Booking tickets at the bus station in Odessa, Ukraine to Tiraspol the capital city of Transnistria is not too difficult. Approximately one member of staff at the station has some English and with some terrible Russian thrown in, you can find yourself standing at bay number 10 waiting for our intercity bus to arrive and take us to the border with Transnistria and then onto Tiraspol.
As it pulled up, this workhorse Ukrainian bus looked roughly three decades old. All it was lacking were some farm animals and a place to stay for the night. The crew which consisted of a driver with a hat and a mouth full of gold teeth along with the passengers already on the bus were understandably bemused at the sight the 10 foreigners in our group waiting to board and there was plenty of giggling among the locals.
The ride to the border from Odessa to Transnistria is about 2.5 hours and is painless enough. At the border you can expect a delay depending on whether you are travelling alone or with a group. The peculiarities of entering what some describe as a mafia state that is outside the world banking system and not recognised by the United Nations start around here. You’ll notice the cars crossing the border have Transnistrian registration plates with the National Flag of Transnistria embossed.
There are uniformed guards in police uniforms and the border appears exactly as it would if you were travelling between any other nations with a defined border. Not many foreign tourists visit so expect some professional interest and curiosity from the police and/or straight up questioning. Once we got back on our bus we were stopped about 100 meters up the road by two young plainclothes police officers who boarded briefly and let us on our way after taking down a few notes.
It was dusk and the light was more purple than black so there was enough light to see around. For the next 26km we made our way along what seemed like an immaculate avenue on the drive to a sprawling country estate. Perfect trees line the distance with snow white paint around each tree trunk. Vast open agricultural land sits at both sides. This ‘avenue’ is taking us all the way Tiraspol and as you get closer you will spot petrol stations dotted around that are shiny and new and out of place with a 1950’s American style design with the word ‘Sherriff’ across a large Sheriffs badge which serves as the company logo.
I could say that at the point of introduction to Tranistria I felt as though I was on the set of a David Lynch directed, Eyes Wide Shut meets Alice in Wonderland epic rather than in and around Moldova. When you enter the city you feel and know that you are definitely not in Ukraine and definitely not in Moldova, Tiraspol has its own feel and atmosphere which is very cool to experience. It is laid back, well-kept and very individual. The city is well lit up thanks to energy and gas provided by Russia. The weather was really good there in the spring and the Dniester River runs all the way through the city with the neighbouring Transnistrian city of Bender on its west side. It has manmade beaches where people go during the summer months.
There is no better soviet slap in the face than staying at the Aist Hotel in Tiraspol. It is everything you could possibly want and 100% gives a full soviet style experience. It has a reputation as one of the most popular hotels in town if you catch my drift. Walking up the main drag in Tiraspol is odd as there are modern restaurants, commercial operations and street landscaping and furniture. There are a few restaurants in town that are excellent and I guess you would be looking at a top end meal for about $7 with good red wine and cognac from the region for a pittance. There are some bars and clubs in the area that are good too. There are ATMs here but there won’t be any way for you to withdraw any currency as foreign cards are not accepted.
The brand ‘Sherriff’ is everywhere to be seen in Transnistria. Apart from owning FC Sheriff Tiraspol and building the Sherriff stadium in the city at a cost of USD 200 million the company controls much gas distribution, television, construction, publishing, alcohol, advertising and has major supermarket presence. They operate the only mobile phone network in Transnistria.
I could tell you lots more about this place, the sights you can visit and what you can get up to over a two-day stay but my advice is go and check it out for yourself. It’s cool to sit on your balcony at Aist Hotel and drink 1.5 litres of beer while looking down at the Dniester which is crosses by an illuminated bridge that changes colour from the Transnistrian flag to the Russian flag!