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Among the Smugglers

When we board at UB, a Mongolian man strikes up a conversation with me. He quickly establishes himself as the Mayor of the carriage – chatting to the Buryat girl who shares our carriage and trading jokes with conductors. His knowledge of a couple of languages puts him at the centre of most conversations.

Do you know Forex?” he asks me and I mumble something about foreign exchange. He brightens and bombards me with questions that would make an actuary queasy. No, I don’t know how to explain hedge funds. Yes, Barack Obama does seem to be spending a lot of money at the moment. No, I don’t know about the prophecies of Nostradamus and how they’ll affect the markets.

Soon several ladies start wandering the carriage with huge bundles of jeans, t-shirts and handbags. At first I think they’re just selling them and a few pairs are exchanged for money, so a simple ‘nyet’ seems to suffice. But one of the conductors comes to plead their case – would I do them a favour of carrying two blankets across the border for them? I’m being dragged into a notorious blanket smuggling ring.

The Mayor is in the same bind: “I already have ten pairs of pants and six of these… what do you say for a lady’s carrying?”

“Handbag?” I offer.

“Yes, they buy them cheap and take them across to Russia but customs says they can only carry so many. So we share and say they are a gift.”

According to the Mayor, Mongolia responded quickly to Russia’s Glastnost with traders bringing in cheap designer jeans before the Berlin Wall was wobbly. Many young Mongolians made fast cash so a generation of traders appeared, who continue even after Russia has discovered softer borders and other cheap markets. They’re following the route of the Russian tea caravan that linked Europe with India and China. The route became less popular when shipping routes became quicker than overland routes. Watching the small squabbles over handbags it feels like the end of the smuggling era.

At Darkhan even more small-time crooks push onto the train. At the platform we poke out our

 tongues at a little boy who returns a flash of tongue like a timid lizard. We start a healthy trade in tongue poking.

The new smugglers have to work fast with the border at the next stop so they shark the corridor, their eyes darting around each compartment for any empty space. Their eyes plead. Don’t we have room? Couldn’t we just take a few pieces? We nod sadly. We are from the land of Schapelle Corby and know not to carry anyone’s boogie board.

The border crossing is arduous with lots of poking through cabins from both Mongolian and then Russian border guards – the Russian bashes the walls for hollow compartments and jumps up like Action Man to inspect the luggage. A twenty-year-old Mongolian makes a show of looking sternly at our passports before whisking them away for eventual stamping. The whole border crossing takes five hours.

We settle in to sleep. It doesn’t last. The train stops just after the border and there’s a mix of noises – a thumping against the floor and something like the excited opening of a thousand crisp packets interrupting the opening scenes of a movie. I step out blinking into the corridor and the smuggling has become a military operation. The corridor is lined with bodies and bags – one unwrapping and stowing the other. I’m pushed out of the way. The Mayor takes me into his compartment.

“Sit down,” he says somewhere between advice and an order.

There’s a renewed bustling, new smugglers have boarded the train with new goods. The Mayor has several salami hanging from his curtain rod and the luggage compartment is solid with T-shirts.

“They pay to stop after the border,” he explains. “They bring more goods up in cars over the border and then take them to Moscow, selling at the stations. Or they give them to friends whoplace orders and bring them in.”

“But salami?”

“Yes, meat is very cheap in Mongolia. Not so cheap in Russia. They smuggle many things. Probably not drugs, but many things.”

Several of the people walking the corridor have lists and are checking them. They are calculating where each item is for quick swaps at stations. In the face of this organised crime, the Mayor is cowed and quiet.

“Please, drink a beer,” he offers me in a way that says it’s best if I stay here while the operation continues.

It must be 4am by the time they finish and the train lurches on. Even then there a few knocks at the door and requests to carry blankets. I sleep fitfully having been tangled in this elicit blanket, salami and jeans trade.

When we pull in at Slyudyanka the smugglers begin their furious work. They hop out onto the Russian platform and begin haggling and hustling. You can barely get to the doors for the trading. Some platform Russians are doing old fashioned barter. And what do they have to offer? A local smoked fish, omul, in plastic bags and swapped for pair of jeans. It’s the modern version of the tea caravan and our first glimpse of Russia.


  1. I'm so glad that you & Nikki have learned your lesson from young Schappelle.

    You are missed over here! (And not just for your smuggling potential).

  2. I can't believe you left the salami there, George. I'm disappointed in you.


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