Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xi

I have seen the last of Kûm and hotels and made roads for many months. So much the better! I had to ride the whole length of the bazars and the city, a mile and a half, but the camel-driver’s coat served again as a disguise, and I heard no remarks except from two boys. Indeed I am delighted to find that the “foreign soldier” who rides in front of me attracts so much curiosity that I pass in his wake unnoticed.

The ruinous condition of Kûm is fearful. Once outside the houses and bazars which surround the shrine of Fatima, the town is mostly rubbish and litter, with forlorn, miserable houses created out of the rubbish, grouped near festering pools; broken causeways infamously paved, full of holes, heaps of potsherds, bones obtruding themselves, nothing to please and everything to disgust the eye and sadden the spirit, religious intolerance, a diminished population, and desolation.

The pottery bazar, abounding in blue glazed ware of graceful shapes, and a number of shrines of saints, are the only objects of interest. The domes of the latter were once covered with blue tiles, but these have nearly all peeled off, leaving the universal mud — a mud so self-asserting everywhere that Persia may be called the “Great Mud Land.” The cherry and apricot trees are in full bloom, but as yet there is little greenery round Kûm, and the area of cultivation is very limited.

I am now on the road which, with the exception of that from Tihran to Resht, is best known to travellers,30 but I cannot help sketching it briefly, though the interests are few considering the distance travelled, 280 miles from Tihran to Isfahan. I now see Persia for the first time; for traversing a country buried in snow is not seeing it. It would be premature to express the opinion that the less one sees of it the more one is likely to admire it.

I have been en route for a week under the best possible circumstances — the nights always cool, the days never too warm, the accommodation tolerable, the caravan in excellent working order, no annoyances, and no grievances. The soldier who attends me arranges everything for my comfort, and is always bright and kind. I have no ambition to “beat the record,” but long gallops on a fine Arab horse turn marches of from twenty-two to thirty miles into delightful morning rides of from three and a half to four and a half hours, with long pleasant afternoons following them, and sound sleep at night. These are my halcyon days of Persian travelling; and yet I cannot write that Persia is beautiful.

It is early spring, and tulips and irises rise not out of a carpet of green but, to use the descriptive phrase of Isaiah, “as a root out of a dry ground,” the wormwood is dressed in its gray-green, the buds of the wild dwarf-almond show their tender pink, the starry blossom of the narcissus gleams in moist places, the sky is exquisitely blue, and shining cloud-masses fleck the brown hillsides with violet shadows. Where there is irrigation carpets of young wheat cover the ground; but these, like the villages, occur only at long intervals, for the road passes mainly through a country destitute of water, or rather of arrangements for storing it.

As to natural trees there are none, and even the bushes are few and unlovely, chiefly camel thorn and a rigid and thorny tamarisk. Beyond Kûm there is no made road. A track worn by the caravans of ages exists — sometimes parallel ruts for a width of half a mile, sometimes not two yards wide, and now and then lapsing into illegibility. There are large and small caravanserais of an inferior class along the route, and chapar khanas at intervals. Water is often bad and sometimes brackish. It is usually supplied from small brick abambars, or covered reservoirs. Milk is hard to obtain, often impossible; at some places fowls can be bought for eightpence each, and “flap jacks” everywhere.

Except the snowy cone of Demavend, with purple ranges curtaining his feet, no special object of admiration exists; the plains are reddish, yellowish, barren, gravelly, or splotched with salt; the ranges of hills, which are never far off (for Persia is a land of mountains), are either shapeless and gravelly, or rocky, rugged, and splintered, their hue reddish and purplish, their sides scored by the spring rush of wasted torrents, their aspect one of complete desolation, yet not without a certain beauty at this season — rose-flushed in the early morning, passing through shades of cobalt and indigo through the day, and dying away at sunset in translucent amethyst against a sky of ruddy gold.

But, take away the atmospheric colouring — which the advancing heat will abolish — and the plain English of the route is this, that in every direction, far as the eye can reach, the country is a salt waste or a gravelly waste, with a few limited oases of cultivation on the plains and in the folds of the hills, always treeless, except round a few of the villages, where there are small groves of poplars and willows. The villages are clusters of mud hovels, scarcely distinguishable from the wastes, and many of them are ruined and deserted, oppressive exactions or a failure of water being common reasons for a migration. These dismal ruins are shapeless heaps of mud, the square towers of the square walls alone retaining any semblance of form.

Long lines of choked kanaats, denoted by their crumbling shafts, attest the industrious irrigation of a former day. Tracks wind wearily among shrunken villages, or cross ridges of mud or gravel to take their unlovely way over arid stony plains. Unwatered tracts of land, once cultivated, as the kanaats show, but now deserts of sand and stones, send up gyrating clouds of gritty dust.

Such is Persia between its two capitals; and yet I repeat that in cool weather, and on a good horse, the journey is a very pleasant one. Most European men ride chapar, that is, post; but from what I see of the chapar horses, I would not do it for the sake of doubling the distance travelled in the day, and therefore cannot describe either its pleasures or tortures from experience.

On certain roads, as from Tihran to Shiraz, there are post stations (chapar khana) with horses and men at distances of from twenty to twenty-five miles, with a charge of one kran (eightpence) per farsakh (four miles) for each horse engaged, an order having been previously obtained from a government official. Besides your own horse you have to take one for the shasgird chapar, or post-boy, who has to take the horses back, and one for the servant. The two latter carry the very limited kit, which includes a long cotton bag, which, being filled with chopped straw at night, forms the traveller’s bed. The custom is to ride through all the hours of daylight whenever horses are to be got, doing from sixty to ninety miles a day, always inspired by the hope of “cutting the record,” even by half an hour, and winning undying fame.

The horses, which are kept going at a canter so long as they can be thrashed into one, are small and active, and do wonders; but from the strain put upon them, bad feeding, sore backs, and general dilapidation and exhaustion, are constantly tumbling down. Several times I have seen wretched animals brought into the yards, apparently “dead beat,” and after getting some chopped straw and a little barley thrashed into a canter again for twenty-five miles more, because the traveller could not get a remount. They often fall down dead under their riders, urged by the heavy chapar whip to the last.

Riding chapar, journeying in a taktrawan or litter, or in a kajaweh, or riding caravan pace, by which only about thirty miles a day can be covered, are the only modes of travelling in Persia, though I think that with capable assistance a carriage might make the journey from Tihran as far as Kashan.

I lodge in the chapar khanas whenever I can. They consist of mud walls fourteen feet high, enclosing yards deep in manure, with stabling for the chapar horses on two sides, and recesses in their inner walls for mangers. The entrance is an arched gateway. There are usually two dark rooms at the sides, which the servants occupy and cook in, and over the gateway is the balakhana, an abortive tower, attained by a steep and crumbling stair, in which I encamp. The one room has usually two doors, half-fitting and non-shutting, and perhaps a window space or two, and the ashes of the last traveller’s fire.

Such a breezy rest just suits me, and when my camp furniture has been arranged and I am enjoying my “afternoon tea,” I feel “monarch of all I survey,” even of the boundless desert, over which the cloud shadows chase each other till it purples in the light of the sinking sun. If there is the desert desolation there is also the desert freedom.

The first halt was delicious after the crowds and fanaticism of Kûm. A broad plain with irrigated patches and a ruinous village was passed; then came the desert, an expanse of camel-brown gravel thickly strewn with stones, with a range of low serrated brown hills, with curious stratification, on the east. A few caravans of camels, and the haram of the Governor of Yezd in closely-covered kajawehs, alone broke the monotony. Before I thought we were half-way we reached the abambars, the small brown caravanserai, and the chapar khana of Passanghām, having ridden in three hours a distance on which I have often expended eight.

Cool and breezy it was in my room, and cooler and breezier on the flat mud roof; and the lifting of some clouds in the far distance to the north, beyond the great sweep of the brown desert, revealed the mighty Elburz range, white with new-fallen snow. At Sinsin the next evening it was gloriously cold. There had been another heavy snowfall, and in the evening the Elburz range, over a hundred miles away, rose in unsullied whiteness like a glittering wall, and above it the colossal cone of Demavend, rose-flushed.

The routine of the day is simple and easy. I get the caravan off at eight, lie on the floor for an hour, gallop and walk for about half the march, rest for an hour in some place, where Mahboud, the soldier, always contrives to bring me a glass of tea, and then gallop and walk to the halting-place, where I rest for another hour till the caravan comes in. I now know exactly what to pay, and by giving small presents get on very easily.

There were many uncomfortable prophecies about the annoyances and rudenesses which a lady travelling alone would meet with, but so far not one has been fulfilled. How completely under such circumstances one has to trust one’s fellow-creatures! There are no fastenings on the doors of these breezy rooms, and last night there was only the longitudinal half of a door, but I fell asleep, fearing nothing worse than a predatory cat.

The last two days’ marches have been chiefly over stony wastes, or among low hills of red earth, gray gravel, and brown mud, with low serrated ranges beyond, and farther yet high hills covered with snow, after which the road leaves the hills and descends upon a pink plain, much of the centre of which is snow-white from saline efflorescence. The villages Kasseinabad, Nasrabad, and Aliabad are passed on the plain, with small fruit trees and barley surrounding them, and great mud caravanserais at intervals, only remarkable for the number of camels lying outside of them in rows facing each other. In the fresh keen air of evening the cone of Demavend was painted in white on the faint blue sky, reddening into beauty as the purple-madder shadows deepened over the yellow desert.

Tea made with saltish water, and salt sheep’s milk, have been the only drawbacks of the six days’ march.

Not far from Kashan we entered on a great alluvial plain formed of fine brown earth without a single stone — a prolific soil if it had water, as the fruit trees and abundant crops of young wheat round the villages show. So level, and on the whole so smooth, is this plain that it possesses the prodigy of a public conveyance, an omnibus with four horses abreast, which makes its laborious way with the aid of several attendants, who lift the wheels out of holes, prevent it from capsizing, and temporarily fill up the small irrigation ditches which it has to cross. Its progress is less “by leaps and bounds” than by jolts and rolls, and as my Arab horse bounded past I wondered that six men could be found to exchange the freedom of the saddle for such a jerky, stuffy box.

Five hundred yards from the gate of Kashan there is a telegraph station of the Indo–European line, where M. du Vignau and his wife expected me, and have received me with great kindness and hospitality. The electricians at these stations are allowed to receive guests in what is known as the “Inspectors’ Room,” and they exercise this liberty most kindly and generously. Many a weary traveller looks back upon the “Inspectors’ Room” as upon an oasis in the desert of dirt; and though I cannot class myself just now with “weary travellers,” I cordially appreciate the kindness which makes one “at home,” and the opportunity of exchanging civilised ideas for a few hours.

I must not go beyond Kashan without giving a few words to the Persian section of the Indo–European telegraph line, one of the greatest marvels of telegraph construction, considering the nature of the country which the line traverses. Tihran is the centre of telegraphic control, and the residence of Colonel Wells, R.E., the Director, with a staff of twenty telegraphists, who work in relays day and night, and a Medical Officer. Julfa is another place of importance on the line, and at Shiraz there is another Medical Officer.

The prompt repair of the wires in cases of interruption is carefully arranged for. At suitable places, such as Kûm, Soh, Kashan, and other towns or villages from fifty to eighty miles apart, there are control or testing stations, each being in charge of a European telegraphist, who has under him two Persian horsemen, who have been well trained as linesmen. At stated hours the clerks place their instruments in circuit, and ascertain if all is right.

If this testing reveals any fault, it can be localised at once, and horsemen are despatched from the control stations on either side of it, with orders to ride rapidly along the line until they meet at the fault and repair it. As the telegraph crosses passes such as Kuhrūd, at an altitude of over 8000 feet, the duties of both inspectors and linesmen are most severe, full not only of hardship but of danger in terrible winter storms and great depths of snow, yet on their ceaseless watchfulness and fidelity the safety of our Indian Empire may some day depend.

The skill brought to bear upon the manipulation of this Government line from the Gulf, and throughout the whole system of which it is a part, is wonderful. Messages from any part of the United Kingdom now reach any part of India in less than an hour and a half, and in only about one word in two hundred does even the most trifling mistake occur in transmission, a result all the more surprising when it is remembered that the telegrams are almost entirely either in code or cypher, and that over 1000 are transmitted in the course of a day.

Among these are the long despatches continually passing between the Viceroy of India and the India Office on vitally important subjects, and press telegrams of every noteworthy event. The “exhaustive summary” of Indian news which appears weekly in the Times, accompanied by a commentary on events, is an altogether unpadded telegram, and is transmitted with punctuation complete, and even with inverted commas for quotations.31

The English staff, numbering from fifty to sixty men, is scattered along a line of 1900 miles. Some of them are married, and most occupy isolated positions, so far as other Europeans are concerned. It is the universal testimony of Englishmen and Persians that the relations between them have been for many years of the most friendly character, full of good-will and mutual friendly offices, and that the continual contact brought about by the nature of the duties of the electricians has been productive not of aversion and distrust, but of cordial appreciation on both sides.

I. L. B.

30 It is new to me, however, and may be new to a large proportion of the “untravelled many” for whom I write.

31 Major–General Sir R. Murdoch Smith, K.C.M.G., late Director of the Persian section of the Indo–European telegraph, read a very interesting paper upon it before the Royal Scottish Geographical Society on December 13, 1888 — a Sketch of the History of Telegraphic Communication between the United Kingdom and India.

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