Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy) Bird.

Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) online

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Online LibraryIsabella L. (Isabella Lucy) BirdJourneys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) → online text (page 12 of 29)
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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 horse-
back 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
to-day 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 them-
selves 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 to-day, 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 flounder-
ing 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 to-day at one time there were eight, struggling heels
uppermost in the deep snow, all to be reloaded.

This led to a serious mSlSe. 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 " sou 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 bleed-
ing 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 under-
standing that one caravan shall draw off into a place
where the snow is shallowest, and stand still till the
other has gone past; but to-day 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 to-day
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
VOL. i L


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 to-day 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 harden-
ing, 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 tdndur 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. Eude rafters of poplar are laid
across the walls about two feet apart. In a kctchuda'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 imper-
vious 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 bVown 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

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 arrange-
ments, 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, turn-
ing 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
<5ut 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 bv from 8 to 1 5 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 productive-
ness and population, one of the most flourishing districts
in Persia.

We were to have marched to Kashgird, but on reach-
ing 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 beauti-
ful at sunset, and this was exceptionally so, as the long
indigo shadows on the plain threw into greater definite-
ness 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

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 modaJceL 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 fertilis-
ing 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, stun-
ning 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 resist-
less 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, epitomis-
ing 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 be-
numbed 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 haemorrhage 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

Online LibraryIsabella L. (Isabella Lucy) BirdJourneys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) → online text (page 12 of 29)