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A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 2

( Originally Published 1920 )

" A great army may be robbed of its leader, but nothing can rob one poor man of his will " —Chinese proverb

I SHALL always associate Kalgan with waiting for things to happen. Rumours of war were constantly coming to one's ears, news of camel caravans on the point of starting for Mongolia reached one periodically. Nothing ever seemed to culminate. The missionaries, of whom there were some half a dozen, were very much opposed to my making an expedition alone into Mongolia, and with my limited knowledge of Chinese it was impossible without their help to make any plans for doing so. My hostess, a delicate little thing, very much younger than her colleagues, stood my friend throughout and did what she could to make enjoyable my stay within the somewhat circumscribed area of the compound. Deeply interested in English manners and customs her conversation had an almost childish naiveté, and circled around our royalties and other great English names that had come to her ears. She was, she told me " tickled to death " at the idea of entertaining an English lady, but was frankly disappointed that I bore no title. As a small girl, she said, she had longed to be English, and loved reading about lords and ladies (we now know the market for a certain class of light fiction), and persuaded her mother to call her " Lady Ermyntrude ". " Is it true," she would ask me, " that if English girls don't marry the first man that asks them, they never get another chance ? "

Life in a mission compound can never fail to interest the speculative mind, and although waiting about for plans to resolve themselves is a severe tax on one's patience, my days at Kalgan are recalled with considerable pleasure notwithstanding. What I wanted was an excuse for taking a camel cart (which appealed to me as being exceedingly comfortable as well as a great novelty), and I watched a couple in course of preparation for the ill-fated expedition of Messrs.

Grant and Henningsen who were to journey across the Gobi to Urga on telegraph service, which for the former was to end so disastrously. Camel carts bear a certain amount of similarity to the Peking cart, with the following differences : they are higher from the ground, having larger wheels ; they are covered in entirely, having a window and door on the near side ; they are of such ample dimensions that one may stretch oneself at full length and live in them in considerable comfort.

In fact, I have in North Mongolia seen a man, woman, and two children camping very comfortably in one cart.

One might well be asked what there was to prevent me from hiring a camel cart a very natural question when one lives in Europe and where money will compass most of one's desires.

Not so in the East. A solitary camel cart was held to be unsuitable for my purpose, for a solitary camel cart wandering about Mongolia without escort would undoubtedly attract an undue amount of attention. Camel carts usually form part of a caravan.

Kalgan, with its population of some seventy or eighty thousand souls, grown out of all proportion to the picturesque little walled-in city in its midst, the unusual temples, among which a couple of Mohammedan mosques came as a surprise to me, its many theatres, and little shops containing much that was interesting and novel, would under ordinary conditions have satisfied me for weeks ; but the nearness to the goal of my desire to some extent spoiled it for me, rendering it tantalising and me restless. Not once, but many times, did I find my way on foot through the thick dust of the narrow streets to the wide road leading out to the north gate, the Mongol quarter of the city.

There one met hundreds of camels padding softly along in the thick dust laden with immense bales of wool from Urga, picking their way over boulders polished by the traffic of 1200 years.

The camels are in their most disreputable condition in April ; their wool, being in process of shedding, left big bare patches, and made them look singularly naked in places. I loved to see their stately walk, and the stolid Mongols sitting, pipe in mouth, on their backs. Fine beasts. Fine men. To see, too, the Mongols themselves at their journey's end, galloping recklessly along this terrific road, raising clouds of dust in their wake, stirrupless as often as not, their ponies slithering and 0 stumbling over the concealed stones, recovering themselves in a manner perfectly marvellous. They are wonderful horsemen.

A Russian post plies between Kalgan and Urga, suspended now, however, on account of the unrest in the country, and the Mongols cover the 800 miles in eight days, relays of ponies waiting for them every twenty miles or so. They ride at full speed during the entire journey, which averages ordinarily from thirty to thirty-two days.

Small wonder that the wares in the innumerable little stalls which line this great north road should be dirty and unattractive at first glance. One must quickly consume one's proverbial peck of dust here ; everything in this Mongol market is thick with it ; hair, clothes, food, and all. But what is the use of troubling about what cannot be helped ?

A medicine stall was one of the many at which I lingered, and from curiosity asked the prices of things that were displayed as " cures "snakes, lizards, and similar small fry were kept in bulk.

A rhinoceros tusk I gathered to be a charm of prophylactic nature, but a furry foot altogether baffled my intelligence. The vendor was by no means anxious to sell, but being pressed for a price said that I might have the object for fifteen dollars, i.e. thirty shillings. I discovered later that it was the pad of a bear, and esteemed of great value from a medicinal point of view. I refrained from purchasing it. Two charming souvenirs, however, I did pick up in Kalgan a tiny green jade wine cup, and, as o. mascot, a jade thumb ring guaranteed to bring me great good luck on all my wanderings. They were of the colour of rivers bringing down the snow from mountains, and moreover were bargains at a dollar and half a dollar respectively.

Everything that one could conceivably want for the great journey across the desert is to be bought from this market, the last link with civilisation, and few caravans push straight through this busy quarter without a halt for a hank of rope, or another string of dried persimmons, or such like.

To the gregarious Celestial it must indeed be a mighty effort to break away from Kalgan and start upon that lonely trek so fraught with dangers and possibilities unknown.

The principal theatre in Kalgan is in this neighbourhood, and more than once I got drawn into a crowd of five or six hundred people in the triangular piece of waste ground near the north gate. The theatre was a pretty little temple, the stage open to the heavens on three sides and raised eight or ten feet from the ground. The play is as a rule, I am told, composed of scenes and episodes from the Chinese classics. Be that as it may, the actors, with handsome flowing beards, are as unlike the modern Chinese as well could be.

Every one whose business was not too pressing strolled within seeing and hearing distance there were no barriers or enclosures. At the back of the crowd, which, with less than half a dozen exceptions, woes composed of men and boys, numbers of ponies and mules waited patiently, and among them from their Peking carts a few women obtained a good view while not being too much in evidence. Kalgan is conservative in preserving her traditions concerning the deportment of women. Vendors of all sorts of things, from dusting brushes to cigarettes and pea-nuts, took life easily on the outskirts of the laziest, pleasantest, smelliest crowd I have ever been in. In the back-ground too were several barbers plying their trade, their victims gazing at the play while their heads were shaved or their queues combed and plaited.

The quaint medieval play, with great clashing of cymbals, and lunging about with swords and scimitars, was lively enough to please the audience tremendously. The whole scene was picturesque to a degree, what with bright clothes and action on the stage, with a background of the mountains surrounding Kalgan, and nearer still the sombre old wall of many, many centuries, and again, in front of it, the flat and gabled roofs of Chinese houses and shops with their ornate fronts and gaudy signs and symbols, the gilded lettering in two languages as befits the meeting-place of China and Mongolia. Nearer still the handsome mules with their richly decorated saddle-cloths, passed and repassed, and now and again a string of dromedaries pursued the even tenor of their way, undisturbed and unattracted by the babel of the multitude.

The colour scheme was blue, blue, blue, in every conceivable tone, and for variation, soft maizy yellow, prune, and mauve the distant mountains deeply purple.

The old men of China are not the least pleasing of its inhabitants. They are so kindly, so dignified, so placid, and so really venerable. They stood around, dozens of them, with their pet birds in pretty wooden cages singing away all the time, often held on the flat of their hands high up and out of danger from the crowd. The cages are frequently finely carved and beautifully made, the little seed and water-pots of good porcelain, and the fittings of wrought silver or brass. In Kalgan a foreign woman is indeed a rara avis, but Chinese manners can be beyond reproach. The people crowd round one, and certainly in the city one never moved without a small following. But here, weird object that one must have seemed, they seldom made themselves objectionable or jeered. One cannot help reflecting upon the difference there would be in the case of a Chinese visiting a northern English town in his Oriental dress and with his stumbling speech. How, one wonders, would the crowds treat him ?

In pleasant contrast with the dust of the city were certain riding expeditions which took me, accompanied by my host, to the foot hills surrounding Kalgan, to inspect at close quarters the ruins of the Great Wall and the watch-towers which punctuate it every 200 yards. Whether he did it to test my riding capabilities or my courage before starting me off on my lonely tour, I never quite discovered, but vivid in my recollection is the climbing my host and I did on one occasion. By no means an accomplished rider, the second day out on a new pony is always more agreeable to me than the first, but when I saw how the little black beast that had been lent to me and which I was subsequently to take up-country, could scale precipitous banks, keep its feet among loose shale lying on hard slippery surfaces, creep along narrow, sloping tracks round mountain sides—places along which one would never have dared to lead, much less ride, a horse at home my confidence developed considerably. In parts it was too dangerous to remain in the saddle at all, and I shall never forget one thrilling moment when my pony insisted upon turning right round upon our sole support, which was a bit of a tuft overhanging a chasm some forty to sixty feet deep. His heels sent the stones flying down, and I momentarily expected the whole thing to give way, and that we should roll down hopelessly mixed-up, sheer on to the rocks below. In connection with the extensive railway works at Kalgan and the projected extension of them, is quite an important little community of well-educated Cantonese, with some of whom I became acquainted by means of an introduction given to me in Peking by my friend, Dr. Wu Lien Teh, whose research work, especially in connection with plague, is well known throughout the scientific world. Several of these Cantonese are Christians and are keen supporters of the work carried on by the missionaries amongst their employees. My introduction was presented at a fortunate moment, for a feast to celebrate the arrival of a first-born son was just then in course of preparation, and the presence of a foreign lady apparently lent to it a welcome novelty.

The proud father of the baby, Dr. Shi, knew a certain amount of English, and, in consequence, I launched out alone, on to that sea of unknown etiquette and custom, feeling a certain degree of security. What was my horror on arriving at the house to find my host anxiously awaiting my somewhat tardy arrival in order to introduce me to the sixteen ladies already present so that he might hasten off to preside at a similar banquet to his men friends at a restaurant near by. Not one word of anything but the Cantonese dialect did the ladies speak, and my carefully prepared sentences of felicitation in the Mandarin tongue were in consequence discounted. The company, among whom was the baby's mother, greeted me with much ceremony and cordiality. The precise form of salutation varies in different parts of China, and here the correct bow resembles nothing so much as the action of surreptitiously pulling up one's stocking. Dr. Shi was careful to explain to me that I was the guest of honour, and, after showing me where to sit, he departed and left me to the tender mercies of the little ladies. A little later on, however (and this suggests the innate kindness and consideration of the Chinese) his heart must have smote him, and thinking that chopsticks might be a source of embarrassment to me, he flew round from the restaurant with a borrowed plate, spoon, and fork.

As a matter of fact these latter embarrassed me far more than the chopsticks had done, for my big plate afforded my two generous hostesses opportunity to overwhelm me with food which the ordinary little bowl would never have contained.

Upon the round table were set no fewer than sixteen dishes, and these I gathered were only accessories to the huge bowls which were brought in from the kitchen, whence there appeared at least a dozen distinct courses. Eggs served in cochineal-stained shells were, it was explained to me, in special honour of the new baby, as also was the ginger of the same glad hue. The feast was heralded in by the customary joy sounds of China ; crackers innumerable and deafening being fired off immediately outside the room in which we were assembled. Little leaden kettles of " the dew of the rose leaf " (samshui) were first of all brought in, and each of us was assisted to at least a thimbleful. Then began the " Ch'ing chih fan " (" invite you to eat "). Everybody " ch'inged " everybody else, and we proceeded at the same time to help one another to dainty morsels with our own chopsticks. Instead of drinking to each other in occidental fashion, the Chinese " eat to each other," and when one's neighbour planks a toothsome morsel of bird or fish into one's bowl, it is etiquette to rise slightly in one's chair and say " thank you ". Chopsticks, by the way, are like golf it is largely a game of chance and temperament.

Sometimes one is on one's game, and one manages to put away a substantial meal ; at other times one can't hit a ball," and one leaves the table feeling rather empty. The meal had not progressed far before we were on terms of great conviviality, not to say familiarity. They all laughed at the way in which I mismanaged my chopsticks (I declined to give in and use a spoon and fork) and tried to teach me. It was of no use, I was not on my game " that evening. Next to me was a dear old soul in a handsome black velvet coat ; I think she must have been a near relation on account of the way in which she took me under her wing, from time to time popping a choice morsel, a chunk of pine-apple, or a gigantic prawn, straight into my mouth. At intervals dishes that I really enjoyed came on, buried eggs, bearing striking resemblance, by the way, to plover's eggs, crisply baked apricot kernels, roast duck (horribly underdone), and the seeds of the lotus in syrup, being among the most palatable. Half-way through the feast my large plate was a horrible sight and full of things I felt I could not possibly swallow.

A charming girl opposite me leaned forward and gave me a generous helping of some nice-looking whitish stew which nearly made me sick when I tried it. It was like eating a very slimy sponge.

To cover my confusion, and with, I thought, great aplomb, I managed with some difficulty to perch a beautiful morsel of very raw duck on my chopsticks, which, instead of eating myself, I unsel- fishly plunged into the mouth of my old friend on my left. The attention nearly choked her. She did not expect it of me. But pleasant relations were established for the evening, and I received several invitations to other dinner parties as a result. There was a good deal of giggling at my foreign ways, but these, I imagine, were less productive of sheer glee than my attempt to adapt myself to their customs.

At half-time or thereabouts, a woman servant of the coolie class, very slatternly, and with her own baby upon her back, distributed cigarettes, some cheap American brand in a tin, picking them out with her dirty fingers and pressing them upon us in a most hospitable way. All the servants, in fact, urged us on behalf of their master and mistress to eat and drink. From time to time they would quietly sneak a cigarette for themselves, and go to stand in the doorway to smoke it. One of them was quite an old woman, and it amused me to watch her casually take one from the table and light it between her withered old hands with her back turned to the company. Our hostess, for whom with two .or three other guests there was not room at our table, came in periodically to see how we were progressing, and would hand us one or other of the delicacies persuasively. She peeled a Mandarin orange for the old T'ai-t'ai next to me. The latter took it, but at once passed it on to one of the urchins who were hanging around for tit-bits. It seemed ungracious, but I suppose it was quite polite. A great tip to be remembered at a Chinese feast is this ; entice one of the many small children always present to your side. You have then, conveniently situated, a willing receptacle for the superfluous dainties that have been heaped into your bowl, besides which you gain merit for your " warm-heartedness " towards the dear little souls.

Between ten and half-past we had sat down soon after 6 p.m.--I felt that the time had arrived when I might reasonably, though reluctantly, take my departure ; but the attempt to do so was met by much protestation and conversation, and it was borne in upon me that my old friend the T'ai-t'ai was inviting me to go back with her to her house there to " sit-a-sit ". I agreed with pleasure, and hand-in-hand we sallied forth in the moonlight, together with her daughter-in-law and her little daughter, a pretty little soul, this latter, who was the proud possessor of an English watch bracelet as well as several distinctly western rings and bangles. Their house was not very far off, and when we arrived the old lady ushered me into a bedroom where her husband and son were reading in somewhat négligé costume. They quickly invited me into the guest room and, hastily donning their long coats of ceremony, joined us.

The father spoke a little English he had once stayed for three weeks in England, coming over, I understood, in the train of Li Hung Ch'ang ; the son, with whom I had a most illuminating conver- sation on Chinese topics, had been educated in England, and another son was at that time an undergraduate at Caius College, Cambridge.

A Tour In Mongolia:
A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 1

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 2

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 3

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 4

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 5

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 6

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 7

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 8

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 9

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 10

Read More Articles About: A Tour In Mongolia

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