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Chapter 3

Baku--Unnecessary anxiety--A storm--Oil wells--Naphtha
spouts--How the wells are worked--The native city--The Baku
Bay--Fortifications--The Maiden's Tower--Depressing
vegetation--Baku dust--Prosperity and hospitality--The Amir of
Bokhara--The mail service to Persia on the Caspian--The Mercury
and Caucasus line--Lenkoran--Astara (Russo-Persian
boundary)--Antiquated steamers.

So many accounts are heard of how one's registered baggage in Russia generally arrives with locks smashed and minus one's most valuable property, and how unpunctual in arriving luggage is, and how few passengers escape without having their pockets picked before reaching their destination--by the way, a fellow-passenger had his pockets picked at the station of Mineralnya Vod--that I was somewhat anxious to see my belongings again, and fully expected to find that something had gone wrong with them. Much to my surprise, on producing the receipt at the very handsome railway terminus, all my portmanteaux and cases were instantly delivered in excellent condition.

The Caspian Sea steamers for Persia leave Baku on Sunday and Tuesday at midnight. There was a fierce sand storm raging at the time and the steamer had returned without being able to land her passengers at their destination. I decided to wait till the Tuesday. There is plenty to interest one in Baku. I will not describe the eternal fires, described so often by other visitors, nor tell how naphtha was tapped for the first time at this place, and how in 1886 one particular well spouted oil with such tremendous force that it was impossible to check it and it deluged a good portion of the neighbourhood. A year later, in 1887, another fountain rose to a height of 350 ft. There are myriads of other lesser fountains and wells, each covered by a wooden shed like a slender pyramid, and it is a common occurrence to see a big spout of naphtha rising outside and high above the top of the wooden shed, now from one well, now from another.

The process of bringing naphtha to the surface under ordinary circumstances is simple and effective, a metal cylinder is employed that has a valve at the lower end allowing the tube to fill while it descends, and closing automatically when the tube is full and is being raised above ground and emptied into pits provided for the purpose. The naphtha then undergoes the process of refinement. There are at the present moment hundreds of refineries in Baku. The residue and waste of naphtha are used as fuel, being very much cheaper than coal or wood.

The greater number of wells are found a few miles out of the town on the Balakhani Peninsula, and the naphtha is carried into the Baku refineries by numerous pipe lines. The whole country round is, however, impregnated with oil, and even the sea in one or two bays near Baku is coated with inflammable stuff and can be ignited by throwing a lighted match upon it. At night this has a weird effect.

Apart from the oil, Baku--especially the European settlement--has nothing to fascinate the traveller. In the native city, Persian in type, with flat roofs one above the other and the hill top crowned by a castle and the Mosque of Shah Abbas, constant murders occur. The native population consists mostly of Armenians and Persians. Cotton, saffron, opium, silk and salt are exported in comparatively small quantities. Machinery, grain and dried fruit constitute the chief imports.

The crescent-shaped Baku Bay, protected as it is by a small island in front of it, affords a safe anchorage for shipping. It has good ship-yards and is the principal station of the Russian fleet in the Caspian. Since Baku became part of the Russian Empire in 1806 the harbour has been very strongly fortified.

The most striking architectural sight in Baku is the round Maiden's Tower by the water edge, from the top of which the lovely daughter of the Khan of Baku precipitated herself on to the rocks below because she could not marry the man she loved.

The most depressing sight in Baku is the vegetation, or rather the strenuous efforts of the lover of plants to procure verdure at all costs in the gardens. It is seldom one's lot to see trees and plants look more pitiable, notwithstanding the unbounded care that is taken of them. The terrific heat of Baku, the hot winds and sand-storms are deadly enemies to vegetation. Nothing will grow. One does not see a blade of grass nor a shrub anywhere except those few that are artificially brought up. The sand is most trying. It is so fine that the wind forces it through anything, and one's tables, one's chairs, one's bed are yellow-coated with it. The tablecloth at the hotel, specklessly white when you begin to dine, gets gradually yellower at sight, and by the time you are half through your dinner the waiter has to come with a brush to remove the thick coating of dust on the table.

These are the drawbacks, but there is an air of prosperity about the place and people that is distinctly pleasing, even although one may not share in it. There is quite a fair foreign community of business people, and their activity is very praiseworthy. The people are very hospitable--too hospitable. When they do not talk of naphtha, they drink sweet champagne in unlimited quantities. But what else could they do? Everything is naphtha here, everything smells of naphtha, the steamers, the railway engines are run with naphtha. The streets are greasy with naphtha. Occasionally--frequently of late--the monotony of the place is broken by fires of gigantic proportions on the premises of over-insured well-owners. The destruction to property on such occasions is immense, the fires spreading with incalculable rapidity over an enormous area, and the difficulty of extinguishing them being considerable.

When I was in Baku the Amir of Bokhara was being entertained in the city as guest of the Government. His suite was quartered in the Grand Hotel. He had taken his usual tour through Russia and no trouble had been spared to impress the Amir with the greatness of the Russian Empire. He had been given a very good time, and I was much impressed with the pomp and cordiality with which he was treated. Neither the Governor nor any of the other officials showed him the usual stand-off manner which in India, for instance, would have been used towards an Asiatic potentate, whether conquered by us or otherwise. They dealt with him as if he had been a European prince--at which the Amir seemed much flattered. He had a striking, good-natured face with black beard and moustache, and dark tired eyes that clearly testified to Russian hospitality.

I went to see him off on the steamer which he kept waiting several hours after the advertised time of departure. He dolefully strode on board over a grand display of oriental rugs, while the military brass band provided for the occasion played Russian selections. Everybody official wore decorations, even the captain of the merchant ship, who proudly bore upon his chest a brilliant star--a Bokhara distinction received from the Amir on his outward journey for navigating him safely across the Caspian.

The Amir's suite was very picturesque, some of the men wearing long crimson velvet gowns embroidered in gold, others silk-checked garments. All had white turbans. The snapshot reproduced in the illustration shows the Amir accompanied by the Governor of Baku just stepping on board.

There is a regular mail service twice a week in summer, from April to the end of October, and once a week in winter, on the Caspian between Baku and Enzeli in Persia, the Russian Government paying a subsidy to the Kavkas and Mercury Steam Navigation Company for the purpose of conveying passengers, mails (and, in the event of war, troops) into Persia and back. There are also a number of coasting steamers constantly plying between the various ports on the Caspian both on the Russian and Persian coast.

The hurricane having abated there was a prospect of a fair voyage and the probability of landing at Enzeli in Persia, so when the Tuesday came I went on board the old rickety paddle-steamer (no less than forty-five years old) which was to convey me to that port. She was one of the Mercury-Caucasus Co. fleet, and very dirty she was, too.

It is perhaps right to mention that for the first time in Russia, purposeless rudeness and insolence came to my notice on the part of the ticket officials of the Mercury line. They behaved like stupid children, and were absolutely incompetent to do the work which had been entrusted to them. They were somewhat surprised when I took them to task and made them "sit up." Having found that they had played the fool with the wrong man they instantly became very meek and obliging. It is nevertheless a great pity that the Mercury Company should employ men of this kind who, for some aim of their own, annoy passengers, both foreign and Russian, and are a disgrace to the Company and their country.

On board ship the captain, officers and stewards were extremely civil. Nearly all the captains of the Caspian steamers were Norwegian or from Finland, and were jolly fellows. The cabins were very much inhabited, so much so that it was difficult to sleep in them at all. Insects so voracious and in such quantities and variety were in full possession of the berths, that they gave one as lively a night as it is possible for mortals to have. Fortunately the journey was not a long one, and having duly departed at midnight from Baku I reached Lenkoran the next day, with its picturesque background of mountains and thickly-wooded country. This spot is renowned for tiger-shooting.

Our next halt was at Astara, where there were a number of wooden sheds and drinking saloons,--a dreadful place, important only because on the Perso-Russian boundary line formed by the river of the same name. We landed here a number of police officers, who were met by a deputation of some fifty Persian-looking men, who threw their arms round their necks and in turn lustily kissed them on both cheeks. It was a funny sight. When we got on board again after a couple of hours on shore the wind rose and we tossed about considerably. Another sleepless night on the "living" mattress in the bunk, and early in the morning we reached the Persian port of Enzeli.