Shahrood is at the exit from the mountains of the caravan route from Asterabad, Mazanderan, and the Caspian coast. The mountains overlooking it are bare and rocky. A good trade seems to be done by several firms of Russian-Armenians in exporting wool, cotton, and pelts to Russia, and handling Russian iron and petroleum. But for the iniquitous method of taxation, which consists really of looting the producing classes of all they can stand, the volume of trade here might easily be tenfold what it is.
Shahrood is, or rather was, one of the "four stations of terror," Mijamid, Miandasht, and Abassabad being the other three, so called on account of their exposed position and the consequent frequency of Turcoman attacks. Even nowadays they have their little ripples of excitement; rumors of Turcoman raids are heard in the bazaars, and news was brought in and telegraphed to Teheran a week ago that fifteen thousand sheep had been carried off from a district north of the mountains. Word comes back that a regiment of soldiers is on its way to chastise the Turcomans and recover the property; what really will happen, will be a horde of soldiers staying there long enough to devour what few sheep the poor people have left, and then returning without having seen, much less chastised, a Turcoman. The Persian Government will notify the Russian Minister of the misdoings of the Turcomans, and ask to have them punished and the sheep restored; the Russian Minister will reply that these particular Turcomans were Persian subjects, and nothing further will be done.
Mr. Mclntyre is a canny Scot, a Royal Engineer, and weighs fully three hundred pounds; but with this avoirdupois he is far from being inactive, and together we ramble up the Asterabad Pass to take a look at the Bostam Valley on the other side. The valley isn't much to look at; no verdure, only a brown, barren plain, surrounded on all sides by equally brown, barren mountains. In the evening the Prince sends round a pheasant, and shortly after calls himself and partakes of tea and cigarettes,
I accept Mr. McIntyre's invitation to remain and rest up, but only for another day, my experience being that, when on the road, one or two days' rest is preferable to a longer period; one gets rested without getting out of condition. We take a stroll through the bazaar in the morning, and call in at the wine-shop of a Russian-Armenian trader named Makerditch, who keeps arrack and native wine, and sample some of the latter. In his shop is a badly stuffed Mazanderaii tiger, and the walls of the private sitting-room are decorated with rude, old-fashioned prints of saints and scriptural scenes. It is now the Persian New Year, and bright new garments and snowy turbans impart a gay appearance to the throngs in the bazaar, for everybody changed his wardrobe from tip to toe on eid-i-noo-roos (evening before New Year's Day), although the "great unwashed" of Persian society change never a garment for the next twelve months. Considering that the average lower-class Persian puts in a good share of this twelve months in the unprofitable process of scratching himself, one would think it must be an immense relief for him to cast away these old habiliments with all their horrid load of filth and vermin, and don a clean, new outfit; but the new ones soon get as thickly tenanted as the old; and many even put the new garments on over certain of the old ones, caring nothing for comfort and cleanliness, and everything for appearance. The Persian New Year's holiday lasts thirteen days, and on the evening of the thirteenth day everybody goes out into the fields and plucks flowers and grasses to present to his or her friends.
Governors of provinces who retain their position in consequence of having sent satisfactory tribute to the Shah, and ruled with at least a semblance of justice, get presents of new robes on New Year's Day, and those who have been unfortunate enough to lose the royal favor get removed: New Year's Day brings either sorrow or rejoicing to every Persian official's house.
The morning of my departure opens bright and warm after a thunder-storm the previous evening, and Mr. Mclntyre accompanies me to the outskirts of the city, to put me on the right road to Mijamid, my objective point for the day, eleven farsakhs distant. The streets are, of course, muddy and unridable, and ere the suburbs are overcome a messenger overtakes us from the Prince, begging me to return and drink tea with him before starting.
"Tell the Prince, the sahib sends salaams, but cannot spare the time to return," replies my companion, who knows Persian thoroughly. "You must come," says the messenger, "for the Khan of Bostam has arrived to pay the New Year's salaam to the Prince, and the Prince wants you to show him the bicycle."
"'Must come!' Tell the Prince that when the sahib gets fairly started, as he is now, with his bicycle, he wouldn't turn back for the Shah himself."
The messenger looks glum and crestfallen, as though very reluctant to return with such a message, a message that probably sounds to him strangely disrespectful, if not positively treasonable; but he sees the uselessness of bandying words, and so turns about, feeling and looking very foolish, for he addressed us very boldly and confidently before the whole crowd when he overtook us.
A few small streams have to be crossed on leaving Shahrood for the cast; splendid rivulets of clear, cold water in which there ought to be trout. After these streams the road launches at once on to a level camel-thorn plain, the gravelled surface of which provides excellent wheeling. An outlying village and caravanserai is passed through at a couple of farsakhs, where, as might be expected in the "district of terror," are hundreds of the little towers of refuge. This village would be in a very exposed position, and it looks as though it is but just now being rebuilt and repopulated after a period of ruin and desertion. Beyond this village the towers of refuge and other signs of human occupation disappear; the uncultivated desert reigns supreme on either hand; but the wheeling continues fairly good, although a strong headwind somewhat impedes my progress. Beyond the level plain and the lower hills to the north are the snowy heights of the Elburz range; a less ambitious range of mountains forms a barrier some twenty miles to the south, and in the distant southeast there looms up a dark, massive pile that recalls at a glance memories of Elk Mountain, Wyoming; though upon a closer inspection there is no doubt but that the densely wooded slopes of our old acquaintance of the Rockies would be found wanting.
Twenty miles of this level plain is traversed, and I find myself gazing curiously at a range of mica-flecked hills off to the right. These hills present a very curious appearance; the myriads of flakes of mica scattered all about glitter and glint in the bright sunlight as if they might be diamonds, and it requires but an easy effort of the imagination to fancy one's self in some strange, rich land of the "gorgeous East," where precious jewels are scattered about like stones. These mica-spangled hills bear about the same relation to what one's imagination might conceive them to be as the "gorgeous East" as it actually exists does to the "gorgeous East" we read of in fairytales.
Beyond the mica hills, I pass through a stretch of abandoned cultivation, where formerly existed fields and ditches, and villages with an abundance of portable property tempted Turkoman raiders to guide their matchless chargers hither. But small outlying settlements hereabout were precarious places to live in, and the persistent damans generally caused them to be abandoned entirely from time to time.
The road has averaged good to-day, and Mijamid is reached at four o'clock. Seeking the shelter of the chapar-khana, that devoted building is soon surrounded by a new-dressed and accordingly a good-natured and vociferous crowd shouting--"Sowar shuk! sowar shuk! tomasha! tomasha!"
As I survey the grinning, shouting multitude from my retreat on the roof, and note the number of widely-opened mouths, the old wicked thoughts about hot potatoes and dexterity in throwing them persist in coming to the fore. Several scrimmages and quarrels occur between the chapar-jee and his shagirds, and the crowd, who persist in invading the premises, and the tumult around is something deafening, for it is holiday times and the people feel particularly self-indulgent and disinclined for self-denial. In the midst of the uproar, from out the chaotic mass of rainbow-colored costumes, there forms a little knot of mollahs in huge snowy turbans and flowing gowns of solid blue or green, and at their head the gray-bearded patriarchal-looking old khan of the village in his flowered robe of office from the governor. These gay-looking, but comparatively sober-sided representatives of the village, endeavor to have the crowd cease their clamorous importunities--an attempt, however, that results in signal failure--and they constitute themselves a delegation to approach me in a respectful and decorous manner, and ask me to ride for the satisfaction of themselves and the people.
The profound salaams and good taste of these eminently respectable personages are not to be resisted, and after satisfying them, the khan promises to provide me with supper, which at a later hour turns up in the form of the inevitable dish of pillau.
Two miles on the road next morning and it begins raining; at five miles it develops into a regular downpour, that speedily wets me through. A small walled village is finally reached and shelter obtained beneath its ample portals, a place that seems to likewise be the loafing-place of the village. The entrance is a good-sized room, and here on wet days the men can squat about and smoke, and at the same time see everything that passes on the road. The village is defended by a strong mud wall some thirty feet high, and strengthened with abutting towers at frequent intervals; the only entrance is the one massive door, and inside there is plenty of room for all the four-footed possessions of the people; the houses are the usual little mud huts with thatched beehive roofs, built against the wall. The flocks of goats and sheep are admitted inside every evening, and taken out again to graze in the morning; the appearance of the interior is that of a very filthy, undrained, and utterly neglected farmyard, and as no breath of wind ever passes through it, or comes any nearer the ground than the top of the thirty-foot wall, living in its reeking, pent-up exhalations must be something abominable.
Such a place as this in Persia would be fairly swarming with noxious insect life, of which fleas would be the most tolerable variety, and two-thirds of the people would be suffering from chronic ophthalmia. This little village, doubtless, had enough to do a few years ago to maintain its existence, even with its remarkably strong walls; and on the highest mountain peaks round about they point out to me their watch-towers, where sentinels daily scanned the country round for the wild horsemen they so much dreaded. Four men and three women among the little crowd gathered about me here, are pointed out as having been released from slavery by the Russians, when they captured Khiva and liberated the Persian slaves and sent them home. Every village and hamlet along this part of the country contains its quota of returned captives who, no doubt, entertain lively recollections of being carried off and sold.
Soon after my arrival here, a little, weazen-faced, old seyud, in a threadbare and badly-faded green gown, comes hobbling through the rain and the mahogany-colored slush of the village yard to the gate. Everybody rises respectfully as he comes in, and the old fellow, accustomed to having this deference paid him by everybody about him, and wishing to show courtesy to a Ferenghi, motions for me to keep seated. Seeing that I had no intention of rising, this courtesy was somewhat superfluous, but the incident serves to show how greatly these simple villagers are impressed with the idea of a seyud's superiority, to say nothing of the seyud's assumption of the same. They explain to me that the little, unwashed, unkempt, and well-nigh unclad specimen of humanity examining the bicycle is a seyud, with the manner of people pointing out a being of unapproachable superiority. Still, looking at the poor old fellow's rags, and remembering that it is new year and the time for a change of raiment, one cannot help thinking, "Old fellow, you evidently come in for more resect, after all, than material assistance, and would, no doubt, willingly exchange a good deal of the former for a little of the latter." Still, one must not be too confident of this; the bodily requirements of a wrinkled old seyud would be very trifling, while his egotism would, on the other hand, be insufferable. This is a grazing village chiefly, and the gravelly desert comes close up to the walls, so that there is no difficulty about pushing on immediately after it ceases raining.
Two farsakhs of variable wheeling through a belt of low hills and broken country, and two more over the level Miandasht Plain, and the caravanserai of Miandasht is reached. Here the village, the telegraph office and everything is enclosed within the protecting walls of an immense Shah Abbas caravanserai, a building capable of affording shelter and protection to five thousand people. In the old--and yet not so very old--dangerous days, it was necessary, for safety, that travellers and pilgrims should journey together through this section of country in large caravans, otherwise disaster was sure to overtake them; and Shah Abbas the Great built these huge caravanserais for their accommodation. In deference to the memory of this monarch as a builder of caravanserais all over the country, any large serai is nowadays called a Shah Abbas caravanserai, whether built by him or not. Certainly not less than three hundred pack-camels, besides other animals, are resting and feeding, or being loaded up for the night march as I ride up, their myriad clanging bells making a din that comes floating across the plain to meet me as I approach.
Miandasht is the first place in Khorassan proper, and among the motley gathering of charmdars, camel-drivers, pilgrims, travellers, villagers and hangers-on about the serai, are many Khorassanis wearing huge sheepskin busbies, similar to the head-gear of the Roumanians and Tabreez Turks of Ovahjik and the Perso-Turkish border. Most of these busbies are black or brown, but some affect a mixture of black and white, a piebald affair that looks very striking and peculiar.
The telegraph-jee here turns out to be a person of immense importance in his own estimation, and he has evidently succeeded in impressing the same belief upon the unsophisticated minds of the villagers, who, apparently, have come to regard him as little less than "monarch of all he surveys." True, there isn't much to survey at Miaudasht, everything there being within the caravanserai walls; but whenever the telegraph-jee emerges from the seclusion of his little office, it is to blossom forth upon the theatre of the crowd's admiring glances in the fanciful habiliments of a la-de-da Persian swell. Very punctilious as regards etiquette, instead of coming forth in a spontaneous manner to see who I am and look at the bicycle, he pays me a ceremonious visit at the chapar-khana half an hour later. In this visit he is preceded by his farrash, and he walks with a magnificent peacock strut that causes the skirts of his faultless roundabout to flop up and down, up and down, in rhythmic accompaniment to his steps. Apart from his insufferable conceit, however, he tries to make himself as agreeable as possible, and after tea and cigarettes, I give him and the people a tomasha, at the conclusion of which he asks permission to send in my supper.
The room in which I spend the evening is a small, dome-roofed apartment, in which a circular opening in the apex of the dome is expected to fill the triple office of admitting light, ventilation, and carrying off smoke from the fire; the natural consequence being that the room is dark, unventilated, and full of smoke. Now and then some determined sightseer on the roof fills this hole up completely with his head, in an effort to peer down through the smoke and obtain a glimpse of myself or the bicycle, or a mischievous youngster, unable to resist the temptation, drops down a stone.
The shagird-chapar here is a man who has been to Askabad and seen the railroad; and when the inevitable question of Russian versus English marifet (mechanical skill) comes up, he endeavors to impress upon the open-mouthed listeners the marvellous character of the locomotive. "It is a wonderful atesh-gharri" (fire-wagon), he would say, "and runs on an awhan rah (iron road); the charvadar puts in atesh and ob. It goes chu, chu! chu!! ch-ch-ch-chu-ch-u-u-u!!! spits fire and smoke, pulls a long-khylie long-caravan of forgans with it, and goes ten farsakhs an hour." But in order to thoroughly appreciate this travelled and highly enlightened person's narrative, one must have been present in the smoke-permeated room, and by the nickering light of a camel-thorn fire have watched the gesticulations of the speaker and the rapt attention of the listeners; must have heard the exclamations of "Mashal-l-a-h!" escape honestly and involuntarily from the parted lips of wonder-stricken auditors as they endeavored to comprehend how such things could possibly be. And yet there is no doubt that, five minutes afterward, the verdict of each listener, to himself, was that the shagird-chapar, in describing to them the locomotive, was lying like a pirate--or a Persian--and, after all, they couldn't conceive of anything more wonderful than the bicycle and the ability to ride it, and this they had seen with their own eyes.
It is the change of the moon, and a most wild-looking evening; the sun sets with a fiery forge glowing about it, and fringing with an angry border the banks of darksome clouds that mingle their weird shapes with the mountain masses to the west, the wind sighs and moans through the archways and menzils of the huge caravanserai, breathing of rain and unsettled weather. These warning signals are not far in advance, for a drenching rain soaks and saturates everything during the night, converting the parallel trails of the pilgrim road into twenty narrow, silvery streaks, that glisten like trails of glass ahead, as I wheel along them to meet the newly-risen sun. It is a morning of hurrying, scudding clouds and fitful sunshine, but fresh and bracing after the rain; a country of broken hills and undulating road is reached in an hour; the broken hills are covered with blossoming shrubs and green young camel-thorn, in which birds are cheerily piping.
Six farsakhs bring me to Abbasabad, the last of the four stations of terror. A lank villager is on the lookout a couple of miles west of the place, the people having been apprised of my coming by some travellers who left Miandasht yesterday evening. Tucking the legs of his pantaloons in his waistband, leaving his legs bare and unencumbered, he follows me at a swinging trot into the village, and pilots me to the caravanserai. The population of the place are found occupying their housetops, and whatever points of vantage they can climb to, awaiting my appearance, their curiosity having been wrought to the highest pitch by their informant's highly exaggerated accounts of what they might expect to see. The prevailing color of the female costume is bright red, and the swarms of these gayly-dressed people congregated on the housetops, and mingled promiscuously with the dark gray of the mud walls and domes, makes a picture long to be remembered.
And long also to be remembered is the reception awaiting me inside the caravanserai yard--the surging, pushing, struggling, shouting mob, among whom I notice, with some wonderment and speculation, a far larger proportion of blue-eyed people than I have hitherto seen in Persia. Upon inquiry it is learned that Abbasabad is a colony of Georgians, planted and subsidized here by Shah Abbas the Great, as a check on the Turkomans, whose frequent alamans rendered the roads hereabout well-nigh impassable for caravans. These warlike mountaineers were brought from the Caucasus and colonized here, with lands, exemption from taxes, and given an annual subsidy. They were found to be of good service as a check on the Turkomans, but were not much of an improvement upon the Turkomans themselves in many respects. As seen in the caravanserai to-day, they seem a turbulent, headstrong crowd of people, accustomed to be petted, and to do pretty much as they please.
At the caravanserai is a traveller who says he hails from the Pishin Valley, and he produces a certificate in English, recommending him as a stone mason. The certificate settles all doubts of his being from India, for were one to meet an Hindostani in the classic shades of purgatory itself, he would immediately produce a certificate recommending him for something or other. As the crowd surge and struggle for some position around me where they can enjoy the exquisite delight of seeing me sip tiny glasses of scalding hot tea, prepared by the enterprising individual who met me two miles out, the Pishin Valley man tries to look amused at them, and to rise superior to the situation, as becomes a person to whom a Sahib, and whatever wonderful things he may possess, are nothing extraordinary. The crowd seem very loath to let such an extraordinary thing as the bicycle and its rider depart from among them so soon, although at the same time anxious to see me speed along the smooth, straight trails that fortunately lead directly from the caravanserai eastward. Scores of the shouting, yelling mob race, bare-footed and bare-legged, over the stones and gravel alongside the bicycle, until I can put on a spurt and out-distance them, which I take care to do as soon as practicable, thankful to get away and eat the bread pocketed in disgust at the caravanserai in the peace and quietude of the desert.
Beyond Abbasabad my road skirts Mazinan Lake to the north, passing between the slimy mud-flats of the lake shore and the ever-present Elburz foot-hills, and then through several wholly ruined or partially ruined villages to Mazinan, where I arrive about sunset, my wheel yet again a mass of mud, for the Mazinan lake country is a muddy hole in spring. A drizzling rain ushers in the dusky shades of the evening, as I repair to the chaparkhana, a wretched hole, in a most dilapidated condition. The balakhana is little better than being out of doors; the roof leaks like a colander, the windows are mere unglazed holes in the wall, and the doors are but little better than the windows. It promises to be a cold, draughty, comfortless night, and the prospects for supper look gloomy enough in the light of smoky camel-thorn and no samovar to make a cup of tea.
Such is the cheerless prospect confronting me after a hard day's run, when, soon after dark, a man arrives with a thrice-welcome invitation from a Russian officer, who he says is staying at the caravanserai. The officer, he says, has pillau, kabobs, wine, plenty of everything, and would be glad if I would bring my machine and come and accept his hospitality for the night. Under the circumstances nothing could be more welcome news than this; and picturing to myself a pleasant evening with a genial, hospitable gentleman, I take the bicycle down the slippery and broken mud stairway, and follow my guide through drizzling rain and darkness, over ditches and through miry byways, to the caravanserai.
The officer is found squatting, Asiatic-like, on his menzil floor, his overcoat over his shoulders. He is watching his cook broiling kabobs for his supper. It is a cheery, hopeful prospect, the glowing charcoal fire sparkling in response to the vigorous waving of half a saddle-flap, the savory, sizzling kabobs and the carpeted menzil, in comparison with the dreary tumble-down place I have just left. My first impression of the officer himself, however, is scarcely so favorable as my impression of the picture in which he is set--the picture as just described; a sinister leer characterizes the expression of his face, and what appears like a nod, with an altogether unnecessary amount of condescension in it, characterizes his greeting. Hopping down to the ground, lamp in hand, he examines the bicycle minutely, and then indirectly addressing the by-standers, he says, "Pooh! this thing was made in Tiflis; there's hundreds of them in Tiflis." Having delivered himself of this lying statement, he hops up on the menzil front again and, without paying the slightest attention to me, resumes his squatting position at the fire, and his occupation of watching the preparations of his cook. Nothing is more evident to me than that he had never before seen a bicycle, and astounded at this conduct on the part of an officer who doubtless thinks himself a civilized being, even though he might not understand anything of our own conception of an "officer and a gentleman," I begin looking around for an explanation from the fellow who brought me the invitation, thinking there must be some mistake. The man has disappeared and is nowhere to be found.
The chapar-jee accompanied us to the caravanserai, and seeing that this man has bolted, and that the Russian officer's intentions toward me are anything but hospitable, he calls the missing man--or the officer, I don't know which--a pedar suktar (son of a burnt father), and suggests returning to the cold comfort of the bala-khana. My own feelings upon realizing that this wretched, unscrupulous Muscovite has craftily designed and executed this plan for no other purpose but to insult and humiliate one whom he took for granted to be an Englishman, in the eyes of the Persian travellers present, I prefer to pass over and leave to the reader's imagination. After sleeping on it and thinking it over, early next morning I returned to the caravanserai, bent on finding the fellow who brought the invitation, giving him a thrashing, and seeing if the officer would take it up in his behalf. In the morning, the cossacks said he had gone away; whether gone away or hiding somewhere in the caravanserai, he was nowhere to be found; which perhaps was just as well, for the affair might have ended in bloodshed, and in a fight the chances would have been decidedly against myself.
This incident, disagreeable though it be to think of, is instructive as showing the possibilities for mean and contemptible action that may lurk beneath the uniform of a Russian officer. Russian officers as a general thing, however, it is but fair to add, would show up precisely the reverse of this fellow, under similar circumstances, being genial and hospitable to a fault; still, I venture that in no other army in the world, reckoning itself civilized, could be found even one officer capable of displaying just such a spirit as this.
The unwelcome music of pattering rain and flowing water in the concert I have to sit and listen to all the forenoon, and a glance outside is rewarded by the dreariest of prospects. The landscape as seen from my lone and miserable lookout, consists of gray mud-fields and gray mud-ruins, wet and slimy with the constant rains; occasional barley-fields mosaic the dreary prospect with bright green patches, but across them all--the mud-flats, the ruins, and the barley-fields--the driving rain sweeps remorselessly along, and the wind moans dismally. There is only one corner of my room proof against the drippings from the roof, and through the wretched apologies for doors and windows the driving rain comes in. Everything seems to go wrong in this particular place. I obtain tea and sugar, but there is no samovar, and the chapar-jee attempts to make it in an open kettle; the result is sweetened water, lukewarm and smoky. I then send for pomegranates, which turn out to be of a sour, uneatable variety; but worse than all is the dreary consciousness of being hopelessly imprisoned for an uncertain period.
It grows gradually colder, and toward noon the rain changes to snow; the cold and the penetrating snow drive me into the shelter of the ill-smelling stables. It blows a perfect hurricane all the afternoon, accompanied by fitful squalls of snow and hail, and the same programme continues the greater part of the night. But in the morning I am thankful to discover that the wind has dried the surface sufficiently to enable me to escape from my mud-environed prison and its uncongenial associations.
Before getting many miles from Mazinan, I encounter the startling novelty of streams of liquid mud, rolling their thick, yellow flood over the plain in treacly waves, travelling slowly, like waves of molten lava. The mud is only a few inches deep, but the streams overspread a considerable breadth of country, as my road is some miles from where they leave the mountains, and they seem to have no well-defined channels to flow in. A stream of slimy, yellow mud, two hundred yards wide, is a most disagreeable obstacle to overcome with a bicycle; but confined in narrow, deep channels, the conditions would be infinitely worse. It is a dreary and forbidding stretch of country hereabout, the carcasses of camels that have dropped exhausted by the roadside, are frequently passed, and jackals feasting on them slink off at my approach, watch my progress past with evident impatience, and then return again to their feast. Occasional stretches of very fair wheeling are passed over, and at six farsakhs I reach Mehr, the usual combination of brick caravanserai and mud village.
Here a halt is made for tea and such rude refreshments as are obtainable, consuming them in the presence of the usual sore-eyed and miserable-looking crowd; more than one poor wretch appealing to me to cure his rapidly-failing sight. A gleam of warm sunshine brightens my departure from Mehr, and after shaking off several following horsemen, the going seems quite pleasant, the wheeling being very good indeed. The mountains off to the left are variegated and beautiful on the lower and intermediate slopes, and are crested with snow; scudding cloudlets, whose multiform shadows are continually climbing up and over the mountains, produce a pleasing kaleidoscopic effect, and here and there a sunny, glistening peak rises superior to the changeful scenes below.
Sheepskin-busbied shepherds are tending flocks of very peculiar-looking sheep on this plain, the first of the kind I have noticed. The fatty continuation of the body, popularly regarded as an abnormal growth of tail, is wanting; but what is lacking in this respect is amply compensated for in the pendulous ears, these members hanging almost to the ground; they have a goatish appearance generally, and may possibly be the result of a cross. Herds of antelope also frequent this locality, which by and by develops into a level mud-plain that affords smooth and excellent wheeling, and over which I take the precaution of making the best time possible, conscious that a few minutes' rain would render it impassable for a bicycle; and wild wind-storms are even now careering over it, accompanied by spits of snow and momentary squalls of hail.
A lone minar, looming up directly ahead like a tall factory chimney, indicates my approach to Subzowar. The minaret is reached by sunset; it turns out to be a lone shrine of some imam, from which it is yet two farsakhs to Subzowar. The wheeling from this point, however, is very good, and I roll into Subzowar, or, at least, up to its gate, for Subzowar is a walled city, shortly after dark. Sherab (native wine) they tell me, is obtainable in the bazaar, but when I inquire the price per bottle, with a view of sending for one, several eager aspirants for the privilege of fetching it shout out different prices, the lowest figure mentioned being three times the actual price. Being rather indifferent about the doubtful luxury of drinking wine for the amusement of an eagerly curious crowd, which I know only too well beforehand will be my unhappy portion, I conclude to chagrin and disappoint the whole dishonest crew by doing without. One gets so thoroughly disgusted with the ever-present trickery, dishonesty, and prying, unrestrained curiosity of the ragged, sore-eyed and garrulous crowds that gather about one at every halting place, that a person actually comes to prefer a mere crust of bread in peace by a road-side pool to the best a city bazaar affords.
A well-dressed individual makes his salaam and intrudes his person upon the scene of my early preparations to depart, on the following morning, and, when I start, takes upon himself the office of conducting me through the labyrinthian bazaar and to the gate of exit beyond. I am wondering somewhat who this individual may be, and wherefore the officiousness of his demeanor to the crowd at our heels; but his mission is soon revealed, for on the way out he pilots me into the court-yard of the Reis, or mayor of the city. The Reis receives me with the glad and courteous greeting of a person desirous of making himself agreeable and of creating a favorable impression; trays of sweetmeats are produced, and tea is served up in little porcelain cups.
As soon as tea and sweetmeats and kalians appear on the board, mollahs and seyuds mysteriously begin to put in an appearance likewise, filing noiselessly in and taking their places near or distant from the Reis, according to their respective rank and degree of holiness. My observations everywhere in the Land of the Lion and the Sun all tend to the conclusion that whenever and wherever a samovar of tea begins to sing its cheery and aromatic song, and the soothing hubble-bubble of the kalian begins telling its seductive tale of solid comfort and social intercourse, a huge green or white turban is certain to appear on the scene, a robed figure steps out of its slippers at the door, glides noiselessly inside, puts its hand on its stomach, salaams, and drops, as silently as a ghost might, in a squatting attitude among the guests. Hardly has this one taken his position than another one appears at the door and goes through precisely the same programme, followed shortly afterward by another, and yet others; these foxy-looking members of the Persian priesthood always seem to me to possess the faculty of scenting these little occasions from afar and of following their noses to the place with unerring precision.
Upon emerging from the shelter of the city and adjacent ruins, I find myself confronted by a furious head-wind, against which it is quite impossible to ride, and almost impossible to trundle. During the forenoon I meet on the road a disgraced official, in the person of the Asaf-i-dowleh, Governor-General of Khorassan, returning to Teheran from Meshed, having been recalled at New Year's by the Shah to give an account of himself for "oppressing the people, insulting the Prophet, and intriguing with the Russians." The Asaf-i-dowleh made himself very obnoxious to the priests and people of the holy city by arresting a criminal within the place of refuge at Imam Riza's tomb, and by an outrageous devotion to his own pecuniary interests at the public expense. Riots occurred, the mob taking possession of the telegraph-office and smashing the windows, because they fancied their petition to the Shah was being tampered with. A timely rain-storm dispersed the mob and gave time for the Shah's reply to arrive, promising the Asaf-i-dowleh's removal and disgrace. The ex-Governor is in a carriage drawn by four grays; his own women are in gayly gilded taktrowans, upholstered with crimson satin; the women of his followers occupy several pairs of kajavehs, and the household goods of the party follow behind in a number of huge Russian forgans or wagons, each drawn by four mules abreast. Besides these are a long string of pack-camels, mules, and attendants on horseback, forming altogether the most imposing cavalcade I have met on a Persian road. How they manage to get the heavily loaded forgans and the Governor's carriage over such places as the pass near Lasgird is something of a mystery--but there may be another route--at any rate, hundreds of villagers would be called out to assist.
An opportunity also presents this morning of seeing the amount of obstinacy and perverseness that manages to find lodgement within the unsightly curves and angles of a runaway camel. A riding-camel, led by its owner, scares at the bicycle, and, breaking away, leads him a lively chase through a belt of low sand ridges near the road, jolting various packages off his back as he runs. Every time the man gets almost within seizing distance of the rope, the contrary camel starts off again in a long, awkward lope, slowing up again, as though maliciously inviting his owner to try it over again, when he has covered a couple of hundred yards. These manoeuvres are repeated again and again, until the chase has extended to perhaps four miles, when a party of travellers assist in rounding him up; the man then has to re-traverse the whole four miles and gather up the things.
A late luncheon of bread, warm from the oven, is obtained at the village of Lafaram, where I likewise obtain a peep behind the scenes of everyday village life, and see something of their mode of baking bread. The walled village of Lafaram presents a picture of manure heaps, holes of filthy water, mud-hovels, naked, sore eyed youngsters, unkempt, unwashed, bedraggled females, goats, chickens, and all the unsavory elements that enter into the composition of a wretched, semi-civilized community. With bare, uncombed heads, bare-armed, bare-breasted, and bare-limbed, and with their nakedness scarcely hidden beneath a few coarse rags, some of the women are engaged in making and baking bread, and others in the preparation of tezek from cow manure and chopped straw. In carrying on these two occupations the women mingle, chat, and help each other with happy-go-lucky indifference to consequences, and with a breezy unconsciousness of there being anything repulsive about the idea of handling hot cakes with one hand and tezek with the other. The ovens are huge jars partially sunk in the ground; fire is made inside and the jar heated; flat cakes of dough are then stuck in the inside of the jar, a few minutes sufficing for the baking. The hand and arm the woman inserts inside the heated jar is wrapped with old rags and frequently dipped in a jar of water standing by to keep it cooled; the bread thus baked tastes very good when fresh, but it requires a stomach rendered unsqueamish by dire necessity to relish it after seeing it baked.
The plain beyond Lafaram assumes the character of an acclivity, that in four farsakhs terminates in a pass through a spur of hills. The adverse wind blows furiously all day and shows no signs of abating as the dusk of evening settles down over the landscape. A wayside caravanserai is reached at the entrance to the pass, and I determine to remain till morning. Here I meet with a piece of good fortune in a small way, in the shape of a leg of wild goat, obtained from a native Nimrod; a thin rod of iron, obtained from the serai-jee, serves for a skewer, and I spend the evening in roasting and eating wild-goat kabobs, while a youth fans the little charcoal fire for me with the sole of an old geiveh.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005