The border post looms on the horizon, a portal to a little pocket universe, the self-styled Soviet Socialist Republic of Transnistria. As we approach, the old soviet sickle and hammer comes into view, and Vlad’s unease becomes more palpable. It wasn't long ago that Romania waged war against Transnistria during its violent break from Moldova.
A dead-eyed soldier examines our documents and waves us through with a grunt; only to be flagged down by another soldier, few meters further. We must pay a road tax and arrange transit visas before proceeding. Having some command of the local dialect, my nervous Romanian travel companion sets off to deal with the visa paperwork while remain with a soldier searching who is set on searching our car.
"Do you have any guns or marijuana?" he asks, a strange question in a country described as a veritable supermarket for guns, drugs and women, but then border formalities dictate a degree of thoroughness.
“No, no guns, no drugs.” I reply.
This didn't seem to satisfy him. Searching the car, he uncovers the cameras, the laptops, the pile of currency, the second passport, and the lock picks. "What exactly is the purpose of your visit to Transnistria?"
"Just passing through” I reply.
Vlad returns, announcing we need Euros or Moldovan Leu – the only currencies we don't have–to pay the road taxes. With no ATM in sight, our only option is to return to Moldova. Passing through the no-man's land that exists between two border posts, we spot a currency exchange and trade few dollar bills for a pile of Moldovan Leu.
It’s late afternoon before we are allowed to proceed. Crossing the Dniestr River, we spot armed soldiers and a camouflaged tank – a reminder of the 2,000 strong Russian force present in Transnistria – we push on, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if we’re on the right road, not knowing what we’ll find in the capital, Tiraspol.
Just as daylight fades, we enter the capital, the soviet influence unmistakable in the typography of the building names, the chunky busts of Lenin, and flag bearing the golden hammer and sickle.
Stomachs moaning, we decide to brave dinner in Tiraspol. To our surprise, the restaurant offers free Wi-Fi and a selection of wines and English menus. All that stands between us and dinner is some local monopoly money, which are told can easily be obtained, at the nearby currency exchange. Our hunger satisfied we make for the border.
Our hunger satisfied, we make for the border – only to discover my visa is missing. All I can think is: “I’m fucking doomed!” I can only imagine the penalty for crossing Transnistria without a permit. I knew it was in my passport, I had taken a photograph of it, for this very reason. I began to suspect the first soldier had slipped the permit out while rifling through my passport. After frantically searching the car, a soldier insists we follow him, anger replaces fear, and I snatch my passport back, flicking through the pages. There it is tucked safely between two pages.
And with that discovery we are free to leave Transnistria, pass through no-man's land and begin another adventure in the Ukraine.