Richard Norman writes: I’m in Kiev, chilling out and reading Lonely Planets’ Azerbaijan forums before heading out to the airport, for what promises to be a delightful 2:45am flight to Baku. I see a new post mentioning rumors that Azerbaijan is about to stop issuing visas at the border like they’ve done for the last decade. If this is true, then my travel plans for the next few weeks are quite exploded.
It’s seven at night and, not being fluent in Ukrainian, Russian or Azeri there are no obvious places to call to find out what’s going on so I head to the airport and speak to the airline’s information staff. I tell them that I don’t have a visa for Azerbaijan and if I can’t get one at the border I don’t want to get on the flight (they’re obliged not to board passengers who won’t clear the border anyway). They make a few calls to their people in Baku and assure me that I’ll be able to get a visa and enter Azerbaijan so I check in and then wait, watching Ukrainians wrapping their luggage with stickytape for reasons unknown.
After a three hour flight and a bizarre 4:00am meal of pancakes stuffed with mashed potatoes I walk into the arrivals hall at Heydar Aliev airport and see that the visa counter is open and active. Following the signs, I go to passport control who put an entry stamp in my passport and direct me to the counter to fill in the relevant forms and pay for my visa.
The staff at the desk watch me fill in the visa application form- and attach two passport photos to it- and I present the documents and the necessary cash.
“I am sorry, no visas”. Fark.
“From today we are not issuing visas on arrival to foreigners unless they have written authorisation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a letter of invitation.” Double fark.
“Did you inform anyone of this? The airline was told that visas would be issued on arrival.”
At this point the Immigration staff lose the ability to speak English. Fortunately I’m not alone- there at least a dozen of us in the hall, all being told the same thing. There’s a Russian speaker and four Azeri speakers amongst us although they can’t get any more information than I can.
The Immigration staff take our passports and allow us to collect our checked luggage, then escort us the the airport’s transit hall. They leave us there and disappear, passports and all.
About two hours later, one of them wanders over and asks us for our passports.
Another hour later, someone tells us we have a choice: buy a ticket out of the country or be deported (at the airline’s expense) back to where our flights originated. I ask if Ukraine will even let me back in- I had a single-entry visa and I’d already left the country. They lose the ability to speak english again. And Russian. And Azeri.
Then they ask to see our passports.
There’s a flight to Istanbul leaving in a couple of hours and it’s starting to sound pretty attractive. Another couple- DJs who had been booked for a gig in Baku that night- decide to try and get a flight to Dubai. We ask if we can buy tickets.
“You can buy tickets when you get your passports back.”
“Good, can we have them back then?”
“When you have bought your tickets we will give your passports back.”
That’s when we start calling our embassies. The nearest Australian one is in Ankara, Turkey. I speak to them and they promise to make a few calls and get back to me. In the meantime my fellow travellers are speaking to the American, British and French embassies; nobody’s hearing anything encouraging.
The embassy in Ankara calls and says they’ve spoken to Azerbaijan’s embassy in Turkey, who say there’s been no change in visa rules. They agree that getting a flight to Istanbul is probably a good idea and aren’t sure what would happen to me at the Ukrainian border. They put me in touch with our embassy in Vienna, which deals with Ukrainian matters. They’re not sure either but they suggest I get the flight back to Kiev and see what happens.
By this point I’ve been awake for 30 hours. The flight to Istanbul is gone, I haven’t seen my passport for six hours and I still don’t know what’s going to happen. I have visions of getting deported backwards and forwards between Kiev and Baku airports forever…
Finally, someone from The Azeri Immigration service who has half a clue speaks to us and tells me that I won’t have any trouble if I get deported back to Ukraine. Eventually it transpires that what he means is that if Ukraine’s border people won’t allow me to re-enter, they will deport me back to the country I originally entered from- Russia. To which I had an expired single-entry visa. I presume that Russia will deport me to Uzbekistan, which will send me back to Kyrgyzstan, which will bounce me to China.
Then he asks me for my passport.
I discover that there’s another flight to Istanbul leaving in three hours’ time and decide that I simply must be on it. A Canadian bloke I’m with is similarly resolved and we go to ask for our passports so we can buy tickets. Mr Abbas, head of the immigration service, says he will be back soon and one of his staff will escort us and our passports to the ticket counter (we’re in the transit hall; the ticket counters are on the other side of the frontier) to buy tickets. They’ll then hold on to our boarding passes and passports until the flight is ready to leave.
He’s disappeared and his staff have no interest in helping us; they say they airline staff will come to us and sell us tickets. So we wait. An hour later we’re still waiting and the flight’s opened for check-in.
We ask for Mr Abbas.
“He has gone home. I cannot help you. Goodbye.”
Two minutes later he walks out of his office and we run over to him. He directs us to another security point where one of his staff, Mr Nahil, will meet us. We drag our luggage over the the security point and ask for Mr Nahil.
“He has gone home.”
“Can someone else take us to the ticket counter? Mr Abbas has arranged it.”
“Mr Nahil will be here to help you in a minute.”
We wait another twenty minutes — the flight’s going to start boarding in less than an hour. Then the Canadian finds the magic words.
“Can you just let us buy our tickets? We want to get out of your fucking stupid country!”
Five minutes and US $300 later I have my passport and a boarding pass, my bag is checked in and we’re headed to the bar for an exceptionally well-earned beer. Another twenty minutes and I’m on the plane to Istanbul. By the time it touches down I’ve been awake for forty hours.
People I know who’ve been to Azerbaijan rave about how warm and welcoming its people are. Unfortunately, its government combines the friendly charm of a Ukrainian train station ticket counter lady with the efficiency and precision of a Cairo taxi driver.