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Chapter 15

Sadek's wastefulness--Meeting two enterprising English
traders--Another circular crater--Wind and electricity in the
air--Their effects--A fortress--Soldiers and
tombs--Picturesque women--Lost our way--A welcome
messenger--Nasirabad--"Ruski" or "Inglis"--Several miles of
villages and houses--English maps and foreign names--Greeted by
Major Benn.

We intended continuing our journey after dinner. This camp being well screened on all sides, Sadek gave way to his ambition to have the camp lighted up by a number of candles, with which he was always most wasteful. He had two candles alight where he was doing his cooking, I had two more to do my writing by, Abbas Ali had also two to do nothing by. Luckily, there was not a breath of wind to disturb the illumination.

Towards nine o'clock we heard noises of camels' and horses' hoofs stumbling against the rocks down the gorge, and my ears caught the welcome sound of English voices.

"What can all those lights be?" said one.

"They look like candles," replied the other.

"They are candles!" I intervened. "Will you not get off your horses and have some dinner with me by the light of them?"

"Who in the world is that?" queried one of the riders of the other, evidently taken aback at being addressed in English in such a queer place and at such a time of the night.

"My name is Henry Savage Landor."

"What? not Tibet Landor? Our names are Clemenson and Marsh--but what in the world are you doing here? Have you not some companions?"

"Yes, I have. Here they are: three Persian kittens!"

As Mr. Clemenson had some big dogs with him, the moment the cats were let out of the box to be introduced there was a chase, but the kittens climbed in due haste up the side of the cliff and left the disappointed dogs below to bark. On this high point of vantage they squatted down and watched our proceedings below with the greatest interest.

It was a real delight to meet countrymen of one's own after so many weeks of loneliness. These two enterprising English traders had brought over a very large caravan from Quetta, and were on their way to Meshed, having done good business in Sistan. They had with them every possible article they could think of, from tea to phonographs, lamps, razors, music boxes, magic lanterns, bedsteads, cottons, silks, cloths, chairs, glass-ware, clocks, watches, and I do not know what else. I believe that it was the largest caravan of that kind that had ever come over to Persia from Beluchistan.

After a pleasant interview of an hour or so, and what humble refreshments I could offer, they were compelled to continue their journey to the north. The kittens, having anxiously watched the departure of Mr. Clemenson's dogs, leapt back from rock to rock and down on to my carpet, all three sitting as usual in a row in front of my plate while I was having my dinner, with their greedy eyes on the meat, and occasionally also one of their paws.

We did not make a start till 2.30 a.m., when there was moonlight, as the way was very bad among stones and boulders. For a short distance we travelled between high cliffs and boulders, then between low hills much further apart. On our left we came to a most peculiar formation of rock which seemed almost like a castle, and from this point we got into a long and wide plain, most uninteresting and swarming with a troublesome kind of small fly.

A rugged mountain to the north, being higher and more vividly coloured than the rest, attracted the eye, as one tried hard to find something to admire in the scenery; and to the south-west we saw the back view of the flat-topped plateau we had skirted the day before. To the S.S.W. lay another flat-topped high mountain like the section of a cone which we had noticed on our previous march.

We were now marching due east, and after some sixteen miles' journey from our last camp we again entered a hilly portion of country. We made a halt of three hours, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., to have our breakfast. Then we entered the hills by one of the usual dry channels formed by the water washing down with great force in rainy weather from the hillsides. After half a mile we emerged again into another plain, three miles long and about equally wide, with very broken, low rocky mountains to the east, and low sand hills to the south. To the south-east, in the direction we were following, stood a massive-looking mountain, which, however, possessed no very beautiful lines.

More interesting and quaint was the circular crater in a conical mountain to the north-east of the long dreary plain we were now traversing. The mouth of this large crater was much lower on the south-west side than on the north-east, thus exposing to the full view of the traveller the entire opening in the centre of the mountain, reddish-brown in colour.

Having gone some twelve miles more, we stopped, at four in the afternoon, in a bitterly penetrating cold wind, which seemed to have a most uncomfortable effect upon one's nervous system. Whether it was that the intense dryness caused an excess of electricity, or what, I do not know, but one ached all over in a frightful manner, and experienced the same tendon-contracting feeling as when exposed to an electric current.

One farsakh before reaching camp we had passed the camping ground of Angiloh, where a tiny drip of fresh water exists. We happily found here a quantity of wood, abandoned by the Clemenson caravan, which we put on our camels and carried further down into the plain, where, having found a depression in the ground affording some shelter from the fearful wind, we halted to wait until the moon rose.

My fever seized me violently on that night, and I experienced intense pain in my spine, my legs and arms, more especially in places where I had received wounds on previous journeys.

We left again in the middle of the night at 3 a.m., and a great effort it was, too, to get out of one's warm blankets and scramble on the camel, aching as I was all over, and with the indescribable exhaustion that fever of the desert brings on. Luckily, with the rising of the moon, the wind had somewhat abated, but the electricity in the air was as unpleasant as it was extraordinary. One was absolutely saturated with it, and discharged sparks from one's finger-tips when one touched anything that was a good conductor.

In the morning at the foot of the mountains we passed a large fortress where, they told me, twenty soldiers had been stationed the previous year in order to suppress brigandage that had been rampant here. Both Afghan and Sistan robbers seemed to be most partial to this spot, probably because it is that at which all the caravans from Birjand and Meshed converge on their way to Sistan.

We actually perceived some trees in the distance, and at last we arrived at Zemahlabad, a quadrangular fort, with two such peculiar structures at the sides that I really could not at first guess what they were. Sadek, called upon to explain, was no wiser, and we had to find a solution to our speculation from one of the local authorities. They were windmills, and most ingenious and simple they were, too, when once one had grasped the mechanism of them. Only in their case the large opening to the east and west, to let in and out the wind, had been screened with elaborate wood-work, and it was not easy to understand the principle of the device until one visited the interior. We shall come later in our journey to some quite superior ones, which I will endeavour to describe.

There were many palm trees at this place and some few patches of vegetation. A great many mat-sheds had been erected, and hundreds of cows were to be seen; the land, being marshy, provided fair pasturages. (Altitude 2,700 ft.)

To the extreme east of the long valley we had traversed the Bandan mountains, converged into an acute angle with those on the opposite side of the valley, and on the north-east side we had again the same formation of rock in horizontal strata with some contortions at its western end. A salt stream flowed here through a narrow gorge, between the picturesque, wall-like barrier to the north and the handsome hills to the south-west. A great number of palm trees gave quite a tropical appearance to this gorge, although the whitish sand mixed with salt impressed one like dirty snow, and the sky was also whitish and promising real snow. It was none too hot--thermometer 34°.

Just before reaching Bandan--also called Darban by some natives (2,870 ft.)--we noticed on the precipitous slopes of the mountain to the south-west several buildings in ruins, said to be ancient tombs. They were domed. At the foot of the mountain were the remains of a village.

Bandan consisted of a quadrangular walled village with five high towers and two more partly collapsed. The lower part of the village wall--a regular fortress--was of stone and mud, the upper portion of sun-dried mud bricks. It appeared to have been built at different epochs, the south-west half especially seeming more modern than the north-east portion. Holes about three feet above the ground in the wall served the purpose of windows to the houses adjoining the wall inside the castle, and a stone of suitable size shoved into the aperture was the shutter.

The village wall had two entrances on the south-east side, where outside the wall could be seen fifteen small domed ovens, of the usual Persian type, for baking bread, the paste of which is plastered on the inside of the dome when sufficiently heated.

The highest tower was on the south-west side, and all of these structures had a foundation of stone, but the remainder was of mud.

We saw here a string of picturesque women. They were carrying loads of wood and heavy bags of wheat on their heads. On perceiving me unexpectedly they tried to run away, and did so, but not before I had got the good snapshot of them here reproduced. It can be seen by this photograph what long steps these women took, and how those that carried heavier loads swung their arms about to diminish the effort and balance themselves. They walked with a good deal of spring in their knees.

These women had much stronger features than the Persian generally have, and resembled--in fact, were practically--Afghan women. One or two only had the Hindoo type, with large, soft, drooping eyes, large hook noses, and over-developed lips, with small receding chins. The younger ones were strikingly handsome.

On our last march we had come from north to south, but now, after a short halt, we went on towards the south-east on what we thought would be our last two marches before reaching Sher-i-Nasrya, the capital city of Sistan, only some sixty miles off. Soon after leaving Bandan we found ourselves in an open plain with gradually vanishing mountains to the south-west. To the north-east the wall-like barrier, about one mile from Bandan, suddenly ceased in a gentle slope. East and E.S.E., now that the plain became of immense breadth, one could see two isolated low hill ranges, barring which, in the arc of a circle between north-east and south, we had nothing before us except a flat, dreary stretch of sand and stones meeting the sky on the horizon line.

On getting nearer the Hamun-i-Halmund (swamp), formed by the Halmund river and others losing themselves into the sand and flooding part of that region, the whole country was covered with high reeds and small water channels, which constantly made us deviate from our course. In the middle of the night we got so mixed up that we were unable to go on. It is most dangerous to make camels get into water channels, especially if muddy, without being certain of their depth. The brutes, if sinking, are seized with panic and collapse, or, in trying to get out quickly, often slip sideways and get split in two, which necessitates their being killed.

In the morning we passed two Cossacks from the Sistan Consulate escort, who, having been relieved, were now on their way back to Russia. They gave us a hearty greeting, and shortly after a messenger from the British Consul in Sistan handed me a letter, a most kind invitation from Major Benn to go and stay with him at the Consulate.

Towards noon we reached Nasirabad (altitude 2,050 ft.), a very old village founded by one Malik Nasir Khan Kayani--the Kayani, as is well known, being the former rulers of Sistan, and every big Kayani being called "Malik." We stopped for a couple of hours for lunch, the principal house in the village being vacated by the courteous inmates for my use. The arrival of a ferenghi excited considerable attention, and numerous and anxious inquiries were made whether I was a "Ruski" or "Inglis." On learning that I was "Inglis," they expressed their unsolicited conviction that all Inglis were good people and Ruski all bad, and no doubt if I had been a Ruski the reverse conviction would have been expressed with similar eagerness.

The natives were polite, but extremely noisy, shouting and yelling at the top of their voices when they spoke. The men wore large white turbans over their white skull caps, long blue shirts, opened and buttoned on the left side, reaching to below their knees, and the enormous Afghan trousers.

From Nasirabad we came across a long uninterrupted row of ruined villages and towns, stretching in a line for some eight miles from north to south. The most northern one had the appearance of a fortress with a very high wall, still in fair preservation, and several more of these fortresses were to be seen along the line of houses, the majority of dwellings being outside these forts. The domed houses--some of which were in perfect preservation--showed the identical architecture and characteristics of Persian houses of to-day.

We were benighted again. Curiously enough, even within a mile or so from Sher-i-Nasrya, on asking some natives where the city of Nasirabad or Nasratabad, as it is marked in capital letters on English maps (even those of the Indian Trigonometrical Survey), nobody could tell me, and everybody protested that no such city existed. (The real name of it, Sher-i-Nasrya, of course, I only learnt later.)

This was puzzling, but not astonishing, for there is a deal of fancy nomenclature on English maps.

Eventually, when I had almost despaired of reaching the place that night, although I could not have been more than a stone-throw from it, I appealed to another passer-by, riding briskly on a donkey.

"How far are we from Nasratabad?"

"Never heard the name."

"Is there a town here called Nasirabad?"

"No, there is no such town--but you must have come through a small village by that name, two farsakhs off."

"Yes, I have. Do you happen to know where the English Consulate is?"

"Oh, yes, everybody knows the English Consulate. I will take you there. It is only a short distance from here, near the city of Sher-i-Nasrya!"

Thanks to this fellow, a few minutes later I found myself greeted most effusively by Major and Mrs. Benn in their charming mud Consulate. This was on the evening of December 6th.