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Wednesday, October 19, 2011 | Yerevan to Baku

After I had completed my reports yesterday, I decided to go to the same car park I had previously chosen. It’s calm here and relaxing – at least that’s what I thought. Scarcely had my head touched the pillow than there was a furious knocking at the door. What on earth! I staggered sleepily to the door to discover no fewer than eight policemen looking up at me. Apparently they can’t quite make up their minds whether I and/or the vehicle constitute a major traffic hazard. They examine my passport and go through the vehicle documents and everything seems to be OK. Perhaps I can now get some sleep? No such luck. A little bit later there is again a knock at the door and slightly fewer policemen indicate that they would like me to accompany them to the police station which, I now realise, is just across the way. After some explanations in a rather sparsely-furnished room, everything seemed to be in order, and, once they had noted my passport number, I was able to get back to bed.

But back to business! October 19, up early as usual, and on my way to my 10.30 appointment with Hytex Plastic, which is about 10 minutes away from my parking spot. On the way I have to stop at traffic lights and a middle-aged man comes over to me and starts talking in German. He tells me that he is a translator by profession but as a sideline he organises in Germany motorhome tours to Armenia. And as we speak, a procession of 20 camper vans is on its way from Iran to Armenia and he will be meeting them at the border. A small world indeed!

Shortly afterwards I pull up at the offices of Hytex Plastic, where they are waiting for me at the door. It is a truly remarkable building. My hosts are Mr Samvel Tumanyan, General Director, and Mr Levon Meliksetyan, Chairman, and over coffee and chocolate brandy beans (delicious!), I learn about the company. Hytex Plastic is a preform manufacturer with a capacity of 140 million preforms per year, and amongst others is the main distributor for Coca-Cola Armenia and Georgia. The company is equipped with Husky HyPET machines. Although I had an inkling in advance of some of the political issues bedeviling the region, everything became much clearer during our discussions. Currently the political situation between Turkey and Azerbaijan is precarious - the border crossings between the two countries have long since been closed, and this forces Armenia to concentrate on its domestic market. The only export opportunities are for the most part limited to Georgia. With the scope for developing its markets seriously restricted, Hytex Plastic is focusing on building an ongoing cooperation with its main customer, Coca-Cola, with whom Hytex has recently cemented a new 5 year contract.

It is now midday, and I am slowly gearing myself up for the trek to Baku. The itinerary is not straightforward. I have to re-enter Georgia in order to be able to continue to Azerbaijan. When I reach the Georgian border, it is already dark and it has started to rain again. This time it takes around three quarters of an hour to complete the formalities, and the various tolls have to be paid in local currency so I have to queue up at the exchange kiosk. There is a long line of trucks in front of me which might have given a few problems. Eventually I get to the border crossing and they wave me through. I’ve hardly got more than a few yards when they shout at me to stop, having suddenly decided that they needed to inspect the interior of the vehicle. They go through everything – storage lockers, files and paperwork, every last thing is opened up and inspected even things that have come adrift during the journey. Finally, apparently satisfied with their endeavours, they let me through.

To the Azerbaijani border is only about 30km, on a road that might be politely described as a national disgrace, until just before the border it improves. My visa is only valid as from tomorrow so I decide that my best plan is to leave Georgian territory and linger in no-man’s land until midnight. I get over the border quickly and without problem. I have the time to replace the gas canister, as the old one had run out, and I rustle up a bite to eat. Around 11:30 pm I'm ready for the off. It’s a wise precaution, as various people have told me that it can take an age to get over the Azerbaijan border.

As I feared, the fun and games started at the border. There is already quite a crowd waiting. I have to get out of the vehicle and go up into a building where my baggage is inspected and visa checked. I'm in a queue to see the passport officer, who speaks no English and refuses to let me proceed. The political situation with Armenia comes back into my mind. The reason I can’t go through is that in my passport the Armenian visa has been affixed next to the Azerbaijan visa, which for some reason is a huge issue. I am led away to one side whilst other travellers are allowed through. The next development is not reassuring. Two soldiers approach, one of whom speaks a little English. He asks me where I come from and I reply “Germany“. From his puzzled expression I gather he is unfamiliar with the country so I try again. "Allemania" I say, helpfully. His eyes glaze over. "Armenia?", he responds. I’m fast running out of ideas. I try him out with Janet and John terms like "journalist" or rather more optimistically "Ell & Nikki interview"? He looks at me blankly. The lights are on, as they say, but nobody’s home. He gives up, says something to the man at the counter, who grumpily photocopies the passport and stamps my visa. With a dismissive wave of his hands he lets me go through.

All, however, is not over yet. The next hurdle is the X-ray, and not just for me but for all the stuff in the van, every last bit of it. Another soldier motions me into a side room, where I find myself in the presence of, I suppose, the Big Chief of Border Control. He speaks a little German. What they proceed to tell me comes as an unpleasant surprise (something of an understatement). I can only enter the country if I agree to deposit the princely sum of $ 11,000 with them for the Editourmobil. Some quick thinking is called for on my part. I tell them about the trip and the meeting with Ell & Nikki in Baku. In a moment of inspiration I suddenly remember a letter I received prior to my prior to departure from the Azerbaijan Ministry for Youth and Sports. I fish it out of my pocket and show them. It is from Ell and Nikki’s manager and it is a sort of official invitation to the interview. The Big Chief reads it, glances up at me, and finally says OK, you don’t have to pay anything, you can go. Sighs of relief all round. But, he says, when you leave the country, you must do so at this border post. This could be tricky, since I’m only doing the outward part of the Go to Brau Beviale trip as far as Baku. The return part of the journey will be done by one of my colleagues together with PETpla.net CEO Alexander Büchler, and the two of them, not I, will be responsible for the border crossing. By then, I will be on my way to India on business.

I’m back at the Editourmobil and find myself giving a conducted tour to about 20 different people due to the buzz the vehicle has caused, but is a welcome change from the previous official inspection. Eventually they wave me on, everything is in order. An hour or so later, I’m over the Azerbaijan border.

After all the Sturm und Drang at the border, I’m just about all in and after just a few kilometres I pull in at a large petrol station to park up for the night. My company for the night is giant HGVs and luxury coaches. Two Azerbaijani coach drivers come over to have a look at the Editourmobil. They can’t take their eyes off the vehicle, and of course I’m delighted to show them round. They invite me over to the restaurant for a cup of chai tea. Our conversation, such as it is, is conducted by means of much hand waving, and graphic facial expressions but we seem to understand each other. Eventually we say goodbye and I thankfully go back to the van and fall straight into bed, absolutely shattered. It is 1:30 in the morning.