We woke up from a deep sleep and discovered life around us at the beach camp on the Georgian coast of the Black Sea. There were workers putting up a new fence, the family keeping the grounds eating breakfast and cows frolicking on the beach. I’d say they were grazing on the beach, but there wasn’t much to graze.
We graciously accepted the hot water offered by our host and made some tea to go with our breakfast of bread and Nutella. A curious little girl, part of the family watching over the grounds, came by as we were eating and wordlessly offered us sweets. In return we offered her some Haribo we had brought from home and she said “Spasiba” with a toothy grin. Her teeth had rotten away already from perhaps too much sweets, but she seemed to be oblivious in her happy child-like enthusiasm. She ran off with her treats.
We packed up and headed out. The plan was to cross the entire length of Georgia that day and get to the Azerbaijan border. Both Moritz and I had been to Georgia on separate occasions before and loved the country. But we were keen to get to Baku as we had to sort out our visa for Turkmenistan.
The previous night’s driving had been nerve-wracking. Being on the passenger side, I’d squeeze my eyes shut every now and then when cars would try to overtake multiple cars at a time on a narrow, two-lane highway. Driving at night is a risky business, and had we not been held up at the border, we would’ve reached our campsite much earlier.
I was happy to take the wheels during the day, but much of the highway until we got close to Tbilisi were two-lane highways. Georgian drivers drove even more recklessly in broad daylight than in the dark. We snaked our way through the country and eventually got onto a brand new highway that seems to have been recently built. While the road was new, we found the road signs to be extremely confusing. Normally in Europe, you wouldn’t see road signs above a lane on the other side. However, in the new Georgian highways, there would be road signs and directions on the left side as well, and should you mistakenly think that that was your lane, you’re likely to crash into a car coming in from the other side. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you realize this, you end up driving on high alert.
Right before we reached Tbilisi, we found a massive, shiny new rest stop. The place was fully equipped with clean toilets, cafeteria-style eatery complete with ice-cream, free internet and a gas station. We cleaned up and got ourselves some real food for lunch, which felt like the height of luxury. We had been skipping lunch on most days and surviving only on a breakfast and a big dinner late in the evening, with random snacks in between.
While checking our e-mails at the rest stop, we discovered an e-mail from The Visa Machine, our visa agency for the Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan visas. They are the preferred visa agency of The Adventurists, the company that organizes the Mongol Rally and are made out to be THE experts in visas across Central Asia and in Turkmenistan in particular. We had decided to process all our visas ourselves, except for Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, as these required agency support. This was a good decision, but not good enough, in hindsight as The Visa Machine is not only incompetent, but also inadequately staffed. This meant that they screwed up almost everyone’s visas in one way or the other, starting from applying for the wrong dates to applying for the wrong border entry points.
The mail we received from The Visa Machine that day let us know that our documentation for the Turkmenistan visa, which consists of a Letter of Invitation signed off by the Turkmen Embassy in London, was inadequate. We were missing a page with signatures of the Embassy officials. This Letter of Invitation is what we would have to present to the Turkmen Embassy in Baku in order to receive a visa that would allow us to board a ferry to Turkmenbashi. It was already Saturday, and we had been driving fast just so we could apply for our visas on the following Monday. Now we suddenly found out that our papers were insufficient and that we might be stuck in Baku indefinitely, unless the papers come through on time. Given that there was only the weekend in between, there was not much hope.
To make matters worse, we discovered that The Visa Machine had communicated to some other rally teams a full week in advance that the Letter of Invitation which contained everyone’s names was inadequate and that they were trying to sort this issue out with the Embassy in London. We were under no circumstances allowed to present our current documentation to the Embassy in Baku as this would just confuse the Embassy officials and we would be denied our visas.
We were angry and frustrated at not having been informed earlier. We tried to call TVM, but it was a Saturday and no one obviously picked up. For all we knew, we’d be stuck in Baku and the TVM would not help us. We had paid them nearly 100 EUR per person for these Letters of Invitation and they had failed to deliver. Not only that, they had failed to properly communicate to us the issues with the document. When you spend months preparing for a trip like this and work with an agency that does this every year for every team in the Mongol Rally, you can’t help but feel slighted by the visa ‘experts’ who clearly don’t know what they are doing or don’t care very much about providing a good service.
We couldn’t do much. So we stuck to our original plan of trying to get to Baku by Sunday, and trying to see what we could once we got there.
We drove past Tbilisi that afternoon, without stopping in the city, and headed straight to the Azerbaijan border. We arrived at the border around 6pm, and realized that not much was moving in the queue. The drivers had given up, it seemed, and had switched off their engines. Trucks were being let through, but the passenger vehicles were standing still.
Waiting to cross borders and spending a massive amount of time trying to do so was becoming second nature.
We had heard atrocious stories about the Azeri border guards. Most Mongol Rally veterans would tell you that they are total scumbags. Some teams in the past had been denied entry into the country for having a car that was ‘too old’ and had been offered the opportunity to arm wrestle with one of the immigration officers for the right to be let in. Azeri police will stop you along the highway and try to extort you. Most often than not, they will be drunk. We were extremely wary of what we would face once we entered the country.
At 8:15pm, we reached the immigration counter. The whole process was terribly disorganized, which explained why it had been taking so long to process each car. First we had to let three people take a look into our car. They searched it thoroughly for contraband. Then we handed our passports over to another guy who whisked them away to another border official. Then we were asked to park our car and come back to the immigration counter. We had visas for one month, but they tried to tell us that they’d give us visas for 4 days. This was quite ridiculous, as we already had our one month e-visas. We were not getting visas on arrival, and therefore, how long we’d be allowed to stay in the country was not up for debate.
One of the border officials tried to talk to Moritz in German. He processed our visas and painstakingly wrote everything out slowly. Another official in the meantime processed our car insurance and road tax, for which we had to pay about USD 50. The whole thing went rather smoothly, given the horror stories we had heard, albeit slowly. Once we were finally done, we drove out of the border area about 9pm. It had gotten quite dark by then.
We had the choice to stop at the border town of Gazakh, a short ride from the crossing. But since it was just 9pm and we weren’t as tired as we thought we’d be, we decided to drive further to Ganja, a bigger town 108km further east. We figured we’d find better accommodation option there. We were also elated at having crossed through the border without hassle. While driving at night was something I wasn’t comfortable with – it was pitch dark and you could hardly see anything ahead – the promise of a warm bed and shortening the driving time to Baku the following day made us push forward.
We’d barely gone halfway to Ganja, when we got pulled aside by a police car as we were exiting a roundabout in a small town center. The police spoke no English but demanded our passports. This was not good.
Moritz was driving and was asked to get out of the car and follow the policeman to his car. Some communication took place which surmounted to this: we had been speeding and now had to pay a fine of 100 USD to get our passports back. We knew we hadn’t been speeding. But they insisted. They said they had video evidence, but refused to show it to us.
We said we had no money. They told us they’d escort us to the nearest ATM. They drove ahead of us, still in possession of our passports, and we drove behind them. We noticed that they sped away quite quickly, possibly so we wouldn’t be able to film them in any way. Conveniently enough, they escorted us to a gas station which had an ATM. While we had cash, we made a show of trying to withdraw money. We didn’t have to. Our cards genuinely did not work.
We tried to negotiate, but it didn’t work. They already had our documents and would not give it back. We eventually parted with 40 USD and 50 EUR in exchange for our passports. No receipts were given, of course.
In hindsight, we would not have given our passports when we got pulled over. We had made 10 copies each of all our documents, and in that moment, we forgot to hand over the copies instead of the originals. We blame this on being extremely tired from the day’s driving, which brings me to my next point. Don’t drive at night in Azerbaijan. Just don’t. The police is waiting to catch you. This sounds terribly melodramatic, but it’s true. They’ll see a foreign license plate, and will view you as a cash machine. Just don’t drive at night. And even when you’re driving during the day, drive very slowly and adhere strictly to the speed limits. Finally, if you do get pulled over, negotiate with cigarettes or alcohol if you are carrying some (we weren’t) or if you come from a Western country, threaten to call the Embassy and stand your ground that you haven’t done anything wrong.
These are all advice we had been given before going on the rally and ones we’ve heard teams use. Unfortunately, we weren’t so savvy and weren’t able to get out of the trap we’d walked into. We bitterly forked over our money and continued driving towards Ganja. When something like that happens within an hour of entering a country, it leaves you quite sour and with a terrible impression of the place and its people.
Once we got to Ganja, we found ourselves a hotel and asked if they had a room. The guy manning the reception desk spoke no English. He understood that we wanted a room and showed us a moldy smelling room full of mosquitoes which we agreed to take. He asked us to pay the 50 USD for the room upfront, but would not provide a receipt, as the office was closed.
In a sense of paranoia triggered by the police fine, I insisted on a receipt before I handed over the money. I feared we would wake up the next day, there would be no evidence of us having paid, and would be asked to pay again. After negotiating angrily without a common language, I finally got him to write down in a piece of white paper that we had paid 50 USD and the receptionist signed it. The document didn’t mean much, but it was a small comfort of having evidence of the payment.
We were emotionally drained. It had been a stressful day, first with The Visa Machine, then the border crossing and finally the speeding fine. We were ready to go to bed and hoped that Azerbaijan would not turn out to be as bad as it seemed in the first two hours.
Despite our troubles, we were content that we made it this far without trouble. Our car was running well, we’ve been more or less well rested and we covered 8 countries in 7 days. Definitely something to be proud of already.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.