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Persia and the Persian Question, volume I

by George N. Curzon

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Chapter 3

FROM LONDON TO ASHKABAD

I to the Orient from the drooping West,

Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold

The acts commenced on this ball of earth.

SHAKESPEARE, Induction to Henry IV., Part II.

IT was in the latter part of September 1889 that I left Paris by the new Orient express which, after leaving Pesth, runs viâ Belgrade, Sofia, and Adrianople to Constantinople. Through Servia, Bulgaria, and Turkey the pace was little better than a crawl, but nevertheless the terminus was reached in time. There can be no doubt that the journey, which now takes sixty-nine and a half hours, and which I have again made since under similarly irritating conditions, could without difficulty be accelerated by at least six or eight hours, a suggestion which it seems useless to commend to the directors of the lines concerned. The discomforts of arrival at Constantinople and departure therefrom are well known, and have tested the patience of many travellers. But the horrors of the boat-landing, which could be assuaged by bribes, are as nothing compared with those of the Customs examination, which is now pursued with a merciless incivility that only Turkish officials can display, at the newly opened railway station at Stambul. I was the bearer of a courier's passport and was met by an Embassy kavass at the station. But notwithstanding these evidences of respectability I was detained there for an hour and a quarter, my boxes were ruthlessly overhauled, my stores, accumulated and carefully packed for Persian travel, were broken into, and a box containing a few watches which I was taking out as small gifts in return for civilities in Persia, having been pounced upon, was hailed as triumphant evidence of a sinister disguise, and was immediately mulcted by a duty. If this system, or rather the manner in which it is enforced, be maintained, travellers are more likely to be repelled from Constantinople than attracted to it by the overland route.

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At Pera a happy accident revealed to me the fact that my friend Professor Vambéry was lodging in the same hotel, having come to the city at the invitation of the Sultan as the head of a Hungarian Commission to inquire into the historical and literary treasures stored in the palaces of Stambul. I enjoyed with him a long and interesting conversation on the journey that I was about to make, and parts of which he had undertaken himself nearly thirty years before under conditions far less agreeable than those which await the modern traveller. Persia itself has not appreciably moved in the interval, but its neighbours have; and the presence of the Cossack sentry where the Turkoman raided and the Tartar reigned has multiplied tenfold the absorbing interest of the situation.

It being necessary for me to reach Batum by a certain day in order to make the desired connection with my steamer at Baku, and no passenger boat being about to leave the Golden Horn for that destination, I procured a passage upon a boat flying the English flag and belonging to Messrs. Armstrong, Mitchell, and Co., of Newcastle, one of that new class of steamers of which several now plough the waves of the Black Sea, familiarly known as tank-steamers, and specially constructed for the transport of petroleum oil from Batum. There is a fleet of about thirty of these vessels, of which most have been built in England and over twenty are in English hands, and which ply between Batum and London, Liverpool, Venice, Trieste, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Antwerp, and other ports of the Continent. To India, China, and Japan, with which a large export trade has suddenly sprung up, the oil is carried, not in tank-steamers, but in cases ready for distribution throughout the country. The tank-steamer consists of a series of detached iron tanks, into which the oil is pumped straight from the reservoirs at Batum, whither it has been conveyed in tank-cars by the railway from Baku. Certain of these are old cargo boats converted; but every day improvements are being effected in the designs of new vessels, some of which, to hold 4,000 tons, have lately been built, and of which larger types may be expected in the future. The 'Lux,' in which I was a passenger, was now empty, but was making her way to Batum to take on board a new cargo, of which she could accommodate over 2,000 tons. These boats, though not constructed for passenger traffic, present this advantage to the traveller in a hurry, that they do not touch,

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as do nearly all the passenger steamers, at the Turkish ports of Ineboli, Sinope, Samsun, and Trebizond, but ply direct to Batum, which at the easy rate of nine knots can be reached in less than three days from Constantinople.

I was at Batum for five days about a year before, detained by one of those tremendous storms for which the Euxine has always been famous (we all remember, though we may be excused from quoting, Byron's celebrated, if unsavoury, rhyme upon that sea),[44] but little expected so soon again to behold its beautiful but unattractive features. In the year's interval I found that immense progress had been made by the Russians in the development and strengthening of the place. It was only eleven years since, by the Treaty of Berlin, they had first gained a footing in Batum; and only three and a half years since, in violation of that instrument, they had unceremoniously annexed what had, till then, been nominally a free port. Batum is now a large and increasing town, with an estimated population (though accurate statistics, as is to be expected in Russia, are not forthcoming) of 30,000 persons,[45] of whom probably one-third are Russians, and the remainder a motley congeries of Turks, Georgians, Circassians, Mingrelians, Persians, Armenians, Greeks, Levantines, Jews, English, Germans, French, Austrians, and, indeed, every nationality in Europe. The town has that inchoate and adventitious appearance which is ordinarily associated with a new American settlement in the Far West. Palatial buildings alternate with hovels, and broad streets terminate in quagmires and dust-heaps. The sanitary conditions of the place are abominable, and the bulk of the dwelling-houses are flimsily and wretchedly constructed. During the hot season of the year 50 per cent. of the labouring population are said to be disabled by sickness, and few residents

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escape the malarial contagion of the neighbourhood, which, after one or two years' sojourn, commonly asserts itself in physical inertia or decline.

There are several hotels, mostly kept by Frenchmen, of which the best is the Hôtel de France. Here, and at the Hôtel Impérial, the better class of the population and the Russian officers meet to take their meals and to consume the hours not spent on business in such limited conversational relaxation as the stupor of life at Batum admits of. There are no interests or occupations, or even amusements, in the town outside the ordinary official or mercantile routine. The talk soon reverts to 'shop;' and oil, which is the staple commodity of business transactions, fills the same place in conversation also. There is little to tempt the resident into the surrounding country, surpassingly beautiful though it be. Sport is only pursued with much labour, and, if at a distance, expense. There are not sufficient roads to furnish any variety of rides. The heat during the greater part of the year in the middle of the day is excessive, and rain is usually falling. It is the auri sacra fames alone that has attracted so large a population to this uncanny spot. Fortunes can be and have been made with startling rapidity; and there are few of the residents who do not look forward to an early flight, with lined pockets, and a resolute intention never to set foot in Batum again.

Military necessities dictated to Russia the occupation of the only decent port on the eastern coast of the Black Sea; but petroleum, as I have indicated, has made Batum, and petroleum is its life blood. All along the recesses of the bay, and on the flat and feverish fringe of soil which separates it from the splendid wooded background of hills, are to be seen the clustered reservoirs and premises of the various firms engaged in this lucrative trade.[46] Over 5,000 tank-cars run between Baku and Batum, the largest owners being Messrs. Nobel and Rothschild, the former of whom, with the enterprise for which they have long been notorious, have procured a concession for a pipe line over the difficult Suram mountain on the railway line nearer Tiflis;[47] so that their tank cars, bringing the oil from the refineries

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at Baku, can pass it on here to similar cars waiting to transport it to Batum, thereby escaping the extra mileage, the wear and tear of rolling stock, and the consumption of time on the extraordinarily steep gradients between.

Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide, in the few lines which it devotes to Batum, says that 'no custom duties are levied here.' I should like the writer of that paragraph to make the sea-journey to Batum, and to repeat this confident assurance to the polite but inexorable Russian official who will board his vessel before he is permitted to land. The only way by which the severity of that individual can be in any degree relaxed is by taking, as far as possible, an old or second-hand instead of a new travelling equipment.

The extent of the foreign trade which is now conducted with Batum may be judged by the fact that, in 1889, 417 foreign, i.e. non-Russian, steamers entered the port, of which 214 were British, representing a registered tonnage of 268,781 out of 480,212 tons. The total of petroleum exported in 1889 was 649,085 tons, with a value of 3,023,300l., as compared with 450,326 tons, with a value of 1,724,446l., in the preceding year. In 1889 the export to India, China, and Japan, of which I have spoken, and the figures of which were infinitesimal in 1887, rose to 935,822l., a total which suggests to England the urgent necessity of developing, if possible, her own sources of supply in Beluchistan, India, and Burmah. In Russian hands the port of Batum, hitherto not a particularly good one, except for the great depth of water close up to the shore, is being rapidly improved. A mole had been built on the inner side of the north breakwater during the past year, and is to be fortified by a turret at the end; piles were being sunk all round the shore-line, which will be fitted with a stone quay, and it is ultimately intended to carry forward an additional breakwater from the lighthouse on the south till it overlaps the pier on the north. The entire cost of these harbour improvements is estimated at about half a million sterling, which will be borne by the Imperial Government. Lately (October, 1891) it has been stated in the press that the trading port is to be transferred to Poti, where great docks will be constructed, while Batum will remain a military and naval establishment, and an arsenal. But I doubt this.

Strategical requirements are, indeed, far from being neglected

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at Batum. They are being advanced with a strenuousness and a purpose that sufficiently indicate the value set by Russia upon this maritime key to her Caucasian base. Five large forts — some of them not yet completed — command the shore line, and are already mounted with over twenty guns of heavy calibre. The principal battery, in the centre of the town, immediately overlooking the harbour, contains twelve guns of, it is said, from eighteen to twenty-two tons each. All strangers, and even Russian civilians, are strictly excluded from its precincts. Practice was proceeding, on the day that I left, at canvas targets moored out at sea. Higher up on the side or summits of the first range of hills behind the harbour, four other batteries are being, or have been constructed, armed, for the most part, with mortars. The permanent garrison of Batum is three battalions, kept at their mobilized strength of 1,000 men each. At the time of my visit four other infantry battalions were in the immediate neighbourhood, engaged in constructing a military road into the interior up a valley where it will be masked from marine attack by the intervening hills. These details will show that Russia is keenly alive to the importance of her new acquisition; and that, should a naval armament ever steam up from the Bosphorus with hostile intent, she is not likely to be caught napping at Batum. An interesting commentary is thus afforded upon the complacent puerilities about Batum that were the commonplaces of a certain class of English politicians at the time of the Berlin Congress in 1878.

Nothing can exceed the beauty of the line of railroad from Batum to Tiflis. Leaving Batum on the south, it describes a semicircle round the town on the outside, and follows the coast on the north for a distance of thirty miles in the direction of Poti before it plunges inland into the valley of the Rion, that ancient waterway of the Phasis, up which sped the adventurous keel of the 'Argo.' The vegetation is almost tropical in its luxuriance; maize is planted everywhere in the low lands; and the hills are wrapped from foot to crown in a sumptuous forest mantle. At every station, where are sidings, long lines of tank-cars stored with oil crawl by like an army of gigantic armour-plated caterpillars, and disappear down the stretch of rails just vacated. Each portentous insect is laden with a wealth to which that of the Golden Fleece was nothing, and which attracts to the Phasis many a modern 'Argo' that would have struck Jason with

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even greater consternation than the magic of the Colchian princess. As the line ascends, clinging closely to the bed of the stream almost to its source in the watershed that separates the Caspian and Black Sea drainage, the scenery becomes more imposing. The mountains climb to an airier height, and the train creeps tortuously through solemn gorges and magnificent glens. The station platforms are crowded with wild Georgian urchins — true sons of the mountains — anxious to exchange for a few kopecks long strings of chestnuts or bunches of miniature grapes. Stately bearded figures, close pinched at the waist by the tightly fitting tcherkess or Circassian pelisse, and wearing a curled lambskin bonnet, tall leather boots, and a small armoury of damascened weapons, attend the arrival and departure of the trains with military regularity, and survey the scene with stalwart composure.

The railroad from Batum to Tiflis, a distance of about 220 miles, or at least from Poti to Tiflis, has now been open for many years; but the Russians have for some time been engaged upon extensive alterations upon a section of the line between the stations of Rion and Michaelovo, where the existing rails climb the steep and laborious gradients of the Suram mountain at a height of 3,000 feet above the sea. The alterations involve not only the piercing of a tunnel three miles long through the mountain, but the entire realignment, at a more practicable level, of the railroad for a distance of several miles, an undertaking which necessitates the construction of new bridges and viaducts, as well as an immense amount of cutting, stonework, and embankment. A large number of workmen were engaged upon this task when I passed a year before. In the interim a great advance had been made. The spring of 1890 was named as the period when the works would be finished, but it was not till October that the tunnel was opened, after the Russian fashion, with a religious service; nor did that mean the completion of the whole undertaking. The Russian Government is putting itself to an enormous outlay in this quarter, a fact which illustrates the importance attached by it not only to secure, but to easy and rapid rail communication in the Caucasus.[48] The works struck me as being conducted on a large and worthy scale, and as being marked by great strength and solidity. The Suram Tunnel is remarkable

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as surpassing all European tunnels in the dimensions of its profile. The St. Gothard Tunnel has a section of only sixty square metres, but that of the Suram Tunnel is ninety metres. Perhaps it is the expense thus incurred that accounts for the heavy charge for passenger traffic from Batum to Baku. A first-class ticket costs 47½ roubles, for a distance of 560 miles — that is, at the rate of over 2d. a mile. The locomotives between Batum and Baku are entirely propelled by residual naphtha, or astatki, as it is called, driven in the form of a fine spray into the furnace. Over the Suram mountain a double Fairlie engine pulls in front, while a second pushes and puffs behind. I found that the time consumed in getting to Baku was three hours longer than formerly. Upon inquiring the reason, I was told that the railway used to belong to a company, but has since been purchased by the State. To those who know the ways of the Russian Government this was quite enough.

Tiflis is too well known to travellers to deserve mention. Those only who are unacquainted with the East are likely to go into ecstasies over its modest, though perhaps singular attractions, among which Orientalism plays every year a less and less distinguished part. The town was in some excitement over an agricultural and industrial exhibition, the first ever held in the Caucasus, which had just been opened in a series of wooden pavilions on an open space outside the town. Here were collected specimens of the agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, pisciculture, and arboriculture, as well as of the textile fabrics and manufacturing industries of the Caucasus, together with objects from Central Asia and Transcaspia. The local manufactures, whether in metals or textiles, were varied and interesting, but the general level of the exhibition did not rise above that of an agricultural show in an English county town; and the grounds appeared to be visited quite as much for the sake of the bands and refreshment booths as for more business-like objects.

The Hôtel de Londres at Tiflis is perhaps the most wonderful rendezvous of varied personalities that is to be found in the East. Situated on the dividing line between Europe and Asia, and on the high road to the remote Orient, almost every pilgrim to or from those fascinating regions halts for a while, within its hospitable walls. Here the outgoing traveller takes his last taste of civilisation before he plunges into the unknown. Here, too, the returning wanderer enjoys, very likely for the first

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time for months, the luxury of sheets, and forgets his hardships over the congratulatory glass of champagne. Here, for instance, at the time of my visit, were collected a young French vicomte, fresh from the slaughter of ovis poli in the Tian Shan Mountains upon the Mongolian frontier; a high official of the Anglo-European Telegraph Department in Persia; an Irish engineer employed on the Transcaspian Railway; the Polish contractor who built the famous wooden bridge over the Oxus; two English sportsmen fresh from a hunting expedition amid the glaciers of the Caucasus; as well as Russians, Armenians, and the polyglot crowd that is always to be found upon the fringe of civilisation. Dragomans, who have accompanied eminent travellers and have left their names in well-known books, loiter about the doorway and present their travel-worn letters of recommendation. Clearly, as I write at home, can I recollect the emotions of anticipation, half hesitating and half confident, with which I have more than once started from the threshold of the Hôtel de Londres; no less than the satisfaction with which, my purpose accomplished, I have at a later date re-entered its doors.

After three days' stay I was not sorry to leave Tiflis, the more so as some enterprising Tiflite took advantage of my parting moments at the station to relieve me of a porte-monnaie, containing 10l. in roubles. Considering, however, that the hour when the train starts is about midnight, and that the voyager seldom gets off without a wait of nearly two hours in the midst of a packed and constitutionally predatory crowd, I regarded myself as having purchased at a reasonable price the privilege of departure, and turned my back without annoyance upon the amenities of the West.

Baku, with its chimneys and cisterns and refineries, with its acres of rails outside the station covered with tank-cars, its grimy naphtha-besprinkled streets, its sky-high telegraph poles and rattling tramcars, its shops for every article under the sun, its Persian ruins and its modern one-storeyed houses, its shabby conglomeration of peoples, its inky harbour, its canopy of smoke, and its all-pervading smells — Baku, larger, more pungent, and less inviting than ever, was reached on the evening of the day after I had left Tiflis. The population is now estimated at no less than 90,000, a growth which is almost wholly that of the last fifteen years, and is the exclusive creation of the petroleum

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industry. When I inquired the basis of this calculation, the reply was given that it was only an approximate census; and that, when asking for accurate or official statistics, I was surely forgetting in what country I was travelling. I remember once being told in Russia that the only really scientific table of statistics which the Government had issued for some years was one relating to the consumption of vodka and its effect upon the national mortality. The population was divided into three classes: the moderate drinkers, the excessive drinkers, and the total abstainers; and it was triumphantly demonstrated by the returns that the first named were rewarded with the longest span of life; a result which was as warmly welcomed by the Excise Department as it was acceptable to the consuming public. The story, se non è vero, è ben trovato.

From Baku to Uzun Ada I crossed the Caspian in the same English-built boat, the 'Bariatinski,' in which I had made the passage last year. Though now an old vessel, she is still one of the best of the Caucasus and Mercury Company's fleet. The total number of their steamers plying between the different ports of the Caspian is fifteen, and they are in receipt of a large annual subsidy from the State for the conveyance of mails and troops, and also for the use of their boats for transport in case of war. One of these steamers sails from Baku to Uzun Ada twice a week — on Wednesdays and Fridays, leaving at 5 P.M. We had a beautiful passage, the Caspian having exhausted its humours after a storm of ten days' duration; and, after a long steam up the serpentine channel framed in yellow sand hills, reached Uzun Ada at 2.30 the next afternoon.

General Annenkoff was residing at Uzun Ada at the time, and extended to me his customary hospitality, talking with enthusiasm of the present and future of his railway, and expounding his well-known ideas of a Russo-Indian railway and an Anglo-Franco-Russian alliance. Subsequently, at an improvised entertainment, he drank courteously to the health of the English visitor, who, if he did not altogether share these roseate views, had, at any rate, on a previous occasion shown his willingness to do justice to the Transcaspian Railway, and honour to the policy of its promoters. Uzun Ada appeared to me to have somewhat extended its scanty and unstable dimensions during the past year;[49] and the piers and surrounding sand were literally

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packed with bales of cotton waiting for shipment. The General hoped to be able to undertake the extension from Samarkand to Tashkent, which, he said, had been finally sanctioned, in the forthcoming summer;[50] and at no distant date to effect a junction with the projected Omsk-Tomsk line through Siberia to Vladivostock. Nor in the dim future had he renounced his pet project of a Merv-Penjdeh-Herat-Kandahar diversion, which should bind the East and West in friendly fusion.

At Uzun Ada the number of native passengers waiting to take tickets at the single small window of the ticket office — Uzbegs from Bokhara, Sarts from Samarkand and Tashkent, Chinese Mohammedans from Kulja, Turkomans, and even Afghans, returning from pilgrimages to Mecca or other sacred shrines — was so great that it was not till two hours after the quoted time that the train steamed out of the station. It appeared to be difficult to persuade these inveterate Orientals either to regard the price of a ticket as a fixed quantity or to comprehend the French system of the queue. They fought and jostled each other at the tiny opening; and when the ticket distributor named the price, in true Asiatic fashion they offered about half the sum in the expectation of a leisurely haggle and a possible bargain.

A cloudless sun on the following morning showed me again the staring waste of the Kara Kum and the crumpled mountain gorges of the Kuren Dagh. Great improvement was noticeable at most of the railway stations — more trees, more water, greater general comfort. We passed Geok Tepe at 11.30 A.M., and I had time to pay a flying visit to the ruins of the famous fortress which I have described at length in my previous work. The solidly-built walls of rammed clay appear to dwindle very little, and, unless artificially levelled, should be visible for at least a century. It has since been announced (November 1890) that a new use is to be made of Geok Tepe. A penal settlement is to be established here, and a large prison erected for convicts from the Caucasus sentenced to hard labour, whose constitution is unequal to the rigour of Siberia. Russian convicts at work amid a native population by whom, only ten years ago, Russian prisoners in battle were being put to death, will be a dramatic accessory thoroughly in keeping with the surroundings. Two hours behind

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our time (having made no effort to pick up arrears), and nineteen hours after leaving Uzun Ada, we steamed into the station of Ashkabad (literally 'abode of love'), the capital of Transcaspia, situated 300 miles from the Caspian. Here I was to leave the train, and here was to commence the long ride of 2,000 miles which lay in front of me before my programme of Persian travel was exhausted. I watched the noisy departure of the locomotive with the feelings of one who is saying good-bye to an old and faithful friend.


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