A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 8
( Originally Published 1920 )
Whom Heaven has endowed as a fool at his birth it is a waste of instruction to teach "
Real difficulties had, however, barely begun, and it was upon arrival at the Hotel Siberie at Verkne-Oudinsk that we felt completely at sea in the absence of one word of a common language. Reaching our destination late at night we had the greatest trouble in making them understand that we were hungry and wished to have supper before seeking our rooms. Eggs, we thought, would be the simplest and most easily obtainable fare. I therefore drew an egg. What they did not think it was meant for can hardly be described ; that it was an egg never occurred to them. Certainly an egg drawn in a hurry might be many things. Therefore I added an egg-cup to my sketch ; and at this they stared in blank astonishment. I think they had never seen such a thing. I then tried to draw a chicken ; at which they laughed, but had no conception as to my intention. With all the resourcefulness of the superior sex, Mr. Gull had a brilliant notion. Out of all patience he is a peppery little man he pointed to my picture, and, violently flapping his arms, he squawked " Cock-a-doodle-doo " at the top of his voice. Delight on the part of the staff.
The demonstration had penetrated their thick skulls, and we had eggs for supper that night. Next day our intention was to find out all about the steamboat which was to carry us up the Selenga River to Kiachta, but how to encompass this was almost an insurmountable problem. The clerks of the telegraph office had been our solitary hope, but on acquaintance we found that this means was worse than useless. They knew not one word of French, German, or, of course, English. We wandered, somewhat disconsolate, along the dusty streets, wondering what we should be able to do, when, when coming away from a private house, we encountered the amiable countenance of a Chinaman. We seized upon him, and our troubles were, for the time being at least, at an end. What he did not know himself, he put us in the way of finding out, and retracing' his steps into the house he invited the master thereof to come forth and to speak with us. This gentleman turned out to be a German-speaking Russian engaged in one of the more important businesses of the place, and of his kindness we have the most grateful recollection. He helped us to order dinner, he walked with us, and drove with us.
He took us to the steamship company's office, purchased our tickets, and finally put us and our luggage on board the " Rabatka," waving us farewells from the wharf like the good friend that he was.
Verkne-Oudinsk is not a place of many attractions. Once a penal settlement, now a military stronghold, its main feature is the huge white prison standing on the banks of the Selenga River a short distance outside the town ; it seems out of all proportion to the population of some 40,000 inhabitants. This prison is capable of containing 600 men and women, and in some of the rooms there are as many as seventy persons herded together. Criminals of the worst order, as well as those prisoners who have escaped and been recaptured, are isolated, confined in dungeons, and wear fetters on their ankles. Of Verkne-Oudinsk's 40,000 inhabitants some 10,000 are said to be Chinese, while of the remainder an appreciable proportion is no doubt composed of Russian political exiles and ticket-of-leave men with their families, or their descendants.
In relation to the size and position of the place the shops of Verkne-Oudinsk are fairly good. There are also a couple of factories, while a brisk trade is carried on at certain hours of the day in the big market square. Considerable business is transacted in Verkne-Oudinsk in connection with skins, fur, wool, and timber. The first-named are, however, exported in their raw condition and therefore not a great many people are employed in this trade. As in Most Russian towns, the church forms the dominant feature, and that' in Verkne-Oudinsk, with its copper-green roof and white walls, is decidedly attractive to the eye, standing as it does, on the banks of a flowing river.
The houses, mainly of wood, and often composed of rough logs with the bark remaining, are for the most part of one story and border the roads on which the dust is habitually ankle deep. The only possibility of comfort under such conditions is to wear the long soft top boots of the country. Yet it is only the men of the place who do so, and the women for the most part go about in trodden-down slippers and with shawls over their untidy heads.
The weather was by this time growing hot, and the prospect of two days' travelling on a river steamboat sounded exceedingly pleasant after the shadeless, dust-laden streets of Verkne-Oudinsk. But we had reckoned without the mosquitoes.
The " Rabatka " can hardly be called a luxurious boat, and the vibration and noise from the paddlewheels were at first not a little trying. The cabins, arranged with three hard, velvet-covered seats in place of berths, were very small, while the necessity that arose for the thick wire-gauze screens over the windows as soon as the sun went down, rendered them almost unendurably hot. There was a roomy upper deck upon which we had fondly contemplated spending all our time, but alas !
The funnel emitted, not smoke, but a continuous rain of red-hot charcoal, and in view of the danger from fire there was, of course, the scenery, which was mildly pretty as we passed between the pine-clad hills outside VerkneOudinsk, soon became flat and uninteresting. Selenginsk, the only village of any size and with the usual large white church with green domes, was passed about halfway between our startingpoint and Ost-Kiachta, and may be remembered as having been during the early part of last century the field of a group of English missionaries who established there an excellent work among the Buriats a Russian-nationalised tribe of Mongols. They lived there in complete exile until Nicholas Imperator ordered them out of the country in the early forties, the reason being that it was English influence and not the Christianising of the Buriats that was feared by the authorities.
Delightful indeed it was to reach the little port of Ost-Kiachta in the cool of the morning, to make a bad bargain with the owner of a tarantass, and to find ourselves driving along through country which was in refreshing contrast to that we had recently left stretches of flowery moorland bordered with pines and silver birches. At one point across a shallow valley drifted sounds of melody, which, we discovered later, arose from the tents of an encampment of Russian soldiers.
This part of Siberia, in fact, bristles with bayonets, and the ulterior motives of massing such numbers of soldiers in territory so obviously peaceful is significant enough. We must have driven for some ten miles or more when we dashed through the gay little town of Troitze-Casaysk, in which churches and barracks seemed to dominate everything right up to the door of the unpretentious, one-storied, barn-like erection which called itself the Hôtel Metropole.
The place presented a depressed aspect, and the bedrooms, like cells, opening off a long and odoriferous passage, were far from cheering.
The washing arrangements, just a trickle of water coming from a tin receptacle of doubtful cleanliness fixed above a basin, and the sheetless, blanketless beds were by no means inviting. The landlord, however, a portly Serb, was a pleasant enough fellow, and sent us in an appetising lunch, which, after our picnicing experiences on both boat and train was welcome. Kiachta, of which Troitze-Casaysk is merely a division on the northern side, we found to be a far more interesting place than Verkne-Oudinsk. A great military centre, with newly-erected barracks of strikingly ugly design and capable of accommodating over 15,000 soldiers, mars the foreground of what would otherwise be a most charming view extending as far as the eye can reach into Mongolia.
A ribbon of no man's land divides Kiachta from Mai-mai-ch'eng (buy-sell city), a pretty little Chinese township which fringes the northern-most border of Mongolia opposite Kiachta the neutral territory being defined by a couple of stone pillars on the strip of dusty waste. But Russia has long ago broken the laws of neutral 1territory by the establishment of barracks within five miles of the frontier, and Mai-mai-ch'eng is depressed. They are very depressed indeed, for the Russians are pressing the Chinese very hard here, and, while the latter doubtless squeezed the Mongol to the limits of his endurance, they in their turn are being ground down and out of existence by dues and taxation on both incoming and outgoing goods, in face of the special protection which is afforded to all Russian products.
The Chinese were very ready to talk about their grievances, and we sat in their little shops and drank excellent tea, in Russian fashion, in vast quantities one hot afternoon while they poured these grievances into our sympathetic ears.
Chinese, Mongols, and Russians live cheek by jowl in Kiachta, but all told, apart from the military, the total population numbers not many more than a thousand souls.
It is here in Kiachta that one first makes the acquaintance of the Khalkha or Northern Mongol. In the streets, in the market place, in the burning heat where the sand refracts every atom of glare, they are to be encountered. Always mounted, they presented the most extraordinarily picturesque appearance, and the first impression fascinated me. One couple, an elderly rake and his pretty young wife, we followed about while they made their purchases. The girl, sitting easily and gracefully on her pony, bartered for things at the various stalls, while her elderly swain doled out the roubles with a cheeriness which made me think that she must surely be the wife of " the other fellow "—it certainly was not marital. At a Chinese booth she drank, what looked like, sherbet, made an awful face over it, whereat Don Yuan laughed derisively. Riding astride, she appeared both eminently practical and unpractical at the same time the curious spreading coiffure looking as though it would catch the wind to any extent when she was going fast. This seemed to me as though it might possibly have been the forerunner of the Manchu headdress which strikes one as being so attractive the first time one sees it in Peking. The typical Mongol swagger, of which later we were to see plenty, was not absent from the pair, and the maiden evidently enjoyed our interest, and was, moreover, quite coy about it.
How to get away from Kiachta was a problem somewhat difficult of solution. Wild rumours regarding the turbulent soldiery and the Hunghu-tzes, or " red-beards," as these murderous robbers are called, sent up the prices alarmingly.
By an European we had met in Verkne-Oudinsk we had been told that our route might be infested by such, and that on meeting a bunch. of mounted men in Russian boots and slouch hats we were to shoot at sight and not to wait for them " to plug the lead in first ". Hung-hu-tzes have the reputation of killing first and robbing afterwards. How sound this advice may have been it is difficult to determine now, for fortunately we never had occasion to put it into practice. Through the kind offices of a solitary Dane in charge of the telegraph system at Kiachta, to whom we were lucky in haying an introduction, we were able to come to terms with the owner of a tarantass. The latter is a rough cradle-like, hooded structure, virtually springless, on four wheels, drawn by three fiery horses, driven by a Jamschik or Russian coachman. For sixty roubles (nearly 27), ten of them in advance (which we inadvertently forgot to deduct when we got to our journey's end), our ruffianly looking driver undertook to convey us to Urga, but, he said, owing to the rivers at this time of year being in flood, he would not guarantee to do so under a week. From my point of view this was no drawback ; lingering on the road enables one frequently to obtain an intimacy with the local conditions which hurrying through against time and under contract completely frustrates.
I was glad to shake the dust of Russia from my feet for a while and depart from the hotel which at 8 o'clock on this perfect summer's day was still slumbering and slothful. Evidence of the previous night's debauch sufficed to make breakfast in the dining-room an unattractive experience, and it was not a place in which one cared to remain longer than absolutely necessary. A charge in our bill of something over five shillings for a cooked cauliflower was proof enough that the Russians love money though they do not love work. Rather a Mongol yourt at any time than an Hotel Metropole in Siberia. Civilisation, so called, is all very well, but more often than not it destroys simplicity while in no sense augmenting comfort.
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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