Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Our travels continued - Tiraspol, Transnistria

So, that was all the time we managed to have in wonderful, lively and friendly Chisinau, but I knew for sure we'd be back on our return journey, so it didn't feel quite so bad having to leave. Our next stop would be Tiraspol in Transnistria - a 'splinter' state that used to be part of Moldova, is still counted as part of Moldova, but is completely autonomous. In the early 90s, they fought a rather brutal war to gain their right to remain a 'Russian' state, much as the eastern Ukrainians are doing now. Transnistria has its own borders and currency, but it is not recognized internationally, not even by Russia, so I was very interested to go there and see what it's like.

We spent a good and quiet night in Chisinau and were up early to continue our travels. In the  morning, we were given breakfast in our room as the hostel had no dining room; it seemed odd, but rather nice. We then made our way to the bus station.

What an experience that was.

A quiet moment at the bus station as a boy pushes a barrow 

It felt just like being in Johannesburg again. The bus station was at the end of a crowded street market, so buses crawled between jostling people, traders pushed barrows heaped with goods, and would-be passengers peered at the bus numbers. It was noisy, colourful, a bit smelly but fun. I should add that buses in Moldova are more often of the minivan variety, and you can get a lot of these into one street, market or no. Fortunately, a driver spotted us and showed us to the stop for Tiraspol. We bought our tickets at the small kiosk and climbed aboard. It was another minibus, but this time the road was smoother. The traffic between Chisinau and Tiraspol must be more frequent as the road out of the city was even a dual carriageway. At the border with Transnistra, we had to get out and present ourselves at the immigration office. We'd been warned that this could be difficult and that they might try to bribe us. However, there was no trouble in getting our entry permits, but we were told we had to register properly in Tiraspol within twenty four hours, unless we left earlier. It seems they are pretty strict about that. Failure to obey the rules can result in a lot of time-wasting officialdom. The country is geared very much towards Russia and they feel a bit vulnerable sandwiched between Moldova and western Ukraine, so regulations must be strictly adhered to...or else.

About twenty minutes later, we arrived at the station in Tiraspol. I was surprised at how peaceful and quiet it was compared to Chisinau. Even though I know it is much smaller and has a tiny population by comparison, the feeling was of being in the provinces, rather than a metropolitan hub.

Tiraspol station - a bit quiet after Chisinau
Luckily, we were met by Roman, a Facebook friend, who lives there and kindly let us stay in his flat there. What a nice guy he proved to be - polite, well spoken, interested and very sweet. I was impressed. In fact, far from being the dangerous place so many people had warned us of, Tiraspol and its people seemed very mild, friendly and open.

I can't really say much about the city itself. It doesn't really have any features that distinguish it and make it either appealing or otherwise. It's just clean, fairly modern, pleasant and to be honest, architecturally uninspiring. It's a long and narrow urban sprawl positioned along, or across (as in trans) the river Niestr (hence Transnistria). All the buildings appear to be post war although there are plenty of lovely old trees in the side streets and a couple of beautiful parks. Everything in the centre was freshly, if not very carefully, painted as in a couple of days, the city would be celebrating 25 years since the end of the Soviet Union, and there were big parades planned. It all looked slightly unnatural and polished, especially all the golden gates, of which there were dozens. We giggled at the idea of the council having a massive job lot of gold paint on hand and deciding it all had to be used up.

A modern building in Tiraspol
Spot the gold paint on the fence!

There is also the river.

On our first afternoon there, we went to the riverside where Koos (who's been to Tiraspol three times already) knew there was a passenger vessel. He'd never managed to get a boat trip before, so he was determined that this time we'd do it. We sat and waited. There was no sign with departure times (not that we'd have understood it anyway as although Koos can read some Russian, it's still a bit limited), but every now and then the crewman on board would stop the mind-numbing eighties pop music (the worst the decade produced) and shout something unintelligible to the crowds on the beach opposite.

Sitting on the boat, waiting to see if anything would happen
Eventually, our ears couldn't take it anymore and we went for a walk, meeting up with Roman and two Australian visitors by the Cuas stall. While drinking (see previous post - it's very nice!) and chatting, we noticed the music on the boat had stopped, so we dashed back and were thrilled to see preparations being made for casting off. Lots of people were on board, so whatever the messages were, it seemed to draw the trippers in.

We had a lovely cruise upstream and back for about an hour. The only thing to mar it was the awful music again. They just played the same tape over and over. Still, the river was beautiful and I took plenty of photos.

A wonderful old river boat, now sadly decaying

The following day, we had intended to go to Odessa, but we left it too late. As a result, we had to go and register at immigration earlier than we'd planned. We arrived at the offices and were helped by an incredibly nice young man called Yuri who went to almost exhausting lengths to explain that the owner of the apartment we were staying at (Roman's mother) should have been with us. He tried to encourage us to go to a hotel instead which would make life much easier, but what he didn't seem to get was that Roman's mother was on her way. When at last she arrived, we were all talked out, but Yuri was delighted to see her. He smiled with genuine pleasure as he obviously knew her. After that everything went smoothly, and we all breathed a massive sigh of relief. Far from being intimidating, these officials seemed determined to help us. We even learned that Yuri had a five month old baby called Valerie, so after that we really were best friends.

From the immigration office, we decided to go and see the monastery at Kitskani, so we took a marshrutka (a passenger minibus on a standard route) out of town. Somehow we managed to overshoot the stop by quite a distance, but the kind driver just pointed to another marshrutka which took us back to the right place at no extra charge. It was terribly hot (high thirties), so maybe he took pity on us.

The monastery was just beautiful.
The nuns never stop cleaning

Even a monk has to have a change of habit sometimes

Beautiful wedding cake towers

Everything is so well cared for and maintained

The maintenance monk pedalling off to another mission
But beautiful monastery apart, I think the best thing about our visit was the contact with people on the marshrutkas and the lovely old trolleybuses. In fact, we travelled everywhere by bus from Roman's apartment. This was in a rather old and not so well maintained block out of town (no need to be seen on Independence Day, so no paint),  The marshrutkas have a great system for paying the fare, which incidentally is absurdly cheap. Passengers generally get on and give their money to the driver straightaway, before moving down the bus; their change is then passed back to them wherever they are. However, if it's busy, everyone sits (or stands) where they can and their fare is passed forward from wherever they are sitting (or standing) to the driver. Then if there's change to be given, the driver passes it back. It goes from person to person until it reaches the right passenger. What's amazing is that there never seems to be any mistake.

The result was we had lots of chats with people on these buses. They helped us willingly and were genuinely interested in us and where we'd come from. There also seemed to be quite a hierarchy system for sitting when the buses are full. Women come first, no doubt: older women have the greatest priority (lucky me), then women with children, then younger women. Only then do men get to keep their seats. Very little English is spoken in Transnistria, but we all managed. By the time we 'd been there two days, we were so used to Russian that we were completely startled when an Italian woman started chatting to us on the trolleybus to Bender. She was great fun and full of life...and at least we could understand some of what she was saying!

One precious incident, though, was when two Jehovahs Witnesses sitting next to Koos at a bus stop started talking to him in Russian and showing him their version of the Watchtower. He smiled and made motions of 'no Russian' thinking that they would give up and find someone else to convert, but no, they eagerly asked where he was from. When he told them, they delightedly showed him their Dutch version of the magazine, so he read a long section aloud for them in his best dark brown, sonorous voice. It was just so charming to watch. The two old dears were wreathed in smiles and clearly tickled pink that he was reading in Dutch to them. When we got on our trolleybus, we left them beaming on the bench, only to then watch as a kindly orthodox priest gave the hot and harrassed conductress a big mug of water from his own bottle. All told, these incidents gave a very heartwarming tone to the day.

On our last day in Tiraspol, we watched some of the festivities of the Independence day we'd come specially to see, but in the end, they weren't half as interesting as the experiences we'd already had, so we packed up early and made our way to the station to get a bus back to Chisinau. In our three days, we did a lot, but nothing really touristy unless the boat trip counts as that. We'd tried to do another one at another spot in the suburban town of Bender, but in the end, it didn't leave (same mystifying messages between dreadful music as the one in Tiraspol), so our evening was spent sitting by the river in the twilight. Not very newsworthy, but lovely all the same.

I cannot say the city of Tiraspol captured me; nor do I really feel any need to go there again. However, the people were really very nice and the place is interesting as a kind of soviet time capsule (thanks to Lonely Planet for that phrase). It's atmosphere, despite the heat, is of the cool, calm northern countries rather than the vivid southern vibrancy of Moldova and Romania. I hesitate to say it, but it lacks the energy of places that really appeal to me. But dangerous? Not at all. Any need to bribe people? Not once. It might well be an oligarchical state, and the security probably is very strict, including regulation KGB agents, but I wasn't there for long enough to be aware of any of that other than what the locals suggested.

All I could think on leaving was that it was a really pleasant place with very kindly people and some fascinating cultural customs, and yes, it's well worth a visit to anyone interested in travelling through eastern Europe. As for Odessa, that will have to be another time, but probably not when it's so hot.


  1. Fantastic and written as if I were there myself. Love it.

  2. Once again thank you for sharing your travels with us and I am in agreement with Hansio your article is beautifully written.
    You know Val Tiraspol sounds like just the sort of place that I would enjoy: people who are caring, good at sharing and honest.
    I don't think that there many places where people would pass the change back - though I may be wrong.

  3. Thank you both! It was a great experience and indeed, memories are made in the people we meet more than the places. Romania, Moldova and Transnistria have all been very welcoming. I've just loved these summer travels!

  4. Hi Val - gosh you've had some wonderful tales here and I'm sure they are on their way to being a book of sorts ... so glad you went in the summer - and not now ... cheers HIlary

    1. I think I'll live on these memories during the cold months of winter, Hilary. Thank you!

  5. It is all so very interesting, Val. Reading this, and never having heard of these places before, I did the Google Map thing, and find you were near the Black Sea. I like the phrase 'soviet time capsule' too - it probably does feel just like that. The monastery is very beautiful, thankfully preserved. You had many adventures, and thank you for sharing it all.


Apologies for switching on comment moderation, but this is to make sure everyone can comment without jumping through captcha hoops!

However, anonymous comments will not be published, so please would you sign your name. Even if you leave a nice, relevant comment, I won't publish it without a name.