If I had some faraway and unsung town names for this story, it would be even more exotic. But, this time, there weren’t any towns. I didn’t know exactly where I was. Sure, I had a GPS, but it last worked two countries back. Following the alien-like script on most road signs and stopping to ask directions in languages I couldn’t speak or understand was the way I found myself here. I knew this backwater road was infact the “M1”, and I was travelling between the former Soviet nations of Georgia and Armenia, as deep in Eastern Europe as it is possible to be. Driving from Akhaltsikhe, Georgia, to Yerevan, Armenia. The road was decent – for this part of the world. It should have been a few hours of driving, plus however long the border formalities would last. Rolling past mountains and plains, I was feeling good about the plan. But, I wouldn’t be making it to Yerevan that night. Not the next night, nor the night after. I was about to be detained.
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Phillipa, a New Zealander, Larissa, an American, and myself, Australian. Our car has Dutch license plates. A scarce combination of wayfarers, most probably unique to any land crossings in this part of the world, or maybe anywhere on Earth. At borders, it’s a conversation starter with a 100% hit-rate. We reached the Georgian line, and engaged in polite and efficient banter with the guards, as our passports and car documents were processed. As usual, my mind wandered at the obscurity of stray dogs pulling the contents from a plastic bin alongside the guard’s office. Within a short amount of time, all documents were checked and stamped. As I was about to drive on, the guard abruptly leaned out his tiny window and told me to wait – there was something else that needed to be discussed.
“Happy birthday, Nate.”
We were waved through.
It was a nice touch. Georgia’s proud reputation of a nation filled with friendly, hospitable, and welcoming people was intact, right up until the very moment I left the country. I smiled, and thanked the guard for the kind words. We all smiled. At other similar borders I’ve been disdainfully warned “good luck” before passing into another country. So, Happy Birthday was a pleasant surprise. I looked out at a barren plain, over no-mans land to the Armenian checkpoint. Armenia was unknown to me – and now just a few hundred metres and one more border crossing away. I drove, as slowly as the worst stretch road joining two European nations would allow me to go.
The day before, I’d mentioned to a Georgian man that I would be heading to Armenia. He picked up a giant spear, poked it at the ground, tapped, and filled with contempt, looked up and into my eyes and said “Huh. Armenia”. These were the scenes that are molding my impression of the Caucasus. As with the Balkans, it’s a complex history of war, boundaries, conquering armies, ethnic tension, wealth, and poverty. The line on the ground between two nations may be invisible, but the differences from one side to the other, in the Caucasus, can be very real.
Armenian border formalities began well. There was more paperwork than Georgia. The ritual, was more “formal”. We were out of the car, and in a small office, for starters. I had visions back to my recent experience in a Transnistrian border office, where the non-optional bribe was first stated at over 1000 Euros, and that was to be allowed to leave the country. I scanned the walls and saw a multilingual poster about “anti-corruption”. The guards were young, casual, and attempting to speak English. Except for the older gent, with the well worn uniform, whose job it was to receive the money for Armenian tourist visas. This was an expected transaction – unusually, this time I had actually undertaken a small amount of research. The only problem, was that he wouldn’t accept any currency other than Armenian Dram’s. Euro’s, US dollars, and Georgian Lari’s – valuable everywhere two or three hundred metres North of here, were unacceptable and meaningless paper in his office. I was handed my passport back, told to fill out a form, and then return with Armenian Dram’s to pay for entry to his country. At that point, I entered a country illegally for the first time in my life.
I walked across the border. Beyond no-mans land, and into Armenia. Phillipa and Larissa waited for me, as I strolled past multiple checkpoints, barriers, and guards, into a small settlement. I exchanged Euro’s for Dram’s, and headed back across the checkpoints, into the office, filled out the paperwork, and went back and forth to various counters with various men stamping bits of paper. It was convoluted, and time consuming, but hey – this is Armenia, and we were all willing captives to their rules. No bribes were required. Our business here was complete. They wished me happy birthday.
We all hopped in the car, and drove to the checkpoint I had previously roamed past, into, and back out of, Armenia. I stopped the car, and waited. Waited some more. The barrier wouldn’t open. We couldn’t enter Armenia. A man appeared. Non-official looking. He directed me to get out of the car. He pointed at a building, with concrete steps leading down the side, into a basement. Phillipa and Larissa waited in the car, which I left running. We had our visa’s, I didn’t think this would take long, perhaps it was just one more check. But, we had all cleared the “official” border, and so this just seemed a bit strange. I walked down the steps, into a sparse office. He followed me inside, and closed the door.
Immediately, he proceeded to inform me of all the fees I would need to pay to enter Armenia with my car. The list of fees was itemised on the back of a old scrap of paper. Highway taxes, eco-something, customs brokerage, and a few others. There was about six or seven numbers written down, totaling about sixty US dollars – for just three days in Armenia. The whole situation had a distinctly “unofficial” feel. I wasn’t playing this game, not today. I let him know that I would be back in a minute, grabbed the paper with the numbers, and walked out. In my mind, I sensed this was a crass series of bribes, and I wasn’t prepared to pay.
I walked back to the car, and turned the key to stop the engine. I flashed the paper at the girls, mentioned the word “bribes”, and let them know I was going to figure out what was happening, and how I could get out of this for less than almost a week’s wage in this part of the world. Maybe one of the young English speaking border guards, a couple of hundred metres back, might be able to help. Surely, they could inform me what fees I officially needed to be paying here, and more to the point, why am I paying that guy in the basement and not the border guys. For about thirty minutes, I listened to the older gent from the office earlier – now outside having a cigarette – speak to me in Armenian. And occasionally, Russian. I don’t speak either. He checked the scrap of paper with the numbers, and shrugged his shoulders. Then, repeated the cycle. Armenian, Russian, look at paper, shrug shoulders. I walked around the border checkpoint, searching for someone to help me. Nobody seemed to mind my presence, a tourist just wandering around the checkpoint, but nobody seemed to be able to help.
Finally, the younger official re-appeared. He finished chewing his lunch, looked at my scrap of paper, with the numbers, and said he couldn’t help me. Because, the guy asking me for money was “customs” and he was “border control”. It was sort-of English, but it was clear that this was the end of my interaction with these guys. Move along. I returned to the unofficial looking “customs” building, explained the situation to the girls enroute (they were still in the car, presumably chatting about hair products or cute tea-sets), and busily developed a change of tactics on the run. Everything about the situation felt fishy. I was done with bribes. Until a few days later, as it turns out, thanks to the Armenian highway patrol, but that’s a whole different story.
Walking into a different entrance, avoiding the basement, I came across a uniformed officer who spoke reasonable English. Nice uniform, heavy on demeanor and confidence, not so young that he was just a lacky, and yet not so old that he was basically dead wood awaiting retirement. My gut feeling told me, this is the man. The chief. I showed him the scrap of paper with the numbers, we walked back outside to the front of the building and I pointed at my car. He smiled. Maybe he laughed, and told me I would need to pay “about five dollars”. He promenaded me along the front of the building, and then he pointed me down to the basement entrance on the side. I laughed, and told him that down there was the guy that wanted close to sixty bucks.
“OK, then, pay the sixty dollars, or maybe… maybe you could go back to Georgia”.
He shrugged his shoulders, his smile turned to more of a smirk, and the chief walked away.
I’m kind of over the whole bribe thing. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford the sixty. But, time was ticking. Bribe negotiations at borders are tricky, and time isn’t necessarily equated with money. I was conscious of losing the ability to arrive in Yerevan by nightfall, and this was becoming a substantial delay. I looked over at the car, parked at the gates to Armenia, and thought about the circumstances. One more, last ditch, effort. I asked Larissa to accompany me into the basement, as she speaks a decent amount of Russian – the default language in these parts, and together we would try to negotiate the sixty dollars. We have never spoken about this actually, but in hindsight, thankfully, I think she was as keen to avoid paying corrupt men as I was.
The scrap paper man spoke to her in Russian. She asked him if we would get receipts. We would. She asked for the fees to be itemised, and made clear. They would be. After a little more conversing, it seemed clear that the fees were legit, and that we would have to pay. Larissa and I debated with the best English speaking guy for a long time. His English was decent, and Larissa’s Russian is decent – but both allowed for enough mis-communication that it would take a lot longer than normal to make things crystal. We asked if these fees were “optional”, as some of them seemed a little reaching – a fee for customs to inspect the car, plus a fee for the “brokerage” for the fee to allow customs to inspect the car. When I established for certain that there was no corruption, just strange, foreign, and outdated vestiges of Soviet-styled bureaucracy, I resigned myself to paying. I stayed calm, as the next phase of document processing began, but at one point I said “this is such bullshit”. I told scrap paper man that “I’ll tell people not to come to Armenia”, and “maybe we should have stayed in Georgia”, and “it was fucking cheaper to pay for a year of highway taxes in Switzerland”.
Perhaps, I was a little over-the-top. But this had been dragging on for a while. We had been at the border for well over two hours.
Scrap paper man. He was a smiling assassin. A non-official-looking-official. But he need to know, and I told him.
“This is the worse fucking birthday I’ve ever had”.
At that point, things changed.
Our captor became a little more excited.
He told Larissa and I to wait, he was just going to do “something” for us.
Within a few minutes he returned, and said I wouldn’t need to pay the customs brokerage fee, saving me three dollars.
I did need to sign a hand written contract that stated it was indeed my birthday, and I had indeed not paid the three bucks, as it was my birthday. Or, words to that effect. He was clearly concerned about corruption, and that made me feel a little better about the situation. But, we would still need to pay the rest of the fees. Even though it was only three dollars, I took it as a kind gesture, given that we had established now that the fees were all legit, and I’m sure it takes some doing in this part of the world to “waive” fees.
Time kept ticking, as papers were being processed. I was being instructed to get up, sit down. Passport. Go to that counter. Now this counter. But mostly, just waiting. Larissa was sitting next to me, Phillipa remained in the car. It wasn’t fun. Larissa turned to me.
“I need a fucking drink or something”.
Stress was building, we had been at the Armenian border for hours, not really knowing what was going on or how much longer it would take. I sucked on a sweet that a Russian official gave to me (just passing through I guess) – he sensed my frustration, and confusion.
Larissa looked up at scrap paper man. He held all of our passports and paperwork, but wasn’t finished yet.
“Do you have any Cognac?”
He smiled. It was a grin.
Smart as a whip, she asked again.
Again we were told to wait a minute, and he left the basement.
When he came back, we were asked to follow him. We walked around the building, and were led to a basement on the opposite side. There was a table, we sat down, joined another man, and food came out. Meat, vegetables, soup, bread. Vodka, Iced-Tea, Coke and Fanta appeared. I went and grabbed Phillipa from the car. We were all treated to a long lunch with the staff from the border, and customs officials. My birthday was toasted, many, many times.
The “chief” popped in. He chatted to our hosts in Armenian, looked at the Vodka, and seemed a little incredulous that us three tourists were now being shouted lunch and drinks in what may have been a staff-only restaurant, but his wry-smile indicated “whatever”. It was all cool. We chatted about how the sixty dollar fee was ridiculous. We talked about “System of a Down” – a famous Armenian/American rock band. And, that he was just doing his job, that we understood it certainly wasn’t a bribe, and I apologised if I came across as rude at any point.
The lunch dragged on.
We waited for our documents to be processed, with good food, laughter, and great company. New, Armenian, friends.
“Five more minutes, have another Vodka!”
This happened three or four times. The last five minutes, took an hour.
Finally, a young guy walked down with my passport, together with a small set of official documents.
I was to walk back upstairs, and sign a few more papers.
After one office, I was directed into another office.
It was the chief. Sitting down, stamping some papers. He’d earlier told me if I couldn’t pay the sixty dollars, then maybe I should go back to Georgia. He’d seen me eating and drinking with his staff. I saw people coming in and out of his office. It was the same procedure. Enter. Stamp, stamp, sign, sign, pay the sixty bucks. Everyone who entered his office was just an anonymous hand, holding papers, requesting permission, handing over funds.
I stood next to him, and held out my stack.
He looked up at me, and laughed.
I handed him my papers, he stamped them, and signed them, then waved me out of his office. Smiling.
He had waived all of the fees.
Finally, we were allowed to enter Armenia. Without paying anything.
Lunch and drinks were also “on the house”.
But, that was just the start. The captivity had just begun.
I went and grabbed the ladies, we said our goodbyes to scrap paper man. And the discussion began. Plans would need to be changed, Yerevan would be unreachable today – I was worried about driving at night. But planning was now out of my control. A further delay had eventuated. After a discussion in broken English and broken Russian, Larissa was told to get into a white BMW, with a new man who had just arrived at the remote border, and one of the guys from lunch.
She would be taken to the next city.
I was told to follow behind.
We were going to meet “the big boss”, in the Armenian town of Gyumri.
There was no real choice, this is what would happen.
I did my best to keep the BMW in sight. Driving along, keeping an eye on Larissa, now in a strange car with strange men in the middle of nowhere, and assuring Phillipa that all would be OK, that we wouldn’t be driving to Yerevan in the dark, we would just forfeit our hotel booking and find a hotel in Gyumri after we had met “the big boss”. The road was terrible. The sun was setting. The large BMW was much faster than my small hatchback. But, every now and then they would stop and wait for me to catch up.
We pulled into an office complex, and were told to come inside to meet “the big boss”.
It was now dark, the Armenian border process had taken close to five hours, so far.
Great office. Worthy of a big boss. Hefty wooden desk at the end of a large space suitably decorated with manly objects like swords and guns. We introduced ourselves. He asked us where we were from, what we wanted to see in Armenia, and wished me happy birthday, I was given a silver cigarette lighter as a gift. Phillipa received a Mascara, and Larissa a lipstick. They looked at each other, saw it appropriate to swap gifts, and the big boss laughed. We all laughed. Us, at the absurdity of the situation. But the girls relaxed impetuousness of gift swapping was an ice breaker for our new friendship, and a relief for all of us. He was a nice guy, even a little shy, and I figured about my age.
We chatted some more, and asked him about hotels in Gyumri – the city we were now in. The younger guy quietly told me “don’t worry about anything”. I could tell he was being genuine, and that we were in good hands. By the time we had left the office, I felt relaxed enough to swing an antique sword around, pose, pretend to be swinging it at this senior Armenian government official’s head, and get some holiday photos that I won’t soon forget.
The big boss took us on a guided tour of the city. Then we drove through the streets of Gyumri, following behind him to a hotel he suggested. A really nice hotel. We told him it was beyond our budget, and he said not to worry, we didn’t need to pay a single cent. He said we should put our bags down in our rooms, he would wait at the lobby for us to get refreshed, and then take us all out to celebrate my birthday. It ended up being a long night, in a private room of a classy restaurant. We dined like we were royalty. When the main course appeared, there was a moment of synchronised confusion as we realised that all the food from for the last couple of hours was simply the entree. The drinks didn’t stop. It was the three of us, plus the Big Boss and the younger guy – who was directed here and there to do things like driving down to the store and buy more cigarettes, and to figure out how to get the Karaoke machine working. He did both, and more.
Our time with our new Armenian friends continued for two nights and three days. Whatever we wanted to do, or see, we were chauffeured around. We never paid for anything. Not food, drinks, site-seeing, not even cigarettes. Hotels, breakfast, lunch, dinner, museums, day trips, we tried to pay, several times. Oh, how we tried. They wouldn’t hear of it.
So, this is Armenia.
Three days after the border crossing, we exchanged sad goodbyes, hopped in the car, and finally drove on to Yerevan. We were convoyed to the outskirts of Gyumri, and placed on the road to the capital. There was a shop, so of course big boss bought us a few last drinks, and some snacks for the road. We said some more goodbyes.
In the end, the border process had taken about 80 hours.
There are several morals to this story.
First, if you’re planning on crossing a remote border into Armenia, do it on your birthday, with two pretty girls, in a car with Dutch license plates.
Second, questioning authority is always a good idea.
Especially in Armenia.