Girdi-chah, a desolate spot--Its renowned water--Post-houses and
Persian Customs soldiers--Nawar-chah and its well--The salt river
Shela--Its course--Beautiful colours in salt
crystals--Tamarisks--The Kuh-i-Malek-Siah--The loftiest
mountain--Afghans--Hormak, a picturesquely situated post
station--A natural pyramid of rock--Natural fortresses--The
Malek-Siah Ziarat--Where three coveted countries meet--The
hermit--The evolution of a sand hill--Parallel sand dunes--In
Beluchistan--Robat, the most north-easterly British post.
Girdi-chah (altitude 2,200 feet), a desolate spot in a desolate region, remains impressed in the minds of visitors merely and only for the vileness of its water. Sadek brought me a glass of it for inspection, and it was so thick with salt and dirt that it resembled in colour and density a mixture of milk and coffee. In flavour I do not know what it was like because I would not drink it, but I induced Sadek to try it and let me know, and he said that it tasted like salt, sand, and bad eggs mixed together. Unluckily, Sadek had omitted to fill the skins with good water at Warmal, and after our long march of 36 miles we should have been in a bad plight, had not the Beluch men in charge of the other caravan offered us some good water from their supply to drink and cook with.
The post station at Girdi has a high wall round it, with two rooms for sawars, and one adjoining for their families, and grain shop. There are four watch towers at the corners of the wall of sun-dried bricks, and a path on the top to go from one tower to the other. A canal has been cut to drain as much rain water (the only water obtainable here) as possible into a small pond, but the pond was nearly dry and only had in it some filthy salt water densely mixed with camel refuse. It was of a ghastly green with patches of brown, and some spots of putrefaction in circular crowns of a whitish colour. The surface was coated with a deposit of sand, dirt and salt.
A few yards from the British Consular post-house stood a small hut in which two Persian Customs soldiers were stationed. They were picturesquely attired in peaked white turbans, long yellow coats, leather belts with powder and bullet pouches, and various other adjuncts. They were armed with long, old-fashioned matchlocks.
These men and the postal sawars complained of the terrible water--and no wonder!--but although they seemed painfully worn and thin it had not actually caused them any special illness so far. They generally laid in a small supply of better water from the well six miles off.
On our way in that direction when we left the next morning we again saw in the distance to the east and south-east four or five ruined cities. Tamarisk was plentiful and grew to quite a good height.
We passed the post-house of Nawar-chah with its well of fairly good water. The well was some three feet in diameter and water had been struck fifteen feet below the surface. The shelter, with a low mud enclosure round it, was very similar to the one at Mahommed Raza-chah.
At each post-house one was generally greeted by a Beluch cat with pointed ears, who came out in the hopes of getting a meal, then by picturesque, bronzed-faced Beluch sawars, with luxuriant black hair and beard, and white turbans and cloaks. This being a minor station, there were only two sawars and no animals, whereas at stations like Girdi there were a duffadar in charge, four sawars, two attendants, two camels and two horses.
Some three miles south-east of Nawar more ruins could be seen, a small tower and three large square towers with north and south walls in great part blown down, but with eastern and western walls standing up to a great height. A separate domed building could also be observed a little way off.
Perhaps one of the most interesting natural sights on the journey to the Beluchistan frontier was the great salt river--the Shela--which we struck on that march, six miles from Nawar. It was by far the largest river I had seen in Persia, its channel being some 100 yards wide in places. It came from the mountains to the south-west, where thick salt deposits are said to exist, and at the point where we crossed it its course was tortuous and the river made a sharp detour to the south-east. All along the watercourse extensive sediments of salt lined the edge of the water, and higher up, near the mountains, the water is said to be actually bridged over by salt deposits several inches thick.
Most interesting incrustations of salt were visible under the water, especially at the side of the stream, where, with the reverberation of the sun's rays, most beautiful effects of colour were obtained in the salt crystals. The following were the colours as they appeared from the edges of the stream downwards:--light brown, light green, emerald green, dark green, yellow, warm yellow, deep yellow, then the deep green of the limpid water.
The river banks on which we travelled were about 60 feet high above the actual stream, and owing to a huge diagonal crack across our track we had to deviate nearly half a mile in order to find a way where my camels could get across. The Shela proceeds along a tortuous channel in a south-easterly direction, enters Afghan territory, and loses itself, as we shall see, in the south-west Afghan desert.
It is said that when, which is now but rarely, the Hamun-Halmund is inundated, the overflow of water from the lake so formed finds its way by a natural channel into the Shela, which it swells, and the joint waters flow as far as and fill the Shela Hamun or Zirreh in Afghanistan, which is at a lower level than the Hamun-Halmund. When I saw the lake in Afghanistan, however, it was absolutely dry.
The Shela river had very large pools of deep water almost all along that part of it which is in Sistan territory, but there was hardly any water flowing at all, so that nowadays in dry weather it loses itself in the sand long before reaching the depression in Afghan territory, where, by the great salt deposits, it is evident that a lake may have formerly existed, but not now.
After leaving the Shela we were travelling again on the sandy lut, and not a blade of vegetation of any kind could be seen. We came to two tracks, one going south-west, the other due south. We followed the latter. As we got some miles further south a region of tamarisks began, and they got bigger and bigger as we went along. Where some shelter existed from the north winds, the shrubs had developed into quite big trees, some measuring as much as 20 feet in height. For a desert, this seemed to us quite a forest. Near the well of salt water, half way (12 miles) between the two postal stations, the tamarisks were quite thick.
Sixteen miles from Nawar, however, some great sand dunes, like waves of a sea, extending from east to west, were again found, together with undulations of sand and gravel, and here tamarisks again became scarce. The track had been marked with cairns of stones at the sides. Where the wind had full sway, the long sand banks, parallel to one another and very regular in their formation, appeared exactly like the waves of a stormy ocean.
The track went towards the south-west, where one has to get round the point of Afghanistan, which, projects west as far as the Kuh-i-Malek-Siah (Mountains). We were steering into what appeared at first a double row of mountains in a mountain mass generally called the Malek-Siah. To the west, however, on getting nearer we could count as many as four different ranges and two more to the east of us. The last range, beyond all of the four western ones, had in its S.S.W. some very high peaks which I should roughly estimate at about eight to ten thousand feet above the plain. Due west there were also some high points rising approximately from six to seven thousand feet, and in front of these and nearest to the observer, a low hill range. A high even-topped range, like a whale's back, and not above 3,000 feet above the plain, had a conical hill on the highest part of its summit. The loftiest mountains were observed from south to south-west, and they, too, had a low hill barrier before them. Many of the peaks were very sharply pointed, and highest of all stood a strange looking three-humped mountain (280° W.) with a deep cut on its westerly side, and a pointed peak standing by it.
The sand under foot had given place here to gravel and large pebbles, yellow, red, grey, white and green, all well rounded as if they had been rolled by water for many a mile. The underlying sand was cut into many channels by the action of water. We were some four miles off the mountainous mass. Tamarisk was scarce and undersized.
We were gradually rising on a slightly inclined plain, and on examining the ground one could not help thinking with what terrific force the torrents must come down--when they do come down--from the mountain sides which they drain before losing themselves in the sand. During abnormally rainy weather, no doubt, a good deal of this drainage forms an actual stream which goes to swell the river Shela. Its channel comes from Hormak and flows first in a north-easterly then in an almost due easterly direction.
We had intended stopping at Hormak, thirty-two miles from Girdi, our previous halting place, and we had been on the saddle from 9 in the morning till 8.30 p.m., when we came across a lot of Afghans with their camels, and they told us that we were on the wrong track for the post-house and well. It was very dark and we could not see where we were going, as the sand had covered up the track. We were among a lot of confused sand hills, and the high mountains stood directly in front like a formidable black barrier, their contour line just distinguishable against the sky.
The camel driver, who had made me discharge the postal sawar guide, because he was certain he knew the road well himself, was now at a loss. The Afghans collected round us and yelled at the top of their voices that Hormak was to the west of us, and the camel man insisted that the post house must surely be on the high track, on which we certainly seemed to have got again.
I had ridden ahead, and after an anxious hour Sadek, with all the luggage, and the second camel man arrived, and we decided to leave the track and try our luck among the mountains to the west.
Now, to find a little mud house, hidden in some sheltered spot among rocks and hills, on a dark night is not the easiest of matters. The camels stumbled among the big boulders when once we had got off the track, and we had to dismount and walk. As luck would have it, after going about half an hour we came to a nice spring of water, of which in the stillness of the night we could plainly hear the gurgling. Guided by it, and a few feet above it in a sheltered position, we struck the post-house.
The post-house has, of course, been built here (one mile away from the high track) because of this spring. There is a direct track to it which branches off the main track, about 3 miles north, but we had missed this.
The night was a very cold one--we were at 3,380 feet above sea level--and we lighted a big fire in the middle of the small mud room. As there was no outlet for the smoke except the door, in a few minutes the place got unbearably hot, and I had to clear out, but Sadek and my camel men, who were regular salamanders, seemed to enjoy it and found it quite comfortable.
There were two rooms, one occupied by the four postal sawars, the other by five Persian Customs employees. The two camels and two horses for the postal service were kept in the mud walled enclosure.
Hormak, when the sun rose, proved to be one of the most picturesquely situated stations on the entire route between Sher-i-Nasrya and Nushki. It stood on a hill of sand and gravel in the centre of a basin of high reddish-brown mountains which screened it all round. There was an opening to the east which gave a glimpse of the desert extending into Afghanistan, this station being not far from the border.
Our track was to the south-west, and wound round between handsome mountains. A strange high pyramid of rock stood on our way, and the sides of the mountains, where cut by the water, showed the interesting process of petrification in its various stages in the strata of the mountains. In hills of conical formation the centre was the first to become solidified, and where subsequent rain storms had washed away the coating around that had not yet become petrified curious rocky pillars were left standing bare on the landscape.
We altered our course to due south along a river bed, and had high sand hills to our right. Now that we were approaching Beluchistan the track was well defined, and about 16 feet broad, with sides marked by a row of stones. To the west of the track were a series of high sand walls (facing west) 300 feet high, and some most peculiar red, pointed, conical hills rose above them on the east side of these walls. It was after reaching these peculiarly coloured hills that the track began a gradual descent. The highest point on the track was 3,670 feet.
We passed a strange mount shaped like a mushroom, and the same formation could be noticed on a smaller scale in many other smaller hills, the lower portion of which had been corroded by wind or water or both, until the petrified centre of the hill remained like a stem supporting a rounded cap of semi-petrified earth above it.
From the west there descended another water channel, quite dry. We next found ourselves in a large basin one mile across and with an outlet to the north-east, at which spot a square castle-shaped mountain stared us in the face. A similar fortress, also of natural formation, was to the south-south-west, and between these two the Robat track was traced. Another outlet existed to the south-east. To the west, north, east and south-east there were a great many sand-hills, and to the south-south-west high rugged mountains.
A strong south-westerly gale was blowing and the sky was black and leaden with heavy clouds. We were caught in several heavy showers as we proceeded along a broad flat valley amid high and much broken-up black mountains (north-west) the innumerable sharp pointed peaks of which resembled the teeth of a saw. At their foot between them and our track stretched a long screen of sand accumulations--in this case facing north-west instead of west, the alteration in the direction being undoubtedly due to the effect of the mountains on the direction of the wind.
To the east there were rocks of a bright cadmium yellow colour, some 45 feet high, with deposits of sand and gravel on them as thick again (45 feet). The mountains behind these rocks showed a similar formation, the yellow rock, however, rising to 120 feet with rock above it of a blackish-violet colour, getting greenish towards the top where more exposed to the wind.
The valley along which we were travelling averaged about 200 yards wide, from the sand hills on one side to those on the other, and was at an incline, the eastern portion being much lower than the western. The yellow rocks at the side bore marks of having been subjected to the corrosive action of water, which must occasionally fill this gully to a great height during torrential rains.
We came to a most interesting point--the Malek Siah Ziarat, which in theory marks the point where the three coveted countries, i.e., Persia, Afghanistan and Beluchistan, meet. The actual frontier, however, is on the summit of the watershed, a short distance to the east of the Ziarat.
This Ziarat was a fine one, of the Beluch pattern, not covered over by a building such as those, for instance, that we had found on Kuh-i-Kwajah. There seemed to be a fate against photographing these Ziarats. It was only under the greatest disadvantages that I was ever able to photograph them. On this particular occasion I had hardly time to produce my camera before a downpour, such as I had seldom experienced, made it impossible to take a decent picture of it.
There was a central tomb 15 feet long, of big round white stones, supported on upright pillars of brown and green stone, and a white marble pillar at each end. Circular white marble slabs were resting on the tomb itself, and a few feet from this tomb all round was a wall, 3 feet high, of upright pillars, of brown and green stone, forming an oblong that measured 20 feet by 8 feet, with a walled entrance at its south-eastern extremity. An additional wall like a crescent protected the south-eastern end of the oblong, and due east in a line were three stone cairns with bundles of upright sticks fixed into them, on which hung rags of all colours.
To the west of the tomb, between it and the enclosing wall, was a great collection of long sticks and tree branches--which must have been brought here from a great distance--and at their foot offerings of all sorts, such as goat-horns, ropes, leather bags, hair, stones, marble vessels, and numberless pieces of cloth.
In the spring of each year, I am told, the Beluch make a pilgrimage to this Ziarat, and deposit some very quaint little dolls made with much symbolic anatomical detail.
Extending west, in the direction of Mecca, from the main Ziarat, were nine more stone cairns, most of them having a panache of sticks and being divided into sets of three each, with a higher wall in the shape of crescents between. A second wall of round stones protected the north-west side of the Ziarat. Where it met the entrance way into the inner wall there was a much used sacrificial slab where sheep were beheaded.
To the north-east of the Ziarat were a number of cairns, and a small stone shelter in which lived a hermit. This old fanatic came out to greet us with unintelligible howls, carrying his vessel for alms, and a long stick to which a rag was attached. He touched us all on the head with it, which was meant as a blessing, and we gave him some silver pieces, which he said he did not want for himself, but for the Ziarat. He wore chains like a prisoner. He appeared to be in an advanced stage of idiocy and abrutissement, caused by his lonely life in his 5 feet cubic stone cabin among the desolate Malek-Siah mountains.
Having at this place rounded the most westerly point of the Afghan frontier we turned due east on a tortuous but well defined track. At this point began the actual British road, and being from this point under British supervision it was well kept, and made extremely easy for camel and horse traffic.
Three miles from the Ziarat the sand hills began to get smaller and smaller to the west, but still remained high to the east. One was particularly struck by the peculiar formation of the mountains. To the west they formed a continuous rugged, irregularly topped chain, with sharp pointed peaks, whereas to the east we had isolated, single domed hills all well rounded and smooth.
Where the track turns sharply south-east we entered a vast basin with picturesque high mountains to the south and north, and a series of single well-rounded mounds in front of them, rising from one to two thousand feet above the plain.
On nearing Robat one finds the scenery plainly illustrating the entire evolution of a small sand hill into a high mountain. We have the tiny mounds of sand, only a few inches high, clogged round tamarisk shrubs, then further higher and higher mounds, until they spread out so far that two, three, or more blend together, forming a low bank, and then banks increase to high dunes 40 feet, 50 feet, 100 feet high. These grow higher and higher still; the sand below is compressed by the weight above; water exercises its petrifying influence from the base upward, and from the centre outward, and more sand accumulates on the upper surface until they become actual hill ranges of a compact shale-like formation in horizontal strata, each stratum being slightly less hardened than the underlying, and each showing plainly defined the actions of water and sun to which they were exposed when uppermost. Then, above these hills, further accumulations have formed, which solidifying in turn have in the course of centuries become high mountains. They have, however, never lost the characteristics of the little primary accumulation against the humble tamarisk, to which they still bear, on a large scale, the closest resemblance.
We passed a great many parallel sand dunes, 100 feet high, east and west of our track, and went through a cut in one of these sand banks, beyond which the sand hills had accumulated in a somewhat confused fashion upon a crescent-shaped area. They seemed of a more ancient formation than those to the west of the track, and had a great quantity of shingle upon them, which gave them a black and greenish appearance, while those to the west were of a light brown colour. The shingle in this case, I think, had not formed on the hillocks themselves, but had been washed and blown down from the high mountains to the east.
We were now in the territory of Beluchistan, and with a bounding heart--after the experience of Persian rest-houses--we saw a nice clean square whitewashed bungalow standing on a high prominence under the shelter of a rugged mountain. This was Robat, the furthermost British post in West Beluchistan.
Although still some 463 miles from the nearest railway I looked upon this spot as the end of my difficult travelling, and, taking into consideration the fact that most of that distance had to be performed across barren and practically uninhabited country, I found that I was not far wrong in my opinion.