Countries: Georgia -> Azerbaijan
Stops: border crossing and a gas station down the road
Reaching the border, the first thing we saw was a huge sign "Azerbaijan Border Good Luck".
Well, shit. That didn't inspire a lot of confidence.
The Georgian side took less than 5 minutes though!! They asked all the right questions about our passports and were extremely sympathetic to our story. No search, no getting out of the car, no anything. Just a lot of "oy"s as we told our story and a "best of luck" tap on the car as we rolled through.
It was about 9pm and our Azerbaijan visas weren't good for another 3 hours. We were now in no man's land and originally thought we'd camp there for the night but it was fairly small between the two borders - about 3 truck lengths and there were already 2 trucks parked there. They told us to go around them so we pulled up to a huge fenced gate and a guy in a military suit came out. He nodded, without a word, when I asked if he spoke Russian, so I explained our situation in one sentence. He didn't even react, no facial tic, no nod, nothing. Just walked away leaving us hanging.
Justin and I sat there for 15 minutes, confused, watching him chat and laugh with various other people getting out of cars. Every once in awhile he ran back to the gate to pull it open and let a truck out.
Eventually he came back, wrote our car license down, took our passports, wrote something down again and handed them back. We sat for another little while staring at the gate which he eventually opened and motioned us through. We pulled into the lane by the booths and were told to get out and take all our bags out. That's a lot of bags. They checked under the mattress, in the camera bag, in our bins, in my purse, in the tool kit, and in all our luggage - x-ray and all. No words, just continuously pointed at things.
A soldier came out and as he looked into our car, he saw the paper towel roll... he picked it up, examined it (?), laughed, ripped a sheet off, and wandered around for the next however long playing and fidgeting with it. That was bizarre.
Another soldier came out and tried to explain the next step and lit up when I said I spoke Russian. His Russian was absolutely fluent, no accent which made it even easier for both of us. So we started chatting and he translated a lot from here on out. He became my buddy for the next 4 hours. But he wasn't military, despite his uniform, so he didn't have much authority over things or we would've been gone within minutes. We played the waiting game, ate our trail mix, and basically circled the car twirling our thumbs.
An actual military soldier came out and asked for our paperwork in broken english. As we handed it over and again explain the visa situation, he said it'll be 2 minutes and to pull the car up out of the whqay for others. He disappeared and 2 minutes turned into 10, 15, 30, 45. We realized he meant 2 hours, probably until the visa would be valid. So we did sudoku, played 2048, and even at one point lay in the front seats of our car with our feet out the window, both leaningy on a pillow in the middle... sleeping. We felt like such nomads.
At 11:50pm, I got up groggy and went to talk to the soldier that took our passports. He pulled out his phone and pointed at the clock saying 10 more minutes. We were so tired at this point that driving seemed like a bad idea, so I asked my buddy if we would be able to set up camp and sleep right there. He said yes, but the other soldier profusely shook his head. They both said it'll be fine to sleep on the other side of the gate though - that there were soldiers and cameras and it would be safe - I was more concerned about authorities and breaking any laws than safety but they assured me it would be fine.
At midnight on the dot, I walked back forjyttq our documents and was told to get in line at the window. There was a group of 15 people there so I was tired anqqd cranky that they had 3 hours and I had assumed the paperwork would be ready, they would just stamp it and let us go since they held on to it this whole time. Nope. So we waited in this line, watched a bride in full get up with her entourage come through the border, 5 minutes in and out. Wish I'd asked what they were doing crossing a border at midnight though! They did speak fluent Russian amongst each other even though they were wrapped up head to toe.
We eventually realized the guards couldn't have actually done our paperwork until the visa was valid so we got off our high horse, relaxed, and just waited patiently as tired as we were.
It was our turn and it actually went fairly smooth. The soldier looked at our passports, at our police report, visas, stamped it and handed itq uover. No questions. We were told to proceed 4 windows down to customs. We stood in line there again (3 people, not bad). While we stood, we did a mental count of all the paperwork to make sure we got everything back and realized justin never got his driver's license back. We panicked and went back but were told it's still at customs. So we returned and at this point there was 1 more person.
Again, it was fairly smooth, Russian really helped and every time anyone found out I spoke Russian, everyone relaxed and had a huge smile. So far, knowing Russian has been the exact opposite of everything we expected as I had planned to pretend I don't speak it to avoid trouble, but we're still on this side of the Caspian Sea if that means anything?
We had to go down some stairs to a randomly located cashier about 200m away, pay a $15USD road tax, come back to the same custom window to pay $10USD for car insurance. Not only was it weird that we couldn't do it all in one place and had to wander all over the station, but he then had to reach over to another window to get us change and just threw the $10 into a drawer non ceremoniously. No cash box, no dividers, just slid it in the drawer. Aside from it being randomly unorganized and everyone being super laid back, we knew about the road tax and insurance from previous years' Mongol Rally blogs, so as much as it seemed like we were being scammed with its sketchiness, this was normal.
We were handed back all our things, got a few smiles and sent on our way.
We drove down to the fenced gate where we were told we will have to hand over the stamped piece of paper to get out. We didn't have time to even blink when we pulled up because the soldier there came RUNNING over, jumped on our hood, and just slid across it. He came around the window with the biggest smile and cheerfully yelled MONGOL RALLLLLLLY!
This was going to be good.
He saw our Mongol Rally bracelets we were still wearing, put up his finger in a "just a second" motion, and ran back to his booth where he came out with his own bracelet someone must've given him earlier. He stretched his hand into the car and we all "cheers"ed our wrists together. The guy was hilarious and SO animated. With his broken English he did the stamping of the papers but made the whole process so funny while wanting to know all about our trip.
When he opened the gate for us, he bowed and did an exaggerated wave-through with an "ON TO BAKUUUUUU" cheer. It was a great way to enter the country, especially for a country where we read nothing but horrible things with warnings.
All in all, if it hadn't been for having to wait for the visa to be valid, it would've been a pretty smooth crossing and nothing like the blogs we've read. But then again, we detoured to the northern border crossing because we had read the southern guards tend to hate Mongol Ralliers. Plus, it's a more scenic route and were HIGHLY recommended to check out Sheki on the way to Baku.
There were a lot of cars parked just outside, probably the guards', and according to our gps map, it was all park, so we just drove thinking we'll tuck in by a tree and go into stealth mode with our green tarp. Before we found anywhere where we wouldn't get stuck in a ditch and wouldn't be on the side of the highway, we came across a gas station. It was lit up but no one seemed to be there. We saw a few cars parked and one even had a guy sleeping in the front seat. So we tucked ourselves into the corner of the lot and went to sleep.
We woke up to some men trying to sneak peeks between the tarp and the window and blasting music before 7am. This was the country many talked about and said to avoid in their blogs and to just zoom right past it as fast as possible.
We rolled over, cursing them, and went back to sleep.
When we woke up and started crawling out of bed, we had an audience. There were 3 men sitting at the gas station not even hiding the fact that they were watching us stretch and get out of bed. I smiled but avoided eye contact afterwards. One of the guys, the owner, walked over and when we established that we both spoke Russian, he began asking questions about our sleeping arrangements. He said he tried waking us up because it must have been a sauna in there and he had a couch we could've used. He offered us the showers around the back, there was coffee and breakfast, and when we asked about a river, he pointed us in the right direction - not even 50m away.
We also asked for the nearest currency exchange place, he asked how much we had, pulled out his phone, did a straight conversion rate, and exchanged it for us on the spot. He was very fascinated by our trip and was SO hospitable. He did double check that we were married though, because you know... sleeping in the same car and all...
We finally experienced the hospitality the Mongol Rally always raves about. Considering we were pretty let down by Georgia on that front, especially since everyone went on about it being THE hospitable country where we found almost no friendliness whatsoever aside from other tourists or people who came to work abroad, we left in excellent spirits looking forward to what this trip has to bring from here on out.