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.

8 comments so far

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  1. Thanks, Corey! Why didn’t I think of that? I guess I am technologically challenged.

  2. To Abdulameer: Double click on the Pics and they will open up for you and you will see the whole thing. The pics here are only thumbnails.
    ~Corey

  3. You write: “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.” Even if what you heard is representative, there is no connection between that conversation and the question of the ayatollahs acquiring nuclear weapons. You could have had a conversation like this back in die Ostzone, too, which had lots of wonderful people. So what? By the way, I would love to hear about the conversation, some time.

  4. Hello ET,
    I’m glad you took a photo of the full moon over there.
    This is your last full moon while you are in the Middle East.
    On the next full moon you will be back in your bed.
    I’m also wondering, like Corey, how you found the internet café with Ali and Saeed,
    Did a local give you a tip? It is sad that these 2 highly educated men can not utilized their talents and education! This must be very depressing for them.

    Now to your passport photo ordeal.
    I shared it with you this Monday here in New York.
    I had an appointment to renew my German passport and as a good ex-east German had prepared all the papers and the 2 required photos, which I had measures precisely to the template I had printed out from the German consulate’s website.
    The photos where the same I had used in my new American passport, you know this wasn’t easy either.
    So when I walked in with confidence at my reserved time I though it would only take a few minute, but I was in for a surprise.
    The woman behind the glass window took one look and rejected my photos. The size was not correct. She held them up to another template, I showed her my print out template and she said my face was a millimeter to short on the chin and I had a reflection in my eyeglasses. I told her I always wear glasses and that these are the same photos I had in my just 3-month-old American passport, which she was holding in her hand.
    She would even listen and just said Germany has other standards.
    She told me to get new photos without my eyeglasses and send me to a store in the neighborhood,
    So I went to the recommended store.
    There was a long line and I decided to go the store in my street 2 minutes further up town, the guy there does passport photos too.
    I told him my story and showed him the template,
    No problem he said and took 2 very nice photos for $13 .
    I marched back to the passport office telling the officers down stairs I’m back, no need to check all my belonging again, of cause they did.
    When I showed the woman the photos she took one look and said, “rejected”,
    Thank god there was a glass between us. I was ready to jump at her.
    I asked what is the problem now?
    The skin tone is to white and over exposed and the computer will not scan it properly.
    She said there is no way my application would go through with these photos.
    I had to go out again and use the store she recommended. After all they knew how the German Consulate likes their photos taken, she said.
    I wonder if they have a special agreement.
    The guy in the store took my photo again with out eyeglasses and with my hair behind my ears, it looks like a mug shoot and also much bigger than the other photos.
    I never look like this when I travel, not even when I get out of bed, but go figure.
    I went back though all the controls, -after all Germans never miss a beat if they have some rules to fallow.
    I presented her with these new photos and she suddenly smiled happily and sent my application off to Germany. I for my part was not smiling but relieved I could leave this place!!!
    Long live German bureaucracy !!!
    It must have been the full moon on Monday …LOL

  5. How come the heads are so frequently chopped off in your pictures????

  6. I too am amazed at how your find places and then make it safely back and of all the strangers you meet who are making your journey so interesting in both good and not so good ways. May the next thirty days be as wonderful and interesting as the past ones. Happy travels!

    Just to give you a touch of “home” – we went with the Art Club on Sunday to see the IMAX of “Arabia” with wonderful views of Mecca. Then we have spent two evenings with lectures by the Royal Shakespeare Company that is here for a creative project – one lecture by the RSC Director Gregory Doran and RSC artist Sir Antony Sher on
    ” Shakespeare; from stage to screen” and the other a discussion of the Bible as literature with Doran, playwright David Edgar and Ralph Williams. Tonight is Gilbert and Sullivan. Life is so easy here – no visas or need of taxis or head scarves to worry about – the sun is out and temperatures will reach a record in the seventies today.

  7. I did not get “mushy” as your friend Corey, but I am full of admiration that you are not loosing your temper when dealing with bureaucracy! It is so amazing to me that organizations can be run this way but you finally got your extension. Enjoy those 30 days as I will your reports. Anneliese

  8. So how DID you find Ali Saeed? and I can tell you have lots of time to write since you described to us in detail the labyrinth in wich to find them. I will be sure to look them up the next time I’m in Iran!
    OMG! the names you gave the officers crack me up, Officer Stern and Officer Speaks-English, if they only knew that they have been made famous, they would have different names very quickly Im sure.
    The moon is beautiful isnt it? I looked at it last night and thought of you looking at it and knew that we were looking at it at the same time and that it made you feel not so far away. Ok, now everyone knows I’m mushy and I will be teased thoroughly! ; )