The day before I went to Nahcivan, I found in Cumhuriyet an article on the city of Osh, in Kirghizistan. I received it with bemused intelligence: "Hey, I myself might just be passing through!" I did pick up some potentially useful information ("You go into a post office at two o'clock, all the officials are drunk"). But what made it worthwhile was not what the writer said about this burg at the dead center of Asia, but what he revealed about himself and his own country. He complained there was absolutely nothing to do in town, then boggled verbosely at how disagreeable the lavatories were: besides being dirty, they had no toilet paper. Gracious me! I thought. Nothing to do! Dirty johns! No toilet paper! Where the hell has this tenderfoot been? As I said earlier: Third-Worlders are alienated from their own hinterlands.

The best this writer could do was compare Kirghiz crappers with those in the Istanbul bus station.

Anyway, I was heading out of the Erzurum bus station, with whose WC's I had no trouble reaching a modus vivendi. I was off to what is very nearly the easternmost point in Turkey. The road I'd be traveling simply faded away on my map, which had been printed before it ever seemed important to anyone to get to where I was going. Such highway as had already been built was arguably of touristic interest - this was the the way to Mt. Ararat - but I was the only paleface on the bus. The old man sitting next to me asked me if I was Azeri.

I wasn't, but at Iğdır we traded nearly the whole bus for a bunch of folks who were. Iğdır, four hours out, was the last town of size before the border, itself eighty kilometers farther on. Iğdır was some kind of magnet for small boxy cars with bleak paint jobs and Cyrillic license plates. What business their owners could possibly have in this Van-like hole I did not know, and the luggage of their carless countrymen, my busmates, was no clue. I suppose they all could have come here to shop. But Third-World baggage is always motley, and unwieldy in ways you'd never think of. Travel, as you the travel-book reader know it, is nothing like what Third-Worlders do. A mobile Third-Worlder is a refugee. Whether it's from secret police, monsoon floods, or empty store-shelves, his parcels are a lurid mess.

Still, Iğdır cheered me not a little. I'd started a headcold just hours after resolving my ptomaine, and today's bus ride had worsened my sinus throb; I considered laying up a day here. But the bus-stop yokels were genial and informative, and I felt just energized enough to keep on going. No, travel is unrestricted once you get into Nahcivan - you could fly into Baku tonight. The plane leaves at six P.M. Look, that's what these people are doing. I felt feverish, but when the bus ride resumed, I was getting more and more enthusiastic about supper on the Caspian. Baku-2-Nite - let's do it.

The ride to the border was very fast for 60 kilometers, then very slow for the final 20, when the road was just a platform of soft soil. Turkey itself, however, was not dwindling as it had done near Syria. We had Ararat on our right the whole way. It was an isolated cone, not steep, just expansive, and made more so by the crown of bulky blue clouds which concealed its top half or two-thirds. Turkey's mountains are so numerous, and not very individualistic; Ararat, however, is singular. It makes sense that borders would radiate from here. Ararat looks like the logical place to terminate a nation, or nations - four, at present.

We wheeled around this enormous unchiseled sphinx for a couple of hours, after which the bridge came into view. No warning. It crossed a natural barrier - a nondescript river - but it could have done so miles farther on or miles back. There was nothing on either side of it. The structure was just a two-lane bed on cylindrical piers, about 300 yards long, with lampposts. They were still building the roads that led to it. Bulldozers were shoving earth at it; they'd accumulated just enough to support two buses cheek to cheek, plus sheds for passport-stamping. This was the only land connection between Turkey and Turkic Asia.

It was just about as far as I was to go. Getting my booklet thumped, I had an intimation - indeed, a promise - of trouble. Where was my Azerbaijani visa? asked the Turkish official. I don't have one. You need one. I didn't know that. Strangely, he stamped me out of his country anyway. I figured he wouldn't do that if I were going to be sent right back. I stepped away from the window, beaming at my passport. I was so happy to be out of Turkey, and just as happy to think I was as good as in Azerbaijan.

I did not know until this minute that Nahcivan considered itself part of Azerbaijan. I'd thought it was either Armenian, or a sovereign state.

We all got back on the bus, motored onto the bridge proper, paused for some traditional Third-World El Screwaroundo - a jolly civilian with a walkie-talkie, checking to make sure we hadn't lost our documentation on the fifty-yard voyage from the shed - then resumed, rolling into this most obscure client state. My fellow passengers, nearly all of whom carried old Soviet passports, were sedate. I wasn't. There's nothing at all like this in the West.

BACK in the A.S./BACK in the A.S./BACK in the A.S.S.R.!

And then right back out again. Yes, it's true - I was evicted for presenting an inadequately decorated passport. I'm not sure I want to go into it. A mainstay of bad travel literature is the Customs & Immigration Ordeal. One tries to extrapolate the entire country from this frayed edge, making perspicacious judgments of national character on the basis of one person's clerical stare. It's ridiculous. It's unfair. It's also dishonest, since the writer is implicitly claiming great courage for having stood up to what is really a trivial, straightforward formality.

Nevertheless, I will comment on my unofficial half hour in Azerbaijan. No play-by-play, though; there wasn't any. Another mainstay of bad travel writing is Haggling, a process either impossible or nonsensical. We didn't haggle. How could we?

"You need a visa."

"I do not need a visa."

" need 5/6 of a visa."

"Uh-uh - 3/8 of a visa."

"5/8 of a visa, plus a first-round draft pick."

"9/16 of a visa, plus a second-round draft pick, and a sixpack of Dr. Pepper."

And so forth.

I will do little more than enumerate the few distinctive aspects of this encounter. One, nobody got excited. There was some impatience communicated by bus personnel, but it was by no means redfaced. Two, I received all manner of confident, contradictory recommendations. You don't need a visa. You do need a visa, which you can get in Erzurum. No, in Trabzon. No, in Ankara. Yes, in Ankara, from the American Embassy. (This last from the border-patrol gentleman in charge.) Three, this rigmarole was in my experience unique. Crossing frontiers has always been prosaic. I might be questioned closely on my travel plans, or how much money I have; my bags might be minutely examined; but I've never had to stand around while someone with a machine gun improvised immigration formalities. If a Westerner had ever come through with proper credentials, it would have been remembered, and I'd get clear instructions on how to enter legally. If a Westerner had ever arrived without such paperwork, and been deflected, the bus company would have forewarned me.

Another notable thing about the whole affair was that I enjoyed it. I can truthfully state that my headache and fever improved slightly during it. For it was, in its own way, perfect. There was no question at all that I was in Asia. I had arrived.

The border really was teaching me things about the lands it enclosed. Even the Turkish edge was a diorama of all Anatolia: even here, eighty kilometers from anything mappably urban, unemployed men loafed sociably. As for the other side, it too summarized a great landmass. Asia would be like this all the way across: a web of squalid borderlines separating political entities that had no clear idea what nationhood was about. I'd supposed these countries had barely been invented. In fact, it hadn't even occurred to them that invention was necessary. To be a nation, you have to do something. But this is the Third World, where belonging to a group is far more important than doing anything within a group. Doing something, inevitably an individual gesture to begin with, might lead to individual distinction, introducing cleavages within the group. For these people to call themselves "citizens" was as lame a fakery as Austinites calling themselves "artists," those demanding respect for the art-involved caste, yet producing no art. The group's only business is to make sure other groups don't overlap it. Frontier patrols aren't everything, they're the only thing.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not excusing myself from a deeper dip into Azerbaijan. Still, I feel certain I've "been" to it, having glimpsed its chief industry. Petroleum operations are just the unruly children of infidels, long since grown up and grown old, and ineligible for pensions.

I might take another crack at the place. But it was an undreamed-of satisfaction, coming just halfway, and achieving literal outlandishness: standing out in the cool breeze, by a dirt road, under skeptical clouds and a staring mountain, going one-on-one in Turkish and Russian with somebody who'd tucked my passport into his vest pocket, next to an automatic pistol. I wasn't sure what nation this was. He wasn't sure what any nation was.

"You need a visa."

"I do not need a visa."

" might need a visa."

"And you do have a gun."

"You catch on quick, kid. Where'd you say you're from again?"

© 1992 J.A.Hutter

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