Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter viii

Twelve hours and a half of hard riding have brought us here in two days. No doctor could be obtained in Kûm, and it was necessary to bring the sick men on as quickly as possible for medical treatment. It was bitterly cold on the last day, though the altitude is only 3400 feet, and it was a tiresome day, for I had not only to look over and repack, but to clean the cooking utensils and other things, which had not been touched apparently since we left Baghdad!

This is a tedious part of the journey, a “beaten track” with few features of interest, the great highway from Isfahan to Tihran, a road of dreary width; where it is a made road running usually perfectly straight, with a bank and a ditch on each side. The thaw is now complete, and travelling consists of an attempt to get on by the road till it becomes an abyss which threatens to prove bottomless, then there is a plunge and a struggle to the top of the bank, or over the bank to the trodden waste, but any move can be only temporary, the all-powerful mire regulates the march. The snow is nothing to the mud. Frequently carcasses of camels, mules, and asses, which have lain down to die under their loads, were passed, then caravans with most of the beasts entangled in the miry clay, unable to rise till they were unloaded by men up to their knees in the quagmire, and, worst of all, mules loaded with the dead, so loosely tied up in planks that in some cases when the mule flounders and falls, the miserable relics of humanity tumble out upon the swamp; and these scenes of falling, struggling, and even perishing animals are repeated continually along the level parts of this scarcely passable highroad.

Our loads, owing to bad tackle, were always coming off, the groom’s mule fell badly, the packs came off another, and half an hour was spent in catching the animal, then I was thrown from my horse into soft mud.

Cultivation ceases a short distance from Kûm, giving place to a brown waste, with patches of saline efflorescence upon it, on which high hills covered partially with snow send down low spurs of brown mud. The water nearly everywhere is brackish, and only just drinkable. After crossing a rapid muddy river, nearly dry in summer, by a much decayed bridge of seven or eight low arches, we reached terra firma, and a long gradual ascent and a series of gallops brought us to the large caravanserai of Shashgird, an immense place with imposing pretensions which are fully realised within. In the outer court camels were lying in rows. A fine tiled archway leads to an immense quadrangle, with a fine stone abambar or covered receptacle for water in the middle. All round the quadrangle are arched recesses or mangers, each with a room at the back, to the number of eighty. At two of the corners there are enclosed courtyards with fountains, several superior rooms with beds (much to be avoided), chairs, mirrors, and tables fairly clean — somewhat dreary luxury, but fortunately at this season free from vermin. That caravanserai can accommodate 1000 men in rooms, and 1500 mules.

To-day’s long march, which, however, has had more road suitable for galloping, has been over wild, weird, desolate, God-forsaken country, interesting from its desolation and its great wastes, forming part of the Kavir or Great Salt Desert of Persia, absolutely solitary, with scarcely a hamlet — miles of the great highway of Persia without a living creature, no house, no bush, nothing. Later, there were some vultures feasting on a dead camel, and a mule-load of two bodies down in the mud.

Some miles from Shashgird, far from the road, there is a large salt lake over which some stationary mists were brooding. Beyond this an ascent among snow clouds along some trenched land where a few vines and saplings have been planted leads to a caravanserai built for the accommodation of state officials on their journeys, where in falling snow we vindicated our origin in the triumphant West by taking lunch on a windy verandah outside rather than in the forlorn dampness of the inside, and brought a look of surprise even over the impassive face of the seraidar.

When we left the snow was falling in large wet flakes, and the snow clouds were drifting wildly among the peaks of a range which we skirted for a few miles and then crossed at a considerable height among wonderful volcanic formations, mounds of scoriæ, and outcrops of volcanic rock, hills of all shapes fantastically tumbled about, chiefly black, looking as if their fires had only just died out, streaked and splotched with brilliant ash — orange, carmine, and green — a remarkable volcanic scene, backed by higher hills looking ghastly in the snow.

After passing over an absolutely solitary region of camel-brown plains and slopes at a gallop, M——a little in front always, and Abbas Khan, the wildest figure imaginable, always half a length behind, the thud of the thundering hoofs mingling with the screech of the cutting north wind which, coming over the snowy Elburz range, benumbed every joint, on the slope of a black volcanic hill we came upon the lofty towers and gaudy tiled front of this great caravanserai, imposing at a distance in the solitude and snow clouds, but shabby on a nearer view, and tending to disintegrate from the presence of saltpetre in the bricks and mortar.

There are successions of terraces and tanks of water with ducks and geese upon them, and buildings round the topmost terrace intended to be imposing. The seraidar is expecting the Amin-es-Sultan (the Prime Minister) and his train, who will occupy rather a fine though tawdry “suite of apartments”; but though they were at our service, I prefer the comparative cosiness of a small, dark, damp room, though with a very smoky chimney, as I find to my cost.

British Legation, Tihran, Feb. 26.— The night was very cold, and the reveille specially unwelcome in the morning. The people were more than usually vague about the length of the march, some giving the distance at twenty-five miles, and others making it as high as thirty-eight. As we did a good deal of galloping and yet took more than seven hours, I suppose it may be about twenty-eight. Fortunately we could desert the caravan, as the caravanserais are furnished and supply tea and bread. The baggage mules took ten hours for the march.

The day was dry and sunny, and the scenery, if such a tract of hideousness can be called scenery, was at its best. Its one charm lies in the solitude and freedom of a vast unpeopled waste.

The “made road” degenerates for the most part into a track “made” truly, but rather by the passage of thousands of animals during a long course of ages than by men’s hands. This track winds among low ranges of sand and mud hills, through the “Pass of the Angel of Death,” crosses salt and muddy streams, gravelly stretches, and quagmires of mud and tenacious clay, passing through a country on the whole inconceivably hideous, unfinished, frothy, and saturated with salt — the great brown desert which extends from Tihran to Quetta in Beloochistan, a distance of 2000 miles.

On a sunny slope we met the Prime Minister with a considerable train of horsemen. He stopped and spoke with extreme courtesy, through an interpreter, for, unlike most Persians of the higher class, he does not speak French. He said we had been for some time expected at Tihran, and that great fears were entertained for our safety, which we had heard at Kûm. He is a pleasant-looking man with a rather European expression, not more than thirty-two or thirty-three, and in spite of intrigues and detractors has managed to keep his hazardous position for some years. His mother was lately buried at Kûm, and he was going thither on pilgrimage. After the usual compliments he bowed his farewells, and the gay procession with its brilliant trappings and prancing horses flashed by. The social standing of a Persian is evidenced by the size of his retinue, and the first of the Shah’s subjects must have been attended by fully forty well-mounted men, besides a number of servants who were riding with his baggage animals.

Shortly after passing him a turn among the hills brought the revelation through snow clouds of the magnificent snow-covered chain of the Elburz mountains, with the huge cone of Demavend, their monarch, 18,600 feet23 in height, towering high above them, gleaming sunlit above the lower cloud-masses. Swampy water-courses, a fordable river crossed by a broad bridge of five arches, more low hills, more rolling desert, then a plain of mud irrigated for cultivation, difficult ground for the horses, the ruins of a deserted village important enough to have possessed two imamzadas, and then we reached the Husseinabad, which has very good guest-rooms, with mirrors on the walls.

This caravanserai is only one march from Tihran, and it seemed as if all difficulties were over. Abbas Khan and the sick orderly were sent on early, with a baggage mule loaded with evening dress and other necessities of civilisation; the caravan was to follow at leisure, and M—— and I started at ten, without attendants, expecting to reach Tihran early in the afternoon.

It is six days since that terrible ride of ten hours and a half, and my bones ache as I recall it. I never wish to mount a horse again. It had been a very cold night, and for some time after we started it was doubtful whether snow or rain would gain the day, but after an hour of wet snow it decided on rain, and there was a steady downpour all day. The Elburz range, which the day before had looked so magnificent when fifty miles off, was blotted out. This was a great disappointment.

An ascent of low, blackish volcanic hills is made by a broad road of gray gravel, which a torrent has at some time frequented. Thorns and thistles grow there, and skeletons of animals abound. Everything is grim and gray. From these hills we descended into the Kavir, a rolling expanse of friable soil, stoneless, strongly impregnated with salt, but only needing sufficient water to wash the salt out of it and to irrigate it to become as prolific as it is now barren.

It is now a sea of mud crossed by a broad road indicated by dykes, that never-to-beforgotten mud growing deeper as the day wore on. Hour after hour we plunged through it, sometimes trying the road, and on finding it impassable scrambling through the ditches and over the dykes to the plain, which after offering firmer foothold for a time became such a “slough of despond” that we had to scramble back to the road, and so on, hour after hour, meeting nothing but one ghastly caravan of corpses, and wretched asses falling in the mud.

At mid-day, scrambling up a gravel hill with a little wormwood upon it, and turning my back to the heavy rain, I ate a lunch of dates and ginger, insufficient sustenance for such fatigue. On again! — the rain pouring, the mud deepening, my spine in severe pain. We turned off to a caravanserai, mostly a heap of ruins, the roofs having given way under the weight of the snow, and there I sought some relief from pain by lying down for the short thirty minutes which could be spared in the seraidar’s damp room. It was then growing late in the afternoon, all landmarks had disappeared in a brooding mist, there were no habitations, and no human beings of whom to ask the way.

The pain returned severely as soon as I mounted, and increased till it became hardly bearable. Ceaseless mud, ceaseless heavy rain, a plain of mud, no refuge from mud and water, attempts to gallop were made with the risk of the horses falling into holes and even kanaats. M—— rode in front. Not a word was spoken. A gleaming dome, with minarets and wood, appeared below the Shimran hills. Unluckily, where two roads met one looked impassable and we took the other, which, though it eventually took us to Tihran, was a détour of some miles.

In the evening, when I was hoping that Tihran was at hand, we reached the town of Shah Abdul Azim, built among the ruins of an ancient city, either Rhages or Rhei. The gilded dome is the shrine of Abdul Azim, and is a great place of pilgrimage of the picnic order from Tihran. The one railroad of Persia runs from the capital to this town. As we floundered in darkness along wide roads planted with trees, there was the incongruity of a railway whistle, and with deep breathing and much glare an engine with some carriages passed near the road, taking away with its harsh Western noises that glorious freedom of the desert which outweighs all the hardship even of a winter journey.

It was several miles from thence to the gate of Tihran. It was nearly pitch dark when we got out of Abdul Azim and the rain still fell heavily. In that thick rainy darkness no houses were visible, even if they exist, there were no passengers on foot or on horseback, it was a “darkness which might be felt.”

There was a causeway which gave foothold below the mud, but it was full of holes and broken culverts, deep in slime, and seemed to have water on each side not particular in keeping within bounds. It was necessary to get on, lest the city gates should be shut, and by lifting and spurring the jaded horses they were induced to trot and canter along that road of pitfalls. I have had many a severe ride in travelling, but never anything equal to that last two hours. The severe pain and want of food made me so faint that I was obliged to hold on to the saddle. I kept my tired horse up, but each flounder I thought would be his last. There was no guidance but an occasional flash from the hoofs of the horse in front, and the word “spur” ringing through the darkness.

After an hour of riding in this desperate fashion we got into water, and among such dangerous holes that from that point we were obliged to walk our horses, who though they were half dead still feebly responded to bit and spur. We reached the dimly-lighted city gate just as half of it was shut, and found Abbas Khan waiting there. The caravan with the other sick men never reached Tihran till late the next morning.

At the gate we learned that it was two miles farther to the British Legation, and that there was no way for me to get there but on horseback. One lives through a good deal, but I all but succumbed to the pain and faintness. Inside the gate there was an open sea of liquid mud, across which, for a time, certain lights shed their broken reflections. There was a railway shriek, and then the appearance of a station with shunting operations vaguely seen in a vague glare.

Then a tramway track buried under several inches of slush came down a slope, and crowded tramway cars with great single lamps came down the narrow road on horses too tired to be frightened, and almost too tired to get out of the way. Then came a street of mean houses and meaner shops lighted with kerosene lamps, a region like the slums of a new American city, with cafés and saloons, barbers’ shops, and European enormities such as gazogenes and effervescing waters in several windows. Later, there were frequent foot passengers preceded by servants carrying huge waxed cambric lanterns of a Chinese shape, then a square with barracks and artillery, a causewayed road dimly lit, then darkness and heavier rain and worse mud, through which the strange spectacle of a carriage and pair incongruously flashed.

By that time even the courage and stamina of an Arab horse could hardly keep mine on his legs, and with a swimming head and dazed brain I could hardly guide him, as I had done from the gate chiefly by the wan gleam of Abbas Khan’s pale horse; and expecting to fall off every minute, I responded more and more feebly and dubiously to the question frequently repeated out of the darkness, “Are you surviving?”

Just as endurance was on the point of giving way, we turned from the road through a large gateway into the extensive grounds which surround the British Legation, a large building forming three sides of a quadrangle, with a fine stone staircase leading up to the central door. Every window was lighted, light streamed from the open door, splashed carriages were dashing up and setting down people in evening dress, there were crowds of servants about, and it flashed on my dazed senses that it must be after eight, and that there was a dinner party!

Arriving from the mud of the Kavir and the slush of the streets, after riding ten hours in ceaseless rain on a worn-out horse; caked with mud from head to foot, dripping, exhausted, nearly blind from fatigue, fresh from mud hovels and the congenial barbarism of the desert, and with the rags and travel-stains of a winter journey of forty-six days upon me, light and festivity were overwhelming.

Alighting at a side door, scarcely able to stand, I sat down in a long corridor, and heard from an English steward that “dinner is waiting.” His voice sounded very far off, and the once familiar announcement came like a memory out of the remote past. Presently a gentleman appeared in evening dress, wearing a star, which conveyed to my fast-failing senses that it was Sir H. Drummond Wolff. It was true that there was a large dinner party, and among the guests the Minister with thoughtful kindness had invited all to whom I had letters of introduction. But it was no longer possible to make any effort, and I was taken up to a room in which the comforts of English civilisation at first made no impression upon me, and removing only the mackintosh cloak, weighted with mud, which had served me so well, I lay down on the hearthrug before a great coal fire till four o’clock the next morning. And “so the tale ended,” and the winter journey with its tremendous hardships and unbounded mercies was safely accomplished.24

I. L. B.

23 The altitude of Demavend is variously stated.

24 I remained for three weeks as Sir H. Drummond Wolff’s guest at the British Legation, receiving from him that courtesy and considerate kindness which all who have been under his roof delight to recall. I saw much of what is worth seeing in Tihran, including the Shah and several of the Persian statesmen, and left the Legation with every help that could be given for a long and difficult journey into the mountains of Luristan.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52