|Zahedan and Zabol in northern Sistan Baluchistan|
We opted for an overnight VIP bus from Chabahar to Zahedan (actually we were told this was the one we were to get by our Chabahar hosts!), and although it was extremely roomy and quite comfortable, we didn’t sleep much due to the driver playing religious music all night, a strong smell of petrol, and the air-con being changed to 39 degree heat during the night, while the outside temperature dropped to two degrees.
Our Couchsurfing host in Zahedan has a reputation for being very active in the Couchsurfing world- he once hosted 27 people at one time. His apartment is pleasant and very spacious- perfect for the groups of (mostly) Iranian tourists he hosts regularly. He’s a lovely young guy, who learnt English from watching American movies, so he has a bit of an accent, and uses expressions like “Bite me”! His English was excellent, and he was interested in learning more specific phrases. Some of his questions made us laugh in their details (such as “What percentage of women in Australia have long fingernails?”), in contrast to the sort of conversations we had been having elsewhere (“Do women in Australia wear Baluchi dress?”) His Couchsurfing style was more relaxed and easygoing than our last hosts, and we enjoyed the freedom and casual feel.
We arrived at his place in the freezing cold- quite a shock after the mild and sunny coast we had come from! Luckily Alex had his oil heater going, a great contraption used by people in this region.
A group of six Couchsurfers from Tehran arrived the same day as us, and it was a whirlwind day for us, spending time with cultured, educated, open-minded people with mostly good English from the city. It was also great for our host to have exposure to these sorts of people, when he is living in such an isolated place. We all toured the Zahedan together, lucky to have our host acting as our own personal guide.
The day began with a fantastic breakfast of Iranian-style omelette, bread and tea in a little hole in the wall eatery that only just fit us all in. A great, slow look around the enormous bazaar followed, with the Tehranians, buying souvenirs, and we having plenty of time to take lots of photos. The diversity of the population here was astounding- Sikhs, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Uzbeks, Turks, mixing with Baluchis and Persians. So different to Chabahar’s generic look.
The range of traditional dress on display was huge and gorgeous, although the men here dress a little more modern that Chabahar men’s uniformly white dress. We loved the colours for the women, although, again, many here were covered by black chadors. Richard took the fancy of a stall holder who gave him some bark used as a natural tooth cleaner, and then gave Rich a big kiss!
|Colours in the Zahedan market|
|Rich's admirer, Zahedan market|
|A range of goodies, Zahedan market|
|Interesting goods for sale, Zahedan market|
|Surrounded by toys, Zahedan market|
The rest of the day was spent in a different part of the city, where a huge second hand shoe market took the fancy of the Tehranians, and we were happy to wander around on our own- a rare occurrence so far in Iran! After a whiz around the museum, we ended up in a park where many small “tents” were set up, complete with rugs, heaters and Balucci decorations, to enjoy kelyun (water pipe) and tea. We realized later, these places are very common everywhere and we adored the idea. The kelyun flavour popular here is mint gum (!), but we preferred the apple. Cappuccino was an unusual one to try too! Tea in Iran is served black with sugar. The sugar comes in a few different forms. The most common is sugar cubes, which are dipped in the tea, then held in the mouth, and the tea is sucked through. Our favourite, however, was the crystallized sugar on a stick. You simply pop it in the glass and stir, and remove when the tea is sweet enough. Brilliant!
|Touring the Zahedan museum with fellow Couchsurfers|
|Sugar stick for tea|
|Smoking the kelyun|
|Tea tents- so great!|
Mostly, we sat back and enjoyed watching the friends chat and laugh- it was so nice to have both sexes in the same room! They were all very nice people, and later that night back at our host’s place, everyone mucked in to make and clean up after dinner, then dance Persian style, until we were too tired to stay awake. It’s interesting in Iran, for many people have satellite TV and watch English movies, but it’s very rare to hear any other music than Persian. We liked the communal feel of everyone paying a share for the day’s food and activities- it’s much more what we are used to.
We were enjoying the province of Sistan and Baluchistan so much that we veered off for a side trip to the small town of Zabol near the Afghan border. For the first time in Iran we didn’t have anywhere to stay lined up, as there are no Couchsurfers in Zabol. The bus was old and knackered by Iran standards, but the landscape of craggy hills followed by completely flat barren land, and the accompanying traditional music someone was playing made the trip a joy.
The bus station was just a lay-by at the edge of town, so we asked the waiting taxi driver to take us to a mosaferkhaneh, a cheap hotel or guesthouse. He looked very confused, and the concerned bus driver directed him to the bazaar. We drove around for a while before finding a little basic looking hotel, but when the proprietor saw us he shook his head no, and dejectedly we left. After a much needed meal in a fast food joint, we were wandering around trying to decide what to do, when a man pulled up and said he was an English teacher, and hop in. Of course we did, and we ended up being invited to his home to meet his happy family.
As well as being welcoming and kind to us (as everyone had been thus far), they were an interesting lot, and we learnt more as word passed around we were there and all the family came home to meet us. The youngest daughter, a very confident and enthusiastic 17 year old could speak English as well as her father, which was quite good, but we were very surprised to learn he ran an English Academy. His many mistakes were fine for us to understand, but definitely not up to teaching standard (he confidently proclaimed the small town of Zabol to have 500 million residents!). The middle daughter was clever and independent, had her own bookshop, studied PHD in economics, hated wearing the scarf and never wanted to get married. The oldest daughter was the more traditional, already married and pregnant. They all wore their scarves tied under their necks in a style different to what we had previously seen, and none of them wore the chador. The two boys were kind of dopey, but always laughing and fun.
Within the hour, we were watered and fed, asked to stay a couple of nights, and a plan to go sightseeing together the next day was organized! After a trip to see the bookshop, we all dined on scrumptious food at an in-law’s, who all treated us like royalty. The family loved to speak English and were super keen to learn more, so it was easy for us to repay their hospitality. The first night we all talked for about 6 hours straight!
The next morning, the four cars needed to take us all were packed very haphazardly for a BBQ- very different from how things would have been done in Oz! It was decided we would drive to Khou-e Khajen, a ruined castle on the side of a huge hill in the middle of a flat landscape, with several Muslim tombs on the vast flat top, about an hour from Zabol. We were happy, as we had wanted to see this, but hadn’t the transport. It amused us that the family was worried about Richard being able to climb in his Croc shoes, but some of them were wearing formal suits!
The drive there was great, herders with their flocks of woolly sheep in atmospheric old mud brick villages and occasional fields of green. We stared out the windows while the family chatted away to us about anything and everything. The approach to the hill was spectacular, and the idea that a vast lake once covered the entire area added to the romantic idea.
|The approach to Khou-e Khajen|
|Beautiful old mud buildings at Khou-e Khajen|
We were surprised at the number of people picnicking at the sight when we arrived. No Ruz was still going, and even a remote place like this was a popular spot for a family get together. While some of the family opted to stay and prepare the BBQ, the rest of us traipsed up the hill- us trying to soak up the wonderful vibe of the old ruins, and the Iranians trying to take as many pictures on themselves perched on various things as possible, making a lot of noise, and trying to hurry us up. We realized we would not be there if not for them, but the ruins were so lovely that we wanted to take our time, and in the end, we compromised by walking slowly, but chatting along the way.
|View from Khou-e Khajen|
|Walking up Khou-e Khajen|
|Amazing scenery at Khou-e Khajen|
|The group at Khou-e Khajen|
|Cutie at Khou-e Khajen|
We were all pretty knackered by the time we reached the bottom, and it was fantastic to tuck into the chicken kebabs and rice that had been prepared for us.
Our request to stop and take some photos in a tiny abandoned mud house village on the drive back to Zabol was met with bewilderment, but the car was stopped, and we had a quick wander around the beautiful site, while the family peered at us in distance with puzzled looks on their faces!
On the way home we won the argument about being able to take everyone out for dessert (it’s such a foreign concept for them to have a guest pay for something), although it was small victory when after ordering ice-cream and pastries for nearly 20 people the bill was only $6!! But they all seemed to enjoy it, which was the main thing.
The next day, the family offered to drive us to Zahedan, as we wanted to take a bus to Kerman. We were very happy and grateful, as it would mean we could all stop at Shahri-e Sakhta, a 3000 year old excavated village and museum, which we had wanted to see, but which was difficult with public transport.
It was quite interesting to see what astonishing well preserved items had been found at the site, considering its age. The seeds, nuts and food remains were fascinating, and there were signs the sophisticated civilisation had had games, surgical instruments, gorgeous jewellery and pottery. The skull with evidence of surgery was quite macabre!
They obviously didn’t get many foreign tourists in the attached museum here, and we were all given free entrance, a free tour, free lunch and very special treatment for the whole time we were there. The Farsi speaking guide was very earnest in letting us know everything about the exhibits, but unfortunately, the translations via our friend were probably not as interesting.
After an enjoyable stop, we set off again, with us under the impression we were all staying with the family’s relatives in Zahedan for the night, and then us catching a bus to Kerman in the morning. There was obviously something lost in translation, as we were dropped at the bus station in Zahedan at sunset, and left there alone wondering what to do next. Luckily, our Couchsurfing host in Kerman was able to take us a bit earlier than expected, so we took an overnight bus to Kerman, booked with the help of a very nice man from Tehran with the best English we have come across yet. There were a lot of police checks on this route, coming from the border area, but Sal was allowed to stay snugly sleeping on the bus, while all the men had to get off and get checked out.
As we left Sistan and Baluchistan province, we pondered that as great as many of the sights had been there, it was the local people who had made our stay a memorable one.