Our world-traveling adventure seeker explores Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – all part of Caucasus – and learns a lesson in proper travel prep.
It’s said that great journeys begin with a first step. But what happens if that first step lands in the middle of a puddle? In a recent travel adventure, this time to Caucasus, I stumbled into one. It was an embarrassing episode exacerbated by my own cockiness and I learned a humble lesson to not let past success blind my planning.
For those who don’t know, Caucasus is a multi-country region bordered by Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Caspian and Black Sea. It’s an area filled with history and culture, and is covered with some of the world’s most breathtaking mountain ranges, including Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain peak in Europe. My plan was to fly to Baku, Azerbaijan for 5 days, then take an overnight 12-hour train to Tbilisi in Georgia to participate in a tango marathon and explore the city. From there, I would hire a taxi to drive the 6 hours to Yerevan in Armenia to immerse myself for a few days in Kim Kardashian’s cultural roots.
Considering myself to be a well-experienced traveler, my planning was limited to sitting in front of a map and my computer the night before departure, followed by a 15-minute mental checklist: weather, passport, visa, tickets, quickest route with least amount of connections, mail (ask neighbor to pick up), house plants (they died a long time ago). That was it. The next day I took a Lyft to LAX with one carry-on, ready (I thought) to arrive in beautiful Azerbaijan.
After my connection in Frankfurt, I arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan at 8 p.m., disembarked and speed-walked to immigration. Quite proud of myself, I was the first to arrive and presented my passport with picture page opened and gave a “good evening” to the stern looking officer.
I’m always nice to the gate keepers of nations; after all, at that point, you’re in a kind of no-man’s land. You haven’t truly arrived in another country until the sweet sound of that stamp hits your passport. This gentleman was taking a few extra minutes to thoroughly examine every page of my heavily inked passport, to the point that the people I’d elbowed in the jet-way passed me by, getting their sweet sounding stamp and looking back at me with gleeful smirks.
Then the questions started, “Purpose of trip?… Length of stay… Hotel?… Occupation?…”.
My answer to his last question yielded an interesting reply, “You’re an airline pilot for United Airlines? Were you involved in the removal and dragging off of that doctor?”
He, of course, was referring to that unfortunate incident of a passenger being mishandled on a UAL flight, an event that was captured on video and went viral all over the world, even in Azerbaijan.
I felt like a minority being racially profiled, but in this case, judged by the acts of a few fellow employees. I smiled and assured him I had nothing to do with the incident while small beads of sweat appeared on my forehead.
He then did what I call the “Heimlich” of the immigration world, instead of stamping and saying “good day” he up-chucked me to another booth – not good. The officer there instructed me that I needed a visa to enter the country. I presented him with the website on my phone that showed no visa was required for U.S. citizens.
He scrolled down and told me to read the fine print: “Visa required and only available at airport for purchase if flying Azerbaijan Airlines non-stop from JFK.”
Wow, that’s one helluva marketing leg-up for Azerbaijan Airlines. I tried everything to convince him… could he pretend I flew on Azerbaijan airlines? No. Could I get a visa at the airport by paying a fee? No. Could I use the online Azerbaijan electronic visa? No. How about dragging me like a UAL passenger around the terminal then giving me a visa? No.
OK then, what’s the plan?
He said I would be detained and put on the next flight back to Frankfurt. But I was already here. I didn’t want to go back to Germany.
I finally convinced him to let me take the 50-minute flight to Tbilisi, Georgia where no visa was required. But there was a catch: the flight didn’t leave for another 15 hours. So, I was kept under watchful eye in a deserted part of the terminal, allowed to use the restroom and eat at a nearby restaurant. It wasn’t really airport jail, but it was one big puddle of my own making.
I persevered and eventually arrived in Tbilisi. My tango marathon didn’t start for another 5 days so I made my way by taxi to Yerevan, to start the Armenian leg of my trip. For those up on their world geography and wondering why I didn’t fly from Azerbaijan to Armenia, it’s because those two countries are at war over a land dispute. It’s not a good idea to fly over their borders… unless you have a death wish.
Yerevan is a wonderful city with a fully renovated city center. Someone described it as the “city without a memory” because so many buildings have been torn down and replaced. Even old town is being re-imaged into new old town. Glimpses of the old world can still be seen here and there, but only in small alleys or between new construction where owners refused to sell out to “progress.” The metro system, built during the Soviet era, has escalators traveling deeper than one could imagine.
The Armenian genocide museum plays a prominent role in telling the story of this controversial and horrible time in its history. Turkey denies it ever happened and America plays political volleyball trying to keep everyone happy.
One prominent sight in Armenia is the churches. Armenians built churches not of the awe inspiring, over-the-top type, but more modest and simple. Maybe the thinking is that it’s better to build 1000 simple churches than a few gigantic, ornate ones.
Armenians are very good at wine and cognac making. Their awards and honors are talked about with great pride. But it dawned in me why alcohol plays such a prominent role in Armenian life. It hit me as I was admiring Mount Ararat, an awe inspiring snow-capped mountain range that overshadows Yerevan. It represents Armenian pride, struggle and history… and belongs to Turkey now. It’s a constant reminder of lost glory and lost territory.
It was time to get back to Tbilisi in Eastern Georgia for discovery of the world through tango eyes. I checked into Hotel Lucky next to a Thai massage place a block from Freedom Square. I didn’t connect the dots at first, but it all made sense after my first night. The front desk told me in broken English to ask for “massage only… unless you want to get lucky.”
Tbilisi is vibrant and energetic, full of character and life. Cars speed down grand boulevards, making crossing streets on foot an act of faith. Old town has churches, a synagogue and mosque all within eyesight of each other. The Kura River runs through the city, but the really fun thing is the city’s smelly sulfur hot baths fed by a natural spring.
Unlike Yerevan, Tbilisi is preserving their old town and making it into a tourist Mecca. I tried several times to get a last-minute hot sulfur bath appointment but everything was booked. Georgia may have gotten its independence from the Soviets and fought a few wars, but now, instead of invading with tanks, these days the Russians are taking over with tour buses.
The countries making up the Caucasus all have land disputes with each other. Georgia is in a battle with Russia, Azerbaijan is in a dispute with Armenia and Armenia struggles with Turkey. But one place that sees the beauty of different cultures coming together to create love and harmony is through tango. Every dance throughout the marathon was like a voyage through the Caucasus. We all shared a slice of life and found common ground, leaving behind the politics of division outside. The construct of nationalism, religion, creed, socio-economic or tribal mindset has no oxygen to breathe within tango’s embrace. Maybe I should have asked the Azerbaijan immigration officer to dance the tango with me — I might have been given my freedom with a lucky visa.
Copyright © Carl Paradise/2017 Singular Communications, LLC.
Carl Paradise is a professional pilot for a major airline, a member of SingularCity and an occasional contributor to Singular magazine. He does not work as a journalist or reporter, but enjoys traveling, dancing the tango, practicing yoga, fine vegetarian cuisine and sharing his experiences with our readers.