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Transnistria (locally called by its Russian name, Pridnestrovie, and occasionally, in English, Trans-Dniester) is a de facto state in Eastern Europe that has declared independence from Moldova, although it is only recognized by the other breakaway states of the former Soviet Union — Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. It roughly corresponds to the territory between the Dniester River and Ukraine.
Transnistria (official name Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic; in Russian Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublika, PMR) declared its independence in 1990, entailing a civil war with the much larger successor state of the Republic of Moldova that lasted until 1992.
Transnistria is a product of the messy breakup of the Soviet Union, when a part of the newly formed Republic of Moldova that wanted to stay in the Russian family, rebelled against Romanian language domination from Kishinev and decided to go its own way.
While the country is not officially recognized by any other sovereign nation (not even Russia), the government does effectively control the territory it claims to rule, although their actual wiggle room is perhaps a bit limited by the will of Russia their biggest benefactor and political de facto ally. It maintains its functional autonomy with military and other support from Russia.
While Transnistria is not a classical tourist destination per se, it does offer a certain Stalinist charm and is one of the few "countries that don't exist" (at least according to the UN) that isn't in or close to an active war zone. You can thus boast of having an entry stamp in your passport and banknotes in your wallet that the rest of the world claims don't exist and are invalid. And if it isn't for bragging rights alone, that you come visit there are actually some other attractions as well.
Transnistria is divided into five administrative regions and two free cities.
Entering Transnistria is fairly straightforward by bus, train or car from both west (Moldova, usually Chişinău) and east (Ukraine, usually Odessa). Upon entering Transnistria, you just present your passport and they'll enter your info on their computer and print out a card in Russian and English. Upon clearing immigration, this card, not your passport, is stamped – half the card stays at the crossing you entered, and half stays with you until you leave Transnistria.
From the Bendery crossing to Chişinău, a taxi costs 100 to 150 Moldovan Lei. A marshrutka (minibus) costs around 25 lei. Marshrutkas between Odessa and the Kuchurgan border (on the main road to Tiraspol) are fairly frequent and cheap.
When crossing the border between Moldova and Transnistria, you will be checked only by Transnistrian officials. There are also peacekeeping Russian and Ukrainian soldiers who may stop and search vehicles.
Entering Transnistria from Ukraine will not get you a Moldovan entry stamp. If you then leave Moldova through a crossing controlled by Moldovan authorities, you may have problems with the Moldovan immigration authorities, who may try to claim that you entered Moldova illegally. Exiting Moldova through Transnistria to Ukraine (whether having a Moldovan entry stamp or not) causes no problems - even a subsequent visit to Moldova through one of the border crossings controlled by the Moldovan authorities doesn't raise problems with the border guards.
The Transnistrian officials may try to extort bribes from travellers at the borders, particularly on the main Odessa - Chişinău road. Be firm, unafraid and polite in insisting that you do not have to pay to enter or leave their country (unless driving your own vehicle, which incurs a USD5 fee upon entry). This may be daunting - nowhere else can you be interrogated by the KGB wearing hammer and sickle badges - but bribes are not officially condoned and they will back down. Don't let the guards see your money, it will make them want some for themselves. If you feel beaten and feel that paying a bribe is the best way out, keep it low: USD2 should be enough.
The best way to fight this corruption is to know beforehand what might happen and be prepared for games that the guards may play. Write a short paragraph stating that you know their tricks and how they work and that it's not necessary to have a Moldovan exit visa. Translate this into Russian while also providing a few of the complaint phone numbers listed below to show them you mean business. Also make sure to have several copies of this document because they will most likely confiscate the first version you give them.
Complaints can be made online [dead link], where you can go to the English version and click on hotline. You can also send a complaint to firstname.lastname@example.org (Transnistrian Customs). Future travellers will be grateful for your complaint! There is also a complaint hotline: (+373 533 94578 or 92568. Try to memorise the number of the officer before he asks you for a bribe. Even the nicest officer can be corrupt! If you complain you should also state the time, the date and the name of the border crossing. You should also give your phone number. There is an English speaking officer responsible for complaints. You can reach him at +373 778 50986 or email@example.com.
It is no longer necessary to register with the police for stays under 24 hours: this is now done at the border. If you are staying longer, be sure the hotel or person you are staying with registers you or register yourself with the Ministry of Interior.
Entering Moldova through Transnistria from Ukraine
The official Moldovan stance on the missing entry stamp can vary.
As of November 2014, the official stance is that foreign visitors are required to register within 3 days (72 hours) of arriving (that includes the time spent in Transnistria) to get a Moldovan entry stamp at nearest border station (e.g. Chisinau airport). If you don't comply, you will be fined MDL200 (approx €10). That will not affect future entry into Moldova; however, the process is rather complicated, as you need to pay the fine at the bank. There is usually a bank exchange office at major borders, but crossing smaller border points during the small hours may be a problem. If you take a train to Bucharest, there is plenty of time at Ungheni station for all paperwork.
Transnistria does not have its own international passenger airport (it has a military or freight airport), so the best way is to fly to Chişinău in Moldova and travel from there. It is also possible to come from Odessa in Ukraine by bus.
The only major railway stations are Tiraspol and Bendery. There is one daily train between Odessa and Chişinău stopping at Tiraspol and Bender as of November 2014. There are local trains running between Chişinău and Bender but foreigners are not allowed to cross into Transnistria with these trains as no border control in them.
As of July 2012, there is train connection between Chişinău and Moscow, stopping at Tiraspol and Kiev (Leaves Chişinău 22:30, stops at Tiraspol around 01:30 and arrives in Kiev 12:30). Check Poezda CIS Railway Timetable for up-to-date, English language timetables.
Cars can enter but expect delays of up to an hour at border crossings in busy times. Note that foreign nationals driving their own vehicles are prime targets for border guards trying to extract bribes. According to the official hotline of Transnistrian customs there is an official road tax (USD5). Ask for a receipt.
Note that not all border crossing points are allowed/able/willing to process foreign cars in customs. They may tell you to cross the border at a bigger crossing point.
There is a relatively frequent (about every 30 minutes 07:00-18:00, less frequently as early as 05:00 and as late as 22:00) bus service connecting Chişinău and Tiraspol. Ask for return times when you arrive. Marshrutkas (minibuses) also run this route. Direct Odessa - Tiraspol buses are not so frequent. However, buses from Tiraspol to the border at Kuchurgan (Кучурган) and from Kuchurgan to Odessa are frequent.
Check AVPMR [dead link] for official timetables of local and international buses.
There are hardly any train connections within the country, so the bus—if available—will be your only choice. Marshrutkas (minibuses) zip between cities much faster (and often more frequently) than buses. They cost a little more, but travel much faster and can be hailed anywhere along their route. If you flag down a marshrutka, it's customary to pay on leaving.
Taxis in Tiraspol are very common and are quite cheap. Be wary of scams however—make sure to negotiate a price before you get in the taxi. If you miss the last bus to Kishinev at 18:35, you can take a taxi from Tiraspol to Kishinev, which should not cost more than USD30.
Official languages in Transnistria are Russian, Moldovan (which is fundamentally identical to Romanian), and Ukrainian. Moldovan in Transnistria is spelled using the Cyrillic alphabet, although some people insist on spelling it with the Latin alphabet, which is a matter of dispute. The most common language used in shops, bars and taxis is Russian, which practically everyone understands. Moldovan and Ukrainian are understood and spoken too but to a lesser extent.
The three official languages of Transdniestria are Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian, although everybody speaks Russian, and Russian is the language of government.
Some people speak English, German, or even French. After the official languages, English and German are the most common. Young people especially may speak English.
Furthermore, even people who speak some English (or another foreign language) can be quite shy about it, and may deny that they speak it even if they have been educated in it. Keep in mind, there is essentially zero tourism in Transnistria. If you are a native speaker of a foreign language, there's a good chance that you're the first native speaker the person you are talking to has ever spoken with.
Tiraspol does not exactly boast a shopping mile; shops are few and have a limited choice. The official currency is the Transnistrian ruble (which can be used and exchanged only in Transnistria), but most shops and sales stands will accept Moldovan lei and Ukrainian hryvna.
Exchange offices are common and will happily give you Transnistrian rubles in return for just about any tradeable currency. Official exchange rates can be found at the website of the Trans-Dniestr Republican Bank. Don't change more money than you need as trying to turn Transnistrian rubles into other currencies may turn out to be difficult - even if exchange booths advertise rates to sell dollars, euro, lei, etc, they may not actually be willing to relinquish their stocks of 'real' money. Don't even think about trying to change Transnistian rubles outside Transnistria, no-one will touch them.
There are excellent deals in brandy made locally to a world class standard, about USD3 a bottle. Cigarettes are very cheap too. There are also arts and crafts to buy as well. A good exchange point is the Kvint store in downtown Tiraspol—there is an exchange office with good rates right inside the shop. There is also an exchange booth at Tiraspol the bus/train station.
International credit/debit cards and travellers' cheques are not accepted anywhere in Transnistria. However, there is an international ATM on 25 October Street that dispenses US dollars and Russian rubles.
There is a large open-air market in Tiraspol, close to the Suvorov's monument, and another in Bendery, located a few metres away from the bus and marshrutkas station. They are probably not fashionable for those looking for something closer to the western style, but interesting to see.
There are several restaurants serving local and international cuisine. There are no western fast food chains but there is an "Andy's Pizza" restaurant on 25 October Street in Tiraspol. There are also cafeteria style restaurants which are very cheap: usually around USD3–5 for a meal that includes a 3 course lunch along with dessert and your choice of drink.
Local wine and cognac are excellent and cheap. The Kvint factory is situated in Tiraspol, and Tiraspol has a Kvint shop, selling Kvint products at very low prices. Kvint produces arguably the best Cognac in the former Soviet Union, but it's extremely hard to come by in Western countries, although Moldovan supermarkets sell it. A trip to Transnistria is not complete without a sample. There is also a slightly fermented bread-based soft drink that is sold in the streets called Kvas. For about 50 US cents you can get a cold glass of Kvas which is a Russian version of Dandelion & Burdock or Root Beer.
The physical dangers of Transnistria are almost non-existent. The major cities are much safer than Western European and American cities of similar size and economic makeup. Also, despite the political situation with Moldova, there is essentially no threat of being caught in a military action. There has not been fighting in Transnistria for many years. Indeed, Transnistria is a very safe place for travel. By far the biggest threat to the traveller is scamming.
Despite scare reports, Tiraspol is very welcoming, mainly because it gets so few tourists. Young people speak English and are helpful. The city is well-policed. Crime is low.
Many Transnistrians are excited to see foreigners and will be very welcoming, if a bit shy at first. Some, however, see foreigners as being sources of easy money. Always negotiate the price of a taxi before you get in. Use pen and paper if you are not a Russian speaker. Ask about the prices of items before you order them at a bar or restaurant. It is not common to be scammed, but it is far from rare. However, even when scams are attempted, it is often for no more than a few euros.
Be wary of police officers. If you look foreign, they will stop and ask to see your passport. Often, they will request bribes, but it should not take more than a few US dollars or euros. This practice is not condoned by the Transnistrian government, but in practice is fairly common. If you speak Russian, the chance to be asked for bribes is much lower.
While governmental travel warnings have been issued advising against travel to Transnistria, they have since been withdrawn.
Medical care is almost entirely non-existent in Transnistria, especially for non-citizens. Furthermore, even if you have travel health insurance it will often not be valid in Transnistria, but valid in Moldova. It's advisable to check in advance with your insurer.
Be careful in Transnistria's bars during the night. There are often mafia-like characters having a good time with rolls of US dollars and you should not enquire too closely about the source of their wealth.
Internet cafes are not widespread. There is one in Bendery, in Gagarin Street (close to the city market) and another one in Tiraspol, near Andy's Pizza on 25 October Street. More and more restaurants offer free Wi-Fi for their guests, for example, 7Пятницъ,"La Placinta" and Andy's Pizza in Tiraspol. Although still not frequent, you can enjoy free Wi-Fi inside new trolley buses running between Tiraspol and Bendery.