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A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 5

( Originally Published 1920 )

"That the wicked have plenty to eat is no indication of the approval of heaven " Chinese proverb

IT would be unkind to recommend any sensitive person to make a first experiment in camping out among such a friendly, but inquisitive crew as the natives hereabouts, and I could but be thankful to have served my apprenticeship in this respect in China. After travelling, very much off the beaten track, sometimes for eighteen months in his country, the Chinese, wherever I met him, in Mongolia or in Russia, or in RussoJapanese Manchuria, seemed far more to me like a man and a brother " than the inhabitants of any of the latter countries. The casual manner in which the Mongol would walk into one's tent was, to say the least of it, embarrassing ; and I have heard it said that quite a little grievance exists among those who from time to time visit Peking for trading purposes or on official business because the houses of Europeans are not open to them as are their hospitable yourts to the traveller in their country.

An old, old man dropped in one day to see me, stone deaf, and dumb. l had been hearing a good deal and in great variety about their superstitions regarding devils, and when this wrinkled old leatherface, overshadowed by a sheepskin cap black with the dirt of ages, silently approached me in the half-light of late afternoon, it was as though the evil one had materialised. Very thin there is no soft corner in the Mongol heart, as in the Chinese, for the aged very tattered, and with bleared eyes, Methuselah gently fingered all my belongings, passing his filthy fingers up and down the bristles of my hair and tooth-brushes with evident enjoyment. My interest, to say nothing of my astonishment, was far too great for me to think of raising any objection. Poor old man !

Far from being venerated on account of ad- vancing years the old people in Mongolia run a very good chance of being crowded out of their yourts by the younger generation, and left to live or die with no more possessions than a bit of felt covering and a meagre allowance of food on the dust heaps surrounding the settlements.

A son of my old visitor had been a lesser mandarin in this part, but was dispossessed as the result of having been altogether too grasping in his " squeeze " of the soldiers whom he was supposed to pay with money that was provided for that purpose. Four or five fairly well-to-do yourts were the fruit of his ill-gotten gains, and his chief wife, the T'ai-t'ai, showed me with pride her beautiful headdress which she said was worth over one hundred taels, which it was not difficult to believe. A number of relations crowded into the yourt when I went to pay my call an astonishingly picturesque crowd in blue, purple, and lavender coats, mingling with the bright orange and dull red of the lamas' habits all more or less dirty, and some very ragged. The men with their shaggy fur caps and silver-mounted hunting knives, ivory chopsticks hanging in cases, and flint and tinder purses slung on silver chains round their waists or attached to their girdles ; the women with elaborate headdresses of the same metal, richly studded with jade, coral, and sometimes pearls, are all really very imposing.

Nothing would satisfy them but that I should go to call upon the little bride of the family and their son, her boy husband. Escorted by the mother- in-law, I made my way to a very new-looking yourt covered with clean white felt and with a newly painted red door. It formed quite a landmark among the others, which were in varying stages of dirtiness and decay. We were received by the young bridal couple, who, arrayed in all the splendour of their wedding garments in my honour, had omitted to tidy up their habitation, which presented a sorry spectacle of thriftless disorder. I gathered that some of the wedding presents had been of a practical nature, for I noticed incidentally by hitting them with my head haunches of antelope and joints of mutton hanging from the roof just inside the entrance. The marriage did not seem to me to promise particularly well, for although amply endowed with such worldly goods as the Mongol heart could desire, the boy and girl, children that they were, seemed distinctly snappy with each other, and each kept his or her own key of the red lacquer chests which contained their respective treasures.

The girl's bridal coiffure was quite wonderful, and back and front her strings of coral and silver chains, with their massive ornaments, reached almost to the bottom of her coat. I noticed that the older women's strings of beads seemed to grow shorter with age, and gathered that, as the girls of the family married, their headdresses were contributed to by the senior generation. A bride, therefore, in a poor family possesses much finer jewels than does her mother, who, like many a mother at home, has been impoverished by the wedding.

The tribe of this region is the Chakhar of South or Inner Mongolia, and owing to the proximity of China they are, I believe, the least pure bred of any. In the main a nomadic people, they move their settlements under normal conditions but twice in the year, the principal object being, of course, fresh pasture for their cattle, They also, how-ever, attach some importance to tradition, and will move their yourts just a few yards sometimes just for the sake of having done so. A fairly well-watered country, the locale of the yourts is to some extent determined by the wells, but the areas are relatively circumscribed, and there is little difficulty in discovering at any given time the whereabouts of any particular family one may be seeking.

The great lamaseries are necessarily of permanent structure, and fine temples surrounded by a number of yourts and rough houses of Chinese type form villages of considerable size. One comes upon them unexpectedly like oases in the desert. Once a most warlike tribe and foes greatly to be feared by their Chinese neighbours, the Chakhars appear to be now a more peaceable folk than their cousins of the North, and have not, in unison with the Khalkhas, sought to throw off the Chinese yoke with the downfall of the Manchu dynasty. I have heard it said that the Chakhars are cleaner than other tribes, but for the truth of this statement I am unable to vouch ; and truly, in view of the fact that it would be difficult to be dirtier than they, I myself find it hard to believe it. Mongols, generally speaking, are an extraordinary dirty people, and one of their superstitions is that if they have too much to do with water in this life they will become fish in the next incarnation. They suffer much from contagious diseases, on account of their habits as well as owing to their lack of morality.

The Mongols are, I am told, some of the most frankly immoral people in the world, and this is not the result of the absence of moral code, for theoretically this latter is of the strictest possible character. The lamas certainly have an extremely bad reputation ; certain orders of them are allowed to marry, but the great bulk of the immense population of priests is nominally celibate.

Among the various orders of the priesthood are some whose mission it is to travel about the country to collect money for the temples. Whe one of these holy men (the greatest villains unhung, would be my honest opinion) visits a settlement he is invited to stay in the richest yourt, given the best of everything to eat, and the chief wife, or, if he prefers her, the daughter, is offered to him as a matter of course. There is no question, I believe, of these women, who belong to the lamas, being looked down upon far from it. But as far as I could observe and understand, women entering into this irregular alliance do not wear the distinctive and very beautiful headdress of the married woman.

Lamas throughout Mongolia have their heads clean-shaven, and in this region their ordinary dress consists of long tunics of coarse cotton in varying tones of terra-cotta and yellow, bound round the waist with sashes of dark red, as well as long folds of the same material which, worn ordinarily across the chest, are on ceremonial occasions and whilst officiating unwound and used in shawl fashion. Even were there no other distinguishing feature between the Mongol and Chinese, by their boots you would know them all the world over ; clumsy, loose-legged affairs, coming two-thirds of the way up to the knee, the dignity of the Mongol is very greatly diminished if he has to walk or run in such a footgear. Toes upturned, the sole is thick and cumbersome, the boot fits nowhere at all, and the walk degenerates into a shuffle in consequence. For purposes of differentiation the laity are called black men, their hair being worn in long handsome pig-tails, the front of the head shaved in Chinese fashion. I was present on the occasion of the inauguration of the first Parliament of China's Republic in Peking in the spring of 1913, when the Mongol representatives, three of them from Inner Mongolia, were conspicuous in that ultra modern and newly cropped assembly by their queues, by their high boots, and by their old-world satin-brocade, fur-trimmed coats of a richness and quality now seldom seen in Peking.

Men and women are extremely fond of dress and ornaments ; the former run to beautiful and valuable snuff bottles, elaborate decoration of their hunting knives, tobacco pouches, chopsticks, and flint and tinder boxes. Extremes seem to me to meet in the cherished possessions of an old Mongol mandarin. He showed me with much pride an up-to-date rifle, a splendid pair of Zeiss field-glasses, and then his flint and tinder box.

Ta-Bol, the meaning of which, " five mountains," suggests a somewhat distorted view of the slight elevations which surround it, proved to be a pleasant centre for my short sojourn in the Chakhar country, and I managed to get a variety of experiences into the time I was there. In a northwesterly direction and distant some 60 Ii from Ta-Bol lies Hankarawa, an important citadel of lamaism and the largest temple of Inner Mongolia.

In perfect weather and over the most delightful riding country imaginable, with a good track across undulated prairie, an early start was made in order to have plenty of time on arrival. My star seemed in the ascendant, and it was truly a lucky day that I chose for the expedition. Forming a suburb to the lamasery were half a dozen or less yourts near the entrance, and these I found on closer inspection were primitive little stores kept by the Chinese for supplying the lamas who here, as in most other places, do no work at all and produce absolutely nothing for their own use with the necessities of life. The courtly owner of one of them pressed me to enter, when he at once offered me the best tea that I had had since I left South China. In stumbling phrases, I expressed my appreciation and enquired whether the tea was not from the Bohea hills of Fukien. This let loose a flood of conversation (of which, I must confess, I hardly understood a word), out of which I disentangled the fact that my host had come from that province and was delighted to speak with one who knew and admired his native city, Foochow. As to paying for my entertainment, they scouted the idea, and when I departed I felt that at least I had now one friend in Mongolia.

As I approached the entrance to the place it all seemed abnormally quiet and deserted. I knew there were hundreds of lamas there, but no one was about and not a sound was to be heard. It was all very mysterious. It was not until I had tentatively opened many doors and peered into the gloom of sundry temples, in one of which a very old lama sat quite alone, droning his prayers in the Tibetan tongue, clashing a pair of cymbals and beating a big drum with his hands and feet respectively all at the same time, that I heard sounds as of clapping and applause. I found them difficult to locate. Chancing on the entrance to an unpromising looking and, as far as I could see deserted, compound, I leaned my weight against the great painted wooden doors, which giving way with a loud creak, precipitated me most unexpectedly into the midst of an unlooked-for entertainment. My own surprise can hardly have been less than the combined astonishment of some two to three hundred lamas, ranging from little boys to old hoary-heads, all squatting on the ground in the sunny forecourt of a temple.

My sudden appearance with a camera in their midst was apparently most disconcerting, and one and all they covered their heads with the dark red sashes. To take a snapshot on the spur of the moment was literally a reflex act on my part, and had my life been at stake in the doing of it I could not have refrained. As it was, for a moment or two perhaps the situation was a trifle strained, and whether my intrusion would be resented, as it might well have been in that out- of-the-way corner of the earth, was exceedingly uncertain. Scowls and anger were expressed all too plainly on the debased faces of many of the younger men, but at a sign from one of the leaders they seemed quickly to recover their equanimity, resumed their occupation, and offered not the slightest objection to my presence, when, by signs, I asked permission to walk round the outskirts of the gathering.

The deep red, vivid orange, and pale cinnamon of their clothes suggested great borders of parrot tulips ranged on either side of a wide flagged path leading up to the chief lama, who quite possibly had seen, what probably few of the others had, white faces visiting the temples in Peking.

He allowed me to take a photograph at close quarters, smiling (at his own cowardice, I presume) the while. The little boys made hideous faces at me as I strolled round, and the young men of twenty or so, an age at which I always feel there is most to fear from devilment and cruelty, looked at me in an unmistakably hostile manner.

A little group of men stripped to the waist formed the centre of operations, and these it transpired were candidates for a degree. They were being examined by the seniors and cross-examined by their junior colleagues of all ages.

Each side backed its fancy apparently and all indulged in wild clapping and gesticulation, some of them rising from the ground in their excitement and yelling approbation or the reverse to the victim of the moment. The brown-faced old chief lama sat suave and imperturbable throughout.

The scene was as picturesque as it was interesting and fraught with mystery.

Soon afterwards the assembly dispersed, and, freed from he restraint of their elders, the young lamas hustled round me in an aggressive and pugnacious sort of mood. I have found in my limited experience that to meet this kind of thing good-humouredly, but never to show the least sign of embarrassment, usually has a placating effect.

I allowed one or two of the more objectionable youths to look through my camera, for instance, but when one of them wished to take it from me for a closer inspection I smacked his hand away as I would have done a child's, whereat they laughed. Not more than five per cent of the uninitiated seem able to see anything through the lenses of a camera, but if one or two can be made to do so the others are placed at a disadvantage, which, to some extent gives one the whip hand.

In the same way with the Chinese. On rare occasions I was faced with the type of swanking young man who conceives it to be his mission in life to make the foreigner " lose face ". He usually begins by calling attention to one's limited knowledge of his language, but I succeeded more than once in turning the tables by enquiring if he knew " English talk," French talk," " Russian talk," and so forth. A contemptuous shrug of the shoulders and an expressive movement of the hands, with a well-there-you-are look on your face, and the crowd laughs with you, while the swanker retires to reflect on the fact " that they don't know everything down in Judee ".

On one occasion in Mongolia it became essential for me to assert my position. The lad who had insisted, against my wishes, upon accompanying my caravan up country (I discovered afterwards that he was actually the owner of and alone could manage the pony which helped to draw my cart) declined to carry out my instructions in some small matter or other one day, and, moreover, when I insisted, he was cheeky, imitating me in the way I spoke Chinese almost before my face. This could not, of course, be permitted for an instant. I waited my opportunity, and later in the day on returning from an expedition I asked a missionary to explain his misdeeds very carefully to him, and to help him to realise that though I might not be able to speak his language I did not intend to stand any nonsense from him. I stepped in at the end of the harangue and seizing him by the pigtail I administered the severest chastisement I have ever given, boxing his ears soundly several times. The crucial question had arisen. Was I to lose face, or was he ? I have to admit that I was not " hitting a man of my own size," but the effect on the Mongol onlookers was excellent, and as for the lad himself—well—he and I and a young Mongol spent the greater part of next day together hunting for eagles' eggs, far away from the camp. That I taught him the approved Western method of blowing eggs with one hole only (some of them were in an unpleasantly mature condition) sealed our relationship, which remained friendly until I left China.

One romantic evening in South Mongolia comes back to my remembrance in Europe as it were in a dream. I had arranged to accompany my old friend the Finn on a visit to a distant settlement in order to see whether these people there with whom he was totally unacquainted would give him a hearing at all. After a ride of some twenty li or so, we arrived late one Sunday afternoon at a group of tents sheltered from the north and easterly winds by a belt of low hills, and came to a halt a hundred yards away from the most important looking yourt with a shout of " Nuhuoi ".

The people emerged from the surrounding tents and restrained the very savage dogs who were howling for our blood. Women controlled them, kneeling on the ground and holding them in by their collars. The moment the dogs see that strangers are given a friendly reception there is no more trouble with them until the time for departure comes, when the same performance has to be repeated. The owner of the yourt we had selected for Our visit was a Mandarin of some standing, and his fine manners greatly impressed me as he offered us the snuff bottle in the most courtly fashion imaginable. With him was a very handsome man who might from his gentle and learned appearance have been what one likes to imagine they are an Oxford don. This was the Mandarin's secretary, and having lived from time to time in Peking, he had acquired something of the culture and refinement of the Chinese upper class. Through him, the Finn addressed most of his remarks to the Mandarin who was keenly entertained until the subject of Western religion was broached, when he completely changed his aspect, becoming palpably indifferent, if not a little sulky, remaining with us only because good manners compelled him to do so.

People from neighbouring tents swarmed in, crowding and jostling each other at the entrance in order to catch a glimpse of the foreigners.

The atmosphere became not a little thick, the doorway being absolutely blocked up by a solid little mass of humanity, little faces even peering in between the ankles of the older folk. A motley crew indeed, the sun streaming in like a brilliant shaft through the hole in the roof, the rest of the interior in deep shade, the colours of their clothes and the whimsical faces of the people making altogether a fascinating study.

The Finn suggested that I, as a new-cormer to Mongolia, would like to hear some of the music of the country, and there was a great pow-wow as to who should perform for my benefit. After a prodigious wait, two young lamas disappeared, soon to return, the one with a long multi-stringed instrument of wood distantly related, perhaps, to the zither family ; and the other bearing a banjo-like affair provided with four strings.

In the dim light from the setting sun, and with a shyness charming to behold in these usually somewhat truculent youths, they twanged their strings in pretty little minor chords, and from time to time one of them would sing quietly and very bashfully of the prowess of his historic forebears. The singer of the settlement, a girl, was, I gathered, too shy to appear at all. It was all so weird and barbaric, so remote from life as I had known it, and so extraordinarily like a dream. The Mongols, as I learnt during my months in Peking, are totally unlike the Chinese in their relation to music. While I was in Peking the last of the Manchu empresses departed from the disturbed life of her country, and the lamas, of course, played an important part at the funeral ceremonials. Grouped in a little temple-like structure to one side of the platform upon which the obeisance to the memorial tablet of the dead empress was made, some forty or fifty priests in brilliant togas of Imperial yellow satin intoned a solemn dirge which was absolutely in harmony with the atmosphere of mourning. Many people who deny entirely the least suggestion of musical sense to the Chinese were, I remember, greatly struck with the extraordinarily deep and rich tones that came from the Mongol throats in their Gregorian-like chanting.

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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