Kirmanshah, Feb. 2.
On January 28 there was a tremendous snowfall, and even before that the road to Hamadan, which was our possible route, had been blocked for some days. The temperature has now risen to 31°, with a bitter wind, and much snow in the sky. The journey does not promise well. Two of the servants have been ill. I am not at all well, and the reports of the difficulties farther on are rather serious. These things are certain — that the marches are very long, and without any possibility of resting en route owing to mud or snow, and that the food and accommodation will be horrible.
Hadji is turning out very badly. He has fever now, poor fellow, and is even more useless than usual. Abdul Rahim does not like him to interpret, and calls him “the savage.” He does no work, and is both dirty and dishonest. The constant use of pious phrases is not a good sign either of Moslem or Christian. I told him this morning that I could not eat from so dirty a plate. “God is great,” he quietly answered. He broke my trestle bed by not attending to directions, and when I pointed out what he had done, he answered, “God knows all, God ordains all things.” It is really exasperating.
It is necessary to procure an additional outfit for the journey — a slow process — masks lined with flannel, sheepskin bags for the feet, the thick felt coats of the country for all the servants, additional blankets, kajawehs for me, and saddle-horses. The marches will frequently be from twenty to thirty miles in length, and the fatigue of riding them at a foot’s pace when one cannot exchange riding for walking will be so great that I have had a pair of kajawehs made in which to travel when I am tired of the mule. These panniers are oblong wooden boxes, eighteen inches high, with hoops over them for curtains. One hangs on each side of the mule on a level with his back, and they are mounted, i.e. they are scrambled into from the front by a ladder, which is carried between them. Most women and some men travel in them. They are filled up with quilts and cushions. The mule which is to carry them is a big and powerful animal, and double price is charged for him.
Horses are very good and cheap here. A pure Arab can be bought for £14, and a cross between an Arab and a Kurdish horse — a breed noted for endurance — for even less. But to our thinking they are small, never exceeding fifteen hands. The horses of the Kirmanshah province are esteemed everywhere, and there is a steady drain upon them for the Indian market. The stud of three horses requires a groom, and Abdul Rahim is sending a sowar, who looks a character, to attend us to Tihran. A muleteer, remarkable in appearance and beauty, and twelve fine mules have been engaged. The sowar and several other men have applied to me for medicine, having fearful coughs, etc., but I have not been fortunate enough to cure them, as their maladies chiefly require good feeding, warm bedding, and poultices, which are unattainable. It is pitiable to see the poor shivering in their thin cotton clothes in such weather. The men make shift with the seamless felt coats — more cloaks than coats, with long bag-like sleeves tapering to the size of a glove but with a slit midway, through which the hands can be protruded when need arises. The women have no outer garment but the thin cotton chadar.
I have tried to get a bed made, but there is no wood strong enough for the purpose, and the bazars cannot produce any canvas.
Sannah, Feb. 5.— Yesterday we were to have started at nine, but the usual quarrelling about loads detained us till 10.30, so that it was nearly dark when we reached the end of the first stage of a three weeks’ journey. From the house roof the prospect was most dismal. It was partly thawing, and through the whiteness of the plain ran a brown trail with sodden edges, indicating mud. The great mass of the Jabali–Besitun, or Behistun, or Behishtan, though on the other side of the plain, seemed actually impending over the city, with its great black rock masses, too steep to hold the snow, and the Besitun mountain itself, said to be twenty-four miles away, looming darkly through gray snow clouds, looked hardly ten. Our host had sent men on to see if the landau could take me part of the way at least; but their verdict was that the road was impassable.
After much noise the caravan got under way, but it was soon evident that the fine mules we had engaged had been changed for a poor, sore-backed set, and that the fine saddle-mule I was to have had was metamorphosed into a poor weak creature, which began to drop his leg from the shoulder almost as soon as we were outside the walls, and on a steep bridge came down on his nose with a violent fall, giving me a sharp strain, and fell several times afterwards; indeed, the poor animal could scarcely keep on his legs during the eight hours’ march.
Hadji rode in a kajaweh, balanced by some luggage, and was to keep close to me, but when I wanted to change my broken-down beast for a pannier he was not to be seen, then or afterwards, and came in late. The big mule had fallen, he was bruised, the kajawehs were smashed to pieces, and were broken up for firewood, and I am now without any means of getting any rest from riding! “It’s the pace that kills.” In snow and mud gallops are impossible, and three miles an hour is good going.
An hour from Kirmanshah the road crosses the Karasu by a good brick bridge, and proceeds over the plain for many miles, keeping the Besitun range about two miles on the left, and then passes over undulating ground to the Besitun village. Two or three large villages occur at a distance from the road, now shut in, and about eight miles from Besitun there are marble columns lying on the ground among some remains of marble walls, now only hummocks in the snow.
The road was churned into deep mud by the passage of animals, and the snow was too deep to ride in. My mule lost no opportunity of tumbling down, and I felt myself a barbarian for urging him on. Hills and mountains glistened in all directions. The only exception to the general whiteness was Piru, the great rock mass of Besitun, which ever loomed blackly overhead through clouds and darkness, and never seemed any nearer. It was very solitary. I met only a caravan of carpets, and a few men struggling along with laden asses.
It was the most artistic day of the whole journey, much cloud flying about, mountains in indigo gloom, or in gray, with storm clouds round their heads, or pure white, with shadows touched in with cobalt, while peaks and ridges, sun-kissed, gleamed here and there above indigo and gray. Not a tree or even bush, on them or on the plain, broke the monotony after a summer palace of the Shah, surrounded by poplars, was passed. There is plenty of water everywhere.
As the sun was stormily tinging with pink the rolling snow-clouds here and there, I halted on the brow of a slope under the imposing rock front of Besitun to wait for orders. It was wildly magnificent: the huge precipice of Piru, rising 1700 feet from the level, the mountains on both sides of the valley approaching each other, and behind Piru a craggy ravine, glorified here and there by touches of amber and pink upon the clouds which boiled furiously out of its depths. In the foreground were a huge caravanserai with a noble portal, a solitary thing upon the snow, not a dwelling, but offering its frigid hospitality to all comers; a river with many windings, and the ruinous hovels of Besitun huddled in the mud behind. An appalling view in the wild twilight of a winter evening; and as the pink died out, a desolate ghastliness fell upon it. As I waited, all but worn out by the long march, the tumbling mule, and the icy wind, I thought I should like never to hear the deep chimes of a Persian caravan, or see the huge portal of a Persian caravanserai any more. These are cowardly emotions which are dispelled by warmth and food, but at that moment there was not much prospect of either.
Through seas of mud and by mounds of filth we entered Besitun, a most wretched village of eighteen hovels, chiefly ruinous, where we dismounted in the mixed snow and mud of a yard at a hovel of three rooms vacated by a family. It was a better shelter than could have been hoped for, though after a fire was made, which filled the room with smoke, I had to move from place to place to avoid the drip from the roof.
Hadji said he was ill of fever, and seemed like an idiot; but the orderly said that the illness was shammed and the stupidity assumed in order not to work. I told him to put the mattress on the bed; “Pour water on the mattress,” he replied. I repeated, “Put — the — mattress — on — the — bed,” to which he replied, “Put the mattress into water!” I said if he felt too ill for his work he might go to bed. “God knows,” he answered. “Yes, knows that you are a lazy, good-for-nothing, humbugging brute”— a well-timed objurgation from M— — which elicited a prolonged “Ya Allah!” but produced no effect, as the tea and chapatties were not relatively but absolutely cold the next morning.
The next day dawned miserably, and the daylight when it came was only a few removes from darkness, yet it was enough to bring out the horrors of that wretched place, and the dirt and poverty of the people, who were a prey to skin diseases. Many readers will remember that Sir H. Rawlinson considers that there are good geographical and etymological reasons for identifying Besitun with the Baghistan, or Place of Gardens of the Greeks, and with the famous pleasure-grounds which tradition ascribes to Semiramis. But of these gardens not a trace remains. A precipitous rock, smoothed at its lower part, a vigorous spring gushing out at the foot of the precipice, two tablets, one of which, at a height of over 300 feet, visible from the road but inaccessible, is an Achæmenian sculpture portraying the majesty of Darius, with about a thousand lines of cuneiform writing, are all that survive of the ancient splendours of Besitun, with the exception of some buttresses opposite the rock, belonging to a vanished Sasanian bridge over the Gamasiab, and some fragments of other buildings of the Sasanian epoch. These deeply interesting antiquities have been described and illustrated by Sir H. Rawlinson, Flandin and Coste, and others.
It has been a severe day. It was so unpromising that a start was only decided on after many pros and cons. Through dark air small flakes of snow fell sparsely at intervals from a sky from which all light had died out. Gusts of icy wind swept down every gorge. Huge ragged masses of cloud drifted wildly round the frowning mass of Piru. Now and then the gusts ceased, and there was an inauspicious calm.
I rode a big mule not used to the bit, very troublesome and mulish at first, but broken in an hour. A clear blink revealed the tablets, but from their great altitude the tallest of the figures only looked two feet high. There is little to see on this march even under favourable circumstances. A few villages, the ruined fort of Hassan Khan, now used as a caravanserai, on a height, the windings of the Gamasiab, and a few canals crossed by brick bridges, represent its chief features. Impressions of a country received in a storm are likely to be incorrect, but they were pleasurable. Everything seemed on a grand scale: here desolate plateaus pure white, there high mountains and tremendous gorges, from which white mists were boiling up — everything was shrouded in mystery — plain prose ceased to be for some hours.
The others had to make several halts, so I left the “light division” and rode on alone. It became dark and wild, and presently the surface of the snow began to move and to drift furiously for about a foot above the ground. The wind rose to a gale. I held my hat on with one half-frozen hand. My mackintosh cape blew inside out, and struck me such a heavy blow on the eyes that for some time I could not see and had to trust to the mule. The wind rose higher; it was furious, and the drift, not only from the valley but from the mountain sides, was higher than my head, stinging and hissing as it raced by. It was a “blizzard,” a brutal snow-laden north-easter, carrying fine, sharp, hard-frozen snow crystals, which beat on my eyes and blinded them.
After a short experience of it my mule “turned tail” and needed spurring to make him face it. I fought on for an hour, crossed what appeared to be a bridge, where there were a few mud hovels, and pressed on down a narrower valley. The blizzard became frightful; from every ravine gusts of storm came down, sweeping the powdery snow from the hillsides into the valley; the mountains were blotted out, the depression in the snow which erewhile had marked the path was gone, I could not even see the mule’s neck, and he was floundering in deep snow up to the girths; the hiss of the drift had increased to a roar, the violence of the storm produced breathlessness and the intense cold numbness. It was dangerous for a solitary traveller, and thinking that M—— would be bothered by missing one of the party under such circumstances, I turned and waited under the lee of a ruinous mud hovel for a long, long time till the others came up — two of the men having been unhorsed in a drift.
In those hovels there were neither accommodation nor supplies, and we decided to push on. It was never so bad again. The wind moderated, wet snow fell heavily, but cleared off, and there was a brilliant blue heaven with heavy sunlit cloud-wreaths, among which colossal mountain forms displayed themselves, two peaks in glorious sunlight, high, high above a whirling snow-cloud, which was itself far above a great mountain range below. There were rifts, valleys, gorges, naked, nearly perpendicular rocks, the faces of mountains, half of which had fallen down in the opposite direction, a snow-filled valley, a winding river with brief blue stretches, a ruined fort on an eminence, a sharp turn, a sudden twilight, and then another blizzard far colder than the last, raging down a lateral ravine, up which, even through the blinding drift, were to be seen, to all seeming higher than mountains of this earth, the twin peaks of Shamran lighted by the sun. I faced the blizzard for some time, and then knowing that Hadji and the cook, who were behind me, would turn off to a distant village, all trace of a track having disappeared, I rode fully a mile back and waited half an hour for them. They were half-frozen, and had hardly been able to urge their mules, which were lightly laden, through the snow, and Hadji was groaning “Ya Allah!”
The blizzard was over and the sky almost cloudless, but the mercury had fallen to 18°, and a keen wind was still blowing the powdery snow to the height of a foot. I sent the two men on in front, and by dint of calling to them constantly, kept them from getting into drifts of unknown depth. We rode up a rising plateau for two hours — a plateau of deep, glittering, blinding, trackless snow, giving back the sunshine in millions of diamond flashings. Through all this region thistles grow to a height of four feet, and the only way of finding the track was to look out for a space on which no withered thistle-blooms appeared above the snow.
This village of Sannah lies at an altitude of about 5500 feet, among poplar plantations and beautiful gardens, in which fine walnut trees are conspicuous. Though partly ruinous it is a flourishing little place, its lands being abundantly watered by streams which run into the Gamasiab. It is buried now in snow, and the only mode of reaching it is up the bed of a broad sparkling stream among the gardens. The sowar met us here, the navigation being difficult, and the “light division” having come up, we were taken to the best house in the village, where the family have vacated two rooms, below the level of a yard full of snow. The plateau and its adjacent mountains were flushed with rose as we entered Sannah, and as soon as the change to the pallor of death came on the mercury raced down to zero outside, and it is only 6° in the room in which I am writing.
There is a large caravanserai at the entrance to Sannah, and I suspect that the sowar in choosing private quarters bullies the ketchuda (headman) and throws the village into confusion, turning the women and children out of the rooms, the owners, though they get a handsome sum for the accommodation, having to give him an equally handsome modakel.
After nearly nine hours of a crawling pace and exposure to violent weather, I suffered from intense pain in my joints, and was dragged and lifted in and put into a chair. I write “put,” for I was nearly helpless, and had to take a teaspoonful of whisky in warm milk. While the fire was being made two women, with a gentle kindliness which won my heart, chafed my trembling, nearly frozen hands with their own, with kindly, womanly looks, which supplied the place of speech.
I lay down under a heap of good blankets, sorry to see them in thin cotton clothes, and when I was less frozen observed my room and its grotesquely miserable aspect, “the Savage” never taking any trouble to arrange it. There are no windows, and the divided door does not shut by three inches. A low hole leads into the granary, which is also the fowl-house, but the fowls have no idea of keeping to their own apartment. Two sheep with injured legs lie in a corner with some fodder beside them. A heap of faggots, the bed placed diagonally to avoid the firehole in the floor, a splashed tarpaulin on which Hadji threw down the saddle and bridle plastered with mud, and all my travelling gear, a puddle of frozen water, a plough, and some ox yokes, an occasional gust of ashes covering everything, and clouds of smoke from wood which refuses to do anything but smoke, are the luxuries of the halt. The house is full of people, and the women come in and out without scruple, and I am really glad to see them, though it is difficult to rouse Hadji from his opium pipe and coffee, and his comfortable lounge by a good fire, to interpret for them.
The day’s experiences remind me of the lines —
“Bare all he could endure,
And bare not always well.”
But tired and benumbed as I am I much prefer a march with excitements and difficulties to the monotony of splashing through mud in warm rain.
Hamilabad, Feb. 7.— The next morning opened cloudless, with the mercury at 18°, which was hardly an excuse for tea and chapatties being quite cold. I was ready much too early, and the servants having given out that I am a Hakīm, my room was crowded with women and children, all suffering from eye diseases and scrofula, five women not nearly in middle life with cataract advanced in both eyes, and many with incurved eyelids, the result of wood smoke. It was most painful to see their disappointment when I told them that it would need time to cure some of them, and that for others I could do nothing. Could I not stay? they pleaded. I could have that room and milk and eggs — the best they had. “And they lifted up their voices and wept.” I felt like a brute for leaving them. The people there showed much interest in our movements, crowding on the roofs to see our gear, and the start.
The order of march now is — light division, three mules with an orderly, Hadji, and the cook upon them, the two last carrying what is absolutely necessary for the night in case the heavy division cannot get on. M—— and an orderly, the sowar, Abbas Khan, another who is changed daily, the light division and I, sometimes start together; but as the others are detained by work on the road, I usually ride on ahead with the two servants.
To write that we all survived the march of that day is strange, when the same pitiless blast or “demon wind,” blowing from “the roof of the world”— the Pamir desert, made corpses of five men who started with a caravan ahead of us that morning. We had to climb a long ascending plateau for 1500 feet, to surmount a pass. The snow was at times three feet deep, and the tracks even of a heavy caravan which crossed before us were effaced by the drift in a few minutes.
A sun without heat glared and scintillated like an electric light, white and unsympathetic, out of a pitiless sky without a cloud. As soon as we emerged from Sannah the “demon wind” seized on us — a steady, blighting, searching, merciless blast, no rise or fall, no lull, no hope. Steadily and strongly it swept, at a temperature of 9°, across the glittering ascent — swept mountain-sides bare; enveloped us at times in glittering swirls of powdery snow, which after biting and stinging careered over the slopes in twisted columns; screeched down gorges and whistled like the demon it was, as it drifted the light frozen snow in layers, in ripples, in waves, a cruel, benumbing, blinding, withering invisibility!
The six woollen layers of my mask, my three pairs of gloves, my sheepskin coat, fur cloak, and mackintosh piled on over a swaddling mass of woollen clothing, were as nothing before that awful blast. It was not a question of comfort or discomfort, or of suffering more or less severe, but of life or death, as the corpses a few miles ahead of us show. I am certain that if it had lasted another half-hour I too should have perished. The torture of my limbs down to my feet, of my temples and cheekbones, the anguish and uselessness of my hands, from which the reins had dropped, were of small consequence compared with a chill which crept round my heart, threatening a cessation of work.
There were groans behind me; the cook and Hadji had rolled off into the snow, where Hadji was calling on Him “who is not far from every one of us.” M—— was on foot. His mask was frozen hard. He was using a scientific instrument, and told his orderly, an Afghan, a smart little “duffadar” of a crack Indian corps, to fasten a strap. The man replied sadly, “I can’t, Sahib.” His arms and hands were useless. My mask was frozen to my lips. The tears extorted from my eyes were frozen. I was so helpless, and in such torture, that I would gladly have lain down to die in the snow. The mercury fell to 4°.
After fighting the elements for three hours and a half, we crossed the crest of the pass at an altitude of 7000 feet, to look down upon a snow world stretched out everywhere, pure, glistering, awful; mountains rolling in snowy ranges, valleys without a trace of man, a world of horror, glittering under a mocking sun.
Hadji, with many pious ejaculations, gasped out that he was dying (in fact, for some time all speech had been reduced to a gasp); but when we got over the crest there was no more wind, and all the benumbed limbs resumed sensation, through an experience of anguish.
The road to Kangawar lies through a broad valley, which has many streams. Among the mountains which encompass it are the Kuh-i-Hassan, Boka, the Kuh-i-Paran, and the Kuh-i-Bozah. I rode on with the two servants, indulging in no higher thoughts than of the comfort I should have in lying down, when just in front of me Hadji turned a somersault, my alpenstock flying in one direction and the medicine chest in another, while he lay motionless, flat on his back with all his limbs stretched out, just as soldiers who have been shot lie in pictures. In getting to him my mule went down in a snow-drift, out of which I extricated him with difficulty. I induced Hadji, who said his back was broken, and was groaning and calling on Allah, to get up, and went on to secure his mule, which had the great pack-saddle under its body, and was kicking with all its might at my bed and “hold-all,” which were between its hind legs, and succeeded in catching and holding it till Hadji came up. I told him to unfasten the surcingle, for the animal was wild with the things among its legs, and he wrung his hands and beat his breast, exclaiming, “God is great! God knows I shall never see Bushire again!” and was quite helpless. Seeing a caravan of asses approaching, I rode on as fast as I could to the well-situated little town of Kangawar, expecting him to follow shortly. At present the entrance into Kangawar is up the bed of a stream.
We had been promised good accommodation there, and the town could evidently afford it, but Abbas Khan had chosen something very wretched, though it was upstairs, and had an extensive snow view. Crumbling, difficult stairs at each end of a crumbling mud house led to rooms which barely afforded a shelter, with a ruinous barn between, where the servants, regardless of consequences, kept up a bonfire. A man shovelled most of the snow out of my room, and tried to make a fire but failed, as neither he nor I could stand the smoke produced by the attempt. This imperfect shelter had a window-frame, with three out of its four wooden panes gone, and a cracked door, which could only ensure partial privacy by being laid against the posts from the outer landing, which was a flat roof. The wall was full of cracks big enough for a finger, through which the night wind rioted in a temperature 5° below zero.
There was nothing to sit upon, and I walked up and down for two hours, half-frozen, watching the straggling line of the caravan as it crawled along the valley, till the sunset flush changed into the chill blue-gray of twilight. Hadji arrived with it, having broken his girth after I left him. There was not much comfort after the severe march, owing to the draughts and the smoke, but one is always hungry and sleepy, and the hybernation of the insects makes up for any minor discomforts. It was so cold that some water in a cup froze before I could drink it, and the blanket over my face was hard frozen.
Kangawar was full of mourning. The bodies of two men and a boy, who had perished on the plain while we were struggling up the pass, had been brought in. This boy of twelve was “the only son of his mother and she was a widow.” He had started from Kangawar in the morning with five asses laden with chopped straw to sell for her, and had miserably perished. The two men were married, and had left families.
Kangawar is a town of a thousand people built below a high hill, on some natural and artificial mounds. Some traditions regarding Semiramis are localised there, and it is supposed to be on the site of Pancobar, where she erected a temple to Anaitis or Artemis. Ruins of a fortress, now snow-buried, occupy the crest of a hill above the town, and there are other ruins, regarded by antiquaries as Grecian, representing a temple or palace, “a vast building constructed of enormous blocks of dressed stone.” Of these remains I saw nothing but some columns and a pilaster, which are built into the miserable mud walls of a house near the bazar.
At night the muleteers were beseeching on their knees. They said that they could not go on, that the caravan which had attempted to leave Kangawar in the morning had put back with three corpses, and that they and their mules would perish. In the morning it was for some time doubtful whether they could be induced or bribed to proceed. The day was fine and still, but they said that the snow was not broken. At last they agreed to start if we would promise to return at the first breath of wind!
Every resource against cold was brought out and put on. One eye was all that was visible of the servants’ faces. The charvadars relied on their felt coats and raw sheepskins, with the fur inside, roped round their legs. There is danger of frost-bite even with all precautions. In addition to double woollen underclothing I put on a pair of thick Chitral socks over two pairs of woollen stockings, and over these a pair of long, loose Afghan boots, made of sheepskin with the fur inside. Over my riding dress, which is of flannel lined with heavy homespun, I had a long homespun jacket, an Afghan sheepskin coat, a heavy fur cloak over my knees, and a stout “regulation” waterproof to keep out the wind. Add to this a cork helmet, a fisherman’s hood, a “six-ply” mask, two pairs of woollen gloves with mittens and double gauntlets, and the difficulty of mounting and dismounting for a person thus swaddled may be imagined! The Persians are all in cotton clothes.
However, though they have no “firesides,” and no cheerful crackle and blaze of wood, they have an arrangement by which they can keep themselves warm for hours by the expenditure of a few handfuls of animal fuel. The fire hole or tāndūr in the middle of the floor is an institution. It is circular, narrows somewhat at the top and bottom, has a flue leading to the bottom from the outside, and is about three feet deep and two in diameter. It is smoothly lined with clay inside.
Over this is the karsi or platform, a skeleton wooden frame like an inverted table, from two to five feet square, covered with blankets or a thickly-wadded cotton quilt, which extends four or five feet beyond it. Cushions are placed under this, and the women huddle under it all day, and the whole family at night, and in this weather all day — the firepot in the hole giving them comfortable warmth both for sleeping and waking. They very rarely wash, and the karsi is so favourable for the development of vermin that I always hurry it out of the room when I enter. So excellent and economical is the contrivance, that a tāndūr in which the fire has not been replenished for eighteen hours has still a genial heat.
It was a serious start, so terribly slippery in the heaped-up alleys and uncovered bazars of Kangawar that several of the mules and men fell. Outside the town was a level expanse of deep, wrinkled, drifted, wavy, scintillating snow, unbroken except for a rut about a foot wide, a deep long “mule ladder,” produced by heavily-laden mules and asses each stepping in its predecessor’s footsteps, forming short, deep corrugations, in which it is painful and tedious for horses or lightly-laden animals to walk. For nine hours we marched through this corrugated rut.
Leaving on the left the summer route to Tihran viâ Hamadan, which is said to have been blocked for twenty days, we embarked upon a glittering plain covered with pure snow, varying in depth from two feet on the level to ten and fifteen in the drifts, crossed by a narrow and only slightly beaten track.
Ere long we came on solemn traces of the struggle and defeat of the day before: every now and then a load of chopped straw thrown away, then the deep snow much trampled, then the snow dug away and piled round a small space, in which the charvadars had tried to shelter themselves from the wind as the shadows of death fell, then more straw, and a grave under a high mound of snow; farther on some men busy burying one of the bodies. The air was still, and the sun shone as it had shone the day before on baffled struggles, exhaustion, and death. The trampling of the snow near the track marked the place where the caravan had turned, taking three out of the five bodies back to Kangawar. The fury with which the wind had swept over the plain was shown by the absolute level to which it had reduced the snow, the deep watercourses being filled up with the drifts.
After crossing a brick bridge, and passing the nearly buried village of Husseinabad, we rode hour after hour along a rolling track among featureless hills, till in the last twilight we reached the village of Pharipah, a low-lying place (“low-lying” must never be understood to mean anything lower than 5000 feet) among some frozen irrigated lands and watered gardens. I arrived nearly dead from cold, fatigue, and the severe pains in the joints which are produced by riding nine hours at a foot’s pace in a temperature of 20°. My mule could only be urged on by spurring, and all the men and animals were in a state of great fatigue. My room was very cold, as much of one side was open to the air, and a fire was an impossibility.
Except for the crossing of a pass with an altitude of 7500 feet, the next day’s route was monotonous, across plains, among mountains, all pure white, the only incidents being that my chair was broken by the fall of a mule, and that my mule and I went over our heads in a snow-drift. The track was very little broken, and I was four hours in doing ten miles.
Hamilabad is a village of about sixty mud hovels, and in common with all these mountain hamlets has sloping covered ways leading to pens under the house, where cattle, sheep, and goats spend much of the winter in darkness and warmth.
I have a house, i.e. a mud room, to myself. These two days I have had rather a severe chill, after getting in, including a shivering lasting about two hours, perhaps owing to the severe fatigue; and I was lying down with the blankets over my face and was just getting warm when I heard much buzzing about me, and looking up saw the room thronged with men, women, and children, just such a crowd as constantly besieged our blessed Lord when the toilsome day full of “the contradiction of sinners against Himself” was done, most of them ill of “divers diseases and torments,” smallpox, rheumatism, ulcers on the cornea, abortive and shortened limbs, decay of the bones of the nose, palate, and cheek, tumours, cancers, skin maladies, ophthalmia, opaque films over the eyes, wounds, and many ailments too obscure for my elementary knowledge. Nothing is more painful than to be obliged to say that one cannot do anything for them.
I had to get up, and for nearly two hours was hearing their tales of suffering, interpreted by Hadji with brutal frankness; and they crowded my room again this morning. All I could do was to make various ointments, taking tallow as the basis, drop lotion into some eyes, give a few simple medicines, and send the majority sadly away. The sowar, Abbas Khan, is responsible for spreading my fame as a Hakīm. He is being cured of a severe cough, and comes to my room for medicine (in which I have no faith) every evening, a lean man with a lean face, lighted with a rapacious astuteness, with a kaftan streaming from his brow, except where it is roped round his shaven skull, a zouave jacket, a skirt something like a kilt, but which stands out like a ballet dancer’s dress, all sorts of wrappings round his legs, a coarse striped red shirt, a double cartridge-belt, and a perfect armoury in his girdle of pistols and knives. He is a wit and a rogue. Dogs, deprived of their usual shelter, shook my loose door at intervals all night. This morning is gray, and looks like change.
Nanej, Feb. 9.— It was thawing, and the march here was very soft and splashy. The people are barbarous in their looks, speech, manners, and ways of living, and have a total disregard of cleanliness of person, clothing, and dwellings. Whether they are actually too poor to have anything warmer than cotton clothing, or whether they have buried hoards I do not know; but even in this severe weather the women of this region have nothing on their feet, and their short blue cotton trousers, short, loose, open jackets, short open chemises, and the thin blue sheet or chadar over their heads, are a mere apology for clothing.
The journey yesterday was through rolling hills, enclosing level plains much cultivated, with villages upon them mostly at a considerable distance from the road. I passed through two, one larger and less decayed than usual, but fearfully filthy, and bisected by a foul stream, from which people were drinking and drawing water. Near this is a lofty mound, a truncated cone, with some “Cyclopean” masonry on its summit, the relics of a fire temple of the Magi. Another poorer and yet filthier village was passed through, where a man was being buried; and as I left Hamilabad in the morning, a long procession was escorting a corpse to its icy grave, laid on its bedding on a bier, both these deaths being from smallpox, which, though very prevalent, is not usually fatal, and seldom attacks adults. Indeed, it is regarded as a childish malady, and is cured by a diet of melons and by profuse perspirations.
A higher temperature had turned the path to slush, and made the crossing of the last plain very tedious. This is an abominable village, and the thaw is revealing a state of matters which the snow would have concealed; but it has been a severe week’s journey, and I am glad of Sunday’s rest even here. It is a disheartening place. I dismounted in one yard, in slush up to my knees, and from this splashed into another, round which are stables, cowsheds, and rooms which were vacated by the ketchuda and his family, but only partially, as the women not only left all their “things” in my room, but had a godown or storehouse through it, to which they resorted continually. I felt ill yesterday, and put on a blister, which rendered complete rest desirable; but it is not to be got. The room filled with women as soon as I settled myself in it.
They told me at once that I could not have a fire unless I had it under the karsi, that the smoke would be unbearable. When I asked them to leave me to rest, they said, “There’s no shame in having women in the house.” M—— came an hour later and cleared the room, but as soon as he went away it filled again, and with men as well as women, and others unscrupulously tore out the paper panes from the windows. This afternoon I stayed in bed feeling rather ill, and about three o’clock a number of women in blue sheets, with a very definite leader, came in, arranged the karsi, filling the room with smoke, as a preliminary, gathered themselves under the quilt, and sat there talking loudly to each other. I felt myself the object of a focused stare, and covered my head with a blanket in despair. Then more women came in with tea-trays, and they all took tea and sat for another hour or two talking and tittering, Hadji assuring me that they were doing it out of kindness, because I was not well, and they thought it dull for me alone! The room was again cleared, and I got up at dark, and hearing a great deal of whispering and giggling, saw that they had opened the door windows, and that a crowd was outside. When I woke this morning a man was examining my clothes, which were hanging up. They feel and pull my hair, finger all my things, and have broken all the fine teeth out of my comb. They have the curiosity without the gracefulness of the Japanese.
This is a house of the better sort, though the walls are not plastered. A carpet loom is fixed into the floor with a half-woven carpet upon it. Some handsome rugs are laid down. There are two much-decorated marriage chests, some guns and swords, a quantity of glass teacups and ornaments in the recesses, and coloured woodcuts of the Russian Imperial family, here, as in almost every house, are on the walls.
There is great rejoicing to-night “for joy that a man is born into the world,” the first-born of the ketchuda’s eldest son. In their extreme felicity they took me to see the mother and babe. The room was very hot, and crowded with relations and friends. The young mother was sitting up on her bed on the floor and the infant lay beside her dressed in swaddling clothes. She looked very happy and the young father very proud. I added a small offering to the many which were brought in for luck, and it was not rejected.
A sword was brought from my room, and with it the mamaché traced a line upon the four walls, repeating a formula which I understood to be, “I am making this tower for Miriam and her child.”20 I was warned by Hadji not to look on the child or to admire him without saying “Mashallah,” lest I should bring on him the woe of the evil eye. So greatly is it feared, that precautions are invariably taken against it from the hour of birth, by bestowing amulets and charms upon the child. A paragraph of the Koran, placed in a silk bag, had already been tied round the infant’s neck. Later, he will wear another bag round his arm, and turquoise or blue beads will be sewn upon his cap.
If a visitor admires a child without uttering the word Mashallah, and the child afterwards falls sick, the visitor at once is regarded as answerable for the calamity, and the relations take a shred of his garment, and burn it in a brazier with cress seed, walking round and round the child as it burns.
Persian mothers are regarded as convalescent on the third day, when they go to the hammam to perform the ceremonies required by Moslem law. A boy is weaned at the end of twenty-six months and a girl at the end of twenty-four. If possible, on the weaning day the child is carried to the mosque, and certain devotions are performed. The weaning feast is an important function, and the relations and friends assemble, bringing presents, and the child in spite of his reluctance is forced to partake of the food.
At the earliest possible period the mamaché pronounces in the infant’s ear the Shiah profession of faith: “God is God, there is but one God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God, and Ali is the Lieutenant of God.” A child becomes a Moslem as soon as this Kelemah Islam has been spoken into his ear; but a ceremony attends the bestowal of his name, which resembles that in use among the Buddhists of Tibet on similar occasions.
Unless the father be very poor indeed, he makes a feast for his friends on an auspicious day, and invites the village mollahs. Sweetmeats are solemnly eaten after the guests have assembled. Then the infant, stiffened and mummied in its swaddling clothes, is brought in, and is laid on the floor by one of the mollahs. Five names are written on five slips of paper, which are placed between the leaves of the Koran, or under the edge of the carpet. The first chapter of the Koran is then read. One of the slips is then drawn at random, and a mollah takes up the child, and pronounces in its ear the name found upon it, after which he places the paper on its clothes.
The relations and friends give it presents according to their means, answering to our christening gifts, and thereafter it is called by the name it has received. Among men’s names there is a preponderance of those taken from the Old Testament, among which Ibrahim, Ismail, Suleiman, Yusuf, and Moussa are prominent. Abdullah, Mahmoud, Hassan, Raouf, Baba Houssein, Imam are also common, and many names have the suffix of Ali among the Shiahs. Fatmeh is a woman’s name, but girl-children usually receive the name of some flower or bird, or fascinating quality of disposition or person.
The journey is beginning to tell on men and animals. One of the Arab horses has had a violent attack of pain from the cold, and several of the men are ailing and depressed.
Dizabad, Feb. 11.— Nanej is the last village laid down on any map on the route we are taking for over a hundred miles, i.e. until we reach Kûm, though it is a caravan route, and it does not appear that any Europeans have published any account of it. Just now it is a buried country, for the snow is lying from one to four feet deep. It is not even possible to pronounce any verdict on the roads, for they are simply deep ruts in the snow, with “mule ladders.” The people say that the plains are irrigated and productive, and that the hills pasture their sheep and cattle; and they all complain of the exactions of local officials. There is no variety in costume, and very little in dwellings, except as to size, for they are all built of mud or sun-dried bricks, within cattle yards, and have subterranean pens for cattle and goats. The people abound in diseases, specially of the eyes and bones.
The salient features of the hills, if they have any, are rounded off by snow, and though many of them rise to a great height, none are really impressive but Mount Elwand, close to Hamadan. The route is altogether hilly, but the track pursues valleys and low passes as much as possible, and is never really steep.
Yesterday we marched twenty-four miles in eight hours without any incident, and the “heavy division” took thirteen hours, and did not come in till ten at night! There are round hills, agglomerated into ranges, with easy passes, the highest 7026 feet in altitude, higher summits here and there in view, the hills encircling level plains, sprinkled sparsely with villages at a distance from the road, denoted by scrubby poplars and willows; sometimes there is a kanaat or underground irrigation channel with a line of pits or shafts, but whatever there was, or was not, it was always lonely, grim, and desolate. The strong winds have blown some of the hillsides bare, and they appear in all their deformity of shapeless mounds of black gravel, or black mud, with relics of last year’s thistles and euphorbias upon them. So great is the destitution of fuel that even now people are out cutting the stalks of thistles which appear above the snow.
As the hours went by, I did rather wish for the smashed kajawehs, especially when we met the ladies of a governor’s haram, to the number of thirty, reclining snugly in pairs, among blankets and cushions, in panniers with tilts, and curtains of a thick material, dyed Turkey red. The cold became very severe towards evening.
The geographical interest of the day was that we crossed the watershed of the region, and have left behind the streams which eventually reach the sea, all future rivers, however great their volume, or impetuous their flow, disappearing at last in what the Americans call “sinks,” but which are known in Persia as kavirs, usually salt swamps. Near sunset we crossed a bridge of seven pointed arches with abutments against a rapid stream, and passing a great gaunt caravanserai on an eminence, and a valley to the east of the bridge with a few villages giving an impression of fertility, hemmed in by some shapely mountains, we embarked on a level plain, bounded on all sides by hills so snowy that not a brown patch or outbreak of rock spotted their whiteness, and with villages and caravanserais scattered thinly over it. On the left, there are the extensive ruins of old Dizabad, and a great tract of forlorn graves clustering round a crumbling imamzada.
As the sun sank the distant hills became rose-flushed, and then one by one the flush died off into the paleness of death, and in the gathering blue-grayness, in desolation without sublimity, in ghastliness, impressive but only by force of ghastliness, and in benumbing cold, we rode into this village, and into a yard encumbered with mighty piles of snow, on one side of which I have a wretched room, though the best, with two doors, which do not shut, but when they are closed make it quite dark — a deep, damp, cobwebby, dusty, musty lair like a miserable eastern cowshed.
I was really half-frozen and quite benumbed, and though I had plenty of blankets and furs, had a long and severe chill, and another today. M—— also has had bad chills, and the Afghan orderly is ill, and moaning with pain in the next room. Hadji has fallen into a state of chronic invalidism, and is shaking with chills, his teeth chattering, and he is calling on Allah whenever I am within hearing.
The chilly dampness and the rise in temperature again may have something to do with the ailments, but I think that we Europeans are suffering from the want of nourishing food. Meat has not been attainable for some days, the fowls are dry and skinny, and milk is very scarce and poor. I cannot eat the sour wafers which pass for bread, and as Hadji cannot boil rice or make flour porridge, I often start in the morning having only had a cup of tea. I lunch in the saddle on dates, the milk in the holsters having been frozen lately; then is the time for finding the value of a double peppermint lozenge!
Snow fell heavily last night, and as the track has not been broken, and the charvadars dared not face it, we are detained in this miserable place, four other caravans sharing our fate. The pros and cons about starting were many, and Abbas Khan was sent on horseback to reconnoitre, but he came back like Noah’s dove, reporting that it was a trackless waste of snow outside. It is a day of rest, but as the door has to be open on the snow to let in light, my hands are benumbed with the damp cold. Still, a bowl of Edwards’ desiccated soup — the best of all travelling soups — has been very reviving, and though I have had a severe chill again, I do not mean to succumb. I do not dwell on the hardships, but they are awful. The soldiers and servants all have bad coughs, and dwindle daily. The little orderly is so ill today that we could not have gone on even had the track been broken.
Saruk, Feb. 12.— Unladen asses, followed by unladen mules, were driven along to break the track this morning, and as two caravans started before us, it was tolerable, though very deep. The solitude and desolation were awful. At first the snow was somewhat thawed, but soon it became immensely deep, and we had to plunge through hollows from which the beasts extricated themselves with great difficulty and occasionally had to be unloaded and reloaded.
As I mentioned in writing of an earlier march, it is difficult and even dangerous to pass caravans when the only road is a deep rut a foot wide, and we had most tedious experience of it today, when some of our men, weakened by illness, were not so patient as usual. Abbas Khan and the orderly could hardly sit on their horses, and Hadji rolled off his mule at intervals. As the charvadars who give way have their beasts floundering in the deep snow and losing their loads, both attempt to keep the road, the result of which is a violent collision. The two animals which “collide” usually go down, and some of the others come on the top of them, and today at one time there were eight, struggling heels uppermost in the deep snow, all to be reloaded.
This led to a serious mêlée. The rival charvadar, aggravated by Hadji, struck him on the head, and down he went into the snow, with his mule apparently on the top of him, and his load at some distance. The same charvadar seized the halters of several of our mules, and drove them into the snow, where they all came to grief. Our charvadar, whose blue eyes, auburn hair and beard, and exceeding beauty, always bring to mind a sacred picture, became furious at this, and there was a fierce fight among the men (M—— being ahead) and much bad language, such epithets as “son of a dog” and “sons of burnt fathers” being freely bandied about. The fray at last died out, leaving as its result only the loss of an hour, some broken surcingles, and some bleeding faces. Even Hadji rose from his “gory bed” not much worse, though he had been hit hard.
There was no more quarrelling though we passed several caravans, but even when the men were reasonable and good nature prevailed some of the mules on both sides fell in the snow and had to be reloaded. When the matter is not settled as this was by violence, a good deal of shouting and roaring culminates in an understanding that one caravan shall draw off into a place where the snow is shallowest, and stand still till the other has gone past; but today scarcely a shallow place could be found. I always give place to asses, rather to avoid a painful spectacle than from humanity. One step off the track and down they go, and they never get up without being unloaded.
When we left Dizabad the mist was thick, and as it cleared it froze in crystallised buttons, which covered the surface of the snow, but lifting only partially it revealed snowy summits, sun-lit above heavy white clouds; then when we reached a broad plateau, the highest plain of the journey, 7800 feet in altitude, gray mists drifted very near us, and opening in rifts divulged blackness, darkness, and tempest, and ragged peaks exposed to the fury of a snowstorm. Snow fell in showers on the plain, and it was an anxious time, for had the storm which seemed impending burst on that wild, awful, shelterless expanse, with tired animals, and every landmark obliterated, some of us must have perished. I have done a great deal of snow travelling, and know how soon every trace of even the widest and deepest path is effaced by drift, much more the narrow rut by which we were crossing this most exposed plateau. There was not a village in sight the whole march, no birds, no animals. There was not a sound but the venomous hiss of snow-laden squalls. It was “the dead of winter.”
My admirable mule was ill of cold from having my small saddle on him instead of his great stuffed pack-saddle, the charvadar said, and he gave me instead a horse that I could not ride. Such a gait I never felt; less than half a mile was unbearable. I felt as if my eyes would be shaken out of their sockets! The bit was changed, but in vain. I was obliged to get off, and M—— kindly put my saddle on a powerful Kirmanshah Arab. I soon found that my intense fatigue on this journey had been caused by riding mules, which have no elasticity of movement. I rode twenty miles today with ease, and could have ridden twenty more, and had several canters on the few places where the snow was well trodden.
I was off the track trying to get past a caravan and overtake the others, when down came the horse and I in a drift fully ten feet deep. Somehow I was not quite detached from the saddle, and in the scrimmage got into it again, and a few desperate plunges brought us out, with the horse’s breastplate broken.
When we reached the great plateau above this village, a great blank sheet of snow, surrounded by mountains, now buried in white mists, now revealed, with snow flurries drifting wildly round their ghastly heads, I found that the Arab, the same horse which was so ill at Nanej, was “dead beat,” and as it only looked a mile to the village I got off, and walked in the deep snow along the rungs of the “mule ladders,” which are so fatiguing for horses. But the distance was fully three miles, with a stream to wade through, half a mile of deep wet soil to plunge through, and the thawed mud of a large village to splash through; and as I dared not mount again for fear of catching cold, I trailed forlornly into Saruk, following the men who were riding.
Can it be said that they rode? They sat feebly on animals, swaddled in felts and furs, the pagri concealing each face with the exception of one eye in a blue goggle; rolling from side to side, clutching at ropes and halters, moaning “Ya Allah!”— a deplorable cavalcade.
Saruk has some poplars, and is surrounded by a ruinous mud wall. It is a village of 150 houses, and is famous for very fine velvety carpets, of small patterns, in vivid vegetable dyes. At an altitude of 7500 feet, it has a severe climate, and only grows wheat and barley, sown in April and reaped in September. All this mountainous region that we are toiling through is blank on the maps, and may be a dead level so far as anything there is represented, though even its passes are in several cases over 7000 feet high.
Saruk, Feb. 13.— The circumstances generally are unfavourable, and we are again detained. The Afghan orderly, who is also interpreter, is very ill, and though he is very plucky it is impossible for him to move; the cook seems “all to pieces,” and is overcome by cough and lassitude; Abbas Khan is ill, and his face has lost its comicality; and in the same room Hadji lies, groaning and moaning that he will not live through the night. Even M——‘s herculean strength is not what it was. I have chills, but in spite of them and the fatigue am really much better than when I left Baghdad, so that though I exercise the privilege of grumbling at the hardships, I ought not to complain of them, though they are enough to break down the strongest men. I really like the journey, except when I am completely knocked up, or the smoke is exceptionally blinding.
The snow in this yard is lying in masses twelve feet high, rising out of slush I do not know how many feet deep. It looks as if we had seen the last of the winter. The mercury is at 32° now. It is very damp and cold sitting in a room with one side open to the snow, and the mud floor all slush from the drip from the roof. The fuel is wet, and though a man has attempted four times to light a fire, he has only succeeded in making an overpowering smoke, which prefers hanging heavily over the floor and me to making its exit through the hole in the roof provided for it. The door must be kept open to let in light, and it also lets in fowls and many cats. My dhurrie has been trampled into the slush, and a deadly cold strikes up through it. Last night a man (for Hadji was hors de combat) brought in some live embers, and heaped some gum tragacanth thorns and animal fuel upon them; there was no chimney, and the hole in the roof was stopped by a clod. The result was unbearable. I covered my head with blankets, but it was still blinding and stifling, and I had to extinguish the fire with water and bear the cold, which then was about 20°. Later, there was a tempest of snow and rain, with a sudden thaw, and water dripped with an irksome sound on my well-protected bed, no light would burn, and I had the mortification of knowing that the same drip was spoiling writing paper and stores which had been left open to dry! But a traveller rarely lies awake, and today by keeping my feet on a box, and living in a mackintosh, I am out of both drip and mud. Such a room as I am now in is the ordinary room of a Persian homestead. It is a cell of mud, not brick, either sun or kiln dried. Its sides are cracked and let in air. Its roof is mud, under which is some brushwood lying over the rafters. It has no light holes, but as the door has shrunk considerably from the door posts, it is not absolutely dark. It may be about twelve feet square. Every part of it is blackened by years of smoke. The best of it is that it is raised two feet from the ground to admit of a fowl-house below, and opens on a rough platform which runs in front of all the dwelling-rooms. With the misfitting door and cracked sides it is much like a sieve.
I have waited to describe a Persian peasant’s house till I had seen more of them. The yard is an almost unvarying feature, whether a small enclosure with a low wall and a gateway closed at night by a screen of reeds, or a great farmyard like this, with an arched entrance and dwelling-rooms for two or three generations along one or more of the sides.
The house walls are built of mud, not sun-dried brick, and are only one story high. The soil near villages is mostly mud, and by leading water to a given spot, a pit of mortar for building material is at once made. This being dug up, and worked to a proper consistency by the feet of men, is then made into a wall, piece after piece being laid on by hand, till it reaches a height of four feet and a thickness of three — the imperative tradition of the Persian builder. This is allowed a few days for hardening, when another layer of similar height but somewhat narrower is laid upon it, takchahs or recesses a foot deep or more being worked into the thickness of the wall, and the process is repeated till the desired height is attained. When the wall is thoroughly dry it is plastered inside and outside with a mixture of mud and chopped straw, and if this plastering is repeated at intervals, the style of construction is very durable.
The oven or tāndūr is placed in the floor of one room, at least, and answers for cooking and heating. A peasant’s house has no windows, and the roof does not project beyond the wall.
All roofs are flat. Rude rafters of poplar are laid across the walls about two feet apart. In a ketchuda’s or a wealthier peasant’s house, above these are laid in rows peeled poplar rods, two inches apart, then a rush mat, and then the resinous thorns of the tragacanth bush, which are not liable to decay; but in the poorer houses the owner contents himself with a coarse reed mat or a layer of brushwood above the rafters. On this is spread a well-trodden-down layer of mud, then eight or ten inches of dry earth, and the whole is thickly plastered with mixed straw and mud. A slight slope at the back with a long wooden spout carries off the water. Such a roof is impervious to rain except in very severe storms if kept in order, that is, if it be plastered once a year, and well rolled after rain. Few people are so poor as not to have a neatly-made stone roller on their roofs. If this is lacking, the roof must be well tramped after rain by bare feet, and in all cases the snow must be shovelled off.
These roofs, among the peasantry, have no parapets. They are the paradise of dogs, and in hot weather the people take up their beds and sleep there, partly for coolness and partly because the night breeze gives freedom from mosquitos. In simple country life, though the premises of the peasants for the sake of security are contiguous, there are seldom even balustrades to the roofs, though in summer most domestic operations are carried on there. Fifty years ago Persian law sanctioned the stoning without trial or mercy of any one caught in the act of gazing into the premises of another, unless the gazer were the king.
Upon the courtyard stables, barns, and store-rooms open, but so far I notice that the granary is in the house, and that the six-feet-high clay receptacles for grain are in the living-room.
Looking from above upon a plain, the poplars which surround villages where there is a sufficiency of water attract the eye. At this season they are nothing but a brown patch on the snow. The villages themselves are of light brown mud, and are surrounded usually by square walls with towers at the corners, and all have a great gate. Within the houses or hovels the families are huddled irregularly, with all their appurtenances, and in winter the flocks and herds are in subterranean pens beneath. In summer the animals go forth at sunrise and return at sunset. The walls, which give most of the villages a fortified aspect, used to afford the villagers a degree of protection against the predatory Turkomans, and now give security to the flocks against Lur and other robbers.
Every village has its ketchuda or headman, who is answerable for the taxes, the safety of travellers, and other matters.
Siashan, Feb. 16.— The men being a little better, we left Saruk at nine on the 14th, I on a bright little Baghdadi horse, in such good case that he frequently threw up his heels in happy playfulness. The temperature had fallen considerably, there had been a fresh snowfall, and the day was very bright. The Arab horses are suffering badly in their eyes from the glare of the snow.
If I had not had such a lively little horse I should have found the march a tedious one, for we were six hours in doing eleven and a half miles on a level! The head charvadar had gone on early to make some arrangements, and the others loaded the animals so badly that Hadji and the cook rolled off their mules into the deep semi-frozen slush from the packs turning just outside the gates. We had three mules with us with worn-out tackle, and the loads rolled over many times, the riders, who were too weak to help themselves, getting bad falls. As each load, owing to the broken tackle, took fifteen minutes to put on again, and the men could do little, a great deal of hard, exasperating work fell on M——. After one bad fall in a snowdrift myself, I rode on alone with one mule with a valuable burden. This, turning for the fourth time, was soon under his body, and he began to kick violently, quite dismaying me by the bang of his hoofs against cases containing scientific instruments. It was a droll comedy in the snow. I wanted to get hold of his halter, but every time I went near him he whisked round and flung up his heels, till I managed to cut the ragged surcingle and set him free, when I caught him in deep snow, in which my horse was very unwilling to risk himself.
Soon after leaving Saruk, which, as I mentioned before, is famous for very fine carpets, we descended gently upon the great plain of Feraghan, perhaps the largest carpet-producing district of Persia. These carpets are very fine and their patterns are unique, bringing a very high price. This plain has an altitude of about 7000 feet, is 45 miles in length by from 8 to 15 in breadth, is officially stated to have 650 villages upon it, all agricultural and carpet producing, and is considerably irrigated by streams, which eventually lose themselves in a salt lake at its eastern extremity. It is surrounded by hills, with mountain ranges behind them, and must be, both as to productiveness and population, one of the most flourishing districts in Persia.
We were to have marched to Kashgird, but on reaching the hamlet of Ahang Garang I found that Abbas Khan had taken quarters there, saying that Kashgird was in ruins.
Hadji, who had allowed himself to roll off several times, was moaning and weeping on the floor of my room, groaning out, with many cries of Ya Allah, “Let me stay here till I’m better; I don’t want any wages; I shall be killed, oh, killed! Oh, my family! I shall never see Bushire any more!” Though there was much reason to think he was shamming, I did the little that he calls his “work,” and left him to smoke his opium pipe and sleep by the fire in peace.
I was threatened with snow-blindness in one eye; in fact I saw nothing with it, and had to keep it covered up. One of the charvadars lay moaning outside my room, poor fellow, taking chlorodyne every half-hour, and another had got a bad foot from frost-bite. They have been terribly exposed, and the soft snow at a higher temperature has been worse for them than the dry powdery snow at a low temperature, as it soaks their socks, shoes, and leggings, and then freezes. Making Liebig’s beef tea warms one, and they like it even from a Christian hand. The Afghan orderly bore up bravely, but was very weak. Indeed the prospect of getting these men to Tihran is darkening daily.
My room, though open to the snow at one end, was comfortable. The oven had been lighted twelve hours before, and it was delightful to hang one’s feet into the warm hole. There were holes for light in the roof, and cold though it was, so long as daylight lasted these were never free from veiled faces looking down.
In order to become thoroughly warm it was necessary to walk long and briskly on the roof, and this brought all the villagers below it to stare the stare of vacuity rather than of curiosity. A snow scene is always beautiful at sunset, and this was exceptionally so, as the long indigo shadows on the plain threw into greater definiteness the gleaming, glittering hills, at one time dazzling in the sunshine, at another flushed in the sunset. The plain of Feraghan as seen from the roof was one smooth expanse of pure deep snow, broken only by brown splashes, where mud villages were emphasised by brown poplars, the unbroken, unsullied snow, two feet deep on the level and any number in the drifts, looking like a picture of the Arctic Ocean, magnificent in its solitude, one difficult track, a foot wide, the solitary link with the larger world which then seemed so very far away.
Things went better yesterday on the whole, though the mercury fell to zero in the night, and I was awakened several times by the cold of my open room, and when a number of people came at daylight for medicines my fingers were so benumbed that I could scarcely measure them. What a splendid field for a medical missionary loving his profession this plain with its 650 villages would be, where there are curable diseases by the hundred! Many of the suffering people have told me that they would give lodging and the best of their food to any English doctor who would travel among them.
The loads were well balanced yesterday, and Hadji only pulled his over once and only rolled off once, when Abbas Khan exclaimed, “He’s not a man; why did Allah make such a creature?” We got off at nine, the roofs being crowded to see us start. Fuel is very scarce at Ahang Garang. For the cooking and “parlour” fire, the charge was forty-five krans, or about twenty-eight shillings! Probably this included a large modakel. For a room from two to four krans is expected.
Through M——‘s kindness I now have a good horse to ride, and the difference in fatigue is incredible. We embarked again on the vast plain of snow. It was a grim day, and most ghastly and desolate this end of the plain looked, where the waters having done their fertilising work are lost in a salt lake, the absolutely white hills round the plain being emphasised by the blue neutral tint of the sky. For the first ten miles there was little more than a breeze, for the last ten a pitiless, ruthless, riotous north-easterly gale, blowing up the snow in hissing drifts, as it swept across the plain with a desolate screech.
The coverings with which we were swaddled were soon penetrated. The cold seemed to enter the bones, and to strike the head and face like a red-hot hammer, stunning as it struck, the tears wrung from the eyes were frozen, at times even the eyelids were frozen together. The frozen snow hit one hard. Hands and feet were by turns benumbed and in anguish, terrific blasts loaded with hard lumps of snow came down from the hills, snow was drifting from all the white ranges above us; on the more exposed part of the track the gusts burst with such violence as to force some of the mules off it to flounder in the deep snow; my Arab was struck so mercilessly on his sore swollen eyes that at times I could scarcely, with my own useless hands, induce him to face the swirls of frozen snow. Swifter and more resistless were the ice-laden squalls, more and more obliterated became the track, till after a fight of over three hours, and the ceaseless crossing of rolling hills and deep hollows, we reached the top of a wind-bared slope 7700 feet in altitude and saw this village, looking from that distance quite imposing, on a hill on the other side of a stream crossed by a brick bridge, with a ruined fort on a height above it. It promised shelter — that was all. Below the village there was an expanse of snow, sloping up to pure white hills outlined against an indigo depth of ominous-looking clouds.
While M—— went up a hill for some scientific work, I followed the orderly, who could scarcely sit on his horse from pain and weakness, into the most wretchedly ruinous, deserted-looking village I have yet seen, epitomising the disenchantment which a near view of an Eastern city brings, and up a steep alley to a ruinous yard heaped with snow-covered ruins, on one side of which were some ruinous rooms, their backs opening on a precipice above the river, and on the north-east wind. I tumbled off my horse, Abbas Khan, the least sick of the men, with benumbed hands breaking my fall. The severe cold had stiffened all my joints. We could scarcely speak; the bones of my face were in intense pain, and I felt as if the cold were congealing my heart.
With Abbas Khan’s help I chose the rooms, the worst we have ever had. The one I took for myself has an open-work door facing the wind, and it is impossible to have a fire, for the draught blows sticks, ashes, and embers over the room. The others are worse. It is an awful night, blowing and snowing; all the men but two are hors de combat. The poor orderly, using an Afghan phrase, said, “The wind has played the demon with me.” He has a fearful cough, and hæmorrhage from the lungs or throat. The cook is threatened with pleurisy. It may truly be called “Hospital Sunday.” The day has been chiefly spent in making mustard poultices, which M—— is constantly crossing the yard in three feet of snow to put on, and protectors for the chests and backs, preparing beef tea, making up medicines, etc.
Surely things must have reached their worst. Out of seven men only one servant, and he an Indian lad with a fearful squint and eyes so badly inflamed that he can hardly see where he puts things down, is able to do anything. Two of the charvadars are lying ill in the stable. Mustard plasters, Dover’s powders, salicylate of soda, emetics, poultices, clinical thermometers, chlorodyne, and beef tea have been in requisition all day. The cook, the Afghan orderly, and Hadji seem really ill. At eight this morning groans at my door took me out, and one of the muleteers was lying there in severe pain, with the hard fine snow beating on him. Later I heard fresh moaning on my threshold, and found Hadji fallen there with my breakfast. I got him in and he fell again, upsetting the tea, and while I attended to him the big dogs ate up the chapatties! He had a good deal of fever, and severe rheumatism, and on looking at his eyes I saw that he was nearly blind. He lost his blue glasses some days ago. I sent him to bed in the “kitchen” for the whole day, where he lay groaning in comfort by the fire with his opium pipe and his tea. He thinks he will not survive the night, and has just given me his dying directions!
Afterwards M—— came for the thermometer and chlorodyne, and remarked that my room was “unfit for a beast.” The truth is I share it with several very big dogs. It did look grotesquely miserable last night — black, fireless, wet, dirty, with all my things lying on the dirty floor, having been tumbled about by these dogs in their search for my last box of Brand’s meat lozenges, which they got out of a strong, tightly-tied-up bag, which they tore into strips. On going for my fur cloak today, these three dogs, who, I believe, would take on civilisation more quickly than their masters, were all found rolled up under it, and lying on my bed.
The mercury in the “parlour” with a large fire cannot be raised above 36°. In my room to-night the wet floor is frozen hard and the mercury is 20°. This is nothing after 12° and 16° below zero, but the furious east wind and a singular dampness in the air make it very severe. Yesterday, before the sky clouded over, there was a most remarkable ring or halo of prismatic colours round the sun, ominous of the storm which has followed.
This place standing high without shelter is fearfully exposed; there is no milk and no comfort of any kind for the sick men. We have decided to wrap them up and move them to Kûm, where there is a Persian doctor with a European education; but it is a great risk, though the lesser of two. I have just finished four protectors for the back and chest, three-quarters of a yard long by sixteen inches wide, buttoning on the shoulders, of a very soft felt namad nearly half an inch thick — a precaution much to be commended.
I think that Hadji, though in great pain, poor fellow, is partly shamming. He professed this evening to have violent fever, and the thermometer shows that he has none. Even the few things which I thought he had done for me, such as making chapatties, I find have been done by others. It is a pity for himself as well as for me that he should be so incorrigibly lazy.
Taj Khatan, Feb. 18.— Yesterday we had a severe march, and owing first to the depth of the snow, and then to the depth of the mud, we were seven hours in doing twenty-one miles. The wind was still intensely cold — bitter indeed. There are few remarks to be made about a country buried in snow. The early miles were across the fag end of the dazzling plain of Feraghan, which instead of being covered with villages is an uninhabited desert with a salt lake. Then the road winds among mountains of an altitude of 8000 and 9000 feet and more, its highest point being 8350 feet, where we began a descent which will land us at Tihran at a level under 4000 feet. Snowy mountains and snowy plains were behind — bare brown earth was to come all too soon.
Winding wearily round low hills, meeting caravans of camels to which we had to give way, and of asses floundering in the snow, we came in the evening to a broad slope with villages, poplars, walnuts, and irrigated lands, then to the large and picturesquely situated village of Givr on a steep bank above a rapid stream, and just at dusk to the important village of Jairud, also on high ground above the same river, and surrounded by gardens and an extraordinary number of fruit trees. The altitude is 6900 feet.21 I had a balakhana, very cold, and was fairly benumbed for some time after the long cold march.
A great many people applied for medicine, and some of the maladies, specially when they affect children, make one sick at heart. Hadji is affecting to be stone deaf, so he no longer interprets for sick people, which creates an additional difficulty. We left this morning at ten, descended 2000 feet, and suddenly left the snow behind. Vast, gray, and grim the snow-covered mountains looked as they receded into indigo gloom, with snow clouds drifting round their ghastly heads and across the dazzling snow plains in which we had been floundering for thirty days. It is strange to see mother earth once more — rocky, or rather stony hills, mud hills, mud plains, mud slopes, a brown world, with a snow world above. Two pink hills rise above the brown plain, and some toothed peaks, but the rest of the view is simply hills and slopes of mud and gravel, bearing thorns, and the relics of last year’s thistles and wormwood. The atmospheric colouring is, however, very fine.
This is a large village with beehive roofs in, and of, mud. A quagmire surrounds it and is in the centre of it, and the crumbling houses are thrown promiscuously down upon it. It is nearly the roughest place I have seen, and the worst accommodation, though Abbas Khan says it is the best house in the village. My room has an oven in the floor, neatly lined with clay, and as I write the women are making bread by a very simple process. The oven is well heated by the live embers of animal fuel. They work the flour and water dough, to which a piece of leaven from the last baking has been added, into a flat round cake, about eighteen inches in diameter and half an inch thick, place it quickly on a very dirty cushion, and clap it against the concave interior of the oven, withdrawing the cushion. In one minute it is baked and removed.
A sloping hole in the floor leads to the fowl-house. The skin of a newly-killed sheep hangs up. A pack saddle and gear take up one corner, my bed another, and the owner’s miscellaneous property fills up the rest of the blackened, cracked mud hovel, thick with the sooty cobwebs and dust of generations. The door, which can only be shut by means of a wooden bolt outside, is six inches from the ground, so that fowls and cats run in and out with impunity. Behind my bed there is a doorless entrance to a dark den, full of goat’s hair, bones, and other stores. In front there is a round hole for letting in light, which I persistently fill up with a blanket which is as persistently withdrawn. There is no privacy, for though the people are glad to let their rooms, they only partially vacate them, and are in and out all the time. Outside there is mud a foot deep, then a steep slope, and a disgusting green pool, and the drinking water is nauseous and brackish. The village people here and everywhere seem of a very harmless sort.
Kûm, Ash Wednesday, 1890.— It was really very difficult to get away from Taj Khatan. The charvadar came on here, leaving only two men to load twelve mules. M—— practically had to load them himself, and to reload them when the tackle broke and the loads turned. Hadji and the cook were quite incapable, the Afghan orderly, who seemed like a dying man, was left behind; in fact there were no servants and no interpreters, and the groom was so ill he could hardly sit on a horse.
The march of twenty-five miles took fully eight hours, but on the Arab horse, and with an occasional gallop, I got through quite comfortably, and have nothing to complain of. The road lies through a country of mud hills, brown usually, drab sometimes, streaked with deep madder red, and occasionally pale green clay — stones, thistles, and thorns their only crop. [I passed over much of this country in the spring, and though there were a few flowers, chiefly bulbs, and the thorns were clothed with a scanty leafage, and the thistles and artemisia were green-gray instead of buff, the general aspect of the region was the same.] There was not a village on the route, only two or three heaps of deserted ruins and two or three ruinous mud imamzadas, no cultivation, streams, or springs, the scanty pools brackish, here and there the glittering whiteness of saline efflorescence, not a tree or even bush, nothing living except a few goats, picking up, who knows how, a scanty living — a blighted, blasted region, a land without a raison d’être.
Then came low mud ranges, somewhat glorified by atmosphere, higher hills on the left, ghastly with snow which was even then falling, glimpses far away to the northward of snowy mountains among heavy masses of sunlit clouds, an ascent, a gap in the mud hills, some low peaks of white, green, and red clay, a great plain partly green with springing wheat, and in the centre, in the glow of sunset, the golden dome and graceful minarets of the shrine of Fatima, the sister of Reza, groups of trees, and the mud houses, mud walls, and many domes and minarets of the sacred city of Kûm.
Descending, we trotted for some miles through irrigated wheat, passed a walled garden or two, rode along the bank of the Abi Khonsar or Abi Kûm, which we had followed down from Givr, admired the gleaming domes and tiled minarets of the religious buildings on its bank, and the nine-arched brick bridge which spans it, and reached a sort of hotel outside the gates, a superior caravanserai with good, though terribly draughty guest-rooms upstairs, furnished with beds, chairs, and tables, suited for the upper class of pilgrims who resort to this famous shrine.
To have arrived here in good health, and well able for the remaining journey of nearly a hundred miles, is nothing else than a triumph of race, of good feeding through successive generations, of fog-born physique, nurtured on damp east winds!
There is an air of civilisation about this place. The rooms have windows with glass panes and doors which shut, a fountain in front, beyond that a garden, and then the river, and the golden shrine of Fatima and its exquisite minarets. My door opens on a stone-flagged roof with a fine view of the city and hills — an excellent place for taking exercise. So strong is Mohammedan fanaticism here that much as I should like to see the city, it would be a very great risk to walk through it except in disguise.
M—— borrowed a taktrawan from the telegraph clerk and sent it back with two horses to Taj Khatan for the orderly, who was left there very ill yesterday morning, under Abbas Khan’s charge, the Khan feeling so ill that he lay down inside it instead of riding. Hadji gave up work altogether, so I unpacked and pitched my bed, glad to be warmed by exercise. Near 8 P.M. Abbas Khan burst into the “parlour” saying that the taktrawan horses were stuck in the mud. He evidently desired to avoid the march back, but two mules have been sent to replace the horses, and two more are to go tomorrow. The orderly was so ill that I expect his corpse rather than himself.
This morning Hadji, looking fearful, told me that he should die today, and he and the cook are now in bed in opposite corners of a room below, with a good fire, feverish and moaning. It is really a singular disaster, and shows what the severity of the journey has been. The Persian doctor, with a European medical education, on whom our hopes were built, when asked to come and see these poor men, readily promised to do so; but the Princess, the Shah’s daughter, whose physician he is, absolutely refuses permission, on the ground that we have come through a region in which there is supposed to be cholera!
I. L. B.
20 This custom, supposed to be an allusion to our Lord and His mother, is described by Morier in his Second Journey in Persia.
21 Jairud exports fruit to Kûm and even to Tihran, and in the autumn I was interested to find that the best pears and peaches in the Hamadan market came from its luxuriant orchards.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52