I've recently returned from a brief trip to Transnistria, the result of a competition run by Wanderlust magazine I won back in the Summer.
It's probably fair to say that a lot of people have never heard of Transnistria; indeed, it's difficult to even find a definitive spelling of the place, with Transdniestr or Transdniestria just some of the versions commonly found in print. Without a doubt it must rank as one of the most obscure countries in Europe - and even that description is up for debate...
Transnistria - or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, as it's known locally - is an internationally unrecognised country forming a narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and Ukraine. Created in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse in the early 1990s, tensions between the mainly Russian-speaking Transnistrians and Moldova - of which the PMR is considered an integral part by most international observers - broke out into a bitter civil war that witnessed around a thousand killed. A de facto state of independence has been maintained ever since, with the presence of the Russian army all but guaranteeing the current status quo.
It's also a place that, to put it mildly, has suffered something of an image problem over the last two decades. Weapons smuggling and human trafficking as well as human rights abuses are all accusations regularly directed at the authorities in the capital Tiraspol. So it was obvious that I was going to have to check the place out.
To get to Transnistria on the cheap I would need to take advantage of cheap flights, and I duly did so by travelling to Bucharest with budget outfit Blue Air. From the Romanian capital it was then a matter of an overnight bus to Chişinău in neighbouring Moldova and then a shared 'maxitaxi' - what we'd call a minibus - to Tiraspol.
Aside from the self-evident attraction of visiting a place that sees few visitors, another of Transnistria's claims to fame is the retention of communist symbols and monuments that have long been consigned to the scrap heap in other areas of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries, a little like Belarus (a country I visited back in 2008).
During my time in Transnistria I met up with Mila Selezneva, a local student and trainee journalist with Dnestr TV; she had heard about my impending trip to the region and was keen to talk about the media and life in general back in the UK. After a chat over a coffee we travelled to the station's studio housed in an apartment block in the neighbouring city of Bendery, and there we had an impromptu talk (with Mila translating) to the rest of the team in front of the cameras - you can see a brief clip here.
Mila also introduced me to Aleksei Buchkov, current president of the Student Community of Transnistria and all-round political activist. Between the three of us we had some interesting chats about Transnistria's current political status, identity issues and what it means to be Transnistrian - and Russian at the same time. It was with some sadness when it came to saying goodbye the following day.
Mila and Aleksei were both very keen that I should return to Transnistria, and I'd very much like to take them up on their offer; 24 hours isn't nearly long enough to understand this place and why it stubbornly decides to go it alone. I also had the privilege of meeting two very mature and intelligent young people, and the opportunity to explore more of their country - as well as socialise with good friends - is one that's simply too good to pass up.
In the meantime I'll attempt to write this trip up in a more readable fashion, and also upload the bulk of the pictures that don't feature here already; I'll post an update when the time comes...!
I've finally uploaded some of the pictures from the trip here. In case you're unfamiliar with Panoramio, it's a website which features uploaded photographs on Google Earth, which is a nice way to guarantee that at least a few people should see them.