For bold and curious travellers, entering Transnistria is like being given the key to one of Europe's last great secrets.
I'm taking a shortcut through Pobeda Park when I spy it – a yellow disc sitting on the grass like a lost button. I cast an eye towards the Ferris wheel, its colourful buckets quiet against the ceramic-blue sky, and across to the handful of people asleep on the lawn. Before anyone can shout, "Stop! Thief" I have the trinket in my pocket, its unique composition tinkling against the other "chips" as I scamper away.
As elusive as Charlie Bucket's golden ticket, this one-ruble coin completes the set I've been collecting during my stay in Tiraspol, Transnistria's de facto capital. While the golden ruble won't provide entry to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, it's the ultimate keepsake of a place even more fantastical.
A string bean of land caught between Moldova and Ukraine, this small breakaway "country", officially known as Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, declared its independence from Moldova in 1990 during the breakup of the Soviet Union. After a war against Moldova in 1992 and subsequent ceasefire Transnistria still remains unrecognised as a nation by any member of the United Nations. Officially, it doesn't exist – just don't try telling that to any of its proud 500,000 pro-Russian inhabitants.
Despite its renegade status Transnistria has its own parliamentary government, standing army (Russian backed), police force, flag and passport. It even has its own currency, including a set of four geometrically shaped plastic coins, for which I've spent the past three days hunting. Actually, three days is an exaggeration. I've been granted entry for 52 hours, 46 minutes and three seconds. Precisely.
It's day seven of our 13-day Moldova, Ukraine and Romania tour with Intrepid Travel when we arrive by minivan at the checkpoint between Moldova and Transnistria. It's the part our small group of 11, mainly from Australia, UK and the United States has been dreading. As a journalist, with more stamps in my passport than most, I'm the weak link. The two American's aren't looking too confident either.
"We might be granted three days, we might be given three hours," says George, our Intrepid Travel tour leader and fixer of all things Transnistrian.
I enter the austere building, complete with scowling guards straight out of central casting, slide my passport under the small glass window and stand to attention. After an interminable couple of minutes I'm handed a migration card (which looks suspiciously like a dry cleaning docket) stating that I must depart the country at 10:56:03am in just over two days.
"Don't ask questions," says George, leading us back to our minivan, clearly relieved each member of our group was awarded the same amount of time.
The whimsy continues at Bender, a 20 kilometre-wide buffer zone that was established at the end of the Transnistrian War. After walking through an abandoned military base we find Bendery Fortress, a sprawling 16th-century Turkish fortress complete with torture chambers, underground tunnels and a giant cannonball built to honour Baron Munchausen. Apparently, the tall-tale-telling baron, who was a captain in the Russian army in real life, claimed to have flown over fortress walls by riding a cannonball. Of course he did.
From Bender it's a 20-minute drive through sparse farmlands to Tiraspol. After checking into our base for the next two nights, the aptly named Russia Hotel, we take to the streets where hammer and sickle flags adorn every corner, streets are named Marx, Gorky and Lenin and Russian-built Ladas cough and splutter about like old men.
On a walking tour of October 25 Street, named after an important date in the Russian revolution, we find stern-faced Lenin in front of the House of Soviets and capped-crusader Lenin guarding the Supreme Council. A decommissioned T-34 tank adds a flourish to the streetscape, while the Mafia Cafe comes highly recommended.
Getting hold of local currency is our first concern, given credit cards are not accepted and ATMs non-existent. Fortunately, exchange booths are plentiful (if dodgy) and it's easy to trade small amounts of Moldovan leu, euros or US dollars for Transnitrian rubles. The catch is that we can't change it back and it's of no use anywhere else.
George explains that when Transnistria declared independence they simply began using old Soviet banknotes. "Four years later they created the first Transnistrian ruble by applying adhesive stickers of various denominations to the old notes," he says. "By 2000, crippling inflation saw the introduction of the new Transnitrian ruble, which was equal to 1000 old rubles."
In 2014 a commemorative set of four geometrically shaped plastic coins – one, three, five and 10 rubles – was introduced to celebrate the 20th anniversary of national currency. I'm so taken by this novel approach to high finance I decide that a set of these toy-like tokens would make the perfect memento of a country that doesn't exist.
It's Sunday and the streets are eerily quiet, as if we've arrived after an evacuation order has been given. The markets on the other hand are blooming. I weave between ladies selling fresh flowers, men trading war memorabilia and vendors with pastries, receiving smiles in exchange for small purchases, but alas, no plastic.
In frustration I board a Soviet-era butter-yellow trolley bus for a short joyride out of the city, beaming with delight when the attendant hands me a five-sided, five-ruble coin as change. I take in the chubby cheeks of 18th-century Russian general Pyotr Rumyantsev before pocketing the blue pentagon, as happy as a child playing with toy money.
My frivolity is really just an attempt to make sense of a culture so different to my own. Just how different is brought home that afternoon when I meet a young university student Alexandru at the "beach".
The Dniester River curls at the edge the city, a blue thread hanging from a worn jumper. Children play in the sand with buckets, while teens leap like lemmings in the shallows. As we walk Alexandru explains that being stateless is no picnic; university degrees are worthless anywhere outside of the country except Russia, young people are fleeing the capital in search of opportunities, and there's the feeling that one day Russia might annex Transnistria, just like it did the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
"But that's not going to happen," he scoffs, blowing cigarette smoke over his shoulder before leaning in close. "We are Russia's laundromat, a Cayman Islands if you will." With that he presses a six-sided pink mosaic into my hand, not a tile but a 10-ruble coin.
After potato dumplings and vodka shots at Kymahek restaurant we toss a coin to decide on the night's entertainment – karaoke at Jingle Bells or 10-pin bowling at Villa Rich. The plastic head of Empress Catherine II (the Great) sees us donning bowling shoes and throwing back beers with locals until well after midnight. A celebratory gin and tonic rewards me with a three-ruble coin, the square green chip glinting like an emerald amid the loose change.
Leaving Pobeda Park on my final morning I look over my shoulder at the brightly coloured amusement park, and at the fountains throwing diamonds against the sun's rays. I could be anywhere in Europe except for my pocketful of coins, where long-passed Russian military leaders and a plastic-faced empress are still in charge. With a troubled heart I think back to Alexandru's words. "Transnistria may not exist on your maps, " he said. "But please don't forget that we all do."
FIVE MORE PLACES TO VISIT
KVINT COGNAC DISTILLERY
Kvint cognac is the unofficial national symbol of Transnistria and one of its main exports. Enjoy a tour and tasting at 38 Lenin Street, Tiraspol.
CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY
A vision in green and white, the gold-topped Russian Orthodox Church is the newest and flashiest in Tiraspol and is at the corner of Karl Marx and Karl Liebknecht Street, Tiraspol
The buttercream and white building at the city end of October 25 Street is the place for the opera, comedy and drama. If you don't have time for a show the simple elegance of the architecture is worthy of a detour.
MEMORIAL OF GLORY
This sprawling memorial on October 25 Street commemorates those who died during the Great Patriotic War, Soviet-Afghan War and Transnistrian War.
AQUATIR STURGEON FARM
Quality caviar is one of Transnistria's main exports. Take a tour of Aquatir's high-tech facility before finishing with a glass of champagne and tasting class. See aquatir.md
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Bucharest, Romania via Dubai. See emirates.com
Intrepid Travel's 13-day Moldova, Ukraine and Romanian Explorer, starting in Bucharest and finishing in Kiev, costs from $3080 a person, twin share. See intrepidtravel.com
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Intrepid Travel.