My Wanderings in Persia
Glorious Sunrise. — Eden. — Resht. — Storehouses. — Pir-i-Bazaar. — Priestly Blessing. — Jolting. — Disappointment. — ‘Inglice neest oorus ast. — Robinson Crusoe. — Inshallah! — The ‘Alexandrovna.’ — Sakutschky. — Baku. — Quarantine. — Russian Civility. — Disgusting Hovels. — ‘Torn Canvas.’ - Disinfected Clothing. — Pitiable Plight. — Cleanliness. — Emancipation Day. — Again en route.
THROUGHOUT my travels in the land of the people whose laws suffereth no change or alteration, I cannot recall a more delightful ride than this my last journey on horseback in Persia. The morning had just dawned, the sun was rising in the eastern horizon, tinting with a golden hue the summits of the distant Elburz previous to its advent to the lower world. The sweet sing-
ing in melodious harmony, of gaily-plumaged birds, and the delicious fragrance emitted from the wild honeysuckle, pomegranate, and olive-trees, which form a continuous avenue to Pir-i-Bazaar, would each tend to raise some words of enthusiastic eulogium from the traveller, especially after crossing the arid deserts so common in more southern districts.
To a new arrival in Persia, viâ the Caspian, the country must present to his fascinated gaze a veritable Eden. Bitter, however, must be the after-thought, when these natural beauties can only be thought of as things of the past, when the sandy plains, void of vegetation, and the suffocating atmosphere of Teheran is reached, and one looks in vain for a recurrence of those charming rides from Resht to Casvin.
For the first time in Persia I saw the common English nettle in lane side abundance; nowhere before had I seen a trace of it. We continued at a canter along this pleasant
country lane until, a short distance ahead, we saw the mosques and the red-tiled roofs of Resht. This port, although on the Shah’s territory, is essentially Russian; nothing reminds one of Persian authority or supremacy except the squalid bazaars of the town and the long-robed Persian vendors. The buildings are structures much resembling Russian architecture. It is the only place in Persia where the roofs are tiled or are otherwise than flat. The town is a filthy mud-hole, generally fever-stricken.
We remained but an hour in Resht, feeling anxious to reach Pir-i-Bazaar. The sun was now high in the heavens, and the richness of the surrounding country was seen in its real beauty. Nowhere in Central Asia is there such fertility and richness of soil as in the much-coveted provinces of Ghelan and Mazanderan.
Russian statesmen would welcome the opportunity to issue the order for their an-
nexation. The time may possibly be drawing near when this prize would be worth more than gold could buy, and their schemes for seizure assume a more formidable shape. They are not held in sufficient estimation by the Persian Government. The land is allowed to remain in its primeval state; the only law regulating native action is that all game must be strictly preserved for the pleasure of His Imperial Majesty the Sháh.
It is to be lamented that such men as Hussein Khán cannot or will not see the practicality of transforming this vast wilderness, abounding in riches, into a storehouse for times of scarcity. For more than a hundred miles does this fecundity of soil extend, and with some slight expense might prove not only a storehouse but a fruitful source from which the exhausted treasury of Persia might recruit and strengthen itself. But to effect this some exertion would be required, and to generate the seeds of exer-
tion a stimulative force is necessary, and in every direction I look in vain to find even a particle. Lassitude and general imbecility must be supplanted by national reform and good government, and the former are too indelibly fixed in Persia to hope for any amendment.
Avaricious eyes are anxiously fixed on Persia’s apparent carelessness, and some day, perhaps, Ghelan may be what it now should be — a great storehouse — but for a different race. The armies of the great Czar may find nourishment from the neglected, yet fruitful lands bordering the Caspian Sea.
It was with feelings of disappointment that we saw the walls of Pir-i-Bazaar (the old bazaar) just ahead, and knew our pleasant gallop was over, and yet we were glad to finish our travels, at least so far as Chaparing, and look forward to a much pleasanter journey by water. At the gate we dismounted, thus finishing our ride of 294 miles in less than
three days. It was a sense of relief to think that our last ride in Persia was over.
We were met by a swarm of ferocious-looking boatmen, chiefly Turcomans or Russian Tartars, who vied with each other in their prices, as also in the suitability of their boats to the exalted gentlemen. One Tartar evidently thought to place the question of superiority beyond dispute by stating that his boat had been blessed by a priest, who had condescended to ride therein only a week before.
It was impossible to gain a hearing amid the babble of Russo-Tartar, Turkish, and Ghelanee (a dialect of Persian), and at last, finding one who spoke Persian fluently, we engaged him to carry us across the river to Enzelli. Whether it was the Bunga on which rested the priestly blessing or not, I cannot say, but of all rockings and joltings it has been my ill-luck to experience, this trip from Pir-i-Bazaar to Enzelli crowns all. In moderately calm weather it is about a three hours’ pull.
The river on either side reminds one of fairy tales read in younger days. The scene is of a magnificent description, the broad river dotted here and there by floating islands, on which rode large herons and other birds.
Just after sunset we saw lights ahead, and heard loud shouts, which unmistakably announced our close proximity to the shore. In a few moments the fact was manifested by a severe bumping of the boat. We at once sprang ashore, and were led through a labyrinth of cotton-bales and foul-smelling bazaars to the house of a wealthy Armenian merchant, for whom we held a letter of introduction from Teheran. An hospitable welcome was given us by this gentleman.
On inquiring as to when the steamer would leave for Nijni Novgorod, or rather for Baku, for at the latter place the much-talked-of quarantine was established, another surprise and disappointment was at hand — the steamer had called the previous day and proceeded on to
Astrabad. It was expected back, our informant added, in three days, on its return voyage. The news was unwelcome for many reasons. We must of necessity remain here until the steamer’s arrival. We were impatient of delay on account of the warnings received before leaving the Persian capital, and we were also reluctant in trespassing upon the hospitality of an unknown foreigner.
The time passed away in tedious waiting. Not a single book or paper could be counted amongst our possessions. The bazaars were carefully inspected for a scrap of English or French news, but the only reply to our enquiries for a book or paper was, ‘Inglice neest Ooruss ast’ (‘No English, but we have Russian’). Each morning we strolled on the beach, eagerly scanning the horizon in search of our steamer.
The fourth day at length arrived, and as our host informed us that the vessels usually passed before noon, we arose betimes and
packed our small portmanteaus, and prepared for our next journey. We climbed an adjacent hill to watch for the approach of the steamer, and not until long after noon was past did we surrender our position. Evening passed, and with it no boat. One or two were confident that she had passed without calling, but when there’s life there’s hope; we still hoped for her early arrival.
The next day had far advanced; we had taken our usual stroll along the coast, leisurely noting the different formations of sandstone, and watching the rippling waves, as did Robinson Crusoe on the uninhabited island. My friend suddenly called my attention to a thick cloud of smoke seaward, but thinking it was from the Persian royal yacht stationed at Enzelli, we took no further notice, and resumed our walk. In a few minutes, however, we observed two or three men rapidly approaching, and beckoning us to return.
Their reasons were quickly made known;
the Steamer was nearing Enzelli, and would shortly be in the offing. Our belongings were quickly packed, and, having ordered a boat to be in constant readiness, we stepped off Persian soil, never again, perhaps, or in Persian, ‘Inshallah’ — ‘God willing’ — to tread its barren plains and rugged mountains, or to bear the unsocial jar of native idiosyncrasies.
The steamer had given her signal, and we were soon breasting the waves and nearing our long-looked for haven, accompanied by our worthy host. On reaching the vessel the steps were lowered for us, and in a moment or two we trod the decks of the finest Caspian steamer the Russian mercantile navy can boast of. The Alexandrovna is an English-built ship, carried to the Caspian, and there fitted up; in fact, all Russian vessels are thus constructed, the woodwork alone being of Russian workmanship. The great difference between a Russian and an English vessel is everywhere apparent. The strict discipline, the cleanli-
ness and regularity which exists under the Union-jack is here looked for in vain.
On the deck many and varied were the sights that met our view. Near the vessel’s stern sat a motley crowd, composed of Persians, Tartars, Circassians, and Russians, proceeding, probably, to the annual fair at Nijni Novgorod, apparently highly interested in the subject selected for conversation, which evidently had some direct allusion to our arrival. Nearer the saloon stood a group of Russian officers, who eyed us with looks which certainly could not be called sweet or even welcome. The captain (a Swede) was on the poop giving his customary commands in an essentially Russian manner, each sentence being accompanied by expressions little fitted to proceed from such a source.
All around the vicinity of the upper deck were passengers who paid but deck fare, and who were lying on their thickly inhabited rugs. Some were busily engaged with the family
‘samovar,’ others were occupied with their evening’s devotions, whilst others were amusing themselves by hunting to the death the numerous animals occupying their rugs.
We hemmed our way past the cooking establishment (near which place I never more ventured to expose myself, or rather, my stomach, which is much too sensitive to admit of an inspection of a Russian cuisine), on, through the idle, indifferent groups of lazy Persians, who were perseveringly drawing at their kalyuns, and were at last politely shown down to the saloon by the engineer, who proved to be an Englishman, owning, as he told me, a very unenviable position in the Russian mercantile navy.
Luncheon was just ready, and if the Russians cannot be complimented on their extravagant ideas of cleanliness, they most certainly hold a prominent position as regards the quantities of food consumed in a short space of time. This luncheon, called in Russian
‘sakutschky,’ is of an extensive composition. Fish, in all the perfection of Russian cookery, is brought, different kinds of cheese, pickles, sardines, jam, and kaviar, the latter a peculiarly Russian appetiser; various other eatables are placed upon the table; three kinds of liquor are invariably to be seen at meal-times on Russian tables — red, green, and white vadki; it is surprising the manner in which this powerful spirit is tossed off by those who are its habitual patronisers. A large glass, filled some half dozen times, is swallowed so quickly that one would imagine it is the old story retold, ‘One must be followed by another for friendship’s sake;’ perhaps it is done so that one may keep the other warm.
Sakutschky is followed in about half an hour by breakfast or dinner, to which soups are brought in an endless stream, the essence of meat, vegetables, fish, all being represented. Cutlets and large joints are followed by a variety of smaller dishes and pastry, each one
being abundantly supplied with cigarettes, which are puffed between dishes. Ladies also indulge in this disgusting habit of smoking during dinner and other meals.
Every accommodation is excellently arranged except the sleeping apartments, which are but ill-adapted for one’s comfort. No sign of linen or covering is seen, even in the saloons of a Russian boat, and if asked for, an amazed stare and a shake of the head is all the reply given by the steward. One is forcibly struck by this lack of — in our eyes — cleanliness, but such is the case throughout the dominions of the Czar; a fur underneath and a similar covering above seems to be the only requirements a Russ aspires to.
The second day, as we approached the island of Baku, the captain, in course of conversation, informed us that until receiving advices from the commandant, he was altogether uncertain as to whether the quarantine still existed or not. After anchoring in the road-
steads, an officer was sent ashore to report our arrival; he shortly afterwards returned, accompanied by a military officer, who in no polite manner asked for our passports. He did not deem it necessary to further instruct us, but in an imperious way addressed some remarks to a subordinate officer, probably referring to ourselves and baggage. The English engineer kindly assisted us out of our perplexing situation, and told us that the quarantine still lived, and that for thirteen days we should be detained in the camp ashore.
The news was not inviting, but had we imagined the misery of the next fortnight I for one should not have experienced such pleasant dreams in my slumber that night. The appearance of the shore had no cheering aspect; a few small tents dotted at regulation distance on a barren slope; for miles the land had the appearance of a sand heap. The continual wash of the waves had carried away the solid
Shores, nothing being left with the exception of sand, accumulated by ages of perpetual influxive action. On our left, some two miles away, stood a lighthouse, fitted and worked by an English engineer, who, at this time, however, was at home on leave. Nearer the shore was a rude wooden construction, which we were told were temporary barracks.
The following morning found us landed on this heaven-forsaken land, and were led by two soldiers to a miserable hut, which they said, or rather by their gesticulations made us to understand, was placed at our disposal. We opened the ponderous doors, and our astonishment and disgust may perhaps be imagined on finding some twelve or fifteen Tartars and Russian soldiery, who were in various ways occupied. Some were cooking, others were playing at cards, whilst some were breaking up sticks and bringing in manure to burn.
The loathsome sight was horrifying, espe-
cially at the bare idea of spending twelve days in such a place and with such company. We determined to rest ourselves on the sands exposed to the night air rather than with such a wretched rabble. A few bare shelves had been fixed one above another for sleeping accommodation, but by the number of Tartars occupying the hut I imagine that at least three must perch on a shelf.
We protested against such barbarous treatment, and demanded to see the governor, to whom we were conducted. This exalted personage was an aged military officer, exceedingly corpulent, so much so that it was evident he had not long been stationed on this waste of sand, or otherwise he possessed a good larder. He informed us that we must either accept what was offered, or we could be provided with a small tent, to which he pointed. It appeared to be of the class usually erected for secondary purposes, about five feet high, and the same in length and width.
Reluctantly, and with no complimentary words, we accepted the latter munificent offer from our gaoler, and at once took possession. The torn piece of canvas — I cannot call it a tent — with a stick in the centre, and held down by huge stones, would not permit of one standing erect; no table or chair — nothing but a carpet of sand.
We momentarily expected something being brought in the shape of a bed — but vain the hope. A soldier, who by his appearance bespoke himself a factionnaire, brought a few pieces of dry bread and a small dish of black meat, which up to the present time I am at a loss to imagine its orginative source; it might have been in existence six months previously. The soldier — a native of Warsaw — spoke good German, said it was, he thought, pickled beef, and looked enviously at the dish. A few strips of wood were brought, with which we managed to erect a table.
In this small place three men were supposed
to exist for twelve days, in order to prevent an imaginary plague being introduced into Russian territory. Our baggage, clothes, and even the money we possessed had been taken to the room consecrated by the disinfectant officer, and there smoked (the money was washed), and returned. We were told to put on the disinfected clothes, and send those we wore to undergo the same purifying process. Evening came; the wind howled in fitful gusts around our feeble covering. Not a light could be obtained, not for money, and certainly not for love. Our only alternative was to woo, and try to win balmy sleep, the only solace of our present existence.
Towards midnight the rain fell in torrents, perfectly deluging our frail habitation; the ground was simply a puddle. We were literally soaked through, and to add to our misfortunes the wind blew in such hurricanes that shortly after the midnight guard had been changed one blast fiercer than the rest took
our covering from over us, and dashed it yards away. The soldiers assisted in its re-erection, but our pitiable plight made sleep impossible.
Fortunately this was the only accident that happened during our imprisonment. The following morning we obtained permission to erect our shelter in a more secluded spot. The days were passed in roaming backwards and forwards on the beach, or in watching the trading yachts skimming o’er the waves. Bales of cotton were stacked all around us; these afforded some shade from the sun during the day, our tent being untenable.
On taking a retrospective view of those miserable days, I can scarcely imagine how they were passed without a book or a scrap of literary amusement, or how the dreaded plague was not generated by the closely packed huts full of filthy beings, Russian officers not being the cleanest individuals in the universe. Strict ideas of cleanliness do not seem to be deeply
implanted in the minds of the inhabitants of Russia; perhaps they have no proverb in their interesting language or sacred books which affirms that this virtue is next to Godliness; or maybe it has been forgotten.
To count the progressive days, we cut a mark on the tent-pole each evening. At last we counted twelve marks, and on the same day (emancipation day) an escort took us up to the quarters of the regimental surgeon, who, after a few senseless words, gave us a certificate of physical perfection, and on the payment of two roubles — four shillings — our passports were returned. We were now emancipated slaves, breathing the pure air of freedom outside the boundary marks of the sixty square yards of quarantine land, which was jealously guarded by patrols of soldiers.
During the afternoon the sea had been running unusually high, and fears were expressed by the officer in command — who, unlike the rest, was civil — as to the possibility
of taking us out to the steamer, which was now riding at anchor.
At the idea of a prolongation of our exile we offered — to a Russian mind — a fortune to the boatman who would offer to take us; for a few minutes the gaze of the bystanders was alternately fixed on the white-crested waves, and then on the rouble notes, which eventually won the day. Three stalwart Tartars volunteered for the duty, and in a few minutes our little skiff was gallantly heading the gigantic waves. The distance was not great, yet some time passed before we neared the vessel, our frail boat having received one or two severe shocks; but we providentially passed through the angry, foaming waves without accident, and once more our thoughts with ourselves wandered westward.