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Chapter 30

An excursion into Afghanistan--The salt deposits of
God-i-Zirreh--Sand hills--Curious formation of hill
range--Barchans and how they are formed--Alexander's march
through the country--The water of Godar-i-Chah--Afghans and their

The excursion which I made into Afghan territory to the salt deposit of Gaud- or God-i-Zirreh, and a lower depression to the east of it, was of great interest to me.

There are a great many theories regarding these former salt lakes, and it is not easy to say which is right and which is wrong. The general belief is that these lakes were formed by the overflow of the Halmund swamp into the Shela (river) which carried sufficient water not only to fill up the God-i-Zirreh, but to overflow when this was full into the next depression east of the Zirreh.

There is no doubt that to a great extent this was the case, but these lakes were, I think, also fed more directly by several small streams descending from the mountains to the south and west of the Zirreh, which form the watershed--and very probably also from the north by the Halmund River itself. Both lakes were dry and seemed to have been so for some time. The God-i-Zirreh, forming now a great expanse of solid salt some 26 miles long by 5 or 6 wide, extends in a long oval from west to east. The other lake was somewhat smaller.

To the south of these salt deposits in the zones between them and the present Afghan boundary, and forming the southern fringe of the Afghan desert, the soil is covered with gravel and stones washed down from the mountain sides. Very stony indeed is the desert towards the Malek-Siah end, then further north-east appear brown earth, shale, and sand. To the north of the lakes was a long line of bright yellow sand extending from west to east and broad enough towards the north to reach the bank of the river Halmund. Another shiny patch, which at first, from a distance, I had mistaken for another smaller lake, turned out on examination to be a stretch of polished shale which shone in the sun, and appeared like bluish water.

Stunted tamarisk grows in some parts but not in the immediate neighbourhood of the salt deposits. We have here instead a belt of myriads of small conical sand-hills, also spreading from west to east, quite low to the west and getting higher for several miles towards the east. In the south-west part of the desert, curiously enough, between the zone of conical hills and the salt deposits, and parallel to both, lies a row of semi-spherical sand and salt mounds of a whitish colour.

To the east-south-east of the lakes the sand-hills rise to a great height and eventually form a high ridge, which for some reason or other is cut perpendicularly on its western side, possibly as the result of a volcanic commotion. Of similar origin probably was the gigantic crack caused by an earthquake which we shall examine later on near Nushki. In fact, both the crack at Nushki and the collapse of the west side of this hill range, as well as a great portion of that deep crack in the earth's crest in which the Shela flows, have very likely been formed by the same cause. They are within the same zone of volcanic formation. In the particular case of this hill range in Afghanistan the collapse did not appear to me to be due to the action of water, but to a sudden crumbling which had caused a very sharp vertical cut.

To the north of the salt wastes was another long belt of yellow sand extending for some 40 miles, upon which there was absolutely no vegetation, while intervening between the salt and this sand flat were numerous sand barchans, like horseshoes, with a gradual slope on the windward side (north) and a crescent hollow with a steep but not quite vertical bank on the lee side.

I noticed all over Persia, and in Beluchistan as well as here, that these sand barchans, or barchanes, will only form on level ground--generally on extensive plains. All single sand hills, however, whether barchans, conical, semi-spherical, or of more irregular shapes, are invariably caused by a primary obstacle, however small, arresting the sand. Various are the theories with regard to the formation of these barchans, and especially with regard to the formation of the hollow on the lee side.

The explanation from my own observation has--if no other--at least the merit of simplicity. The wind, on meeting the semi-circular back of the barchan, is diverted on the two sides of it; these two currents come into violent collision again on the lee-side, where, the air being more or less still, a considerable portion of the wind is forcibly driven back towards the barchan, corroding its side in a double rotatory way, each such circle having for a diameter the radius of the barchan crescent containing them. In fact in many barchans the sand ripples on the windward slopes cross the direction of the wind at right angles. A line of sand formed in the centre of the barchan crescent in the opposite direction to the wind is often to be seen during wind storms or soon after. I have also seen barchans, the inner crescent of which showed beyond doubt that when there is a prevalent wind from one side only, the above explanation, although less scientifically obscure and elaborate than most, applies, and, I think, it may eventually be found quite the most probable.

The diagram here given will illustrate and, I hope, make quite clear the meaning of my words. In the centre of the crescent can be noticed the action of the parting wind currents.

North of Kirtaka was a very pointed high conical hill, and not far from it a small replica of Fujisan in Japan, so much were the lines like those of the Japanese mountain. A great many of the drain channels from the mountains to the south extended very far into the desert and some as far as the God-i-Zirreh.

It is also very probable that in the days when Sistan was a most populous region, with uninterrupted towns and villages along and near the Halmund, numerous canals may have intersected the Zirreh region and rendered it a very fertile plain. History would indeed point forcibly towards such a hypothesis. Ample proof that the plain was inhabited still remains in the ruins of Godar-i-Chah, situated at the western limit of the Zirreh salt deposits, Chah-i-Mardan, where a ruined fort and a Ziarat are said to exist, Gumbaz-i-Chah, and others. All these places are now deserted and are being fast buried by the sand. They are mostly along the Shela (river) banks, and the natives of Sistan say that they have heard from their ancestors that when the Shela did flow freely its water was quite drinkable.

There was a well at Godar-i-Chah--hence its name, "the well of Godar"--almost entirely dried up and of water so foul that it was not possible to drink it, and another just as bad was said to exist at Gumbaz.

It would be most interesting if one could get at the actual history of this part of the world and gain an insight into its former prosperity and civilisation. It is quite probable that Alexander, in his progress through Beluchistan and Sistan, must have come through this country. No army--not even with a new Craterus at its head--could, of course, march elephants, camels and horses through that country to-day, and this has led some critics to doubt that Alexander could have done so, or to believe that, if he did so, he must have been deceived by his guides who tried to bring him as far as possible from water. But those critics forget that in Alexander's days this portion of country was extremely civilised, fertile, and supplied with plenty of water--or else how can we account for the innumerable ruins we find there, and for the many canals for irrigation?

Sir Charles McGregor, Goldsmid, Bellew, Major MacMahon, Napier, and one or two others who have visited the country north of the Zirreh, can fully testify to the amazing remains of former prosperity in Sistan and south-west Afghanistan.

Sir Charles McGregor gives an amusing receipt for those who wish to know what the water at Godar-i-Chah is like without having the trouble of going there. "Take the first nasty-looking water you can find. Mix salt with it until it tastes as nasty as it looks, then impregnate it with gas from a London street lamp, and add a little bilge-water, shake vigorously and it is ready for use." Major McMahon also testifies to the accuracy of the above receipt, but, he adds, "it was not nearly so bad as much we found elsewhere."

The Zirreh seemed just like a great stretch of country under snow, the thick salt sediment was so beautifully white. It formed a deep depression in the centre. The second deposits to the east of the Zirreh were of a similar shape, with salt extremely thick, but not quite so extensive as in the Zirreh. Near the edge of both dry lakes there was absolutely no vegetation, but most beautifully coloured stones could be found, such as red and brown jasper and agatescent quartz, chalcedony, white and brown limestone.

As I was returning towards the Beluchistan boundary among the sand hills I came upon about a dozen Afghans, who looked as suspiciously at me as I did at them. At first I thought they were soldiers, and as I did not much care to be caught by them and have my goods confiscated--no Englishmen being allowed in their territory--I requested them to stop some way off and explain what they wanted, while I was snapshotting them. They had a great big white fluffy dog with them who seemed very anxious to have a go at the Sahib. One man was asked to come forward alone, which he did with his turban right over his eyes, while the others formed a line behind and appeared most puzzled as to what was going to happen. He said they were glad to see me in their country and that they were "good people," and would not injure nor trouble me in any way; so I gave them a small present, which seemed to please them much, and they became quite friendly. They seemed to have some coarse humour about them and were rather boisterous. Their faces, however, did not quite appeal to me.

The Afghan invariably has a slippery, treacherous look about his countenance which he cannot disguise, and which, personally, I do not much admire. He seldom looks at one straight in the face, can be very sullen when he is not boisterous, and I should think would easily seek cause of offence and pick a quarrel with any one weaker than himself in order to have a fight. These fellows were, for instance, most unlike the gentlemanly Beluch. They shouted at the top of their voices when they spoke, and were uncouth in speech and manner. I was rather glad when they departed.

Further on I came upon more people and animals, but they, too, were quite peaceful.

Having accomplished my object I again crossed over into Beluchistan.