A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 15
( Originally Published 1920 )
" It is only kindness and not severity that can impress at the distance of a thousand miles "
Chinese proverb AMONG all the brightness and sparkle of life in Urga, there is alas ! a very dark and sinister side. Day after day, we rode past a certain little inconspicuous enclosure surrounded by a rough pine stockade, little recking of the appalling amount of misery it encompassed. How far circumstances and how far sheer native cruelty are responsible for the terrible condition under which the Mongols drag out a ghastly existence in punishment for crimes either great or small, and even prior to condemnation, it would be difficult to establish. Deprivation of liberty and rigorous confinement is the accepted form of punishment held by the Mongols in common with all nations of modern civilisation, and the present form probably originated before there was any other way of imprisoning malefactors than the felt yourt of the nomad, from which, of course, any prisoner could escape in ten minutes.
Few, if any, Europeans other than Russians have seen the inside of this Mongol prison ; and truly the dungeons at Urga beggar description.
Through the kind offices of one of our Russian friends we obtained a pass from the Mongol Government to enable us to visit the prisoners.
The authorities were not a little suspicious as to our object in wishing to do so, and since a reason had perforce to be furnished, they were informed that we were merely humane travellers who desired to distribute largesse among the suffering inmates. Accompanied by a couple of Mongol officials, three Russians, and Mr. Gull, I was taken over the entire place, and I believe that none of its horrors escaped me.
It would indeed be a hard heart that did not open to the hopeless misery of the prisoners. Within a small compound fenced in by high spiked palisades are five or six dungeons. The dungeons are thrice enclosed by a stockade of rough pinewood some eighteen feet high, and to gain access to them many heavily bolted doors have to be unbarred. All the doors were double, and two great padlocks ensured the security of each. As we entered, the gaolers, who struck us as being a most unholy looking couple who literally gloated over the misery of the prisoners in their power, met us, and called our attention, quite unnecessarily, to A trio of pale-faced Mongols sitting on the ground just inside' the gates. Their hands and feet were heavily chained together, and they fell on their knees when they saw us. We had each contributed three roubles before entering the prison, and, having reduced it to small change, one of the party doled it out, making the sum go as far as possible among the miserable suppliants.
Passing on to the interior, we came upon a heavy wooden chest, some 4 to 41 feet long by 2 feet deep, iron-bound and secured by two strong padlocks. To our horror we discovered that it contained a man one might have imagined that a wild beast to be sent by train was temporarily imprisoned therein ! But a man ! The hole in the side was of sufficient size to enable the prisoner to thrust out his manacled hands. This also provided the sole means of ventilation. But this unfortunate creature was well off compared with the others we saw subsequently. At least he was breathing in the open air. The dungeons, we were told, were so full that this prisoner had to remain outside. While we were discussing his pitiable lot, clank, clank, went the great bars and bolts, and the gaoler had opened the double doors leading into the first dungeon. There must have been from twenty to thirty coffins in this, some piled on the tops of the others, and the atmosphere was absolutely putrid. The two Mongol officials, whose general tone l cannot say impressed us very favourably, now very ostentatiously held their long sleeves over their noses, accustomed to smells though they were. One imagines that there may have been some means of cleaning out the coffins from underneath as is the case in cages in a menagerie, for it was most strongly impressed upon us that never under any circumstances whatsoever are the prisoners allowed to come out except for execution or rarely to be set free. The majority are in for life sentences.
One's eyes growing accustomed to the darkness the only light that penetrates it is from the doors when they are opened one became gradually aware of wild shaggy heads poking through the round holes in the coffin's sides. I was standing, quite unconsciously, close to a coffin, when, glancing down, I saw a terrible face, nothing more, almost touching the skirt of my riding coat.
Beside one coffin was a pool of blood which told its own tale. Within it there was a poor devil. coughing his lungs up. The Russian officer, knowing Mongolian well, spoke a few words to one or two of them, but they seemed too dazed to understand. Their minds, like their limbs, quickly atrophy in this close confinement. After a breath of fresh air in the tiny space that separates the dungeons, which, by the way, are four or five feet below ground level, another double door was unbarred for us, and we entered the second dungeon where there were a similar number of Chinese, in the coffins. It struck us as infinitely sad to find these gentle, highly civilised Chinese here, Shansi merchants most of them, friends and neighbours no doubt of the men with whom we had drunk tea in their charming guild rooms adjoining the little temple in Mai-mai-ch'eng. There they were, shut up for the remainder of their lives in heavy iron-bound coffins, out of which they could never under any conditions or for any purpose move. They could not lie down flat, they could not sit upright, they were not only manacled but chained to the coffins. They saw daylight but for a few minutes,
when their food was thrust into their coffins through a hole four or five inches in diameter, twice daily. In one way only did they score over their Mongolian fellow-sufferers. Their narrower Chinese skulls enabled them, painfully and with difficulty, to protrude their heads through the hole in the coffin side. The Mongol cranium is too wide to do so at all.
Mr. Gull talked to the Chinese as long as the brutal-looking gaolers would let him, and I admired the pluck which enabled him to remain so long in that fearsome atmosphere. The men told him that all they knew was that they were suspected of supporting the Chinese Republic at the time of the Mongol declaration of independence. They had apparently had no trial, and they saw not the slightest chance of escape from this appalling situation. They seemed thankful to have a few words with anyone in their own tongue.
There were five dungeons and we went into all of them. It was impossible in the dim light to estimate how many prisoners they contained, and one got very varying figures, but I imagine that the total must be in the neighbourhood of 150.
One of the Russians wished to take a photograph of the three prisoners outside, and the brutes of gaolers held their hands when they tried to cover their faces. I felt that one ought not insult their misery by doing such a thing. Indeed, no matter what their crimes, one had nothing but the deepest pity for the prisoners. We were profoundly moved by all the experiences of the afternoon and rode back much saddened in the twilight to Mai-mai-ch'eng. Nothing I can ever see in the future will wipe out the memory of that terrible prison.
What I had learned of the prison system in Urga helped me the better to understand what I saw later on. I was present, not indeed from any morbid curiosity, but in order to witness the much-vaunted Mongol courage in the face of death, at the execution of three Mongol soldiers, who six months before had murdered their general, Gen Dung Geng, and since that time had been dragging out their lives in those awful coffins.
A perfect July morning. The ride over the short turf for miles along the wide valley to the north-east of Urga made us forgetful for the time being of the gruesome object of our expedition. Three of the soldiers who had murdered their general the prince, who had led them 400 strong against 4000 Chinese within the walled city of Kobdo, and whose title was the reward of his conquest were to be executed. Discipline among his ranks had been terribly severe ; his soldiers hated him, and the glory with which they were covered as a consequence of their victory did not outweigh the rancour in their hearts. A chosen few were supported without exception by their fellows. They were unanimous to a man.
The prince must die. They rose against him on the morning of an ice-bound day in January, and twenty Mauser rifles emptied their lead into his body. Miraculous seemed the strength pos- sessed by the General. A bullet shattered his thigh, but he continued to run. The soldiers hesitated when they saw that he did not fall.
For one English mile he fled from his pursuers, limping but swift. To the city he fled, and people ran out from their dwellings to ask the reason for such doings. They were out of earshot when the answer came flinging back to them. But as he ran he called to those that would have come up with him, " Stand away from me, or you also will surely be killed," and in his agony he pushed into a place of safety some little children who were in his path. His heart was tender in spite of the severity of his discipline.
He ran ; and coming to a gateway where he might hope to find sanctuary, he threw himself with all his force against the door. He was a strong man, and the door fell in, and he with it. He lay as he fell. His own soldiers came quickly up with him, and to the first he cried, " Kill me, then, that I may enter the new life without further delay." And straightway the man shot him through the head.
. . . And we sat on the hillside and waited, while our ponies found fodder more luscious than that to which they were accustomed on the nearer plains. We waited for over two hours. The Mongols are not a punctual people.
Presently, riding in twos and threes, they came straggling over the hill ; the hill that shall obscure from view the bloody deed which must be carried out without the knowledge of the gods, which on no account may take place within sight of the sacred mountain of Bogdo-N'or upon whose face all Urga gazes.
The horsemen rode slowly across the mountain, for they knew that more slowly still would the ox-carts with their mounted escort of soldiers from the south wend their way around its foot. Besides, there was no hurry. The prince's soldiers, three only of the many who were eating their hearts out in those awful dungeons, were to die today for his murder.
Some sixty or seventy Chinese herded together near us, a cheery, chattering crowd, make a jarring note in this sombre atmosphere. They rejoice to witness death, more especially when a Mongol is to die. They sit apart from all others. There is no natural affinity between these warring races ; and the chances just now are that in the near future Mongolia's relations with her celestial neighbours may be fundamentally altered.
Suddenly round the bend of the valley appears a multi-coloured little group of riders, the predominant tint being the blue uniforms of the southern soldiers making general harmony with the grey-green of the grass on the slopes. They are quickly within range, and by the peacock plumes in their velvet hats one sees that many officials accompany the criminals. There, in the midst of the soldiers, are the primitive little ox-carts, two of them, and in them sit, arms tightly bound to their backs, the shock-headed criminals.
Shock-headed and bearded they have become during their sojourn in the coffins in which they have been closely confined in Urga's dungeons.
Death is indisputably preferable to imprisonment in Mongolia. One of the trio, in spite of the terrible six months through which he has passed, is full of life and vigour, and he shouts up in a truculent manner to the officials who have gathered together in a little tent overlooking the stakes to which later on the prisoners are to be bound. Hi, you there," he calls, " don't go and hide yourselves inside the tent. You have to watch our execution. Come out and see us die." And when the simple meal, with which they are served immediately before the execution takes place, is served to them unable to feed themselves, the bowls are held to their lips by the gaolers this same man demands his rights, and asks for meat and tea instead of the water and tsamba which are given to him.
And then having satisfied their hunger, they are quickly and securely bound in kneeling posture to the stakes. For the last time the sturdy ruffian expostulates at not being allowed to face the fire. " Why do you not let us face the guns ? " he argued. " Why will you not allow us to die like soldiers ? " This position is ignominious.
It is unworthy of their traditions. But no notice is taken of him, and perhaps his earlier discipline impels him to submit without further demur.
A lama, carrying in his hands a framed picture of the Great Prophet, walks in front of the captives.
What he says to them we cannot hear, but one replies, " I only want to be a soldier when I am born again ". The three gaze reverently enough at the Buddha, and perhaps pray to him that their lot in the speedy re-incarnation, which they confidently anticipate, may be cast in pleasanter places. The lama retires, and with a startling rapidity, three blue-clad soldiers have placed themselves at close range, five yards at most from the murderers, and then thud, thud, and the dust on the hill beyond puffs up in three little clouds.
The heads of two of the men fall backwards with a jerk on their necks. The bullets have done their work. But custom demands that a second and even a third round shall be fired. Then we see that one of the men, the central figure of the group, is still alive, and the awful thing is that no one but ourselves appears to give heed to the fact.
Until the Norwegian runs down the hill to the unfortunate victim and calls the attention of the' Mongols to his condition. Five minutes they seem like hours pass before one of the troop of soldiers, already mounted and galloping up the hill towards Urga, is called back. He dismounts, kneels, and takes aim and fires. There is no mistake about the despatch this time. The poor wretch has died bard indeed.
We are a very quiet little party as we ride slowly homewards through the valleys. Away behind us the kites circle round the spot we have just left ; waiting until the last of the crowd has taken himself off. A human vulture has paid a few kopecks for the privilege of stripping those three poor bodies of the filthy clothes in which they so bravely expiated their crime, and he too waits until we are all out of sight before he commences his gruesome task. And the dogs, the ghoulish dogs that infest Urga, will compete with the vultures.
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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