Having not necessarily outstayed my welcome in Odesa, but felt it time for new pastures, I spent an agonisingly long time researching how to get to Pridnestrovia (the country with a massive Stalin-boner) without pissing off the Moldovans. It seemed regardless of how much advice and reading I did, I was destined to fail.
I caught an Uber from my presidential digs in Odesa to the bus station, after reading that if you take the train to Tiraspol you don't get stamped, but if you take a mini-van (which is way longer) then they will stamp you at the border and you have to register in Chisinau (within 72 hours of arriving in Moldova). Many other forums said you can get an entrance stamp to Moldova at the train station solving the whole problem. This information was entirely false. I sat waiting for the bus, praying that it wouldn't be full since the sight of it left a lot to be desired, and the thought of 5+ hours on rickety roads in that mediocre beast didn't set the stomach right. The driver sucked the last life out of his cigarette and ordered us onboard. I managed to snag the back seat which I, in retrospect, and 30+ years of travelling, should have known better. The bumps started appearing literally the second we left Odesa and I spent the next better half of a day being thrown around like a really shit Lucho Libre opponent.
We arrived at the border between the Ukraine and Pridnestrovia and were shepherded out of the van by a very strict looking guard. After we had all our visa's stamped exiting Ukraine we headed over the border and de-vanned again for the Pridnestrovian formalities. Things went very smoothly and after a bit of help from google translate I left with no stamp in my passport, but a small paper which I was told to guard like my life depended on it
The van rolled onwards on decrepid roads with sudden sparks of nice nature, folded into literal repetitions of fields with no rise or fall. Just blank, ruler-flat mutterings.
Eventually the mini-van rolled upto Tiraspol train station and everyone went to hug their beloveds. I walked into the ticket office to buy my ride to Chisinau in 3 days time. Ticket gained after a lot of hullabaloo (one of my fave words ever) to do with 3 soldiers escorting me to the exchange bureau, and finding out that there were no ATM's in this "country" that would take foreign cards. You literally had to exchange what you thought you would need for your stay, and try time it so that you were not left with too much spare because its impossible to exchange outside of Pridnestrovia. Ticket in hand, money exchanged, 3 hours to kill before checking into my Airbnb I headed for the nearest kiosk that sold beer and joined a table of old taxi drivers who conversed with me in German.
After checking in and meeting one of the sweetest Airbnb hosts on planet earth, Svetlana, I walked down to the main drag to try get some semi-decent food. Alas, I was destined for mediocrity.
Mafia was on the tips of everyones tongues when questioned about Tiraspols culinary delights. I must have asked 5 strangers and every single one muttered MAFIA before walking away ashamed at their lack of English fluidity. I ended up walking there out of sheer cluelessness rather than genuine excitement. The van journey had stirred a hunger that needed attention. My waiter was perhaps 16, spoke broken English but appologised profusely though I kept telling him that his English was a thousand times better than my Russian. Eventually the food came and it was an Italian massacre. Lasagne? You be the judge
Despite the dollhouse size of the slice it tasted more reminiscent of Saharan dinners than anything remotely saucy or moist. I polite-ate a bit of it and asked for the cheque. The poor kid grimaced, not quite sure why I would spend money on food and not eat it.... but then again, different cultures and standards. "A" for effort in the 'Y' shaped rocket and sad tomato that failed it's main audition. I crept home, tired after being literally sat in a blender from Odesa. The apartment, ancient-styled as it was, was comfortable. For the first time in perhaps 20 years I ran a bath and settled in to soothe out the kinks.
The 72 hours I stayed were eventful, boring, culinarily treacherous, amicable and not in the least bit scary. Through trial and error I found a couple of places with acceptable food, one of them being Kumanek, a relic of post-Soviet times leaning heavily on the same priorities as Kumanets in Odesa. Silly uniforms allayed by the promise of a decent feed, free shots on arrival and smiles all around. This I can live with
The borscht was above average, with a strange spicy, vinegary side-dish and puffy bread. I scarfed it down out of sheer exasperation, tipped heavily and left as the rain commenced to coat my external peripheries with damp spit. As the light of day began to conceal it's privates, I turned homewards and walked the repetitive, boring streets stopping off at what became my favourite kiosk with a boisterous woman hell-bent on selling me everything in the store when all I wanted was Borjomi. If Borjomi was available worldwide, I would wear the t-shirt.
Beyond all questionable reason I woke up ready to sightsee. Grabbed the phone and headed out to find a taxi driver at the train station that would take me to Bender to visit the old Soviet bus station and CCCP restaurant above on the second floor. Typically, the cab drivers were assholes and I spent 10 minutes arguing with one of them only to walk 20 meters and get another cab willing to go for a 1/3rd of the price. Seated in the back of his Opel-something, we raced past the football stadium where Arsenal had played their beleaguered team, past army barracks, tanks hidden under very revealing camouflage, rows and rows of identical apartment blocks that would have been condemned under differing circumstances. Finally we arrived in Bender and I walked upto the station, anxious to eat more Borscht and document my every movement. What transpired ended up being even better.
In what can only be described as a preservation attempt at ignoring the future, I walked boldy into an empty room full of ex-soviet glories. The colours, the furniture, the layout was a lomo-wielding persons wet dream. Regardless of the past, as a tourist this was something that blew minds. It was honestly like walking back 40 years and being witness to how things were. Nothing had been modernized, altered, changed, painted over. This was literally exactly how it had been before the soviet union splintered into multiple renegade nations.
I took in the sights, photographed where necessary and then climbed the stairs to try and eat in the "famous" restaurant. As luck would have it I got there 15 minutes too late, and had to spend 10 of those minutes trying to explain to the waitress that I was hungry and needed to eat something. Out of the corner of my eye a couple who were polishing off their plates stirred, stood up and aproached me. "You want Borscht? Best one in whole of Bender?"... Why Yes I do... "Come".. I followed, obligingly, to their white van, buckled up and headed off down streets I had never driven on before.
Five minutes later, after gifting me a ribbon that I was told never to wear outside of Pridnistrovia, they dropped me off at what turned out to be a bowling alley. Unbeknownst to me, there was a restaurant up front and it indeed served the best borscht in town. The staff looked at me beguilingly, I sat down. Borscht, Vodka, Beer. As I waited throngs of families flew past me hurriedly trying to get to the 5 bowling alleys first. Some Kim Kardashian worshippers took the adjacent booth to mine and spent the next 10 minutes applying layer upon layer of make-up that just made them look worse than when they walked in.
The food came at the right moment, so I could tear my eyes away from the eyelash parade. The couple, god forgive me for forgetting their names, were right. This was epic borscht.
Instead of heading straight home I got at Uber to Balka, the undisputed trendy part of town. Explored a few markets, noticed that Mafia had a sister branch here too, kept walking until I happened upon Craft. For all intents and purposes a generic, micro-brewery of soulless proportions. However, lets remember where we are. This wasn't half bad. Except the food.
Foregoing all rationale, common sense and even personal preference I sometimes get embroiled in an internal battle to try "weird stuff" just because I feel the need to champion the local cause. On occasion this turns out to be a triumph, most times it ends in tears. The waterworks flowed.
Bravely turned to the waiter and announced full of gusto: "Pigs ears with bread".
The carnage that appeared is well documented in the photograph above. It was as jellified tragedy of Argento-sized nightmares. I barely took a single bite of the gristly compost heap of satanic sacrifice before opting to eat the salty bread instead. Big mistake. The bread was rectangularly offensive, plagued with the bad breath of a thousand baseless rulers. There were no redeeming factors here. I drank my solemn beer, paid the bill and marched (pun intended) down the street to my awaiting fate.
The journey home took far longer than I expected. I passed strange undulations on the road, local markets where people flocked to buy bread, roundabouts where cars guffawed in circles trying to decide when to turn off, long passageways by foul smelling brooks criss-crossing landmarks unknown to me. I stayed centred, took random turns and ended up in a park in the middle of sparkling darkness. In the distance light shone in varying degrees of movement, so I drew closer and happened upon a ferris wheel. I took a photograph, to remember it, but also to convince myself that I had seen it.
Onwards through bushes and random carnival stands. Children screaming blissfully at candy stacked high, parents wretching at the thought of spending a small fortune for more sugar. I passed them unblinking. My gaze firmly on the darkness abounding. The wisps of night curled so beautifully around the trees that I was lost in the symmetry. Lost in natures attempt at silence.
After a few wrong turns I finally recognised the streets and walked the laborious steps home, home to a welcome bed and a quiet disposition and hope for tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, with it's nuisances. I had one mission on hand: to watch the final round of the premier league. Despite my best efforts, after walking around half of Tiraspol for the better part of 2 hours, no place was showing the matches. A friend from Norway texted me and said that when he had been in Tiraspol, Hotel Russia showed all the matches in their cafe area. I hurried up there like a man possessed and managed to find a spot beside an English tour group who were on their way to Odesa. The matches played out like they should, Man City won which mean't Liverpool didn't win the league (the only silver lining for an Arsenal fan).
I left the hotel looking for food. Some locals had recommended a place 2 blocks away (7 Pyatnits) so I didn't argue, and parked myself in a booth, ordered their special and waited in anticipation. This is what arrived:
7 Pyatnits ($)
Singlehandedly one of the greasiest things I had ever seen. I didn't eat any of it and left walking towards home with an empty stomach. A local on the street told me about a bar thats open late on my way so I decided to cut East and check it out. When I got there I realised it was a night club, but headed in anyway, ordered food (much to their amusement) and proceeded to sip a beer until the food came, and then rushed home to eat some of it while it was still warm. The food was ok. Much better at least than the shite at the previous spot.
Andy's Pizza ($$)
My final day in Tiraspol was spent sightseeing. Doing all those things I should have done the day before. I even squeezed in a visit to Andy's Pizza so as not to upend the balance of things. The pizza was average at best, riddled with mystery meat, but at least I wouldn't be a pariah.
Two guards approached me at the station as I waited on the train to Chisinau. "Immigration card"... yes.. thank fuck I remembered it.. handed it over, they left, the train came and I spent the next couple of hours chugging along to an unknown destination from a country that seemingly doesn't exist.
Adventures come and go, but this was definitely an experience.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored in the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"
CITIES / Places