PERSIA AND THE MESHED PILGRIM ROAD
It rains quite heavily during the night, but clears off again in the early morning, and at eight o'clock I take my departure, Mirza Hassan refusing to allow his son and heir to accept a present in acknowledgment of the hospitality received at his hands. The whole male population of the village is assembled again at the spot where their experience of yesterday has taught them I should probably mount; and the house-tops overlooking the same spot, and commanding a view of the road across the plain to the eastward, are crowded with women and children. The female portion of my farewell audience present quite a picturesque appearance, being arrayed in their holiday garments of red, blue, and other bright colors, in honor of Friday, the Mohammedan Sabbath.
Pour miles of most excellent camel-path lead across a gravelly plain, affording a smooth, firm, wheeling surface, notwithstanding the heavy rains of the previous night; but beyond the plain the road leads over the pass of the Sardara Kooh, one of the many spurs of the Elburz range that reach out toward the south. This spur consists of saline hills that present a very remarkable appearance in places; the rocks are curiously honey-combed by the action of the salt, and the yellowish earthy portion of the hills are fantastically streaked and seamed with white. A trundle of a couple of miles brings me to the summit, from which point I am able to mount, and, with brake firmly in hand, glide smoothly down the eastern slope. After descending about a mile, I am met by a party of travellers who give me friendly warning of deep water a little farther down the mountain. After leaving them, my road follows down the winding bed of a stream that is probably dry the greater part of the year; but during the spring thaws, and immediately after a rain-storm, a stream of brackish, muddy water a few inches deep trickles down the mountain and forms a most disagreeable area of sticky salt mud at the bottom. The streak this morning can more truthfully be described as yellow liquid mud than as water, and both myself and wheel present anything but a prepossessing appearance in ten minutes after starting down its grimy channel. I am, however, congratulating myself upon finding it so shallow, and begin to think that, in describing the water as nearly over their donkeys' backs, the travellers were but indulging their natural propensity as subjects of the Shah, and worthy followers in the footsteps of Ananias.
About the time I have arrived at this comforting conclusion, I am suddenly confronted by a pond of liquid mud that bars my farther progress down the mountain. A recent slide of land and rock has blocked up the narrow channel of the stream, and backed up the thick yellow liquid into a pool of uncertain depth. There is no way to get around it; perpendicular walls of rock and slippery yellow clay rise sheer from the water on either side. There is evidently nothing for it but to disrobe without more ado and try the depth. Besides being thick with mud, the water is found to be of that icy, cutting temperature peculiar to cold brine, and after wading about in it for fifteen minutes, first finding a fordable place, and then carrying clothes and wheel across, I emerge on to the bank formed by the land-slip looking as woebegone a specimen of humanity as can well be imagined. Plastered with a coat of thin yellow mud from head to foot, chilled through and through, and shivering like a Texas steer in a norther, feet cut and bleeding in several places from contact with the sharp rocks, and no clean water to wash off the mud! With the assistance of knife, pocket-handkerchief, and sundry theological remarks which need not be reproduced here, I finally succeed in getting off at least the greater portion of the mud, and putting on my clothes. The discomfort is only of temporary duration; the agreeable warmth of the after-glow exhilarates both mind and body, and with the disappearance of the difficulty to the rear cornea the satisfaction of having found it no harder to overcome.
A little good wheeling is encountered toward the bottom of the pass, and then comes an area of wet salt-flats, interspersed with saline rivulets--those innocent-looking little streamlets the deceptive clearness of which tempts the thirsty and uninitiated wayfarer to drink. Few travellers in desert countries but have been deceived by these innocuous-looking streamlets once, and equally few are the people who suffer themselves to be deceived by their smooth, pellucid aspect a second time; for a mouthful of either strongly saline or alkaline water from one of them creates an impression on the deceived one's palate and his mind that guarantees him to be wariness personified for the remainder of his life. Since a certain experience in the Bitter Creek country, Wyoming, the writer prides himself on being able to distinguish drinkable water from the salty or alkaline article almost as far as it can be seen, and a stream about which the least suspicion is entertained is invariably tasted with gingerly hesitancy to begin with.
Soon after noon I reach the village of Kishlag, where a halt of an hour or so is made to refresh the inner man with tea, raw eggs, and figs--a queer enough bill of fare for dinner, but no more queer than the people from whom it is obtained. Some of my readers have doubtless heard of the Milesian waiter who could never be brought to see any inconsistency in asking the guests of the restaurant whether they would take tea or coffee, and then telling them there was no tea, they would have to take coffee. The proprietor of the little tchai-khan at Kishlag asks me if I want coffee, and then, in strict conformity with the curious inconsistency first discovered and spoken of at Aivan-i-Kaif, he informs me that he has nothing but tea. The country hereabout is evidently the birthplace of Irish bulls; when the ancestors of modern Handy Andys were running wild on the bogs of Connemara, the people of Aivan-i-Kaif and Kishlag were indulging in Irish bulls of the first water.
The crowd at Kishlag are good-natured and comparatively well-behaved. In reply to their questionings, I tell them that I am journeying from Yenghi Donia to Meshed. The New World is a far-away, shadowy realm to these ignorant Persian villagers, almost as much out of their little, unenlightened world as though it were really another planet; they evidently think that in going to Meshed I am making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Riza, for some of them commence inquiring whether or no Yenghi Donians are Mussulmans.
The weather-clerk inaugurates a regular March zephyr in the east, during the brief halt at Kishlag; and in addition to that doubtful favor blowing against me, the road leading out is lumpy as far as the cultivated area extends, and then it leads across a rough, stony plain that is traversed by a network of small streams, similar to those encountered yesterday at Sherifabad. To the left, the abutting front of the Elburz Mountains is streaked and frescoed with salt, that in places vies in whiteness with the lingering-patches of snow higher up; to the right extends the gray, level plain, interspersed with small cultivable areas for a farsakh or two, beyond which lies the great dasht-i-namek (salt desert) that comprises a large portion of the interior of Persia.
Wild asses abound on the dasht-i-namek, and wandering bands of these animals occasionally stray up in this direction. The Persians consider the flesh of the wild donkey as quite a delicacy, and sometimes hunt them for their meat; they are said to be untamable, unless caught when very young, and are then generally too slender-limbed to be of any service in carrying weights. Wild goats abound in the Elburz Mountains; the villagers hunt them also for their meat, but the flesh of the wild goat is said to contribute largely to the prevalence of sore eyes among the people. The Persian will eat wild donkey, wild goat, and the flesh of camels, but only the very poor people--people who cannot afford to be fastidious--ever touch a piece of beef; gusht-i-goosfang (mutton) is the staple meat of the country.
The general aspect of the country immediately south of the Elburz Mountains, beyond the circumscribed area of cultivation about the villages, is that of a desert, desolate, verdureless, and forbidding. One can scarcely realize that by simply crossing this range a beautiful region is entered, where the prospect is as different as is light from darkness. An entirely different climate characterizes the Province of Mazanderan, comprising the northern slopes of these mountains and the Caspian littoral. With a humid climate the whole year round, and the entire face of the country covered with dense jungle, the northern slopes of the Elburz Mountains present a striking contrast to the barren, salt-frescoed foot-hills facing the south hereabout. Here, as at Resht, the moisture from the Caspian Sea does for the province of Mazanderan what similar influences from the Pacific do for California. It makes all the difference between California and Nevada in the one case, and Mazanderan and the desert-like character of Central Persia in the other.
In striking and effective contrast to the general aspect of death and desolation that characterizes the desert wastes of Persia--an effect that is heightened by the ruins of caravansaries or villages, that are seldom absent from the landscape--are the cultivated spots around the villages. Wherever there is a permanent supply of water, there also is certain to be found a mud-built village, with fields of wheat and barley, pomegranate orchards, and vineyards. In a country of universal greenness these would count for nothing, but, situated like islands in the sea of sombre gray about them, they often present an appearance of extreme beauty that the wondering observer is somewhat puzzled to account for; it is the beauty of contrast, the great and striking contrast between vegetable life and death.
These impressions are nowhere more strongly brought into notice than when approaching Aradan, a village I reach about five o'clock. Like almost all Persian towns and villages, Aradan has evidently occupied a much larger area at one time than it does at present; and the mournful-looking ruins of mosques, gateways, walls, and houses are scattered here and there over the plain for a mile before reaching the present limits of habitation. The brown ruins of a house are seen standing in the middle of a wheat-field; the wheat is of that intense greenness born of irrigation and a rich sandy soil, and the mud ruins, dead, desolate, and crumbling to dust, look even more deserted and mournful from the great contrast in color, and from the myriad stems of green young life that wave and nod about them with every passing breeze. The tumble-down windows and doorways form openings through which the blue sky and the green waving sea of vegetation beyond are seen as in a picture, and the ruined mud mosque, its dome gone, its windows and doorways crumbled to shapeless openings, seems like a weather-beaten skeleton of Persia's past, while the ever-moving waves of verdant life about it, seem to be beating against it and persistently assailing it, like waves of the sea beating against an isolated rock.
While engaged in fording a stream on the stony plain between road. The shagird-chapar is with them, on a third "bag of bones," worse, if possible, than the others. Taking the world over, there is perhaps no class of horses that are, subject to so much cruelty and ill-treatment as the chapar horses of Persia, With back raw, ribs countable a hundred yards away, spavined, blind of an eye, fistula, and cursed with every ill that horseflesh in the hands of human brutes is subject to, the chapar horse is liable to be taken out at any hour of the day or night, regardless of previous services being but just finished. He is goaded on with unsparing lash to the next station, twenty, or perhaps thirty miles away, staggering beneath the weight of the traveller, or his servant, with ponderous saddlebags.
This chapar, or post-service, is established along the great highways of travel between Teheran and Tabreez, Teheran and Meshed, and Teheran and Bushire, with a branch route from the Tabreez trail to the Caspian port of Enzeli; the stations vary from four to eight farsakhs apart. Not all the chapar horses are the wretched creatures just described, however, and by engaging beforehand the best horses at each station along the route, certain travellers have made quite remarkable time between points hundreds of miles apart. In addition to horses for himself and servants, the traveller is required to pay for one to carry the shagird-chapar who accompanies them to the next station to bring back the horses. The ordinary charge is one keran a farsakh for each horse. It wouldn't be a Persian institution, however, if there wasn't some little underhanded arrangement on hand to mulct the traveller of something over and above the legitimate charges. Accordingly, we find two distinct measurements of distance recognized between each station--the "chapar distance" and the correct distance. If, for instance, the actual distance is six farsakhs, the "chapar distance" will be seven, or seven and a half; the difference between the two is the chapar-jee's modokal; without modokal there is no question but that a Persian would feel himself to be a miserable, neglected mortal.
Aradan is another telegraph control station, and Mr. Stagno informs me that the telegraph-jee is looking forward to my arrival, and is fully prepared to accommodate me over night; and, furthermore, that all along the line the people of the telegraph towns are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Sahib, with the marvellous vehicle, of which they have heard such strange stories. Aradan is reached about five o'clock; the road leading into the village is found excellent wheeling, enabling me to keep the saddle while following at the heels of a fleet-footed ryot, who voluntarily guides me to the telegraph-khana. The telegraph-jee is temporarily absent when I arrive, but his farrash lets me inside the office yard, spreads a piece of carpet for me to sit on, and with commendable thoughtfulness shuts out the crowd, who, as usual, immediately begin to collect. The quickness with which a crowd collects in a Persian town has to be seen to be fully comprehended. For the space of half an hour, I sit in solitary state on the carpet, and endure the wondering gaze and the parrot-like chattering of a thin, long row of villagers, sitting astride the high mud wall that encloses three sides of the compound, and during the time find some amusement in watching the scrambling and quarrelling for position. These irrepressible sight-seers commenced climbing the wall from the adjoining walls and houses the moment the farash shut them out of the yard, and in five minutes they are packed as close as books on a shelf, while others are quarreling noisily for places; in addition to this, the roof of every building commanding a view into the chapar-khana compound is swarmed with neck-craning, chattering people.
Soon the telegraph-jee puts in an appearance; he proves to be an exceptionally agreeable fellow, and one of the very few Persians one meets with having blue eyes. He appears to regard it as quite an understood thing that I am going to remain over night with him, and proceeds at once to make the necessary arrangements for my accommodation, without going to the trouble of extending a formal invitation. He also wins my eternal esteem by discouraging, as far as Persian politeness and civility will admit, the intrusion of the inevitable self-sufficients who presume on their "eminent respectability" as loafers, in contradistinction to the half-naked tillers of the soil, to invade the premises and satisfy their inordinate curiosity, and their weakness for kalian, smoking and tea-drinking at another's expense. After duly discussing between us a samovar of tea, we take a stroll through the village to see the old castle, and the umbars that supply the village with water. The telegraph- gee cleared the walls upon his arrival, but the housetops are out of his jurisdiction, and before starting he wisely suggests putting the bicycle in some conspicuous position, as an inducement for the crowd to remain and concentrate their curiosity upon it, otherwise there would be no keeping them from following us about the village. We set it up in plain view on the bala-khana, and returning from our walk, are amused to find the old farrash delivering a lecture on cycling.
The fortress at Aradan is the first one of the kind one sees when travelling eastward from Teheran, but as we shall come to a larger and better preserved specimen at Lasgird, in a couple of days, it will, perhaps, be advisable to postpone a description till then. They are all pretty much alike, and were all built to serve the same purpose, of affording shelter and protection from Turkoman raiders. The Aradan umbars are nothing extraordinary, except perhaps that the conical brick-work roofs are terraced so that one can walk, like ascending stairs, to the summit; and perhaps, also, because they are in a good state of repair --asufficiently unusual thing in a Persian village to merit remark. These umbars are filled by allowing the water to flow in from a street ditch connecting with the little stream to which every village owes its existence; when the umbar is full, a few spadefuls of dirt shut the water off.
The chief occupation of the Eastern female is undoubtedly carrying water; the women of Oriental villages impress the observant Occidental, as people who will carry water-worlds may be created and worlds destroyed; all things else may change, and habits and costumes become revolutionized by the march of time, but nothing will prevent the Oriental female from carrying water, and carrying it in huge earthenware jugs! At any hour of the day--I won't speak positively about the night--women may be seen at the unbars filling large earthenware jugs, coming and going, going and coming. I don't remember ever passing one of these cisterns without seeing women there, filling and carrying away jars of water. No doubt there are occasional odd moments when no women are there, but any person acquainted with village life in the East will not fail to recognize this as simply the plain, unvarnished truth. As the ditch from which the umbar is filled not infrequently runs through half the length of the village first, the personal habits of a Mohammedan population insure that it reaches the umbar in anything but a fit condition for human consumption. But the Koran teaches that flowing water cannot be contaminated or defiled, consequently, when he takes a drink or fills the village reservoir, your thoroughbred Mussulman never troubles his head about what is going on up-stream. The Koran is to him a more reliable guide for his own good than the evidence of all his seven senses combined.
Stagnant pools of water, covered, even this early in the season (March 12th), with green scum, breed fever and mosquitoes galore in Aradan; the people know it, acknowledge it readily, and suffer from it every summer, but they take no steps to remedy the evil; the spirit of public enterprise has dwindled to such dimensions in provincial Persia, that it is no longer equal to filling up a few fever-breeding pools of water in the centre of a village. The telegraph-jee himself acknowledges that the water-holes cause fever and mosquitoes, but, intelligent and enlightened mortal though he be in comparison with his fellow-villagers, when questioned about it, he replies: "Inshalla! the water don't matter; if it is our kismet to take the fever and die, nothing can prevent it; if it is our kismet not to take it, nothing can give it to us." Such unanswerable logic could only originate in the brain of a fatalist; these people are all fatalists, and--as we can imagine--especially so when the doctrine comes in handy to dodge doing anything for the public weal.
All Persian villages, except those clustered about the immediate vicinity of a large city, have some peculiarity of their own to offer in the matter of the people's dress. The pantaloons of any Persian village are not by any means stylish garments, according to Western ideas; but the male bipeds of Aradan have something really extraordinary to offer, even among the many startling patterns of this garment met with in Eastern lands. To note the quantity of material that enters into the composition of a pair of Aradan pantaloons, would lead an uninitiated person into thinking the people all millionaires, were it not likewise observed that the material is but coarse blue cotton, woven and dyed by the wearer's wife, mother, or sister. One of the most conspicuous features about them is that their shape--if they can truthfully be said to have any shape--seems to be a wild, rambling pattern of our own ideas concerning the shape this garment ought to assume. The legs, instead of being gathered, Oriental fashion, at the ankles, dangle loosely about the feet; and yet it is these same legs that are the chief distinguishing feature of the pants. One of the legs, cut off and sewed up at one end, would make the nicest kind of an eight-bushel grain sack; rather too wide, perhaps, in proportion to the depth, to make a shapely grain sack, but there is no question about the capacity for the eight bushels. No doubt these people would be puzzled to say why they are wearing yards and yards of stuff that is not only useless, but positively in the way, except that it has been the fashion in Aradan from time immemorable to do so. These simple Persian peasants, when they make any pretence of sprucing up, probably find themselves quite as much enslaved by fashion as our very fastidious selves; a wide difference betaken ourselves and them, however, being, that while they cling tenaciously to some prehistoric style of garment, and regard innovations with abhorrence, fashion demands of us to be constantly changing.
The Aradan telegraph-jee is a young man skin-full of piety, rejoicing in the possession of a nice little praying-carpet, a praying-stone from holy Kerbela, the holiest of all except Mecca, and he owns a string of beads of the same soul-comforting material as the stone. During his waking hours he is seldom without the rosary in his hand, passing the holy beads back and forth along the string; and five times a day he produces the praying-stone from its little leathern pouch and goes through the ceremony of saying his prayers, with becoming earnestness. At eventide, when he spreads his praying-carpet and places the little oblong tablet from Kerbela in its customary position, preparatory to commencing his last prayers for the day, it is furthermore ascertained by the compass that he has been pretty accurate in his daily prostrations toward Mecca. With all these enviable advantages--the praying-carpet, the praying-stone, the holy rosary, and the happy accuracy as regards Mecca--the Aradan telegraph-jee is a Mussulman who ought to feel tolerably certain of a rose-garden, a gurgling rivulet, and any number of black-eyed houris to contribute to his happiness in the paradise he hopes to enter beyond the tomb.
Indications have not been wanting during the day that the weather is in anything but a settled condition, and upon waking in the morning I fancy I hear the pattering music of the rain. Fortunately it proves to be only fancy, and the telegraph-jee, assuming the part of a weather-prophet, reassures me by remarking, "Inshalla, am roos, baran neis" (Please God, it will not rain to-day). Being a Persian, he says this, not because he has any particular confidence in his own predictions, but because his idea of making himself agreeable is to frame his predictions by the measurement of what he discovers to be my wishes.
The road into Aradan led me through one populous cemetery, and the road out again leads me through another; beyond the cemetery it follows alongside a meandering streamlet that flows, sluggishly along over a bed of deep gray mud. The road is lumpy but ridable, and I am pedalling serenely along, happy in the contemplation of better roads ahead than I had yesterday, when one of those ludicrous incidents happen that have occurred at intervals here and there all along my journey. A party of travellers have been making a night march from the east, and as we approach each other, a wary kafaveh-carrying mule, suspicious about the peaceful character of the mysterious object bearing down toward him, pricks up his ears, wheels round, and inaugurates confusion among his fellows, and then proceeds to head them in a determined bolt across the stream. Unfortunately for the women in the kajavehs, the mud and water together prove to be deeper than the mule expected to find them, and the additional fright of finding himself in a well-nigh swamped condition, causes him to struggle violently to get out again. In so doing he bursts whatever fastenings may have bound him and his burden together, scrambles ashore, and leaves the kajavehs floating on the water!
The women began screaming the moment the mule wheeled round and bolted, and now they find themselves afloat in their queer craft, these characteristic female signals of distress are redoubled in energy; and they may well be excused for this, for the kajavehs are gradually filling and sinking; it was never intended that kajavehs should be capable of acting in the capacity of a boat. The sight of their companion's difficulties has the effect of causing the other mules to change their minds about crossing the stream, and almost to change their minds about indulging in the mulish luxury of a scare; and fortunately the charvadars of the party succeed in rescuing the kajavehs before they sink. Nobody is injured, beyond the women getting wet; no damage is done worth mentioning, and as the two heroines of the adventure emerge from their novel craft, their garments dripping with water, their doleful looks are rewarded with unsympathetic merriment from the men. Few have been my wheeling days on Asian roads that have not witnessed something in the shape of an overthrow or runaway; so far, nobody has been seriously injured by them, but I have sometimes wondered whether it will be my good fortune to complete the bicycle journey around the world without some mishap of the kind, resulting in broken limbs for the native and trouble for myself.
After a couple of miles the road and the meandering stream part company, the latter flowing southward and the road traversing a flat, curious, stone-strewn waste; an area across which one could step from one large boulder to another without touching the ground. Once beyond this, and the road develops into several parallel trails of smooth, hard gravel, that afford as good, or better, wheeling than the finest macadam. While spinning at a highly satisfactory rate of speed along these splendid paths, a small herd of antelopes cross the road some few hundred yards ahead, and pass swiftly southward toward the dasht-i-namek. These are the first antelopes, or, for that matter, the first big game I have encountered since leaving the prairies of Western Nebraska. The Persian antelope seems to be a duplicate of his distinguished American relative in a general, all-round sense; he is, if anything, even more nimble-footed than the spring-heeled habitue of the West, possesses the same characteristic jerky jump, and hoists the same conspicuous white signal of retreat. He is a decidedly slimmer-built quadruped, however, than the American antelope; the body is of the same square build, but is sadly lacking in plumpness, and he seems to be an altogether lankier and less well-favored animal. For this constitutional difference, he is probably indebted to the barren and inhospitable character of the country over which he roams, as compared with the splendid feeding-grounds of the--Far West. The Persians sometimes hunt the antelope on horseback, with falcons and greyhounds; the falcons are taught to fly in advance and attack the fleeing antelopes about the head, and so confuse them and retard their progress in the interest of the pursuing hounds and horsemen.
The little village of Deh Namek is reached about mid-day, where my ever-varying bill of fare takes the shape of raw eggs and pomegranates. Deh Namek is too small and unimportant a place to support a public tchai-khan; but along the Meshed pilgrim road the villagers are keenly alive to the chance of earning a stray keran, and the advent of one of those inexhaustible keran-mines, a "Sahib," is the signal for some enterprising person, sufficiently well-to-do to own a samovar, to get up steam in it and prepare tea.
East of Deh Namek, the wheeling continues splendid for a dozen miles, traversing a level desert on which one finds no drinkable water for about twenty miles. Across the last eight miles of the desert the road is variable, consisting of alternate stretches of ridable and unridable ground, the latter being generally unridable by reason of sand and loose gravel, or thickly strewn flints. More antelopes are encountered east of Deh Namek; at one place, particularly, I enjoy quite a little exciting spurt in an effort to intercept a band that are heading across my road from the Elburz foot-hills to the desert. The wheeling is here magnificent, the spurt develops into a speed of fourteen miles an hour; the antelopes see their danger, or, at all events, what they fancy to be danger, and their apprehensions are not by any mean lessened by the new and startling character of their pursuer. Wild antelopes are timid things at all times, and, as may be readily imagined, the sight of a mysterious glistening object, speeding along at a fourteen or fifteen mile pace to intercept them, has a magical effect upon their astonishing powers of locomotion. They seem to fly rather than run, and to skim like swallows over the surface of the level plain rather than to touch the ground; but they were some distance from the road when they first realized my terrifying presence, and I am within fifty yards of the band when they flash like a streak of winged terror across the road. These antelopes do not cease their wild flight within the range of my powers of observation; long after the mousy hue of their bodies has rendered their forms indistinguishable in the distance from the sympathetic coloring of the desert, rapidly bobbing specks of white betray the fact that their supposed narrow escape from the vengeful pursuit of the bicycle has given them a fright that will make them suspicious of the Meshed pilgrim road for weeks.
"Deh Namek" means "salt village;" and it derives its name from the salt flats that are visible to the south of the road, and the general saline character of the country round about. Salt enters very largely into the composition of the mountains that present a solid and fantastically streaked front a few miles to the north; and the streams flowing from these mountains are simply streams of brine, whose mission would seem to be conveying the saline matter from the hills, and distributing it over the flats and swampy areas of the desert. These flats are visible from the road, white, level, and impressive; like the Great American Desert, Utah, as seen from the Matlin section house, and described in a previous chapter (Vol. I.), it looks as though it might be a sheet of water, solidified and dead.
At the end of the twenty miles one comes to a small and unpretentious village and an equally small and unpretentious wayside tchai-khan, both owing their existence to a stream of fresh water as small and unpretentious as themselves. Beyond this cheerless oasis stretches again the still more cheerless desert, the rivulets of undrinkable salt water, the glaring white salt-flats to the south, and the salt-encrusted mountains to the north. The shameless old party presiding at the tchai-khan evidently realizes the advantages of his position, where many travellers from either direction, reaching the place in a thirsty condition, have no choice but between his decoction and cold water. Instead of the excellent tea every Persian knows very well how to make, he serves out a preparation that is made, I should say, chiefly from camelthorn buds plucked within a mile of his shanty; he furthermore illustrates in his own methods the baneful effects of being without the stimulus of a rival, by serving it up in unwashed glasses, and without noticing whether it is hot or cold.
Much loose gravel prevails between this memorable point and Lasgird, and while trundling laboriously through it I am overtaken by a rain-storm, accompanied by violent wind, that at first encompasses me about in the most peculiar manner. The storm comes howling from the northwest and advances in two sections, accompanied by thunder and lightning; the two advancing columns seem to be dense masses of gray cloud rolling over the surface of the plain, and between them is a clear space of perhaps half a mile in width. The rain-dispensing columns pass me by on either side with muttering rolls of thunder and momentary gleams of lightning, enveloping me in swirling eddies of dust and bewildering atmospheric disturbances, but not a drop of rain. It is plainly to be seen, however, that the two columns are united further west, and that it behooves me to don my gossamer rubbers; but before being overtaken by the rain, the heads of the flying columns are drawn together, and for some minutes I am surrounded entirely by sheets of falling moisture and streaming clouds that descend to the level plain and obscure the view in every direction; and yet the clear sky is immediately above, and the ground over which I am walking is perfectly dry. After the first violent burst there is very little wind, and the impenetrable walls of vapor encompassing me round about at so near a distance, and yet not interfering with me in any way, present a most singular appearance. While appreciating the extreme novelty of the situation, I can scarce say in addition that I appreciate the free play of electricity going on in all directions, and the irreverent manner in which the nickeled surface of the bicycle seems to glint at it and defy it; on the contrary, I deem it but an act of common discretion to place the machine for a short time where the lightning can have a fair chance at it, without involving a respectful non-combatant in the destruction. In half an hour the whole curious affair is over, and nothing is seen but the wild-looking tail-end of the disturbance climbing over a range of mountains in the southeast.
The road now edges off in a more northeasterly course, and by four o'clock leads me to the base of a low pass over a jutting spur of the mountains. At the base of the spur, a cultivated area, consisting of several wheat-fields and terraced melon-gardens, has been rescued from the unproductive desert by the aid of a bright little mountain stream, whose wild spirit the villagers of Lasgird have curbed and tamed for their own benefit, by turning it from its rocky, precipitous channel, and causing it to descend the hill in a curious serpentine ditch. The contour of the ditch is something like this: ~~~~~~~~~~~; it brings the water down a pretty steep gradient, and its serpentine form checks the speed of its descent to an uniform and circumspect pace. The road over the pass leads through a soft limestone formation, and here, as in similar places in Asia Minor, are found those narrow, trench-like trails, worn by the feet of pilgrims and the pack-animal traffic of centuries, several feet deep in the solid rock. On a broad cultivated plain beyond the pass is sighted the village of Lasgird, its huge mud fortress, the most conspicuous object in view, rising a hundred feet above the plain.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005