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Chapter 35

Captain Webb-Ware, C.I.E.--The Nushki route--An excellent
track--Bungalows built and in course of construction--The
water--Postal service--Important Government concession--The
Nushki route and the railways--Hints to traders--Quaint official
formalities--Pilgrims and their ways--An amusing incident.

We arrived very early at Dalbandin, the march from Chakal being very short (18 miles, 190 yards) and easy. Here I had the pleasure of meeting Captain F. C. Webb-Ware, C.I.E., Political Assistant at Chagai, and officer in charge of the Nushki-Robat road. Not only has this officer devoted all his time and energy to making the road, but, being a man of means, he has personally gone to considerable expense to "push" the road and make it a success. It would not have been easy to find a more practical and sensible man to do the work, and, considering the difficulties he had to encounter, it is marvellous with what little expenditure he has obtained such excellent results.

It is all very well for the usual newspaper critic--who generally does not know what he is writing about--to complain of this and complain of that, and declare that something should have been done in exactly the contrary way to the way in which it is done. In regard to this road, any one with any common sense must see that all that could have been done has been, or is being, done--and done well.

The road itself--for a desert road--is excellent in every way as far as the frontier, and some sort of shelter is to be found at every stage. Of course the road has only just been opened and all the arrangements for the accommodation of travellers are not quite completed, but large comfortable bungalows had already been erected--as we have seen--at Robat, Mirui, and Dalbandin, while smaller buildings of the same type will shortly be completed at Mall, Kuchaki Chah, Yadgar Chah, Sotag, and Chah Sandan. In addition to these, the erection of bungalows has been taken in hand at Chakal, Tretoh, Mushki-Chah, Saindak, Kirtaka, and Mahommed Raza Chah, and it was anticipated that all these rest houses would be finished before the close of 1902.

Owing to the great increase in the traffic upon the route, the accommodation at Mall, Yadgar Chah, and Karodak, has been nearly doubled, and two rooms added to the already extensive thana at Dalbandin, while the Tretoh, Mushki-Chah, and Mukak posts have been much enlarged and strengthened.

On the Persian territory the Vice-Consul in Sistan has erected small shelters, which, although necessarily not quite so luxurious as those under the direct control of the British authorities, are yet quite good enough for any one to spend a a night in. We have thus a complete belt of rest-houses extending from Quetta to Sher-i-Nasrya in Sistan.

Every effort has been made to improve the water supply upon the road, and new wells are constantly being sunk. True, the water, all along the route, is not of the best, but one does not generally expect to find delicious sweet spring water in a desert. One thing is, nevertheless, certain, that the best has been made of given circumstances. Barring the most trying section of the route (in Beluchistan territory) between Mukak and Mushki-Chah, where the water is really foul, the majority of wells may be more or less brackish, but, as I have said before, not necessarily unwholesome. In fact, I have a firm belief that brackish water is the water one should drink in the desert to keep healthy, and is the remedy provided by nature for the purpose of balancing other ill-effects produced by travelling over hot, sandy, dry, barren land. Brackish water, however, should not be confounded nor classified with dirty water.

There are post offices at the principal stations, such as Robat, Saindak, Mirui, Dalbandin and Nushki, and a bi-weekly service links Robat with Quetta, the time taken to convey letters being now reduced to 100 hours. A Consular postal service in connection with this continues from Robat, via Sher-i-Nasrya, Birjand to Meshed. There is a parcel-post service, on the very convenient "Value payable parcel system," as far as Robat and Sistan; but from England the Post Office will not take the responsibility of insured parcels beyond Robat.

The Government has granted a most important concession--of great value to traders--by which money can be remitted to or received from either Sher-i-Nasrya (Sistan) or Birjand, through the Consular Treasury, under the charge of the Vice-Consul for Sistan.

Messrs. McIver, Mackenzie, & Co., of Karachi, and Mr. Duncan MacBean, of the Punjab Bank, Quetta, are prepared to act as forwarding agents for Indian and Persian firms, and the Quetta Branch of the Punjab Bank is further in business communication with the Imperial Bank of Persia, which, as we have seen, has agencies in the principal cities of West Persia and also in Meshed.

Another concession, most important to the stimulation of trade by this overland route, has been granted by the North Western Railway in regard to goods despatched from Karachi to Quetta for export to Persia by the Nushki-Robat route. From the 1st of April, 1901, a rebate, equal to one-third of the freight paid, was given on all goods, such as tea, spices, piece-goods, iron, kerosene oil, sugar, brass and copper, etc., booked and carried from Karachi to Quetta for export to Persia by the Sistan route. The usual charges are to be paid on forwarding the goods, but on producing a certificate from the Agency Office at Quetta that the goods have actually been despatched to Persia, via Sistan, the amount of the rebate is refunded.

From the 1st of May, 1901, another concession came into effect, allowing a similar rebate of one-third of the actual freight paid on all goods received at Quetta from Persia by the Sistan route (a certificate from the Agency Office at Quetta being required to prove the fact), and despatched thence to Karachi or Kiamari, or to North-western Railway stations in the Punjab and North-west Province, or to stations on connected lines.

Merchants despatching goods to Persia by the Nushki-route should be careful to have each of the original invoices of their goods attested by some qualified officer at the place from which the goods are despatched. By doing this they will find that their goods will be passed through the Persian Customs at the frontier with no trouble and no delay. The invoices should be clearly written in the English or French languages.

The number of travellers along the Nushki-Sistan route is gradually increasing, several officers returning to England travelling by it; but I was assured that I was the first European who had travelled on that route in the opposite direction, viz, from England to Quetta.

Only British subjects and Persians, it is stated, are allowed to travel on this route, and some quaint instances of inconceivable official formality on the part of the Government of India are cited. For instance, a German was allowed to travel by the route from Quetta to Sistan, but another German who wished at the same time to travel from Sistan to Quetta was arrested at the frontier, detained some two months in Sistan, and permission refused.

I myself had quite an amusing experience at a certain station with a travelling police officer, who was not aware of my coming, and seemed in a great state of mind, fearing that I should prove to be a Russian spy!

The only thing to be regretted along this route, and one which I think will be a perpetual cause of friction and annoyance with the Persians and Russians--as I am sure it would be to us were we in their case--is that we should allow pilgrims to use this trade route in order to visit the sacred shrine of Imam Raza in Meshed. The number is so fast increasing that it is proposed, I believe, to provide special accommodation for pilgrims at every stage between Quetta and Robat.

Now, there are pilgrims and pilgrims. Some are no doubt well-to-do people and deserve to be looked after; but the greater number are decrepit, sickly fanatics, burdened with all sorts of ailments, whose wish it is to go and die and be buried in the vicinity of the sacred shrine. Furthermore, not only do the living ones go and breathe their last in Meshed (or more frequently upon the road), but among their personal luggage they try to bring over corpses of relations for interment in the holy burial place. The passage of corpses to Persia through Beluchistan is not permitted by the local government, but occasional attempts are made to smuggle them through, and it is not a very easy matter to detect them, not even by the smell of the corpses, which can be no worse than that of the living pilgrims. Even at best these parties of pilgrims are a miserable, half-decomposed lot, with bundles of filthy rags. When anybody dies on the road, attempts--generally successful--are invariably made to bring the bodies along.

That we have had, and still have, the plague in India is a matter we cannot very well hide; that the passage across the Beluchistan and Persian deserts should be a sufficient disinfectant as far as individuals go is also theoretically probable; but I am not certain that the theory would apply to the filthy rags and bedding. I would not speak so feelingly had I not seen these pilgrims myself.

Now, if we choose to allow these creatures to bring infection into other countries--and it must be remembered that if they do go to the shrine it is generally because they are infected with some complaint or other, or actually for the purpose of dying there--we ought not to grumble if the Russians, who see their thickly populated territories of Transcaspia threatened, enforce upon the Persian officials the necessity of hampering the progress of such parties towards Meshed. Nor can we blame them if, when the Persian authorities are unable to enforce stringent measures, they take matters into their own hands, whether in a strictly legal way or otherwise, in order to prevent these sickly hordes from coming towards their frontier.

I am sure that if the sacred shrine were in British territory, and ailing Russian pilgrims came over bringing bundles of badly-packed dead relations with them, the outcry in this country would be general, and we should soon put a stop to it.

As it is, the provocation to hinder them is very great, while the benefit that we reap by letting these wretches through is rather difficult to detect; they are an expense to the Government rather than otherwise, not to speak of the endless bother and annoyance they give our various officials on the road, for indeed, religious people, whether Mussulman or Christian or Buddhist, can make themselves a nuisance for religion's sake. Moreover, our caravans, following directly after these funereal parties, have occasionally fared badly at the hands of the alarmed natives.

In Sistan, Major Benn was telling me an amusing incident: one or two members of one of these fanatical parties died at the Consulate; the local Persian doctor pronounced it--or them--cases of plague, and the natives were scared to death for fear that the infection should spread; and one day when Major and Mrs. Benn were peacefully riding along the city wall, a number of people with rifles collected upon the ramparts and fired a volley with actual bullets over their heads. It was explained afterwards that the intention was not to cause the riders any harm but merely to drive away the "spirits of infection" which hung over the Consul, who had been with the pilgrims.

There seems to be a belief that the intense cold of the winter, the terrific heat of the summer, and the torrential rains of the autumn, make the Nushki route impracticable during the greater part of the year, but nothing could be further from the truth. One can travel on this route comfortably at almost any time of the year, except during the heavy rains, when the desert becomes a swamp and makes it impossible for camels to go on. In summer, of course, one has to travel at night, and in winter it is pleasanter travelling during the day.