China, 1986

trans-siberian train

“I always got nervous at the borders, and the bearded gweilo realised this. I sat there cradling my extra-large thermos flask while he and the Cantonese-speaking one kept reassuring me that I’d be fine, that none of the officials would bother me.

“As for me I really wasn’t so sure. For a single girl to be allowed to leave China was quite rare, and it’s a long way to France by train. That means a lot of borders to be crossed by the Trans-Siberian and its connections.

“And our own border guards did spend a long time on my papers while the gweilo all went off to the cinema. There’s a long wait at the Mongolian border while the train wheels are changed to fit the different gauge outside China.

“At the Soviet Union’s border it was the gweilos’ turn to panic as the officials went through their diaries and address books to check for mentions of Russia, to look for banned books and to confiscate fresh fruit. The officials knew that many of us Chinese were smuggling, but only clothes and things, so they didn’t check us too thoroughly.

 

“Eastern European customs didn’t care so much and by Berlin, where we separated, the bearded stranger knew my secret and could only wish me luck at the French border. He had noticed I hadn’t used my thermos during the journey. If I succeeded on the French border my brother’s restaurant in Clermont-Ferrand would become famous: as long as the special fish I was smuggling to him all survived long enough to breed successfully.