Nothing So Sinister about Transnistria

Country #4 in the North Cape Hypothesis, #17 on a bicycle — which country is it though? — my passport now has an exit stamp from Ukraine, but no entry stamp — what does any of that even mean?

Transnistria might have been the first place i’ve ever visited just a couple of weeks after first hearing about it. When i was still in Bucharest, preparing to leave with my bicycle towards Odessa and beginning to think about my route back to Ukraine through Moldova afterwards, my host Paul warned me, pointing to a map on their wall, “there has been some tension around this area.” A couple of days later, in Galați, i learned from my host Dan, who had been to Transnistria about ten years before, that the issues i might face had a somewhat different nature — i was not so much to expect the danger from an ongoing civil conflict as the unwritten rules of a breakaway state in an administrative limbo. Another couple of days later came my next host Yuriy, in Izmail, and that, too, went largely away — “i have friends there, i visit often myself, you won’t have any problems.”

In Odessa i then met Nastasia — “where are you from?” — “Tiraspol” — “Transnistria!?” — “oh, you know about it!” — “i’m going there!!” My initial reservation about what and how much to ask her wound up being totally uncalled for — she was delighted to share her experience growing up in Transnistria, and i was fascinated by her astute observations.

Still a bit apprehensive, but as prepared for what may develop as one could possibly be, and now also rightfully excited, i left Odessa loving my life like few times before.

very first impressions

On the border they first offered me only a 10-hour transit visa, as expected. But then i told them that i would like to stay longer — “do you have a hotel reservation?” — “i’m going to stay with a friend” — i gave them the address of my host in Tiraspol, and i now had a 24-hour visa, which i thought would be more than enough for me to figure out what to do. The customs officer was friendly and polite, and it went just like it does most of the time, with all the standard questions about my overarching objective and what they might find in my luggage — “personal items and camping gear” — “OK, safe travels.”

The first thing i noticed upon entering Transnistria were the roads, which were impeccable — quite a blessing after about a month in Romania and Ukraine, where road quality oscillates between bad and worse. It was the first place where i noticed the three-lane system, which i thought to be a rather clever concept — drivers in either direction use their respective right lanes, and the middle one is just for overtaking. Traffic was very mild anyways throughout the whole of Transnistria in general and Tiraspol in particular, which certainly helps a lot to keep the roads in good condition. Either way, i was grateful for the blessing — Tiraspol was by far the most pleasant city arrival of my entire cycle touring career to date — it felt much like arriving in a typical countryside village, except perhaps for the buildings and underlying infrastructure.

My host was in the other end of town, and it was close to dawn, so i slowed down but didn’t stop — we’ll do more sightseeing before leaving tomorrow. Two guys in a car pair with me, slowing me further down — it gets harder and harder keep my balance while talking to them, so we eventually all stop. It takes a little while until another car stops behind them and becomes impatient enough to start honking their horn. They start moving again, and pull into a small lot further down the road. I don’t remember whether or not it was clear that they did that expecting me to stop also and resume our conversation, but so i did — i hadn’t yet been able to find an open Wi-Fi connection, and needed help contacting my host. They offered to lead the way there, and i agreed to follow.

A rather warm welcome so far — diligent border officers, good roads, friendly locals.

the most interesting boring place on Earth

My host in Tiraspol, was a rather chilled guy, and we seemed to have quite a lot in common despite our diametrically opposed political leanings. I believe the best way to summarize it is that we seem to share this strong desire for the most uneventful possible existence — if i understand it correctly, he grew up in the capital of his home country (like me), was educated in the US (like me), set up a reasonable source of passive income and retirement security (working on that), then wound up in Tiraspol, where he figured he would be able to live a good enough life without too much of a hassle (precisely what i believe i found in L’viv). We parted ways on his apparent nostalgic feelings for Soviet times — though i will say that our conversations have at least made me revisit some questions for which i had thought i already had the best answers — what is/should be the role of government in our self-actualization? — to what extent do conducive circumstances for that hinge upon our underlying political context? — might Western democracies have simply created the illusion of freedom for their citizens at the expense of the reality of limitation for those outside? — it doesn’t seem like many people under even the best-functioning representative democracies around have fully bought into such illusion anyways.

Vitaly helped me register so i could stay longer in Tiraspol, an opportunity i gladly welcomed. The procedure takes a bit of time from you and your host, but it’s otherwise quite straightforward — there were no lines, and i don’t believe the clerk even ever looked at me — she just seemed a bit irked from having to fill out (by hand) yet another handful of forms with the relevant pieces of information from our respective passports. They didn’t seem to care about how long i stayed, so long as that amounted to a number of days smaller than or equal to 45 — i asked for three days, they gave me a week — word has it that one could in principle keep re-registering for rows of 45 days indefinitely, and the only institution that could potentially have a problem with that is the government of Moldova — which i heard in turn rarely makes a big deal out of it either.

A great opportunity to experience more of the place — meet more chilled, friendly people, and engage with them in innocent activities ranging from having a weekday picnic in the park to attending the screening of Latvian cartoons,

venturing (by bicycle) out of Tiraspol, sampling the first layer of villages away from the city, only to experience the same flavor of countryside hospitality as anywhere else i’d been, and also across the Dniester River and into the nearby city of Bendery,

play with my recently acquired action camera,

and drink a fair amount of kvas, to which i got hopelessly hooked, and hoped i’d be able to continue finding throughout the former Soviet world.

They have their own money (Transnistrian rubles), which at present can only be bought and sold in Transnistria. It has some of the most interesting features of any currency i’d ever seen — this includes but is not limited to plastic coins (in different geometric shapes, not just the round one shown in the picture), and an actual photograph on the back of their 5 Transnistrian rubles bill!

I’m surprised nobody has found the person in the photo and made them a celebrity for 15 minutes yet.

no red flags at all?

Sure. There are notable symbols of Soviet pride all over the place, such as well kept statues of Lenin, or the hammer and sickle in their flag.

IMG_1081.jpg

In hindsight, i honestly have no idea what to make out of that.

A friend of mine reacted seemingly upset that they still use the hammer and sickle in their flag when i shared a photo of my arrival in Tiraspol in my FB wall. She’s from Denmark, which ironically still uses a cross in their flag!

Apparently, symbols can be quite robust. Ideologies, on the other hand, i’m not so sure anymore — while the church in Denmark has gradually become a cultural relic, with their buildings hosting an ever increasing proportion of avant-garde jazz recitals over religious services, Transnistria seemed to be, for better or worse, a free market society where it would not be difficult for a foreigner to come in and start their own business, as my host in Tiraspol had just done.

I’m not here to discuss politics.

very first expressions

Incidentally, Tiraspol was where i started feeling an urge to stay longer than just a few days at the same place. Was it their quiet that i needed? Perhaps that urge was a reaction to the initial institutional restriction on how long i could stay? Or did the restriction simply draw my attention to something that in practice had already been the case all along?

I travel following and relying largely on the hospitality of locals. So, at least practically, my stay just about anywhere has also been constrained to the 24, 48 or 72 hours that my hosts have agreed to have me in their home — with a few notable exceptions, longer stays usually come with the expectation that you’ll give something in return — may we call that a “working visa”? There’s no free will in this Universe — only manifolds of conservation laws — we’re all stuck in an elevator.

Walking down the street with my host Vitaly and his friend Ol’a, i noticed a language center — what if i found a place to teach English for a few months somewhere in the world? I figured walking in to ask wouldn’t hurt, and was encouraged by their openness to having someone from outside teaching English there — they heard my English, found my story interesting, and it seems like it would have been mostly a matter of working out the underlying paperwork — to my surprise, the possibility of just doing it as a visitor and getting paid under the table was never implied.

It was the cordial Nataliya, from the Tourist Information Center in Tiraspol, who connected me with the folks at the language center.

IMG_1075.jpg

I don’t remember whether i understood them to be connected with each other, or if simply first walked into the tourist information center by mistake. I told Nataliya that i’d stop by when i came back for my appointment at the language center, and we ended up talking for quite a while. I was impressed with their resourcefulness, especially after hearing that they had only opened one week before. There was a variety of pamphlets and brochures describing suggested activities in and outside of Tiraspol, about most of which Nataliya was prepared to talk at length. Their postcards and fridge magnets were simple and tasteful. They clearly want people from outside to visit.

go for it!

The gist of this is that my time in Tiraspol was about as uneventful as it could have possibly been — whether or not you consider that to be a good thing, nothing much happened there. Sure, i have not tried dancing naked on top of the tank in the WWII memorial in Tiraspol or testing the limits of Transnistrian authorities’ agreeability in any other stupid way. I minded my own business, and they minded theirs — whatever it is. In contrast, just before the beginning of this cycle tour, i was briefly detained and interviewed by the police right in front of the house where i’d lived for the previous two years in Copenhagen, Denmark — presumably for walking back from the train station at a leisurely pace while checking my phone.

So, are you nearby and considering whether or not to visit Transnistria? My only regret is not staying longer and exploring more of their countryside — next time 😀


read more

This article is the fourth one in a series about how my expectations and prejudices about each country i visited during The North Cape Hypothesis, my latest cycle touring project, have been challenged by my actual experience in them. You may read the first three about SerbiaRomania, and my first time in Ukraine by following the links!


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