The most memorable border crossing I have ever made was on the Trans Mongolian Express as we travelled from China, through Mongolia and into Russia.
It was in 1990 and it was winter so there were very few western tourists. David and I had tried to prepare for the journey by reading everything we could get our hands on about the train and the experiences of other travellers.
We were apprehensive about Mongolia. We had not been able to obtain transit visas in Australia, in those days that had to be done in Beijing and involved surrendering our passports to the authorities for two days to get the necessary stamps. We were a little anxious before we even began.
We decided to be very cautious about taking photographs because we had read that not only had tourists had their films confiscated but in some cases had their cameras broken as well. We did not see anything like that happen on our journey and I very much regret that I did not risk taking a few pictures.
It was night when we reached the border, cold and there was a thick fog. At this stop the train was to be bogey exchanged from the Chinese gauge to the Russian one.
While we waited we heard the sound of a steam engine in the darkness and then out of the fog came an impressively large steam engine. It was a fantastic sight which I wish I had photographed but will never forget.
Of course at both the Chinese and Russian borders we had lengthy visits from officials checking our passports. The Russian ones were particularly intimidating although beautifully turned out in their heavy winter coats and hats. Everyone had to leave the compartment while it was thoroughly searched but apart from that and some hard stares at our passports (in our compartment Japanese, Canadian, British and Australian) we tourists were not really bothered. Some of the Chinese passengers were not so lucky. We heard that some had been put off the train although we were not sure why. The official that visited our compartment only had one word of English “Passport.”
I think the most unnerving thing about crossing borders on this journey was the sight of so many armed guards as up to that time I had rarely even seen a gun.