A Journey in Khorassan and Central Asia/Chapter 3
The Caspian and Mazanderan.
On Monday, the 21st of April, the steamer Caspic arrived from Astracan, and in her we took passage for the Persian port of Meshed-i-Sar. Our friend, Lieutenant Samozensky, passed us through the Custom House without any difficulty, and after lunching with us on board, took leave. We were really sorry to part with him, as his kindness and hospitality to us had been of no common order, but in truth we were not sorry to leave Russian territory. All our movements, sayings, and doings had been jealously watched and reported upon by officers told off to spy upon us, and, with a few rare exceptions, we had received but scanty kindness and courtesy at the hands of Russian officials; those who formed an exception to the rule we invariably found to be of German, Polish, or Finnish origin, but the genuine Slav, the officials whose names terminated in 'off,' 'eff,' and 'ow,' were hostilely suspicious, and at times overbearingly rude; their conduct, we fondly hoped, contrasts strongly and glaringly with the demeanour which we believe would be adopted by British officials in the native districts of India or in the disturbed quarters of Ireland towards a Russian diplomatist travelling obviously en touriste for the simple and avowed object of instruction and personal amusement. Some allowance must, perhaps, be made for the inability of the average Russian officer to realise the fondness of Europeans in general, and Englishmen in particular, for travelling on their own account for the simple pleasure of seeing new places. Many of the Russian officers whom we met had lived three, four, or five years in the same district without even going outside of it; they were extraordinarily ignorant and indifferent to the resources of their own newly acquired territories, and in some cases they did not even know the names of the stations on their own railway. Painful from one point of view as this ignorance may be, it is not altogether to be deplored, for, if knowledge be power, the Russian position in Central Asia is under the present régime one of great weakness. Cards, dice, and drink, with dreams of frontier affrays, which may bring him decorations and promotion, are the only means which the average Russian officer possesses for killing time in those barren steppes in which his lot may be cast, and he is content to be but a simple atom in the fateful and irresponsible Russian advance which has hitherto borne down in Central Asia all attempts at resistance by the sheer weight of overwhelming numbers and of mysterious prestige.
The voyage from Uzun-Ada to Meshed-i-Sar occupies thirty-six hours, including a few hours' stoppage at the dreary and desolate Russian outpost of Tchikishliar, as well as at the Persian harbour of Gez, near Astrabad. At Gez there is a large natural harbour formed by a long, narrow spit of land, at the extremity of which is the Russian naval station of Ashrada. Here there are a couple of Russian dispatch boats, and one or two hulks; but the raison d'être of this establishment has altogether disappeared now that the Turcoman pirates, against whose predatory excursions it was directed, have, like their brethren on land, been brought under the iron discipline of the Russian Government. The islet of Ashruda, on which are built a few small, attractive-looking houses, and which is planted with trees, shrubs, and herbage, is gradually being washed away by the action of the sea, and will necessarily, in the course of the next few years, be completely abandoned. Here we disembarked our only other first-class passenger, the young and good-looking daughter of the naval commandant of Ashruda, as well as several second-class passengers, including the wife of a naval lieutenant belonging to one of the dispatch boats in the harbour, who was accompanied by a large family of dirty children and a miscellaneous collection of the commonest house furniture, which would be a disgrace to the cottage of the humblest English mechanic.
We were introduced by our Captain, a cheery English-speaking sailor from Courland, to the Steamboat Company's agent at Gez. He is an Englishman who has been many years in the Russian service, and who sensibly makes the best of his existence in the muddy little village, where he occupies a fairly comfortable house. From him I learnt that a concession of all the fishing in the Persian waters of the Caspian is held by a Russian merchant, who pays the Shah an annual sum of 45,000l. for the privilege, and makes a large fortune out of it. The whole of this northern part of Persia, in striking contrast to the sandy steppes we had left, is hilly, thickly wooded, and saturated with moisture; but as a natural consequence it is, during part of the year, a perfect fever bed. From Gez a night's easy steaming brought us to Meshed-i-Sar, which we reached at daybreak, and after being delayed several hours in this open and entirely unprotected roadstead, where passengers and cargo can only be disembarked in calm weather, we landed in one of the large flat-bottomed Persian barges, which came out about three miles to meet us, and which rolled and pitched in the heavy surf in a way which put the sea legs, or rather stomachs, of the passengers to a very severe test. On landing we were met by our native agent resident at Astrabad, who had come to meet us, bringing with him four fairly good riding and five pack horses. Our head Persian servant, Kuli, also met us, bringing from Tehran about forty letters, besides bundles of newspapers, as well as provisions, wines, and other small luxuries, sent by the careful forethought of our 'nazir,' or house steward, McCormick. We lunched in the comfortable house, situated on the banks of a prettily wooded stream, of a Russian merchant, to whom we were introduced by our Astrabad agent, and at two o'clock we started, after the usual wrangling between the 'chavadars,' or pack-horse owners, who quarrel incessantly about their respective loads, for a short march of fourteen miles to Barfrush. Our direction was south, following the Babil river through a rich and well-cultivated country, covered with fine walnut, mulberry, and orange-trees. We passed numerous orchards and luxuriant gardens, and we reached the prosperous and smiling village of Barfrush, with its busy little bazaar, at sunset. Here we were lodged in a most comfortable house, belonging to a Persian, who holds the post of Russian native Consular Agent, and who vacated all his well-furnished rooms for our benefit, and caused a most recherché dinner to be served. With Oriental courtesy he refused to sit at table, but busied himself with seeing that all our wants were attended to. The next morning, Friday, April 24th, he accompanied us, together with our Astrabad agent, for some miles on our journey to Amol, through a thickly-wooded country, where, owing to the recent rains, the going was exceedingly heavy. We parted from our companions after crossing the Babil river, and continuing our ride at a slow pace — partly in order that our caravan might keep pace, and partly to save our horses, as they laboured heavily through the deep rice swamps, which lie scattered at intervals in the overgrown jungles — we halted at fifteen miles, by the river side, for an al fresco luncheon. Our track at this point turned west, and just before arriving at Amol — a straggling and ill-paved village — we recrossed the river by a curious stone bridge, one hundred yards long, and not more than one yard in breadth. A striking proof of the heavy rains which, in the autumn and spring, inundate the whole of this part of Persia, is seen in the solid tile-roofed houses, which appear quite palatial compared with the flat mud roofs to be seen in all the villages of Persia outside of the two northern provinces of Mazanderan and Ghilam. The 'kedkhoda,' or head man of the village, placed a large empty house at our disposal, and here we camped for the night, our rest being much disturbed by the presence of the vermin with which this otherwise decent habitation was horribly infested. At nine next morning we resumed our march, following for about eight miles the river Haraz through a thick jungle, and occasionally in crossing and recrossing the river, which was greatly swollen by recent rains, and by the melting of the snow on the mountains, our horses were almost swept off their legs. After thirteen miles we ascended a steep, rocky causeway, which has recently been repaired, and which, though sometimes unpleasantly narrow where it has been blocked by landslips, is perfectly practicable for horses and laden mules. Our destination was Parus, where there is no village, but merely a broken-down old caravanserai, and about thirty large caves burrowed in the cliff overhanging the river, which afford accommodation to the numerous caravans that frequent this route. Fortunately for us a small house, recently built by a wealthy Persian as a summer residence, was tenantless, and it having been placed at our disposal by the caretaker, we camped with tolerable comfort for the night. We continued our march at eight a.m. on Saturday, 26th of April, after a somewhat disturbed night, proceeding in a southerly direction by a good rough track cut in the towering cliffs, which here overhang the foaming river Haraz. Occasionally we passed a wretched village nestling in the rocks, and after a twenty-four miles march we took up our quarters in a small caravanserai in the miserable village of Bandabourideh.
Next morning we left for a short day's march of thirteen miles to Raineh, proceeding in a south and south by west direction, and still following the grand defile along which we had marched the previous day. Just after leaving Bandabourideh we passed a spring of warm volcanic water, in which several mule-drivers were indulging up to their necks in a luxurious bath. At four miles we passed an enormous bas-relief, carved in the face of the cliffs, representing the Shah on horseback, with ten of his ministers in full uniform, standing five on each side of his Imperial Majesty. The likenesses were good, and the work was remarkably well executed. It was done in commemoration of a journey made along this route some years ago by the Shah. At that time the track had fallen into such complete disrepair that this pass had become almost impracticable. Thanks, however, to the Shah, it has now been put into tolerable order, and although it is not a route feasible for delicate or nervous travellers, it is made frequent use of by caravans trading between the ports of Gez and Meshed-i-Sar and the capital, Tehran.
Raineh, which is a large and prosperous village, is situated on the high left bank of the river Haraz, and nestles under the shoulder of lofty mount Demavend. It is surrounded with high crags and yawning precipices, frequented by innumerable golden-headed eagles, and carrion-devouring vultures. We were lodged for the night in a newly built house, belonging to a Persian Hadji, who was then absent at Amol. The cold here was very great, and we were glad to make use of mangols, or charcoal braziers.
The next morning, on rising at daybreak, we found to our dismay that snow was falling heavily, and was lying several inches thick on the ground. Our chavadar, in view of the stiff mountain pass which we had that day to cross, objected to leaving Raineh, but as we had no intention of being imprisoned for an indefinite time in this solitary Persian village, we compelled him to proceed. Wrapped in thick cloaks and waterproofs, with our heads bound up in 'Bashliks' and sou'westers, we clambered slowly up the dreary mountain pass in deep snow, proceeding in single file. All the mountain tops were lost to sight in the driving snowstorm. We took four hours covering twelve miles, and stopped for luncheon in a dreary little caravanserai, which we shared in common with several goats and innumerable cocks and hens. After an hour's rest, we proceeded on our slow and weary way towards the summit of the pass, Imam Zadeh Hashim, but we had not marched for more than half an hour when, to our horror and disgust, we met our chavadar, who, having started in front of us, had turned back, declaring the route in the teeth of such a storm, to be quite impracticable. After some wrangling with this individual, who appeared to be even more obstinate than the ordinary run of Persian mule-owners, we left him to his own devices, warning him that if he did not turn up that night at our proposed halting-place — the village of Ar — he might apply in vain for his money. We then pushed on through the snowy mist, our gholam remarking that the chavadar's love of money would compel him to follow us, once he saw that we were fairly determined to continue our route. We passed several caravans of laden mules and donkeys, struggling in the deep snow, and every now and then came across a wretched beast which, having broken down in its struggles, had been left by its owner to perish in the snow, where, before long, it would become food for jackals and vultures. The descent from the summit of the pass was steeper and even more difficult than the ascent. Our horses being utterly unable to keep on their legs, we were compelled to dismount, and we all slithered and tumbled about on the mountain side for nearly an hour, in a way which would have been ludicrous if it had not been painfully exhausting. Patience and tenacity at length met with their reward, and by sunset we reached the valley in which the village of Ar is situated, where, two hours later, we were joined by our truant chavadar, who was not a little proud of his own performance, and who was much surprised at the objurgations which were heaped on his devoted head for having kept us so long waiting in our soaked and travel-worn clothes, deprived of all the simple little comforts carried on the backs of his pack-horses.
The night which we spent at Ar was the last before reaching the civilisation of Tehran, as we had resolved to cover the thirty-six miles which separated us from our comfortable house in one day, and for this purpose had sent orders that our own riding horses should come out half way to meet us. After a pleasant three hours' ride in the morning of the 29th of April along a well-cultivated and well-watered valley, we found them at a picturesque caravanserai on the banks of the river Jagerood. After lunch, during which we eagerly devoured the contents of a fresh consignment of letters brought by our grooms from Tehran, we mounted our own good horses for a final gallop home. After passing a well-built and prettily situated shooting-box of the Shah, we entered upon well-known and familiar ground, where we were met by a large party of riders, who had come out about eight miles to welcome the heroine of the expedition, and to congratulate her upon her plucky performances. In their pleasant company we rode gaily into Tehran and dismounted in the Legation gardens, which we had left exactly eight weeks before brown and bare, but which we now found a perfect Garden of Eden, with banks of flowers and streams of water, over which the rich spring foliage of the trees formed a vast green and refreshing bower, to which the eyes of travellers, sore and almost blinded by days and hours passed amid desert steppes and snowy mountains, were but little accustomed. During our two months' wanderings we had travelled a distance of over two thousand miles, of which nearly one-half had been performed on horseback; and we had derived much useful knowledge and information with regard to the ways, habits, and political aspirations of Persians, Sarts, Uzbegs, Turcomans, and Russians, with all of whom we had been brought into contact during our wanderings in Khorassan and in Central Asia.
Tehran, June 1890.
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