A Journey in Khorassan and Central Asia/Chapter 1
A Journey in Khorassan and Central Asia.
March and April, 1890.
Tehran to Meshed.
Before writing an account of our daily travels during the above two months, it may be well to give a brief sketch of the geography and of the political importance of the countries which we traversed.
Khorassan is the north-eastern province of Persia, bounded on the east by Afghanistan, on the south by the Great Salt Desert, on the west by the other dominions of the Shah, and on the north by the recently acquired Russian province of Transcaspia. Its capital is Meshed, the sacred city of the votaries of the Sheite sect of the Mussulman religion, and till within very recent days no Christian was admitted within its sacred walls. Pilgrims flock to it from all quarters of Persia, and the pious dead are carried thither for burial in coffins slung upon the backs of mules. The presence of corpses in a caravan reveals itself with unpleasant pungency to the traveller who meets or catches up the laden mules. What Mecca is to the Mussulman Sunis, that Meshed is to the Mussulman Sheites.
Last year, after much diplomatic pressure, the Russians succeeded in establishing in the city a Consul-General, and this privilege having been conceded to one nation, a similar privilege was immediately claimed by the British Government, who obtained the recognition by the Shah of Major-General MacLean, the Viceroy of India's agent on the Perso-Afghan frontier, as Her Majesty's Consul-General, to reside in Meshed itself.
The post held by General MacLean may be described as that of an outpost sentinel, whose duty it is to watch and report upon the Russian advance from the Caspian on one side, and Turkestan on the other, which, begun a quarter of a century ago, and increasing in velocity year by year, threatens to crush, or, rather, to absorb the kingdoms of Persia and of Afghanistan, as it has already absorbed the khanates of Central Asia.
Central Asia is the vague term which for the purpose of this narrative may be held to describe the countries bounded by Khiva and the Kizil Kum Desert on the north, Tashkent and Kokan on the east, Northern Afghanistan and Northern Persia on the south, and the Caspian on the west. Its political importance lies in the fact that the whole of it has, within the last twenty-five years, become a Russian province. Its khans, or native princes, have been paralysed or overthrown by Russian diplomacy or by Russian arms. Alone the Khan of Bokhara maintains a position of quasi-independence, but his attenuated dominions, lying between the Russian provinces of Transcaspia and Turkestan, and traversed by a Russian military railway, may, for all practical purposes, be looked upon as forming part of the empire of the Czar.
A few days before starting on our journey, we received a telegram from Sir Robert Morier, Her Majesty's Ambassador at St. Petersburg, informing us that permission had been granted to us to make use of the Transcaspian railway as far as Samarcand, and that the local authorities had been duly informed. This railway, being a purely military one, is under the direction of the Ministry of War at St. Petersburg, and is not open for ordinary passenger traffic. Application for leave to travel on it had been made on our behalf three months previously by the English Foreign Office, at the request of Sir H. D. Wolff, and the long delay which ensued before a favourable reply was received threatened at one time to prevent the due accomplishment of the object we had in view. Nor was this the only difficulty which we had to encounter. Kind and anxious friends warned us of the risks and hardships which a lady especially would have to encounter during a seven hundred mile journey on horseback through Khorassan, and although our experience of journeys on horseback in Bulgaria and in Roumania enabled us to gauge pretty accurately our own powers of endurance, it was difficult to maintain our determination to carry out our purpose in the face of strongly worded advice, without appearing unduly obstinate and self-willed. From the outset, however, Sir Henry Wolff had cordially approved of the undertaking; and from General MacLean at Meshed, and Major Wells at Tehran, we received many valuable hints and much useful information.
With this preface I begin a narrative of our own personal movements.
Our party consisted of ourselves, Julia Chivers, lady's maid, and Ali Akbar Beg, Legation gholam, together with a 'chapar shaggard,' or post-boy, who was relieved at each station where horses were changed. Our baggage, which we had to carry with us on horseback, would have excited the curiosity and merriment of an English railway guard or porter. It was composed of three pairs of enormous leather saddle-bags, a 'mafrash,' or small leather portmanteau, constructed so as to be conveniently carried behind the saddle, a small leather valise, three pairs of holsters, besides blankets, waterproofs, and overcoats. The contents of the baggage were of a most miscellaneous description. A very limited wardrobe was allowed to each traveller, and the greater part of the available space was taken up with provisions, pots, pans, and other cooking utensils, besides two or three small carpets and three large linen sacks, which, filled with straw at night and spread upon the bare floor, served as beds.
The stations at which horses are changed vary in distance from sixteen to thirty miles. They are all built practically upon the same model. Four high, square, sun-dried mud walls, with flat roofs, surmounted by battlements and flanked by four towers, as a defence against Turcoman raiders, enclose a small, open, square yard, usually filled with manure and filth of every description. Round the yard are ranged stables, in which are to be found half a dozen of the most wretched specimens of the equine race to be seen anywhere outside of a Spanish bull-ring. On entering the massive doorway, which is always carefully closed at night, two small rooms are discovered, the one on the right, the other on the left; these rooms are perfectly empty of everything except dust and dirt. There are no windows, and the fireplace is generally constructed in such a manner that the smoke of the fire, which a cold and weary traveller causes to be kindled, seeks an exit through the door in preference to going up the chimney. As a natural consequence, the room is perfectly uninhabitable for the best part of an hour after one's arrival unless the traveller lies or crouches low on the floor, where the air is less impregnated with blinding smoke. Above the doorway, on the roof of the house, is the 'bala khaneh,' or upper room, which is only reached after a gymnastic performance specially painful to travellers whose limbs are stiffened by a fifty miles' journey on horseback during the course of the day. The steps of the small, winding staircase are about three feet in height, and many of them having crumbled away altogether, the ascent partakes much more of the nature of a mountaineering expedition than of the prosaic process of going upstairs.
The 'bala khaneh,' the origin of the English word 'balcony,' is a small, perfectly empty room, from ten to twelve feet square, generally with four unglazed windows and two doors, the wood of which having hopelessly warped can never, under any circumstances, be properly closed. The advantage of the bala khaneh over the lower rooms is that it is rarely, if ever, used by native travellers, and its mud floor and dilapidated walls are, comparatively speaking, clean. It can, however, only be inhabited in fine weather, and its occupant's first care, after causing it to be swept out, is to obtain the loan of as many stable rugs and old carpets as can be secured, in order to check the intrusion of the cold night air through all the numerous apertures which invite its entrance.
Some weeks before leaving Tehran we had obtained a promise from the Amin ed Dowleh, the Minister of Posts, that fresh horses would be secured for us at the different stations in place of the worn-out beasts with reference to which recent travellers had made loud but hitherto ineffectual complaints. The Amin ed Dowleh regretted that it was beyond his power to place the station houses in anything like decent order, but he gave us an open letter addressed to the naib, or postmaster, of each station, ordering each one to place himself at our entire disposal, and to give, or to obtain for us, any and every horse which we might wish to have. In justice to the naibs, it must be said that they obeyed their orders to the letter, and when the resources of their own stables broke down, as they occasionally did under the strain of having to supply five good horses, they unceremoniously, and in the most high-handed manner, impounded for our use the best horses to be provided in the village.
On the 6th of March, leaving our children in charge of their excellent nurse, Smith, we started from the British Legation, Tehran, early in the afternoon, under the best auspices. The weather was fine, but cool and cloudy, and we were accompanied through the town to the Khorassan Gate by a large party of friends on horseback. Following the usual Persian custom of making but a short journey the first day, in order that every body and every thing may shake down comfortably into their places, we arranged to halt the first night at the station of Kabut Gumbuz, twenty-four miles from Tehran. Major Wells, who, with M. Rakofsky, had resolved to accompany us one stage out of the twenty-four between Tehran and Meshed, had sent on his cook to prepare dinner at Kabut Gumbuz, in order that we might pass the first evening in comparative luxury, and be, so to speak, let down easy.
Our road, after leaving the capital, followed the pass which divides the Kuh-i-Bibi Shair Banoo from the main range, and, after descending again on to the plain, which extends to Veramin, it skirted the hills, going due east to Kabut Gumbuz. The chapar khaneh, or post house, which is situated on the right bank of the Jagerood River, is a rough abode. It was occupied by Major Wells and M. Rakofsky, and on the floor of their room we partook of an excellent dinner with the appetite which a twenty-four mile ride in three and a half hours naturally engenders, whilst our straw mattresses were spread for us in a neighbouring house. Our night's sleep was partially disturbed by the barking of numerous dogs, and at five in the morning, Friday, March 7th, we were roused by the arrival of the Legation messenger coming from Meshed, who, stopping to change horses, inquired whether we had any letters for him to take to Tehran. After breakfasting at 6.30, we bade farewell to our two friends, and, with fresh and fairly good horses, we started for Aivan-i-Kaif. For the first mile or two we crossed several streams with shallow fords, and, leaving the village of Kazran on the right and Sherifabad on the left, reached Aivan-i-Kaif at 10.45 — twenty-seven miles in a little over three hours. Here we lunched in the bala khaneh, overlooking the stream of the Zamrood. The village, which contains three hundred houses, including a telegraph station, presents a flourishing appearance, surrounded by gardens and vineyards. The civil telegraph clerk in charge called upon us during luncheon, and, after partaking of a cigarette and a glass of cognac, undertook to send a telegram announcing our safe arrival to our friends at Tehran.
At 12.30 we resumed our journey. For the first three miles the road was good, and at six miles the defile of Surdar-i-Kuh was entered. It passes through a low range of clayey strata impregnated with salt, which, together with the warm sun, excited our thirst. The last mile of our ride lay over cultivated ground, and at twenty-one miles the post station at Kishlak was reached, after a three hours' gallop. Whilst afternoon tea was being prepared one of the party enjoyed a bathe in a small neighbouring muddy stream, and his dressing gown, which he wore as he passed down the street of the little village, attracted the attention of the villagers, who, he fondly hoped, took it for a 'kelat' or robe of honour. At eight p.m. we lay down upon our mattresses, and enjoyed the sound sleep to which we were entitled by our forty-nine mile ride, in spite of being twice disturbed — once by the uproarious singing of an irrepressible dervish, and afterwards by the invasion of a large cat making a raid on the milk.
On Saturday, the 8th of March, we started at our normal hour of 7.15, the two previous hours having been, as usual, employed in dressing, breakfasting, shaking the straw out of our mattresses, and re-packing into the saddle-bags our clothes, blankets, provisions, and cooking utensils. Our road lay east and north-east, through a plain rich in cultivation and pasturage. We passed many well-watered villages, two of which, built upon artificial mounds, are especially remarkable. After a ten-mile gallop, which we accomplished in an hour and a quarter, during part of which we were engaged in an exciting chase after a stray jackal, we reached the Persian telegraph station of Avadân. Here we received a telegram from Major Wells, giving us news of the Wallers' movements in India, and we sent messages to Tehran, with our compliments to the Amin-ed-Dowleh and the Moukbar-ed-Dowleh, ministers respectively of Posts and Telegraphs. From Avadân we passed several villages, and traversed an alluvial plain, which was eventually replaced by a gravelly desert. We passed through a large district covered with a white substance of a salt nature, used by the peasants as manure, and which is probably a kind of nitrate. We reached the village of Deh Namek, i.e., the salt village, shortly before eleven. It is a very miserable place, consisting of about fifty poor huts round an artificial mound, where the water, from its close proximity to the Great Salt Desert is very brackish, and where there are no supplies of any kind.
At Deh Namek we met with our first difficulty in connexion with horses. We required five, and only four were forthcoming. After much useless wrangling, we were obliged to take one of our tired horses on. Our destination was Lasgird, twenty-five miles distant. Our route lay east, north-east, and east, skirting the borders of the Great Desert, over a clayey and spongy soil, covered with camel thorn and scanty herbage, and utterly devoid of water. A ride of little under two hours brought us to the village of Abdullahabad, where we stopped for half an hour's refreshment in a Persian teahouse. Shortly after leaving Abdullahabad we met five Lasgird horses on their way back to Deh Namek, and knowing that the Lasgird stable would consequently be empty, we effected an exchange and continued our journey. Soon after this fresh start one of the horses fell heavily on his side, rolling over the rider's right leg, but fortunately without doing any harm. Our road presently led us through a narrow defile, passing a stream of water which is generally good, but which, much to our disappointment, on this occasion was too muddy to be drinkable. On emerging from the defile we saw at a distance of about two miles what looked like the ruins of the Colosseum at Rome, but which turned out to be part of the village of Lasgird, a number of wretched dwellings built in terraces on a high round mound for safety against Turcoman raids. Lasgird is surrounded by cultivated ground, covered with flocks and herds, which till within the last three or four years constantly fell victims to borderland marauders. Shortly before five o'clock, on the lovely and spring-like evening which succeeded a hot and sunny day, we reached the fairly comfortable post-station of Lasgird, where we prepared to camp for the night, having accomplished forty-eight miles in the course of the day.
On Sunday, March 9th, we were called at five, and had our usual breakfast of tea, bread, sardines, eggs, jam, &c., at six, after which we started at 7.20 for our Sabbath Day's journey. Our luncheon goal was Semnan, twenty-two miles off. For the first six miles our route, which was easterly, passed over alluvial ground, which was much cut up by water-courses and liable to be very muddy in wet weather. At ten miles we passed the village of Surkab, from which point the road became stony and dry, over an undulating plain, and the last two miles carried us through the outskirts of Semnan, consisting of small gardens, fields, cemeteries, and crowded bazaars. The town has a flourishing, busy look, and is plentifully supplied with good water, which, with a customary dash of whisky, proved more than usually refreshing after our hot three-hours' morning gallop. At 12.20, having spent two hours resting and luncheon, and having made use of the services of the telegraph clerk resident here, we started for a twenty-four mile ride to Ahuân. The road was long and rather wearisome, with a steep ascent, but our horses were more than ordinarily good, and we reached the wretched hamlet of Ahuân, situated amidst desolate mountains, at 4.30 p.m. At seven o'clock we had an excellent dinner, cooked as usual by our factotum, Ali Akber, on the roof of the house in one of the angles formed by the battlements.
Ali Akber's method of procedure on arriving at a station-house for the night was most methodical, and is worth describing. His first care was to remove the saddles from the horses, in order to prevent the weary animals rolling upon them, which they were always prepared to do on the slightest provocation. He would then dispatch a man to fill our linen sacks with chopped straw to serve as bedding, whilst another, having cursorily swept out the bala khaneh, would be directed to place upon the floor some pieces of felt and of carpeting, and to hang others over the imperfect doors and square apertures called by courtesy windows. A samovar in the meanwhile would supply us with tea, and give us strength and energy to remove our riding clothes and ensconce ourselves in dressing-gowns and slippers. Dinner usually made its appearance by seven, and would consist of tinned soup, curried fowl or pilaffe, a joint of freshly killed lamb or mutton with biscuits and jam. Whisky was the staple article of drink, as being the most wholesome and convenient to carry. Dinner was of course served on the floor, and by dint of much practice we all became more or less adept at the art of sitting in the Persian fashion doubled up on our hams. By half-past eight, or soon after, no sound would be heard from the bala khaneh except peaceful or stentorian breathing, as each tired rider reposed on a mattress of straw, coiled up in a dressing-gown and blanket. At Ahuân, however, we were much disturbed during the night by a travelling dervish, who clamoured long and imperiously for admission into the station, and went away roundly abusing its inmates as 'sons of dogs' when he failed to accomplish his purpose. The night air here was very cold, there was a sharp frost, and the tops of the neighbouring hills were covered with a thin coating of freshly fallen snow.
On Monday, 10th of March, we left Ahuân shortly before half-past seven. Our route lay north-north-east by north on a good, hard, gravelly road, over a gently falling desert waste, with hills on either side. We reached the station-house of Ghûsheh, where there is no village, before half-past ten, having covered the twenty-four miles in three hours. After an hour's halt for luncheon we pushed on to Damghan, following the line of telegraph over a hot, gravelly road and stony desert, passing numerous villages, including Daulatabad, with its triple wall and ditch. We reached Damghan, twenty-three miles from Ghûsheh, very early in the afternoon, and the post-station of this town being unpleasantly notorious by reason of the presence within its walls of a peculiarly poisonous kind of bug, the 'gherib gez,' we applied to the Persian telegraph clerk for shelter in the telegraph station. Our request was most courteously acceded to, and two rooms were placed at our disposal, looking into a small square containing a few sorry shrubs and a tank with exceedingly dirty water. We found Damghan to be a hot and deadly dull place. In the course of the afternoon we strolled about among the narrow lanes which do duty for streets, but saw nothing except high earth walls and dilapidated mud houses, on the roofs of which a March sun was beating almost as fiercely as an August sun in England. The small children stared at and ran away from the inquisitive strangers, whilst the latter pitied them for having to live the whole of their lives at Damghan.
We dined as usual at seven, and eight o'clock found us stretched on our straw mattresses.
Our road on the following day, March 11th, lay east by north, over even, alluvial ground. One of the horses brought round for our party proved to be an intractable kicker and was accordingly discarded, much to the relief of Chivers, its destined rider, and another substituted in its place. We reached Deh Mullah, twenty-six miles, in three hours and a half. Here there is a small village, with a ruined fort on a mound, and a large, square, post-station, looking more like a prison than a halting-place for travellers, and at 1.30 we left its dreary walls and continued our journey to Shahrûd, sixteen miles. Our route was north-north-east, by a well-beaten track, over a stony hill skirt; at times it followed the border of the eternal salt waste on our right, and at others skirted the hills on our left. Four miles from Shahrûd we were met by a party of horsemen, servants of the Prince Governor, gholams of the telegraph department, and, conspicuous in his smart and workmanlike uniform, one of General MacLean's orderlies, belonging to the Indian Cavalry Regiment of Guides. They saluted us, and falling in behind we galloped fast into Shahrûd, which is a large, walled town of six hundred and fifty houses, surrounded by gardens and vineyards, lying at the foot of the spur of the Khanoar Hill. It is the most important town through which we passed on our way to Meshed, and it is, as nearly as possible, half-way between the latter place and Tehran. Shahrûd does a considerable trade with Astrabad on the north, to which place there is a direct telegraph line. It possesses a large water supply, and abounds in supplies of all kinds, including the obnoxious 'gherib gez,' which, for some mysterious reason, are rampant here. We made our way to the telegraph-station, which had been prepared for our reception, and found it to our delight to be a tolerably decent, two-storeyed house standing in a pretty garden. Three rooms upstairs had been placed at our disposal, one of which contained a table, three chairs, and a camp bedstead, the property of Mr. Stagno Navarra, who occasionally stays here when his duties of English Inspector of the Meshed and Tehran telegraph line require his presence at Shahrûd. Here we found a supply of tinned provisions — soups, sardines, jams, as well as a store of wine — claret, sherry, champagne, &c., which General MacLean had, with his usual kindness and generosity, sent to cheer us on our way. In a letter from him which we also found here, he informed us that a similar store had been left with the 'naïb,' or postmaster, of each station at which we should sleep between Shahrûd and Meshed, and that his cavalry orderly, Hemmet Ali, would follow slowly in our rear to pick up and carry back to Meshed such fragments as might be left.
Within an hour of our arrival the head steward of the Prince Governor of Shahrûd called, with under-servants carrying large trays of different kinds of sweetmeats and bread. A sheep also was presented to us from His Excellency, which before long was converted into mutton for our dinner that evening. We sent back many civil messages, excused ourselves from calling on the ground that we had nothing but our travel-stained clothes in which to present ourselves, and, having rewarded the bearers of the gifts with money, we terminated our interview with the head steward.
The next morning, Wednesday, 12th of March, whilst waiting for our six o'clock breakfast, we strolled about the clean and flourishing little town, and as we walked down one of the main streets we saw the inhabitants popping out of their little mud houses, like rats out of their holes, in order to perform their morning ablutions in a narrow stream running down the centre of the roadway.
We started at seven with excellent horses, accompanied to the outskirts of the town, through the busy little bazaars, by two mounted telegraph gholams. Our road lay south-west by south, following the caravan road for three or four miles, then, bending to the right, it crossed the Shahrûd plain, passed several villages, and crossed cultivated ground with watercourses. After twelve miles, the far side of the valley was reached, whence the read ascends between low hills for eight miles, when the highest point is reached, after which a winding descent of another eight miles brought us to the village of Armian (twenty-eight miles in four hours), a picturesquely situated but poor and dirty village on the bank of a stream, with walnut-trees and orchards. The weather was bright but cool, with a northerly breeze, and we elected to lunch under the shade of some trees in preference to remaining in the chapar khaneh.
After lunch we continued with fresh horses, by a northerly and easterly track, to Miamai, which we reached at 3.30 — sixteen miles in two hours. Miamai is a prettily situated village, with a small chapar khaneh adjoining an enormous caravanserai. It has large chenar-trees and many streams of water. Late in the afternoon I went out and selected for my bath a suitable pool under a shady tree by the roadside. My ablutions much interested the small children of the village, who watched me at a distance from the flat roofs of the houses, and viewed my proceedings with the same curiosity which London street boys would exhibit were the Shah to take to bathing in the Serpentine. Late in the evening, which was bright, clear, and balmy, Hemmet Ali arrived, having followed slowly in our wake on the same horse. We slept well in the bala khaneh, although startled once by the sudden appearance of a large cat, which came down the chimney, and on being pursued disappeared by the same route. Our first impression was that she was in search of milk, but, later on, a mouse, having by the activity of its movements revealed its presence inside Chivers' pillow, in which it had been accidentally packed when the pillow-case was being filled with straw, we concluded that it and not the milk was the bait that had attracted the feline intruder.
From Miamai to Miandasht the distance is twenty-four miles, which we accomplished in three hours. Our direction was south-east by south, and for the first five and the last four miles the road was level and good, the centre part being rough, undulating, and stony. There is no village at Miandasht, but merely a large fortified and gloomy serai, occupied by about thirty families, including that of the telegraph clerk, who, together with his gholam, came out to meet us. We lunched on the floor of his office, and were much amused by the antics of his two little boys, aged five and six respectively, to whom we gave biscuits and krans. The father thoroughly appreciated our whisky, having apparently acquired a taste for strong drink when resident at Bombay, a place of which he spoke as though it were a paradise on earth, which no doubt it is when compared with the hideously gloomy and painfully desolate surroundings of Miandasht, with its brackish water and its absence of supplies of any kind.
After lunch we started with fresh horses for Abbasabad — twenty-two miles. The road was good for about three miles, over a level, barren plain, when it entered a defile through a range of low, volcanic hills. Half-way we passed the serai and fortified village of Alhak, and about four miles from Abbasabad we were met by the naib, who escorted us to the chapar khaneh, which is one of the best, if not the best, on the whole road. We reached it shortly before four, having ridden the last few miles in the teeth of a strong equinoctial east wind. I went for a bath in a neighbouring kanant, where the water was quite tepid, probably owing to the volcanic nature of the ground, and at eight o'clock we retired to bed, having with difficulty closed up the numerous apertures against the strong east wind which was blowing.
When I went out on the following morning, Friday, March 14th, about six o'clock, I found a regular north-east gale blowing. The sun rose in a great ball of fire, and the vast desert plain, which lay extended before me, was covered with a thin, sea-like mist, just like a storm in the ocean. We started at 7.30, by a good and level road, which skirted the hills on the left and the vast Desert on the right. We passed a native crawling slowly along, in charge of an exceedingly lame camel, for which he — under the impression, shared by most Orientals, that all Europeans are doctors — entreated us to supply medicine.
We reached the fortified village and chapar khaneh of Mazinan, twenty-seven miles, shortly before noon, and lunched in the portico. From Mazinan to Mihr the distance is twenty miles, and this with the good horses with which we were supplied we covered in two and a half hours. The road was good, but uninteresting, with hills on one side and the Desert on the other. Mihr is a pretty village with trees, cultivated ground, and many streams of water. The chapar khaneh was good, but, unlike the majority of them, was commanded by the neighbouring houses, from the roof of which the inhabitants watched all our proceedings with irritating pertinacity, until they were driven off by threats and imprecations. It was a lovely, balmy, spring-like evening, but there was an ominous look in the setting sun, which portended a coming storm, though we little dreamt of what was actually in store for us.
Next morning, Saturday, March 15th, on getting up at 4.30 a.m., we found the wind blowing hard from the east and the sky gloomy and overcast. The stage that we had before us was a long one, thirty-two miles, and in view of this I had taken the precaution to send the horses belonging to Mihr some miles ahead to await our arrival upon those which we had ridden the night before. Our track lay over a gravelly and sandy soil, and as soon as we got clear of the village and cultivated grounds of Mihr, we found the easterly gale blowing up into our faces clouds of blinding dust, through which glared fitfully the struggling rays of the half-hidden sun. More than once the violence of the storm took away our breath, and at times it seemed as if the horses could scarcely make head against it. On one occasion, owing to the thickness of the atmosphere by which we were surrounded, we got off the track and found ourselves hopelessly wandering in the wilderness. Fortunately I knew from the road notes with which we were furnished before leaving Tehran our general direction, and by consulting a pocket compass we eventually groped back on to the track, and after a twelve-mile ride from Mihr we reached a large brick serai, where we found and changed on to the horses which had been sent forward. After a short delay we continued our journey through the storm, passing at twenty-eight miles the village of Kashrood, and at thirty-two miles reached the commercial town of Sabziwar, having taken over five hours to cover the distance. Our eyes suffered considerably from the heat, as well as the dust, or rather sand, with which they were filled; but fortunately, in the carefully prepared medicine-chest supplied to us by Dr. Odling at Tehran, we found proper lotions with which to bathe them. Sabziwar is a fortified town of eighteen thousand inhabitants, in which a great deal of trade is springing up with Kuchan and Askabad, and where the cultivation of cotton is greatly on the increase. The 'manzil,' or station house, where we lunched, is a very shabby one for so important a town as Sabziwar, and enjoys an unpleasant notoriety for thieving and plundering. The Persian telegraph clerk, who called on us during luncheon, brought us some Tehran telegrams and conveyed messages for us to our distant friends. He invited us to pay him a visit at his house in the telegraph station on our way out of the town, and to this proposal we assented. At 2.30 we mounted fresh horses, and riding slowly through the crowded and busy little bazaars, reached the telegraph office, where we were received with a rather amusing attempt at pomp and solemnity. On being ushered up the stairs, at the top of which we were received by our host and several of his friends, we entered a long room, at the far end of which we found two chairs, placed side by side. Upon these we seated ourselves like kings upon their thrones, whilst our entertainers crouched in Persian fashion on the floor, and an inquisitive crowd, pushing and hustling at the open door, stared to their heart's content at the strange Feringhis. In the meanwhile, Chivers, seated on her horse and guarded by Ali Akber, was an object of great interest to those of the crowd who were forced to remain outside. After drinking tea, eating excellent short-cake, and exchanging polite phrases in our best Persian we took leave of our host, and resumed our journey at half-past three. Scarcely had we emerged from the town when we found ourselves exposed to the full fury of the sand which had increased, instead of, as we had fondly hoped, diminished, in violence. Our route lay due east, over an undulating plain with gravelly soil, and our destination was the post-house of Zafarani, twenty-five miles distant, but after struggling for about fourteen miles against the storm, we resolved, in consequence of the night closing in, to seek shelter in a wayside village, Jouley, which was indicated to us by a wayfarer whom we chanced to pass. It was a wretched little place, a mere conglomeration of a few mud houses, and there being no 'manzil' or 'serai' of any kind, we had to depend upon native hospitality. A great dispute arose between some of the inhabitants as to who should have the honour and profit of lodging us, and the quarrel at one moment became so violent that the gholam and I were forced to make a demonstration with our whips, in order to save the party from being torn to pieces by our would-be entertainers. Finally we decided to camp for the night in a small room burrowed out of a kind of mud platform or terrace, up which we clambered by some exceedingly defective steps; and as we curled ourselves up in our blankets for the night and listened to the wind raging pitilessly outside, we congratulated ourselves on having found, if not a comfortable, at any rate a safe and secure refuge from the storm.
On getting up the next morning, Sunday, March 16, we found it still blowing, but the violence of the wind, which was unpleasantly biting, seemed to have moderated. Our preparations took longer than usual, as our room was full of fine sand which had blown into it during the night, and had thickly powdered our clothes, saddles, blankets, &c. At eight o'clock we mounted, and proceeded in single file over a sandy and desert plain at a foot's pace for about four miles, when we passed a huge caravanserai, into which, in despair, we turned for shelter. It was crowded with camels, donkeys, and native travellers, weatherbound like ourselves, and it was almost painful to see the cakes of sand clotted round the eyes of the unfortunate animals, which we knew from personal experience must have been causing intolerable irritation. Our own faces, in spite of veils, handkerchiefs, and spectacles, were plastered with fine sand, which adhered to the skin by means of the moisture running from our eyes. We found tea the best thing for washing our faces under these conditions, and we bathed our eyes with cooling lotions taken from our medicine chest. Our gholam said he had never experienced in all his many journeys so violent a sand-storm, and as we found it impossible to proceed we took possession of a half empty wool-shed, where we spread our carpets and prepared our luncheon. By this means we whiled away some three hours, every few minutes cautiously opening the door and peering out into the thick, stormy, and sand-laden atmosphere, in order to ascertain what chance we had of reaching that day the post-station of Zafarani, which was only eight miles distant — so near and yet so far! Soon after twelve, fortified by our lunch and not relishing the prospect of spending the night in a desolate wool-shed, we hardened our hearts and sallied forth into the teeth of the storm. We could only proceed in single file at a walking pace; the sand was literally blinding, and each rider was only just able to keep the tail of the horse in front of him in view; no talking was possible, owing to the violence of the wind and the danger of being choked with sand. After one hour and a half of blinding torture we struggled into Zafarani, where we spent the rest of the day, bathing our sore eyes, and beating and brushing our clothes. During the night the storm continued raging, and in the morning when we awoke we found all our clothes, which had been so carefully cleaned, covered with a coating of fine sand. Chivers' disgust and indignation may well be imagined.
On going out about 6.30, Monday, March 17th, I found that the wind had slightly moderated, and as our course lay over rocky and gravelly soil there was less danger of our again suffering as we had the day before. By eight o'clock everything was ready for a start; but we had scarcely mounted when rain and sleet came down in such torrents, beaten against our faces by the east wind, that we resolved to wait. In an hour, the storm having slightly moderated, we made a second attempt to proceed, enveloped in good waterproofs. Our destination was Shurâb, i.e., 'Salt water.' The road was good throughout, though stony in some places and narrow in others. After three miles we began a gradual ascent into the hills, where the rain turned into fine driving snow; after nine miles we passed a large, empty caravanserai, where we took refuge for a short time, and then pushed on, fighting against a heavy snow-storm, until we reached the post-station of Shurâb, seventeen miles, where we lit a fire, dried our clothes, and lunched; but the post-boy with our luggage did not put in an appearance for two hours after our arrival.
We left Shurab at 1.30 for a twenty-five mile ride to Nishapūr. Our route was east-south-east, descending over undulating hills to a tract called Dasht-i-Garinab. The weather at first looked brighter, but ere long we found ourselves exposed to heavy, cold rain. At ten miles we had to cross a bridgeless water-course, and the banks being steep and muddy we were forced to dismount and lead our horses across; in spite of this the gholam's horse fell, and for a time seemed hopelessly bogged; having with difficulty extricated it, we pushed on over a soft, salt plain, into which the horses sank heavily — these were the worst horses which we had had on the whole journey, and for the last five miles they could scarcely proceed at a walking pace, which was all the more trying, because in the dim, misty distance, through the driving rain we could discern our destination, which we seemed utterly unable to reach. At 6.30, having taken five hours to do twenty-five miles, we literally staggered into Nishapūr, and finding the bala khaneh too cold and draughty to be occupied, we chose one of the small, dark, lower rooms, where we lit a fire and proceeded to dry our soaked clothes. At 9.30 we dined, having previously received a formal visit from the Persian telegraph clerk, whom we politely entertained with as much grandeur and dignity as our limp condition and wretched surroundings would permit.
Next morning, Tuesday, March 18th, we were awakened by daylight shining through a hole in the roof just above our mattresses, so it was fortunate that no rain fell in the night. On going out about six we were delighted to see a gleam of blue sky, and although the air felt damp and raw and the neighbouring hills were covered with snow, the weather looked better and more hopeful than it had for several days. While waiting for early breakfast we strolled about the town of Nishapūr, which contains now only ten thousand inhabitants, and is a place devoid of interest, with the exception of the celebrated turquoise mines, which are situated twenty-eight miles to the north.
After breakfast we started for a twenty miles ride to Kadamgah, all of us having good horses with the exception of Chivers, who had to content herself with a rough chestnut pony. After going about two miles the wretched little animal fell, and sent his rider headlong into a patch of cultivated ground. Fortunately it was soft falling, so no harm was done beyond the shock, which a pull at my brandy-flask speedily counteracted. The gholam was sent back to fetch a better and more trustworthy horse, whilst we remained for about three-quarters of an hour by the roadside, and watched native travellers — men, women, and children — as well as corpses, in coffins and without coffins, slowly wending their weary way to the sainted spots of Kadamgah and Meshed. At 9.30 we made a fresh start, over an alluvial plain and cultivated ground, studded here and there with trees and villages. For the first fourteen miles the country had a smiling, prosperous look, but the last six miles were over gravelly and stony ground. We reached Kadamgah, where there is a good post-house, a caravanserai, and a shrine of some note, at 11.30. Tradition says that a mark on a large stone at Kadamgah is the foot-print of the holy Imaum Riza, whose shrine is at Meshed. That saint certainly showed excellent taste in halting at Kadamgah, as it is a most picturesque spot, with beautiful trees and rich cultivation, but it is inhabited by Syeds, who are, of course, a rascally lot. The horses at this place were such wretched scarcrows that we refused to take them, and decided to push on with our Nishapûr horses another twenty miles to Fakridood, where we knew General MacLean had sent his own horses to meet us. Our road took us past many villages, some in the plain on our right, others perched on offshoots of the mountains upon the left, and at three o'clock we reached the huge, draughty caravanserai of Fakridood, where we found three good riding horses, as well as an excellent lunch, prepared by General MacLean's servants.
After doing ample justice to all the good things spread before us, we started for a twelve-mile ride to Shurifabad, the last post-house at which we should sleep before reaching Meshed. A cold east wind was blowing, which seemed to threaten snow,but we were fortunately spared any further wettings. The road was uninteresting, skirting the mountain range, until the plain and village of Shurifabad is reached, where there is a strip of cultivation and a good supply of water. The chapar khaneh had been carefully swept out and a fire lighted by General MacLean's servants, so we felt as if we were once more entering the circle of civilisation.
The next morning we started at 8.30 for our final ride — twenty-four miles, into Meshed. The road was rough over the mountains for about five miles, when a broad valley was crossed, after which there is an ascent over the spur of the mountain range which bounds the Meshed plain on the south-south-west. After crossing this spur the plain of Meshed, with the sacred city itself, burst upon our view. A descent of four or five miles brought us to the caravanserai of Turukh, where we were met by Mr. Stagno Navarra, who had ridden out to meet us, and from whom we received a very warm greeting. He told us that General MacLean would meet us near the city, but that he had not recovered sufficiently from his recent illness to ride out any great distance. We rode for some six miles along a broad road, with young trees on each side and cultivated ground, keeping the golden cupola of the shrine of Imaum Riza well in view, and met with no further mishap beyond seeing our gholam's weary horse stumble and fall heavily, pitching its rider some yards over its head, but with the pluck and tenacity which distinguishes all Persians of Turkish or Turcoman blood, he was up and mounted in the twinkling of an eye. About two miles from the principal gate of the city we were met by General MacLean on horseback, accompanied by his escort of six Indian Sowars in full uniform, and six Turcoman gholams in their picturesque native dress; and with this escort we rode into the capital of the Khorassan. This city, like Tehran, is surrounded by a mud rampart, with a broad ditch about ten feet deep and thirty feet broad; it is about six miles in circumference, and is commercially of considerable importance, as it is the great centre of trade between India, Persia, and Bokhara. It is entered by six gates, all built on the same model; they are of wood studded with iron, and each one is flanked by two towers thirty feet high, loopholed and connected over the gate with a parapet. The defences of Meshed are, however, very weak, and the city, it is said, could be easily stormed by infantry without ladders. We rode along the main street, the Khiaben, which is about 2700 yards long, through the bazaars, where much hot and even angry discussion arose as to whether the occupants of the side-saddles were men or women, and finally dismounted at 11.40 at General MacLean's house, where, for the first time for nearly a fortnight, we sat down at a table to a comfortable luncheon, instead of crouching upon the floor.
At Meshed we remained eight days, and recruited our strength in the hospitable house of General MacLean. It is impossible for us to do justice in words to all his kindness towards us. The greater part of the large, rambling, Persian house which he temporarily occupies, was given up to our use, all his servants and horses were placed at our disposal, and every morning early he himself would prepare, and serve personally at our bedroom door, an excellent 'pick-me-up,' most appropriately termed 'the Doctor,' which consisted of eggs shaken up in milk, and strengthened by a proper mixture of unlimited whiskey and curaçoa. A drink of this nature, made and served by the war-worn hands of a distinguished cavalry general, possesses revivifying qualities of no mean order, of which we all speedily became living examples, and whilst the seductive beverage was being imbibed, the strains of a sweet-toned barrel-organ, worked by the same genial host, would reach our ears, at one moment in the shape of 'The Old Hundredth,' at another in that of La Fille de Madame Angot,' tunes of these opposite natures succeeding each other with the most laudable and indifferent impartiality.
The European society of Meshed is very small. It consists of General MacLean, Mr. Vice-Consul Thomson, Dr. and Mrs. Woolbert, the Russian Consul-General, M. de Vlassow, with his English-born wife, his secretary, and Mr. Stagno Navarra, of the Indian Government Telegraph Department, who, however, only occasionally resides at Meshed. Madame de Vlassow has a beautifully arranged house, where she and her husband dispense a refined and liberal hospitality to the rare and therefore much-appreciated strangers who appear in Meshed. General MacLean was engaged during our visit in negotiating the purchase of a well wooded and watered garden, of twenty-five or thirty acres in extent,outside the walls of the town, upon which the Government of India contemplate building an English Residency. Not only — putting aside all political considerations — will it be a great boon to the Consul-General and his staff to have well-built English houses in which to reside, in lieu of a rambling and unimposing Persian abode, but the comfort and enjoyment of being beyond the walls of the town cannot be over-estimated. Inside the walls it is difficult for European gentlemen, and quite impossible for European ladies, to move a yard in public, either on foot or on horseback, without being accompanied by an escort of ferashes or foot and cavalry soldiers on horseback, and it is difficult under such conditions to get rid of the feeling that one is more or less of a state prisoner, nor are the chains the less galling because they are so heavily gilded.
During our stay at Meshed Iwas presented to the Governor-General of Khorassan, His Highness the Rookem-ed-Dowleh, brother of the Shah, whom in face and figure he much resembles, although he is a man of far less active habits. His chief Minister, the 'Pishkar,' upon whom I also called, and who lost no time in returning my visit, is a jolly old Persian, very courteous, and possessing a strong sense of humour. The 'Karguzar,' or Foreign Office Agent residing at Meshed, during the course of my visit to him conducted me over his extensive and shady garden. We were accompanied during our stroll by a retinue of about twenty servants, and every few minutes my host would stop, call for his 'kalian' or water pipe,' and indulge, with much gurgling and puffing, in a few whiffs, which would give him energy to proceed, or rather to crawl, another dozen yards. On my return to General MacLean's house, I found that all the Persians whose acquaintance I had made, including Abbas Khan, our ex-Agent at Meshed, as well as our present Herat Agent, at that time absent on leave, had sent me the usual Persian offerings of welcome, and I consequently found myself the possessor of a small flock of sheep and lambs, and of a shop-full of sticky sweetmeats.
The only building of note in Meshed is the shrine of Imaum Riza, with its mosque and gilded cupola, which gleams far and wide in the Persian sun. Inside this sacred building no 'infidel' can, of course, enter. Hither flock yearly hundreds of pious votaries of the Shiite sect of the Mussulman religion, who once they have visited the holy spot are authorised to prefix the title of 'Mashdi' to their names. 'Mashdi Kennedy' would doubtless sound well in Mussulman ears, but to an Englishman there is a suspicious ring of 'Mister' pronounced somewhat thickly by one who has dined not wisely but too well. In the neighbouring cemetery are laid thousands of corpses, transported from different parts of the empire, who in their passage to their last resting-place have tainted the pure summer air with their odoriferous exhalations,whilst within the outer court of the shrine are collected criminals of every shade, who have taken 'bust' or refuge from the arm of the law or from the vengeance of their private pursuers. Once inside the 'bust' the refuge is sacred, and not even the Shah himself can drag him from the horns, so to speak, of the altar. Here he therefore remains until he has successfully negotiated an arrangement with his adversary, either by paying a 'blood tax,' in case of murder, or by giving satisfactory guarantees for the discharge of any legitimate and ordinary debt.
Meshed, which has about 50,000 inhabitants, cannot in any way lay claim to the title of a manufacturing town, the only industry being the manufacture of silks and carpets, which are all, of course, made by hand. There are in the town 650 looms for silk weaving, 320 looms for shawl weaving, and 40 carpet-weaving looms. We were conducted over one small, pokey little establishment by its owner, a tall, lean Persian, where we saw several men and boys engaged with the looms. They work according to a pattern, and three or four men are employed at the same time upon one carpet, which if about twelve or fifteen feet square takes three months to make, and costs 15l. or 20l.