June 18, 2018

Travelling to a country that does not exist. Transnistria

Well, it is not a virtual country that only exists in a game like Sim City, there is actual land and people there, but only Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabkh and South Ossetia actually recognise Transnistria as a bonafide country. And if you have not heard of those places either it is because they have also only very limited recognition in the world. Even Russia, which has several thousand troops based there, has yet to formally recognise it.

Yet it operates as a country, with border guards issuing visas, a parliament, an army, and its own currency, the Transnistrian Rouble, with a world first, the circulation of plastic coins.

It also seems to exist in a time warp, it's like going back to Russia circa 1970, which could become a major selling point. A rival to Disneyland in Paris for those with a fascination in what life was like in the old Soviet Union.

Transnistria is a slither of land on the border of Ukraine and Moldova. Formerly the most eastern province of Moldova it declared independence in 1990 and was involved in a war with Moldova, who disputed its newly claimed autonomy,  that lasted until 1992.

One of the strangest aspects of the conflict was that it became known as the Drunken War as the combatants were often neighbours, or workmates, and would often meet up after a battle for a drink and make deals not to aim at each other the next day.

The Russians sent forces to end the war and act as peacekeepers, although their actions and words from Russian leaders indicated that their support was for the Transnistrian forces.

With its strategic position providing Russia with a toehold almost in the European Union and helping to surround Ukraine it is unlikely that the 'Peacekeepers' will be leaving anytime soon.

My visa was processed quickly by a young English speaking border guard at the newly built building on the road from Chisanu, the capital of Moldova 60 km away.

There was no border post for Moldova, who seemed to be ignoring Transnistria and hoping the problem will go away. A Russian tank, partially hidden by camouflage netting, stood guard a few hundred metres back from the border.

It was a grey day and the cities skyline was dominated by standard Khrushchev block apartments. A large statue of Lenin, with hand outstretched, appeared beside the main road. In Moldova, all the Lenin statues had been pulled down and replaced with historical figures from the pre-USSR days.

My hotel, the Aist, would not be my first choice for a quality well-run establishment. But, it would be for those wanting the full experience of a Soviet hotel.

Prostitutes in the lobby, a rickety old lift, no hot water, power cuts, curtains so threadbare they let more light in than they blocked, no toilet paper, and uncomfortable beds. There were no distractions such as a TV or internet to get you of the time travelling experience. Highly recommended.

The next day was Victory Day when the terrible losses in WWII are remembered, and the final victory over the Nazi's celebrated. There were lots of troops and tanks parading, as expected, but what did surprise was that photographs of those who were lost in the conflict were carried by those both in the parade and the crowd. It was an incredibly moving experience.

Then it was back to my hotel, where the bar was overflowing onto the footpath as the locals began to enjoy the national holiday. As the vodka flowed it seemed rude not to join in, and ensured that I finally got a good nights sleep.

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