From Ecuador to Turkmenistan: 10 Border Crossings We Have Known

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.

Waiting at the Peruvian Border - La Balsa, Peru
Waiting at the Peruvian Border

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 Memorable Border Crossings 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.

Beautiful Sunset on Caspian Sea - Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan
Oil Rigs on the Horizon in the Caspian Sea between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

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?”

Kyzyl Art Pass, Tajik Border Controls - Tajikistan
Tajik border controls, en route to Murghab in the Pamir Mountains.

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.

Torugart Pass, Kyrgyz-China Border
Farewell to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia

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?

At the Marcala – Perquin border crossing, Honduras barely gives passports a second look, while El Salvador turns its back in protest of this disputed border by refusing to post any officials.

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.

Passengers Waiting for the Bus Repair - Marcala, Honduras
Waiting for bus repair, Honduras to El Salvador.

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.

Grandma Gnome - Prague, Czech Republic
Chucky’s Grandma Gnome at the Czech-German border.

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.

Toilet - Lithuania
Polish-Lithuanian Border Toilet. Worst toilet in the world?

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.

Reindeer - Lapland, Finland
Lapland reindeer take over the road, Finland.

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    I love how, for we adults, border crossings have some kind of big meaning. I mean – we talk about how many countries we’ve visited, we preciously guard those old passports with stamps from around the world, and we feel like we’ve entered into a new world each time we cross that magical border.

    But for kids – those borders mean nothing. In reality, what changes when we cross from one country to another? Nothing. A while ago I was congratulating my son for biking into yet another country – his 8th at the time – and he turned to me and said, “What’s the big deal, Mom? A border is nothing more than a line on a map!”

    Gotta love the innocence of kids – wish we adults could be more like them!

    Nancy
    http://www.familyonbikes.org

  2. Nik Darlington says

    For back-jarring fun in the back of a Land Rover the border crossing between South Africa and Lesotho over the Sani Pass is hard to beat. Going up through the clouds is pretty special too and the views on a clear day can stretch to Durban on the seaside.

  3. says

    Maybe the border crossing between Honduras and Nicaragua where a Canadian friend of mine and I had to wait until the volleyball game was over for the post to be populated. And when the guard arrived, he was still wearing his volleyball glove. Watch out for Sunday crossings, can be pesky.

    Or maybe where I accidentally smuggled a clove of garlic into Chile and became a registerd carrier of contraband agrigultural products the whole length of Chile. Everyone on the bus gave me the fisheye after that. It was an accident! (And I didn’t get fined, amazingly. You can read more about it here, if you like http://bearshapedsphere.blogspot.com/2009/05/story-behind-much-alluded-to-great.html)

    Love all your pictures as always, and looking forward to one day seeing you guys down here in Chile!

  4. says

    Funny! But you didn’t mention the infamous Czech-Austria border, home to the billboard campaign which urged Austrian women “to take care of their men at home” so that they wouldn’t have to come visit Czech prostitutes. :)

  5. says

    Great roundup. The funniest border crossing I’ve digested on this trip was the 9 hours of crossing from Russia into Mongolia, including serenades by Irish diplomats, a Mongolian woman barging into my berth to try and stuff trousers she was smuggling into the country under my mattress, and lots of cheap Russian vodka. Writeup here: http://bit.ly/1fngJB.

    Looking forward to your next post, as always! -Jodi

  6. says

    Great! Thank you for the interesting post. Never occurred to me.
    The border crossing between India and my country, Bhutan is worth a mention since it is way too contrast. Happy Travels!

  7. lynn gardner says

    Hi there–

    We met when you were in Ashgabat. My huusband is with the Peace Corps. Nice to see you are still travelling. Best wishes from Skopje.

    Peace,
    Lynn

  8. Suzanne says

    Hey Dan and Audrey- I once attended a conference at a resort in Neum, in what you refer to as the “Bosnian Nipple.” Lovely views of the Adriatic, marred only by the sight of raw sewage in the water lapping against the retaining wall in front of the hotel.

  9. says

    @1 – “In reality, what changes when we cross from one country to another? Nothing.” — Drive from Slovenia into Italy. A lot changes real fast :) Amazing.

    My memorable border crossing – Mexico back into Guatemala. Men counting large piles of money. Children outside lighting firecrackers. Everything on edge.

  10. says

    Very cool post! You guys are definitely the quintessential slow travelers. I remember my border crossings through Eastern Europe. I kept getting singled out and sometimes pulled off the bus for “future” interrogations.

  11. says

    Hi everyone. Thanks for the thoughtful and often humorous comments. Individual responses are below:

    @Family: I have to admit that at first I felt a little disappointed for your children not being able to appreciate the differences visible between borders. However, after a second read of your comment, I suppose you were saying that children’s innocence lends them a perspective of a world without borders, where people are just people.

    Having said that, I still appreciate the distinctions between neighboring cultures — and borders definitely shine a light on those. However, I have to admit, having traveled through Latin America, the distinctions are less apparent than those between countries that we have visited across Asia.

    @Brian: See my comment above. I’m apt to agree with you. Borders indicate something, for better or for worse.

    @Wendy: We are still laughing at your comment…and the image. I’m pretty sure there were a few aliens skulking around the casino in Peru.

    @Nik: Thanks. We’ll add that to the list. Sounds like our cup of border tea. Perhaps sometime later next year.

    @Eileen: Definitely a different sense of priorities. Sports, partying, then maybe just maybe, work. Your garlic smuggling story reminds us…time to empty the backpack of coca leaves as we leave Bolivia for Paraguay. We look forward to seeing you in 2010.

    @Nicole: This kills me. Do you have a photo of the billboard? Actually, in the first draft of this piece, we had written the following: “…the border-going Austrians took their fill of the forbidden fruit at a brothel-laden patch of border land so appropriately named Hate.” We scratched it, but are glad you brought it up again.

    @Jodi: Smuggling trousers in Mongolia? How many pairs?

    @Lotrin: We almost included a link to this photo on the border between India and Bhutan.  While we didn’t actually cross into Bhutan, we enjoyed spending time with some of the Indian children whose parents were day laborers in Bhutan:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/picture/2469692699/

    @lynn: We remember. Strangely enough, we were talking with friends about our meeting you and your husband in Turkmenistan the other day. Nice to hear from you!

    @Suzanne: That’s vile. But a perfectly appropriate comment addition to this post.

    @willtravel: That’s unfortunate. We obviously think borders can be kinda’ fun.

    @Jennifer: Thanks. That’s why we write what we write: to give people a glimpse of the not-often-seen. Not to mention, these places – as much as it may appear that we complain about them – are fascinating and illuminating.

    @Jeffrey: We’re with you. The Slovenia-Italy crossing almost made it into this list — something about Bosnian pirated CDs in the trunk of our car. Anyhow, circumstances changed noticeably between Italy and Slovenia, two countries which many might argue aren’t so terribly different from one another.

    @Alastair: Crossing into Siberia with someone else’s passport? Hmmm, doesn’t sound like a recommended travel strategy.

    @Lola: Am *really* sorry to hear that, but having lived in and traveled throughout Eastern Europe, I cannot say I’m surprised.

    @Jason: Our border crossing into Bolivia from Peru at Lake Titicaca was rather uneventful. Would have loved some details here…like: from which country you crossed into Bolivia. From Peru? Paraguay? Brazil maybe?

  12. says

    I love this post!

    My most memorable crossing was from South Africa to Mozambique by train. The border officials took everyone’s passport – and jumped into a car and drove off!

    We then trekked up a hill and stood in a long snaking line to get them back. Several hundred passports, two border guards, and one small door and wooden cabin. Fun.

  13. says

    @Scribetrotter: Thanks for sharing your experience crossing from South Africa to Mozambique – I imagine that Africa is full of crazy land border crossings. Although, before we came to South America we were showered with stories of land border crossings on this continent rife with corruption, bribes, sketchy characters, dangers. Perhaps we’ve been lucky, but our border experiences so far in South America have been relatively straightforward and safe. We wonder how land border crossings in Africa will compare.

  14. says

    Honduras into Nicaragua wins in my book. We caught a truck at about six am with about eight other people. The money exchange was some guy in a truck, the bag check was the army checkpoint where everything, and I mean everything came out of our backpacks and onto the dirt road and the border itself was a river. Once we got to the other side there was an hour or so of doing nothing at all while we waited for the cattle sale to finish, and then picked up another truck to go on to Waspan. Oh, and no one checked our passports!

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *