I’ve been fascinated by borders ever since we lived in the small Hungarian town of Mosonmagyarovar, just 20km from the border with Austria. Nowadays driving across that border you would barely notice that you had gone into a different country, however when we lived there it was 1985 and the iron curtain very clearly separated Austria and Hungary. Crossing the border back then was an ordeal involving the car being searched, questions being asked and passports stamped. There was also the fence itself, masses of barbed wire, carefully raked dirt in no-mans land, and the men in watch towers. As a 7 year old this made a big impression on me, especially as a kid from New Zealand where border crossings simply dont exist.
Fast forward to 2018 as we cycle our way across Europe and Asia and again I have been fascinated by the borders we have crossed and the differences between them. The first was Switzerland to Italy. Apart from a sign and a lone man in a booth pretending to do customs duty you wouldn’t know that you had entered another country. We asked him for a stamp in our passports but he looked at us like we were crazy, refused, and waved us through. The border between Italy and Slovenia wasn’t even manned, just a rusty sign halfway up a mountain pass. It wasn’t until we got to the border with Croatia that someone wanted to see our passports. Here Emma was yelled at by the border guard for sneaking her wheel across the white line with her bike outside his booth. We have sometimes felt a little uneasy at the borders as its not often people arrive by bicycle and many of the guards don’t know what to do with us as its usually just truck drivers. Meanwhile we are always hoping they will accept our visas and strange black passports, often needing to pull out the map to show them the small islands at the bottom of the world that make up New Zealand.
It wasn’t until we got to the Bulgaria/Turkey border that we really felt the presence of the line that is drawn on the map in the form of a physical fence...a fence that normally separates language, currency, culture and sometimes even time zones. Yet we found that in many places, despite the fence and the line on a map, on either side the people shared food, culture and language, making us aware that there had been a time when they had all been considered one-in-the-same. This was especially evident in eastern Turkey, through Iran and into the Stans with the people of Persian descent.
The borders have provided us with many novelty factors. The term « just a stones throw away » became a bit of a gag...for almost two weeks we followed the river that separates Tajikistan with Afghanistan where we literally did throw a stone to the other side just to say we’d done it. As we cycled we could see the Afghan people on the other side going about their daily life, waving to us across the river, so close we could yell hello in return. To add to the novelty factor, and to draw out a border crossing, we stayed the night in no-mans-land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the distance between the two passport control booths is about 25km. This lead to many questions about which country is responsible for what in such an area, including us wondering if we were covered by insurance!
The border that has by far made the biggest impression on me to date is that along the edges of China. We first saw the Chinese border fence in Tajikistan. Taller than a man and in places electrified, we cycled alongside it for several days as it weaved its way across the barren landscape, sneaking a stone across when we thought it most safe! Thats when it really hit home firstly how far we were from Switzerland, and actually how far we had cycled! When we finally reached the point at which we would cross into China we got to experience the full force of a border security operation. We had our passports checked eight times at eight different booths, had our bags searched three times, our bodies were scanned, and our phones inspected, with the Chinese officers installing apps to do not-sure-what. We had to empty fuel from the cooking stove and stash our knives under our bike seats to prevent confiscation. I have never seen so much barbed wire, so many CCTV cameras, armed guards everywhere, even dogs. It reminded me of the border between North and South Korea. Pedestrians and cyclists were not allowed to leave the border area on foot or by bike, instead we were put in a compulsory taxi to the end of the border zone (and another passport and bag check) a full 140km away from the fence line. It couldn’t have been more different from our first crossing into Italy.
With four more border crossings to go by bike I know I will continue to enjoy observing the subtle changes that you see when going from one country to another at a snails pace. It will be strange to have the last passport control of the Long Way Home journey being the arrival into Auckland airport via the strange time-warp that is airline travel. At least I wont have to explain to the immigration officer where New Zealand is.