As a rule, it is never a good idea to enter a country illegally. The last time we had to adopt smuggling tactics was when we had thirteen of us in a minibus going to Le Mans for a stag do. The night before leaving, two of the group remembered their passports were at the Russian embassy awaiting visas. Panic ensued though after a few pints we’d all convinced each other that Customs would let us through with photo driving licences.
They did not.
Now, bearing in mind this was during Euro 2004 so all the ports were supposed to be on high alert for football hooligans travelling without passports, this was not surprising. What was surprising is that our hasty back up plan worked. After being turned away from the port we came back about 15 minutes later and joined a different queue for passport control with the two culprits wedged under a pile of coats and bags in the back of the bus. A couple of hours later we were in France having duped British Customs and not even been stopped by French customs, who let’s face it were probably on strike along with French farmers, French fisherman, French lorry drivers and France.
Transnistria however was a different matter. Officially part of Moldova, but in reality a self-governing region, it has particularly tense relations with its neighbours and is a tad sensitive to travel through its territory, particularly by Brits armed with satellite equipment, cameras and a laptop.
The general consensus was that it would really not be a good idea to get caught so our plan was to slip out of the country the same way we came in. Through a field. The problem was that in order to pull it off we had to blindly stumble across just the right field which would lead us to the Ukraine, and freedom.
Our tactic was simple enough. Avoid any main roads. We picked the most knackered looking road possible and promptly ended up at the main border checkpoint.
Only Kaspars could have known the road signs said “Border” but at this point he was too busy arguing with Charlie about who had iPod rights in the van. At least if there had been a queue we probably could have slipped quietly away but instead we drove straight into an open tarmac square under the full gaze of a watchtower and quite a lot of men in hats a lot bigger than those in Moldova.
Just because there wasn’t a queue didn’t mean we didn’t have to queue. It was a full hour before anything happened. This was a good thing since it gave us time to stash all the sensitive stuff in the van.
Having spent most of that morning off-roading on dusty tracks we resembled a group of moped riding chimney sweeps. All the ingrained dirt and the heat of the midday sun meant the sweat was running down our faces causing dodgy brown streaks. If you’ve ever pulled a bird in a Wetherspoons you know the kind of look we mean.
Then we remembered that we had remembered to pack something for exactly this occasion. Finally! Something Oz had bought from the Cash & Carry that was actually useful. Wet wipes. We wiped the muck from our brows and then for good measure decided to have a much overdue squaddie wash. If the guards were alarmed at the sight of 5 men simultaneously sticking their hands down their shorts whilst exclaiming “oooh that’s better” they didn’t show it. They were certainly the most stony-faced individuals since Mount Rushmore.
For a whole 20 seconds there was the blissful feeling of being fresh and clean followed by a faint burning sensation in our eyes and about our private areas which then turned into a rather more severe burning sensation. Far from the soothing aloe vera wet wipes we had been expecting, it seems Oz had actually grabbed some industrial alcohol wipes designed for killing everything that moves in a commercial kitchen.
As if we didn’t have enough problems already we were now all hopping from one leg to the other while making chimp noises as the alcohol started to sting our scrotums.
Typically it was this moment the border guards chose to demand our papers and passports. Trying to act nonchalant while your plums are having the equivalent of an acid bath is not all that easy especially when you realise you are moments away from being rumbled.
There comes a point when you realise the odds are stacked against you. By the time Ewan and Charley reached Mongolia they were three days behind schedule. We hadn’t even got out of Europe and we were already a bike down, with no spare engines, and due to general incompetence, already over a week behind schedule.
The border guard said nothing and walked off with our documents. Another hour passed. Eventually a man about three hat sizes up the chain of command came up to us. He had a short and terse conversation in Russian with Kaspers. Kaspers shrugged and turned to us. We were to be prosecuted for trespassing.
Even at this stage there was still hope. With every other country in Eastern Europe it’s a familiar drill. First of all you are going to jail and two hours later you’ve been sent on your way with a 20 Euro fine. The longer you are prepared to string things out the lower the fine. The only difference is in those circumstances the alleged ‘offence’ is usually nothing more than being an easy target with foreign plates.
In this situation however we had actually fucked up good and proper.
All the tried and tested tricks that worked everywhere else were just not working here. Bribes were offered. Bribes were accepted. The problem was the bribe went in the top pocket and made no difference.
Six hours went by before there was finally some news. Our vehicles were to be seized and we were to be presented in front of the ‘smuggling board” the following week for sentencing. Naturally we were delighted. All we needed was an outbreak of herpes to crown a perfect day.
At that very moment we felt like the crew of Apollo 13 when they realised they had lost the Moon. We had lost Magadan. The only difference was there wasn’t half the world watching on TV waiting to see if we were going to die in space.
Instead we got deported, and rather sheepishly returned home with our exhaust pipes between our legs to be told by our mums we shouldn’t have been so silly in the first place.
We fought the law, and the law won.