Thursday, May 05, 2005

Smuggling on the Mongolian Express

The midnight border crossing between Mongolia and China suddenly became tense when the black plastic wrapped bundles started to thud onto our train compartment floor. The Mongolian customs officer's arms delved and riffled behind the roof panel and pulled one pillow sized bundle after another from their concealment. Thud, thud, and thud they dropped at my feet and before too long I was standing on the verge of mini black mountain. I weakly smiled up at him and gave an "I didn’t put them there" look.

We were travelling from Ulaan Baator to Beijing and the mood had been festive in the carriage. Quite a few other backpackers were doing the same overnight trip and after boarding the train in the morning we had had the whole day to make new friends. Once at the border we had been ordered back into our compartments while Immigration came and stamped our passports.

Customs followed, coming down the corridor and stopping first at our door. They ordered the four of us - my girlfriend, two new friends and myself - out and we were lined up against the windows. While standing on the bunks with his panel-removing key, the officer started the thudding and dread.

Immediate thoughts flash through your mind. These initially seemed to be concentrated on a dark dank cell. Sitting on one side of a solitary table, a bright light shinning in your eyes and endless questions.

I tried to blank my mind and be calm, knowing that I was innocent, but my nerves were in no way helped when a call came down the corridor from a mate, yelling "I told you shouldn’t have tried to smuggle those drugs". If I could have shrunk out of sight, I would have.

I focussed my attention on the bundles and wondered what they were. Were they drugs? It looked like it initially. Then I noticed the ripped in half US hundred dollar bills tapped to the outside. They must be bundles of counterfeit notes I thought. This was reinforced by all the stuff I had read a lot about the counterfeiting operations that go on in this country.

My thoughts and spirits changed when the customs officer got down and gave me a wink. We were off the hook. He had finished riffling and was moving to the next compartment where more were discovered. The whole carriage ended up being riddled with the bundles, obviously a frequent occurrence.

As to what the packages contained? It wasn't until the next morning in China, when a smiling smuggler returned to collect packages that had not been discovered, we discovered that they were, bizarrely, Marmot skins.


This story was entered into the Lonely Planet Comet Stranger Than Fiction competition. It is a game where you enter a story and have it reviewed by other contestants. Here is a direct link to the story.

No comments: