Very Interesting

A fellow traveller Scot from the US sent me this.

Gather ’round, children, for it is time to play a game. Grab a map and let’s count how many countries do not exist. One of them occupies a chunk of the Republic of Moldova. When Moldova broke away from the Soviets, the narrow strip of land to the east of the Nistra River wasn’t happy with that move. That region, called Transdniestra, tried to break away from Moldova. There was a brief civil war, and Russian peacekeepers still man the unofficial border. In the Romanian language, Transdniestra roughly translates as ‘behind the river.’ The local Communist government felt that was a bit of an insult, so their ‘official’ name of the breakaway region is Pridniestra, meaning before the river – it all depends on which way you’re facing. The region has its own currency and stamps, which are no good in any other country.

Getting through the checkpoint was no problem. I had a local with me who was my CouchSurfing host. On the bus from Chisinau (Moldova’s capital) to Tiraspol (breakaway capital), we passed by Russian soldiers who had an armored personnel carrier hidden in a pit by the side of the road under camouflage netting.

Visiting Tiraspol is like stepping back into time. Russian is one of three official languages, and is the default that most people use. Not much has changed since the Communist era. Visitors are not welcomed, and therefore are rare. I had to register my passport with the local police. There are new apartment buildings, but not many hotels. My host is basically as homeless as I am, so we couldn’t stay with his friends. The hotel we stayed at didn’t have hot water, at any time of the year. When I asked about that, he said civilization has not yet arrived in Tiraspol.

What the government doesn’t control, a company called Sheriff does. Sheriff runs most ‘private’ businesses in the region. They’ve got supermarkets, gas stations, security guard companies, the local football (soccer) team, banks, etc. Anyone who wantsto open their own business has to go through Sheriff to do it. The gas stations post prices in Transdnietrian currency, as well as in U.S. dollars. My host said people can use almost any currency (dollars, euros, rubles, etc) to buy stuff because the local currency isn’t valid in any other country in the world. He warned me to change my local money into Ukrainian cash while in Tiraspol, because no exchange house in Ukraine would accept it.

My host used to be a professional football player, and so we got to go play a match with some of his friends at the Sheriff stadium practice field one night. I had to keep my mouth shut as we went near the gate because the security was very strict. Some people who work at the stadium get patted down when they leave in the evening to make sure they’re not stealing anything.

The main square in Tiraspol features an eternal flame for soldiers who died in the civil war, as well as the graves of some of them. There’s a tank mounted on a monument, which is one of the three tanks the country had. I saw another tank in the town of Bendery, near Tiraspol. Down the street from the square is a large billboard of the local ‘president.’ He’s part of a group of three men. Guess who the other two are? The ‘presidents’ of South Ossetia and Abkazhia, the breakaway republics in Georgia. It’s also common to see pictures of Putin or Medveydev next to an image of Che.

On Wednesday afternoon I got to the Ukranian border with my host around 1pm. He headed back to TIraspol, and I walked through the control zone. I made it through customs without any problems, and the immigration officials let me pass by as well. But I got stopped by the final guard. He checked my passport and radioed back to the immigration office some question about me. I didn’t understand all of what he said, but he took me back to the office and I got to answer a lot of questions from a huge guard while he looked through my passport. I knew the game he was playing, but acted like I didn’t. He was a nice enough guy, the kind you’d have a beer with, but he was simply the product of a system with endemic corruption. We chatted for a while in a friendly way, and he finally let me know that if I kicked in five dollars for beer money, I could leave. The $5 bill I had in my wallet was ripped, and the $10 was as well. But, I had 170 rubles from Russia (roughly $7) and that served just fine. So now I can say I’ve bribed my way out of two places (Mexico back in 1998 to get into Belize). A $7 bribe isn’t that much, and I’ve had to pay as much as $15 in official fees while crossing the borders of Central and South American countries.

I’m in Odessa, Ukraine, now. Just a tip: anyone coming here should get reservations ahead of time. Find a cheap hostel was very hard and took six hours of hiking around with my pack, plus three stops at cafes to use the Wi-Fi. I came across a place listed in my very outdated guidebook that is now a two-star hotel. The cheapest two types of rooms do not include access to hot water. Now, it was cold enough to se my breath at 3pm yesterday. Not providing hot water to guests precludes a hotel from having any stars, in my mind.

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