Ever heard of Transnistria? Probably not. That’s because this small country officially doesn’t exist. Once you go there, however, you quickly realize that Transnistria is very real. Better still, it’s a fascinating place and a time machine. On this basis, here’s what it’s like to travel to Transnistria, a country that doesn’t exist.
Transnistria? What’s That?
The area has its own police, currency, flag, passport, government, and army, but no UN member state recognizes it as a country. As such, Transnistria is a country that doesn’t exist.
The region is Russian-speaking, but the population consists of Moldovans, Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Belarusians, and other minorities.
The international community sees the breakaway state as part of Moldova. Once you travel to Transnistria, however, you’ll realize that the two couldn’t be more different.
Here is my story from visiting Transnistria – a place that officially doesn’t exist.
How did the Situation Come Into Being?
Until 1990, the current country of Moldova was part of the USSR as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. That Soviet republic included today’s Transnistria, and both communities functioned peacefully within the Soviet realm.
In 1990, the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, and many territories didn’t want to join the newly independent states. Such was the case of Transnistria.
The local authorities declared the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in the hope of remaining within the Soviet Union once the state of Moldova became an independent country.
In 1991, however, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the new Moldovan state wanted to incorporate the region of Transnistria. One year later, a short military conflict broke out between the two parties – ending with a ceasefire around six months later.
The ceasefire has been in force since 1992, but the territory’s political status remains unsolved. Moldova – and the entire international community – consider Transnistria as a Moldovan region, but the area is de facto independent.
As a consequence, Transnistria is stuck in some kind of post-Soviet limbo. The country has been a breakaway state for three decades now, and no solution seems to be in sight.
What’s the Situation Like Today?
When you drive from Chisinau to Tiraspol (the capital of Transnistria), your first sight of the breakaway state will be the quirky border post.
A flag I had never seen before, surrounded by Russian text, a few ancient Lada cars, and lots of hammers and sickles. Are we back in 1980s Soviet Russia? I wondered what Transnistria would be like.
How different could it be from Moldova? After all, only 70 kilometers (43 miles) separate both capitals. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Traveling to Transnistria is like going back in time 30 years. The communist signs at the border post are only the beginning. The whole region is full of Soviet symbols, and many streets are called “Lenin Avenue” or “October Street.”
In that same vein, there are barely any modern buildings or cars. Moldova doesn’t have a lot of 21st-century architecture, but Transnistria is on a different level.
If it weren’t for the shiny new Russian-financed buildings in the center – and some modern Russian and Japanese cars – you’d think that you took a time machine back into the 80s. Another sign of the region’s uniqueness is that there are no Western brands. You won’t find McDonald’s or Starbucks here, only a few Russian chains and old Soviet canteens.
I never understood why the Transnistrians wanted to remain in the USSR. However, after talking to some locals, I realized that they were still fans of the Soviet Union.
During Soviet times, the region was relatively prosperous, and unemployment was officially non-existent. To remember the “good old days,” they kept the communist monuments, street names, and symbols. For many older generations here – who work the same jobs as they did during communist times, the Soviet Union never ended.
Today, their passport only allows them to travel to Moldova and Russia, and the economic situation looks bleak. A few oligarchs unofficially run the country – and the local population doesn’t have many options.
Three other breakaway states (Abkhazia, Artsakh, and South Ossetia) recognize the independence of Transnistria, but all three of them are equally non-existent in the eyes of the international community.
Those recognitions don’t change a thing, but as a sign of solidarity, Transnistria displays their flags in Tiraspol, next to the monument to Russian general Suvorov, the founder of the city.
When you travel to Transnistria, you see a relic of bygone times but also proud people who somehow found a way to cope with their challenging situation. And I should stress, I’ve rarely encountered friendlier people than the locals in Tiraspol.
My Russian is very limited – and nobody speaks anything else here, but you can feel that they are happy to see foreigners in their land. I am used to traveling to untouristy places, but this was different. During my visit in June 2021, I was probably the only foreigner in town.
It was a memorable experience and undoubtedly a worthwhile thrill for adventure seekers who like post-Soviet places.
On this basis, here’s how you can travel to Transnistria and what to see in this breakaway state.
Travel to Transnistria – the Basics
Traveling to Transnistria is relatively straightforward from the Moldovan side. I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether and how you can enter Transnistria from Ukraine, so I’ll focus on my journey from Moldova.
Is Transnistria Safe?
Transnistria is as safe as any other place in Eastern Europe. Of course, since nobody officially recognizes the country, there won’t be any embassies or consulates. That’s why many people are scared of police corruption, but I didn’t see any of that.
In my experience, both the local police and border patrol were friendly, and one of the border guards even spoke a bit of English.
During my stay in Tiraspol and Bender, I felt completely safe. I had no reservations about walking around with a big expensive camera, and it didn’t change when the sun went down.
In conclusion, employ common sense and don’t go looking for trouble, and you’ll have zero issues in Transnistria.
How to Travel to Transnistria from Moldova
Visiting Transnistria on a day trip from Chisinau is relatively easy.
You can naturally go on a private tour (available on Viator and other sites), but you can also take a marshrutka minibus.
The shared minibusses leave every hour from Chisinau central bus station. They stop in Bender and Tiraspol, but also along the way if someone hails them. Those marshrutkas still work like in Soviet times. As such, they generally wait until the bus is full and stop anywhere along the way to let people board or exit. The journey from Chisinau to Tiraspol takes more or less one hour, depending on the stops.
At the border post, you’ll have to show your passport, and you’ll receive a “migration card.” If you return on the same day, it’s free to enter. Longer stays are subject to a tourist fee.
Upon arriving in Tiraspol, the bus can let you out in the center, but you’ll have to tell the driver. All minibusses go to the bus station in Tiraspol, around a 20-minute walk from downtown. From here, you can catch a marshrutka back to Chisinau until 6 pm.
Things to do in Transnistria
- Bender Fortress: The impressive 16th-century fortress was built during Ottoman times and is one of the top historic places to visit in Transnistria.
- The Center of Tiraspol: Downtown Tiraspol is home to some of the breakaway state’s most recognizable sites, including the Lenin statue, the Tank Monument, the Parliament, and the City Hall.
- Eating in a Soviet Canteen: The Столовка СССР (USSR Canteen) is situated on the corner of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg streets and offers a traditional Soviet restaurant experience.
- Green Market in Tiraspol: One of the most authentic markets in Tiraspol where babushkas sell vegetables and other local specialties.
- Noul Neamt Monastery: Located south of Tiraspol, this monastery features some of the most beautiful churches in Moldova, and the bell tower offers stunning views over the Transnistrian capital.
Travel to Transnistria – Know Before You Go
- Transnistria has its own currency and they don’t accept anything else. You’ll have to change Moldovan leu upon arriving as credit cards are not an option. The Trans-Ruble is worth roughly the same as the Moldovan leu, and the prices are a little bit lower than in neighboring Moldova.
- Be sure to memorize or write down a few Russian phrases as you won’t find English speakers here.
- If you have a Moldovan SIM Card, its mobile data won’t work in Transnistria. The best course of action is to save some Google Maps routes for offline use.
Travel to Transnistria – Conclusion
Visiting Transnistria is traveling back in time and a unique experience.
The region showcases the effects that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had on many of its former republics. It’s, however, also an example of governments not finding solutions but people making the best of it.
Few places in the world are comparable, which is why it’s recommendable to travel to Transnistria if you’re in the region. There might not be any world-renowned tourist attractions, but adventurers will undoubtedly enjoy the area’s quirkiness and authenticity.