Monday, 5 August 2013
Day 299 – Transnistria Part 2: The last bastion of the Soviet Union, by Ben Crowley.
Apologies for the lateness of this chapter of the story. We were actually in Transnistria over seven months ago to put this in context for you, but we decided that just because it wasn't on time didn't mean we should skip this fascinating part of our trip.
On arriving in Tiraspol, the Capital of this small breakaway nation, we struggled to find anything resembling accommodation. While staying in Chisinau we had seen an advertisement at our hostel for the apparently only backpackers in town, but alas had not taken note of the address (not that it would have mattered we later found). As we often did, we drove around looking for an unlocked internet connection and upon finding one we searched the address and made a beeline for it. We found a dark street with strange looking figures disappearing into the darkness and crumbling bus stops, but no accommodation.
Back we went to see if there was a phone number, there was! So we rang and an American answered, agreed to meet us at a bowling alley (apparently the coolest place in town) and then take us to the new site, a two room shack on the outskirts of town. Apparently business hadn’t been so kind to this man. He took us to a room with the smallest bed we had ever encountered, no internet connection, no real facilities what so ever, just a rather cold miserable place and worst of all he wanted $20 each! Per night! More than we would be happy to pay in London or Paris let alone Tiraspol but it was getting late and we really had little option, so our last question as always was “and what about the car?” to which he suggested we just park it on the street.
We explained we didn’t feel comfortable which such an arrangement, regardless of how low the likelihood of a break in or theft was, we just didn’t want to take such a chance and ruin our trip. He dismissed our concerns in a manner to which we were all too used to. We didn’t know what we were talking about, we were ignorant of realities and probably hadn’t been to many countries before and shouldn’t apply our stupid Australian values of security to Transnistria, the sorts of comments “maybe in Australia is dangerous but not here” was one of the few things that made our blood boil. This was the deal breaker, we understood he didn’t have parking but this was out of line and just plain rude. We told him so and left.
We continued driving and found the only 5 star hotel in the country, probably only in existence for friends and cronies of the president of the day to stay and play at, but they were extremely friendly and due to our budget suggested a place we hadn’t otherwise stumbled across. We went there and it was great! It was everything we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams! The Hotel Aist was built in the 1950s and had everything one would want from a Soviet era hotel: floor ladies, temperamental water pressure and temperature, prostitutes, extremely scary lifts, crumbling balconies, and we were going to get proper rooms with televisions (didn’t work) and showers (didn’t work well) for $20 per double or $10 each! And better yet an old Russian man watched our car for an extra $2,50 per night. Why would someone coming to Transnistria want to stay anywhere else? This was a living breathing museum of what travel and accommodation was like in days gone past.
After unpacking and revelling in the excitement of everything finally falling into place, we decided it was probably dinner time, but of course we didn’t have any local money. In Transnistria they have their own currency, call the Transnistria Ruble, which is used for small purchases, but electronics, cars etc must be paid with US dollars, Euros or Russian Rubles. With all the exchange shops closed we decided to inquire inside one of the casinos who gladly changed our US dollars. This is something we did multiple times in multiple casinos, always without hassle and always at the proper rate.
The next day all we wanted to do was drive, drive and see everything we could, every back street, every shop, every school, every police check. Despite the shops still selling snickers and coca-cola, we just had to explore everything. The museums were amazing; the Supreme Soviet (as their Government building is still called) was grand with its Lenin bust front and centre. One museum of particular note is that dedicated to Moldovan-born Grigory Kotovsky. Kotovsky began his career as a scoundrel and gang leader involved in bank robbery, raids and arson, which led to a chain of arrests and prison escapes and eventually resulted in him being sentenced to death by hanging. He managed to escape his sentence when the Russian Revolution kicked off, siding with the Communists of Tiraspol. Kotovsky became a member of the Bolshevik Party and lived out the rest of his days as an active member of the Moldovian Autonomous SSR in Transnistria. Current day Transnistria holds his memory on a pedestal, considering his work to be surmount to the independence of their country. The ladies manning this museum were lovely; they let us wear his hats, shoot his guns, sit at his desk and they took many photos for us, then as a parting gift gave us some Soviet Badges for free. Now I’m not sure if this is a trick, because we then asked if they had more and we spent a lot of Rubles buying the rest of those that they had. One of the few let downs was the Kvint Factory. Apparently known around the world as one of the great Brandies this attraction was advertised everywhere, and it was one of the few things people told us of before we got there. You must go to Kvint we were told, alas it was literally just an alcohol shop, selling cheap drinks, and as none of us particularly cared for Brandy, it was a short and brief stop.
While exploring one of the suburbs we were stopped to look around an old park with broken down, unused amusement rides. Across from where we parked was a bakery. Throughout our planning and travels everyone would warn us of the risks of taking the wrong photo. In Australia we even have advertising on television telling people to be careful taking pictures overseas as it could land one in “hot water”. Never were less true words spoken in regards to our experiences: missiles in Iran, no problem, pictures of border crossings, no problem, taking a picture of an old Soviet bakery in Tiraspol, problem. Within moments of taking the picture and then walking off to explore elsewhere, two men were after me, asking me why I had taken a photo. I told them I had taken a photo of my car, and luckily of course the car was in the photo, albeit to the side and only partially, and only due to my bad photo taking skills. Had someone else taken the photo (with the exception of Tom) the car probably would not have been in it. I deleted the photos regardless so that they would leave and allow us to continue. The question of course arises, was it really loaves of bread being produced at this bakery?
On the third day, we decided to take a drive north through the country. As anyone will know who has seen a map of Transnistria, there isn’t much in the way of east or west. It is an extreme thin long nation, less than 50km’s across at its widest point, while being several hundreds of kilometres long. We headed north towards Grigoriopol and Dubasari. The roads were as expected, more pot holes than solid tarmac, but we were surprised by the distinct lack of highway police or road blocks. We approached one and slowed to a cautionary speed but continued through as the officers barely gave us a look. Another disappointment of which there were few was the lack of traditional restaurants. One can only assume they eat traditional food at home and on the rare occasion they eat out want something a bit exotic, one of the most popular restaurants in Tiraspol being Andy’s Pizza. Another night we ate at a restaurant 7 Fridays, specialising is Pizza and Sushi mainly. It was this night we realised that maybe the locals were not cold but in fact quite unsure of themselves and somewhat on the shy side. We pulled up out the front and walked in, and there is no doubt we were different in this setting. After we had left we got on the internet and found that the people sitting next to us sent us a message via out website suggesting we chat. If only they had suggested this in person rather than assuming we would be accessing the internet while enjoying out meal!
The day we left we headed to the border with Ukraine, this time a very well established border post with rather modern nice buildings, they looked at our passports and waved us through almost immediately, therefore ending our odyssey in a country that never was, or never is, or one day will be? We’re not really sure, but regardless, those of you who are Sovietphiles need not look any further than a holiday in Transnistria, which were it not for Disneyland could be described as the happiest place on earth (once again, only for those who really love Soviet Architecture and Statues of Lenin and Russia Tanks patrolling the countryside.)