I was actually on my way to Irkutsk, Russia when I got to experience smuggling at its best. This train ride was much different from the one to Ulaan Baatar as this one was full and brimming with commotion. Most everyone on this train had sacks, sausages, socks, sweaters – how many were going to St. Ives?
The Russian regulations state that one person can only carry a specific number of each good over the border, so everyone basically trades goods to have a reasonable amount and not spark any Russian attention. They pay innocent Westerners small change to stuff socks and jeans into their suitcases until they cross the border. The train was like the Silk Road in Beijing, only that instead of everyone trying to sell you their goods, they were asking you to carry these goods and they would pay you!
Imagine this: One of my neighbors arrived at the train station penniless, as she figured she would be switching currencies anyways, so the temptation of a few easy dollars was high. She agreed to take one bag of shirts, but quickly they urged her to help just a little bit more. Before she knew it she was smuggling a bedding case, one furry jacket, two sweaters, sixteen socks, a Mongolian vest and two sacks of zip up pull overs. She ran through scenarios in her mind, how would she explain the large amount of goods to the Russian authorities? “I have a large family! Everything was just so cheap in Mongolia!” she would cry. These Mongolian traders would not have entrusted her with so many valuable if they had any fear that it would be confiscated, she reasoned in her mind; they must do this all the time.
The stern faced Russian border control entered with their narcotic smelling dogs. “What if they gave me narcotics? No, that would be a foolish thing to entrust to a stranger.” Her heart raced, but remembered they would be able to smell fear. After five hours of questioning, declaration forms, and dogs running up and down the corridors, she was free. Passport back in hand, she was able to let out one long exhale and sleep putting her dirty past behind her.
In the end I asked her if the 600 roubles ($20) were worth the possibility of ending up in a Siberian gulag. She responded, “I don’t know, but it will make for one hell of a story.”