Cycling Across Transnistria

I was afraid that entering Transnistria (the thin breakaway territory between Moldova and Ukraine) might be difficult or that I’d be pestered in some way by the officials at the border. Instead, my entrance into the small country was rather effortless, except for one major unforeseen issue.

It took me just a few hours to leave Hotel Cosmos in downtown Chisinau and reach the border of Moldova and Transnistria. The further east I rode, the fewer vehicles there were on the road. As I neared the border, all vehicle traffic had essentially stopped. I was the only person on the road.

Before I even reached the border, however, I had to pass through a customs stop. There was a large semi-truck parked in this area and the one official on hand seemed busy checking over the truck. I looked at the man and he didn’t seem too concerned with me, so I just kept riding and never let my feet even touch the ground. As I cycled past on my fully-loaded touring bicycle, the man just starred as I came within mere feet of him and continued on down the road.

Just as I thought I was clear through the customs area, three medium-sized dogs came darting out at me from a roadside shed. Barking and yapping wildly, the dogs quickly caught up to me and began grabbing with their teeth onto my bicycle’s rear panniers. I could feel the weight of the animals pull me both directions – first to the right and then to the left.

After realizing that the dogs were trying to take me down, I stood on the pedals and began to sprint. It was no contest. I quickly darted downhill and away from the annoying little creatures who quickly gave up, turned around and went jogging back in the direction they had originally come from.

After passing through the customs stop, I coasted down a small hill to what was obviously one side of a bridge that went over a small river – a river that was clearly the physical boundary between Moldova and Transnistria.

On the Moldovan side of the bridge, three or four young men dressed in full-camouflage stood guard at various points along the road (in a sort of square formation), while a giant camouflaged tank sat just a few feet off to the right – covered from above so as to avoid detection from the air. I smiled and waved at the young military men (I think they were either Russian or Ukrainian – I’m not sure) before cycling onto the bridge and crossing over to the other side.

On the other side of the bridge was a small concrete barrier and a set of cones guarded by another camouflaged military man, flanked by three more men in camo and another massive tank (once again covered from above with additional camouflage and parked just to the left of the bridge). The men let me through the area and I continued just a short distance up the road to a collection of small wood and metal booths that obviously served as the Transnistrian check-in area. If I was going to have any trouble getting into Transnistria, it was going to happen right here.

I was greeted my three massive men in mismatching blue Russian-style uniforms. None of the men spoke English, but I was able to communicate to them where I was coming from and where I hoped to go. They casually asked me to park my bicycle and to go and speak to a man inside one of the nearby booths.

Stepping away from my bicycle with my passport in hand, I walked over to the mystery man in the nearby booth while the three men I had just met and a small crowd of onlookers quickly huddled around my bicycle – poking and grabbing at my handlebar bag, panniers and bicycle seat. I couldn’t understand what the men were saying, but I could tell that one man was saying, “Can you imaging sitting on this all day,” while he slapped my hard bicycle saddle with his hand. “There’s no fucking way!”

The crowd of men laughed hysterically and then looked over at me to see if I had understood anything that they had just said.

Inside the small booth was a man in his mid-thirties who surprisingly spoke a few words of English. He handed me a small white piece of paper and told me to fill it out.

After retrieving a pen from my bicycle, I did my best to translate the document and fill it in as best I could. Name, address, country of origin, passport number, how long I planned to be in Transnistria, etc. All basic stuff. But I had to fill it out twice, in duplicate!

After completing the form, I returned to the man in the booth who looked it over and then applied his stamp of approval. But just before the stamp hit the paper, the man noticed that I had written that I planned to be in Transnistria for three full days.

“No,” the man said sharply. “No days. Just one day! One day in Transnistria.”

He quickly crossed out the dates I had written down on the paper and filled in the area himself.

“One day,” he said again, as he stamped the document and handed me my copy.

I was in shock! I had planned on  spending three days and two nights cycling north through Transnistria. But now I had just a one-day pass in the country. I had to be out of Transnistria by nightfall, which was less than four hours away. There was no possible way I could ride my bicycle north out of Transnistria in less than four hours – although I did consider trying for a moment.

After jumping back on my bicycle and riding just a short distance up the road, I pulled over and quickly checked my map. There was no possible way I could continue the way I had hoped to go and make it out of Transnistria in time. I needed to see if there was a road that would quickly lead me across the country and get me into neighboring Ukraine before my pass in Transnistria expired.

To my surprise, there was indeed such a road! It went straight across the country from my current location in the south west corner of Transnistria to the border in Ukraine. Plus, the distance was only about 20-25 kilometers. As long as the road was good and there weren’t any massive hills, I knew I’d be able to cover that distance before the sun set.

My plans now radically altered, I put my head down and pedaled.

There were hardly any vehicles on the road and the landscape was flat and brown. There was very little noticeable difference between Moldova and Transnistria…. other than the much higher military presence in Transnistria.

As I stopped to take the photo below, I noted a man sitting in a van just off to my right. At first I thought it was just a farmer sitting in his vehicle, but after a closer inspection I realized it was another camouflaged military man who was sitting in the vehicle –  a walkie-talkie style radio held up to his mouth.

I began to get a little paranoid at this point.

“Am I being followed?” I began to wonder.

As I continued down the road, each approaching vehicle made my heart skip a beat. But alas, it did not seem as though I was being followed by the Russian, Ukrainian or Transnistrian officials. After no more than three hours or cycling, I had reached the border of Transnistria and Ukraine. I had made it!

My second border crossing of the day went smoothly. The Transnistrian passport official didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand a thing I was saying, but a Polish EU official standing nearby was able to help me and we chatted with one another while my details were being looked over.

After my passport was stamped, I thanked the Polish EU officer for his help and continued through one final border patrol check point before finally crossing over into Ukraine.

In less than a day I had cycled through three separate countries, gone through two border crossings and cycled my way past eight total check-points in the road. I was a little upset that I didn’t get to spend as much time in Transnistria as I had hoped, but I was super excited about finally being in Ukraine.

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