TRAVEL MEM­OIR

Adrift in Transnis­tria, Matthew Clay­field gives thanks for cheap vodka.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

Ev­ery morn­ing in Transnis­tria, the self-pro­claimed East­ern Euro­pean coun­try that no other coun­try recog­nises, there’s a run on the banks. You wouldn’t think there’d be much de­mand for a cur­rency like the Transnis­trian ru­ble, which is use­less be­yond a thin sliver of land along Moldova’s east­ern bor­der with Ukraine.

But ev­ery morn­ing the banks are full, lo­cals with­draw­ing what they need. The quote-un­quote coun­try is heav­ily re­liant on re­mit­tances from else­where, and signs dis­play­ing ex­change rates – the dol­lar, the euro, the Rus­sian ru­ble – pep­per ev­ery cor­ner. If you’re one of the very few tourists who come here, you take your pass­port in­side (the ATMs are ei­ther empty or won’t ac­cept your card), sign a plethora of pa­per­work, and exit bear­ing a wad of noth­ing­ness. A shot of vodka is the equiv­a­lent of 50 cents here. The wad of noth­ing­ness doesn’t need to be mas­sive.

We’ve been get­ting cocked eye­brows from the mo­ment we ar­rived: at the bor­der, where Transnis­trian of­fi­cials did a dou­ble-take when we said we’d be stay­ing a week; at the town’s most pop­u­lar café, 7 Fri­days, when we told our waiter the same thing; and at the bank, where we took out more than most tourists do, in rubles and eu­ros, the lat­ter to pay our host, who had no in­ter­est in ac­cept­ing the lo­cal cur­rency. The Transnis­trian kopek has the weight and feel of an ar­cade to­ken and the three-ru­ble “coin” is a cu­ri­ous green plas­tic square not un­like some­thing you might get at a casino. It’s money be­fit­ting Transnis­tria’s sta­tus: a fake cur­rency for a coun­try that doesn’t ex­ist.

Transnis­tria was formed in 1992 after a two-year war be­tween Rus­sian-backed Transnis­trian troops and the Moldovan po­lice and mil­i­tary. Moldova con­tends that the Rus­sian “peace­keep­ing” troops, who re­main even now, vi­o­late its ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity; Transnis­tria coun­ters that its eth­nic Rus­sian pop­u­la­tion would be over­whelmed by the Moldovan ma­jor­ity were it to give up its hard-won sta­tus.

It doesn’t take long to re­alise why most tourists come here for only a cou­ple of hours. The sights, such as they are, can be seen in an hour, leav­ing plenty of time to wan­der, get a bite to eat, and maybe do a tour of the Kvint brandy fac­tory, the only place in town that pro­duces any­thing of any value to peo­ple else­where. There are two stat­ues of Lenin, one of the 18th­cen­tury Rus­sian gen­eral Alexan­der Su­vorov, and the im­pres­sive if di­lap­i­dated war memo­rial, where a civil war-era tank looms over the names of the slain.

By the end of our first day in town, I’ve made Snezhok on Strada Len­ina my lo­cal. Apart from the bar­tender, who spends most of his days sit­ting on a bench, wrapped in a quilt and chain-smok­ing, it’s mostly fre­quented by old men watch­ing Rus­sian World War II movies on the TV over the bar. A few days into my stay a cou­ple of Danes strike up a con­ver­sa­tion. They’re here to see Copen­hagen take on Ti­raspol, the “coun­try’s” cap­i­tal, in soc­cer. I’m soon sand­wiched be­tween two lo­cals in a cab on our way to the Sher­iff Sta­dium half­way be­tween Ti­raspol and Ben­der.

The game is a washout, 0-0, but worth at­tend­ing not least be­cause we’re seated, in an oth­er­wise empty sta­dium, within spit­ting dis­tance of the Ul­tra Sher­iffs, the lo­cal, fiercely loyal fan club. Ti­raspol com­petes in the UEFA Europa League as a Moldovan side, but the pas­sion on dis­play tonight is clearly that of Transnis­trian na­tion­al­ism. But it’s not enough to get the side over the line and I leave with my hosts a few min­utes be­fore full-time.

Next morn­ing I’m back at one of the banks. The ma­chine I bought my sta­dium ticket from gave a prom­is­sory note rather than change. It’s only worth $2, but that’s four shots of vodka in these parts.

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