A Disputed Territory (and Guidebook)

Azerbaijan – June 2010

You learn a few things while traveling. One is that some of the fiercest enemies tend to be neighbors. When I was in Armenia, two of its four borders with neighboring countries were closed. Its border with Turkey was closed due to that country’s denial of the atrocities committed against Armenia nearly a century before, and its border with Azerbaijan was closed due to a disputed territory in Armenia that was gifted to Azerbaijan by Stalin in the 1920s.

Something else traveling teaches you is to be weary of quiet border crossings. The officials there tend to be bored and have nothing but time on their hands. I’m crossing into Azerbaijan through Georgia in part because its border with Armenia is closed. In fact, the night before, my guide tells my group that anything mentioning Armenia or written in Armenian may be confiscated at the border. As Armenia was the first Christian country, my souvenir was a New Testament written in Armenian, which I made sure to well conceal as I didn’t want it taken.

Unfortunately, it’s a quiet border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. You exit Georgia then walk about a kilometer of no man’s land to the checkpoint in Azerbaijan. As we’re the only ones crossing, the Azerbaijani officials decide to look through the luggage of every other person with a fine-toothed comb. I should have been the first chosen as I was initially second in line, but one in our group cut in front of me just as our line was forming, so she got her luggage well inspected while I was able to smuggle my Armenian New Testament across without incident.

Many of us are carrying the same Lonely Planet guidebook that covers the three countries of our tour—Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan—but only one of us had taken extensive notes in their copy and he was one of the ones inspected and his guidebook confiscated. The officials didn’t like that the book included information on both Armenia and Azerbaijan, due to the conflicted territory. Thinking it may be because they thought the book lists the territory as Armenian, our guide shows the officials that it includes Nagorno-Karabakh in a separate chapter, but they still won’t have it.

After my unfortunate companion made it through, I offer him my copy of the guidebook, but his notes are lost, and we only have a few days left to travel. I then notice an old-timer from our group, who also made it through unscathed, take out his camera. Not wanting to draw attention to him, I tell him under my breath that he should put it away. By now we’ve nearly all crossed, and I don’t want this being the reason those of us who weren’t searched to now be searched. He puts his camera away but a few minutes later I catch him at it again. Small talk has never been my strong point, but I come up with something to discuss to distract him till we’re all safely across, less one Lonely Planet guide.

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