CHAPTER IV. THROUGH KHORASSAN.
Shahrood is at the exit from the mountains of the caravan route from Asterabad, Mazanderan, and the Caspian coast. The mountains overlooking it are bare and rocky. A good trade seems to be done by several firms of Russian-Armenians in exporting wool, cotton, and pelts to Russia, and handling Russian iron and petroleum. But for the iniquitous method of taxation, which consists really of looting the producing classes of all they can stand, the volume of trade here might easily be tenfold what it is.
Shahrood is, or rather was, one of the "four stations of terror," Mijamid, Miandasht, and Abassabad being the other three, so called on account of their exposed position and the consequent frequency of Turcoman attacks. Even nowadays they have their little ripples of excitement; rumors of Turcoman raids are heard in the bazaars, and news was brought in and telegraphed to Teheran a week ago that fifteen thousand sheep had been carried off from a district north of the mountains. Word comes back that a regiment of soldiers is on its way to chastise the Turcomans and recover the property; what really will happen, will be a horde of soldiers staying there long enough to devour what few sheep the poor people have left, and then returning without having seen, much less chastised, a Turcoman. The Persian Government will notify the Russian Minister of the misdoings of the Turcomans, and ask to have them punished and the sheep restored; the Russian Minister will reply that these particular Turcomans were Persian subjects, and nothing further will be done.
Mr. Mclntyre is a canny Scot, a Royal Engineer, and weighs fully three hundred pounds; but with this avoirdupois he is far from being inactive, and together we ramble up the Asterabad Pass to take a look at the Bostam Valley on the other side. The valley isn't much to look at; no verdure, only a brown, barren plain, surrounded on all sides by equally brown, barren mountains. In the evening the Prince sends round a pheasant, and shortly after calls himself and partakes of tea and cigarettes,
I accept Mr. McIntyre's invitation to remain and rest up, but only for another day, my experience being that, when on the road, one or two days' rest is preferable to a longer period; one gets rested without getting out of condition. We take a stroll through the bazaar in the morning, and call in at the wine-shop of a Russian-Armenian trader named Makerditch, who keeps arrack and native wine, and sample some of the latter. In his shop is a badly stuffed Mazanderaii tiger, and the walls of the private sitting-room are decorated with rude, old-fashioned prints of saints and scriptural scenes. It is now the Persian New Year, and bright new garments and snowy turbans impart a gay appearance to the throngs in the bazaar, for everybody changed his wardrobe from tip to toe on eid-i-noo-roos (evening before New Year's Day), although the "great unwashed" of Persian society change never a garment for the next twelve months. Considering that the average lower-class Persian puts in a good share of this twelve months in the unprofitable process of scratching himself, one would think it must be an immense relief for him to cast away these old habiliments with all their horrid load of filth and vermin, and don a clean, new outfit; but the new ones soon get as thickly tenanted as the old; and many even put the new garments on over certain of the old ones, caring nothing for comfort and cleanliness, and everything for appearance. The Persian New Year's holiday lasts thirteen days, and on the evening of the thirteenth day everybody goes out into the fields and plucks flowers and grasses to present to his or her friends.
Governors of provinces who retain their position in consequence of having sent satisfactory tribute to the Shah, and ruled with at least a semblance of justice, get presents of new robes on New Year's Day, and those who have been unfortunate enough to lose the royal favor get removed: New Year's Day brings either sorrow or rejoicing to every Persian official's house.
The morning of my departure opens bright and warm after a thunder-storm the previous evening, and Mr. Mclntyre accompanies me to the outskirts of the city, to put me on the right road to Mijamid, my objective point for the day, eleven farsakhs distant. The streets are, of course, muddy and unridable, and ere the suburbs are overcome a messenger overtakes us from the Prince, begging me to return and drink tea with him before starting.
"Tell the Prince, the sahib sends salaams, but cannot spare the time to return," replies my companion, who knows Persian thoroughly. "You must come," says the messenger, "for the Khan of Bostam has arrived to pay the New Year's salaam to the Prince, and the Prince wants you to show him the bicycle."
"'Must come!' Tell the Prince that when the sahib gets fairly started, as he is now, with his bicycle, he wouldn't turn back for the Shah himself."
The messenger looks glum and crestfallen, as though very reluctant to return with such a message, a message that probably sounds to him strangely disrespectful, if not positively treasonable; but he sees the uselessness of bandying words, and so turns about, feeling and looking very foolish, for he addressed us very boldly and confidently before the whole crowd when he overtook us.