Transiting Transdniester

Jul
15th
2010

TIRASPOL, PRIDNESTROVIAN REPUBLIC — Ion was right. Transnistria is no big deal.

There are some weirdnesses to the place, to be sure. Things got a little odd before I even entered the kinda-sorta-but-not-really-country: as I wended my way through a Moldovan forest on the M14 highway, there suddenly appeared a very temporary-looking border post with a shipping container as an office. Two guards were handling the exit controls out of Moldova, which was interesting, because Moldova didn’t officially recognize this line as an actual border. The first border guard spoke some English.

“Do you know about the, uh, region you’re entering?” He was reluctant to call it a country.

“Yup!” I said.

“And you want to go there?”

“Yup!”

“Okay!” he said cheerfully, and handed me back my papers. I then rode another little bit through the forest, past piles of sandbags and rusted concertina wire that’d been left in the ditch, and pulled up at the first Transdniestrian border post. It, too, had a very temporary look to it. A soldier wearing disrupted camouflage, with an AK-47 assault rifle slung on his back, staggered up to me. His eyes were glassy, and over the stench of the Hamburglar’s burnt motor oil I could smell the vodka fumes wafting off him.

“Papers!” he said. I swiftly obliged.

He then staggered into his shipping container and yelled something at his colleague. Only a few minutes passed before he returned. “You know why Transnistria is country?” he asked me.

Uh-oh. I wasn’t prepared for this. At any rate, he didn’t want to know my thoughts on the matter. “Because Moldovans don’t let us speak Russian!” he said, pounding his chest. He then said something like “This year is twenty year anniversary of our young republic”, which was followed by more chest-pounding, and some wistful sentimental looks, and I didn’t dispute any of what he said. He then thrust my papers back at me and told me to go up to the customs booth.

“Well, that was easy,” I said.

“I just do my job,” he muttered, and sat down on his stool and lit a smoke. I drove up to the customs booth, which is where the bureaucratic fun began. As a non-Moldovan I had to legally import my bike into Transdniester, which involved filling out several forms in triplicate and paying some sort of negligible road tax. An hour or so later the forms were heavily stamped, but my passport wasn’t. It was getting dark, and I wanted to get to the capital of Tiraspol quickly. In the failing light I couldn’t see much of note, other than that the bridge over the Dniester river at the city of Bender was heavily sandbagged, well-signed with notices telling you not to take pictures, and crawling with armed sentries. I guess this is business as usual in a frozen conflict zone.

Transdniestrian transit papers: stampy stampy!

As I approached Tiraspol, I spotted a gleaming BMW dealership out by the airport. The guidebooks talk about this geopolitical curiosity as being like a trip back in time to the Soviet Union in the ’80s, all grey and drab and sullen, but evidently that’s changed in recent years. My next mission was to find a hotel. I happened upon one just off the main drag, a pretty funky-looking boutique operation that had some sort of disco in a building adjacent to its restaurant, visible through a large window. The 4/4 beats were pumping, and I walked towards the flashing lights to check out the action.

This was no ordinary disco. It was an ice rink, and a pickup hockey game was in progress. With a light show and Lady Gaga blasting. In the middle of July. I wish I got a picture. I watched some Russian-style disco hockey for a bit, then inquired about a room. The hotel was full, and they sent me across town to the Hotel Aist, which was the only place with free rooms. At last, here was the Soviet miserabilism the guidebooks had told me about! My goodness, it was awful. And expensive. I paid a few more rubles to get a non-smelly room, not to mention pink chiffon sheets. At least it had hot water.

The Hotel Aist is a living museum

I was too tired to go out wandering through town, so I repaired to the hotel bar for a drink before bed. It was quite a scene; it appeared to function as a sort of late-night clearing house for the drunk and desperate. (For my Budapest readers, imagine an unholy marriage between Piaf and Bambi Presszó, and you’ve got a good general idea of the place.) I sidled up to the bar and ordered a Kvint-brand cognac, which, apart from weapons, is the one thing they excel at making here in Transdniester, or so I’m told. I’m no expert, but it tasted great. I then ordered a half-litre of Timisoara, a Romanian beer, and took in the scene.

Almost immediately, some uproariously drunk dudes next to me started chatting me up. They spoke a few words of English, and, once they’d established I was from Canada, they all had this to say: “Hockey – good!” Then, just like with the drunken border guard, the talk turned to politics. “Transdniester – strong!” said one. “Russia – strong!” said another. I agreed with them, and drank my beer a little more quickly.

A few moments later, the first guy turned to me and flatly said “GIVE ME TWENTY-FIVE RUBLES.” I guessed he’d run out of cash and wanted another drink. I smiled and said no. I figured that if he was going to play the resurgent Russia card, he was out of line playing the poverty card too. It’s one or the other, Ivan. He again demanded 25 rubles — about three dollars — and I politely refused. He then gave up and wandered off. A while later he returned, put a sweaty arm around me, and exhaled vodka and cigarette fumes in my face. “Come with us! Girls here ugly! We get prostitute!” He pronounced it pros-ti-too-it, just like Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat. I graciously declined, finished my beer, and headed up to bed.

The next day, I rode around town, looking to take photos of anything wacky and retrograde. To be honest, the place didn’t look all that bizarre. The streets aren’t rife with contraband small arms, and no shady characters tried to sell me a suitcase nuke. In fact, life seemed pretty normal. There’s a fair amount of ice cream being eaten out in the open, as is roasted corn on the cob. For the tourist just passing through, it’s generally indistinguishable from Moldova, apart from the smattering of Communist propaganda.

Dmitry Medvedev and Igor Smirnov: BFF's

On the main drag in Tiraspol

I had to get moving towards Odessa. My friend John had expressed some doubt that I’d make it there in time, and I was hellbent on proving him wrong. I rode out of Tiraspol towards the Ukrainian border, which wasn’t too far away, and after spending an hour in the queue to get out of Transdniester, I pulled up to the customs booth.

The customs guy looked at my papers and seemed genuinely surprised. Canadian passport, Serbian vehicle registration. “Парк там!” he said, pointing at a parking spot next to the main building, and I took that to mean “Pull over there.” I was then led inside a smaller building, where three border guys with their ties and jackets undone sat around playing cards.

What came next was an elaborate ritual that I’m sure plays itself out dozens of times a day at this border crossing. First, the customs guy thumbed through all the pages of my passport. “Where is Moldovan exit stamp?” he said, feigning surprise. The guy was a terrible actor. “There no stamp. You must to go back to Moldova to get stamp.”

I sighed. Of course there was no Moldovan exit stamp, because the Moldovans don’t recognize the Transdniestrian border, and as far as they’re concerned you never left their country. I stood there dumbly, wondering if I had enough gas to get back to Tiraspol.

Ten or fifteen minutes passed while they played more cards, and one of the guards came up to me with a pen and pad of paper. He wanted me to write down the quantity of all the currencies I had on me. Sensing what was coming next, I started writing down pitifully small quantities: 10 U.S. dollars, 20 Serbian dinars, 10 Croatian kuna, 2000 Hungarian forints, 120 Romanian lei, 40 Transdniestrian rubles, 550 Moldovan lei, 5 Euros, and a Canadian fiver. They then took the paper and fussed over it for a few minutes. Two of them left, leaving just me and the boss in the small room.

“Give me your Moldovan lei,” he said, and I dug into my wallet and handed the wad over. He fished out five hundred-lei bills, and handed back the smaller denominations along with my passport. That was nice of him. “Little gift,” he said. Then, with a wave, “Bye-bye.”

Forty bucks just to get out of Transdniester. Well, it could’ve been worse. I hopped back on the Hamburglar and wasted no time crossing into Ukraine.

Next stop: Odessa!


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    I think you should keep a running tab of bribes you had to dish out on the trip.

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