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Chapter 4

The Port of Enzeli--Troublesome landing--Flat-bottomed boats--A
special permit--Civility of officials--Across the Murd-ap
lagoon--Piri-Bazaar--A self-imposed golden rule--Where our stock
came from--The drive to Resht--The bazaar--The native shops and
foreign goods--Ghilan's trade--The increase in trade--British and
Russian competitions--Sugar--Tobacco--Hotels--The British
Consulate--The Governor's palace--H.E. Salare Afkham--A Swiss

One calls Enzeli a "port" pour façon de parler, for Persia has no harbours at all on the Caspian sea. Enzeli, Meshed-i-Sher or Astrabad, the three principal landing places on the Persian coast, have no shelter for ships, which have to lie a good distance out at sea while passengers and cargo are transhipped by the Company's steam launch or--in rough weather--by rowing boats. In very rough weather it is impossible to effect a landing at all, and--this is a most frequent occurrence on the treacherous Caspian--after reaching one's journey's end one has to go all the way back to the starting point and begin afresh. There are people who have been compelled to take the journey four or five times before they could land, until the violent storms which often rage along the Persian coast had completely subsided and allowed the flimsy steam-launch at Enzeli to come out to meet the steamers, lying about a mile outside.

We had passengers on board who had been unable to land on the previous journey, and were now on their second attempt to set foot in Persia. We were rolling a good deal when we cast anchor, and after waiting some hours we were informed that it was too rough for the steam-launch to come out. The captain feared that he must put to sea again, as the wind was rising and he was afraid to remain so near the coast. Two rowing boats eventually came out, and with some considerable exertion of the rowers succeeded in getting near the steamer. I immediately chartered one, and after a good deal of see-saw and banging and knocking and crackling of wood alongside the steamer, my baggage and I were transhipped into the flat-bottomed boat. Off we rowed towards the shore, getting drenched each time that the boat dipped her nose into the sea.

The narrow entrance of the Enzeli bay is blocked by a sand-bar. The water is here very shallow, only about six feet deep. Riding on the top of the breakers was quite an experience, and we occasionally shipped a good deal of water. We, however, landed safely and had to pay pretty dearly for the convenience. The boatmen do not run the risk of going out for nothing, and when they do, take every advantage of passengers who employ them. I was fortunate to get off by giving a backshish of a few tomans (dollars), but there are people who have been known to pay three, four and even five pounds sterling to be conveyed on shore.

Here, too, thanks to the civility of the Persian Ambassador in London, I had a special permit for my firearms, instruments, etc., and met with the greatest courtesy from the Belgian and Persian officers in the Customs. It is necessary to have one's passport in order, duly visé by the Persian Consul in London, or else a delay might occur at Enzeli.

There is a lighthouse at Enzeli, the Customs buildings and a small hotel. From this point a lagoon, the Murd-ap has to be crossed, either by the small steam-launch or by rowing boat. As there seemed to be some uncertainty about the departure of the launch, and as I had a good deal of luggage, I preferred the latter way. Eight powerful men rowed with all their might at the prospect of a good backshish; and we sped along at a good pace on the placid waters of the lagoon, in big stretches of open water, now skirting small islands, occasionally through narrow canals, the banks of which were covered with high reeds and heavy, tropical, confused, untidy vegetation. The air was still and stifling--absolutely unmoved, screened as it was on all sides by vegetation. The sailors sang a monotonous cadence, and the boat glided along for some three hours until we arrived at the mouth of the Piri river, hardly wide enough for a couple of boats to go through simultaneously, and so shallow that rowing was no longer practicable.

The men jumped off, tied the towing rope that hung from the mast to their belts, and ran along the banks of the Piri river, the water of which was almost stagnant. An hour or so later we suddenly came upon a number of boats jammed together in the miniature harbour of Piri Bazaar--a pool of putrid water a few feet in circumference. As the boat gradually approached, a stone-paved path still separated from you by a thick wide layer of filthy mud wound its way to the few miserable sheds--the bazaar--up above. A few trays of grapes, some Persian bread, some earthenware pottery of the cheapest kind, are displayed in the shop fronts--and that is all of the Piri-Bazaar. On landing at Enzeli one hears so much of Piri-Bazaar that one gets to imagine it a big, important place,--and as it is, moreover, practically the first really typical Persian place at which one touches, the expectations are high. Upon arrival there one's heart sinks into one's boots, and one's boots sink deep into black stinking mud as one takes a very long--yet much too short--jump from the boat on to what one presumes to be terra firma.

With boots clogged and heavy with filth, a hundred people like ravenous birds of prey yelling in your ears (and picking your pockets if they have a chance), with your luggage being mercilessly dragged in the mud, with everybody demanding backshish on all sides, tapping you on the shoulder or pulling your coat,--thus one lands in real Persia.

In the country of Iran one does not travel for pleasure nor is there any pleasure in travelling. For study and interest, yes. There is plenty of both everywhere.

Personally, I invariably make up my mind when I start for the East that no matter what happens I will on no account get out of temper, and this self-imposed rule--I must admit--was never, in all my travels, tried to the tantalising extent that it was in the country of the Shah. The Persian lower classes--particularly in places where they have come in contact with Europeans--are well-nigh intolerable. There is nothing that they will not do to annoy you in every possible way, to extort backshish from you. In only one way do Persians in this respect differ from other Orientals. The others usually try to obtain money by pleasing you and being useful and polite, whereas the Persian adopts the quicker, if not safer, method of bothering you and giving you trouble to such an unlimited degree that you are compelled to give something in order to get rid of him. And in a country where no redress can be obtained from the police, where laws do not count, and where the lower classes are as corrupt and unscrupulous as they are in the more civilised parts of Persia (these remarks do not apply to the parts where few or no Europeans have been) the only way to save one's self from constant worry and repressed anger--so bad for one's health--is to make up one's mind at once to what extent one is prepared to be imposed upon, and leave the country after. That is to say, if one does not wish to adopt the only other and more attractive alternative of inflicting summary justice on two-thirds of the natives one meets,--too great an exertion, to be sure, in so hot a climate.

They say that Persia is the country that our stock came from. It is quite possible, and if so we are indeed to be congratulated upon having morally improved so much since, or the Persians to be condoled with on their sad degeneration. The better classes, however, are very different, as we shall see later.

Personally, I adopted the first method suggested above, the easier of the two, and I deliberately put by what I thought was a fair sum to be devoted exclusively to extortion. On leaving the country several months later, much to my astonishment I found that I had not been imposed upon half as much as I expected, although I had stayed in Persia double the time I had intended. Maybe this can be accounted for by my having spent most of my time in parts not so much frequented by Europeans. Indeed, if the Persian is to-day the perfidious individual he is, we have to a great extent only ourselves to blame for making him so.

Keeping my temper under control, and an eye on my belongings, I next hired a carriage to convey me to the town of Resht, seven miles distant. In damp heat, that made one's clothes moist and unpleasant, upon a road muddy to such an extent that the wheels sank several inches in it and splashed the passenger all over, we galloped through thick vegetation and patches of agriculture, and entered the city of Resht. Through the narrow winding streets of the bazaar we slowed down somewhat in some places, the carriage almost touching the walls of the street on both sides. The better houses possess verandahs with banisters painted blue, while the walls of the buildings are generally white.

One is struck by the great number of shoe shops in the bazaar, displaying true Persian shoes with pointed turned-up toes,--then by the brass and copper vessel shops, the ancient and extremely graceful shapes of the vessels and amphoras being to this date faithfully preserved and reproduced. More pleasing still to the eye are the fruit shops, with huge trays of water-melons, cucumbers, figs, and heaps of grapes. The latter are, nevertheless, not so very tasty to the palate and do not compare with the delicate flavour of the Italian or Spanish grapes.

Somewhat incongruous and out-of-place, yet more numerous than truly Persian shops, are the semi-European stores, with cheap glass windows displaying inside highly dangerous-looking kerosene lamps, badly put together tin goods, soiled enamel tumblers and plates, silvered glass balls for ceiling decoration, and the vilest oleographs that the human mind can devise, only matched by the vileness of the frames. Small looking-glasses play an important part in these displays, and occasionally a hand sewing-machine. Tinned provisions, wine and liquor shops are numerous, but unfortunate is the man who may have to depend upon them for his food. The goods are the remnants of the oldest stocks that have gradually drifted, unsold, down to Baku, and have eventually been shipped over for the Persian market where people do not know any better. Resht is the chief city in the Ghilan province.

Ghilan's trade in piece-goods is about two-thirds in the hands of Russia, while one-third (or even less) is still retained by England,--Manchester goods. This cannot well be helped, for there is no direct route from Great Britain to Resht, and all British goods must come through Bagdad, Tabriz, or Baku. The two first routes carry most of the trade, which consists principally of shirtings, prints, cambrics, mulls, nainsooks, and Turkey-reds, which are usually put down as of Turkish origin, whereas in reality they come from Manchester, and are merely re-exported, mainly from Constantinople, by native firms either in direct traffic or in exchange for goods received.

One has heard a great deal of the enormous increase in trade in Persia during the last couple of years or so. The increase has not been in the trade itself, but in the collection of Customs dues, which is now done in a regular and business like fashion by competent Belgian officials, instead of by natives, to whom the various collecting stations were formerly farmed out.

It will not be very easy for the British trader to compete successfully with the Russian in northern Persia, for that country, being geographically in such close proximity, can transport her cheaply made goods at a very low cost into Iran. Also the Russian Government allows enormous advantages to her own traders with Persia in order to secure the Persian market, and to develop her fast-increasing industrial progress,--advantages which British traders do not enjoy. Still, considering all the difficulties British trade has to contend with in order to penetrate, particularly into Ghilan, it is extraordinary how some articles, like white Manchester shirtings, enjoy practically a monopoly, being of a better quality than similar goods sent by Russia, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Italy or Holland.

Loaf sugar, which came at one time almost entirely from France, has been cut out by Russian sugar, which is imported in large quantities and eventually finds its way all over Persia. It is of inferior quality, but very much cheaper than sugar of French manufacture, and is the chief Russian import into Ghilan.

Tobacco comes principally from Turkey and Russia. In going on with our drive through the bazaar we see it sold in the tiny tobacco shops, where it is tastily arranged in heaps on square pieces of blue paper, by the side of Russian and Turkish cigarettes.

And now for the Resht Hotels. Here is an Armenian hotel--European style. From the balcony signs and gesticulations and shouts in English, French, and Russian endeavour to attract the passer-by--a youth even rushes to the horses and stops them in order to induce the traveller to alight and put up at the hostelry; but after a long discussion, on we go, and slowly wind our way through the intricate streets crowded with men and women and children--all grumbling and making some remark as one goes by. At one point a circle of people squatting in the middle of a road round a pile of water-melons, at huge slices of which they each bit lustily, kept us waiting some time, till they moved themselves and their melons out of the way for the carriage to pass. Further on a soldier or two in rags lay sleeping flat on the shady side of the road, with his pipe (kalian) and his sword lying by his side. Boys were riding wildly on donkeys and frightened women scrambled away or flattened themselves against the side walls of the street, while the hubs of the wheels shaved and greased their ample black silk or cotton trousers made in the shape of sacks, and the horses' hoofs splashed them all over with mud. The women's faces were covered with a white cloth reaching down to the waist. Here, too, as in China, the double basket arrangement on a long pole swung across the shoulders was much used for conveying loads of fruit and vegetables on men's shoulders;--but least picturesque of all were the well-to-do people of the strong sex, in short frock-coats pleated all over in the skirt.

One gets a glimpse of a picturesque blue-tiled pagoda-like roof with a cylindrical column upon it, and at last we emerge into a large quadrangular square, with European buildings to the west side.

A little further the British flag flies gaily in the wind above H.M.'s Consulate. Then we come upon a larger building, the Palace of the Governor, who, to save himself the trouble and expense of having sentries at the entrances, had life-size representations of soldiers with drawn swords painted on the wall. They are not all represented wearing the same uniform, as one would expect with a guard of that kind, but for variety's sake some have red coats, with plenty of gold braiding on them, and blue trousers, the others blue coats and red trousers. One could not honestly call the building a beautiful one, but in its unrestored condition it is quite picturesque and quaint. It possesses a spacious verandah painted bright blue, and two windows at each side with elaborate ornamentations similarly coloured red and blue. A red-bordered white flag with the national lion in the centre floats over the Palace, and an elaborate castellated archway, with a repetition of the Persian Lion on either side, stands in front of the main entrance in the square of the Palace. So also do four useful kerosene lamp-posts. The telegraph office is to the right of the Palace with a pretty garden in front of it.

The most important political personage living in Resht is His Excellency Salare Afkham, called Mirza Fathollah Khan, one of the richest men in Persia, who has a yearly income of some twenty thousand pounds sterling. He owns a huge house and a great deal of land round Resht, and is much respected for his talent and kindly manner. He was formerly Minister of the Customs and Posts of all Persia, and his chest is a blaze of Russian, Turkish and Persian decorations of the highest class, bestowed upon him by the various Sovereigns in recognition of his good work. He has for private secretary Abal Kassem Khan, the son of the best known of modern Persian poets, Chams-echoéra, and himself a very able man who has travelled all over Asia, Turkestan and Europe.

Persia is a country of disappointments. There is a general belief that the Swiss are splendid hotel-keepers. Let me give you my experience of the hotel at Resht kept by a Swiss.

"Can this be the Swiss hotel?" I queried to myself, as the driver pulled up in front of an appallingly dirty flight of steps. There seemed to be no one about, and after going through the greater part of the building, I eventually came across a semi-starved Persian servant, who assured me that it was. The proprietor, when found, received me with an air of condescension that was entertaining. He led me to a room which he said was the best in the house. On inspection, the others, I agreed with him, were decidedly not better. The hotel had twelve bedrooms and they were all disgustingly filthy. True enough, each bedroom had more beds in it than one really needed, two or even three in each bedroom, but a coup-d'oeil was sufficient to assure one's self that it was out of the question to make use of any of them. I counted four different coloured hairs, of disproportionate lengths and texture, on one bed-pillow in my room, leaving little doubt that no less than four people had laid their heads on that pillow before; and the pillow of the other bed was so black with dirt that I should imagine at least a dozen consecutive occupants of that couch would be a low estimate indeed. As for the sheets, blankets, and towels, we had better draw a veil. I therefore preferred to spread my own bedding on the floor, and slept there. The hotel boasted of three large dining-rooms in which a few moth-eaten stuffed birds and a case or two of mutilated butterflies, a couple of German oleographs, which set one's teeth on edge, and dusty, stamped cotton hangings formed the entire decoration.

To give one an appetite--which one never lost as long as one stayed there--one was informed before dinner that the proprietor was formerly the Shah's cook. After dinner one felt very, very sorry for the poor Shah, and more so for one's self, for having put up at the hotel. But there was no other place in Resht, and I stuck to my decision that I would never get angry, so I stood all patiently. The next day I would start for Teheran.

One talks of Persian extortion, but it is nothing to the example offered to the natives by Europeans in Persia. The charges at the hotel were exorbitant. One paid as much per day as one would at the very first hotel in London, New York, or Paris, such as the Carlton, the Waldorf, or Ritz. Only here one got absolutely nothing for it except very likely an infectious disease, as I did. In walking bare-footed on the filthy matting, while taking my bath, some invisible germ bored its way into the sole of my right foot and caused me a good deal of trouble for several weeks after. Animal life in all its varieties was plentiful in all the rooms.

Previous to starting on the long drive to the capital I had to get some meat cooked for use on the road, but it was so putrid that even when I flung it to a famished pariah dog he refused to eat it. And all this, mind you, was inexcusable, because excellent meat, chickens, eggs, vegetables, and fruit, can be purchased in Resht for a mere song, the average price of a good chicken, for instance, being about 5d. to 10d., a whole sheep costing some eight or ten shillings. I think it is only right that this man should be exposed, so as to put other travellers on their guard, not so much for his overcharges, for when travelling one does not mind over-paying if one is properly treated, but for his impudence in furnishing provisions that even a dog would not eat. Had it not been that I had other provisions with me I should have fared very badly on the long drive to Teheran.

It may interest future travellers to know that the building where the hotel was at the time of my visit, August, 1901, has now been taken over for five years by the Russian Bank in order to open a branch of their business in Resht, and that the hotel itself, I believe, has now shifted to even less palatial quarters!

The Imperial Bank of Persia has for some years had a branch in Resht, and until 1901 was the only banking establishment in the town.