Detained: Travel Misfortunes Make the Best Stories

Zabaykalsk, Russia
Chinese-Russian Border

“We’re going to need you to gather your things and step off the train.”

It was the last thing we wanted to hear.

“You’ll have to come with us.” the Russian border guard added as I hastily began stuffing belongings into my backpack.

Three of them stood at the entrance to our berth. Arms crossed, glaring down the brims of their oversized hats. One officer clutched our passports to his chest. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the little booklet as I slung my pack onto my shoulders. I wondered what it would take for it to be handed back over into my possession.

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As we stepped into the hall one of the guards pushed passed us. Overturning mattresses, flipping open cabinet doors, scanning under the table. Looking for contraband that wasn’t there.

Our translating border guard led us down the hall. As we stepped off the train and onto the platform our carriage’s provinista, no nonsense car manager gave us a shaming look. She whispered something to the border guard as we passed.

“She says you must come retrieve your tickets from her if you aren’t getting back on the train.” I didn’t have time to contemplate this being a good or bad sign. We were ushered forward across the platform. Guards patrolled the border perimeter. Army fatigues, slung rifles, leashed dogs. Me and Jessica exchanged worried glances. They brought us into the border office. A concrete giant of Russian bureaucracy. We moved through metal detectors into a large holding room. “Sit” our translating guard said, with a wave of her arm at a row of chairs. “You will stay here until a decision is made.”

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“Are we really being detained?” Jessica whispered as we slumped into our seats.

“Looks like it.” I answered, I felt helpless.

“We’re so stupid.” said Jessica, voicing what I was thinking. “So damn stupid.”

“There can’t be a worse country to have this happen in.” I added.

In the corner of the room a little brown cocker spaniel whimpered as it pulled on the chain that tethered it to a far chair. We both stared at it and Jessica let out a defeated laugh “Oh God, this is too much.”

It was almost comical. Two Americans and a sad cocker spaniel bound by the same predicament. I turned and sat on the hard plastic chair and put my face in my hands, trying to run through the series of events that had culminated just right to land us in this situation.

It was entirely our fault. Having booked our tickets in advance while living in developing Mongolia we had only one option; to pick them up in Beijing months later. We didn’t discover until then that we were taking the longer Trans Manchurian route up into Russia instead of back through Mongolia as we had anticipated. This was a giant red flag that we failed to notice until it was too late.

About an hour before we were escorted off the train, we had arrived at the Russian-Chinese border. Before exiting China border guards assessed each passenger’s passport and cleared them to leave the country. In the early morning a banging on our compartment’s door startled me awake and sent me jumping down from my top bunk. A Chinese guard took our passports and eyed each page over carefully.

“Do you know your Russian visas are not good until tomorrow?” Jessica and I looked at each other, wide eyed. “Your Chinese visas are also expired.” she shut both of the passports. “You cannot stay in China.” With that she handed them back to us and shut the door moving on swiftly to the next compartment.

The red flags were waving clear in front of our faces now. Our misjudgment of which train route we would ultimately be on had screwed up the whole timetable of our visas. Instead of the day spent traveling through Mongolia we were now arriving early in Russia and leaving China too late. Our blunder was beyond fixing. As the train crawled across the border our fate would soon be left to be decided by the Russians.

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“Come with me please.” I was stirred from my thoughts by the guard standing over me.

I stood up and followed her into a small office. An officer sat at a cluttered desk looking down, not gazing up from his task as I entered. I took the seat across from him and soon noticed he was thumbing furiously through my passport. Finally he looked up and eyed me sternly. He began firing off questions in Russian. The translating guard positioned herself at a post next to his desk listening intently. Why were you in China? Why are you coming to Russia? What do your parents do for a living? What is this organization? He stabbed a finger down onto the cover of my passport which displayed a United States Peace Corps sticker. I answered all the questions as confidently as I could under his scrutiny. Have you ever been in the military? Why not? He scoffed at my answer. How do you feel about the United States foreign policy? What don’t you like about it?

I was becoming more and more uncomfortable by his prying questioning. I answered as simply and cleanly as I could, careful not to take an aggressive stance. Finally he either became satisfied or bored with my answers and waved his hand towards the door, signaling me to leave.

I was escorted back out into the holding room and made to sit back down. Before I could say a word to Jessica she was told to follow the guard into the same interrogation room. She shot me a nervous look as she passed. It’s fine I told myself, we have nothing to hide. The worst they could do is hold us here until our visas are good or deport us and make us go home.

Finally after what seemed an eternity Jessica came out. She was followed shortly after by a tall woman in a smart uniform. She whispered to our translator and began rustling through a stack of papers before producing our passports. She smiled down at us.

“You have been given permission to enter the Russian Federation.”

Our nervous laughter and joyous relief must have been infectious. Our translator smiled and let out a small laugh when she saw our swift change in mood. The tall uniformed woman smiled and handed us our passports with an approving nod. I could of hugged all of them, even the surly interrogator. Our misfortune and mistakes had left us with nothing but an excellent story to tell.

If only we could have taken the cocker spaniel.

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Zabaykalsk station. We were held in the middle building with the pink roof. In the far left background the tall gate monument marks the border between Russia and China.

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