Some of you guys reading this have seen the YouTube video documenting my visit to the city of Tiraspol. For those who haven’t, this is the full written account of how this idea to visit a “country that doesn’t exist” played out.
So, let’s start at the beginning: An idea. Simply stated, I enjoy traveling and I do a lot of reading online. Usually, I read about normal places – you know, the kind of countries which are recognized by the UN and whatnot. But by chance, I stumbled upon a Wikipedia article about Transnistria – and its “post-Soviet frozen conflict” status. To make a long story short, I was fascinated.
However, there were a few elements that made visiting Transnistria more difficult than, say, Jamaica or the Bahamas. Number one: the distance. In a broad sense, it’s over by Russia – and that’s not close to Miami. Number two: the language barrier. I don’t speak a lick of Russian, or any other languages for that matter. Number three: the fact that, in essence, it’s not a real country and what may occur at the “border” is totally unpredictable. The screenshot below is from the official U.S. Travel.State.Gov website:
When A.K. is determined, though, A.K. will find a way. And that “way” was an incredibly discounted plane ticket to Moldova that I happened to discover on Travelocity. Considering there is no airport in Transnistria, and Moldova is the closest bordering country – I had no choice but to book that flight and make the journey. Especially considering the insanely low price I found the ticket at – the universe was telling me that it was time to see Tiraspol.
THE PATH TO TRANSNISTRIA
So, let’s get right to the good stuff. I flew over to the former USSR totally by myself, with one mission in mind: find a way to get to Tiraspol and see the “country that doesn’t exist” from the inside. After a long flight with two layovers, I arrived in Chisinau – the capital city of Moldova – and spent a full day and night exploring it and soaking in the Eastern European vibes.
Chisinau did not strike me as poor or dangerous, even though it is rumored to be. Although some of the concrete apartment buildings look rough and rugged, everybody seemed nice enough and the streets were busy with people going about their days and their lives.
During my day in Chisinau, I started chatting with these guys who worked at my hotel to get some ideas of where to go and what to do. I asked them casually about Tiraspol – and they told me it was a “Russian military mafia town” complete with grenades and AK-47s for sale in the street (I’m not making this up, the Moldovan dude actually told me this) and a nightly city-wide curfew.
The one guy said he had been there, and his advice to me: if I even go at all, only go for the afternoon and be sure to get back to Chisinau before nightfall. I heard him, and sorta believed him, but I guess I just didn’t care. The next morning, after some brief research online from my hotel room, I ventured to the Chisinau bus station (which is a story in and of itself) and found a sign for one headed to Tiraspol.
FROM CHISINAU TO TIRASPOL
This is the point in the story where the language barrier first kicked in. As I attempt to board the minibus with the sign to Tiraspol, the man keeps trying to ask me questions in Russian to which I have no idea how to answer. I keep saying “Tiraspol, da?” (the ONE word of Russian I had learned thus far). After some more talking / arguing in Russian, he leads me around the corner (away from the bus) and directs me into an unmarked van parked in a street space. At this particular moment, I began to wonder in my head if this was really such a good idea after all. But, I decided to wait and feel it out. Then based on my gut instinct, either I would go along with him or hop out and sprint down the street shamelessly to regroup.
After the driver guy returned with a few other people – a young couple, a few older Russian women, and a young schoolgirl – I eased back and realized this is obviously the way it works, and all these other people already know the deal. So, as we pulled back and started the drive through inner-city Chisinau and on to the open road – I grinned and reminded myself that to get to a politically disputed territory in Moldova – you gotta go with the flow and do as the Moldovans do 😉
The ride across Moldova’s countryside was relaxing and interesting. When we finally arrived at a checkpoint on the road, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Nothing really even happened at this first roadblock / checkpoint / border / whatever it was. But eventually, we reached another roadblock which was manned by soldiers: this was the border of Transnistria, and this small makeshift booth on the side of the road was their immigration office. I thought back on what I had read online about shady border guards shaking people down for money, arresting them for nothing, etc. We were, after all, in the wild wild east.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Everybody else on this minibus was a local – I was the lone, random, out-of-place American guy who was required to get out and talk to the border guards. They looked over my passport and asked me some basic questions in Russian to which I had no answers; and I could see the hilarious awkwardness that the minibus driver was experiencing. The soldiers were looking at his paperwork and asking him the questions about me, and he kept shrugging and nervously laughing, suggesting (from what I could make of his body language) that he didn’t know where I came from – I had just showed up and got on his bus.
Another guard stepped into the conversation and asked me (in very broken but understandable English) what I was coming to Transnistria for. I answered “tourism” and he let out a grizzly Russian laugh. He said something to the other guard, and they both chuckled and shook their heads – perhaps in amazement. He then asked me where I would stay, and I replied “Tiraspol Hostel.” He couldn’t seem to understand what I meant by Hostel, and kept naming different hotels but I kept saying Tiraspol Hostel. Eventually I think they gave up, laughed it off as a language problem, and granted me a 24-hour visa to stay. He told me that by this same time tomorrow, I had to either leave the country or visit the local police/immigration station to request a visa extension.
And just like that, I had my official entry stamp and was cruising into Tiraspol.
The driver proceeded to drop everybody else off where they were going, and then did his best to figure out where I was supposed to be going. I kept telling him “Tiraspol Hostel” but he (just like the soldiers at the border) seemed to have no clue where I was talking about. He drove around for a while, even asking a few people he saw on the streets, but eventually got annoyed and just dropped me off in front of a place called Hotel Timoty. This entire 80-km van ride into a different country cost me $4 in US Dollars.
Now, let me elaborate on the Tiraspol Hostel situation. I had discovered this hostel during my online research, and the website promised a free tour of the city by an English-speaking local with all reservations, vodka included! But the peculiar thing about the website, as official as it seemed, was that they didn’t have a form to book the room or accept payment. Instead, it directed the viewer to email them… which I had done a day or two beforehand… but I still had not received an email back with any information (or even an address).
Unsure what to do as I stood in Transnistria, alone, with no room reservation and very limited cel phone reception… I decided to check out the Hotel Timoty since I was right outside of it anyway. I wandered inside and, to my pleasant surprise, the lady behind the desk spoke pretty good English. I asked her how much she would charge me to use the hotel’s wifi… because even though I didn’t have a reservation there, I would gladly pay just to get onto the Internet and use my email. When she told me I didn’t have to pay, and she would just give me the password for free to help me out – I was floored.
After checking my email with her wifi, I continued chatting with the lady behind the counter and eventually decided just to take a room there. I was already there, and besides, her genuine desire to help me out and refusal to accept money for the wifi made me want to support her business. For $30, it was a done deal and I was staying the night at Hotel Timoty. She even offered me my choice of any room I wanted, because they were ALL available. I guess Tiraspol doesn’t get a ton of tourists.
The Hotel Timoty was clean, convenient, and had great wifi signal. My room was pretty basic but it was perfect for what I needed and wanted – I hadn’t come to Transnistria expecting 7-star hotels like Dubai. After dropping my backpack off and freshening up, I went out with my GoPro camera to explore and take photos. Tatiana at the front desk gave me great advice about which direction to go, what there is to see, etc… and off I went.
IMPRESSIONS OF TIRASPOL
By the time I was really out and about, the sun was setting and evening was rolling in. As I strolled down the big wide sidewalks and admired the old-school style buses cruising up and down the streets, I wondered how anybody could dislike this place. It’s a charming city with a vintage look to it; and despite the statue paying homage to Vladimir Lenin & the hammer-and-sickle on their flag, it seemed like an otherwise regular place. Cars zipped up and down the streets… young people walked around the parks and plazas while playing around and laughing… adults moved about, seemingly going to and from their places of work and homes. For being a “breakaway territory” unrecognized by the UN, the place surely functions like a normal independent country.
For all intents and purposes, Transnistria is a very real country that DOES exist – regardless of its political status in limbo.
And even though the weather was overwhelmingly grey, I felt incredibly cozy in Tiraspol. There was a peaceful, almost romantic steadiness in the air – everything about it was very cool, and almost mystical. In creating my video from the footage, I tried to capture that mysterious element by replicating the calm but obscure vibe I felt.
I didn’t feel unsafe at all, and nobody bothered me – not police, not soldiers, not regular people in the streets. Everybody I interacted with was respectful & friendly, and otherwise minded their own business.
After it got too dark to take good photos with my GoPro, I headed back to the hotel to get some rest. When I logged back the wifi, I was shocked to see that the Tiraspol Hostel had responded to me via Facebook. Slightly annoyed but moreso curious, I messaged the man behind the Tiraspol Hostel to find out why he had never replied to my email. He replied with an apologetic story about losing his phone a few days before, and all the backlash he was getting from people just like me who had emailed him. I brushed it off and assured him I was good at the Hotel Timoty, at which point he invited me out to meet up for some food and drinks.
I walked over to a place called Seven Fridays, and joined Tim along with a local Transnistrian dude, a reporter from Poland, and two German travelers who were apparently doing the exact same thing I was doing. We all ordered some cognac and appetizers and sat around for hours trading travel stories, laughing, and discussing Transnistria. It was awesome.
The German guys were going to the club that night and invited me to roll with them, but I was pretty tired. Though the idea of getting bottle service in VIP at the best nightclub in the city for only $8 US Dollars was tempting… but I had goals to achieve the next morning, so I had to pass. I walked back to my hotel room and quickly fell asleep.
VISA EXTENSION? DA!
I was up bright and early the next day, and out into the streets to take GoPro footage of the sights and sounds of Tiraspol. I did an obscene amount of walking and tried to capture as much video as I could, but after a couple hours of exploring, I went back to the hotel to grab some breakfast. Tatiana was back at the front desk again, and she informed me that my visa was only valid until about 3pm so I would need to be on a bus out of town before that. She also suggested I go see Odessa (Ukraine) instead of heading straight back to Chisinau, and that sparked my interest.
She made some calls and tracked down all the bus schedules for me, explaining that I could catch a bus to Odessa in a few hours if I wanted to go there. I decided that would be my move… and then, as a courtesy I suppose, she gave me a lift down to the local police/immigration office and filled out all of this paperwork just to get me a Transnistrian visa extension. She explained that in case I missed the bus or decided to stay longer, I would now be able to do so freely without any issues.
SAYING GOODBYE TO TIRASPOL
On the ride back to the hotel, we talked about my long journey to Transnistria. She said, with such genuine innocence, “See, Tiraspol is nice? The city is nice, the people are nice. You can tell your friends back in America now that this place is not so bad, yes?”
I can say, now, from back in America – to the world – the answer is Yes, Tatiana. Not only did I achieve my goal of visiting a country that doesn’t exist, but I actually learned quite a bit above and beyond my initial expectations. The main thing I learned was, as I mentioned above, that regardless of its official status – Transnistria is definitely operating as a real country… and it is definitely worth visiting. I also proved first-hand that the scary stories you hear and read about are rubbish. I’m not saying that other people didn’t have problems when they went – but I’m telling you for a fact, I didn’t. And I went alone, without a tour guide, without a tour group, without a set plan, without speaking the local language. And I was just fine!
I highly recommend visiting Tiraspol if you ever find yourself in the region, and I also highly recommend staying at the Hotel Timoty which Tatiana runs, and/or connecting with the infamous Tiraspol Tim & his hostel.
3pm came that day, and off to Odessa I went. My trip to Transnistria was over seemingly as quickly as it had started. But I promised myself I’d make a little vlog with the footage and write about my experience in full. So… mission complete. 😉