Saturday, 27 October 2012
Day 216 – Crossing a border in negative four minutes. (Border crossing Azerbaijan to Georgia)
Because of the nature of importing and exporting a foreign car, we’re used to border crossings taking basically a whole day and as such, try and arrive as early as we can. Because we wanted to stay a night in Shaki though, we still had a couple of hours of driving in the morning and after stuffing around sorting out our paperwork and using up our last Manat to buy the cheapest petrol we’ll see for the rest of the trip, we didn’t arrive until 12.30pm. Our hearts sank a little bit when we spotted the huge queue of cars waiting at a closed boom gate. Most of the drivers were out of their cars, chatting with each other and meandering about. It was obviously lunch time for the border guards, and we prepared ourselves for a long wait.
Ben and I decided to walk to the front of the queue and try to find out how long we might be waiting for, on the off-chance of course that we shouldn’t even be in that queue. I mimed to the army guards at the gate “time” (pointing at wrist), “go forward” (waving in the direction of travel), “driving” (two hands steering a car). I was greeted with a blank look and a shrug of the shoulders, and then something clicked. He asked “tourista?” “yes, tourista,” “machina?” “yes, machina”. He gestured for us to wait a moment while he made a quick phone call, and indicated for us to drive up to the front of the queue. Feeling a bit rude, but pretty chuffed at the special treatment we were receiving, we went back to Trevor and skipping 37 cars, were waved straight through the gates. We can justify it to ourselves though because while we might get to skip the queue, the border process for us always takes a lot longer and they all end up getting out faster than us anyway.
This was a properly built up border crossing, with professional guards that knew the protocols and systems, and we were directed to park, get out the car, and take our passports to passport control. As this border’s designated driver, Denner was to separate from us and take our Carnet and his own passport to a separate office.
We were whisked through the passport checking process and sent on our way to no man’s land. Through the windows we could see Denner getting into the driver’s seat and at the same time as us, heading towards no man’s land. Was it possible that the car processing had only taken as long as the passport processing?
Alas, he had to pull aside at the next gate, and we watched as he got out the car and carried some paperwork back to someone in some office. At that point we thought maybe we’d been too hopeful, and in actual fact we would be waiting the usual several hours for nothing to happen. Ten minutes later though, he showed some paper to the guard that had stopped him, was waved through the gate, and pulled up for us to jump in.
It turns out that the process had been as simple as possible, and the problem was only that one paper that needed to be stamped had been very small and had fallen to the bottom of our plastic pocket, causing Denner to miss it. When the guard had asked for it, he’d had to go back and most of his time was just spent trying to negotiate his way through traffic to the office where it was promptly stamped.
We got to Georgia and were struck immediately by the non-Soviet nature of everything. Even Azerbaijan in all its efficiency and with such a surprising lack of unwarranted bureaucracy, has a very Soviet feel with its typical Soviet uniforms, high military presence and buildings obviously from the Soviet era. The Georgian police on the other hand were dressed in simple navy spray jackets with “Police” (in Georgian and English) printed on the back, plain slacks, no lapel pins and no imposing hats. Officials went about their business in understated smart casual – a style that is lost in Asia and the Middle East, and the only army guards that we saw were far away on the side lines, not involved in the day to day running of the border whatsoever. Waiting in an orderly queue with no guns pointed at us, no armed guards circling our car, and no Customs Officials trying to sell us guided tours, we felt like we could be entering Australia (if there was such a thing as a land border) or any European country.
After a few minutes of queuing we drove up next to a window where a policeman asked for our passports. He flicked through them, obviously looking for a visa, so I (in the passenger’s seat with our steering wheel on the wrong side) said “no visa”, under the impression that we were to buy visas for $20 at the border. He asked for our “car passport”, so I handed him the Carnet and he entered our number plate and personal details into his computer. We waited to be pulled aside and separated from the driver, but instead he had each of us look into the camera through the car windows and promptly stamped us into the country. From there we were waved on, and no other process was required.
Perhaps when I said “no visa”, he assumed it to mean that I knew what I was talking about and we didn’t require a visa, or more likely (and hopefully), the visas have actually been abolished. Either way it took us less than an hour to enter the country, and seeing we went back one hour by crossing from Azerbaijan to Georgia, we emerged on the other side of the border four minutes earlier than when we first pulled up as the 38th car in the queue waiting to enter the border area.
Our most satisfyingly simple border crossing yet.