It was a Friday, and I was standing outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi. I wanted to get into Azerbaijan as soon as possible, but the guard on the outside insisted that the consular section was closed. He was Georgian and spoke broken English. Eventually two guys rolled up speaking Turkish. The guard smiled at them and opened the gate. Before they disappeared into the embassy, I shouted at them in Turkish, “He told me the embassy isn’t open!” The Turks turned around and said that it was and that they were picking up their visas. The guard came over, pointed at me, and said, “You Turkish?” I smiled. “One moment,” he said and grabbed the phone. Soon I, and my American friend, were buzzed in.
Inside I met the consul and asked him about visas. He gave me the forms. I filled them out and handed them back with my passport. He looked oddly at my blue US passport and then asked, in Turkish, “Where’s your Turkish passport?” I told him I don’t have one. He asked why I spoke Turkish, and I told him that I lived in Turkey. He nodded and accepted my forms. “When will it be ready?” I asked. He thought to himself and then responded, “Normally it takes 4 days, but since you live in Turkey, I can do it tomorrow,” a sign of the close ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Before I left, he started looking at my passport and then stopped at the page containing my Armenian visa. “You’ve been to Armenia?” he asked. I told him I had to visit a friend. A concerned look came over his face, “You didn’t visit Karabakh, did you?” he said, referring to the currently Armenian-occupied land that they fought Azerbaijan for. I told him I didn’t. “Because, “ he said gruffly, “if you visited Karabakh, you can’t enter Azerbaijan.”
My Armenian visa was soon to be the source of even more trouble. Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bitter war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Azeris are still licking the wounds of an embarrassing defeat. They don’t take kindly to people who have visited Karabakh.
I had assumed that getting the visa would be the hardest part and that would be the end of my troubles, but I was wrong. Somewhere along the 14-hour train journey from Tbilisi to Baku, I was aroused from my sleep by an Azeri border guard demanding to look at my passport. I handed it over and immediately started feeling a sick sense of worry. Watching the Azeri soldier leaf through my passport on the train, all I could do was wait for that moment when he would stumble upon the Armenian visa. I knew what would happen then, what sort of questions would be asked, and I had my answers prepared. He found the visa:
"So you visited Armenia?" he said in Azeri. And completely forgetting that I had been warned multiple times never to talk to Azeris police in Russian or Azeri, I replied in my best Azeri-fied Turkish. "Yes, I did."
He gave me an inquisitive look and asked why I speak Turkish. I told him that I studied in Istanbul. I figured that that had to get me some brownie points. I was wrong. The soldier told me that he would be right back and left with my passport.
He soon returned with an older soldier who told me to come with him. As they walked away from the compartment, I immediately took all the US currency out of my wallet and hid it under the mattress of my sleeper bed. The number of stories I had heard of Azeri officials shaking foreigners down for US dollars were enough that I wasn't taking any chances.
After hiding the money, I followed the soldiers into an empty compartment, where they sat me down. Surprisingly, the most obvious question, "Have you visited Karabakh?" didn't come right away, and instead they badgered me with a series of questions about my background.
"Why did you visit Armenia?" The younger one asked.
"I was visiting a friend who works there." I replied.
"What is your friend's nationality?" the older one asked.
"American. He is teaching at a university in Yerevan." I replied again.