As we pulled up to the concrete border control building, everyone immediately stopped talking and a nervous silence fell over the bus. “Remember, don’t take photos of the guards or the tanks,” our Intrepid guide, George, reminded as we arrived at the military checkpoint. “How long will our entry cards allow us to be in the country?” I asked, as he ushered us off the bus and over to guards sporting Soviet hats, each wearing the same unwavering stern expression. “Sometimes one day; sometimes two. It depends on how they’re feeling,” George responded.
Three miles of walls crowned with defensive towers and gates separate the Eastern European country of Moldova and Transnistria, the breakaway republic that declared independence from Moldova in 1990 as the Soviet Union dissolved. From Moldova’s border, it’s a 30-minute drive to the capital of Tiraspol. Most people have only faintly heard of Moldova (the third least-visited country in Europe), let alone Transnistria, a 124-mile-long state flanked by the River Dniester and Ukraine. Since the United Nations doesn't recognize it as a country, Transnistria technically doesn't exist. Credit cards aren't accepted and their passports aren't valid anywhere on the globe, so residents also hold either a Russian, Ukrainian or Moldovan passport. Despite its status (and significant lack of tourists), the country has a personality all of its own—and it’s capital just so happens to be home to Aquatir Sturgeon Complex, one of the largest fish hatcheries in Europe (you'll find caviar vending machines all over town), and the famous brandy distillery Kvint.
Described as the “last outpost of the USSR,” the country is patrolled by 1,200 Russian "peacekeepers" and accessed only by car from Moldova or Ukraine, or by train, which doesn’t seem to have set times. Standing on the bridge above the railway station, I wondered whether the train, like the country, seemed to exist at all. Guards fiercely patrolled the entrance and groups gathered on the grass waiting for the next steamer to roll up, however that wouldn’t be for days.
On the drive to the 600-year-old Ottoman fortress in the buffer zone of Bender, members of my group traded tales of travel like war stories. Antarctica? Child’s play. Sleeping in yurts in Mongolia? About as casual as camping in Colorado. How can you beat a country that doesn’t exist? There’s something about Transnistria’s Twilight Zone atmosphere that intrigues even the most adventurous of travelers. Streets and buildings are reminiscent of Russia 30 years ago, offering that same time-trapped appeal as Cuba. ATMs dot every street corner, but no one knows where they lead. Circular- and pentagon-shaped Transnistrian rubles, the national currency, look like something out of a board game, but oddly enough, they seem just as commonplace as the 1950s Soviet-manufactured Volga cars that parade up and down the streets.
When I first started researching the trip, part of Intrepid’s new tour from Bucharest, Romania to Kiev, Ukraine, the tour operator offered a warning that “the security situation in Transnistria is unpredictable as the region is not under Moldovan control” and that there will be “very limited or no assistance in the case of an emergency.”
“People think Transnistria is like North Korea, but that’s not true,” explained an enthusiastic, college-aged tour guide at the Bender Fortress, where miniature ponies wearing red saddles ran around the grassy grounds. It’s Transnistria’s military-like displays that often draw a comparison to North Korea. Street parties celebrate the nonexistent nation’s Independence Day on September 2nd, and communist symbols are seen everywhere from the landmark Lenin statue marking the entrance to Parliament to street names like Marx and Engels. “You can come here and get some rest,” the guide, who preferred not to be named, explained. “Maybe you are from huge cities like New York or Los Angeles, and you can come here and inhale fresh air and go swimming in the river.”
Locals make the river seem like a trip to the Hamptons, encouraging us to bask on the “beach,” a small sandy stretch with stands pouring homemade Kvass, a traditional fermented Slavic drink crafted from black bread. Party boats blaring house music chug their way along the river as patrons toast with another drink of choice, “cognac.” “It’s popular here,” the fortress guide said. “It’s like water for us.” Perhaps that’s because it’s one of the more affordable and commonly available spirits. Some corner stores will refill your bottle with a bootleg version of strong, label-less brandy resembling something you drank back in college (and still regret today). At the Kvint Distillery, however, you can sample one of Transnistria’s top divin, or brandy, where decades-old bottles go for a cool thousand dollars.
During the “VIP” tasting, we sampled eight different brandies ranging from 8 to 50 years old, each skillfully poured by the guide, a thin young woman with dark, almond-shaped eyes dressed in a fitted, bleach-white lab coat. She swirled the golden liquid in her glass, carefully choosing her words before offering her tasting notes, describing the flavors as passionately as if recounting past loves.
We hoped to continue the cognac tasting that evening at one of the few nightclubs in town, the two-story Plazma. The mint green columned building looked statelier than its name (and signage) suggested and was known for its strict “face control.” Despite boasting late hours seven days a week, the club never actually opened during our two-day stay. The next option: VVP Club, a combination Russian sauna, bathhouse and hotel that reportedly also acted as a nightclub (or a pay-by-the-hour kind of place). This is one of the city’s two main hotels, and according to our guide, we were staying in the more respectable option, Hotel Russia, where women with long jet-black hair and thigh-high heeled boots lingered in the lobby and a stray black kitten roamed the halls. Apart from the beach, locals gathered at two spots in town: Café Mafia’s streetside terrace, with a menu the size of a Bible but only half of the entrees (which include unappetizing pairings like sushi and pizza) actually available, and Villa Rich, a café and bowling alley that serves sushi alongside shisha water pipes.
After dinner at traditional Ukrainian restaurant Kymahek, we made our way back to Hotel Russia and stood on the steps debating whether to make the 30-minute trek to VVP (whose phone number led to a disconnected line) or go bowling at Villa Rich, which the concierge assured us would definitely be open on a Monday at midnight. Our local guide from Moldova glanced around, took a long drag of her even longer cigarette, and asked with a slight look of fear in her eyes, “Do I have to come? Can I stay and guard the rooms?” Laughing, we left her at the hotel and hopped in a series of Soviet cabs, setting off for Villa Rich, where we traded in our sneakers for bowling shoes and spent the next hour sipping Georgian wine and dancing to American pop songs like “Despacito.”
On the drive back to Moldova the following day, “peacekeepers” stopped us at the border, patrolling the bus and plucking our passports out of our hands. It seemed as if the passports took even longer to return this time. When we finally got them back, photo pages were bent and ripped, making us wonder if we would have issues leaving Moldova the next day. As we drove through the vineyards lining the highway connecting Tiraspol to Moldova’s capital of Chisinau, we let out a sigh of relief that we made it past the peacekeepers at all, looking forward to returning to a city that although is just as time-trapped as Tiraspol, it actually exists.