Do you get butterflies when you cross a border like I do?
Now that I've been on the road for five months, you would think that I
would be stress free. That I would not have a care in the world as I
wander from land to land, but I do. Thanks to a long and painful crossing
of the Belarussian border, which a week later caused an even longer and
more painful non-crossing of the Russian border, I have what I like to
Each and every time I traverse an international boundary, I get massive butterflies and I start worrying that any second I'll be yanked off the train and be forced to relive the Russian border experience.
In 1996, my friend Erika and I were traveling from Berlin to Helsinki, via the Baltics and a dip into Russia. Unfortunately, our train from Warsaw to Vilnius also dipped into Belarussia and the border guards were not happy to find us without visas to their still-Soviet land. A lot of yelling, bitching, and finally crying, later, we were allowed to continue on our journey after one third of our precious Russian visas was torn off kept by those Belarussian thugs.
Both E and I knew that this would mean trouble at the Russian border, but we were confident that once we told our story, they would understand and let us through. Yeah, right! Four in the morning found us standing outside our train at some little hell-hole of a station, with our passports in the hands of the chain-smoking border guard chief and my sanity in the hands of 'Deep Purple' Serge.
No, he didn't get that nickname from the color of the bruises he left, he'll always be 'deep Purple' to me cuz he seemed to have learned his few English phrases from the radio. His favorite, which he repeated any time he was stumped for a word, was 'And here's Deep Purple, from Manchester, England,' done in a perfect radio announcer tone.
Over the course of the next several hours (or was it an eternity?) I learned quite a bit from Serge. First, he had an amazing gift for bullying beer money off the sleeping locals waiting for the morning train and then opening the beers with the few teeth he had left. I was getting close to hating this guy for keeping me awake while E peacefully slept in the station, when he told me his story.
When he was eight, his Mom and Dad somehow went west, and as a condition of the trip, they had to leave little Serge behind as insurance they would come back. While in the West, they defected, abandoning little Serge in what was then the USSR. Now they live in Canada, with a new life and young son, and poor Serge was here at some dive border crossing escaping the pain in the bottom of a beer bottle.
All my compassion for Serge died in the morning however, when I gave him $20 to change into rubles so E and I could buy a ticket back to Riga, Latvia. After he was gone way to long, I flipped on his supervisor who found a passed out Serge with only 50 rubles on him. As our tickets were 100 rubles, I swiftly kicked Serge into consciousness and screamed another 50 rubles from him so we could end this nightmare. With the world's worst dubbing of the Jumping Jack Flash movie blaring at us, E and I slumped in our seats for the long ride back to Riga and the mental scaring that has not left me since.
Why do I write this three-year-old story to you today? Because I have a sick feeling I will be reliving it tomorrow afternoon when I try to cross into China. My passport, after two tears of wear and tear in my pocket and eight years of border stamps, is looking a bit haggard. My photo is delaminating and every border guard in the last year has taken a special interest in its validity.
Crossing into Mongolia, I had to argue with the guard just for him to stamp it. I guess he was afraid of leaving proof that he admitted me. Now with the super-strict Chinese border looming in front of me, I'm preparing for a five hour maneuver to get into China or a long, sad ride back to Ulaan Baatar. Once in China, I've learned my lesson, and I will get a new passport so I can make it across the next border with a smile.
Until then, wish me luck!