency exchange office down the street. There apparently I can change Euros - and other currencies - into rubles. I exchange some cash and return to the pizza shop to finish my pint and tuck into a pizza.
Not existing may cause problems when it comes to payment, but for isolated citizens of an unrecognised state, Transnistria’s chefs make a surprisingly decent capricciosa.
I had planned to couch surf with a university student in Tiraspol but I’ve already sunk several pints in Andy’s Pizza and there is no sign of him.
So I decide to check out alternative accommodation options in town. Apparently there are a collection of Soviet-style hotels to choose from.
One just around the corner from the shop has two types of rooms on offer, one with cold water for 200 rubles (about £5) per night and one with ‘hot water’ for about £6 per night.
Thankfully my couch surfer arrives just as I finish my fifth pint and before I can test whether their claims of hot water will stand up to scrutiny.
It’s not just the hotels that make Transnistria feel like it’s still back in the USSR. Even though the Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago, on a walk around Tiraspol the following day I pass three epic statues of Lenin and a number of billboards with slogans proclaiming “glory to the motherland".
The breakaway republic still has a hammer and sickle emblazoned on its flag, and unlike in the rest of Moldova, Transnistrian signs and advertisements are mostly written in Russian, and even the Moldovan ones are still in Cyrillic.
It feels like a holiday in some strange kind of Soviet Disneyland.
Most strangely of all, there is a distinct lack of young people on the streets. With the exception of a few teenagers in Andy’s Pizza, in the 24 hours I’m in the country nearly everyone I see is in their mid-60s.
Presumably this has to do with the lack of economic opportunities – the fact that money earned here can’t be used anywhere else probably drives a lot of young people away. But it makes the place feel eerily like it’s stuck in a 60s Soviet time-warp.
In fact, my whole stay in Transnistria feels like a holiday in some strange kind of Soviet Disneyland. It certainly doesn’t feel like a weekend getaway to a breakaway state, much less a visit to a conflict zone.
At no point during my stay do I ever feel a hint of danger. If anything, the opposite is true, with most of the people I meet friendly and eager to make my visit as smooth as possible.
I’m reminded of the simmering tensions between Moldova and Transnistria at a checkpoint on my way out. It’s manned by some of the Russian peacekeeping troops who have been safeguarding the region’s de-facto independence since the end of the 1992 war.
But while their Kalashnikovs and tanks are very real, it feels hard to relate them to anything I’ve experienced in the past 24 hours.
I can’t help wondering how long tensions between Transnistria and Moldova will continue before something happens, and the breakaway state is either driven further away from Europe, or it is forced to integrate.
Either way it would be nice if its status was resolved, not just for the sake of the locals but for us outsiders too.
Is Transnistria a country? I’m still not sure, but it’s a great place to visit.
Do It Yourself:
The cheapest way (from London):
Fly Ryanair from London Stansted to Bucharest Otopeni. Cost: £50 return
Mini bus from Bucharest to Chisinau, Moldova. Cost: ~£25 return
Mini bus from Chisinau central bus station to Tiraspol, Transnistria. Cost: £4 return
Total time: ~13 hours
The quickest way:
Fly Ukraine International Airlines from London Gatwick to Chisinau, Moldova. Cost: ~£200 return
Mini bus from Chisinau central bus station to Tiraspol, Transnistria. Cost: £4 return
Total time: ~8 hours
Get in touch with the Tiraspol Hostel. They may have a spare room or recommend you someone to stay with.
There's no visa fee at the Moldova-Transnistria border.
The border guard will issue you with a visa slip which you must keep with you at all times and return at the border when you leave.
If you have not made a booking with a hotel or have someone to stay with you are given a maximum of 10 hours to stay in Transnistria then you are required to leave.