A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 17
( Originally Published 1920 )
To spoil what is good by unreasonableness is like letting off fireworks in the rain " —Chinese proverb AGAIN we had, reckoned without our Mongols. Rising betimes and being from an early hour in a state of preparedness, we sat down and waited for the appearance of our tarantass, our horses, and our men. We waited all day, and in the evening gave them up as a bad job and went off for a final ride over the short springy turf among the foothills surrounding the holy city. Next day, five weeks exactly since we had left Kiachta, the Mongols arrived before 8 a.m., but such are their feckless and procrastinating ways, that it was noon before they were ready to start. Our first halt came all too soon, for we were not more than 300 yards from the compound gates when we had smash number one. This, by the way, was the first and last time that I have ever seen a Mongol unseated, and to do him justice, the man came off his pony, not from having lost his grip, but in preference to being crushed against the palings of the temple we were passing.
We had started off three men short, and one of the ponies, never having been used to draw anything before, and being, moreover, extremely fresh, took advantage of the situation to jib, throw its rider, and bolt off across the valley. Without a moment's delay, the other Mongol freed his steed from the tarantass and sped off after the runaway. We were left sitting in the tarantass.
The pony, after a wild chase, was caught again, and then in order to knock the stuffing out of him a little, his owner, belabouring him freely, took him for a sharp gallop. Meanwhile, and just as we were ready to depart once more, the rascally horse-dealer, who, by the way, had been our next-door neighbour as well, rode up, obviously in a state of indignant excitement. Mr. Mamen, our Norwegian friend, who, hearing of our smash, had come along to help if he could, explained that the man was very angry and was under the impression that we had insulted him.
The story of the skull, the casus belli with the horse-dealer, brings back to me considerable regret. Ten days or so prior to our departure I had found on a hill-side some distance from Urga a fine, and apparently, clean, specimen of Mongol skull, and tyro in the subject that I was, thought that to possess and take it home with me would be interesting from an anthropological point of view. Threading a bit of string through the eye socket, therefore, I tied the skull to my saddle and rode back with it. My friends very kindly, instead of crushing my aspirations, suggested that to let it steep for a few days in a pail of disinfectant might be a wise and sanitary precaution. When, however, I wanted to pack it up, I found on pouring off the disinfectant, that the dogs and vultures had not performed their functions with the thoroughness that I had anticipated, and that the cranium was still half full of decomposed cerebral matter. My Chinese boy, of course, would not look at it, and I could persuade neither of my European companions to clean out the thing for me. The easiest way out of the difficulty seemed to be to leave the skull behind. As soon, however, as we had taken our departure, the boy in clearing up took the pail and its contents to a neighbouring dust heap and deposited the latter thereon.
Our Mongol horse-dealer had unfortunately been cognisant of the proceedings, and, on the look out, no doubt, for a grievance, had jumped on his horse that he might overtake us and complain of our action in leaving the skull so near to the confines of his compound. We apologised, of course, and tried to impress upon him the fact that we had intended no insult. Noticing that he still appeared irate, my noble fellow-traveller, with the object, I believe, of leaving nothing but pleasant impressions behind, offered to go back and to remove the skull from the vicinity. A further delay, and he re-appeared, bringing with him a bulky parcel tied up in a newspaper. My penitence was not assumed, and coals of fire were heaped on my head when not one solitary word of reproach was uttered as we packed my very gruesome possession away in the bottom of the tarantass. Even now it was in no pleasant condition for transporting by civilised routes through Europe, and I willingly agreed that it would be as well to rid ourselves of the encumbrance at the first opportunity. To remind me of that incident, even ever so gently, during the rest of the journey was to render me immediately docile and amenable to any scheme, no matter how distasteful it might be.
We picked up our remaining Mongols in Urga, and bade adieu to the Russian officer, Captain Gabriek, who came to see us off, give us some parting words of advice, and take a photograph of us as a souvenir. We were nearing the top of the first hill out of the capital when smash number two occurred. The new pole which had been fixed across the shafts of the tarantass and was being carried in the usual way athwart the saddles of four Mongols, suddenly broke in two, and, without a moment's warning, the tarantass began to trundle backwards down the incline. We sat tight, expecting to turn over every minute, the Mongols, who are useless in a crisis, looking on aghast at what had happened.
We fetched up against a heap of stones in a manner truly providential, when, keeping the right side uppermost, we disembarked, and set the Mongols to work on mending the broken pole. The opportunity having arrived, I took advantage of all their attention being concentrated elsewhere to walk off with the newspaper parcel containing the skull, and sauntering away to some distant bushes, I concealed my burden amongst them.
Years hence some Sherlock Holmes will doubtless discover it, and making four out of two plus three, will with his customary acumen come to the conclusion that a dastardly crime has been committed here ; that some brutal Englishman has murdered a Mongol and disposing of the body (heaven knows how !) has attempted to conceal the head by wrapping it in a copy of the " North China Herald," and leaving it by the wayside. You never can tell.
We were forced into the position of making the best of a very bad job as far as the repair to our broken pole was concerned, and came to the conclusion that it would not bear the severe strain of descending the long road which led down to the farther side of the Urga Pass, up which we had trudged so cheerily little more than a month before. So, with a couple of ropes to haul the tarantass back in order to avoid weight on the pole, we allowed the now somewhat subdued Mongols to take it down, while we ourselves led their ponies. Our accident delayed us for over an hour, and this, combined with our tardy start, made us very late in arriving at the end of the first stage. Here a relay of men and horses was forthcoming, and we did our best to instil into them caution as regards the fragile condition of our conveyance. The way diverged considerably from the route our Jamschik had taken in bringing us, and before reaching our night quarters we had a somewhat disconcerting stream to negotiate. Under ordinary conditions the Mongols would have raced over and torn up the steep bank on the farther side with wild Hoop-la's ". Our broken pole necessitated a very different procedure, and there was nothing for it but " all hands to the wheels " and to push the heavy tarantass across. They gave me one of the ponies to ride, but what with the water being deep and the pony splashing about I think I got as wet as they did. Mongols detest getting even their feet wet and made a prodigious fuss before they could be induced to wade.
Our men on this stage were not a particularly ingratiating set, and, though the subject did not come up for discussion, neither of us felt any too safe in their hands. Their character was disclosed when we arrived at our destination for the night, and they tried to force us into paying eight roubles instead of the usual three, or the actual five, which we offered them. The Mongols bluffed all they knew, and swore (one of them spoke enough Chinese to act as interpreter) that the sum of eight roubles was entered in black and white upon our " huchao," or posting permit. My less pugnacious companion was for paying and thus saving discussion, but I felt that to give in at so early a stage would mean being bullied at every subsequent one, and I therefore gave them to understand that I would go back to Urga with them in the morning to settle matters rather than be imposed upon in such a manner. They made as though they would depart without the money, but finally caved in before our firm stand, and after a pow-wow which had lasted over an hour, they settled down to tea and cigarettes before taking their departure, by which time it was nearly ten o'clock.
Tired out with our long parley, thankful to see the last of them, but pleased that we had managed to keep our tempers and that we had finally scored off these Mongols, we fed hastily and settled down in the traveller's yourt for the night with as little preparation as might be, feeling none too secure in this obviously hostile camp. In the wee small hours a sound of soft footsteps wakened me, and I sat up to listen. I could hear from the deep regular breathing of the other occupants of the yourt that nervousness was not troubling them unduly. But the slight sounds developed, and a sudden creaking outside woke Mr. Gull up too. An unexpected rush of horses' hoofs and more creaking presented in a flash to me what was happening outside. " They are stealing our tarantass," I whispered, and grasped my revolvers, one in each hand. We sat still and waited in silence for a while, when lights and voices reached us through the chinks and crevices of the yourt. " Those brutes have come back ' to rob us," muttered Mr. Gull, and crawling quietly to the door I could see through the crack above it a crowd of faces.
What the devil do you want ? " shouted one of us, and rejoicing to find my hand steady as a rock, I prepared to fire at the first indication of attack.
Indeed I was veritably within an ace of pulling the trigger, when suddenly I became conscious of a fair moustachioed, blue-eyed face, topped by a forage cap, gazing at me in gentle amazement. I could have fallen upon the neck to which it was attached in the reaction from what we believed to be a desperate situation. The Mongols were not there to attack us, but merely to usher in to the traveller's yourt a Russian officer and his servant who were posting through to Kiachta in like manner to ourselves. We quickly helped them to settle in, plied them with food and brandy (which seemed to please them enormously), and the lot of us were soon sleeping soundly and securely, I with the comfortable feeling that together we would be able to account for a good many Mongols were the ruffians to come back and raid us.
We had rather hoped that we might be able to continue our journey in this pleasant, if speechless, company, but the Russians were travelling very light, and were up and off by daybreak, while we had to wait for a new pole ; a young Scotch fir being cut down, smoothed a bit, and sold to us for fifty kopecks for the purpose. I was interested Ain watching the toilet of the officer, whose servant stood at attention opposite him holding a small saucepan full of water in which he washed and gargled with great thoroughness.
The appearance of the group of Mongols who were to take us on our next stage did not impress us favourably, and we felt that our men of yesterday had probably done their best to make things difficult for us. The other people in the camp too, seemed truculent and surly, begging for food from us in no too pleasant a manner. One of our new men was indeed a formidable looking ruffian, six feet tall, and with a scowl that never left his face.
The others consisted of a " black man," two girls, and a lama of twenty or so. The younger girl was very pretty. She obviously mistook me for a man, and all the time she was off duty she rode alongside the tarantass making overtures to me for sweets (we had laid in a good supply on finding a particularly pleasing brand in a Russian shop in Urga), pins, flowers, or any other trifle she espied and as promptly coveted. She was so coy and merry that I felt quite sorry for my companion that all her attentions should thus be squandered upon myself. It annoyed some one else too. The young lama whose beloved, I gathered, she was, seemed distinctly uneasy, and his head was much more frequently turned in our direction than to his business of guiding the tarantass. At one halt he appeared to be telling her plainly what he thought of her frivolous behaviour, but although she pouted very prettily it was all to no avail, anher swain tied up again, figuratively speaking, between the shafts of the tarantass, the minx relapsed once more into her engaging little ways.
At the end of the stage there was the fuss we had anticipated, and our scowling outrider looked by no means a pleasant customer when he began bullying argument for a double fare. We were, however, at this time of day in no mood to be trifled with, and throwing the money on the ground, waved our " huchao " in the face of the head man of the settlement and demanded fresh horses without delay. Two can play at a game of bluff, and we were the winning side this time. With a lively crew of no less than eight youngish men dare-devil scallywags they looked we were soon under way again.
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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