Mongolia-USSR border 1986

I checked the passports while my colleague from customs began searching the compartments and the luggage. The thing about searching the Trans-Siberian Train as it leaves Mongolia, and enters Russia, is that it’s almost a home to the passengers: people like the bearded stranger have been living on it for thirty-eight hours since Beijing and know they have another hundred or so before they reach Moscow. They bring food, household goods, alcohol, clothes for re-sale: everything and anything. Occasionally rumours spread along the train about the customs checks. Judging by the number of fresh apple cores and orange peel in the bins of this train I could tell the rumour had been that our customs colleagues would confiscate all fruit – which they often do.

My colleague went into the roof compartment with his torch: nothing. He confiscated, from a Swede, a banned book called ‘’Little Red Train Journey’; he looked through people’ address books and grilled them about any Russian addresses. He asked what was written in the bearded stranger’s diary. He asked people what was on their cassettes: in such a tone of voice, and good enough English, that they felt he would play every minute of them if he felt they were lying. He did a thorough job but found nothing to threaten the Soviet Union. And today was not a day for confiscating fruit: the twelve oranges I could see in the bearded stranger’s plastic bag would be very valuable now.