‘Even though it´s unlikely that bringing up sensitive matters will have any other consequences than a KGB interrogation, it´s best to avoid it to be on the safe side. Remember that your embassy will have limited ability to help you if you run into trouble with the authorities, given that Transnistria is not recognised by any other sovereign state.’ Perhaps I should have read this Wikitravel advice before I set off.
‘Be careful when taking photos. Avoid brandishing your camera around military checkpoints and other places that might have some sort of "strategic importance" (this definition can vary wildly). That said, taking photos of most public places and buildings in Tiraspol should be OK. The major cities are safer than Western European and American cities of similar size and economic makeup. Also, despite the political situation with Moldova, there is essentially no threat of being caught in a military action. There has not been fighting in Transnistria for many years. By far the biggest threat to the traveller is scamming.’ It adds.’ However, even when scams are attempted, it is often for no more than a few euros.’ That’s ok then.
I booked my tour to visit Transnistria on the Internet and am a little alarmed when my car turns up to fetch me in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. It contains three stocky men wearing leather jackets. One guide, called Vladimir, one driver and one driver instructor I’m told. I feel as if I’m on a Mafia excursion, but decide not to pass on this information. Instead, I tell them they’re my Three Musketeers. TC Ted is D’Artagnan. They say I must be Milady, then, so that’s ok. I don’t understand why there’s an official border if Moldova doesn’t recognise Transnistria, but there is, and visas have to be obtained. They must not be lost under any circumstances I’m warned, or a great deal of bribery will be necessary.
Despite all the scare reports, everything goes smoothly. We navigate two border posts from Moldova and enter Bendery. It's extremely quiet, if not effusively welcoming; there are very few tourists. Bendery is the Russian name. the Moldovans call it Bender and officially its part of Moldova and not Transnistria. First stop is a circular monument and some Russian statues. There's also a Russian tank at the ready (under cover) that Vladimir tells me not to photograph. Beside the Dnieper River a restored Ottoman fortress, but I can't visit that as it's full of Russian soldiers.
Russian aid is immediately obvious from the moment we cross the border and the car stops juddering. Here the roads are smoothly surfaced. Lenin presides outside one of the many government buildings. There are soviet apartment blocks and memorials, as well as Russian police, The official language is Russian, all the signs are in Cyrillic and the currency is the Transnistrian ruble. This is appropriately pronounced rubble, as no-one will change it back to another currency. It’s all clean and neat.
Next we visit Tiraspol, the capital. The Green Market is extraordinarily cheap and Vladimir buys me far more fruit than I can eat (you can taste it all first). Then it's the memorials, Lenin, another tank on a plinth (I’m allowed to photograph this one) and a church or two. There are beggars singing in the park, as well as a woman selling cats (Vladimir says this is common) and we saunter along the high street eating grapes. Vladimir says the apartment blocks are original, middle aged, but still in good nick. ’Like me,' then. He laughs again.
So Transnistria is almost like being in Soviet Russia, but there are parallels with today’s Russia too. Much of the country’s economy is run by two brothers. This is why the name Sheriff is plastered over gas stations, shops and hypermarkets throughout the fifty mile strip. They have just installed an extraordinary complex of 14 football stadia and are now constructing a mammoth market in the centre of town. I point at another large store and ask if they own that. ‘No’, replies Vladimir. ‘Not yet,’ I suggest and he grins.
I’m still grappling with the absurdity of the political situation. Russia won’t officially acknowledge Transnistria, but is clearly providing much support, including free gas and supplementing residents' pensions. Vladimir envies the financial support and the industry of the people. He says, unlike the Moldovans, they work hard and grow food here. But it’s too quiet for him. Russia also provides over 1,000 troops (or more depending on who you believe), to the consternation of Ukraine, on the other border. Vladimir says that this was the site of more or less the entire Russian arsenal post-war. It’s unclear how much of the biggest weapons deposit in Europe still remains. No wonder the Russians like things just as they are. And no wonder Moldova just has to put up with it.
I’ve already discovered, checking in, that the capital of Moldova, Chisinau, is pronounced “Kishi-now”. In order to visit Moldova I have to fly from Almaty via Moscow on Aeroflot. It’s an adequate experience at best. There is no entertainment, or alcohol, the toilet is smelly and there’s a queue half way up the aisle to reach it. The stewardess offers me a choice of chicken or meat. I plump for chicken and am given fish. The woman in front has reclined her chair so far back that my laptop screen is in danger of being crushed –there have been words- and the battery expires anyway an hour and half from landing.
I’m on the plane with Deborah and Martin from the Golden Eagle train, who are on a very tight connection back to Manchester. They scramble onto the airport bus, but the doors shut in my face. ‘There’s another one coming,’ a passenger behind me says in a very strong accent. ‘But they’re my friends and I haven’t said good bye’, I reply. ‘This is Russia’ he grunts.
I’m now very grumpy. I’ve got to wait four hours for my connection, which takes off at the equivalent of 1.30 a.m. Kazakhstan time. My travel agent cunningly didn’t point this out. There are even longer queues for the toilet in the terminal and I have to wait so long that the vacant battery charging spots I noted, on my way in, are now all taken. I’m falling asleep and hungry and thirsty and I can’t work out how to use a card in the vending machines. The instructions are in Russian and I don’t have roubles.
The connection is running half an hour late, the plane is packed with miserable, pinched looking and poorly dressed people and it reeks of sweat, beer and farts. There’s turbulence to boot. It’s possibly the worst flight I’ve ever been on.
Three planes land at once, so there are crawling queues at immigration where the officer doesn't so much as crack a smile. There are more very long queues to pay for the car park and then there's an even longer queue to physically get out, as some folk have driven up to the exit barrier and then got out to get their ticket. It's now 1.30 a.m.- 5.30 in the morning Kazakhstan time. It's even late using UK time. I hope the poorest and least visited country in Europe is worth it. It was a last minute addition to my trip when I realised that I had been to every other country in this continent.
My first proper view of Moldova, is the road to and from Transnistria, with my Mafia, three stocky men wearing leather jackets. One guide, called Vladimir, one driver and one driver instructor. As advertised, Moldova has varied terrain including forests, rocky hills and vineyards. It also, unsurprisingly, looks vaguely Romanian, but there is nothing remarkable. Little colour, nothing out of the ordinary, no mountains. There are mosaic factory signs depicting workers waving blow torches and scatterings of soviet style apartment blocks, mostly back from the highway and alternating with more traditional villages and the spires of churches. The road could do with a visit from Tarmac and many of the houses are dilapidated and have corrugated roofs.
Vladimir says that very little is grown here, even though the soil is very good. All the manufacturing industry was either in Transnistria or abandoned after the soviet collapse. The main sources of income are wheeling and dealing - importing and exporting at a higher price and the EU. (Moldova pleads the threat of Russian incursion.) What is positive about Moldova? I inquire. I’m informed that it has the fastest internet speed and coverage in the world (The Internet says third fastest. I suppose they need it for all the wheeling and dealing,) In addition, I'm told, it had the first soviet supermarket and the first McDonald’s in the ex-Soviet Union.
The highlight of the road trip is a stop at a road side café, which makes very acceptable stuffed and coiled flaky pastries known as placinte (I think they might have attempted them on Bake Off recently). Vladimir informs me that they are so famous, folk drive out of the city specially to fetch them. No delivery service here. We sample meat, cheese (with the usual dill) and cherry. They are all good, but the cherry is exceptional. I doggy bag the remains for supper, along with the remainder of the tons of fruit we bought in the Green Market in Tiraspol.
Vladimir (I can’t help thinking of Vlad the Drac or Vlad the Impaler) is keen to give me a tour of Chisinau. I’m so tired I’m zombified, but I can’t pass up the opportunity and there might be more to Chisinau than the internet and observations so far suggest. I’m a little disconcerted when the car stops and we are deposited on the one main drag. A walking tour then - just me and Vlad. There is supposed to be Soviet-style architecture and a park. There is indeed, but not enough to revive me.
The most impressive sight is the huge staggered apartment blocks at each side of the entrance to the city. These are known as the City Gates and are gargantuan and utilitarian, rather than attractive. There are some very upmarket shops for the residents of the new upmarket apartments that back onto the main street. One shopping block is named Mall Dova. I like a good pun. I’m not sure if this qualifies.
The park here is also crammed with beggars. One mother with two children waves her finger at the fruit that Vlad is bearing and he allows her children to select some. They are extremely aggressive while choosing, attempting to pull out still more and then run off without a word of thanks. Vlad declares that the important thing is to keep an eye on their hands, as they usually pick your pockets. He says to watch the little ones especially.
The guide’s information is more interesting than the buildings. There’s the new parliament house. Vladimir says the old one was burned down in what the government called the ’soft revolution’ in 2009. He wants to know how many people have to die before it’s called a hard revolution. There’s a statue or two (Lenin has been removed here), a church or two (the high priest stole the gold off the dome of the important one according to my guide) and the mayor’s residence at the City Hall. Both he and the vice president are in jail for corruption I’m told.
(Back at the ranch, I’ve checked Vlad’s commentary. Whilst generally accurate he seems to have exaggerated about the scale of the inflagration and mixed his politicians up a bit. Certainly, several of them seem to have been involved in siphoning off a billion dollars -about 12% of Moldova’s GDP - a couple of years ago. Most of what’s written about it on the World Wide Web are garbled accounts in very bad English.)
Vladimir is scathing about the government, but says he loves his country. He is 32 and the only member of his family who has stayed in Moldova. The others have dispersed around the globe. He is working very hard to keep me engaged, refusing additional money for the tour extension, on the grounds that ‘he likes me’. I’m too tired to walk any more and feel guilty when he is so keen that I should love Moldova, but I have to lie down. Alone. I’m not quite sure what he means by saying, ‘I like you’, but a retreat seems the best option on several counts. Moldova might be the poorest country in Europe. It’s possibly the least scenic. And it’s the last country in Europe. I’ve visited them all now and this is one I won’t be coming back to.
It’s raining, so Chisinau still looks miserable and I’m off home on a Lufthansa Cityline mini-jet via Munich. They have attempted unsuccessfully to put my hand luggage in the hold. Not only have I outwitted them, but one passenger, for some reason has swapped seats with me, so I’m the only person in the two exit rows. The stewardess is very smiley and offers me a choice of chicken or egg. ‘Chicken’ I request. It’s some sort of synthetic spam. On leg two I select egg. I'm given cheese.
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