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Chapter 13

Departure from Birjand--A cloud like a skeleton hand--A
downpour--The village of Muht--A ruined fortress--A beautiful
sunset--A pass--Besieged by native callers--Two towers at
Golandeh--Strayed--Curious pits--Sahlabad--The impression of a
foreign bed--Fujiama's twin.

A large and most respectful crowd collected in and out of the caravanserai to watch the departure of my caravan at five o'clock in the evening on November 27th. We were soon out of Birjand and, steering a south-easterly course, passed one or two large mud enclosures with a few fruit-trees, but otherwise there was hardly any vegetation visible anywhere--even in the immediate neighbourhood of Birjand. Everything was as barren as barren could be.

Overhead the sky after sunset was most peculiarly marked by a weird, black, skeleton-like hand of perfect but gigantic proportions, spreading its long bony fingers over us. As night came on, it grew very cold and the skeleton hand of mist compressed itself into a nasty black cloud. A few minutes later a regular downpour drenched us to the skin and the camels experienced great difficulty in walking on the slippery mud.

This was the first rain we had seen, or rather felt, since leaving Teheran. Our long-unused macintoshes had been applied to such usages as wrapping up cases of photographic plates and enveloping notebooks, so that we could not very well get at them, now that we needed them, without taking all the loads down. So we went on until our clothes were perfectly saturated, when at least we had the satisfaction of knowing that we could not get wetter than we were.

The rain came down in bucketfuls for over an hour, then luckily stopped, and in a few moments, with a howling wind rising, the sky was clear again and the myriads of stars shone bright like so many diamonds. The cutting wind and our wet clothes made this march rather a chilly one, although one felt some relief at the sensation of moisture after so many months of intense dryness.

There was nothing whatever to see on any side, and I have never thanked my stars so much as when, after marching thirteen hours, we reached the village of Muht, a place of fair size in a picturesque little valley with nice hills on all sides.

To the north-east of the village was an interesting demolished fortress standing on a low hill. It had a very deep well in the centre within its walls, which were of stone, with twelve turrets round it. At the foot of the hill was a haoz, or water tank, now dry, which the natives said was very ancient and which they attributed to the Hindoos. To the west a lake was said to exist called Kiemarakalah, by the side of a mountain not unlike a Swiss roof in shape; while to the north-east of the fortress were rugged rocks and low sand-hills. The elevation of this village was 6,520 feet.

We left Muht at noon of the same day and passed a small village on our way, then we gradually ascended to a pass 7,050 feet high, on the other side of which was a plain--green not from vegetation, but because the clayish soil was of that colour--with hills to the east and west.

It was hardly possible to imagine more dreary, desolate scenery than that through which we were going. There was not a living soul beyond ourselves anywhere in sight. The camels, which had caught cold in the shower of the previous night, had to be given a rest, and we halted again after a five hours' march. The cold was intense. Whether owing to the moisture in the atmosphere, or to some other cause, we had on the evening of the 28th a really beautiful sunset. The sky was dazzling with brilliant gold and vermilion tints.

At midnight we were again under way, first across flat, then over undulating country, after which we got among the mountains and between precipitous gorges. This was quite a welcome change, but not for the camels, the way being somewhat rough and stony.

We had some little difficulty in going up the steep pass, 7,200 feet, the camels panting terribly. We suffered from the cold and the heavy dew which positively drenched men, camels, and baggage. It was quite as bad as having been out in the rain, we were so soaked. I, unfortunately, became ill again, fever attacking me afresh more fiercely than ever; Sadek, too, and Abbas Ali, the camel man, were also taken very sick.

On the other side of the pass we went through a steep, narrow, and most fantastically picturesque defile of rocks, and eventually passed the little hamlet of Golandeh which boasts of no less than half-a-dozen mud huts and as many fruit trees.

We had descended to precisely the altitude of Muht, or 6,520 feet. From this village the Sistan track descends for a few hundred yards and then proceeds in a south by south-east direction over a flat stretch with some hills. A very high mountain could be seen to the south by south-west and another quite pointed to the south by south-east (at 170° b.m.). To the east-south-east some twenty miles from Muht, was another tiny hamlet built against the foot of the mountain along which we had come. A large plain opened before us to the south-west.

At Golandeh we were besieged by natives applying for medicine, as there seemed to be hardly a soul in the place who was not affected by some complaint or other. Affections of the eyes were most common. Those who wanted no medicine begged for money or lumps of sugar,--which latter there is apparently some difficulty in obtaining here and for which they seemed to have a perfect craving. Men, women, and children implored to be given some.

There were two towers at Golandeh, the lower one quadrangular in shape and two-storied. The upper floor had recesses in all the rooms for storing grain and provisions.

We left camp at 5.45 p.m. and all went well until about ten o'clock, when Sadek took it into his head that we were travelling in the wrong direction and proceeded to put us right, I being fast asleep on my camel. The camel man, having never been on this route, did not know the way and depended a great deal on the bearings I gave him daily by my compass. When I awoke we had got sadly mixed up among big boulders and sharp broken-up rocks, from which the camels had the greatest difficulty in extricating themselves, and we wasted a good deal of time in helping the animals to get on to better ground as they continually stumbled and fell among the loose stones. The loads got undone several times and we were all three so ill that we had not the strength to tie them up again properly on the saddles.

In the course of time I put the party on the right track again, and for more than one hour we went up and down steep but not high passes, through defiles, and across a small stream. We were following the dry river-bed among rocks in a gorge, and we arrived at a spot where there was a rock barrier several feet high beneath us, which made it impossible for camels to get down; so Abbas Ali was despatched to try and find an easier way while Sadek and I were left to freeze in a cutting south-west wind.

The camel man returned and led the camels back a long distance until we came to a faint track along a streamlet, which we tried to follow, but it went along such precipitous places that we had to abandon it for fear the camels, who could not get a proper foot-hold, might come to grief. In Birjand I had only succeeded in obtaining just sufficient animals to carry my loads, Sadek, and myself, and so was not very anxious to run the risk of losing any and becoming stranded in such an inhospitable place.

We eventually contrived to take the camels down to the flat without any serious mishaps, and wandered and wandered about and went over another pass--my compass being all we had to go by.

Sadek, whose high fever had affected his vision, now swore that we were going back towards Birjand instead of going on, and said he was certain my compass was wrong; but I paid no heed to his remarks, and by carefully steering our course with the compass--which involved a reckless waste of matches owing to the high wind--I eventually got the party into the open, upon a wide plain of sand and gravel. Here, having shown Abbas Ali the right bearings to follow, I got upon my camel, again wrapped myself well in my blankets and went fast asleep.

So unfortunately did Abbas Ali, who was tired out after his exertions among the rocks, and at 3 a.m. I woke up to find the camels going as and where they pleased, and the camel man, buried under his thick felt coat, snoring so soundly upon his camel that it took a good deal of shouting to wake him up. I had no idea where we had drifted while I had been asleep, and the night being an unusually dark one we could not well see what was ahead of us, so we decided to halt until sunrise.

When it grew light in the morning I was much interested in some curious circular and quadrangular pits only a few yards from where we had stopped, which were used as shelters for men and sheep but were now deserted. These pits were from four to six feet deep below the level of the ground, and from ten to thirty feet in diameter (when circular), a section being partitioned for sheep by a fence of thick but soft cane that grows in the neighbourhood of water. In the part reserved for human beings there was a circular fireplace of stones, and some holes in the earth at the sides for storing foodstuff. The lower portion of the inside wall all round the pit was of beaten earth up to a height of two feet, above which a wall of stones carefully fitted one upon the other was constructed from two to four feet high, up to the level of the earth. Here a projecting screen of cane was erected all round at an angle converging towards the centre of the pit, for the double purpose of preventing the sheep escaping, and of sheltering the inmates during the fearful sand and windstorms that sweep with great force along the earth's surface. The entrance was cut on one side with an incline to afford easy access to the pit.

At this particular place there were altogether some fifteen of these pits, and in one of them we lighted a big fire with some shrubs we collected, and rested for some three hours to give Sadek time to cook my breakfast.

The difference in the temperature between the interior of these pits and the open ground was extraordinary. They were comfortably warm, even when it was unpleasantly cold as one peeped out of them.

While Sadek was busy with his culinary work, and the camel man chewed dried pieces of bread and keshk cheese, I proceeded to find our right way. It lay about one mile to the east of the pits.

On resuming our march, five farsakhs (twenty miles) from Golandeh, we reached Sahlabad, an unimportant village. South there was to be seen an extensive white salt deposit, which at first had all the appearance of a large lake, and a stream of salt water flowed across the large valley and through the village from north-east to south-west.

To the east there was a long range of multi-coloured mountains, all with high sand accumulations at their base; greys in several beautiful tones, were prevalent, and there were stretches of black, brown, burnt sienna, and a pale cadmium yellow. To the north-west, whence we had come, low hills were visible, and to the south-west fairly high ones.

Sahlabad was a depressing place. The natives were in abject poverty and their habitations dismal, to say the least. The huts were partly underground, and the top aperture of the domed roof was screened by a hood with an opening to the north-east. No firewood was obtainable at this place, and the only water the natives had to drink was the salt water from the stream. At Sahlabad we had descended to an elevation of 5,050 ft., which made a considerable change in the temperature.

We encountered here a large caravan in charge of Beluch drivers, and among other curious articles one of the camels carried a beautiful new enamelled iron bedstead. The reader may suppose that, after several months of sleeping on the ground, I wished it had been mine,--but I did not. On the contrary, I was particularly struck on that occasion by what an elaborate, clumsy, useless thing it seemed, although, as bedsteads go, it was one of the best!

To the south stood a high mountain, very closely resembling in shape the world-renowned Fujiama of Japan, only this one had a somewhat wider angle. Beyond the white expanse of salt to the south-east there was low, flattish country, but to the west, north-west and south-west, rose fairly high hills. The valley itself in which we were was some two and a half miles broad, and covered with grey sand.

In the centre of the village in the neighbourhood of which we camped was a tumbled-down circular tower, and an octangular tower in two tiers, also partly ruined. The latter stood at the corner of an enclosure which at one time must have been the beginning of the village wall.