On the Road

The world’s worst border crossings

Corruption, shakedowns, intimidation, violence – all of these are potential pitfalls awaiting travellers at any number of the world’s borders. Although the more remote border points often pose the greatest problems, troubles are not limited to off-the-beaten track crossings, and counterfeiting, ludicrously-inflated exchange rates, and criminal taxi drivers can be found across the globe. Road Junky put together this non-exhaustive guide to some of the world’s least enjoyable borders to cross.

1. Canada

Despite its G8 status, trying to enter Canada – at least by air – can often feel like trying to cross into a tinpot African dictatorship, a situation exacerbated by knowing that while in the third-world a quick “cash visa” will smooth entry, offering one in Canada will make things a whole lot worse. Aggressive immigration officers who insist on speaking French just because they (sort of) can, a general feeling of affront that you would even think of crossing the border into Canada, and queues half the length of the country’s border with the U.S. await travellers on arrival. And that’s just for returning Canadians. Those not lucky enough to have been born in the U.S. satellite can look forward to further intrusive interviews (this RJ editor once had to offer his brother’s full PhD thesis title to attempt to prove his reason for visiting was genuine), having to produce every identity document they and every single member of their extended family has ever owned, and about as much fun for the duration of the crossing as being forced to listen to Celine Dion’s entire back catalogue on repeat for all eternity. Entering Canada makes crossing into the U.S. seem like entering Liechtenstein.

2. Columbia-Panama

Forming a principal conduit for drug trafficking between Colombia and North America, the notorious Darién Gap is the 100-mile long swamp-infested malarial jungle which marks the end of Panama. With even more armed-to-the-teeth guerrillas than there are dengue-ridden mosquitoes and poisonous snakes in the Darien, the lack of any actual road allowing uninterrupted crossing of the Pan-American Highway can actually be seen as a blessing. Although a few of the hardiest travellers have traversed the Darien successfully, many more have been kidnapped by paramilitary groups and held for ransom.

3. Moldova-Transdniestria

The “border” crossing from Moldova to the unrecognised republic of Transdniestria is remarkable for three things: 1) crossing by trolleybus, 2) the name of a border town called Bender, and 3) an immigration form which effectively consists of the following two lines:

a) How much hard currency are you carrying?

b) Give it to us.

4. Saudi Arabia-Bahrain

It’s hard to judge in which direction this border is less fun – heading across the King Fahd Causeway dodging Saudi SUVs almost as large as the island kingdom they are entering being “driven” by chauffeurs who are apparently blindfolded and epileptic, only to face an inquisition on arrival by Bahraini border guards treating you as if you have a Star of David tattooed to your forehead, or the return direction waiting at the border surrounded by sweating ex-pat bankers each of whose blood boasts an alcohol level high enough to power a small Gulf state’s transport needs for several years.

5. Uzbekistan-any other ‘Stan

In the several small locations of its borders not carpeted by more unexploded ordinance than the aftermath of an American military campaign in Southeast Asia sit Uzbekistan’s border crossings, where travellers sign up to be ritually robbed, insulted, and generally treated at a level most cognitive human beings reserve for animals slightly lower down the hierarchy than cockroach. Anything other than an impeccable visa and immigration form (and sometimes they themselves are not enough) will equal fines – both official and unofficial, threats of imprisonment in the world’s only country not to condemn the use of torture, and the most thorough of personal searches. Once that ordeal is over, there’s the knowledge that the same thing is waiting on the way out, only this time followed by a 30-minute walk across boiling desert non-man’s-lands to neighbouring states whose entry procedures aren’t entirely different. Still, in a part of the world full of unpleasant officialdom, Uzbekistan manages to distinguish itself with the vigour in which its officials try to put people off of visiting their country.

6. Mongolia-China

Have you ever wondered just how long a human being can exist without urinating? Try crossing the Mongolia-China border by train where if they feel like it border guards on both sides might let you find out while you wait for the bogeys to be changed on the Trans-Mongolian Express. Expect tedium, heat, and sand which penetrates every pore of your body for the many hours you’ll spend waiting here having the romance of travel by rail absolutely obliterated.

7. Paraguay-Brazil

Like most Latin American borders, crossing between Brazil and Paraguay can seem like running a lawless gauntlet of knife-wielding muggers and “helpful” scam artists between immigration offices. This crossing gets special mention thanks to the addition of bridge construction which barely seems capable of holding up more than one of the mopeds being revved beyond the limits of first gear by the currency touts zipping back and forward between countries seemingly trying to speed headlong into as many pedestrians as possible, let alone the throngs of people clambering across. Be discrete, and if at all possible cross by (unmarked) taxi.

8. Latvia-Russia

If you’re a fan of hitching, driving, or travelling between two countries in just the one calendar year, this is a border to avoid. Queues to cross have in the past two years extended literally the entire length of the country, and crossing times have often been measured in weeks rather than hours, or even days. Supreme analness and interrogation procedures perfected by the SS about 65 years ago (the latter of which being hardly surprising given Latvian politics, admittedly) are partially to blame, as is posturing between the two countries over the rights of minorities. At least while at the border you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate on just what criteria exactly did this little country somehow gain access to the EU.

9. China-North Korea

With no stamps or visas and only polite, if disinterested, border police, the worst thing about crossing into the DPRK is actually the disappointing realisation that it isn’t scary, difficult, or in any way actually that out-there at all. Unless you’re a journalist. Then getting out as you have your camera inspected will be one of the moments most soaked with adrenaline (and hopefully no other bodily fluids) of your life.