How many of you have heard the name “Transdniestr?” Not too many, I’m guessing.
Transdniester – also known as Pridnestrovie in Russian – is a small rogue nation occupying a narrow strip of land along the border of Moldova and Ukraine. Perhaps the most notorious of just a few surviving post-Soviet frozen conflict zones, Transdniester technically shouldn’t even exist – and it doesn’t, at least not in the eyes of the outside world.
Yet according to this self-declared republic, they’re one of the world’s last surviving bastions of pure communism. A republic which, with Russia’s support, won a bloody civil war against Moldova in the early 90’s and has functioned more or less independently ever since. Internally, they’ve got their own currency, postal service, police force, army, and president. Yet none of this matters as soon as you step outside their borders, where their stamps and money suddenly become about as valuable as a Post-It note. To the UN – and indeed everyone outside the PMR – it’s just another slice of Moldova.
Although you may think this sounds like the exact type of surreal, off-the-beaten-path type of adventure I’d gravitate towards…well, actually, you’d be right. And up until just a day or two ago I was quite adamant about dropping in for a visit along the way from Chişinău, Moldova’s capital, to Odesa, our first stop in Ukraine. Certainly there are just a handful of places left in the world that proudly print hammer-and-sickle logos on their currency, and kneel before giant Lenin statues outside their government buildings. Certainly witnessing a place like that would be an extremely rare and unique experience. Right?
Well, I have to admit that eventually my good judgment did get the better of me – and I conceded to Peder’s opinion that we’d probably be better off taking a more roundabout bus that travels South to circumvent this “black spot on the map.” It’s hard to ignore the fact that virtually all of my research did warn that “Westerners attempting to travel through this country should avoid it like the plague.” And the fact that until as recently as 2007, their official position towards visitors was “not welcome.”
Besides, even if I did ultimately decide to risk setting foot in the lion’s den, certainly it’d be wiser to first make my way to Ukraine, drop off my stuff, then pay a visit as a day trip – bringing only limited cash and certainly no laptop, dSLR, or enormous pile of luggage. After all, you can’t lose what you don’t bring with you.
So now that we’d agreed on taking the “safe route” through, we approached the ticket window in the Chişinău minibus terminal and bought our tickets – making sure to confirm that the driver would indeed be circling outside of Transdniestr’s borders.
You know you’re a world traveler when a six-hour minibus ride from Moldova to Ukraine sounds like a typical “quick transit connection.”
The next departure was scheduled for 2:45, just a few minutes later – so we climbed aboard and waited as our driver polished off one last cup of beer before taking his place at the wheel. We pulled out of the station promptly at 2:55 😆
I can easily say that this was the bumpiest bus ride of my life. It felt like the wheels were made of solid wood. And were square. Every time I started to doze off the driver would swerve to avoid a massive pothole – or plow straight into one – and my head would smash into the window at “breakneck” speed. The bumps and vibrations were so extreme that it was almost funny – or at least it would’ve been, had I not planned on substituting the 6-hour ride for a lack of rest the preceding night.
Aside from the discomfort of riding a bus with square wooden wheels – and the oppressive heat resulting from its lack of air conditioning – the ride was fairly routine. Before long we’d reached the border, and were asked to disembark and proceed to a small immigration building where our passports would be checked.
As soon as we saw the customs declaration form, we knew we were in trouble. Big trouble.
The heading read “Welcome to Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.”