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Getting Through OK

Beijing: coffee of sorts in the VIP lounge

This morning’s office is an anonymous waiting room on the second floor of Beijing Main Station. A TV is on in the background watched by 3 waiting passengers and two bored, elderly waitresses. Two of the passengers are smoking oblivious to the authority of the no-smoking sign, whilst the other has just finished tucking into a large pot of instant noodles and now appears to be enjoying picking her teeth. I’m sure we can all appreciate the pleasure she gets from this, but up close it’s a one-sided satisfaction. To sit down in here I need to order. The coffee comes in the form of a paper cup, a sachet instant coffee and a nod of the head to a thermos of hot water, the cork of which is wonderfully worn. The serving ladies are friendly – trying to persuade me that I missed a pouring in some grains of the instant caffeine/sugar/lactose mix otherwise known a Nescafe pre-mix. They sell me a second sachet for my journey, or are they recommending I use both in one cup?

Outside the station it was cold and a tad chaotic – my luggage serving as a convenient battering ram through the half a dozen people a-hustling. Hustlers are fun when you have nothing to lose.

Outside the window it’s slowly getting light and I presume some time later the relative warmth will follow. But I don’t care because in here it’s warm and I’ve got somewhere to sit.

Outside the waiting room door 100+ passengers are milling around. A lot of them will have started their journey’s at two or three this morning – so it’s understandable that the atmosphere is somewhat subdued. These passengers are waiting at the gate of the Trans-Mongolian Express, or at least I think this is the gate, my Chinese is lousy and there does not appear to be a sign to indicate which platform this is. The train between Beijing and Ulan Bataar is known for its smuggling – looking at the passengers I’m trying to figure who out would want to smuggle what and where. Do a mental check of my own luggage and what would or could be considered contraband. With more of what I carry being digital I like having encrypted hard disks. But I like border crossings more than the risk of being stopped, the risk of that whatever they consider to be discoverable being discovered. I like that if the customs official doesn’t like the way look I’d better have some time to kill.

My most memorable border crossing was being stopped traveling between Mexico and Guatemala on a high mountain pass. I’d just hitched up from Chichicastenango in a truck taking manual labourers across the Mexican border. It was shortly after dawn and the sun had yet to clear the mists clinging to the mountains. The labourers all sauntered through the border crossing and left in the only waiting truck – I would have to wait for the next ride. The Mexican customs official – a large gentleman with a handlebar mustache and, yes, mirror shades beckoned me into his office, a simple 1 roomed box. A large shotgun sat on the wall behind his desk more a symbol of his authority than the framed certificates or his uniform. Hollow authority? Hollow point authority? I couldn’t imagine a situation where he would take it down and use it. He was laughing as he went through my luggage making jokes about bomb-es and co-ca-ine. That was when I first really understood the meaning of power and its possible implications. This happened a long time, 17 years ago, but I remember it vividly.

But later today when I leave China via Ereen I have nothing to fear. The most could-be-contraband part of my luggage – a wide range of data gathering equipment including more cameras than is healthy for one person will remain in Beijing. And my hard disks remain encrypted.