Fancy visiting a country that sort of doesn’t exist and is in a de facto state of frozen conflict? Here’s my guide to Transnistria, land of tanks, churches and colourful currency.
Anyone familiar with my blog might know I’m on a mission to visit all the European capitals before I hit 40. One I’d been putting off for a while was Chisinau, Moldova, for one simple reason: there’s nothing to do. In fact, possibly the only vaguely entertaining reason for heading out that way is to explore the breakaway region of Transnistria (officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic). So that’s what I did.
Understandably there are no Lonely Planet guidebooks for disputed ex-Soviet territories, so when planning this trip I trawled YouTube for some basic guidance – I found very little of use.
When I got back to London I decided to put together a travel guide video containing everything you need to know in 6 minutes. Watch that if you’re in rush, otherwise please read on for more photos and in-depth information.
Transnistria is a breakaway region within the country of Moldova; but Moldova itself is a country within the historical region of Moldovia which also crosses into Romania. Like Macedonia (check out my visit to Skopje) to say this place has a complicated history is an incredible understatement.
In 1991 Moldova declared independence, snuggling up to its BFF Romania and western Europe. However, for various reasons Transnistria became snagged on the collapsing USSR, leaving it today as the only (sort of) country in the world with the hammer and sickle on its flags, coins and even the buses. Yup, even Russia aren’t on that kick any more.
Despite officially being part of Moldova (as the receptionists in my Chisinau hotel were always keen to point out), Transnistria has its own thing going on with a bespoke (and highly collectible) currency, parliament and army. Plus a heap of Lenin statues that they’re not giving up any time soon.
You can visit this Soviet-throwback state in less than a day (unless you really, really like cognac, monasteries and dirt roads) and it’s relatively easy to get there.
Getting to Transnistria:
There’s a bus but get a taxi and hire a guide instead
The main Transnistrian cities are Bender and Tirapsol (the de-facto capital). You can’t fly to either directly, you need to travel from Odessa in Ukraine (which I’ve heard can be a faff) or take the easier route from Chisinau in Moldova.
If you’re feeling adventurous there’s a super cheap bus that travels to Bender and Tiraspol from Chisinau but it looks sketchy and uncomfortable; you’ll be on ropey roads with no suspension, sign posts or GPS for at least 45 minutes.
Pay for a taxi and arrange a tour guide. Just do it. They will help you get your visa from the Russians at the border (very handy) and they’ll drop you off exactly where you need to be – this costs about €50-60 return and it’s worth it. I’ve linked to a good tour provider in the video.
The border, your visa, and not being able to use your SIM card
The Moldovan/Transnistrian border is looked after by Russian… *cough*… peacekeepers who will give you a paper visa stating how long you can stay in Transnistria for – do not lose this if you fancy leaving as you’ll need to hand it back on the return trip.
You do not want to get stuck, lost or stranded in Transnistria as you’re only allowed to be there for the limited time written on your paper visa, and not even a Moldovan SIM card works in this region. You will be very alone with very little to do.
Keep your passport on you at all times. You’ll need it at the border and if authorities question you.
As you can imagine, they’re not a fan of the Moldovan currency
Take some Euros with you to exchange at one of the Sheriff brand supermarkets. I changed €20 into Transnistrian Rubels and I had waaaayyyy more than I needed for the day. They don’t accept Moldovan Lay; you can’t use it anywhere.
As I’ve said, try and book a tour guide. I know adventurous types like to go to destinations and find their own way around, but guys, seriously, I watched a lot of 30 minute rambling YouTube videos where people had gone and wandered about aimlessly… this isn’t the best place for that sort of trip.
You need someone to show you around so you don’t miss the very few treats this destination has in store. My trip to Moldova was itself tacked on to a trip to Romania because the region isn’t geared up for traditional tourism, and if we’re being brutally honest you have to do some digging to find interesting attractions in the area. I booked a tour guide (Andrey from http://transnistria-tour.com) and it was well worth it.
What did you get up to in Transnistria?
First stop was Bendery Fortress, Bender, a 16th century Ottoman fortress with just-about-walkable ramparts, a fairytale carriage (!?), a museum, plus one of the only places to buy Tiraspol mugs and magnets – a gift shop!
There’s a castle tower with some dodgy ascents (those lovely EU health and safety regulations certainly don’t apply here – check out the video), and the locals were celebrating pancake week which became incredibly creepy as storm clouds gathered when the wind picked up. The corn dolls would be set alight later in the evening.
My guide talked me through the history of Bender from a very Russian perspective, which I found that fascinating if skewed. Bender and the fortress has bounced back and forth between the Turks, Russians and Moldovans for hundreds of years. Even Charles XII of Sweden had a pop long before it saw the heaviest fighting, that of the 1992 Transnistria War. In fact, the fortress has not long been open as a tourist attraction having been a permanent base for the Russian military till quite recently.
Between Bender and Tiraspol there’s a monument to the Jassy–Kishinev Operation. Situated seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it marks an area that played a pivotal role in the conflict between the Red Army and Axis forces, causing Romania to switch allegiance towards the end of WWII.
On the approach to Tiraspol you’ll pass through the village of Chițcani with it’s all male monastery (ready for tourists, though the toilet situation needs some work) and Lenin tributes, before reaching a ferry platform that takes you over the river Dnister into Tiraspol proper.
We arrive in Tiraspol where Maslenitsa (pancake week) is in full swing. The festival culminates on this particular Sunday with a celebration in the capitals’ Liberation Square. There was a performance with children singing and adults dressed as stone ovens chasing the winter away.
Wandering around the centre there were several interesting examples of Soviet architecture, including what I’m told is a very much active “KGB” building, the government building and the city hall.
You’ll also see the three flags of unrecognised nations that have formed an outsiders club with Transnistria (Abkhazia, the Republic of Artsakh and South Ossetia), plus more tank monuments, eternal flames, and – you guessed it – lots of statues of Lenin.
Two things you MUST do in Tiraspol: Transnistrians are very proud of their caviar and cognac; it’s super cheap and easy to find both in the supermarket. Secondly, while you’re in the shop changing euros for rubels, make sure you ask for a set of their fabled colourful plastic coins.
And that’s about it. Worth noting the colours on the bridge out of Tiraspol if you want some idea of what’s going on in this time capsule land-locked country between Moldova and Ukraine. Pretty sure it’s no coincidence that each time Moldova gets closer to Romania and Ukraine to the EU, regions like Transnistria rumble. Absolutely fascinating place.
Is it safe to travel to Transnistria?
This is a hard question to answer. Fundamentally yes… but it’s as safe as you make it. Remember you’re within a frozen conflict zone and there are literally tanks and Russian peacekeepers between the borders and throughout this breakaway republic. Do not go pissing them off or photographing the army and you’ll be alright.
Unless you’re making a feature length documentary on cognac and wacky flags there’s no reason to stay beyond 5 or 6 hours – so just pay the money for a tour guide and get the best experience you can.
I visited Transnistria, Moldova and Romania in early March 2019. Photos/videos shot using a NIKON D750 (AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G) & iPhone 8. Please ask permission before using my photos.
Any questions? Please tweet me @robholley.
(Apologies for any historical/political inaccuracies – I’m happy to learn!)