CHAPTER V. MESHED THE HOLY.
Warning spits of snow accompany my early morning departure from the wayside caravanserai, and it quickly develops into a blinding snow-storm that effectually obscures the country around, although melting as it touches the ground.
A mile from the caravanserai the trails fork, and, taking the wrong one, I wander some miles up the mountains ere discovering my mistake. Retracing my way, the right road is finally taken; but the gale increases in violence, the cold is numbing to unprotected hands and ears, and the wind and driving snow difficult to face. At one point the trail leads through a morass, in which are two dead horses, swamped in attempting to cross, and near by lies an abandoned camel, lying in the mud and wearily munching at a heap of kali (cut barley-straw) placed before him by his owners before leaving him to his kismet; perchance with a forlorn hope that he might pull through and finally regain his feet.
I have a narrow escape from swamping in the treacherous morass myself, sinking knee-deep in the slimy, oozing mud-mass, pulling off my geivehs and having no end of trouble in recovering them.
Shurab is reached about noon, where the customary crowd and customary rude accommodations await me. Quite an unaccustomed luxury, however, is obtained at Shurab - a substance made from grapes, called sheerah, which resembles thin molasses. A communal dish, which I see the chapar-jee and his sliagirds prepare for themselves and eat this evening, consists of one pint of sheerah, half that quantity of grease, a handful of chopped onions and a quart of water. This awful mixture is stewed for a few minutes and then poured over a bowl of broken bread; they then gather around and eat it with their hands - that they also eat it with great gusto goes without saying.
Opium smoking appears to be indulged in to a great extent here, two out of the three chapar men putting in a good portion of their time "hitting" the seductive pipe, and tinkering with their opium-smoking apparatus. They only have one outfit between them; both of them are half blind with ophthalmia, and the bane of their wretched existence seems to be a Russian candle-lamp, with a broken globe, that persists in falling apart whenever they attempt to use it - which, by the by, is well-nigh all the time - in manipulating the opium needle and pipe. Observing them from my rude shake-down, after supper, bending persistently over this broken, or ever-breaking lamp, their sore eyes and shrunken features, the suzzle-suzzle of the opium as they suck it into the primer and inhale the fumes - the indescribable odor of the drug pervading the room - all this would seem to be a picture of an ideal Chinese opium den rather than of a chapar-khana in Persia.
A broken bridge and miles of deep mud not far ahead has been the burthen of information gathered from the villagers during the afternoon, and the chapar-jee urges upon me the necessity of employing men and horses to carry me and the bicycle across these obstructions into Nishapoor. Preferring to take my chances of getting through, however, I pay no heed to these warnings, well aware that the chapar-jee's interest in the matter begins and ends in the fact that he has horses to hire himself.
In imitation of my example yesterday, I wander off the proper road again this morning, taking a road that leads to an abandoned ford instead of to the bridge, a mistake that is probably a very good one to have made when viewed from the stand-point of mud, as my road is at least the shorter one of the two.
A wild-looking, busby-decked crowd of Khorassani goatherds from a neighboring village follow behind me across the level mudflats leading to the stream, vociferously clamoring for me to ride. They shout persistently: "H-o-i! Sowar shuk; tomasha! tomasha!" even when they see the difficult task I have of it getting the bicycle through the mud. I have singled out a big, sturdy goat-herder to assist me across the streams, of which I learn there are two, a mile or thereabout apart, and his compatriots are accompanying us to see us cross, as well as being impelled by prying curiosity to see how many kerans he gets for his trouble. The first stream is found to be arm-pit deep, with a fairly strong current. My sturdy Khorassani crosses over first, to try the bottom, feeling his way with a long-handled spade; he then returns and carries the bicycle across on his head, afterward carrying me across astride his shoulders, landing me safely with nothing worse than wet feet.
A mile of awful saline mud, and stream number two is reached and crossed in a similar manner - although here I unfortunately cross part way over fairly sitting on the water. The water and the weather are both uncomfortably chilly, and my assistant emerges from the second stream with chattering teeth and goose-pimply flesh. A liberal and well-deserved present makes him forget personal discomforts, and, fervently kissing my hand and pressing my palm to his forehead, he tells me there is no more water ahead, and, recrossing the stream, he wends his way homeward again.