MESHED THE HOLY.
Warning spits of snow accompany my early morning departure from the wayside caravanserai, and it quickly develops into a blinding snow-storm that effectually obscures the country around, although melting as it touches the ground.
A mile from the caravanserai the trails fork, and, taking the wrong one, I wander some miles up the mountains ere discovering my mistake. Retracing my way, the right road is finally taken; but the gale increases in violence, the cold is numbing to unprotected hands and ears, and the wind and driving snow difficult to face. At one point the trail leads through a morass, in which are two dead horses, swamped in attempting to cross, and near by lies an abandoned camel, lying in the mud and wearily munching at a heap of kali (cut barley-straw) placed before him by his owners before leaving him to his kismet; perchance with a forlorn hope that he might pull through and finally regain his feet.
I have a narrow escape from swamping in the treacherous morass myself, sinking knee-deep in the slimy, oozing mud-mass, pulling off my geivehs and having no end of trouble in recovering them.
Shurab is reached about noon, where the customary crowd and customary rude accommodations await me. Quite an unaccustomed luxury, however, is obtained at Shurab--a substance made from grapes, called sheerah, which resembles thin molasses. A communal dish, which I see the chapar-jee and his sliagirds prepare for themselves and eat this evening, consists of one pint of sheerah, half that quantity of grease, a handful of chopped onions and a quart of water. This awful mixture is stewed for a few minutes and then poured over a bowl of broken bread; they then gather around and eat it with their hands--that they also eat it with great gusto goes without saying.
Opium smoking appears to be indulged in to a great extent here, two out of the three chapar men putting in a good portion of their time "hitting" the seductive pipe, and tinkering with their opium-smoking apparatus. They only have one outfit between them; both of them are half blind with ophthalmia, and the bane of their wretched existence seems to be a Russian candle-lamp, with a broken globe, that persists in falling apart whenever they attempt to use it--which, by the by, is well-nigh all the time--in manipulating the opium needle and pipe. Observing them from my rude shake-down, after supper, bending persistently over this broken, or ever-breaking lamp, their sore eyes and shrunken features, the suzzle-suzzle of the opium as they suck it into the primer and inhale the fumes--the indescribable odor of the drug pervading the room--all this would seem to be a picture of an ideal Chinese opium den rather than of a chapar-khana in Persia.
A broken bridge and miles of deep mud not far ahead has been the burthen of information gathered from the villagers during the afternoon, and the chapar-jee urges upon me the necessity of employing men and horses to carry me and the bicycle across these obstructions into Nishapoor. Preferring to take my chances of getting through, however, I pay no heed to these warnings, well aware that the chapar-jee's interest in the matter begins and ends in the fact that he has horses to hire himself.
In imitation of my example yesterday, I wander off the proper road again this morning, taking a road that leads to an abandoned ford instead of to the bridge, a mistake that is probably a very good one to have made when viewed from the stand-point of mud, as my road is at least the shorter one of the two.
A wild-looking, busby-decked crowd of Khorassani goatherds from a neighboring village follow behind me across the level mudflats leading to the stream, vociferously clamoring for me to ride. They shout persistently: "H-o-i! Sowar shuk; tomasha! tomasha!" even when they see the difficult task I have of it getting the bicycle through the mud. I have singled out a big, sturdy goat-herder to assist me across the streams, of which I learn there are two, a mile or thereabout apart, and his compatriots are accompanying us to see us cross, as well as being impelled by prying curiosity to see how many kerans he gets for his trouble. The first stream is found to be arm-pit deep, with a fairly strong current. My sturdy Khorassani crosses over first, to try the bottom, feeling his way with a long-handled spade; he then returns and carries the bicycle across on his head, afterward carrying me across astride his shoulders, landing me safely with nothing worse than wet feet.
A mile of awful saline mud, and stream number two is reached and crossed in a similar manner--although here I unfortunately cross part way over fairly sitting on the water. The water and the weather are both uncomfortably chilly, and my assistant emerges from the second stream with chattering teeth and goose-pimply flesh. A liberal and well-deserved present makes him forget personal discomforts, and, fervently kissing my hand and pressing my palm to his forehead, he tells me there is no more water ahead, and, recrossing the stream, he wends his way homeward again.
Fortunately the road improves rapidly, developing beyond the Nishapoor Valley into smooth, upland camel-trails that afford quite excellent wheeling. The Nishapoor Valley impresses me as about the finest area of cultivation seen in Persia, except, perhaps, the Tabreez Plain; and toward Gadamgah the country gets positively beautiful--at least, beautiful in comparison. Crystal streamlets come purling and gurgling across the road over pebbly beds; and, looking northward for their source, one finds that the usually gray and uninteresting foot-hills have changed into bright, green slopes, on whose cheerful brows are seen an occasional pine or cedar. Overtopping these green, grassy slopes are dark, rugged rocks, and higher still the grim white region of--winter. Somewhere behind these emerald foot-hills, near Gadamgah, are the famous turquoise mines alluded to in the "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan." The mines are worked at the present time, but only in a desultory and unenterprising manner.
Favored with good roads, I succeed in reaching Gadamgah before dark, where, besides a comfortable and commodious caravanserai, and the pleasure of seeing around a number of fine-spreading cedars, one can obtain the rare luxury of pine-wood to build a fire.
Immediately upon my arrival a knowing and respectable-looking old pilgrim, who calls himself a hadji and a dervish from Mazan-deran, rescues me from the annoying importunities of the people and invites me to share the accommodation of his menzil. Augmenting his scanty stock of firewood and obtaining eggs and bread, quite a comfortable evening is spent in reclining beside the blazing pine-wood fire, which is itself no trifling luxury in a country of scanty camel-thorn and tezek. Whenever the prying curiosity of the occupants of neighboring menzils impels them to visit our quarters, to stand and stare at me, my friend the hadji waxes indignant, and, waving a stick of firewood threateningly toward them, he pours forth a torrent of withering and sarcastic remarks. Once, in his wrath, he hops lightly off the menzil floor, seizes an individual twice his own size by the kammerbund, jerks him violently forward, bids him stare until he gets ashamed of staring, and then, turning him round, shoves him unceremoniously away again, pursuing him as he retreats to his own quarters with vengeful shouts of "y-a-h!"
To a few eminently respectable travellers, however, the hadji graciously accords the coveted privilege of squatting around our fire and chatting. Being himself a person who dearly loves the music of his own voice, he holds forth at great length on the subject of himself in particular, dervishes in general, and the Province of Mazanderaii. Like a good many other people conscious of their own garrulousness, the hadji evidently suspects his auditors of receiving his statements with a good deal of allowance; consequently, when impressing upon them the circumstance of his hailing from Mazanderan--a fact that he seems to think creditable in some way to himself--he produces from the depths of his capacious saddlebags several dried fish of a variety for which that province is celebrated, and exhibits them in confirmation of his statements.
It is genuine wintry weather, and with no bedclothes, save a narrow horse-blanket borrowed from my impromptu friend, I spend a cold, uncomfortable night, for a caravanserai menzil is but a mere place of shelter after all. The hadji rises early and replenishes the fire, and with his little brass teapot we make and drink a glass of tea together before starting out.
At daybreak the hadji goes outside to take a preliminary peep at the weather, and returns with the unwelcome intelligence that it is snowing.
"Better snow than rain," I conclude, as I prepare to start, little thinking that I am entering upon the toughest day's experience of the whole journey through Persia.
Before covering three miles, the snow-storm develops into a regular blizzard; a furious, driving storm that would do credit to Dakota. Without gloves, and in summer clothes throughout, I quickly find myself in a most unenviable plight. It is no common snow-storm; every few minutes a halt has to be made, hands buffeted and ears rubbed to prevent these members from freezing; yet foot-gear has to be removed and streams waded in the bitter cold.
The road leads up into a region of broken hills, and the climax of my discomfort is reached, when the blizzard is raging with ever-increasing fury, and the cold has already slightly nipped one finger. While attempting to cross a deep, narrow stream without disrobing, it is my unhappy fate to drop the bicycle into the water, and furthermore to front the necessity of instantly plunging in, armpit deep, to its rescue. When I emerge upon the opposite bank my situation is really quite critical; in a few moments my garments are frozen stiff; everything I have with me is wet; my leathern case, containing the small stock of medicines, matches, writing material, and other small but necessary articles, is full of water, and, with hands benumbed, I am unable to unstrap it.
My only salvation consists in vigorous exercise, and, conscious of this, I splurge ahead through the blinding storm and the fast-deepening snow, fording several other streams, often emerging dripping from the icy water to struggle through waist-deep snow-drifts that are rapidly accumulating under the influence of the driving blast and fast-falling snow. Uncertain of the distance to the next caravanserai, I push determinedly forward in this condition for several hours, making but slow progress. Everything must come to an end, however, and twenty miles from Gadamgah the welcome outlines of a road-side caravanserai become visible through the thickly falling snow-flakes, and the din of many jangling camel-bells proclaims it already occupied.
The caravanserai is found so densely crowded with people, horses, camels, and their loads that it is impossible to at first carry the bicycle inside. Confusion, and more than confusion, reigns supreme; every menzil is occupied, and the whole interior space is a confused mass of charvadars, stoutly vociferating at one another and at the pack-animals lying down, wandering about, or being unloaded.
Leaving the bicycle outside in the snow, I clamber over the humpy forms of kneeling camels, through an intricate maze of mules and over barricades of miscellaneous merchandise, and, making a virtue of dire necessity, invade the menzil of a well-to-do looking traveller. Here, waiving all considerations of whether my presence is acceptable or the reverse, I take a seat beside their fire and forthwith proceed to shed my saturated foot-gear. Under ordinary conditions this proceeding would be nothing less than a piece of sublime assurance; but necessity knows no law, and my case is really very urgent. When I explain to the occupants of the menzil that this nolens volens invasion of their premises is but a temporary arrangement, in the flowery language of polite Persian they tell me that the menzil, the fire, and everything they have is mine.
After the inevitable examination of my map, compass, and sundry effects, I begin to fancy my presence something of an embarrassment, and consequently am not a little gratified at hearing the authoritative voice of my friend the hadji shouting loudly at the charvadars, telling them that he is a hadji and a Mazanderan dervish, for whom they cannot clear the way too quickly. Looking round, I see him appear at the caravanserai entrance with a party of pilgrims, in whose company he has journeyed from Gadamgah. The combined excellences that enter into the composition of a person who is both a dervish and an ex-Mecca pilgrim are of great benefit in securing the respect and consideration of the common herd in Persia; and as, in addition to this, our hadji commands attention by the peculiar tone and volume of his voice when delivering his commands, his tall, angular steed is quickly tied up in a snug and sheltered corner and his saddle-bags deposited on the floor of a fellow-pilgrim's menzil.
Hearing of my arrival, he straightway seeks me out and invites me to share the accommodation of his new-found quarters, not forgetting to explain to the people he finds me with, however, that he is a hadji, a dervish, and that he hails from Mazanderan. I shouldn't be much surprised to see him back up the latter assertion by producing a dried fish from the ample folds of his kammerbund; but these finny witnesses are reserved to perform their role later in the evening.
As the gloom of night envelopes the interior of the caravanserai, and the scores of little brushwood fires smoke and glimmer and twinkle fitfully, the scene appeals to an observant Occidental as being decidedly unique, and totally unlike anything to be seen outside of Persia. Around each little fire, from four to a dozen figures are squatting, each group forming a most social gathering; some are singing, some chatting pleasantly, some quarrelling and arguing violently; some are shouting lustily at each other across the whole width of the serai; all are taking turns at smoking the kalian or sipping tea, or preparing supper. Occasionally a fiery wheel glows through the darkness, from which fly myriads of sparks, looking very pretty as it describes rapid circles. This is a. little wire cage, full of live charcoal, that is being swung round and round like a sling to enliven the coals for priming the kalian. In the middle space, crowded with animals and their loads, the horses, being all stallions, are constantly squealing and fighting; camels, are grunting dolefully, donkeys are braying and bells clanging, and grooms and charvadars are shouting and quarrelling. Taken all in all, the interior of a crowded caravanserai is a decidedly animated place.
The snow-storm subsides during the night, and a clear, frosty morning breaks upon a wintry landscape, in which nothing is visible but snow. The hadji announces his intention of "Inshallah Meshed, am roos" (please God, we will reach Meshed to-day) as he covers up the obtrusive tail of a fish emerging from one of the saddle-bags and prepares to mount. I give him my packages to carry, by way of lightening my burden as much as possible for the struggle through the snow, and promise him a bottle of arrack, upon reaching Meshed, as a reward for thus assisting me through. Arrack is forbidden fruit to a hadji above all things else, so that nothing I could promise him would likely prove more tempting or acceptable, or be better appreciated!
It proves slavish work trundling, tugging, and carrying the bicycle through the deep snow along a half-broken trail made by a few horses, and through deep drifts; but the cold, bracing air is favorable for exertion, and by ten o'clock we reach Shahriffabad, where a halt is made to prepare a cup of tea and to give the hadji's horse a feed of barley. At Shahriffabad we are warned that on the hills between here and Meshed snow will be found two feet deep, streams belly deep to the hadji's horse will have to be forded, and, toward Meshed, mud knee-deep. Conscious that the mud will be "knee-deep" the whole distance, after the disappearance of the snow, this makes us only the more eager to push on while we may.
The sun has by this time become uncomfortably warm, and the narrow trail is fast becoming a miry pathway of mud and slush under the trampling feet of the animals gone ahead, and of villagers' donkeys returning from the city. Mile after mile is devoted to the unhappy task of trundling the bicycle ahead, rear wheel aloft, through mud and slush varying from ankle-deep to worse, occasionally varying the programme by fording a stream.
Late in the afternoon we arrive at the summit of the hills overlooking the Meshed Plain, and the hadji points out enthusiastically the golden dome of Imam Biza's sanctuary; the yellow, glistening goal whose famed sanctity has attracted hosts of pilgrims from all quarters of Central Asia for ages past. The hills hereabout are of a rocky character, and pious pilgrims have gathered into little mounds every loose piece of rock, it being customary for each pilgrim to find a stone and add it to one of these piles upon first viewing the bright golden dome of the holy city from this commanding spot.
Below the rocky paths of this declivity the snow disappears in favor of slippery mud, and the hadji's wearied charger slips and slides about, to the imminent danger of its rider's neck; and all the time the slim Turkoman! steed trembles visibly in terror of the old Mazanderan dervish's whip and his awful threats. Two miles down the bed of the stream, crossing and recrossing it a dozen times, often thigh-deep, and we emerge upon the gently sloping area of the Meshed Plain, with the yellow beacon-light of Meshed glowing in the mellow light of the evening sun six miles away.
The late storm has been chiefly rain in the lower altitude of the plain, and the day's sunshine has partially dried the surface, but leaving it slippery and treacherous here and there. After leaving the bed of the stream the hadji becomes anxious about reaching Meshed before dark, and advises me to mount and put on the speed.
"Inshallah, Meshed yek saat," he says, and so I mount and bid him follow along behind. By vocal suasion and a liberal application of his cruel, triple-thonged, raw-hide whip, he urges his well-nigh staggering animal into a canter, lifting his forefeet clear of the ground seemingly by the bridle at every jump. Suspicious as to his lank and angular steed's sure-footedness under the strain, I take the very laudable precaution of keeping as far from him as possible, not caring to get mixed up in a catastrophe that seems inevitable every time the horse, goaded by the stinging stimulus of the whip and the threats, makes another jump. Not more than a mile of the six is covered when I have ample reason for congratulating myself on taking this precaution, for the horse stumbles, and, being too far gone to recover himself, comes down on his nose, and the "hadji and Mazanderau dervish" is cutting a most ridiculous figure in the mud. His tall lambskin hat flies off and lands in a pool of muddy water some distance ahead; the ponderous saddle-bags, which are merely laid on the saddle, shoot forward athwart the horse's neck, the horse's nose roots quite a furrow in the road, and the horse's owner picks himself up and takes a woeful survey of his own figure. It is needless to say that the survey includes a good deal more real estate than the hadji cares to claim, even though it be the semi-sacred soil of the Meshed Plain.
The poor horse is altogether too tired to attempt to recover his legs of his own inclination; but, regarding him as the author of his ignominious misadventure, the hadji surveys him with a wrathful eye for a moment, mutters a few awful imprecations--imported, no doubt, from Mazanderan--and then attacks him savagely about the head with the whip. In his wrath and determination to make a lasting impression of each blow given, the hadji emphasizes each visitation with a very audible grunt; and, to speak correctly, so does the horse. It goes without saying, however, that master and animal grunt from widely different motives; although, so far as the mere audible performance is concerned, one grunt might almost be an echo of the other.
At length, by adopting a more circumspect pace, we reach the gate of the holy city about sunset without further mishap. The hadji leads the way through a bewildering labyrinth of narrow streets that consist of an open sewage-ditch in the centre, at present full of filth, and a narrow footway of rough, broken, and mud-bespattered cobble-stones on either side. Of course we are followed through these fearful thoroughfares by a surging and vociferous crowd of people such as a Central Asian city alone can produce; but I can this time happily afford to smile at these usually irritating accompaniments to my arrival in a populous city, for ten minutes after entering the gate finds me shaking hands with Mr. Gray, the genial telegraphist of the Afghan Boundary Commission. With a well-guarded gate between our cosey quarters and the shouting mob outside, the evening is spent very pleasantly and quietly, in striking comparison with what it would have been had no one been here to afford me a place of refuge.
Meshed is "the jumping off place" of telegraphy; the electric spider spins his galvanized web no farther in this direction, and the dirge-like music of civilization's--AEolian harp, that, like the roll of England's drum, is heard around the world, approaches the barbarous territory of Afghanistan from two directions, but recoils from entering that fanatical and conservative domain. It approaches from Persia on the one side, and from India on the other; but as yet it only approaches. The drum has already been there; it is only a question of time when the AEolian harp will follow.
It is with lively recollection of Khorassani March weather and the experience of the last few days that, after a warm bath, I array myself in a suit of Mr. Gray's clothing, elevate my slippered feet, "Yenghi Donia fashion," on a pile of Turcoman! carpets, and, abetted by the cheering presence of a bottle of Shiraz wine, exchange my recent experiences on the road for telegraphic scraps of the latest news. How utterly unsatisfactory and altogether wretched seems even the gilded palace of a Persian provincial governor--the meaningless compliments, the salaaming lackeys and empty show of courtesy, when compared with the cosey quarters, the hearty welcome, the honest ring of an Englishman's voice, and the genuineness of everything!
Shortly after my arrival, a gentleman with a coal-black complexion, a retreating forehead, and an overshadowing wealth of lip appears at the door bearing a tray of sweetmeats. Making a profound salaam, he steps out of his slipper-like shoes, enters, and places the sweetmeats on the table, smiling a broad expectant-of-backsheesh smile the while he explains his mission.
"The Sartiep has sent you his salaams and a present of sweetmeats, preparatory to calling round himself," explains mine host; "he is a Persian gentleman, Ali Akbar Khan, at the head of the Meshed telegraph-service, and has the rank of general or Sartiep." The Sartiep himself arrives shortly afterward, accompanied by his favorite son, a budding youth of some eight or ten summers, of whose beauty he feels very justly proud. The Sartiep's son is one of those remarkably handsome boys met with occasionally in modern Persia, and which so profusely adorn old Persian paintings. With soft, girlish features, big, black, lustrous eyes, and an abundance of long hair, they remind one of the beautiful youths of Oriental romance; his fond parent takes him about on his visits and finds much gratification in the admiring remarks bestowed upon the son.
The Sartiep is an ideal Persian official, courteous and complimentary, but never forgetful of Ali Akbar Khan; his full, round figure and sensual Oriental face speak eloquently of mutton pillau and other fattening dishes galore, sweetmeats, cucumbers, and melons; and deep draughts from pleasure's intoxicating cup have not failed to leave their indelible marks. In this particular the Sartiep is but a casually selected sample of the well-to-do Persian official. Leaving out a few notable exceptions, this brief description of him suffices to describe them all.
Following in the train of the Sartiep arrive more servants, bearing dishes of kabobs, herb-seasoned pillau, and various other strange, savory dishes, which, Mr. Gray explains, are considered great delicacies among the upper-class Persians and are intended as a great compliment to me.
Although Mohammedans, and particularly Shiite Mohammedans, are forbidden by their religion to indulge in alcoholic beverages, the average high official in Persia is anything but a sanctimonious individual, and partakes with a keen relish of the forbidden fruit in an open-secret manner. The thin, transparent veil of abstemiousness that the Persian noble wears in deference to the sanctimonious pretensions of the mollahs and seyuds and the public eye at large, is cast aside altogether in the presence of intimate friends, and particularly if that intimate friend is a Ferenghi. Owing to their association in the telegraph-service, mine host and the Sartiep are on the most intimate terms. The Sartiep soon after his arrival intimates, with a humorous twinkle of the eye, that he feels the need of a little medicine. Mr. Gray, as becomes a good physician who knows well the constitutional requirements of his patient, and who knows what to prescribe without even going through the preliminary act of feeling the pulse, produces a pale-green bottle and a tumbler and pours out a full dose of its contents for an adult.
The patient swallows it at a gulp, nibbles a piece of sweetmeat, and strokes his stomach in token of approval.
"What was the medicine you prescribed, Gray?" "High wines," says the physician, "95 proof alcohol; a bottle that the entomologist of the Boundary Commission happened to leave here a year ago; it was the only thing in the house except wine. The patient pronounces it the 'best arrack' he ever tasted; the firier these fellows can get it the better they like it."
"Why, it didn't even make him gasp!"
"Gasp--nonsense; you haven't been in Persia as long as I have yet, or you wouldn't say 'gasp' even at 95% alcohol."
But how polite, how complimentary, these French of Asia are, and how imaginative and fanciful their language! Not having shaved since leaving Teheran, after surveying myself in the glass, I feel called upon, in the interest of fellow-wheelmen elsewhere, to explain to our discerning visitors that all bicyclers are not distinguished from their fellow men by a bronzed and stubby phiz and an all-around vagrom appearance.
The Sartiep strokes his beard and stomach, casts a lingering glance at the above-mentioned green-glass bottle, smiles, and replies: "Having accomplished so wonderful a journey, you are now prettier with your rough, unshaven face than you ever were before; you can now survey yourself in the looking-glass of fame instead of in a common mirror that reflects all the imperfections of ordinary mortals." Having delivered himself of this compliment, the Sartiep's eye wanders in the direction of the 95% alcohol again, and the next minute is again smacking his lips and complacently stroking his stomach.
In the morning, before I am up, a servant arrives from a Mesh-edi notable named Hadji Mahdi, bringing salaams from his master, and a letter clothed in the fine "apparel diplomatique" of the Orient. The letter, although in reality nothing more than a request to be allowed to come and see the bicycle, reads in substance as follows: "Salaams from Hadji Mahdi--may he be your sacrifice!-to Gray Sahib and the illustrious Sahib who has arrived in Holy Meshed from Teheran, on the wonderful asp-i-awhan, the fame of whose deeds reaches to the ends of the earth. Bismillah! May your shadows never grow less! Your sacrifice's brother, Hadji Mollah Hassan, whose eyes were gladdened by a sight of the asp-i-awhan Sahib at Shahrood, and who now sends his salaams, telegraphs me--his unworthy brother--that upon the Sahib's arrival in Meshed I should render him any assistance he might need. Inshallah, with your permission--may it not be withheld--your sacrifice will be pleased to call and gladden his eyes with a sight of Gray Sahib and the illustrious Sahib his guest."
As might have been expected, the advent of a Ferenghi on so strange a vehicle as a bicycle, arriving in the sacred city of Imam Eiza's sanctuary, arouses universal curiosity; and not only the Sartiep and Hadji Mahdi, but hundreds of big-turbaned Meshedi notables, mollahs, and seyuds are admitted during the day to enjoy the happy privilege of feasting their eyes on the latest proof of the Ferenghis' wonderful marifet,
Upon receipt of the telegram at Shahrood refusing me permission to go through Turkestan, I telegraphed to Mr. Gray, requesting him to obtain leave for me to go to the Boundary Commission Camp, and accompany them back to India, or reach India from the camp alone. Mr. Gray kindly forwarded my request to the camp, and now urges me to consider myself his guest until the return courier arrives with the answer. This turns out to mean a stop-over of seven days, and on the second day immense crowds of people assemble in the street, shouting for me to come out and ride the bicycle. The clamor on the streets renders it impossible for them to transact business in the telegraph office, and several times requests are sent in begging me to appease them and stop the uproar by riding to and fro along the street. An outer door separates the compound in which the house is built from the street, and to prevent the rabble from invading the premises, and the possibility of unpleasant consequences, the Governor-General stations a guard of four soldiers at the door. This precaution works very well so far as the common herd are concerned, but every hour through the day little knots of priestly men in the flowing new garments and spotless turbans representing their Noo Roos purchases, or the lamb's-wool cylinder and semi-European garb of the official, bribe, coerce, or command the guard to let them in.
These persistent people generally stand in a respectful attitude just inside the outer gate, and send word in by a servant that a Shahzedah (relative of the Shah) wishes to see the bicycle. After the first "Shahzedah" has been treated with courtesy and consideration in deference to his royal relative at Teheran, fully two-thirds of those who come after unblushingly proclaim themselves uncles, cousins, or nephews of "His Majesty, the King of Kings and Ruler of the Universe!" The constant worry and annoyance of these people compel us to adopt measures of self-defence, and so, after admitting about a hundred uncles, twice that number of nephews, and Heaven knows how many cousins, we conclude that blood-relations of the Shah are altogether too numerous in Meshed to be of much consequence. Soon after arriving at this conclusion, Mr. Gray's farrash, an Armenian he brought with him from Ispahan, comes in with a message that another Shahzedah has succeeded in getting past the guard and sends in his salaams. "Shahzedah be d----d! Turn him out--put him outside, and tell the guards to let nobody else in without our permission!"
A moment later the farrash re-enters with the look of a man scarcely able to control his risibilities, and says the man and his friends are still inside the gate.
"Why the devil don't you put them out, as you are told, then?"
"He says he is the Padishah's step-father."
"Well, what if he is the Padishah's step-father? It's nothing to be the Shah's step-father; the Shah probably has five hundred step-father's, to say the least--turn him out. No; hold hard; let him stay."
We conclude that a step-father to the king, whether genuine or only a counterfeit, is at least something of a relief after the swarms of nephews, cousins, and uncles, and so order him to be shown in He proves to be a corpulent little man about sixty, who advances up the bricked walk toward us, making about three extra profound salaams to the rod and smiling in a curious, apprehensive manner, as though not quite assured of his reception. About a dozen long-robed mollahs and seyuds follow with timid hesitancy in his wake. Strange to say, he makes no allusion to his illustrious step-son, the King of Kings at Teheran; and plainly betrays embarrassment when Gray mentions the fact of my having appeared before him on the wheel. We conclude that the Shah's step-father and the little group of holy men clubbed together and paid the Persian guard about a keran to let them in, and perhaps another half-keran to the Armenian farrash for not summarily turning them out. He tries very hard, however, to make himself agreeable, and when told about the Russians refusing me the road, exclaims artfully: "I was not an enemy of the Russians before I heard this, but now I am their worst enemy! Suppose the Sahib's iron horse was a wheel of fire, what harm would it do their country even then?"
Our most distinguished caller to-day is Mirza Abbas Khan, C. I. E., a Kandahari gentleman, who has been the British political agent at Meshed for many years. He makes a formal call in all the glory of his official garments, a magnificent Cashmere coat lined with Russian sable and profusely trimmed with gold braid; a servant leads his gayly caparisoned horse, and another brings up the rear with a richly mounted kalian.
Appearances count for something among the people of Northeastern Persia, and Abbas Khan draws a sufficiently large salary to enable him to wear gorgeous clothes, and thereby dim the lustre of his bitter rival, the political agent of Russia.
Abbas Khan is perhaps the handsomest man in Meshed, is in the prime of life, dyes his flowing beard an orthodox red, and possesses most charming manners; in addition to his ample salary he owns the revenue of a village near Meshed, and seems to be altogether the right man in the right place.
Abbas Khan and a friend of his from Herat both agree that the difficulties and dangers of Afghanistan will be likely to prove insurmountable; at the same time promising any assistance they can render me in getting to India, consistent, of course, with Abbas Khan's duties as British Agent. It seems to be a pretty general opinion that Afghanistan will prove a stumbling-block in my path; friends at Teheran telegraph again, advising me to go anywhere rather than risk the dangers to be apprehended in that most lawless and fanatical territory. Nothing can be decided on, however, until the arrival of an answer from the Commission.
In the meantime, the days slowly pass away in Meshed; every day come scores of visitors and invitations to go and ride for the delectation of sundry high officials; ever-present are the crowds in the streets shouting, "Tomasha! tomasha! Sowar shuk!" and the frequent squabbles at the gate between the guard and the people wanting to come in.
Above the din and clamor of the crowd outside there sometimes arise the chanting voices of a party of newly arrived pilgrims making their way joyously through the thronged streets toward the gold-domed sanctuary of Imam Riza, the tomb being situated a couple of hundred yards down the street from our quarters. Sometimes we hear parties of men uttering strange cries and sounding aloud the praises of Imam Riza, Houssein, Hassan, and other worthies of the Mohammedan world, in response to which are heard the swelling voices of a multitude of people shouting in chorus, "Allah be praised! Allah be praised!!" These weird chanters are dervishes, who, with tiger-skin mantles drawn carelessly about them, clubs or battle-axes on shoulder, their long unkempt hair dangling down their backs, look wildly grotesque as they parade the streets of the Persian Mecca.
Meshed is a strange city for a Ferenghi to live in; every day are heard the chanting and singing of newly arriving bands of pilgrims, the strange, wild utterances of dervishes preaching on the streets, and the shouting responses of their auditors. Conspicuous above everything else in the city, as gold is conspicuous from dross, is the golden dome and gold-tipped minarets of the holy edifice that imparts to the city its sacred character. The gold is in thin plates covering the hemispherical roof like sheets of tin; like most Eastern things, its appearance is more impressive from a distance than at close quarters. Grains of barley deposited on the roof by pigeons have sprouted and grown in rank bunches between the thin gold plates, many of which are partially loose, imparting to the place an air of neglect and decay. By resting their feet on the dome of this sacred edifice, the pigeons of Meshed have themselves become objects of veneration; shooting them is strictly prohibited, and a mob would soon be about the ears of anyone venturing to do them harm.
The two most important persons in Meshed are the acting Governor-General of Khorassan, and Mardan Khan, Ex-Governor of Sarakhs and Hereditary Chief of the powerful tribe of Timurees. Of course, the Governor sends his salaams, and invites me to come round to the government konak and favor him with an exhibition. Since our refusal to entertain any more of the "Shah's relations," we find that the worthy and long-suffering Abbas Khan has been worried almost to the verge of despair by requests from all over the city begging the privilege of seeing me ride.
"Knowing that you have been worried in the same way yourselves," says Abbas Kahu, "I have replied to them, 'Is the Sahib a giraffe and I his keeper? Why, then, do you come to me? The Sahib has travelled a long way, and is stopping here to rest, not to make an exhibition of himself."
An exception is of course made in favor of the Governor-General and Mardan Khan. The Government compound is a large enclosure, and to reach the Governor-General's quarters one has to traverse numerous long court-yards connected with one another by long, gloomy passage-ways of brick, where the tramping of the sentinels and the march of retiring and relieving guards resound through the vaults like an echo of mediaeval times.
There is nothing particularly interesting about the Governor's apartments, but Mardan Khan's palace is a revelation of barbaric splendor entirely different from anything hitherto seen in the country. In contradistinction to the dazzling, silvery glitter of the mirror-work and stuccoed halls of the Teheran palaces, the home of the wealthy Timuree Chieftain is distinguished by a striking and lavish display of colored glass, gilt, and tinsel.
Mardan Khan is a valued friend of Mirza Abbas Khan and a man of powerful influence; besides this, he is a pronounced admirer of the Ingilis as against the Oroos, and my reception at his palace almost takes the character of an ovation. News of the great tomasha has evidently been widely spread, crowds of outsiders fill the streets leading to the palace, and inside the large garden are scores of the elite of the city, mollahs, seyuds, official and private gentlemen; the numerous niches of the walls are occupied by groups of closely veiled females. Trundling through this interesting and expectant crowd with Abbas Khan, Mardan Khan issues forth in flowing gown of richest Cashmere-shawl material and gold braid, to greet us and to take a preliminary peep at the bicycle, and to lead the way into his gorgeously colored room of state.
The scene in this room is an ideal picture of the popular occidental conception of the "gorgeous East." Abbas Khan and Mar-dan Khan sit cross-legged side by side on a rich Turcoman rug, salaaming and exchanging compliments after the customary flowery and extravagant language of the Persian nobility. The marvellous pattern and costly texture of Abbas Khan's coat, the gold braid, the Russian sable lining, and the black Astrakhan cylinder he wears, are precisely matched by the garments of Mardan Khan. Twenty or thirty of the most important dignitaries and mollahs of the city are ranged according to their respective rank or degree of holiness around the room; prominent among them is the Chief Imam of Meshed, a very important and influential person in the holy city.
The Chief Imam is a slim-built, sharp-looking individual of about forty summers, with a face pale, refined, and intellectual; hands white and slender as a lady's, and a foot equally shapely and feminine. He wears a monster green turban, takes his turn regularly at the kalian, and passes it on to the next with the easy gracefulness that comes of good breeding; and by his manners and appearance he creates an impression of being a person rather superior to his surroundings.
Liveried pages pass around little glasses of tea, kalians, cigarettes, and sweetmeats, as well as tiny bottles of lemon-juice and rose-water, a few drops of these two last-named articles being used by some of the guests to impart a fanciful flavor to their tea. Now and then a new guest arrives, steps out of his shoes in the hallway, salaams, and takes his proper position among the people already here. Everybody sits on the carpet except me, for whom a three-legged camp-stool has been thoughtfully provided.
Finally, all the guests having arrived, I ride several times around the brick-walks, the strange audience of turbaned priests and veiled women showing their great approval in murmuring undertones of "kylie khoob" and involuntary acclamations of "Mashallah! mash-all-ah!" as they witness with bated breath the strange and incomprehensible scene of a Ferenghi riding a vehicle, that will not stand alone.
Altogether, the great tomasha at Mardan Khan's is a decided success. Scarcely can this be said, however, of the "little tomasha" given to the members of Abbas Khan's own family on the way home. Abbas Khan's compound is very small, and the brick-walks very rough and broken; therefore, it is hardly surprising to me, though probably somewhat surprising to him, when, in turning a corner I execute an undignified header into a bunch of busbies.
The third day after my arrival in Meshed, I received a telegram from the British Charge d'Affaires at Teheran saying: "You must not attempt to cross the frontier of Afghanistan at any point." Two days later the expected courier arrives from the Boundary Commission Camp with a letter saying: "It is useless for you to raise the question of coming to the Commission Camp. In the first place, the Afghans would never allow you to come here; and if you should happen to reach here, you would never be able to get away again."
These two very encouraging missives from our own people seem at first thought more heartless than even the "permission refused" of the Russians. It occurs to me that this "you must not attempt to cross the Afghan frontier" might just as easily have been told me at the Legation at Teheran as when I had travelled six hundred miles to get to it; but the ways of diplomacy are past the comprehension of ordinary mortals.
What, after all, are the ambitions and enterprises of an individual, compared to the will and policy of an empire? No matter whether the empire be semi-civilized and despotic, or free and enlightened, the obscure and struggling individual is usually rated 0000.
Russia--"permission refused." England--paternally--"must not attempt;" cold, offish language this for a lone cycler to be confronted with away up here in the northeast corner of Persia, from representatives of the two greatest empires of the world. What is to be done?
Mr. Gray, returning from the telegraph office later in the evening, finds me endeavoring to unravel the Gordian knot of the situation through the medium of a brown-study. My geographical ruminations have already resulted in a conviction that there is no possible way to unravel it and reach India with a bicycle; my only chance of doing so is to cut it and abide by the consequences.
"I have just been communicating with Teheran," says Mr. Gray. "Everybody wants to know what you propose doing."
"Tell them I am going down to Beerjand to consult with Heshmet-i-Molk, the Ameer of Seistan, and see if it is possible to get through to Quetta via Beerjand."
"Ever hear of Dadur?" queries Mr. Gray. "Ever hear of Dadur, the place of which the Persians tritely say: 'Seeing that there is Dadur, why did Allah, then, make the infernal regions?' That is somewhere in Beloochistan. You'll find yourself slowly broiling to death on a geographical gridiron if you attempt to reach India down that way."
"Never mind; tell them at Teheran I am going that way anyhow."
Having entered upon this decision, I bid my genial host farewell on April 7th, and mounting at the door, depart in the presence of a well-behaved crowd of spectators. In my pocket is a general letter from the Governor-General of Khorassan to subordinate officials of the province, ordering them to render me any assistance I may require, and another from a prominent person in Meshed to his friend Heshmet-i-Molk, the Ameer of Kain and Governor of Seistan, a powerful and influential chief, with his seat of government at Beerjand.
Couched in the sentimental language of the country, one of these letters concludes with the touching remark: "The Sahib, of his own choice is travelling like a dervish, with no protection but the protection of Allah."
It is a fine bracing morning as I leave the Mecca of Khorassan behind, and the paths leading round outside the walls and moat of the city from gate to gate afford excellent wheeling. The Beerjand trail branches off from the Teheran and Meshed road about a farsakh east of Shahriffabad; for this distance I shall be retraversing the road by which I came, and shall be confronted at every turn of my wheel by reminiscences of dried fish, a Mazanderau dervish, and an angular steed.
The streams that under the influence of the storm ran thigh-deep have now dwindled to mere rivulets, and the narrow, miry trail through the melting snow has become dry and smooth enough to ride wherever the grade permits. The hills are verdant with the green young life of early spring, and are clothed in one of nature's prettiest costumes--a costume of seal-brown rocks and green turf studded with a profusion of blue and yellow flowers.
Shahriffabad is reached early in the afternoon, and the threatening aspect of the changed weather forbids going any farther today.
Shortly after taking up my quarters in the chapar-khana, a party of Persian travellers appear upon the scene, and with them a fussy little man in big round spectacles and semi-European clothes. Scarcely have they had time to alight and seek out quarters than the little man makes his appearance at my menzil door in all the glory of a crimson velvet dressing-cap and blue slippers, and beaming gladsomely through his moon-like spectacles, he comes forward and without further ceremony shakes hands. "Some queer little French professor, geologist, entomologist, or something, wandering about the country in search of scientific knowledge," is the instinctive conclusion I arrive at the moment he appears; and my greeting of "bonjour, monsieur," is quite as involuntary as the conclusion.
"Paruski ni?" he replies, arching his eyebrows and smiling.
"Paruski ni; Ingilis."
In this brief interchange of words in the vernacular of the country we define at once each other's nationality and linguistic abilities. He is a Russian and can speak a little Persian. It is difficult, however, to believe him anything else than a little French professor, wise above his generation and skin-full of occult wisdom in some particular branch of science; but then the big round spectacles, the red dressing-cap, and the cerulean leather slippers of themselves impart an air of owlish and preternatural wisdom.
Six times during the afternoon he bounces into my quarters and shakes hands, and six times shakes hands and bounces out again. Every time he renews his visit he introduces one or more natives, who take as much interest in the hand-shaking as they do in the bicycle. Evidently his object in coming round so frequently is to exhibit for the gratification of his own vanity and the curiosity of the Persians, this European mode of greeting, and the profound depth of his own knowledge of the subject.
Later in the evening the women of the village come round in a body to see the Ferenghi and his iron horse, and the wearer of the spectacles, the red cap, and blue slippers, takes upon himself the office of showman for the occasion; pointing out, with a good deal of superficial enthusiasm, the peculiar points of both steed and rider.
Particularly is it impressed upon these woefully ignorant fail-ones, that the bicycle is not a horse, but a machine--a thing of iron and not of flesh and blood.
The fair ones nod their heads approvingly, but it is painfully apparent that they don't comprehend in the least, how, since it is an asp-i-awhan, it can be anything else but a horse, regardless of the material entering into its composition.
When supper-time arrives the chapar-Jee announces his willingness to turn cook and prepare anything I order. Knowing well enough that this seemingly sweeping proposition embraces but two or three articles, I order him to prepare scrambled eggs, bread, and sheerah. An hour later he brings in the scrambled eggs, swimming in hot molasses and grease! He has stirred the grease and molasses together, and in this outlandish mixture cooked the eggs.
Off the main road the country assumes the character of low hills of red clay, across which it would be extremely difficult to take the bicycle in wet weather, but which is now fortunately dry. After three or four farsakhs it develops into a curious region of heterogeneous parts; rocky, precipitous mountains, barren, salt-streaked hills, saline streams, and pretty little green valleys. Here, one feels the absence of any plain, well-travelled road, the dim and ill-defined trail being at times very difficult to distinguish from the branch trails leading to some isolated village. The few people one meets already betray a simplicity and a lack of "gumption" that distinguish them at once from the people frequenting the main road.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005