NOT Trainspotting, but a bit like it

Collecting STUFF. We all do it in some way or another but collecting passport stamps as a pursuit in itself, rather than incidentals that just happen from time to time always veers a bit close to braggadocio for me. Nevertheless just as train and car number plates fascinate some people, so do passport stamps. It takes all sorts ! (I have to admit my own peccadillo is collecting CAA airport significator codes – LHR, DEL, MCW etc).

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As an example, when I was running camping trips in Scandinavia we tried to slot in the odd unexpected events, as in every trip. Towards the end of a trip after a long drive south from the Arctic Circle, we would camp overnight an hour or so short of Trondheim and then take the punters in to do a half day’s sightseeing there. There, the cookie and I would spend the day replenishing gas and food supplies for an incoming group the following Saturday. However, en route into Trondheim a short detour took us to the town of Hell, obviously meaning only one thing to us, but in Germanic languages the name just means ‘light’ or ‘bright’.


Lurid postcard of Hell station
Lurid postcard of Hell station

The railway station at Hell had taken a small advantage of its curiosity value by selling postcards of the station retouched in suitable demonic colours, but the high point was the goods office where you could have your passport stamped – to prove you’d been to Hell and back !


As a result, I had several stamps from Hell in my passport, something that I never imagined would be of any consequence, but which brought me to a sticky situation when I was leaving Russia later on. I had of course, treated these stamps as novelty items, and, strictly speaking I should never have got them. A passport is not yours; it belongs to your government and is issued as whatever identity verification may be required internationally to enable you to travel. Still, who gives a sh*t about that ?


At more obvious honeypots, there were always long queues at the café / post office / tat shop on the Norwegian Arctic Circle on Saltfjell, perhaps as many as one saw at Norway’s North Cape (Nordkapp) for their certificates. Nordkapp is generally taken as the northernmost point of Europe, but it’s not actually the furthest north piece of land; that is a rather more inaccessible peninsula called, inconveniently, Kvitnesodden. A huge exhibition centre, shopping mall, restaurants and so on is now on the site of what was a pretty basic café when I first visited Nordkapp. I even had all the tents set up nearby for the group when they decided we couldn’t camp there – we slept in the bus.


Soon after my first visit I believe SAS airlines had bought the site and developed it into what is now there. Good ? Bad ? Jobs ? Environment ? I have to admit it can now be a jarring experience when one arrives from the wild open tundra but I believe all the above has been taken into serious account.

Passport stamps for fun
Passport stamps for fun


Needing the right stamp can be oddly frustrating, as I discovered on arrival at the bridge which forms the Swedish / Finnish border on the Luleå River at Karesuavanto /-suando. I stopped out of courtesy, with a busload of foreigners, as actually there are no immigration controls per se in Scandinavia. It was a customs post, and when I first went to Scandi I had to record the total kilometres covered in Sweden in a bus, and pay charge, per kilometre but that lapsed. On this trip I made a courtesy call – I had the usual mix of Brits, Aus, US, Canada, but I also had two Brit expats on Zambian passports, and mentioned this to the customs guys. Consternation immediately set in and telephone calls to base were hurriedly made to consult.


It transpired at the time that there was no mutual agreement between their two countries about right of transit, so they had to be stamped into the country as aliens ! Out of solidarity, and thinking this would be a rarity, I got mine stamped as the person responsible for them. Rather frustratingly, there is no border post of any sort when heading north the following day into Norway so nobody ever got an exit stamp. We may still be on a list somewhere as unaccounted for, at large in Finland . . . .


There was no doubt left about where I was and was not in 1985, when I was trying to travel from Pakistan to India over the land border at Wagah, near Lahore. Due to embedded territorial enmities exacerbated by the assassination 2 months earlier of Indira Gandhi (then Indian Prime Minister) by Sikh members of her bodyguard, the Punjab that we wished to enter was tightly controlled, the border open only two days per month, and closed to foreigners who were not able to pass directly through it with their own transport. This last was a condition of which we were not aware when lumbering through customs and immigration on the Pakistani side. This was quite an exhaustive business; pretty much everything taken apart, even opening up the wrappers on a few of my girlfriend’s tampons. It was to be expected as there was huge neurosis about the traffic of heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was a good sprinkling of Americans in DEA overalls at the border, too, with drills and mirrors, puncturing holes in bodywork and being extremely thorough with their ‘Narco-test’ kits.

Passport controls
Passport control logo

Having transited the customs and immigration we came across our immediate problem; transport. A few private car drivers summarily refused any passengers at all, fair enough, but there stood a 52 seat bus belonging to Top Deck Travel, an Australian budget outfit. I had in the past given assistance to Top Deck drivers in Morocco and thought they might help us out, but was met with a blunt ‘company policy’ rejection despite plenty of space. Around 8 other people faced the same problem so we asked at the Indian side if they would phone to Amritsar for a taxi-minibus to take us all through the Punjab, for which we were happy to pay. Sadly for us, they would not even entertain making a phone call. Cheers, lads !


The upshot of all this was that having gone through the Pakistani immigration we now had to be re-admitted. A scrawled note on my passport next to the cancelled Pakistani exit stamp reads “Cancelled by Indian immigration due to without vehical (sic) according to Indian Govt instruction”. Well, this was going to look good in my passport for 8 years to come – not allowed in by Indian immigration.

It was in the nature of the job as tour leader that most of us had more than one passport; sometimes a country you were headed to had a strong dislike of a place you have been, especially Arab countries looked dimly at any evidence of Israeli visits. Other practical reasons required this, such as already being abroad when a passport was needed to send away to an Embassy in the UK for a forthcoming trip. In this case you always had to be careful to take the right passport away with you !

Definitely rare in 2017
Definitely rare in 2017


The biggest problem with stamps was that if you lost your passport, you lost the evidence of your right to be there. In addition in some countries like Morocco, the vehicle detail were recorded in the passport to ensure you did not circumvent customs regulations by selling a car or whatever without paying duties etcetera.


I fell foul of this on one trip when, after changing money at a bank in Chefchaouen in Morocco’s Rif mountains, I drove about a kilometre before realising my passport was still in the bank. I backtracked immediately; the same clerks behind the desks, the same three men waiting at the counter, but nobody knew anything, no-one had seen anything, just blank looks brought a rising panic in me.


My next move was to the police station to report the event, and I was immediately questioned by them as to WHY I had lost my passport ! At first this was baffling, but the question of illegal vehicle sales was at the root of it. Eventually I had to fill out a handwritten ‘Declaration de Perte’ confessing my misdeed. This was stamped by the police, and validated by a postage stamp that I had to go and buy before I was allowed to leave the town with this flimsy paperwork that was my lifeline for the next two weeks.


Declaration de perte
Declaration de perte

I had a group with me and I took them on to the next suitable location where I could leave them with enough things to see and do while I crossed the country to visit the British Embassy in the capital, Rabat. So we set up camp near to Meknes, and I set off on the rather nerve-wracking drive. The Embassy people were very accommodating but could not supply a new passport for a few days, so they then added their stamps and scribbles on the A4 sheet, reassuring me that by the time I had travelled to the south, then back through Marrakesh to Rabat, I would have a new 1 year passport ready to collect. That was a definite headache, but it was one which I was able to resolve fairly easily if inconveniently.


Another hassle which gave me rather more of a fright and a feeling of less control resulted from my flippant acquisition of ‘passport stamps’ from Hell. This emerged at the end of a trip in the former USSR in the end of the 1980’s. I was looking forward to my homeward flight when I was asked to step aside from the line at immigration in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, and then led off into a room where my passport was on the table in front of two burly men in plainclothes. I was to explain exactly what I had been doing in the country, where I had been and who I had been talking to, and to be frank, I found this all rather unnerving. What can I have done ?

Passport Hell 'visas'
Passport Hell ‘visas’


At the time there was something of a problem with militant missionaries taking bibles into Russia, which at the time was in a bit of decline. They were a proselytising bunch and caused no end of difficulty for their home embassies – usually the USA. My problem was in having a number of stamps in my passport stating I had indeed been to Hell. Not only that, but the stamp from the goods office was in Norwegian, and read ‘GODS EXPEDITION’, implying some sort of religious connection. There followed a halting explanation of the novelty value of the stamp (abuse of a Soviet passport would not be so easily tolerated), and whispered discussions with other heads who looked in around the door. I was a mere 5 minutes from my flight departure before they decided that I could be released from my purgatory.


The flight home was surprisingly restful, and I resolved not to get any more novelty stamps.


In unstamped relief, Bob Cranwell Amateur Emigrant !





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