Sunday, November 28, 2010

Transdniester: A Guide by Ben Rich

[To see the full set of photographs accompanying this post, CLICK HERE.]

Transdniester or Pridnestrovie Moldavian Republic to give it it's full name (from here on refered to as PMR), is a small slither of land covering just over one and half thousand square miles wedged between the river Dniester's east bank and the Ukrainian border to the west. Famed as being one of the 'Breakaway Republics', it has a reputation as both a hotbed of gun running and criminality and also as a place where it is still possible for a traveller to step back in time to something reminscent of the Soviet union. People who manage to cross the border with their wallet in tact will find themselves in a land of juxtopositions. Soviet trolleybuses, Yuri Gagarin statues, Soviet buildings on the one hand and modern football stadiums, car showrooms and western style supermarkets on the other. If you are coming form Moldova people will warn you against going, citing banditism and criminality as reasons to avoid it; don't listen, the people are friendly and the streets are safer then Kishinev's. Go now to see a small country desperate for recognition from the world at large. PMR, Europe's last frontier?


Why is it a breakaway republic?
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As the USSR started it's final death throws, republics began to assert their political freedoms given to them through Gorbachev's reforms. On August 31st 1989, the then Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR voted to make the Moldovan language the only official language of the republic with Russian reduced to a second language. This had the impact of alienating the large Russian and Ukrainian population of the Moldovan SSR who due mainly to historically reasons had settled on the eastern shore of the river Dniester. Culturaly, historically, and linguistically Russians and Ukrainians are a distinct group from the Moldovans who are non-slavic and linked to the Romanian/latin culture. In the 1990 PMR declared itself a newly formed republic within the USSR, calling itself the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, seceding from it's place within Moldavian SSR proper. Despite then Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev anulling the decision of the Tiraspol Soviet no troops were sent in to uphold the presidential decree and hence the newly formed republic was left to consolidate it's place. Ethnic attacks took place on both sides of the cultural divide but it was not until after the USSR ceased to exist in 1991 that war proper broke out between the two sides. In the spring of 1992 clashes intensified and turned into all out war along the banks of the river Dniester. Fighting was most intense at Bender since the main bridge across the river is situated there and the main road into the capitol, Tiraspol. What should have been a swift victory for the army of the newly formed republic of Moldova was not so, as stationed in Tiraspol was the Soviet's 14th army who entered the fighting on the PMR side in the summer and fired on the Moldovan forces. With Moldova unable to reclaim it's lost territory and the possibility of losing more on the western bank a ceasefire was agreed on July 21st 1992. Fortunately the ceasefire has held ever since, although resentment particuarly on the Moldovan side runs high. PMR gained a degree of independance, whilst Moldova lost not only at chunk of it's territory but also a huge chunk of it's industrial output.

Independance, union with mother Russia or re-joining Moldova? Time will tell what will become of PMR.

What is it like there?
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Actually surprisingly normal, the first thing you will realise is that it is not correct to call it a Soviet playground. If coming from Moldova you will notice how much cleaner and better run the place is. The population are free to travel outside it's borders and most people hold three passports, Russian, Moldovan, and the PMR passport. People sport European fashions, tour companies offer trips to Egypt and Dubai, there are foreign tv channels and internet access, etc. Public transport is eficient and subsidised. There are pizza restaurants, nightclubs, hotels. There are also of course Soviet paraphanlia, Lenin busts, parks with names like 'Peace', streets bearing the names 'Youth' and other names the Soviets were fond of labeling things. But there is a modern football stadium and a modern car showroom all owned by 'Sheriff' the ruling elite's all encompassing company. Infact If you spend a summer's day lazing by the river eating ice cream, talking to the locals and making plans for the evening you would be forgiven for thinking you were in a 'normal' country much like any other in Europe, but then on the way back to your hotel you will notice the policeman in the car watching you, or the same face re-appearing throughout the day and you remember that not all is quite as it seems in PMR.

Getting there
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Flights: There are no international flights to PMR. The nearest airports are Kishinev in Moldova or Odessa in the Ukraine. Both are within a couple of hours by taxi from Tiraspol. You can fly to Kishinev from European capitals for vast ammounts of money considering the distance, or better yet fly to Romania with Wizz air and take the train from there (most nationalities do not require visas to enter Moldova). Flights are available to Odessa with Baltic Air and other non budget European airlines.

Bus: There are regular bus services to Tiraspol from both Odessa and Kishinev. Tickets are cheap.

Marshrutka: From Kishinev they run every hour (and vice versa).

Visas and invitations
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You may enter PMR without a invitation or visa for a day i.e no overnight stops. I was told I had to be out by 10pm. At the border you will be asked to fill in a form and pay about 50 cents to be granted entry. To stay longer you will need an invitation from a citizen of PMR. The best way to get one is through the website marisha.net where you can also book apartment rooms. You then take the invitation to the OVIR office in Tiraspol to register. It is not expensive.

Avoiding Border Shakedowns
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I will describe the main border crossing between Moldova and PMR outside of Bender.

I have always walked across this border. The first thing you will do is be waved through by Moldovan soldiers who will look at your passport wish you good luck. Along the 250 metre walk across no mans land you will notice bunkers with machine gun barrels sticking out. If either side attacked, this is the route they would take. Eventually you will reach the PMR side where a soldier will meet you and bring you into a hut. This is where any shake down will happen, they will ask how much money you have and check your passport ask why you want to visit, etc. I have always found them to be friendly. Both times I crossed the border the chief asked for a 'Present' with a smile. I was happy to give $5 just so that I have a story to tell and I like to spread the wealth but it would not in my opinion be a problem to refuse. Just keep it jolly and plead poverty with a smile. After the hut you will go to a glass fronted building where you join a queue, you will need strong elbows to get to the front and nobody tells you anything. Just fill in the form and hand over the small ammount of money then you will be given a piece of paper and are free to cross the border. If you have walked across, then border guards will flag a car down for you and insist the driver takes you into Bender or you can walk into Bender which will take 30 minutes.

Changing money
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Your first opportunity to get the local currency, the Pridnestrovian Rouble will either be to strike a deal with the woman who works in the drinks shop immediately after the border on the right or in Bender, the first town you will come to. There are exchange booths in Bender's market place or in the bank or supermarket exchange booth. When I was there the Rouble was trading at 10 to the US Dollar. You can exchange Euros, US, Hryvna, Moldovan, Russian Rouble, and – if you are lucky – the British pound.

Getting Around
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Trolleybuses and marshrutkas ply the road between Bender and Tiraspol which is a 20 minute journey across the heavily protected bridge over the Dniester. Prices are cheap. Taxis are also numerous, negotiate before setting off.

Accomodation
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When I visited, the town of Bender was under curew so Tiraspol was the only real option for overnight stays.

Hotel Druzhba

The cheapest places are rooms in apartments which can be had for about 20 Euros a night. Again, marisha.net is the best source of apartments in Tiraspol. She can put you in contact with a family who rent a room in the centre of town. The splurge hotel is the Timoty which offers near western comfort at very western prices. The Hotel Druzhba was closed when I visited, which leaves the Aist. The Aist (Stork) is a Soviet creation unchanged since soviet times. It has a bar/disco downstairs and a bar on the upper floor, it's like stepping into the 70's with out of date decor. It has rooms with antiquated furniture, hard beds, horrible bathrooms, and creaking balconies. Apparently there are single rooms with shared shower for $20 US. The service is also terrible. I'm sure there is no need to book ahead, it was empty when I visited at the height of summer.

Food and Drink
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Tiraspol's two main places are Andy's Pizza which does suprisingly good pizza and other dishes and for more of a splurge there is the German restaurant on the main square. I forget it's name but there is a statue of a fat German cook outside so you can't miss it. It's terrace is the perfect place to people watch in the summer and the food and serice are excellent. Drinks were expensive however.

For a drink and a dance you can try the Aist if its sleazy atmosphere doesn't put you off or my favourite place was an underground bar on the left of the main square. All western brand drinks are available aswell as the excellent 'Kvint' cognac, PMR's most famous export.

A great thing about PMR is that you find babushkas selling fresh Kvas on street corners for pennies. Delicious.

In the summer one of the river boats moored up on the Dniester apparently becomes a disco but I never visited it to confirm. There was a nightclub in Bender by the main market but how that navigated the curfew I have no idea. There are clubs in Tiraspol but I never visited any.

Things to do
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Not much! PMR is not really a place to go and do things, it's more of a place to go and soak up the atmosphere, meet some locals,drink some Kvint. In the summers the locals head to the beaches of the Dniester to sunbathe and socialise. Summers here are extremelly hot, bring suncream! You could watch FC Sherrif play in their stadium. They reguarly play in European competitions against top sides. A tour of the Kvint Cognac factory where you can have tastings of vintage bottles is apparently well worth it although I sadly never had the time. There is a funfair that has seen better days in Bender, just down the road from the border. The most interesting thing to do for the tourist I suppose is to wander the streets photographing Lenin statues. I was never stopped by the ever present police from photographing anything. Outside of Tiraspol there is a church which people recommended I visit but you will probably need a taxi to get there. Again 'Marisha.net' offers trips to a country farm in the north of the country where you can ride horses and experience village life for a few days.

Things to buy
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Kvint Cognac is worth a buy, the main factory shop has the best prices. Tiraspol has a bookshop where you can buy PMR maps and postcards.

[To see the full set of photographs accompanying this post, CLICK HERE.]

4 comments:

  1. Is Kvint available outside of PMR, say... in the US?

    Thanks for the awesome look inside this area!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very helpful for a report I'm doing, thanks so much!!

    ReplyDelete