I have lost my keys before. I have donated clothing to the Salvation Army. I’ve lazily neglected to pick up loose change off the ground that I dropped. I have thrown away a perfectly good functional VCR. But this was new ground for me.
I discarded my 1993 Jeep Cherokee. I and my two friends had bought this car in Budapest for 2000 Euros in Budapest. We had driven over 7000 km from Budapest to Yerevan. We took 17 days and we spent time in 11 different countries. This rally was named the Caucasian Challenge, and we were one of the ten teams that had participated in the rally.
For a fee of 22,700 Dram (around $55), we were allowed to drive the Jeep Cherokee lovingly known as the Yerevan Express into Armenia from neighboring Georgia. The paperwork I received allowed the car to remain in the country for 15 days. My tourist visa allowed for me to stay in Armenia for 21 days. We crossed at the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo (the Armenia-Georgia border crossing) border, a dusty, quiet border station.
The Georgian border was modern and streamlined. Despite that fact, I was charged an additional fee for overstaying my car’s “Georgian visa”. I repeatedly questioned the Georgian official who frustratingly responded “just because”. While paying the fine in the office I randomly ran into my Persian friend who resides in Yerevan. Small world.
We drove through no man’s land, and in a couple of moments we had entered Armenia. The Armenian side appeared to be an antiquated remote outpost in contrast to Georgia. My visa was issued quickly, but I spent about two hours in two offices to sort the paperwork for the Yerevan Express. In the custom officials’ broken English and my poor Armenian, I eventually received my paperwork. The one take away I understood was the car could not remain in Armenia beyond 15 days. Or there would be an issue.
After touring Armenia and its little brother Nagorno-Karabakh, I had arrived in cosmopolitan Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. My plan was to raffle the Yerevan Express at a party at a local club. As we read the numbers of the third raffle ticket, a winner was produced. Ara, an 18 year old university student was the proud victor. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be a fairy tale ending.
Ara’s father happened to be an attorney. Working with him, we planned to register the truck in his son’s name. The Byzantine governmental maze was about to be entered. Over a six days period, we could not manage to transfer the registration to his son. Multiple answers were supplied by various government officials. We developed an alternative plan. In quick succession, we attempted to donate the truck to a NGO, and then simply forfeit it to the Armenian government. None of these options were successful. We were unable to find a solution, and the clock was ticking.
The truck could not remain in Armenia past 15 days, or I would be subject to penalties in the thousands of dollars. And possibly be prevented from leaving the country. The government is concerned that people would bring cars into Armenia and sell the vehicle in Armenia attempting to avoid the sales tax.
So the solution I dreaded was put into action. On an early Wednesday morning, the day before my departure to the US, I began the three hour journey to the Georgian border at the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo crossing. It was a pleasant journey after exiting the highly congested city. I was enjoying the mountainous views and the crisp sunny weather. A silent hitch hiking soldier joined me for the winding ride through the Debed Canyon.
I hoped my plan would be properly executed so I could avoid any penalties when departing Armenia. The plan was simple. I needed to get the truck out of Armenia. But I could not bring the Yerevan Express to Georgia since they had similar laws.
When entering Armenia from Georgia, I noted that there was a strip of land in between the two countries. My plan was to drive the truck out of Armenia, receive the exit paperwork, dump the truck in no man’s land, and then simply walk back into Armenia to receive a new visa for me. Would it work?
I entered the Armenian customs office; paid a 6,500 Dram exit fee (about $17), a 1,000 Dram bribe and then received the exit paperwork for the truck. I then drove to the gate, received an exit stamp in my passport and drove toward Georgia. I crossed a short bridge, pulled a quick u-turn onto a dirt patch, stepped out of the car and locked the doors. I slipped the keys into my pocket. Today, the keys hang in my condominium as a keepsake. And there sat the Yerevan Express in plain view of the Georgian guards.
How to get around in Yerevan? Check out this taxi guide.
I crossed the bridge on foot back to Armenia. I purchased a new visa and walked to the gate to get a new entry stamp. I slid my passport through the window and leaned my back against the wall. A small smile crept over my face. Ready to breathe a sigh of relief, it appeared the plan had worked.
A hand protruded through the narrow gap below the window and grasped my forearm. “Come here,” the border official ordered. I bent my head forward, tensed up with a dash of anxiety and peered through the window. “Welcome to Armenia, my friend,” a voice boomed in heavily accented English as my passport was handed back to me. I smiled. The official was oblivious that I just had exited Armenia ten minutes ago.
So there sits, the Yerevan Express. Not in Georgia. Not in Armenia. But in a patch of land 500 feet in length. For how long, only time will tell.
So if find yourself driving between these two countries (Armenia-Georgia border crossing); please keep an eye out for the Yerevan Express.
To read about the full adventure, read the book on Kindle or hardcover from Amazon!