I’ve been interested in break-away states ever since I read a NatGeo article about abandoned train stations in Abkhazia. So, as you can imagine, I was very curious when one of my colleagues discussed his dramatic visit to Transnistria. He described buying a train ticket from Odessa to Chisinau and then having to jump from the slowly-moving train as it rolled through Tiraspol. That may have been the case in 2003. In 2017 it’s much, much simpler than that.
What is Transnistria?
Transnistria is an unrecognised country between Moldova and Ukraine. After the Eastern Bloc was divided in the early 90s, Transnistria (officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or PMR) declared that it did not want to be part of Moldova. A short but bloody independence war later, and the two countries are now in a state of “frozen conflict”. In 2006, the PMR held a referendum (neither recognised by Moldova, nor the rest of the world) where it asserted its independence and voted to support a union with Russia.
Transnistria is currently only recognised as a country by Abkhazia, South Ossetia (breakaway states on the Russia-Georgia border) and Nagorno-Karabakh (disputed state in Azerbaijan). Tiraspol is the capital and largest city of Transnistria.
Getting to Tiraspol from Odessa
Busses to Tiraspol leave regularly from both of Odessa’s bus stations. You can check the schedules here (the ticket website spells it “Tyraspol”). Odessa Pryvoz is very close to the central train station (Novoshchipnyi Ryad St, 5) however there are more options from Odessa station (Kolontaivs’ka St, 58).
It takes just under 2 hours to reach the border. When we reached the Ukrainian border, a guard came on board the bus and collected everybody’s passports. They also brought a sniffer dog onto the bus. A short wait later, the guard came back with the huge stack of passports (it was a full double decker bus, so between 50-60 people) and dumps them onto the lap of the Moldovan lady next to me. She divided them into Ukrainian and Moldovan passports, handed off the Ukrainian passports to someone else, then began calling out surnames so people could come and gather their passports back.
We then rolled across the bridge, which is the official “border”, and a Transnistrian guard came on board to collect our passports again. When he took mine, I was told to get off the bus so they could issue me with my visa. You can get a free 10-hour “transit” visa (even if you’re going in and out via the same border-crossing they still call it a transit visa). If you want to stay longer, you’ll need an address for them to register you. The visa will have the time to the second that you can stay in PMR. Despite the many warnings I had read online, no-one even hinted that they wanted any sort of bribe or money to change hands. As it should be. (It was really straightforward – I’ve been given a harder time trying to enter London Heathrow.)
It’s about 30 more minutes on the bus to get to Tiraspol. The bus will drop you at the train/bus station. Almost as soon as I got off the bus, three guards stopped me and asked me (in Russian) what I was doing. Once they worked out I was Australian, they spoke in perfect English and, somewhat apologetically, asked to see my passport and entry card. (Despite being told to always have my passport with me, this is the first time anyone has ever actually asked to see it) They also defied my expectations by not asking for a bribe. They were in fact, very kind, and told me that if I had any trouble just to come back and find them.
The first thing you need to do is organise your trip back to Odessa. You can either get a direct bus, which are fairly infrequent, or take a mashrutka to Kuchurgan (Кучурган) which will drop you at the PMR/Ukraine border. You walk across the border yourself and as soon as you clear the Ukrainian side there are mashrutkas waiting to take you back to Odessa. The blue signs in the bus stop car park will tell you where to wait for you ride.
For information about getting to Tiraspol from Chisinau, or to travel from Odessa to Chisinau via Tiraspol, check out Liam and Mariana’s post.
The only hostel in town is Lenin Street Hostel.
Money in Transnistria
Transnistria has its own currency, the Transnistrian Ruble. Because it’s not a real currency (despite how it may look and feel) you can’t get it out of the ATM. I’ve read that you can withdraw USD or Russian Rubles and then exchange them, however I brought Ukrainian Hryvnia and exchanged those. You can also exchange other major currencies including Moldovan Leu. There is an exchange counter immediately outside the station, which I used before buying my ticket back to Odessa. There are many others, almost on every street corner in the city centre. Make sure if you have any left over Transnistrian Rubles than you exchange them before you leave, as nowhere else in the world recognises them as legal tender. Prices in Transnistria are slightly higher than Ukraine or Moldova, but still very affordable, and there isn’t much to spend money on.
Make sure you collect some of the plastic rubles. While there are 1, 5 and 10 ruble notes, you can also find them made of colourful plastic. If you ask nicely at a shop or a bank they are (in my experience) very obliging. There is also a 3 ruble which is a green square. They feel slightly thicker than a guitar pick, and are surprisingly light.
Sights of Tiraspol
The main street of Tiraspol is called October 25 Street (commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). To get there, you will come out of the train station and head down Lenin St. On the way you will pass through Kirov Park, which has a newly built Orthodox church.
Pass the Kvint Cognac Factory (or go on the tour at 3pm, whatever, I’m not the boss of you) and turn left onto October 25 Street. Outside of the City Hall building (in Russian, literally House of Soviets), you will see the bust of Vladimir Lenin. Apparently there is a photo ban on the building, but there are no signs anywhere to that effect. I took quite a few pictures on my DSLR, with no effort to be secretive and I had no problems.
Address: 25th October St, 101
If you keep going along October 25 St, you will reach a small bust of Yuri Gagarin, the Transdniestrian State University, and the theatre. Otherwise, head back the way you came towards the centre of town.
Don’t miss the Abkhazia and South Ossetia embassy – you’ll see the flags out the front of the office building.
Address: October 25th St, 76
There is a Soviet T-43 (my favourite!) which serves as a monument to the Soviet victory in The Great Patriotic War, known to most of us as World War Two. In the same area there is also a memorial to those who lost their lives in the War of Independence against Moldova.
Address: 25th October St, 50
On the other side of the street, you will see the second infamous statue of Lenin, outside the Parliament building. Maybe this is where the photo ban is, I’m not sure. Same as earlier, I openly took photos and nobody pestered me.
Address: 25th October St, 45
Heading back the way you came, you’ll see a large and imposing statue of Alexander Suvorov who is known as the founder of Tiraspol and a Russian military hero. You’ll also pass the Transdniestrian Republican Bank (October 25th St, 71) where the local currency is officially issued.
Address: October 25th St, 49
From what I can gather, it is also very possible to get a mashrutka to the town of Bender and back within your 10-hour time limit. There is an Ottoman fortress (which until quite recently was a Russian army base) and a military museum there.
Communism in Trasndnistria
“Strangely Soviet” “The last remnants of the USSR” “Last bastion of the Soviet Union”
These are all things I had heard or read about Transdnistria before my visit. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve spent too long living in Eastern Ukraine. Maybe I’ve spent too much time reading Das Kapital. But it didn’t feel any more or any less Soviet than many of the other former-USSR countries I have visited. Yes, they still have statues of Lenin. Yes, they have tried really bloody hard to ally themselves with Russia. Other than that… I don’t really know what I was expecting to see, but I didn’t see any peasants being forced to farm on a collective; or any active military forces guarding state secrets.
While I appreciate that Karl Marx St, Engels St, Rosa Luxemburg St, Lenin St etc. etc. are no longer particularly fashionable (is it appropriate to say “politically correct” here?), you will see these street names used in many post-Soviet cities. In Ukraine, while there have been active efforts to decommunise since 2015, many of these streets have been “renamed”, however the original signs are still in place and locals still use the “communist” names. For example, Lenin St in Zaporizhia or Karl Marx St in Dnipro.
The absence of businesses such as McDonalds may seem like some sort of grandiose defiance of Western capitalism but the reality is a result of the UN placing heavy restrictions on foreign investment in Transnistria. You can buy Coca-Cola though. And wear jeans.
On the whole, I found the experience a little hyped-up and certainly much easier than I imagined. I enjoyed my day there, the people I spoke to were incredibly friendly, the money was a delightful novelty, and not much makes me happier than a Soviet T-34. I think the only times you’ll run into real trouble is if you try to enter through Ukraine and then leave through Moldova – you may have some bothers as you won’t have a Moldovan entry stamp. But even so, the dumb tourist card will probably get you out of this situation.
Have you visited Tiraspol? Did you find it as easy as I did?