A RIDE TO INDIA
ACROSS PERSIA AND BALUCHISTAN.
HARRY DE WINDT, F.R.G.S.,
AUTHOR OF "FROM PEKIN TO CALAIS BY LAND," ETC.
HERBERT WALKER FROM SKETCHES BY THE AUTHOR.
AUDLEY LOVELL, ESQUIRE,
II. THE CASPIAN—ASTARA—RESHT
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
* * * * *
IN THE DESERT SUNRISE
A DIRTY NIGHT IN THE CASPIAN
ASTARA, RUSSO-PERSIAN FRONTIER
CROSSING THE KHARZAN
POST-HOUSE AT KUSHKU BAIRA
A CORPSE CARAVAN
A DAY IN THE SNOW
A FAMILY PARTY
THE CARAVANSERAI, MEYUN KOTAL
OUR CAMP AT OUTHAL
A "ZIGRI" AT GWARJAK
NOMAD BALUCH TENT
PALACE OF H.H. THE KHAN KELAT
THE KHAN OF KELAT
A RIDE TO INDIA.
A spacious apartment, its polished parquet strewn with white bearskins and the thickest and softest of Persian rugs; its panelled walls hung with Oriental tapestries, costly daggers, pistols, and shields of barbaric, but beautiful, workmanship, glistening with gold and silver. Every detail of the room denotes the artistic taste of the owner. Inlaid tables and Japanese cabinets are littered with priceless porcelain and cloisonne, old silver, and diamond-set miniatures; the low divans are heaped with cushions of deep-tinted satin and gold; heavy violet plush curtains drape the windows; while huge palms, hothouse plants, and bunches of sweet-smelling Russian violets occupy every available nook and corner. The pinewood fire flashes fitfully on a masterpiece of Vereschagin's, which stands on an easel by the hearth, and the massive gold "ikon," [A] encrusted with diamonds and precious stones, in the corner. A large oil painting of his Majesty the Czar of Russia hangs over the marble chimneypiece.
It is growing dark. Already a wintry wilderness of garden without, upon which snow and sleet are pitilessly beating, is barely discernible. By the window looms, through the dusk, the shadowy shape of an enormous stuffed tiger, crouched as if about to spring upon a spare white-haired man in neat dark green uniform, who, seated at a writing-table covered with papers and official documents, has just settled himself more comfortably in a roomy armchair. With a pleasant smile, and a long pull at a freshly lit "papirosh," he gives vent to his feelings with the remark that heads this chapter.
There is silence for a while, unbroken save by the crackle of blazing logs and occasional rattle of driving sleet against the window-panes. It is the 5th of January (O.S.). I am at Tiflis, in the palace of Prince Dondoukoff Korsakoff, Governor of the Caucasus, and at the present moment in that august personage's presence.
"Ceci non!" repeats the prince a second time, in answer to my request; adding impatiently, "They should know better in London than to send you to me. The War Minister in St. Petersburg alone has power to grant foreigners permission to visit Central Asia. You must apply to him, but let me first warn you that it is a long business. No"—after a pause—"no; were I in your place I would go to Persia. It is a country replete with interest."
I know, from bitter experience of Russian officials, that further parley is useless. Making my bow with as good a grace as possible under the circumstances, I take leave of the governor and am escorted by an aide-de-camp, resplendent in white and gold, through innumerable vestibules, and down the great marble staircase, to where my sleigh awaits me in the cutting north-easter and whirling snow. Gliding swiftly homewards along the now brilliantly lit boulevards, I realize for the first time that mine has been but a wild-goose chase after all; that, if India is to be reached by land, it is not via Merv and Cabul, but by way of Persia and Baluchistan.
The original scheme was a bold one, and I derive some consolation in the thought that the journey would most probably have ended in defeat. This was the idea. From Tiflis to Baku, and across the Caspian to Ouzoun Ada, the western terminus of the Trans-Caspian Railway. Thence by rail to Merv and Bokhara, and from the latter city direct to India, via Balkh and Cabul, Afghanistan. A more interesting journey can scarcely be conceived, but Fate and the Russian Government decreed that it was not to be. Not only was I forbidden to use the railway, but (notwithstanding the highest recommendation from the Russian Ambassador in London) even to set foot in Trans-Caspia.
The old adage, "delay is dangerous," is never so true as when applied to travel. The evening of my interview with the governor, I had resolved, ere retiring to rest, to make for India via Teheran. My route beyond that city was, perforce, left to chance, and the information I hoped to gain in the Shah's capital.
Tiflis, capital of the Caucasus, is about midway between the Black and Caspian seas, and lies in a valley between two ranges of low but precipitous hills. The river Kur, a narrow but swift and picturesque stream spanned by three bridges, bisects the city, which is divided in three parts: the Russian town, European colony, and Asiatic quarter. The population of over a hundred thousand is indeed a mixed one. Although Georgians form its bulk, Persia contributes nearly a quarter, the rest being composed of Russians, Germans, French, Armenians, Greeks, Tartars, Circassians, Jews, Turks, and Heaven knows what besides. [B]
Tiflis is a city of contrasts. The principal boulevard, with its handsome stone buildings and shops, tramways, gay cafes, and electric light, would compare favourably with the Nevski Prospect in St. Petersburg, or almost any first-class European thoroughfare; and yet, almost within a stone's throw, is the Asiatic quarter, where the traveller is apparently as far removed from Western civilization as in the most remote part of Persia or Turkestan. The Armenian and Persian bazaars are perhaps the most interesting, I doubt whether the streets of Yezd or Bokhara present so strange and picturesque a sight, such vivid effects of movement and colour. Every race, every nationality, is represented, from the stalwart, ruddy-faced Russian soldier in flat white cap and olive-green tunic, to the grave, stately Arab merchant with huge turban and white draperies, fresh from Bagdad or Bussorah. Georgians and Circassians in scarlet tunics and silver cartridge-belts, Turks in fez and frock-coat, Greeks and Albanians in snowy petticoats and black gaiters, Khivans in furs and quaint conical lamb's-wool hats, Tartars from the Steppes, Turkomans from Merv, Parsees from Bombay, African negroes,—all may be seen in the Tiflis Bazaar during the busy part of the day.
But woe to the luckless European who, tempted by the beauty of their wares, has dealings with the wily Persian merchant. There is a proverb in Tiflis that "It takes two Jews to rob an Armenian, two Armenians to rob a Persian," and the "accursed Faringi" is mercilessly swindled whenever he ventures upon a bargain.
With the exception of the aforesaid boulevard, the European quarter of Tiflis presents the same mixture of squalor and grandeur found in most Russian towns, St. Petersburg not excepted. There is the same dead, drab look about the streets and houses, the same absence of colour, the same indescribable smell of mud, leather, and drainage, familiar to all who have visited Asiatic Russia. I had intended remaining a couple of days, at most, in Tiflis, but my stay was now indefinitely prolonged. Such a severe winter had not been known for years. The mountain passes into Persia were reported impassable, and the line to Baku had for some days been blocked with snow.
My Russian Christmas (which falls, O.S., on our 6th of January) was not a cheerful one. A prisoner in a stuffy bedroom of the Hotel de Londres, I sat at the window most of the day, consuming innumerable glasses of tea and cigarettes, watching the steadily falling snow, and wondering whether the weather would ever clear and allow me to escape from a place so full of unpleasant associations, and which had brought me so much disappointment and vexation. The loud laughter and bursts of song that ascended every now and then from the crowded salle-a-manger (for the Hotel de Londres is the "Maison Doree" of Tiflis) only served to increase my depression and melancholy. Had there been a train available, I verily believe I should have taken a ticket then and there, and returned to England!
But morning brings consolation in the shape of blue sky and dazzling sunshine. The snow has ceased, apparently for good. Descending to breakfast full of plans for the future, I find awaiting me an individual destined to play an important part in these pages—one Gerome Realini, a Levantine Russian subject, well acquainted with the Persian language—who offers to accompany me to India as interpreter. His terms are moderate, and credentials first-rate. The latter include one from Baker Pasha, with whom he served on the Turkoman frontier expedition. More for the sake of a companion than anything else, I close with Gerome, who, though he does not understand one word of English, speaks French fluently.
There is a very natural prejudice against the Levantine race, but my new acquaintance formed an exception to the rule. I never had reason to regret my bargain; a better servant, pluckier traveller, or cheerier companion no man could wish for. Gerome had just returned from a visit to Bokhara, and his accounts of Central Asia were certainly not inviting. The Trans-Caspian railway was so badly laid that trains frequently ran off the line. There was no arrangement for water, travellers being frequently delayed three or four hours, while blocks of ice were melted for the boiler; while the so-called first-class carriages were filthy, and crowded with vermin. The advance of Holy Russia had apparently not improved Merv, which had become, since its annexation, a kind of inferior Port Said, a refuge for the scum, male and female, of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Odessa. Drunkenness and debauchery reigned paramount. Low gambling-houses, cafe chantants, and less reputable establishments flourished under the liberal patronage of the Russian officers, who, out of sheer ennui, ruined their pockets and constitutions with drunken orgies, night and day. There was no order of any kind, no organized police-force, and robberies and assassinations took place almost nightly. Small-pox was raging in the place when Gerome left it; also a loathsome disease called the "Bouton d'alep "—a painful boil which, oddly enough, always makes its appearance upon the body in odd numbers, never in even. It is caused by drinking or washing in unboiled water. Though seldom fatal, there is no cure for the complaint but complete change of climate.
We now set about making preparations for the journey. Provisions, saddlery, both had to be thought of; and, having laid in a small stock of Liebig, tea, biscuits, chocolate, and cigarettes (for space was limited), I proceeded, under Gerome's guidance, to purchase a saddle. Seventy-five roubles bought a capital one, including bridle. Here let me advise those visiting Persia to follow my example, and buy their saddlery in Tiflis. There is a heavy duty payable on foreign saddles in Russia, and they are not one whit better, or indeed so well suited to the purpose, as those made in the Caucasus.
One hears a deal, in Europe, of the beauty of the Circassian and Georgian women. Although I remained in Tiflis over a week, I did not see a single pretty woman among the natives. As in every Russian town, however, the "Moushtaid," or "Bois de Boulogne" of Tiflis, was daily, the theatre nightly, crowded with pretty faces of the dark-eyed, oval-faced Russian type. The new opera-house, a handsome building near the governor's palace, is not yet completed.
The Hotel de Londres was the favourite rendezvous after the play. Here till the small hours assembled nightly the elite of European Tiflis. Russian and Georgian officers in gorgeous uniforms of dark green, gold lace, and astrachan; French and German merchants with their wives and daughters; with a sprinkling demi-mondaines from Odessa or Kharkoff, sipping tea or drinking kummel and "kaketi" at the little marble tables, and discussing the latest scandals. Kaketi, a wine not unlike Carlowitz, is grown in considerable quantities in the Caucasus. There are two kinds, red and white, but the former is considered the best. Though sound and good, it is cheap enough—one rouble the quart. Tobacco is also grown in small quantities in parts of Georgia and made into cigarettes, which are sold in Tiflis at three kopeks per hundred. But it is poor, rank stuff, and only smoked by the peasantry and droshki-drivers.
Tiflis has a large and important garrison, but is not fortified. Its topographical depot is one of the best in Russia, and I managed, not without some difficulty, to obtain from it maps of Afghanistan and Baluchistan. The latter I subsequently found better and far more accurate than any obtainable in England. The most insignificant hamlets and unimportant camel-tracks and wells were set down with extraordinary precision, especially those in the districts around Kelat.
There is plenty of sport to be had round Tiflis. The shooting is free excepting over certain tracts of country leased by the Tiflis shooting-club. Partridge, snipe, and woodcock abound, and there are plenty of deer and wild boar within easy distance of the capital. Ibex is also found in the higher mountain ranges. For this (if for no other reason) Tiflis seems to be increasing in popularity every year for European tourists. It is now an easy journey of little over a week from England, with the advantage that one may travel by land the whole way from Calais. This route is via Berlin, Cracow, Kharkoff, and Vladikavkas, and from the latter place by coach (through the Dariel Gorge) to Tiflis.
The purchase of a warm astrachan bonnet, a bourka, [C] and bashlik, [D] completed my outfit. It now consisted of two small portmanteaus (to be changed at Teheran for saddle-bags), a common canvas sack for sleeping purposes, and a brace of revolvers. Gerome was similarly accoutred, with the exception of the portmanteaus. My interpreter was evidently not luxuriously inclined, for his impedimenta were all contained in a small black leather hand-bag! All being ready, eleven o'clock on the night of the 12th of January found us standing on the platform of the Tiflis railway station, awaiting the arrival of the Baku train, which had been delayed by a violent storm down the line.
I received a letter from the governor a few hours before my departure, wishing me bon voyage, and enclosing a document to ensure help and civility from the officials throughout his dominions. It may seem ungrateful, but I felt that I could well have dispensed with this, especially as I was leaving his Excellency's government at Baku, a distance of only ten hours by rail.
It was again snowing hard, and the east wind cut through my bourka as if it had been a thin linen jacket. Seeking shelter in the crowded, stuffy waiting-room, we solaced ourselves with cigarettes and vodka till past 2 a.m., when the train arrived. Another delay of two hours now occurred, the engine having broken down; but the carriages, like those of most Russian railways, were beautifully warmed, and we slept soundly, undisturbed by the howling of the wind and shouting of railway officials. When I awoke, we were swiftly rattling through the dreary monotonous steppe country that separates Tiflis from the Caspian Sea.
The Russians may, according to English ideas, be uncivilized in many ways, but they are undoubtedly far ahead of other European nations, with the exception perhaps of France, as regards railway travelling. Although the speed is slow, nothing is left undone, on the most isolated lines, to ensure comfort, not to say luxury. Even in this remote district the refreshment-rooms were far above the average in England. At Akstafa, for instance, a station surrounded by a howling wilderness of steppe and marsh; well-cooked viands, game, pastry, and other delicacies, gladdened the eye, instead of the fly-blown buns and petrified sandwiches only too familiar to the English railway traveller. The best railway buffet I have ever seen is at Tiumen, the terminus of the Oural railway, and actually in Siberia.
Railway travelling has, however, one drawback in this part of Russia, which, though it does not upset the arrangements of a casual traveller, must seriously inconvenience the natives—the distance of stations from towns. We drank tea, a couple of hours or so before arriving at Baku, at a station situated more than one hundred versts [E] from the town of its name. The inhabitants of the latter seldom availed themselves of the railway, but found it easier, except in very bad weather, to drive or ride to the Caspian port.
The dull wintry day wears slowly away, as we crawl along past league upon league of wild steppe land. The coup d'oeil from our carriage-window is not inspiriting. It rests upon a bare, bleak landscape, rolling away to the horizon, of waves of drab and dirty-green land, unbroken save for here and there a pool of stagnant water, rotting in a fringe of sedge and rush, or an occasional flock of wild-fowl. At rare intervals we pass, close to the line, a Tartar encampment. Half a dozen dirty brown tents surrounded by horses, camels, and thin shivering cattle, the latter covered with coarse sack-clothing tied round their bellies to protect them from the cutting blast that sweeps from the coast across this land of desolation. None of the human population are visible, and no wonder. It must be cold enough outside. Even in this well-warmed compartment one can barely keep feet and fingers from getting numbed.
It is almost dark when, towards six o'clock, there appears, far ahead, a thin streak of silver, separating the dreary brown landscape from the cold grey sky.
"We have nearly arrived, monsieur," says Gerome. "There is the Caspian Sea."
[Footnote A: The sacred image of the Saviour or Holy Virgin.]
[Footnote B: The name Tiflis is derived from Tbilis Kalaki, or "Hot Town," so called from the hot mineral springs near which it stands.]
[Footnote C: Bourka, a long sleeveless coat made of goatskin.]
[Footnote D: Bashlik, the soft camel-hair hood and neckerchief in one, worn by Russian soldiers.]
[Footnote E: A verst is about three-quarters of a mile.]
I arrived in Baku on (the Russian) New Year's Eve, and found railway officials, porters, and droshki-drivers all more or less fuddled with drink in consequence. With some difficulty we persuaded one of the latter to drive us to the hotel, a clean and well-appointed house, a stone's throw from the quay. Our Isvostchik [A] was very drunk. His horses, luckily for us, were quiet; for he fell off his box on the way, and smilingly, but firmly, declined to remount. Gerome then piloted the troika safely to our destination, leaving Jehu prone in the mud.
Baku, a clean, well laid-out city of sixty thousand inhabitants, is the most important town on the shores of the Caspian. Its name is said to be derived from the Persian words bad, "the wind," and kubeda, "beaten," signifying "Wind-beaten;" and this seems credible, for violent storms are prevalent along the coast. The town is essentially European in character. One can scarcely realize that only fifty years ago a tumble-down Persian settlement stood on the spot now occupied by broad, well-paved, gas-lit streets, handsome stone buildings, warehouses, and shops. Baku has, like Tiflis, a mixed population. Although Russians and Tartars form its bulk, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Persia are all represented, most of the Europeans being employed in the manufacture of petroleum. The naphtha springs are said to yield over 170,000 tons of oil yearly.
A French engineer, Mr. B——, whose acquaintance I made at the hotel, described Baku as terribly monotonous and depressing to live in after a time. There is not a tree or sign of vegetation for miles round the town—nothing but bleak, desolate steppe and marsh, unproductive of sport and cultivation, or, indeed, of anything save miasma and fever. In summer the heat, dust, and flies are intolerable; in winter the sun is seldom seen. There is no amusement of any kind—no cafe, no band, no theatre, to go to after the day's work. This seemed to distress the poor Parisian exile more than anything, more even than the smell of oil, which, from the moment you enter until you leave Baku, there is no getting away from. Although the wells are fully three miles away, the table-cloths and napkins were saturated with it, and the very food one ate had a faint sickly flavour of naphtha. "I bathed in the Caspian once last summer," said Mr. B———, despairingly, "and did not get the smell out of my skin for a week, during which time my friends forbade me their houses! Mon Dieu! Quel pays!"
The steamer for Enzelli was to leave at eleven. Having wished my French friend farewell, and a speedy return to his native country, we set out for the quay. The night was fine, but away to our left dense clouds of thick black smoke obscured the lights of the town and starlit sky, while the furnaces of the "Tchornigorod" [B] blazed out of the darkness, their flames reflected in the dark waters of the Caspian, turning the little harbour into a lake of fire.
The landing stage is crowded with passengers—a motley crowd of Russian officials, soldiers, peasants, and Tartars. With difficulty we struggle through the noisy, drunken rabble, for the most part engaged in singing, cursing, fighting, and embracing by turns, and succeed at last in finding our ship, the Kaspia, a small steamer of about a hundred and fifty tons burthen. The captain is, fortunately for us, sober, which is more than can be said of the crew. Alongside us lies the Bariatinsky, a large paddle-steamer bound for Ouzounada, the terminus of the Trans-Caspian Railway. She also is on the point of departure, and I notice, with relief, that most of the crowd are making their way on board her.
The passenger-steamers on the Caspian are the property of the Caucase-Mercure Company, a Russian firm. They are, with few exceptions, as unseaworthy as they are comfortless, which says a great deal. All are of iron, and were built in England and Sweden, sent to St. Petersburg by sea, there taken to pieces and despatched overland to Nijni-Novgorod, on the Volga. At Nijni they were repieced and taken down the Volga to the Caspian.
The Bariatinsky was first away, her decks crammed with soldiers bound for Central Asia. They treated us to a vocal concert as the ship left port, and I paced the moonlit deck for some time, listening to the sweet sad airs sung with the pathos and harmony that seems born in every Russian, high or low. I retired to rest with the "Matoushka Volga," a boat-song popular the length and breadth of Russia, ringing in my ears.
There are no private cabins on board the Kaspia. I share the stuffy saloon with a greasy German Jew (who insists on shutting all the portholes), an Armenian gentleman, his wife, and two squalling children, a Persian merchant, and Gerome.
The captain's cabin, a box-like retreat about eight feet square, leads out of our sleeping-place, which is also used as a drawing and dining-room. As the latter it is hardly desirable, for the German and Persian are both suffering violently from mal-de-mer before we have been two hours out, and no wonder. Though there is hardly a perceptible swell on, the tiny cock-boat rolls like a log. To make matters worse, the Kaspia's engines are worked by petroleum, and the smell pursues one everywhere.
The passage from Baku to Enzelli (the port of Resht) is usually made in a little over two days in fine weather. All depends upon the latter, for no vessel can enter if it is blowing hard. There is a dangerous bar with a depth of barely five feet of water across the mouth of the harbour, and several Europeans, impatient of waiting, have been drowned when attempting to land in small boats. "I frequently have to take my passengers back to Baku," said Captain Z—— at the meal he was pleased to call breakfast; "but I think we shall have fine weather to-morrow." I devoutly hoped so.
Little did I know what was in store for us; for the glass at midday was falling-fast, and at 2 p.m., when we anchored off Lenkoran, it was snowing hard and blowing half a gale.
The western coasts of the Caspian are flat and monotonous. There are two ports of call between Baku and Enzelli—Lenkoran, a dismal-looking fishing-village of mud huts, backed by stunted poplars and a range of low hills; and Astara, the Russo-Persian frontier. Trade did not seem very brisk at either port. We neither landed nor took in cargo at either. A few small boats came out to the ship with fish to sell. The latter is bad and tasteless in the Caspian, with the exception of the sturgeon, which abounds during certain seasons of the year. The fisheries are nearly all leased by Russians, who extract and export the caviar. There is good shooting in the forests around Lenkoran, and tigers are occasionally met with. The large one in the possession of Prince Dondoukoff Korsakoff, mentioned in the first chapter, was shot within a few miles of the place.
We arrived off Astara about 6.30 that evening. It was too dark to see anything of the place, but I had, unfortunately for myself, plenty of opportunities of examining it minutely a couple of days later. We weighed anchor again at nine o'clock, hoping, all being well, to reach Enzelli at daybreak. The sea had now gone down, and things looked more promising.
My spirits rose at the thought of being able to land on the morrow. I was even able to do justice to the abominable food set before us at dinner—greasy sausages and a leathery beefsteak, served on dirty plates and a ragged table-cloth that looked as if it had been used to clean the boiler. But the German Jew had recovered from his temporary indisposition, the cadaverous Persian had disappeared on deck, and the Armenian children had squalled themselves to sleep, so there was something, at least, to be thankful for. Captain Z——, a tall, fair-haired Swede, who spoke English fluently, had been on this line for many years, and told us that for dangerous navigation, violent squalls, and thick fogs the Caspian has no equal. Many vessels are lost yearly and never heard of again. He also told us of a submarine city some miles out of Baku, called by the natives "Tchortorgorod," or "City of the Devil." "In calm, sunny weather," said Z——, "one can distinctly make out the streets and houses." The German Jew, of a facetious disposition, asked him whether he had not also seen people walking about; but Z—— treated the question with contemptuous silence.
Man is doomed to disappointment. I woke at daylight next morning; to find the Kaspia at anchor, pitching, rolling, and tugging at her moorings as if at any moment the cable might part. Every now and again a sea would crash upon the deck, and the wind, howling through the rigging, sounded like the yelling of a thousand fiends. Hurrying on deck, I learn the worst. A terrific sea is running, and the glass falling every hour. One could scarcely discern, through the driving mist, the long low shore and white line of breakers that marked the entrance to Enzelli. To land was out of the question. No boat would live in such a sea. "I will lay-to till this evening," said Captain Z—— "If it does not then abate, I fear you must make up your mind to return to Baku, and try again another day." A pleasant prospect indeed!
I have seldom passed a more miserable twenty-four hours. The weather got worse as the day wore on. Towards midday it commenced snowing; but this, instead of diminishing the violence of the gale, seemed only to increase it. Even the captain's cheery, ruddy face clouded over, as he owned that he did not like the look of things. "Had I another anchor, I should not mind," he said; calmly adding, "If this one parts, we are lost!" I thought, at the time, he might have kept this piece of information to himself. Meanwhile nothing was visible from the cabin-windows but great rollers topped with crests of foam, which looked as if, every moment, they would engulf the little vessel. But she behaved splendidly. Although green seas were coming in over the bows, flooding her decks from stem to stern, and pouring down the gangway into the saloon, the Kaspia rode through the gale like a duck. To venture on deck was impossible. One could barely sit, much less stand, and the atmosphere of the saloon may be better imagined than described. Every aperture tightly closed; every one, with the exception of the captain, Gerome, and myself, sea-sick; no food, no fire, though we certainly did not miss the former much.
About ten o'clock Z—— weighed anchor and stood out to sea. It would not be safe, he said, to trust to our slender cable another night. About midnight I struggled on deck, to get a breath of fresh air before turning in. The night was fine and clear, but the sea around black as ink, with great foaming white rollers. The decks, a foot deep in snow, were deserted save by Z—— and the steersman, whose silhouettes stood out black and distinct against the starlit sky as they paced the rickety-looking little bridge flanked by red and green lights. The Enzelli lighthouse was no longer visible. The latter is under the care of Persians, who light it, or not, as the humour takes them. This is, on dark nights, a source of considerable danger to shipping; but, though frequently remonstrated with by the Russian Government, the Shah does not trouble his head about the matter.
Three routes to Teheran were now open to us: back to Baku, thence to Tiflis, and over the mountains to Talriz,—very dubious on account of the snow; the second, from Baku to Astrabad, and thence via Mount Demavend,—still more dubious on account of bad landing as well as blocked passes; there remained to us Astara, and along the sea-beach (no road) to Enzelli, with swollen rivers and no post-horses. All things considered, we resolved to land at Astara, even at the risk of a ducking. Daylight found us there, anchored a mile from the shore, and a heavy swell running. But there is no bar here; only a shelving sandy beach, on which, even in rough weather, there is little danger. Some good-sized boats came out to the Kaspia with fish and vegetables, and we at once resolved to land. Anything sooner than return to Baku!
"There is no road from Astara," said Z——, "and deep rivers to cross. You will be robbed and murdered like the Italian who travelled this way three years ago! He was the last European to do so."
Gerome remembers the incident. In fact, he says, the murdered man was a friend of his, travelling to Teheran with a large sum of money. Unable to land at Resht, and impatient to reach his destination, he took the unfrequented route, was waylaid, robbed, tied to a tree, and left to starve. "He was alone and unarmed, though," says my companion; adding with a wink, "Let them try it on with us!"
Seeing remonstrance is useless, Z—— wishes us God-speed. The good-natured Swede presses a box of Russian cigarettes into my hand as I descend the ladder—a gift he can ill afford—and twenty minutes later our boat glides safely and smoothly on Persian soil.
It was a lovely day, and the blue sky and sunshine, singing of birds, and green of plain and forest, a pleasant relief to the eye and senses after the cold and misery of the past two days. Astara (though the port of Tabriz) is an insignificant place, its sole importance lying in the fact that it is a frontier town. On one side of the narrow river a collection of ramshackle mud huts, neglected gardens, foul smells, beggars, and dogs—Persia; on the other, a score of neat stone houses, well-kept roads and paths, flower-gardens, orchards, a pretty church, and white fort surrounded by the inevitable black-and-white sentry-boxes, guarded by a company of white-capped Cossacks—Russia. I could not help realizing, on landing at Astara, the huge area of this vast empire. How many thousand miles now separated me from the last border town of the Great White Czar that I visited—Kiakhta, on the Russo-Chinese frontier?
Surrounded by a ragged mob, we walked to the village to see about horses and a lodging for the night. The latter was soon found—a flat-roofed mud hut about thirty feet square, devoid of chimney or furniture of any kind. The floor, cracked in several places, was crawling with vermin, and the walls undermined with rat-holes; but in Persia one must not be particular. Leaving our baggage in the care of one "Hassan," a bright-eyed, intelligent-looking lad, and instructing him to prepare a meal, we made for the bazaar, a hundred yards away, through a morass, knee deep in mud and abomination of all kinds, to procure food.
A row of thirty or forty mud huts composed the "bazaar," where, having succeeded in purchasing tea, bread, eggs, and caviar, we turned our attention to horseflesh.
An old Jew having previously agreed to convert, at exorbitant interest, our rouble notes into "sheis" and kerans, negotiations for horses were then opened by Gerome, and, as the patois spoken in Astara is a mixture of Turkish and Persian, with a little Tartar thrown in, his task was no easy one, especially as every one spoke at once and at the top of their voices. We discovered at last that but few of the villagers owned a horse, and those who did were very unwilling to let the animal for such an uncertain journey. "Who is going to guarantee that the 'Farangis' will not steal it?" asked one ragged, wild-looking fellow in sheepskins and a huge lamb's-wool cap. "Or get it stolen from them?" added another, with a grin. "They can have my old grey mare for two hundred kerans, but you won't catch me letting her for hire," added a third.
With the aid of our friend, the Jew, however, we finally persuaded the sheepskin gentleman (a native of Khiva) to change his mind. After considerable haggling as to price, he disappeared, to return with two of the sorriest steeds I ever set eyes on. "We ought to reach Enzelli in about three days, if we do not get our throats cut," said the Khivan, who was to accompany us, encouragingly.
Hassan had been busy in our absence; he had prepared an excellent pilaff, and sent to Russian Astara for some kaketi wine, which was brought over in a goatskin. This, with our own provisions bought in the morning, furnished a substantial and much-needed meal. Persian native bread is somewhat trying at first to a weak digestion. It is unleavened, baked in long thin strips, and is of suet-like consistency. The hut, like most native houses in Persia, had no chimney, the only outlet for the smoke being through the narrow doorway. This necessitates lying flat on one's back in the clear narrow space between smoke and flooring, or being suffocated—a minor inconvenience as compared with others in Persian travel.
The Khivan arrived with the horses at six next morning. By seven o'clock we were well on the road, which for the first ten miles or so led by the sea-shore, through dense thickets of brushwood, alternating with patches of loose drifting sand. I was agreeably disappointed in the ponies; for though it was deep, heavy going, they stepped out well and freely. The clear sunshine, keen air, and lovely scenery seemed to have the same inspiriting effect on them as on ourselves.
The coup d'oeil was indeed a lovely one. To our right a glorious panorama of palm, forest, and river stretched away for miles, bounded on the horizon by a chain of lofty precipitous mountains, their snowy peaks white and dazzling against the deep cloudless blue, their grassy slopes and rocky ravines hidden, here and there, by grey mists floating lazily over depths of dark green forest at their feet. To our left broad yellow sands, streaked with seaweed and dark driftwood, and cold grey waters of the Caspian Sea—colourless and dead even under this Mediterranean sky, and bringing one back, so to speak, from a beautiful dream to stern reality.
About midday we came to a broad but fordable river, which the Khivan called the Chulamak. We all crossed in safety, notwithstanding the deep holes our guide warned us against, and which, as the water was thick and muddy, gave Gerome and myself some anxiety. The stream was about fifty yards across and much swollen by the snow. Landing on the other side ahead of my companions, I rode on alone, and presently found myself floundering about girth-deep in a quicksand. It was only with great difficulty that we extricated the pony. These quicksands are common on the shores of the Caspian, and natives, when travelling alone, have perished from this cause.
Nothing occurred worthy of notice till about 3 p.m., when we reached the river Djemnil. An arm of the sea more accurately describes this stream, which is (or was at the time of which I write) over three hundred yards across. Here we had some difficulty with the Khivan, who was for encamping till morning. I, however, strongly objected to sleeping a la belle etoile, especially as the sky had now clouded over, and it was beginning to snow. Partly by conciliation, partly by threats, we at last persuaded him to make the attempt, following closely in his wake. It was nasty work. Twice our horses were carried off their feet by the strong current running out to sea (we were only a quarter of a mile from the mouth); and once we, or rather the horses, had to swim for it; but we reached the opposite shore in under half an hour, wet and numbed to the waist, but safe. At seven we were snugly housed for the night at Katvesera, a so-called village of three or four mud hovels, selecting the best (outwardly) for our night's lodging. We were badly received by the natives. Neither money nor threats would induce them to produce provisions of any kind, so we fell back on sticks of chocolate and Valentine's meat-juice. The latter I never travel without—it is invaluable in uncivilized and desert countries.
The inhabitants of Katvesera are under a score in number, and live chiefly on fish, though I noticed in the morning that a considerable quantity of land was under cultivation—apparently rice and barley. They were a sullen, sulky lot, and we had almost to take the hut by force. The Khivan, Gerome, and myself took it in turns to watch through the night. It was near here that the Italian was assassinated.
A start was made at daybreak. The weather had now changed. A cutting north-easter was blowing, accompanied with snow and sleet. We forded, about 11 a.m., the Kokajeri river, a mountain stream about thirty yards wide, unfordable except upon the sea-beach. At midday we halted at Tchergari, a fishing-village on the shores of the Caspian.
Tchergari contains about two hundred inhabitants, mostly fishermen employed by a Russian firm. The houses, built of tree-trunks plastered with mud, had roofs of thatched reed, and were far more substantial and better built than any I had yet seen in Persia. Fearing a reception like that of the previous evening, we had intended riding straight through the place to our destination for the night, when a European advanced to meet us through the snow. Mr. V——, a Russian, and overseer of the fishery, had made his hut as comfortable as circumstances would admit, and we were soon seated before a blazing fire (with a chimney!), discussing a plate of steaming shtchi, [C] washed down by a bottle of kaketi. Roast mutton and pastry followed, succeeded by coffee and vodka (for we had the good luck to arrive at our host's dinner-hour). By the time cigarettes were under way we felt fully equal to the long cold ride of fifteen miles that separated us from our night's halting-place, Alala Resht itself seemed at least thirty miles nearer than it had before dinner.
"You are bold," said Mr. V——, in French, "to attempt this journey at this time of year. I do not mean as regards footpads and robbers reports concerning them are always greatly exaggerated; but the rivers are in a terrible state. There is one just beyond Alala, that I know you cannot cross on horseback. I will send a man on at once to try and get a boat for you, and you can pull the horses after you. There is an Armenian at Alala, who will give you a lodging to-night" Mr. V—— 's good fare and several glasses of vodka considerably shortened our ride, and we arrived at Alala before dark, where a hearty welcome awaited us. Turning in after a pipe and two or three glasses of tea, we slept soundly till time to start in the morning. The outlook from our snug resting-place was not inviting—the sky of a dirty grey, blowing hard, and snowing harder than ever.
Alala contains about eight hundred inhabitants. The land surrounding it is thickly cultivated with rice and tobacco. Neither are, however, exported in any quantity, the difficulties of transport to Astara or Enzelli being so great.
It is somewhat puzzling to a stranger to get at the names of places on the southern shores of the Caspian. Most of the villages are known by more than one, but Alala rejoices in as many aliases as an old gaol-bird, viz. Alala, Asalim, and Navarim.
Thanks to our Russian friend, a boat and a couple of men were awaiting us at the big river (I could not ascertain its name). Entering it ourselves, we swam the horses over one by one. It took us the best part of two hours. Though only two hundred yards wide, they were off their legs nearly the whole way. What we should have done without Mr. V—— 's aid I know not.
Towards sundown the high tower of the Shah's palace at Enzelli came in sight. At last the neck of this weary journey was broken, and to-morrow, all being well, we should be at Resht. The road is winding, and it was not till past ten o'clock that we rode through the silent, deserted streets to the caravanserai, a filthier lodging than any we had yet occupied. But, though devoured by vermin, I slept soundly, tired out with cold and fatigue. We dismissed the Khivan with a substantial pour-boire. He had certainly behaved extremely well for one of his race.
Enzelli is an uninteresting place. It has but two objects of interest (in Persian eyes)—the lighthouse (occasionally lit) and a palace of the Shah, built a few years since as a pied-a-terre for his Majesty on the occasion of his visits to Europe. It is a tawdry gimcrack edifice, painted bright blue, red, and green, in the worst possible taste. The Shah, on returning from Europe last time, is said to have remarked to his ministers on landing at Enzelli, "I have not seen a single building in all Europe to compare with this!" Probably not—from one point of view.
The Caspian may indeed be called a Russian lake, for although the whole of its southern coast is Persian, the only Persian vessel tolerated upon it by Russia is the yacht of the Shah, a small steamer, the gift of the Caucase-Mercure Company, which lies off Enzelli. Even this vessel is only permitted to navigate in and about the waters of the Mourdab ("dead water"), a large lake, a kind of encroachment of the sea, eighteen to twenty miles broad, which separates Enzelli from Peri-Bazar, the landing-place for Resht, four miles distant. The imperial yacht did once get as far as Astara (presumably by mistake), but was immediately escorted back to Enzelli by a Russian cruiser. There is, however, a so-called Persian fleet—the steamship Persepolis, anchored off Bushire, in the Persian Gulf, and the Susa, which lies off Mohammerah. The former is about six hundred tons, and carries four Krupp guns; but the latter is little better than a steam-launch. Both have been at anchor for about four years, and are practically unseaworthy and useless.
We embarked at nine o'clock, in a boat pulled by eight men. The crossing of the Mourdab is at times impossible, owing to the heavy sea; but this time luck was with us, and midday saw us at Peri-Bazar, where there is no difficulty in procuring riding-horses to take one into Resht. The country between the two places was formerly morass and jungle, but on the occasion of the Shah's visit to Europe about twenty years ago, a carriage-road was made—not a good one, for such a thing does not exist in Persia—but a very fair riding-track (in dry weather). We reached Resht wet to the skin, the snow having ceased and given way to a steady downpour of rain.
Resht bears the unpleasant reputation of being the most unhealthy city in Persia. Its very name, say the natives, is derived from the word rishta, "death." "If you wish to die," says a proverb of Irak, "go to Resht!" The city, which had, at the beginning of the century, a population of over sixty thousand inhabitants, now has barely thirty thousand. This certainly looks as if there were some truth in the foregoing remarks; and there is no doubt that, on the visitation of the plague about ten years ago, the mortality was something frightful. A great percentage of deaths are ascribed to Resht fever—a terrible disease, due to the water and the exhalations from the marshes surrounding the city. It is certainly the dampest place in the world. The sun is seldom seen, and one's clothes, even on a dry, rainless day, become saturated with moisture.
The town is, nevertheless, prettily situated in a well-wooded country. It would almost be imposing were it not for the heavy rains and dews, which cause a rapid decay of the buildings. The latter are mostly of red brick and glazed tiles.
Resht is the depot for goods to and from Persia—chiefly silks. Tobacco is also grown in yearly increasing quantities. Several Russian firms have opened here for the manufacture of cigarettes, which, though they may find favour among the natives, are too hot and coarse for European tastes. They are well made and cheap enough—sevenpence a hundred.
In addition to the native population, Resht contains about five hundred Armenians, and a score or so of Europeans. Among the latter are a Russian and a British vice-consul. To the residence of the latter we repaired. Colonel Stewart's kindness and hospitality are a byword in Persia, and the Sunday of our arrival at Resht was truly a day of rest after the discomfort and privations we had undergone since leaving Baku.
[Footnote A: Isvostchik, a cab-driver.]
[Footnote B: "Tchornigorod," or "Black Town," so called from the smoke that hangs night and day over the oil-factories.]
[Footnote C: Russian cabbage-soup.]
Day broke gloomily enough the morning following the day of our arrival at Resht. The snow, still falling fast, lay over two feet deep in the garden beneath my window, while great white drifts barred the entrance-gates of the Consulate. About eight o'clock our host made his appearance, and, waking me from pleasant dreams of sunnier climes, tried to dissuade me from making a start under such unfavourable circumstances. An imperial courier had just arrived from Teheran, and his report was anything but reassuring. The roads were in a terrible state; the Kharzan, a long and difficult pass, was blocked with snow, and the villages on either side of it crowded with weather-bound caravans.
The prospect, viewed from a warm and comfortable bed, was not inviting. Anxiety, however, to reach Teheran and definitely map out my route to India overcame everything, even the temptation to defer a journey fraught with cold, hunger, and privation, and take it easy for a few days, with plenty of food and drink, to say nothing of cigars, books, and newspapers, in the snug cosy rooms of the Consulate. "You will be sorry for it to-morrow," said the colonel, as he left the room to give the necessary orders for our departure; adding with a smile, "I suppose a wilful man must have his way."
There are two modes of travelling in Persia: marching with a caravan, a slow and tedious process; and riding post, or "chapar." The latter, being the quickest, is usually adopted by Europeans, but can only be done on the Government post-roads, of which there are five: from Teheran to Resht, Tabriz, Meshed, Kerman, and the Persian Gulf port, Bushire. These so-called roads are, however, often mere caravan-tracks, sometimes totally hidden by drifting sand or snow. In the interior of the country the hard sun-baked soil is usually trackless, so that the aid of a "Shagird Chapar," or post-boy, becomes essential.
The distance between the "Chapar khanehs," as the tumble-down sheds doing duty for post-houses are called, is generally five farsakhs, or about twenty English miles; but the Persian farsakh is elastic, and we often rode more, at other times less, than we paid for. Travel is cheap: one keran per farsakh (2-1/2d. a mile) per horse, with a pour-boire of a couple of kerans to the "Shagird" at the end of the stage.
Given a good horse and fine weather, Persian travel would be delightful; but the former is, unfortunately, very rarely met with. Most of the post-horses have been sold for some vice which nothing but constant hard work will keep under. Kickers, rearers, jibbers, shyers, and stumblers are but too common, and falls of almost daily occurrence on a long journey. Goodness knows how many Gerome and I had between Resht and the Persian Gulf.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the speed attained by the wretched half-starved animals is little short of marvellous. Nothing seems to tire them. We averaged fifty miles a day after leaving Teheran, covering, on one occasion, over a hundred miles in a little over eleven hours. This is good work, considering the ponies seldom exceed fourteen hands two inches, and have to carry a couple of heavy saddle-bags in addition to their rider. Gerome must have ridden quite fourteen stone.
About ten o'clock the horses arrived, in charge of a miserable-looking Shagird, in rags and a huge lamb's-wool cap, the only warm thing about him. It was pitiful to see the poor wretch, with bare legs and feet, shivering and shaking in the cutting wind and snow. The ponies, too, looked tucked up and leg-weary, as if they had just come off a long stage (which, indeed, they probably had) instead of going on one.
"Don't be alarmed; they are the proverbial rum 'uns to look at," said our host, who would not hear of our setting out without saddle-bags crammed with good things: cold meat, sardines, cigarettes, a couple of bottles of brandy, and a flask of Russian vodka. But for these we must literally have starved en route.
"Good-bye. Good luck to you!" from the colonel.
"En avant!" cries Gerome, with a deafening crack of his heavy chapar whip. We are both provided with this instrument of torture—a thick plaited thong about five feet long, attached to a short thick wooden handle, and terminating in a flat leathern cracker of eight or ten inches. A cut from this would make an English horse jump out of his skin, but had little or no effect on the tough hides of our "chapar" ponies. The snow is almost up to the knees of the latter as we labour through the gateway and into the narrow street. Where will it be on the Kharzan Pass?
Resht is picturesquely situated. It must be a lovely place in summer-time, when fertile plains of maize, barley, and tobacco stretch away on every side, bounded by belts of dark green forest and chains of low well-wooded hills, while the post-road leads for miles through groves of mulberry trees, apple orchards, and garden-girt villas, half hidden by roses and jasmine. But this was hardly a day for admiring the beauties of nature. Once out of the suburbs and in the open country, nothing met the eye but a dreary wilderness of white earth and sullen grey sky, that boded ill for the future. The cold was intense. Although dressed in the thickest of tweeds and sheepskin jacket, sable pelisse, enormous "bourka," and high felt boots, it was all I could do to keep warm even when going at a hand gallop, varied every hundred yards or so by a desperate "peck" on the part of my pony.
The first stage, Koudoum, five farsakhs from Resht, was reached about three o'clock in the afternoon. This was my first experience of a Chapar khaneh. The Shagird informed us that it was considered a very good one, and was much frequented by Europeans in summer-time—presumably, judging from the holes in the roof, for the sake of coolness. Let me here give the reader a brief description of the accommodation provided for travellers by his Imperial Majesty the Shah. The Koudoum Chapar khaneh is a very fair example of the average Persian post-house.
Imagine a small one-storied building, whitewashed, save where wind and rain have disclosed the brown mud beneath. A wooden ladder (with half the rungs missing) leads to the guest-chamber, a large bare room, devoid of furniture of any kind, with smoke-blackened walls and rotten, insecure flooring. A number of rats scamper away at our approach. I wonder what on earth they can find to eat, until Gerome points out a large hole in the centre of the apartment. This affords an excellent view of the stables, ten or twelve feet below, admitting, at the same time, a pungent and overpowering odour of manure and ammonia. A smaller room, a kind of ante-chamber, leads out of this. As it is partly roofless, I seek, but in vain, for a door to shut out the icy cold blast. Further search in the guest-room reveals six large windows, or rather holes, for there are no shutters, much less window-panes. It is colder here, if anything, than outside, for the draughts are always at once; but we must in Persia be thankful for small mercies. There is a chimney, in which a good log fire, kindled by Gerome, is soon blazing.
Lunch and a nip of the colonel's vodka work wonders, and we are beginning to think, over a "papirosh," that Persia is not such a bad place after all, when the Shagird's head appears at the window. There are only two horses available for the next stage, but a third has been sent for from a neighbouring village, and will shortly arrive. As night is falling fast, I set out with the Shagird for the next station, Rustemabad, leaving Gerome, who has already travelled the road and knows it well, to follow alone.
It is still snowing fast, but my mount is a great improvement on that of the morning, luckily, for the stage is a long one, and we have a stiff mountain to climb before reaching our destination for the night.
We ride for three hours, slowly and silently, over a plain knee-deep in snow. About half-way across a tinkle of bells is heard, clear and musical, in the distance. Presently a large caravan looms out of the dusk—fifty or sixty camels and half a dozen men. The latter exchange a cheery "Good night" with my guide. Slowly the ungainly, heavily laden beasts file past us, gaunt and spectral in the twilight, the bells die away on the still wintry air, and we are again alone on the desolate plain—not a sign of life, not a sound to be heard, but the crunching of snow under our horses' feet, and the occasional pistol-like crack of my guide's heavy whip.
It is almost dark when we commence the ascent of the mountain on the far side of which lies Rustemabad. The path is rough and narrow, and in places hewn out of the solid rock. Towards the summit, where a slip or false step would be fatal, a dark shapeless mass appears, completely barring the pathway, on the white snow. Closer inspection reveals a dead camel, abandoned, doubtless, by the caravan we have just passed, for the carcase is yet warm. With considerable difficulty, but aided by the hard slippery ground, we drag it to the brink of the precipice, and send it crashing down through bush and briar, to fall with a loud splash into a foaming torrent far below. During this performance one of the ponies gets loose, and half an hour is lost in catching him again.
So the journey wore on. Half-way down on the other side of the mountain, my pony stumbled and shot me head first into a pool of liquid mud, from which I was, with some difficulty, extricated wet through and chilled to the bone. The discomfort was bad enough, but, worse still, my sable pelisse, the valuable gift of a Russian friend, was, I feared, utterly ruined.
It was nearly nine o'clock when we reached Rustemabad, to find rather worse quarters than we had left at Koudoum. To make matters worse, I had no change of clothes, and the black, ill-smelling mud had penetrated to the innermost recesses of my saddle-bags, which did not tend to improve the flavour of the biscuits and chocolate that constituted my evening meal. No food of any kind was procurable at the post-house, and all our own provisions were behind with Gerome. Luckily, I had stuck to the flask of vodka!
With the help of the postmaster, a decrepit, half-witted old man, and the sole inmate of the place, I managed to kindle a good fire, and set to work to dry my clothes, a somewhat uncomfortable process, as it entailed my remaining three-parts naked for half the night in an atmosphere very little above zero. The sables were in a terrible state. It was midnight before the mud on them was sufficiently dry to brush off, as I fondly hoped, in the morning.
Gerome did not turn up till one o'clock a.m., his horse not having arrived at Koudoum till past seven. He had lost his way twice, and had almost given up all hopes of reaching Rustemabad till daylight, when my fire, the only light in the place, shone out of the darkness. The poor fellow was so stiff and numbed with fatigue and cold that I had to lift him off his horse and carry him into the post-house. He was a sorry object, but I could not refrain from smiling. My companion's usually comical, ruddy face wore a woebegone look, while long icicles hung from his hair, eyebrows, and moustaches, giving him the appearance of a very melancholy old Father Christmas.
Morning brought a cloudless blue sky and brilliant sunshine. My first thought on awaking was for the pelisse. Summoning the old postmaster, I confided the precious garment to him, with strict injunctions to take it outside, beat it well with a stick, and bring it back to me to brush. In the mean time, we busied ourselves with breakfast and a cup of steaming cocoa, for a long ride was before us. It was still bitterly cold, with a strong north-easter blowing. The thermometer marked (in the sun) only one degree above zero.
Rustemabad, a collection of straggling, tumble-down hovels, contains about four or five hundred inhabitants. The post-house, perched on the summit of a steep hill, is situated some little distance from the village, which stands in the centre of a plateau, bounded on the south-west by a chain of precipitous mountains. The country around is fertile and productive, being well watered by the Sefid Roud (White River). Rice is largely grown, but to-day not a trace of vegetation is visible; nothing but the vast white plain, smooth and unbroken, save where, here and there, a brown village blurrs its smooth surface, an oasis of mud huts in this desert of dazzling snow.
An exclamation from Gerome suddenly drew my attention to the postmaster, who stood at the open doorway, my pelisse in hand. I was then unused to the ways and customs of the Persian peasantry, or should have known that it was but labour lost to make one spring at the old idiot, and, twining my fingers in his throat, shake him till he yelled for mercy. Nothing but a thick stick has the slightest effect upon the Shah's subjects; and I was, for a moment, sorely tempted to use mine. The reader must own that I should have been justified. It was surely enough to try the patience of a saint, for the old imbecile had deliberately walked down to the river, made a hole in the ice, and soaked the garment in water to the waist, reducing it to its former condition of liquid slime. This was his method of getting the mud off. I may add that this intelligent official had assisted me in the drying process up till midnight.
There was no help for it; nothing to be done but cut off the damaged portion from the waist to the heels—no easy matter, for it was frozen as stiff as a board. "It will make a better riding-jacket now," said Gerome, consolingly; "but this son of a pig shall not gain by it," he added, stamping the ruined remains into the now expiring fire.
The village of Patchinar, at the foot of the dreaded Kharzan Pass, was to be our halting-place for the night. The post-road, after leaving Rustemabad, leads through the valley of the Sefid Roud river, in which, by the way, there is excellent salmon-fishing. About six miles from Rustemabad is a spot called by the natives the "Castle of the Winds," on account of the high winds that, even in the calmest weather, prevail there. Although, out on the plain, there was a scarcely perceptible breeze, we had to literally fight our way against the terrific gusts that swept through this narrow gorge. Fortunately, it was a fine day, but the fine powdery snow whirled up and cut into our eyes and faces, and made travelling very unpleasant.
These violent wind-storms have never been satisfactorily accounted for. They continue for a certain number of hours every day, summer and winter, increasing in force till sunset, when they abate, to rise again the following dawn. On some occasions horses, and even camels, have been blown over, and caravans are sometimes compelled to halt until the fury of the storm has diminished.
Crossing a ridge of low hills, we descended into the valley of Roudbar, a quiet and peaceful contrast to the one we had just left. The wind now ceased as if by magic. Much of the snow had here disappeared under the warm sunshine, while before us, nestling in a grove of olive trees, lay the pretty village, with its white picturesque houses and narrow streets shaded by gaily striped awnings. It was like a transformation-scene, this sudden change from winter, with its grey sky and cold icy blast, to the sunny stillness and repose of an English summer's day. We rode through the bazaar, a busy and crowded one for so small a place. A large trade is done here in olives. Most of it is in the hands of two enterprising Frenchmen, who started business some years ago, and are doing well.
We managed to get a mouthful of food at Menjil while the horses were being changed.
Colonel S—— had especially warned us against sleeping here, the Chapar khaneh being infested with the Meana bug, a species of camel tick, which inflicts a poisonous and sometimes dangerous wound. It is only found in certain districts, and rarely met with south of Teheran. The virus has been known, in some cases, to bring on typhoid fever, and one European is said to have died from its effects. For the truth of this I cannot vouch; but there is no doubt that the bite is always followed by three or four days' more or less serious indisposition.
Our troubles commenced in real earnest at Patchinar, a desolate-looking place and filthy post-house, which was reached at sunset. The post from Teheran had just arrived, in charge of a tall strapping fellow armed to the teeth, in dark blue uniform and astrachan cap, bearing the Imperial badge, the lion and sun, in brass. The mail was ten days late, and had met with terrible weather on the Kharzan. They had passed, only that morning, two men lying by the roadway, frozen to death. The poor fellows were on their way to Teheran from Menjil, and had lain where they fell for two or three days. "You had far better have remained at Resht," added our informant, unpleasantly recalling to my mind the colonel's prophecy, "You will be sorry for this to-morrow!"
Notwithstanding hunger and vermin, we managed to enjoy a tolerable night's rest. The post-house was warm at any rate, being windowless. Patchinar was evidently a favourite halting-place, for the dingy walls of the guest-room were covered with writing and pencil sketches, the work of travellers trying to kill time, from the Frenchman who warned one (in rhyme) to beware of the thieving propensities of the postmaster, to the more practical Englishman, who, in a bold hand, had scrawled across the wall, "Big bugs here!" I may add that my countryman was not exaggerating.
There was no difficulty in getting horses the next morning. The post, which left for Resht before we were stirring, had left us seven sorry-looking steeds, worn out with their previous day's journey through the deep snow-drifts of the Kharzan. By nine o'clock we were ready to start, notwithstanding the entreaties of the postmaster, whose anxiety, however, was not on our account, but on that of the horses.
"I don't believe I shall ever see them again!" he mumbled mournfully, as we rode out of the yard. "And who is to repay me for their loss? You will be dead, too, before sundown, if the snow catches you in the mountains!"
But there seemed no probability of such a contingency. The sky was blue and cloudless, the sun so bright that the glare off the snow soon became unbearable without smoked goggles. The promise of an extra keran or two if we reached the end of the stage by daylight had a wonderful effect on the Shagird. Though it was terribly heavy going, and the snow in places up to our girths, we covered the five miles lying between Patchinar and the foot of the Kharzan in a little over three hours—good going considering the state of the road. We were as often off the former as on it, for there was nothing to guide one; nothing but telegraph poles and wires were visible, and these are occasionally laid straight across country away from the track.
Our destination for the night was the village of Kharzan, which is situated near the summit of the mountain, about six thousand feet high. The ascent is continuous and precipitous. An idea may be gained of the steepness by the fact that we now left the valley of the Shah Roud, barely one thousand feet above sea-level, to ascend, in a distance of about twelve miles, over six thousand feet.
The Kharzan Pass is at all times dreaded by travellers, native and European, even in summer, when there are no avalanches to fear, snow-drifts to bar the way, or ice to render the narrow, tortuous pathway even more insecure. A serious inconvenience, not to say danger, is the meeting of two camel caravans travelling in opposite directions on the narrow track, which, in many places, is barely ten feet broad, and barely sufficient to allow two horses to pass each other, to say nothing of heavily laden camels. But to-day we were safe so far as this was concerned. Not a soul was to be seen in the clefts and ravines around, or on the great white expanse stretched out beneath our feet, as we crept cautiously up the side of the mountain, our guide halting every ten or fifteen yards to probe the snow with a long pole and make sure that we had not got off the path.
A stiff and tedious climb of nearly seven hours brought us to within a mile of the summit. Halting for a short time, we refreshed ourselves with a couple of biscuits and a nip of brandy, and proceeded on our journey. We had now arrived at the most dangerous part of the pass. The pathway, hewn out of the solid rock, and about ten feet wide, was covered with a solid layer of ice eight or ten inches thick, over which our horses skated about in a most uncomfortable manner. There was no guard-rail or protection of any sort on the precipice side. All went well for a time, and I was beginning to congratulate myself on having reached the summit without-accident, when Gerdme's horse, just in front of me, blundered and nearly lit on his head. "Ah, son of a pig's mother!" yelled the little Russian in true Cossack vernacular, as the poor old screw, thoroughly done up, made a desperate peck, ending in a slither that brought him to within a foot of the brink. "That was a close shave, monsieur!" he continued, as his pony struggled back into safety, "I shall get off and walk. Wet feet are better than a broken neck any day!"
The words were scarcely out of his mouth, when a loud cry from the Shagird, and a snort and struggle from the pack-horse behind, attracted my attention. This time the beast had slipped with a vengeance, and was half-way over the edge, making, with his fore feet, frantic efforts to regain terra firma while his hind legs and quarters dangled in mid-air. There was no time to dismount and render assistance. The whole thing was over in less than ten seconds. The Shagird might, indeed, have saved the fall had he kept his head instead of losing it. All he could do was, with a loud voice and outstretched arms, to invoke the assistance of "Allah!" We were not long in suspense. Slowly, inch by inch, the poor brute lost his hold of the slippery ground, and disappeared, with a shrill neigh of terror, from sight. For two or three seconds we heard him striking here and there against a jutting rock or shrub, till, with a final thud, he landed on a small plateau of deep snow-drifts at least three hundred feet below. Here he lay motionless and apparently dead, while we could see through our glasses a thin stream of crimson flow from under him, gradually staining the white snow around.
A cat is popularly supposed to have nine lives. After my experience of the Persian post-horse, I shall never believe that that rough and ill-shaped but useful animal has less than a dozen. The fall I have described would assuredly have killed a horse of any other nationality, if I may use the word. It seemed, on the contrary, to have a tonic and exhilarating effect on this Patchinar pony. Before we could reach him (a work of considerable difficulty and some risk) he had risen to his feet, given himself a good shake, and was nibbling away at a bit of gorse that peeped through the snow on which he had fallen. A deep cut on the shoulder was his only injury, and, curiously enough, our portmanteaus, with the exception of a broken strap, were unharmed. There was, luckily, nothing breakable in either.
Kharzan, a miserable village under snow for six months of the year, was reached without further mishap. There is no post-house, and the caravanserai was crowded with caravans. Before sundown, however, we were comfortably installed in the house of the head-man of the place, who spread carpets of soft texture and quaint design in our honour, regaled us with an excellent "pilaff," and produced a flask of Persian wine. The latter would hardly have passed muster in Europe. The cork consisted of a plug of cotton-wool plastered with clay; the contents were of a muddy-brown colour. "It is pure Hamadan," said our host with pride, as he placed the bottle before us. "Perhaps the sahib did not know that our country is famous for its wines." It was not altogether unpalatable, something like light but rather sweet hock; very different, however, in its effects to that innocent beverage, and one could not drink much with impunity. Its cheapness surprised me: one shilling a quart bottle. That, at least, is the price our host charged—probably more than half again its real value.
The winegrowers of Hamadan have many difficulties to contend with; among others, the severe cold. In winter the wine is kept in huge jars, containing six or seven hundred bottles. These are buried in the ground, their necks being surrounded by hot beds of fermenting horse-dung, to keep the wine from freezing. But even this plan sometimes fails, and it has to be chopped out in solid blocks and melted for drinking.
Kharzan has a population of about a thousand inhabitants. It was here that Baker Pasha was brought some years ago in a dying condition, after being caught in a wind-storm on the Kharzan Pass, and lay for three days in the house we were lodging at. Our old friend showed us a clasp-knife presented him by the colonel, who on that occasion nearly lost both his feet from frost-bite. Captains Gill and Clayton, [A] of the Royal Engineers and Ninth Lancers, were with him, but escaped unharmed.
Stiff and worn out with the events of the day, we soon stretched ourselves in front of the blazing fire in anticipation of a good night's rest; but sleep was not for us. In the next room were a party of Persian merchants from Astrakhan on their way to Bagdad via Teheran, who had been prisoners here for five days, and were now carousing on the strength of getting away on the morrow. A woman was with them—a brazen-faced, shrill-voiced Armenian, who made more noise than all the rest put together. Singing, dancing, quarrelling, and drinking went on without intermission till long past midnight, our neighbours raising such a din that the good people of Kharzan, a quarter of a mile away, must have turned uneasily in their slumbers, and wondered whether an army of fiends had not broken loose. Towards 1 a.m. the noise ceased, and we were just dropping to sleep, when, at about half-past two in the morning, our drunken friends, headed by the lady, burst into our apartment, with the information, in bad Russian, that a gang of fifty men sent that morning to clear a path through the deep snow had just returned, and the road to Mazreh was now practicable. The caravans would be starting in an hour, they added. "And you'd better travel with them," joined in the lady, contemptuously, "or you will be sure to get into trouble by yourselves." A reply more forcible than polite from Gerome then cleared the apartment; and, rekindling the now expiring embers, we prepared for the road.
We set out at dawn for the gate of the village, where the caravans were to assemble. It was still freezing hard, and the narrow streets like sheets of solid ice, so that our horses kept their legs with difficulty. We must have numbered fifty or sixty camels, and as many mules and horses, all heavily laden.
Daybreak disclosed a weird, beautiful scene: a sea of snow, over which the rising sun threw countless effects of light and colour, from the cold slate grey immediately around us, gradually lightening to the faintest tints of rose and gold on the eastern horizon, where stars were paling in a cloudless sky. Portrayed on canvas, the picture would have looked unnatural, so brilliant were the hues thrown by the rising sun over the land-, or rather snow-scape. The cold, though intense, was not unbearable, for there was fortunately no wind, and the spirits rose with the crisp, bracing air, brilliant sunshine, and jangle of caravan bells, as one realized that Teheran was now well within reach, and the dreaded Kharzan a thing of the past. Gerome gave vent to his feelings with a succession of roulades and operatic airs; for my little friend had a very good opinion of his vocal powers, which I, unfortunately, did not share. But he was a cheery, indefatigable creature, and of indomitable pluck, and one gladly forgave him this, his only failing.
It was terribly hard work all that morning, and Gerome had four, I three, falls, on one occasion wrenching my right ankle badly. Some of the drifts through which we rode must have been at least ten or fifteen feet deep. Some tough faggots thrown over these afforded a footing, or we should never have got over. Towards midday Mazreh was sighted; and we pushed on ahead, leaving the caravan to its own devices. The going was now better, and it was soon far behind us, the only object visible from the low hills which we now ascended, the camels and mules looking, from this distance, like flies crawling over a huge white sheet.
Lunch at Mazreh consisted of damp, mouldy bread, and some sweet, sickly liquid the postmaster called tea. Procuring fresh horses without difficulty, we set out about 3 p.m. for Kazvin. It was not till 10 p.m. that we were riding through the great gate of that city, which the soldier on guard consented, with some demur, to open.
Kazvin boasts a hotel and a boulevard! The latter is lit by a dozen oil-lamps; the former, though a palatial building of brick, with verandahs and good rooms, is left to darkness and the rats in the absence of travellers. Having groped our way for half an hour or so about a labyrinth of dark, narrow streets, we presently emerged on the dimly lit boulevard (three of the oil-lamps had gone out), and rode up to the melancholy looking hostelry at the end. Failing to obtain admission, we burst open the door, and made ourselves as comfortable as circumstances would allow. Food was out of the question; drink, saving some villainous raki of Gerome's, also; but there was plenty of firewood, and we soon had a good fire in the grate. This hotel was originally built by the Shah for the convenience of himself and ministers when on his way to Europe. It is only on these rare occasions that the barn-like building is put in order. Visions of former luxury were still visible in our bedroom in the shape of a bedstead, toilet-table, and looking-glass. "But we can't eat them!" said Gerome, mournfully.
Kazvin, which now has a population of 30,000, has seen better days. It was once capital of Persia, with 120,000 inhabitants. Strolling out in the morning before breakfast, I found it well and regularly built, and surrounded by a mud wall, with several gates of beautiful mosaic, now much chipped and defaced.
Being the junction of the roads from Tabriz on the west, and Resht on the north to the capital, is now Kazvin's sole importance. The road to Teheran was made some years ago at enormous expense by the Shah; but it has now, in true Persian style, been left to fall into decay. It is only in the finest and driest weather that the journey can be made on wheels, and this was naturally out of the question for us. A railway was mooted some time since along this, the only respectable carriage-road in Persia—but the project was soon abandoned.
The post-houses, however, are a great improvement on any in other parts of the country. At Kishlak, for instance, we found a substantial brick building with a large guest-room, down the centre of which ran a long table with spotless table-cloth, spread out with plates of biscuits, apples, nuts, pears, dried fruits, and sweetmeats, beautifully decorated with gold and silver paper, and at intervals decanters of water—rather cold fare with the thermometer at a few degrees above zero. The fruits and biscuits were shrivelled and tasteless, having evidently been there some months. It reminded me of a children's doll dinner-party. With the exception of these Barmecide feasts and some straw-flavoured eggs, there was nothing substantial to be got in any of the post-houses till we reached our destination.
About four o'clock on the 27th we first sighted the white peak of Mount Demavend, and by three o'clock next day were within sight of the dingy brown walls, mud houses, and white minarets of the city of the Shah—Teheran.
[Footnote A: Both have since met violent deaths. Captain Gill was murdered by natives with Professor Palmer near Suez, and Captain Clayton killed while playing polo in India.]
A brilliant ball-room, pretty faces, smart gowns, good music, and an excellent supper;—thus surrounded, I pass my first evening in Teheran, a pleasant contrast indeed to the preceding night of dirt, cold, and hunger.
But it was not without serious misgivings that I accepted the courteous invitation of the German Embassy. The crossing of the Kharzan had not improved the appearance of dress-clothes and shirts, to say nothing of my eyes being in the condition described by pugilists as "bunged up," my face of the hue of a boiled lobster, the effects of sun and snow.
One is struck, on entering Teheran, with the apparent cleanliness of the place as compared with other Oriental towns. The absence of heaps of refuse, cess-pools, open drains, and bad smells is remarkable to one accustomed to Eastern cities; but this was perhaps, at the time of my visit, due to the pure rarified atmosphere, the keen frosty air, of winter. Teheran in January, with its cold bracing climate, and Teheran in June, with the thermometer above ninety in the shade, are two very different things; and the town is so unhealthy in summer, that all Europeans who can afford to do so live on the hills around the capital.
The environs are not picturesque. They have been likened to those of Madrid, having the same brown calcined soil, the same absence of trees and vegetation. The city, viewed from outside the walls, is ugly and insignificant, and, on a dull day, indistinguishable at no great distance. In clear weather, however, the beehive-like dwellings and rumbling ramparts stand out in bold relief against a background of blue sky and dazzling snow-mountains, over which towers, in solitary grandeur, the peak of Mount Demavend, [A] an extinct volcano, over 20,000 feet high, the summit of which is reported by natives to be haunted. The ascent is gradual and easy, and has frequently been made by Europeans.
Teheran is divided into two parts—the old city and the new. In the former, inhabited only by natives, the streets are narrow, dark, and tortuous, leading at intervals into large squares with deep tanks of running water in the centre. The latter are characteristic of Persia, and have in summer a deliciously cool appearance, the coping of the fountain being only an inch or so in height, and the water almost flush with the ground. The new, or European quarter, is bisected by a broad tree-lined thoroughfare, aptly named the "Boulevard des Ambassadeurs," for here are the legations of England, France, and Germany. The Russian Embassy, a poor building in comparison with the others, stands in another part of the town. Hard by the English Embassy is the Hotel Prevot, kept by a Frenchman of that name, once confectioner-in-chief to his Majesty the Shah. Here we took up our quarters during our stay in the capital.
At the extremity of the Boulevard des Ambassadeurs is the "Place des Canons," so called from the old and useless cannon of various ages that surround it. The square is formed by low barn-like barracks, their whitewashed walls decorated with gaudy and rudely drawn pictures of Persian soldiers and horses. Beyond this again, and approached by an avenue of poplar trees, lit by electric light, is the palace of the Shah, with nothing to indicate the presence in town of the sovereign but a guard of ragged-looking, unkempt Persians in Russian uniform lounging about the principal gateway.
The Persian soldier is not a credit to his country. Although drilled and commanded by European officers, he is a slouching, awkward fellow, badly paid, ill fed, and not renowned for bravery. The ordinary infantry uniform consists of a dark-blue tunic and trousers with red facings, and a high astrachan busby with the brass badge of the lion and sun. To a stranger, however, the varied and grotesque costumes in which these clowns are put by their imperial master is somewhat confusing. One may see, for instance, Russian cossacks, French chasseurs, German uhlans, and Austrian cuirassiers incongruously mixed up together in the ranks on parade. His army is the Shah's favourite toy, and nothing affords the eccentric monarch so much amusement as constant change of uniform. As the latter are manufactured in and sent out from the countries they represent, the expense to the state is considerable.
The first Europeans to instruct this rabble were Frenchmen, but England, Russia, Germany, and Austria have all supplied officers and instructors within the past fifty years, without, however, any good result. Although the arsenal at Teheran is full of the latest improvements in guns and magazine rifles, these are kept locked up, and only for show, the old Brown Bess alone being used. The Cossack regiment always stationed at Teheran, ostensibly for the protection of the Shah, and officered by Russians, is the only one with any attempt at discipline or order, and is armed with the Berdan rifle.
The Teheran bazaar is, at first sight, commonplace and uninteresting. Though of enormous extent (it contains in the daytime over thirty thousand souls), it lacks the picturesque Oriental appearance of those of Cairo or Constantinople, where costly and beautiful wares are set out in tempting array before the eyes of the unwary stranger. Here they are kept in the background, and a European must remain in the place for a couple of months or so, and make friends with the merchants, before he be even permitted to see them. The position is reversed. At Stamboul the stranger is pestered and worried to buy; at Teheran one must sometimes entreat before being allowed even to inspect the contents of a silk or jewel stall. Even then, the owner will probably remain supremely indifferent as to whether the "Farangi" purchase or not. This fact is curious. It will probably disappear with the advance of civilization and Mr. Cook.