Stage 13 – Pakistan & Iran: Sindh, Balochistan And The Arabian Sea Coast [2/2]
Baluchistan is a wild and enigmatic place, renowned for lawlessness, smuggling and harsh, barren terrain. My only impressions of Baluchistan however were of warm and generous people, and spectacular scenery. The desolate stretch of road between Taftan and Quetta is at present the only practical overland route into Pakistan and India, and is therefore reasonably well-travelled. In the heyday of the Asian overland route however, before the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and Iranian Revolution in 1979, the preferred route was via Herat and Kabul, with the Baluchistan crossing being seen as insecure and arduous. What intrigued me was what lay off this route: the interior of Baluchistan. Crossing into Iran, I intended to continue my westward progression along the Makran all the way to the Persian Gulf, to see an area of Iran which was totally unknown to me, or anyone I had ever met.
I cross the border into Iran on the 22nd December 2008 and have a ‘guard’ forced upon me; an unarmed 18 year old Turkmen conscript, as far as the city of Zahedan, capital of the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. I first came to Zahedan in 2003, where a bout of heat exhaustion kept me in a hotel room for an unplanned day, with mild delirium. My second visit a year ago was nothing more than a brief restaurant stop well after dark. This time I wanted to have a proper look at this far flung Iranian city, universally maligned and overlooked. It would turn out to be a visit which etched itself permanently into my mind.
My host in the city is Ahmad, a dental technician (who makes dentures), who works with two cousins in the centre of the city, in a large office in which I will stay. I arrive after dark, and after a fairly painless hand-over from my escort, I drive with Ahmad back to his office, unpack a little and settle in. After an hour or two, Ahmed enquires if I would like to ‘smoke something’. ‘Hashish?’ I ask. ‘No, something a little stronger…’ he replies.
I join Ahmad and his two cousins in the small office kitchen where I have my first taste of opium, known in Persian as tariak. Opium, which is the dried latex of the opium poppy Papaver somniferum has been used since the Stone Age for analgesic (and undoubtedly recreational) purposes, normally has the colour of dark chocolate and the consistency of stiff plasticine. One does not smoke opium by burning it, but rather by heating it, causing the active alkaloid ingredients (most notably morphine, but also codeine and others) to vaporise, making them easy to inhale. Opium should not be confused with heroin, which is a chemically extracted drug with roughly fifteen times the potency of natural, raw opium. Its use is extremely widespread in Iran, more so even than the recreational use of marijuana in western countries. There are many ways of smoking opium, but most commonly a lump the size of a blueberry is warmed with a flame to soften it, whence it is flattened into a disc and spread across an unfolded paper-clip. A separate metal rod is then heated in a gas flame and pressed against the flattened disc of opium, and the resultant vapours inhaled through a rolled up paper tube (known as a lul).
My first encounter with opium is subtle; a mild, indefinable sensation of calm. Like many of life’s pleasures, it requires a little introduction, and after a few sessions I begin to appreciate the effect: one feels extremely comfortable, relaxed and at ease. The effect is not in any way debilitating or retarding, as with marijuana, but can only be described as absolutely pleasant. Ahmad and his cousins smoke three times a day, and I am glad to join them, spending the intervening time either in a state of perfect, fulfilling lassitude or, if the need arises, undertaking some errand such as money changing or shopping. So controllable are the effects of opium, that one of the few give-aways of a user is a brown-staining of the front-teeth, by which I am caught out one evening by a filling-station attendant, much to my chagrin.
After four days, on Friday, the Iranian weekend, Ahmad and I make a trip out of Zahedan towards Zabol, former capital of the region historically known as Sistan. Lying just to the north of modern Baluchistan, and in stark contrast to it, Sistan is an ancient centre of civilisation encompassing the full history of Persia. It was an area of early settlement by Aryan tribes, and was incorporated into the Medean, Achamaenid, and Seleucid Empires successively. It was later a centre of Scythian culture, from which the region’s name derives. Sistan is littered with slowly-decaying monuments standing testament to this rich history, and we stop off at the Bronze Age Shahr-e sukhteh, or ‘Burnt City’, site of the earliest known prosthetic eye, dice, and indications of brain surgery.
Ahmad’s great aunt, a venerable lady of ninety-nine years (who also has a fondness for opium) lives in the spectacular village of Seh Kuheh, thirty-five kilometres away from Zabol in a cave house hollowed from the side of an old castle. She is delighted to see Ahmad and myself, and we barely manage to stop her from cooking a meal for us. Ahmad wastes little time in acquiring opium; sending out the mentally-retarded son of a neighbour with the equivalent of US$2 to acquire some. The young man returns with a cherry-sized lump of sukhteh, a jet-black extract of burnt opium which for reasons not clear to me, is particularly potent. Ahmad and I conspicuously take my gas cooker to the local bathhouse, where we sit rather sordidly smoking the recent purchase, which is particularly pleasant: not surprising seeing that we are just 20 km from Afghanistan, the source country.
After smoking, we return to the cave and retire for the evening. Ahmad’s great aunt excuses herself to the house of her son who lives next door, and we enjoy the effects of our sukhteh. I lie in the centre of the troglodyte room on a thin woven mat, yet the sensation is of floating. There are no sharp edges to the world, no loud noises or bright lights. No pain, no irritation and no tension. I can evaporate into a meta-state of weightless bliss, which can only be compared to the sensation one gets when one finally rests after absolute exhaustion, multiplied by many orders of magnitude. Equally, I can pull myself from this effusive state into total, perfect, sharp awareness. It is nothing short of the most compelling bodily experience I have ever encountered, one of lasting pure and perfect bliss.
In the morning Ahmad and I leave to explore the nearby city of Zabol, which is rather mundane despite being just a few kilometres from Afghanistan; certainly not the den of ‘guns and drugs’ which a famous travel guidebook describes. Near to Zabol however is the intriguing Kuh-e Khajeh (Mt. Khajeh), which we visit in the afternoon. The mountain is a striking black volcanic outcrop which sits in the middle of the currently dry Lake Hamun, a shallow, ephemeral salt lake. The naturally striking site has drawn people from the flat surroundings of Sistan for centuries, with striking Sassanian Zoroastrian ruins first investigated by Marc Auriel Stein, which pre-date the arrival of Islam in Persia. On the top of the mound lies the more recent shrine of Khwaja Ali Mahdi, a descendent of Emam Ali, whose body is interred in a grave several metres long which is said to be continually growing.
In the afternoon, Ahmad seems to become anxious, slightly pale and clammy, and rather distracted; something I later realised was opium withdrawal. We drive back to Zahedan, stopping at the edge of town with a friend of Ahmad’s to smoke once more, this time from a home-made waterpipe known as a gholgholeh. I notice that all Ahmad’s worries and stresses vanish like the sickly sweet opium vapours once we start to smoke. I also notice that I am perfectly coordinated and capable of driving, even immediately after smoking. Opium is in fact used by lorry drivers in Iran to deal with boredom, and stay awake.
I stay with Ahmad for three more days, and visit his home which is a few minutes walk away, where his wife stays. I am fed wonderful home-cooked khoresht (stew) with rice, an appealing Iranian dish of subtle flavours and textures. Ahmad’s home is a typical, comfortable modern Persian home, heated by gas fires (which is so cheap as to be almost free in Iran), with large, uncluttered rooms. As in most Iranian households, a set of furniture used for ceremonial occasions sits at the back of the room, covered in plastic, and the thickly carpeted floor is instead used to sit on and take meals or relax with a pillow for an afternoon nap. It’s a nice re-introduction to the comforts of Iran, and I realise that Zahedan, far from the wild, dusty frontier town of iniquity I remember from 2003 is a perfectly comfortable, if slightly dull Iranian city. On the flipside, I also remember that I am still in Baluchistan, and the primal urge to keep moving takes over once again.
Just before leaving Ahmad, I have a slightly sour experience. Some money goes missing from my bag, and I know almost beyond doubt that it is one of his cousins. It’s a difficult position to be in, but somehow the money is returned to me by Ahmad. I wouldn’t normally accept, as I was certain Ahmad was not himself guilty, but took it more as tacit acceptance on his part that his cousin was the culprit. We part on good terms.
After a week of rollercoaster emotions in Zahedan, I plunge south without attention from the police (who are luckily pre-occupied with the impending visit of President Ahmadinejad) into the interior of Baluchistan once more. Shortly after leaving the city, I am in marvellous, radiant desert; a pure wilderness of blue sky and long vistas of mountains and high plains. From a huge gravelly plain, striking fins of rock protrude, and to the east lies the very prominent mass of Mt Taftan, with active, sulphurous fumaroles steaming from its summit. I reach the Baluchi town of Khash by mid-afternoon, by which time I’m beginning to feel mild symptoms of opiate withdrawal: aching joints, bowels and a touch of melancholy. After enquiring in a tailor shop as to the presence of a hotel in town, I am invited to stay at the home of one of the men, a rare insight into a traditional Baluchi family; quite a different experience from the excesses of the past week.
I set off next morning continuing my journey south towards the coast. I’m stopped at the edge of the town of Saravan by the police, who after fifteen minutes of waiting tell me I cannot enter the town. The same happens in the following two towns of Surkeh and Paskuh, until I am finally allowed to stop for lunch in the town of Zaboli, where sentinel gunmen patrol the streets from the town’s rooftops. I am clearly an object of suspicion to the local police and army, something I very quickly tire of. Mostly consisting of barely educated adolescents, whose limited intellect is fortified with heavy government brainwashing into a paranoic state of xenophobia, their reactions are usually contemptible, juvenile laughter and a fascination with any number of my possessions, such as a piece of coral, which are somehow construed to be the apparatus of espionage or narco-trafficking. I try continually to resolve this breed of cretin with the other Iranians I meet, who are very nearly all dignified and intelligent people. It is quite clear from which social echelons the country recruits its security forces. I later learn that there had been a very recent bomb attack at a police station in the town of Saravan, which may explain why I was denied access to some places.
Beyond Saravan, the land starts to fall gently, and the temperature rises. Date palms and ephemeral watercourses appear, giving the land a North African look. Small mud-brick houses and even the occasional nomad’s tent dot the landscape, and the air thickens as I near the coast. Failing to find a cheap hotel in the town of Iranshahr, I opt to camp next to the main road into town, opposite a police checkpoint. The huge and obvious police presence here is due to the insecurity of the region; its long, porous border with Pakistan makes it a prime conduit for smuggling. The police initially protest, advising me to find a hotel, and are staggered by my telling them that I do not wish to pay $30 for the privilege of sleeping somewhere for one night. ‘But you are a foreigner, you must be full of money!’ says the incredulous police officer before telling me to move on. I drive forward 100 metres and put my tent up, with no further protests. It’s New Year’s Eve 2008, and in my tent on the back of the truck, at a police checkpoint in the farthest flung reaches of Iran (which uses a different calendar), and with a dose of post-opiate depression, I actually feel a touch lonely for the first time I can remember.
Next morning I’m feeling back to normal and drive to the small nearby town of Bampur where I find a large, ruined castle, which I have all to myself. Far more rewarding than nursing a New Year’s Day hangover. I drive further south, into the western reaches of the coastal Makran Range, back into the same spectacularly sharp and eroded hills that I left in Pakistan the previous month. Shortly before approaching the large city of Chabahar, I turn south-east off the main road, and drive down to the sleepy coastal village of Beris. It’s getting late and I fancy staying here, so I find a suitable looking venue, some large commercial grounds, and ask to stay. Two local Baluchis are in the office of what turns out to be a regional distributor of fish, and immediately allow me to drive in and put the tent up for the night. They even have a hot shower which I make use of. It’s a rather perfect camping ground, and I sleep comfortably in the cool, nocturnal sea air to the sound of chirping frogs who inhabit the bathroom.
In the morning I drive further east, to the end of the road in Iran, at Gvatar where a mangrove-lined estuary blocks any further progress. It’s as close to Pakistan as I can get. Turning round, I stop at the village of Pasbandar, where I enter the port for a look around. The harbour is full of exuberantly painted boats, which carry cargo along the Makran coast from Pakistan to Iran. Most of the crews are Pakistani, and seem genuinely pleased to meet me, flattered that I have taken an interest in what they are doing. They have tough lives, living in very basic conditions on the boats with only the very basic amenities of the port, which they may not leave as they don’t have visas for Iran. They come mostly from Karachi’s urban poor, and I wonder if any of them come from the awful slums I drove over, along the Lyari River. I am reminded of the genuine friendliness and kindness of Abdul Rehman, the fisherman whom I stayed with near Karachi the previous month. One of the sailors is so kind as to invite me to his wedding next month. Among their mixed, Makran-Baluchi features, I notice a number of Sheedis, the pure-African descendants of slaves, who through numerous generations still retain absolutely African features; it is really very strange to meet a man who looks absolutely to be from the interior of Central Africa, but has the soft manner and accent of a Pakistani.
Although I am delighted to be back in Iran for many reasons; decent, signposted roads free from crawling lorry traffic, super cheap diesel, tap-water that doesn’t make one ill, continuous electricity, organised cities, people not spitting everywhere and so on, meeting these sailors makes me realise just how much I miss Pakistan.
In the evening Hassan, the younger of the two Baluchis who are hosting me takes me on his motorcycle to the edge of town, then across the barren clifftops to the edge, from where there is a stunning view of the Gulf of Oman; looking east towards Pakistan a magnificent beach of rust-coloured sand extends for several kilometres, contrasting with the perfect blue of the sea. It seems virtually untouched by man. This desolate corner of the world, so infamous for its treacherous terrain throughout history, and renowned today for lawlessness seems in truth like a hidden jewel of spectacular beauty and thoroughly warm people. Why is it that in the places which people most warn one about, one so often finds the kindest people?
The time comes however to move on from the tranquillity and beauty of Beris, and leave the Makran Region and Baluchistan itself. I drive west along the coastal road, soon passing through the thriving port city of Chabahar, from where trucks drive goods into landlocked Afghanistan. Beyond the city’s sprawl, the road enters utter wilderness, but the fantastically eroded hills, so characteristic of the Makran thin out and dissipate into a flat, featureless plain. Dust-storms crash across the road, and the harsh, white light picks out only scrubby bushes and the occasional desperate settlement. At one point a large, unlikely mud-volcano protrudes from the plain, but it is not until sunset, when I reach the border of Hormozgan Province, that the landscape improves at all.
Shortly after dark, in the small town of Lerdaf I am stopped by the police and it is suggested that I stop for the night. I’m not against the idea, and to my surprise the police bring me to a room full of people. They don’t look to be police, and I’m relieved to find that they are a group of students, some local, some from the city of Shiraz, whom the friendly police officer know. I am to stay the night with them, a wonderful re-introduction to Persian hospitality; we have a hearty meal and wonderful conversation all evening. To the best of their knowledge, I’m the first foreigner to end up in this back-of-beyond town.
The end of my journey along the coast comes the following evening when I reach the large city of Bandar Abbas, sitting on the Straits of Hormuz and marking the end of the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. I rest for a few days in Bandar Abbas where I meet David, a Taiwanese-American backpacker, with whom I drive a little further west to the port of Bandar Pol and take a car ferry to the Island of Qeshm.
Qeshm is the largest island in the Persian Gulf, considerably larger than Bahrain and, uniquely in a region which very rapidly modernised in the 20th Century, retains in places authentic Gulf culture and architecture. David and I arrive near the port of Laft, which is a quaint, traditional Persian Gulf town. The skyline of Laft is dotted with occasional minaret, but far more prominently by wind-towers, or badgirs, which utilise the sea breeze to funnel hot air out of houses, and are often ornately decorated. Although it is pleasantly warm on this early-January day, the long summers here are almost unbearably hot and humid, and the badgirs act as an ancient form of air-conditioning. Beyond the town lies a short row of mangroves, which form something of a harbour at the waterfront where traditional wooden dhows come and go. It’s a charming place, and a rare glimpse of what the Persian Gulf must have looked like before the discovery of oil less than a century ago.
The eastern half of the island is far less picturesque and the island capital, Qeshm is utterly bland. David and I camp after dark on a rocky shore near the town, noticing a rather acrid smell in the air. It is not until morning that we realise the coastline is coated in oil, testament to the environmental impact of oil production and shipping. In contrast, the southern coast of the island is wild and rugged; in one place a salt cave is set amidst blood-red rock, out of which spews what looks to be a glacier of white rock salt. The interior of the island is wilderness; a desert of eroded limestones and marls, forming landscapes reminiscent of the Sahara in places.
We leave after two nights on the island, returning to Bandar Abbas. My plan had been to go from here on a ferry to the UAE, then progress to Africa via Oman and Yemen. Two things put doubts in my mind however, firstly the logistics of entering Oman with a right-hand drive car, and shipping a car across the Red Sea from Yemen to Djibouti, and secondly, perhaps more importantly, a deep feeling of not wishing to leave Asia. There seems much yet to see; parts of Iran and Pakistan which I have not been to, and, of course Afghanistan. I resolve not to cross the Gulf at present, but to head north and spend more time in Iran, during which time I will have to make a decision as to where to continue.