My 10 Border Crossings

  • What you might risk by crossing a remote borderBorder Chile-Bolivia. Chilean authorities "soft way" to warn travellers about Bolivian food risks
- you're never sure  if you re going to make it
- you might have to spend a night in a blizzard or a sandstorm
- you might get killed or robbed by officials on both sides
- you're going to get new friends like smugglers or corrupt officers
- you might have to buy fake exit stamps to be able to enter a country or simply to get back home- people who want you to change money or carry your bags might get angry if you say no

  •  Practical tips
- Dress poorly, officials might get envious- Don't overstay your visa (25 US$/day in Indonesia, jail elsewhere)
- If the immigration officer ask for money, pretend not to understand
- Be ready to spend a long time arguing with immigration and customs officials on both sides, so don't cross just before shutting time
- If a custom officer takes a small thing from you, chewing gum, biscuit, don't protest, let go. Realize it's nothing as he could take all if he wanted
- Don't bring a lot of cash if you are entering a country which is not under embargo (aka Iran, its banking system has no link with the outside world, so ATM wont work)
- Place on top of your bag your dirty socks... it helps evade officials curiosity
- Don't transport fresh food across borders in South America, penalties are harsh
- Police dogs are well trained to sniff drugs, wash everything which has been accidentally in contact with any kind of drug substance
- Smile all the way and have fresh breath
    I will be happy to get your feedbacks and stories about these tips

In the following pages, I will tell a few stories of what happened to me while crossing borders or staying in border towns, around the planet. My intention is to help the reader understand better these FASCINATING zones, and try to explain why they are so special. 
By doing this, I hope to understand also why I am so  attracted by them.
Why people living there, working there, officials, traders, smugglers, are different from the rest of the "mainlanders"? What have they in common with "us"? How they interact together?

  • Soon to come
  1. Shymkent (Kazakhstan)/Taskent (Uzbekistan) & Finland/Russia
  2. Amritsar (India)/Lahore (Pakistan)
  3. Pasto (Colombia), Copacabana (Bolivia), Tumbes (Peru), P Arenas (Chile), Iguacu (Brazil)
  4. Si Phan Dom, thousand islands (Laos/Cambodia) & Nong Khai (Thailand), Vientiane (Laos), Friendship bridge & Thai/lao border Hat Yai (Thailand)/ Penang (Malaysia)
  5. Mostar (Bosnia)/Dubrovnik (Croatia)

Turkey/Iran - Befriending Human Traffickers

posted Oct 14, 2011, 3:16 AM by Gilles Depardieu   [ updated Oct 18, 2011, 10:19 PM ]

2004. I arrived early morning from Ankara by bus  in Dogubayazit, the Kurdish capital of Turkey, dominated by the twin Ararat volcanoes. Looking at them, I couldn't stop imagining seeing Noe's Arch between the 2 summits [see pic]. I was still dizzy from the 18h long bus trip probably. After a few turkish coffee, I didn't need to eat more, and I decided to "visit" the city, meaning I just wandered through 2 empty streets without any kind of interest. So when a  taxi asked me if I wanted to go to the Iranian border, I immediately accepted. 

The impressive police & custom buildings on both sides looked empty at 7am. A yawning guard opened the small lock attached to the border gate. At every border post on the silk road, between Iran and Pakistan or between India and Pakistan, I had the same weird feeling, that between these huge countries, I was almost the only one to cross during the whole day. It 's probably one of the reason why Iran is so interesting, being a closed country under embargo [foreign credit cards are useless for instance], people are really interested in talking with foreigners. During my painless crossing, I spotted a short, round guy, who was busy with officials. He asked me if we could take the bus together to Tabriz, a long way further East. I nodded. After the usual oriental salutations, he told me that he was Kurdish and that like many of his fellow countrymen, he was a smuggler. A smuggler in Chinese girls for the brothel of Europe, he told me. He advised me to stay in his "friend" hotel. We agreed to see each other in Tabriz during the next few days. I remembered that Nicolas Bouvier, the Swiss writer, who drove all along the South Silk Road 50 years ago, had stayed almost a year in Tabriz, so I assumed it was an interesting city.

The day after, I went to the Big Bazar, a city highlight, and visited the tourist centre. Beside the office manager, a jovial middle age guy, wearing a Tommy Hilfiger polo, was drinking a tea. "I am German, my name is Hans and I live here", he told me. Because he was smiling, I decided to believe him. I was wrong.
He fixed a meeting for the evening in a new Tabriz neighborhood. I joined him there, and he was already with a male student friend, Yashar, talking together in farsi. After a few teas, talking in perfect English, Yashar invited me to his university, to make a speech in the English class, the next morning. I will later discover that all tourists in Iran are asked to visit language courses. Students are so friendly, that I will do this almost everyday during my 1 month stay in Iran.
"Let's hunt", my new friends say. We wandered through the relatively "bourgeois" area. I spotted a lot of women in sport attire. Hans was talking to almost all of them, as well as properly dressed women, presenting both of us as Germans visiting the country, and Yashar as our guide.
I later discovered that women in sport clothes were prostitutes [dangerous job in Iran, as everyday some are executed, usually execution pics are displayed in newspapers coverpages to "educate" the rest]. As for the others, the well-educated ones, Hans germanity was rapidly a subject of joke among them, but they were friendly, and were usually happy to chat with our little group or come have a tea with us [see pic]. The Iranian "Hans" explained to me that he was single, which at 40 years old is a difficult situation in Iran, especially without enough money to pay the "women in sport clothes". He needed some excuse to talk to the well-dressed women, and as a newcomer, I was the perfect "excuse". I understood now why he was waiting all day in the tourist office, I have not been the first tourist bait.

Later, I went back to my hotel. The police was there. 
They were asking for my "friend" the receptionist told me, the Kurdish "trader".
Panicked, I replied in a murmur: "I haven't seen him all day".

The police presence was the subject of the evening among fellow travelers. An "experienced" traveler [aka he has been traveling more than a year in a row, and for this matter, was considered at the top of the traveler hierarchy] even told me that the hotel has been closed by the police for several months the year before. But why? I asked. Oh, last year, the manager assaulted 2 female tourists, and they complained. At the beginning, he proposed to give them a free massage, and they accepted. In Iran!, that was silly. The whole story is written in the Hotel Guest Book. 

I found the Guest Book in the lobby, all the last year pages have been ripped off.

Nepal/China - "- But where is your travel group? - All sick, Sir"

posted Sep 13, 2011, 9:07 PM by Gilles Depardieu   [ updated Oct 7, 2011, 2:32 AM ]

After the end of the Kathmandu curfew of Sep 2004 (see story), I did the trek around the Annapurna, meanwhile my Chinese new companion had already left for Tibet, as her Nepalese visa has expired.
I wanted to join her ASAP in Lhasa. Problem: Due to the curfew and unrest, all the tourists have left and even the KGH, the eternal Thamel tourist mecca, was totally empty! 
I knew from the Book (aka Nepal Lonely Planet), that for "anti would-be-Richard-Gere-Dalai-Lama-lovers" reasons, the PSB (Chinese People Security Bureau) only allowed travels in groups, and it meant that a minimum of 5 tourists together with a registered travel agent could cross the "Friendship bridge" into Tibet.

After being rebuked by the KGH travel agent, because I was alone, I asked randomly to a travel agent in front of KGH. 
- Do you have money? he replied. We can arrange something....
- Yeah, go on...
- I have here a lot of passport photocopies from previous travellers, I can arrange a fake group of five tourists.... and ask for a group visa.. I know some people in the PSB here...
- How much will it cost?
- With transport, 4 days, hotels included: 500 US$

500US$ was way above my budget, but I had the fond memory of my birthday party and Zhou, the Chinese backpacker, smile in my head. She has left me a message in KGH, saying she was waiting for me in Lhasa for 10 days......Things like this doesn't happen everyday, I thought...

It worked smoothly until the border. We had the PSB certificate with a list of names, except I was alone. After a whole day of travel in an empty white Toyota with a mute driver, we arrived late at the Zhangmu border crossing, located in a narrow gorge.
I didn't even notice we passed the Nepali Border Post, when a severe looking Chinese Immigration Officer in a neat uniform looked suspiciously at me and my papers, and asked:
- Where is your group?
- All sick Sir, they stayed at Kathmandu hospital, food poisoning....
- I cannot let you pass, not five
The driver took me briskly by my arm before I would reply angrily something like FY....and said:
- I bring you to a hotel, tomorrow we try again...
- you can speak english?
I slept in a hotel which looked a lot more like a whorehouse with Karaoke rooms at all levels and girls knocking randomly at doors in the middle of the night. Another border town.......sigh
But i was not in a mood to smile or rejoice. I was stressed and could barely sleep despite an exhausting day in the car.
In the early morning, the driver took me again to the border, and an officer who didnt even looked at me let me pass.

During the next 3 days, sleeping in very very basic hotels (I guess a big part of my 500US$ has gone elsewhere), and until Lhasa, I tried to ask the driver how he did it, but he was mute again

Iran/Pakistan - "Sir, do you have a pen?"

posted Aug 12, 2011, 12:02 AM by Gilles Depardieu   [ updated Dec 2, 2011, 12:15 AM ]

Winter 2004. I was standing alone at Yazd bus station, waiting for a bus heading to Zahedan, the (in)famous Iranian most Eastern town, capital of  the "3-borders region", next to  Pakistan and Afghanistan. A friendly looking 40+ years old French guy was already idling there. Glad to meet a fellow countryman, I asked him some info about the trip. His name was also Gilles, which is always confusing and also subject of endless jokes. He happened to be a male nurse at the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Zahedan, and revealed to me he just spent a well deserved week-end rest in Yazd.

Learning about my Silk Road trip, he looked a bit surprised: 
- Are you really going to Zahedan alone? What for? It's risky. We had 2 Germans guys a few months ago who tried to cross the border, one has been decapitated, the other one left alive.
- Why the second was saved?, I asked. 
The other Gilles replied: 
- He was able to recitate the first verses of the Koran, the other not.
I immediately tried to visualize the muezzin I heard during my Moroccan childhood and said: 
- If I start by: bismillah....  is that correct? I asked 
- Yes, yes, it is; anyway, things look calmer now. You see, it is mostly the other sides of the 2 borders which are restless (I heard this a lot in my travels). But Zahedan, has a lot of Afghans migrants, maybe a quarter of the 2 millions afghans in Iran are around this city, in camp areas built by the Iranian government, with public schools, and some utilities.... 
- In the West, we never thanked Iran for what it did, by resettling these migrants, giving them free education.... Under an UN agreement, MSF provides them with free healthcare. This is our mission here. 75% of our financial ressources come private donors in the US, not from Europe. - And people still think MSF is French because of Kouchner, bullshit.....
As he was talking at great length about his job [by then, we had already climbed into a comfortable Zahedan-bound bus, and had been on the road for 6h], we were passing tens of thousands of white tents on both sides of the road. 
- I am sure, you heard about Bam earthquake, 1 year ago. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in these tents, they are dispersed alongside this road for 100 kms. They might never see Bam again, which is totally destroyed. Some Afghans are better treated than Iranians, it's part of this government policy to improve his country standing in the Muslim world.

So many untold sufferings in this part of the world.....

At the  bus terminal in Zahedan, a car with driver was waiting for Gilles, my new-found friend. He asked me if I had plans, which was not the case. Plans in Zahedan? 90% of the people in the street look like fierce and dirty afghans, no woman in sight, Just another dangerous border town..... no, Gilles, I have no plans here. He gladly invited me to the MSF compound, and I felt relieved.
A friendly Belgian doctor was already relaxing in the spacious house, and offered me vodka. Vodka? Here? I was amazed, then thought that in border towns, everything is possible...... We talked almost all night long about Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, terrorism, the 2 germans, wars, Middle East, 9/11......I woke up early morning, alone, nobody at all in the building.
Starving, I slipped out of the house, situated in a leafy neighborhood. I was deeply preoccupied by my Pakistani visa, which was tough to get, according to the Book {Lonely Planet Istanbul-Kathmandu], but luckily I immediately found friendly taxi driver, and managed to go to the Pakistani consulate quite easily. Unsurprisely,  many unshaved guys in dubious uniforms tried to make me pay additional fees for the visa form, to fill it, to enter the consulate, and to get my visa done "express". But after some tough bargaining and a LOT of smiles, I managed to get all only for the official visa fee of 10 US$.

After this, still starving, i wanted to go back to the MSF residence, where I left absolutely all my stuff......
Sh..., I forgot to take their address yesterday........oh no problem, I'll ask a taxi... sir, MSF?... I saw panic in the driver eyes, emeeeseeeff? Heeemhesef?...
I tried all the variations, nobody understood me. I took a taxi at random, trying to do my itinerary in reverse. No way, the city was huge, and surrounded by immense suburbs which had just welcomed 500.000 afghanis, that's not a small number...........
I left my taxi, feeling totally lost, near the University, where I should be able to find friendly english speakers. In the market (bazar), they could speak english too, but are not as friendly, it's a general rule in Iran: bazaris are very anti-westerners, students very pro-westerners.
Unluckily, nobody knew MSF......I tried to explain: "it's a NGO hospital...for Afghans"...., one student looked at me, and said: maybe I know. We took a taxi together, and after riding a long, long time in the poor looking afghan suburbs, we arrived in front of a small clinic with the MSF logo. Yes, yes, it s maybe here, not the residence, but the clinic. Inside, passing a very long line of afghan women with children, I asked for Gilles, the male nurse. No, he was not here, but some employees knew him. I was saved, I thanked my student who left. 
After 1 hour, the driver who was at the bus station the day before, arrived and took me back to the residence. I was relieved, but felt so stupid!

Next morning, the other Gilles and his driver wanted to drive me to the Pakistan border, around 80 km away, because, they said, the road was full of Baluch people. I thought they were looking great with their beards and white baggy pants. Careful, Gilles told me, they are all bandits.

Before my departure, the driver asked me if I needed to go to toilet, I said:
- No thanks, why? 
- Because, you will not find any in Pakistan....... 
- Ah.....
As we drove smoothly through the desert on a perfect tarmac road, I asked innocently, watching a strange kind of high speed dust tornado  in the desert: 
- What is this dust in the distance?
Gilles and the driver looked at me, like if I was retarded: 
- There are smugglers! what do you think?
Looking more attentively, I saw dozens of white Toyotas going at full speed in the desert..... 
- Ah, ok, ok, that's why they are not in the road, ...speaking of ... we have been the only car on the road, since Zahedan...
We arrive at a huge, neat and white building in the middle of the desert, alongside a poor looking fence, running kilometers into the emptiness In the distance, I could still see the hypnotizing fast moving dust cloud.....
I kissed my friends Gilles and the driver on the cheeks, then hugged them, local way. I was moved by their kindness. 
From now on, I will be on my own, again.
I entered the icy cold AC hall, dominated by huge portraits of the founding Guides Khomeiny and Khamenei. I had to wait only a few minutes as smart looking [shaved] Iranian police officers processed my exit form in a breeze, using their bright new DELL PCs [Who thought Iran security forces were under embargo ?]. I was the only visible visitor in the immigration hall. I asked them if I were the only one to cross the border today. 
-Yes, they said. 
- But where is the Pakistani border?, I asked, - I see nothing. 
A worried looking police officer sighed, grasped a key on his desk, and told me: 
- Please, follow me. 
We got out of the building into the scorching heat, approached the fence, where a small lock was hanging on a rundown gate. He opened it and said: 
- Please, sir, now go on, this is Pakistan.....
I stepped carefully on the other side while he closed the fence, and...

There was absolutely nothing: no building, no sign, nobody, no vehicle, no road, nothing.......
I walked a few hundreds meters, and by chance encountered a guy alone sitting on a stone, under the shadow of some meager desert shrubs, he was holding a kind of dirty notepad, without cover. His eyes were closed.
Saluting him, and trying to wake him up by making some noise, I asked loudly: 
-Please, do you know where is the Pakistani immigration and customs?
He looked at me sadly, and said: 
- It's me, sir. 
Then showing his notebook:
- Sir, do you have a pen?"

For more on Iran, click here

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