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Chapter 37

Bambis--The Kashsan-Yezd high road--The Kevir
deposits--Sherawat--Kanats--Agdah--Stone cairns--Kiafteh--An
isolated mount--A long sand bar--A forsaken village--Picturesque
Biddeh--Handsome caravanserai at Meiboh--Rare
baths--Shamsi--Sand-hills--Hodjatabad--Fuel--A "tower of
silence"--A split camel--Thousands of borings for water--A
four-towered well.

We left Bambis at ten o'clock on Sunday evening and travelled on a flat plain the whole night. One village (Arakan) was passed, and eventually we entered the Teheran-Kashan-Yezd high road which we struck at Nao Gombes. Here there were a Chappar Khana and an ancient Caravanserai--the latter said to be of the time of Shah Abbas--but we did not stop, and continued our journey along a broad, immense stretch of flat country consisting of sand and gravel.

My men were fast asleep on their mules, but the animals seemed to know their way well, as they had been on this road many times before. The night was extremely cold. We were now at an altitude of 4,240 feet in what is called the "Kevir," a small salt desert plain, enclosed to the south-west of the track by the south-easterly continuation of the Sara and Keble range; to the north-east by the Mehradji, Turkemani, and Duldul mountains; and to the north by the Aparek and Abiane mountains.

During the rainy weather the drainage of the latter two ranges is carried in large volumes into the plain between them, and eventually into the Kevir, in which it loses itself. To the south-east the Ardakan mountains form a barrier, having, however, a gap between them and the Andjile mountains, through which the road crosses in a south-easterly direction.

Antimony is found in the Mehradji mountains, and copper, lead (in several localities), nickel and antimony in the Anarek region. Silver is said to have been found in the Andjile. To the north-east, almost in the middle of the Kevir, stands the isolated high mountain of Siakuh.

Thirty-six miles from Bambis we reached Chanoh, a most desolate place, with a rest-house in ruins and a couple of suspicious-looking wells. We arrived here at eight in the morning, after having travelled since ten o'clock the previous evening, but we only allowed ourselves and our mules four hours' rest for breakfast, and we were again in the saddle at noon.

There is nothing to interest the traveller on this part of the road except an occasional passing caravan, and the scenery is dreary beyond words. Long, long stretches of flat, uninteresting sand and gravel, or sand alone in places. On nearing the spot where the track passes between the Andjile and Ardakan mountains we find sand deposits stretching out for nearly two miles from the mountain ranges to the south-west and south.

Shehrawat (Shehrabad) village differs from most we have seen in the shape of its few roofs, which are semi-cylindrical, like a vault, and not semi-spherical. A mud tower rises above them, and there are a few fields and some fruit-trees near the habitations.

About a mile further, more sand dunes are to be found, and a long row of kanats carrying water to the village of Nasirabad, half a mile east of the track. Further on we come upon an open canal, and we can perceive a village about two miles distant, also to the east of the track.

Just before arriving at Agdah the earth has positively been disembowelled in search of water, so numerous are the kanats of all sizes and depths among which we wind our way. The large village of Agdah itself stands on a prominence (4,080 ft.) against a background of mountains, and is embellished with a great many orchards tidily walled round. It is a famous place for pomegranates, which are really delicious. As usual a number of ruined houses surround those still standing, and as we skirt the village wall over 30 feet high we observe some picturesque high round towers.

The telegraph wire (which we had met again at Nao Gombes) was here quite an amusing sight. In the neighbourhood of the village it was highly decorated with rags of all colours, and with stones tied to long strings which, when thrown up, wind themselves round and remain entangled in the wire.

There were some 300 habitations in Agdah, the principal one with a large quadrangular tower, being that of the Governor; but both the Chappar khana and the caravanserai were the filthiest we had so far encountered. A number of Sayids lived here.

We halted at four in the afternoon on Monday, October 19th. The mules were so tired that I decided to give them twelve hours' rest. It may be noticed that we had travelled from ten o'clock the previous evening until four in the afternoon--eighteen hours--with only four hours' rest,--quite good going for caravan marching. The mules were excellent.

At 4 a.m. on the Tuesday we rode out of the caravanserai, and still travelled south-east on a flat gravel plain, with the high Ardakan Mountains to the east. Fourteen miles or so from Agdah the country became undulating with large pebble stones washed down from the mountain-sides. Cairns of stone had been erected on the first hillock we came to near the road. We passed two villages, one on the track, the other about a mile north of it, and near this latter two or three smaller hamlets were situated.

Sixteen miles from Agdah we halted for an hour or so at the village of Kiafteh (Chaftah)--altitude 3,960 feet--with its round tower and the Mosque of Semur-ed-din one mile north of it. Here there was a Chappar khana. The labourers wore a short blue shirt and ample trousers, with white turban and white shoes. Having partaken of a hearty breakfast we were off again on the road in the broiling sun at 10.30 a.m. Beautiful effects of mirage were before us like splendid lakes, with the mountains reflected into them, and little islands.

As we go through the gap in the mountains that are now to the south-west and north-east of us the plain narrows to a width of some four miles, and the direction of the track is east-south-east. To the south-east the hillocks of a low range stretch as far as the mountains on the south-west, and several parallel ranges lie on the north-east. South, very far off, is the high Shirkuh mountain.

Eight miles from Kiafteh we cross over the low hill range by a pass (4,090 ft.) about 100 feet above the plain (3,990 ft.). There is a mournful look about the soil of black sand, and also about the gloomy shingle hill range extending from the north-east to the south-west. The black underlying rock where exposed to the air shows numberless holes corroded in it, as by the action of moving salt water. An inexplicable isolated hill stands in the centre of the valley, which here is not perfectly flat, but in a gentle incline, higher at its south-western extremity than at its north-eastern edge.

A formation of mud dunes similar to those we had encountered near Saigsi is here to be noticed, this time, however, not directly in front of each gap in the mountain range, but opposite them near the range in front, that forms a kind of bay. These dunes were probably caused by the deposit of sand and gravel left by a current that met the barrier of mountains on the opposite side of the bay.

On crossing the hill range some eighteen miles from Kiafteh, we come across a sand-bar which stretches in a semi-circle half way across the valley, where it then suddenly turns south-east. It is about 80 feet high. To all appearance the sand deposited upon this bar seems to have travelled in a direction from north north-east to south south-west. A mile further it meets another sand dune, stretching in a general direction of south-west to north-east. Where the higher dune comes to an end half-way across the valley we find a village, having the usual quadrangular mud enclosure with towers, an abandoned caravanserai fast tumbling down, and a few domed mud hovels. The larger and better preserved village of Bafru, one mile to the east of the track, is well surrounded by a long expanse of verdant trees. South of it is the other flourishing settlement of Deawat (Deabad).

The abandoned village of Assiabo Gordoneh, now in ruins, tells us a sad story. The village at one time evidently ran short of water. Hundreds of borings can be seen all round it in all directions, but they must have been of no avail. The place had to be forsaken.

The sand dune is here 80 feet high. The space between these two sand dunes--plateau-like--is nicely cultivated in patches where some water has been found.

We arrived in the evening at Biddeh, a very large and most weird place, with habitations partly cut into the high mud banks. The houses were several storeys high. The greater number of buildings, now in ruins, show evidence of the former importance of this place and the wonderful ancient aqueducts with the water carried over a high bridge from one side of a ravine to the other are of great interest. This must have been a prosperous place at one time. The whitish clay soil has been quaintly corroded by the action of water, and one finds curious grottoes and deep, contorted, natural channels. A mosque and several impressive buildings--the adjective only applies when you do not get too near them--stand high up against the cliff side. The whole place is quite picturesque.

The mules go along a narrow lane between walled fields, and then by a steepish ascent among ruined houses and patches of cultivation we reach the summit of the clay dune, on which the newer village of Meiboh (Maibut)--3,940 feet--is situated.

There is a most beautiful (for Persia) caravanserai here with a delightful domed tank of clear spring water, in which I then and there took a delicious bath, much to the horror of the caravanserai proprietor who assured me--when it was too late--that the tank was no hammam or bath, but was water for drinking purposes. His horror turned into white rage when, moreover, he declared that my soap, which I had used freely, would kill all the fish which he had carefully nursed for years in the tank. We spent most of the evening in watching the state of their health, and eventually it was with some relief that we perceived all the soap float away and the water again become as clear as crystal. To the evident discomfiture of the caravanserai man, when we paid the last visit to the tank at 4 a.m. just previous to my departure, no deaths were to be registered in the tank, and therefore no heavy damages to pay.

There is nothing one misses more than baths while travelling in central and eastern Persia. There is generally hardly sufficient water to drink at the various stages, and it is usually so slimy and bad that, although one does not mind drinking it, because one has to, one really would not dream of bathing or washing in it! Hence my anxiety not to lose my chance of a good plunge at Meiboh.

On leaving Meiboh at 4 a.m. we passed for a considerable distance through land under cultivation, the crop being principally wheat. A large flour-mill was in course of construction at Meiboh. After that we were again travelling on a sandy plain, with thousands of borings for water on all sides, and were advancing mainly to the south-west towards the mountains. We continued thus for some twelve miles as far as Shamsi, another large village with much cultivation around it. After that, there were sand and stones under our mules' hoofs, and a broiling sun over our heads. On both sides the track was screened by mountains and by a low hill range to the north-east.

About eight miles from Shamsi we entered a region of sand hills, the sand accumulations--at least, judging by the formation of the hills--showing the movement of the sand to have been from west to east. This fact was rather curious and contrasted with nearly all the other sand accumulations which we found later in eastern Persia, where the sand moved mostly in a south-westerly direction. No doubt the direction of the wind was here greatly influenced and made to deviate by the barriers of mountains so close at hand.

There were numerous villages, large and small, on both sides of the track. Hodjatabad, our last halt before reaching Yezd, only sixteen miles further, had a handsome caravanserai, the porch of which was vaulted over the high road. It was comparatively clean, and had spacious stabling for animals. Delicious grapes were to be obtained here, and much of the country had been cleared of the sand deposit and its fertile soil cultivated.

Fuel was very expensive in Persia. At the entrance of nearly every caravanserai was displayed a large clumsy wooden scale, upon which wood was weighed for sale to travellers, and also, of course, barley and fodder for one's animals. The weights were generally round stones of various sizes.

Jaffarabad, a very large and prosperous place, stood about one mile to the north-west of the caravanserai, and had vegetation and many trees near it; this was also the case with the other village of Medjamed, which had innumerable fields round it.

Firuzabad came next as we proceeded towards Yezd, and then, after progressing very slowly,--we sank deep in sand for several miles--we perceived upon a rugged hill a large round white "tower of silence," which had been erected there by the Guebres (or Parsees) for the disposal of their dead. We skirted the mud wall of Elawad--where the women's dress was in shape not unlike that of Turkish women, and consisted of ample, highly-coloured trousers and short zouave jacket. The men resembled Afghans.

I here came across the first running camel I had seen in Persia, and on it was mounted a picturesque rider, who had slung to his saddle a sword, a gun, and two pistols, while round his waistband a dagger, a powder-flask, bullet pouch, cap carrier, and various such other warlike implements hung gracefully in the bright light of the sun. A few yards further we came upon a ghastly sight--a split camel. The poor obstinate beast had refused to cross a narrow stream by the bridge, and had got instead on the slippery mud near the water edge. His long clumsy hind-legs had slipped with a sudden écart that had torn his body ripped open. The camel was being killed as we passed, and its piercing cries and moans were too pitiful for words.

The mountain on which the huge tower of silence has been erected--by permission of Zil-es-Sultan, I was told--is quadrangular with a long, narrow, flat-topped platform on the summit. The best view of it is obtained from the south. Sadek told me in all seriousness from information received from the natives, that the bodies are placed in these towers in a sitting position with a stick under the chin to support them erect. When crows come in swarms to pick away at the body, if the right eye is plucked out first by a plundering bird, it is said to be a sure sign that the ex-soul of the body will go to heaven. If the left eye is picked at first, then a warmer climate is in store for the soul of the dead.

After leaving behind the Guebre tower we come again upon thousands of borings for water, and ancient kanats, now dry and unused. The country grows less sandy about eight miles from Yezd, and we have now gradually ascended some 320 feet from the village of Meiboh (Maibut) to an altitude of 4,230 feet. Here we altogether miss the flourishing cultivation which lined the track as far as the Guebre tower, and cannot detect a single blade of grass or natural vegetation of any kind on any side. There are high mountains to the south-west and east.

On the right (west) side of the track, eight miles from Yezd, is the neat mud wall of Nusseratabad, with a few trees peeping above it, but to the left of us all is barren, and we toddled along on grey, clayish sand.

Half-way between Nusseratabad and Yezd a four-towered well is to be found, and a quarter of a mile further the Mazereh Sadrih village, one and a-half farsakhs from Yezd. The mules sank deep in the fine sand. There were a good many Guebres about, mostly employed in carrying manure on donkeys. One of them, who was just returning from one of these errands, addressed me, much to my surprise, in Hindustani, which he spoke quite fluently. He told me that he had travelled all over India, and was about to start again for Bombay.

Some "badjir"--high ventilating shafts--and a minaret or two tell us that we are approaching the town of Yezd--the ancient city of the Parsees--and soon after we enter the large suburb of Mardavoh, with its dome and graceful tower.

A track in an almost direct line, and shorter than the one I had followed, exists between Isfahan and Yezd. It passes south of the Gao Khanah (Salt Lake) to the south-east of Isfahan.