There are two forms of adventure travel: there’s the boring “free-fall kayaking off the north face of the Eiger” adventure travel and there’s the “what the fuck was I thinking when I came to this hellhole?” adventure travel. I prefer the latter.
I hope to visit as many inappropriate places as my meager finances and vacation hours will allow. Paris? Feh. Alaska? Meh. Moscow? Neh. I want to see the places that people want to leave. I want to visit war-torn towns and decrepit villages. I am more entranced by a dispossessed Hungarian dacha than by a gleaming Tokyo skyscraper.
Which brings me to Transdniestria. What is Transdniestria? It’s a breakaway republic located on the banks of the Dniester river (get it? Trans = across, Dniester = the river).
Can you see it?
Feel free to read the long-ass entry about Transdniestria in Wikipedia.
But here’s a quick synopsis: Moldova and Transdniestria (pronounce it like this: tranz-duh-niss-tree’-uh) were once part of Romania. The area was called Bessarabia. Historically, Moldova was treated like a bitch, but it eventually became independent of Romania.
The fun times didn’t last. Moldova came under the influence of the USSR. The tiny nation remained very Romanian, though. Romanian language, Latin alphabet, the whole nine yards.
Transdniestria, however, was the industrial center. The Soviets encouraged people from throughout the Soviet empire to move in and make the machines run. To this day, Transdniestria is a largely Russian-speaking republic and uses the Cyrillic alphabet – even though it has no border with its motherland anymore.
Not only is Transdniestria Russian in tongue and pen, it is one of the last Stalinist-style regimes left on Earth. It is the nation that time forgot.
The House of Soviets in Tiraspol, the capital.
One is hard-pressed to understand why this plucky little breakaway republic decided that an authoritarian Soviet government was the best choice when the entire world was running away in the opposite direction, but I guess that’s what makes the place so noteworthy.
It’s also what makes the place so obstinate. The Moldovans weren’t happy about these Russkies walking off with Moldova’s industrial base, so a war occurred in 1991-92 to win back the territory.
The Russian 14th Army backed Transdniestria and the Moldovans were thrown back across the Dniester. Since then, an uneasy truce exists, and a propaganda war has taken its place.
Transdniestria has struggled to get international recognition, but their quirky ways have scared off most of the civilized world. In fact, the only two “governments” that fully support Transdniestria are the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the two regions at the center of the recent unpleasantness in Georgia.
So, we have Moldova – Europe’s poorest nation – claiming that Transdniestria is legally part of Moldova with no legal right to break away, and we have Transdniestria – Europe’s weirdest enclave – claiming that it was never part of Moldova and that it has the inalienable right to determine its own destiny.
Where’s the truth? Is Transdniestria really a lunatic asylum? Or have the jealous Moldovans merely demonized an otherwise calm and friendly hard-line Soviet regime? The only way to be sure is to go there yourself, which is what some intrepid tourists have done.
One of the few frank and interesting travel journals you’ll find online is from a Singaporean fellow named Weecheng. Read his tale here. For those of you short on time, here’s some highlights:
“We walked through this small city – dirty and run-down compared even to many ex-soviet states. This shouldn’t be surprising, for the state is broke, and there is little economic activity except smuggling. They issue their own stamps but have to affix Moldovan stamps in order to get them posted out of this mini-state.”
“The huge Presidential Building with the statue of Lenin stood nearby. A huge flag of PMR flew above. Web acquaintances have warned about taking photos here, but seeing no police around, I have decided to go ahead. Suddenly, a young man dressed in smart, well-ironed suit ran out and asked us to go into the building. It was forbidden to take photos here, he said, and we need to hand over the film.”
Happy fun times in free and democratic republic of Transdniestria!
OK. So maybe Transdniestria is a bit heavy-handed. Maybe they’re not the most enlightened culture in Europe. You might even say they’re bonkers.
But Transdniestria wants you to know that they’re not bonkers. In fact, they want you to know that they are among the most prosperous, democratic and lovable republics in eastern Europe. Just visit one of their propaganda public relations websites to learn all about this frisky and fun destination:
Pridnestrovie.net (“Pridnestrovie” is the preferred Russian word for the republic)
“See through the absurd rhetoric and you’ll discover that life in Pridnestrovie is fairly normal. Whatever Moldova’s propaganda-mouthpieces would have us believe, Tiraspol far more resembles a quiet Eastern European town (and a pleasant, leafy one at that) than North Korea. The young people chat on their mobile phones and sit in Internet cafes; the elderly gossip on benches while chomping on sunflower seeds; buses and trains frequently head into nearby Ukraine and Moldova.”
Visit Prednostrovskaya Moldovskaia Respublica!
“[Transndniestria] is more socially cohesive and economically vibrant than its larger neighbour [Moldova] – a failed state if ever there was one. Much of the reason for the divergence in living standards is that the Pridnestrovians have followed a more cautious approach to economic liberalization keeping many of the social benefits that existed under Communism. Compared with its neighbor, Pridnestrovie is like the Riviera.”
Clearly, what tourists have found and what these websites claim are in stark opposition. But that doesn’t mean I’m convinced either way. Often, the truth lay somewhere in between two extremes.
One day, I hope to find out by seeing the place for myself.