Operation Steppenwolf: Part Eight


I was nearing the part of my journey which I was eagerly awaiting and at the same time - quite worried about. Ok, not exactly worried but many people had told me that Transnistria is no place for a foreigner. "You&39;ll have to pay bribes on the border", "there are soldiers everywhere", "you may get shot", "locals are dangerous" - these are just a few of the warnings that I heard. And I was just a few hours before entering this grey zone.

Actually I kinda expected that it would arrive earlier than it did. My map did not show the "border" between Moldova and Transnistria, so I didn&39;t know where exactly I&39;ll get my chance to bribe officials. I&39;m using quotes for the word border because it is difficult to understand whether the people who claim to be border guards really should be considered as such. Is Transnistria a country? It has not been recognized by any other countries (apart from a few other breakaway territories). But at the same time it doesn&39;t feel like a part of Moldova. They have their own president, their own national currency, and unlike people in Moldova they speak Russian. As I&39;m not really familiar with the political history of the region, I don&39;t want to make judgements, only observations.

I arrived at the border at 8:30. There were many people there, everyone was waiting in a queue to get a permit to enter this area. In order to get into Transnistria you should fill a form in which you state where you&39;re coming from, where you&39;re going, where you&39;re going to sleep and what you intend to do in Transnistria. Being a guy on a bicycle I seemed to be a rather realistic tourist, so nobody asked me any additional questions, and just few minutes later I was free to go. One of the indications that this was not really a border lies in the fact that the so called border guards don&39;t have a right to put a stamp in your passport - which is kinda sad, I&39;d like to have a Transnistrian stamp in my passport.

My first stop in Transnistria was in the town of Bender which lies directly on the border. My goal there was to find a geocache, completing my mission to find one geocache in every country that I visited during my trip. That proved to be tricky - the cache was hidden under a train in which a museum of Transnistrian railways is located. When the cache was placed, the museum was closed but on the day of my arrival it was as much open as it could be - there were no less than three elderly women constantly walking around and cleaning the area around the train. The first reasonable thing to do was to visit the museum, which I did. Especially if the entrance is free, there&39;s no excuse not to visit a museum, and I&39;m enthusiastic about railways. Upon exit of the museum I was given a leaflet of the museum which was published in 1977. Impressive!

When I had left the museum, I noticed that all the women were inside the train which gave me a good chance to get under it and search for the cache. I had been under the train for ten minutes already, when the women noticed me. At first they talked among themselves "what exactly is he doing under the train?" and then they decided that it was best to ask me directly. I told them that there was a tourist game which I played, but it turned out that they were worried about a strange device that I had - something orange and with a wire - external charger for my phone which had an empty battery. It seemed that they thought that this could be an explosive. After all - why shouldn&39;t one want to blow up a train in Transnistria? It was good that I was able to find the geocache and to show them that this was something absolutely harmless, also I tried explaining that this game brings many tourists to sites like their museum, but that was not exactly true - after all I was just the second geocacher within almost a year who had visited this place.

With the mission fulfilled, I could go to Tiraspol which was just 10km away. When I got there, I decided to call Vitalina, my couchsurfing host, to inform her that I had arrived several hours earlier than the planned time of 14:00. But it turned out that I couldn&39;t call her - my phone claimed that I was dialing a non-existing number. I tried ten different approaches with and without country and regional codes, skipping some digits or adding some more, but with absolutely no luck. So the most reasonable solution seemed to go to the nearby village where Vitalina lived and try finding her at home. When I got to the place, there was nobody there. Again I tried using the phone, again with no luck. I even asked the neighbours if they had any idea what digits should I dial before the main number but they couldn&39;t really advise me on anything. So what I decided to do, was to go online and write Vitalina a letter on couchsurfing, telling her my whereabouts (not that I was sure that she could check e-mail on her cellphone - later I found out that she couldn&39;t). When I opened the couchsurfing website, there was a letter from her telling that she would meet me at a bridge in the center of Tiraspol at 2 PM. There was still some time to that, so I could see the city first. Thus I went to Tiraspol, cycled around it for a while and tried finding an ATM. The last task proved to be difficult - I found many points of currency exchange, several banks, but not a single ATM. So I was nearly convinced that there weren&39;t any ATMs in Transnistria, when I finally saw one. And to my surprise this strange machine could give out only American and Russian money. So I decided that I could exchange my remains of Moldovan money (which were formerly remains of my Romanian money) to be able at least to buy an ice cream or someting about as significant.

It felt kinda funny to go into a bank and exchange the equivalent of 3 EUR, but on the other hand - money is money, even if it is in rather limited quantities. So I bought a hot dog and an ice cream. In some other circumstances I would worry about having some time without anything to do, but the new me can appreciate sitting down on one of the bridge and talking to a random stranger (an old weirdo) for half an hour and being admired by local kids asking: "Are you American?" There&39;s no need to run constantly, you can just as well seize the day by sitting down and breathing in deep. Ok, I&39;m writing this after having run without any purpose at all in the forest for an hour today, but the principle still stands. And by "taking it easy" I don&39;t mean that it is a good idea to sit on the couch all day long scratching your tummy while watching TV.

At two I met Vitalina. We went together to the local market and then she took the bus to Kitskany (the village where she lives), while I took the bicycle. At her house I also met her younger sister Valeria. It turned out that the girls live their on their own, as their parents work in Russia (as you can probably guess, wages in Transnistria are not exceptionally huge). The second half of the day didn&39;t have any particularly crazy events, and that was just amazing! The girls made lunch, we spoke a lot, as usually I did most of the talking, being not only by far the oldest person in the room but also the one who had been here, there and everywhere, and you certainly know how much I enjoy sharing a fun story. And you also probably know that I do my best to add at least one new story to my repertoire every week. But the biggest impression that I got while staying at Vitalina&39;s home was that I was not the most impressive person around. I mean - to cycle alone through strange countries and to camp in parks all you have to be is slightly adventurous and daring, but I can&39;t even imagine how difficult it would had been for me to start living alone, without my parents, at the age of 15 and having to care for a younger sibling. To be the one who is the responsible adult at the age when you shouldn&39;t be the responsible adult. Heck, I&39;m 29 now and at quite often I don&39;t feel like a serious adult person, and I don&39;t even want to think how un-adult I was aged 15. Thus, hats off to Vitalina!

Like I already wrote, there&39;s not much to report about my stay in Kitskany. Other than replacing the tyres on Vitalina&39;s bicycle I didn&39;t really do anything on that day. I just ate, talked and drank a whole lot of peppermint tea (I was also given some peppermint on my way home, and peppermint tea has helped me write these journal entries).

The real fun began the next morning. Theoretically I should had left Transnistria by 8:37AM, otherwise I&39;d need to go to the police (or a similar institution) to get registered as a foreigner staying in Transnistria longer than a day. My initial plan was to leave at 6AM, so I&39;d reach the border with Ukraine soon enough, but Vitalina told me that I could just as easily get the permit to stay longer. And why should I refuse that? Still I wouldn&39;t be able to register myself, so Vitalina also got up at six, so we could go to Bender to get me registered. There are some strange aspects about local bureaucracy due to which you can&39;t register a person staying at your place by going to any government institutuion - you should go to the one responsible for your village. And in case of Kitskany this special place is not in Tiraspol which is just 6km away.

Cycling to Bender was quite a scary experience, because Vitalina&39;s bicycle didn&39;t have any brakes. No brakes at all! I have a lot of experience cycling with a bicycle on which brakes don&39;t work, but on her bicycle there weren&39;t even any non-functioning brakes which kinda make you more comfortable. This was one of the scariest cycling events of my life! I feel comfortable when I don&39;t have any brakes myself, because I&39;m an experienced cyclist and I know what I should do in every situation (or so I like to believe), but there&39;s not much that I can do to stop another cyclist. Giving another cyclist a push is easy, but acting as a braking system... I haven&39;t tried that out ever. Anyway we got to Bender safe and sound only to find out that this was NOT the place where I should be registered and that instead we should had gone to a completely different location. Something around 30 minutes still remained before my deadline of leaving Transnistria. What should one do under such circumstances? Switch to plan B obviously.

What was plan B? To go to the border, leave Transnistria for a few minutes and come back getting a new 24 hour period for registration. This was a legitimate plan, the only important thing was to get to the border quickly enough. The last stretch went seriously uphill and it was clear that we wouldn&39;t make it, unless I went the last part alone (being the cycling maniac that I sometimes am, I can accelerate when needed). This is a great moment to include a video of a song about acceleration (through drugs though):

I got to the border at 8:32 - with five minutes still in hand. And I was back in Transnistria at 8:40. The border guard was slightly surprised about a cycling tourist with no luggage at all, so I had to explain the scheme that I had performed, but nobody really minded that. What the guard was more interested in was who I was staying with and whether the girl at who&39;s place I slept was married. This didn&39;t seem like the right situation to tell about couchsurfing, so I didn&39;t reply with anything that made much sense. But the main thing was done - I was allowed to remain in Transnistria for a while longer!

So I cycled back to the location where I had left Vita (let&39;s skip the second half of the name for now, it feels too official I think), and too much downhill acceleration we went back to Kitskany. The funny part of the story was that there weren&39;t any super important plans why I should stay longer in Transnistria instead of going directly to Odessa airport, but that&39;s probably the correct approach. I got a chance to tell some more of my stories and observe Vita&39;s preparations for her high school graduation party. And then at 3 PM I left. I really enjoyed my stay in Kitskany, and I kinda regretted that I couldn&39;t stay longer, but that&39;s the life of a rolling stone for you - you can&39;t stop ever. Unless you decide to stop that is.

And being a rolling stone, I really hoped that I would be able to roll fast enough to reach the Odessa airport before dark. Normally I don&39;t start a 110 km distance at 3 PM, but it was not like I was in a particular hurry - my airplane was at six on the next morning, so in case cycling would be slow, I could arrive at the airport in the night. But knowing Ukrainian roads and drivers I preferred to cycle faster.

At around five I was on the border. Before leaving Transnistria I entered the last shop on this side to buy an ice cream. I still had 10 rubles left. For five rubles I got two ice creams, went outside and ate them in a couple of minutes. What could I do with the remaining money? Buy two more ice creams, of course! So I did. In my experience I have probably eaten a bigger amount of ice cream at once several times - but this was certainly the first time when I ate four cones in a row. Which probably tells you that it was quite hot outside.

Leaving Transnistria the second time was no problem whatosever - one thing that I didn&39;t get on this trip are any good border stories. All border guards whom I met treated me politely and without suspicion, they didn&39;t ask for money, and they didn&39;t even take much of my time. So I could cycle on. The way to Odessa was quite pleasant because it was mostly downhill (which meant that over the last couple of days I had gone more uphill than downhill), but it was not very easy. As I had already cycled something like 40 km in the morning, the total distance for the day happened to be at around 150 km which is a lot, especially if it is the last day of your trip and you&39;re not super fresh initially. I almost managed to get to the airport on time - I was there at around 21:30, something like 15 minutes after it had become dark outside. And once again a heavy rain began just as I had entered the airport.

The first thing to do at the airport was to prepare the bicycle for the flight. Surprisingly I got the pedals off very easily, the rest of the work also didn&39;t involve any problems, thus I could start waiting for my airplane. Which is just what I did. I managed to get some sleep, and then it was time for check-in. Again there were some problems with my bicycle - for some reason the database showed that I had not paid for the bicycle but after a while everything cleared up and I was able to get rid of my luggage and get onto the airplane. Despite some delays in Odessa we got to Riga more or less on time, and this was the end of my trip. And I could go go home, and start writing this description.

I honestly think that the me that came back from this trip is not the same me that left for it. But only time will tell whether this actually is true. In any case - this was an amazing spiritual journey!