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Live and let … live

Braced to play James Bond in a lawless land, Tim Pile seems almost disappointed that Moldova and the 'non-existent' Transnistria fail to live up to their reputation

 

The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget finds space for 37 countries within its 1,264 pages. Glitzy Monaco makes the cut; as does tiny Liechtenstein. There's even a chapter on Morocco, for some reason.

Moldova, a nation few people have heard of and even fewer could find on a map, doesn't merit a mention, even though it is the least expensive country on the continent. That, you'd think, should justify its inclusion in a guide with the word "budget" in the title.

Admittedly, the Eastern European state isn't blessed with many tourist attractions; or tourists for that matter. Nevertheless, visitors to Chisinau (pronounced "kish-i-now") will discover an agreeable city of leafy streets, relaxing parks and easily accessible vineyards. There's little to indicate that you're in the capital of Europe's poorest country. Stylishly dressed shoppers congregate at MallDOVA; there are plenty of performance cars revving at traffic intersections and swanky restaurants are packed with local biznesmeni.

The remote republic, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, has a darker side, though. When it comes to con tricks and scams, Moldova is a minefield - if you believe scaremongering online travel forums. You can expect to be pickpocketed by packs of gypsy children and misled into paying exorbitant amounts for items sneakily added to restaurant bills. And if you report these crimes to the police they are almost certain to plant drugs on you. Male travellers are likely to be seduced by Slavic femme fatales, who lure their victims to romantic venues for flirtatious liaisons before drugging them with bitter-tasting coffee.

It all sounds rather intimidating but I'm fascinated. I may never get another chance to play James Bond.

According to the website warnings, Moldovan taxi drivers would happily overcharge their grandmothers. Strangely, though, when I hail a late-night cab, my knight in a shining Lada takes a short cut to save time, carries my bags into the lobby then charges less than the hotel advised me to pay.

After a couple of days without even coming close to being ripped off, I decide to up the ante. It's one thing to spend a few days in a country few people have ever heard of - it's another entirely to visit a place that doesn't exist.

Transnistria (literally, "across the Dniester River") is a breakaway republic situated on Moldova's eastern boundary. It looks to Russia - culturally, linguistically and probably from a Eurovision Song Contest perspective.

If, say, Kennedy Town were to fight a bloody war of independence from Hong Kong then set up a rival government, and introduce its own national anthem and flag, currency and border controls, you would have something approaching the anomaly that is Transnistria.

At my Chisinau hotel, a group of British gap-year students is about to set off for the rival "capital", Tiraspol, by public bus. Three Polish girls plan to travel the 70 kilometres by shared taxi and two Americans have hired a car and driver. I opt to join the Americans. It's not the relative luxury I'm drawn to; rather that they have obtained the phone number of the chief of Transnistrian immigration.

Guidebooks warn of "shake downs" at the frontier and even suggest that visitors should view being bribed by officials as part of the experience. Evidently, the con artists of Moldova are amateurs compared with Transnistrian border guards. And since the republic isn't recognised by a single sovereign nation, corrupt officials can pretty much do as they please. If you're asked for "a little present", it's best to ask how much and then double it.

In contrast to Chisinau, provincial Moldova is a step back in time. Horse and carts outnumber cars on the potholed highways. We reach the frontier without drama but then the fun starts. Transnistrian customs personnel won't allow our driver through as his vehicle's paperwork isn't in order. We sit anxiously in no man's land waiting to see who will be first to ask us for a bribe.

The Americans have stashed money in their shoes in case things turn unpleasant and have discreetly set their smart phones to record mode. Given the cloak and dagger atmosphere, I regret not having brought an exploding pen or at least some invisible ink. For the second time in two days I'm hopeful of some 007 intrigue.

Half an hour later, a polite man in uniform explains that we're free to enter his country but our driver, who has presumably breached an obscure clause in the Transnistrian highway code, must stay behind. No bribe is mentioned; none is offered. We wander off in search of a bus and a moneychanger.

The Transnistrian rouble is worth slightly less than the paper it's written on. The currency is accepted as payment on buses - provided the journey is wholly within the republic. Similarly, you can use your roubles to buy Transnistrian postage stamps, but only if the recipient also lives in Never Never Land. Don't even think of exchanging your monopoly money back to Moldovan lei in Chisinau though; they'd sooner take chocolate coins.

We've chosen not to stay overnight so our permit gives us a few hours to size up Tiraspol. Fortunately, there isn't a lot to see. Once you've strolled along 25 October Street, past the Great Patriotic War Tank Memorial, the statue of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the bust of Lenin at the House of the Soviets and the statue of Lenin outside the parliament building, you've pretty much taken Transnistria's tourist pulse.

Before long we're "hammer and sickled out" and it's time for lunch at Andy's Pizza (roubles only), followed by a bus to the border. Again the guards are unfailingly polite and we're soon back in Chisinau and a reassuring world of consulates, embassies and convertible currencies.

For all the talk of swindling cheats and rip-off mer-chants, I survive both Moldova and its "non-existent" neighbour unscathed and unscammed. Without doubt, people do get caught out by the odd sting or immigration shake down, so perhaps I've been lucky.

I'm almost tempted to celebrate my good fortune with Irina, a very attractive woman who has invited me for a coffee and says she wants to practise her English.

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there to Bucharest. Train and bus services connect the Romanian capital to Chisinau.

 

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