Every romance has a moment that you don’t tell your mom about. Something thrilling, possibly dangerous, and hints that you might end up in handcuffs. You may even need a safe word. “Tourist” works. Transnistria is a breakaway territory in eastern Moldova and the Canadian government says is not overly wise venture this far. The United Nations doesn’t recognize it. Basically, if all hell breaks loose, you’re on your own.
When Moldova was establishing independence after the fall of the U.S.S.R, Transnistria, a mere 60km from the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, asserted autonomy. Russia, keen to keep Moldova close, helps “supervise” the security of this state. Upon entering Transnistria, you have to fill out some paperwork – basically the same form twice, one for you, one for the extremely cantankerous looking Russian military guy with a gun. It comes with a stern warning – you have 8 hours to visit, any longer and you will be arrested.
Given the number of soldiers guarding this non-official border, you feel compelled to be on your best behavior. This would be one place I would not wander off. But – completely worth it.
Stepping across the border is akin to stepping out of a time machine and directly into the Soviet Union. Enormous statues of Lenin – some found in central squares, though we discovered one tucked down a back alleyway like the hideous gift you get for Christmas and only pull out when the gifter pops by for tea. You’ll have to change your cash into rubles – the exchange rate, I have no idea but I think the generous bottles of Kvint brandy I bought ran me about $3, about the same price as the pastries across the street.
An absolute highlight was the Noul Neamt Moldovan Orthodox monastery. Founded in 1861, it is referred to as “the place were gospel lives” – either inspired by a heavenly library of ancient books, or its endurance during the Soviet anti-religious reign. The monastery was turned into a tuberculous hospital under Soviet rule, from 1962-1989. It barely survived, the beautiful buildings fell into horrible disrepair, bibles and monks alike had to be squirreled away for protection.
Perhaps what saved some of the built heritage was a fluke – two men dismantling the giant cross atop the cathedral were killed when the cross suddenly toppled on them. Apparently, this was not an uncommon occurrence. Thankfully, the monastery has recovered – vibrantly coloured buildings are only outdone by the brilliantly coloured handkerchiefs of the ladies attending service and milling about the gardens.
There are three moments when you will need to round up every bit of courage you can find. Noul Neamt is home to the highest bell tower in Moldova. At 70 metres tall, with steps that barely hold your feet, and railings that wobble if you merely glance at them, your heart will be in your throat the entire ascent. Pigeons will mock you as you tremble, and little girls in pretty ribbons will spin about with grace as though they’ve climbed the tower since they were in diapers.
But the view alone is worth every heart palpitation. Inside – three huge bells, the largest is 8 tons. Outside, jaw-dropping, splendid views all around. The second horrifying moment is the one where you realize that you have to climb back down all those unsteady stairs. And the third moment of courage – I recommend you avoid this at all cost – the public washrooms on the way out will scar you for life.
While you’re in Transnistria, be sure to discover Tiraspol, the largest city that boasts extraordinarily large statues and monuments. Also, spend some time at the medieval Tighina Fortress, built in 1538. Get a guide to show you around, she’ll tell you stories of hidden treasures, booby traps great battles and of course, ghosts.
So, while you may only be permitted a short while in this time warp, it’s entirely worth the journey. Make sure you round up a guide, simple things like jaywalking may land you in the back of a police car. Roam the streets, buy some booze, crash a wedding, but get your ass out of there before your permit expires, those Russian soldiers are a bit frightening. Home before curfew, just to keep Russia happy.
It’s worth noting that Russia is stirring up a bit of controversy these days. While the unrest is currently focused in Ukraine, Transnistria has parallels to the Crimean territory, with a certain loyalty to Russia. Relations between Moldova and Russia have been tenuous lately as Moldova builds a relationship with the European Union.
While I tend to be one that ignores “don’t go there” type of warnings, I would make an exception here. Be well informed of current events before you go anywhere. Let Google News become a regular part of your pre-trip planning. Chat up the locals if you know any, before you venture out. Once you’re there, tread gently if conversations dip into political waters. Just make sure you’re not wandering into something that could end up messy… though aren’t those the best love affairs?
A huge thank you to USAID’s Competitiveness Enhancement and Enterprise Development ll who kindly sponsored this familiarization tour. There’s lots more to learn about Moldova Tourism, here’s a good place to start. The opinions, and hangovers, are entirely mine.