See those dotted lines around Tiraspol on the map above? That means something.
Sandwiched in between Moldova and Ukraine lies a breakaway/renegade self-proclaimed separatist region officially known as Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic or Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status, but most travelers know it famously as Transnistra.
Since the War of Transnistria in 1992 and its subsequent ceasefire agreement with Moldova, it has remained as one of 4 non-UN (aka unrecognized) post-Soviet “frozen conflict” countries in the world (the other being South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Artsakh) and with possibly 3 more on its way (Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic, and Crimea) at the time of this posting. As you can imagine, like its 3 other fellow unrecognized countries, this has led Transnistra to remain stuck in a Soviet time warp since the fall of the USSR in November 1991.
Obviously when in Moldova, you don’t pass up a chance to enter a separatist region, especially when it’s currently pretty safe to go (no, seriously)!
Thanks to our new friend Aryk, whom we met yesterday while transiting from Munich to Chisinau (we hit it off pretty quickly after finding out we were both born in the same hospital and that he had heard of The Monsoon Diaries before), he referred us to his friend Dima and his friend Alex for a privately guided trip into Transnistra. Although I was preparing for the DIY public bus and bribe-the-guards-at-the-border routine, I thought it would be a more off the beaten path experience to have our own private car and a local take care of all of the entry/exit drama for us, thus saving our money for more important things such as the local Transnistrian cognac and Soviet memorabilia.
We were picked up by Dima’s friend Alex at 10am from our hostel, after which we stopped by a gas station for some water and snacks. Then it was off for an hour’s drive towards the Moldova/Transnistran border.
We first stopped at a Moldovan checkpoint, whose guards will just let you through without checking any passports (technically that’s because they don’t recognize Transnistria as a separate country but rather as another part of Moldova).
Then we drove past a Russian peacekeeping checkpoint, whose guards also let us through without checking for anything.
We drove up a few kilometers more where we finally reached the official Transnistrian border, whose guards then took our passports for inspection.
Obviously, do not take photos here.
Especially not when they’re checking your passports for entry.
Or when there’s signs that say no photos.
After about 5 minutes of waiting, they return your passports with “visa slips” as your “stamp.”
Then you’re inside Transnistria! Drive onwards!
The first city you pass through is the border town of Bendery, which is in this kind of “no-man’s land”: Although politically you’ve been stamped into Transnistria, it’s still outside the official geographic “borders” of the region, which makes it both geo-politically Moldovan and Transnistrian.
We first stopped at the Military Cemetery.
It’s only when you cross the Dnister River from Bendery into the capital city of Tiraspol that you’re truly in Transnistria:
You’ll pass by the recently built Sheriff Stadium (named after the former Transnistrian founding leader) on your left, built to accommodate the local Moldovan team FC Sheriff and its football games:
And then we do the time warp again. There’s Soviet signage everywhere once you drive into Tiraspol.
We even got to drive by the local KGB headquarters without getting interrogated.
The main sights in Tiraspol should begin at the western end of Tiraspol’s main boulevard of Strada 25 Octombrie, at Ruinele Cetății de Tiraspol.
The city’s oldest building and now both a museum and a church, Ruinele Cetății de Tiraspol is the only remnant of the former fortress that once stood here and fought off the invading Ottoman Empire. Paces away is a former mass grave of 5,000 locals who were executed for their Christian faith by the Soviet Empire.
Walk along the main boulevard eastwards and you’ll first hit the immense Federal Government Office Building , aka the Sovietul Suprem şi Guvernul al RMN:
The Memorial of Glory is across the street, paying tribute to all the soldiers who died for Transnistria.
The Tank Memorial sits right in front:
Continue walking east to the Monument to Suvorov:
Turn north along the Monument here to reach the Zeleny Market, aka the city bazaar:
Right beside the market is the Christmas Cathedral:
Head back south onto the main boulevard and continue walking east past this pretty medical center (TiraMed) . . .
. . . past City Hall . . .
. . . before reaching the end of the boulevard at the Drama & Comedy Theater House:
Past where the boulevard ends and forks off lies Pobeda Park, a serene oasis to people watch and see kids attempt to ride on the abandoned amusement park within.
For lunch we recommend the Moldovan local favorite chain La Placiente, where we ordered way too much food for cheap:
We spent about 5 hours here in Tiraspol before having enough and driving back to Bendery and paying 25 Transnistrian rubles each to enter the Bendery Fortress, which once housed the Russian Peacekeeping Forces that were stationed here.
You can pose for a photo op here by riding on a bomb and doing your best impression of Major “King” Kong from Dr. Strangelove (which is fitting given that we’re in a place like Transnistria):
But the real draw is the real fact that rarely any tourists come here, let alone know about this place at all. We really had the entire fortress to ourselves.
Luckily for us, sunset was a perfect time to climb to the top of the fortress walls.
As newly befriended Reece would say (and I’m paraphrasing generously): “It’s not everyday where you make a bunch of new friends and the first thing you do is travel together to an unrecognized country.”
No, it’s definitely not.
So it’s 4 hours later and after Reece rallied 10 other guys from our hostel for a final night out drinking, with my leading the way, we ended up doing a pub crawl through Mojito, Eli-Pili, and finally back at Draft. Oddly, a bunch of Russians randomly came by and drank on our tab without paying for their share. When we found this out, Ben went out and took care of business.
However, one of the would laugh in his face when Ben asked for them to pay for their fair share, so he ended up clocking the dude in the face and getting the rightfully owed 200 lei in return. At this point Nick and I were already walking back to the hostel only to see Ben come up with a bloodied, bruised hand and telling us what happened.
Although I don’t condone violence, Nick’s a good man to have around.
– At time of posting in Tiraspol, Transnistra, it was 50 °F – Humidity: 89% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy