If you’re a regular of this Blog then you know how we feel about borders, immigration laws and the lot. If you’re not, WELCOME, and let us quickly tell you one thing about us; we think that, in most cases, the previously mentioned things are a total waste of time, resources and money.
421adventure has had its fair share of border troubles and in this entry we’d like to share with you some of them. Some are just fun anecdotes while others are absolute catastrophes, but we believe that they all deserve a place in our travel blog.
If you make it all the way to the end, there’s a quick summary of what borders, Visas and corrupted officials costed us in terms of money and time.
So, let’s dive head first, let us take you to…
Finland – Russia
Having started our trip in Helsinki, this was our first ever border crossing by bicycle and it was a hardcore one. Two facts that you must absolutely know are that Marco was using his British passport at the time and that it was during the whole “Russian spy poisoning near London” thing. Everything went very well but we were as nervous as hell and a guard seeing Marco’s passport and saying “uy uy uy” in a Soviet accent didn’t help!
Aurelie’s French passport went through like a hot knife in butter but Marco’s took what felt like eternity; at every page the guard would pick up the phone, say something, hang up, wait for it to ring back, pick up, say something, hang up again and on to the next page…
This anecdote is just a quick premise that we think that hard borders are unnecessarily overprotected and often manned by people who think a little too much of themselves. You see, this particular Visa was acquired in the Russian embassy in Spain just a few days before so why all the controls? Don’t they trust their own intelligence services?
Russia – Estonia (EU)
Everything had gone amazingly well in Russia and we were genuinely sad to leave. This particular border is super heavily guarded (long historic reasons for the Estonians to be skeptical about their neighbour) and you really feel like everyone is watching you all the time.
Marco’s British passport took, again, a while to be cleared so a queue formed behind him. When the guard returned his documents and told him to go the barrier got stuck and wouldn’t open. People behind him started getting a bit nervous and told him to push open the gate and just go.
Knowing what we all know about the Russian Military, Marco refused, asked them to be patient and after a few minutes we were able to leave Russian territory and were once again back in our beloved EU!
Hungary – Serbia
Nothing to report at this peaceful border apart from the colossal moat and barb wire fence which Hungary built to face the Syrian immigration crisis of 2015…
Serbia – Bulgaria
Another simple border if you have a EU passport. Just another quick anecdote about strict border guards; our bikes were so full of mud (long story involving 421adventure taking a small path) that it was hard to pedal. We asked if we could use a hose (which was literally a metre from where we were standing) and the guard started shouting “No! Go to Bulgaria!” at us… Nice
Greece – Turkey
We were expecting bad tempered and corrupted guards to push us around but nothing of the kind. Car drives didn’t even honk when we cut into the line because it was 1 in the afternoon and the heat was overwhelming! We asked some soldiers if we could take pictures and they just smiled. For being Europeans we got 90 days free in Anatolia!
Turkey – Iran
Again, a sensitive border for many reasons. We chose, as always, the small crossing in the mountains instead of the crowded one on the highway and, of course, it was a mess; the whole thing is under construction (December 2018) which meant waiting outdoors in the freezing cold for over an hour (it even rained a little) for the electricity, then the Internet connection, to come back.
Once in Iran the guy in charge of the stamp wasn’t there so we had to hang around a little longer … indoors this time.
We finally got through and a guy that had been waiting in line with us helped us to change money on the black market (the only sensible option in Iran) at a great rate!
Iran – Turkmenistan
Because of time restrictions on our Turkmen Transit Visa we got at the border an hour before its opening time and we finally left a lot later although we were the only ones there.
Iranian Intelligence is very keen on knowing who you meet while there and expects you to hand over your phone so that they can retrieve contacts information, pictures and Instagram accounts from it like it was theirs.
When we got tired of being messed about we said that our phones contained pictures of our girlfriends and that was the end of that!
On the Turkmen side, the soldiers are very friendly although no one knows what they are doing (giving lots of contradictory orders) and we got a “Medical Exam” which involved footballer’s names being shouted at us!
You then have to pay a 10$ fee because you’re foreigners (isn’t that what the 75$ Visa is for?) and 4$ because, wait for it, “Bank”. That’s the explication we got! We argued for a while but really needed to get going so we paid out.
We later wiped our arses with the 4$ receipt and emailed the pictures to the Turkmen Foreign Affair Ministry (naughty, naughty!) !!
Tajikistan – China
Well, you know what’s coming right? We were there for hours! They didn’t just X-ray us and all of our belongings (although not very well), they did it twice!
The first border checkpoint is at 4300 metres of altitude, then there’s an amazing 17 kilometres downhill, fully double-fenced and barb-wired, immaculately tarmacked, security camera infested road which we were not allowed to cycle (they put our bikes on a truck!), and then there’s a second checkpoint which is basically the same as the first but you get your stamp.
Both facilities have English speaking personnel and both tried to take away our food, which we kindly refused (the nearest village is 100 kilometres away!). They also take away all your electronics and check them for illegal material (including porn, etc) and some reports say that that’s when they implant bug in your mobiles…
China – Pakistan
An incredibly intense story about this was already mentioned in a previous post (LINK), but just to put you into context, we didn’t actually have a confirmed Pakistani Visa. We were running out of time, no-one was answering our mails so we decided to go to the border and get it sorted, or not, once and for all!
But between the last Chinese town and the border atop the world’s famous Khunjerab Pass (the highest border crossing in the world!) there are about 100 km of road that no foreigner can trample. Solution? You have to get on a bus and you have to pay dearly for it!
Once in Pakistan it took many hours to work out what the IT systems were doing with our application and after a few calls to Islamabad where we just managed to talk to a few guys before they were off for the day (it was Ramadan) and a very weird call to the Ambassador of Pakistan in Kyrgyzstan (!?!?!?), everything was fine and we had an amazing curry to celebrate!
Pakistan – India
If you know anything about global politics then you know that this one is a biggie! Of course, nuclear powers don’t affect us so much BUT Pakistan’s messed up IT sh*tstems played us another bad joke and we were rejected and had to go back to Lahore to put things right. Luckily we had met some nice and influential people while in Pakistan so we didn’t have to go all the way back to Islamabad and “only” lost 2 days and some Dollars in the process.
India – Nepal – India
To promote economic growth (i.e. India wants to export their goods), the border between these two countries is virtually non-existent. This has the dire effect of facilitating the job to human traffickers.
Everyone speaks English well, the Nepalese personnel tries to give you a terrible Rupees/Dollar exchange rate (to pay for the Visa on Arrival) which it’s important to look out for.
Myanmar – Thailand
It’s legal to overstay in Myanmar and we arrived 10 days late and had to pay a 30$ fine each. We had local currency and wanted to get rid of it but we were forced to go to a bank because you can only pay in Dollars… suspicious…
Thailand – Laos
Get ready to hear a 5 stars messed up border story; as always, 421adventure decided to use a small border crossing to avoid a particularly bad, mass tourism one near Chiang Rai. It was a beautiful place but very difficult to reach due to the relief and the heat at the time.
Upon arrival we were informed that bicycles cannot cross that border and that our only choice was to leave them behind!
Ok, let’s take a deep breath and let’s try to dodge this one… What do you mean by no bikes? Literally, no bikes allowed. Not on a truck, not on a bus and not in a box. Although we’re absolutely against bribery and the lot (that’s why we came to this border) we actually attempted it but there was absolutely no way around it.
The solution was to travel by bus back to the crossing we tried to avoid taking us two days, overstaying one day in Thailand and costing us big $.
Up to date we haven’t been able to find out what the problem was but we learned that all the border crossing in the Xaignabouli district of Laos have the same strict policy; no two-wheeled vehicle of any kind can enter, just exit!
One of our Vlogs is actually about this particular border, how we got there (beautiful landscapes and a bit about Chiang Rai) and all the ordeal we went through to solve it; VLOG #08 – Heat, climbs and stupid laws
Laos – Vietnam
In order to get a Vietnamese Visa you need to give an exact entry date. At the consulate we were told that we could arrive at the border one or two days earlier and it should be fine. We also know of other cyclists who arrived before said date and they were let in.
Well, as you can probably guess by now, 421adventure wasn’t!
First they tried to get rid of us and told us to go back to Laos. We explained that we couldn’t because they had already stamped us out so they took our passports and put us in quarantine!!! The facility was a bit dirty but overall ok and we even had great WiFi!
The next day they let us in and asked us for 10$ for the “accommodation”. We just said no thanks.
Vietnam – Cambodia
Basically, Cambodia is unfairly famous for Angkor Wat and corruption. To avoid a notoriously bad border just north of Ho Chi Minh City we opted for a really small one right on the Mekong.
Everything went super well and everyone was mega helpful!
Cambodia – Thailand
This one got us particularly upset for 3 reasons;
1) Aurelie’s passport was full so we went head over heals to get her a new one in Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) and then we waited a week in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) for the Thai visa because we absolutely needed more than one month to get to Malaysia.
2) It was supposed to be an “easy” and straightforward crossing with just a couple of stamps being put and thank you goodbye.
3) Laos and Thailand boast left and right about their Buddhist heritage but the guards on both sides are atrociously inhuman and have the attention span of a hat!
So, what happened?
Well, at the Cambodian side, the guard stamped Aurelie’s old passport (the one with the Cambodian Visa and entry stamp) but the Thai Visa was in her new passport. At the Thai customs they didn’t like this at all and sent us back. According to them they needed to have put the exit stamp in the new passport. Back in Cambodia they said that there’s nothing they could do and that we’d have to go back to the capital (in the other side of the country) to get a whatever and pay 35$ for it. Of course, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
We tried to plea to their good side that all we needed was a duplicate of the stamp on another page, literally just raising you hand and slamming it down, but no-way Jose. That wasn’t going to go anywhere so we tried the same “please help us for the love of Buddha” tactics on the Thai side but we hit another wall and we were told to get out of the way because a queue was beginning to form.
The solution was to get a free one month Visa and then try to work it out somehow once in the country.
The next day we went through a big city and we paid the Immigration Authorities a visit. We stumbled upon a team of understanding and capable professionals who solved everything in 20 minutes.
Happy ending? Absolutely BUT it definitely shouldn’t be like this…
Thailand – Malaysia
At the time of writing this publication (March 2020), we have left Bangkok and we’re cycling south towards Malaysia, a country we had been looking forward to ever since we met three very cool cyclists in Turkey and, obviously, the last one we were going to cross before jumping on a plane in Singapore and go back home.
One of said cyclists, Amir, has great social medias accounts (Facebook – Instagram – YouTube) and is also an amazing guy who you should absolutely meet whenever you visit Malaysia, whether you’re a cyclist or not!
But right now, 15/03/2020, the world is upside-down and the COVID-19 virus is causing many countries to close their borders (especially to EU travellers) and causing generalized xenophobia so we really don’t know what will happen… If you’d like to keep up with the story please follow us on Facebook and Instagram…
Last update 31/03/2020; Malaysia and all other SE Asian countries are in full lock down and we are stuck in Thailand. If it wasn’t for the fact that our health insurance doesn’t cover us in case of pandemic and that it’s impossible to get money from any bank using our cards it wouldn’t be so bad…
And as promised at the beginning of the post, here’s what we have had to pay out for simply for “the privilege” of travelling; 1709€. It’s quite sad when you consider that we’re “One World One Love” kind of people and that we’re cycling for charity; that kind of money could have bought 20 bikes… just to give an example…
Hopefully, to be continued…