Overland to India, Volume 1

Overland to India, Volume 1 – Sven Hedin

A detailed account of the journey from Trebizond to Quetta. The route took Hedin through Erzerum, skirted Mount Ararat to Etchmiadzin and Nakichevan (the grave of Noah), and thence by Tabriz and Kasvin to Teheran, where the first part of his journey ended. The second part took him to Nasratabad in Seistan; the third to Quetta, where he may be said to have reached India . . . . The two volumes in which it is recorded contain a vast deal more than is above indicated. There are many digressions (from the bare record of travel) , some of which will not appeal to the general reader, whose interest is chiefly confined to the tale of travel, but many of them will command the attention of geographers and experts . . . . To mention a few, there are notes about Marco Polo’s travels, about the Euphrates, Mesopotamia and Nineveh, chapters on travels in the Kavír, on the march of Alexander the Great, on post-glacial climatic changes in Persia, on the distribution of desert and on the plague. This is volume one out of two.

Overland to India, Volume  1

Overland to India, Volume 1.

Format: eBook

Overland to India, Volume 1.

ISBN: 9783849663384  (eBook)


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How Stormy, dark, and tumultuous the billows of the Black Sea appeared when, at the end of October 1905, I traversed it in a Russian vessel from Constantinople, passing Sebastopol, Yalta, Kerch, Novorossisk, and Poti, to Batum; and yet how peaceful, hospitable, and friendly compared to the turmoil that raged with senseless and hateful madness in the sea of human beings which forms a semicircle round the northern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea.

The Svatoi Nikolai, or St. Nicholas, which, besides myself and a few other passengers, carried a heavy cargo to Batum, rocked like a nutshell on mountains of violently agitated water — I could hardly have believed that the Kara Denis of the Turks and the Chernoye More of the Russians could have been so rough, or hillocky, to use a topographical expression. We parted with some of our passengers in the Crimea, and beyond Novorossisk only three were left in the first class, Colonel Ileshenko from Van on the Persian frontier, the Consul Akimovich on his way to his new post at Bayazid, and the author. During the latter part of the voyage, we saw little of one another — the sea was too rough, and only an acrobat could have made his way to the saloon, so we preferred a recumbent position in our cabins. My porthole was on the lee side; at every roll it dipped five or six feet under water, but between the plunges T could see the coast-line at a distance of a couple of cable-lengths, and the forest-clad crests of the Caucasus, already partly covered with snow and gleaming white and cold in the sunshine.

We tarried a while in the roadstead of Sukhum-Kale; a couple of boats rowed by sinewy Abkhazians took off a little cargo; a boatman came on board and talked with a young woman on the middle deck; she burst into continuous weeping, and all efforts to console her were vain. Her husband had been shot in a riot. She was one of thousands and thousands of Russian women who wept in those days. Her wailing sounded desperate and hopeless above the raging of the storm till the end of the voyage.

Beyond Poti the violence of the storm increased, the sky was blue-black, and the rain pelted on the deck and the saloon windows, but we had only three hours more. At midnight the vessel entered the harbour of Batum, What a dismal landing! Pouring rain, pitchy darkness unbroken by lights, dead silence, no porters, no droskies, and, worst of all, the news that railway traffic had been stopped three days before. In fact, a great strike was in progress, involving all departments of labour and trade.

However, under cover of the darkness, a couple of bold dock-labourers ventured, in consideration of high pay, to take charge of our luggage and guide us to the nearest hotel, a regular den of thieves, full of rogues and vagabonds. If they were detected as strike-breakers, they would be mercilessly shot down, our porters assured us, and we subsequently found that their statement was not exaggerated.

I was on the way to Teheran. But I might well be asked why on earth I chose just now the route through the Caucasus, the most restless corner of the Russian Empire. Well, when I left Constantinople on October 25, furnished with two special passports from the Russian Ambassador Zinovieff, formerly Minister in Stockholm, comparative quiet prevailed in Russia, and at least the railways were being worked. My goal was Tibet, and I had decided to travel overland to India. I had a choice of three routes to the capital of Persia: (1) Batum-Tiflis-Baku-Resht-Teheran; (2) Batum-Tiflis-Erivan-Nakichevan-Tabriz-Teheran; (3) Trebizond-Erzerum-Bayazid-Khoi-Tabriz, and Teheran. I knew the first of old, and therefore wished to avoid it. The road from Trebizond, according to information received from Dr. Martin at our embassy in Constantinople, was now, in autumn, almost destroyed by rain, snow, and swollen rivers, and the Persian ambassador Mirza Riza Khan, formerly Minister in Stockholm, also advised me not to take the long laborious journey over the mountains of Asia Minor, Therefore, and also to save time, I chose the road through Erivan, by which I should travel in five days from Batum to Tabriz and in two weeks to Teheran. But fate decided otherwise, and instead of making a short journey to the residence of the Shah, I lost half a month on the coast of Colchis.

The SL Nicholas stayed a day, and then returned with all its cargo to Odessa, and the same fate befell all the vessels which came in afterwards, whether they were from Russia or elsewhere, and the losses arising hence may be estimated in millions.

We passed the night in the robbers’ den of the ” Versal,” which was open to wind and weather, and therefore both host and guests ran the risk of being treated as strike-breakers. But early next morning I changed my quarters to the hotel ” Frantsia,” to get a proper roof over my head. The hotel was barred and bolted, the window-shutters were closed, all the servants had left, and only the landlord and two lads remained at their posts. A room, indeed, was given me, but for the rest I had to provide for myself as best I could. The supply of provisions was scanty, wine and bread and cold sturgeon several days old. Food could not be got for love or money, to make a fire was forbidden, and only the samovar was lighted morning and evening. There was not even water for washing; all the suckis, who usually carry water round in the town, had gone on strike like the other men, and I washed myself in mineral water. Here drought prevailed as in a desert, though the sea raved in front.

At the ” Frantsia ” a Georgian prince was living; we became very good friends the first evening and supped together. He promised on his honour and conscience to lead me safe and sound through the forests of Georgia and over the Suram Pass to Tiflis. Evidently, however, he was himself a robber chief in league with the agitators. But I declined, thanking him for his kindness, and was congratulated by my two Russian fellow-travellers, who took it for granted that I should soon have been stripped to the skin if I had accepted the offer. No; here there was no resource but patience — ” Patience! ” whispered the palms and magnolias in the strand boulevard; ” Patience!” sang the surge on the sea — yea, an angel’s patience was needed to extricate me from this wretched Batum.

On the first day, the last of October, we obtained a fairly clear idea of the situation, and it was evident that it was not of the nature of an ordinary strike easily to be suppressed by strict discipline and vigour, but a political insurrection of a very serious character. The town lay in a deep, deathlike trance, and, except for shots from tirearms, all was silent and empty in the tiresome streets of cobbles, where the rumble of carriages and wagons usually is heard among the ugly monotonous rows of houses. All shops and business premises were closed with shutters, bars, and locks. A Georgian, who sold provisions secretly to his customers at a back door, received a written notice from the strike committee that he was condemned to death, and would be shot on the following day. By such threats, followed up by bloody deeds, exemplary obedience was ensured. The citizens remained in their houses, and only vagabonds, the scum of various nationalities, and spies were about; women were not to be seen, or only such as belonged to the dregs of society. Meetings and assemblies were forbidden, and only small groups of workmen appeared here and there. One looked in vain for a laden horse, an ass loaded with grapes, a fruit-seller or vegetable dealer, such as usually crowd the streets and lanes in Oriental towns, and at every five steps cry and praise their wares. If a carriage came along the driver was a soldier with his rifle ready to hand, and the passengers were officers. If horse-hoofs resounded on the stones, the riders were Cossacks armed to the teeth. All the public buildings were guarded by soldiers, and strong watches were posted both inside and outside the bank doors. When I asked the Georgian porter why the door of the hotel was locked, even in the daytime, he replied that we might be attacked and murdered at any time if we were not in a state of defence. Here, too, stood some soldiers who answered shortly or not at all when they were spoken to.

Boys ten or twelve years old loitered about the streets; they seemed quite innocent, but in reality, they were spies under the orders of the strike committee, sent out to report any infractions of their regulations. Even the foreign consulates were closed, and it was possible to get at the consuls only by back ways — at any rate such was the case with the two I visited. One of these was the Swedish consul, who had lately travelled to Tifiis to seek an antidote for the bite of a mad dog — evidently here all was in confusion. At Nobel’s it was expected that the stores of petroleum might at any moment be set on fire and bombs thrown into the office, especially since orders were given to continue to supply kerosene to the authorities.

A merchant could not go to his office; if he did, he was reported by the boy spies, and was fortunate if he got off with all his windowpanes broken and a severe blow on the head; or he received a letter ordering him to pay a certain sum of money if he wished to save his life. To go to the banks was considered exceedingly dangerous; one would probably be robbed on the way home. However, I drew some money from the Tiflis Commercial Bank and reached home without difficulty.

Besides the labour strikes, which, as regards the railway servants, aimed at a rise of the monthly pay from 25 to 35 rubles, the terrorists worked with untiring energy in furtherance of their own extremely far-reaching plans. They availed themselves of the general discontent and stirred up the ignorant masses by revolutionary talk at secret meetings. They declared that the Tsar was deposed, and that De Witte was president of the Russian republic. The people would now take the power into their own hands, all property would be equitably divided, the poor would have land and bread; tyranny, despotism, and slavery would be abolished. Such talk was received with stormy applause by the multitude, who saw the immediate future gleaming in purple and gold. Every man you met might be a terrorist or his tool. Men regarded one another with suspicion; it was as though all the inhabitants of the town went in expectation of something extraordinary, something terrible, which would suddenly put an end to the injustice of the old time. In the countenances of the Caucasians of higher rank — mostly Georgians in fur caps and long, close-fitting coats with two rows of cartridge cases on the breast — could be read an expression of satisfaction. They were unmistakably delighted that the Russian authorities had such serious difficulties to contend with; they hoped for and expected the cessation of Russian supremacy over the formerly free Caucasus and longed for a renewal of the immortal Schamil’s glorious but hopeless fight for freedom.

The Governor issued an order that no one was to show himself outside after six o’clock — the pleasure was also doubtful, for on the pitch-dark streets one might be shot down anywhere. No civilian could go armed. If the terrorists suspected the possession of a revolver, they immediately came forward and confiscated the weapon for their own use; by this means they acquired a considerable supply of arms. Cossacks and soldiers had orders to seize all firearms which did not belong to the military. On October 31 eight people were murdered in Batum, including five soldiers, and a gendarme and fifteen persons were wounded. A police inspector on duty was attacked by a mob and was shot in the forehead, but was saved by the peak of his cap. He had sufficient presence of mind to fall off his horse and lie as though dead, or he would have received one or two more bullets. A hand-to-hand fight arose, which cost the lives of three of the combatants, while several were wounded. This occurred at noon. After a day or two one did not pay much heed to gunshots, though they made an uncomfortable impression when they were heard in the silence of night.

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