Certainly a new situation for me. I do my preparation quite well usually. Creating an excel sheet with dates, expected budget needed, required documentation to enter the country, interesting sights to visit, the whole shebang. Possibly I do get sloppy, the more I travel? Anyhow, I never before tried to enter a country thinking I need no visa, when in fact the border police thought contrarily!
The fierce reaction of the female conductor should have been a warning of course. She asked in the most decisive way imaginable “visa!?”. I replied “Visa? I am a German citizen. I need no visa!”. Apparently I seemed so convinced that she just replied in a much gentler tone “Oh, OK.”. Yeah right. So sitting in my second class four-bed train compartment, which I had for myself (!) for a change I started to become inquisitive. Was I maybe wrong? How could it be? I had checked well beforehand. And you need no visa for Georgia of Armenia. But then again. Maybe being German, one of the most peaceful people in the world, which is why we have one of the strongest passports (currently rank #2 in 2019), was not enough in the end? No way!
I was wrong. After some time of googling it turned out that there was an e-visa that would be provided by the Azerbaijanian authorities within three hours (how lucky can you be? I never heard of such a thing before). I applied for that as quickly as I managed. This mostly was a pain because since I lost my phone not all the info for my credit cards is quite as sorted as it should be, and so I struggled to pay. It worked in the end (which would not have been possible with cash naturally, a word to people easily neglecting the advantage of a cash-free world 😉), and I was sitting there counting the minutes. knowing that the distance to the border was not large. The train, on the other hand, was gong with a speed of maybe 30 km per hour. So it was a fight against the clock! When the Georgian border police knocked at my door, I knew, my only chance was stalling! So I tried to involve them in as much of senseless conversation and questions as I possibly could, hoping that the visa would come through within an hour instead of three.
They very kind, yet clearly, explained that my place was outside and not inside the train, since the authorities in Azerbaijan would not take my situation lightly. They did, in fact, speak English well, which was a relief. So they told me about another border crossing where I could travel to and wait for my visa to come through. I could not do so at the border where the train passes. Otherwise, I could only go back to Tbilisi. In either case, they would assist with getting the taxi at this place in the middle of nowhere, basically. Kind of them, but still a drag.
There was a guy – Valid – trying to assist who even spoke German. Turns out he is living in Cologne, originally comes from Azerbaijan. Of course, he could not change the Visa laws on the spot in his country. But it was pleasant to have some moral support. I took a taxi, mind you, it was already midnight, to the other border. It took one hour. But do not worry. Taxis here are slightly cheaper than in Europe. I paid 15 €. Anyhow, arriving there, with still no visa I went to the border control or Giorgia. I told the fierce lady behind the glass that I was waiting for my e-visa, waiving my mobile in front of the window. She replied: “Wait somewhere else”.
So I did. Sitting at the border cafe. If you want to call the assembly of chairs and metal tables in a spotlight that would make many football arenas jealous, cafe. The border police were kind, I believe judging by mimick and gesture, but incapable of conversing in English. Also, they at one point kicked out all the taxi drivers that were just hanging there, but I could stay. Well, I shall not blame them for their lack of English skills. If I had been smarter I had grown up in eastern Germany and learned Russian in school.
Two hours had passed by now. I waited, wondering if I could maybe just crash somewhere with my sleeping bag if the visa would not come through. But the taxi drivers being kicked out for talking too long over one coffee told me that sleeping in this far too well-lit place was maybe not an option. Not even just for the bright light. But sure enough, some five minutes before the three hours were over the e-visa came through. I got through Georgian customs immediately. But the lady looked at my passport with amusement when she saw the Armenian border control stamps that were placed right under the Georgian stamps.
The simple reason for that is that the Azerbaijanis still have some kind of conflict going on with Armenia over the region called Nagorno-Karabakh. I trust you all can google, so I won’t go into it here. But it is serious stuff, and many people, unfortunately, lost their lives for a cause that is ultimately extremely questionable even if you are (not) from the region. And sure enough, the Azerbaijan side of things look less illuminating. Why I had “been in Armenia”. Not as bad as going to Lebanon when you have just left Israel with a stamp in your passport (they do not do them anymore, even if you ask), but close.
I was lucky though. Imagine, it is one o’clock in the morning, a low-level border control officer calls his boss (many stars on his shoulder pad), who I assume was sleeping well until I showed up, and asks if I can be let into the country. The guy asks what I intended to do in Azerbaijan, and truthfully, of course, I just say “tourism” which seemed quite convincing to him, looking at my passport that is almost completely full at this point (in dire need of a new one in fact). So he quickly let me through. It sounds simple when I write it, but here you hear many stories of people being interviewed for an hour or more before they are being allowed to pass.
On the other side of the border, I thought to be in a twilight zone episode. The complete border looked exactly the same as on the Georgian side. For a minute I thought to have walked in circles. Confused and dazed in the dark I stumbled forward to find a bus or anything that at this late hour could take me to Baku. Some 600 km away. First I had to jump through some loops. Haggling for exchange rates for either Lari (Georgian money) or Euro, and then also negotiating the bus fare. The exchange rate improved (despite a complete lack of English knowledge on the part of my opponents) significantly, and the bus fare dropped at the same time from overcharging me by 50% (I knew the bus fare in advance from people I met) to “just” being overcharge 20%.
I attribute this to the fact that I always carry a “smaller” wallet with me that only holds some 15 €. I am almost certain that helped in the negotiations, making me look more like the poor backpacker rather than the rich German. After an hour or two waiting, since the busses leave once they are filled with enough people, which does not happen fast in the night, we were off to Baku!
I was entirely exhausted at that point. Too tired to even think. And although I had the entire back bench to myself, which was probably just a nice gesture of the locals, since the mini-bus was full otherwise, I did not sleep too well. The drivers like testing the breaks here, which caused me to fall off the seat mid-sleep at one point. Much to the amusement of the other passengers of course. 🙂
Long, long story short, I did arrive in Baku. And words to the wise, never take a taxi immediately! I was offered a ride for 5 € by a friendly taxi driver. I interrupted his pushiness, much owed to my bladder asking for relief. When coming back I noticed the metro station sign. 15 € cents instead of 5 € to get to my destination. Finally, Baku… Tired but happy!
Just one day before the trip here I had been thinking that everything goes almost too smoothly. Murphies law. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole episode. That is what you travel for. Or I do.