Intriguingly, one of the top tourist attractions in Moldova is not a place inside Moldova.
Transnistria or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a confetti strip of Russian-speaking territory on the left side of the Dniester River that declared itself independent in 1992 after fighting a brief but bloody war to break off from Moldova.
No country has so far recognized Transnistria as a sovereign nation, not even Russia which underwrites the territory’s de facto status by protecting it with its army and supplying it with money and free gas.
Today all visitors (even Moldovans) need to have a passport and fill out a simple form at the border to get into Transnistria. No entry stamp or visa is needed nor given as under international law and treaties, Transnistria does not exist.
Even so, the country has its own currency, president, army and a fiery flag.
Although the country occupies the region in Moldova where historically factories and industries are located, it now survives mainly by selling cognac, smuggling and on Russia’s goodwill.
Transnistria’s existence as a political terra nullius surrounded by unfriendly neighbours has allowed organised crime to flourish within its borders.
Many Moldavians blame Transnistrians for the bad publicity their country is getting overseas. They say that most of the smuggling of weapons and women people say are coming out of Moldova happen in fact in Transnistria.
On their part, Transnistrians (almost in equal numbers Russians, Ukrainians and ethnic Moldavians), are aghast at the prospect of being swallowed up by Romania as part of Moldova and have clung on to the security and nostalgia of the old soviet system. They held a referendum in 2006 in which they voted overwhelmingly (98%) to join Russia.
Not having visited Russia before and excited to visit what I had read on the Internet is the world’s last slice of the USSR, I half-expected to find in the capital Tiraspol, matryoshka-like matrons forming queues to buy bread, goose-stepping soldiers in huge grey public squares and rusting hammer and sickle signs everywhere.
Instead when Eugeniu drove me across from Chisinau in a red rented Chinese-made sedan on a warm and sunny afternoon a month ago, I found a surprisingly pleasant and ordinary place. Tiraspol looked to me, a spic, span and spacious place perhaps more like a New Zealand town on Boxing Day than the capital of a renegade Soviet-styled republic
All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng Oct 2014