BEERJAND AND THE FRONTIER OF AFGHANISTAN.
Thirty miles over hill and dale, after leaving the little hamlet, and behold, the city of Beerjand appears before me but a mile or thereabouts away, at the foot of the hills I am descending. One's first impression of Beerjand is a sense of disappointment; the city is a jumbled mass of uninteresting mud buildings, ruined and otherwise, all of the same dismal mud-brown hue. Not a tree exists to relieve the eye, nor a solitary green object to break the dreary monotony of the prospect; the impression is that of a place existing under some dread ban of nature that forbids the enlivening presence of a tree, or even the redeeming feature of a bit of greensward.
The broad, sandy bed of a stream contains a sluggishly-flowing reminder of past spring freshets; but the quickening presence of a stream of water seems thrown away on Beerjand, except as furnishing a place for closely-veiled females to come and wash clothes, and for the daily wading and disporting of amphibious youngsters. In any other city a part of its mission would be the nurturing of vegetation.
The Ameer, Heshmet-i-Molk, I quickly learn, is living at his summer-garden at Ali-abad, four farsakhs to the east. Curious to see something of a place so much out of the world, and so little known as Beerjand, I determine upon spending the evening and night here, and continuing on to Ali-abad next morning.
There appears to be absolutely nothing of interest to a casual observer about the city except its population, and they are interesting from their strange, cosmopolitan character, and as being the most unscrupulous and keenest people for money one can well imagine. The city seems a seething nest of hard characters, who buzz around my devoted person like wasps, seemingly restrained only by the fear of retribution from pouncing on my personal effects and depriving me of everything I possess.
The harrowing experiences of Torbet-i Haiderie have taught a useful lesson that stands me in good stead at Beerjand. Ere entering the city proper, I enlist the services of a respectable-looking person to guide the way at once where the pressing needs of hunger can be attended to before the inevitable mob gathers about me and renders impossible this very necessary part of the programme. Having duly fortified myself against the anticipated pressure of circumstances by consuming bread and cheese and sheerah in the semi-seclusion of a suburban bake-house, my guide conducts me to the caravanserai, receives his backsheesh, and loses himself in the crowd that instantly fills the place.
The news of my arrival seems to set the whole city in a furore; besides the crowds below, the galched roof of the caravanserai becomes standing room for a mass of human beings, to the imminent danger of breaking it in. So, at least, thinks the caravanserai-jee, who becomes anxious about it and tries to persuade them to come down; but he might as well attempt to summon down from above the unlistening clouds.
Around two sides of the caravanserai compound is a narrow, bricked walk, elevated to the level of the menzil floors; at the imminent risk of breaking my neck, I endeavor to appease the clamorous multitude, riding to and fro for the edification of what is probably the wildest-looking assembly that could be collected anywhere in the world. Afghans, with tall, conical, gold-threaded head-dresses, converted into monster turbans by winding around them yards and yards of white or white-and-blue cloth, three feet of which is left dangling down the back; Beloochees in flowing gowns that were once white; Arabs in the striped mantles and peculiar headdress of their country; dervishes, mollahs, seyuds, and the whole fantastic array of queer-looking people living in Beerjand, travelling through, or visiting here to trade.
Some of the Afghans wear a turban and kammerbund, all of one piece; after winding the long cotton sheet a number of times about the peaked head-dress, it is passed down the back and then ends its career in the form of a kammerbund about the waist. Fights and tumults occur as the result of the caravanserai-jee's attempt to shut the gate and keep them out, and in despair he puts me in a room and locks the door. In less than five minutes the door is broken down, and a second attempt to seclude myself results in my being summarily pelted out again with stones through a hole in the roof.
A Yezdi traveller, occupying one of the menzils--all of which at Beeriand are provided with doors and locks--now invites me to his quarters; locking the door and keeping me out of sight, he hopes by making me his guest to assist in getting rid of the crowd. Whatever his object, its consummation is far from being realized; the unappeased curiosity of the crowds of newly arriving people finds expression in noisy shouts and violent hammering on the door, creating a din so infernal that the well-meaning traveller quickly tires of his bargain. Following the instincts of the genuine Oriental, he conjures up the genius of diplomacy to rid himself of his guest and the annoyance occasioned by my presence.
"If you go outside and ride around the place once more," he says, "Inshallah, the people will all go home."
This is a very transparent proposition--a broad hint, covered with the thin varnish of Persian politeness. No sooner am I outside than the door is locked, and the wily Yezdi has accomplished his purpose of ousting me and thereby securing a little peace for himself. No right-thinking person will blame him for turning me out; on the contrary, he deserves much praise for attempting to take me in.
I now endeavor to render my position bearable by locking up the bicycle and allowing the populace to concentrate their eager gaze on me, perching myself on the roof in position to grant them a fair view. Swarms of people come flocking up after me, evidently no more able to control their impulse to follow than if they were so many bleating sheep following the tinkling leadership of a bellwether or a goat. The caravanserai-jee begs me to come down again, fearing the weight will cause the roof to cave in. well-nigh at my wit's end what to do, I next take up a squatting position in a corner and resign myself to the unhappy fate of being importuned to ride, shouted at in the guttural tones of desert tribesmen, questioned in unknown tongues, solicited for alms and schemed against and worried for this, that, and the other, by covetous and evil-minded ruffians.
"The Ingilis have khylie pool-k-h-y-lie pool!" (much money) says one ferocious-looking individual to his companion, and their black eyes glisten and their fingers rub together feverishly as they talk, as if the mere imagination of handling my money were a luxury in itself.
"He must have khylie pool if he is going all the way to Hindostan-k-h-y-lie pool!" suggests another; and the coveteousness of dozens of keenly interested listeners finds expression in "Pool, pool; the Ingilis have khylie pool."
One eager ragamuffin brings me half-a-dozen sour and shrivelled oranges, utterly worthless, for which he asks the outrageous sum of three kerans; a second villainous-looking specimen worries me continuously to leave the caravanserai and go with him somewhere. I never could make out where.
He looks the veriest cutthroat, and, curious to penetrate the secret of his intentions, and perchance secure something interesting for my note-book, I at length make pretence of acceding to his wishes. Bystanders at once interfere to prevent him enticing me away, and when he angrily remonstrates he is hustled unceremoniously out into the street.
"He is a bad man," they say; "neis koob adam."
Nothing daunted by the summary ejection of this person, a dervish, with the haggard face and wild, restless eyes of one addicted to bhang, now volunteers to take me under his protection and lead me out of the caravanserai to--where? He vouchsafes no explanation where; none, at least, that is at all comprehensible to me. Where do these interesting specimens of Beerjand's weird population want to entice me to? why do they want to entice me anywhere? I conclude to go with the dervish and find out.
The crowd enter their remonstrances again; but the dervish wears the garb of holy mendicancy; violent hands must not be laid on the sacred person of a dervish. Our path is barred at the outer gate of the caravanserai, however, by two men in semi-military uniforms, armed with swords and huge clubs; they chide the dervish for wanting to take me with him, and have evidently been placed at their post by the authorities.
Soon a uniformed official comes in and tries to question me. He is a person of very limited intelligence, incapable of understanding and making himself understood through the medium of the small stock of his native tongue at my command. The linguistic abilities of the strange, semi-civilized audience about us comprise Persian, Turkish, Hindostani, and even a certain amount of Russian; not a soul besides myself knows a single word of English.
After queries have been propounded to me in all these tongues, my intellectual interviewer gives me up in despair, and, addressing the crowd about us, cries out in astonishment: "Parsee neis! Turkchi binmus! Hindostani nay! Paruski nicht! mashallah, what language does he speak?"
"Ingilis! Ingilis! Ingilis!" shout at least a dozen more knowing people than himself.
"Oh, I-n-g-i-l-i-s!" says the officer, condemning his own lack of comprehension by the tone of his voice. "Aha, I-n-g-i-l-i-s, aha!" and he looks over the crowd apologetically for not having thought of so simple a thing before. But having ascertained that I speak English, he now proceeds to treat me to a voluble discourse in simon-pure Persian. Seeing that I fail to comprehend the tenor of the officer's remarks, some of the garrulous crowd vouchsafe to explain in Turkish, others in Hindostani, and one in Russian!
In the absence of a lunatic asylum to dodge into, I fasten on to the officer and get him to take me out and show me the Ali-abad road, so that I can find the way out early in the morning.
Another caravanserai is found located nearer the road leading from the city eastward, and I determine to change my quarters quietly by the light of the moon, leaving the crowd in ignorance of my whereabouts, so that there will be no difficulty in getting through the streets in the morning.
Late at night, when the now quieted city is bathed in the soft, mellow light of the moon, and the crenellated mud walls and old ruins and archways cast weird shadows across the silent streets, with a few chosen companions, parties to the secret of the removal, the bicycle is trundled through the narrow, crooked streets and under arched alleyways, to the caravanserai on the eastern edge of the city.
Seated beneath the shadowy archway of the first caravanserai is a silent figure smoking a kalian; as we open the gate to leave, the figure rises up and thrusts forth an alms-receiver and in a loud voice sings out, "Backsheesh, backsheesh; huk yah huk!" It is the same dervish that was turned back with me by the guards at this same gate this afternoon.
My much-needed slumbers at my new quarters are rudely disturbed--as a son of Erin might, perhaps, declare under similar circumstances--before they are commenced, by the fearful yowling of Beerjand cats. Several of these animals are paying their feline compliments to the moon from different roofs and walls hard by, and their utterances strike my unaccustomed (unaccustomed to the Beerjand variety of cat-music) ears as about the most unearthly sound possible.
Fancying the noise is made by women wailing for the dead, from a striking resemblance to the weird night-sounds heard, it will be remembered, at Bey Bazaar, Asia Minor (Vol. I), I go outside and listen. Many guesses would most assuredly be made by me before guessing cats as the authors of such unearthly music; but cats it is, nevertheless; for, seeing me listening outside by the door, one of the sharers of my rude quarters comes out and removes all doubt by drawing the rude outlines of a cat in the dust with his finger, and by delivering himself of an explanatory "meow." The yowl of a Beerjand cat is several degrees more soul-harrowing than anything inflicted by midnight prowlers upon the Occidental world, and I learn afterward that they not infrequently keep it up in the daytime.
An early start, sixteen miles of road without hills or mountains, but embracing the several qualities of good, bad, and indifferent, and at eight o'clock I dismount in the presence of a little knot of Heshmet-i-Molk's retainers congregated outside his summer-garden, and a goodly share of the population of the adjacent village of Ali-abad. While yet miles away, Ali-abad is easily distinguished as being something out of the ordinary run of Persian villages by the luxuriant foliage of the Ameer's garden. The whole country around is of the same desert-like character that distinguishes well-nigh all this country, and the dark, leafy grove of trees standing alone on the gray camel-thorn plain, derives additional beauty and interest from the contrast.
The village of Ali-abad, consisting of the merest cluster of low mud hovels and a few stony acres wrested from the desert by means of irrigation, the people ragged, dirty, and uncivilized, looks anything but an appropriate dwelling-place for a great chieftain. The summer garden itself is enclosed within a high mud wall, and it is only after passing through the gate and shutting out the rude hovels, the rag-bedecked villagers, and the barren desert, that the illusion of unfitness is removed.
My letter is taken in to the Ameer, and in a few minutes is answered in a most practical manner by the appearance of men carrying carpets, tent-poles, and a round tent of blue and white stripes. Winding its silvery course to the summer garden, from a range of hills several miles distant, is a clear, cold stream; although so narrow as to be easily jumped, and nowhere more than knee-deep, the presence of trout betrays the fact that it never runs dry.
The tent is pitched on the banks of this bright little stream, the entrance but a half-dozen paces from its sparkling water, and a couple of guards are stationed near by to keep away intrusive villagers; an abundance of eatables, including sweetmeats, bowls of sherbet, and dried apricots, and pears from Foorg, are provided at once.
A neatly dressed attendant squats himself down on the shady side of the tent outside, and at ridiculously short intervals brings me in a newly primed kalian and a samovar of tea. Everything possible to contribute to my comfort is attended to and nothing overlooked; and the Ameer furthermore proves himself sensible and considerate above the average of his fellow-countrymen by leaving me to rest and refresh myself in the quiet retreat of the tent till four o'clock in the afternoon.
Reclining on the rich Persian carpet beneath the gayly striped tent, entertained by the babbling gossip of the brook, provided with luxuriant food and watchful attendants, taking an occasional pull at a jewelled kalian primed with the mild and seductive product of Shiraz, or sipping fragrant tea, it is very difficult to associate my present conditions and surroundings with the harassing experiences of a few hours ago. This marvellous transformation in so short a time--from the madding clamor of an inconsiderate mob, to the nerve-soothing murmur of the little stream; from the crowded and filthy caravanserai to the quiet shelter of the luxurious tent; in a word, from purgatory to Paradise--what can have brought it about? Surely nothing less than the good genii of Aladdin's lamp.
A very agreeable, and, withal, intelligent young man, the incumbunt of some office about the Ameer's person, no doubt a mirza, pays me a visit at noon, apparently to supervise the serving up of the--more than bountiful repast sent in from his master's table. My attention is at once arrested by the English coat-of-arms on his sword-belt; both belt and clasp have evidently wandered from the ranks of the British army.
"Pollock Sahib," he says, in reply to my inquiries--it is a relic of the Seistan Boundary Commission.
About four o'clock, this same young man and a companion appear with the announcement that the Ameer is ready to receive me, and requests that I bring the bicycle with me into the garden. The stream flows through a low arch beneath the wall and lends itself to the maintenance of an artificial lake that spreads over a large proportion of the enclosed space. The summer garden is a fabrication of green trees and the cool glimmer of shaded water, rather than the flower-beds, the turf, and shrubbery of the Occidental conception of a garden; the Ameer's quarters consist of an un-pretentious one-storied building fronting on the lake.
The Ameer himself is found seated on a plain divan at the open-windowed front, toying with a string of amber beads; a dozen or so retainers are standing about in respectful and expectant attitudes, ready at a moment's notice to obey any command he may give or to anticipate his personal wants. He is a stoutly built, rather ponderous sort of individual, with a full, rotund face and a heavy, unintellectual, but good-natured expression; one's first impression of him is apt to be less flattering to his head than to his heart. He is a person, however, that improves with acquaintance, and is probably more intelligent than he looks. He seems to be living here in a very plain and unpretentious manner; no gaudy stained glass, no tinsel, no mirror-work, no vain gew-gaws of any description impart a cheap and garish glitter to the place; no gorgeous apparel bedecks his ample proportions. Clad in the ordinary dress of a well-to-do Persian nobleman, Heshmet-i-Molk, happy and contented in the enjoyment of creature comforts and the universal esteem of his people, probably finds his chief pleasure in sitting where we now find him, looking out upon the green trees and glimmering waters of the garden, smoking his kalian, and attending to the affairs of state in a quiet, unostentatious manner. With a refreshing absence of ceremonial, he discusses with me the prospects of my being able to reach India overland. The conversation on his part, however, almost takes the form of trying to persuade me from my purpose altogether, and particularly not to attempt Afghanistan.
"The Harood is as wide as from here to the other side of the lake yonder (200 yards); tund (swift) as a swift-running horse and deep as this house," he informs me.
"No bridge? no ferry-boat? no means of getting across?"
"Eitch" (no), replies the Ameer. "Pull neis, kishti neis."
"Can't it be forded with camels?"
"No village, with people to assist with poles or skins to make a raft?"
"Afghani dasht-adam (nomads), no poles; you might perhaps find skins; but the river is tund-t-u-n-d! skins neis, poles neis; t-u-n-d!!" and the Ameer points to a bird hopping about on the garden walk, intimating that the Harood flows as swiftly as the flight of a bird.
The result of the conference I have been so anxiously looking forward to is anything but an encouraging picture--a picture of insurmountable obstacles on every hand. The deep sand and burning heat of the dreadful Lut Desert intervenes between me and the Mekran coast; the route through Beloochistan, barely passable with camels and guides and skins of water in the winter, is not only impracticable for anything in the summer, but there is the additional obstacle of the spring floods of the Helmund and the Seistan Lake.
The Ameer's description of the Lut Desert and Beloochistan is but a confirmation of my own already-arrived-at conclusions concerning the utter impracticability of crossing either in the summer and with a bicycle; but the wish gives birth to the thought that perhaps he may not unlikely be indulging in the Persian weakness for exaggeration in his graphic portrayal of the difficulties presented by the Harood.
The region between Beerjand and the Harood is on my map a dismal-looking, blankety-blank stretch of country, marked with the ominous title "Dasht-i" which, being interpreted into English, means Desert of Despair. A gleam of hope that things may not be quite so hopeless as pictured is born of the fact that, in dwelling on the difficulties of the situation, the Ameer makes less capital out of this same Desert of Despair than of the Harood, which has to be crossed on its eastern border.
As regards interference from the Legation of Teheran, thank goodness I am now three hundred miles from the nearest telegraph-pole, and shall enter Afghanistan at a point so much nearer to Quetta than to the Boundary Commission Camp that the chances seem all in favor of reaching the former place if I only succeed in reaching the Dasht-i-na-oomid and the Harood.
The result of the foregoing deliberations is a qualified (qualified by the absence of any alternative save turning back) determination to point my nose eastward, and follow its leadership toward the British outpost at Quetta.
"Khylie koob" (very well), replies the Ameer, as he listens to my determination; "khylie koob;" and he takes a few vigorous whiffs at his kalian as though, conscious of the uselessness of arguing the matter any further with a Ferenghi, he were dismissing the ghost of his own opinions in a cloud of smoke.
Shortly after sunrise on the following morning a couple of well-mounted horsemen appear at the door of my tent, armed and equipped for the road. Their equipment consists of long guns with resting-fork attachment, the prongs of which project above the muzzle like a two-pronged pitchfork; swords, pistols, and the brave but antique display of warlike paraphernalia characteristic of the East. One of them, I am pleased to observe, is the genial young mirza whose snuff-colored roundabout is held in place by the "dieu et mon droit" belt of yesterday; his companion is the ordinary sowar, or irregular horseman of the country. They announce themselves as bearers of the Ameer's salaams, and as my escort to Tabbas, a village two marches to the east.
A few miles of plain, with a gradual inclination toward the mountains; ten miles up the course of a mountain-stream-up, up, up to where thawing snow-banks make the pathway anything but pleasant for my escort's horses and ten times worse for a person reduced to the necessity of lugging his horse along; over the summit, and down, down, down again over a fearful trail for a wheelman, or, more correctly, over no trail at all, but scrambling as best one can over rocks, along ledges, often in the water of the stream, and finally reaching the village of Darmian, the end of our first day's march, about 3 p.m.
Darmian is situated in a rugged gulch, and the houses, gardens, and orchards ramble all over the place--with little regard to regularity, although some attempt has been made at forming streets. Darmian and Poorg are twin villages, but a short distance apart, in this same gulch, and are famous for dried apricots, pears, and dried beetroots, and for the superior quality of its sheerah.
Among the absurdities that crop up during the course of an eventful evening at Darmian is the case of a patriarchal villager whose broad and enlightening experience of some threescore years has left him in the possession of a marvellously logical and comprehensive mind. Hearing of the arrival of a Ferenghi with an iron horse, this person's subtle intellect pilots him into the stable of the place we are stopping at and leads him to search curiously therein, with the expectation, we may reasonably presume, of seeing the bicycle complacently munching kah and jow. This is perhaps not so much to be wondered at, when it is reflected that plenty of people hereabout have no conception whatever of a wheeled vehicle, never having seen a vehicle of any description.
The good people of Darmian, as is perhaps quite natural in people near the frontier, betray a pardonable pride in comparing Persia with Afghanistan, always to the prodigious disadvantage of the latter. In the course of the usual examination of my effects, they are immensely gratified to learn from my map that Persia is much the larger country of the two. A small corner of India is likewise visible on the map, and, taking it for granted that the map represents India as fully as it does Persia, the khan, on whom I am unwittingly bestowing the rudiments of a false but patriotic geographical education, turns around, and with swelling pride informs the delighted people that Seistan is larger than India, and Iran bigger than all the rest of the world, he taking it for granted that my map of Persia is a map of the whole world.
More and more fantastic grow the costumes of the people as one gets farther, so to speak, out of civilization and off the beaten roads. The ends of the turbans here are often seen gathered into a sort of bunch or tuft on the top; the ends are fringed or tipped with gold, and when gathered in this manner create a fanciful, crested appearance--impart a sort of cock-a-doodle-doo aspect to the wearer.
Among the most interesting of my callers are three boys of eight to twelve summers, who enter the room chewing leathery chunks of dried beetroot. Although unwashed, "unwiped," and otherwise undistinguishable from others of the same age about the place, they are gravely introduced as khan this, that, and the other respectively; and while they remain in the room, obsequiousness marks the deportment of everybody present except their father, and he regards them with paternal pride.
They are sons of the village khan, and as such are regarded superior beings by the common people about them. It looks rather ridiculous to see grown people bearing themselves in a retiring, servile manner in deference to youngsters glaringly ignorant of how to use a pocket-handkerchief, and who look as if their chief pastime were chewing dried beetroot and rolling about in the dust.
But presently it is revealed that their first visit has been a mere informal call to satisfy the first impulse of youthful curiosity. By and by their fond parent takes them away for half an hour, and then ushers them into my presence again, transformed into gorgeous youths with nice clean faces and wiped noses. Marshalling themselves gravely opposite where I am sitting, they put their hands solemnly on their youthful stomachs, salaam, and gracefully drop down into a cross-legged position on the carpet.
They look like real little chieftains now, both in dress and deportment. Scarlet roundabouts, trimmed with a profusion of gold braid, bedeck their consequential bodies; red slippers embroidered with gold thread cover their feet, and their snowy turbans end in a gold-flecked tuft of transparent muslin that imparts a bantam-like air of superiority. Their father comes and squats down beside me, and, as we sip tea together, he bestows a fond, parental smile upon the three scarlet poppies sitting motionless, with heads slightly bent and eyes downcast, before us, and inquires by an eloquent sweep of his chin what I think of them as specimens of simon-pure nobility.
All through Persia the word "ob" has heretofore been used for water; but linguistic changes are naturally to be expected near the frontier, and the Darmian people use the term "ow." Upon my calling for ob, the khan's attendant stares blankly in reply; but an animated individual in the front ranks of the crowd about the doors and windows enlightens him and me at the same time by shouting out, "Ow! ow! ow!"
The muezzin, calling the faithful to their evening prayers, likewise utters the summons here at Darmian quite differently from anything of the kind heard elsewhere.
The cry is difficult to describe; but without meaning to cast reflections on the worthy muezzin's voice, I may perhaps be permitted to mention that the people are twice admonished, and twice a listening katir (donkey) awakens the echoing voices of the rock-ribbed gulch in vociferous response.
The mother-in-law of the mirza lives at Darmian, and, like a dutiful son, he lingers in her society until nine o'clock next morning. At that hour he turns his horse's footsteps down the bed of the stream, while his comrade guides me for a couple of miles over a most abominable mountain-trail, rejoining the river and the dutiful son-in-law at Foorg. Foorg is situated at the extremity of the gulch, and is distinguished by a frowning old castle or fort, that occupies the crest of a precipitous hill overtopping the village and commanding a very comprehensive view of the country toward the Afghan frontier.
The villages of Darmian and Foorg, looking out upon wild frontier territory, inhabited chiefly by turbulent and lawless tribes-people whose hereditary instincts are diametrically opposed to the sublime ethics of the decalogue have no doubt often found the grim stronghold towering so picturesquely above them an extremely convenient thing.
The escort points it out and explains that it belongs to the "Padishah at Teheran," and not to his own master, the Ameer--a national, as distinct from a provincial, fortification. The cultivated environs of Foorg present a most discouraging front to a wheelman; walled gardens, rocks, orchards, and ruins, with hundreds of water-ditches winding and twisting among them, the water escaping through broken banks and creating new confusion where confusion already reigns supreme. Among this indescribable jumble of mud, water, rocks, ruins, and cultivation, pitched almost at an angle of forty-five degrees, the natives climb about bare-legged, impressing one very forcibly as so many human goats as they scale the walls, clamber over rocks, or wade through mud and water.
A willing Foorgian divests himself of everything but his hat, and carries the bicycle across the stream, while I am taken up behind the mirza. As the mirza's iron-gray gingerly enters the water, an interesting and instructive spectacle is afforded by a hundred or more Foorgians following the shining example of the classic figure carrying the bicycle, for the purpose of being on hand to see me start across the plain toward Tabbas.
Some of these good people are wearing turbans the size of a bandbox; others wear enormous sheep-skin busbies. A number of tall, angular figures stemming the turbid stream in the elegant costumes of our first parents, but wearing Khorassani busbies or Beerjand turbans, makes a bizarre and striking picture.
A gravelly trail, with the gradient slightly in my favor, enables me to create a better impression of a bicycler's capabilities on the mind of the mirza and the sowar than was possible yesterday, by quickly leaving them far in the rear. Some miles are covered when I make a halt for them to overtake me, seeking the welcome shelter of a half-ruined wayside umbar.
An Eliaute camp is but a short distance away, and several sun-painted children of the desert are eagerly interviewing the bicycle when my escort comes galloping along; not seeing me anywhere in view ahead, they had wondered what had become of their wheel-winged charge and are quite relieved at finding me here hobnobbing with the Eliautes behind the umbar.
The mirza's fond mother-in-law has presented him with a quantity of dried pears with half a walnut imbedded in each quarter; during a brief halt at the umbar these Darmian delicacies are fished out of his saddle-bags and duly pronounced upon, and the genial Eliautes contribute flowing bowls of doke (soured milk, prepared in some manner that prevents its spoiling).
High noon finds us at our destination for the day, the village of Tabbas, famous in all the country around for a peculiar windmill used in grinding grain. A grist-mill, or mills, consists of a row of one-storied mud huts, each of which contains a pair of grindstones. Connecting with the upper stone is a perpendicular shaft of wood which protrudes through the roof and extends fifteen feet above it. Cross-pieces run through at right angles and, plaited with rushes, transform the shaft into an upright four-bladed affair that the wind blows around and turns the millstones below.
So far, this is only a very primitive and clumsy method of harnessing the wind; but connected with it is a very ingenious contrivance that redeems it entirely from the commonplace. A system of mud walls are built about, the same height or a little higher than the shaft, in such a manner as to concentrate and control the wind in the interest of the miller, regardless of which direction it is blowing in.
The suction created by the peculiar disposition of the walls whisks the rude wattle sails around in the most lively manner. Forty of these mills are in operation at Tabbas; and to see them all in full swing, making a loud "sweeshing" noise as they revolve, is a most extraordinary sight. Aside from Tabbas, these novel grist-mills are only to be seen in the territory about the Seistan Lake.
The door-way of the quarters provided for our accommodation being too small to admit the bicycle, not the slightest hesitation is made about knocking out the threshold. Every male visible about the place seems eagerly desirous of lending a hand in sweeping out the room, spreading nummuds, bringing quilts, tea, kalians, or something.
A slight ripple upon the smooth and pleasing surface of the universal inclination to do us honor is a sententious controversy between the mirza and a blatant individual who enters objections about killing a sheep. Whether, in the absence of the village khan, the objections are based on an unwillingness to supply the mutton, or because the sheep are miles away on the plain, does not appear; but whatever the objections, the mirza overcomes them, and we get freshly slaughtered mutton for supper.
Tea is evidently a luxury not to be lightly regarded at Tabbas; after the leaves have served their customary purpose, they are carefully emptied into a saucer, sprinkled with sugar, and handed around--each guest takes a pinch of the sweetened leaves and eats it.
The modus operandi of manipulating the kalian likewise comes in for a slight modification here. The ordinary Persian method, before handing the water-pipe to another, is to lift off the top while taking the last pull, and thus empty the water-chamber of smoke. The Tabbasites accomplish the same end by raising the top and blowing down the stem. This mighty difference in the manner of clearing the water-chamber of a hubble-bubble will no doubt impress the minds of intellectual Occidentals as a remarkably important and valuable piece of information. Not less interesting and remarkable will likewise seem the fact that the flour-frescoed proprietors of these queer little Tabbas grist-mills are nothing less than the boundary-mark between that portion of the water-pipe smoking world which blows the remaining smoke out and that portion which inhales it. The Afghan, the Indian, and the Chinaman adopt the former method; the Turk, the Persian, and the Arab the latter.
Yet another interesting habit, evidently borrowed from their uncultivated neighbors beyond the Dasht-i-na-oomid, is the execrable practice of chewing snuff. Almost every man carries a supply of coarse snuff in a little sheepskin wallet or dried bladder; at short intervals he rubs a pinch of this villainous stuff all over his teeth and gums and deposits a second pinch away in his cheek.
Abdurraheim Khan, the chief of several small villages on the Tabbas plain, turns up in the evening. He is the mildest-mannered, kindliest-looking human being I have seen for a long time; he does the agreeable in a manner that leads his guests to think he worships the "Ingilis" people humbly at a distance, and is highly honored in being able to see and entertain one of those very worshipful individuals. Like nearly all Persians, he is ignorant of the Western custom of shaking hands; the sun-browned paw extended to him as he enters is stared at a moment in embarrassment and then clasped between both his palms.
The turban of Abdurraheim Khan is a marvellous evidence of skill in the arranging of that characteristic Eastern head-dress; the snowy whiteness of the material, the gracefulness of the folds, and the elegant crest-like termination are not to be described and done justice to by either word or pen.
In reply to my inquiries, I am glad to find that Abdurraheim Khan speaks less discouragingly of the Harood than did the Ameer at Ali-abad; he says it will be fordable for camels, and there will be no difficulty in finding nomads able to provide me an animal to cross over with.
Some cause of delay, incomprehensible to me, appears to interfere with the continuation of my journey in the morning, most of the forenoon being spent in a discussion of the subject between Abdurraheim Khan and the mirza. About noon a messenger arrives from Ali-abad, bringing a letter from the Ameer, which seems to clear up the mystery at once. The letter probably contains certain instructions about providing me an escort that were overlooked in the letter brought by the mirza.
When about starting, the khan presents me with a bowl of sweet stuff --a heavy preparation of sugar, grease, and peppermint. A very small portion of this lead-like concoction suffices to drive out all other considerations in favor of a determination never to touch it again. An attempt to distribute it among the people about us is interpreted by the well-meaning khan as an impulse of pure generosity on my own part; the result being that he ties the stuff up nicely in a clean handkerchief that an unlucky bystander happens to display at that moment and bids me carry it with me.
An ancient retainer, without any teeth to speak of, and an annoying habit of shouting "h-o-i!" at a person, regardless of the fact that one is within hearing of the merest whisper, is detailed to guide me to a few hovels perched among the mountains, four farsakhs to the southeast, from which point the journey across the Dasht-i-na-oomid is to begin, with an escort of three sowars, who are to join us there later in the evening.
A couple of miles over fairly level ground, and then commences again the everlasting hills, up, up, down, up, down, clear to our destination for the day. While trundling along over the rough foot-hills, I am approached by some nomads who are tending goats near by. Seeing them gather about me, my aged but valiant protector comes galloping briskly up and imperatively waves them away. A grandfatherly party, with a hacking cough, a rusty cimeter, and a flint-lock musket of "ye olden tyme," I fancied "The Aged" merely a guide to show me the road. As I worry along over the rough, unridable mountains, the irritation of being shouted "hoi!" at for no apparent reason, except for the luxury of hearing the music of his own voice, is so annoying that I have about resolved to abandon him to a well-deserved fate, in case of attack.
But now, instead of leaning on me for protection, he blossoms forth at once as not only the protector of his own person, but of mine as well! As he comes galloping bravely up and dismisses the wild-looking children of the desert with a grandiloquent sweep of his hand, he is almost rewarded by an involuntary "bravo, old un!" from myself, so superior to the occasion does he seem to rise.
The little nest of mud huts are found, after a certain amount of hesitation and preliminary going ahead by "The Aged," and toward nightfall three picturesque horsemen ride up and dismount; they are the sowars detailed by the Ameer's orders to Abdurraheim, or some other border-land khan, to escort me across the Desert of Despair.
"The Aged" bravely returns to Tabbas in the morning by himself. When on the point of departing, he surveys me wistfully across a few feet of space and shouts "h-o-i!" He then regards me with a peculiar and indescribable smile. It is not a very hard smile to interpret, however, and I present him with the customary backsheesh. Pocketing the coins, he shouts "h-o-i!'" again, and delivers himself of another smile even more peculiar and indescribable than the other.
"Persian-like, receiving a present of money only excites his cupidity for more," I think; and so reply by a deprecatory shake of the head. This turns out to be an uncharitable judgment, however, for once; he goes through the pantomime of using a pen and says, "Abdurraheim Khan." He saw me write my name, the date of my appearance at Tabbas, etc., on a piece of paper and give it to Abdurraheim Khan, and he wants me to do the same thing for him.
The three worthies comprising my new escort are most interesting specimens of the genus sowar; the leader and spokesman of the trio says he is a khan; number two is a mirza, and number three a mudbake. Khans are pretty plentiful hereabouts, and it is nothing surprising to happen across one acting in the humble capacity of a sowar; a mirza gets his title from his ability to write letters; the precise social status of a mudbake is more difficult to here determine, but his proper roosting-place is several rungs of the social ladder below either of the others. They are to take me through to the Khan of Grhalakua, the first Afghan chieftain beyond the desert, and to take back to the Ameer a receipt from him for my safe delivery.
It is a far easier task to reckon up their moral calibre than their social. Before being in their delectable company an hour they reveal that strange mingling of childlike simplicity and total moral depravity that enters into the composition of semi-civilized kleptomaniacs. The khan is a person of a highly sanguine temperament and possesses a headstrong disposition; coupled with his perverted notions of meum and tuum, these qualities will some fine day end in his being brought up with a round turn and required to part company with his ears or nose, or to be turned adrift on the cold charity of the world, deprived of his hands by the crude and summary justice of Khorassan. His eyes are brown and large, and spherical almost as an owl's eyes, and they bulge out in a manner that exposes most of the white. He wears long hair, curled up after the manner of Persian la-de-da-dom, and in his crude, uncivilized sphere evidently fancies himself something of a dandy.
The mirza is quiet and undemonstrative in his manners, as compared with his social superior; and as becomes a person gifted with the rare talent of composing and writing letters, his bump of cautiousness is several degrees larger than the khan's, but is, nevertheless, not large enough to counterbalance the pernicious effect of an inherited and deeply rooted yearning for filthy lucre and a lamentable indifference as to the manner of obtaining it.
The mudbake is the oldest man of the three, and consequently should be found setting the others a good example; but, instead of this, his frequent glances at my packages are, if anything, more heavily freighted with the molecules of covetousness and an eager longing to overhaul their contents than either the khan's or the mirza's.
"Pool, pool, pool--keran, keran, keran," the probable amount in my possession, the amount they expect to receive as backsheesh, and kindred speculations concerning the financial aspect of the situation, form almost the sole topic of their conversation. Throwing them off their guard, by affecting greater ignorance of their language than I am really guilty of, enables me to size them up pretty thoroughly by their conversation, and thus to adopt a line of policy to counteract the baneful current of their thoughts. Their display of cunning and rascality is ridiculous in the extreme; fancying themselves deep and unfathomable as the shades of Lucifer himself, they are, in reality, almost as transparent and simple as children; their cunning is the cunning of the school-boy. Well aware that the safety of their own precious carcasses depends on their returning to Khorassan with a receipt from the Khan of Ghalakua for my safe delivery, there is little reason to fear actual violence from them, and their childish attempts at extortion by other methods will furnish an amusing and instructive study of barbarian character.
The hovel in which our queerly assorted company of eight people sleep --the owners of the shanty, "The Aged," the khan, the mirza, the mudbake, and myself--is entered by a mere hole in the wall, and the bicycle has to stand outside and take the brunt of a heavy thunder-storm during the night. In this respect, however, it is an object of envy rather than otherwise, for myriads of fleas, larger than I would care to say, for fear of being accused of exaggeration, hold high revel on our devoted carcasses all the livelong night. From the swarms of these frisky insects that disport and kick their heels together in riotous revelry on and about my own person, I fancy, forsooth, they have discovered in me something to be made the most of, as a variety of food seldom coming within their province. But the complaining moans of "Ali-Akbar" from "The Aged," the guttural grunts of disapproval from the mirza and the mudbake, and the impatient growls of "kek" (flea) from the khan, tell of their being at least partial companions in misery; but, being thicker-skinned, and withal well seasoned to this sort of thing, their sufferings are less than mine.
The rain has cleared up, but the weather looks unsettled, as about eight o'clock next morning our little party starts eastward under the guidance of a villager whom I have employed to guide us out of the immediate range of mountains, the sowars betraying a general ignorance of the commencement of the route.
My escort are a great improvement as regards their arms and equipments upon "The Aged." Among the three are two percussion double-barrelled shot-guns, a percussion musket, six horse-pistols of various degrees of serviceableness, swords, daggers, ornamental goat's-paunch powder-pouches, peculiar pendent brass rings containing spring nippers for carrying and affixing caps, leathern water-bottles, together with various odds and ends of warlike accoutrements distributed about their persons or their saddles.
"Inshallah, Ghalakua, Gh-al-a-kua!" exclaims the khan, as he swings himself into the saddle. "Inshallah, Al-lah," is the response of the mirza and the mudbake, as they carelessly follow his example, and the march across the Dasht-i-na-oomid begins.
The ryot leads the way afoot, following along the partially empty beds of mountain torrents, through patches of rank camel-thorn, over bowlder-strewn areas and drifts of sand, sometimes following along the merest suggestion of a trail, but quite as frequently following no trail at all. At certain intervals occurs a piece of good ridable ground; our villager-guide then looks back over his shoulder and bounds ahead with a swinging trot, eager to enjoy the spectacle of the bicycle spinning along at his heels; the escort bring up the rear in a leisurely manner, absorbed in the discussion of "pool."
Several miles are covered in this manner, when we emerge upon a more open country, and after consulting at some length with the villager, the khan declares himself capable of finding the way without further assistance. It is a strange, wild country, where we part from our local guide; it looks as though it might be the battleground of the elements. A trail, that is only here and there to be made out, follows a southeasternly course down a verdureless tract of country strewn with rocks and bowlders and furrowed by the rushing waters of torrents now dried up. Jagged rocks and bowlders are here mingled in indescribable confusion on a surface of unproductive clay and smaller stones. On the east stretches a waste of low, stony hills, and on the west, the mountains we have recently emerged from rise two thousand feet above us in an almost unbroken wall of precipitous rock.
By and by the khan separates himself from the party and gallops away out of sight to the left, his declared mission being to purchase "goosht-i" (mutton) from a camp of nomads, whose whereabouts he claims to know. As the commissaire of the party, I have, of course, intrusted him with a sufficient quantity of money to meet our expenses; and the mirza and the mudbake no sooner find themselves alone than another excellent trait of their character conies to the surface. Upon comparing their thoughts, they find themselves wonderfully unanimous in their suspicions as to the honesty of the khan's intentions toward--not me, but themselves!
These worthy individuals are troubled about the khan's independent conduct in going off alone to spend money where they cannot witness the transaction. They are sorely troubled as to probable sharp practice on the part of their social superior in the division of the spoils.
The "spoils!" Shades of Croesus! The whole transaction is but an affair of battered kermis, intrinsically not worth a moment's consideration; but it serves its purpose of affording an interesting insight into the character of my escort.
The poor mirza and the mudbake are, no doubt, fully justified in entertaining the worst opinions possible of the khan; he is a sad scoundrel, on a small scale, to say the least. While they are growling out to each other their grievances and apprehensions, that artful schemer is riding his poor horse miles and miles over the stony hills to the camping-ground of some hospitable Eliaute chieftain, from whom he can obtain goosht-i-goosfany for nothing, and come back and say he bought it.
Several miles are slowly travelled by us three, when, no sign of the khan appearing, we decide upon a halt until he rejoins us. In an hour or so the bizarre figure of the absentee is observed approaching us from over the hills, and before many minutes he is welcomed by a simultaneous query of "chand pool?" (how much money?) from his keenly suspicious comrades, delivered in a ludicrously sarcastic tone of voice.
"Doo Tceran," promptly replies the khan, making a most hopeless effort to conceal his very palpable guilt beneath a transparent assumption of innocence. The mirza and the mudbake make no false pretence of taking him at his word, but openly accuse him of deceiving them. The khan maintains his innocence with vehement language and takes refuge in counter-accusations. The wordy warfare goes merrily on for some minutes as earnestly as if they were quarrelling over their own honest money instead of over mine. The joint query of "chand pool?" gathers an additional load of irony from the fact that they didn't seem to think it worth while to even ask him what he had bought.
Across the pommel of his saddle he carries a young kid, which is now handed to the mudbake to be tethered to a shrub; he then dismounts and produces three or four pounds of cold goat meat. Before proceeding again on our way we consume this cold meat, together with bread brought from last night's rendezvous. By reason of his social inferiority the mudbake is now required to assume the burden of carrying the youthful goat; he takes the poor kid by the scruff of the neck and flings it roughly across his saddle in a manner that causes the gleeful spirits of the khan to find vent in a peal of laughter. Even the usually imperturbable countenance of the mirza lightens up a little, as though infected by the khan's overflowing merriment and the mudbake's rough handling of the young goat. They know each other thoroughly--as thoroughly as orchard-looting, truant-playing, teacher-deceiving school-boys--these three hopeful aspirants to the favor of Allah; they are an amusing trio, and not a little instructive.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005