Persia… and the Persians

318 Views - Published on - May 2, 2013 by Raza Ali

Standing in the queue, before the Persians would open the border gate, we had enough time to remember the times of greatness of the land, which we were about to enter. This land had been of great interest not only for travellers, but mostly for invaders. People like Alexander Macedonian had all their lives devoted to conquering Persia. Once successful Alexander made Persepolis the seat of his empire and this mere fact shows his immense interest in Persia.
Persia was on the way for a lot of travellers heading to India and travellers like Russian Afanasi Nikitiin of Tver, who was interested in trade with India, passed a considerable time in Iran. More than 6000 years of history, rich cultural and literary traditions, wealth of natural resources, a unique political and international relations stand point and a society consisting of a diverse group of people from Kurds to Baluchis, with the whole of the spectrum in between awaited us right across the gate.

The flag that is vertical and horizontal Islamic Republic of Iran

That gate looked like an iron curtain standing between us and the greatness of time. And then the gates gave way and the line of people, including us, who had been standing there for more than 2 hours, stepped forward to enter history.
But as the gate opened and the crowd started moving I came out of my fantasy and looked around to see most of the people going in with 20 litre plastic cans. Some of them carried the cans, but some even threw the cans over the wall into Persia. What was the purpose?
Well I soon couldn’t hold myself back and asked one of the newly acquainted people about the plastic and he told us that these people were crossing over just to buy petrol, which in Iran is very cheap. The business is very simple and quick. These people go into Iran fill up their cans (5-20) and bring them back into Pakistan. The cost of one 20 litre can in Iran is just 500Rs (app. 5$). Once this can passes back into Pakistan, already in Taftan the price goes as high as 1500Rs (app. 15$) and once the same can reaches Quetta, the price goes as high as 2200Rs (app. 22$).

Well this is not the only cross border trade. There are other items that are brought into Pakistan from Iran and the trade is booming. So after all Iran is not all that closed and restricted as we perceive it as per news.
While we were waiting in the queue by the border gate, after going through Pakistani passport control, one of the immigration officers, who had freed from work, came out, sat in the shade and signalled us to come over and sit under the shade. In fact my wife was the only female in the queue and most definitely the only foreigner, if you don’t consider Afghanis, as foreigners.
We took the offer and as we sat down, we had our formal introductions and upon enquiry, when I told that we lived in Saint-Petersburg, Russia that immigration officer exclaimed that he had a friend or even a few friends living in Saint-Petersburg. Then upon my enquiry he told the names of those friends and it turned out that I also knew that person for more than 13 years. This was an interesting moment, because as soon as this guy realized my friendship with his friend he offered us tea and the words he said, made me understand the Pakistani traditions of hospitality once again. He said: “In this case you are our guests. Because had Bate been here you would had been his guests, but his guests are our guests”. Once we started talking to our new acquaintance time just flew by.
Then when the gates opened this same person, who had already acquainted us with many others as Bate’s friends, helped us bypass the queue. Those little more than 2 hours of waiting helped us find a new friend in an area, where according to mass media, one should not even think of going, because it is a “dangerous” area.
Once on the Iranian side, new understandings started setting in. First thing is that people don’t speak English in Iran, especially government servants. They do however speak Urdu and Baluchi and do understand a few other languages. But if you want to feel free in Iran you have to know basic Persian.
The question and probably the most important one for Iranians, was regarding the relationship of my white companion with me. At the first instance it took me some time to explain that she was my wife, but soon I asked the Persian word for wife and it became easier to explain. But believe me this question was the one, which haunted us around as long as we were on the Iranian territory.
The Iranian authorities arranged for military escort for us so that we could reach Zahidan, from where we were supposed to take our next bus to Tehran. We came out of the terminal with the escort and took a taxi to Zahidan. There were two options. Option one was to take a bus but in that case we would have had to take 3 instead of 1 guards with us and in that case the difference between the cost of transportation to Zahidan would had been the same as going by taxi, so we opted for a single guard.
The taxi ride cost us 400000 Riyals or 40000 Tumans. Ok let me clear out one thing here. In Iran there is only one currency. It is called Riyal. But due to devaluation of currency people usually strike-out the last zero and in that case it is called Tuman. So when in Iran and you are asked to pay for something in smaller amounts, don’t fooled in understanding that you will pay Riyals. Either always add another zero to the amount or ask if the price is in Tumans or Riyals.
Now that taxi ride of more than 80 kilometres cost us 1150Rs (app. 11.5$). The taxi was air-conditioned and very comfortable. I will not go into details of checks on the way from Mirjaveh to Zahidan, but let me tell you that you should be ready for multiple checks, which can take from a few seconds to tens of minutes. Just don’t let those checks stop from going to this depth of history.

Waiting for a bus from Zahidan to Tehran

One more thing that is a cause of alarm for Iranian authorities is a camera. One must be very careful in taking photos or shooting video. Because either you can read Persian and can identify places, where it is restricted to take photos or you should have a local guide you. A photo of a restricted place or object can land you into a lot of interrogation.
Once we entered Zahidan metropolitan area, we were handed over from the army to the police and we had a ride in the back seat of an Iranian police vehicle. Well since we are law abiding citizens, it was a good experience, because otherwise it is hard to get into the back seat of a police car!

The Zahidan terminal offers a lot of buses all day long going into different directions. You can get a bus to Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz etc. We bought our tickets to Tehran. The cost of tickets was once again way below our expectations. Two tickets cost us just 1450Rs (app. 14.5$). Travelling was not as cheap in Pakistan even. The distance between Zahidan and Tehran is around 1700kms, so the cost of one ticket makes it around 4 cents per kilometre.

Zahidan bus terminal
The bus left the terminal at 14:00 and we had a few hours before it got dark. The landscape reminded of lunar land. Not that I have been to the moon, but what I could recollect from NASA videos and Hollywood enactments, it was lunar land out there: dry land with dark sand and no vegetation at all. The only thing that made the landscape more earthly, were the sand storms.

The journey from Zahidan to Tehran takes around 22 hours and when I heard this in Zahidan I was amazed, why do they take so long, but once we started out all my questions were answered. The roads in Iran are of a very good quality. Most of the roads that we travelled on were one-way highways, but the time consuming factor were the checks on the way. Once again I will not get into details, but if you are afraid of dogs and if you don’t have strong nerves, don’t take a bus from Zahidan to Tehran, fly!
Sniffer canines, armed military men, demand of total obedience and loss of sense of human rights are just a few words that can elaborate this journey.
The other thing important is that even in mid-summer once you take this route, don’t forget to grab a jacket. As I already told this is a desert and as soon as the sun goes down the chill comes in. So a 40+ degree temperature in the day should not mislead you into thinking that you are cherishing summer!

The lunar landscape of Iran
The buses are without toilets and the stops are rare, so whenever the bus stops take a leak. And on top of that buy your supplies before you vehicle leaves from Zahidan, especially if you smoke, buy cigarettes, because on the way what they sell as cigarettes are not fags. You will not find cigarettes before reaching Tehran, so be prepared to quit smoking!
But if you are a regular smoker better not attempt this, because you will need all the nicotine that you can get to avoid a nervous breakdown, which can be caused by men in camouflage and sniffer dogs, who look friendly, but…
The bus reached the Iranian capital at around 13:00 the next day and after a 23 hour journey, we reached the center of modern Iranian culture and politics.