Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Getting to Azerbaijan

Yesterday was quite the day but it really all started last week before I headed to Armenia.  I mentioned before that I found a travel agency in Tbilisi that claimed they could sort out my visa for me.  I had confirmed with the agent that I would be at their office first thing on Monday morning.  I went to the office address that is listed on their website at 9 AM.  I found the sign to their office but no one was there.  I tried calling but the phones were turned off.  Not a good sign.  I managed to get some free Wi-Fi and found a random blog posting from someone that mentioned the office opened up at 10 AM.  Now why wouldn't they put that on their website?

Anyway, I hang around until 10 and still no one shows up and the phones still don't work.  Two Iranian guys asked me if the car parked in front of the building was mine.  I said no but asked if they knew anything about the travel agency.  They told me that they had moved their office two weeks ago.  Great.  They made a quick phone call and told me that the owner would send someone over to meet me in a few minutes.  Thanks guys.  

Azeri Embassy in Tbilisi
The new office is about five minutes away.  And I'm not in the best of moods when I get there.  I can't believe that this girl Lana never bothered to tell me that the office moved.  I'm quickly informed that Lana no longer works there.  They also apologized for forgetting to turn the phone on in the morning.  They eventually find all of the paperwork I had sent them but for some reason I needed to fill out everything again.  I was also informed that I have to personally submit my visa application to the embassy today between 10 AM and Noon.  However, it will take five days to process my visa.  On the day that I come to pick up my visa I will have to give my passport to the embassy in the morning but they will not return my passport until 4 PM.  And the embassy closes at 5 PM.

On a side note...there is only one train per day from Tbilisi to Baku and it leaves at 4:30 PM.  This makes it damn near impossible to get your visa and head to Azerbaijan the same day.

So we walk 10 minutes to the Azeri Embassy and I submit my completed application.  The clerk knows that I'm going to Armenia but warns me not to go to Nagorno-Karabakh.  I ask the travel agency what time I should be back on Monday morning.  I confirmed that I would be there at 9 AM.

I spend the rest of Monday walking around Tbilisi until it was time to catch my night train to Yerevan.  I had a few great days touring around Armenia and make it back to Tbilisi on Friday.

Heidi already has her Azeri visa and since we've gotten along in Yerevan, (plus she did see me naked), we decide to continue on to Baku together.  Since we know we can't leave Monday night by train our options are (a) arrange private transportation to Baku leaving Monday as soon as my visa is ready, (b) go by bus on Tuesday morning but lose most of the day traveling or (c) leave on the Tuesday night train and not get there until Wednesday morning.  Heidi's flight back to Finland leaves Thursday morning from Baku which is not a lot of time.  We get someone to order a taxi for us for Monday night.  The taxi wants €150 ($200) to drive us the 563 km (350 miles) to Baku.  That's only €75 ($100) each.  What a bargain.  We book the taxi for Monday and all is good.

Now here's where things start getting less good...

As agreed, I was at the travel agency yesterday morning at 9 AM.  Guess what...no one was there.  I say to hell with this and I go the Azeri Embassy on my own.  When I get there I find out that the embassy only takes passports from 10:30 AM to Noon.  Ugh!!!  I get the travel agency on the phone (and I'm not happy at this point).  They explain to me that their office doesn't open until 10 AM.  So why in the hell did they tell me to be there at 9?  I eventually turn in my passport.  The agency tells me that they will call me after 4 PM when my visa is ready.  I assure them that this won't be necessary because I will be back at their office by 4.

While I'm doing all of this, Heidi took advantage of her last day in Georgia by going to visit the Davit Gareja Monastery.  I was going to spend a leisurely day taking photos in the Old Town until I get a text message from Heidi.  The taxi company called her and decided that €150 wasn't enough money.  Now they wanted €400 ($535).  Oh Hell to the No!!  Now I have a new mission - sort out alternative transport to Baku in a few hours and make it back to the agency in time to collect my passport and visa.

There are no buses leaving Tbilisi so late on a Monday.  It took a while but I finally managed to use my broken Russian enough to negotiate for a driver and his brother to take us to Baku for $300.  But I would have to pay in U.S. Dollars.  The funny thing about ATMs in Georgia is that you get to pick if you want to take your money out in Georgian Lari or American Dollars.   

At four o'clock I am back at the embassy to collect my visa.  I'm told that it isn't ready yet.  I should try back in 15 minutes but I have to wait across the street.  Fifteen minutes later, I'm told that the visa is almost ready.  It only requires the consul's signature but he isn't available right now.  He should be back in a few minutes and I should keep waiting across the street.  At 4:50 the consul's car arrives and at 4:55 I finally have my visa in hand.

красный мост = Red Bridge in Russian
I catch up with Heidi, we quickly grab something to eat and meet up with our drivers.  They drive us for about 40 minutes to the border crossing at Krasny Most (Red Bridge).  They aren't going to drive us all the way to Baku.  However, their friend is going to Baku and will meet us on the other side of the border.  One of the brothers goes with us through the Georgian border checkpoint and takes us to the Azeri border crossing.  We waive to his friend who is waiting on the other side to drive us the next 7 hours to Baku.

I loved this Georgian sign as you approach the border.  This is about to get even more interesting.

Heidi gets called to the passport control.  They look at every page in her passport and ask her all sorts of questions.  Why are you coming to Azerbaijan?  Do you know anyone here?  How long will you stay?  Why did you spend more time in Georgia then in Azerbaijan?  Why did you go to Armenia?

She has to stand to side while I'm called up.  Same sorts of questions plus they wanted to know my citizenship (despite the fact that they were holding my American passport).  Why do I have so many Czech visas?  If I am American then why do I speak Russian?  Why did I go to Armenia?  Don't you know that Armenians are occupying 20% of Azeri territory?

We then had to each help a second border guard to complete an Excel sheet.  Presumably this is for all of the people with Armenian passport stamps.  We had to declare the dates we were in Armenia, swear that we never visited Nagorno-Karabakh, and provide our father's first name. 

It took us almost an hour to make it past the border guard.  Then we had to have our luggage x-rayed.  At first we felt like the KGB was going to jump out and arrest us for something.  But once we got to the x-ray machines the other security staff started smiling and welcoming us to their country.  It was so over the top that we felt like rock stars.

Tbilisi to Baku = 563 km (350 miles)
Then we finally got to meet our driver.  He spoke Azeri, Turkish and some Russian.  He put our bags in to his Mercedes and drove us through the dark Azeri night.  We got to Baku around 2:30 this morning.

I've jumped through hoops like a trained circus poodle in order to finally get to Azerbaijan.  All I can say is that it had better be worth the effort.

1 comment:

  1. Now you can feel what other nationalities feel going through being interrogated by the officials in a US consulate. : / Leave aside fingerprinting