Resht--Impostors--A visit to the Head Mullah--Quaint
notions--Arrangements for the drive to Teheran--The Russian
concession of the Teheran road--The stormy Caspian and unsafe
harbours--The great Menzil bridge--A detour in the road--Capital
employed in the construction of the road--Mistaken English
notions of Russia--Theory and practice--High tolls--Exorbitant
fares--A speculator's offer refused--Development of the road.
Resht is an odious place in every way. It is, as it were, the "Port Said" of Persia, for here the scum of Armenia, of Southern Russia, and of Turkestan, stagnates, unable to proceed on the long and expensive journey to Teheran. One cannot go out for a walk without being accosted by any number of impostors, often in European clothes, who cling like leeches and proceed to try to interest you in more or less plausible swindles. One meets a great many people, too, who are on the look out for a "lift" in one's carriage to the Persian capital.
I paid quite an interesting visit to a near relation of the Shah's, who was the guest of the local Head Mullah. The approach to the Mullah's palace was not attractive. I was conveyed through narrow passages, much out of repair, until we arrived in front of a staircase at the foot of which lay in a row, and in pairs, shoes of all sizes, prices, and ages, patiently waiting for their respective owners inside the house. A great many people were outside in the courtyard, some squatting down and smoking a kalian, which was passed round after a puff or two from one person to the other, care being taken by the last smoker to wipe the mouthpiece with the palm of his hand before handing it to his neighbour. Others loitered about and conversed in a low tone of voice.
A Mullah received me at the bottom of the staircase and led me up stairs to a large European-looking room, with glass windows, cane chairs, and Austrian glass candelabras. There were a number of Mullahs in their long black robes, white or green sashes, and large turbans, sitting round the room in a semicircle, and in the centre sat the high Mullah with the young prince by his side. They all rose when I entered, and I was greeted in a dignified yet very friendly manner. A chair was given me next to the high Mullah, and the usual questions about one's family, the vicissitudes of one's journey, one's age, one's plans, the accounts of what one had seen in other countries, were duly gone through.
It was rather curious to notice the interest displayed by the high Mullah in our South African war. He seemed anxious to know whether it was over yet, or when it would be over. Also, how was it that a big nation like Great Britain could not conquer a small nation like the Boers.
"It is easier for an elephant to kill another elephant," I replied, "than for him to squash a mosquito."
"Do you not think," said the Mullah, "that England is now an old nation, tired and worn--too old to fight? Nations are like individuals. They can fight in youth--they must rest in old age. She has lived in glory and luxury too long. Glory and luxury make nations weak. Persia is an example."
"Yes, there is much truth in your sayings. We are tired and worn. We have been and are still fast asleep in consequence. But maybe the day will come when we shall wake up much refreshed. We are old enough to learn, but not to die yet."
He was sorry that England was in trouble.
Tea, or rather sugar with some drops of tea on it was passed, in tiny little glasses with miniature perforated tin spoons. Then another cross-examination.
"Do you drink spirits and wine?"
"Do you smoke?"
"You would make a good Mussulman."
"Possibly, but not probably."
"In your travels do you find the people generally good or bad?"
"Taking things all round, in their badness, I find the people usually pretty good."
"How much does your King give you to go about seeing foreign countries?"
"The King gives me nothing. I go at my own expense."
This statement seemed to take their breath away. It was bad enough for a man to be sent--for a consideration--by his own Government to a strange land, but to pay for the journey one's self, why! it seemed to them too preposterous for words. They had quite an excited discussion about it among themselves, the Persian idea being that every man must sponge upon the Government to the utmost extent.
The young Prince hoped that I would travel as his guest in his carriage to Teheran. Unfortunately, however, I had made other arrangements, and was unable to accept his invitation.
My visit ended with renewed salaams and good wishes on their part for my welfare on the long journey I was about to undertake. I noticed that, with the exception of the Prince, who shook my hand warmly, the Mullahs bowed over and over again, but did not touch my hand.
Now for the business visit at the post station. After a good deal of talk and an unlimited consumption of tea, it had been arranged that a landau with four post horses to be changed every six farsakhs, at each post station, and a fourgon--a large van without springs, also with four horses,--for luggage, should convey me to Teheran. So little luggage is allowed inside one's carriage that an additional fourgon is nearly always required. One is told that large packages can be forwarded at a small cost by the postal service, and that they will reach Teheran soon after the passengers, but unhappy is the person that tries the rash experiment. There is nothing to guarantee him that he will ever see his luggage again. In Persia, a golden rule while travelling, that may involve some loss of time but will avoid endless trouble and worry in the end, is never to let one's luggage go out of sight. One is told that the new Teheran road is a Russian enterprise, and therefore quite reliable, and so it is, but not so the company of transportation, which is in the hands of natives, the firm of Messrs. Bagheroff Brothers, which is merely subsidized by the Russian Road Company.
As every one knows, in 1893 the Russians obtained a concession to construct a carriage-road from Piri-Bazaar via Resht to Kasvin, an extension to Hamadan, and the purchase of the road from Kasvin to Teheran, which was already in existence. Nominally the concession was not granted to the Russian Government itself--as is generally believed in England--but to a private company--the "Compagnie d'Assurance et de Transport en Perse," which, nevertheless, is a mere off-shoot of Government enterprise and is backed by the Russian Government to no mean degree. The Company's headquarters are in Moscow, and in Persia the chief office is at Kasvin.
Here it may be well to add that if this important concession slipped out of our hands we have only ourselves to blame. We can in no way accuse the Russians of taking advantage of us, but can only admire them for knowing how to take advantage of a good opportunity. We had the opportunity first; it was offered us in the first instance by Persia which needed a loan of a paltry sixty million francs, or a little over two million pounds sterling. The concession was offered as a guarantee for the loan, but we, as usual, temporised and thought it over and argued--especially the people who did not know what they were arguing about--and eventually absolutely refused to have anything to do with the scheme. The Russians had the next offer and jumped at it, as was natural in people well versed in Persian affairs, and well able to foresee the enormous possibilities of such an undertaking.
It was, beyond doubt, from the very beginning--except to people absolutely ignorant and mentally blind--that the concession, apart from its political importance, was a most excellent financial investment. Not only would the road be most useful for the transit of Russian goods to the capital of Persia, and from there all over the country, but for military purposes it would prove invaluable. Maybe its use in the latter capacity will be shown sooner than we in England think.
Of course, to complete the scheme the landing at Enzeli must still be improved, so that small ships may enter in safety and land passengers and goods each journey without the unpleasant alternative, which we have seen, of having to return to one's point of departure and begin again, two, or three, or even four times. One gentleman I met in Persia told me that on one occasion the journey from Baku to Enzeli--thirty-six hours--occupied him the space of twenty-six days!
The Caspian is stormy the greater part of the year, the water shallow, no protection from the wind exists on any side, and wrecks, considering the small amount of navigation on that sea, are extremely frequent. As we have seen, there are not more than six feet of water on the bar at Enzeli, but with a jetty which could be built at no very considerable expense (as it probably will be some day) and a dredger kept constantly at work, Enzeli could become quite a possible harbour, and the dangers of long delays and the present risks that await passengers and goods, if not absolutely avoided, would at least be minimised to an almost insignificant degree. The navigation of the lagoon and stream presents no difficulty, and the Russians have already obtained the right to widen the mouth of the Murd-ap at Enzeli, in conjunction with the concession of the Piri-Bazaar-Teheran road.
The road was very easy to make, being mostly over flat country and rising to no great elevation, 5,000 feet being the highest point. It follows the old caravan track nearly all the way, the only important detour made by the new road being between Paichinar and Kasvin, to avoid the high Kharzan or Kiajan pass--7,500 feet--over which the old track went.
Considering the nature of the country it crosses, the new road is a good one and is well kept. Three large bridges and fifty-eight small ones have been spanned across streams and ravines, the longest being the bridge at Menzil, 142 yards long.
From Resht, via Deschambe Bazaar, to Kudum the road strikes due south across country. From Kudum (altitude, 292 feet) to Rudbar (665 feet) the road is practically along the old track on the north-west bank of the Kizil Uzen River, which, from its source flows first in a south-easterly direction, and then turns at Menzil almost at a right angle towards the north-east, changing its name into Sefid Rud (the White River). Some miles after passing Rudbar, the river has to be crossed by the great bridge, to reach Menzil, which lies on the opposite side of the stream.
From Menzil to Kasvin the Russian engineers had slightly more trouble in constructing the road. A good deal of blasting had to be done to make the road sufficiently broad for wheeled traffic; then came the important detour, as we have seen, from Paichinar to Kasvin, so that practically the portion of the road from Menzil to Kasvin is a new road altogether, via Mala Ali and Kuhim, the old track being met again at the village of Agha Baba.
The width of the road averages twenty-one feet. In difficult places, such as along ravines, or where the road had to be cut into the rock, it is naturally less wide, but nowhere under fourteen feet. The gradient averages 1--20 to 1--24. At a very few points, however, it is as steep as 1 in 15. If the hill portion of the road is excepted, where, being in zig-zag, it has very sharp angles, a light railway could be laid upon it in a surprisingly short time and at no considerable expense, the ground having been made very hard nearly all along the road.
The capital of £340,000 employed in the construction of the road was subscribed in the following manner: 1,000 shares of 1,000 rubles each, or 1,000,000 rubles original capital subscribed in Moscow; 1,000,000 rubles debentures taken by the Russian Government, and a further 500,000 rubles on condition that 700,000 rubles additional capital were subscribed, which was at once done principally by the original shareholders.
The speculation had from the very beginning a prospect of being very successful, even merely considered as a trade route--a prospect which the British Government, capitalist, and merchant did not seem to grasp, but which was fully appreciated by the quicker and more far-seeing Russian official and trader. Any fair-minded person cannot help admiring the Russian Government for the insight, enterprise and sound statesmanship with which it lost no time in supporting the scheme (discarded by us as worthless), and this it did, not by empty-winded, pompous speeches and temporising promises, to which we have so long been accustomed, but by supplying capital in hard cash, for the double purpose of enhancing to its fullest extent Russian trade and of gaining the strategic advantages of such an enterprise, which are too palpable to be referred to again.
So it was, that while we in England relied on the everlasting and ever-idiotic notion that Russia would never have the means to take up the loan, being--as we are told--a bankrupt country with no resources, and a Government with no credit and no cash,--that we found ourselves left (and laughed at), having lost an opportunity which will never present itself again, and which will eventually cost us the loss of Northern Persia, if not of the whole of Persia.
Russia--it is only too natural--having once set her foot, or even both feet, on Persian soil, now tries to keep out other nations--which, owing to her geographical position, she can do with no effort and no trouble--in order to enhance her youthful but solid and fast-growing industries and trade.
In the case of the Teheran road, the only one, it must be remembered, leading with any safety to the Persian capital, it is theoretically open to all nations. Practically, Russian goods alone have a chance of being conveyed by this route, owing to the prohibitive Customs duties exacted in Russia on foreign goods in transit for Persia. Russia is already indirectly reaping great profits through this law, especially on machinery and heavy goods that have no option and must be transported by this road. There is no other way by which they can reach Teheran on wheels. But the chief and more direct profit of the enterprise itself is derived from the high tolls which the Russian Company, with the authorisation of the Persian Government, has established on the road traffic, in order to reimburse the capital paid out and interest to shareholders.
The road tolls are paid at Resht (and at intermediate stations if travellers do not start from Resht), and amount to 4 krans == 1s. 8d. for each pack animal, whether it be a camel, a horse, a mule, or a donkey.
A post-carriage with four horses (the usual conveyance hired between Resht and Teheran) pays a toll of no less than 17s. 2d.
_s._ _d._ A carriage with 3 horses 12 6 " " 2 " 8 4 " " 1 horse 4 2 A _fourgon_, or luggage van, 4 horses, £1 0_s._ 10_d._
Passengers are charged extra and above these tolls, so that a landau or a victoria, for instance, actually pays £1 8s. for the right of using the road, and a fourgon with one's servants, as much as £1 13s. 2d.
The fares for the hire of the conveyance are very high:--
£ _s._ _d._ Landau 11 16 7 Victoria 10 16 7 Coupé 11 4 10 Fourgon 10 0 10
As only 72 lbs. of personal luggage are allowed in the landau or 65 lbs. in other carriages, and this weight must be in small packages, one is compelled to hire a second conveyance, a fourgon, which can carry 650 lbs. Every pound exceeding these weights is charged for at the rate of two shillings for every 13½ lbs. of luggage. The luggage is weighed with great accuracy before starting from Resht, and on arrival in Teheran. Care is taken to exact every half-penny to which the company is entitled on luggage fares, and much inconvenience and delay is caused by the Persian officials at the scales. It is advisable for the traveller to be present when the luggage is weighed, to prevent fraud.
It may be noticed that to travel the 200 miles, the distance from Resht to Teheran, the cost, without counting incidental expenses, tips (amounting to some £3 or more), etc.,
£ _s._ _d._ £ _s._ _d._ £ _s._ _d._ Landau, 11 16 7 plus toll, 1 8 0 13 4 7 Fourgon, 10 0 10 plus toll, 1 13 2 11 14 0 ------------ Total £24 18 7
which is somewhat high for a journey of only 72 to 80 hours.
This strikes one all the more when one compares it with the journey of several thousand miles in the greatest of luxury from London across Holland, Germany, Russia, and the Caspian to Enzeli, which can be covered easily by three five-pound notes.
As every one knows, the road from Piri-Bazaar to Kasvin and Teheran was opened for wheel traffic in January 1899.
I am told that in 1899--before the road was completed--a Persian speculator offered the sum of £200 a day to be paid in cash every evening, for the contract of the tolls. The offer was most emphatically refused, as the daily tolls even at that time amounted to between £270 and £300.
In these last three years the road has developed in a most astounding manner, and the receipts, besides being now considerably greater, are constantly increasing. The Russian shareholders and Government can indeed fairly congratulate themselves on the happy success which their well-thought-out investment has fairly won them.