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A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 11

( Originally Published 1920 )

" Better good neighbours than relations far away " Chinese proverb

OUR proximity to Urga became now apparent in the increasing traffic over the prairie. From the hillside on which we halted at breakfast time we watched the life of the plains little groups of horsemen sitting casually in their saddles, turning round to stare at us, standing in their stirrups, sped quickly past.

A settlement was in process of striking camp; the trellis and felt of the yourts were folded up and piled on the backs of the unwilling camels.

A splendid Mongol riding proudly at the head of a string of camel carts came along from the west, dismounted, stretched himself, and climbed up to see what we were doing. By unmistakable signs he invited us to descend to his caravan below. In the first cart were his wife and two little sons, the jolliest little creatures imaginable.

In pukka oriental style I admired and fingered the headdress of the lady, and then dandled the children, expressing my appreciation of their weight and beauty. The man quite grasped the photographic idea, and posed his family for my benefit. Afterwards he surprised us greatly by asking for money ; despite the fact that one string of his wife's pearls would have fetched far more than we were able to raise between us.

But he did not resent our refusal, and hailed us with the cheery greeting of " San bainu " when we overtook him later in the day.

Moving on from the plains which stretched away into the mountains and valleys on all sides, we soon began the steep ascent of the Urga Pass when the subtlety of our Jamschik showed itself in suggesting that in the bordering woods here-abouts there was any amount of game. We jumped out of the tarantass which was soon out of sight in a sanguine frame of mind, and guns over our shoulders we trudged and trudged up that mountain side. Tiring it was, in the fierce July sun, beyond expression, and we got never a shot. But the scenery here was well worth the fag of the climb. Range upon range of mountains disclosed themselves as we ascended among a perfect wilderness of flowers. Peonies, roses, and delphiniums, Japanese anemones, blue columbines, red and yellow lilies-- --a background of dark pine forest, and away in the distance, blue mountains beneath a canopy of soft masses of rolling clouds.

Half-way up, we were overtaken by a number of Russian officers who looked, as well they might, in astonishment at the sight of a couple of English people, apparently without belongings or conveyance, calmly strolling up a mountain in the heart of Mongolia. We met them again at the summit of the Altai Berg. Their Mongols were having a rest, and incidentally, I dare say, " gaining merit " by adding a few stones to the great cairn, from which numbers of dirty rags serving as prayer flags fluttered. I think the officers were waiting in order to discover what on earth we were doing there and what was our object in going to Urga. They did not, however, make much headway with us. Their knowledge of German was very limited and we on our side did not see the force of burdening them at this juncture with our confidences. They, needless to say, had remained in their conveyances all the way up. The latter were being drawn Orton fashion by four mounted Mongols. A pole is fixed across the thin ends of the shafts, and is carried by the Mongols between the pummel of their saddles and their stomachs. Usually a couple of men ride on either side of the shafts. Six to eight Mongols accompany each carriage, women as well as men taking turn and turn about. They laugh and fool about all the time, tearing up hill and down dale, the tarantass swaying about with plenty of play at the other end of the shafts. They are absolutely reckless and care not one straw what happens--as we learned to our cost later on.

Our Jamschik greeted us cheerily when we met him again at. the top of the pass, and at once took on " the Mongol outriders for a race down into Urga. We did not know the Russian for " not so quick " or " steady," and we flew over the ground holding on like grim death, our three horses galloping and taking the most reckless short cuts at breakneck speed. Down, down we tore, over the roughest and most impossible tracks to an accompaniment of terrific jolts and bangs. The Mongols kept up, yelling and laughing as they rolled about in their saddles. It was no less terrifying than it was painful, but personally I was far too tired to care much what happened, or to feel as alarmed as I do even now in retrospect. But we got in ahead of the Russians, which was a great crow over for us.

Urga was at length in view. Situated on the north bank of the Tola River, it lies 600 miles north of the Chinese frontier at Kalgan, and 200 miles south of the Russian frontier at Kiachta. A long straggling vista of gaudy temples and groups of yourts, little wooden houses enclosed by high palisades, numbers of brightly painted sheds which we found afterwards to contain the Tibetan prayer wheels, a few foreign bungalows looking like dolls' houses and built of pitch-pine, as well as clusters of Chinese houses such was our first impression of Mongolia's capital. On the western side lies the Holy City, where, it is estimated, dwell some thirty thousand lamas, and in which no lay man or woman may remain after sundown. The Chinese city, Mai-mai'ch'eng again, is situated to the east, and between the twain are a number of untidy, depressing little shanties, as well as the pleasant Russian consulate, out of all harmony and character with the rest, belonging to the ever-increasing army of Russian traders. Closed in on all sides by mountains, some of considerable altitude and densely wooded, the sacred mountain of Bogdo N'or dominates the city. Bogdo N'or abounds in game, but nothing must here be killed, and no one may pitch a tent on that side of the Tola River which separates the holy ground from the plains upon which Urga is situated. Death is the punishment for the Mongol who so far forgets his traditions as to kill bird, beast, or fish on Bogdo N'or, and imprisonment for life the far worse fate for any foreigner who should be rash enough thus to transgress.

One trusts to luck very largely in travelling under such circumstances, and we had no very definite idea as to what we were going to do when we reached Urga. At the time of our visit, exclusive of Russians there were only two Europeans in Urga, probably in Mongolia, and Mr. Gull and I were the sole representatives of Great Britain and Ireland. The two Europeans were a Norwegian and a German, both engaged in trading with the Mongols. The latter I had already met in Kalgan, and he was certainly as good as his word and twice as hospitable when I saw him again in Urga. To the former Mr. Gull had an introduction, and on arrival we made straight for his compound where he received us most kindly, allowing us to make our headquarters with him during our stay in Urga, as well as letting us go shares in his commissariat for the time being. The Russian Agent, to whom we reported ourselves next day, treated us with the greatest hospitality and contributed greatly to our comfort by lending me some chairs and other luxuries for the tiny-Chinese house provided for me in the Norwegian's compound. Our luck held good.

Anxious to see the Mongols as they really are and through the unprejudiced eyes of those unconnected with political considerations, we were fortunate indeed in having for our host a man of such intellectual qualities and broad sympathies as Mr. Mamen. Speaking their language as one of themselves he had, I believe, lived in Mongolia for under two years this young Norwegian of the appearance and stature of a Viking, was on friendly terms with most of the Mongol princes and officials, evidently being well-liked and trusted by them.

One has but to forego for a short time what are regarded as the commonplaces of existence in order to appreciate them at their true value, and, after a week of far from restful nights, I could have dilated at length upon the sheer luxury of a very tenth-rate bed. It was a day or two after I reached Urga that I felt my old appetite for sight seeing return, and this was whetted by a curious little ceremony of daily recurrence, a good view of which was obtainable without going beyond the limits of the compound. Less than two hundred yards away there appeared above the compound wall a small stage about four or five feet square supported by a rough scaffolding of perhaps twenty-five feet high. Each day when the sun was well up, two lamas, climbing laboriously up to their perch, would don their official yellow Chanticleer pull-on caps, queer ragged capes of many colours, and proceed to call their gods to the Temple. Turning to the east, north, west, and always ending up with the south, thus facing the sacred mountain, they would, first one and then the other, produce prolonged and continuous blasts by blowing upon a conch shell, the melancholy and hollow note of which seems to come back to me over time and space.

Living as we were in the Chinese quarter of the place, and an intolerably gritty road of almost two miles in extent separating us from West Urga, obviously the first thing to be done was to obtain ponies. I was all for purchasing a couple outright, but other counsels prevailed and we hired them, thus placing ourselves at the mercy of a scallywag horse-dealer, a lesser mandarin by the way,, who imposed upon us from beginning to end.

The price, small though it sounds at home, was high at thirty roubles (then A3) a month for each nag (in a place where one can purchase a very nice little beast for less than double that amount), even though it included such feed as could be picked up on the plains during the night, and when we were not using them. I really think their owner must have had his tongue in his cheek when he sent along the first pair for us to try. Mine had the appearance of a worn-out vanhorse a tall, thin brute, with a mouth of iron and legs that scattered in all directions when I forced him into a canter which was not very often.

I kept him for one day only. For Mr. Gull a miniature pony was provided. It had a sore mouth which made it extremely irritable. Together we certainly presented a very comical appearance. But any mount in dusty Urga is preferable to none, and on sight-seeing bent it really did not matter much that our nags were crocks " ; the fact that with patient, drooping heads they would stand for any length of time, was perhaps, under the circumstances, rather convenient than otherwise.

A Tour In Mongolia:
A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 11

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 12

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 13

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 14

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 15

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 16

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 17

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 18

Read More Articles About: A Tour In Mongolia

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