A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 12
( Originally Published 1920 )
" He that does not believe in others finds that they do not believe in him " Chinese proverb
OUR very first ride took us right into what any Mongol other than a lama would, I am sure, describe as the heart of Urga. At the foot of the hill upon which the holy city, K'urun, stands is the centre of activity in Mongolia's capital the horse and camel market. All day and every day the bartering goes on, and it is here perhaps that you may study with the greatest advantage the salient characteristics of the race.
The Chinese, I believe, invariably score off the Mongols in business transactions, but not so in connection with horses. The Mongol is born, bred, gets drunk, and dies in the saddle, and, like many others with a knowledge of horse flesh, he would cheat his own grandmother over a deal of this nature except for the fact that the old lady would probably be one too many for him.
In a dusty expanse, fringed on either side with small Chinese shops crowned with low curved roofs, painted poles, and swinging signs with gold characters carved large on them, stand the ponies 1in their hundreds, and the supply would seem to be well-nigh inexhaustible. Generally speaking, the animals are small and unattractive looking, and it would certainly require the " seeing eye " to make a selection from this mass of unkempt little beasts who, until they are mounted, show not the least suggestion of the spirit that is in them. The camels are few and far between, and I have never seen anything approaching a fine beast on sale here. One has to penetrate into the compounds of the camel owners in order to buy the best, I think, for usually it is but the indifferent and unwanted that find their way into the open market.
Urga, the Da Huraz (the first monastery) or Bogda Lama en Hurae (the encampment of the supreme lama) as it is severally described by the Mongols themselves (Urga being probably a Russian corruption), Urga, the religious centre as well as the capital of Mongolia, may be split up into three distinct and separate divisions, the market-place serving as a link between two of them, the holy city and the Russian quarter.
The former, in shape resembling a gigantic dust mound and in appearance a piece of crazy patch- work, is covered with a perfect rabbit warren of compounds, in most of which felt yourts take the place of buildings. By circuitous paths between the high palisades which cut one compound off from another, one reaches as one nears the top the so-called University buildings, " the Gando," from which at certain hours of the day lamas in their thousands may be seen pouring forth.
Crowning the hill is the great white temple, newly erected and barely finished when I saw it. In walking round a temple, either in or outside, foreigners should remember that sacred objects should always be kept on the right hand as a mark of respect. Inside the temple is one of the largest Buddhas in the world ; an immense brazen figure with four arms rising nearly one hundred feet out of the centre of the symbolic lotus flower.
This was presented by Bogdo, the ruler, spiritual and temporal, of Mongolia--a thank-offering for restored eyesight (which I heard is now as bad as ever) at a cost of 1,500,000 roubles. Facing the idol, and in direct violation of all Buddhistic principles which ordain the celibacy of its priesthood, two thrones, equal in every respect and draped in royal canary-coloured silk damask, are placed for the lama pontiff and--his consort.
This really beautiful temple, with its mass of gilding and harmonious decoration, forms a perpetual testimony to the inability of the Mongols to go far independently of Chinese assistance, for one does not contemplate as a likely event in the near future the building and decoration by Russian workmen of what they would regard as pagan edifices. This Mongolian building, with all its Tibetan ornamentation and detail, was erected entirely by Chinese hands, the brass for the Buddha being brought across the desert from Dolo N'or. In no sense do politics come within the sphere of my observations, but having seen a certain amount of Chinese, Russians, and Mongols in juxtaposition, there appears to me to be but little doubt as to which two nations form natural allies. The Mongols, beyond breeding ponies and cattle, making the felt of their yourts and engaging in a certain amount of transport business, do practically nothing, make practically nothing, for themselves.
Their very clothes and ornaments are of Chinese manufacture, and certainly it is the Chinese who are alone responsible for anything that is beautiful in Urga.
I, as other travellers in Mongolia have done, found it very difficult to buy any characteristically and exclusively Mongolian objects, and was therefore delighted to discover, not many days before my departure, that a Mongol auction was in progress immediately outside the great temple.
I went boldly in amongst the crowd and made bids for various things belonging, so far as I could make out, to departed lamas. The articles on sale were in the main clothes, altogether too dirty to handle, but with a few interesting little objects connected with the temple services among the rubbish, of which two, a priest's bell and a small brass drumstick, passed into my possession. A fine mil jug in white metal with this raised repoussť bands became mine at the price of five roubles. Instead of an aperture, the top was covered in and holes pierced through the metal to allow the milk to be poured into the jug.
Thus, there was not the faintest chance of its ever being properly washed out, which, seeing the use to which it was to be put, seemed a drawback.
A very decorative pail, of copper and brass, much worn, and certainly without great expecta- tion of life before it from an utilitarian point of view, greatly excited my envy, and I made a bid for it----two roubles. A Mongol promptly offered a few kopecks more, and my price finally rose to three roubles or six shillings. No one outbidding me, so far as I could see, I was fully under the impression that the pail was now my property ; but not so. In company with the auctioneer and three or four others, I went the round of the neighbouring yourts to find out whether or no anyone else wanted it and would give more. The man, however, whom the auctioneer thought might care to make a higher bid was not at home, and after hanging about for fully a couple of hours I came away without my pail, and learned once more that hurry is a word unknown in the East. There is apparently no time limit for bids at a Mongol auction, and a transaction frequently takes several days to complete.
The Russian quarter is adjacent to the holy city and separated therefrom, as I have said, by the horse market and the Chinese shops. It boasts of some half a dozen general stores, at which tinned foods, boots, and materials for clothes can be purchased at ridiculously inflated prices ; there is also a restaurant of a most depressing description, as well as a chemist's shop.
It may well be imagined that, the majority of the Chinese traders having been driven forth during the rebellion in 1912 on the one hand, and the virtual suppression of Chinese goods by a grinding taxation on the other, Russian retail trade in Urga is in a flourishing condition.
The Mongols are now to all intents and purposes forced very largely into dealing with Russian stores, and when one is told that 40 to 50 per cent is regarded as a reasonable profit, one can only wonder how long it will be before the natives realise that they have exchanged the frying pan for a remarkably fierce fire. But it is to be trusted that this condition of affairs will right itself again in time. Russian enterprise should it develop will probably fail through lack of labour. Their own command of labour in these regions is practically nil, and the cost of imported energy would be likely to spell failure to anyone engaging in business. On the other hand, the Mongols never have worked and it is highly improbable that thy ever will. Mongol requirements are simple, but such as they are it is clear that they need the Chinese to supply them.
This Russian quarter forms the least attractive division of Urga. The houses are small, squalid, and untidy ; their inhabitants possess apparently not the faintest knowledge of sanitation. What must be the civilising effect, of which one hears, of the Russian influence upon the Mongols, it is not difficult to foretell. The Chinese may be dirty, are extremely dirty in some respects, no doubt, but at least they do not appear to lose their sense of the artistic for all their defects in this direction, and under normal conditions even in the poorest quarters of their cities, a certain " esprit," a joie de vivre," is seldom absent. It is exceedingly difficult to arrive at anything representing even an approximate estimate of the number of Russians in Urga.
Of civilians, perhaps 1000 forms a liberal estimate, but all enquiries as regards the military strength are politely but firmly repulsed. The people in the Russian quarter, in the shops, restaurant, and on the streets, are a surly looking lot. Their suspicious character is plainly painted upon their uncouth faces, and every one with whose business in life they are not entirely " au fait," they regard as a spy of some sort.
Throughout our stay in Urga it was significant that we rode nowhere but that we met the same Buriat soldier ostentatiously uninterested in our existence.
Urga must have presented a gayer appearance under Chinese rule, when the great untidy stretch of waste land reaching almost from West Urga into Mai-mai'ch'eng, waste land formerly bordered with Chinese shops and houses, would have had a far more cheery atmosphere than it possesses nowadays. Now the few Mongol yamens stand isolated and unsupported, and the merry " va-et- vient " of commercial prosperity is no more. At night it is said to be rash to venture across it unaccompanied, and indeed, on more than one occasion we encountered a Cossack riding full pelt across the stony expanse, brandishing his naked revolver in his right hand. But latterly there appears to have been a somewhat arbitrary planning out and dividing up of the main part of Urga by the Russians, and an expanse which must be of dimensions approaching something like two miles long by three-quarters of a mile wide in the very heart of Urga, and in the centre of which the Russian consulate happens to stand, is to be doled out in concessions to Russians and to Russians only. To the north of this desolate scene are sundry temples, and outside them stand a number of brightly painted little sheds containing the wellknown Tibetan prayer wheels. Sexagonal in form, and with the characters representing " Om Mani Padme Hum " painted in red letters upon the panels, these prayer cylinders turn on a central pin, and anyone giving a hefty swing to them as he passes says his prayers with a minimum of trouble for a maximum of result. The Mongols, both lamas and laity, use the wheels devoutly, and one's ears grow accustomed to the light creaking sound long before one realises whence it comes.
The Russian consulate, in the midst of a heterogeneous collection of barracks, officers' quarters, and outbuildings, is a pleasant house enough, English in style and furnished, the Russian diplomatic agent told me, to resemble an English country house inside as far as possible. Of modest dimensions, it stands back from the road in an untidy compound, over the gates of which the Imperial standard looms large and menacing. The present agent is a man of marked ability, and speaks, I believe, no less than eight modern languages with a fluency equal to his native tongue. He has obviously succeeded in bringing the Mongol authorities to heel in a surprising degree as was evidenced not long ago when he insisted that the Hut'ukt'u, the ruler of all the Mongols, supported by some of the chief men of his country, should toe the line in person and make profound apology at the consulate for some slight that had been shown to the Russian flag. Whether or no this was a well-calculated action has yet to be proved. But that the Mongols are making a desperate effort not to be swallowed up exclusively and irrevocably by Russia is strongly suggested by their recently expressed desire to the other powers that the latter should be represented by consuls in Urga " in order to conclude treaties of commerce and friendship ". It is moreover rumoured that the Mongolian Government has recently issued an order forbidding the Chinese to sell any land in Mongolia to Russians. The only other house of any size or importance is the hideous red-brick erection which forms the headquarters of the Mongolore Company, which represents an important concession of gold-mining rights granted to the Russians prior to the declaration of independence.
In so far as the structural picturesque is concerned, this is undoubtedly now centred in and confined to the Chinese quarter, Mai-mai'ch'eng, where fine gateways and a very beautiful little temple remain as evidence of the prosperity enjoyed under Chinese rule. Now the entire place, which is surrounded by a strong stockade of fourteen or fifteen feet high, which, in a country where stone is so rare and labour so expensive, takes the place of the usual encompassing wall, is almost entirely deserted, and one may walk from end to end without encountering half a dozen people. The courtyard and temple far surpass in decoration and cleanliness anything that I saw in China. The mural paintings illustrate Chinese fables and are exceptionally well carried out and preserved. They have evidently been most carefully cherished by the guild of Shansi merchants, the Shih Erh Chia, of whom it is the headquarters.
The Mongols use the temple as much as the Chinese do, and I watched a Mongol princess in her official robes, accompanied by her two ladies, most devoutly performing her prostrations one day. She allowed me afterwards to take two or three photographs of her, but it was difficult to persuade her into sufficient light to make a very satisfactory picture.
Immediately outside the north gate of Mai-mai'ch'eng is the Chinese cemetery, where hundreds of unburied coffins are piled awaiting, I gathered, the far distant day when they might be carried back to be interred in Chinese soil. The poorer Chinese, for whom there was never such happy prospect, are buried in alien earth behind the Russian consulate a series of little mounds like magnified molehills being all that remains to indicate the fact.
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
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