“Go to Tbilisi and get a second passport. That is the only way they will let you in,” warned my guide in Kars, Turkey.
“No way they will let you in,” promised Taveet as I explained my plans to visit Azerbaijan shortly after we met during my volunteer stint in Armenia.
“Oooh, if you have Armenia in your passport, I don’t know if that’ll happen,” speculated fellow volunteer Shirak as we exchanged instant messages just an hour before I was set to depart Telavi for the border.
“Good luck” offered a large blue and white sign as I approached the border crossing from Georgia into Azerbaijan (leave it to the Georgians to have a sense of humor!).
The history of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan goes back nearly a century, to the Armenian-Azerbaijani War fought over three contested regions from 1918 to 1920. More recently, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the two countries again engaged in an armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population. Known as the Nagorno-Karabakh War, a ceasefire was proclaimed in 1994 but tensions still run very high today (indeed, just a few days after I made my journey to Azerbaijan, Azeri troops shot and killed three Armenian soldiers near the border).
The possibility that Azerbaijan might not let me in after I visited Armenia seemed very real.
No wonder my stomach was in knots and my mind was racing as my bus grew closer and closer to the border. I had barely slept the night before, thoughts running through my head of all sorts of worst case scenarios and how I would handle them (I’m a planner, remember?). I had even taken the precaution of hiding all the files on my computer related to Armenia and deleting all of the Armenian last names on my cell phone. If the border guards searched my belongings, I didn’t want to give them any reason to detain me or prevent me from crossing into Azerbaijan.
The morning began with a good sign.
As I walked to the bus station (more like a large parking lot with a single ticket window) in Telavi, Georgia to catch the 8:45 marshrutka to the border town of Lagodekhi, a large bus rolled past me, the driver yelling out to me, “devushka!”
I turned to look at him, used to being called that after almost 9 months of traveling in the former Soviet Union. He called out “Lagodekhi?” I yelled back “da” and hurried across the busy street to board this enormous bus as one of only three passengers. After I took my seat next to a stocky Georgian guy who seemed to be the ticket guy, he asked if I was going to Azerbaijan (Lagodekhi is the closest town on the Georgian side of the border). When I replied in the affirmative, he informed me the bus was going all the way to Balaken – the nearest border town on the Azeri side.
Rather than have to hire a taxi from Lagodekhi to the border and another taxi from the border to Balaken, I was now set to go straight through – all for just 7 lari – about $4.
We reached the border promptly at 10:00 a.m. Leaving my belongings on the bus, the two Azeri women on the bus and I went through the Georgia immigration checkpoint to exit the country and then hopped back on the bus to head toward Azerbaijan. After waiting behind about six cars for a few minutes, the heavily armed guards waved us through. A couple hundred meters later, the bus driver told me to take all of my belongings with me off the bus and an Azeri guard pointed me to a narrow walkway which presumably led to the control checkpoint.
The guard gave me a smile as he pointed me the way – something I tried to tell myself again was a good sign.
I walked far ahead of the two older women and was alone when I reached a metal door leading into the immigration checkpoint. A chubby guard with a buzz cut greeted me with a “hello” and then took my passport and sat down behind a computer and glass window as I waited. I handed it to him open to the page with my Azeri visa, but that didn’t matter – he flipped through it anyway, pausing twice at the sight of my Armenian visa.
“You have been to Armenia?”
“Yes, I have been to Armenia.”
I thought of adding that I had not been to Nagorno-Karabakh, a visit to which would automatically deny me entry to Azerbaijan. But I held back. I didn’t want to give him any ideas.
“One minute please,” the guard stated as he walked into a back room with my passport. I stood almost shaking as I listened to a completely undecipherable exchange between the guard and an unseen woman in back. After what felt like an eternity but was actually probably not more than 2 or 3 minutes, he returned, not saying a word, but carrying a stern frown on his face.
He scanned my passport and opened it up to the page with my Azeri visa and started slowly entering the information into the computer.
A minute later, he grabbed what I had been waiting for – the magic stamp to officially granting me entry into Azerbaijan.
He gruffly handed back my passport and waved me through to the next room, which held a large x-ray machine and a metal detector. As far as I could tell, he did nothing to inform the guards in that room about my unpalatable Armenian visa and they greeted me with a smile. My bags rolled through the x-ray machine untouched and unexamined and I walked through the metal detector with ease. As I collected my things, I looked at the guard sitting next to the x-ray video screen and asked “khorosho?”
“Enjoy your stay.”