Note: this trip was taken in November of 2021, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I am humbled to have had the privilege to travel through the beautiful country of Ukraine and visit on multiple occasions, and my heart goes out to the wonderful people who are fighting to preserve their families, culture and sovereignty. Slava Ukraini!
What do you do when you have a week off, a car, and a nonexistent country to go visit with one of your friends? You drive 25 hours across Europe to go to the last Communist non-existent country in Europe, of course.
If Yuri Gagarin’s face plastered to a wall doesn’t sell you on Transnistria, I don’t know what will.
(Writer’s note: I’m writing this from Mexico right now, and have absolutely horrible internet. Please ignore the videos above, because the internet is too spotty for me to properly remove that at the moment. Thanks!)
Let’s begin with the why. One day, me and my former coworker and cowboy-in-crime Michele (Mee-kel-ae), bored from work, would discuss the weirdness of the “country” of Transnistria was. They had plastic coins, a slender border, a flag with a hammer and sickle, and a very strange existence indeed. Apparently as well, a football team propped up by Russian oil oligarchs that beat some of the biggest names in football during the Euro cup qualifiers.
We were talking about how funny it would be if we decided to drive there, to watch Inter Milan play Sheriff Tiraspol in a qualifying match. A painful silence followed. A long silence, followed by a slow turn of heads and a lock of eyes. “Why don’t we….drive there next week?”
We told our boss that we would take a week off, to drive to Transnistria to watch a football match. He perhaps questioned why he was even paying us in the first place. I told my roommates, both Romanians, and they decided I must certainly be a spy. “Dude, why would you go to a country so shitty? It’s even worse than Romania.”
Because I make terrible rash decisions and love to live in the moment, that’s why.
So we hopped aboard sasquatch, my 12-year-old Peugeot boat-sized 407, and drove as far as we could the first day. Germany is a real treasure to drive through in the fall. Tree-lined country roads dazzle with constant confetti of amber leaves, falling and blowing in the wind as the driver plunges deeper into winding roads.
The roads ramble through hills and lakeside towns with houses that seem to be made of graham crackers and powdered sugar. After roughly six hours of driving from Aarhus, we stopped in the sleepy town of Neustadt-Glewe, somewhere between Hamburg and Berlin, with just enough time to grab a beer from the local pub before it closed.
A small town with an adorable unique charm, we booked the cheapest room in a small hotel and watched the lunacy that is German television. One channel will feature an intense political conversation with beer-bellied men and walrus-like mustaches that act as a filter for soup, and immediately the camera will pan to a drag queen dressed like a resplendent neon cockatoo who will give their opinion. Flip to the next channel, and sassy jazz music will play as a young couple runs through a field of wheat. The man tackles the woman, they give each other a lustful tender look, and she beckons him forth. The man pulls her towards him to allow their soft lips to touch and enchant one another. She’ll remove a supple breast, and I’ll hurriedly flip the channel before having to deal with the social dilemma of watching soft porn with my friend in a roadside German hotel.
The next day, we drove roughly six hours to Wrocław, a city I have had on my list for quite a while. We would have driven further, and perhaps we should have, but Wrocław has been the last major Polish city I have wanted to visit before leaving Europe. We arrived fairly late, having stopped for a lazy cheap lunch of schnitzel served with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and beer on the Polish border. The joys of having all the team in the world mean you can stop where you want, enjoy a little roadside indulgence, and continue on without regret.
The night started innocently enough when we arrived in Wrocław. Michele and I ventured to the communist nostalgia bar, Setka, for cheap beer and heavy goulash sandwiches. We exchanged a shot and planned our night. “Well,” Michele began “my friend who lived here recommended Przybij Piątaka.”
Deep in thought, I looked out the window. “You mean that place across the street?” This was a singularity that the night must go on. Przybij Piątaka was a small bar filled with emo college kids, dressed up in vampire costumes for Halloween. The chairs were boring and probably from IKEA, but the drinks were cheap which explained the crowd. As the only foreign, non-college vampires in the bar, we felt the sting of many onlookers toward these two outsiders. Another few beers and shots passed, and we were ready for our third spot. We wandered through the city, and as I often do in my drunken state, I began to tout upon how much I love this country to Michele. “I mean, look how cute it is. Look at that building. I fuckin love Poland man.” The exquisite architecture, the wonderful people, the cheap alcohol. All things needed for a perfect city outing.
We found a seedy-looking bar, my favorite kind, where I had told a local on Couchsurfing to meet us. A local band, playing Polish cover versions of Rage Against the Machine songs began to thrash and some more vampires began to thrash in the middle of the bar, making it difficult for us to talk to our new Couchsurfing friend…who we’ll call Mika. Mika was exuberant to meet us, more Michele than me because it allowed Mika to practice his Italian. Mika, from a town nearby, used to be a cigarette smuggler over the Polish-Ukrainian border. Now he lived in Switzerland, doing a more lawful job, but lamented on the days when he earned more and lived well smuggling goods across the border. He told us, if we didn’t want trouble at the border, that we should slip a few Euros into our passport to make the crossing easier. He also told us where to find the best happy-ending massage parlors in Warsaw, and then got us talking to a couple of women out of place women at the table next to ours. He leaned over to us, “Which one do you want? They’ll be ready soon!” Couchsurfing is always full of surprises.
Michele and I, not wanting to be involved in this imminent legal disaster, decided we had seen enough for one night. And a good thing too, because by this point we were so sloshed that we were playing cops and robbers, running around Wrocław shooting each other with finger pistols. My final memory of the night was taking off my shoes in front of Michele’s bed, pulling a garbage bin next to mine, and fading into a wishy-washy sea of black.
The next day we woke, barely alive with splitting hangovers. We ran to the nearest Zabka drugstore to buy the ancient Central European hangover cure: factory-made borscht with a side of instant ramen noodles. This would be our second longest driving day, not made easier by our queasiness. We would drive to Lviv, Ukraine, a city I know well for its baby-slapping good time. The drive across Poland was smooth, without any major delays until we hit the Ukrainian border. Then the real waiting began, and we wished we had taken Mika’s advice and prepared a good bribe. Eventually, we did cross the border, after a fairly smooth interrogation process. In the dark, we could only see Ukrainian vehicles around us, and as we exited the border crossing we saw one lonely German car on the side of the road, with the driver slumped over his steering wheel as if shot in the back of the head. A good omen for the future.
Lviv is only an hour or so from the border, but an hour on dark Ukrainian roads can be difficult for the most experienced road warrior. Ukrainian roads are some of the worst I’ve experienced anywhere, filled with potholes and waves of asphalt sloshed to the side of the road by the accumulated weight of thousands of truck drivers.
Soon, however, we were in Lviv, a city I love deeply. We went straight to my favorite nostalgia bar, a bar where you have to knock on the door and say “Slava Ukraini” to an armed guard who hands you a shot. Here, we got drunk off a liter of 11% beer with a name roughly translated to “Putin’s a dickhead” while eating pig ears served with raw onion and mounds of pork lard spread thickly on dark sour bread. A relatively easy night, compared to the one before.
Yet still, we woke up hungover, our room smelling of regrets excreted with tremendous force through our sour pores. Putin was indeed a dickhead, for more reasons than our brutal hangover prolonged for another day — a hangover that would test us for our longest day of traveling ahead.
Not many people travel to Moldova, and even fewer do so by car over the Northern border with Ukraine. In the Soviet days, there was no border between these two countries. Cars passed through willy-nilly across a border made difficult by the waviness of the zigzagging Dniester River. Few trucks even make the journey, with most supplies being sent from Odesa in the South East or Iasi to the South West in Romania. The roads going from Lviv through Ternopil and into the dense forests and hinterlands are not well preserved and certainly off any trodden travelers path. The roads have not been repaved in the past few decades, making us swerve through waves of asphalt and potholes while trying not to run over Farmer Грегори’s chickens. We woke early, and even still made it to the Ukrainian-Moldovan border just before dark, only stopping in an abandoned log cabin along the way which was able to serve me a plate of freshly grilled shashliks — Georgian skewered and grilled meat.
The border control was an easy process, with only a skeptical look from the border guard holding the passports of an American and Italian in a car registered in Denmark entering Moldova “for tourism.” Michele drove the remaining three hours to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on dark unlit Moldovan highway roads.
I revel in off-the-beaten-path destinations and often make a point of going to these countries to prove that they are worth visiting. Kosovo, Armenia, North Macedonia, Albania, the list goes on, as I can usually see the best in any place. I consider myself a forgiving traveler, able to see the brilliant aspects of a destination and balance them with the harsh realities and inconveniences prevalent in any less-traveled location.
Chisinau is another story. We arrived late at our hostel, located in the quiet center of this capital city. The young man who welcomed us was stand-offish, awkward in his mannerisms in a way you would expect an alien to be if they had just arrived on Earth and were learning how the humans do. Nothing was open in town, aside from a fast food kebab restaurant and an Irish pub where Michele ate a burger with waffles for buns. Perhaps, we thought, the city would be better in the daylight.
We had anticipated that there would not be much to see in the city, so we only planned to stay a few hours before going to our next destination. We woke early, fending off the stray cats who were trying to crawl in through the hostel door, to go for a stroll around the city in daylight. The center is compact, with a gigantic promenade in front of the main government buildings made for tanks and military parades to strut down. We walked through the dusty Moldovan history museum, having only paid $2 to enter, and learned that Moldova has a rather unremarkable history. It seems to me, as an outsider, that Moldova has always sat in the shadow of its neighbors. The language they speak, the food they eat, the way they grow their wheat, is all largely related to the way they do it over the border in Romania. They drink wine like Romanians, curse like Romanians, are depressed like Romanians, but have the unfortunate gift of being so close to Russia, with a huge Russian minority, to never be allowed into the EU. Yes, there was indeed a time when Moldova wanted to be a part of Romania, especially when they learned that Romania would be joining the EU. But that movement was quickly shut down by the Russian minorities, wishing to connect more with their relatives to the East.
Moldovans with Romanian ties often leave, and those with Ukrainian passports usually leave as well. Those who stay seem bitter as if they have pulled the short straw in the Post-Soviet breakup, reflected in the sorrowful looks of the locals as they shuffle about their daily duties. Those who leave are not really accepted fully anywhere. Most Romanians look down on them, and Western Europeans look down even more so. This means that Moldova is a bit trapped: the country with one of the lowest GDP’s in Europe, smushed in between the East and West while trying to carve out enough respect by throwing money into their wine industry to attract tourism but not receiving much more than a dribble of wandering backpackers who crave the unknown.
I had been warned of this by the father of my Romanian roommate, a hard-working man from Timisoara. “Why would you want to go there! It’s like it was back in the Soviet days, and it’s even worse than Romania.” He was not wrong, but this was exactly why I wanted to visit. Back in the town square, Michele and I side-eyed each other and decided it was time to head off to our main destination. But first, a coffee, which was unexpectedly delicious, along with a rare view of innocence in this otherwise dreary city.
Our main destination, the Mecca to our Hajj, the Santiago de Compostela to our Camino, was Transnistria: the country that doesn’t exist. Yes, most pilgrimages are holy but ours was ideological. I wished to see the last bastion of communist hope in Europe, to see how they lived and why they decided to continue living in this way. Long have I been fascinated by this oasis of communism, locked forever in a Soviet time capsule between Moldova and Ukraine. Yes, this was the Russian minority that opposed joining Romania, and even got into a brief civil war in the 1990s after the breakup. Now, they have their own borders, military, currency, and a big support budget from Russian oligarchs. And it only lies an hour and a half away from Chisinau. We hurried onto the road, passing through dead wheat fields stopping only for a bowl of polenta and thick beef stew, racing towards the border with a fake country.
We were greeted by a tank and a few military personnel, chilled by the crisp autumn air. I handed them my documents, and they began going to work writing up our visa for the stay. The portly soldier who was going through our documents looked at me, and with a bit of a smirk uttered “Uh oh.. problem…” I wondered how much he wanted as a bribe.
He pointed his chubby finger at my car insurance. “Ukraine, Moldova, no Transnistria! Transnistria is a country, why not have insurance?” I said I was very sorry, that my insurance provider must have made a mistake. Of course, I didn’t say that under no circumstances would my insurance company sell insurance for his “country,” let alone even know where it was.
“Is ok.” He said. “Go to the car, put 50 Lei, bring back, no problem.” He gestured by folding up my insurance document to hide the invisible bribe and handed me back my documents.
Somehow in years of backpacking, this was my first police bribe and only $3 worth! I rushed back to the car with a bit of naughty excitement, threw in some Lei, and gave him his bribe. I was surprised and impressed, as this was the smoothest border with the best English-speaking guards we had experienced since leaving Denmark.
With our bribe paid and our visa stamped we sped off towards the capital city of this non-existent country. Our Transnistrian adventure, after the long hungover journey, was finally beginning.
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