A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 9
( Originally Published 1920 )
" The Great way is very easy, but all love the by-paths " Chinese proverb
THE sheer discomfort of our crowded tarantass could not quench the glorious optimism with which on the last day of June we sallied forth on the highway to Urga.
Our driver, though he looked a ruffian, was not unpromising on further acquaintance, and we ended up by liking him very much. On the day previous to our departure he had called to see exactly how much luggage we wanted to take with us, and this he was inclined to limit severely. Needless to say it had expanded considerably during the night, and we cudgelled our brains as to how to get it into the tarantass without exciting his criticism too much. The Jamschik was all smiles in the morning however, and took no notice as package after package was stowed away.
The awful thought passed through my mind that perhaps he was in league with the Hung-hu-tzes and felt that the more the stores the better the booty. We were far too crowded to be comfortable, Experience, however, had taught us that in due course one shakes down to anything, and anyhow we were feeling altogether too pleased with life to worry much at this juncture. With us, surrounding us, and suspended above our heads from the roof of the tarantass, making hard corners and lumps when we tried to sit on or lean against them, were our food supplies for the double journey (which as regards time limit was exceedingly vague), a modicum of personal baggage, our bedding, and, not least, our cameras, firearms and cartridges. The weapons had to be so arranged as to be immediately available. We had but one desire to get to Urga.
The tarantass was drawn by three horses abreast with a fourth tied up and trotting alongside always in the way, poor little chap, being crowded up banks when the road narrowed and coming in for the sharpest cuts from the long whip on account of his ill-luck every time. Our last stop, long before we had shaken down into anything like comfort, was at Mai-mai-ch'eng, just across the frontier, where we had hoped to lay in a stock of cigarettes, to purchase fresh bread, and to post final letters. But, Russian influence prevailing, Mai-mai-ch'eng had not waked up, the post-office and bakers' shops were still shut, and our sole catch was cigarettes. Once out of Kiachta and through Mai-mai-ch'eng we were actually in Mongolia proper, speeding over undulating country on tracks rather than on roads, driving across flowery prairie, having said good-bye to all civilisation and houses for the time being. At midday we fetched up at the first Russian rest- house, a new and therefore fairly clean log-hut, and congratulated ourselves upon the prospect of simple comfort when a blue-eyed, blue-bloused young Russian produced the ubiquitous samovar and made for us even here tea the like of which you can get neither for love nor money outside Russia. While we ate our lunch the Jamschik amused himself by detaching and thoroughly oiling the wheels of the tarantass, a business which delayed us considerably and which it seemed to us might very well have been performed before we started.
The day which had begun so well grew dull, and grey clouds turned into steady rain which made us anxious as to what the night might have in store for us. Through pretty country, grassy and well sprinkled with flowers, a small species of scarlet and yellow tiger-lily growing in abundance everywhere, we drove on for four or five hours before pulling up in a torrent of rain at dusk, at an unexpected shanty surrounded by three or four yourts out of which several Mongols promptly appeared. On further acquaintance we came to the conclusion that they were Buriats, but be their nationality what it may, they gave us a warm welcome ; the woman who appeared to rule the roost there did her best to make us comfortable, dusting the rain from us and even going so far as to wipe the mud from Mr. Gull's mackintosh with my sponge which I had unfortunately unpacked a thought too soon. The family appeared to be extensive, both numerically and in size. They all helped to carry in, and were eager to unpack, our belongings. The good lady soon had a samovar bubbling cheerily and a fire crackling in the mud stove which occupied quite a third of the floor space.
She conveyed to us, entirely by pantomime and we afterwards verified her statement that she had once been in the Russian consul's service, that she was a Christian there was an icon in the corner of 'the room to which she pointed and that therefore she loved us very much and would do anything she could for us.
The men brought in a goodly supply of wood it was cold even in the early July nights and then stood and gazed at us solemnly. The entire family and many friends from the neighbourhood entered quite unceremoniously from time to time to have a look at us. They would walk straight in, stand and stare for a minute or two, finger anything that attracted their notice, and go on their way. Not so the little boys, of whom there were three or four, who refused to leave us and from whom, while they were picking up little bits of food, we tried to pick up a word or two of Mongolian. The sheep and goats too, squeezing together under the eaves, tried to enter each time the door was opened, and would have crowded us out had we not been firm. As it was, they kept up a melancholy " Baa, ba-a," throughout the greater part of the night. There was here, of course, no Kangue, and following our Jamschik's example, we spread all the available clothes and rugs upon the floor. I lay awake for, it seemed to me, many hours, the men snoring on the other side of the stove, listening to the rain beating down, and thankful to be in such relatively comfortable quarters. Before 7 a.m. we were up again, spreading our hard biscuit with blackberry jam (how I regretted not having insisted upon taking over the commissariat department and buying bread !) and drinking our cocoa as hot as possible in order to warm ourselves. The children came in for the dregs, in return for which they did their best to teach me to count up to six in their mother tongue. I do not think that their own knowledge went beyond the figure.
It had rained all night and continued to do so all the next day, and the night following that again, and we were not sorry when our Jamschik intimated to us that we had better for the moment stop where we were. We knew that we had shortly to cross a river, and when he raised his arms above his head and said " Ura Gol," we rightly concluded that the river, swollen high, was impossible to negotiate. Besides, next night might, for all we knew, mean camping in the open, and this under the present conditions of weather was by no means enticing. We had a very lazy day, writing a little, reading and talking, playing with any small Mongols who happened to put in an appearance.
By the following morning the river was said to have gone down sufficiently for us to cross, and we were well under weigh by 6 a.m. in none too promising weather. The Ura Gol was not far off, and we crossed the rushing waters by means of a flat-bottomed barge pulled over by wirhawsers. We all crowded together on our tarantass, horses, and men, paying the Mongols who thus transported us about three shillings for their trouble. The banks were flat, and there was nothing to charm the eye in this part of the river or in the bleak and hilly landscape over which a watery sun was making a futile attempt to shine. By tiffin time we had accomplished our third stage and drew up at a mud hovel depressing to a degree. The heavy rains had partially destroyed the roof and the floor was in consequence a morass of filth. There were living here in melancholy exile three or four unkempt and murderous looking men, and a very unhappy woman with three little boys clinging about her draggled skirts miserable and dissolute Russians upon whom the hand of fate had fallen too heavily to admit even the faintest ray of hope upon their horizon. There is something peculiarly pathetic in the sight of the reversion to this condition of animal existence by people who have obviously at some time or another belonged to civilisation. What they lived on here was more of a mystery than how they lived.
The day had cleared to a perfect brilliance, and the world seemed a cheery place as we ascended from the mosquito-ridden and marshy valleys and wended our way among the hills to the highlands. Coming over a long and somewhat tedious pass, a tremendous view rewarded us at the top of the climb an immense plain, ascending by gentle slopes to the mountains, a ribbon of wheel-tracks running across it. It was evening when our Jamschik suddenly turned in his seat and, pointing with his whip, shouted out something as unintelligible as it was exhilarating. In the twinkling of an eye we seemed to be transplanted into another life. There, right at our feet, was a huge Mongol settlement, girdled about oh all sides by the low-lying mountains. Numbers of yourts, clustered in twos or threes, formed the centre of great activity. Colour, form, and motion were literally rampant. What in the distance had looked like ant-hills with ants swarming around them turned out to be the yourts surrounded by cattle and flocks. Brilliantly dressed Mongols galloped around in every direction ; hundreds of horses were scattered about in herds over the foothills. The men were rounding them up for the night. From time to time some wayward little beast would break away from the rest, proposing to spend the night in mountain solitude. A gaudy stalwart would dart off after it, standing in his stirrups, leaning well forward in his saddle, reins held high in one hand, while in the other he trailed behind him what looked like a fishing-rod ending up in a loop of raw hide. With a twirl of his wrist he would bring this flying round at the right moment, and lasso the pony with great adroitness, hauling it, subdued at once by the tightening thong, back to the herd.
Nearer the camp, the women coped with the gentler cattle and sheep, and by the time we arrived numbers of cows were tethered with their calves reluctantly allowing a modicum of their milk to be diverted from its natural destiny. The milking of a Mongol cow is less easy than it might appear. The latter has far more character than that cow which is confined to the proverbial three acres, and on no account will the Mongol bovine yield up her milk until her calf has had its whack.
I have seen them myself arching up their backs and persistently refusing to allow one drop to be drawn.
" We shall be able to get new milk here," rejoiced my travelling companion, to which I replied, The newer the better," and foraged for a jug among the contents of our food basket. He was all for buying some from the pail of a laughing maiden who was drawing freely on the teats of a cow tethered near by. I, however, having been brought up for so many years under the direct -jurisdiction of those who frame the public health laws, did not fancy the milk that had filtered through dirty fingers into a still more questionable sheepskin pail. I therefore waded in on my own account, and, tin jug in hand, walked up to the nearest cow, laughing and joking with the Mongols who crowded round me, oblivious of a murmured protest in connection with my "'appalling cheek " from Mr. Gull, and proceeded to milk het. But no, the cow did not see the joke. She declined to be milked by an impertinent foreigner. I turned to another, a gentler creature, who was quite willing. The Mongols greeted my attempt, my successful attempt, I may proudly add, with the utmost hilarity, and my jug was half-full when —what I thought was---a furious old woman pushed through the ring, and gave me very plainly to understand that this was her cow, and that if I stole any more milk she would set her equally furious dog, which was barking loudly at her heels, upon me. The other Mongols urged me to continue, and soundly rated the old man, I discovered him to be on his lack of hospitality.
To them it was a stupendous joke, and so popular did the incident for the moment make me that I might have milked every cow in the place after that had I wanted to. My companion, while strongly condemning my action, drank the milk with keen appreciation " Adam " !
In the meantime, Mr. Gull and the Jamschik had fixed up our quarters for the night. A handsome young lama had pressed the hospitality of his yourt upon us, and intimated that the only other occupants would be himself and the maiden who appeared to be attached to him. There were from thirty to forty yourts on the plain, some clean and new, others filthy and in the last stage of dilapidation. Ours was reasonably clean, and the felt, with an effective decoration in black for a border, was in good condition. As I returned from my milking exploit, the lama beckoned me to enter, and as I did so, mindful of my manners, I laid my stick on the roof above he door. To my surprise, the priest picked it up and brought it inside he evidently thought that such a handsome foreign stick would be too great a temptation to his enemies. A great fire sending forth volumes of smoke was blazing in the centre of the yourt, and I found my fellow-traveller suffering greatly in consequence as he struggled with our baggage and the unpacking of the food box preparatory to the evening meal. We had arrived at a satisfactory division of labour the culinary side, which included " washing up," fell to my lot, the unpacking, repacking and cording which had to be done with great thoroughness was carried out by my companion. The great tip in a smoky yourt is to squat on one's heels and so keep one's head out of the smoke which rises at once to the roof leaving the ground more or less clear.
Half a dozen Mongols besides our host and hostess came and sat on the opposite side of the yourt as we spread our supper in front of us.
They boiled the water for us and I made tea, when a happy thought struck me. I poured out two mugs full of tea, added plenty of sugar and milk, and rising, we handed them respectively to the priest and to the girl. They were delighted, and the others chortled at the unexpected good manners of the foreigners. They rose to the occasion at once, poured the tea from our mugs to their bowls (for which I was thankful), and, turning to the pail of milk behind them, filled the mugs and gave them back to us. In phraseology journalistic, " an excellent impression was produced ".
After supper, in total ignorance as to the rules of procedure for going to bed in a yourt, we walked about and watched night falling on the camp.
The fierce guard dogs were let loose, and we were left alone with two or three little lama boys who never ceased pestering us for cigarettes. Then we turned in ; our rugs and waterproof sheeting spread along the periphery of the yourt in order to catch all the air that was moving. They had evidently been waiting for us. The lama entered soon afterwards, and undressing to the extent of only divesting himself of his long coat and boots disposed himself quite near to my head and was soon sound asleep. By and by, the little girl crept quietly in, and pulling off her great boots with their embroidered tops of black and green, she curled herself round like a kitten at the priest's feet, and with sundry little grunts settled down for the night. Shortly afterwards, the deep silence of the wilds was unbroken save for the snores of our trusty Jamschik, whose hefty form lay stretched across the entrance to the yourt. I lay awake for some time trying to realise the strangeness of my environment ; trying to realise that I had attained the desire of my heart for the moment primitive life among an unmistakably primitive people realising alas ! too well, that the freshness and novelty of all things wear quickly away in the face of one's amazing adaptability to the immediate requirements and realities of life.
Then gradually, with that easy exaggeration that attends the semi-conscious condition, I dawdled off into the land of the wildest dreams, becoming merged into that essential factor which is common to all existence, be it primitive or civilised sleep.
Dawn broke amazingly soon it seemed to me, and by 5 o'clock we had spread our breakfast in the pale golden sunshine on the grass outside the yourt. By degrees the settlement awoke once more. The camp was alive again. The women drove the flocks hither and thither suckling, their babies at the same time, astonishingly picturesque in their wonderful headdresses of hair flattened out into the shape of rams' horns, finished off with long plaits, at the extremities of which were suspended coins, as often as not of Russian origin.
There was again a great deal of tearing about on ponies, and one could but admire the splendid horsemanship as the men sorted out their animals and drove them to browse upon fresh pastures. After breakfast, I watched our hostess of the previous night making little cakes of koumiss, which she did by squeezing the thickened mares' milk through hers grubby little hands. She presented me with a cake, and watched to see whether or no I would eat it. As she finished them she placed the cakes on a large bamboo sieve and put them to dry in the sun on the roof of the yourt. If one could dissociate the taste from the appearance of the fingers that had made it, the koumiss was not at all bad, and reminded me strongly of a certain cheese which, but a few years ago, promised long life wholesale to mankind on the dictum of a great name in science. I should have liked to remain there for weeks, and we left the settlement most reluctantly. That one experience alone made my visit to the East worth while.
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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