Should the Pakistani people support free Balochistan

Balochistan - wild country with wonderful people

After two months of winter vacation in Oman, our ferry docks in the port of Bandar Abbas in mid-February. We are back in Iran and are facing a new stage in our travel adventure on two wheels. I'm not looking forward to wearing the headscarf and long trousers again, but all the more to the dear people. Together with Martine and Dominique we make our way to the center. It feels like coming home. In Bandar Abbas we know our way around, know where to change money, where to get the best ice cream and what to say to greet you. Even the chaotic traffic can no longer unsettle us. We haven't been cycling for five minutes when the first car stops us. The man calls out “Welcome to Iran” and passes us four styrofoam boxes through the window. We thank you for the food and sit on the roadside beaming with joy. There is rice with chicken.

It's so nice to be back in Iran. We stroll through the market, enjoy the many fresh fruits and vegetables, eat ripe strawberries, buy nuts at the bazaar and feast on Iranian ice cream. We are really happy to see our funny host Sadegh again and four of us sleep in his little garden shed. For our onward journey through Turkmenistan we have to apply for transit visas. We are planning to cycle a little further east and then up to the north parallel to the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. We want to take about two months for this and explore a lot of Iran before we reach Central Asia and the Pamir Highway, which is hopefully snow-free until then.

The landscape along the Gulf coast towards Pakistan is extremely barren and lonely. But in the last few weeks it has rained a lot. A touch of green covers the landscape, an unusual sight for us. We are approaching Balochistan. Unfortunately we could hardly find out anything about the "most dangerous" province of Iran. In most travel guides it is not even mentioned, it is rare for a tourist to get lost there. We heard from a few Iranian cyclists that it should be beautiful and that the people are very poor, but all the more hospitable. Many Baluch people also live in the neighboring region, and we are immediately invited to a barbecue in the park. To our delight, the man speaks English quite well and can tell us a lot about his people.

Najib and his family invite us to stay with them. Your home is exactly on our route, so we gladly accept the offer. It is already getting dark when we arrive. You were already worried because as soon as it gets dark there are a lot of smugglers on the move. With a tank on their pickup truck, they rush to the beach in the dark with no lights and load the fuel onto small fishing boats, which then pump the goods onto a larger ship further out in the Persian Gulf. The state-subsidized fuel is cheap even for the oil-rich neighboring countries and is resold from there. There is even a smugglers' beach in Bandar Abbas. Every evening speedboats come over from Dubai with all kinds of electronic devices on board. The police know about it, of course, and deserve their own share. It should not be entirely harmless on the border with Pakistan. There are always armed clashes with oil and drug smugglers.

We stay with Najib and his family for two days. They cook good vegetarian food, there is soy macaroni again. "Sistan and Balochistan" is the poorest province in the country and very special. We recognize some parallels to the Iranian Kurdistan and many connections to the culture in Oman. The Baluch, who live in southeastern Iran, a large part of Pakistan and a corner of Afghanistan, are extremely friendly people. Most of the men shake hands with me too. The style of clothing is very different from the rest of Iran. The women wear brightly colored, embroidered dresses, while the men wear baggy trousers and a shirt dress. They speak Baluchi and some of them want an independent Balochistan. For all of these reasons, they receive little government support and no urgently needed aid.

Tehran is not just geographically far away. With Oman, however, there were and are many connections. In the past, families tilled their fields over or over there, depending on where it had rained more. The men had a wife on either side of the gulf. Or several. Often we are told about the past. We are shown photos of brave, just rulers who fought on horseback for independence or against the neighboring clan. But also pictures of everyday life. It is unimaginable under what harsh conditions and in what poverty the people lived here until not so long ago. Some things have improved, life is still tough. Najib prepares sweet noodles and tea with milk and spices for breakfast. It is one of the many things we have in common with Oman that we discover here in southern Iran.

It's already really hot in the Persian Gulf. In mid-February we have 36 degrees. With the long trousers I work up a sweat. It's good that the sun hat is sufficient as headgear. I couldn't even imagine cycling with a headscarf. Incidentally, despite my short hair and hat, I am immediately recognized as a woman again. The mix-ups seem to have been an Arab phenomenon. Due to the massive floods a month earlier, many roads and bridges have been destroyed and we have to cross river beds a few times. But what really worries us are the millions of mosquitoes that buzz around us every evening looking for a place to sleep. They are a real nuisance, they even fly into your mouth when you speak.

In addition, there is the completely soggy, loamy soil, in which you sometimes sink down to your knees. Camping is impossible. It's a shame because the landscape is fascinating. But how could it be otherwise, we're lucky again. Like most Kurds, the Baluch are Sunnis. Many of their mosques have a small guest room for pilgrims and travelers. Everyone can stay here for free. We just cycle to the mosque, somehow make ourselves understandable and are accepted without any problems. It doesn't even matter whether we're married. Mostly it is an empty room with a carpet on the floor. There is of course also a washing facility. And miraculously, the mosquitoes keep away from the rooms.

It's clear that our presence will not go unnoticed for long. Immediately we are invited to dinner. The host works in Dubai. With the income there, he is really rich in Iran. Whenever he is on home leave, the whole village gathers in his house. In the men's room, people chat, play cards, smoke a lot and the television is on. Some of them just sit around and wait for food. At some point I will be brought to the women. They have gathered in a small room next to the kitchen. It's really hot, everyone is squeezed together next to each other.

I am allowed to sit in the middle and am stared at from all sides. Unfortunately nobody speaks English. But it's also enough to just take selfies with me. I feel like in the zoo. For the women it seems to be a matter of course that they are allowed to photograph me, the reverse is not at all welcomed. In the whole time we spent in Balochistan, I only took two photos of a woman. Incidentally, the women, even when they are among themselves, always wear a headscarf, some even the burqa, the traditional face mask. I think it's not so much about the veil, but also about the fashionable appearance and beauty. They show me videos from a wedding. One of the most important topics here.

Balochistan is extremely traditional. Marriage occurs in the family. Young people tell us how much they would like to marry someone else. But they have to keep their love affairs a secret. The family expects you to marry your cousin, or even your sister, if no one else is available. The wedding celebration usually lasts four days, with men and women celebrating separately. We are also invited to a wedding in the small town of Fanuj. I am dressed in a traditional dress and am a guest of honor for women. Everyone likes to sit next to me, take a picture with me and paint my hand with henna tattoos. There is dancing to loud music, the atmosphere is lively. Quite different with men. They gather at home, have petty conversations, and the elders smoke opium. Ferdi and the other young men have to sit there, bored. The men's evening ends after dinner. The women party long into the night.

The corona virus in Iran is now also a topic of conversation here. Many people are said to have already died. We don't know how many there are. The government is keeping the numbers under lock and key. Again and again we get SMS from the Iranian Ministry of Health with requests to wash hands, keep our distance and the like. So it should be more serious than officially admitted. Some neighboring countries have closed their borders. The people here in the farthest corner of Iran are of the opinion that Corona will certainly not get into the village. Big celebrations are still taking place, people eat from the same plate by hand and use the same mouthpiece to smoke water pipes and opium. We try to shake hands as little as possible, which initially causes incomprehension for many Iranians and is not that easy given the large number of encounters. You can see more people wearing face masks on the streets. We keep thinking about what will happen when all borders are tight and how the virus will spread in the country. We have heard from other bike travelers that they have already left the country.

For us that is out of the question at the moment, we want to continue traveling. Even when the situation is difficult and the joy of traveling is clouded, we try to remain optimistic. We are rewarded with increasingly spectacular rock formations on the coast. A group of locals invites us to their picnic. The men sit on the carpet and smoke shisha while the women take care of the food. A fire is kindled on the sandy ground, in the ashes of which the bread is later baked. There is also fish soup. The freshly baked, somewhat sandy bread is torn into pieces and added to the soup in the pot. There it soaks up with soup. The rest of the soup is emptied and what remains is a mushy fish, soup and bread mixture. It doesn't look very appetizing, but I still find it amusing to watch how everyone reaches into the bowl with their hands and shoves a piece into their mouths. We camp right in front of the rock towers and get a visit from a dangerous-looking scorpion before going to bed.

In the hope of cooler weather and fewer mosquitoes, we leave the coastal region and take a small road north. We are excited. It looks just as spectacular here as in Oman. The same mountains, stones and bushes. There are absolutely no tourists here. Later in Kotij the locals will tell us that they have never seen foreigners in town. Only grandpa can remember a car from Italy that drove through over forty years ago.

We cycle on gravel roads in river valleys, through small, very poor villages with friendly residents, see monitor lizards, scorpions and wild boars. Everything is a bit green and the air is extremely dry. We don't mask ourselves because of Corona, but cover our mouth and nose to store a little humidity. Unfortunately, we cannot enjoy the beautiful area for long, because unexpectedly I feel severe pain in the kidney area and am transported to the hospital. We have already written about this and what happened afterwards in the report about our unintentional journey home.

Oh how do we miss this great country and its wonderful inhabitants!

Marlen from Lienz and Ferdi from Salzburg started on a bike tour around the world in June 2019. In nine months, the two of them cycled more than 11,000 kilometers from Lienz through 14 countries to Iran. Then Covid 19 stopped the two globetrotters. Marlen Schieder tells us in an exciting, multi-part travel report what they experienced before they returned to quarantine. Have fun!