Trans-Siberian Train - Border Crossing

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Flag of Russian Federation  ,
Monday, August 21, 2006


The border crossing into Russia was highly reminiscent of the scrutinous control under the Communist regime. After arriving at the last Mongolian town of Sukhbaatar at around 4AM, the engine was disconnected, and around 10 train cars were removed. Only the two front cars containing foreign tourists stood quietly in front of the station. The pink rays of dawn were faintly visible behind the mountains in the distance. Outside, the temperature was 40F.

There was an eerie tranquility in the air. The bustling noise of life was absent outside. Only a few Mongolian soldiers stood guard on the platform with their guns suspended from their waists. The train attendants ran to all the cabins and told us that there was going to be a lock-down for a few hours, a usual border procedure. Border crossing in the past used to be a more tormenting experience. Whole compartments would be vigorously searched, magazines confiscated, and film ripped out of cameras. Now it was tame for foreigners; however, locals were still subjected to the meticulous search. That was why the 10 cars containing local people were diverted to another area for a systematic inspection.

On the train, there were two college South Korean young men who spoke very little English. They were apprehensive about the border crossing, and their incomprehension of the immigration form, printed entirely in Russian without any English translation, made them all the more anxious. My guide came to me and asked if I knew any Korean. I hesitantly said a little. However upon meeting them, I thought I should try to see if they knew any Japanese, a language I was more fluent in. Luckily, Li, a 22-year old student studying to become a policeman, said yes. There we were, two people from two different nations conversing in Japanese on the Mongolian-Russian frontier. I had never thought that Japanese would ever become an international language that would bind different nations together like English could. So I read the Russian form to him and translated it directly into Japanese. I had translated the form earlier into English for my companion travelers. He and his traveling mate thanked me profusely.

Since the restrooms on the train were locked up at the border, we had to pay 100T ($0.10US) for restroom privileges at the station. After having our customs forms collected, we were allowed to exit Mongolia at around 11AM (7 hours after arriving). The diesel engine was reconnected to the train, and we went for an hour. Then the physical demarcation between Mongolia and Russia, which was an electric fence, appeared under a tall, watchful guard tower. Immediately, the Russian immigration and customs officials boarded the train with accompanying soldiers. They demanded first for us to render our passports, then to leave our cabin for a thorough search. One soldier jumped into my compartment and began to search under every article of belonging. He leapt on the upper berths and scrutinized the overhead bins for any contrabands. They meticulously went from cabin to cabin with the same strict procedure. Following them, the female customs official walked down the aisle to hand us the customs forms. My guide had urged me to declare all electronic goods, like my newly purchased Sony handheld computer, cell phone, digital camera, etc and to underestimate all of their prices. The allowed value of currency and all goods could not exceed US$1500, otherwise a damaging tax would be imposed. I nervously undervalued all of my goods and handed the form to the official. She looked at it with a glare of suspicion. She muttered something in Russian and left.

Was that it? I thought. Apparently, the treatment of foreigners had changed drastically since the communist days. I was told that had I not declared all of my valuable belongings, I would have a hard time exiting Russia with the discovery of any precious electronic goods at the airport. They would confiscate or tax any item not declared upon entry into the country.

The lock down lasted from 11:30AM until 1PM when our passports were returned to us with the official Russian border crossing stamp. We then disembarked from the train and went around the border town of Naushki. It was a very small town, infested with the tormenting signs of poverty. Dirt roads full of puddles and metallic shacks serving as homes were visible from the train station. The open-air market sold a few hot foods like Pirozhki, Russian deep-fried pies filled with mutton, potatoes, or onion. The other stalls sold Mickey Mouse coloring books or old, worn-out jeans. Many babushkas wearing head covers sat guarding their fruit stands and hoping for foreigners to make a purchase. Their brown eyes were glazed with signs of hardship in this economically deprived region of Russia.

At around 3:30PM, we returned to the train for our overnight journey to the capital of eastern Siberia, Irkutsk.
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