September 11th – Thursday – Tiraspol, TransDniester
On the anniversary of the September 11th tragedy I ironically find myself headed to the self-proclaimed state of Transdniester whose primary industry is the black market arms trade. This is a section of Moldova east of the Dniester River which bisects the country along its north-south axis. The Russian majority in this region of Moldova was decidedly less enthusiastic about the breakup of the Soviet Union than the joyously independent Moldavians on the west bank.
Despite Moldavian offers to Transdniester of considerable autonomy, this region of bandits and crooks has demanded full independence that resulted in a horrible civil war in the early 90’s. The Russian army has been inserted on the border to serve as peacekeepers which is a bit of a variation on putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
As I understand it, no other country or international entity (not even Russia) recognizes Transdniester as a country. However, because they do have their own currency (not exchangeable beyond their own self-proclaimed borders) and because they meet a set of other curious criteria, the Travelers’ Century Club recognizes the place as one of its 314 countries. Thus, because I am a “country collector” and use the TCC list of countries, irreverently but religiously, I feel compelled to pay a visit and observe the state of affairs in Transdniester.
My guide/driver who is a bit of a Moldova legend among TCC members and Lonely Planet guidebook enthusiasts is Valery Bradu, who combines cheer, humor, knowledge and irony to bring the region to life. Valery picked me up at 1000 and by noon we had made a tricky border crossing and were in Bendery, a place of few charms where the civil war was centered in the 90s. Here we had lunch at Andy’s, a McDonalds’ like Modovian chain that serves surprisingly palatable salads, pasta, pizza, chicken nuggets and ice cream.
Valery said he is always edgy when going to Transdniester. Lonely Planet paints an ugly picture of the border crossing advising readers to have $30 in tow for bribes. However, Valery indicated this was not the case if you are traveling with him which proved to be accurate. Apparently, if you enter Transdniester with a Moldovan national, the bribes are excused. This does not however preclude bureaucratic rudeness and unexplained delays on the part of border officials.
Before proceeding to Tiraspol we detoured to a monastery that is so off of the beaten track that Lonely Planet does not acknowledge its existence. I have since ascertained that it is the Noul Neamt Monastery near the village of Chitcani. In the process of visiting this monastery we ducked back in to Moldova proper and again had to have our papers inspected by Transdniester authorities. Whatever, the monastery is of an unexpected scale for rural Moldova. You enter the monastery through the base of an immense bell tower, the largest in the country and not much smaller than the one at St. Sophia’s in Kiev. The half dozen or so churches on the monastery grounds were in generally good repair. However, it turns out that the place fell into disrepair during WWII and the subsequent Soviet era. Thus, the dozens of classic icons painted on the interior walls were all of recent origin.
There was a small museum that housed original artifacts dating back to the late 19th C. and it was clear the restoration work closely imitated the originals. Being a weekday in the countryside, we were the only pilgrims on the monastery grounds and most of the churches and the museum were locked tight. Valery conversed with a couple of 30- something bearded Orthodox monks and soon someone was dispatched to find the keys. After several minutes, he returned with huge iron key ring that was at least 6 inches in diameter. The ring held a dozen skeleton keys that ranged in length from 8 to 12 inches.
I am always impressed when I see an individual such as a building maintenance manager with a key ring holding dozens of keys of all shapes and sizes. However, in my remaining years, when the concept of world class key rings comes to mind, this one will be at the top of my list.
We returned to Bendery and crossed the Dniester River a few kilometers from Tiraspol. Bendery, a former Turkish outpost, does have one first class tourist site, an old Turkish castle which you can see in the distance as you cross the river. Unfortunately, it houses the Russian military peacekeepers or serves some other military function and is closed to the public.
When you are in Moldova, you are in the poorest country in Europe. However, when you cross into the Transdniester section of Moldova you feel that you have just left paradise. Transdniester, if you discount the Mercedes’ and BMWs’ cruising the streets of Tiraspol that are owned by gangsters, the place stands at the bottom of the heap on the shabbiness scale. Nonetheless, there is a certain charm to a place that displays one of a handful of Lenin statues remaining in the world as capitalism at its ugliest (in terms of illicit arms trading) is conducted in the shadows of the statue.
Everything in Tiraspol, streets, government buildings and monuments is done in the expansive Soviet style. The grandeur of the presentation has no connection to the surrounding desperation of the citizens, their poverty, non-existent civil rights and deprivation of personal freedom.
When we returned from the monastery we passed through Transdniester border formalities a second time. We pulled up to the Guard Hut 10 meters in front of the gate. The guard was standing in a window right next to us. Valery could have reached out of the car and touched him. For at least three minutes he shuffled papers, never acknowledging our presence.
Valery sat patiently, turning off the engine. Finally, the guard exited the hut and came and asked us for our documents. He looked at them briefly, handed them backed to us and walked back into the hut without opening the gate. We sat there another couple of minutes and Valery asked him in Russian if he would like for us to open the gate and let ourselves through. He came back to the car and stood directly beside us gazing directly ahead. After, 20 seconds, still holding his gaze, he said, “Gate? Do you see a gate?” Reflecting for a few more moments, he then said, “You may pass” and walked back into the hut.
Valery pulled forward, got out of car and opened the gate, then closed it after we passed through. He related all this to me in English as drove on. We agreed that it was one of the more Kafkaesque moments we will ever experience. The bleak world of Eastern Europe tyranny still grinds the soul of its citizens in places like Transdniester.
Valery mentioned that he was ½ Ukrainian and ½ Moldovan but that during Soviet era, he said, “We were all Russians.” His daughter is in Paris studying law and his father-in-law was exiled to Siberia during the Soviet era never to be heard from again.
We stopped in Tiraspol for lunch and to have a look around. There is not much to see save the massive government HQ buildings sporting one of the few remain statues of Lenin on the plaza in front of the building. There were a few spartan looking parks with grade school girls climbing on a sizeable tank in one of them.
When we parked the car to have a look around in Tiraspol, Valery made sure that his car (not exactly a new one but built in Europe and thus coveted in Transdniester) was parked in such a way that he could keep an eye on it while we were sightseeing. He not only locked the car but also secured the steering wheel with a lo-jack stick like the ones that are sold on late night TV in the USA. The art of car thievery is highly refined in Transdniester and a car can disappear in seconds.
We returned to Chisinau driving through what I believe was the southern approach to the city. The main road into town is notably wide and the intersecting streets aren’t all that narrow. In lieu of suburban city gates, there are two massive twin apartment towers on either side of the main boulevard that announce your arrival in the city. The city has a reputation for lively, if not always wholesome, nightlife but I chose to return to the hotel and rest up for an expedition tomorrow that promises to present the two highlights of a visit to Moldova.
During the day when we stopped to see something or the other, Valery introduced me to bant, a Russian yeast based soft drink that is remotely similar to ginger ale but in my judgment, much tastier. I highly recommend trying it during your stay in Moldova.