Difficulties of crossing the Great Salt Desert--The trials of
arranging a caravan--The ways of camel-men--A quaint man of the
Desert--A legal agreement--Preparations for the
departure--"Kerman" and "Zeris," my two Persian kittens and
travelling companions--Persian cats--The start--The charms of
camel riding--Marching among mountains.
My intention was to cross the Salt Desert in an almost easterly direction by the route from Khabis to Neh, which seemed the most direct route from Kerman to the Afghan frontier, but on mentioning my project to the Consul and his Persian assistant, Nasr-el Khan, they dissuaded me from attempting it, declaring it impossible to get across in the autumn. Why it was impossible I could not quite ascertain, each man from whom I inquired giving a different reason, but the fact remained that it was impossible. The Governor of Kerman, all the highest officials in the town, told me that it could not be done till three or four months later, when the Afghan camels would come over, laden with butter, by that route. Even faithful Sadek, whom I had despatched to the bazaar to get camels at all costs, returned with a long face after a whole day's absence, and for the first time since he was in my employ had to change his invariable answer of "Sahib, have got," to a bitterly disappointing "Sahib, no can get."
A delay was predicted on all hands of at least a month or two in Kerman before I could possibly obtain camels to cross the desert in any direction towards the east. The tantalising trials of arranging a caravan were not small.
I offered to purchase camels, but no camel driver could be induced to accompany me. Offers of treble pay and bakshish had no effect, and I found myself in a serious dilemma when a camel man appeared on the scene. His high terms were then and there accepted, everything that he asked for was conceded, when suddenly, probably believing that all this was too good to come true, he backed out of the bargain and positively refused to go. Had I chosen to go by the southern route, skirting the desert via Bam, the difficulty would not have been so great, but that route is very easy, and had been followed by several Europeans at different times, and I declined to go that way.
I was beginning to despair when Sadek, who had spent another day hunting in the various caravanserais, entered my room, and with a broad grin on his generally stolid countenance, proclaimed that he had found some good camels. To corroborate his words a clumsy and heavy-footed camel man, with a face which by association had become like that of the beasts he led, was shoved forward into the room.
He was a striking figure, with an ugly but singularly honest countenance, his eyes staring and abnormally opened, almost strained--the eyes of a man who evidently lived during the night and slept during the day. His mouth stretched, with no exaggeration, from ear to ear, and displayed a double row of powerful white teeth. What was lacking in quantity of nose was made up by a superabundance of malformed, shapeless ears, which projected at the sides of his head like two wings. When his legs were closed--pour façon de parler--they were still some six inches apart, and a similar space was noticeable between each of his arms and his body. Unmistakably this fellow was the very picture of clumsiness.
He seemed so much distracted by the various articles of furniture in the Consul's room that one could get no coherent answer from him, and his apprehension gave way to positive terror when he was addressed in flowing language by the various high officials who were then calling on the Consul. Their ways of persuasion by threats and promises alarmed the camel man to such an extent that his eyes roamed about all over the place, palpably to find a way to effect an escape. He was, however, so clumsy at it, that the consul's servants and soldiers checked him in time, and Sadek broke in with one of his usual flows of words at the top of his voice, which, however, could hardly be heard amid the vigorous eloquence of the Persians present, who all spoke at the same time, and at an equally high pitch.
With a sinking heart I closely watched the camel man, in whom rested my faint and last hope of crossing the Salt Desert. He looked so bewildered--and no wonder--almost terror-stricken, that when he was asked about his camels, the desert, the amount of pay required, he sulkily mumbled that he had no camels, knew nothing whatever about the desert, and did not wish to receive any pay.
"Why, then, did you come here?"
"I did not come here!"
"But you are here."
"I want to go away."
"Yes, sahib," cried the chorus of Persians, "he has the camels, he knows the desert; only he is frightened, as he has never spoken to a sahib before."
Here a young Hindoo merchant, Mul Chan Dilaram, entered the room, and with obsequious salaams to the company, assured me that he had brought this camel man to me, and that when he had got over his first fears I should find him an excellent man. While we were all listening to the Hindoo's assurances the camel man made a bolt for the door, and escaped as fast as he could lay his legs to the ground towards the city.
He was chased by the soldiers, and after some time was dragged back.
"Why did you run away?" he was asked.
"Sahib," he replied, almost crying, "I am only a man of the desert; my only friends are my camels; please have pity on me!"
"Then you have camels, and you do know the desert; you have said so in your own words."
The camel man had to agree, and on being assured that he would be very well paid and treated, and have a new pair of shoes given him, and as much tea brewed for him on the road, with as much sugar in it as his capacity would endure, he at last said he would come. The Hindoo, with great cunning, at once seized the hand of the camel man in his own and made him swear that death should descend upon himself, his camels and his family if he should break his word, or give me any trouble. The camel man swore. An agreement was hastily drawn up before he had time to change his mind, and a handsome advance in solid silver was pressed into his hands to make the agreement good and to allay his feelings. When requested to sign the document the camel man, who had sounded each coin on the doorstep, and to his evident surprise found them all good, gaily dipped his thumb into the inkstand and affixed his natural mark, a fine smudge, upon the valuable paper, and licked up the surplus ink with his tongue. The man undertook to provide the necessary camels and saddles, and to take me across the Salt Desert in a north-easterly direction, the only way by which, he said, it was possible to cross the Lut, the year having been rainless, and nearly all the wells being dry. It would take from twenty-two to twenty-six days to get across, and most of the journey would be waterless or with brackish water. Skins had to be provided to carry our own supply of water.
A whole day was spent in preparing for the journey, and when November 4th came, shortly before midnight my provisions were packed upon my camels, with an extra load of fowls and one of fruit, while on the hump of the last camel of my caravan were perched, in a wooden box made comfortable with straw and cotton-wool, two pretty Persian kittens, aged respectively three weeks and four weeks, which I had purchased in Kerman, and which, as we shall see, lived through a great many adventures and sufferings, and actually reached London safe and sound, proving themselves to be the most wonderful and agreeable little travelling companions imaginable. One was christened "Kerman," the other "Zeris."
The Persian cat, as everybody knows, possesses a long, soft, silky coat, with a beautiful tail and ruff, similar to the cats known in Europe as Angora, which possess probably longer hair on the body. The Persian cats, too, have a longer pencil of hair on the ears than domestic cats, and have somewhat the appearance and the motions of wild cats, but if properly treated are gentleness itself, and possess the most marvellous intelligence. Unlike cats of most other nationalities, they seem to enjoy moving from place to place, and adapt themselves to fresh localities with the greatest ease. If fed entirely on plenty of raw meat and water they are extremely gentle and affectionate and never wish to leave you; the reason that many Persian cats--who still possess some of the qualities of wild animals--grow savage and leave their homes, being principally because of the lack of raw meat which causes them to go ahunting to procure it for themselves. The cat, it should be remembered, is a carnivorous animal, and is not particularly happy when fed on a vegetable diet, no more than we beef-eating people are when invited to a vegetarian dinner.
Isfahan is the city from which long-haired Persian cats, the burak, are brought down to the Gulf, and from there to India, but the Kerman cats are said by the Persians themselves to be the best. The white ones are the most appreciated by the Persians; then the blue (grey) ones with differently coloured eyes, and the tabby ones. Mine were, one perfectly white, the other tabby.
At midnight I said good-bye to Major Phillott, whose kind hospitality I had enjoyed for four days, and began my slow and dreary march on camel-back. Swung too and fro till one feels that one's spine is breaking in two, we wound our way down from the Consulate at Zeris, skirted the town, now asleep and in a dead silence, and then turned north-east among the barren Kupayeh Mountains.
We had a fine moonlight, and had I been on a horse instead of a camel I should probably have enjoyed looking at the scenery, but what with the abnormal Persian dinner to which I had been treated in the afternoon (see Vol. I.)--what with the unpleasant swing of the camel and the monotonous dingle of the camels' bells--I became so very sleepy that I could not keep my eyes open.
There is very little style to be observed about riding a camel, and one's only aim must be to be comfortable, which is easier said than done, for camels have so many ways of their own, and these ways are so varied, that it is really difficult to strike a happy medium.
Sadek had made a kind of spacious platform on my saddle by piling on it carpets, blankets, and a mattress, and on the high butt of the saddle in front he had fastened a pillow folded in two.
As we wended our way along the foot of one hill and then another, while nothing particularly striking appeared in the scenery, I thought I would utilise what comfort I had within reach, and resting my head on the pillow, through which one still felt the hard wooden frame of the saddle, and with one leg and arm dangling loose on each side of the saddle, I slept soundly all through the night. Every now and then the camel stumbled or gave a sudden jerk, which nearly made one tumble off the high perch, but otherwise this was really a delightful way of passing the long dreary hours of the night.
We marched some nine hours, and having gone over a low pass across the range, halted near a tiny spring of fairly good water. Here we were at the entrance of an extensive valley with a small village in the centre. Our way, however, lay to the south-east of the valley along the mountains. We were at an elevation of 6,300 feet, or 800 feet above Kerman.
The heat of the day was so great that we halted, giving the camels a chance of grazing on what tamarisks they could find during day-light, for indeed camels are troublesome animals. They must not eat after sundown or it makes them ill. They are let loose on arrival at a camp, and they drift away in search of lichens or other shrubs. At sunset they are driven back to camp, where they kneel down and ruminate to their hearts' content until it is time for the caravan to start. The heavy wooden saddles with heavy padding under them are not removed from the camel's hump while the journey lasts, and each camel has, among other neck-ornaments of tassels and shells, one or more brass bells, which are useful in finding the camels again when strayed too far in grazing.
We left at midnight and crossed the wide valley with the village of Sar-es-iap (No. 1) four miles from our last camp. Again we came among mountains and entered a narrow gorge. The night was bitterly cold. We caught up a large caravan, and the din of the camels' bells and the hoarse groans of the camels, who were quite out of breath going up the incline, made the night a lively one, the sounds being magnified and echoed from mountain to mountain.
Every now and then a halt had to be called to give the camels a rest, and the camel men spread their felt overcoats upon the ground and lay down for five or ten minutes to have a sleep. Then the long string of camels would proceed again up the hill, the camels urged by the strange cries and sing-songs of the men.
This part of the journey being mountainous, one came across three little streams of water, and at each the camel man urged me to drink as much as I could, because, he said, the time will come when we shall see no water at all for days at a time.
We were gradually rising, the camels panting dreadfully, and had got up to 7,100 feet when we camped near the village of Kalaoteh--a few small domed hovels, a field or two, and a cluster of trees along a brook. We were still among the Kupayeh Mountains with the Kurus peak towering directly above us.