An illegal travel story : Smuggling cigarettes and alcohol into Europe

During our overland journey from Hong Kong to France we stayed for two nights in Kaliningrad, taking advantage of their free E-Visa’s recent introduction. We had hitchhiked from Kaunas to Kaliningrad, and since our experience was a success we decided to do the same in order to get to Poland.

Are we really gonna stay in a car trying to smuggle cigarettes and alcohol into EU?

This an illegal travel story of our day going from Kaliningrad to Olzstyn, in Poland.

The day didn’t start well. Our next Couchsurfing host cancelled his offer at the last-moment, telling us that it wouldn’t be possible to host us anymore. As always since we have a kid, we had a back-up plan, and another potential host I had been in contact with, offered to leave us his apartment for the weekend if we could arrive before 1pm in order to give me the keys.

One thing I really hate when hitchhiking, is to hitchhike with a deadline. Throughout my experiences, I came to realize that it kills the purpose. When standing on the side of the road you need patience, and accept the fact that people might not want to pick you up despite your so-called awesomeness. Therefore I sent him a message telling our potential host that we would probably won’t make it, but we were willing to give it a try. Improvising is always part of our travels anyways I thought.

As soon as I learnt about the situation, I woke up HiuYing. We started to pack and woke up Darian when we were ready to leave. We took time to have a quick breakfast, then say bye to Vladimir, our host in Kaliningrad. It was around 8.30pm.

Church in Kaliningrad
One of the biggest churches in Kaliningrad

Taking a bus to get out of Kaliningrad

The first objective was to get out of Kaliningrad. We used Hitchwiki and took the bus number 9 to get to the outskirts. It took a while to come, and I realized that getting there before 1pm won’t be an easy task.

Once we finally reached our starting point, we raised our thumb. The spot was perfect. A national road with a lot of space to stop. It wasn’t a surprise that soon after a car stopped for us. The border with Poland was just 30 kilometers away. The driver didn’t take us all the way to the border though, but dropped us some 15 kilometers later. After getting out of the car, we walked a bit to reach a suitable spot, and 10 minutes later an old small Russian truck stopped. The two guys were old, asked a few questions about us but they were friendly. I was dying to know more about them, I had a feeling like they had seen so much throughout their lives.

Russian guards hitchhiking a Polish car for us

Eventually, they drove a little farther to drop us right at the border. About 50 cars registered in Poland were waiting. Since we had not wait more than 10 minutes for both rides. We were at the border before 10.30. Olsztyn, our final destination in Poland, was less than an hour and a half away. But as always when we cross a border, the question is, how long is it going to take ? While entering Kaliningrad from Lithuania, it took us only 30 minutes to get across the border. We had hope.

This was not the main border between Poland and Kaliningrad, but a rather secondary one located near the town of Bagrationovsk. We walked past the long lane of Polish cars waiting only to be told by the guards that we couldn’t walk across the border. After checking our documents, the Russian guards put us in a random Polish car. We communicated through Google Translate and the female driver told us she had been waiting for 12 hours. She also mentioned that she would have to stop at the duty free shop after the border. In retrospect I realized how naive I was, but I suggested her that she could get a few more bottles of alcohol or cigarettes because we wouldn’t buy any. She’s helping us to get across the border, so we could give her a favor in return I thought. She told us no need, and soon after I understood why.

The duty free stop

It took 30 minutes to get out of Russia. Soon after clearing the Russian immigration, our driver stopped at the duty free shop like 95% of the Polish cars. In the meantime I decided to go to the toilets. There, I saw 2 polish guys strapping cigarettes packs on their body. After traveling for such a long time I wasn’t even surprised or scared anymore and I just continued to do my things before going back to the car.

We waited for a short while before she came back with many packs of cigarettes and bottles of alcohol. She hid it in many different ways in the car. It made me remember about all the gangster movies I’ve seen when I was a teen. She opened the interior roof and managed to put a few cartons. She put an emptied tool box filled of cigarettes cartoons between the backseat and the trunk. Then she pulled out the ashtray in the front compartment, I let you imagine how she filled it. Oh, and did I mention she opened the trunk and managed to put many packs right under the trunk floor.

It was beautiful to see, an expert who mastered her art. Everything was done quickly. We understood that the practice was pretty common when we saw all the cars doing a similar thing. For a second, we asked ourselves what to do. Are we really gonna stay in a car trying to smuggle cigarettes and alcohol into EU? Are we going to be consider accomplices?

A long queue of cars was trying to enter Poland. In order to skip the queue, and also to avoid to cross the border with a car illegally importing goods, we decided to directly ask the immigration guard if we could enter. It didn’t work, and they asked us to go back in the same car.

I took Darian out of the car to spend his energy. We had lunch there, thanks to the boiled eggs and the few more things we prepared before the trip. Most people knew each other, and it was a common sight to see them communicating with drivers on the other side of the fence. There was another long lane of Polish cars trying to enter Kaliningrad. Presumably to do the exact same thing. Our driver told us that it took her more than thirty hours to enter Russia and come back to Poland. Obviously she wasn’t sightseeing. She also had a jerrycan of petrol in the trunk, but this wasn’t illegal. Gasoline is about three times cheaper in Russia than in Poland.

When it was our turn everything went smooth, and here we were ! Finally in Poland for the first time. But it took us 2 hours to enter, and it was already 1pm, too late to make it to Olsztyn on time.

Poland border crossing
Finally about to enter Poland !

Finally we’re in Poland !

The same driver dropped us some 7-8 kilometers after the border at a bus stop under the rain. 15 minutes later we hitched another car, this time in a van going to Bartoszyce, the nearest town. He had lunch in a gas station at the entrance of the city, and offered us the possibility to wait for him to finish in order to drop us at a better spot at the exit of the city. We accepted.

10 minutes later, he dropped us at another bus stop on the edge of the town. The spot was not the best because of the lack of space to stop but thankfully it was uphill. We waited for about 10 minutes and a couple with a kid on their way to Warsaw brought us 70 kilometers later in Olsztyn, our destination.

Olsztyn
Olsztyn’s city center

Arrived in Olsztyn, but where to sleep?

I kept communicating with our Couchsurfing host throughout the day to update him about our whereabouts. When it became evident we couldn’t make it on time, he decided to leave his apartment opened with the keys inside. Such a warm hospitality for our first time in Poland! We were supposed to stay for 2 nights, but in the end we decided to stay for another night in order to be able to meet our host, and cook dinner for all of us. The morning after we were on the way to Warsaw, the capital of Poland !

Maxime

A young father following his dream of travelling the world, now joined by HiuYing, his wife, and Darian, their first son.

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