Despite our best efforts, Peder and I had somehow found ourselves standing at the entrance to the notorious Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic – or Transdniestr, as it’s called in English. What should we do? What could we do? We were stuck at a remote border crossing with a bus full of Moldovans and Ukrainians, none of whom spoke a word of English – including the driver. There was no way back and only one way forward. So we did the only thing possible: we grabbed an immigration form, filled out our names, and prayed that we make it through in one piece.
When our turn at the front of the line came, the officer took one look at our passports and waived us aside. “You must pay ten dollar” he barked at Peder, myself, and another German who happened to be riding the same bus. Of course, none of the Ukrainians or Moldovans had paid a penny – just a flash of their passports and they were good to go.
“Entry permits are officially 12 lei (about $1), available at the border – no matter what the guys on duty tell you – and aren’t required for stays of less than 10 hours,” our guidebook said. We showed this to the officer but he didn’t seem to care. “Ten dollar” he barked again.
They must love it when a Westerner naively shows up at their door.
Whatever, $10 was nothing in comparison to some of the horror stories I’d read of travelers getting shaken down for hundreds, on the basis of violating some nonexistent law – and thankfully I just happened to have an emergency $20 in my suitcase – so although I was now fresh out of cash, we were soon on our way.
I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get any unusual new stamps in our passports – I was really hoping for some crazy entry permit riddled with communist propaganda or something equally wacky. But despite making a special point to ask, he assured me that no such stamp existed.
Keep this in mind.
Driving through Transdniestr was just as surreal as I’d imagined. Before entering the capital city of Tiraspol, the land was pretty unpopulated – just hills, trees, and farms – then suddenly, as if an invisible line had been scrawled in the sand, the clustered buildings began.
Inside the city everything was written in pure 100% Cyrillic, and everything – from the architecture to the vehicles – looked like the set of a Hollywood movie about old Soviet Russia. Armored tanks parked in the middle of the highway with their barrels pointed into oncoming traffic, and every so often we’d pass clusters of armed soldiers or camouflaged bunkers alongside the road.
Streets were cracked and unmaintained, as were most of the buildings – with the strange exception of the huge, modern “Sheriff” grocery stores. Probably half the men we saw were roaming around without shirts. Red billboards with communist imagery supplemented murals and graffiti calling for reunification of the Soviet Union. I felt like that rickety old bus was a time machine, and for a brief few minutes, I’d been offered the impossible opportunity to photograph Communist Russia through the lens of a 2010 digital camera.
Sadly, almost none of the photos made it out of the country with me. But more on that later.
As soon as the bus stopped in Tiraspol to drop off a few passengers, Peder and I ran to a nearby kiosk to buy a pair of ice cream cones. We didn’t care about the ice cream, what we were after was the change – a handful of Transdniestrian funnymoney. It may be valueless anywhere else in the world, but how many people do you know who have a 1-ruble bill from a country that doesn’t even exist?
Less than an hour later we reached the exit checkpoint and the border with Ukraine. “This looks pretty reasonable” Peder observed. “I was envisioning something more like a random guy on a stool with a gigantic rifle. I think we’ll be fine.”
Here, instead of pulling the whole group of passengers off the bus, a single guard hopped on to quickly glance at each individual’s passport. He took one look at mine and beckoned for me to follow him. He didn’t even open it to check inside – the nationality on the cover told him everything he needed to know.
He pulled me aside and without the slightest hint of a smile began his well-rehearsed theatrics. “Big problem, no documents, come with me.”
Oh boy, here we go.