A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 7
( Originally Published 1920 )
"With coarse food to eat, water to drink, and the bended arm as a pillow, happiness may still exist " Chinese proverb
So greatly had I enjoyed my experiences of travel in Inner Mongolia, that it was in a sanguine frame of mind I returned to Peking to engage in the pleasant task of making my preparations for a more extensive expedition.
I had not, however, been long in the capital before I received from an authentic quarter news which made my prospects of carrying my plans into effect look somewhat dubious.
Confirming the rumours I had heard at Ta-Bol, a Reuter's telegram was published to the effect that a battle in which 1200 Chinese soldiers had been routed had taken place immediately north of that place, and that the Hung-hu-tzes, once a robber band, now authorised Mongol soldiery, were plundering within a few hundred li of Kalgan, and killing Mongols and Chinese without distinction.
The next thing that happened was that one afternoon at the British Legation, forty-eight hours only after my return from the north, I met Mr. Edward Manico Gull, then of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, who, like myself, undeterred by the question of risks, was keenly desirous of crossing the Gobi and of visiting Urga with a view of learning at first hand something of the political conditions which led up to the rebellion of Mongolia against Chinese rule. A few days later he propounded the very practical suggestion that it would be decidedly economical, and, what was of far greater importance, very much safer, if we joined forces in order to make the attempt. Plans then grew apace. Mr. Gull left for Kalgan almost immediately, and spent a weary fortnight in making strenuous efforts to secure first camels, and then a Mongol to accompany us as guide.
Only people who have had this sort of experience can realise the constant disappointment, the promises, the breaking of promises, the endless procrastinations and delay that attend an endeavour to persuade the Asiatic into doing something concerning which he has misgivings—it resolves itself into a perfect see-saw of anticipation and disillusion.
At extortionate rates, camels were commissioned over and over again ; a southern Mongol undertook the duties of guide. When the time arrived for their appearance there were no camels. The Mongol backed out of his bargain. For my part, I undertook the purchase of stores--a somewhat unknown quantity, for under the unsettled conditions of the country it was wise to be prepared for all emergencies, such as dodging the fighting forces, which conceivably might mean making a détour taking weeks. I also bought a capital pony--alas ! only to sell him back again to his owner a few days later. But I at Peking was less sanguine than my friend at Kalgan. The little experience I had already had of Mongolia had taught me something of the difficulties of the situation, and by then the frontiers were so tremendously guarded that there was never the ghost of a chance of getting out of China nor of our caravan going through the lines.
To the kindness of certain friends at Peking at this time I owe more even than perhaps they realise. Plans had of necessity to be kept private under the circumstances, and the sympathy as well as the practical assistance in preparing my outfit that were given to me in the most generous manner possible by the two people who were in my confidence can never be forgotten. But to cut a long, and to me a heartrending, story short, we had, after straining every nerve to achieve our object, to abandon the notion of crossing the Gobi, and, travelling by train in the most prosaic manner possible through Manchuria and Siberia, we arrived at Verkne-Oudinsk on the Eastern side of Lake Baikal. The journey thither, had not the vision of all we had missed in being forced to cut out the Gobi from our calculations loomed large on our horizon, would have been very interesting. As it was, I broke my journey by the South Manchurian Railway for twenty-four hours in order to see something of the old capital and metropolis of Manchuria, Moukden, while Mr. Gull travelled on to spend a few days with some friends at Harbin.
Moukden attracted me on several counts. I wanted to see with my own eyes something of the effect of the Japanese influence (the line from Peking to Ch'angch'un is Japanese) on the Chinese in Manchuria, as well as to visit what had been the scene of great slaughter during the Russo-Japanese war. Most of all was I anxious not to miss the opportunity of inspecting the small but fine collection of Ch'en Lung pictures which interested nie deeply. These, together with an enormous collection of porcelain, are kept, thick with dust and but rarely seeing the light of day, in the old palace, the ancestral home of the late dynasty, perilously exposed, it seemed, to danger from fire, but perhaps safer as regards looting than they might be in China proper. One of these days one fears that a needy Government, if it continues to sail under Republican colours, will cast its predatory eye on this mass of treasure, and a long purse from the United States will replenish the coffers of the iconoclasts at the expense to the nation of some of the most precious heirlooms of the faded monarchy, the priceless possessions of Ch'en Lung the magnificent. The tombs of the Manchu sovereigns a few miles out of the city also helped to convince me that it had been well worth while to break my journey at Moukden.
From Ch'angch'un to Harbin one travels under Russian auspices on the Chinese Eastern Railway. Never in all my experience have I arrived at a more depressing place than Harbin, some eighteen hours' journey on from Moukden. Never have I felt more of a stranger in a strange land. Chaos reigned among the cosmopolitan crowds on the platforms, and I was in despair at securing my luggage before the train went on. A friend in need, in the person of a hotel porter, came to my assistance after I had effected the whole business myself, and haled me off to the dreariest hotel it has ever been my lot to enter. Of mushroom growth consequent on the opening of the Siberian Railway, there is little that is attractive in Harbin, and it was depressing to find that Russian holidays, when all shops are closed, necessitated remaining there for several days in order to make final purchases. I could find no redeeming feature in Harbin, although it was there that an extraordinary piece of good luck befell us. In a dismal tea garden, Mr. Gull and I were using up a great deal of energy in the endeavour to persuade a Russian waitress to provide us with bread and butter, when a handsome old man turned round and in dulcet tones said, " Would you like me to interpret for you ? " We did indeed like, and still more did we enjoy the conversation that ensued. We learned that our friend, a much-travelled man, had been in Urga, and was therefore able to give us most valuable information as to the means of getting there. In the kindness of his heart, he even presented us with introductions to a Russian who had it in his power to be exceedingly useful to us, but who unfortunately was absent from Mongolia when we arrived there. This kindness on the part of a perfect stranger was truly refreshing, not to say Inspiring.
Leaving Peking as we had done by so entirely different a route from that we had projected, we had been unable to provide ourselves with the permits necessary for carrying firearms in Russia. The Russian customs are the bugbear of trans-Siberian travel. Even when all is in one's favour, passports duly visa, every detail en règle, endless difficulties are apt to crop up, and sad and varied are the stories with which passengers regale each other of lost luggage, missed trains, and other uncalled-for troubles, one and all resulting from shall we say excess of zeal ?—at the customs.
The Russians still seem to think that they are doing one a favour in allowing one to travel in their unattractive and expensive country, in which I for one certainly encountered more sheer discomfort than in any other place I have stayed in. The settlement, it is scarcely worthy of being called a town, of Manchuli is separated by some forty-eight hours' journey from Harbin. It is solely of importance as being the Russian frontier, and is the scene therefore of all that is exasperating in connection with customs. It was here that we anticipated trouble with our guns, revolvers, and ammunition. But good fortune was beginning to shine upon us, and owing to a little kindly advice from another casual acquaintance, we experienced no difficulty at all. We had been warned that if the guns were too much in evidence they would unquestionably be confiscated and that imprisonment without the option of a fine would result without doubt. Stories of the awful dungeons on the Volga floated through my mind.
My gun, therefore, was taken from its case (the latter being sent back by post to Peking) and the three sections wrapped up and packed among the underwear in my trunk. The ammunition, I was advised, should be so distributed as to give no clue to its presence. This was by no means an easy matter. Over a hundred rounds packed away into a tin jug and basin, with walnuts placed on the top, were made into an untidy brown paper parcel. The remainder was carried in a haversack.
It being generally agreed that the less likely of the two of us to be suspected was myself, I undertook to do my best to perpetrate the deception. Underneath my Burberry I slung the Mauser pistol and a large Colt revolver ; my smaller weapon I carried in my pocket. The ammunition for all these I had also spread about my person. Outside my coat was the haversack, the strap concealed round my neck, and in order to suggest the lightness of—food, shall we say ?
I carried this jauntily on the tips of two fingers. The total was somewhat weighty, and I felt for all the world like a Gilbert and Sullivan pirate.
The examination of my small trunk was to me a nerve-racking performance. To present a bland appearance to the officials who conducted the search was, under the circumstances, rather hard. Layer after layer was lifted out, but when on the verge of disclosing my disjointed gun the generalissimo in command stayed the hands of his underling and all was well. But it was touch and go.
Upon our box of stores we had fully expected to pay duty, since everything entering Russia is liable, and a few days previously I had been told of a lady travelling home by this route with her baby being charged full price on sixteen tins of milk which she had purchased for her journey.
But the officials were content with the turning out of the entire contents of the box, when finding that there was no one article in sets of dozens, they were good enough to pass the lot through without charging us a penny.
The remainder of the journey to our destination, Verkne-Oudinsk, was pleasant enough by the ordinary trans-Siberian daily express, and without incident worth recording. There was no restaurant car, but the station buffets all along this route are excellent, and in taking advantage of these for meals we were able to husband the contents of the food box for Mongolian emergencies. We drew up at more or less suitable times for meals thrice daily, and soon learned to accommodate ourselves to these or to go without altogether. At the buffets we found capital food at very reasonable prices, and it was usually cooked to the minute of the train's arrival. At wayside stations too, we were able to buy wild raspberries in any quantity, but never were we able to hit these off at the same station at which we bought beautiful cream the equivalent of about half a pint for a penny. Food on such a journey (there were about fifty hours between Manchuria and Verkne-Oudinsk) plays no unimportant part, and for the sake of those , who fear lest they may go hungry should they have the courage to travel other than by the train de luxe, I will just mention in passing that the little spatch-cock chickens fried in egg and breadcrumb, after a liberal helping of the famous Russian Bortsch (which indeed is a meal in itself) make a dinner hard to beat. Travelling second class for economy's sake for we were in utter ignorance as to how our financial resources would hold out in Mongolia our travelling companions were mainly Russian officers and their families, and from time to time a couple of priests of the Greek Church would get in. But one of all these knew any language other than his mother tongue. To find the wonderful linguists with which Russia is usually accredited one must go, I fancy, into the society of Petersburg or Moscow. This particular linguist, a priest, had lived in America. The conductors on the trains, though civil enough, spoke Russian only. The well-equipped washrooms at the end of each compartment were dreadful traps for losing things, and an unpleasing coincidence occurred when we discovered the loss of our respective watches both on the same day.
They were undoubtedly stolen. Mine was less easily explained than that of my fellow-traveller.
For less than two minutes he had left it on the edge of the lavatory basin, and on becoming aware of this second loss it seemed that the time had come for complaint. Complaint in Russian, however, is not so easy when one does not know one word of the tongue, and we resorted to the primitive method of drawing the watch, and then making pantomimic enquiries of our companions at that time a couple of priests and the two sons of one of them. It was one of these latter we had reason to suspect, and going sternly up to them, I brandished the drawing in their faces and demanded the watch. The father broke out to our astonishment in voluble English, and assured us (what parent would not have done ?) that his were good little boys, and would not think of keeping the watch had they found it. Our surprise was even greater when the second priest produced his cigarette case, opened it, and disclosed the watch.
He presented it to me with an unctuous bow, explaining that not knowing to whom it belonged he had retained it. I am afraid that we must have mingled incredulity with our gratitude, or perhaps his uneasy conscience smote him, for he pulled forth a large crucifix from his voluminous garment, kissed it sanctimoniously, held out his hands to both of us, and before we had time to realise the situation kissed first one and then the other of us amid great protestations of honesty. A most revolting person.
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
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