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A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 3

( Originally Published 1920 )

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step " —Chinese proverb

ALTHOUGH I never found Kalgan lacking in interest and amusement, I began to feel at the end of a week there that my prospects for setting out for Mongolia did not seem to improve. The place teemed with soldiers, and reports came in of impending battles between Russo-supported Mongols and troops from the south which were daily being poured over the frontiers. What to believe, and how much reliance to place upon such information no one seemed to know, but the persistency of one report, of a battle that had lasted six hours at Dolo N'or, when the Chinese had to retire in the face of superior numbers, found justification later on in obvious fact.

My long-looked-for opportunity came at last, however, in the shape of a Finnish missionary who wished to journey westward into Mongolia, and who expressed himself as not only willing but pleased to allow my little caravan to join his for our mutual protection. My preparations at once sprang into activity. A Peking cart drawn by a strong mule, and a most unpromising pony were hired for me, together with a ruffianly looking Chinese, said to be trusty, at any rate brave enough to face the terrors of Mongolia, at the rate of four dollars a day. Hearing that we were to make an early start, I finished every detail of my packing overnight, and was up betimes next day, lingering, however, long in the last bath that I was likely to get for many a long day.

I ought by that time to have known that such plans as those for leaving early seldom materialise, but I felt anyhow that I would not be the one to cause delay. Instead of 8 a.m. we were under weigh soon after noon.

I had employed the meantime greatly to my own advantage. When I went out to inspect my cart, the driver had already more than half filled the interior with his own and his companion's belongings, sheep-skin coats of doubtful cleanliness, sacks of fodder, and what not. It is quite as typical of Chinese as of menials in other countries, to find out by such experiments just how far they dare to go, or how much their employer will stand which comes to the same thing. My own theory is that if you do not at the very outset assume the whip-hand, you will get more or less bullied by those who should be obeying your orders. I used my own discretion here, therefore, and ordered everything to be turned out of the cart, including a sort of mattress-cushion which lined it. They did as they were told without a murmur, and laughed at my persistence and their own discomfiture in the clouds of dust they raised.

I then had my own things carefully packed in, bedding in a hold-all, cushions, water-bottles, as well as such articles as my camera, books, and a certain amount of food. My box of provisions, including tinned meat, Bovril, tea, butter, cheese, rice, oatmeal, as well as a plentiful supply of walnuts and raisins, and a small box containing a change of clothes, were roped securely on to the tail of the cart ; fodder for the animals being placed on the top of them. Eggs and potatoes I could rely upon buying from the Chinese for at least three days out from Kalgan. The Southern Mongols themselves have nothing at all to sell, living as they do on koumiss (soured milk), tsamba (a sort of crushed barley), and mutton when they can get it.

A tiresome lad of eighteen or so made his appearance during the morning, and I foresaw that if he came too that I should be bothered with him as well as the driver sitting on the shafts of my cart and thus obscuring my view when I was inside. The missionaries spoke sternly to both boy and driver to this effect and told them plainly that I refused to allow the former to accompany me. They acquiesced ; but before we were clear of the city the lad turned up again smiling, and later on I discovered that he was the owner of the little red demon of a pony, and also that he was a very necessary adjunct to my party.

The caravan consisted of the Finnish missionary, his two open carts drawn by two horses in each, myself in my Peking cart drawn by mule and pony, a saddle pony, three Mongols, two of whom were mounted who, wishing to return to their homes on the borders of the Gobi, attached themselves to us for safety, and four Chinese to attend to the animals nine of us in all. We were accompanied to the city gates by some of the missionaries. The government offices, the Tartar general's yamen, the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, as also the offices in which business connected with Southern Mongolia is transacted, are all situated in this part of the city. There was some question as to whether I might not have difficulty in passing the Chinese guard at the gates of the city, since I possessed no passport even for travelling in Chihli, much less for leaving that province and penetrating into the wilds of Mongolia. Knowing quite well that had I applied for a passport it would have been refused,

I decided upon the advice, I may say, of an official high up in the Chinese government service —to dispense with that formality. The missionaries, good sportsmen that they were, intended to acquaint the Chinese Foreign Office with the fact that I was in Mongolia after my departure. The Chinese, however, take but little account of women, and I passed through the north gate on the high road to the goal of my ambition.

Riding, I soon found, was not much fun over this rocky way. I had yet to grow used to trusting entirely to luck, and to letting the pony have his head under such conditions. Moreover, knowing nothing of the country one was obliged at first to keep within sight of the caravan, which hereabouts went forward at a snail's pace. I therefore spared my pony for a spell, and giving it to the boy to lead, I retired to my cart to lie down, and with my feet sticking out over the mule's back, meditate on what was before me.

The road for ten miles or so follows the mud coloured valley where the clusters of houses so tone in with their surroundings that one might think that they did so upon the theory of protective adaptation to their environment. From the rocks and boulders with which the road is strewn it might well have been a river-bed until the steep ascent of some 2400 feet from the level to the Chang Chia K'ou, the Kalgam, or Han-o-pa (meaning handle) Pass begins. The carts here began to progress in brief spasms, and the gradient, together with the general conditions, ' made this a somewhat painful experience. Leading our ponies, we were able by devious paths to discover rather smoother going, and the number one Mongol, a charming old man of some position, who, having no mount, now seated himself (without invitation) on the shaft of my cart, remarked that " The great one must be possessed of extraordinary strength to be able to walk like that ". I learned subsequently that a horseless Mongol is just about as much use as a seagull with its wings clipped.

The missionaries had arranged that this same old Mongol, Dobdun, by name, should act " boy " for me on the way up, i.e. boil water, peel potatoes, and spread my bedding at night. I liked him very much, but mainly for the sake of his picturesque appearance, for besides being very stupid, extremely lazy, and knowing not one word of Chinese, he had not the foggiest notion as to how to do anything for my comfort beyond getting me hot water, and smiling in a paternal way, when, to relieve my beasts, I got out and walked up the steep places.

By the time we were at the top of the pass, between five and six thousand feet above sea level, it was dusk. We had taken our time over the ascent, an icy wind was blowing, and the scene before us was desolate indeed. Earlier in the day and under normal conditions the traffic here is very considerable. Not so at the time of my visit, for beyond being overtaken by a couple of Mongols trotting swiftly along on camels, who drew rein for a few seconds just in order to pass the time of day, or, more literally perhaps, to put the inevitable question as to our destination, before they flew on again, we encountered never a soul. I had never seen camels trotting before and they reminded me of leggy schoolgirls fielding at cricket, for they scatter their limbs about in just such an ungainly way.

The explanation of the solitude of the pass was forthcoming and obvious enough later on, when, wheeling into the compound of a Chinese inn, we were told that the whole place had been commandeered by the Chinese troops.

It was all very ghostly and mysterious, not to say formidable. Under a bright starlit sky, the wind was blowing a gale, and the prospect of sleeping in the open under such conditions by no means appealed to me. Han-o-pa is a fair-sized village, but it was only after our fourth attempt that we could gain admission to an inn.

The inns, which are to be found only for thirty or forty miles north of the frontier, are similar to all inns in North China. Built of mud, the one-storied sheds line three sides of the compound wall. There are stone posts in the compound to which horses and mules are tied up ; in the centre is a collection of carts and bales of hides and wool all carefully covered up, while occupying a corner to themselves a trio of camels was tethered. We entered the main room, the kitchen, two-thirds of which was taken up by the k'ang, a low platform some two feet from the ground, covered with a thick layer of hardened mud or boards, and heated from underneath by means of a small furnace. It is one man's work to keep the fire going. With one hand he pulls a sort of bellows in and out, with the other he feeds the fire continuously by means of a ladle filled with dried horse-droppings. From this time onward, argol, the Mongolian word for this dried manure, was the only description of fuel I saw until my return to civilisation. There is neither wood nor coal (unless, maybe, the latter is hid from sight in the bowels of the mountain) in Inner or South Mongolia. The k'ang was crowded with Mongols and Chinese as well as a number of soldiers, and I learned that the tiresome boy who had insisted upon accompanying me was regaling the company with a personal description of the foreigner whom he had in tow, more especially how that she had had four shots on one occasion before her pony would let her mount; a feat which seemed to give rise to great hilarity when they saw me the relation of eleven stone to the size of the pony, I imagine.

In the room adjoining were several Chinese traders, and I had to make my choice between, sharing a k'ang with these gentlemen and the Finn, or sleeping under the stars in the courtyard in my cart. Throwing convention to the winds (one really could not trouble about Mrs. Grundy in Mongolia some five or six thousand feet above sea level with a thermometer well below zero and an icy blast blowing from the snow-covered mountains), I decided upon the former without a moment's consideration, and arranged a sheet of oilcloth with my cork mattress on the top on-the opposite side to that on which the Chinese had already stretched themselves. It was late, and we lost no time in preparing and eating our chief meal of the day. We sat cross-legged on our beds, a low Chinese table between us, while we ate. We were tired, and very hungry, and to save unpacking, I shared my provisions with the missionary. Having travelled a good deal about Mongolia, he knew the people and the language well, and I found him an interesting companion in consequence, delightfully ready to pour information out to so keen a listener as I was. I am afraid that he thought me quite mad to wish to make such a journey from motives other than evangelisation or business, and he told me later that he was greatly surprised at my powers of endurance, and that I could take things as they came with such equanimity. Moveover, at the end of the journey he expressed his willingness to allow me to join his caravan some time in the future on an extensive tour over several months in the western region of the country which was, I felt, the greatest compliment he could have paid me.

" You won't be able to undress, you know," the Finn informed me, as he nervously watched me divesting myself of my heavy riding boots; for which superfluous information I politely thanked him. I had had no intention of doing so in this motley company. One's toilet on such an occasion was both brief and simple. I travelled in the only garb possible in that country, a cross-seat riding habit, and at night merely divested myself of my outer garment in order to put on a long sheepskin coat, took off my stock, crammed a fur cap down over my ears, and tried to sleep.

I found this last somewhat difficult on those hard, hard k'angs, with a regular orchestra of snores bellowing forth from my neighbours on all sides.

The boards do not accommodate themselves to one's pampered body, and I used to wish there were less of me to ache.

It was not much after 4 a.m. when the Mongols woke us next day, and we drank our tea and ate some bread and butter to an accompaniment of much shouting as they persuaded the animals into their harness. There was little inducement to wash, for the top of the Han-o-pa Pass was intensely cold in April, and what tried me more than anything else was the difficulty of keeping the skin on my hands and face in that harsh, alkali-laden atmosphere. Our Chinese companions, who had put us through a perfect catechism before we all settled down for the night, we left still snoring on the k'ang. Our joint hotel bill for the accommodation, and including the tip to the man who sat up all night at the bellows, was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3 1/2d., but being foreigners, we doubtless paid more heavily than did the Chinese.

Our early start was somewhat discounted by the breaking down of one of the wagons half an hour afterwards on the most exposed part of the mountain. The wind cut us through and through, and the sight of the snow and ice on all sides did not tend to make us feel any more comfortable. (One learns patience and philosophy in this country, if one learns nothing else.) My beautiful old Mongol presented his advice to the carters as to repairing the wagon, and then proceeded to climb up into the other one, thrust himself deep down amongst the cargo, and drawing all the available covering over his head became, for the time being, lost to view. I quickly adapted myself to my environment and followed his example, thus beginning the day by endeavouring to finish the night, and sleeping in my cart until nearly nine o'clock, when, calling up my pony, I had a delightful ride until our next halt, at tiffin time.

The day had by this time resolved itself into a condition of springlike perfection, and we had passed from the rugged barrier of the Han-o-pa region to a grassy plateau, finding a good deal of the land as well under Chinese cultivation, crops of wheat and oats just beginning to show themselves above the ground. By their assiduity, their perseverance, thrift, and industry, the Chinese here are persistently pressing onward and forward into Inner Mongolia, year by year a little more and a little more, colonising, and putting land under cultivation, ploughing up great tracts which perhaps the previous year had furnished grazing ground for Mongol live stock, their clusters of little mud houses forming landmarks in the bare landscape.

Long strings of ox-carts were here winding their way up towards the mountains unhappy-looking oxen with a vast amount of endurance, wretched little carts carrying a load of three sacks apiece, weighing from six to seven cwt. They travel very slowly, and on this narrow rocky road they are compelled to stop and make way for everything that either passes or meets them. The creaking of a string of ox-carts, sometimes as many as a 100 to 150 tied to one another, once heard will never be forgotten. The wheels are fixed on to solid axles which revolve with them and the rest of the structure is the personification of simplicity. Held together by wedges, the one thing needful to its well-being is water. Allowed to become too dry, the ox-cart falls to pieces. Kept properly damp, it forms the most serviceable of all means of transport across the desert.

The camel for celerity, but slow and sure is decidedly the characteriistc of the ox-cart. The first camel caravan we saw bearing hides and wool down to Kalgan met us hereabouts.

The Mongols at the rate of one to every fifteen beasts, stared and stared at me and my pony, while I returned the gaze with interest. The staying power of camels is proverbial. The caravans in Mongolia march from twenty-five to twenty-eight miles a day, averaging a little over two miles an hour, for a month, after which the animals require a two weeks' rest when they will be ready to begin work again. Their carrying powers all the same do not bear comparison with the ox-cart. The ordinary load for the Bactrian, or two-humped Mongolian, camel is about 2 cwt. For riding purposes, though despised by the horsey Mongol, a good camel may be used with an ordinary saddle for seventy miles a day for a week in spring or autumn without food or water. The points of this particular species are a well-ribbed body, wide feet, and strong, rigid humps. The female camel is pleasanter to ride and generally more easy-going than the skittish young bull camel, who in the months of January and February is likely to be fierce and refractory. I have heard it said that if a camel " goes for you " with an open mouth, you should spring at his neck and hang on with both legs and arms until some one renders you timely assistance and ties him up. Generally speaking, however, they are not savage. They make as though to bite, but seldom actually do. The female might, in fact would, try to protect her young ; and the cry of a cow camel when separated from her calf is as pathetic as that of a hare being run down by the hounds.

It was at a somewhat superior inn we drew rein at midday with the double object of resting our animals and refreshing ourselves. The pleasant Chinese who owned it invited us into his private apartment, a relatively clean room, and it was here that I made my first cooking experiment on the journey. In a biscuit box, which when we set out contained a dozen eggs, was discovered the early development of an omelette. Weeding the eggshells carefully away from the same, I replaced them by chips of cold ham, thus in course of time producing what I considered to be a dish worthy of the excellent chef to whom I had so lately said farewell at the Wagon-lits hotel at Peking.

Alas ! for my well-meant effort. The Finn felt extremely unwell after partaking thereof, but in a subsequently confidential moment he explained to me that the omelette had unhappily not harmonised with a vast amount of cake which he had during the morning eaten in the sad intervals of wakefulness while I was riding and he was snoozing in my cart out of the wind. The innkeeper kept us company, of course, during the meal, when he gave us the latest intelligence concerning the movements of the Mongol and Chinese troops.

All along the caravan route to Urga, he told us, the Mongols were removing their camps and flocks to remoter quarters for fear of being pillaged ; and even down here, little more than a day's journey from the frontier, most of the colonists were ready to pack up their ox-carts at an hour's notice and hurry away to the security of Chihli.

The day, which had begun with so much promise, developed badly, a high wind sprang up from the north, and, laden with alkaline saturated sand lashed one's face into a condition of soreness. Riding, as we were, straight into the teeth of it, our progress was slow and the how' late when we made for an isolated and miserable little compound in which to pass the night. So few wayfarers had we seen during the day that it seemed reasonable to suppose that we should have the place almost to ourselves ; but not at all. A most unholy looking crew of Chinese and Mongols appeared to occupy every possible corner when the door was opened, and we were told baldly that there was no room for us here at all. There was, however, no alternative but to remain, and with a little persuasion on the part of my old Mongol, a few of his fellow-countrymen betook themselves to a less comfortable shed which the innkeeper had considered unworthy of sheltering us. Some of them remained, and there was, of course, nothing to do but to make the best of it. The Finn told me that he thought he could get the Chinese men turned out as well if I liked, but this would have been a desperately unsportsmanlike thing to do, and I felt that one could not possibly allow a missionary so to prejudice his profession. I could see that he was relieved by, and much appreciated, my point of view, which I must say seemed merely an elementary action in " playing the game ".

There were some nine or ten of us to share the room, and two of the Mongols looked most awful villains. I always slept with my revolver under my pillow most people did, I fancy, during those troublous times and I was amused at the Finn remarking, " You should put your trust in God rather than in firearms ". I told him that I quite agreed with him, but that I had always believed that intelligence combined with a straight eye had been given to us with a view to helping ourselves in tight corners. This same excellent man, be it related, never himself travelled without a revolver in his pocket and was at this time the proud possessor of a shot gun into the bargain.

It struck me afterwards that he was not unreasonably a little nervous as to whom I might shoot were I to wake up suddenly frightened in the night. As a matter of fact, the known possession of firearms in such a country is in itself a certain amount of security.

Getting away in the early morning was always rather a business. My stubborn mule had sometimes to be coaxed and threatened alternately for half an hour before he would allow himself to be put between the shafts of the cart, and finally our caravan would get under neigh,disentangling itself from the apparently inextricable confusion of the crowded compound.

Mongolian dogs, roused by the crackings of whips, keeping up an incessant growl, breaking into a savage bark should the unwary visitor venture too near ; weary ponies with drooping heads tethered to the stone pillar in the middle ; ill-conditioned pigs nosing about everywhere in somewhat hopeless search of provender ; and, as souls apart, the stately camels in picturesque groups looking superciliously on, snarling and snapping as their owners urge them to kneeling posture to receive their loads such is the composition of the inn compound as one hangs around shivering in the chilly dawn, ready to hoist oneself into the saddle and be off the moment that the caravan is on the point of starting. It does not need great experience in this sort of travelling to be firm in seeing one's entourage set out before one departs oneself.

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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