After the devastating results of the US election, the mood has been pretty grim in California where I have been staying. Sharing my personal travel stories feels inappropriate and selfish somehow. However, now more than ever we need to be breaking down borders and experiencing cross-cultural connections, and I will continue experiencing and sharing! Read on for a tale of a place you’ve probably never heard of, and definitely never been to: Transnistria.
22-24 August, 2016
After a miserable night bus from Kiev, we were sleep deprived and bleary as our marshrutka stopped at border control. We stepped inside the tiny stand, and gave a young woman with artificially jet-black hair and heavy makeup our passports and the address where we would be staying. A few minutes later, we had our registration, and could continue to the capital of Tiraspol.
We weren’t in Kansas anymore: we were in Transnistria, an “independent” republic within Moldova that is basically a present-day Soviet state. Transnistrians speak Russian, have their own currency and stamps, and really like Lenin. Everyone entering the tiny nation has to register, and can stay for up to 24 hours, which can be extended to up to 70 days once you are inside.
It was around 10:30 when the minibus dropped us off, and we went to find our “hostel”. It was kind of a weird place, but well-run by Dmitri, an English-speaking, knowledgeable local. I say “hostel” because it consisted of a regular apartment that had bunk-beds inside. Tourism inside Tiraspol hasn’t really taken off, so there’s not a demand for the swank hostels of Western Europe.
After a shower and a rest, we went out to take a look at this new world we found ourselves in. My first impression was that the layout of Tiraspol was big, grand and imposing, in a true Soviet style. Streets were wide and massive, quiet and orderly. People were industrious. We noticed two men vigorously painting some benches, and the longer we were in the city the more I noticed fences and buildings with fresh paint.
We needed some of the local currency, Transnistrian rubles, and the only way to get it was at a bank. It was a bizarre experience, with bumping dance music in the lobby and the tellers in these little glass cubes that you accessed through sliding glass doors. We also went to a book shop, with all Russian books and five well-dressed female salespeople rushing around, organizing the shelves and mopping up. Our next stop was Sheriff, a massive Russian grocery store with a million employees in blue and red uniforms, complete with little hats, running around and stocking the shelves. There we got a motherload of groceries for very little money. From these three domestic outings I noticed a trend, that working and being busy were a point of pride for people here.
Tiraspol doesn’t have any major sights or museums; it’s not a place that’s set up for foreign visitors. But we did see a number of buildings and monuments that were interesting, the first of which was the library.
I have always been in love with reading, and in our adventures together my boyfriend and I loved to visit book stores and libraries. The library in Tiraspol was a blocky, yet exquisite piece of Soviet architecture that was all marble, wood and empty space, with a small garden and a statue of the poet Alexander Pushkin. The librarians in the children’s section were surprised to see us, but quickly warmed to us and welcomed them into their delightful department. Every book was old, from the 1940’s-1990’s, and had weathered covers, yellowed rental slips, and an abundance of that wonderful old book smell. My favorite was a section devoted to classic Russian authors, which had the author’s pictures on the dividers. Upstairs, we didn’t see any books, just shelves of tiny drawers containing the still-used card catalog system and a stern librarian who was very confused by our presence. As we were leaving, I did see a few children with their parents entering and exiting, books happily tucked under their arms.
Most of the things there are to see in Tiraspol are along the incredibly long and wide October 25th Avenue, the main street through the city. There, we saw the somber, imposing government building with it’s “flying Lenin” statue, and across the street the block-long monument to the Soviet victory in World War II, complete with a real tank and eternal flame.
We also picked up some interesting, off-beat souvenirs in Tiraspol. The first was money, but not regular money. Instead of bills, Transnistria started making tokens of composite materials for the blind. Each denomination has a different number of sides, so that a blind person can easily tell how much money they are holding. Ironically, these tokens weren’t a hit with the blind population of Transnistria, since they are harder to hear than a coin when dropped, but they are much cheaper to produce than bills, so they’re very common. We were able to trade some bills for this fun currency from our host. I’ve never heard or seen anything like them!
The other strange souvenir we acquired were some stamps. Again, this sounds very normal, but like most things in Transnistria, it’s not. The local stamps can only be used within the tiny nation. Mail going to Moldova must be sent using Moldovan stamps. The post office was a little confusing. So many windows! Which one do we want? How do you say stamps in Russian? But we figured it out and got a small assortment.
As a travel destination, Tiraspol is very different. There aren’t many sights, museums, or world-class restaurants and bars. Budget accommodations are next to none, and infrastructure for tourists is nonexistent. But if you are looking for a peek inside a modern-day Soviet state and locals who are warm and friendly once they get over the shock or you being there in the first place, you can do no worse than this small capital city.
Still to come: discoveries of magic and wonder in Ukraine, France, and Germany
Good Luck and Happy Travels,