The USSR technically fell in the early 90s, but there remain dotted throughout its former territories several places that still haven’t got the memo. None more staunchly resists this news than the unrecognised country of Transnistria: like a Japanese soldier camped out in the Philippines jungle, the technically Moldovan territory stubbornly refuses to acknowledge a world that has largely moved on,and this fascinating slice of Soviet nostalgia is still going strong.
We arrived in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol in the late evening, after an unconventional border crossing from Ukraine that saw our group spread out amongst a convoy of four vehicles. Transnistria, despite being unrecognised by the international community at large, is very much its own country: it maintains its own borders, currency and government, and the much-feared KGB still operates within its territory.
Over the next two days, we were to be given an insight into what is, alongside Belarus, one of the most Soviet places on the planet.
The Hotel Aist
We at YPT are well accustomed to accommodation that ain’t exactly the Hilton, and nowhere else is this more apparent than in our hotel of choice in Tiraspol: the Hotel Aist. The Aist is the Transnistrian mentality writ small: an obsolete Soviet holdover that, for everything it lacks in comfort, cleanliness and prostitute-free lobbies, it makes up for with old-school charm and Soviet quirkiness.
The Aist smacked us in the face with its kookiness from the off: as our group of some 20 people checked in, a drunken local ranted in Russian at length, trying in vain to establish eye contact that we all avoided as if he were Medusa. Throughout the lobby several ladies of negotiable affection seemed distinctly uninterested in bartering their virtue with us. I personally wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or offended by this.
An antique lift waited at the rear of the lobby, built in a time that knew neither capitalism nor lawsuits. If you were too slow to get in the lift, there was a high likelihood of losing at least one limb as the no-nonsense power doors slammed shut and the lift sky-rocketed up the shaft.
After check-in we made our way to our less-than-palatial chambers: partially clean sheets, spartan bathrooms, and lumpy mattresses that were installed around the same time that Trotsky took an ice pick to the brain.
Being true Pioneers, of course, we embraced the situation and turned it to our advantage: having the whole floor to ourselves and in one of the cheapest places in Europe, we loaded up on ludicrously cheap vodka and had us a hotel party to remember, in which only a few members of the group drunkenly proposed to other, less drunk people.
Noul Neamt Monastery
After getting thoroughly drunk the previous night, we had all decided upon a sensible one, and luckily, we were off to a monastery. What could be more tranquil, relaxed and – most importantly – alcohol-free than a monastery?
And that’s how we ended up shitfaced in a wine cellar.
The monastery itself – a spectacular collection of Moldovan Orthodox buildings – was a beautiful sight, and we wandered around the grounds and through the buildings, snapping several pictures and not getting drunk in the slightest. And that was when our local guide informed us that we were very lucky – one of the resident priests was on hand to give us a tour of the wine cellar!
After a brief introduction to the cellar, we were given perhaps the most Game of Thrones experience you could possibly have outside of a visit to Northern Ireland – a glass of blood-red wine and bread dipped in salt. Guest rights fully established, the priest wasted no time in getting most of the group thoroughly leathered. Whenever anyone’s glass got remotely low, our man of the cloth was on hand to fill that person’s glass up to the brim. This was compounded by a couple of Negative Nancies who kept fobbing off their own wine to other people, thus getting them even drunker.
The priest then proceeded to serenade us with religious songs sung in four or five languages, one of which was probably High Valyrian. A good time was had by all.
In Transnistria, ‘Bender’ is not a homophobic epithet but a town located near the Moldovan border. Bender is notable for bullet-pocked buildings, an almost non-functional train station with an impressive array of tracks, and the world’s most Soviet fairground. The bumper cars in the fairground violated at least three articles of the Human Rights Convention and screamed around their small arena spitting sparks at anyone foolish enough to stand around the periphery.
The toilet situation was scarcely any better: effluvium-addled holes in the ground that basically constituted an olfactory war crime. If they were any more heinous, Mossad would dispatch a hit squad.
Bender also sports a very charming Soviet-style canteen at the bus station; here you can load up your dinner tray with Borscht, possibly-meat and fizzy water whilst taking in the fine array of communist memorabilia and Lenin busts.
The road to Chisinau
After our thoroughly socialist repast, it was time to hit the road and get to the capital of Moldova – Chisinau. Though I wasn’t to know it at the time, I was about to find out that sometimes unrecognised breakaway countries are way, way better than the ‘parent’ countries in which they’re found…