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embowered in clustering leaves, and the endless prairie melting into the hot southern sky. For a moment, the Present is utterly swallowed up in the Past. The very earth seems still shaking with the march of ancient conquerors; and one would hardly wonder to see Alexander's Macedonians coming with steady tramp across the boundless level, or low-browed Attila, with the light of a grim gladness in his deep-set eyes, waving on five hundred thousand horsemen with the sweep of his enchanted sabre.
But the bump of our raft against the bank scatters my day-dreams; and, five minutes later, we are fairly on our way into the “hungry steppe.”
NOTE.—These ferries are at present the only means of communication between the two banks of the SyrDaria, the river possessing only one bridge — that at Fort Narinsk on the Thian-Shan, a little way from its source. I found a second bridge, however, well towards completion at Khodjent, when I passed through the town on the 4th September, on my way back from Samarcand.
THE “HUNGRY STEPPE.”
OUR first plunge is into a forest of reeds, which rise above our heads as we sit in the cart—a fine cover for the big game, and (if local tradition speak truly) not altogether without them.
“This is one of their great places for tigers, now I think of it,” remark I, “and the jungle around Fort Perovski is another; but as I didn't see any there, I don't expect to see any here either!”
“There's no knowing,” says my companion oracularly, “it's just when you're not expecting them that they do come. I once came upon one rather suddenly on the Ili, and at pretty close quarters, too."
“And did he show fight?”
“No, he didn't ; and, on the whole, I was just as well pleased, seeing I had nothing with me but a revolver. Well, it's one comfort, that no tiger of any discrimination would think us worth eating as we are now.”
“I wouldn't be too sure of that, either, though I do remember once seeing a vulture flop down on a starved camel, and then dart off again with a look of unmistakable disgust, as much as to say, 'Is this the sort of thing to put before a gentleman ?' Still, there's no knowing what a beast of prey may or may not do, when he gives his mind to it. You remember that Cossack story of the wicked starosta ('village bailiff') who was returning home with a great sum of ill-gotten money, when the wolves fell upon him, and they devoured the horses, and the driver, and the money, and himself, and then they tore the sledge to pieces, and gobbled them up too; and then the wolves began fighting among themselves, and devoured each other—and the last one swallowed himself !”
“And very wise of him, too, for you'll hardly get any one else to swallow all that!”
“Very likely not. Ai-dah, yemshtchik!” (go along, driver).
The reeds are soon left behind, and now the famous “Golodnaya Steppe” opens before us in all its desolation. This dismal region—which well merits its name of “hungry”—is in reality the eastermost angle of the Kizil-Koum Desert, thrusting itself between the fertile basin of the Syr-Daria to the north, and that of the Zer-Affshan to the south. And certainly it does not disgrace its origin. I almost imagine myself back in the deserts of the Aral Sea, amid this blinding dust, and devouring heat, and grey interminable sand, and overwhelming stillness, beneath which our cheery talk first flags, and then ceases altogether, as though it were a kind of sacrilege to intrude any sound upon a region so utterly given over to silence.
Yet even the “hungry steppe” has memories of its
own—memories which neither painter nor historian would willingly suffer to die. On this very plain, not many miles east of our present route, lies the famous battlefield of Irdjar—the Poictiers of Central Asiawhere, only a few years ago, eighty thousand Sarts were put to flight by seven thousand Russians, and the then Commander-in-Chief received the credit of a victory which was wholly due to his two subordinates. Along this very track which we are now following, General Kaufmann's “Tashkent column" marched southward to Djizak last spring, over the first stage of their long struggle across the desert to Khiva. And, half way across the desert, we come suddenly upon a souvenir more striking than either.
It is just mid-day, and earth and sky are all one great furnace of heat, when suddenly a dark spot defines itself against the hot brassy yellow of the desert, and, growing larger as we approach, shapes itself, little by little, into the pillared arches and shadowy depths of a magnificent Asiatic sepulchre—one of those strange relics which start up ever and anon in the loneliest wastes of the Far East, as if the Past, retreating before the advance of the Present, had fed into these solitudes to preserve unimpaired the memory of what the men of that age could do. This is the far-famed “Murzarabat," the most perfect specimen of its kind which I have ever seen, to which even the splendid photograph of it which I bought at Tashkent does scanty justice; but horses are now stabled in its shadowy cloisters, and a group of Cossacks are laughing boisterously around their little
tea-urn, in its cool, crypt-like interior. Mr Dilke and I produce our bread and water-melon, and hasten to join the party ; but we have barely sat down, when both ourselves and our provisions are one black, buzzing swarm of Aies from top to toe.
“I wonder what on earth these brutes find to live upon,” says my companion meditatively. “There can't be much pasture for them hereabouts, surely!”
“They're probably a nomadic tribe, like their friends the natives," answer I. “Depend upon it, whenever they come to a station and find nothing to eat, they just settle upon the next traveller who passes, and get taken on another stage, carriage free."
And so, hour after hour, the long, burning, monotonous day creeps slowly on. The very post-houses are established amid the ruins of fortresses, whose very name is forgotten; and the sight of living creatures in this great sepulchre of nature comes upon one with a kind of shock. Towards afternoon, however, the leaden sameness of the journey is broken by one incident well worth chronicling. Just as we are leaving one of the stations, a little dog, which happens to be an especial pet of our new driver, seeing his friend thus suddenly snatched away from him into the desert, actually sets off in pursuit, and follows us for nearly two miles with unfailing pluck, despite the deep sand and overpowering heat. The driver at length pulls up for a moment, and, greeting him with a kind word or two, points back to the station, and orders him home. The little creature