I arrived in Yekaterinburg, Russia a hairy, sweaty, and grimy man. That’s about the only way you can appear after spending a couple of weeks hitching and hiking through central Mongolia. I didn’t mind the muck. The desire to get away from razors and showers, as well as the Internet and TV news, played a big part in my decision to make my way slowly from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to Bukhara, Uzbekistan on a Silk Road fantasy ramble. Flying from Mongolia to Kazakhstan via Russia was one of the tiny luxuries I’d afforded myself on this quest.
Or at least I thought it was a luxury, until Russian officials in the airport promptly detained me.
To find myself sitting in a drab metallic room, shifting in a broken chair as a surly man named Boris rooted through my backpack and grilled me in broken English on my intentions and affiliations, you’d think I’d really managed to fuck up the logistics of my trip somehow. Yet I sat through the stern looks and snapped queries, calm and slightly annoyed. I knew that I’d done nothing wrong, broken no laws. I knew that I had my papers in order, and by all rights I shouldn’t have been stopped. I knew that I’d been temporarily dragged into questioning just because I was a hairy, sweaty, grimy American crossing a border unusual for my demographic.
We like to believe that borders are orderly and mundane places for most of us. Sure, if you try to cross illegally where there’s no checkpoint, then a border is a place of stress and intrigue. But if you’re, say, a tourist passing through a manned post open to public transit into a peaceful nation, then borders are supposed to be a perfunctory exercise in the affirmation of the nation-state within a larger world that we’re told is increasingly open, flat, and accessible.
But in practice, many borders are governed by conventions as much as by laws. That’s actually understandable: If a border checkpoint is mostly used by a certain type of people (say migrants from one particular nation), and lies nowhere near the interests of another type of people (say a Western traveler), then it’s reasonable to ask a few questions about an anomalous presence there, if only out of sheer curiosity. Unfortunately, in the era of terrorist paranoia, that inquisitiveness can translate into hostility, leading guards to question a traveler’s existential right to exist on a plot of land at a given time even if a border is open and all of the traveler’s documents check out.
But in practice, many borders are governed by conventions as much as by laws.
For most people, a hostile inquisition at an unusual border is ultimately not a big deal. Unless you’re carrying something illegal or truly traveling with ill intentions, in the end you’ll get to use the legitimate border crossing as you intended. But the discomfort of the whole experience can be a deterrent to any future plans to travel off the beaten track. And in some countries the whole affair can lead to your being flagged, an uncomfortable mark left on your presence.
This discomfort is a shame. There’s significant value – insight and mutually beneficial interactions – to be found in going where a traveler doesn’t normally go. But the uneasiness of unusual borders erodes the potential for such contacts, creating a pressure on top of convention that further segregates international transit into a few set points. And from those points, it’s likely that travelers will cleave to set trajectories or traditions, turning adventure into monotony, isolating entire regions of the world, and jutting up craggy peaks across our ostensibly flat world.
The worst part is that little if any of this funneling discomfort is likely intentional. There’s always a good reason to fear the anomalous, and to promote conventions at a border. There’s always a right to detain, question, and search, and it’s understandable that checkpoint agents will choose to use those rights available to them. But the fact that it’s reasonable and legal for an official to give you guff, or for Boris to rummage through my rucksack in Yekaterinburg, doesn’t make it any more pleasant. It’s always disappointing to see the world narrowed down, especially when you’re unsure how to overcome the corrosive forces squeezing on it.