Intro: The Long and Winding Road
I will here chronicle my trip to Azerbaijan, which in retrospect was one of the more bone-headed undertakings of my life.
Here is the run-up:
While training in a Muay Thai camp in Thailand, I look ahead to the next few months. Where will I go? What will I do? I decide that I should visit the Caucasus countries: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. I won’t go into the list of factors that influenced this decision.
I check out the visa situation for U.S. citizens. Georgia, no visa required. Armenia, visa easily available for purchase at the border. Azerbaijan, however, can only be obtained in advance at an Azerbaijani embassy. A Letter of Invitation from a tourist company, an application form (submitted online and in person), two photographs are required, and an unspecified “processing fee” are required. Distinctly former Soviet crap, rivaling the Uzbekistan visa. The processing time is listed as 5-10 days.
The nearest Azerbaijan embassy is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had gotten my Thai visa there only a few months prior, and enjoyed my time there. Sure, I can hang out there for a week while I wait for the visa to be processed.
I pay a tourism company $60 online to arrange my LOI. I fly to Kuala Lumpur and deliver all my documents to the embassy on a Wednesday. I am required to pay an additional $70 “processing fee”, bringing the total cost of the visa to $130. The consul is a fairly nice guy. The embassy is supposed to be closed for a week for the Nowruz holiday, but he lets me drop my documents off anyway. He tells me I can possibly get my visa on Monday, or at the latest Wednesday. Great.
I stay in KL a few days and then go to Tioman island. While relaxing at this tropical paradise, the consul texts me to say that my photograph (which I have used for several previous visas) is “too dark” and that I must return to KL and submit another one. Now my visa will not be ready until a full week later than originally promised. I am not happy.
I decide that the most economical way to get to Baku is to fly through Dubai. The cheapest flight from KL to Dubai is on Sri Lankan airways, with a short layover in Colombo. I procrastinate buying the ticket until two days before the flight, a Monday, when the price has increased $150. Cursing my stupidity, and not wanting to have to pay yet another price increase the following day, I grit my teeth and pay for the flight. The next day (the day before the flight) the price has dropped back to its original figure. A bit of internet research tells me that one should never purchase a flight on a Monday. I thank the universe for this lesson, and restrain myself from hurling my laptop across the room.
I book three nights in a Dubai hotel, get my visa, and fly out of KL on a Wednesday. When the plane arrives in Sri Lanka at 5 p.m, we are told that the flight has been delayed until 7. After waiting around for over an hour, it turns out that the flight is actually delayed until 7 a.m., the following morning. Our large group of tired and irate passengers herd to the customer service counter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sri Lankan airways is not terribly organized for this sort of situation. After several hours, we are driven to a hotel where we get four hours of sleep before returning to the airport.
I finally arrive in Dubai and find my hotel. I am informed that of course I must still pay for the previous night that I reserved, but was not able to utilize due to my unplanned stay in Colombo. I am also informed that I did not read the fine print on the booking site, and must pay an additional 20% in “city taxes”. Three nights accommodation in Dubai (again one of which I did not use) costs me over $200. I am not happy.
I spend two days in Dubai looking at malls with aquariums and malls with ski slopes. I head back to the airport to catch my flight to Baku. It is on Azal (Azerbaijan’s national carrier), leaving at 1 p.m., a short hop across Iran.
I get to the ticket counter and present my passport. The woman looks through it and calls a manager over. He asks me when I am returning to Dubai. I inform him that I am not, that I will be traveling overland to Georgia. He asks me where my visa to Georgia is. I inform him that U.S. citizens require no visa to Georgia. He then informs me that since I have no return ticket to Dubai, and no onward ticket to another country, he cannot let me on the plane.
Doing a poor job of restraining my fury, I spend the next 20 minutes arguing with him and his supervisor. My logical bullets ricochet futilely off them like Superman. (A similar situation had happened to me while trying to fly from Australia to New Zealand a few months earlier). They grudgingly accept my points that my Azerbaijani visa is valid, and that as an American I do not require a visa to Georgia (the same as Dubai). However, they claim that the Azerbaijani immigration officer could still deny me entry on the grounds of having no plane ticket for onward travel, in which case the airline would allegedly be liable for the cost of sending me back to Dubai. I tell them that, in the event of such a remote possibility occurring, I will purchase a flight back to Dubai from Baku. They insist I cannot get on the plane unless I have already purchased the ticket.
I weigh my options. I know I am in the right, but Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are the gatekeepers. I may win eventually, but I will have to miss this flight to do so. Then I will have to stay another exorbitantly expensive night in Dubai, re-buy a flight for tomorrow, and make multiple phone calls to an Azal customer service department that I’m guessing will not be terribly sympathetic. I grudging open my laptop and purchase a return ticket to Dubai. For 180 euros.
When I land in Baku, the immigration officer asks me, “What is the purpose of your visit to Azerbaijan?” and “How long will you be staying in Azerbaijan?” He then stamps me into the country. I wish a slow and painful death upon the Dubai Azal employees. I call Azal to refund my return flight to Dubai, which they are happy to do…for a 50-euro cancellation fee.
As I make my way from the airport to Baku, it begins to dawn on me just how much time and money I have spent getting to this country. As I start to mentally tally up the exact figure, I stop myself as my temperature begins to rise. Forget the past. Look to tomorrow. Let the Azerbaijan adventure begin. The cost will all be worth it.
Yeah, not so much…