Gagauzia & Transnistria

There are two autonomous territories within Moldova where the inhabitants aren’t Moldovans.

The first of these territories is Gagauzia, a Turkish-speaking enclave in southern Moldova about the size of California’s Marin County. The 130,000 people who live here are called Gagauz — hence the name of their territory. After the fall of the USSR, the Gagauz declared their independence from Moldova. After three years of negotiations, Moldova agreed to grant Gagauzia’s autonomy in exchange for the Gagauz agreeing to be part of Moldova.

How do the Gagauz differ from their Moldovan neighbors? The Gagauz are descendants of an ethnic group who were relocated from eastern Bulgaria to Moldova by Russia in the early 19th century. At that time, Bulgaria had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. To this day, the Gagauz retain their Ottoman roots in terms of culture and language — but not religion. Like their Moldovan neighbors, the Gagauz are Orthodox Christians. So, in Gagauzia, you’ll find Turkish people who eat pork, drink wine and don’t observe Ramadan.

The capital of Gagauzia is Komrat. In the center of town is a splendid gold-topped cathedral.

Not far away is the Gagauz Sofrasi, an inn and restaurant where you’ll swear you’re in Turkey. The lamb was delicious and the wine was fabulous. With 12 major wineries, Gagauzia’s primary export is wine.

Visiting Gagauzia felt like a trip in a time machine. Most roads weren’t paved and donkeys sometimes blocked our route. Tucked away in the village of Ciadir-Lunga was a museum of old radios and Elvis Presley LPs — contraband that was treasured during the Communist era. Nearby was a windmill which is still used to grind grain.

I spent a day in Gagauzia — which is plenty of time to tour this unique province. Click the video above to see what I saw and did.

Modova’s other autonomous territory is called Transnistria. Why? Because it’s on the other side of the Dniestra River, This territory is more fiercely independent than Gagauzia and is closely allied with Russia. The Transnistrians fought a 5-month war (with Russian’s help) in 1992 to secede from Moldova. Although it’s not recognized as a sovereign state by any member of the United Nations, Transnistria functions as a separate country with its own constitution, administration, currency, passports and security forces (who are mostly Russian). The signs are all in Cyrillic and Russian is the primary language.

Entering Transnistria, I had to show my passport to be issued a free 12-hour visa. Since Transnistria isn’t recognized by any counties, my visa was a piece of paper that I was told to show upon departure.

The highlight of my day in Transnistria was a visit to Aquatir, a fish arm where 65,000 female sturgeon produce caviar. Every four years, these ladies produce eggs which are extracted and sold for about $20/ounce. If you take the tour, you can get their caviar for half price, which makes it twice as delicious when you have it for lunch with borsht and vodka.

Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, is clean and nicely laid out. There’s no garbage on the streets. There weren’t many people or cars, either. The city looks like a model Communist community, complete with Russian flags and statues of Lenin and Katherine the Great. Here and there, Russia displays its military might, such as a tank that looks like it’s about to attack a cathedral.

Transnistria has strong Russian influences, such as classic Russian UAZ-469 camper vans, and CCCP emblems stamped on the sides of buildings. In a museum, I found a row of stacking Matryoshka Dolls featuring every Russian leader for the past century. Since Russia is currently on the US State Department’s “Do Not Travel” list, I recommend Transnistria as a safe alternative.

At the end of the day, I visited a medieval castle on the banks of the Dniester River and went for a swim.

If you’d like to see an action video of my day in Transnistria, please click the video above.

One place in Transnistria that I was curious about but wasn’t allowed to visit is the Cobasna ammunition depot. This depot contains an estimated 20,000 tons of Soviet-era weapons. It’s the largest ammunition stockpile in eastern Europe and it’s located within a few hundred meters of the Ukrainian border. (It’s guarded by 1500 Russian troops.) There’s justified concern on both sides of the border as to the potential use or the accidental detonation of these munitions.

Since Gagauzia and Transnistria aren’t recognized countries or members of the United Nations, I cannot count them on my list of countries visited. Nevertheless, they were fascinating detours on my journey to everywhere. Stay tuned. There are more curious and bizarre travel stories coming your way.