What is it about land borders that attracts hookers, drifters, the down-on-their-luck and crazy travelers like us? The margins, the frontier: the domain of moneychangers, deal-makers, “friendship” bridges, duty free shops — and occasionally, garden gnomes. Passing on foot from one country to the next, the feeling of adventure rises with a heightened sense of possibility, good and bad.
Within the space of a few meters, land border crossings lay bare neighbors’ similarities and differences. Contrast this with flying. While the airplane is certainly the most expeditious mode of entry and exit, world airport culture has become relatively uniform; the aesthetic has fast converged. The subtle clicks of overland travel are lost.
We recently logged another land border crossing data point — lasting 16 hours — at “one of South America’s most remote border crossings” from La Balsa, Ecuador into Peru. And as we waited for a mob of drunk Peruvian border officials to return from a party to stamp us in, we sized things up, watched donkeys and prostitutes exchange glances on the Friendship Bridge, and reflected on ten notable experiences at notorious borders past.
Five from Our Current Journey
Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, The Caspian Way
We know, we know – it’s not land, per se. But crossing the Caspian Sea between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan offers an unforgettable sunset drift. And the Stay-Puft Marshmallow woman attendant who rules the cabins with an iron fist is not to be missed.
Concerned that our camera and computer equipment might draw the ire of customs officials in the arrival port of Turkmenbashi, Audrey conveniently placed some “women’s stuff” at the top of her bag so as to divert their attention. And it worked. It’s a technique we now employ regularly.
Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s Corruption Alley
Post-Soviet bureaucracy, cynicism and corruption at its worst. If you survive this land border without dishing out bribes, you can reward yourself with a night in one of Shymkent’s brothels.
Our most physically challenging border crossing yet.
Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, Ground Zero Meets the Moon
Remote, foreboding, and hovering around 4300 meters, the Irkeshstam Pass will leave you wondering: “How can anyone survive here?”
You’ll be asking yourself this as the military police border guards emerge from their rusty trailer in order to break ice from the frozen ground to boil for their morning tea.
This is only a wee taste of things to come along Tajikistan’s legendary Pamir Highway.
Kyrgyzstan to China – Pack a Lunch
The night before we crossed the Torugart Pass from Kyrgyzstan into China, a group of Kyrgyz health trainers working for USAID took us out for a night on the town in Naryn. Countless games of pool and a bottle or two of vodka later, we returned to our hotel with two hours to spare before our jeep arrived to take us to China.
Later that morning, as we waited in a no man’s land cafeteria for our Chinese chariot to arrive, we spied a can of condensed milk on a nearby table (something like finding fajitas on the moon). If like us, you find yourself hungover from Kyrgyz vodka, you too will thank the gods of faux eating for delivering you from the clutches of cold congealed sheep fat into the warm embrace of rock-solid Frisbee disc bread lathered in condensed milk.
Honduras to El Salvador – Pack a Wrench
Border crossings, the ultimate relationship thermometer?
And the ride from Marcala, Honduras en route to Perquin, El Salvador? Epic, weather depending. In our case: 25 miles, 4 hours, and one dilapidated chicken bus with a broken suspension tied up with chains.
Five Old School European Border Crossings
Europe featured some nifty land borders in the days of the post-Cold War hangover. From our stints there (1998-2006) we noted a few borders, most of which have disappeared in favor of a newly united Europe. It’s incredible to think how much has changed in such a short time.
Estonia to Russia – Holding It
God help you if you drink a bottle of water on the train just before crossing this border, as Audrey once did. Upon our arrival, Russian paranoia screamed: a swarm of guards boarded, all train doors were shut and all bathrooms were locked — for almost three hours.
Hell hath no fury like a bladder scorned.
Russian border officials also handed out forms for passengers to document their assets, including a requisite declaration of the amount of “government bones” one was carrying. We resisted the urge to joke about packing Lenin’s femur in our carry-on into Estonia.
Czech Republic to Germany – Of Gnomes and Hookers
The Velvet Revolution gave way to a garish display on the E55 highway connecting East and West. Pasty, underwear-clad prostitutes (mostly from countries further East) pole-danced in neon-lit windows and marked the way for Germany’s forlorn and sex-starved. Women less fortunate worked the side of the road as shiny BMWs and Mercedes pulled over into the woods for their services.
As the Czech Republic entered the European Union, long waits at the border decreased. So too did the need for idle-time border brothels.
And, one other curious feature: the closer one approached the border, the greater the selection of garden gnomes sold by Vietnamese merchants. The land seemed to break out in a rash of trinket shops showcasing squadrons of creepy elfish characters, sometimes in unspeakable poses.
Lithuania to Poland – World’s Worst Concrete Hole
Way back in the late 1990s, this border post played host to the world’s most appalling outdoor toilet. The filth and excremental encrustation of this bleak concrete hole — so bad it once pushed Audrey’s vomit button — served as an emblematic reminder of the blight visited on the Baltics and Eastern Europe by the Soviets.
Croatia and the Bosnian Nipple
In 2000, road tripping along the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia took us through a small stub of land that we affectionately refer to as the Bosnian nipple. At the time, that little knob was stuffed full of pirated cassettes (yes, cassettes) and various bits of contraband.
It felt like a dusty place where laws dare to exist.
Only a few miles later into the night, we were back on Croatian soil – a land that, at the time, felt remarkably organized and almost western in comparison.
Finland to Norway – A World Without Borders
Before the days of European Schengen borderless borders, this shared segment of Lapland was the unmarked, wide open exception. Here, at the edge of the Earth, where the sky seems to bend, nature felt unbounded. And the only guards on duty were the reindeer.