A Travellerspoint blog

I don't think this is Tea!

Our own narrowly averted Banged Up Abroad story... not your everyday holiday experience

Now that we are out of Russia we can bring you this blog, we wanted to post it earlier but were advised by a few people to hold off until we we out of the motherland... Just in case.

Trans-Mongolian Journey: Ulaanbaatar - Irkutsk

Our next large leg of train journey was to take us from the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar to the town of Irkutsk Russia, a mere 36hr journey, across the border, cruising through some spectacular scenery. Once again we managed to score a cabin all to ourselves - awesome! We settled in for our journey by downing a few beers before cracking open some Chingis Khan vodka. All was rolling along swimmingly!

As we chatted away enjoying the view of rolling hills and sparse villages, we couldn't help but notice the abundant number of people continually wandering past and peering into our cabin. Putting it down to the fact that we were white western travelers and it was probably nothing more than a bit of curiosity we kept eating our snacks and finishing our vodka.
Throughout the day I had been getting up and going for a wander up and down our carriage looking out the windows. At the same time I had noticed that we were two of only a handful of people staying in our carriage and were the only cabin to keep our door open. Again this didn’t seem too odd; we just liked having our door open.

Around 9hrs into our journey things started to get a little weird. People had begun frantically walking up and down the aisle carrying all kinds of bags and bits n pieces; a woman walking past tripped and accidentally dropped 2 packages (around the size of a VHS tape for those who remember) into our cabin. Not thinking too much of it I quickly bent down to pick them up and return them. As if it were some sort of apologetic gesture she quickly refused to have them back, insistently saying "no, no mistake, you have them" with a big smile, placing both packages on our table against the window. Laughing it off and thinking it was nothing more than a box of tea biscuits or something we put it down to all the stories of people sharing on Trans Mongolian/Siberian trains and figured she was just being friendly.
Not even half a second later her friend appeared at our cabin and tried to gives us a poorly counterfeited copy of Chivas Regal, again supposedly for the inconvenience of her friend dropping her 2 packages. This time we refused.
If it weren't for the second lady trying to palm us off a second free offering I wouldn't have thought anything of it, however having travelled though SE Asia, we have come to learn that nothing free is for free.

Renee, laughing from the strangeness of it all wasn't at all worried, I on the other hand had that stomach churning sickness that comes just before you realise something bad is going down. I picked up one of the boxes, only then realising just how heavy it actually was (around 1kg I reckon), grabbed my pocket knife and cut it open…
I’m not sure if it was the look of horror on my face or my words of "Renee this isn't funny" that painted the picture of what I held in my hands. She looked down to see what resembled more like a brick of hashish or compressed weed than it did anything else. I saw the color drain from her face.


Now, before you make some whimsical comment like "err guys that’s just some compressed tea" or something along those lines, I urge you to read through the story, placing together the circumstances and tell us how you would react…


Sitting there in shock horror, images of "Banged up Abroad" suddenly sprang to mind. We were on a train from Mongolia, a country that borders other countries known for trafficking substances such as hashish and opium, and we were approaching Russia, a country known for its cold bureaucracy and hard conditions. I glanced out the window and realised we were slowing down and approaching a large town; the Mongolia/Russia border crossing.

My heart began racing and I suddenly remembered all the internet forums I had read advising people NEVER to carry anyone else’s goods, even if they were given in good faith. I had another realisation that when trains stopped at stations the toilets were locked preventing anything from being disposed of. Knowing that the toilets emptied right onto the track I figured if we could flush them before we hit the station we would be home free however with the border fast approaching we had to move fast. I told Renee to go to the toilet on the right while I would go to the one on the left; we hid the packages under our jumpers and split.
The toilet I went to was right next the room of the woman whom had dropped the packages. As I walked past her room and to the toilet she followed me out of her room – the toilet was locked. She passed by me through to the next carriage returning only seconds later to pass me again. She did this a 2nd, 3rd and 4th forth time as if keeping a watchful eye on me. I spotted a bin which I figured would have to do so as soon as she wasn’t looking I quickly dropped the box into the bin and went to head back to the cabin. As I went to head back I saw Renee heading towards me with a worried expression, still with the brick of ‘tea’ hidden under her jumper. “I couldn’t break the brick” she told me, “it’s too compacted.” The train had almost come to a complete stop and the same woman was still keeping a close eye, peering out her cabin at us. As soon as the woman wasn’t looking I told Renee to drop the 2nd box in the bin and we both went straight back to our cabin.

The train stopped and what seemed like only seconds later customs and border officials were on the train. It’s pretty safe to say at this point we were shitting bricks. The Mongolian border officials took our passports and custom declarations then disappeared. Moments later the Russian custom officials boarded, sniffer dogs in tow. The dogs walked past our cabin twice picking up nothing.

We sat in our cabin wondering whether we had just been overly paranoid or rightly cautious… Still trying to come to terms with what exactly had happened our thoughts were interrupted by loud discussion and threatening conversations. I peered out into the carriage to see what was happening and saw around 8 guards and officials vigorously searching one of the cabin’s – the same cabin that seated the woman who dropped the packages. You could hear the woman yelling and the sound of someone loading up bags full of something. Moments later the officials walked past carrying large garbage bags of what appeared to be the boxes.
We didn't see that woman again.

That 3 hour border stop may as well have been 6 hours, it dragged on forever. Finally our passports were handed back and the train lumbered off into Russia.
Not 30mins after we had taken off from the border another woman appeared at our cabin, 2 very familiar boxes in hand and with what looked to be a check list. She scrolled down the checklist, pointed to the boxes in her hand then to us and said "Two.” Both Renee and I looked at each other and protested "we have none." She looked at us again, pointed to the boxes and said a lot louder "TWO” to which we both adamantly replied "we have none." Frustrated she left muttering as she walked away. For the next hour or so we could hear stressed Mongolian conversation, and many times the word ‘Hoi’ (meaning 2 in Mongol) being repeated. We could only assume they were talking about the 2 packages they had dropped into our cabin, and how to get them back from the silly westerners. Numerous people kept walking past, pausing almost every time and studying our room as if trying to locate their missing packages. If it was just ‘tea’ why would they be demanding for it back?
Still reeling from the whole experience and with Renee feeling extremely uneasy we decided to shut our door and make sure that at least one person stayed in cabin at all times. I’m pretty sure we slept with one eye open the entire night.
We pretty much stayed in our cabin with the door closed the rest of the journey until eventually we arrived at Irkutsk station, leaving the train and making from the station as quickly as we could.

Now I realise that this could have been some paranoia on our part as bricks of tea like this can be somewhat common in Mongolia, especially amongst rural families. But, all things considered we’re pretty convinced that whatever that stuff had been was NOT something we wanted in our possession. The surrounding circumstances are just too strange; who wants to take the chance right?

On that note a friend who we met on the way from Beijing - Ulaanbaatar (Travis who I went snowboarding with) had his camera bag stolen (which had close to $6000 worth of gear in it), in the same dodgy kind of behaviour that we had witnessed with our tea bricks. It pays to be cautious.


PS: Sorry for the lack of updates, keep an eye out for our Russia blog which will be posted shortly.

Posted by Joel-Renee 15:26 Archived in Mongolia Comments (11)

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