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A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 6

( Originally Published 1920 )

The best riders have the hardest falls " Chinese proverb

THE people in the neighbourhood of Ta-Bol were quite a friendly lot, and I was frequently invited to go and have a chat in the various yourts. To persuade one inside and therefore to be at close enough quarters to enjoy a thorough inspection of the foreigner's clothes, hair, " light eyes," etc., was a source of much enjoyment to some of the younger women, and turning a blind eye, that sine qua non of all good travellers, upon the dirt and disorder, I managed to see the people under more or less normal conditions, which one seldom succeeds in doing when journeying with a definite goal and object. In some of the yourts, each one, it seemed to me, dirtier than the last, were delightful babies, confiding little creatures who had never known harshness, some of whom wore really beautiful charms of jade and lumps of amber round their brown necks, which nothing could induce the mothers to sell, for fear of jeopardising the fortunes of their little ones. From what I saw of them, both in the north as well as in the south, I came to the conclusion that the youthful Mongolian, until he arrives at such an age to be dedicated to the vicious life of the lamasery, is a particularly happy little person. The boy baby dominates the yourt as much as he dominates the palace, but I imagine his little sister has a rather fairer chance in life than she often enjoys in the Chinese family. At any rate, I never saw a child being ill-used in Mongolia, and to hear one cry is of rare occurrence. Families all over Mongolia are, I am told, small, and in one yourt when the mother of twins was presented to me as a somewhat phenomenal person, she apologised for the fact and said, " The foreigner will regard me as being like a dog to produce two children at one birth."

Upon returning one evening to my camp, I found that the local Mandarin had sent across one of his camels in response to a remark of mine that I had never ridden one. The natives, I think, expected a fine entertainment, for there were several unwonted loafers hanging about the compound. The camel looked a nice gentle young thing, and we took to each other at first sight. At a word from the man who brought her, she knelt in order to receive me in the saddle, which was the usual sort of Mongol affair with very short stirrups. Having neither reins nor bridle is at first disconcerting, but I was assured that it was simple enough to steer with the single rope of camel's hair which is attached to a wooden pin running through the cartilage of the animal's nose. I was lucky in not coming off at once, for it takes a little experience to remember that in rising, hind legs first, the camel pitches you forward against the front hump and then shoots you back again when the fore-quarters of the creature come into position. I had no intention, however, of making merry for the Mongols, and blithely declining to be led (I somehow trusted that camel), I started off at a gentle pace, wondering how on earth I would stop her should Madame la Chamelle take it into her head to run away with me.

Days of see-saws and swings are to me a still cherished reminiscence. I by no means disliked the undulating motion which to many people recalls the Dover-Calais boats, and, gaining assurance, I dug my heels in and essayed a gentle amble. Madame obliged me, and we were, I fondly believe, mutually satisfied, when I, becoming rashly familiar upon so short an acquaintance, used a word I had learned from the Chinese when riding a donkey along the dusty roads near the Imperial summer palace at Peking. " Dk, Dk," I gaily remarked to Madame, merely (and quite unnecessarily) to suggest that she should pick up her feet and not stumble. I forgot that her scholastic attainments included only her mother tongue and that she did not know the Chinese language. The effect was striking in more senses than one. She came to a sudden standstill and with a tremendous heave shot me on to her front hump as she plumped down upon her knees. It was but by the mercy of providence that my neck was not broken, and that with the second movement reversed I regained my seat. Fortunately we were well out of sight of onlookers, but my confidence was badly shaken, and it was only when it occurred to me that " Sk, Sk," was the expression of the Mongols when they wished their camels to kneel to be loaded up that I felt forgiving and able to forget the little misunderstanding.

The expression of a camel's face is always one of supreme contempt. Camels remind me of certain elderly and aristocratic spinsters who, possessing no money and but little brain, have one asset, their social superiority. But I like it all the same, breeding in camels or spinsters either as far as that goes.

During the whole time that I was at Ta-Bol rumours came daily to our ears of the increasingly disturbed condition of the country, of fighting that had taken place or was expected to take place at no very great distance. The missionaries were warned by the authorities that they must hold themselves in readiness for flight at an hour's notice, and that they would be wise if they lost no time in sending their women and children into regions of safety. A trio of Chinese officials were located somewhere in the vicinity, and the utmost secrecy was observed in regard to their movements while the general atmosphere of unrest and nervousness prevailed. It was not difficult to see that if I wanted to carry my whole scheme into effect, which was to return to Peking, make my preparations, and start again at once for Europe by way of the Gobi and Siberia, I had better lose no time. This little expedition was merely by way of a preliminary canter in order to gain experience for the more ambitious journey right across the desert, as well as to test my capacity for really rough travelling and primitive living. My journey back to China promised to be a lonely one. I should this time have neither Finn nor Mongols riding with me for company, but merely the two Chinese who were daily becoming more uneasy and restless at the news from the north, and who were pestering me with enquiries as to when we were to return to the safety of Kalgan.

Disliking anything savouring of monotony and being, moreover, interested in the possibilities of Inner Mongolia from the European point of view, I decided to go back to Kalgan by a different route from that by which we came. I had heard in-Peking of a large horse-farm financed by a small syndicate in China, at which lived a solitary German overseer, a long day's journey to the south- east of Ta-Bol at a place called Dol-na-gashi. I was told that this would be interesting to visit.

Although it was only early May, I had on the whole been most fortunate as regards weather during my trip, but at the time of my proposed departure a typical Gobi gale sprang up and delayed me for a couple of days, during which time it was impossible to do anything at all. The only satisfaction I had was that all my belongings were packed up and out of the dust.

My Chinese driver demanded money before starting ; he had apparently run up a bill with some Mongol, for fodder, he said, and he would not be allowed to go before he paid up. I had stayed away longer than my servants had anticipated, the original arrangement being that half their total hire should be paid down at starting, and the remainder handed over when they delivered me safe and sound in Kalgan again. I certainly believe that it added considerably to my safety to travel very light as regards money : I took with me but a few dollars. 1 was careful now to give my men money enough only for their immediate necessities, and to retain the whip hand by keeping the bulk of it until the end of the journey. I am afraid that we were a somewhat surly trio as we turned our backs upon Ta-Bol and set our faces homewards in the icy wind and stinging dust. The Chinese were annoyed at having to make this dtour by to them an unknown route, while I have to admit being rather " under the weather " myself.

A Mongol rode with us some distance to put us in the right direction for the horse-farm, and before nightfall we arrived at a substantially built and very comfortable bungalow, planked down in the middle of interminable prairie, upon the borders of an extensive shallow lake which provided resting place for numbers of wildfowl.

Surrounding the bungalow were yourts, and long, low stables, in which I learned later the magnificent Russian stallions who were to improve the breed of Mongol ponies were housed. Concealing his astonishment at the unexpected appearance of an European lady at his door, the German overseer, speaking excellent English, gave me a most cordial welcome. The interior of the bungalow contained all the comfort of a farmhouse in Saxony, and glad I was to stay there for a night, and thus to reduce by one the number of uncomfortable inns to be experienced on the way back to Kalgan. After the ugly, undersized though serviceable little Mongol ponies to which one had become accustomed, the magnificent horses Russian crossed with German, if I remember aright looked like giants. Their powerful build with short arched necks and small heads was very dignified indeed, and for the first time in all my wanderings I felt a suggestion of homesickness as I looked at them, and wondered how far the development of the motor-car would have gone to oust the horses which are seen to greater advantage in London during the season than anywhere else in the world.

A bunch of 500 Mongol ponies scattered about the prairie was the material with which my host had to work. He had not, he told me, so far had particularly good luck with them owing to sickness amongst the mares, and he did not seem to think that the immediate prospects as regards financial success were any too rosy. One point about this horse-farm that interested me particularly was that with all their horsey proclivities, their vaunted horsemanship, and general prowess, the German overseer preferred to employ Chinese to Mongols as infinitely more reliable with the animals in all respects.

We made an early start next day. The weather had cleared again. A handful of cigarettes between them transformed my Chinese into the cheeriest and most considerate companions.

Previous to this they had been, perhaps, rather rubbed up the wrong way most unintentionally, I am sure by first one person and then another conveying instructions to them. But now that they were solely responsible for me and to me, no one could have behaved better. Once succeed in giving your Chinese employee a real sense of responsibility and you have one of the most trustworthy men in the world to deal with is not only my own experience, but that of men who have lived half a lifetime in China. Those, indeed, who live there longest like them best. I have long since come to the conclusion that as far as is practicable with virtually no knowledge of their language the more one manages one's native servants oneself and without assistance the better one will hit it off with them. As soon as ever the third person intervenes, misunderstandings, ill-temper, and disagreement result.

I was certainly pleased with my drivers when they told me that if I did not mind cutting tiffin and the midday rest, they thought that they could take me to a distant inn where I should be much more comfortable than at the obvious halt. Nothing loth, and quite content with a diet of walnuts and dates, since that was all that was accessible in my cart, we travelled for twelve solid hours on end. The men were in high spirits, shouting " Whoa, whoa," to the animals (which in Chinese topsey-turveydom means of course " hurry up "I was taken in by this every time) and cracking jokes all day, because, as the Yankees say, they " felt so good ". It was certainly a hard day, and at the end of it we met, what to me was a never-failing joy, one of the largest camel caravans I had ever seen. Slowly climbing up over the horizon it loomed between us and a gorgeous sunset, gradually dawning upon our vision as it came swaying along in the golden haze, richly dressed Mongols lolling easily upon the camels' backs. There must have been over 200 camels and sixteen or eighteen men, all fully armed, riding them, bright patches of colour in their blue, purple, or priestly red.

So completely was I absorbed in this beautiful picture that I did not notice, neither apparently did the men, that we were approaching the compound of an inn on the off-side, until suddenly our leading pony made a tremendous dash right through the middle of the caravan across the track, scattering the camels and causing something of a stampede. The little brute was hungry and had no intention of allowing a few camels to stand between him and his supper. The camels, who are only loosely roped together in order to save their pierced noses should any untoward incident, such as a stumble or cast load, occur, spread out in all directions, and for the moment the air was rendered sultry with Mongol execrations. No harm was, however, done, and every one laughed at the d'hivilment of the fiery little red pony. But our destination was not yet, and it was long after dark when we arrived " at the haven where we would be ". A long parley at the gateway of the inn filled me with fear that we were going to have trouble in securing accommodation, but after much wheedling on the part of my pock-marked Chinese, we were allowed to enter, and without a word from me some men were turned out of a room in order that I might have it to myself.

The lad whose head I had so severely smacked but a few days previously behaved admirably, setting up my bed, fetching me hot water, and then staying to see me eat my supper. It was only by presenting him with the greater part of a leg of mutton (I detest old mutton !) that I got rid of him at all. Alone for a short spell, I settled down to a hearty meal composed of the various remains in my food box, and hurried off to bed with the uncomfortable recollection that the boy had held up four fingers as indicating the hour at which we were to start, or at least at which I was to be called, on the morrow. Expecting to reach Kalgan within twenty-four hours, I bestowed certain articles of food upon the coolies who stood round watching me pack up next morning, and was amused to see that my men got a quid pro quo for anything I gave away. A copy of " Punch " was the means, I observed, of purchasing fodder for the red pony from the inn proprietor.

Another somewhat strenuous day brought us to the top of the Han-o-pa Pass, and by the time we reached the heights the colouring was superb.

Purple and pale blue mountains pushed through a misty atmosphere, the sun shone brilliantly, and great masses of clouds shed their deep shadows over the gateway to North China. It was here that the road from Dolo N'or joined our caravan route, and we had indeed the evidence of our own eyes that the fighting of which we had heard so much was no mere myth. We overtook ox-cart after ox-cart escorted by small detachments of Chinese soldiers, bringing down knapsacks, accoutrements, and caps belonging to the poor Chinese who had fallen to the splendid marksmanship and dash of the Mongol troops at the battle of Dolo N'or. The Chinese are much too thrifty (and poor) to allow their caps to be buried with the soldiers. More than once, too, we saw some miserably wounded officer being carried down that terribly rocky pass on a rough stretcher.

One man had had to pass the night at the last inn at which I stopped, and it was pitiful to see the agony he suffered in being lifted on to his stretcher again. He had been badly shot in the lower part of the body, and I am sure he must have wished that he had been killed outright.

People say that the Chinese are insensitive, and that relatively speaking that they do not suffer.

One thing I know about them is that some of them have the power of self-control very wonderfully developed. As to their sensitiveness to pain, I should not like to speak, but I am very certain that it is rash to generalise.

It is strange what a haven of comfort and security one's headquarters, however temporary, become for the time being, and my last day on the road was marked by the now-we-shall-soon- be-home feeling. By way of a final experience, we encountered for three hours over the highest part of the pass the thickest dust storm that it has ever been my lot to see in the East.

So dense it was, that covering myself up completely with the oilcloth I cowered as far back as I could get in my cart, and breathed in air which might have been caused by a practical joker with a bag of flour, while for safety, as well as out of sheer humanity, I gave my motor goggles to my perspiring driver. Appearances do not trouble me much off the beaten track, but the whole of the day following was devoted by myself and a " boy " in trying to drive the dust out of the riding kit which I had worn in the storm, and even from the few things which were carefully packed away in a small box.

The descent from the heights some fifteen miles north of Kalgan was one of continuous jolt, joggle, bang-joggle, bang, jolt. One wheel would mount a time-worn boulder, linger a second on the top, and slide off with a gulp into the soft sand.

The other meanwhile, would execute a " pas seul " on a rock newly disintegrated from the mountain side. Packed even by an old hand well versed in Chinese travelling, everything breakable got broken on my journey down over the Kalgan Pass, and even the sides of my books were ground against each other until the cardboard showed through the cloth covers. As for my camera, my cherished old Kodak which for over fifteen years had served me well and in many countries, and which especially in Mongolia had given me cent per cent of good results, I did not mean to let it get broken if I could possibly help it, and I saved its life by carrying it slung round my neck so that it rested on my chest, thus providing a certain amount of resistance against the jarring.

The reason of this somewhat excessive destruction was that we came down the mountain side at top speed, reckless as to driving, in order to reach Kalgan before the closing of the city gates.

Away down on the level all our troubles were forgotten in the compensating peacefulness of shelter from the wind. The road along the Kalgan valley was very beautiful, very soothing, and full of incident. The rugged mountains round us were bathed in the soft warm glow of sunset, the shadows closing in behind us fell in rich violet tones. The trees, which little more than a month ago had been bare, were now fully clad in their daintiest, freshest green, and what had been a frozen river-bed was once again a running stream.

Many men and boys watering their horses greeted my drivers, and incidentally myself, as heroes who had deeds of daring done, and welcomed us as travellers returned in safety from a distant and dangerous land. The Chinese are horribly afraid of the Mongols.

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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