A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 16
( Originally Published 1920 )
"Those who know do not speak ; those speak who do not know " Chinese proverb
THE Mongol belief in an immediate reincarnation leads them to be entirely careless of their dead, and the only description of tomb I saw in Urga were a couple of dagobas erected over priests' graves. " what does it matter ? " they say. " The body is only a case for the spirit, and the spirit is at once born again into a new case." I think that herein lies the reason they never seem to trouble to wash their " cases ". Corpses are carried out on to the hill-side on the tail of an ox-cart, a lama accompanying the man in charge of it. The lama selects an auspicious spot ; the man whips up his pony, jerks the corpse to the ground, and they drive quickly off without looking back. The rest is left to luck. If the body is rapidly devoured by wild beasts and birds of prey, the virtue of the deceased is established in the face of any evidence to the contrary. If, however, the process of dissolution is protracted, a bad name will cling to the reputation of the departed and also reflect inconveniently on his surviving family as long as spiteful memory permits.
A lasting impression of Urga is that of a city strewn with bones, and horrible, ghoulish, and terribly savage dogs prowling among them. You may count these dogs sometimes in hundreds about the refuse heaps that surround Urga.
Often they may be seen silently gnawing, gnawing away at something which makes you shudder as you ride quickly past. One never ventures outside one's door unarmed, for in winter the dogs are very fierce with hunger, and in summer there is always danger of meeting a mad brute. Only a few months before we stayed there a young lama from the temple just outside our compound was torn to pieces by these pariah dogs. He was a fine strong young man, but had gone forth alone one winter's day and was without a weapon. A number of dogs attacked him and before anyone could respond to his cries they had dragged him away to a neighbouring refuse heap and there torn him limb from limb. The dogs belong to nobody, and as well as being a constant source of danger, they are most repulsive looking creatures, always unsightly from some horrible disease that seems to beset them.
The Mongol view is that these dogs act as scavengers and so save them the trouble of disposing of their refuse.
Cut off completely from the world, as it seemed, I received neither letters nor news of outside affairs, nor did I observe during this gala time at Urga much evidence as to the unsettled state of Chinese and Mongolian political matters. An occasional telegram was received by my host from his colleague at Kalgan telling him something of the movements of the two opposing forces, but it was little that we learned as to what was happening, and if one had remained much longer there one would certainly have come to regard Urga as the centre of the universe, and to attach paramount importance to Mongolia as a political unit. The news, therefore, that Mr. Grant, a young Scotsman engaged in the Chinese telegraph service, had been murdered by Mongol soldiery at Ta-Bol was a great shock. We had met the companion who set out with him, the preparations for whose expedition I had watched with such interest three months before from the mission compound at Kalgan, when we passed through Verkne-Oudinsk, and were told, by him that Mr. Grant would probably reach Urga before we left it. The story as it came to us through Mongol sources was that Hung-hu-tzes had descended upon this poor young fellow for food at an isolated telegraph station, and that when they had exhausted his supplies, he, though resenting their importunities, had despatched urgent messages to the Chinese Government for relief. It is said that a telegram was sent to Yuan Shih K'ai himself ; but the Chinese Government were apathetic, or they did not see the force of feeding this robber band whose object was to destroy their men, when it was all they could do to supply their own soldiers with the barest necessities. In any case, no relief came, and Grant in desperation, no Chinese or Mongol being willing to undertake the journey, finally set off to Kalgan that he might obtain the stores necessary in order to continue his tour of inspection north. Why the authorities allowed him to return under the conditions prevailing in Inner Mongolia at that time it is difficult to understand. Be that as it may, upon reaching Ta-Bol again in company with three Chinese he was apparently captured by Mongol soldiers, who met him with the demand that he should hand over his supplies and his Chinese as well to them. He should go free, they said, if he complied, but if he refused they would kill him.
To his eternal honour be it recorded that Grant stood by his Chinese companions. The Mongols, although they murdered him in cold blood, have at least been forced to admit that the white man was their equal in their boasted bravery ; that he knew something of which they know nothing the supreme virtue of self-sacrifice. He did not die with the satisfaction of knowing that he was saving the life of others in so doing one hopes that many of us would be capable of paying that price for such a reward. He died because he would not save his own life at the price of blood even though that blood was inevitably to be shed.
From Mongol lips the account of the final scene comes to us. Announcing their intention of putting him to death, soldiers crowded round him to take him captive. He jeered that so large a number should be necessary to bind a single man.
We will soon stop your laughing," they said, and lining up twenty men they shot him down.
Grant met his death in such a manner as to make his nation proud of him. His action, combined with his last brave words, was of a gallantry that places him high in the company of heroes. You may kill me, but you can never frighten me," he said. A month or more later his body was found with a bullet through the head, as were the bodies of the three Chinese with whom he died rather than leave to their fate. Though the murderers had fled, the camp near which the bodies were found still remained, and it was on that account that they were found undisturbed ; that the wolves and vultures had left them untouched.
It would almost seem as though the Mongols, having done their worst, had guarded the remains ; as though they realised that a hero's death must surely be avenged.
Although, as I have said, there was little enough on the surface in the capital to suggest that a few hundred miles away fighting was in progress and unrest was prevalent, one could not describe Urga as being either a peaceful or a soothing place in which to settle. The fact that one must always keep a loaded rifle at hand does not make for that. A somewhat " nervy " little experience of my own one night was when I heard rifle and revolver shots too near to be exactly a lullaby. Creeping out into the compound, my revolver at full cock, and taking cover under shadow of the low Chinese buildings that bordered it, I discovered that a Mongol was sitting upon my roof taking pot shots at his enemy over the wall. This is the one and only time that I think I can claim literally to have been " under fire ".
Another uncomfortable moment was one night in riding home in the dark after dining with our Russian friends, when we inadvertently disturbed a horde of pariah dogs very busily engaged in gnawing at heaven knows what ! Several of them leapt up angrily at us, and there was temporary uncertainty as to whether we might not be in for an extremely ugly time of it. At night, too, our ponies were fearfully nervous, and after a violent " shy " because my fellow-traveller struck a match to light a cigarette, my little brute chucked me over his head most unexpectedly when, on reaching the compound gates, I essayed to rouse the inmates by banging on the doors with my riding-crop. We learned before leaving Urga that to be out after dark was looked upon as exceedingly rash and unwise, and before we left that city an order was issued by the Mongol Government to the effect that no one was to go outside his house after 8 p.m. ; that in one house in every twelve a man was to sit up all night in order to give warning should Hung-hu-tzes threaten ; and that in every house or yourt a light was to be kept burning all night.
These were not exactly reassuring auspices under which to make our way back along the lonely tracks to civilisation. It decided us, in fact, to give up the idea of taking a different route back in order to visit the gold mines in the Iro district, for it was especially in that neighbourhood that there was most likelihood of meeting desperate and evil characters. Anxious therefore to prolong our stay in Urga to the limit of the time we had at our disposal, we decided to cut the journey back to Siberia as short as possible and travel " orton " in as rapid stages as might be. The Russian Consul was very good in helping us to make our arrangements. In fact, the uncomfortable feeling lingered unexpressed at the backs of our minds that friendly though he had been, he would not be sorry to see us turn our faces from Urga. It is obvious that the Russians would not like a couple of inquisitive foreigners poking their noses into all sorts of corners, especially in a country where Russian jurisdiction is in the balance and control by no means complete.
An antediluvian tarantass was procured, and we were told that the owner lived in Kiachta and that we might deposit it there for him. The small sum of ten roubles seemed to ensure sufficient repair being carried out on it to see us through the two hundred miles that lay between Urga and our destination. The first day of August was spent in packing up and making preparations for our journey, which we hoped to compass in four instead of the seven days we had taken in coming. The friends we had made during our stay came to speed us on our way and regaled us during tea-time with stories of adventures that travellers had met with on previous occasions over the same road. The Consul, very genial and cheery himself, brought us our huchaos " as well as the passes which would enable us to carry our weapons out of Mongolia and through Russian territory. Our last evening, as we fondly thought, we spent on the banks of the Tola River, and with the whitened skull of a camel for a target we tried to improve our marksmanship with the Mauser in the twilight, using up all the ammunition we dared spare from the possible requirements on the journey home.
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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