16 November 2013

Cavorting in the Caucasus: Getting Stuck at the Armenia-Georgia Border

I should say that in this trip involved the border in which I had the most difficulty in crossing. Yes, this is for me, the Georgian border. I had a little bit of a hard time entering the Georgian border, and I figured it merited its own entry, even though I already alluded to this incident in my summary post. In short, I was stuck in the Armenia-Georgia border, having exited Armenia, but haven't entered Georgia yet, and for 2 hours, I didn't know whether I would have to go back to Armenia or be able to proceed to Georgia.

So, let me recount how the day started. An Irish fellow who I met in the hostel and I decided to head out early one morning to cross the border into Georgia. We were then staying in Yerevan, and Tbilisi is 6 hours away by minivan. So, after eating breakfast in the hostel, we caught a taxi to take us to the minivan station. Our guidebook said that minivans toward Tbilisi departed every hour, so we were there early enough to catch the 9 AM minivan. While waiting for the minivan to fill up, we got acquainted with two other travelers, a Slovenian girl and a Lebanese-Filipino guy. All four of us took the four seats located at the back of the minivan.

3 hours later, we made a 15-minute stop at a small shack in the town of Alaverdi. The shack featured perhaps the ugliest toilets I have seen in the trip, as well as a little kitchen that sold some snacks. After that stop, we proceeded to the border, which we reached about 4 and a half hours from the time we departed Yerevan.

First, we had to exit Armenia. So we got out of the minivan, and together with our passports, we lined up at the pedestrian line. Our luggage was still in the van. It took us about 20 minutes to get our passports stamped with an Armenian exit stamp. After that, we walked across the bridge that links Armenia and Georgia over a river whose name I didn't know. On the other side, our minivan was waiting for us, and I saw that the driver unloaded everyone's luggage. He told us that we should take our luggage and then queue inside the building to enter Georgia.

I should say that the Georgian facilities look swankier than the Armenian ones. While Armenia doesn't even have a building to shelter travelers as they cross the border, Georgia has this swanky glass facility, and it is air-conditioned! This was the building that I entered, and as I was clutching my luggage, I stood in front of a huge industrial air conditioner first, as I saw that the line was long anyway.

Anyway, this is where the problem started. I already knew that I would be needing some lari, so I already reserved a small amount of euros (50 EUR) to change into lari, and I was told that there are money changing facilities at the border. I also know that Filipinos can enter Georgia on a visa-on-arrival scheme, where we would need to pay 50 lari (about 25 EUR). So, I figured I would be all right and it would not be a problem to enter.

I was incorrect.

And guess what the problem is? The problem is that I have a temporary residence permit from Germany. See, there are multiple ways in which a Filipino citizen can be exempt from paying the 50 lari visa-on-arrival sticker. I as a Filipino could have gotten a free Georgian visa if I had a multiple entry Schengen visa (or US, or Canadian, or UK visa). I don't have this, I have something better than this, a temporary residence permit. Or, I as a Filipino could also have gotten a free Georgian visa at the border if I had a permanent residence permit from any EU country (or US or Canada). Unfortunately, I don't have this, I have something less than this, a temporary residence permit. A permanent residence permit from Germany is in the form of a card, and the Georgian authorities were asking me if I had that.

So, that problem was that I didn't fit any of their two exemption categories. Well, it wasn't too obvious whether I fit those categories or not, and so the Georgian authorities took their time in figuring out whether I did so or not. I obviously didn't fit the Schengen visa exemption category, so they were trying to figure out whether my residence permit (which takes the form of two stickers affixed in my passport) is also equivalent to the residence card. I even tried arguing that I am indeed a resident of Germany, showing them my business card, which has my professional title (Dr. Dery and all that jazz) and a business address in Berlin, proving that I was indeed a resident in Germany.

This process took a long time, and I was told to step out of the line and wait at the side, while they were all consulting whether they should let me in or not. In the meantime, I watched lots of other travelers cross the border and meet their minivan on the other side of the border.

You know, I even volunteered and told them that I am willing to pay the 50 lari visa fee, irrespective of whether I fit the exemption categories or not. I just didn't want to be left at the border. However, the Georgian authorities told me that they don't want to charge me with 50 lari if I can be legally exempted with it. Talk about non-corruption.

So what did they do? They scanned my passport and sent it to the airport to be consulted with officials there. Remember, I was at a land border. This whole process took 2 hours. And yes, the sad thing was that my minivan finally left without me, carrying 3 less passengers than when it started in Yerevan (there were 2 Iranian travelers, and they were not able to convince the Georgian authorities on the legitimacy of their purpose to travel into Georgia, so they were flat out denied entry).

Now here's the sad thing: after waiting for 2 hours, the Georgian officials came out and told me that unfortunately, I had to pay the 50 lari. So I did. You know, I still have a hard time figuring out whether I would be annoyed with them or not; they are, after all, trying to do everything correctly, but doing so just took time. Remember that I did volunteer to pay the 50 lari already in the beginning. If they listened to me, then I could have caught my minivan. But of course, they had to do it their own way. At least, I should say that the Georgian authorities were very polite and always assured me to just wait patiently, as they were doing everything they can to figure out my case. When they finally figured it out, one of them even gave me a hug, welcoming me into their country. As I said, I find it hard to get annoyed at them.

Anyway, I got my visa stamp, then I loaded my luggage into the X-ray scanner, and a few seconds later, voila! I was in Georgia. However, I don't have a ride, and there is 70 kilometers left from the border to Tbilisi. This only means one thing: I need to hitch-hike.

Granted, this is not the first time I got a ride from a stranger. Yes, back in 2007, when I was in Quito, I was stuck at a hill for an hour because I forgot to tell my cab driver to wait for me. This hill had a huge statue of Mary at the top, providing good views of the city, but every traveler was advised to take a cab instead of walking due to criminals who want your wallet. So I did, but I forgot to tell him to wait. So he left, and I got stranded there, until a pick-up truck who was unloading trinkets and souvenirs was about to descend back into the city, and I asked him if he could take me with him.

Anyway, so that was my only hitch-hiking experience so far. I lugged my backpack, and exited the building. I then walked to the road. I could see the various license plates of the cars that were exiting; some were Russian, some Armenian, some Georgian, and so forth. I flagged some, but they didn't stop. However, 5 minutes later, I flagged a Georgian car, and I saw that the backseat was empty, and they stopped. They asked if I was heading to Tbilisi, and a quick nod of the head opened the car's back door. An hour later, I was in Tbilisi.

So there, all of that took a whole day, and by the time I got to my hostel, I was so sweating and exhausted. However, I met up again with my Irish friend and the two other travelers that we met in the marshrutka, and we went out for beers, that ended a very eventful day in this trip. The Georgian border was the most difficult border I have crossed so far, but the scenery and the food and the hospitality of the people I met inside was really amazing and on a league of their own.

2 comments:

  1. Ah, border crossing... always an adventure, no matter where in the world!

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    1. Zhu,

      Oh my, looking back, it was quite an adventure and I am sort of glad I experienced it, but when it was happening, there were times in which I really was worried, and while waiting, I just wanted to imagine nice scenes in my head, taking refuge in my mental happy place. :)

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