The World's Newest Non Country

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Moldova  ,
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

We agreed we would need to travel to Trans-Dnestrier in a group.  There was no way we wanted to be on our own and at the mercy of the border patrol.  We needed locals to be involved, in a hurry and moving things along. 

Thank you Mr Bus Driver!  This is exactly what happened.

After being warned by all and sundry about just how dicey a "border" crossing this would be, we set off with all our cash jammed into our socks ready for the bag searches and bribe solicitations to commence. 

Our mini-van, choc-full of grinning locals, shook with laughter as we predictably became the only two people to have to alight the bus at the border.  We were taken aside and the concept of the special new tourist Letter Of Invitation was solemnly explained to us. 

it was new legislation only out in 2007.  Apparently we weren't able to stay in Trans-Dnestrier without it.  Apparently they could speak to their major to pull a few strings and let us in with a special version if we paid them 40EUR. [Their Major was munching on cheese on toast at the time, staring out the window trying to stop himself from laughing out loud.  Later he was seen working the registers in the world's worst job at the border office].

It came as no suprise to us as we had been warned all about the special fee requests.  "What a shame" we said "I suppose we will miss out on visiting your 'country' because we can't pay this".  Amazingly for about $1 each we would be able to enter on a 10hr transit visa.

This would do.  As the place is not really a country they chose to stamp a piece of paper rather than our passports.  We thought we would just dispose of the paper and register at the OVIR offices that day.  First to find our "hostel".

By now we were used to our 'hostel' being just someone's house.  This was confirmed by her instructions "don't ask for Tina's Hostel, just ask for the address if you are lost."  Well, when street signs are optional and landmarks are few this is exactly what we were.  I was looking, as per her instructions, for the "3rd entrance in the yard of the long and lofty building" and was struggling.  I mimed to an old lady walking past that I was lost and was she, perhaps, Tina?  It turns out the answer was no, but she seemed to know who Tina was (small place I guess).  Well, I hoped that was what she was saying.  I couldn't understand a word she said. 

After a general kerfuffle she led me me through an old rusty doorway, up a dirty old staircase, past the crazed lunatic camped in the stairwell on level 7 screaming Moldovan obscenities at the both of us and towards the apartment number which Iain had written down on his instruction sheet.

She rang the doorbell.  We waited.  She rang again.  We waited again.  She took me to a few other floors and rang a few other people's doorbells and had quick, angry conversations with them.  She opened an apartment with a key and invited me in - making it very clear that I wasn't staying.  I was a little confused by now and becoming nervous that Iain would have frozen solid minding the bags in the snow outside.  I tried to explain to her that I needed to go and then return.  With zero language in common this would prove very difficult.  Astoundingly, calling out "rucksack, rucksack" with a strong Italian accent worked like magic. 

To cut a long story short we discovered (upon Tina's return) that we really did need a Letter Of Invitation (well whaddya know?) and Tina had sent us an email explaining just this late last night.  Hmmm.

Our visit to Tiraspol ended up consisting of a delightful lunch - one of the best meals I have had in a while - and a quick wander through the darkening, depressing streets.  In hindsight I'm glad we didn't stay too long as it was a run-down, disparaging sort of place filled with unhappy humans.

* * *

Tiraspol: capital of breakaway Republic of Transdniestr (if you are a local or a Russian), or second largest city of Moldova but inhabited by thieves and nutbags (if you are resident of Moldova or from anywhere else in the world). Both viewpoints made it eminently worth visiting in our book.   

Two minute history: those folks wanting to breakaway have a point. They used to be their own little place pre-WW2 before Stalin made them part of Moldova mainly for convenience's sake. They think Moldova would like to reunite with Romania: a fair estimation given the Moldovan flag is basically the same as the Romanian one and Romania has an enormous region called Moldavia. As to whether they are going about it the right way remains an entirely separate question.

No more Soviet Union equals no more having to adhere to that WW2 union. Knowing how much it irks everyone else to have this crappy little place decide its a country, Russia today agrees with and supports them, conveniently already having most of their Sixth Army parked there here plus a whole grabbag of other weaponry. (While generally a closed place, when Hollywood needs to get hold of pictures of crazy amounts of weaponry - like the row of 60 immense tanks in Lord of War - its to the arms dealers here they turn. Its that kind of place. Wackyworld.  This is also the country where a BBC journalist managed to get a deal on a nuclear weapon for $500,000. Law and order is fairly optional.)  

The border here is variously described as downright dangerous or downright shonky, depending on whether you end up negotiating with a border guard armed with a machine gun or cheese on toast. We found it all rather relaxed after the horror stories we had read. Interestingly, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has it rated as one of the safest places in the world. As they also mispelled the "country's" name, we discounted their viewpoint just a shade.  

Arriving at the border from Moldova the other occupants of our minibus started chuckling as the guard inevitably called us off the bus for problems (real, perceived, and hoped for) with our documents. Even though they too would be delayed for the duration of our enfartaroundification, the overwhelming emotion expressed to us as we made out way through the seats is best conveyed as comic sympathy. 

It was odd to note the presence of two enormous 90mm field guns (ones with two wheels that look like they are straight out of WWII) at the visa processing area. Not sure how bad your paperwork has to be for them to decide to use those. And you would certainly get fair notice as they were wheeled around to face your minibus.

Safely off the bus, it came as no surprise when the 22 year old border official explained to us that border regulations had changed very recently - just months ago in fact - and that a hard copy letter of invitation needed to be presented here as well. But, we were in luck, it may just be possible that he could put in a good word with his Major and a letter could be rustled up on the spot to ensure we were not unduly delayed in our travels. So far, a quite nicely structured ruse, and kudos was clearly due to the attempts of the young staff of a still embryonic republic.

At this point, all our friend really needs to do is walk beyond a closed door and leave us waiting just long enough for doubt to take root as to what is really needed for us to make progress. Instead, he turns to an adjacent even younger soldier who is professionaly attired in his full uniform bar boots: in their place, big fluffy slippers that nicely complimented the cheese on toast and tea he was enjoying. In response to the conspiratorial request of our guard, he almost stifled his laughter and giggled his way into the back room. At that moment I was reminded of the moment in Toy Story when the sausage dog is pretending to be Woody because he found the absent cowboy's hat: this new border guard was as much a Major as that dog was Woody, a fact jarred into place by them both seeming to say "Howdy, howdy, howdy" with the same intonation as he wandered out.

Our friend turns then back to us and solemnly intones "I have conferred with my major, and paperwork will be possible for forty euros".

Less than two Australian dollars later, we left instead with a 10 hour transit visa - following near universal advice to get through anyway you can as the real visa authorities are in Tiraspol. We were helped through this by our bus driver getting sick of waiting, and "Major" - who was oddly behind a desk in this separate building doing the work of the lowly (selling the transit visas) - not being accorded the time he wanted to ensure we were the last people there and delaying us indefinitely. If you hire a private car they have you at their mercy, but on a public minibus you at least get others with an active interest in leaving weighing in on your side.

Arriving in Tiraspol is a hard slap in the face. We have begun to seek out the stranger corners of the world, and my initial impression was of a joke that we/ I have pushed too far. Its sad to the point of desperate, and the need to suspend your eye for the comical and ironical for the duration is obvious. Its viscerally depressing as every man made and natural item seems to be in irreversible decay.

Row after row of crumbling apartment behemoths flank the square. Standing out more than you would think possible, a large proportion of the locals just give you a dead stare. Returned eye contact does not end the relationship either. Its not aggressive, its just... unsettling. Like a land of living dead.

Which is of course what it is. Which is what we came to see. But once in it, it felt a little too much like a hope for pleasure at their considerable expense.

We found our accommodation, and then received the genuine surprise that visa regulations really had changed just a few months ago. Who'd have thunk it eh? We had to laugh... the least plausible shonky display we had ever seen turns out to have been largely factually accurate, although severe doubts exist as to whether the Letter of Invitation would have passed muster as numerous stamps and exercise book entries involving our host in Tiraspol would seem hard to circumvent.

The hostel entrepreneuse was well spoken and very helpful. She was also emphatic that this was not a place you violate your visa terms if you hope to leave with your possessions, and certainly not if it was to become known to the authorities you had spent any time with her. Get on the damn bus out of town people. Her final, hushed statement to reinforce this was powerful in its simplicity "It is sad here. But you really must leave."

First stop was lunch, which, of course, was one of the finest meals with the most attentive and friendliest service we have had all year. Where that came from I have no idea - its not like they are learning from other tourists - but we dined like kings in a beautiful little place alongside the main square. English language menus, fresh vibrant produce, exquisite sauces... so, so odd.

We managed to see the "sights" of Tiraspol is a nice little walk after lunch - they are few and very compactly laid out. Tanks commemorating the revolution and marking the Heroes Cemetery are conveniently next to the main square with a conveniently located presidential palace next door and an oddly winged (it was getting dark) Lenin presiding over all. I am glad to have visited, but found myself not at all disappointed that it was confined to a transit visa.

The real loser in all this was Odessa. No bus would come in time (at all?) before our visa expired, and we were mindful of warnings not to test folks patience lest the wrath of more border officials be unleashed.

Later that night we returned to Chisinau, to our friendly gold toothed proprietor who we were very glad to find at home (having no other guests he had little reason to be there). Opening the door he roared with laughter, and to answer his quizzical look we merely answered Tiraspol. "Bad!" he roared, and opened his bear like arms to sweep us in.

Indeed. Not dangerous at all, just a reminder that a few folks are still left living a totally Orwellian life.
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Where I stayed
Tina's Hostel
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