March 31, 2009

Syrian Transit Visa for Americans, Lebanon to Damascus by Bus
Damascus, Syria

My destination was Israel, but as there are currently no passable border crossing between Lebanon and the Jewish state, I was forced to make another pass though Damascus in order to reach Jordan (which would allow me to eventually make my way to Tel Aviv). A plane was out of the question—hundreds of dollars for a 45-minute flight.

After my previous experience at the northern border with Syria and Turkey (Overland Visa on Arrival for Americans in Syria), I really wasn't looking forward to the long, drawn-out bureaucratic game of will-he-get-a-visa-or-not? with the paper pushers in Damascus.

(Remember, even though the official government position is that no visas are issued on arrival for U.S. citizens, they still often do it for a fraction of the price. They fax Damascus, and you wait eons for a return fax containing your fortune.)

My host needed to get to work on time in the morning, and neither of us could figure out what time a bus departed for Syria—only that they did indeed leave from Beirut's Charles Helou bus terminal (which is actually rather peculiar space that's been created under a highway overpass—and certainly no place you'd want to be at night).

I awoke at 6:00 in the morning in the lofty suburb of Beit Meri, and by 8:00 a.m. I was pulling out of Beirut on the first (and only) bus of the morning. The second (and final) bus of the day departs at 3 p.m. Both cost 14,000 Lebanese pounds (US$9.30, also payable in Syrian pounds) and are run by 2000 Transport and Tourism (formerly Dream 2000, the same company that brought me to Beirut from Damascus).

The bus driver knows full well that as an American without a Syrian visa you're going to be sitting at the border for a while, and doesn't think twice about ditching you there and driving onto Damascus. The bus company also wasn't interested in bargaining down the full price of the fare for incomplete passage.

I was stamped out of Lebanon with effort by 9:30 a.m., and started the visa process with Syria only 10 minutes later.

Because of the silly song and dance that you have to go though as an American, I thought it'd speed things up and save a little money by requesting a transit visa, instead of just the regular two-week visa they traditionally issue on arrival. I also thought that things would be easier the second time around with these folks, as I'd already been issued a Syrian visa before, just three or so weeks prior when I came down from Turkey.

…I was wrong on all counts.

Waiting and Waiting and Waiting and Waiting

Syrian immigration hell… err, hall.

Things were a lot less frantic and a lot more straightforward than they were at the Bāb al Hawā' border crossing to the north. There was no resistance from or ass-kissing necessary with the mellow soldier I dealt with, only his warning that the process could take a while (again, excessively optimistic in the one- to two-hour processing time, like the ranking officer I had dealings with in the north).

The problem here is that these immigration guys phrase their processing time estimates in such a way that makes you want to wait around, because, you know, you want to get the hell out of international limbo and why prolong the waiting any longer than necessary by being absent.

This is where I sat for over five hours waiting for word of my visa request's approval or denial from Damascus. The immense enormity of my boredom here cannot be expressed properly in words.

This is also the problem with being a solo traveler in this respect. If you were with a buddy, you could comfortably setup shop with your bags and laptop or whatever at one of the most oddly placed Dunkin' Donuts in the world (just 50m away from the processing hall), while the other person periodically checked for updates. But since you're alone, and in a position where you want to both move along and not get fleeced for money, you generally stay within eyesight of the immigration official and keep your laptop (and/or other expensive goodies) concealed.

And so I sat.

And waited.

In a hard, uncomfortable plastic chair.

Directly in front of the immigration guy.

With nothing to look at.

And no one to speak with.

For five and half, long, mind numbing hours.

Doing nothing but twirling my thumbs, and dreaming a time when I might again get to use my legs for something other than pacing a hole in the floor.

The Syrian visa fairies in Damascus, though ungodly slow with their processing, decided that I was worthy of a transit visa, and granted me authorization sometime after 3:00. Unfortunately, what I didn't know was that the 3-day transit visa for Syria actually costs the same amount of money (US$16) as a regular 15-day visa. And even though I wasn't asked to provided the answers for some simple itinerary/hotel questions by the officer, the processing time actually took longer for the transit visa than the normal visa!

Simply put: Applying for a Syrian transit visa is stupid, even if you're just thinking about quickly transiting.

Minibuses Await After the Border

As echoed by my previous experience, the worst part about Syria is the border crossing. Because once you're actually in the country, it's nearly all smiles and good times for a traveler.

It took me about 10 minutes to walk across the remainder of the checkpoint, where a friendly Syrian fellow in his mid-twenties who strode past me on the way to the waiting minibuses actually decided to give up his seat to me with a smile and a hearty "Welcome!".

Minibuses depart when full and are moderately inexpensive (only 40–50 Syrian pounds, US$1, for the 30-minute ride to Damascus' Al-Samariyeh terminal). My minibus happened to be completely full of Syrian soldiers, with whom I had a pretty entertaining time interacting with.

The Mysterious Visa Authorizations from Damascus

There's a murmuring that the immigration office in Damascus doesn't process visa requests until after 15:00—or maybe it closes and/or doesn't accept visa requests after this time, leaving the Americans to process last. Who really knows…

But what I do know is that twice now I've crossed the border into Syria and needed authorization from Damascus, and approval was given both times between 3:00 and 3:30 (with those submissions starting at 9:40 from Lebanon and 10:40 from Turkey). Both were also Tuesdays.

Just a coincidence?

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