Georgia-Armenia border crossing: When are the straight guys really cons?

Armenian visa

Armenian visa

Another gloomy day for a border crossing. The Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border between Georgia and Armenia was another one of those borders where the driver and passenger have to go through separately. Mook cruised through in the car while I went into a narrow building for immigration, of course met not by a neat queue but a crowd of people passive-agressively edging each other forward with forceful nudges in the back.

A family jumped to the front of the queue, and aside from a few quiet grumbles no one said a word. A few of the older dudes were in tracksuits and had knuckles full of gold rings, so I figured they might be some kind of local mafia. On the other side of the crowd two immigration officers grimaced whenever they looked our way. Beyond that I saw Mook, already through immigration.

After about 15 minutes I made it through, and we hopped in the car to drive to Armenian immigration. Germans can enter Armenia visa free but unfortunately Americans can’t, so again I hopped out and headed to a small window with a grumpy-looking immigration dude inside. I filled out the form and handed it to the dude. “Money money money,” he said, and I thought he was asking for a bribe–something Armenians are notorious for but the government has attempted to crack down on. First I feigned naivety, then asked how much. “Three-thousand AMD,” (about €5.70) he said—the price of the visa that was posted on the wall. Oh.

He wouldn’t let me pay in US dollars (I’d read online you could), and told me to go through to the customs building and exchange money there. I hate money exchange offices, especially ones at the border, so I jumped at the sight of an ATM at the side of the customs building. It was being eagerly watched by two homeless-looking dudes carrying bright red bank cards, which they waved at me while they said something in Armenian. I ignored them. The machine itself was grimy and the screen barely worked. Not the kind of ATM you want to stick your card into, but I did anyway. It looked legit, and spit out both Armenian dram and (thankfully) my card.

Back at the visa window, I handed the dude the money and he stuck the visa in my passport. I met Mook at the other side of immigration and we hopped in Jagger, relieved that this border crossing was relatively quick and painless. But at the gate an old guy in uniform with an amazing white moustache stopped the car, and in his best broken-yet-sophisticated English told us we were morons and had completely skipped customs. Oh.

Back at the square, grimy little building, we headed into a room that had a sign over the door saying something about customs. It was in fact the most amazing office ever. There were dudes loitering around in small groups, some with cigarettes in their hands, some with plastic binders full of documents, and all of them in leather jackets. A row of four desks stretched the length of the room, staffed by three guys also smoking in their leather jackets. On each desk was a yellowing computer that was probably struggling to run Windows 95. There was an ageing copy machine on one of the desks, and a laser jet printer that one older leather jacket dude was struggling to put paper inside. The dirty linoleum flooring was scarred with cigarette burns. A clock on the back wall displayed the wrong time.

One guy called us over, and thankfully he spoke some English. We handed him the car documents and he told us to pay 24,000 AMD (about €46) to a guy seated in a little booth at the far end of the room. He yelled something at the guy in the booth, handed a piece of paper and sent us over.

The booth was as yellowed as the rest of the room, but over the top stretched a sign with the logo of an Armenian bank. Inside the room was filled with boxes, paper, an old computer and printer, and stacks of money. On the wall was an electric sign displaying exchange rates. It was here that the whole operation started to feel a bit dodgy, but we exchanged some dollars for dram and handed the guy 25,000 AMD. He took the money and handed us a receipt. We asked him to cough up our 1000 AMD change, and he grumpily passed us a handful of small coins.

Back at the first desk, we handed the guy our receipt and he went to work, photocopying our car documents and clicking away on his ancient keyboard. Finally he printed out some customs documents, two pages in Armenian and one in English. He explained that we had to keep the paper and hand it over when we left the country, and we were expected to pay a 8,600 AMD (€16.50) “closing fee”. It seemed illogical for us to pay to take our car out of the country, especially after having to pay so much to drive it in, but we really just wanted to put an end to this strange ordeal so we agreed.

We seemed done, and he passed the papers down to one of his leather-jacketed coworkers. Then he looked at us. “Okay, now you have to pay our broker free,” he grinned, “It’s 3000 AMD.” One thousand for each of them, no doubt. We were already annoyed, but this was the proverbial straw. Mook started to protest but the guy just shrugged. “We’re a broker agency.” For customs??

We handed over the cash, took our signed and stamped form, and headed back to the car. The uniformed dude gave it a cursory look at the gate and sent us on our way. Border crossed, finally!! But as soon as we drove through the gate, on both sides of the road more leather-jacketed dudes hollered at us. “Insurance! Insurance!” They pointed at their dodgy-looking shacks brandished with insurance company names.

Fuck that shit, we’ve coughed up enough money to these guys today, we thought. And besides, we hadn’t needed car insurance in Georgia. Armenia is an even more sketchy country… why would we need it here?

Free from extortionate touts, we headed towards Yerevan. Days later when we wanted to leave the country, we looked up the customs procedures for Armenia and discovered that the money we’d paid at the border was completely above-board (except for maybe the brokerage fee), and in fact in Armenia CAR INSURANCE IS MANDATORY. With a large fine if you’re caught driving uninsured. Thankfully we didn’t get in an accident, didn’t get stopped by the cops, and they didn’t ask for proof of insurance when we left the country.

But lesson learned, read up about border crossings before you actually do them!!

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