A Little Time in Japan and Little Time in China

Kumamoto-Jo Castle
Kumamoto-Jo Castle in Kyushu – Japan
Mt. Aso - Kyushu
Mt. Aso – Kyushu

Japan will always be on the top of my travel list. June was spent traveling around the southern parts of Japan. Previous visits were short, but we now had the ability to spend as much time as we liked or could afford on the weak USD. We started in Osaka since a couple of friends were getting married in May on Lake Biwako near Kyoto. After that, we grabbed a Peach Airlines Flight to southern island of Kyushu and spent a couple of weeks hopping around the volcanic island. We ended up just skirting the usually wet rainy season they experienced just a few days after we flew to Tokyo.

We ended the Japan trip in Tokyo. We decided to rent out a service apartment in the Shinjuku. Here, we planned out our upcoming Fall trip and sorted out most of our visas to the “Stans” of Central Asia, spent our days hanging out with friends, enjoying the city, local food and the luxury of having access to real high-speed internet.

Narita Airport - Tokyo
Departing Gate at the Narita Airport – Tokyo
Beijing International Airport
Arrival Gate at the Beijing Airport

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Bumpy ride to Beijing!

It’s been a few years since I have experienced one of those flights that makes you swear you will never fly again. We landed after the pilot decided to head straight through a storm that was heading towards Beijing. When we landed, most passengers were flushed and blurry eyed as we streamed into to arrivals terminal at Beijing International. Some fellow passengers were stained by the flying sodas, juice etc. that flew through the air as our plane made an unexpected drop during dinner service. I managed to escape unscathed. I was just so happy to be on solid ground once again. The pilot did manage to get the plane down ahead of the storm, but the dark clouds caught up streamed in and opened up just as we arrived into the city.

The downpour started just as we got off the metro. We got trapped at the metro station without umbrellas or a small boat to get us through the flooded streets to our hostel. We ended up spending about 1 hour waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. The journey from metro to hostel required some puddle and sidewalk sink holes dodging but we finally made it.

We managed to drag ourselves and our stuff safely to the Hutong west of the Forbidden City that first stormy night in Beijing. We got soaked but our stuff wasn’t. I’m not sure how we pulled that one-off, but we did thankfully.

Inside the Forbidden City on a Smoggy Day

Waiting on a Visa…

We had just one night at the Hutong Hostel and later moved to an apartment on the other side of Beijing until we headed west towards Central Asia in a couple of weeks. Hostels are great but having a washer, kitchen and quiet work area were necessary this time.

We were here to get our Turkmenistan Visa and see more of post-Olympics Beijing. It was a lot of work for all the back and forth, waiting, some more waiting all for a 10 day required tour. Beijing is a large city so there’s much to see and do while we wait.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
Military Museum - Beijing
Military Museum – Beijing

The National Museum, the Olympic Park and the Military Museum were the top three on our must see list this time. We got our Turkmenistan visa, saw the top three, and managed to see both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square again.

Our time in Beijing soon came to an end. With our visas in hand and better idea of what direction we will be going in the next few months, we boarded an Air China flight to Urumqi. In Beijing, we managed to survive both the elevated AQI levels and a couple of storms that pummeled the city during our two-week visit. I’m sure Beijing will all be a totally different the next time we stop by for a visit or maybe not?

Rick Steves and other thoughts about Touring Iran

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan

Rick Steves managed to get himself and a film crew journalist visas to Iran back in 2008.  He too seemed apprehensive about the trip even with his travel resume and years of teaching others how to travel.  They were allowed to film 10 short days  and brought PBS viewer a very thoughtful piece about travelling to Iran.  It was a very bold move on his part since his target audience is made up of those who think European travel is exotic and a trip to Iran is not included in many of there bucket lists.  This show was all about going  in the front door of Iran with the promise that he would shed some positive light on country who can not escape its past thanks to western media.

The U.S. does it’s best to discourage its citizens from travelling to Iran.   The U.S. State Department Consumer Affairs site at least informing its citizens of the risks involved with travelling to that region and where the hot spots are.  It’s words should of course be taken seriously.

Taking risks is a part of everyday life and where you travel to may increase the likelihood of being harmed or taken advantage of.  Being well-informed and confident helps prevent such things happening.  Of course, personal safety is a concern for most travelers who venture away from home and into the unknown.  U.S. official warnings made me question what motivates me to travel to areas where there are potential dangers for me as a U.S. citizen.  The U.S. does it’s best to discourage its citizens from travelling to Iran.   The U.S. State Department Consumer Affairs site at least informing its citizens of the risks involved with travelling to that region and where the hot spots are.  It’s words should of course be taken seriously.

Is traveling to Iran was the smartest thing to do right now if ever?   The answer is yes there’s never going to be a good time it seems.   Researching the h@#ll out of it.  What else are you going to do while awaiting for the Fed-ex delivery person to come?

Thanks Rick Steves

Breaking the news to my family that a trip to Iran was going to happen was another thing.  Rick Steves  made it look so tempting since it’s been on our minds for years and guess what – my husband and I are going.   Couldn’t think of any reasons not to go – unlike family and friends who have lots of opinions on the subject.

The application process was underway and the journey itinerary with Pars Tour Agency in Shiraz on May 22nd.  I have to thank many including Rick Steves, a few supportive friends and family, and the large amount of positive trip reports made by others who had done the same journey for giving me the push to go.   I soon be relaxing in tea houses, getting lost in the alleyways of the souks and visiting Zoroastrian caravanserais and fire temples.

Surprisingly, many say that it’s common for US citizens to get rejected but this chart displayed on Iranvisa.com says otherwise.   We were well aware that we could get our visa within days of our scheduled departure.  A Persian-American friend of mine confirmed that we could be getting our visa one day and boarding a plane the next.  There’s nothing like watching airfares go up and down and not being able to take advantage of any deals.  No visa – No sense in buying tickets.

13 weeks later, our passports are back in our hands.  It’s late August and we leave in 2 weeks.  The scramble begins. We promptly booked tickets to Shiraz via Istanbul just in case we got rejected at upon arrival.  If we thought it would be wise to put Istanbul in the plan just as a back up.  It’s a pessimistic move but I’m getting practical in my old age.

The problems between the U.S. and Iran will unfortunately not be resolved anytime soon since some old wounds seems to take a very long time to heal.  History shows that there’s not good chance of the two countries will not be buddies anytime soon.  The most recent media circus involving a used Persian car salesman nicknamed “Scarface”, members of a Mexican drug cartel and an attempt to kill a Saudi Prince baffles me and many others.  I’m not sure what to make of it all.  Now, there’s even more travel warnings posted on the U.S. Travel site, the media and U.S. politicians are having a field day as the war of words resumes we have seen since the 70’s resumes.

Make sure and check out the travel warnings listed by the U.S. and even Great Britain but remember to also balance these warnings with some current information from those who have traveled to such areas.   Blogs and travel information boards found on the Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor sites are a great source for new and experienced travelers.   They are full of current information,  allow travelers to hopefully get answers to specific questions  and it’s a great place to contribute and help others in need of information.  Remember,  information is your friend.

Inspiration to travel to new regions, like Iran, sometimes comes from unexpected places like travel shows by Rick Steves and posts made by like-minded strangers on travel boards and blogs.    Do yourself a favor and diversify the information sources as much as possible before taking off.  You may even discover some “back doors” Rick is always going on about or make time to go off the beaten path and view the lesser known sites others usually miss.

The Skinny on the Iranian Travel Visa for U.S. Citizens

The process sort of reminds me of what it takes to get a Russian Travel Visa.  It involves some cash up front, a form of letter of invite, a detailed itinerary, and patience.  The Russian one seemed more to do with cash since it took a just few minutes to fill out the application, a few hours for a credit card transaction confirmation and later you have a letter of invite.    Iranian visas involve almost as much cash but require a little more patience.  In the end, a visa holder will be free to travel to a country full of hospitable people,  beautiful sights and see for themselves what goes on in a country who doesn’t get too much love from the mainstream media.

Here’s a breakdown of the Visa process:

Have plenty of patience because it can take some time to get your visa

Find a tour company that suits you and your budget.   Pars Tour Agency is our choice since they are based in Shiraz and came recommended..  Pars begins by providing the letter of invite aka Authorization Code for a small fee of 30 Euro.  It’s a requirement for U.S. citizens and the fees are different depending on who you use.

Wait for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran to fax the authorization code to the Consulate of your choice.

If not approved, the agency can resubmit the application again and hopefully it will go through this time.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will then fax the approval document on to your chosen consulate office.

If approved, send or bring the following within 3 business days to the chosen Iranian Consulate Office:

  1.  Application form (my case #101)
  2.  Money order of $112/ applicant and $20 return postage fee made out to the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  3. Single Passport picture (ladies this means one with hajib and remember…no smiling) and your passports (see below)

It’s longer to get the authorization code  from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran then it is to get the visa from the consulate.  Visas get issued by the consulate with a week of sending your passport, appropriate photo (women need to obey Islamic code which means donning a Hajib and remember…no smiling)

Ultimately, everything works out and the scramble to get everything done and the real fun begins.