Bessarabian Logistics: A Practical Guide
These notes are written for the benefit of a person who, for whatever reason, wants to travel around Bessarabia, including southern Ukraine and beyond, in the context of the current conflict. These notes, based upon a mixture of primary and secondary evidence, are valid as of today. The situation can and will change quickly.
Some observations have been added subsequently in response to specific queries. 1. There is public transport into and out of Ukraine. A bus runs at least twice a day between Chisinau (Moldova) and Odessa (Ukraine) via the border at Palanca. You just buy a ticket. 2. Do not attempt to drive your own vehicle over the borders into Ukraine, unless you have official journalistic or diplomatic papers. Otherwise you face long delays and your vehicle will be searched comprehensively by either the Moldovan border guards, the Ukrainian border guards, or both. 3. At least as far as Odessa, roadblock-style checks are cursory at most on the main roads (you are unlikely to be stopped unless you are driving your own car) although it is not always clear which side is running the roadblock. On minor roads there are few to no checks but those there are will be more informal. 4. Roads in Moldova are generally of reasonable quality. Roads in Ukraine are of intermediate quality but expect long drives with lots of commercial trucking on two-lane roads. Roads in Pridnestrovia are of poor quality (tank damage in 1992, unrepaired). 5. Walking over the border into Ukraine is generally the best option, to be met by a pre-agreed taxi undertaking journeys on a profiteering basis. These taxi drivers are the safest way of transport around Ukraine, as they know all the back roads and how to avoid unfriendly checkpoints. People in Pridnestrovia know how to arrange this; people in Moldova less so. 6. This author has been offered such journeys as far as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk. Only the cities with substantial current violence (in particular Mariupol) appear out of the question. It is possible to travel around Ukraine with a minimum of danger or frustration, although at higher prices than normally charged. 7. Do not attempt to enter Crimea. If you get past the Ukrainian border guards (and you will need a pretty good story to do that), you will need a Russian visa to satisfy the Russian border guards. If you attempt this route, do it on foot. 8. Expect "journalists' expense budget" prices everywhere you travel in Ukraine: that is to say, prices may be two to three times as high as normal in restaurants, hotels and bars. This applies less in Budzhak. 9. The various announced curfews in Ukraine are being mostly but not totally ignored by local people and can be ignored by you if you are careful to stay away from the Police (to avoid arbitrary fines and questioning). Odessa even has nightclubs open. The Police dress in quasi-military fatigues throughout the region. 10. The maximum theoretical stay in Pridnestrovia is seven days for a foreigner. However if you make a good impression in the jurisdiction, the Police are prepared to extend your stay for another seven days. This requires the assistance of your hotel staff. Do not attempt to stay in private accommodation in Pridnestrovia. Expect moderate surveillance. Do not overstay without permission or you may be denied exit and required to pay a fine. This is likely to involve substantial paperwork. 11. There are no food shortages yet in the region, but food quality may be less than you are used to. 12. The road from Odessa to Nikolaev is passable although it has several checkpoints (that a privateer taxi will negotiate on your behalf). You will need a better story entering Nikolaev than you will exiting it (west). Things get increasingly difficult travelling east after Nikolaev. 13. Chisinau is awash with refugees in the hotels and other accommodation. It can be tricky to find acceptable accommodation in Chisinau. Book it on the internet, and avoid accommodation saying it is providing discounts for refugees. 14. Do not travel with anything that might resemble military equipment or mercenary clothes. Your luggage is bound to be searched several times as you travel round the region. 15. Do not enter Ukraine saying you are a tourist or you will not be permitted entry (!). 16. If you are Roman Abramovich, bear in mind that the Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv may despise you because you might actually negotiate an end to the conflict; therefore avoid chocolates, that may have been sprayed with mace or sarin. 17. Purchase a Ukrainian SIM card immediately upon entry to Ukraine; the costs of foreign SIM usage are prohibitive. 18. If you are a male of fighting age, if you leave Ukraine using an official border post then ensure you have an entrance stamp for Ukraine in your passport. (Indeed this is a good idea in general, to avoid the risk of your being involuntarily drafted into the Ukrainian army.) 19. No SIM cards work in Pridnestrovia except Pridnestrovian SIM cards, which you cannot buy unless you have a Chinese manufactured mobile telephone. (The reason for this may be a sweetheart deal in which certain Chinese electronics companies supply Pridnestrovia with cut-price electronics in exchange for a monopoly, but this is not certain.) Pridnestrovian SIM cards do not work anywhere outside Pridnestrovia. 20. You can buy a car but not rent one in Pridnestrovia, but you cannot drive a car with Pridnestrovian plates into Ukraine. You can however drive it in Moldova. 21. You can buy a car in Moldova with Moldovan plates but it will attract a substantial premium as everyone is trying to do this at the moment. 22. You can hire a car in Moldova but if you are caught trying to drive it out of Moldova (e.g. by Moldovan border guards) you can expect problems. 23. Legitimate car hire does not appear possible currently in Ukraine. Car sales attract a substantial journalists' premium (even if you are not a journalist). 24. Both Moldova and Ukraine have a rule that if you drive a car with licence plates other than those of that country into their country, you will be force-sold a useless insurance policy at the border for a high premium. 25. Chisinau airport is slowly reopening at the time of writing, with reduced service. Check the airport website. 26. Private and hotel accommodation in Ukraine should be booked on the internet in advance, just as if travelling anywhere else. 27. Beware of walking around dimly lit streets (that is to say, all of them) anywhere in the region at night, as you may be accosted by violent drunks. That occurred to this author even though he travelled with a security guard. It is a recurrent problem of the region. 28. Always call for a taxi using an App appropriate for the place in question. Taxi drivers often do not know major landmarks, nightlife venues or hotels, and at night may be drunk. 29. It is unrealistic to travel around the region without at least conversational Russian, the lingua franca of the entire area. 30. Beware of violent disturbances or robberies from high concentrations of displaced persons, particularly in western Ukraine; and similar events on the part of persons released from prison. Remember that the entire region is currently awash with small arms. 31. Photography of officials, official buildings or the incidents of war, is frowned upon throughout the region unless the photo is pre-arranged. You may be forced to delete your photos on threat of official violence. 32. Throughout the region, women standing on street corners at night are what you might guess them to be, and it is unfortunately ubiquitous. Rates of HIV infection in this region are the highest in Europe. If you desire this type of entertainment, be extremely careful for all sorts of reasons. 33. The main border between Moldova and Pridnestrovia (Chishinau-Tiraspol) has three sets of border guards, Russian, Moldovan and Pridnestrovian, each of which may take varying levels of interest in you depending upon your nationality, your means of transport, the time of day, etcetera. As always, private taxi (tricky but not impossible to arrange over that border) or public marshrutka (minibus, a few times a day) will attract least attention. Diplomatic ID's, journalists' passes etcetera are highly undesirable at this and at all Pridnestrovian borders. On no account try to walk into Pridnestrovia; although the author did not try this he senses that it would have a very bad outcome. 34. Privately paid medical care is available throughout the region, at reasonable to high standards. Privately paid WHO top-150 medicines are also widely available, often without prescription. 35. When driving in Moldova, beware of horses and carts. When driving throughout the region, beware of careless trucks and drunk drivers more generally.
36. Do not try to leave Moldova using a formal border without a Moldovan entrance stamp - i.e. if you have come from Ukraine to Moldova or Pridnestrovia using an informal border.
37. ATM's and credit cards continue to work throughout the region (including in Ukraine) except in Pridnestrovia, where neither of these things work unless you have a Russian or Pridnestrovian bank account. The Euro remains the preferred currency throughout the region if paying in cash, except in Pridnestrovia where an attempt to pay by cash with anything other than Pridnestrovian rubles will be greeted with horror. Thankfully the banks in Pridnestrovia are ubiquitous and their exchange offices are open almost 24/7.
38. All the local currencies of the region appear to be pegged to the Euro one way or another permitting free exchange in both directions, even the Ukrainian Gryvna; therefore they are all stable but nevertheless this could change at any time so holding large amounts of local currency is probably undesirable.
39. There is some confusion about the maximum amount of cash you are allowed to take into Ukraine. Some people think it is EUR1,000; others think it is EUR10,000. Be ready to be asked how much cash you have by both Ukrainian and Moldovan border guards. All things considered, this area is currently tolerably safe to travel around although somewhat inconvenient and more expensive than it ought to be in conditions of peace. Leave the body armour, refugee supplies, kevlar vests, handguns, diplomatic passports and journalist ID's at home. Travel unofficially and take things one step at a time, moving on once you have acquired the local intelligence. If you need a cover story, you're going to help your girlfriend's family, all of whose members are female. Be prepared for problems arising from bad food and water. And whatever your mission, good luck!