After scrambling over loose stones, climbing up precipices, and crawling round the projecting rocks, which consumed an hour, we found ourselves on a small ledge in front of the outer aperture, which was nearly circular and about fifty feet high. We were now in a cavern apparently of no great extent, and as I could not discover any other passage, I began to fancy that it was for this paltry hole we had undergone so much fatigue, and had had our expectations raised so high. I was about to give utterance to my disappointment, when I perceived the Uzbegs preparing their torches and arranging the line of march, in which it seemed that no one was anxious to take precedence. I now began to look about me, in the hope that there was something more to be seen, and was delighted to observe one adventurous hero with a torch disappear behind some masses of rock. We all followed our leader, and it was with great difficulty that, one by one, we managed to squeeze ourselves through a narrow gap between two jagged rocks, which I presume I am to consider as the identical ones that were rolled to the mouth six hundred years ago at the stern command of the Tartar Attila.
I confess that hitherto I had treated the moollah’s account as an idle tale; my unbelief, however, was quickly removed, for just as we entered the narrow passage the light of the torches was for an instant thrown upon a group of human skeletons. I saw them but for an instant, and the sight was quite sufficient to raise my drooping curiosity to its former pitch.
We proceeded down the sloping shaft, occasionally bruising ourselves against its jagged sides, until our leader suddenly came to a dead halt. I was next to him, and coming up as close as I could, I found that one step further would have precipitated the adventurous guide into an abyss, the bottom and sides of which were undistinguishable; after gazing for a moment into this apparently insurmountable obstacle to our further progress, I could just perceive a narrow ledge about sixteen feet below me, that the eye could trace for a few yards only, beyond which it was lost in the deep gloom surrounding us. Our conductor had already made up his mind what to do: he proceeded to unwind his long narrow turban composed of cotton cloth, and called to his comrades to do the same; by joining these together they formed a kind of rope by means of which we gradually lowered each other, till at last a party ten in number were safely landed on the ledge. We left a couple of men to haul us up on our return, and proceeded on our way, groping along the brink of the yawning chasm. Every now and then loose stones set in motion by our feet would slip into this bottomless pit, and we could hear them bounding down from ledge to ledge, smashing themselves into a thousand fragments, till the echoes so often repeated were like the independent file-firing of a battalion of infantry. Sometimes the narrow path