Thursday, 5 June 2014

A BALUCHI ADVENTURE- Sistan and Baluchistan, Iran

Our route from Bandar Abbas up through Sistan Baluchistan


We were keen to see the scenery between Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, and as buses in this area only run at night, we thought we would just set off and see what happened. It was the first instance of “putting ourselves in Iran’s hands” to see what happened, and we felt confident to do this. We were able to take shared taxi and bus for the first part, but after that we were totally on our own-literally, in some tiny places in the middle of nowhere. It was harder than we had anticipated finding lifts, due to there not being much traffic, and we had also underestimated the distance to Chabahar. But we were so glad we’d decided on this route. The scenery was simply amazing, with coast on one side, and desert mountains in jagged shapes on the other, and we leant more about the generosity of Iranians, giving long lifts to two strangers in the middle of the desert! As night fell, and we were still some distance from our destination, we were dropped at a police check point, where the policemen took pity on us, and stopped every car to see where they were going, and basically forced people to take us to the next town!

Our lift, road to Chabahar

We were glad we were in a truck, road to Chabahar

Scenery on road to Chabahar

Unusual scenery, road to Chabahar
Camels on the road, road to Chabahar

We were happy to see our new host waiting for us in his big car in the huge, swish Duty Free Zone on the edge of Chabahar. We had thought our host was a friend of our Bandar Abbas host’s, but found out later that they had never actually met! Our host and his family had had little contact with foreigners’, and only he could speak English (and limited), but they could not have been kinder towards us during the 10 days we stayed with them. He was a completely different host - a quiet man, intelligent, thoughtful and a bit shy. He was embarrassed about his lack of English, and tried so hard when we were there to learn as much as he could, and we tried also with Farsi.

Baluchi clothes for sale, Chabahar market

We were the attractions, Chabahar market

A bit vague!

Unusually happy to be photo-ed woman, Chabahar market

New friends, Chabahar market

The day after we arrived, he had planned a tour of Chabahar with his friend, Satar. He was sweet and hilarious, and hopped into the car with a big grin, and lots of enthusiasm, and started to read lines of English from his notes he had obviously prepared the night before. The fly-by tour included the fish market, old part of town, Portuguese fort, beach front area, some kind of Christian tomb (no explanations in English) and a Muslim graveyard, and some lesser thought of sights such as the Iran Air office, courts, bank, and the local prison and hospital!

Local kids, Chabahar

Cemetery, Chabahar

Old fort, Chabahar

Portuguese fort, Chabahar

Coastal scenery, Chabahar

On the beach, Chabahar

Poverty was very evident in the town, and there were many people living in makeshift tents, collecting rubbish or begging. Apparently they are displaced people from Pakistan who have no passport or papers, and have no way to better themselves and get out of their situation. Our host gives money, clothes and food to one woman who comes around every few months, but they must be in a pretty desperate situation.
In contrast to this was the area around the Free Zone on the edge of town, where there was several massive malls selling cheap electronics, clothes and perfume, and the surrounding area which was packed with huge mansions for the very rich.

Our host was from a small village in the Dashtielli region, and invited us for an afternoon there to meet some more people, have a meal, and look around at the local veggie gardens that have access to water and grow many crops, even bananas. Unfortunately, things were running late, and we didn’t arrive until dark, but the drive there was so beautiful, with similar scenery that we had seen on the Bandar to Chabahar road, and included a stop at an ancient well that now has a windmill attached. 

Flooded road to village

Reminded us of Oz!

Road to village

Baluchi chair!

Relaxing after a huge dinner

The best thing for us, though, was an ancient burial site, that was so old that no one knows who is buried there. It had a Druid-type feel about it, and as the sun was setting was extremely atmospheric. The English books were out again for this trip, and our brains were exhausted from thinking all day, but they were still studying the books with torchlight when the sun set! We only realized later, that our host and Satar were getting up at 5am to get their work done for the day, so they had the rest of the day free for us!

Atmospheric ancient graveyard

Amin and his family are Baluchi people; a large minority group of Sunni Muslims in Shi’ia dominated Iran, although in Sistan and Baluchistan (the south-eastern most province in Iran) they are in the majority. They have more in common with Pakistan than Iran (the border is very close), and men wear Pakistan-style white dress. Baluchistan actually crosses the borders and includes parts of western Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most Baluchis are very traditional, and this family was no exception. When we first arrived late at night, there were only men present in the reception room, and our host and his son did the serving and cleaning up of the food. The next couple of days were the same, and we assumed he was single with a lot of male friends and family. It wasn’t until the third day we were there, and Sal spotted a girl in the courtyard, followed her to a room, and found it full of women! The sexes were completely segregated, all the time. This was a new experience for us, and although Sal was sort of an honorary man, and always allowed to sit with the men (they had a much nicer room with satellite TV, and lots of room), Richard was never allowed to visit the women’s room. So, while the women were cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids in one part of the house, the men lounged and ate and chatted in another! 

Uncle relaxing in the men's room

It was difficult in some ways for Sal to communicate with the women, because of the language barrier, but occasionally there would be a younger girl there with some English, or if not, they made do. After their work was done for the day, they just seemed to sit around and talk, or sometimes sew. They seemed VERY excited to have a foreigner staying, and it’s not surprising! The Baluchi women’s clothes are famously beautiful, with embroidery on the salwar kameez type suits taking many weeks to complete and costing upwards of US$350. But when they went outside of the house, they all wore a black chador and burka to completely cover their bodies and faces, except their eyes. No photos of the women were allowed at all, which was such a shame, so we will have to rely on the memories instead.

I had to make do with photos of the kids

Some of the women smoke a stronger version of the traditional style shisha, or kelyun, as it’s known here, and they all laughed when Sal had a go, and pronounced it way too strong. They also had fun asking questions about our personal life- Was my husband my cousin? Could I drive a car?, Did I wash myself before my period? Did I wash myself after being in bed with my husband? Was my husband circumcised? All the answers were passed around the room for those who didn’t understand, accompanied by many giggles. Sal was lucky enough also to be treated to a couple of traditional Balucci songs from one younger woman, and given a beautiful Baluchi-style scarf she stupidly admired by our host’s mother.

Sal, in return, found out a lot about their lives. They are very religious, seemingly more so than their husbands, and know hardly anything at all about the outside world, including the rest of Iran. They had a nifty electronic Koran with a loud speaker, and pen to point to different sections, and translate them into different languages, and they were dying to let Sal hear some passages in English. Having refused the waxing and the make up the wanted to put on her, she happily agreed to this. It was pretty interesting, actually, learning about the different occasions Muslims are supposed to say a prayer. These included going into and out of the toilet, putting on clothes, travelling on a bus, when it rains, visiting a patient, seeing the moon, and hearing a dog or donkey! It is completely normal for women here to have 10 or more children, and often men have two wives, so families are huge. Of course, explaining why we don’t have children was difficult, and Sal was looked at with great pity! Also, it is the norm for cousins to marry, as it is considered safer to marry some in your family, and that you already know well. This leads to a strange sameness in the looks of a family. They have been doing it for hundreds (thousands?) of years, though, so who’s to say what is right?

In the last few years, there has been a campaign to encourage growth of the population. People we spoke to say it is more because of the Sunni minority having huge families, and the Government being worried there may be more Sunnis than Shiites in a the future.


Village children

One particularly memorable day (for all the wrong reasons), was spent driving to and exploring Gelpashan, one of only two mud volcanoes in the world. It was a spectacular sight driving up to the huge hill on dried mud, and climbing to the top to see where the mud spurts out. On the day we were there, there was no mud coming out, and people were jumping around trying to get it to start. Unfortunately, Richard got a bit too close and fell in the mud! It was hilarious seeing him pull himself out of the gloop, until we realized he was holding our camera, and it had completely been immersed in the mud. We cleaned him and the camera up as best we could when we got back down to the bottom, but the camera was stuffed. We were very disappointed, as we’d just bought the new camera after our stint at the guesthouse in KL , and really loved it. After confirming with some lovely camera technicians it was beyond repair (they refused payment- this is very common in Iran), we bought a new one at the Free Zone mall. It’s quite lucky we were in a place where we could replace it quickly and cheaply.

Scenery around Gelpashan

Scenery around Gelpashan

Gelpashan in distance

Mud volcano


View from the top,

Pre fall in goop!

Post fall in goop!

Probably the most unforgettable experience in Chabahar, was a Baluchi village wedding we were invited to by a friend of Satar’s. Although we didn’t know anyone there, we decided to go for it- it would be interesting to compare it to the Bandari wedding. We were picked up in a fancy 4WD, by two brothers who both spoke very clear and careful English. They told us about their village on the lovely drive (it was the same area where Amin’s village was), and that we would probably be separately during the night because of their customs. We said that was fine, as we’d already experienced it. The biggest surprise came when they said their village had black African slaves and we should be prepared for that! Apparently, hundreds of years ago they were brought over from Africa (we think with the Portuguese, but we’re having trouble finding out about it on the internet), and bought by wealthy Iranians. These ones stayed, and multiplied (the brothers said there was no mixing with the Iranians, but it was evident in their faces this wasn’t true). Now they live and work with and for the people of the village, basically doing all the work- cooking, cleaning, and farm work. Whether they are paid or not is something we didn’t like to ask, but we were doubtful.

Some of the gorgeous African kids in the village

It was a strange 24 hours we spent in this village. After being given Baluchi clothes to change into (we don’t know if they thought that would be a treat for us, or if they thought our own clothes looked terrible!) we were separated, and Richard taken away to have a boring time sitting around with solemn blokes, and Sal with a huge group of heavily made up and reserved women who, at first, didn’t speak with her for hours, but warmed up later. The bride was behind a curtain in the same room, and she remained there all night. It was actually pretty uninspiring compared to the music and laughter of the Bandari wedding. The nicest bit was when a girl offered to paint a design on Sal’s hand with henna, which is something she’s never had done before, even all those times in India! Then a young girl jumped on her and asked her to dance. Not much else was going on, so she agreed, and was taken to a small room with a stereo, and two female look outs on either door. It was all very secretive. Then a couple of the African women came in and started dancing up a storm. Sal joined in, learning some dance moves, and entertaining all the women who had started cramming into the room. The young girl who had spoken with Sal also started to dance, and she was amazing- she threw off her scarf and put on a jangly belly dancing skirt, and was shaking it all over the little room. Then a large scary looking woman stormed in, and yelled at her, and a little girl who had also been dancing, and they both meekly put on their scarves and sat in the corner. Sal was pissed off, as they had been having such a good time. Of course, the Iranian village women refused to have their photos taken, so only the Africans appear in our pictures (and the kids).

Resting after entertaining all the village ladies with dance

Sal's henna-ed hand at wedding

Cutie at wedding

Traditional Baluchi dress

Dags in Baluchi dress

Eventually, after a dinner of a wonderful heavy lamb in gravy dish ( there was no-one to ask the name!), with all the usual bits and pieces such as Iranian flat bread, saffron rice, salad and drinks, some of the ladies went to sit on the mats outside, and a band started with Baluchi music, which we liked very much. The blokes all came back from the secret drinking place they had been (some people in the village are ultra-conservative, and those who aren’t have to hide their occasional drinking from them), and we finally met up after about 6 hours!

We had a lot to tell each other, but the celebrations were in full flow now, and we were taken to see the groom and sit with him while the “slaves” provided entertainment in the form of singing and dancing. Guests would give them money by waving it first over the groom’s head before it was grabbed. Some of the men got out pistols and Kalashnikovs and started shooting into the sky. We were both dragged up to dance again, but by 4am we were dead tired, and requested to go to bed. We were shown to a big western-style, comfortable bed (the first of the trip, we had been sleeping on floors everywhere else), and even the loud music and gun shots couldn’t keep us from dropping off immediately.

Rich feeling merry at village wedding

Baluchi fireworks

Getting into the groove at village wedding

The next day, the kind men of the village woke us with breakfast of fried liver, cheese, bread, and tea, and took us on a trip they had planned around the area. We actually would have liked to have gone back to Amin’s and slept, but we didn’t want to be rude. So we set off to tour around the gardens and to the huge dam that is the main water supply for the villages in the area. On return, we were taken in to see the groom and bride sitting together on a bed in a room, her heavily made up, and speaking no English, and Sal was left in there for hours, trying not to fall asleep. Finally we were driven back to Chabahar town, after offers to stay in the village as long as we liked.

Interesting colours in rock near village

Our group at local dam

Lovely light around village

Getting late in the day

Scenery around the village

It was very hard to say good bye to our host and his family. We had bonded with his two little sons, who were such good little boys, always helping and polite, and less so with the women, but our host himself was the saddest, and pleaded with us to stay longer. We actually could have stayed very easily, but two things were holding us back. One- we had limited time to see the whole of Iran, and we had been in this remote town already for 10 days (and didn’t want to impose on their very generous hospitality any longer), and two, we were getting fat from eating so much fabulous food and being driven around everywhere! It was time to get on the road again.

Our sleeping space at Amin's house

Our kind host family in Chabahar

Sal in Baluchi dress with sons

A typically amazing lunch at Amin's house


  1. Hello Sal & Rich: Greetings from Ontario. We love your blog about Iran. So interesting and fascinating! Excellent photos as usual, especially the landscapes. We would love to visit this country but we don’t dare yet. Maybe after their next revolution… By the way, Rich, the piece of hardware in your hands looks rather like a crude Iranian clone of my old German/NATO Heckler & Koch G3 of bygone days (probably a DIO G3A6). Cheers, Konni & Matt.

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