CHAPTER II. PERSIA AND THE MESHED PILGRIM ROAD
It rains quite heavily during the night, but clears off again in the early morning, and at eight o'clock I take my departure, Mirza Hassan refusing to allow his son and heir to accept a present in acknowledgment of the hospitality received at his hands. The whole male population of the village is assembled again at the spot where their experience of yesterday has taught them I should probably mount; and the house-tops overlooking the same spot, and commanding a view of the road across the plain to the eastward, are crowded with women and children. The female portion of my farewell audience present quite a picturesque appearance, being arrayed in their holiday garments of red, blue, and other bright colors, in honor of Friday, the Mohammedan Sabbath.
Pour miles of most excellent camel-path lead across a gravelly plain, affording a smooth, firm, wheeling surface, notwithstanding the heavy rains of the previous night; but beyond the plain the road leads over the pass of the Sardara Kooh, one of the many spurs of the Elburz range that reach out toward the south. This spur consists of saline hills that present a very remarkable appearance in places; the rocks are curiously honey-combed by the action of the salt, and the yellowish earthy portion of the hills are fantastically streaked and seamed with white. A trundle of a couple of miles brings me to the summit, from which point I am able to mount, and, with brake firmly in hand, glide smoothly down the eastern slope. After descending about a mile, I am met by a party of travellers who give me friendly warning of deep water a little farther down the mountain. After leaving them, my road follows down the winding bed of a stream that is probably dry the greater part of the year; but during the spring thaws, and immediately after a rain-storm, a stream of brackish, muddy water a few inches deep trickles down the mountain and forms a most disagreeable area of sticky salt mud at the bottom. The streak this morning can more truthfully be described as yellow liquid mud than as water, and both myself and wheel present anything but a prepossessing appearance in ten minutes after starting down its grimy channel. I am, however, congratulating myself upon finding it so shallow, and begin to think that, in describing the water as nearly over their donkeys' backs, the travellers were but indulging their natural propensity as subjects of the Shah, and worthy followers in the footsteps of Ananias.
About the time I have arrived at this comforting conclusion, I am suddenly confronted by a pond of liquid mud that bars my farther progress down the mountain. A recent slide of land and rock has blocked up the narrow channel of the stream, and backed up the thick yellow liquid into a pool of uncertain depth. There is no way to get around it; perpendicular walls of rock and slippery yellow clay rise sheer from the water on either side. There is evidently nothing for it but to disrobe without more ado and try the depth. Besides being thick with mud, the water is found to be of that icy, cutting temperature peculiar to cold brine, and after wading about in it for fifteen minutes, first finding a fordable place, and then carrying clothes and wheel across, I emerge on to the bank formed by the land-slip looking as woebegone a specimen of humanity as can well be imagined. Plastered with a coat of thin yellow mud from head to foot, chilled through and through, and shivering like a Texas steer in a norther, feet cut and bleeding in several places from contact with the sharp rocks, and no clean water to wash off the mud! With the assistance of knife, pocket-handkerchief, and sundry theological remarks which need not be reproduced here, I finally succeed in getting off at least the greater portion of the mud, and putting on my clothes. The discomfort is only of temporary duration; the agreeable warmth of the after-glow exhilarates both mind and body, and with the disappearance of the difficulty to the rear cornea the satisfaction of having found it no harder to overcome.
A little good wheeling is encountered toward the bottom of the pass, and then comes an area of wet salt-flats, interspersed with saline rivulets - those innocent-looking little streamlets the deceptive clearness of which tempts the thirsty and uninitiated wayfarer to drink. Few travellers in desert countries but have been deceived by these innocuous-looking streamlets once, and equally few are the people who suffer themselves to be deceived by their smooth, pellucid aspect a second time; for a mouthful of either strongly saline or alkaline water from one of them creates an impression on the deceived one's palate and his mind that guarantees him to be wariness personified for the remainder of his life. Since a certain experience in the Bitter Creek country, Wyoming, the writer prides himself on being able to distinguish drinkable water from the salty or alkaline article almost as far as it can be seen, and a stream about which the least suspicion is entertained is invariably tasted with gingerly hesitancy to begin with.