The four-car train from Chișinău trundled through the Moldovan countryside as two elderly women chatted near to me and a girl opposite was furiously texting on her mobile phone. At the rear of the carriage, a giant urn was whistling, ready to deposit water in to cups of coffee for two men who were conversing at the snack bar.
The train had seen better days, with worn upholstery and a wood-panelled décor that would’ve been more at home in a 1960s living room. We must’ve been travelling at no more than 30 miles per hour, but I didn’t mind, as the gentle rocking of the carriage allowed me to drift in and out of sleep.
Two hours later, the train spluttered its way into Tiraspol, the ‘capital’ of Transnistria. I disembarked and walked into the grand booking hall of the station, where I met my guide, Andrey.
I found Andrey’s travel agency – Transnistria Tour – online and was immediately won over by such phrases as “we are glad that you have interest for our small Republic,” “there are no McDonalds in Transnistria,” and “we will do our best to make your visit in Transnistria comfortable and interesting.”
After shaking hands he immediately led me to a booth where I had to show my passport and was handed a slip of paper. This was my ‘migration card’ and after filling in my details, the guard promptly stamped the paper with the coat of arms of Transnistria – complete with the hammer and sickle – and I was granted a stay of up to 10 hours.
Playing it straight
With the ‘border’ formalities out of the way, Andrey led me to his car.
“Are you married?” was the first question he asked me?
“No, engaged,” I replied?
“To a woman?”
“Err… yeah.” My heart sunk. I felt like I was betraying my fiancé back home.
“I hear that in your country men can marry men and women can marry women.” His tone suggested he wasn’t impressed by the 2013 Same Sex Couples Act. I made a note to do some research on LGBT rights in Transnistria when I was back in Chișinău, but in that moment I thought it best to play it straight.
Of course this totally backfired, when, an hour or so later, we were walking the streets in Tiraspol and Andrey got very excited by the shape of a passer-by’s derrière.
“What an ass!” he exclaimed.
Not wanting to a) shatter the illusion of me being a fully-fledged heterosexual or b) show disdain at his misogynistic comment, I simply replied with “it is very nice indeed, yes.”
Back to being in Andrey’s car, we headed for the wonderfully-named town of Bender. Every time he said ‘Bender’ I was sniggering vigorously inside, as if my sense of humour had been taken over by a randy teenager. I also kept thinking about ‘the bender going to Bender’ and, if I stooped while there, I would’ve been ‘the bent bender in Bender.’ Of course, I never said any of this because I was straight now. Instead, I walked between the sights with a definite swagger even Vinnie Jones would be proud of.
With a population of 500,000, Transnistria is only slightly larger than Rutland and it didn’t take long for us to cross back over the Dniester to reach Bender. As we traversed wide boulevards past perfectly manicured parks I was struck by how empty the place seemed to be; there was hardly anyone around. It was like being back in North Korea, just with more adverts.
Apart from the lack of people, the only other noteworthy sight en route was the colossal Sheriff Stadium. With a capacity of 14,000, it dominates a territory that also boasts five other football pitches, training fields, an indoor arena, a soccer school, residences for the players of FC Sheriff and a hotel.
Interestingly, the Sheriff corporation is omnipresent wherever you go in Transnistria. Although I only visited one of their supermarkets and saw a petrol station, as the region’s second-largest company, they seem to have an almost monopoly, also boasting – according to Wikipedia – a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories and a mobile phone network. I mean, even Tesco doesn’t have a TV channel… does it?
We’d gone to Bender because, as a rail enthusiast, I had read that there was an old steam locomotive you could visit. Housing the Bender Military Museum in its carriages, Andrey said it was closed for winter, but I wasn’t bothered with the exhibition and was happy snapping away around the old Russian CY 06-71 steam locomotive, much to his contempt. I also stopped by the giant granite mural adjacent to the locomotive, which commemorates the train workers who died in the 1918 revolution.
Realising I wasn’t joking when I said trains are my ‘thing’, he took me to the large building next to the museum which was the town’s former railway station, Bender-1 (trains today stop at the less impressive Bender-2). Again, I was treated to another imposing waiting room, adorned with socialist-realist architecture.
“Ben, come here, I want to show you something special.”
I walked over and saw a mural that featured the front of a diesel locomotive.
“It’s a train,” I stated.
“I know. But, if you look, closely, it has a face.”
“Oh… yeah… kinda.” I just looked like a train to me. Clearly, Thomas the Tank Engine hasn’t chugged into Transnistria yet. I duly took a photograph of the ‘train with a face’ and we moved on.
Our next stop was Bender’s Gorky Cinema. Inside, it could’ve been 1955, if it wasn’t for the posters of the latest Hollywood blockbusters giving the modern era away. Sadly, there was no time for a film and we headed back outside on to Lenin Street and in to Lenin Park to see a statue of… well… Lenin.
We then took a stroll along the pedestrianised Liberation Square, passing the beautiful tree-lined Sovetskaya Street. As we walked along, Andrey pointed out the bullet holes on City Hall, which were created during the civil war in 1992.
The Transnistria War broke out in 1990 as Moldova began its journey towards independence. The mostly-Russian speaking population of Transnistria, fearing a union between Moldova and Romania and an exclusion from public life, proclaimed, on 2 September 1990, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic; ‘Pridnestrovie’ being the name for Transnistria in Russian.
Less than two months later, Moldovan forces entered Transnistria and the war began, although fighting only intensified in 1992, with Transnistria receiving support from Cossack unit and elements of the Russian 14th Army,
Following the deaths of over 300 people on both sides, a ceasefire agreement was signed on 21 July 1992, which has held to the present day. As part of the agreement, a three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone. As we drove around Transnistria, Andrey would occasionally point out some of the Commission’s military checkpoints and I was relieved to see that the soldiers there looked mainly bored, rather than ready for another conflict.
Passing Bender’s City Hall, we briefly enjoyed a peek inside the Pavel Tkachenko Cultural Centre, where youngsters were practising dance routines underneath huge murals of traditionally-dressed peasants tending to their crops in the fields. Approaching the River Dniester, Audrey pointed out an abandoned river port (he had no idea why it closed down) and then we stood underneath another monstrous Soviet-inspired piece of public artwork; the Monument to Fighters for Soviet Power.
Our brief stay in Bendery concluded with a walk round the memorial park dedicated to local victims of the war in 1992. An eternal flame burns in the shadow of an armoured tank, from which flies the Transnistrian flag. Over the road, the 11.5 metre tall City of Military Glory Monument glistened in the morning sun, surrounded by four blocks showing the most important dates in the history of Bendery.
Tour of the ‘capital’
After another short drive dotted with the occasional trolleybus, we were back in the ‘capital’ and I was stood in front of the headquarters of Transnistria’s de facto government. Dwarfing the other buildings on 25th October Street, the Transnistrian Government is flanked by a brutalist statue of, you’ve guessed it, Vladimir Lenin.
Heading east past the local government building, there was a lot of activity ahead of us, as a large stage was being erected for a concert by one of Russia’s biggest pop stars that evening. As we approached, we stopped to see Tiraspol’s War Memorial, complete with another tank and an eternal flame, as well as its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Behind the concert stage, there was a large billboard welcoming visitors into the city with the Transnistrian emblem in the centre. In the top-left corner, was ‘1990’, when the country proclaimed its ‘independence’. In the bottom-right, the date read ‘2016’ to signify the current year. However, in order to save costs, the accumulating year is simply pasted over with a sticker and you could see ‘2015’ peeping out as ‘2016’ was slowly peeling back.
Continuing along 25th October Street, we stopped to admire the Suvorov Monument and the towering Stalinist House of Soviets. In front of the city hall for Tiraspol there is a bust of, you’ve guessed it, Vladimir Lenin.
Audrey also pointed out the only English sign in the ‘capital’. Situated outside the Gymnasia of Humanitics and Mathematics, he said that the sign was translated as many people come here to learn English. The school was named after the famed chemist Nikolay Zelinsky, who was born in Tiraspol in 1861.
Our walk finished at Tiraspol Theatre, where Audrey directed me to a plaque which commemorated the proclamation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in 1990. He was quick to point out that this was changed from the original sign that mentioned the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’, which ceased into being when the USSR fell in 1991.
Next, it was time for lunch and Audrey took me to Kumanyok, a kitsch eatery dressed to look like a Ukrainian country lodge, complete with traditionally-dressed servers. The food was fantastic though and I had succulent shashlik (skewered and grilled cubes of meat) mopped up with some homemade flatbread and washed down with kvass. Kvass is a fermented drink made from bread, which tasted much nicer than its sounds. I also had an eventful trip to the toilet too, as a mural depicting a bottom-bearing local being whipped by, presumably, his wife, looked over me as I squatted.
With a belly full of Eastern European meats, I was ready to embrace the next part of the tour. However, Andrey informed me that this was the concluding part of the tour and he’d be heading home. It was at this point that I reminded myself to ask next time I book a tour when it actually finishes.
Andrey stood by his pride and joy – his saloon car – which he spoke a lot about during our time together. He showed me the modifications, he told me about how it took him and his family to Russia and back, and he pointed out where it had had work on it before he bought it. It all went over my head, by the newly developed straight part of me was able to nod confidently and I think I even said “carburettor” at one point.
With a firm, very heterosexual handshake, Andrey wished me well and thanked me for visiting his country. His parting comments included an expression of hope for a union with Moldova, going forward, which was rather heart-warming. However, in the wake of his departing car fumes, I was left wondering what I was going to do for the next seven hours, when my return train to Moldova proper was due.
On my own
My first thought was that I needed money, as Andrey had said that Moldovan leu wasn’t accepted here and I’d need some Transnistrian roubles. As the saying goes, in London, you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. In Tiraspol, the same can be said for currency exchanges. 25th October Street was literally littered with them, boasting rates that barely differed from one another. I plucked for one inside a bookshop and left with a wad of roubles and a poster bearing the Transnistrian flag.
As you would expect, my change was given to me in coins. However, this being Transnistria, things were a little different and I was delighted to see the shopkeeper offer back a handful of plastic tokens. Boasting various bold colours, it was as if I was five years old again and preparing to play with a My First Shopping set, albeit with legal tender.
With pliable brass in my pocket, I splashed out on a coffee from a street vendor and admired the city’s largest and newest church – the Church of the Nativity – a Russian Orthodox Church completed in 1999 to serve as the Mother Church of the Orthodox Christian Diocese of Tiraspol. Turning on to Karl Marx Street (well, obviously) I think I figured why all the streets were so empty – everyone was at the market.
Tiraspol’s Central Market was positively teeming with people, busy buying fresh produce, homewares and horrendously tacky knick-knacks. Despite its Soviet façade, based on the frantic shopping habits I observed, Transnistrians have clearly embraced the free market socialism the country now enjoys.
Passing under several banners featuring presidential candidates promoting themselves ahead of the upcoming elections (who depicted themselves either in a rugged business-like manner or as a staunch military leader) I stumbled across the Kvint factory.
Producing vodka in Tiraspol since 1897, Kvint is perhaps more famous nowadays as a fine producer of brandy. Producing more than 20 million bottles of the hard stuff each year, Kvint is so integral to the economy of Transnistria, the factory even appears on the back of the country’s five rouble banknote.
Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, and with reasonably-sized bottles costing less than one pound, I asked the server in the factory’s shop which was the most popular brandy they sold. Clearly not understanding what I said, she placed several bottles on the table for me to inspect and I enquired which she preferred by placing a thumbs up above each one and then pointing at her. We narrowed it down to her two favourites; a three year-old brandy and a bottle of Kvintoff vodka, infused with mint. I even got more plastic money in the change.
Several hours later, I had pretty much explored the entire city, as I weaved in and out of concrete tower blocks in a place no larger than Warwick. With the temperature dropping significantly and light failing, I decided to cut my losses and head for the train station, where I’d sit and read my book until my ride home arrived.
Just outside the station, there was a convenience store-cum-café and I decided to stop for a drink before heading for the waiting room. I ordered a coffee and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the owner, Yevgeniy, spoke good English.
After we had exchanged pleasantries, I asked him about the alcohol I had bought and he was concerned that I had not bought the best produce to take home. He then made it his mission to introduce me to the best vodka his country could offer.
Sitting at the table, he poured a generous shot and after a joint cry of ‘na zdorovie’ the vodka went down a treat. He then began to pour another and, not wanting to appear rude, I accepted dutifully. However, when the third glass was poured I made a point of saying that I didn’t want to get too drunk.
“You won’t get drunk,” he exclaimed, “we will eat between vodka!”
With that, he offered me a TUC cracker. Hardly enough to mop up the alcohol being consumed, but every little helps, I guess.
In between shots and Yevgeniy serving customers we sipped on a locally-made fizzy soft drink – adorned with a drawing of Pinocchio on its bottle – and I frantically nibbled on more TUCs. The conversation was fascinating, as my host regaled stories about his experiences as a child during the Transnistrian War, when he remembered peering through curtains as soldiers fired from both sides of his street. As our dialogue flowed, so did the vodka and I was getting very, very drunk. By chance, I managed to squint and read the time on my watch.
My train was due any moment and so I gathered my things together and said a fond, yet hastily, goodbye to Yevgeniy. He wouldn’t let me pay for any of the drinks we had consumed together.
“You were my guest,” he said and smiled.
Feeling guilty, I quickly bought some items from his shop for the journey back, and waddled with all my bags towards the train station.
Yevgeniy’s hospitality was the one thing that I will most treasure from my time in Transnistria and, if you go there for yourself, please pay him a visit. His bar is situated close to the train station at 57b Lenin Street.
As I edged closer to the station I heard the engine’s horn sound and panicked, as I knew I still had to surrender my ‘migration card’ before boarding the train. I also had plenty of cash left over that I knew I couldn’t exchange once back in Moldova proper.
Therefore, I made the snap decision to transfer my roubles back into leu and enter the station via the unlocked side gate, so as to avoid the ‘border’ guards. This worked and I was on the train with seconds to spare.
The train pulled away from the station and my heart continued racing, as I now realised that I was on-the-run from a country that doesn’t exist. However, several minutes later we had passed Bender, crossed the Dniester and were chugging back into Moldova, so I felt I could relax and let my alcohol-induced state take over. I think I was gurning on the journey back, but I didn’t remember much of it as I blanked out, only waking as the train grinded to a halt in Chișinău.
Walking back to my hotel, my head began to clear and I looked again at my ‘migration card’ and wondered how the Transnistrian police deal with fugitives. I reassured myself that I was safe now, but might have to rethink a return trip anytime soon.
My day out in Transnistria was both bizarre and eye-opening in equal proportions. I had visited a little corner of Europe where the iconography of the Soviet Union continues to flourish and its people seem to have ignored all that has changed politically around them with a twisted sense of history.
Still, the world still turns, and I met some lovely people who feel very passionate about where they come from, yet they offered no hostility towards Moldova proper. Perhaps the two countries will come to a more substantial agreement in the future.
In the meantime, rip up whatever you think you know about modern day Eastern Europe and embrace all what Transnistria has to offer, brandy, vodka and all.