Amu Darya . . . clear early morning. The mountain peaks are gilded by the rays of the still hidden sun. Gradually the nocturnal silence and the monotonous murmur of the river give place to the cries of awakened birds and animals, to the voices of people, and to the clatter of the steamboat’s wheels.
On both banks the fires which had burned out during the night are being rekindled, spirals begin to rise from the funnel of the boat’s kitchen, mingling with the suffocating smoke of damp saksaul spreading everywhere.
Overnight the banks have noticeably changed in appearance, although the boat has not moved. It is the ninth day since it left Chardzhou for Kerki.
Although on the first two days the boat moved forward very slowly, it was not held up, but on the third day it ran aground and stopped for a whole day and night, until the Amu Darya, by the force of its current, washed away the sandbank and made it possible to move on.
Thirty-six hours later the same thing occurred, and now it is already the third day that the steamer has been stationary, unable to move further.
The passengers and crew are patiently waiting until this wayward river takes pity and lets them proceed.
Here this is quite usual. The river Amu Darya runs through sands for almost its entire course. Having a very strong current and an irregular volume of water, it is always either washing away its unstable banks or depositing sand on them; and its bed is thus constantly changing, with sandbanks forming where before there were whirlpool depths.
Boats going upstream go very slowly, particularly at certain seasons of the year, but downstream they fly like mad, almost without the engine.
One can never determine beforehand, even approximately, the time it will take to travel from one point to another.
Knowing this, people who travel upstream provide themselves for any emergency with enough food for several months.
The time of year in which this journey of ours up the Amu Darya takes place is the least favourable, owing to the low water. Winter is approaching, the rainy season is over, and, in the mountains where the river chiefly takes its source, the thawing of snow has ceased.