My first disappointment in Transdnistria comes right at the border, when the border guard does not stamp my passport. In the currency of world traveling, a stamp from a non-quite-real country would offer top dollar bragging rights. But since it is a not-quite-real country, it seems they are not allowed to stamp passports willy nilly, so I meekly accept my returned passport and a flimsy paper visa and resist asking the fatigue-clad border patrol for a photo.
Transdnistria’s main appeal, for a tourist, is its gray zone status, essentially independent yet not recognized, a pseudo-Soviet enclave with its own government, police, flag, currency and stamps. It’s a short minibus ride from Kishinev, Moldova, where I am visiting family, and where no one is particularly excited about visiting this upstart republic, but my cousins decide to humor their Americanized sibling with this trip.
My passport-related disappointment evaporates as we get into central Tiraspol, Transdnistria’s capital. For one thing, in front of a staid government building, there is a high pedestal topped with Lenin in a cape. A cape! For another, I spot a Soviet tank. The tank is part of a war memorial and is covered with small children holding balloons while their mother snaps photos. I wait for the children to disembark and then I, too, take a photo next to the tank, gleefully, like the tourist I am. Then we take a photo next to a billboard with the Transdnistrian coat of arms, for good measure. It’s been 10 years since the war of independence and the town is adorned with festive billboards featuring an emblem of wholesome-looking wheat, grapes and corn surrounding a hammer and sickle (Moldova’s old crest, in fact, with some editing – it no longer proclaims, “Workers of all countries, unite!” but is replaced with the succinct “PMR,” for “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”).
Tiraspol is tidy and not especially bustling, but every step feels loaded with meaning – we’re in Transdnistria, and it doesn’t even exist! I have an urge to send out postcards from the twilight zone, so we walk up the main drag to the post office. I write a few cards with great enthusiasm only to be deflated after I’m told that they need Moldovan stamps. Transdnistrian stamps apparently turn into pumpkins upon crossing the border. In typical post-Soviet fashion, I am also told that sticking decorative Transdnistrian stamps onto my cards might result in them being returned to sender, even though technically I’d be adding postage. You win round 2, Transdnistria.
To console ourselves, we spend our monopoly-money bills on some local beers and sit across from the Parliament, Lenin’s bust serenely staring out at us, then meander over to the train station past buildings decorated with old Soviet reliefs and mosaics. Then, anonymous apartment blocks, leafy courtyards, overgrown sidewalks – Transdnistria is much like Moldova, but with more Lenins. What a difference a border makes, charming this city into something much more exotic than the sum of its buildings and streets. Existent or not, I am still counting Transdnistria towards my visited-countries list – even if I’ll have to accept the photos, not the passport stamp, as proof.