Visa Challenges in Baku
Today is one of those “OMG, this is what the Mongol Rally is all about” days.
This morning Charlie and I left the apartment we’ve been staying in here in Baku, Azerbaijan (thanks DJ & Maggie!), and made our way to the Turkmenistan Embassy to pick-up my transit visa. It seemed like a simple process. The Turkmenistan Consulate in Istanbul said my visa would be ready for pick-up in Baku, so I didn’t foresee any problems.
We left the apartment early, packing the car, and preparing ourselves mentally to board a ferry after the Embassy, sail across the Caspian Sea, and dock in Turkmenistan.
Finding the embassy was difficult. I navigated us to the address given online, but we couldn’t find it and ended up asking a taxi driver. In typical Azerian fashion the driver explained to us where the embassy was, gave up when he figured out we had no idea what he was saying, got in his car, and lead us to the street corner we needed to turn down. Man, I just love the men in this country!
By 8:45 a.m. I was standing outside the door to the Embassy, waiting for it to open; and I was the only one there! “Yes, I can get in, flash a smile, and get my visa dealt with before they are bombarded with Mongol Ralliers” I said to myself.
Before the gates opened, Mongol Rally peeps started to arrive, but I was staying positive, “There will be no problems. I’ll pick-up my visa and we can take the ferry to Turkmenistan today”, I repeated to myself. I had arrived early, so there should be no problem getting in right away an getting my visa squared away.
I didn’t plan on Ishmael (a local man helping a large group of ralliers with visas and the ferry) jumping ahead of me and going inside first; shutting everyone else out. I have to admit, I was a little annoyed. Twenty or so minutes later Ishmael came out and I went to go inside.
“I’m sorry, you cannot get a visa without a letter of invitation (LOI)” Ishmael said to me as I started to walk inside the Embassy. “I don’t need an LOI, I’m getting a transit visa. Charlie got her visa in Istanbul without an LOI.” I replied confidently. Ishmael offered to take my passport inside and inquire about my visa, and I let him. It seemed like a simple process. He was a local. Perhaps it would help.
Twenty or so minutes later Ishmael walks outside again, my passport in hand, “You cannot get a visa without an LOI, I am sorry” he said. I was frustrated and explained once again that Charlie already had hers without an LOI, and that when I applied in Istanbul, they said I could pick-up my visa in Baku.
“We can all go back inside if you want, and you can talk to them directly” Ishmael offered. Charlie and I agreed and followed him up the spiral stone staircase, and into the sparsely decorated office. The young man behind a desk smiled, and his older counterpart offered us a seat.
I explained my situation once more and received the same answer Ishmael had given me outside.
“Isn’t there a way to check? I applied in Istanbul. They said I could pick-up my visa here in Baku.” I pleaded. The older man said he could not give me a visa without an LOI. We sat, smiled, and begged for their help.
Over the next hour, I joked with the officials. I offered to pay extra if expedited service was available. Whenever they would speak Turkmen and look at Charlie and me, I would put my thumbs up and smile like a dork; which would make them laugh. We sat, and sat. They checked their computers, twice. They looked under my last name a few times, they made phone calls. Nothing was working. I wasn’t showing up anywhere. Ishmael offered to provide an LOI through his tour company, but that would take 2-3 days. I said yes out of desperation.
I’d like to go to Turkmenistan, but if we have to go to Kazakhstan instead, that is fine with me. Charlie doesn’t really feel that way. Her heart is set on Turkmenistan. So, I’m going through all this bureaucracy crap to appease her.
An hour after we sit down Ishmael says he will contact the embassy in Istanbul and fix my visa problem. He gives me his phone number, and I’m told to call him the next day, and that we’ll come back to the embassy on Wednesday to get my visa (the embassy is usually only open on Mondays and Fridays for visas).
Great. We’re delayed two days, but there is still hope.
New challenge. The visa on our car has expired, which means we need to park the car at the cargo dock until we can get on a boat to Turkmenistan. Ishmael tells us to meet him at the ferry dock, and he will help us park the car until we can catch a boat. Awesome. Done, and done!
We met Ishmael and about 10 Mongol Rally teams at the ferry dock around noon, along with several Mongol Rally teams who were hoping to take a boat to either Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan. As Charlie got out to mingle, I stayed in the car, wanting to rest my eyes a little bit and wrap my head around our morning at the Turkmenistan Embassy. It had been a full morning and I was ready to park the car and take a taxi to a cafe with wifi.
A short time later the driver’s door opened and Ishmael climbed in. Charlie goes into the backseat. Apparently, he had decided to drive our car to the cargo port, making us the leading car of a Mongol Rally convoy. Teams were late arriving at the meeting point, and Ishmael wasn’t happy. To be fair the streets of Baku are difficult to navigate on the best of days, let alone today when many key streets to the port have been closed for construction. When Ishmael was satisfied that enough people had arrived he honked our horn and took off down the street.
Ishmael revved Irinia – our car – way passed our liking. Revving to 6,000 RPMs before shifting from second to third gear. Poor Irinia, she is not used to being driven so roughly.I gripped the door as Ishmael sped up, driving 140 km/hr at one point.
“You know that some of these rally cars cannot drive more than 80 km/hr right? We’ll lose people” I said calmly, “I’m a good rally driver” Ishmael replied.
I didn’t dare look around. I focused on a point to the side of the car and ignored all the times he almost hit another car, claiming they didn’t know how to drive.
Ishmael parked our car near the gate and had the other teams pull in behind us, then he went to work arranging passage for the teams who would sail to Turkmenistan.
Charlie and I waited.
We mingled with the other teams, and soon Ishmael was outside, calling names, and asking for driver passports and car paperwork.
Charlie and I waited.
Ishmael came back and asked for passenger passports and his fee (15 USD).
Charlie and I waited.
Ishmael came back and asked Charlie to get her passport and our car paperwork as we needed to leave it at the port.
Eventually, the teams going to Turkmenistan were told to get into their cars and go through the port gates to a staging area. There was definite excitement in the air as they got ready to board a ship.
Charlie and I waited.
The teams ended up parking on the other side of a large wall to wait a little longer.
Ishmael continued to do whatever Ishmael does, and Charlie and I waited, and waited. At one point Ishmael came out and told us that we could take our car with us and that he just needed to file some paperwork. An hour (or possibly longer) later the ‘paperwork’ was finished and the three of us were once again in Irina, racing down the crazy streets of Baku.
Charlie and I spent just over four hours at the cargo port. Why? I have no flipping clue! We were supposed to leave our car, but after three hours of hanging out, Ishmael said he could file paperwork so we didn’t have to leave our car. Normally I would have taken off instead of waiting around, but I need Ishmael’s help to sort out my Turkmen visa, so I wore a slightly patient face.
By the time we returned to the apartment we’ve been staying in we were dirty, tired, and feeling completely zapped. I had accomplished nothing and felt like I had been run over by a Mack truck. I had a cold shower, took my laptop into the bedroom, put on a movie, laid down, and mentally checked out. Today was more exhausting than our 18 hour driving day from Budapest to Vama Veche.
Now I know what to expect on Wednesday when we go back to the port, this time to board a boat bound for Turkmenistan. I hope!