2010
03.30

DELAY

Hello valued readers,

Elisabeth is having trouble finding open  internet cafe’s due to the holiday as well as other difficulties transfering her documents. There may also be a transit delay for the weekend due to her being in a remote area.  Please be patient as she is still writing daily. We will have plenty to read from her soon.

Thanks,

Corey

2010
03.30

SYNOPSIS: My visa was extended; details on the process.  I met a guy from Denmark and did some sightseeing with him.  An update on Nicola’s journey.  Beware:  This is a long blog.  I had 8 hours to write it on my bus ride to Kerman…  Is 30 days enough?  No rhyme or reason to the visa extension process.

I have no direct news yet from Nicola, but she and her bags arrived in Teheran on time to transfer from one airport to the other with about 3 hours to spare to make her flight to Moscow – that’s the news from Mozaffar, our contact in Teheran.  What a relief!  That flight officer must have come through on his promise.  I am sure Nicola will catch up on some sleep and let us know how the rest of her journey went.

I was up today by 6:30 AM to be at the other end of town on time:  At the police station which was listed in the Lonely Planet and which corresponded to the note I got from the Tourism Police yesterday.  I had to take the final steps for my visa extension business.

To quickly recap the visa process:  I applied months before this trip for a visa for Iran.  The actual visa request had to be initiated by a “sponsor” in Iran through the Iranian government.  A sponsor can be a private family if you are related to someone, but better is a professional, licensed agency, such as the one Mozaffar works for.   I will see if I can link it to this blog at some point.  The visa is handed out only a few weeks before you intend to enter Iran.  Since I was traveling for such a long time, this meant that I had to do this en route.  I chose Dubai for the pickup, but in hindsight, the embassy in Damascus would perhaps have been better as I it would have allowed for a bit more leeway in case anything went wrong.  The agency works on the process and takes responsibility for the traveler once in the country.  This was one of the more expensive visas at $300.  This process is different from all the other visas I had gotten for which I had sent in my passport to the respective embassy and had gotten the visa stamped directly into my passport before I started the trip.  All I had in my hands until hours before my flight to Iran was a confirmation number from the Iranian government.

That number presumably is available to the office for which pickup has been arranged.  God forbid their computers are down at the crucial moment…  Hopefully, fax or phone will then fill in the gap.  The visa issued is good for 30 days.  Iran also issues visas on arrival at the border for just about anyone except American passport holders.  Remember, I am a German citizen and a few things are different for me.  A visa on arrival is limited to 14 days.  If you want to stay longer than 30 days on a regular visa, one thing is crucial:  If the visa is extended, it starts from the day of issue not the day of expiration.  This was a bit of a dilemma for me.  I would have liked to ask for the extension the day we arrived in Shiraz, but that would have put me short by about 4 days at the end.  I had to count carefully to use up my old visa as fully as possible, allow a few bridge days in case there were delays, and apply at the right moment to get me through to my flight.  I almost counted wrong at one point forgetting that March had 31 days…

Well, to make a long story long:  I arrived with a lot of other people at the building for “Alien Matters” – I was reminded of why my nickname in the States is E.T. – the Registered Alien.   I found myself surrounded by what looked like Afghan or Iraqi immigrants.  There were almost only men.  I looked for a “women” entrance, but there was none.  Everyone headed in one direction towards a manned copy machine.  So I put myself in cue and did what everyone else was doing:  Had my passport copied.  I also was handed a standard “Request for Visa Extension Form” with all the others plus a pen.  Very thoughtful and very organized.

We all headed up to the third floor filling out the two forms.  I started one form until a kind soul pointed out a stack of carbon papers – I was supposed to put that between my two sheets.  Stupid me.  By about 8 PM a stern looking officer came to the crowded hallway and took our forms one by one.  A long queue formed.  He spotted me – not hard to do among all the Afghan men – and called for someone.  That was Officer English-Speaking.  A very kind man who checked if all my forms were in order:  Passport, copies, filled out forms, Melli-Bank receipt (the $20 were accepted – I don’t know if I overpaid or not).  Then he asked for two passport photos – I was prepared.  But he was not happy.  I wear no hijab on this photo!  But this is the photo in my passport, the photo I supplied to the embassy, the photo Mozaffar has, the one I left for the records in the Dubai embassy and most of all, it was the photo that was on the Iran visa itself!  No pleading helped.  He wanted a photo of me properly covered.   Mind you – this photo is not going into my passport.  It is held strictly at this and may be a Teheran office.  What on earth?  Can we not risk any officers to look at a photo of a woman with hair?  What is the reasoning behind this if not that?  For identification purposes, my original photo would be a lot more effective.   Go figure!

I was quite discouraged expecting this to be the first in a line of delay tactics.  Following directions, I trotted to the square I was told and to the photo place I was given, to have my photo taken the Iranian way.  I got the quick photo processing.  That only took ½ hour and cost $2.  My scarf was carefully arranged to mimic a full head scarf.  Thank goodness, I wore the black one.  My red shawl would never have done the job.  Who knows, I might have found myself on the way to the bazaar to buy a suitable headscarf…    I have all of 6 mug shots now with a pretend full black hijab!  That is 4 extra.  Too bad, I smiled.  Still, this looks quite severe.   Perhaps, I should auction these off some day to benefit the Arts Club!

With photos in hand I went back.  The queue had dwindled down and Officer Stern was now at his desk accepting forms.  First, I went to see Officer English-Speaking who happily stapled my new photos to my papers and sent me on to Officer Stern.   That one did not exchange a word with me, but took my papers, put a big stamp and a signature into my passport … my heart made a joyous jump – is this the approval?   No.  It wasn’t.  The passport went onto a big pile which hardly could balance on its own.  All passports with forms in them…  I sat down, waiting for further instructions.  But Officer Stern was not communicating.  With a sinking feeling I sat down staring at the pile wondering what would happen next.  Just before the pile tipped over, a clerk came and picked it up.

From all I knew, this could be an all-day affair, a week’s affair, an in-vain affair.  Dozens of Afghanis had accumulated smoking outside the building, and standing around in the hallway.  It looked like they were there for the long haul.  But low and behold- 10 minutes later, Officer English-Speaking walked in with my passport in hand asking “Is 30 days enough?”  I thought I didn’t hear right.  Was that really the question?   Not a long interrogation why I wanted to stay, what my father’s name is, who I am, where I am going, where I was,  who I was with, why I was alone, what I was doing?  Is 30 days enough?!  I assured him it was and … he handed me my passport and wished me a good day!

I practically danced out of the police building.  Could this be?  It was just about 10 AM and I had a visa extension!  Thanks Ganesh and St. Christopher – this was a miracle job.  Thanks, Officer Stern and Officer English-Speaking.  Thanks, Shiraz.  And thanks, Mozaffar.  I suspect some of this has to do with the reputation of the sponsor I have.  That would be an interesting aspect to find out more about.  The Lonely Planet had predicted that Shiraz was the best place for a visa extension.  How good it was became only too clear when I heard that very night that a woman in Yazd had her passport taken by the police and been told to come back after 10 days!  I forgot to ask what nationality she was and who sponsored her.  I could not ask if she had already had an extension or what else was specific to her case.  There are so many aspects to this.  I heard this from a third party.  It is hard to believe that I got the same thing accomplished in 2.5 hours.  This certainly did not happen on my account or merit.  Once again I got lucky.  I was in a festive mood all day!

My stomach was growling and I headed back for a late breakfast to the hotel.  The night before, I had seen a Danish guy check into room 230.  I noticed that his key was not on the shelf.   What would be the harm to knock on his door to find out if he would do some sightseeing with me?  Travelers you meet this far out are usually pretty unique people.  Henrik the Dane took it in stride that I invaded his space.  We had some tea together, told each other a bit where we were coming from and where we were going and agreed on calling a taxi to do a ½ day excursion together.  I wanted to see the Sasanian castle, palace and town of Firuzabad, about 120 km South of Shiraz.  Henrik had just arrived and was up to whatever was there to be seen.  Bahrouz, the taxi driver who had been such a good sport going to Korangun with Nicola and me picked up the phone and was happy to take us out.  Within an hour we were on our way.  Bahrouz stopped at his home and picked up a fully prepared picnic basket and his eleven year old son, for the excursion.

Our destination:  Firuzabad.  Once again we were heading towards the Zagros Mountains.  On a high corner cliff, there was a fortress built by the first Sasanian ruler Ardashir Barbakan in the 3rd Century B.C.  It is hard to tell how much has been built over, but presumably much of the substance is original.  A massive restoration project is under way now for which the Germans built huge cable cars transporting materials and scaffolding up the mountains.  This was happily pointed out to me by the guard when he realized that I was German.  From the fortress, we continued to the palace and town, about 6 km further.  The Palace was also from the 3rd CBC and was interesting architecturally speaking.  It showed a very crude pendentive, an architectural feature that was developed together with a squinch to solve the problem of placing a round dome over a square base structure.  A prime example for this development is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from the 5th Century AD.  But this was either a lot older, or that part of the palace was rebuilt later – hard for me to assess without primary sources.   This squinch & pendentive structure ultimately developed in the Islamic world into the spectacular “honey-comb” structures known as muqarnas which can be found in just about every mosque and archway.

As interesting as the architecture were the people.  We were in a Quashqai village; one of the settlements built for Nomads.  Women were walking around in their absolutely gorgeous, glittering, huge skirts without their chadors.  These dressed are so incongruous with agricultural work and the dusty streets, making the women looking like colorful birds going to a party.  We were in traffic and I often could only catch a glimpse of them – if I could have just sat in a corner in that village, invisible…  But at the palace I was able, thanks to my zoom lens, to get a couple of images, often from the back only.  Some men wore their traditional felt hats.  Somewhere I will have to find some of those and bring them home.

The highlight of the trip was the Sasanian town about 3 km further from the palace and away from the new town.  Dating from the same period, nothing much is there to be seen, except a brick tower of uncertain origin or function.  But I found that fascinating.  Just like the desert towns in Syria, you walk on some rolling hills knowing that all the history and all the artifacts are still there, untouched from thousands of years ago.  Anyone in the field of archaeology could still have virgin territory here.  Just compare that to Egypt which has been dug up over and over and over – but even there, some rare new finds are made occasionally.  What is particularly fascinating is that the town was arranged in a perfect circle; a fact which still can be made out from the highest point, presumably, the temple.  That area is the only place where stone-cut blocks are littering the landscape in contrast to the rest of the buildings which are made of smaller stones like the fortress, the palace and the houses.  We had a good time.  The weather was perfect.  It was particularly nice that Bahrouz had packed lunch for us all.  I called him a restaurant on wheels.  There is your Iranian hospitality!  How many taxi drivers will do that for you anywhere else!

At night I said good-bye to my favorite guys at the Internet Café:  Ali, the owner and Saeed, his main staff person.  It is heart-breaking to see a PhD in ancient Persian linguistics and a physicist with a degree staffing three computer stations to take in a few dollars per hour…    Ali speaks German and English among a few ancient languages.  Saeed is very shy, but he speaks English, too.  He just has to dare a bit more.  Both were extremely helpful to me and Nicola.  If you are ever in Shiraz, here is how you find them:   Off the main Zand Boulevard is busy Pirusi street.  Walk it South on the West side until you almost reach a little alley marked with a “Mosque” sign.  Just before that to your right is a small shopping complex selling washing machines and appliances.  Go up a few steps into the complex, turn towards the right where you will see a few steps going down leading into a dark corridor.  Yes, that’s where they are located.  They are completely hidden away from sight with no English sign.  I told Ali that he had to change that ASAP if he wants to attract some foreign tourists.  He promised.

Across the street from my new hotel is a burger joint at which huge lines were forming every night as if they were selling hot cakes.   Ali told me it is the most famous burger eatery in town.  How could I miss it?  I ended up eating the famous 110 burger – me, a burger… yes, I know… – with three highly educated, young guys talking politics, religion, and social issues until midnight.  Wow, that was interesting!   All I can say is this:  If what I heard tonight is representative of the educated youth in Iran, there is hope for all of us and war is the very wrong answer to whatever problems the West has with Iran.   As if that isn’t plain obvious even without traveling here and meeting all these wonderful Iranian people.

Being out until midnight was the last thing I had planned on.  I still had to pack for tomorrow.  I had been up by 6:30 AM today and would have to be up at 5:30 AM tomorrow…   But things happen.

And if I would have had to write this blog at the end of the day you would have gotten the usual 2 pages as I restrict my writing to two hours.  But I had an 8 hour bus ride to get through today as I am in transit to Kerman, my next destination.  After I briefly visited the Pars Museum and the castle in Shiraz, there was little else that could keep me there.  Let’s see what’s around the next corner, now that I have 30 more days to go!

Good night.