Saturday, 10 November 2012

Day 225 – Spray jackets vs Pleather jackets. (Border crossing Georgia to Armenia)

Not expecting the border crossing between Georgia and Armenia to be too painful or time consuming, but as always choosing to leave ourselves plenty of lee-way, we camped only a few kilometres from the border. Not too imposing, yet brand new and state of the art, the Georgian side of the border couldn’t have gone more smoothly. With its restaurant, ATM’s and Duty Free shopping opportunities, we really feel very far away from Asia now. We drove upto the window manned by a policeman in his dark slacks and under-stated “police” spray jacket, had our passports stamped, our faces photographed through the car windows and a few car details entered into a computer. Once again very satisfied with the efficient Georgian service we progressed through no man’s land to Armenia.

Suddenly we went from a modern European style border, to an all too familiar Soviet type set up. The immaculate coloured suits adorned with lapel pins and badges, true to the Soviet fashion, and the old buildings lying abandoned next to the new ones, reminded us once again of Central Asia.

We parked at the visa window where we filled in basic application forms and handed over our passports. I fed a US$50 note into the conveniently located money exchange machine to receive my first batch of Armenian Dram, allowing us to pay for our visas in local currency. At 3,000 Dram per person ($7.50), we could hardly grudge the 10 minute process. Yet another page in our passports taken up with a full page visa, we drove on to the passport window.

It took a bit of persuasion, but we managed to convince the man in the window that our Carnet is in fact our “car passport”, issued by the Australian government. He entered the necessary details into his computer, took the required photos of our faces through the car windows and stamped us into Armenia. Thinking for a moment that we had actually managed an entire border crossing from start to finish in less than 40 minutes, we moved on to enter the country. Much to our disappointment though, a smug looking guard who we had just spent 10 minutes humorously observing as he eyed up some women in high heels, waved at us and addressed us through our open window. Apparently all was not yet well, and we were required to make a stop at one of the dilapidated Soviet era buildings to speak with a “customs broker”. Far from chuffed at this concept, we followed his directions to a dirty grey brick dwelling just up ahead.

Inside we were greeted by a middle aged woman with artificially bright blonde hair and pink lipstick covering at least double the surface area of her actual lips, a Soviet-uniformed man who should surely be retired with green ink all over his hands from the stamps he was carefully cleaning with toothpicks, and a slender young man in a pleather jacket. Well, by greeted I mean Pink Lipstick was on her mobile phone, Pleather Jacket was engrossed in some sort of music playing device, and Stamp Man was pre-occupied with his stamps; all much too busy to acknowledge us in any way of course.

A few frustrating minutes passed until we got the attention of Pleather Jacket who wrote down some numbers on a scrap of paper and told us to pay him. Well, we don’t just pay money to people without some sort of reason as to why, so we tried to ask what we were actually paying for. This is a concept that was way beyond the training of this particular man, so he made a phone call and a few minutes later a man appeared, who after shaking hands with everyone else in the room, addressed us in perfect English. Apparently we were paying “to drive around in Armenia”, but we weren’t very content with just handing over a bunch of cash (21,500 Dram/ about $54) with nothing more than some guy’s scribbling as documentation.

The English speaking man took us to the ATM where we withdrew the necessary cash and we returned to Pleather Jacket. Apparently the “bank” would give us documents, so we went to the desk in the corner of the “customs” room which was supposedly the bank, but the man there just stamped the desired figure into his calculator and also had no comprehension of the fact that we wanted some sort of proof of what we were paying for and that we had paid it.

Some tense toing and froing ensued until eventually Pleather Jacket showed us a print-out which had been hanging on a notice board behind us this whole time. It outlined the individual charges which sure enough added up to 21,500 Dram. It was all in Armenian of-course, but that was enough to convince us that it wasn’t just some guy making up an amount that he wanted the tourists to pay. We handed over our payment to the “bank teller” and were told to continue on and “go either left or right” to purchase insurance.

We went both left and right to compare all the available options. Most places quoted 8,000 Dram ($20) for 10 days, but one man actually entered some details into a computer and came up with 3,200 Dram ($8), or 4,800 Dram ($12) for 12 days. Obviously we were pleased with the much lower price, but we also greatly approved of the fact that that he had followed some sort of system to come up with this figure, as opposed to just punching random numbers into a calculator. We decided to purchase 10 days, waited while he printed off the sticker that goes on the front window of the car, and entered Armenia almost two hours after leaving Georgia.

It’s very interesting to see how Georgia has completely abandoned Soviet bureaucracy for their immigration and customs procedures, and Armenia has started to follow suit but hasn’t quite made it yet.  The Armenian immigration process was very concise and smooth, but the reforms obviously haven’t quite trickled down to customs and the importation of a car.


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