This week’s dream: Three days in a coun­try that doesn’t ex­ist

The Week (US) - - Leisure -

A coun­try that other coun­tries won’t ac­knowl­edge ap­par­ently has to take bor­der se­cu­rity very se­ri­ously, said

Tim John­son in The Globe and Mail (Canada). On the road into tiny Transnis­tria, a land­locked sliver of Moldova whose claim of sovereignty is not rec­og­nized by any other state,

“the Cold War vibes are new again”— at least briefly. But the gruff bor­der guards in furry Rus­sian hats do let tourist groups through, which is how I re­cently man­aged to spend three days in its geopo­lit­i­cal limbo. Formed in the wake of the Soviet Union’s col­lapse, Transnis­tria has its own flag, mil­i­tary, and na­tional an­them. It even has its own cur­rency, “com­plete with col­or­ful plas­tic coins that look like Skee-Ball tokens.” But it’s also a wannabe Soviet state, “a place caught be­tween the present and the past.”

Tour­ing the Ben­der Fortress, a 1538 strong­hold built of lime, clay, sand, and egg whites, we look out over a nar­row river, the Dni­ester, that once marked the bor­der be­tween the Rus­sian and Ot­toman em­pires. In­side the fortress is a “cu­ri­ous col­lec­tion of stuff,” in­clud­ing a cat­a­pult, a swing set, and a shoot­ing gallery where I pay two rubles to try my hand with a cross­bow. Later, I chat with our guide over a pic­nic ta­ble. “Peo­ple think this is a closed, se­cret ter­ri­tory, like North Korea, but it’s not,” she says. “We want more tourism.” Not that Transnis­tria of­fers lots to do. Swim­ming in the river, she says, is one of her fa­vorite pas­times.

“The place, it must be said, pro­duces some truly ex­cel­lent caviar.” Vis­it­ing the Aquatir Stur­geon Com­plex, we watch the mas­sive fish thrash­ing about in round pools, then sit down for a tast­ing hosted by a stern­look­ing man with a thick Rus­sian ac­cent. Step­ping out­side, we all stop to take pho­tos of a beau­ti­ful vin­tage Volga parked on the street un­til the el­derly owner ap­pears and of­fers to take a few of us for a spin, then drops us off at a large empty train sta­tion over­grown with weeds. “A weird and un­ex­pected ex­pe­ri­ence, to be sure—but it’s truly just an­other day in Transnis­tria.”

In­trepid Travel (in­trepid­ of­fers a $2,128, 13-day tour of Moldova, Ukraine, and Ro­ma­nia that in­cludes two nights in Transnis­tria.

Vis­i­tors stroll the yard in­side Ben­der Fortress.

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