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A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 18

( Originally Published 1920 )

"When the mind is enlarged the body is at ease " Chinese proverb

THE antiquity of our tarantass was a source of constant anxiety to us, and minor mishaps, ropes wearing out, shafts slipping, and nuts becoming loose, were of frequent occurrence. Two of our riders were mere boys one a lama, of fifteen or sixteen who when they were drawing us insisted on riding at a reckless pace over some very rough country. I protested several times and finally, after they had repeatedly disregarded my injunctions, succeeded in bringing them to a halt. Things were soon again as bad as ever however, and we were travelling at a tremendous rate when snap, scurrrr, scuff ! our front axle-tree had broken clean in two, and a wheel rolled clear away on the near side. We were now in a sorry plight, and what we were going to do we had not the slightest idea. The Mongols looked on helplessly, and were quite subdued when I told the two young ruffians, who had been so entirely responsible for the damage, in fluent English exactly my sentiments regarding themselves at that moment. By the sheer intervention of Providence we were saved from an uncommonly awkward situation. In the dim distance, the forms of a couple of Russians riding along were descried by one of our Mongols, and leaping into his saddle he had galloped away to solicit their aid before we had diagnosed what was passing in his mind.

Of the resourcefulness, the kindness, and general bon camaraderie of those Russians I can hardly say enough. Our troubles were at an end.

Of the pair, we diagnosed one as being perhaps a cattle-dealer in low-water his shaggy and disreputable appearance maybe belied him : the other man was a raw young soldier carrying despatches to Kiachta. The first was a man of brains. He took in the situation at a glance and immediately set the Mongols to work ; one to cut down a sapling, others to clear out some of the wreckage. Meanwhile he gave them such a dressing down as did my heart good to hear. By transforming the sapling into a sort of sleigh runner, he achieved what had seemed next to impossible, a means of conveying the tarantass, which now had a tremendous list to starboard, with our belongings inside to the next stage of the journey.

Thankful to have got even so far, we were preparing to pay off and dismiss the Mongols who had been responsible for so much trouble, but the Russian stopped us and gave us to understand that in consequence of the smash it would be better to give them nothing, and we therefore got rid of them by writing a letter on the spot to the Yamen at Urga, setting forth our complaint and explaining that we had been obliged to abandon the tarantass at the fourth stage of our journey. The headman appeared to support the Russian's judgment, and moreover cautioned the new set of men who were to take us along in gingerly fashion in our three-wheeled and almost disabled tarantass to our resting-place for the night. Fortunately this turned out to be a very short stage, and we walked almost all the way.

Having travelled by a different, although, I presume, more or less parallel road from Urga, we were, agreeably surprised to find ourselves when night fell at the little wooden shanty occupied by the young Chinese whose eyes I had treated on the downward journey, but with whose house my fellow-traveller had less pleasant associations.

His quarters, however, were taken up by Chinese travellers, and we therefore put up with a family of Russians who occupied the adjoining rooms.

As regards cleanliness this was certainly no improvement on the apartment next door, and I think Mr. Gull, who decided to sleep in the tarantass, had the better part. I had quite anticipated sharing the room with the Russian family who at supper time ate their meal in one corner while we, with the soldier and our friend in need as guests, had ours in the other. But they all dwindled away after their repast and I felt somewhat nonplussed when, after I, had retired to my plank bed, they trooped in one by one to say their prayers in front of the icon which decorated the corner of my abode. The men, of whom there seemed to be a nondescript half-dozen, appeared to find sleeping accommodation in odd carts and corners in the yard, and I heard next morning that the compound had not been such a quiet place of repose after all ; that the cows lowed, the pigs grunted, that cocks crowed long before dawn, and finally that snores were to be heard coming from every direction.

From this time _ forward the two Russians, civilian and soldier, were as our brothers. For the sake of their company and from sheer gratitude for their helpfulness and resource we welcomed them gladly, and willingly shared with them all that we had in the way of provisions. We had every reason to believe that our " huchao " carried the cattle-dealer through the remaining stages free of expense, and not once but many times I gathered from an intelligible word here and there that he described us to the Mongols as near relations of the Hut'ukt'u, and therefore that there must be no further nonsense about overcharging us. This must have been the explanation of the fact that at one stage the Mongols refused payment altogether, and I am afraid it must ever remain on or consciences that we were benefiting from what was in effect an offering to the living God.

The damage to our vehicle was examined by every man, woman, and child within reach, and a general concensus of opinion was arrived at to the effect that repair was impossible, and that the alternatives available were either to continue our journey by ox-carts drawn by ponies and to abandon our tarantass, or to remain where we were for a very precarious fortnight while a new axle was made and sent down to us from Kiachta.

The latter course was out of the question, and we gaily embarked upon a journey of some 120 miles on ox-carts, little recking of the possibilities of discomfort that this means of transit involved.

On one cart, which we did our utmost to keep in sight and in front of us, we packed the baggage, on the other we somewhat perilously perched ourselves. There was no protection either at the back or sides of the rough conveyance, and it was some time before we could learn to balance ourselves with any degree of comfort or feeling of security.

Arriving at the next stage about midday we were so tired with the jolting and the strain of keeping our seats that we were literally too exhausted to unpack our food, and merely stretcheour cramped limbs on the grass and dozed while the ponies were caught and put between the shafts and a new relay of Mongols carried out their customary pow-wow with the last lot. The stages were now of shorter duration, and as the carts were the property of the Mongols at various points, their capacity for comfort presented a pleasing variety. None of them, however, would in our luxurious and extravagant country, I am sure, be considered worthy of carrying manure from the farmyard to the field. The description of ox-carts which cross the Gobi and which I constantly met in Inner Mongolia applies equally to those of this region.

A further stage was rendered lively and really interesting by the discovery of the most remarkable one-year-old boy it has ever been my lot to meet. To say that the child could walk and talk like a four-year-old is to mention the least striking of his accomplishments. Mr. Gull, at the appearance of the baby in his mother's arms, was smoking a cigarette, and by unmistakable signs, to say nothing of sounds which were apparently intelligible to the surrounding Mongols, he expressed his desire for one too. He was forth-with presented with a cigarette, and we quite expected him to do what all normal children of his age would have done, pull it to pieces. But not so this child. He put it in his mouth most carefully, and looking round gravely to watch the effect he had produced, he allowed it to be lighted, when he puffed it for a moment or two before struggling to his feet and toddling off to the yourt to show his trophy to a doting grandfather. It was quite evident that that baby, as certain other babies of my acquaintance, ruled not only the yourt of his parents, but his various kith and kin in the camp to boot.

The settlement thus dominated appeared to us to be of a somewhat more wealthy character than others at which we had rested at least, it produced a slightly superior cart, larger, and with a plank upon which to sit, while the harness had the high Russian arc-like arrangement attached to the shafts. Between this and the next stage we again crossed the Hara-Gol (at a point higher up the river than last time) and found it almost unrecognisable, so greatly had its volume de- creased. That the Mongols do not devote the pick of their herds to supplying the traveller with horse-flesh for the journey between Urga and Kiachta goes without saying. As a rule, however, the ponies that were available were more or less docile, and on two stages only did we seem in peril of never reaching our destination at all once on account of too great a pace, on another on account of no pace at all.

Starting at 5 o'clock on the morning after we had re-crossed the Hara-Gol, and with a very good-looking and pleasant young priest as outrider it should be mentioned that to each cart was attached one pony only and that this was led by a mounted Mongol we seemed likely to take a short cut across the Great Divide. The wheeler was hopeless, beginning with a tremendous tussle on being put between the shafts ; and it was more than probable that this was his first experience of such encumbrances as cart and harness. The Mongol, whose own steed was in none too good a temper, held him up short against his bridle, and from time to time seemed likely to be pulled from his saddle by the jerks and tugs with which the little brute tried to free himself.

Our Russian friend and the soldier had ridden ahead, and there seemed every likelihood that we were in for a lively time. After a while, however, the pony appeared to have come to terms and to settle down to the fact that he had met his master.

The strain, however, had been too much for the harness, and a piece of the raw hide that formed it, parting company from the rest, gave the animal his chance. Without an instant's warning he was off, helter-skelter, over the prairie. Our lama, taken off his guard by the fracture, was left behind for a moment, but, recovering himself, darted away at a little distance, and instead of trying to catch us up did his best to head the pony up the hill, instead of allowing us to be dragged to certain destruction along a narrow road which wound up with a steep incline down to the dried-up bed of a river. There was nothing for it but to sit tight and hope for the best, and holding on to one another like grim death we danced about like parched peas on a drum head. Sitting tight seemed to suggest relative security for a moment or two, but in front of us was a bank, and heaven knows what beyond it.

The bank will stop him," I cried ; but no such luck. Up he went, and to our breathless amaze- ment we found we had leapt, cart, pony, ourselves, and all, not only the bank but the gully that was on the other side as well. It said much for the stability of our cart no less than for our nerves. But there were limits to the little beast's powers, and the sharply ascending ground to which he turned to avoid his master was too much for him, and, completely played out, he allowed himself to be caught. By this time our Russian friend, not understanding our delayed appearance, had very thoughtfully ridden back, and, practical man that he was, mended the harness, swearing volubly at the lama meantime. That we were alive to tell the tale seemed to us a miracle indeed.

Our next experience was a great contrast, for on the north bank of the Iro-Gol where we again changed horses, we picked up the slowest brute I met during the whole time I was in the East. So slow it was that the Russian lent me his whip in order that I might urge it on a bit from the cart. This and the fact that on one occasion I touched it gently on the back with the toe of my boot rather annoyed the Mongol who led it, and turning round he informed us in Chinese that his horse was " li h' ai " (terrible). Once and once only did it suggest the least justification of the statement, and that was when nearing camp it appeared suddenly to call its traditions, and made a very respectable entry, dashing up to the travellers' yourt in fine style.

This proved to be a very friendly settlement, and the people crowded round the yourt to bid us welcome. I dare say friendliness was mingled with curiosity. Seeing me pour a drop or two of eau-de-Cologne on a handkerchief and pass it over my face, they were keenly desirous of paying me the compliment of imitation, and held out their hands for the bottle. Mongols are not backward in asking for what they want, and are quite of the belief that to him who asks shall be given.

" Ai-iaa" they ejaculated delightedly. Most of them liked the scent, but one woman who sniffed it up too hard from the palm of her hand was greatly annoyed when it stung her nose, shaking her head like a dog, and walking off in high dudgeon when the others roared with laughter at her. They all copied my method of using it, and were smearing their faces over with their dirty hands, when our Russian took a rise out of a newcomer who had not been present at the first operation. Seeing every one rubbing their cheeks he wished of course to take part in the game, and the Russian pouring the questionable dregs of a water bottle into his outstretched palms, the trusting lama applied it to his face. The rest keenly appreciated the joke and the man himself took it in good part when he found that they were fooling him. As consolation I administered a lump of sugar dipped in tea, and this was much relished. They were a cheery lot of people here who played with us and each other like so many children.

We woke up next morning to make the acquaintance of a learned professor from the University of Tomsk, who had arrived during the night, coming in so quietly that he had disturbed no one. We learnt that he was on a surveying expedition to Ulliasutai and Kobdo. We left him planting his theodolite on the top of a hillock near the camp, the Mongols regarding his movements with the greatest suspicion and dislike. Another couple of stages brought us near the end of our journey, and as we jogged along within sight of Kiachta we reviewed our experiences during the weeks in wild Mongolia, with, to quote my fellow-traveller, "at all events this result that at the end of the journey we both wished we were back again at the beginning."

Kiachta looked picturesque enough as we approached its quasi-civilisation once more. Still, we had no desire to remain there an hour longer than was necessary, and now that Mongolia was for the time being a thing of the past---a veritable castle in Spain which this time at any rate had materialised--I looked forward with pleasure to the to me unknown capital of Russia. The journey down the Selenga River contrasted pleasantly as regards duration with the up-river trip, and arriving once more at dusty WerkneUdinsk, we lost no time in embarking upon the express train to Chelyabinsk, passing through Transbaikalia in rainy gloom. At Chelyabinsk we changed and boarded a very inferior train for St. Petersburg, the first-class carriages of which were small and less comfortable than the average second class in any other country. Petersburg in late summer was quiet enough to be restful after our wanderings, while the cleanliness and comfort that attends sightseeing in the orthodox manner were, I am bound to admit, distinctly refreshing. But the essence of life lies in its contrasts, and after returning to London by means of the luxurious boats which ply from point to point among the beautiful islands of the Baltic, it was not many weeks before one looked back with longing to the simple life, the simple customs of a primitive people veritably a call to the wild.

Mongolia fascinated me in anticipation; in materialisation ; in retrospect ; and most of all in the prospect of going back again some day.

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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