If you miss the panto season in Britain, and are disheartened by the lack of Bobby Ball and Les Dennis in your lives, try the Russia to Mongolia border crossing by train. It lasts about 6 hours, and is hysterical. Cheap Russian goods are blatantly smuggled past first the Russian search of the train, and then the Mongolian search. But to keep up appearances, perhaps for the benefit of us tourists, a ridiculous play is acted out.
Things I saw smuggled in my 4 berth cabin included about 1 cubic metre of blister packs of drugs (don’t forget to read the label), 15 blankets, 10 cartons of cigarettes, and maybe a few sacks of potatoes. But there might not be duty on taters. Hiding places were sometimes devious – stuffing cartons of fags under my seat when I wasn’t looking, and sometimes obvious – on the floor under the noses of the customs officials.
The Mongolian smuggler puts a tick in the ‘tourist visit’ box on their customs declaration, and presents this to the customs officials who they are on first name terms with. Doubtless she ticks the same box every time on the twice weekly train journey. A flurry of SMS messages are sent between conspiring smugglers, especially when a new customs official arrives who is not in their employ. This official ruthlessly ferrets out all of the goods, and lays them on the cabin beds. A little conspiring and a brief visit into the cabin which is used for ‘duty payments’, allows the goods to be re-stashed.
Me, I was smuggling dollars. And I got away with it, even though I omitted to get my entry declaration stamped on arrival in Russia. My secret weapon? Being genuinely clueless. The Russian customs woman told me to change my exit declaration to say ‘travellers cheques’ rather than ‘cash’. And then she threw away my entry declaration. Kind of ruined the whole effect.