When we decided to go to Moldova because we found cheap plane tickets and figured it was one of the least traveled destinations in Eastern Europe we could hit up (second least in the world according to this FT article), I immediately thought we could make this trip even more unique. That is, of course, by also visiting the unrecognized breakaway independent region of Transnistria, which occupies much of Moldova’s eastern border. Given that we’d be traveling there on 31st of October, I could literally think of no better way to spend Halloween in Eastern Europe.
Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, is only two hours away, and surprisingly despite the political situation, public transport travels the route just about every twenty minutes (there was a brief war in the early 1990s, but no signs of violent conflict since then). Thus getting there was no problem, but what about getting in? Everything we read ahead of time said border officials would give you anywhere from ten to twenty-four hours to experience the wonders of the breakaway region. Being subject to the whims of a border official is rarely a position I strive to be in, but hey, it’s a breakaway region after all – not everything will be roses.
Getting in was actually a breeze. Besides the three of us foreigners in the van, only one other passenger even got out at the border to do formalities. The immigration officially simply asked us how long and where we were planning on staying, then issued us a migration card (basically a printed receipt) outlining 24-hours of freedom (no stamps on the passport were necessary – which in the past could be an issue getting back into Moldova if you continue to cross into Ukraine as we did, but Moldova has started recognizing Ukrainian entry stamps as de facto Moldovan exit stamps given that it doesn’t effectively control its actual border – but I digress from that overly complicated and seemingly unnecessary explanation). Our required departure time was detailed to the second even – this breakaway republic operated at a rather unexpected level of efficiency.
All of that went on without a hitch, for us at least. At the customs post a few meters away, our van was stopped and the officials made a young man about 20 years old get out. We waited for him for a bit, until he came back and said something (in Russian? Romanian?) to the van, which elicited much laughter. With that we left him behind to his apparently hilarious fate, while we continued onwards to the unknown.
We arrived in Tiraspol and found a sleepy town, full of broad avenues and few people upon them. We had booked the fanciest hotel available, as we read they would help customers with visa regulations in case we were only given mere hours to explore. Aptly called Hotel Russia, we checked in and toyed with the idea of extending our time in Transnistria even longer, until the reception told us it would take three hours to process. Given that the clock was already ticking, we decided to go explore instead.
The town was stunningly normal. It had all the aspects you expect from a provincial capital, with a central market, main square, some monuments to wars past, and even a river promenade in which we saw not one, but two wedding photos shoots. We had read that visiting Tiraspol was like going back into a Russian-themed time warp, but little of that proved accurate. Rather the paved roads, decent infrastructure, and general pleasant appearance made everything seem rather modern, even more so than Chisinau (the Moldovan capital) in certain respects.
The take on modernity was further confirmed, when we stumbled upon Tiraspol’s bowling alley. Decorated for Halloween, the alley was attached to a club, and boasted a food menu that served mussels and sushi, unlike any bowling alley food menu I have ever seen, nor likely ever will. We played a few rounds on the sleek lanes, to the amusement of our wait staff, which seemingly did not get many non-Russian speaking foreigners in these parts (I would recount in detail the scores of the evening, but I am historically a poor Halloween bowler).
Exiting the bowling alley, we visited one of the cities best restaurants, where, you guessed it, the place and staff were all dressed up for Halloween. After dinner, we asked them where in town the Halloween parties are, to which they explained the best is at Hotel Russia. How convenient for us.
Returning to our hotel, we made our way downstairs to the party area, where again the wait staff were all dressed in costume. The Transnistrian residents who were in attendance, however, were not, making it an odd halfway take on the dress up aspect of the tradition. There was no candy in sight either, but then again, we had eaten plenty of pickled eggplants in the market that afternoon, so we were good.
We stayed up late through the night to fully partake in Transnistria’s finest Halloween festivities, but still managed to make it back to the border the next morning ahead of our visa’s expiration. Given our good timing, getting out proved to be as easy as getting in, making travel to the region remarkable incident-free.
So Halloween in a breakaway Eastern European republic did not prove as weird as imagined – in fact it was so normal, that that actually made it a bit weird. Sure there were a few oddities about the area – credit cards were not accepted anywhere, we had to change cash into Transnistria’s own currency (which could literally be done on any corner), and the signs had all switched to Russian. The clock was also ticking on our visit to the point were we had to be back at a border post by the exact second we had come in. In addition, many things such as its own currency, border posts, and government really made us question what makes a country. But the whole trip was oddly normal, as if Tiraspol went out of its way to prove that it could make it on its own. At least for the three of us oblivious foreigners visiting on Halloween, it surely worked!