CHAPTER IV. PATCHINAR - TEHERAN.
Our troubles commenced in real earnest at Patchinar, a desolate-looking place and filthy post-house, which was reached at sunset. The post from Teheran had just arrived, in charge of a tall strapping fellow armed to the teeth, in dark blue uniform and astrachan cap, bearing the Imperial badge, the lion and sun, in brass. The mail was ten days late, and had met with terrible weather on the Kharzan. They had passed, only that morning, two men lying by the roadway, frozen to death. The poor fellows were on their way to Teheran from Menjil, and had lain where they fell for two or three days. "You had far better have remained at Resht," added our informant, unpleasantly recalling to my mind the colonel's prophecy, "You will be sorry for this to-morrow!"
Notwithstanding hunger and vermin, we managed to enjoy a tolerable night's rest. The post-house was warm at any rate, being windowless. Patchinar was evidently a favourite halting-place, for the dingy walls of the guest-room were covered with writing and pencil sketches, the work of travellers trying to kill time, from the Frenchman who warned one (in rhyme) to beware of the thieving propensities of the postmaster, to the more practical Englishman, who, in a bold hand, had scrawled across the wall, "Big bugs here!" I may add that my countryman was not exaggerating.
There was no difficulty in getting horses the next morning. The post, which left for Resht before we were stirring, had left us seven sorry-looking steeds, worn out with their previous day's journey through the deep snow-drifts of the Kharzan. By nine o'clock we were ready to start, notwithstanding the entreaties of the postmaster, whose anxiety, however, was not on our account, but on that of the horses.
"I don't believe I shall ever see them again!" he mumbled mournfully, as we rode out of the yard. "And who is to repay me for their loss? You will be dead, too, before sundown, if the snow catches you in the mountains!"
But there seemed no probability of such a contingency. The sky was blue and cloudless, the sun so bright that the glare off the snow soon became unbearable without smoked goggles. The promise of an extra keran or two if we reached the end of the stage by daylight had a wonderful effect on the Shagird. Though it was terribly heavy going, and the snow in places up to our girths, we covered the five miles lying between Patchinar and the foot of the Kharzan in a little over three hours - good going considering the state of the road. We were as often off the former as on it, for there was nothing to guide one; nothing but telegraph poles and wires were visible, and these are occasionally laid straight across country away from the track.
Our destination for the night was the village of Kharzan, which is situated near the summit of the mountain, about six thousand feet high. The ascent is continuous and precipitous. An idea may be gained of the steepness by the fact that we now left the valley of the Shah Roud, barely one thousand feet above sea-level, to ascend, in a distance of about twelve miles, over six thousand feet.
The Kharzan Pass is at all times dreaded by travellers, native and European, even in summer, when there are no avalanches to fear, snow-drifts to bar the way, or ice to render the narrow, tortuous pathway even more insecure. A serious inconvenience, not to say danger, is the meeting of two camel caravans travelling in opposite directions on the narrow track, which, in many places, is barely ten feet broad, and barely sufficient to allow two horses to pass each other, to say nothing of heavily laden camels. But to-day we were safe so far as this was concerned. Not a soul was to be seen in the clefts and ravines around, or on the great white expanse stretched out beneath our feet, as we crept cautiously up the side of the mountain, our guide halting every ten or fifteen yards to probe the snow with a long pole and make sure that we had not got off the path.
A stiff and tedious climb of nearly seven hours brought us to within a mile of the summit. Halting for a short time, we refreshed ourselves with a couple of biscuits and a nip of brandy, and proceeded on our journey. We had now arrived at the most dangerous part of the pass. The pathway, hewn out of the solid rock, and about ten feet wide, was covered with a solid layer of ice eight or ten inches thick, over which our horses skated about in a most uncomfortable manner. There was no guard-rail or protection of any sort on the precipice side. All went well for a time, and I was beginning to congratulate myself on having reached the summit without-accident, when Gerdme's horse, just in front of me, blundered and nearly lit on his head. "Ah, son of a pig's mother!" yelled the little Russian in true Cossack vernacular, as the poor old screw, thoroughly done up, made a desperate peck, ending in a slither that brought him to within a foot of the brink. "That was a close shave, monsieur!" he continued, as his pony struggled back into safety, "I shall get off and walk. Wet feet are better than a broken neck any day!"