Stepanakert, the NKR – Baku, Azerbaijan

Ștefan Cândea
The conflict over Karabakh has added mandatory routes to the Caucasian maze. We’re forced to go a long way around if we want to reach Baku. From Stepanakert, the direct road runs a bit over 350 kilometres; however, the only possible route passes through Georgia and is over 1.000-km long. We go around Lake Sevan, exit Armenia and enter Azerbaijan from Georgia through Krasny Most - the crossing point between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Two and a half days on the road, one night at a hotel and a few hours of sleep in the car somewhere on the side of the Azerbaijan main road.

From afar, the entry into Azerbaijan seems quite impressive: heavily decorated huge stone gates which frame a brand new hi-tech space. Up close, I realize the crossing point is used only for trucks. The cars pass through a narrow funnel which ends in a large pit set up as a canal lock – a parking lot enclosed from both parts by a solid grating. The military officers grudgingly close and open the gates. Only 20 cars in front of us and the entry into Azerbaijan lasts three hours.

Petruț has to walk all the way as passengers aren’t allowed in the car. Everything goes smoothly for him. He ends up waiting three hours under the scorching sun for me to pass through. Although the space is very narrow, limos and buses make their way through the long queue of cars. Each of them according to the connections the driver’s got with the officers and the size of his wallet. A very motley crowd of tradesmen wait among the cars, their vehicles overflowing with wicker baskets and bags full of hens. From time to time, the fowls manage an escape, leaving behind a cloud of dust and a short, but intense hunt. The tradesmen know one another and, although they’ve been waiting for hours in the sun, they seem to be having the best of times.

In front of me, a swarthy taxi driver with a huge beer belly is feeling quite at home. He drives a dusty old Mercedes. Using his finger, he carefully wipes clean the logo and the inscription with the name of the car. For three whole hours I have the privilege of watching his habits. He socializes with the women vendors, he rubs shoulders with the soldiers, he makes a show every time he has to get off the fence in order to move his car, he loads and unloads packages into and from his spacious trunk. Although he’s from the region, he can’t butt in like other more well-heeled drivers. I didn’t see him the first time the line moved as he was chewing the rag in the shade; so I just get around his car left in the middle of the road. He quickly pops up in front of me, putting on a flabbergast face, after which he grumbles something and gives me a strong warning by pointing his finger at me. The next time the line advances, he sends one of his chat buddies to move his Mercedes. The long hours eventually get the better of him. We enter the canal lock almost at the same time and I realize that for all the cars, whether they’re going in or out, there is only one officer putting the stamps and processing the documents. In the continuous mêlée in front of the officer’s booth, the taxi driver blows his stack. He takes an elderly officer by the collar, gesticulates, yells and pushes two drivers. Next to him, two Azeri are mutually grabbing their collars, a fight they will continue in the officer’s office. Next to the gate one can hear a slap on another driver’s scruff. I manage to make my escape – along with my papers – from the Azeri chaos with the help of a young customs officer. He warns me that the Armenian visa will require I undergo an interrogatory with the other customs officers. However, nobody asked me anything about it. They were having their hands full with all the bribes.

The road – the so-called ‘highway’ – from the border to Baku spans around 500 km. In many places construction works are still going on, so we drive from the road onto the field. We have an interesting encounter with the Road Police who are robbing the drivers on the side of the road in brand new BMW limos. Ten minutes after we enter the country I am told to pull over. The policeman points to a table: apparently I exceeded the regulation speed by 20 km. He has no way of proving it though. He says I can get away with just 100 bucks. I act the fool and I finally get it through that thick skull of his that I don’t have any money and that I am waiting for him to write me the ticket. He, in his turn, tells me he will not return my papers. I tell him in English I will call the Embassy. I step away from the car for five minutes because he has other clients – Azeri drivers who come straight to him, bills in their hands, and then drive off. The policeman tries to convince Petruț we have to pay. He seems pretty embarrassed, pulls his helmet down his head and proceeds to vigorously pick his left nostril, then his right, gazing sheepishly into the distance. He’s probably thinking what he could do with a hundred bucks. He snaps out of his daydreaming and asks for 50 dollars. I refuse to pay up and add that Romania is friends with Azerbaijan, as is our president with Alyiev. In two minutes he gives me back the papers and beckons me to step on it. We had to make such ‘stops’ all the way to Baku; the bribe required decreased as we approached Baku until I only had to show them my ID. All in all, we managed to cross Azerbaijan without giving any bribe. In fact, the last policeman to stop me in Baku insisted he practice with me a complicated salute such as that of motorcyclists.