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Chapter 26

Crossing the Pass--Held up by robbers--Amusing courtesy--Brigands
to protect from brigands--Parting friends--Soh--Biddeshk--Copper
and iron--Robber tribes--An Englishman robbed--A feature of
Persian mountains--A military escort--How compensation is paid by
the Persian Government--Murchikhar--Robbers and the
guards--Ghiez--Distances from Teheran to Isfahan.

It was not till after sunset that we crossed the Pass, and, the horses being tired, my men and I were walking down the incline on the other side to give the animals a rest. It was getting quite dark, and as the chappar boy had warned me that there were brigands about the neighbourhood I walked close to my horse, my revolver being slung to the saddle. The place seemed absolutely deserted, and I was just thinking how still and reposeful the evening seemed, the noise of the horses' hoofs being the only disturbing element amid quiescent nature, when suddenly from behind innocent-looking rocks and boulders leapt up, on both sides of the road, about a dozen well-armed robbers, who attempted to seize the horses. Before they had time to put up their rifles they found themselves covered by my revolver and requested to drop their weapons or I would shoot them. They hastily complied with my request, and instead of ransacking my baggage, as they had evidently designed to do, had to confine themselves to polite remarks.

"You are very late on the road, sahib?" said one brigand, in a voice of assumed kindness and softness.

"Please put back your revolver. We will not harm you," said suavely and persuasively another, who displayed a most gaudy waistcoat which he evidently did not want perforated.

Sadek was in a great state of excitement, and entreated me not to shoot. "Persian robbers," he assured me, with a logic of his own, "do not kill the master until the servant has been killed, because it is the servant who is in charge of the luggage. . . . . They would not steal anything now, but I must be kind to these fellows."

As is usual with persons accustomed to stalk other persons, I did not fail to notice that, while trying to attract my attention by conversation, my interlocutors were endeavouring to surround us. But I checked them in this, and warned them that I had met many brigands before, and was well acquainted with their ways. I hoped they would not compel me to shoot, which I would most certainly do if they attempted any tricks. They well understood that it was risky to try their luck, so they changed tactics altogether. The conversation that ensued was amusing.

"Sahib," shouted a boisterous robber, very gaily attired, and with cartridges in profusion in his belt, "there are lots of brigands near here and we want to protect you."

"Yes, I know there are brigands not far from here," I assented.

"We will escort you, for you are our friend, and if we lead you safely out of the mountains, maybe, sahib, you will give us backshish."

I felt certain that I could have no better protection against brigands than the brigands themselves, and preferred to have them under my own supervision rather than give them a chance of attacking us unexpectedly again some miles further on. Anyhow, I resolved to let them come as far as the next pass we had to cross, from which point the country would be more open and a sudden surprise impossible. So I accepted their offer with a politely expressed condition that every man must keep in front of me and not raise his rifle above his waist or I would send a bullet through him.

In the middle of the night we parted on the summit of the pass, and I gave them a good backshish--not so much for the service they had rendered me as for relieving for a few hours the monotony of the journey. They were grateful, and were the most civil brigands I have ever encountered.

While resting on the pass we had an amicable conversation, and I asked them where they got their beautiful clothes and the profusion of gold and silver watch-chains.

"It is not everybody we meet, sahib, that has a formidable revolver like yours," answered the boisterous brigand, with a fit of sarcastic merriment, echoed by all of us.

"Yes," I retorted in the same sarcastic spirit, "if it had not been for the revolver, possibly next time I came along this road I might meet the company dressed up like sahibs, in my clothes!"

I advised them to put up a white flag of truce next time they sprang out from behind rocks with the intention of holding up another Englishman, or surely some day or other there would be an accident.

We all laughed heartily, and parted with repeated salaams--and my luggage intact.

In the moonlight I took the precaution to see them well out of sight on one side of the pass before we began to descend on the other, and then we proceeded down the steep and rocky incline.

We reached Soh (8,000 feet) early in the morning, and went on to the Chappar house at Biddeshk. Here one abandons the region of the Kehriz Kohrud and Kale Karf mountains, west and east of the road respectively, and travels over a flat sandy country devoid of vegetation and water.

Copper and iron are to be found at several places in the mountains between Kashan and Soh, for instance near Gudjar, at Dainum, and at Kohrut.

October is the month when the Backhtiari tribes are somewhat troublesome previous to their return to winter quarters. A great many caravans are attacked and robbed on this road, unless escorted by soldiers. Daring attempts have even been made to seize caravans of silver bullion for the Bank of Persia. Only a few days before I went through, an English gentleman travelling from Isfahan was robbed between Soh and Murchikhar of all his baggage, money, and clothes.

The country lends itself to brigandage. One can see a flat plain for several miles to the north and south, but to the west and east are most intricate mountain masses where the robber bands find suitable hiding places for themselves and their booty. To the north-west we have flat open country, but to the west from Biddeshk there are as many as three different ranges of mountains. To the east rises the peak Kehriz Natenz. A great many low hill ranges lie between the main backbone of the high and important range extending from north-west to south-east, and the route we follow, and it is curious to notice, not only here but all over the parts of Persia I visited, that the great majority of sand dunes, and of hill and mountain ranges face north or north-east. In other words, they extend either from north-west to south-east, or roughly from west to east; very seldom from north to south.

From Biddeshk two soldiers insisted on escorting my luggage. I was advised to take them, for in default, one cannot claim compensation from the Persian Government should the luggage be stolen. In the case of bona fide European travellers, robbed on the road, the Persian Government is extremely punctual in making good the damage sustained and paying ample compensation.

The method employed by the local Governor, responsible for the safety of travellers on the road, is to inflict heavy fines on all the natives of the district in which the robbery has occurred,--a very simple and apparently effective way, it would seem, of stopping brigandage, but one which, in fact, increases it, because, in order to find the money to pay the fines, the natives are driven to the road, each successive larceny going towards part payment of the previous one.

One or two domed reservoirs of rain-water are found by the road-side, but the water is very bad.

The soldiers, laden with cartridges, ran along by the side of my horses and pretended to keep a sharp look-out for robbers. Every now and then they got much excited, loaded their rifles, and fired away shot after shot at phantom brigands, whom, they said, they perceived peeping above sand hills a long way off.

At Murchikhar there is nothing to be seen. The post-horses were very good here and I was able to go through this uninteresting part of the road at a good speed of from six to seven miles an hour. To the west the mountains were getting quite close, and, in fact, we had hills all round except to the south-east. Murchikhar is at a fairly high altitude, 5,600 ft.

One still heard much about brigands. Soldiers, armed to the teeth, insisted on accompanying my luggage. This, of course, involved endless backshish, but had to be put up with, as it is one of the perquisites of the guards stationed at the various stages. I have heard it stated that if one does not require their services it is often these protectors themselves who turn into robbers. There is a guard-house on the road, and the two soldiers stationed there told us that a large band of thirty robbers had visited them during the early hours of the morning, and had stolen from them all their provisions, money and tobacco!

We were not troubled in any way, and, with the exception of some suspicious horsemen a long way off making for the mountains, we hardly met a soul on the road.

A curious accident happened to one of my luggage horses. For some reason of his own he bolted, and galloped to the top of one of the kanat cones, when getting frightened at the deep hole before him he jumped it. His fore-legs having given way on the steep incline on the other side, he fell on his head and turned a complete somersault, landing flat on his back, where, owing to the packs, he remained with his legs up in the air until we came to his aid and freed him of the loads.

On nearing Ghiez the track is over undulating country, but after that the road to Isfahan is good and flat, but very sandy and dusty. I got to Ghiez in the evening but proceeded at once to Isfahan. We galloped on the twelve miles, and in less than two hours I was most hospitably received in the house of Mr. Preece, the British Consul-General in Isfahan.

The distances from Teheran are as follows:--

From Teheran to Kum 24 farsakhs 96 miles. " Kum to Kashan 17 " 68 " " Kashan to Kohrut 7 " 28 " " Kohrut to Biddeshk 6 " 24 " " Biddeshk to Murchikhar 6 " 24 " " Murchikhar to Ghiez 6 " 24 " " Ghiez to Isfahan 3 " 12 "
-- --
Total 69 farsakhs or 276 miles.

The time occupied in covering the whole distance, including halts and delays, was somewhat less than four days.