If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, has it made a sound? If those who know do not speak, do those who speak not know? If you visit the capital of a non-exist country, have you visited a capital at all?
This paradox, among many other things, is one of the reasons why I have been drawn to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria squeezed in between the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. The last bastion of communism in Europe is host to a bizarre capital city trapped in the amber of time before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Simpler times, when you could only eat an orange once a year and had to be on a waiting list for five years to be able to buy a car. Tiraspol, for the Western European, is an intriguing time capsule into an unknown world that many have only experienced in textbooks and TV shows.
For the average person born before 1989 anywhere East of Berlin, Transnistria is a stark reminder of a painful past. The parents of my Romanian roommate were shocked and confused when I told him I was driving to Transnistria. “It’s just as shitty as Russia there!” My mother’s flamboyant dance teacher, Sascha, who was born in Tiraspol but moved to Israel with his family as a child, was also confused.
At the time of writing this, he and his Ukrainian wife are holding a dance fundraiser to raise money for their family members in Ukraine and Transnistria. Transnistria is caught in between two worlds at the moment. They depend so heavily on Russia that almost all of their imports and economy rely on Russian involvement. By being locked in between Moldova and Ukraine, Transnistrians have no way to get access to vital supplies.
Beyond that, they find themselves in a tricky position culturally. They speak Russian, maintain a Soviet-inspired government, are part of the Russian minority in Moldova, use their own brand of Ruble, and depend on Russia for almost everything…yet many of them are Ukrainian citizens and have family across the border. This puts them in a bit of a pickle at the moment. I make a point to stress this because while Transnistrians may be very close to Russia, they most certainly are not Russian — and some do not hold the same opinions Russian citizens do about the war.
But let’s take a step back and look at the Tiraspol that was, and hopefully will be again once peace arrives.
After three days of driving and shenanigans across Poland and Ukraine, Moldova and its depressing dead fields were a rude awakening. We had come from the beautiful historic metropolises of Wrocław and Lviv, into the dry vineyard-lined hills of Moldova. But everything seemed to look up once we paid our police bribe to get into Transnistria.
The roads feel the same, but there’s a very different feeling. I can’t quite put my finger on it… it’s a bit like freedom but different. It’s the freedom you get from living in a country that doesn’t exist, where anything goes. Can you mine cryptocurrency, sell drugs, traffick humans, and launder billions of Russian Rubles into a local business? Probably. It’s a bit how I imagine the Wild West would have been but set in Communist Eastern Europe.
Michele and I rented an apartment just a few blocks away from the main street in Tiraspol, 25th of October Street. The city was absolutely buzzing with energy with the approach of the Inter Milan – Sheriff Tiraspol football match, with locals coming out in droves to the Russia Hotel to get a peek at the Inter Milan players. And by droves, I mean about 20 or 30 people, a lot for Tiraspol.
We only had a good few nights to squeeze out as much as we could from Tiraspol, which isn’t a difficult task. The town is quite small and easy to navigate, regardless of Wikipedia saying that about 130,000 Transnistrians call the place home.
We wandered, taking as many photos of the nostalgic architecture as possible and taking in all of the strange sights. The city feels like you just walked into a film set in the Soviet Union. The dated architecture, the locals with that particular worn-out look, and the strange attention to pageantry and parading of the country’s might through elaborately decorated public spaces.
The town reminds me a bit of Baku or Skopje in its pure strangeness. These are two other capitals that have decided that they need to show off their power, and have done so in the tackiest way possible. To visit these cities provides nothing but a strange sense of pleasure, like the same kind of pleasure you get from going to an American 50’s dinner. Everything is kitschy and fun for a bit, but you wouldn’t want to live there every day.
There are, however, people who like living here. We met one through Couchsurfing, a local who I personally believe should be paid by the Transnistrian board of tourism for her pure delight in the country. We’ll call her Veronika. We arranged to meet her at Bro Burger, a local hangout for Transnistrian youth who want to live the Western dream by eating American burgers and drinking watery beer before heading out to the next party. Veronika arrived late, wearing a fur hat with a sickle and hammer badge attached to the front. “I wore this so you would recognize me!” she said with a grin.
The next few hours were a blur. Michele and I said 3 or four words in edgewise the enter night. Never have I met someone so enthusiastic about their country. “Isn’t this burger amazing?” She would say excitedly.
“Ya it’s goo—” Two and a half of my three words spoken
“What I really love about this country is the respect for the ingredients. I know in the rest of the world, food is so fake and plastic. But here it’s the farmers who do not use pesticides and just grow things organically and…”
It was as equally exhausting as it was insightful. It felt a bit like trying to talk to a history documentary.
Her mother was born here, but moved to Latvia where she had Veronika back in the Soviet days. She grew up in Latvia, but when her mother realized she could live for less on her pension by simply moving back home to Transnistria, she and Veronika decided to pick up and go back to Tiraspol. Here, they can live cheaply on their pension and savings, enjoying the cheap healthcare and cost of living.
She was quite frankly smitten. She even gave the waiter, a young lady of about 17 or 18, a bit of a hassle for not being as proud. Veronika told her that we were visiting from Italy and the US, and the waiter gave us a thumbs up and a Harasho! When Michele said back, that Transnistria was in fact Harasho, she shook her head and gave us a “no no no no! Transnistria is nothing!” This peeved Veronika a bit, leading her into a discussion about the good qualities of the country. But I can understand that the waiter may want to get out, especially when the coolest place to hang out in town is a greasy burger restaurant.
Veronika took us on a little tour to walk off our Bro Burgers. We wandered around the park, new movie theater, and the statue of Harry Potter in front of Tiraspol University. Why Harry Potter? Because like Transnistria, he’s a fantasy. Yet he’s strong and courageous and saves the world despite his shortcomings. Also, education is magic. I just made that up but it sounds good.
Tiraspol has that kind of communist grandeur you see in videos of military parades in Beijing or Pyongyang. The wide empty streets, the hammer and sickle flags, the austere looming buildings lining the streets, and the made-to-be jolly faces of the everyday folks looking on.
To get a bit outside of the city and experience Transnistria off the beaten path, Michele and I took an abandoned building tour with Hostel Like Home. Run by a kind local husband and wife, the hostel is also a fantastic place to stay and meet other travelers if you have the chance. It’s the perfect backpacker kind of hostel you find at other less-visited locations, with like-minded travelers tired of the “normal” destinations. Our guide fed us some breakfast, and we were off to the tour in his little car.
Our guide, a bulking Ukrainian stopping for a cigarette every several minutes, spoke little English, so we ended up communicating mainly through Google Translate, which worked just as well as it did with the Russian convicts I got drunk with in Georgia. He was kind and generous, working hard to support his family while simultaneously treating us with the hospitality of someone who truly loves their work. But still, he got a bit offended when I tried to buckle the broken seatbelt in the back. “No need!” He said with a grin.
Our first stop was a monastery out near the town of Bender. A Romanian orthodox church, ornately built and lavishly designed in hand-painted frescoes. Our guide asked the priest to take us on a tour of the bell tower. The wiry, thin priest with a mousy beard and thing long hair smiled at us with yellowing teeth. When the guide told him that I looked like Jesus Christ, he covered his smile with a veiny hand and giggled. He took a liking to me after that, taking us up into the clock tower and explaining the history of the location in Russian with splashes of English here and there. “Here, very big war. Many people die.” He said, pointing at a field. “Come,” he would shuffle me to the other side of the building. “Here, many cows. Use to have garden for church. Now, no more.” He said, pointing out over another field. “Come…”
The priest took us back downstairs to the gift shop to buy some honey made in the monastery. Outside, our guide was smoking a cigarette. “Good? Davai!”
Our next stop was the abandoned theme park, with a snack break of the classic creamy delight of Russian ice cream. Packaged in thin plastic, Russian ice cream always comes uniformly served in the blandest cardboard flavored cone that’s been pre-smushed during shipping, but the creamy industrial vanilla flavor always enchants. The taste probably hasn’t changed since the embalming of Lenin — a pure nostalgic experience.
At the rusty theme park, just a few steps away from an equally rusty children’s play place laid the remains of all the half-hazard designed rides that any average Ivan or Ivana would enjoy back in the day. Thin sheet metal merry-go-rounds with chains to keep you tied in, and a Ferris wheel with the structural integrity of a house of cards built by a rampaging chubby toddler.
Here, our guide struck up an interesting conversation on the finer points of our contrasting cultures. “In Germany, Momma-Papa. In Italy, Momma-Papa. In Transnistria, Momma-Papa. But in America, Papa-Papa?” He said with a grin, rubbing his two index fingers together as if to start a fire. “Momma-Momma too?”
“Ya I guess sometimes,” I said with a shrug.
“Crazy!” He said waving his hands a bit. He didn’t seem to be too opposed to the idea of gay marriage but was more surprised that it actually existed. Of course, in countries like Moldova, homosexuality is allowed but not expressly accepted. This seemed to always be a bit of a challenge for Michele and me — two platonic straight friends traveling by car on a budget and sharing rooms — and both of us being a little more flamboyant on the masculinity scale than our Eastern peers.
With this conversation past us, we continued on with a break of cheesy greasy flatbread and fresh kefir served out of another thin plastic bag. The final stop was what Michele and I had wanted to see this entire tour: a long-abandoned school untouched and filled with Soviet propaganda. Every inch encased in thick institutional dust, likely never cleaned since closing. Brilliant industrial Soviet paint chipping off the walls, the halls still filled with the air circulated through the tiny lungs of countless young Transnistrian minds. Now, kids only come to smoke weed and get drunk with the broken glass and chipped paint in the corridors.
“Kids don’t care.” Our guide lamented to us, “they throw trash around, don’t care to pick up. Is terrible.” He said before tossing his empty plastic kefir cup on the floor of the abandoned school. There’s something about this guy not giving a fuck that I really love… you go, good sir, keep not giving the fucks.
A visit to this abandoned school, and indeed Tiraspol in general, feels a bit like going to Chernobyl or any other great Soviet town, but without the radiation.
This day completely exhausted me. So much old history and energy in one day can get really tiresome, a bit like going through a big museum like the MET. Michele and I went back for some drinks with the folks from the hostel. Local Transnistiran beer has this delicious metallic taste you only find in fine South American or West African beers, the kind of taste that can only be imparted by brewing the beer in old metal oil barrels. But it always goes down easy and makes for a better time. A Russian man staying at the hostel brought some cognac to share with us, and a flock of German football bros got pumped for the Inter Milan – Sheriff Tiraspol game as if they were going out for a hunt.
I had completely forgotten that we came here to watch the game! We had asked around everywhere but learned that locals bought tickets the moment they came out, for about $30, only to resell them to tourists for $150 (or more) a pop. Because of course, there was no way to buy them online, and they could only be bought at the stadium. So we gave up our mission to watch the game, which Michele ended up watching on his phone and I ended up sleeping through.
So the entire reason for coming to this land, the catalyst that began this trip, was just lost in a few moments with some snores and dreams of abandoned buildings and bulky Transnistrian tour guides. But this journey was the definition of stopping to smell the roses. With every stop, we made a vital memory and a deep love for the place we had visited.
Now, our main destination would be behind us, with another three full days of driving ahead of us to get back to work on Monday. Next, we would leave Transnistria to venture into the Moldovan wine country, to see what all this Moldovan wine hubbub was about. As two straight men going on a wine tour in Moldova, we learned we didn’t blend in as well as we could have.