The Gatekeepers Of Asia: Face To Face With The Border Guards Of The Far East

India border guards
estetika, Flickr

In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.

To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.

I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker
These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.

Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?

“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”

Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.

Pakistan Security
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.

“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”

“And where is he then?”

“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”

Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”

“Is he having tea?”

“No, lunch actually.”

“And when did he leave for lunch?”

“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”

Cambodia Border
rdockum, Flickr

The Wal-Mart Greeter
Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.

Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.

I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.

“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.

“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”

“That’s what I’m after.”

“When did you enter?”

“Three minutes ago.”

“You are leaving?”

“No, I’m coming.”

“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.

“I’m not sure.”

“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”

“Hold on.”

Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.

Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.

Barge Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos
Annika Lidne, Flickr

The Smuggler’s Dream
His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.

I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.

Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.

“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”

“Well, yes, among other…”

“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”

Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.

“You are from England?” he asked.

“No, the car is. I’m from Canada.”

“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”

“Like what?”

“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.

“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.

“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”

India-Pakistan Border
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.

“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.

I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”

“OK!”

The Jailer
Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.

After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.

Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.

Thailand Border with Mekong
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.

My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”

“Not my problem,” was his response

“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”

About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.

“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.

So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.

“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.

He was now my best friend. I was on my way.

Laos Border Guards
Jeremiah Roth, Flickr

Bonus Guard: The Sleeper
The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.

I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.

“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”

He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.

Turkey Offers Moustache Transplant Surgery Vacation Packages

We’ve all heard of medical tourism in which travelers head abroad to get liposuction or a nose job and then recuperate on the beach – but have you ever heard of a mustache transplant vacation?

Cosmetic surgeons in Turkey have been performing hair transplants on balding men for years; however, it seems there’s now growing demand from men with bald upper lips.

Men from Asia, Europe and the Middle East have been flocking to the country in order to give their mediocre moustaches a helping hand and tourism agencies have taken notice. Many local companies have begun offering “transplant packages” in which tourists can get their surgery done before chilling out at a Mediterranean Resort or hitting the capital’s shopping malls.Turkey has quickly been making a name for itself in the health care tourism industry. Last year alone, the country earned $1 billion from travelers visiting to have surgical procedures done. Of course, most of that revenue likely comes from procedures like plastic surgery, but the facial hair transplants are certainly adding up, with one doctor in Istanbul claiming he performs around 60 mustache transplants a month.

Interestingly, there’s little interest from Turks in getting the procedure done. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of Turkish men sporting moustaches has fallen radically in the past two decades – not that they have any trouble growing facial fuzz. “Personally, I’d be suspicious of a Turk who couldn’t grow a mustache,” a salesman from Istanbul told the newspaper. “But if foreigners need to come anywhere for the operation, it should be here. The Turkish mustache is still the envy of the world.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user hapal]

A Cast-Iron Church In Istanbul

Istanbul, cast iron church
This church on the shoreline of Istanbul looks ornate yet pretty normal – that is until you go up and take a closer look. The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church isn’t made of stone but rather of cast iron. It’s a rare survival of a 19th-century craze in prefab cast-iron churches.

Also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church, its parts were cast in Vienna in 1871 and shipped down the Danube in a hundred barges to be assembled in Istanbul. This building marks an important time in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Bulgaria and Greece were both ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian Christians were under the domain of the Greek Patriarch, but the Bulgarians complained that he favored Greeks over Bulgarians. So the Sultan granted the Bulgarians their own Exarch, giving them a religious independence that they have to this day.

If you’re in Istanbul, head on over to this church, pull a coin out of your pocket and tap it against the wall. You’ll hear a loud ding ding ding that proves it’s really metal! Needless to say, iron buildings need love and care. Currently the building is undergoing restoration work so that it can amaze visitors and churchgoers for generations to come.

Liverpool can boast two cast-iron churches, St. Michael’s and St. George’s, although they are only partially iron. For the full prefab effect, you need to go to Istanbul.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Ani, The Ghost City


Ask someone to name tourist draws in Turkey and you’ll get the obvious: Istanbul, Cappadocia, Galipoli, maybe the beaches of Antalya. Some more familiar with the country might offer up the bizarre calcium cascades of Pamukkale, or the monstrous gods’ heads sculptures on Mount Nemrut. Nobody ever mentions Ani, a city that for a brief period 1,000 years ago was one of the cultural and commercial centers of the world.

The ruins of Ani, the erstwhile capital of an ancient Armenian kingdom, stand overlooked in the far east of Turkey, weathered by the elements and neglect. In 2010 the ruins were ignominiously singled out with 11 other sites by the Global Heritage Fund as places that were in danger of disappearing due to neglect and mismanagement. This is a travesty. Greek, Incan, Roman, Siamese, Mayan, Khmer – you name the civilization, the ruins of Ani are on par with all of them. They are the most astounding ruins you have never seen.

Part of the reason is distance. At over 900 miles from tourist central, Istanbul, Ani is actually closer to Baghdad and Tehran. It’s still 30 miles away from Kars, the nearest city of any note, and there is no public transportation to the site. In 2011, Turkey welcomed 31 millions visitors. Ani saw around 23,000. As you can see in this video, they traveled a while to get there:

A friend and I arrived on a dark day in mid-November. The fields, which in the spring are green and speckled with wildflowers, had shed their color and taken on sepia tones. The grasses were gold and yellow, and fallen bricks covered in green and rust-colored lichen littered the ground. An occasional flurry of snow would burst from the slate-grey sky and then vanish before it had time to settle on the ground. We slipped by the sleeping guard at the entrance and through one of Ani’s famed “40 gates,” a feature of the city’s rapid growth that rendered redundant much of its original fortifications. We had the entire ancient city to ourselves.

Ani is set on a triangular plateau that is naturally protected by a river on one side and a steep valley on another. On the other side of the river is modern-day Armenia. We heard low-frequency sounds from tractors and drills in a quarry across the border. Armenia developed this quarry to build the Yervan cathedral, wanting to use building material as close as possible to the original Ani stone. Unfortunately, blasts from the Armenian quarry have damaged the ruins.

The wind ushered these mechanical sounds through the valley and canyon, where they wrinkled and amplified into eerie moans. Swirling over the plateau in a swooping howl, these distorted noises were punctuated by piercing cries from low-flying eagles. It was more than a little spooky.

Ani’s “1,001 churches” now number only a handful. Some, like the Cathedral of Ani shown in the lead photo, look like they could have been designed recently. That they’re over 1,000 years old and not only structurally sound but architecturally fresh is remarkable. Others, though, in their cloaks of grasses, lichens and overgrowth, seem to slip into the background. All are in a woeful state. A lightning strike in the 1950s caused half of the Church of the Redeemer to collapse. Some of the rubble was collected and pushed against the side of the building in a half-hearted effort to prevent further ruin.

Archaeologically, the site is a shambles. The Church of the Apostles suffered damage when untrained landscapers went at the overgrowth with pickaxes. In the Church of St. Gregory, we found a worker had made a fireplace against one wall to keep warm, and the fire had scorched and blackened the entire apse. The Merchant’s Palace was rebuilt in 1999 using bricks of a different color, material, size and finish than the originals. Only a small section near the doorway in the bottom left of this photo is pre-1999.

Howard Carter is rolling in his grave.

Sometimes a good balance between decay and preservation can make for a more genuine encounter with history. I prefer to see a bit of nature crawling into old, dead buildings. It’s the way of things, and when you take it away entirely you end up with Wayne Newton ruins, frozen artificially in and inorganically buttressed against time. Few people would argue that Ta Prohm, the famous tree-entangled Angkor temple should be recovered from the jungle.

The restoration of Ani has gotten it wrong in both directions. The very few sections that have been recovered have been turned into ersatz monstrosities like the example above. Meanwhile, the rest of the buildings are crumbling and falling down by the day.

In a way, Ani’s perverse treatment in death reflects the sad historical trajectory of the city. In its heyday during Armenian (Bagratid) rule, as the guidebooks like to say, it was a city on par with other world capitals: Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad. In reality, Ani’s population, and by extension its importance, was only about a fifth of these other cities’. It was, however, highly regarded as a center of commerce and culture. The unique architectural artistry of the churches was widely renowned.

When it was made the capital of Ashot III’s Bagratid Kingdom in 971, it grew into a major hub on the Silk Road, connecting Syria and Byzantium with Persia and Central Asia. The seat of Armenian Catholicism moved there in 992, and churches and dioceses sprouted up like dandelions. At its peak, the city had 12 bishops.

Then, on a fateful day in 1064, her citizens yielded to a 25-day siege by Sedjuk Turks. They were subsequently massacred. After the sacking, the city never really recovered. It changed hands countless times, passing from the Armenians to the Turks to the Kurds to the Georgians to the Persians. Even the Mongols sacked the city. After a drawn-out twilight, the city was abandoned completely in the 1700s.

Ani’s current decline is the result of icy diplomatic relations between Ankara and Yerevan. Armenia often claims Turkey is purposefully letting their cultural touchstone descend into decrepitude. Past actions don’t help matters. After retaking Ani in post-WWI border skirmishes, the Turkish government ordered Ani’s monuments “wiped off the face of the Earth.”

Modern Turkish diktats aren’t nearly so explicit. While Turkey deflects accusations of willful destruction, other Turkish activities are at best antagonistic. In 2010, majority-Christian Armenia was enraged when a Turkish politician uttered a Muslim prayer in the Cathedral of Ani. Later that year, Elle Turkey shot a fashion spread amid the ruins, which Armenians say disrespected the site. Armenians also complain about local cowherds encouraging their cows to graze on Ani’s pastures. And not without reason: when we entered one of the 1,000-year-old churches, we found cows had taken shelter there and defecated in the building.

After walking around the ruins for almost five hours, the sky began to darken noticeably and we made our way back to the car. The sleeping guard had disappeared by the time we returned, and had locked the gate on the way out. For a brief moment, we were trapped in time in a dead city. We had to scale one of Ani’s 1,000-year-old walls to get out. A sudden snow flurry pursued us like a ghostly whisper at our back as we drove away from the city walls.

Things are changing for the ghosts of Ani, though. From 2011 to 2012, the number of visitors doubled. Turkey is gradually coming around to the view that Ani is a potential tourism gold mine and is starting to change its tune. A quick glance at The Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s leading English-language paper, illuminates the shift. From 2006 until late 2010, there were no mentions of Ani in the headlines. In September of 2010, the aforementioned politician came a-praying in Ani’s cathedral, an act that the paper called a response to an Armenian prayer gathering earlier that month. In 2011, a travelogue’s first mention of Ani is in reference to the greatness of Turkey. In August 2012, it was a “historic site in Kars province”; in October, “the capital of an ancient Armenian Kingdom”; and in March 2013, “the center of a powerful Armenian empire.”

More visitors potentially means more damage, but it also means that Ani finally has a shot, if only in death, at being restored to its former renown. If all goes well, Ani could be set for the pilgrimage it has been waiting for for almost 1,000 years.

[Photo credit: Flick user sly06 for the spring photos, all others Adam Hodge]

5 Countries That Are Great Alternatives To Their Crowded Neighbors

It’s the great hypocrisy in the mind of every traveler that they want to tour a place free from other tourists. Grumbling that a place is overcrowded isn’t without grounds, though. Who hasn’t wanted to pull a Dr. Manhattan on the tour groups that take group photos with every single person’s camera? And boy, what we wouldn’t give to disappear the backpackers pretending to make out with statues of the Buddha.

We can overlook these indignities as necessary evils most of the time. In reality, tourists are going to be present at the big attractions everywhere, and the penalty of avoiding tourists would basically be staying at home permanently.

That being said, for those who just can’t take it anymore, we’ve compiled a list of some less infested options. These five countries offer up similar attractions to their neighbors, but see far fewer visitors to the nooks and crannies, which will make any tourist-weary tourist breathe a little easier.

Montenegro (Crowded Neighbor: Croatia)

Croatia’s attractive coastline is a magnet for tourists. The attendant income from droves of foreigners was one of the reasons Serbs attempted to include it in their “Greater Serbia.” The subsequent Croatian War of Independence ended in 1995, and the current crowds milling about Dubrovnik are the spoils of victory. Little Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia only in 2006, shares the same coastline and a lot of history with its more famous neighbor. The country currently sees far fewer tourists (1.2 million vs. 9.9 million) visiting its excellent beaches, like the superb spits of sand at Sveti Stefan and Petrovac. Nor do many tourists hike and cycle around Montenegro’s untouched forests at Biogradska Gora and Skadar Lake National Parks. Montenegro’s comparative anonymity provides an experience that can’t be matched in Croatia.

Cambodia (Crowded Neighbor: Thailand)

Cambodia’s main attraction, Angkor Wat, certainly doesn’t dwell in obscurity. This single attraction saw over a million visitors last year, which accounts for more than a third of all visitors to the country. Some of Thailand‘s other neighbors, like Laos and Myanmar, can barely achieve those numbers on a national level. However, when it comes to pretenders to Thailand’s tourism throne, Cambodia is the only one in the region that can offer attractions that go tit for tat with Thailand’s best. Beaches? The empty white sands of Koh Rong and Ream National Park beckon, as does the party-centric seaside town of Sihanoukville. Ruins? Cambodia rolls deep; Angkor Wat is backed up by Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer Empire now overgrown in the jungle, and Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex. Interesting capital? Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia,” boasts French colonial architecture and a park-strewn riverfront. Food? A taste of amok trey or lok lak will make you forget all about pad thai.

Estonia (Crowded Neighbor: Sweden)

Sweden is a huge Scandinavian tourism juggernaut. Estonia? Just a scrappy little Baltic state. What’s the appeal then? A lot, actually. Estonia, like Sweden, is a nature-lover’s paradise. Soomaa National Park, the “land of bogs,” is one of the best canoeing destinations in Europe and is home to wolves, bears, elk and other wildlife. Estonia’s crumpled Baltic coastline contains a mind-boggling number of shallow soft-sand beaches, especially in the summer capital of Pärnu. Estonia’s past is also worth a look. While its Soviet experience is visible in some of the less adventurous architecture, the medieval castles are well preserved and atmospheric. Tallinn, the capital, is flooded with tourists, but island life on Saaremaa is quiet and isolated. Saaremaa boasts a 13th-century castle fortress and other curios like the 100-year-old Angla windmills and a Gothic church bearing symbols of the occult.

Mozambique (Crowded Neighbor: South Africa)

South Africa is head and shoulders above its Sub-Saharan neighbors when it comes to tourist numbers. Its famous game reserves, coastline and unique heritage attract almost 10 million visitors a year. Mozambique can’t match the tourist infrastructure that its neighbor to the south has meticulously erected, but it can offer other competitive attractions. Before its large mammal population was decimated by the civil war, Gorongosa Park was considered to be Africa’s Eden. Efforts to revive the park are underway, and all of Africa’s Big 5, save the rhino, can be seen here. Maputo, the capital, is small and friendly and features Portuguese colonial architecture and an extremely laid-back vibe. Mozambique’s true attraction, though, is its coast, where surfers (of the kite and wind variety) enjoy the unspoiled beaches at Vilanculos and divers explore pristine coral without the crowds at Pemba and Tofo Beach.

Iran (Crowded Neighbor: Turkey)

Turkey sees some 27 million tourists a year and Iran, well … not nearly as many. Official mouthpieces assert some 3 million tourists visited Iran in 2011, though less than 1 percent of those were traveling for nonreligious reasons. Those few tourists had historical sites like Persepolis and Imam Square all to themselves. They experienced Iran’s outstanding natural attractions – lush forests and beaches on the Caspian Sea in the north and deadly deserts and sunny Persian Gulf coastlines in the south – without the crowds that bog down these landscapes in Turkey. Those travelers were also some of the only foreign tourists in Tehran, enjoying its multitude of parks and museums, and were alone again in Yazd, a city of compacted sand reminiscent of Tatooine. Then they joined Iranians on the empty slopes of Dizin, one of the best value-for-money ski resorts in the world, and one of the few spots where Iranians are able to pull back the veil and let loose.

[Photo Credits: Kumukulanui, ecl1ght, (flicts), VilleHoo, F H Mira, Adam Hodge]