saves Danish bacon

A word or two of advice:  if you're going to mess with authority, the border between China and Mongolia is not the place to do it.

It was late at night at the first of the tedious border control stops on the Trans-Mongolian route of the Trans-Siberian railway.  There being little else to do on the train, a fair amount of alcohol had been consumed.  We had been stopped for several hours when a Mongolian inspector arrived in our carriage.  He was as rude as the regular traveller expects of such officials and a Danish girl in our party began to pull faces, to put it politely, behind his back.

Now any experienced traveller knows that such creatures invariably travel in pairs, and sure enough the second official soon appeared and could not fail to notice the less than respectful attitude being shown to his colleague.  Cringes and stifled laughter were followed by a realisation that our friend might be in trouble.  The officials still had our passports and they were threatening to put our friend penniless and visa-less onto the next train back to Beijing.

Our first inept step was to offer profound apologies.  These, however, are not very convincing when your alcohol-soaked brain is already seeing the funny side of a situation that would usually only be the cause of amusement when it has passed and you have survived it.

So what do you do when stage one has failed?  Easy: you go for your wallet and subtly pull out some of Asia's second currency, the US dollar.  Here we thought that the bargaining skills we had honed during prolonged stays in Asia would stand us in good stead.  Our opening bid was low.  Five dollars.  Heads were shaken sternly.  Ten dollars?  No.  Twenty?  No.  Thirty?  Still no.  If our friend had been sober she might have been worrying how high we were prepared to go; we were worrying whether this was going to work at all.  It was not the formality we had expected: these guys were hardened bargainers.

Fifty dollars?  Seventy?  Still no.  Was it possible that this was the one situation where corruption would not help us?  Perhaps it was the dollars.  Some of us still had some Chinese currency but even this was unacceptable.  We seemed to be at a stalemate, but in reality it was checkmate to the Mongolians who, if I can mix my metaphors just this once, held all the cards.  They hadn't marched our friend off yet, however, and until they did we were in with a chance.  It was as if they were waiting for the right offer, for a magic word to be uttered to resolve the stand off.  Something had to happen and it did.

One of the officials pointed to the corner of our compartment, at what remained of our formerly substantial horde of beer bottles.  At first we thought we were in more trouble for illegally bringing alcohol on to the train, but it soon transpired that the official had his eye on our cache of Chinese beer for other reasons.  We were not happy at the prospect of losing our supply, but what could we do?  We would just have to resign ourselves to drinking Russian vodka for the next five days.  In spite of a rather unfavourable bargaining position, we managed to haggle him down to five bottles.  Our passports were returned and two satisfied Mongolians left us in peace.

So was it saving face on the part of the Mongolians, or a craving for Chinese beer that led to the incident ending this way?  I couldn't say but, whatever the reason, we had bought our friend's freedom for five bottles of beer, at a cost of about 75p.

© Nicholas White 1998

This article was first published in the UK in TNT Magazine, Mar 30th 1998