Moldova is the only country in which I have had my seat on a train sold out from under me by an unscrupulous conductor before I even got on.
Moldova is also, however, the only country in which an unknown man has entered my train compartment, sat down on a lower bunk, whipped out a gigantic accordion, and given an impromptu one-man show as the engines switched outside. One song! Two! Three! Four! Five! Out onto the train tracks once the crowd got too large! Backup singers appearing spontaneously! Dancers whirling in circles on the jagged gray stones of the trainyard!
So, you know, it all evens out.
Moldova. Moldova. I’ve got to be honest here, I don’t have a lot to say about Moldova. I was browsing online travelogues and discovered a blog post about the place that ended memorably: “Have you ever been to a country that just felt a little blah?” Okay, so “blah” is a good description of my experience… but I also think it’s not quite fair. Throughout my three days there, I saw hints of a vibrant local culture, a scruffy, delightful disrespect for order and logic, and a love for music and wine and dancing and life. If I were to really commit to the place, to get to know its people and to dig in deep, I would probably have a blast. But for short-term visitors who are looking for a quick flash-bang-wow, there’s just not a whole lot there.
Except for Transdniester!
Transdniester: a long, green, awkwardly shaped sliver of Moldova, and the first stop on my Disputed Territories Grand Tour. In Soviet times, it was a part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic heavily populated by Russians, who had been imported to manage the region’s factories. When Moldova declared its independence in 1991, the Moldovan nationalists, giddy to be free of the Soviet yoke, began passing law after law enshrining the Moldovan language, the Moldovan ethnicity, and Moldovan culture as the only legitimate trappings of the new state. The Russians hadn’t signed up for this; as far as they were concerned, they were Soviets, not Moldovans, and they were watching this upstart government strip away fundamental parts of their identity one by one.
At the same time, the Moldovan economy was, unsurprisingly, tanking, and life was every day becoming worse than it had been under the USSR. So the Russians reasoned that – since everything that was wrong in their lives could be attributed to Moldova’s independence – the correct answer was to secede from Moldova and rejoin the Soviet Union. They readopted the Russian language, reused the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Moldavian SSR as their own, and created their own currency, the Transdniestrian ruble, to replace the defunct Soviet one. It didn’t seem to trouble them one bit that the Soviet Union did not exist anymore. Its fall had been but a fluke, you understand; when the world was ready, the USSR would rise again and welcome Transdniester back into its fold.
Since 1992, then, Transdniester has been a state in limbo: claimed by Moldova, affecting independence, recognized by almost no one. Now, it’s a magnet for illegal arms sales and organized crime, a lawless zone riddled with corruption in which the cops turn a blind eye to anyone who will give them a cut.
And the border guards: oh, the border guards, spectacular in their corruption! They are what make Transdniester special. At some point, it became a ritual that every single non-CIS foreigner who tried to enter Transdniester would be taken into a back room and shaken down for a bribe; it was a rite of passage for the hardcore traveler, and it was different every time. Some border guards would ask the innocuous question “How much foreign currency are you carrying into Transdniester?” (your answer corresponding strangely well to the size of your requested bribe). Others would discover deeply consequential inaccuracies in your paperwork; still others would make up laws, create situations in which you had broken them, and charge you fines to avoid being locked up. And those who were bored with the game would just grin and bark “And now you give me present!”
This would be okay (in a manner of speaking…?) if Transdniester were easily avoided. But oh no, go take another look at that map; it’s basically the entire eastern border of Moldova, which means almost every major transport route to Ukraine and Russia has to go through Transdniester first. Can you imagine? What a gold mine! Just picture those border guards poking their heads into every compartment of a 20-car train and extracting a bribe from every single passenger. You could buy a big-screen TV by the end. What a life, what a life!
And I, cackling and masochistic, was kinda looking forward to the adventure.
One of the best Transdniester articles on the Internet is “Of Myth and Legend,” Tamara Sheward’s very funny 2010 travelogue of her trip to the region. In fact, you should probably be reading that article instead of this one, because my experience was… anticlimactic.
And I prepared so carefully, too! I combed through my bag the night before and took out every potentially confiscatable item; I left behind everything I owned that mentioned the Moldovan enemy; I spent almost a half-hour agonizing over how much money, and in what currencies, I should put in my wallet to minimize the bribe I would have to pay. (I would try to get away with just seven bucks, I decided – seven U.S. dollars hidden amid a smattering of undesirable Ukrainian hryvnia and Moldovan lei.) I literally put a $50 bill in my sock to tide me over in case something went wrong.
But alas! The online rumors are true, it seems: sometime within the past year, the Transdniester border guards cleaned up their act big-time. As soon as our marshrutka pulled to a stop at the border checkpoint, a customs official – young, nattily uniformed, regrettably lacking an AK-47 – climbed in and collected the passports of all non-Transdniester nationals. And then five minutes later… he gave them back and walked away. What? Wait! Come back here! Didn’t you see I had a U.S. passport? Don’t you want to call me into a room for special questioning? Aren’t you going to make up a nonexistent document and charge me a “fine” for not carrying it? I’ll help you come up with something! You didn’t even threaten to destroy my passport unless I handed over the contents of my wallet!
Come on, Transdniester. Not living up to expectations.
We all filed out of the marshrutka and into the hornet-infested registration hut, in which we all had to hand over our passports again and declare the purpose of our travels. “Tourism,” I told the officer. “Yes, tourism. To the cities of Tiraspol and Bendery. And then back to Chișinău tonight.” The officer scrutinized my passport, then my face, then the passport again. He shuffled papers noisily. He laid my registration slip out on the desk and started going through it line by line. My pulse quickened. This was it! Almost go time! I’d finally get to lose those seven bucks burning a hole in my pocket!
The marshrutka driver picked that moment to come up behind me and place his hand on my shoulder. “He’s with me,” he said meaningfully. “And we’re running late.” Hurriedly, the border guard stamped my registration slip and shoved my passport back through the window. And that was all.
Into Transdniester, then, without incident – not even a little tiny one. As the marshrutka pulled away, I pressed my face to the back window, watching the registration hut recede into the distance as sad piano music played. All I wanted to do was bribe you, Transdniester. Why have you forsaken me? A single tear slipped down my cheek as the camera faded to black.
So what about Transdniester itself? Well, I hate to say it, but Transdniester itself was also kind of blah. The capital, Tiraspol, is often described as a surreal Soviet throwback frozen in the 1980s, with Lenin-worshipping iconography, streets named after famous Soviet leaders, and slogans emblazoned everywhere about the glory of labor. And so it is… but the thing is, that describes every other small city in the former Soviet Union as well. If you don’t have a lot of experience around these parts, the detritus of the former Soviet state is utterly fascinating – but by the time you’ve seen your sixtieth Lenin statue, that sort of stuff just passes beneath your notice.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I went. I had a particularly interesting time ferreting out evidence of the region’s international isolation (its potholed roads and overgrown parks and shattered fountains, its lack of a single ATM due to international sanctions, its train station with one functional track and four that have been taken over by nature) and stumbling across the scars of Transdniester’s 1990-1992 war with the Moldovan nationalists. But all in all, it’s one of those places where the story is a lot better than the execution.
So I guess I don’t have a lot to say about Transdniester either. Sorry. Don’t worry, though – the rest of these disputed territories are proving a whole lot more interesting….