Monday, 22 October 2012

Back In The USSR: Crossing the Iranian – Azerbaijan Border by Ben Crowley.

                We camped 30km’s from the border in order to make an early run. On the way of course we filled up every last square centimetre of our tank with the best wondrously cheap petrol the Iranian State Oil Company could provide and then after getting lost in the streets of the border town Astara, eventually made our way to the non-descript gates that we found to be the entrance to Customs.

                The first order of business on exiting Iran was to have our Carnet checked very quickly and our details entered into a large register. After this we were given a receipt and told to continue on. At Astara customs, continuing on is no easy feat. The massive complex is a maze of loading bays and trucks, thousands upon thousands of primarily Turkish and Iranian lorries sit idly by waiting for approval to exit, some of which had surely been waiting weeks if not months in order to cross the border. After several right turns and a couple of lefts we eventually found our next destination: a double story, reinforced concrete, crumbling building surrounded by men playing backgammon, drinking tea, sleeping and generally meandering about, all the signs of bureaucracy in this part of the world.

We had heard this was going to be a particularly tough border. Numerous factors worried us. Firstly, we were leaving a Middle Eastern country, namely Iran, not exactly friends with much of the world at this moment, and we were entering a former Soviet country. Secondly, from our research (blogs, lonely planet, wikitravel and various government websites) we had been led to believe that the Azerbaijan process would be an uphill battle. We were told that right-hand drive vehicles (being from Australia, Trev is) were not allowed and most worryingly that Azerbaijan demanded thousands of dollars in security deposit for foreign vehicles. Of slightly less concern was the need for Azeri insurance and road tax, which knowing border guards would most likely be inflated at the mere sight of Western tourists. As such it was decided that I would do this border, having generally the best track record at kicking heads and getting through the mighty current of corruption and bureaucracy as we attempted to head upstream.

                I entered with our paperwork to be met with hundreds of truck drivers all attempting to get piles of paperwork completed. Approaching one of the desks I was asked who my agent was. Still to this day I’m not sure they ever really understood I myself wasn’t a truck driver but just driving our own personal car through Iran. Lots of silly repetitive questions were answered and eventually our Carnet was taken off to be completed (incorrectly as usual). In the mean time I was chatted up by one of the administration staff, who, like everyone else in Iran wanted to immigrate to Australia, and was hoping I would be the magic contact they wanted. It was hard to explain that “knowing someone” rarely is the manner in which things work in Australia. Actually meeting the criteria and completing the necessary steps is how one achieves an Australian Visa.

                All stamps in place we were then told to continue on to the border gate. Hooray! We were about to leave and it only took about 35 minutes. Or so we thought. We arrived at the gate to find it closed. One of the sides was closed for lunch, and as such needed to wait an hour and a half. We decided at this point that the only thing to do was get the cricket bat and ball out and have a game. An MCG size crowd gathered and cheered us on, or more accurately stared in the same manner we would if we saw someone cutting up his own clothes with a carving knife. Eilidh sat in the shade in Bay 13 as the furious pace of Tom Denner threw down in-swinger after in-swinger to Tom Unkles who stood his ground like a modern Graham Gooch. I’m sure if the spectators understood the game they would have been enthralled. An hour and a half passed and we were allowed to continue. Of course this is never enough and the others were asked leave...

                Eilidh: After having already waited for Ben to complete the paperwork, and now an hour and a half while Azerbaijan had lunch, we were most frustrated when the man at the passport window informed us that only the driver’s passport could be processed at that window, and the rest of us would have to make our way to the passenger terminal. Winding our way back through the maze of trucks we climbed through a hole in a fence, passed a Customs building and walked along a residential street until we reached the passenger entrance. A swarm of people with the usual array of bags of clothes, trolleys of food items and packaged rugs and bins was pushing to squeeze through a door that was being blocked by a guard. We shoved our way into the throng and when the guard saw us, everyone else was moved aside and we were waved through. The same happened at the next queue, and we found ourselves at another queue. Here we waited an hour and a half more while the guard took 10 minutes per person to process all the Iranians first. Eventually a security guard appeared and ushered us away – apparently we’d just waited an hour and a half in another queue we didn’t need to be in. We were escorted upstairs to an office covered in pictures of Ayatollah, with a policeman at a desk adorned with Iranian flags. He knew immediately who we were and reciting “Binyamin” (Benjamin) and “FJI” (the start of our number plate) we realised Ben had already paid him a visit. Through the smirk that never left his face, he wanted to know the purpose of our trip and our destinations. Satisfied with our interview (during which he didn’t once look at or acknowledge me) we were sent away. Our security guard escort guided us back down the stairs and we were free to go. A very entrepreneurial businessman followed us to the bridge that is the border, offering to change our money and assist with any other service that he of course is the only person in Iran who can offer. Unsure of where Ben might be waiting, and slightly concerned that he would have been moved on during this time, we were very pleased when we found him and Trevor just at the other side of the bridge.

In the meantime I had continued to the bridge across no-man’s land, where I was stopped for one quick passport check. The policeman asked for the back of the car to be opened, pulled out any water bottles he could find and sniffed each one for alcohol. He obviously had a party that night and needed supplies. I then drove across the bridge where after 30 minutes all four of us were reunited, ready to tackle the much feared Azerbaijani side of the border. We were shocked at the sudden change; everything from gardens, guards, buildings to road markings were so ordered and beautifully presented. The border guards immaculately presented colourful uniforms was a rude awakening from what we had experienced in Iran. The quality of the grounds and buildings was like stepping forward 100 years, to ironically, an ex-soviet country.

We approached each guard station carefully and were waved on each time to the next. They actually knew exactly where we needed to go and sent us straightforwardly there. We were then directed to a parking spot from which we would enter the customs building to deal with the importation of Trev. For the first time we were not requested to split up. A gray haired superior who was more like a lovely old grandfatherly figure spoke quite reasonable English and explained the process we had in order. We had our passports quickly stamped, the car paperwork photocopied and checked. I then needed to pay road tax and insurance, $40 in total, but a painless affair. I just handed the cashier the money and received the two pieces of paperwork in return. With the paperwork in order in about 20 minutes, we had only one task left: every item in the car needed to be taken out and x-rayed, for only the second time this trip. This took another 20 minutes and with the police convinced we weren’t international drug or arms smugglers, we were free to enter Azerbaijan. Making this possibly the most painless and professional border crossing so far this trip.

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