CHAPTER II. THE CASPIAN - ASTARA - RESHT.
"You are bold," said Mr. V - - , in French, "to attempt this journey at this time of year. I do not mean as regards footpads and robbers reports concerning them are always greatly exaggerated; but the rivers are in a terrible state. There is one just beyond Alala, that I know you cannot cross on horseback. I will send a man on at once to try and get a boat for you, and you can pull the horses after you. There is an Armenian at Alala, who will give you a lodging to-night" Mr. V - - 's good fare and several glasses of vodka considerably shortened our ride, and we arrived at Alala before dark, where a hearty welcome awaited us. Turning in after a pipe and two or three glasses of tea, we slept soundly till time to start in the morning. The outlook from our snug resting-place was not inviting - the sky of a dirty grey, blowing hard, and snowing harder than ever.
Alala contains about eight hundred inhabitants. The land surrounding it is thickly cultivated with rice and tobacco. Neither are, however, exported in any quantity, the difficulties of transport to Astara or Enzelli being so great.
It is somewhat puzzling to a stranger to get at the names of places on the southern shores of the Caspian. Most of the villages are known by more than one, but Alala rejoices in as many aliases as an old gaol-bird, viz. Alala, Asalim, and Navarim.
Thanks to our Russian friend, a boat and a couple of men were awaiting us at the big river (I could not ascertain its name). Entering it ourselves, we swam the horses over one by one. It took us the best part of two hours. Though only two hundred yards wide, they were off their legs nearly the whole way. What we should have done without Mr. V - - 's aid I know not.
Towards sundown the high tower of the Shah's palace at Enzelli came in sight. At last the neck of this weary journey was broken, and to-morrow, all being well, we should be at Resht. The road is winding, and it was not till past ten o'clock that we rode through the silent, deserted streets to the caravanserai, a filthier lodging than any we had yet occupied. But, though devoured by vermin, I slept soundly, tired out with cold and fatigue. We dismissed the Khivan with a substantial pour-boire. He had certainly behaved extremely well for one of his race.
Enzelli is an uninteresting place. It has but two objects of interest (in Persian eyes) - the lighthouse (occasionally lit) and a palace of the Shah, built a few years since as a pied-a-terre for his Majesty on the occasion of his visits to Europe. It is a tawdry gimcrack edifice, painted bright blue, red, and green, in the worst possible taste. The Shah, on returning from Europe last time, is said to have remarked to his ministers on landing at Enzelli, "I have not seen a single building in all Europe to compare with this!" Probably not - from one point of view.
The Caspian may indeed be called a Russian lake, for although the whole of its southern coast is Persian, the only Persian vessel tolerated upon it by Russia is the yacht of the Shah, a small steamer, the gift of the Caucase-Mercure Company, which lies off Enzelli. Even this vessel is only permitted to navigate in and about the waters of the Mourdab ("dead water"), a large lake, a kind of encroachment of the sea, eighteen to twenty miles broad, which separates Enzelli from Peri-Bazar, the landing-place for Resht, four miles distant. The imperial yacht did once get as far as Astara (presumably by mistake), but was immediately escorted back to Enzelli by a Russian cruiser. There is, however, a so-called Persian fleet - the steamship Persepolis, anchored off Bushire, in the Persian Gulf, and the Susa, which lies off Mohammerah. The former is about six hundred tons, and carries four Krupp guns; but the latter is little better than a steam-launch. Both have been at anchor for about four years, and are practically unseaworthy and useless.
We embarked at nine o'clock, in a boat pulled by eight men. The crossing of the Mourdab is at times impossible, owing to the heavy sea; but this time luck was with us, and midday saw us at Peri-Bazar, where there is no difficulty in procuring riding-horses to take one into Resht. The country between the two places was formerly morass and jungle, but on the occasion of the Shah's visit to Europe about twenty years ago, a carriage-road was made - not a good one, for such a thing does not exist in Persia - but a very fair riding-track (in dry weather). We reached Resht wet to the skin, the snow having ceased and given way to a steady downpour of rain.
Resht bears the unpleasant reputation of being the most unhealthy city in Persia. Its very name, say the natives, is derived from the word rishta, "death." "If you wish to die," says a proverb of Irak, "go to Resht!" The city, which had, at the beginning of the century, a population of over sixty thousand inhabitants, now has barely thirty thousand. This certainly looks as if there were some truth in the foregoing remarks; and there is no doubt that, on the visitation of the plague about ten years ago, the mortality was something frightful. A great percentage of deaths are ascribed to Resht fever - a terrible disease, due to the water and the exhalations from the marshes surrounding the city. It is certainly the dampest place in the world. The sun is seldom seen, and one's clothes, even on a dry, rainless day, become saturated with moisture.