Sojourn in country that doesn't exist
THE last train out of the country was leaving in 10 minutes, and I was sitting in a room no bigger than a prison cell, across from a border guard who held our passports hostage, awaiting his bribe.
No other nation acknowledges Transnistria as a country, but, at this moment, the opinion of the United Nations and the world's cartographers mattered only on paper.
There in that room, sitting across from a man with the power to detain me, I wasn't concerned with documentation.
My definition of countries became simple: border controls, armies and governments, all of which Transnistria has under its red-and-green flag bearing a gold sickle and hammer.
The only paper I was concerned with was cash, even though Transnistria's currency is about as useful as Monopoly money anywhere else on earth.
Here, on this sliver of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine - officially known as a breakaway state within Moldova - 550 Transnistrian roubles was worth about US$50 (S$64).
And that's how much we had to bribe the guard to let us board the train departing Transnistria's capital, Tiraspol.
After the transaction, the only local currency I had left was a five-rouble note, a Transnistrian keepsake that I would keep indefinitely.
My other two souvenirs - a body covered in flea bites and three bottles of brandy - would disappear in due course. But that five-rouble note, on the back of which sat a picture of the KVINT liquor factory that Transnistria was so proud of, would become the hardest-earned member of my currency collection.
KVINT makes nearly nine million litres of alcohol each year, but it is particularly recognised within Eastern Europe for its brandies, which have won more than 100 medals at international competitions.
Transnistria's history is short and contentious. The name first referred to a region born in World War II that included southern Ukraine and its capital at the time, Odessa. The much smaller, ethnically Russian territory now known as Transnistria declared independence in 1992 - after the fall of the Soviet Union - through a bloody four-month war with Romanian-speaking Moldova, which still lays claim to the area.
But while most people in this Russian-speaking land have Moldovan passports, a 2006 vote in which 97 per cent of the population voted for independence with free association to Russia illustrates their true allegiance.
Its murky past, coupled with strong accusations of KGB government presence and a bustling illegal-arms trade, doesn't give Transnistria a lot to be proud of. Other than a state-of-the-art professional-football stadium, the thing Transnistrians can brag about is their brandy.
KVINT's reported 30-million-euro (S$52-million) revenue in 2012 is about 4 per cent of Transnistria's gross domestic product, according to statistics from the Centre for Eastern Studies. Its US$1-billion GDP would make Transnistria the poorest country in Europe.
But according to Mr Timoti Ohotcii, owner of Tiraspol Hostel - a rundown house with sulphur-water showers and flea-ridden, partially reclining chairs for beds - Tiraspol is far from poor; it just runs things a little differently. The money that flows through Transnistria is off the books, he said.
Of course, in addition to the off-the-books economy is Transnistria's notoriety for being a cesspool of corruption: organised crime, illegal-arms sales, human trafficking and money laundering.
While every other country in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics demolished many remnants of their Soviet past, Transnistria still clings to what is seen as the good old days. Soviet monuments still stand guard throughout Tiraspol, and the city holds a Soviet-style military parade on its Independence Day on Sept 2.
But at the same time, Tiraspol is a quiet town with smiling faces, beautiful parks and trendy sushi restaurants. I met nothing but friendly people during my stay.
Even when we were detained, the border guard was pleasant, even kind of funny.
The 550 roubles we gave him was a small price to pay for a story of intrigue to be told over a snifter of my last remaining bottle of KVINT brandy.