Crossing the Sefid Rud on a dilapidated brickwork bridge, I cross another range of low hills, among which I notice an abundance of mica cropping above the surface, and then descend on to a broad, level plain, extending eastward without any lofty elevation as far as eye can reach. On this shelterless plain I am overtaken by a furious equinoctial gale; it comes howling suddenly from the west, obscuring the recently vacated Koflan Koo Mountains behind an inky veil, filling the air with clouds of dust, and for some minutes rendering it necessary to lie down and fairly hang on to the ground to prevent being blown about. First it begins to rain, then to hail; heaven's artillery echoes and reverberates in the Koflan Koo Mountains, and rolls above the plain, seeming to shake the hailstones down like fruit from the branches of the clouds, and soon I am enveloped in a pelting, pitiless downpour of hailstones, plenty large enough to make themselves felt wherever they strike. To pitch my tent would have been impossible, owing to the wind and the suddenness of its appearance. In thirty minutes or less it is all over; the sun shines out warmly and dissipates the clouds, and converts the ground into an evaporator that envelops everything in steam. In an hour after it quits raining, the road is dry again, and across the plain it is for the most part excellent wheeling.
About four o'clock the considerable village of Sercham is reached; here, as at Hadji Aghi, I at once become the bone of contention between rival khan-jees wanting to secure me for a guest, on the supposition that I am going to remain over night. Their anxiety is all unnecessary, however, for away off on the eastern horizon can be observed clusters of familiar black dots that awaken agreeable reflections of the night spent in the Koordish camp between Ovahjik and Khoi. I remain in Sercham long enough to eat a watermelon, ride, against my will, over rough ground to appease the crowd, and then pull out toward the Koordish camps which are evidently situated near my proper course.
It seeins to have rained heavily in the mountains and not rained at all east of Sercham, for during the next hour I am compelled to disrobe, and ford several freshets coursing down ravines over beds that before the storm were inches deep in dust, the approaching slopes being still dusty; this little diversion causes me to thank fortune that I have been enabled to keep in advance of the regular rainy season, which commences a little later. Striking a Koordish camp adjacent to the trail I trundle toward one of the tents; before reaching it I am overhauled by a shepherd who hands me a handful of dried peaches from a wallet suspended from his waist. The evening air is cool with a suggestion of frostiness, and the occupants of the tent are found crouching around a smoking tezek fire; they are ragged and of rather unprepossessing appearance, but being instinctively hospitable, they shuffle around to make me welcome at the fire; at first I almost fancy myself mistaken in thinking them Koords, for there is nothing of the neatness and cleanliness of our late acquaintances about them; on the contrary, they are almost as repulsive as their sedentary relatives of Dele Baba-but a little questioning removes all doubt of their being Koords. They are simply an ill-conditioned tribe, without any idea whatever of thrift or good management. They have evidently been to Tabreez or somewhere lately, and invested most of the proceeds of the season's shearing in three-year-old dried peaches that are hard enough to rattle like pebbles; sacksful of these edibles are scattered all over the tent serving for seats, pillows, and general utility articles for the youngsters to roll about on, jump over, and throw around; everybody in the camp seems to be chewing these peaches and throwing them about in sheer wantonness because they are plentiful; every sack contains finger-holes from which one and all help themselves ad libitum in wanton disregard of the future.
Nearly everybody seems to be suffering from ophthalmia, which is aggravated by crouching over the densely smoking tezek; and one miserable-looking old character is groaning and writhing with the pain of a severe stomach- ache. By loafing lazily about the tent all day, and chewing these flinty dried peaches, this hopeful old joker has well-nigh brought himself to the unhappy condition of the Yosemite valley mule, who broke into the tent and consumed half a bushel of dried peaches; when the hunters returned to camp and were wondering what marauder had visited their tent and stolen the peaches, they heard a loud explosion behind the tent; hastily going out they discover the remnants of the luckless mule scattered about in all directions. Of course I am appealed to for a remedy, and I am not sorry to have at last come across an applicant for my services as a hakim, for whose ailment I can prescribe with some degree of confidence; to make assurance doubly sure I give the sufferer a double dose, and in the morning have the satisfaction of finding him entirely relieved from his misery. There seems to be no order or sense of good manners whatever among these people; we have bread and half-stewed peaches for supper, and while they are cooking, ill-mannered youngsters are constantly fishing them from the kettles with weed-stalks, meeting with no sort of reproof from their elders for so doing; when bedtime arrives, everybody seizes quilts, peach-sacks, etc., and crawls wherever they can for warmth and comfort; three men, two women, and several children occupy the same compartment as myself, and gaunt dogs are nosing hungrily about among us.
About midnight there is a general hallooballoo among the dogs, and the clatter of horses' hoofs is heard outside the tent; the occupants of the tent, including myself, spring up, wondering what the disturbance is all about. A group of horsemen are visible in the bright moonlight outside, and one of them has dismounted, and under the guidance of a shepherd, is about entering the tent; seeing me spring up, and being afraid lest perchance I might misinterpret their intentions and act accordingly, he sings out in a soothing voice, "Kardash, Hamsherri; Kardash, Kardash." thus assuring me of their peaceful intentions. These midnight visitors turn out to be a party of Persian travellers from Miana, from which it would appear they have less fear of the Koords here than in Koordistan near the frontier; having, somehow, found out my whereabouts, they have come to try and persuade me to leave the camp and join their company to Zenjan. Although my own unfavorable impressions of my entertainers are seconded by the visitors' reiterated assurances that these Koords are bad people, I decline to accompany them, knowing the folly of attempting to bicycle over these roads by moonlight in the company of horsemen who would be continually worrying me to ride, no matter what the condition of the road; after remaining in camp half an hour they take their departure.
In the morning I discover that my mussulman hat-band has mysteriously disappeared, and when preparing to depart, a miscellaneous collection of females gather about me, seize the bicycle, and with much boisterous hilarity refuse to let me depart until I have given each one of them some money; their behavior is on the whole so outrageous, that I appeal to my patient of yesterday evening, in whose bosom I fancy I may perchance have kindled a spark of gratitude; but the old reprobate no longer has the stomach-ache, and he regards my unavailing efforts to break away from my hoi-denish tormentors with supreme indifference, as though there were nothing extraordinary in their conduct. The demeanor of these wild- eyed Koordish females on this occasion fully convinces me that the stories concerning their barbarous conduct toward travellers captured on the road is not an exaggeration, for while preventing my departure they seem to take a rude, boisterous delight in worrying me on all sides, like a gang of puppies barking and harassing anything they fancy powerless to do them harm. After I have finally bribed my freedom from the women, the men seize me and attempt to further detain me until they can send for their Sheikh to come from another camp miles away, to see me ride. After waiting a reasonable time, out of respect for their having accommodated me with quarters for the night, and no signs of the Sheikh appearing, I determine to submit to their impudence no longer; they gather around me as before, but presenting my revolver and assuming an angry expression, I threaten instant destruction to the next one laying hands on either myself or the bicycle; they then give way with lowering brows and sullen growls of displeasure. My rough treatment on this occasion compared with my former visit to a Koordish camp, proves that there is as much difference between the several tribes of nomad Koords, as between their sedentary relatives of Dele Baba and Malosman respectively; for their general reputation, it were better that I had spent the night in Sercham.
A few miles from the camp, I am overtaken by four horsemen followed by several dogs and a pig; it proves to be the tardy Sheikh and his retainers, who have galloped several miles to catch me up; the Sheikh is a pleasant, intelligent fellow of thirty or thereabouts, and astonishes me by addressing me as "Monsieur;" they canter alongside for a mile or so, highly delighted, when the Sheikh cheerily sings out "Adieu, monsieur!" and they wheel about and return; had their Sheikh been in the camp I stayed at, my treatment would undoubtedly have been different. I am at the time rather puzzled to account for so strange a sight as a pig galloping briskly behind the horses, taking no notice of the dogs which continually gambol about him; but I afterward discover that a pet pig, trained to follow horses, is not an unusual thing among the Persians and Persian Koords; they are thin, wiry animals of a sandy color, and quite capable of following a horse for hours; they live in the stable with their equine companions, finding congenial occupation in rooting around for stray grains of barley; the horses and pig are said to become very much attached to each other; when on the road the pig is wont to signify its disapproval of a too rapid pace, by appealing squeaks and grunts, whereupon the horse responsively slacks its speed to a more accommodating speed for its porcine companion. The road now winds tortuously along the base of some low gravel hills, and the wheeling perceptibly improves; beyond Nikbey it strikes across the hilly country, and more trundling becomes necessary. At Nikbey I manage to leave the inhabitants in a profound puzzle by replying that I am not a Ferenghi, but an Englishman; this seems to mystify them not a little, and they commence inquiring among themselves for an explanation of the difference; they are probably inquiring yet.
Fifty-eight miles are covered from the Koordish camp, and at three o'clock the blue-tiled domes of the Zendjan mosques appear in sight; these blue-tiled domes are more characteristic of Persian mosques, which are usually built of bricks, and have no lofty tapering minarets as in Turkey; the summons to prayers are called from the top of a wall or roof. When approaching the city gate, a half-crazy man becomes wildly excited at the spectacle of a man on a wheel, and, rushing up, seizes hold of the handle; as I spring from the saddle he rapidly takes to his heels; finding that I am not pursuing him, he plucks up courage, and timidly approaching, begs me to let him see me ride again. Zendjan is celebrated for the manufacture of copper vessels, and the rat-a-tat-tat of the workmen beating them out in the coppersmiths' quarters is heard fully a mile outside the gate; the hammering is sometimes deafening while trundling through these quarters, and my progress through it is indicated by what might perhaps be termed a sympathetic wave of silence following me along, the din ceasing at my approach and commencing again with renewed vigor after I have passed.
Mr. F--, a Levantine gentleman in charge of the station here, fairly outdoes himself in the practical interpretation of genuine old-fashioned hospitality, which brooks no sort of interference with the comfort of his guest; understanding the perpetual worry a person travelling in so extraordinary a manner must be subject to among an excessively inquisitive people like the Persians, he kindly takes upon himself the duty of protecting me from anything of the kind during the day I remain over as his guest, and so manages to secure me much appreciated rest and quiet. The Governor of the city sends an officer around saying that himself and several prominent dignitaries would like very much to see the bicycle. "Very good, replies Mr. F--, "the bicycle is here, and Mr. Stevens will doubtless be pleased to receive His Excellency and the leading officials of Zendjan any time it suits their convenience to call, and will probably have no objections to showing them the bicycle." It is, perhaps, needless to explain that the Governor doesn't turn up; I, however, have an interesting visitor in the person of the Sheikh-ul-Islam (head of religious affairs in Zendjan), a venerable-looking old party in flowing gown and monster turban, whose hands and flowing beard are dyed to a ruddy yellow with henna. The Sheikh-ul-Islam is considered the holiest personage in Zendjan and his appearance and demeanor does not in the least belie his reputation; whatever may be his private opinion of himself, he makes far less display of sanctimoniousness than many of the common seyuds, who usually gather their garments about them whenever they pass a Ferenghi in the bazaar, for fear their clothing should become defiled by brushing against him. The Sheikh-ul-Islam fulfils one's idea of a gentle-bred, worthy-minded old patriarch; he examines the bicycle and listens to the account of my journey with much curiosity and interest, and bestows a flattering mead of praise on the wonderful ingenuity of the Ferenghis as exemplified in my wheel.
From Zeudjan eastward the road gradually improves, and after a dozen miles develops into the finest wheeling yet encountered in Asia; the country is a gravelly plain between a mountain chain on the left and a range of lesser hills to the right. Near noon I pass through Sultaneah, formerly a favorite country resort of the Persian monarchs; on the broad, grassy plain, during the autumn, the Shah was wont to find amusement in manoeuvring his cavalry regiments, and for several months an encampment near Sultaneah became the head-quarters of that arm of the service. The Shah's palace and the blue dome of a large mosque, now rapidly crumbling to decay, are visible many miles before reaching the village.
The presence of the Shah and his court doesn't seem to have exerted much of a refining or civilizing influence on the common villagers; otherwise they have retrograded sadly toward barbarism again since Sultaneah has ceased to be a favorite resort. They appear to regard the spectacle of a lone Ferenghi meandering through their wretched village on a wheel, as an opportunity of doing something aggressive for the cause of Islam not to be overlooked; I am followed by a hooting mob of bare-legged wretches, who forthwith proceed to make things lively and interesting, by pelting me with stones and clods of dirt. One of these wantonly aimed missiles catches me square between the shoulders, with a force that, had it struck me fairly on the back of the neck, would in all probability have knocked me clean out of the saddle; unfortunately, several irrigating ditches crossing the road immediately ahead prevent escape by a spurt, and nothing remains but to dismount and proceed to make the best of it.
There are only about fifty of them actively interested, and part of these being mere boys, they are anything but a formidable crowd of belligerents if one could only get in among them with a stuffed club; they seem but little more than human vermin in their rags and nakedness, and like vermin, the greatest difficulty is to get hold of them. Seeing me dismount, they immediately take to their heels, only to turn and commence throwing stones again at finding themselves unpursued; while I am retreating and actively dodging the showers of missiles, they gradually venture closer and closer, until things becoming too warm and dangerous, I drop the bicycle, and make a feint toward them; they then take to their heels, to return to the attack again as before, when I again commence retreating. Finally I try the experiment of a shot in the air, by way of notifying them of my ability to do them serious injury; this has the effect of keeping them at a more respectful distance, but they seem to understand that I am not intending serious shooting, and the more expert throwers manage to annoy me considerably until ridable ground is reached; seeing me mount, they all come racing pell-mell after me, hurling stones, and howling insulting epithets after me as a Ferenghi, but with smooth road ahead I am, of course, quickly beyond their reach.
The villages east of Sultaneah are observed to be, almost without exception, surrounded by a high mud wall, a characteristic giving them the appearance of fortifications rather than mere agricultural villages; the original object of this was, doubtless, to secure themselves against surprises from wandering tribes; and as the Persians seldom think of changing anything, the custom is still maintained. Bushes are now occasionally observed near the roadside, from every twig of which a strip of rag is fluttering in the breeze; it is an ancient custom still kept up among the Persian peasantry when approaching any place they regard with reverence, as the ruined mosque and imperial palace at Sultaneah, to tear a strip of rag from their clothing and fasten it to some roadside bush; this is supposed to bring them good luck in their undertakings, and the bushes are literally covered with the variegated offerings of the superstitious ryots; where no bushes are handy, heaps of small stones are indicative of the same belief; every time he approaches the well-known heap, the peasant picks up a pebble, and adds it to the pile.
Owing to a late start and a prevailing head-wind, but forty-six miles are covered to-day, when about sundown I seek the accommodation of the chapar-khana, at Heeya; but, providing the road continues good, I promise myself to polish off the sixty miles between here and Kasveen, to-morrow. The chaparkhana sleeping apartments at Heeya contain whitewashed walls and reed matting, and presents an appearance of neatness and cleanliness altogether foreign to these institutions previously patronized; here, also, first occurs the innovation from "Hamsherri" to "Sahib," when addressing me in a respectful manner; it will be Sahib, from this point clear to, through and beyond India; my various titles through the different countries thus far traversed have been; Monsieur, Herr, Effendi, Hamsherri, and now Sahib; one naturally wonders what new surprises are in store ahead.
A bountiful supper of scrambled eggs (toke-mi-morgue) is obtained here, and the customary shake-down on the floor. After getting rid of the crowd I seek my rude couch, and am soon in the land of unconsciousness; an hour afterward I am awakened by the busy hum of conversation; and, behold, in the dim light of a primitive lamp, I become conscious of several pairs of eyes immediately above me, peering with scrutinizing inquisitiveness into my face; others are examining the bicycle standing against the wall at my head. Rising up, I find the chapar-lchana crowded with caravan teamsters, who, going past with a large camel caravan from the Caspian seaport of Eesht, have heard of the bicycle, and come flocking to my room; I can hear the unmelodious clanging of the big sheet-iron bells as their long string of camels file slowly past the building.
Daylight finds me again on the road, determined to make the best of early morning, ere the stiff easterly wind, which seems inclined to prevail of late, commences blowing great guns against me. A short distance out, I meet a string of some three hundred laden camels that have not yet halted after the night's march; scores of large camel caravans have been encountered since leaving Erzeroum, but they have invariably been halting for the day; these camels regard the bicycle with a timid reserve, merely swerving a step or two off their course as I wheel past; they all seem about equally startled, so that my progress down the ranks simply causes a sort of a gentle ripple along the line, as though each successive camel were playing a game of follow-my leader. The road this morning is nearly perfect for wheeling, consisting of well-trodden camel-paths over a hard gravelled surface that of itself naturally makes excellent surface for cycling; there is no wind, and twenty-five miles are duly registered by the cyclometer when I halt to eat the breakfast of bread and a portion of yesterday evening's scrambled eggs which I have brought along.
On past Seyudoon and approaching Kasveen, the plain widens to a considerable extent and becomes perfectly level; apparent distances become deceptive, and objects at a distance assume weird, fantastic shapes; beautiful mirages hold out their allurements from all directions; the sombre walls of villages present the appearance of battlemented fortresses rising up from the mirror-like surface of silvery lakes, and orchards and groves seem shadowy, undefinable objects floating motionless above the earth. The telegraph poles traversing the plain in a long, straight line until lost to view in the hazy distance, appear to be suspended in mid-air; camels, horses, and all moving objects more than a mile away, present the strange optical illusion of animals walking through the air many feet above the surface of the earth. Long rows of kanaat mounds traverse the plain in every direction, leading from the numerous villages to distant mountain chains. Descending one of the sloping cavernous entrances before mentioned, for a drink, I am rather surprised at observing numerous fishes disporting themselves in the water, which, on the comparatively level plain, flows but slowly; perhaps they are an eyeless variety similar to those found in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky; still they get a glimmering light from the numerous perpendicular shafts. Flocks of wild pigeons also frequent these underground water-courses, and the peasantry sometimes capture them by the hundred with nets placed over the shafts; the kanaats are not bricked archways, but merely tunnels burrowed through the ground.
Page 46 of 50