How to behave
This is a serious business, but as long as your paperwork is in order you have nothing to worry about. The signal that things are about to start is when the carriage guard or ‘provodnitsa’ (carriage attendant) turns on the main lights and opens all the doors. You will then see a procession of officials passing by your compartment and looking in. You don't have to do anything until asked. They will approach you for your paperwork, and once they see your passport, usually speak a few words of English. To help things to progress as smoothly as possible, when someone enters your compartment I recommend that you stand up to show respect. If it is a passport check, take your glasses off (if you wear them) and look at the official whilst they compare you with your photograph. If it is a customs check, show the official where your bags are, and start opening them until they have seen enough. This positive engagement from you will normally ensure you have a short and painless border crossing.
Usually the most relaxed stage of the procedure - the country you are leaving needs to account for every passenger on the train to ensure they have the required documents to both leave that country and enter the country on the other side of the border. In some places the customs checks here can be time consuming, as it is not just you and your luggage that is being checked, but every compartment of the train.
The carriage guard/provodnitsa will hand out any required forms for completion before the officials arrive. They are well rehearsed on how it works, and you can ask them any questions about what will be happening. The immigration officials (often from the military or security services – don't be surprised by the uniforms) will briefly check your passport, visa and paperwork before taking them away. They will be checked against a computer at a central point in the train, or in the station. The train may well move at this point, but don't worry – you will get your passport back. It normally takes 30-60 minutes, and then an officer will return and either give you back your stamped documents, or if needed, ask further questions.
You might be surprised how thorough these are the first time you experience a big border. Whilst as a traveller you are probably not a major concern, they will be making sure that the train is not carrying any illegal materials, and there are of course many places such things could be hidden. They will therefore not just need to inspect your bags, but also to search your compartment and every part of the train. You will usually be asked to leave your compartment when they search it. It is safe to leave all your belongings and just step out when they do this. With your own bags you may be asked what you are carrying. This can be a slightly difficult question to answer simply. I usually just say, “food and clothes”, and open the bags up. Don't be surprised if you hear barking, as sniffer dogs are normally involved at this stage. If you hear the sound of power tools and stepladders, they are checking the many sealed voids around the train.
It sounds like an unusual concept to the average European, but not all railways are the same size (known as the “gauge”). Russian railways have wider rails than in both Western Europe and China. If you are travelling East for example, you will visit the engine sheds at the border with Belarus, and then again at the Chinese border. The process is semi-automated and each carriage is shunted off, lifted and new bogies are slid in place underneath before the train is reassembled. This is also when restaurant carriages are attached/detached for the native country.
Changing the bogies on the Chinese border
Keeping your paperwork in order
The key to everything going well is in having the right paperwork and correctly completed forms. Make sure that the validity dates of your visas are correct. I always carry back up paper copies of all my documents and also associated items such as hotel bookings, proof of earnings/cash, insurance, and my travel plan for leaving the country. These establish you as a bona fide traveller with a plan in the event of proof being needed. Keep a note of your passport number and your visa numbers - sometimes more paperwork arrives when your passport has already been taken away for inspection. Carry several fine tipped black ink pens for all the forms.
Getting off the train
You can normally stay on the train whilst all of these procedures are undertaken. At some borders you are able to get off and stretch your legs whilst the bogies are changed (not at the Trans-Manchurian border). Do be aware that if you decide to do this that you may not be allowed back on board for two or more hours, so plan for this in how you dress and what to take with you. Also keep in mind that during the border crossings the carriage toilets will usually be locked for long periods. Try to anticipate these from the timetable and plan accordingly.
Overall, border crossings involve a reasonably lengthy stop (an average of three hours), but they are quite stress free – everyone comes to you and you can just read a book or enjoy the moment without having to queue up as though you are at the airport. I have met some very charming officers on the border, as well as a few grumpy ones. One thing is for sure though, immigration staff at Heathrow airport will never shake you by the hand and welcome you to Great Britain like they frequently do on the Mongolian and Chinese frontier!
Matthew Woodward is a writer and train adventurer. He has completed several Trans-Siberian rail journeys, from his home in the UK to places including Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Lhasa and Hong Kong.
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