I actually entered Azerbaijan twice – the first time courtesy of an entirely disinterested border guard on passport control.
Wearing that exasperated expression common to all people who find themselves suffering from serious computer issues, the (female) guard smashed two hammy fists on her keyboard and thumbed through my passport repeated.
“Where is your visa?”, she enquired, wearily. I pointed at the large sign above the desk which read ‘NO VISA’, and mentioned that I wanted to get one at the airport.
She rolled her eyes, muttered something inaudible (and likely unprintable), stamped my passport, and ushered me through. I was in. I had managed to save myself USD100, courtesy of an unconcerned border guard. I skipped to the luggage carousel, and began to think of the delights on which I could spend this unexpected windfall.
My recent experiences of Uzbekistan nagged away in the back of my mind. All the police roadblocks, the passport checks ad nauseam in the Tashkent metro, each minor official and hotel-owner examining my visa with unparalleled precision: I had no idea whether I’d find another paranoid police state in Azerbaijan – given the hefty price tag for the visa, it suggested as much.
My Swiss travelling companions had been dispatched tail between legs to the ‘Visa’ desk in the corner, which was closed. I looked inquisitively in their direction; my lost expression soon alerted another guard. Moments later, I was surrounded by half a dozen men and women in green uniform, demanding to know why I didn’t have a visa.
“You have entered the country illegally”, explained a hysterical woman with fierce green eyes and chestnut hair. “Where is your visa?”
“They let me through!”, I explained, the word ‘illegally’ still ringing in my ears, and visions of being chained to a radiator pipe in darkness multiplying in my mind.