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Chapter 10

Intense cold--Dulled sense of taste--Characteristics of the
country--Beautiful stones--Clouds of the desert--A salt
stream--Icicles on the moustache and eyelashes--Longing for
sunrise--Prayers of the camel men--Fedeshk--Ali Murat meets his
wife--Opium dens and opium smokers--Effects of smoking opium in
excess--Fever-stricken people--Dwellings--An official
visitor--Science reduced to practice--Sadek's idea of sunset and
sunrise--"Keshk" cheese--Arrival in Birjand.

We left camp at 8 p.m. on the night of November 20th-21st, and by midnight the cold grew intense. The camel men lighted big bonfires all through the night wherever they found a few shrubs, but I was so ill with fever that I had not the strength and energy to dismount from my camel, on which I was shivering with cold although well wrapped up in blankets.

After marching eight miles from our last camp we came to a brackish well where the camel men replenished their water-skins. I was rather interested to see what dulled sense of taste these men of the desert possessed. When I saw them making a rush for this well I thought that probably we had come to fresh water, and on asking them they said this was a well of excellent "sweet water." When I tasted it, it was so salt that it quite made one's inflamed gums and palate smart with pain. I noticed some days later that when we did actually get fairly sweet water they could detect no difference between it and the most brackish water.

We had come through hilly and broken country, over low passes and narrow gorges flanking dry river-beds. Then we had entered another immense flat stretch of lut, quite level except an occasional solitary hillock breaking the monotonous line of the horizon here and there. From one of these hillocks (4,300 feet) near our camp of November 21st one got quite an interesting panorama all round.

The highest mountain in sight was still the Naiband peak to the south-west of us. A range which seemed about 50 miles off spread to the north-west, and before it--about 20 miles distant from us--a very long low hill range. In an arc from our west to our north were distinguishable several high pointed peaks. A blackish brown, handsomely cut hill stood prominent a mile or so from us in the middle of the plain.

To the north the country was much broken up and low. There was a stream of salt water running from east to west with thick salt deposits on each side of the water edge. To the north-east the hills showed no peculiar characteristics but to the east and south-east could be observed two short hill-ranges, much indented, of broken up and corroded rock, similar to the many we had already found across the desert. To the north and to the south of the hill range which stood to the east of us there were low passes, and behind them again the flat lut.

The only thing of real interest in the absolutely bare parts of the desert is the geological formation of the soil and the only amusement is to examine the different beautifully coloured stones that can be picked up, such as handsome agates, bits of malachite, crystals, beautiful marbles, and flints. These are all the more interesting when one thinks that most of them may have travelled hundreds, some, thousands of miles to get there, either brought by the water when the country was submerged or shifted on and on by the wind. They all bear marks of travel, and even the hardest are polished smooth, the original natural angles of crystals being in many cases actually worn down and quite rounded. Sand-polished pebbles of red jasper, jasper-conglomerates, chalcedony, quartz and agatescent quartz, pink and brown corroded limestone, and calcite were the most frequently met with.

A desert is, in England, always associated with glorious sunsets. Why this should be so is rather difficult to be understood by anybody reasoning in the right way, because the magnificent tints of a sunset are caused by moisture in the air and not by abnormal dryness. All the time that I was in the desert itself I never saw a sunset that really had half the picturesqueness of one of our most modest sunsets in Europe. The sun disappeared very fast, leaving a slightly yellow glow above the horizon, which soon became greenish by blending with the blue sky and then black with night. The twilight was extremely short.

We seldom saw clouds at all in the desert and when we did they were scrubby, little, patchy, angular lumps at enormous heights above the earth's surface. They were generally white or light grey. Occasionally they were of the fish-bone pattern, in long successive ridges, resembling the waves formed on the sand surface when shifted by wind. Soon after the sun had disappeared behind the horizon, these clouds generally changed their colour from white into black and made long lines stretching for great distances across the sky, but adding no beauty to it.

Naturally, the play of shifting lights and shadows upon the desert when the sun shone above the clouds was quite weird, especially when the last formation of clouds referred to cast long bluish shadows slowly moving upon the brilliantly-lighted, whitish tint of the ground. Lower upon the horizon line a curtain of a dirty brownish tint was generally to be seen, due to particles of sand in the air, otherwise in almost all cases that came under my observation the clouds formed well-defined, thin, clean, horizontal lines, or else when very high up patchy small skiffs.

One missed greatly the fat, rolling, globular clouds which are so common to Europe, and which fill the sky with fantastic forms. There is such a thing as getting tired of an everlasting spread of blue sky and the glow of a roasting sun.

A strong westerly gale swept low over the surface of the desert. It was very cold after sunset, but fortunately we had plenty of tamarisk shrubs at hand and camel dung with which to make big fires.

The river bed below our camp was very wide, but the salt stream itself not more than three to four feet across. It eventually lost itself to the north-west in the desert. The camels had been let loose to graze and had a good feed of tamarisk, which they seemed to enjoy much after their long diet on reduced rations of straw and cotton seeds.

We left this camp (4,120 feet) soon after dinner at 7 p.m., and during the night passed several ranges of hills, we travelling all the time on the flat. In the middle of the night the cold was bitter, so cold that I had icicles hanging on my moustache and eyelashes. It was impossible to remain on the camels, and ill as we all felt we had to walk--drag ourselves would be a more suitable expression--to keep ourselves from freezing. On these cold nights we simply longed for the sun to come out. The dark hours seemed interminable. One began slightly to revive when the first glimmering of yellowish light began to tinge the dark blue sky, and the dazzling stars gradually lost their brilliancy and eventually disappeared altogether from the heaven above us.

On the first ray of sun appearing the devout camel men stopped the caravan, spread a small cloth upon the ground, and, having picked up a small stone, placed it in front of them. They duly turned towards sacred Mecca and lifted their arms, then, muttering their prayers, knelt and placed their heads upon the ground, as we have already seen others do, in the usual Mussulman manner. They were most diligent in this respect, and one could not help admiring the intent fervour of their appeals to Allah. At sunset, too, their prayers never failed to be recited--no matter what they were busy doing at the time, all being interrupted for the purpose.

At 5.30 a.m. we arrived at a village called Fedeshk--quite a large place, situated in a flat oblong plain ten miles long and a mile and a half wide, surrounded by low hills on all sides.

On being asked why he had made the camels go so fast on this march, Ali Murat, my camel man, blushingly confessed that in this village was his home and his wife, whom he had not seen for eight months. The anxiety to see his better half, who lived only a stone-throw from where we made camp, did not, however, prevent him looking carefully after his camels, whom he placed first of all in his affection, and smoking Sadek's cigarettes, and a pipe with the other camel men, and waiting till my tea had been brewed to receive his customary six cups. After all this had been gone through, which took the best part of two hours, he disappeared and we did not see him again for the remainder of the morning.

The people of Fedeshk were striking for two reasons, first for being sadly fever-stricken, secondly because they were addicted to opium smoking to a disastrous degree. There were a number of opium dens in the place, and I went to see them. They were dreadful places, in which one would suspect opium smoking was not the only vice indulged in by the natives.

As I entered one of these houses, after a considerable knocking at the door and a great rustling of people running about the small courtyard inside, we were admitted into a room so dark that I at first could discern nothing at all. The pungent, sickening odour of the opium pipes gave one quite a turn, and I lighted up a match to see where I was.

There were men lying about on mats in a semi-stupefied state, and men attendants refilling the pipes--similar to those used in China, a cane holder with earthenware pipe in which tiny pills of opium were inserted and consumed over the flame of a small lamp. Several of the men were in such a torpid state that they mechanically inhaled the opium smoke when the pipes were pressed to their lips, but were hardly cognizant of what went about around them. The opium-den keeper in the meantime did a roaring business, and had a little scale on which he weighed the opium that he served out.

It seemed evident, as I lighted match after match, by certain articles of ladies' attire which in the hurried departure had been left behind in the room, that the usual attendants of the smokers were women, but they had stampeded away on our arrival. One heard them chuckle in the adjoining rooms, and in their haste, they had left behind a great many pairs of slippers at the entrance of the room.

I had two men conveyed out into the sun where I wanted to examine them. The pupils of their eyes had contracted to a most abnormal extent, even before they were exposed to the sunlight, and seemed to have almost lost the power of expanding and contracting in various lights, and although the eyes were wide opened and staring they did not seem to discern what was placed before them. The eye-ball had a yellowish tinge and the iris was not well-defined but seemed to have undergone discoloration and faded away into the white of the eye. They seemed affected by a kind of temporary atrophy.

The pulse beat extremely slow and faintly; the lips were drawn tight; the hearing so dulled that even loud noises seemed to have no effect upon them. The body was flabby and almost lifeless. It was not possible to obtain an answer to anything one asked them. They had quite a cadaverous appearance, with yellowish, pallid skins, sunken eyes, and teeth showing fully under the drawn lips.

Only now and then, as one watched them, a sigh, followed by a shiver or a grunt, came forth to show us that they were still alive. The fingers and toes displayed some muscular contraction, but not the other joints, which were quite loose. The heart beat so feebly that one could hardly feel it.

They remained spread out in the yard in the positions we had placed them, and were indeed most pitiful objects. The den-keeper told me that these two men were most inveterate smokers, and were at it the whole time until they became quite unconscious.

There were other men in a slightly better condition, but all more or less showing the same symptoms of stupefaction. Those that could mutter words said that it was an irresistible passion that they could never stop. The opium gave them no dreams, they told me, but a delicious feeling of absolute contentment and happiness, which they could never experience when not indulging in this disastrous vice.

On looking upon things impartially, however, one came to the conclusion that, bad as it was, opium-smoking had certainly more peaceful and less disgusting effects upon those unfortunates addicted to it than whiskey or absinthe, or votka drunkenness, for instance.

The entire population of this village was, unfortunately, given to this bad habit, and it was quite pitiable to look upon their haggard, staring faces, and idiotic expression.

Malarial fever is very prevalent at Fedeshk, and some of the corpse-like people affected by it came to my camp for medicine. They were not unlike walking skeletons, with stringy hands and feet and a skin of ghastly yellow colour. They had parched, bloodless ears, curled forward, and sunken cheeks, with deep sunk-in eyes. In the more virulent cases fever was accompanied by rheumatic pains so strong as practically to paralyse the legs and arms, which were reduced to a positive minimum of flesh.

The dwellings of Fedeshk were not impressive. Mud hovels as usual, with domes over the rooms, as everywhere in Persia, only the familiar aperture, instead of being directly in the centre of the dome itself, had a kind of hood over it to screen it from the terrific winds of the West.

It is to be noticed in connection with these winds that to the west of Fedeshk there are rather high mountains, and even winds originally not coming from the west may be turned back or switched in that direction by this chain of mountains.

A large ice store-house is met with at the end of the village, which testifies to the intense cold that can be experienced here in the winter months.

An official residing in the place sent word that he would call upon me, and we made a grand display of all the carpets we possessed to receive him. He arrived with a number of servants, and we had a very pleasant interview, with great consumption of tea. He was extremely civil; inquired whether he could be of any assistance, which was politely declined, and showed intense interest in my firearms and scientific instruments. He and his people were amazed when I told them that their village stood at an elevation of 4,620 ft. above sea level, and explained to them how I had measured the height by means of aneroids and the hypsometrical apparatus.

"These are wonderful!" he said, with a salaam, as he handed me back the instruments which had been eagerly examined by all present. "And," he added, "can you also measure the length of cloth with them?"

A compass, too, he had never set eyes upon; and he at first thought that it was constructed to point towards Mecca! Had not one long ago got accustomed to similar questions often asked one by London people, the innocence of the Persian official might have taken one's breath away, but this was nothing to what happened later.

The Persians showed great curiosity to learn everything in connection with whatever foreign articles I possessed and the respective prices I had paid for them. Then Sadek was closely examined as to the amount of food I ate every day, the salary I paid him, and why I had come across the desert. Was I a Russian or an Englishman? The officer had never seen either, but heard both well spoken of. He had understood that all Englishmen had yellow hair; why had I dark hair? London, he, like most Persians, believed to be a suburb of Bombay, connected with Russia by means of a "machine road,"--a railway!

Why on earth did the ferenghi want to know how high mountains were? Did the ferenghi know how to find gold in the earth? and so on, were the queries which Sadek had to answer.

With repeated salaams, preceded by a thousand other questions, the official departed; but Sadek, who was much excited, was still bent on a highly scientific conversation to the following effect:--

"Sahib," he said, "you have travelled in many countries, have you not?"


"Sahib, have you been to the country where the sun 'goes to sleep' in a hole in the earth every evening?"

That was Sadek's idea of a sunset! His idea of a sunrise was that a brand-new sun was sent up every day, and this explained how it was that it rose from the opposite side to that on which it had "gone to sleep."

Ali Murat, looking somewhat washed out and absent minded, came back to camp at noon, garbed in a very handsome new coat which his wife had woven and embroidered for him during his absence. He was very proud of it.

We left Fedeshk an hour later, as I was very anxious to reach the city of Birjand the same day if possible. We were now again in fairly inhabited country, and on our hurried march passed a great many villages, large and small, such as Shahzileh, Mazumabad, Tagot, Siaguih, Shamzabad. Further, at Ossenabad, is to be seen a ruined country-house of the Governor of Birjand, then the last two villages of Khelatekhan and Khelatehajih.

Ali Murat seemed rather dazzled on this last march, and was so worn out that he threw himself down upon the ground several times, regardless of spoiling his smart new coat. In a moment he became fast asleep, and it took some rousing to make him get up again. His wife had given him a bag of keshk--a kind of cheese, which looked like hardened curdled milk--and of this he partook freely to try and regain his former strength. Keshk cheese was very hard stuff to eat and took a lot of chewing. To prevent it getting too hard it had to be soaked in water every few days.

We had a nasty wind against us, but the way was flat and good; our direction, due east across the long narrow valley of sand, nowhere broader than a couple of miles. To the north were a number of low hills shaped like so many tents, white, grey, and light-red in colour, and also to the south, where there was an additional irregular and somewhat higher rocky mountain.

In the evening of November 24th we had crossed the entire Salt Desert and arrived at the large city of Birjand, after Meshed the most important city of Khorassan, the journey having occupied twenty days, which was considered a very fast crossing.

There was a beautiful new caravanserai here, with clean spacious rooms, and with a most attentive and obliging keeper in charge of it.