Sep 082010

There I was, standing alone with a tall, armed, Russian-speaking border guard in a country that isn’t even supposed to exist. It was clear from his demeanor that he wasn’t playing around. It was also clear that he had no intention of letting me leave his little fantasyland before getting from me whatever it was he wanted. What wasn’t clear was what he was saying – something along the lines of “big problem” and “no Moldova exit stamp.”

Okay, so maybe it was sort of clear what he was saying – but because his English was so poor, I did the first thing that popped into my head: I pretended not to understand.

Eventually he went into his office to make a phone call, so I took the opportunity to slip all my souvenir money out of my wallet and bury it as deep in my backpack as possible. Although I had virtually no local currency on me, I wasn’t about to risk the huge variety of foreign bills I’d accumulated over the preceding weeks of travel. It was pretty obvious where this was going, and though I couldn’t back out now, I at least hoped to save what I could.

We receive continuous reader feedback reporting disturbing hijinks at the Transdniestran border crossings, where organized intimidation is used to separate travelers from their money. Accusations of incomplete paperwork or invented transgressions lead to ludicrous ‘fines’ starting as high as 200 euros. Some alleged offenses border on the absurd, such as not having visas (unnecessary) or letters of invitation, acquired at the Transdniestran Embassy (nonexistent). Being invited into a hut with several looming, armed guards is not uncommon, where your infraction(s) is (are) grimly pointed out in a farcically massive, ancient tome, written in indecipherable Cyrillic script. Then the haggling about your fine begins. You will be directed ‘by law’ to show them all your money – a brazen way for them to gauge the size of the fine they can impose. If you resist, a theatrical performance designed to heighten anxiety and break your will commences: ominous forms are filled out, your bags will be pulled off your bus, presumably leaving you stranded. Anyone without passable fluency in Russian is in for a hard time.” -Lonely Planet

When my new Transdniestrian friend returned from the office, he expressed with a grim look that the only solution would be for me to return to Moldova and obtain the proper stamp in my passport. As it stood, I simply couldn’t be allowed to cross into Ukraine.

First off, he couldn’t possibly have known that I was missing an exit stamp before opening my passport to look inside. Second, there isn’t even a Moldovan/Transdniestrian stamp, as I learned when I specifically asked for one at the border. But here I was, in the middle of nowhere with a bus full of irritated Ukrainians and Moldovans sweating impatiently in the background. What, was the bus of 30 passengers supposed to drive me back? Was I supposed to walk?

Of course not. The answer was obvious. Shakedown.

If any of you have read The Game by Neil Strauss, you may recall his tale of accidentally finding himself driving through Transdniestr. For those who haven’t, read it – it’s one of my favorite books. Or at the very least check out Chapter 10 of Section 3. Long story short, the line of BS that I was currently being sold – about needing to return to Moldova to get the proper documents – was almost identical to the story Neil published in his popular novel. In fact, during my Internet research I myself had stumbled across numerous recounts of nearly identical encounters.

As I stood there in the blistering heat with the armed guard glaring down at me, I glanced through the office window behind him and noticed that the only three passports on his desk, which he’d neatly separated from the rest of the pile, were mine, Peder’s, and the German’s. Just like on the way into the country, the Moldovans and Ukrainians got processed without a second thought but the Westerners were all isolated from the group to be relieved of their legitimately-earned money.

Off in the distance, a well-dressed man and his pregnant wife were speaking to another officer in a similarly threatening stance. The woman’s head was buried in her hands as she sobbed at full volume. That is, until her husband opened his wallet and passed a handfull of bills to the angry-looking officer. Bribe-in-hand, he at last waived them through and returned to his post, waiting for another set of victims to harass. Business as usual at the Transdniestrian border, I guess.

Moments later, Peder and the German were brought over to join the fun and games. For some reason they had their bags X-Rayed first, and when nothing wrong could be found, were brought in under the same fabricated violation as myself.

Then the show took a rather unexpected turn.

With a big smile and an almost exaggeratedly friendly vibe, a second guard approached and whispered something to the first. He winked at us and beckoned that we follow him inside.

It was the old Good Cop/Bad Cop routine.

This officer tried patiently to explain the problem – in his very limited (but slightly better than the first guard’s) English:

“This is Transdniestr, not Moldova! You need Moldova exit stamp, must go back to get one.” We explained that we’d paid a $10 entry fee, gotten our paperwork, and taken a bus straight through – just like everyone else. We reiterated that nobody on the bus had received exit stamps, and that we’d even specifically asked for one but were told that no such thing exists. Not only would going back to Moldova be impossible, but it would be utterly pointless.

“You payed him $10? Okay…$10 to enter, you give me $10 to exit. Everything okay, bus go now, no problem.” He clapped his hands together to indicate it was a done deal.

Truthfully, we didn’t even have $20 between us – we’d deliberately used up all our Moldovan currency before departing for Ukraine, and as mentioned, I gave my last emergency $20 to the guard who demanded it on the way in. I opened my wallet to show him, and he quickly noticed the ATM card.

Oops. Stupid Justin. His next suggestion was that we go back to Tiraspol and withdraw the necessary funds.

I told him that my card wouldn’t work in their ATMs as they don’t connect with any of the international networks. Yet he kept trying to pressure us by saying things like “the bus leaves in 1 min – you should hurry and pay, or you could miss it!”

Outside, the driver calmly smoked in the shade while his bus full of passengers waited with expressions of hopeless resign. And of impending heat stroke.

“Look, what do you want us to do? We don’t have any cash, we can’t go back, and there’s no such thing as a Moldovan exit stamp anyway. We researched it in the guidebook, brought ten times the amount it said would be legally required, and after satisfying the first guard’s demands we now have nothing left. What do you expect from us? We were barely in your country for an hour.” Peder pulled out his guidebook and showed him the section where it clearly states, if the guards tell you it costs any more than $1 or $2 – the official cost of a visa – they’re in fact breaking the law.

“Is just little present, no problem” he said. “You give me little present and go Ukraine.”

I put my backpack on the ground and completely emptied my pockets. “Look, no money. I can’t give you what I don’t have.”

He immediately grabbed my $400 waterproof camera.

Oops again. How could I’ve been so careless 😡

Seconds later he was flipping happily through my photos, laughing at party shots from the night before and, much to my dismay, deleting nearly every picture I’d taken of a tank, bunker, soldier, military checkpoint, or basically anything of interest during my ride through Transdniestr.

Thanks a lot, jerk.

Though I do have to admit, despite his infuriating behavior and unwarranted demands, he really was pretty good at the whole buddy-buddy routine. It wasn’t so much what he said, but more of his vibe: a jovial warm smile which he somehow maintained no matter what was going on. In retrospect, it was certainly a better situation than suggested by the Lonely Planet excerpt above. In fact, if we didn’t already know that the alleged infraction was totally bogus – and that this country’s officers are famous for inventing laws to extract bribes from travelers – I probably would’ve believed that he was just a nice guy trying to protect us from his hardass coworker.

But I did know, and it was really not cool.

Eventually the German volunteered that he had some extra dollars, offering to pay for the lot of us. Personally I don’t think he should’ve, but by the time the money was brought into view the damage had been done – an implicit deal had been made. The guard instructed him to lay the cash on the table. He then removed his ludicrously oversized Soviet-style officer’s cap, placed it over the bills, and surreptitiously slid them towards himself.

Oh, but that still wasn’t quite enough – before excusing us he first had to grab Peder’s guidebook and insist that it would make a nice gift for his son. I couldn’t even tell if he was joking or being serious, but honestly, neither would’ve surprised me. We told him “no, if we give that to you we won’t even be able to find a place to stay in Ukraine.”

Eventually he just let us go.

I think what gets me the most about the whole encounter is that these “officers” weren’t even trying to hide what they were doing. Peder said he’s been shaken down before in the past, but has never experienced anything even remotely this blatant. And you just know they’re running the same little script on every Westerner who passes through. Personally I find such behavior even more repulsive than the family of gypsies who pickpocketed me in Sarajevo – because these men are supposedly getting paid to enforce the law. And despite their country’s desperate attempts to gain international recognition and respect, guards like these choose to give the whole place a bad name by illegitimately shaking down as many travelers as they can – under the pretense of imaginary violations, visa fees, and when all else fails, compulsory ‘presents.’ They couldn’t care less about making a bus full of their “comrades” sit and wait in the sweltering heat. It’s all about putting a few extra bucks into their own pockets.

But I guess the concept of integrity just doesn’t register with people like these.

Before I accidentally found myself passing through Transdniestr, I was genuinely excited about the prospect of taking a daytrip and roaming around in such an unusual wonderland. But by the time we made it back onto the bus after being hassled for more than an hour, I’d seen more than enough. All they managed to get from me was a mere $10 – far less than I would’ve brought into their economy than if I’d spent a day touring the city – but thanks to the officers’ shameless behavior, I’d no longer be pumping even one more penny into that odd little country.

Goodbye and good riddance.

  6 Responses to “Shakedown in Transdniestr”

  1. sad tale

  2. I’ve read about that place. They don’t have jails. They just shoot you and don’t ask questions before or after.

  3. that sucks……way to stay focused tho

  4. @Ali: I guess I REALLY got lucky then! 😛

    @Aunt V: Yeah…there’s a LOT of corruption out there…

    @Andy: Yeah – but who knows how I woulda held up had they taken the “shove their gun in my face” route instead of “good cop/bad cop”!

  5. ah you got the camera back, phew.

  6. Yeah…no effing way would I’ve left without that!

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