As we approached the border to Transdniestria (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 Transdniestria.
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 Transdniestria, 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 Transdniestria 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 Transdniestria just yet, so I hopped on a trolleybus across the Dniestr River to Bendery, the other “major” town in Transdniestria 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 Transdniestria 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.
24 thoughts on “Transdniestria: A Day in a Country That Doesn’t Exist”
Hello Mr. Hamilton,
I was wondering if you would by any chance let me know how you planned your trip, did you use a tour company? How did you travel to and from Transniestria? how long would you recommend for stays in post USSR nations?
All the best
Sorry Katie I meant Hello Katie, oops
I traveled independently. TO get to Transdniestria, I just took a minibus from Chisinau and back.
How long you stay can really depend – I stayed anywhere from 6 days in Moldova to 3 months in Russia. It really depends on your interests.
Hi, I am visiting Transnistria next month on 2 september 2016.
We are going on 2nd of september because thats their independence day! I read that it is the only day of the year the place really rocks! We ll see 🙂
Hi Katie – decent report here. I’ve just been as of yesterday and had pretty much the same type of experience as you. However now you can stay for 24 hours without registering so I used this to my advantage and stayed overnight with a local family. There is also now a hostel there called Tiraspol Hostel run by the only foreigner in the country. There’s a souvenir shop and I picked up some stamps and local beer too. An odd country and one that definitely needs to be seen to be believed. Safe travels. Jonny
Thanks for the udpates Jonny! Nice to hear you can stay overnight now – that would definitely give more perspective than just a few hours like I had.
Wow, Katie! I’m so glad you went here. I’ve been dying to know about it since I read about the author’s experience in a book called “The Game”. Thanks for posting!
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Interesting to read your take on Transdniestr. The time of year accounts for some of the dullness, I imagine. I was there in June 4 years ago and it was quite lively, with people out in the streets and in restaurants. (Though not as lively as Chisinau).
Totally agree with the easy border crossing. I had also heard of scary border guards, expected bribes and the like, but it was all easy and friendly.
Yeah, definitely think the season had something to do with it. But also was probably tired of visiting former Soviet cities by that point and they were all starting to look a little the same. 🙂
Seeing your pictures reminded me of my two years living in Kyiv – those ugly apartment blocks, Lenin everywhere…. I didn’t get a chance to go to Transdniestr, wish I had. Thanks for your article.
I only heard about this non-existent country a few months ago! It’s fascinating that even though they technically aren’t a ‘real’ country, they still have their own currency in place. It’s pretty cool that you go to visit this place, even if it wasn’t as exciting as you hoped.
It may have been a bit of a let down for you, which I get, but still great for those of us who may never get to such a place! I myself had never heard of it but wow, really interesting.
For a country that doesn’t exist, you were able to take some great photos. It’s eery as you don’t see many people in them. Looks like a place we’ll definitely have to check out… at least for an hour or two 🙂
Yeah it definitely felt a little empty – weird for a “capital” city!
I love visiting countries that don’t technically exist, though the ones I tend to visit are a bit more controversial (like Palestine… or Kurdistan, which I’ll likely be visiting in June). So, according to the rest of the world, what country is Transdneistr technically part of? And shame they didn’t stamp your passport!
It is technically part of Moldova, although it declared independence in the early 1990s and they fought a war over it (hence the war memorials to people killed 1990-1992). I think I read somewhere that Russian peacekeeping troops are still there.
you mean “peacekeeping” right? Not surprised about Putin on billboards.
I was so interested to hear about your visit to this non-country, sucks it wasn’t a very exciting place to see. I think it’s so crazy that people are still carrying around, and USING, their Soviet passports! As for not getting stamped, I guess Transdniestr can’t stamp your passport if their country doesn’t exist…it’s like you weren’t there! And I agree with Dalene, I don’t often go places just to say I’ve been there, but I’d totally do it there.
Wow, reading this post I felt as if I were traveling in time. Backwards. Being from Georgia, and now living in the U.S. for the past 18 yrs, it’s hard to imagine a place like that still exists. With Lenin statues and all… It’s sad. This post brought on some eerie emotions, as if I went back to my Soviet childhood. Eeek. Thank you for doing this though. I was reminded just one more time how precious and fragile Freedom is.
Thanks for the comment Maya! It’s interesting, I didn’t think too much of the Lenin statue because I saw them in just about every city I visited in Russia and in Belarus. I think for me the eeriest thing was seeing the Soviet logo around and the guy next to me with an CCCP passport.
I’m not someone who goes somewhere just to say I’ve been there…but I have to say that I’d be proud to have visited a country like Transdniestr – that doesn’t even really exist!
I also had never even heard of Transdniestr before this. In the past two days I’ve read blog posts from two places I had never heard of – Gawd, I love it when that happens…
Yep, in the end that was the biggest appeal.
Where else did you read about that you’d never heard of?
Sherry Ott wrote about an island off of Malta called Gozo. That was a new one for me! 🙂
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