As we approached the border to Transdniestr (a country not recognized by anyone in the world), the large man sitting next to me pulled out his passport. I looked over to see a red cover with gold letters emblazoned on it: CCCP.
That is the Russian equivalent of the abbreviation for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yes, I was about to head into what many people say is the last trace of true Soviet culture. I was full of nervous anticipation as I had also heard that the border guards liked to hassle and demand bribes from foreigners – especially those who do not speak Russian. I was hoping my Russian would be passable if I ended up having to answer any questions.
Crossing the border ended up being much easier than expected. About half of the people in my mini-bus exited (presumably those without a CCCP passport) and went to a small building to go through immigration. Somehow, I ended up being the last in line but the driver of the bus waited in the building with me until I was finished. The officer seemed surprised to see an American passport but his sole questions consisted of asking me if I was leaving that day (visitors can only stay 10 hours without going through more paperwork) and how to pronounce my first, middle and last names – he was writing the Russian equivalents on my registration form. Then he stamped the form and wrote in the time by which I was required to depart.
I had until 9:40 p.m. to explore Transdniestr.
The first thing I noticed upon arriving in the capital, Tiraspol, was how quiet and empty it felt – a stark contrast to the chaos and crowds of the bus station in Chisinau. I found a money exchange to change some Moldovan lei for Transdniestrian rubles – just enough to buy something to eat and buy a bus ticket back to Moldova because once I left Transdniestr, the currency would lose all value. That’s what happens to currency from a country that doesn’t technically exist.
I walked down the aptly-named Lenin street from the combination train and bus station to the main drag in town, 25th of October street, stopping for a stroll through the small Kirov Park on my way. For a city of nearly 200,000 people, they seemed to be few and far between on the streets. It was a little eerie.
Just like Chisinau, Tiraspol is not a particularly attractive city and the lingering snow and ice did not help. I stopped into a Russian Orthodox church and walked through Constitution Place before making my way to the War Memorial at the far end of 25th of October street. Unlike most former Soviet countries whose war memorials honor those who fell in World War II, Tiraspol’s remembers those who died in the fighting in 1992 after Transdniestr declared its independence from Moldova. And of course there was the obligatory Lenin statue.
After less than two hours, I was kind of bored with Tiraspol.
However, I wasn’t ready to leave Transdniestr just yet, so I hopped on a trolleybus across the Dniestr River to Bendery, the other “major” town in Transdniestr with a population just over 100,000. Bendery had a slightly more residential feel to it, with streets full of small houses mixed in with large Soviet era apartment buildings. I also found a slew of political posters promoting close ties with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.
While my guidebook spoke of the 16th century Tighina Fortress possibly opening to the public by the time I visited, I couldn’t quite figure out where it was located. So I snapped some pictures and took a look at Bendery’s war memorial before finding the bus station to catch a bus back to Chisinau.
Crossing the border on the return trip was even more painless than entering and, to my disappointment, they didn’t stamp my passport on either occasion.
Perhaps it is because I spent the last six months traveling in former Soviet countries, but Tiraspol and Bendery didn’t feel all that different or interesting or “more Soviet” than any other place I visited. If anything, they were simply a little more empty and a little less commercialized (the only chain I saw was a Moldovan Andy’s Pizza restaurant).
I am glad I went to see Transdniestr for myself but it also felt like a bit of a waste. And even though I was nervous about possible hassles or bribe shakedowns, I left wishing something like that did happen so I would have at least had a really good story to tell at the end of the day.