CHAPTER XVII. THROUGH ERZINGAN AND ERZEROUM.
For mile after mile, on the following morning, my route leads through broad areas strewn with bowlders and masses of rock that appear to have been brought down from the adjacent mountains by the annual spring floods, caused by the melting winter's snows; scattering wheat-fields are observed here and there on the higher patches of ground, which look like small yellow oases amid the desert-like area of loose rocks surrounding them. Squads of diminutive donkeys are seen picking their weary way through the bowlders, toiling from the isolated fields to the village threshing-floors beneath small mountains of wheat-sheaves. Sometimes the donkeys themselves are invisible below the general level of the bowlders, and nothing is to be seen but the head and shoulders of a man, persuading before him several animated heaps of straw. Small lakes of accumulated surface-water are passed in depressions having no outlet; thickets and bulrushes are growing around the edges, and the surfaces of some are fairly black with multitudes of wild-ducks. Soon I reach an Armenian village; after satisfying the popular curiosity by riding around their threshing-floor, they bring me some excellent wheat-bread, thick, oval cakes that are quite acceptable, compared with the wafer-like sheets of the past several days, and five boiled eggs. The people providing these will not accept any direct payment, no doubt thinking my having provided them with the only real entertainment most of them ever saw, a fair equivalent for their breakfast; but it seems too much like robbing paupers to accept anything from these people without returning something, so I give money to the children. These villagers seem utterly destitute of manners, standing around and watching my efforts to eat soft-boiled eggs with a pocket-knife with undisguised merriment. I inquire for a spoon, but they evidently prefer to extract amusement from watching my interesting attempts with the pocket-knife. One of them finally fetches a clumsy wooden ladle, three times broader than an egg, which, of course is worse than nothing. I now traverse a mountainous country with a remarkably clear atmosphere. The mountains are of a light creamcolored shaly composition; wherever a living stream of water is found, there also is a village, with clusters of trees. From points where a comprehensive view is obtainable the effect of these dark-green spots, scattered here and there among the whitish hills, seen through the clear, rarefied atmosphere, is most beautiful. It seems a peculiar feature of everything in the East - not only the cities themselves, but even of the landscape - to look beautiful and enchanting at a distance; but upon a closer approach all its beauty vanishes like an illusory dream. Spots that from a distance look, amid their barren, sun-blistered surroundings, like lovely bits of fairyland, upon closer investigation degenerate into wretched habitations of a ragged, poverty-stricken people, having about them a few neglected orchards and vineyards, and a couple of dozen straggling willows and jujubes.
For many hours again to-day I am traversing mountains, mountains, nothing but mountains; following tortuous camel-paths far up their giant slopes. Sometimes these camel-paths are splendidly smooth, and make most excellent riding. At one place, particularly, where they wind horizontally around the mountain-side, hundreds of feet above a village immediately below, it is as though the villagers were in the pit of a vast amphitheatre, and myself were wheeling around a semicircular platform, five hundred feet above them, but in plain view of them all. I can hear the wonder-struck villagers calling each other's attention to the strange apparition, and can observe them swarming upon the house-tops. What wonderful stories the inhabitants of this particular village will have to recount to their neighbors, of this marvellous sight, concerning which their own unaided minds can give no explanation!
Noontide comes and goes without bringing me any dinner, when I emerge upon a small, cultivated plateau, and descry a coterie of industrious females reaping together in a field near by, and straightway turn my footsteps thitherward with a view of ascertaining whether they happen to have any eatables. No sooner do they observe me trundling toward them than they ingloriously flee the field, thoughtlessly leaving bag and baggage to the tender mercies of a ruthless invader. Among their effects I find some bread and a cucumber, which I forthwith confiscate, leaving a two and a half piastre metallique piece in its stead; the affrighted women are watching me from the safe distance of three hundred yards; when they return and discover the coin they will wish some 'cycler would happen along and frighten them away on similar conditions every day. Later in the afternoon I find myself wandering along the wrong trail; not a very unnatural occurrence hereabout, for since leaving the valley of the Gevmeili Chai, it has been difficult to distinguish the Erzingan trail from the numerous other trails intersecting the country in every direction. On such a journey as this one seems to acquire a certain amount of instinct concerning roads; certain it is, that I never traverse a wrong trail any distance these days ere, without any tangible evidence whatever, I feel instinctively that I am going astray. A party of camel- drivers direct me toward the lost Erzingan trail, and in an hour I am following a tributary of the ancient Lycus River, along a valley where everything looks marvellously green and refreshing; it is as though I have been suddenly transferred into an entirely different country.