One part of travelling still gets me a little excited is crossing borders. Although you know that an imaginary line on the ground that divides two countries really can’t bring that much difference, somehow it’s all pretty exciting stuff – especially when you are going into new territory – country you have never been to before.
I can’t say (touchwood) I’ve ever had a really bad experience at a land border. I’ve been through some interesting spots. Of course, there’s always the worry that you’ll get held up for hours, and that can and does happen. And then suddenly, you have a really quick one that you weren’t expecting. So in this post I will focus on the best of them I’ve experienced – the ones that went smoothly, or had something special about them.
This was for the view, I’ve got to be honest. I’d taken the bus from Tabriz in the west of Iran. It was a two-night journey all the way to Istanbul in Turkey’s west. The bus had left in the evening, and it was the early hours of the morning that we arrived at the border. I remember a large building where I had to get my Turkish visa (on arrival).
This did take a little while, but due to the time of day that it was, there was only a couple of buses going through at the time and the place was pretty empty. You could get a drink or something to eat, change money, and then it was time to go. And now there was the first light of the day – and it revealed that we were high in the mountains (and yes, it was cold). The view was beyond stunning! Wowser! The snow-capped mountain tops. It made the entire long, tiring journey worthwhile.
Both border crossings on the Trans-Mongolian Express are actually really interesting, but I felt I should only include one and I’ve gone with the one from China to Mongolia at Erlian. What is amazing about this border is not the landscape, nor the efficiency, because it’s a seriously long crossing, you don’t really get the chance to get off the train.
Whilst you are still on the train, the bogeys are changed. There are hydraulic lifts that lift the carriages up, the old bogeys are whisked out and the new ones are whisked in. The carriages are lowered onto the new bogeys and locked in. Bogeys, if you don’t know, are the wheel housings. The gauges in Mongolia are different – that’s the width of the gap between the tracks essentially. And this all happens whilst you are on the train in a big shed. For this alone, it is a unique and special experience to crossing the border here.
I will confess, this is mainly here for the ease and speed. I don’t even remember how it was all done, I know I must have had my passport stamped out of Bolivia at some stage. I think the two offices were next to each other at the border.
Dry and dusty, it was all very frontier-like. I’d taken a mini-bus to the border town in Bolivia, Villazon, it was far faster than I had expected, I had to get a taxi to the border. Easy to exchange money in the nearby shops. I walked to the customs building. There was a bunch of people waiting outside. I thought ‘oh dear, this could take a while’. However, this wasn’t the line for me. I’m not sure what it was for, maybe people applying for Argentinian work visas? I don’t know, I’m only guessing. I found my way to a window. My passport was taken, stamped, given back, then my bag was x-rayed, and I was free to cross into Argentina proper. Five minutes it took.
This was my experience – I had read it could be a tricky crossing. People might ask for money, people had been held up. And going into it, I was a little worried. Which I guess is why it made the list – it was a very pleasant surprise indeed! Oh, and the sunset in La Quiaca… stunning!
Honourable Mentions –
Benin to Niger, 2006. This was really easy, just a guy in a shed on a bridge. Had a cursory look in my backpack, but no line, a bit of walk, I could hop the back of a moto which I did. Kinda fun. The wait for transport to Niamey was no fun, though.
India to Pakistan, Wagah, 2004. I missed out on the famous changing of the guard where both countries try to outdo the ceremony of the other, but it was a quick crossing in 2004, which I had not expected when I was on my way there.
Any crossing in Western Europe where you don’t even know you’re in a new country, although it’s great for lack of hassle, is a bit of a disappointment for me! Anyways, what experiences have you had when crossing from one country to another? Please do comment! And… May the Journey Never End!