Transnistria, or Pridnestrovie in Russian, is an unrecognised country in Eastern Europe between Moldova & Ukraine. It’s a lot easier and safer to visit than you’re lead to believe by a lot of information on the internet.
What is Transnistria / Pridnestrovie?
Transnistria / Pridnestrovie is a region in eastern Moldova, between the Dniester River and Ukraine. Although no UN member recognises Transnistria as a country, it still has borders with passport control, their own passports, currency, banks, TV & radio stations, police, military, car license plates etc. etc. In all practical terms – it is an independent country.
Reading information available online, it makes it sound like an intimidating and possibly dangerous place to visit. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth – in fact, it’s all run so smoothly that it’s kind of disappointing! Where’s the adventure??
I’ve read about people being bribed and having trouble at the border, but I saw nothing like this – in fact, it was one of the easiest border crossings I’ve done.
I feel super safe here, I feel much more comfortable walking the streets of Tiraspol – the capital of Transnistria than I do in Chisinau – the capital of Moldova. Everybody here has been incredibly friendly & helpful, even people who don’t speak English try to help as much as they can.
A Brief History of Transnistria
(Note that I’m not a historian, this information is what I understand from some online reading prior to coming to Transnistria. It might not be 100% accurate – please let me know in the comments below if you have other facts or thoughts)
Transnistria/Pridnestrovie has a long and complicated history, I won’t go into too much detail as that’s what Wikipedia is for… But from my research, it seems that there has always been a Transnistrian region in this area. It gets its name from the river that forms its border with Moldova – the Dneister River. (Transnistria is often spelt Transdniester)
From the 1700s the area was part of the Russian Empire, and around the time of WWI it became an autonomous region that was pulled to and fro between Romania and the Soviet Union. Around the time of WWII, it was under Romanian control for a couple of years. The Soviet Army then liberated Transnistria & Moldova from Romanian control which led to the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic.
During the break up of the USSR in the early 1990s, Moldova believed the area was part of Moldova, however many locals disagreed and wanted to be an independent country, and keep the Soviet culture. This lead to the Transnistrian War with Moldova that lasted a couple of years in the early 90s.
Eventually, a ceasefire agreement was signed – however there has never been any real resolution. The ceasefire has held since then, with a demilitarised zone managed by Russian Peacekeepers around the border of Transnistria and Moldova.
It is now the last area left that considers itself Soviet – they still speak Russian, have the hammer & sickle in their emblem, and many references to CCCP (USSR in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet) around the ‘country’. It’s a super interesting place, but not the crazy Soviet museum that certain people make out. I’ve not been hassled, questioned, bribed, ripped off or anything in the 3 days I’ve been here.
How Do I Visit Transnistria, or Pridnestrovie?
The starting point for your visit to a country that doesn’t exist, is to go to a nearby country that does exist! As far as Moldova (and the rest of the world) is concerned, Transnistria is part of Moldova and there is no border to cross. You don’t officially leave Moldova when you cross the border – though the Transnistrian officials disagree!
From Chisinau, Moldova it’s easy to get a minibus to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria – there is no airport in Transnistria, so bus is your only real option. The bus trip for me took 1hr 45mins there, costing 50 Moldovan Lei – the return trip taking just over 2 hours and costing 71 Moldovan Lei.
From my hostel, I walked to the Central Bus Station (which is also the Central Market, and can get quite hectic and overwhelming!) and started looking for the right bus. Within minutes, I saw a man yelling “Tiraspol! Tiraspol!” I figured this was probably the guy I wanted to speak to, so I approached him.
Mr Adam: “Tiraspol, da”
Man: “50 Lei” (This is Moldovan Lei, about $3.30AUD)
Mr Adam: “Ok…”
He then signaled me to follow him, so I did…
After about 10 seconds he spoke to another man in Russian, and signaled for me to follow him. We walked to the end of the block and found another man, more Russian speaking and signalling for me to follow the new man. So I followed him about another block (starting to wonder if I was just going to get mugged instead of driven to Tiraspol). Before long, we arrived at his van that was already half full of people – he helped me put my pack in the back of the van and then I hopped in.
Within 5 minutes, the van was full…
We all gave him 50 Lei each (I was happy to see the locals paying the same amount as I was), and off we went – driving through the dodgy roads towards Transnistria. To be honest, the driving was the scariest part of the whole experience!
Preparing for a trip to Transnistria
I’ve heard horror stories about the border crossing, in travel books, blogs etc. Stories such as being pushed for a bribe (one post even said 200 Euro), told they didn’t have the right paperwork, visa etc.
There is no paperwork needed – just your passport, and it’s all free… Being told there is a visa fee is a scam/bribe etc.
In saying that, I had also read that recently this has become a lot better and the border is now a lot easier and safer. I was still a bit nervous, and took precautions just in case.
What precautions you ask?
- Knowing the facts about the requirements
- Not having heaps of cash in my wallet, only as much as I was ok with losing if a bribe was forced out of me
- Other cash hidden well
- Being confident (or at least trying to appear so)
- Knowing the name, address & phone number of the person I’m staying with and having it written down (essential if you want the 24 hour visa, otherwise you’ll only get a 10 hour visa)
- Rehearsing in my head what I’d say, and thinking about how far I’d push it before giving in if they were a bit forceful
Most of this is good to do when travelling anyway – always know the facts, your rights and what to do when things go wrong. Never keep all your money, cards etc in the same place – hide them around… Wallet, day pack, big pack.
*Side note: A woman just rode past the café window on a horse, with a foal following. I’m on the main street in the city!
In reality, none of these precautions were really needed – with exception of the details of the person I was staying with. There was no sign of trouble, corruption or anything. Either things have changed DRAMATICALLY in the past few years, or the stories are greatly exaggerated – or a bit of both! The locals I’ve spoken to say that all the negative stories you hear are propaganda, and not true.
The Facts of Entering Transnistria
- You do not need a visa in advance
There is no such thing as a Transnistrian visa, and even if there was – there is no such thing as a Transnistrian Embassy to get said visa from!
- It’s free
Anybody who tells you they paid any kind of fee to enter Transnistria is in fact talking about a bribe. Although I’ve read stories online about this happening – nobody I’ve actually met who has been here has had any problems or had to pay anything.
- You’re given 10 hours or 24 hours “visa” upon entry
As standard, they give you 10 hours – most people who come here just do a day trip from Chisinau. You will be given 24 hours if you have the name and address of the person you’re staying with – this will be provided by the accommodation you book. The printed visa they give you will have your details as well as their details DO NOT LOSE THIS.
- Your 24 hours is easily extended
I booked 2 nights, which means the 24 hours is not long enough for me. The extension process was simple, and took maybe 10 minutes (also free).
- People with Transnistrian passports do not need to get out of the van at the border. You do! You’ll need to go into the immigration building for them to do the paperwork. Your driver will point you in the direction.
That’s about it. Simples.
Crossing the border into Transnistria
So, here I was, in a minivan driving from Chisinau towards the border with Transnistria… A bit nervous that we’d crash before we got there (no matter how much I travel, the crazy driving is something I struggle to get used to!). After about an hour, we got to a military checkpoint – barbed wire, barriers on the road, men in military uniforms, tanks on the side of the road… Really impressive!
We slowed right down, the driver waved at one of the guards, went around the barrier and kept driving.
Uh, was that the border? What about my paperwork? I’d heard that you need to make sure the minivan stops and you get your “visa” or leaving might cause problems when they think you arrived illegally. I tried to say something to my driver, who didn’t speak English – he just smiled, nodded and kept driving.
I was a bit nervous, but thought oh well… It’ll add to the story! I’ll just speak to the guy at the hostel when I arrive and we’ll be able to work out what to do.
Anyway, turns out that wasn’t the border at all – it was the start of the demilitarised zone, where the Russian Military/Peacekeepers patrol to ensure the ceasefire holds. It was about another 5 or 10 minutes before we got to the “real” border. The driver said something in Russian to another man, and pointed at a building. The man got out and started walking towards the building, with the driver signalling me to follow.
I don’t know what his deal was, but they pretty much just looked at his passport and it was done. For me it took longer!
The border guard didn’t speak any English, so I just handed over my passport and the piece of paper that I’d written down the name, address & phone number given to me by Dmitri who runs the GoTiraspol Hostel, where I was staying. He took them, typed away for a while, walked over to another computer and typed there, came back to the first computer and typed some more. Then he turned the screen of his computer towards me and pointed to a photo on it.
Border Guard: “Dmitri?”
Mr Adam: “Dmitri, da” (not actually having any idea what Dmitri looks like, and therefore not knowing if that’s the right person or not.
I was getting nervous that the minibus would drive off without me. Another bus would be along soon enough and I could get that one the rest of the way, but my pack is in this bus! Just as I was thinking this though, the bus driver shows up in the office. He obviously thought it was taking a while too, and came to check up on me.
aaww. See – lovely people! Where is this danger the interwebs is talking about?
Within another minute or two, all done. I’m given back my passport, with the piece of paper to keep in it that’s essentially my visa. The guard says “blah blah Russian words I don’t know, Dmitri, more Russian words I don’t know” while pointing at the “visa” – I assume he was telling me it was for 24 hours, and if I want to stay longer Dmitri needs to help me extend it.
That’s it – back in the van and off we go. We dropped some people off at different places along the way, and not long later I had arrived at the main bus station in Tiraspol.
At the border, a woman in the bus realised that I wasn’t local and spoke English (was pretty obvious, being the only one who had to get this ‘visa’, and I spoke English to a few people – knowing they wouldn’t understand anyway!), and she seemed quite excited. She asked me where I was from, why I was coming to Transnistria (even more excited to learn it was just as a tourist and was here because I thought it sounded like an interesting place), and then she started pointing out sites as we passed them. Lovely people here!
Note: You can also enter Transnistria from Ukraine, getting a bus from Odessa. I’ve not done this, and I’ve never been to Ukraine so I’m not able to make comment on what this is like.
Leaving was even more painless than arriving (as is the case with most countries).
The hardest part was getting on the right bus, but once again – the super friendly and helpful locals came to my rescue. I walked to the bus station (which is also the train station), and there were several minibuses parked there. Most of the signs in the bus windows were in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, which made it difficult for me to work out what they said.
A taxi driver called out to me, and tried to convince me he could take me to Chisinau instead of a bus. Don’t know how much he would have charged… How much did your last 2 hour, international taxi trip cost? I declined, and kept walking around trying to work out what to do.
When I saw a man get out of his minibus for a smoke, I just walked up and said “Chisinau?” he smiled and pointed to a bus a few metres away, that currently had nobody in it. I thanked him “Spasiba” and walked over and stood next to the bus he’s pointed at. Within about a minute, he walked over to me and pointed at the nearby building “ticket”. aah, ok – so you need to buy a ticket here before boarding, unlike the way over where I bought it on the bus.
Easy enough, I walked over and bought my ticket from a woman in a ticket window. I handed over my 50 Lei, which is how much it cost on the way over… She pointed at a sign in the window. 71 Lei. That’s quite a jump! But honestly, we’re still talking under $5 Australian, so I wasn’t too worried. She pointed out that the ticket has the license plate number of the bus I want. Helpful!
Note: I paid for the bus ticket back to Chisinau in Moldovan Lei, but the main currency of Transnistria is the Transnistrian Ruble. More information on the Transnistrian currency will be in a future post I write about the country.
Keep in mind all this is with them speaking zero English and me speaking about 5 words of Russian. It’s amazing how you can get by without a mutual language when you have to!
About 5 to 10 minutes later, I was aboard the minibus and heading towards the border with Moldova. We continued to pick people up from random places on the side of the road, who all paid cash to the driver… Not sure why I needed to buy a ticket, but hey… All good.
Anyways, we drove through a few towns, dropping off people and picking up people… Through a military checkpoint that some cars were stopped at, but we were allowed to continue driving. Then we arrived at the border. It was so simple – I didn’t even need to get out of the van this time. The Transnistrian Border Guard got on the van, I handed him my passport and “visa” – he compared them, gave my passport back and kept the “visa” paper. Done.
He checked the passports of everyone else in the van, and off we went. Back in Moldova, a recognised country that officially I’d never left.
Several minutes later we stopped at another military checkpoint – this time run by the Moldovans. They don’t check passports – as far as they’re concerned, I was always in Moldova. They did check the minibus to see what we’re carrying – I’m guessing to ensure we’re not smuggling people, weapons etc. from Transnistria or Ukraine into Moldova. It took only about 30 seconds and we were on our way again.
I’m not going to say that Transnistria is totally bribery and corruption free, but then neither are Moldova, Romania or most of this part of the world. It can be tough to be a local, to try to run a business when your competition is the government and KGB. Add to that, no other country recognises your currency or passport. People seem proud of their ‘country’, however recognise that improvements in relation to freedom, corruption, human rights etc. are needed.
What I am saying, is that Transnistria is somewhere that you definitely should visit – don’t let fear, propaganda and outdated stories put you off. The problems in this area are unlikely to cause you any issues as a tourist – people might stare and wonder why you’re here… But in my experience, and that of those I’ve spoken to – you’re in for a safe, and interesting visit to a country that doesn’t exist.
Check out my post with more tips on backpacking in Transnistria!
Enjoy your time in Transnistria!
Have you been to Transnistria? What were your thoughts? Did you have similar or difference experiences from me?
Do you have any questions, anything I’ve not covered?
Let me know in the comments section below, or head over to my contact page to send me an email