After sharing my experience visiting relatively unknown Transnistria, I’ve had a number of questions about the specifics of how to travel to the breakaway republic. Visas, militarised border crossings, the possibility of police bribes and where to stay have all come up which is why I’ve put together this how to guide to visiting Transnistria and in particular the capital Tiraspol.
Firstly, why would you want to visit Transnistria? Along with two other travel bloggers we chose to visit to report on and celebrate their Independence Day Parade on the 2nd September. A day which commemorates their albeit unrecognised independence from Moldova. An independence they went to war to obtain. It’s the biggest day on the social calendar and one of the best times to visit.
We went hoping to gain a little insight into this Russian speaking breakaway territory and their desire to retain close ties to Russia and the former Soviet Union instead of siding with the European Union. We also wanted to dispel many of the rumours surrounding the country including that it’s a difficult place to get to and that tourists risk being randomly solicited for bribes, neither of which are true. You can read my views on Transnistria’s Independence Day, a fun and somewhat surreal experience, as well as fellow blogger Yomadic’s Transnistria post and Darmon’s at The Bohemian Blog.
Before You Go – Getting a Visa for Moldova or Ukraine
Transnistria is landlocked and the only way to enter the country is via Moldova or Ukraine. Most EU and United States nationals do not require a visa to enter either of these countries but Australians do. I’d check this with the consulate before you go as visa regulations change all the time. Three of our party of five were Australian and we chose to get a Moldovan visa at the consulate in Bucharest, Romania; a much easier proposition then getting a Ukrainian visa. Although annoying, the visa process is relatively simple and after applying in the morning we had our visas by the afternoon.
Documents Australians require to obtain a short term visitor visa for Moldova:
- one passport photo
- completed application form
- proof you’ll be exiting the country
- proof of accommodation (a copy of your booking confirmation or possibly just an address)
- proof of health insurance (originally requested but not needed in the end)
- €60 application fee paid directly into the consulate’s bank account (they give you the details)
We were driving and showed our car documents of proof we would be continuing on after our visit. A return train or bus ticket should also suffice but I’d check with the consulate as they appeared quite flexible on this point. Arrive early to avoid the queue and note the consulate closes for a few hours around lunch time.
Moldovan Consulate in Bucharest
Address: 8 Bulevardul Eroilor
Australians Applying for a Ukrainian Visa
Entering Transnistria from Odesa in Ukraine is quite common but Australians need to apply for a Ukrainian visa well in advance. I made inquiries at the consulate in Presov, Slovakia and was told the following documents are required:
- passport photos
- completed application form
- invitation from a Ukrainian travel agency or hotel
- proof of funds
- US$300 application fee
More documents might be required but I struggled to understand everything I was told due to the language barrier. Worst of all the Ukrainian visa takes 15 days from the application date. As much as I would like to visit Ukraine I unfortunately didn’t have the time to go ahead with getting the visa.
Crossing Transnistria’s Militarised Border by Car
Driving from Chisinau to the Transnistrian border takes less than an hour. The first stop is the Moldovan side of the border where they will either wave you through or do a quick check of your road tax documents.
After a couple of minutes of driving through no man’s land, you come across a stop sign with barbed wire guarded by Russian peacekeepers. Don’t stop as that’s not the border. Keep an eye out for camouflaged tanks on your left.
A bit further along is the border where you’ll be asked to get out and hand your passport over to soldiers in a small booth. They scan all passports and that’s it.
Next stop is the immigration office where you need to fill in two visa entry/departure cards with your name and address in Transnistria.
Get back in the queue and then you’ll be asked to pull over again to pay road and customs tax.
After 90 minutes and a hell of a lot of paperwork, you’ll be on your way. The first town you’ll come across is Bender and Tiraspol isn’t far after that.
Road and Customs Tax
After getting your visa card at the immigration office you can drive through the border but you’ll be pulled over straight away to pay road and customs tax.
There is a €5 road tax or toll payable on all cars entering Transnistria. This is similar to the vignette you have to purchase when driving in most European countries. This is not a bribe but an official fee and you’ll receive a receipt for the payment. Don’t lose the receipt as you must show it to customs when you leave the country.
Private cars must also pay a customs tax based on the value of the vehicle. When you pay the road tax you will be asked if your car is ‘firma’. It took me a while to realise I was being asked if the car was a company car. If you say yes they’ll send you on your way, no proof is required and no customs duty will need to be paid. If you say no, that the car is your private car, then you’ll have to pay customs duty. Given the make, model and year of the car they will determine its current value. The tax is 0.18% of the value. In my case, I paid €8. A complicated customs form must also be completed, in duplicate, and then the customs officer will write out your receipts in quadruplicate, by hand. You’ll be there a while. Keep all the receipts as you must show them when you leave the country.
Entering Transnistria by Train or Bus
Update: See the comments for the correct information on travelling by train or bus.
Although I don’t have personal experience of entering Transnistria by train I did speak to some travellers who arrived by train via Chisinau in Moldova. When you get off the train you’re supposed to go straight to the immigration office in the train station to get your visa entry card. Most people arriving by train seem to avoid stopping at immigration to get the visa but I wouldn’t recommend it. Officials sometimes do visa checks on the train departure platforms and it would definitely be a problem if you decided to leave the country by car or bus.
Aside from the train there is also a bus service from Chisinau to Tiraspol but I believe this only runs a couple of times per day and there can be delays at the border. The train is a much more efficient mode of transport and there is no border control on the train.
Registering with the Authorities – The OVIR or Militia Office
If you plan on staying overnight in Transnistria (or more than 24 hours depending on who you ask) you need to register at the OVIR office in Tiraspol (or other major town). If OVIR is closed you might be able to register at the Militia Office. Immigration officials at the border will give you information on where to do this but the process only takes 5 minutes and is free. If you don’t register you’ll either be refused exit at the border and forced to return to Tiraspol to register or, like us, you’ll have to pay a fine/bribe to get out of the country. Don’t listen to what anyone else might say on this issue, register with the authorities as soon as you get to Tiraspol as instructed by the border immigration officials.
Driving in Transnistria
After spending 9 hours dodging crater-like potholes and extremely rough roads just to travel 250km in Moldova, it was a relief to find brand new, perfect roads in Transnistria. Their Russian friends seem to have taken care of them in that regard. Some back roads in the smaller towns like Bender are in need of repair but nothing worth worrying about.
The Local Currency
Transnistrian rubles are worthless outside of the country. You can withdraw US dollars or Russian rubles at ATMs around Tiraspol and exchange them for the Transnistrian currency at any bureau de change or bank. I found the best exchange rate at one of the banks on the main street and the worst at the train station. You can also exchange euros and Moldovan and Romanian leu. Don’t forget to change your money back before you leave the country. As far as I’m aware, credit cards are not accepted in Transnistria.
The Facts About Bribes in Transnistria
The Transnistrian police and border agents have long had a reputation for soliciting bribes. The new government has been working hard to stamp out this behaviour and provided you don’t break the law you’re unlikely to find yourself in a situation where you’ll be required to pay a bribe. Having said that, I was forced to pay two bribes on my 3 day visit. One to the police after I committed a minor traffic offence and another to the border/immigration authorities while attempting to exit the country. On both occasions I had (mistakenly) broken the law. I consider the payments I made to be ‘unofficial fines’ rather than bribes but nonetheless the cash I handed over went straight into the officials’ pockets so bribes they were.
Safety: Petty and Violent Crime
Before my trip to Transnistria I had heard there is virtually no crime in the country. While not entirely true, I do consider Tiraspol to be a safe city. Of course you’d want to watch your wallet when in crowded areas and during events like the annual parade but petty crime is not something I’d be too concerned about. That doesn’t mean crime doesn’t occur. While we were there two foreigners were mugged while walking though the poorly lit Pobeda Park on their way back to the hostel. Violent crime is rare but, like anywhere, it can happen.
Transnistria’s Independence Day Parade
Transnistria’s independence from Moldova is celebrated on the 2nd September. It’s a public holiday and a huge celebration. Thousands of mostly Russian tourists descend upon Tiraspol to watch the Independence Day Parade and crazy activities which follow throughout the day.
I had expected to see an old soviet style parade showing off their military strength with tanks and weapons being on display but in the end it was a fairly boring parade with marching soldiers and a bunch of political speeches. The parade starts at 10am and goes for an hour or so.
Following the parade the streets fill with food stalls, belly dancers, Russian brides and plenty of other weird things to keep you entertained. It’s a fantastic day for people watching.
You might want to take a quick lesson in Russian before you head out to eat as few waiters we came across spoke English. Most were friendly though and we usually managed to order by pointing at pictures on the menu. Cafe 7 Fridays is one of the most popular places to eat and we happily went there a few times. Andy’s Pizza is also popular, especially with families, but I’d only suggest going there if you don’t mind listening to 100s of screaming kids and being subjected to useless service.
Where to Stay in Tiraspol
I spent three nights in Tiraspol and all I can tell you is where not to stay. The Tiraspol Hostel is run by an American named Tim and his hostel is the worst accommodation I have stayed in during all my travels. The worst. The most disgusting place. Ever. The hostel is a filthy, vomit inducing hell hole reminiscent of what you might imagine a crack house to look like. Aside from that, Tim gave many of us false information which resulted in some fellow tourists missing the all important Independence Day parade and by following his advice to not register with the police, some Swedish travellers were refused exit at the border and our group had to pay a bribe to get out of the country. I was tempted to write a full review of the Tiraspol Hostel as a warning but instead I’ll just say stay away from this awful, awful place.
So where should you stay in Tiraspol? I’d suggest picking one of the hotels listed on Booking.com, just read the reviews carefully first.
Visas, border controls and just about everything can change quickly in this part of the world but if you have any questions leave a comment below and I will answer the best I can from my experience visiting in September 2013.
It’s easy enough to visit Tiraspol on a day trip from Chisinau in Moldova and most tourists prefer this option but if you have the time I suggest spending a few days in Tiraspol and then doing day trips to Bender and Chitcani to see the monastery. Transnistria is a quirky country that isn’t really a country and it’s a cool place to visit if you want to see a completely different side of Europe.