TAKEN BACK TO PERSIA.
The Governor of Herat sends "khylie salaams" and permission for me to ride the bicycle, stipulating that I keep near the escort. So, with many an injunction to me about dasht-adam, kooh, dagh, etc., by way of warning me against venturing too far ahead, we bid farewell to the garden, with its strange associations, in the early morning. Beside Mohammed Ahzim Khan and myself are three sowars, mounted on splendid horses.
The morning is bright and cheerful, and shortly after starting the animal spirits of the sowars find vent in song. I have been laboring under the impression that, for soul-harrowing vocal effort, the wild-eyed sowars of Khorassan, as exemplified in my escort from Beerjand, were entitled to the worst execrations of a discriminating Ferenghi, but the Afghans can go them one better. If it is possible to imagine anything in the whole world of sound more jarring and discordant than the united efforts of these Afghan sowars, I have never yet discovered it. Out of pure consideration and courtesy, I endure it for some little time; but they finally reach a high-searching key that is positively unendurable, and I am compelled in sheer self-protection to beg the khan to suppress their exuberance. "These men are not bul-buls; then why do they sing?" is all that is necessary for me to say. They all laugh heartily at the remark, and the khan orders them to sing no more. Over a country that consists chiefly of trailless hills and intervening strips of desert, we wend our weary way, the bicycle often proving more of a drag than a benefit. The weather gets insufferably hot; in places the rocks fairly shimmer with heat, and are so hot that one can scarce hold the hand to them. We camp for the first night at a village, and on the second at an umbar that suggests our approach to Persia, and in the morning we make an early start with the object of reaching Karize before evening.
The day grows warm apace, and, at ten miles, the khan calls a halt for the discussion of what simple refreshments we have with us. Our larder embraces dry bread and cold goat-meat and a few handfuls of raisins. It ought also to include water in the leathern bottle swinging from the stirrup of one of the sowars; but when we halt, it is to discover that this worthy has forgotten to fill his bottle. The way has been heavy for a bicycle, trundling wearily through sand mainly, with no riding to speak of; and young as is the day, I am well-nigh overcome with thirst and weariness. I am too thirsty to eat, and, miserably tired and disgusted, one gets an instructive lesson in the control of the mind over the body. Much of my fatigue comes of low spirits, born of disappointment at being conducted back into Persia.
One of the sowars is despatched ahead to fill his bottle with water at a well known to be some five miles farther ahead, and to meet us with it on the way. On through the sand and heat we plod wearily, myself almost sick with thirst, fatigue, and disgust. Mohammed Ahzim Khan, observing my wretched condition, insists upon me letting one of the sowars try his hand at trundling the wheel, while I rest myself by riding his horse. Both the sowars bravely try their best to relieve me, but they cut ridiculous figures, toppling over every little while. At length one of them upsets the bicycle into a little gully, and falling on it, snaps asunder two spokes. The khan gives him a good tongue-lashing for his carelessness; but one can hardly blame the fellow, and I take it under my own protection again, before it goes farther and fares worse.
About 2 p.m. the sowar sent forward meets us with water; but it is almost undrinkable. Far better luck awaits us, however, farther along. Sighting an Eimuck camel-rider in the distance, one of the sowars gives chase and halts him until we can come up. Slung across his camel he has a skin of doke, the most welcome thing one can wish for under the circumstances. Everybody helps himself liberally of the refreshing beverage, shrinking the Eimuck's supply very perceptibly. The Eimuck joins heartily with our party in laughing at the altered contour of the pliant skin, as pointed out jocularly by Mohammed Ahzim Khan, bids us "salaam aleykum," and pursues his way across country.
During the afternoon we cross several well-worn trails; though evidently but little used of late, they have seen much travel. My escort explains that they are daman trails, in other words the trails worn by Turkoman raiders passing back and forth on their man-stealing expeditions, before their subjugation by the Russians.
By and by we emerge from a belt of low hills, and descend into a broad, level plain. A few miles off to the right can be seen the Heri Rood, its sinuous course plainly outlined by a dark fringe of jungle. Some miles ahead the village-fortress of Kafir Kaleh is visible. A horseman comes galloping across the plain to intercept us. Mohammed Ahzim Khan produces his written orders concerning my delivery at Karize and reads it to the new arrival. Thereupon ensues a long explanation, which ends in, our turning about and following the new-comer across the trailless plain toward the Heri Rood.
"What's up now?" I wonder; but the only intelligible reply I get in reply to queries is that we are going to camp in the jungle. Misgivings as to possible foul play mingle with speculations regarding this person's mission, as I follow in the wake of the Afghans.
We camp on a plot of rising ground that elevates us above the overflow, and shortly after our arrival we are visited by a band of nomads who are hunting through the jungle with greyhounds, Mohammed Ahzim Khan informs me that both baabs, and palangs (panthers) are to be found along the Heri Rood.
Luxuriant beds of the green stuff known in the United States as lamb's-quarter, abound, and I put one of the sowars to gathering some with the idea of cooking it for supper. None of our party know anything about its being good to eat, and Mohammed Ahzim Khan shakes his head vigorously in token of disapproval. A nomad visitor, however, corroborates my statement about its edibleness, and fills our chief with wonderment that I should know something in common with an Afghan nomad, that he, a resident of the country, knows nothing about. By way of stimulating his wonderment still further, I proceed to call off the names of the various nomad tribes inhabiting Afghanistan, together with their locations.
"Where did you learn all this." he queries, evidently suspicious that I have been picking up altogether too much information.
"London," I reply.
"London!" he says; "Mashallah! they know everything at London."
The horseman who intercepted us rode away when we camped for the night. Nothing more was seen of him, and at a late hour I turn in for the night --if one can be said to turn in, when the process takes the form of stretching one's self out on the open ground. No explanation of our detention here has been given me during the evening, and as I lay down to sleep all sorts of speculations are indulged in, varying from having my throat cut before morning, to a reconsideration by the authorities of the orders sending me back to Persia.
Some time in the night I am awakened. A strange horseman has arrived in camp with a letter for me. He wears the uniform of a military courier. The sowars make a blaze of brushwood for me to read by. It is a letter from Mr. Merk, the political agent of the Boundary Commission. It is a long letter, full of considerate language, but no instructions affecting the orders of my escort. Mr. Merk explains why Mahmoud Yusuph Khan could not take the responsibility of allowing me to proceed to Kandahar. The population of Zemindavar, he points out, are particularly fanatical and turbulent, and I should very probably have been murdered; etc.
The march toward Karize is resumed in good season in the morning. "What was that? a cuckoo?" At first I can scarcely believe my own senses, the idea of cuckoos calling in the jungles of Afghanistan being about the last thing I should have expected to hear, never having read of travellers hearing them anywhere in Central Asia, nor yet having heard them myself before. But there is no mistake; for ere we pass Kafir Kaleh, I hear the familiar notes again and again.
The road is a decided improvement over anything we have struck since leaving Herat, and by noon we arrive at Karize. For some inexplicable reason the Sooltan of Karize receives our party with very ill grace. He looks sick, and is probably suffering from fever, which may account for the evident sourness of his disposition.
Mohammed Ahzim Khan is anything but pleased at our reception, and as soon as he receives the receipt for my delivery makes his preparations to return. I don't think the Sooltan even tendered my escort a feed of grain for their horses, a piece of inhospitality wholly out of place in this wild country.
As for myself, he simply orders a villager to supply me with food and quarters, and charge me for it. Mohammed Ahzim Khan comes to my quarters to bid me good-by, and he takes the opportunity to explain "this is Iran, not Afghanistan. Iran, pool; Afghanistan, pool neis." There is no need of explanation, however; the people rubbing their fingers eagerly together and crying, "pool, pool," when I ask for something to eat, tells me plainer than any explanations that I am back again among our pool-loving friends, the subjects of the Shah. As I bid Mohammed Ahzim Khan farewell, I feel almost like parting--from a friend; he is a good fellow, and with nine-tenths of his inquisitiveness suppressed, would make a very agreeable companion.
And so, here I am within a hundred and sixty miles of Meshed again. More than a month has flown past since I last looked back upon its golden dome; it has been an eventful month. My experiences have been exceptional and instructive, but I ought now to be enjoying the comforts of the English camp at Quetta, instead of halting overnight in the mud huts of the surly Sooltan of Karize.
The female portion of Karize society make no pretence of covering up their faces, which impresses me the more as I have seen precious little of female faces since entering Afghanistan. All the women of Karize are ugly; a fact that I attribute to the handsomest specimens being carried off to Bokhara, for decades past, by the Turkomans. The people that assemble to gaze upon me are the same sore-eyed crowd that characterizes most Persian villages; and among them is one man totally blind. The loss of sight has not dimmed his inquisitiveness any, however; nothing could do that, and he gets someone to lead him into my room, where he makes an exhaustive examination of the bicycle with his hands.
A village luti entertains me during the evening with a dancing deer; a comical affair of wood, made to dance on a table by jerking a string. The luti plays a sort of "whangadoodle" tune on a guitar, and manipulates the string so as to make the deer keep time to the tune. He tells me he obtained it from Hindostan.
Among the wiseacres gathered around me plying questions, is one who asks, "Chand menzils inja to London?" He wants to know how many marches, or stopping-places, there are between Karize and London. This is a fair illustration of what these people think the world is like. His idea of a journey from here to London is that of stages across a desert country like Persia from one caravanserai to another; beyond that conception these people know nothing. London, they think, would be some such place as Herat or Meshed.
At the hour of my departure from Karize, on the following morning, a little old man presents himself, and wants me to employ him as an escort. The old fellow is a shrivelled-up little bit of a man, whom I could well-nigh hold out at arm's length and lift up with one hand. Not feeling the need of either guide or guard particularly, I decline the old fellow's services "with thanks," and push on; happy, in fact, to find myself once more untrammelled by native company.
Small towers of refuge, dotting the plain thickly about Karize, tell of past depredations by the Turkomans. An outlying village like Karize must, indeed, have had a hard struggle for existence; right in the heart of the daman country, too. For miles the plain is found to be grassy as the Western prairies; an innovation from the dreary gray of the camel-thorn dasht that is quite refreshing. A stream or two has to be forded, and many Afghans are met returning from pilgrimage to Meshed.
The village of Torbet-i-Sheikh Jahm is reached at noon, a pleasant town containing many shade-trees. Here, I find, resides Ab-durrahzaak Khan, a sub-agent of Mirza Abbas Khan, and consequently a servant of the Indian Government. He is one of the frontier agents, whose duty it is to keep track of events in a certain section of country and report periodically to headquarters. He, of course, receives me hospitably, does the agreeable with tea and kalians, and provides substantial refreshments. The soothing Shi-razi tobacco provided with his kalians, and the excellent quality of his tea, provoke me to make comparison between them and the wretched productions of Afghanistan. Abdurrahzaak laughs good-humoredly at my remark, and replies, "Mashallah! there is nothing good in Afghanistan." He isn't far from right; and the English officer who named the products of Afghanistan as "stones and fighting men" came equally near the truth.
Fair roads prevail for some distance after leaving Torbet-i-Sheikh Jahm; a halt is made at an Eliaute camp to refresh myself with a bowl of doke. A picturesque dervish emerges from one of the tents and presents his alms-receiver, with "huk yah huk." Both man and voice seem familiar, and after a moment I recognize him as a familiar figure upon the streets of Teheran last winter. He says he is going to Cabool and Kandahar. A unique feature of his makeup is a staff with a bayonet fixed on the end, in place of the usual club or battle-axe.
The night is spent in an Eliaute camp; nummuds seem scarce articles with them, and I spend a cold and uncomfortable night, scarcely sleeping a wink. The camp is not far from the village of Mahmoudabad, and a rowdy gang of ryots come over to camp in the middle of the night, having heard of my arrival.
From Mahmoudabad the road follows up a narrow valley with a range of hills running parallel on either hand. The southern range are quite respectable mountains, with lingering patches of snow, and--can it be possible!--even a few scattering pines. Pines, and, for that matter, trees of any kind, are so scarce in this country that one can hardly believe the evidence of his own eyes when he sees them.
On past the village of Karizeno my road leads, passing through a hard, gravelly country, the surface generally affording fair riding except for a narrow belt of sand-hills. At Karizeno, a glimpse is obtained of our old acquaintances the Elburz Mountains, near Shah-riffabad. They are observed to be somewhat snow-crowned still, though to a measurably less extent than they were when we last viewed them on the road to Torbeti.
The approach of evening brings my day's ride to a close at Furriman, a village of considerable size, partially protected by a wall and moat, Stared at by the assembled population, and enduring their eager gabble all the evening, and then a nummud on the roof of a villager's house till morning. The night is cold, and sleeplessness, with shivering body, again rewards me for a long, hard day's journey. But now it is but about six farsakhs to Meshed, where, "Inshallah," a good bed and all kindred comforts await me beneath Mr. Gray's hospitable roof. Ere the forenoon is passed the familiar gold dome once again appears as a glowing yellow beacon, beckoning me across the Meshed plain.
A camel runs away and unseats his rider in deference to his timidity at my strange appearance as I bowl briskly across the Meshed plain at noon. By one o'clock I am circling around the moat of the city, and by two am snugly ensconced in my old quarters, relating the adventures of the last five weeks to Gray, and receiving from him in exchange the latest scraps of European news. I have made the one hundred and sixty miles from Karize in two days and a half--not a bad showing with a bicycle that has been tinkered up by Herati gunsmiths.
Among other interesting items of news, it is learned that a hopeful Meshedi blacksmith has been inspired to try his "prentice hand" at making a bicycle. One would like to have seen that bicycle, but somehow I didn't get an opportunity. Friendly telegrams reach me from Teheran, and also another order from the British Legation, instructing me not to attempt Afghanistan again.
Since my departure from Meshed, southward bound, another wandering correspondent has invaded the Holy City. Mr. E------, "special" of a great London daily paper, whom I had the pleasure of meeting once or twice in Teheran, has come eastward in an effort to enter Afghanistan. He has been halted by peremptory orders at Meshed. Disgusted with his ill-luck at not being permitted to carry out his plans, he is on the eve of returning to Constantinople. As I am heading for the same point myself, we arrange to travel there in company. Being somewhat under the weather from a recent attack of fever, he has contracted for a Russian fourgon to carry him as far as Shahrood, the farthest point on our route to which vehicular conveyance is practicable. Our purpose is to reach the Caspian port of Bunder Guz, thence embark on a Russian steamer to Baku, over the Caucasus Railway to Batoum, thence by Black Sea steamer to Constantinople.
On the afternoon of May 18th, R------makes a start with the fourgon. It is a custom (unalterable as the laws of, etc.) with all Persians starting on a journey of any length to go a short distance only for the first stage. The object of this is probably to find out by actual experience on the road whether anything has been forgotten or overlooked, before they get too far away to return and rectify the mistake. Semi-civilized peoples are wedded very strongly to the customs in vogue among them, and the European traveller finds himself compelled, more or less, to submit to them. My intention is to overtake the fourgon the following day at Shahriffabad.
Accordingly, soon after sunrise on the morrow, the road around the outer moat of Meshed is circled once again. A middle-aged descendant of the Prophet, riding a graceful dapple-gray mare, spurs his steed into a swinging gallop for about five miles across the level plain in an effort to bear me company. Three miles farther, and for miles over the steep and unridable gradients of the Shah-riffabad hills, I may anticipate the delights of having his horse's nose at my shoulder, and my heels in constant jeopardy. To avoid this, I spurt ahead, and ere long have the satisfaction of seeing him give it up.
In the foothills I encounter, for the first time, one of those characteristics of Mohammedan countries, and more especially of Persia, a caravan of the dead. Thousands of bodies are carried every year, on horseback or on camels, from various parts of Persia, to be buried in holy ground at Meshed, Kerbella, or Mecca. The corpses are bound about with canvas, and slung, like bales of merchandise, one on either side of the horse. The stench from one of these corpse-caravans is something fearful, nothing more nor less than the horrible stench of putrid human bodies. And yet the drivers seem to mind it very little indeed. One stout horse in the party I meet this morning carries two corpses; and in the saddle between them rides a woman. "Mashallah." perchance those very bodies, between which she sits perched so indifferently, are the remains of small-pox victims. But, what cares the woman?--is she not a Mohammedan, and a female one at that?--and does she not believe in kismet. What cares she for Ferenghi "sanitary fads?"--if it is her kismet to take the small-pox, she will take it; if it is her kismet not to, she won't. One would think, however, that common sense and common prudence would instruct these people to imitate the excellent example of the Chinese, in taking measures to dispose of the flesh before transporting the bones to distant burial-places. Many of the epidemics of disease that decimate the populations of Eastern countries, and sometimes travel into the West, originate from these abominable caravans of the dead and kindred irrationalities of the illogical and childlike Oriental.
As the golden dome of Imam Riza's sanctuary glimmers upon my retreating figure yet a fourth time as I reach the summit of the hill whence we first beheld it, I breathe a silent hope that I may never set eyes on it again. The fourgon is overtaken, as agreed upon, at Shahriffabad, and after an hour's halt we conclude to continue on to the caravanserai, where, it will be remembered, my friend the hadji and Mazanderan dervish and myself found shelter from the blizzard.
B___'s Turkish servant, Abdul, a handy fellow, speaking three or four languages, and numbering, among other accomplishments, the knack of always having on hand plenty of cold chicken and mutton, is a vast improvement upon obtaining food direct from the villagers. Resting here till 2 a.m., we make a moonlight march to Gadamgah, arriving there for breakfast. The trail is a revelation of smoothness, in comparison to my expectations, based upon its condition a few weeks ago. The moon is about full, and gives a light as it only does in Persia, and one can see to ride the parallel camel-paths very successfully.
Persians are very much given to night-travelling, and as I ride well ahead of the fourgon, the strange, weird object, gliding noiselessly along through the moonlight, fills many a superstitious pilgrim with misgivings that he has caught a glimpse of Sheitan. I can hear them rapidly muttering "Allah." as they edge off the road and hurry along on their way.
Many Arabs from the Lower Euphrates valley are now mingled with the pilgrim throngs en route to Meshed. They are evil-looking customers, black as negroes almost; they look capable of any atrocity under the sun. These Arab pilgrims are hadjis almost to a man, coming, as they do, from much nearer Mecca than the Persians; but their holiness does not prevent them bearing the unenviable reputation of being the most persistent thieves. Abdul knows them well, and when any of them are about, keeps a sharp lookout to see that none of them approach our things.
On the following evening, at a caravanserai near Nishapoor, we meet and spend the night with a French scientific party of three sent out by the Paris Geographical Society to make geographical and geological researches in Turkestan. The three Frenchmen are excellent company; they entertain us with European news, their views on the political aspect, and of incidents on their fourgon journey from Tiflis. Among their charvadars is a man who saw me last autumn at Ovahjik.
Much good riding surface prevails, and we pass the night of the 21st at Lafaram. The crowds that everywhere gather about us are very annoying to K------, whose fever and consequent weakness is hardly calculated to sweeten his temper under trying circumstances. A whole swarm of women gather to stare at us at Lafaram. "I'll soon scatter them, anyway," says R------; and he reaches for a pair of binoculars hanging up in the fourgon. Adjusting them to his eyes, he levels them at the bunch of females, expecting to see them scatter like a flock of partridges. Scattering is evidently about the last thing the women are thinking of doing, however; they merely turn their attention to the binoculars and concentrate their comments upon them instead of on other of our effects, for the moment, but that is all.
In the vicinity of Subzowar we find the people engaged in harvesting the crop of opium. The way they do it is to go through the fields of poppy every morning and scarify the green heads with a knife-blade notched for the purpose, like a saw. During the day the milky juice oozes out and solidifies. In the evening the harvesters pass through the fields again, scrape off the exuded opium, and collect it in vessels. This, after the watery substance has been worked out with frequent kneadings and drying, is the opium of commerce. The chief opium emporium of Persia is Shiraz, where buyers ship it by camel-caravan to Bushire for export. Persian opium commands the topmost prices in foreign markets.
Here every idler about the villages seems to be amusing himself by working a ball of opium about in his hands, much as a boy delights in handling a chunk of putty. Lumps as large as the fist are freely offered me by friendly people, as they would hand one a piece of bread or a pomegranate; I might collect pounds of the stuff by simply taking what is offered me without the asking.
In the caravanserai at Miandasht, Abdul's failure to appreciate our whilom and egotistical friend, the la-de-da telegraph-jee, at his own valuation comes near resulting in a serious fracas. One of Abdul's most valued services is keeping at a respectful distance the crowds of villagers that invariably swarm about us when we halt. In doing this he sometimes flogs about him pretty lively with the whip. As a general thing the natives take this sort of thing in the greatest good humor; in fact, rather enjoy it than otherwise.
At Miandasht, however, Abdul's whip happens to fall rather heavily upon the shoulders of the telegraph-jee's farrash, who is in the crowd. This individual, reflecting something of his master's self-esteem, takes exceptions to this, and complains, with the customary Persian elaboration, no doubt, to the consequential head of the place. The consequence is that a gang of villagers, headed by the telegraph-jee himself, gather around, and suddenly attack poor Abdul with clubs. Except for the prompt assistance of R------and myself, he would have been mauled pretty severely. As it is, he gets bruised up rather badly; though he inflicts almost as much damage as he receives, with a hatchet hastily grabbed from the fourgon. The fact of his being a Turk, whom the Persians consider far less holy than themselves, Abdul explains, accounts for the attack on him as much as anything else.
A new surprise awaits us at Mijamid, something that we are totally unprepared for. As we reach the chapar-khana there, a voice from the roof greets us with "Sprechen sie Deutsch." Looking up in astonishment, we behold Colonel G------, a German officer in the Shah's army, whom both of us are familiarly acquainted with by sight, from seeing him so often at the morning reviews in the military maiden at Teheran. But this is not all, for with him are his wife and daughter. This is the first time European ladies have traversed the Meshed-Teheran road, Teheran being the farthest point eastward in Persia that lady travellers have heretofore penetrated to. Colonel G has been appointed to the staff of the new Governor-General of Khorassan, and is on his way to Meshed. The appearance of Ferenghi ladies in the Holy City will be an innovation that will fairly eclipse the introduction of the bicycle. All Meshed will be wild with curiosity, and the poor ladies will never be able to venture into the streets without disguise.
There is furor enough over them in Mijamid; the whole population is assembled en masse before the chapar-khana. The combination of the bicycle, three Ferenghis, and, above all, two Ferenghi ladies, is an event that will form a red-letter mark in the history of Mijamid for generations of unborn Persian ryots to talk about and wonder over.
The colonel produces a bottle of excellent Shiraz wine and a box of Russian cigarettes. The ladies have become sufficiently Orientalized to number among their accomplishments the smoking of cigarettes. They are delighted at meeting us, and are already acquainted with the main circumstances of my misadventure in Afghanistan. Camp-stools are brought out, and we spend a most pleasant hour together, before continuing on our opposite courses. The wondering natives are almost speechless with astonishment at the spectacle of the two ladies sitting out there, faces all uncovered, smoking cigarettes, sipping claret, and chatting freely with the men. It is a regular circus-day for these poor, unenlightened mortals. The ladies are charming, and the charm of female society loses nothing, the reader may be sure, from one's having been deprived of it for a matter of months.
The colonel's lingual preference is German, Mrs. G------'s, French, and the daughter's, English; so that we are quite cosmopolitan in the matter of speech. All of us know enough Persian to express ourselves in that language too. In commenting upon my detention by the Afghans, the colonel characterizes them as "pedar sheitans," Madame as "le diable Afghans," and Miss G------as well, "le diable" in plain yet charmingly broken English.
The next day, soon after noon, we roll into Shahrood, where B------ discharges his fourgon and we engage mules to transport us over the Tash Pass, a breakneck bridle-trail over the Elburz range to the Asterabad Plain and the Caspian.
A half-day search by Abdul results in the employment of an outfit comprising three charvadars, with three mules, a couple of donkeys, and riding horses for ourselves. A liberal use of the whip by R on the charvadars' shoulders, awful threats, and sundry other persuasive arguments, assist very materially in getting started at a decent hour on the morning following our arrival. The bicycle is taken apart and placed on top of the mule-packs, where, in remembrance of its former fate under somewhat similar conditions, I keep it pretty strictly under surveillance.
The Asterabad trail is a steady ascent from the beginning; and before many miles are covered, scattering dwarf pines on the, mountains indicate a change from the utter barrenness that characterizes their southern aspect. One lone tree of quite respectable dimensions, standing a mile or so off to our left, suggests a special point of demarcation between utter barrenness and where a new order of things begins.
Our way leads up fearful rocky paths, where the horses have to be led, and at times assisted; up, up, until our elevation is nearly ten thousand feet, and we are among a chaotic wilderness of precipitous rocks and scrub pines. A false step in some places, and our horses would roll down among the craggy rocks for hundreds of feet. It is a toilsome march, but we cross the Tash Pass, camp for the night in a little inter-mountain valley, beside a stream at the foot of a pine-covered mountain. The change from the interior plains is already novel and refreshing. Grass abounds abundance, and the prospect is the greenest I have seen for nine months. We camp out in the open, and are put to some discomfort by passing showers in the night.
A march of a dozen miles from this valley over a tortuous mountain trail brings us into a country the existence of which one could never, by any stretch of the imagination, dream of in connection with Persia, as one sees it in its desert-like character south of the mountains. The transformation is from one extreme of vegetable nature to the other. We camp for lunch on velvety greensward beneath a grove of oak and cherry trees. Cuckoos are heard calling round about, singing birds make melody, and among them we both recognize the cheery clickety-click of my raisin-loving Herati friends, the bul-buls. Flowers, too, are here at our feet in abundance, forget-me-nots and other familiar varieties.
The view from our position is remarkably fine, reminding me forcibly of the Balkans south of Nisch, and of the Californian slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they overlook the Sacramento Valley. The Asterabad Plain is spread out below us like a vast map.
We can trace the windings and twistings of the various streams, the tracts of unreclaimed forest, and the cultivated fields. Asterabad and numerous villages dot the plain, and by taking R------'s binoculars we can make out, through the vaporous atmosphere, the shimmering surface of the Caspian Sea. It is one of the most remarkable views I ever saw, and the novelty and grandeur of it appeals the more forcibly to one's imagination, no doubt, because of its striking contrast to what the eyes have from long usage become accustomed to. From dreary, barren dasht, and stony wastes, to densely wooded mountains, jungle-covered plains, tall, luxurious tiger-grass, and beyond all this the shimmering background of the sea is a big change to find but little more than a day's march apart. We are both captivated by the change, and agree that the Caspian slope is the only part of Persia fit to look at.
The descent of the northern slope is even steeper than the other side; but instead of rocks, it is the rich soil of virgin forests. Open parks are occasionally crossed, and on one of these we find a large camp of Turcomans, numbering not less than a hundred tents. Mountaineers are always picturesquely dressed, and so, too, are nomads. When, therefore, one finds mountaineer nomads, it seems superfluous almost to describe them as being arrayed chiefly in gewgaws and bright-colored clothes. Camped here amid the dark, luxurious vegetation, they and their tents make a charming picture--a scene of life and of contrast in colors which if faithfully transferred to canvas would be worth a king's ransom.
Down paths of break-neck steepness and slipperiness, our way descends into a dark region where vegetation runs riot in the shape of fine tall timber, of a semi-tropical variety. Many of the trees present a fantastic appearance, by reason of great quantities of hanging moss, that in some instances fairly load down the weaker branches. Banks of beautiful ferns, and mossy rocks join with the splendid trees in making our march through these northern foothills of the Elburz Mountains an experience long to be remembered.
A curious and interesting comparison that comes under our observation is that, on the gray plains and rocky mountains of the interior the lizards are invariably of a dull and uninteresting color, quite in keeping with their surroundings. No sooner, however, do we find ourselves in a district where nature's deft hand has painted the whole canvas of the country a bright green, than the lizards which we see scuttling through the ferns and moss-beds are also the greenest of all the green things. These scaly little reptiles shine and glisten like supple shapes of emerald, as one sees them gliding across the path. This is but another link in the chain of evidence that seems to prove that animals derive much of their distinctive character and appearance from the nature of their surroundings. In Northern China are a species of small monkey with a quite heavy coat of fur. They are understood to be the descendants of a comparatively hairless variety which found its way there from the warm jungles of the South, the change from a warm climate to a cold one being responsible for the coat of fur. In the same way, after noting the complete change that has come over the lizards, we conclude that, if a colony of the gray species from the other side of the mountains were brought and turned loose among the green foot-hills here, their descendants, a few generations hence, would be found with coats as green as those of the natives. This conviction gathers force from the fact that no gray lizards whatever are encountered here; all the lizards we see are green.
Emerging from the foot-hills, we find ourselves in a country the general appearance of which reminds me of a section of Missouri more than anything I have seen in Asia. Fields and pastures are fenced in with the same rude corduroy-fences one sees in the Missouri Valley, some well kept and others neglected. The pastures are blue grass and white clover; bees are humming and buzzing from flower to flower, and, to make the similitude complete, one hears the homely tinkle of cow-bells here and there. It is difficult to realize that all this is in Persia, and that one has not been transported in some miraculous manner back to the United States. A little farther out from the base of the mountains, however, and we come upon wild figs, pomegranates, and other indigenous evidences of Eastern soil; and by and by our path almost becomes a tunnel, burrowing through a wealth of tiger-grass twenty feet high. The fields and little clearings which, a few miles back, were devoted to the cultivation of wheat and rye, now become rice-fields overflowed from irrigating ditches, and in which bare-legged men and women are paddling about, over their knees in mud and water.
Early in the evening we reach the city of Asterabad, which we find totally different from the sombre, mud-built cities of the interior. The wall surrounding it is topped with red tiles, and the outer moat is choked with rank vegetation. The houses are gabled, and roofed with tiles or heavy thatch, presenting an appearance very suggestive of the picturesque towns and villages about Strasburg. The streets are narrow and ill-paved, and neglect and decay everywhere abound. The cemeteries are a chaotic mass of tumbledown tombstones and vagrant vegetation. Pools of water covered with green scum, and heaps of filth everywhere, fill the reeking atmosphere with malaria and breed big clouds of mosquitoes. The people have a yellowish, waxy complexion that tells its own story of the unhealthiness of the place, without instituting special inquiry. One can fairly sniff fever and ague in the streets.
Much taste is displayed in architectural matters by the wealthier residents. The walls surrounding the little compounds are sometimes adorned with house-leeks or cactus, tastefully set out along the top; and, in other cases, with ornamental tiles. The walls of the houses are decorated with paintings depicting, in bright colors, scenes of the chase, birds, animals, and mythological subjects.
The charvadars lead the way to a big caravanserai in the heart of the city. The place is found to be filled with a miscellaneous crowd of caravan people, travellers, merchants, and dervishes. The serai also appears to be a custom-house and emporium for wool, cotton, and other products of the tributary country. Horses, camels, and merchandise crowd the central court, and rising fifty feet above all this confusion and babel is a wooden tower known as a tullar. This is a dilapidated framework of poles that sways visibly in the wind, the uses of which at first sight it is not easy to determine. Some of the natives motion for us to take possession of it, however; and we subsequently learn that the little eyrie-like platform is used as a sleeping-place by travellers of distinction. The elevation and airiness are supposed to be a safeguard against the fever and a refuge from the terrible mosquitoes, of which Asterabad is over-full.
An hour after our arrival, Abdul goes out and discovers a Persian gentleman named Mahmoud Turki Aghi, who presents himself in the capacity of British agent here. As we were in ignorance of the presence of any such official being in Asterabad, he comes as a pleasant surprise, and still more pleasant comes an invitation to accept his hospitality.
From him we learn that the steamer we expect to take at Bunder Guz, the port of Asterabad, eight farsakhs distant, will not sail until six days later. Mindful of the fever, from which he is still a sufferer to an uncomfortable extent, E------looks a trifle glum at this announcement, and, after our traps are unpacked at Mahmoud Turki Aghi's, he ferrets out a book of travels that I had often heard him refer to as an authority on sundry subjects. Turning over the leaves, he finds a reference to Bunder Guz, and reads out the story of a certain "gimlet-tailed fly" that makes life a burden to the unwary traveller who elects to linger there on the Caspian shore. Between this gimlet-tailed pest, however, and the mosquitoes of Asterabad we decide that there can be very little to choose, and so make up our minds to accept our host's hospitality for a day and then push on.
During the day we call on the Russian consul to get our passports vised. As between English and Russian prestige, the latter are decidedly to the fore in Asterabad. The bear has his big paw firmly planted on this fruitful province--it is more Russian than Persian now; before long it will be Russian altogether. Nothing is plainer to us than this, as we reach the Russian Consulate and are introduced by Mahmoud Turki Aghi to the consul. He is no "native agent." On the contrary, he is one of the biggest "personages" I have seen anywhere. He is the sort of man that the Russian Government invariably picks out for its representation at such important points in Asia as Asterabad.
A six-footer of magnificent physique, with a smooth and polished address, all smiles and politeness, the Russian consul wears a leonine mustache that could easily be tied in a knot at the back of his head. Although he is the only European resident of Asterabad save a few Cossack attendants, he wears fashionable Parisian clothes, a wealth of watch-chain, rings, and flash jewellery, patent-leather shoes, and all the accompaniments of an ostentatious show of wealth and personal magnificence. His rooms are equally gorgeous, and contain large colored portraits of the Czar and Czarina.
The intent and purpose of all this display is to fill the minds of the natives, and particularly the native officials, with an overwhelming sense of Russian grandeur and power. No Persian can enter the presence of this Russian consul in his rooms without experiencing a certain measure of awe and admiration. They regard with covetous eyes the rich and comfortable appointments of the rooms, and the big gold watch-chains and rings on the consul's person. They too would like to be in the Russian service if its rewards are on such a magnificent scale. Of patriotism to the Shah they know nothing--self-interest is the only master they willingly serve.
No one knows this better than the Russian consul; and in the case of influential officials and other useful persons, he sees to it that gold watches and such-like tokens of the Czar's esteem are not lacking. The result is that Asterabad, both city and province, is even now more Russian than Persian, and when the proper time arrives will drop into the bear's capacious maw like a ripe plum.
At daybreak on the morning of departure the charvadars wake us up by pounding on the outer gate and shouting "hadji" to Abdul Abdul lets them in, and the next hour passes in violent and wordy disputation among them as they load up their horses.
All three have purchased new Asterabad hats, big black busbies much prized by Persians from beyond the mountains. The acquisition of these imposing head-dresses has had the effect of increasing their self-esteem wonderfully. They regard each other with considerable hauteur, and quarrel almost continually for the first few miles. E puts up with their angry shouting and quarrelling for awhile, and then chases them around a little with the long hunting whip he carries. This brings them to their senses again, and secures a degree of peace; but the inflating effect of the new hats crops out at intervals all day.
Our road from Asterabad leads through jungle nearly the whole distance to Bunder Guz. In the woods are clearings consisting of rice-fields, orchards, and villages. The villages are picturesque clusters of wattle houses with peaked thatch roofs that descend to within a few feet of the ground. Groves of English walnut-trees abound, and plenty of these trees are also scattered through the jungle.
During the day we encounter a gang of professional native hunters hunting wild boars, of which these woods contain plenty, as well as tigers and panthers. They are a wild-looking crowd, with long hair, and sleeves rolled up to their elbows. Big knives are bristling in their kammerbunds, besides which they are armed with spears and flint-lock muskets. They make a great deal of noise, shouting and hallooing one to another; one can tell when they are on a hot trail by the amount of noise they make, just as you can with a pack of hounds.
We reach our destination by the middle of the afternoon, and find the place a wretched village, right on the shore of the Caspian. We repair to the caravanserai, but find the rooms so evil-smelling that we decide upon camping out and risking the fever rather than court acquaintance with possible cholera, providing no better place can be found elsewhere. This serai is a curious place, anyway. All sorts of people, some of them so peculiarly dressed that none of our party are able to make out their character or nationality. A dervish is exhorting a crowd of interested listeners at one end of the court-yard, and a strolling band of lutis are entertaining an audience at the other end. There are six of these lutis; while two are performing, four are circulating among the crowd collecting money. In any other country but Persia, five would have been playing and one passing the hat.
E------and Abdul go ahead to try and secure better quarters, and shortly the latter returns, and announces that they have been successful. So I, and the charvadars, with the horses, follow him through a crooked street of thatched houses, at the end of which we find R------seated beneath the veranda of a rude hotel kept by an Armenian Jew. As we approach I observe that my companion looks happier than I have seen him look for days. He is pretty thoroughly disgusted with Persia and everything in it, and this, together with his fever, has kept him in anything but an amiable frame of mind. But now his face is actually illumined with a smile.
On the little table before him stand a half-dozen black bottles, imperial pints, bearing labels inscribed with outlandish Russian words.
"This is civilization, my boy--civilization reached at last," says E------, as he sees me coming.
"What, this wretched tumble-down hole." I exclaim, waving my hand at the village.
"No, not that," replies E------; "this--this is civilization," and he holds up to the light a glass of amber Russian beer.
Apart from Russians, we are the first European travellers that have touched at Bunder Guz since McGregor was here in 1875. We keep a loose eye out for the gimlet-tailed flies, but are not harassed by them half so much as by fleas and the omnipresent mosquito. These two latter insects have dwindled somewhat from the majestic proportions described by McGregor; they are large enough and enterprising enough as it is; but McGregor found one species the size of "cats," and the other "as large as camels." Bunder Guz is simply a landing and shipping point for Asterabad and adjacent territory. A good deal of Russian bar iron, petroleum, iron kettles, etc., are piled up under rude sheds; and wool from the interior is being baled by Persian Jews, naked to the waist, by means of hand-presses. Cotton and wool are the chief exports. Of course, the whole of the trade is in the hands of the Russians, who have driven the Persians quite off the sea. The Caspian is now nothing more nor less than a Russian salt-water lake.
The harbor of Bunder Guz is so shallow that one may ride horseback into the sea for nearly a mile. The steamers have to load and unload at a floating dock a mile and a half from shore. Very pleasant, in spite of the wretched hole we are in, is it to find one's self on the seashore --to see the smoke of a steamer, and the little smacks riding at anchor.
The day after our arrival, a man comes round and tells Abdul that he has three fine young Mazanderan tigers he would like to sell the Sahibs. We send Abdul to investigate, and he returns with the report that a party of Asterabad tiger-hunters have killed a female tiger and brought in three cubs. The man comes back with him and impresses upon us the assertion that they are khylie koob baabs (very splendid tigers), and would be dirt cheap at three hundred kerans apiece, the price he pretends to want for them. From this we know that the tigers could be bought very cheap, and since Mazanderan tigers are very rare in European menageries, we determine to go and look at them anyway. They are found to be the merest kittens, not yet old enough to see. They are savage little brutes, and spend their whole time in dashing recklessly against the bars of the coop in which they are confined. They refuse to eat or drink, and although the Persians declare that they would soon learn to feed, we conclude that they would be altogether too much trouble, even if it were possible to keep them from dying of starvation.
On the evening of June 3d we put off, together with a number of native passengers, in a lighter, for the vessel which is loading up with bales of cotton at the floating dock. Most of the night is spent in sitting on deck and watching the Persian roustabouts carry the cargo aboard, for the shouting, the inevitable noisy squabbling, and the thud of bales dumped into the hold render sleep out of the question.
The steamer starts at sunrise, and the captain comes round to pay his respects. He is more of a German than a Russian, and seems pleased to welcome aboard his ship the first English or American passengers he has had for years. He makes himself agreeable, and takes a good deal of interest in explaining anything about the burning of petroleum residue on the Caspian steamers, instead of coal. He takes us down below and shows us the furnaces, and explains the modus operandi. We are delighted at the evident superiority of this fuel over coal, and the economy and ease of supplying the furnaces. Seven copecks the forty pounds, the captain says, is the cost of the fuel, and two and a half roubles the expense of running the vessel at full speed an hour. There is not an ounce of coal aboard, the boiler-house is as clean and neat as a parlor, and no cinders fall upon the deck or awnings. In place of huge coal-bunkers, taking up half the vessel's carrying space, compact tanks above the furnaces hold all the liquid fuel. Pipes convey it automatically, much or little, as easily as regulating a water-tap, to the fire-boxes. Jets of steam scatter it broadcast throughout the box in the form of spray, and insures its spontaneous combustion into flame. A peep in these furnaces displays a mass of flame filling an iron box in which no fuel is to be seen. A slight twist of a brass cock increases or diminishes this flame at once. A couple of men in clean linen uniforms manage the whole business. We both concluded that it was far superior to coal.
Many windings and tackings are necessary to get outside Ashdurada Bay; sometimes we are steaming bow on for Bunder Guz, apparently returning to port; at other times we are going due south, when our destination is nearly north. This, the captain explains, is due to the intricacy of the channel, which is little more than a deeper stream, so to speak, meandering crookedly through the shallows and sand-bars of the bay. Buoys and sirens mark the steamer's course to the Russian naval station of Ashdurada. Here we cross a bar so shallow that no vessel of more than twelve feet draught can enter or leave the bay. Our own ship is a light-draught steamer of five hundred tons burden.
A little steam-launch puts out from Ashdurada, bringing the mails and several naval officers bound for Krasnovodsk and Baku. The scenery of the Mazanderan coast is magnificent. The bold mountains seem to slope quite down to the shore, and from summit to surf-waves they present one dark-green mass of forest.
The menu of these Caspian steamers is very good, based on the French school of cookery rather than English. No early breakfast is provided, however; breakfast at eleven and dinner at six are the only refreshments provided by the ship's regular service--anything else has to be paid for as extras. At eleven o'clock we descend to the dining saloon, where we find the table spread with caviare, cheese, little raw salt fishes, pickles, vodka, and the unapproachable bread of Russia. The captain and passengers are congregated about this table, some sitting, others standing, and all reaching here and there, everybody helping himself and eating with his fingers. Now and then each one tosses off a little tumbler of vodka. We proceed to the table and do our best to imitate the Russians in their apparent determination to clean off the table. The edibles before us comprise the elements of a first-class cold luncheon, and we sit down prepared to do it ample justice. By and by the Russians leave this table one by one, and betake themselves to another, on the opposite side of the saloon. As they sit down, waiters come in bearing smoking hot roasts and vegetables, wine and dessert.
A gleam of intelligence dawns upon my companion as he realizes that we are making a mistake, and pausing in the act of transferring bread and caviare to his mouth, he says to me, impressively: "This is only sukuski, you know, on this table." "Why, of course. Didn't you know that. Your ignorance surprises me; I thought you knew.". And then we follow the example of everybody else and pass over to the other side.
The sukuski is taken before the regular meal in Russia. The tidbits and the vodka are partaken of to prepare and stimulate the appetite for the regular meal. Not yet, however, are we fully initiated into the mysteries of the Caspian steamer's service. Wine is flowing freely, and as we seat ourselves the captain passes down his bottle. Presently I hold my glass to be refilled by a spectacled naval officer sitting opposite. With a polite bow he fills it to the brim. The next moment, I happen to catch the captain's eye, it contains a meaning twinkle of amusement. Heavens! this is not a French steamer, even if the cookery is somewhat Frenchy; neither is it a table-d'hote with claret flowing ad libitum. The ridiculous mistake has been made of taking the captain's polite hospitality and the liberal display of bottles for the free wine of the French table-d'hote. The officer with the eyeglasses lands at Tchislikar in the afternoon, for which I am not sorry.
At Tchislikar we are met by a lighter with several Turcoman passengers. The sea is pretty rough, and the united efforts of several boatmen are required to hoist aboard each long-gowned Turcoman, each woman and child. They are Turcoman traders going to Baku and Tiflis with bales of the famous kibitka hangings and carpets. Tchislikar is the port whence a few years ago the Russian expedition set out on their campaign against the Tekke Turcomans. Three hundred miles inland is the famous fortress of Geoke Tepe, where disaster overtook the Russians, and where, in a subsequent campaign, occurred that massacre of women and children which caused the Western world to wonder anew at the barbarism of the Russian soldiery.
Still steaming north, our little craft ploughs her way toward Krasnovodsk, an important military station on the eastern coast.
At night the surface of the sea becomes smooth and glassy, the sun sets, rotund and red, in a haze suggestive of Indian summer in the West. The cabins are small and stuffy, so I sleep up on the hurricane-deck, wrapping a Persian sheepskin overcoat about me. An awning covers this deck completely, but this does not prevent everything beneath getting drenched with dew. Never did I see such a fall of dew. It streams off the big awning like a shower of rain, and soaks through it and drips, drips on to my recumbent form and everything on the hurricane-deck.
Early in the morning we moor our ship to the dock at Krasnovodsk, and load and unload merchandise till noon. Here is where railway material for the Transcaspian railway to Merv is landed, the terminus being at Michaelovich, near by. We go ashore for a couple of hours and look about. The inmates of a military convalescent hospital are passing from the doctor's office to their barracks. They are wearing long dressing-gowns of gray stuff, with hoods that make them look wonderfully like a lot of monks arrayed in cowls. A company of infantry are target-practising at the foot of rocky buttes just outside the town. Not a tree nor a green thing is visible in the place nor on all the hills around--nothing but the blue waters of the Caspian and the dull prospect of rude rock buildings and gray hills.
Except for the sea, and the raggedness and abject servility of the poor class of people, one might imagine Krasnovodsk some Far Western fort. Scarcely a female is seen on the streets, soldiers are everywhere, and in the commercial quarter every other place is a vodka-shop. We visit one of these and find men in red shirts and cowhide boots playing billiards and drinking, others drinking and playing cards. Rough and sturdy men they look--frontiersmen; but there is no spirit, no independence, in their expression; they look like curs that have been chastised and bullied until the spirit is completely broken. This peculiar humbled and resigned expression is observable on the faces of the common people from one end of Russia to the other. It is quite extraordinary for a common Russian to look one in the eye. Nor is this at all deceptive; a social superior might step up and strike one of these men brutally in the face without the slightest provocation, and, though the victim of the outrage might be strong as an ox, no remonstrance whatever would be made. It is difficult for us to comprehend How human beings can possibly become so abjectly servile and spiritless as the lower-class Russians. But the terrors of the knout and Siberia are ever present before them. Cheap chromolithographs of Gregorian saints hang on the walls of the saloon, and with them are mingled fancy pictures of Tiflis and Baku cafe-chantant belles. Long rows of vodka-bottles are the chief stock-in-trade of the place, but "peevo" (beer) can be obtained from the cellar.
Quite a number of army officers, with their wives, come aboard at Krasnovodsk. They seem good fellows, nearly all, and inclined to cultivate our acquaintance. Individually, the better-class Russian and the Englishman have many attributes in common that make them like each other. Except for imperial matters, Russian and English officers would be the best of friends, I think. The ladies all smoke cigarettes incessantly. There is not a handsome woman aboard, and they show the lingering traces of Russian barbarism by wearing beads and gewgaws.
The most interesting of our passengers is a Persian dealer in precious stones. He is a well-educated individual, quite a linguist, and a polished gentleman withal. He is taking diamonds and turquoises that he has collected in Persia, to Vienna and Paris.
Another night of drenching dew, and by six o'clock next morning we are drawing near to the great petroleum port of Baku. From Krasnovodsk we have crossed the Caspian from east to west right on the line of latitude 40 deg.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005