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NORTH TO THE SIBERIAN RAILWAY
One should spend weeks, not days, in Urga, but alas, time pressed and I had to be "moving on." Just how to move on was a question, for the ponies and buggy with which I had crossed Gobi could go no farther. I finally arranged with a Russian trader for a tarantass and baggage cart to take me the two hundred and twenty-five miles to the head of river navigation beyond Kiakhta. Innumerable cigarettes were smoked while the discussion went on in my room, and at times there seemed much more smoke than progress, for the trader knew only his own tongue and Mongolian, but one of the two Russians who were to go with me spoke a very few words of German, so he and I made shift to understand each other. My Mongol host was on hand, looking after my interests, but he could talk with me only through the medium of Tchagan Hou, who spoke a little Chinese, and Wang, who knew even less English.
My spirits were rather low as I said good-bye to my kind hosts one bright morning in August. I was sorry to leave Urga with so much unseen, sorry to see the last of Tchagan Hou, who had piloted me so skilfully across the desert blessings on his good face! I hope luck is with him wherever he is and I was sorry to part with my Chinese tent, my home for weeks, and with my little camp-bed, on which I had slept so many dreamless nights. A few days and nights in a tarantass were all that now lay between me and the uninteresting comforts of Western hotels and trains.
With great inward objection I climbed into the tarantass, like nothing so much as a huge cradle on wheels, drawn by three horses, one, the largest, trotting between the shafts, and the other two galloping on either side. At the very outset I had a chance to realize the difference between dealing with the Asiatic pure and simple, and the Asiatic disguised as a European. We had been told that it would be necessary to make an early start to cover the first day's stage before dark. I was on hand, and so was Wang, but it was afternoon before we were finally off. Luggage had to be packed and repacked, wheels greased, harness mended, many things done that ought to have been attended to the day before. Now of course that happens in China, though nowhere else in my journeyings did I encounter such dawdling and shiftlessness, but there at least you may relieve your feelings by storming a bit and stirring things up; these people, however, looked like Western men, and one simply could not do it.
So I kicked my heels for hours in the Russian merchant's lumberyard, drinking innumerable cups of tea and refusing as many more, and getting light on several things. I had been told that the Russians have little of the Anglo-Saxon's race pride, but I did not suppose they ignored all other distinctions. I was drinking a last glass of tea with the merchant in his pleasant little sitting-room, attractive with many blossoming plants, when Wang came in to collect my things. He was at once boisterously urged to draw up to the table between us. He refused, but the Russian insisted, trying to force him down into a chair. I watched without saying anything as my boy quietly took a glass of tea and a chair and withdrew to the other side of the room. He understood what was suitable better than the Russian.
Passing out of the little Russian trading settlement, like nothing so much as a thriving, hideous Western village, we drove through the main street of the Mongolian quarter, where all the life of Lama-town seemed to have drifted, for the gaiety and colour were intoxicating. Half an hour took us away from the river and into the hills. The track was rough and boggy and often blocked by interminable trains of bullock carts laden with logs or dressed lumber, Urga's important exports. Toward the end of the day the way became steeper and wilder, ascending between slopes well wooded with spruce and pine and larch and birch. It was a joy to be in a real forest again. The flowers that grew in great profusion were more beautiful than any I had seen before in North Mongolia, especially the wonderful masses of wild larkspur of a blue so intense that it dazzled the eyes.
A storm was gathering and we pushed on as fast as we could; but the road was too rough for speed and we were a long way from our camping-place when a tremendous downpour burst upon us, and in the twinkling of an eye our path was a rushing mountain torrent. Dry under my tarpaulin I could enjoy the scene, splendid masses of blue-black clouds shot with vivid flashes of lightning that served only to show the badness of the way and the emptiness of the country. I will say for Ivan, the tarantass driver, that he knew his business and kept the horses on their feet and in the road better than most men could have done.
We drove on until nine, when the driver declared he could go no farther, and proceeded to make camp by the roadside, not far from a couple of yurts. A light shone out, and there was the sound of angry voices and wrangling, but I could not find out what was the matter. Nicolai's German always gave out, as the Indian babu said his presence of mind did, "in the nick of time." Finally, the Russians sulkily turned their horses loose and set up the little shelter tent where the three men were to sleep. Apparently there was no fuel to be had, and we all went supper-less to bed.
My first night in a tarantass was very comfortable. The body of the cart, made soft with rugs and sheepskins, was long enough for me to stretch out at full length if I lay cornerwise, and the hood protected me against rain and wind. When I waked in the morning the whole land was drenched, but the sun shone brilliantly. I started out on my own account to get a little dry fuel from the Mongols, but was rather brusquely repulsed. And I now found out what was the matter. The people had objected the night before to our camping near the yurts, for it was their hayfield, theirs by the custom which forbids encroaching on the land near a settlement, but the Russians had persisted, and now, in their helpless anger, they were an aged lama and an old woman, they refused to sell us wood. They stood aloof looking ruefully at their trampled meadow as we made ready to start, hardly brightening up at all when I tried to make good their loss. An Englishman or an American would scarcely have asked my boy to sit at table with us, but on the other hand he would have spared the Mongol's poor little hayfield.
The experience of the first day was repeated all the following days; a late start in the morning, tedious halts at noon, getting into camp long after dark. Indeed, I do not know when we should have been off in the morning had it not been for Wang. He it was who roused the men, and did his best to get a fire started, collecting fuel for the whole camp. Although it rained every day, I do not think it ever occurred to the Russians to avail themselves of a chance to get dry wood against the next meal, and Wang remarked sadly that the Russians spent even more time than the Mongols in drinking tea.
After the first day we left behind the wooded hills and were again in rolling grassland like South Mongolia, but there was much more water; indeed, the streams and bogs often forced us to make long dιtours, and finally we came to a deep, strong-flowing river that could not be forded; but there was a ferry-boat made of four huge, hollowed logs securely lashed together and covered with a loose, rough flooring. The horses were taken out and made to swim across, while the Mongol ferrymen, all lamas and big fellows, went back and forth, taking us and the carts over.
The second morning we started again without our breakfasts, there was no dry wood. Ivan, the tarantass driver, and the only one of the party who knew the road, cheered us with the prospect of something hot at a Russian colonist's house an hour farther on, but it was four hours' hard driving before we reached the place, which then, however, more than made good all he had claimed for it.
The two families that formed the little settlement were engaged in cattle raising, and seemed prosperous and contented. Their houses and sheds were built of timber and mud, and looked substantial and well suited to stand the cold and winds of North Mongolia. We were given a hearty welcome and taken at once into a large whitewashed room, kitchen, living-room, and bedroom in one. Everything was spotlessly clean; even under the bed there was no dust. I can testify to that, for I pursued Jack there. The mistress of the house was a very good-looking, dark-browed woman in a neat red gown with a red kerchief tied over her head. She promptly served us with delicious tea from the invariable samovar, and the freshest of eggs and good black bread, while a chicken, for me to take away, was set roasting on a spit before the fire. Two little tow-headed boys, put out of the way on the bed, stared stolidly at us as they munched raw parsnips, and a baby cradled in a basket suspended by a rope from the ceiling was kept swinging by a touch from the mother as she went to and fro. The people seemed to be on friendly terms with their Mongol neighbours, two or three of whom came in while I was there, but it must be a lonely life, a day's ride away from the nearest Russian family. When I asked Nicolai what the children did for school, he laughed scornfully. "Why should they learn to read? Their father and mother cannot."
Such homes as these are Russia's advance posts in Mongolia, but given a fair field and she would stand no chance, for the Chinese colonists must outnumber the others a hundred to one. From this time on we saw more and more signs of cultivation, the pasture land was broken by great fields of rye and barley, and the yurts of the Mongol were often replaced by Chinese houses, looking on the outside much like the one just described, save that the window openings were filled with paper instead of glass.
Board signs, not unlike "Keep off the grass" ones of the West, were set up here and there, showing a Chinese holding. With or without government aid the Chinese are coming in. They get land from the Mongols very much, I imagine, as did the first English settlers in America, buying for a song what the owner does not know he is selling. And once established they are not easily dislodged, for they are good farmers, thrifty and untiring. In the end they will oust the Mongol from the best lands as sure as fate, unless Russia first ousts them, as apparently she is doing. I am sorry for the Mongol; he is a happy-go-lucky, likeable fellow, but it is all nonsense for the Russian Government to talk about the way the Chinese settlers are wronging him, taking away the tillable lands. He does not want them to till, but to pasture his herds, and that is just the difficulty. It is not China but civilization that is driving the Mongol to the wall, just as the Red Indian was driven. Nowadays the people that will not make the best use of the land must give it up to those who will.
The next day promised to be a long, hard one, and proved even harder than I had expected. First the little dog was run over by my own baggage cart. I thought surely he was dead, and then I feared the first use of the revolver I had brought from America would be to end his gay little life. The Russians shook their heads dolefully and gave no help, but Wang lent a hand with his cheerful "all right," and in twenty-four hours Jack was able to bark at the horses, even though he was too much bunged up to stand.
My other trouble was the behaviour of the man Ivan. He was in fact a thoroughly bad sort, lazy, stupid, sullen, and brutal to his horses. He was supposed to take orders from the other Russian, but he refused to obey him or any one. Only when by signs I could make clear what I wanted could I do anything with him; then I could sometimes put enough peremptoriness in my voice to bring him to heel. Added to the natural bad temper of the man he was drinking constantly, and was quite beyond control.
The country where we now were was a succession of beautiful valleys watered by many streams and enclosed by barren, treeless hills, a rich, uninteresting district. We stopped for tiffin by a broad stream bordered by willows. The grass was good, but the flies were so maddening that the poor ponies hardly grazed at all. Hot as it was, I thought they were better off moving than in this pestilential spot, but it was impossible to get Ivan started. For hours he slept and drank, while the horses twitched their skins and switched their tails and stamped their feet, and between times tried to snatch a bite. Poor-looking women and boys from some yurts crept over to our camp, and sought eagerly through the grass for any finds in the way of tins or bottles. They were quite the most miserable natives that I saw on my trip. As for me, I sat on the ground, comforting Jack and longing for a Chinese or a Mongol or anything that had learned to obey.
Finally at half-past five the driver roused from his drunken doze and we started off again. On and on we go, over a tedious, uninteresting stretch; the sun goes down, the twilight deepens into night, and the stars come out. At half-past eight I ask how much longer we must drive, and am told two hours. At half-past eleven I try to make the man understand he must stop, but he pays no attention. And it is one o'clock when I see the river in front of us, glimmering in the misty moonlight. In a minute we are in the water; two steps more and the swift current is up to the horses' sides, and the tarantass begins to turn over. Ivan, now thoroughly awake, jumps out, the other Russian helps, and with much pushing and floundering the horses manage to struggle back to shore. This is plainly no ford, and as there is no help in sight we camp on the bank for the rest of the night, no grass for the horses, nothing to make a fire. After a bite of black bread and a tea-cup of the Foreign Office Bordeaux, I curl up in the tarantass, shivering with damp river cold, and Wang, rolled up in his sheepskin, sleeps on the ground underneath. As for the Russians, I commit them cheerfully to all the joys of rheumatism.
For once every one is up at dawn. A passing lama directs us to a ferry down the river, where we cross by means of a flat-bottomed boat worked by an iron cable. On the other side the men start a fire and we get some hot tea. Again I am struck by the familiar way in which the Russians hobnob with the Mongols. Anglo-Saxons of their class would not do it. I wonder if the "hail-fellow-well-met" treatment offsets the injustice and rough handling the natives often get from their northern neighbours, and if on the whole they like it better than the Anglo-Saxon's fairness when coupled with his reserve. A distinguished Indian, not a reformer, once said to me, "My countrymen prefer sympathy to justice." Perhaps that is true of other Asiatics also.
For three or four hours after starting off again we traversed much the same sort of country as the day before, crossing fertile valleys, climbing rough hillsides to avoid bogs. There were not many signs of cultivation, but along the horizon we could see the dark line of a forest, a welcome change. Just before reaching it we turned off across the plain to the yurts of the helpful lama of the morning. We were expected and given a warm welcome in more senses than one, for the yurt into which I was at once taken was so hot that I thought I should faint. How those people in their woollen clothes could endure the heat was a mystery.
The lama, a well-appearing, elderly man, seemed completely fitted out with wife and children and yurts and herds. He was plainly a person of substance, and the head of quite a settlement. The yurt where I was received was very spacious, and was furnished precisely as Huc described sixty years ago. There was one novelty, a stove-pipe connected with a sort of cement stove, but perhaps this was merely for ornament, as my dinner was cooked in a pot placed upon a tripod over a fire of wood and argols. I was given the seat of honour, a sort of divan, and milk was placed on a small, low table before me. But I at once espied something more interesting than food. Round the walls of the yurt were ranged one or two tables and chests of drawers. On one were some books, detached leaves in leather covers with clasps. These were the lama's sacred books. Very stupidly, for I had been told that no secular hand may touch them, I started to pick one up, but the man courteously but very firmly waved me back; hardly would he allow me to look at them from a distance. He assured me he could read them, but that is not true of most lamas. A little altar set out with small images and pictures of Buddha, and among them a cheap photograph of the Gigin of Urga, did not seem half so sacred, for the lama displayed them freely, even allowing me to inspect the dozen or so small metal pots containing oil and other offerings which were ranged in front of the images.
When our food was ready, the lama carried off the Russians to eat in the men's tent; that is the rule, but the neighbours, men and women, who had flocked in, stayed to watch me. Various strange dishes were put before me; best of all, some hard curds decorated with lumps of sugar. Sugar is a great delicacy with the Mongols.
As we were nearing the land of hotels, I emptied my tiffin basket here, making my hosts and their friends happy with tins of jam and marmalade and sardines and beef extract, not to mention enamelled cups and plates and stew-pans. Everything was eagerly taken, even empty jars and bottles, and they seemed as pleased as children with a new toy.
The country changed abruptly after leaving the last Mongol settlement. Houses of Russian colonists occurred frequently, and presently we entered the remnants of a fine pine forest, and from this time on there was no lack of trees. We were now almost at the Russian frontier, and I was becoming uneasy about the fate of my little revolver. It had already undergone various vicissitudes; discovered by the customs officials at Constantinople, they had threatened to fine me for violating the law about bringing in firearms, but finally decided to remit the fine but confiscate the weapon. When remonstrated with on the ground that I was a lady going to Asiatic Turkey and might need it, they made matters straight by returning the revolver, but kept the ammunition. I had paid duty on the thing in Bombay, I had spent hours fitting it with cartridges in Shanghai, many miles it had been carried, kept handy in case of need, although I could not imagine what the need could be, and now I was assured it would be seized and I would be fined if I tried to take it over the Russian frontier. No firearms of any sort may be brought into the empire without a permit procured beforehand. No, the Russians should not have my little revolver. We passed a small pond; one toss and it was gone.
The sun was setting as looking across the valley I caught the white gleam of the great church in Kiakhta, but it was after eleven when we rumbled through Mai-ma-chin, the frontier post of China, and, crossing the Russian boundary unchallenged, drove quietly down the long main street of the town. I was too sleepy to notice anything, until I heard the men chuckling softly, and I waked up to find that we were past the custom house. "It would be too bad to disturb the sleepy sentinels, so we took off the bells," they explain. I imagine they had added to their other misdeeds by doing a bit of smuggling.
It seemed to me that we drove for hours through the dark, echoing streets of Kiakhta, but at last we stopped before the white wall of a long, low building, and in a moment I was in another world. Behind me were the wide, open plains of Mongolia and the starlit nights in tent or tarantass. Here was Russia, half Europe, half Asia, and wholly uninteresting. But at least there was a good bed awaiting me, and the most wonderful little supper ever served at midnight on short notice, delicious tea, good bread and butter, and the most toothsome small birds, served hot on toast in a casserole. Where in a Western frontier town could one find the like?
But it was not until I waked the next morning that I realized how very Western Kiakhta is: humble log houses side by side with pretentious stuccoed buildings, rickety wooden sidewalks or none at all, streets ankle-deep in dust one day, a bog the next; but the handful of fine residences, and above all the great white church costing fabulous sums in decorations, tell of Kiakhta's great commercial past, a history that goes back two hundred years, when Gobi was alive with the long lines of camel caravans coming and going between the Great Wall and the Russian border. Those were the days when the great tea merchants of Kiakhta heaped up huge fortunes, to squander them in ways common to the suddenly rich all over the world. But with the building of the railway, trade turned aside, and to-day the town bears the marks of decaying fortunes. The storehouses are half empty, many of the great merchant families have gone away or are ruined, and were it not for the regiments stationed at this frontier post, Kiakhta would be wrapped in the silence of the desert. It remains to be seen what will be the effect of the railway Russia proposes to build between Verchneudinsk and Urga. It may give new life to the town, but of course it is military and political in its purpose rather than commercial. During my four days' trip from Urga there was very little traffic coming or going, and unless Mongolia's resources prove unexpectedly rich, the days of Kiakhta's prosperity are gone beyond recall.
But I did not stop long to investigate either the past or the present interest of Kiakhta, for by the next afternoon I was off again, finally ending my tarantass journey some eighteen miles north of the town, in a great lumberyard on the right bank of the Iro, the starting-point of the steamer to Verchneudinsk. There, together with some scores of people, mostly Russian officers and their families, I kicked my heels among the lumber for ten hours, waiting for the belated boat. It rained most of the time, and the two tiny waiting-rooms were crowded to overflowing with people and luggage; there was no restaurant, and I should have starved had not good Wang made friends with some Chinese workmen and got me some eggs. Finally we were told the boat would not come till morning, so each person tried to find a corner and go to sleep. I had just curled up comfortably, at one end of a great, unfinished shed where the horses had been put out of the rain, when a cry sounded through the dark that the boat was coming. By one o'clock we were off. Everything was in confusion and every one was cross. I had secured a cabin beforehand, and then found I was expected to share it with a young Russian officer going home on leave. I quite regretted my airy, quiet corner in the open shed.
All the next day we were steaming in leisurely fashion down the Iro, making long stops at little hamlets in the forest, where all the inhabitants of the half-dozen log houses clustered round the invariable white church with green domes turned out to meet us, often bringing bottles of delicious milk to sell. They were mostly of the peasant type, large, fair, and stolid-looking. The scenery along the river was dull and monotonous, low, heavily wooded banks, broken now and then by a little clearing. It was a sodden, unkempt, featureless country, and I found myself longing for the journey's end.
On the boat the third-class passengers were mostly Russian peasants and a few Chinese, with a little group of frightened-looking Mongols. I fancy they wished themselves back in the desert; I know I did. In the first and second class there were almost none but military people, the men all in full uniform of bewildering variety. Most of them were tall and large, but rather rough in manner. I imagine one does not find the pick of the Russian army on the frontier.
We reached Verchneudinsk well after dark, and a queer little tumble-down phaeton took us to the inn chosen because of its German-speaking landlord. Here I spent two days waiting for the Moscow Express. After I had started my invaluable Wang off on his journey back to Peking by way of Harbin and Mukden, I had nothing to do but rest and enjoy the charming courtesies of the officials of the Russo-Asiatic Bank. Verchneudinsk has little of interest, however; it is just a big, new town, raw and unfinished, half logs and half stucco, with streets that are mostly bog, and several pretentious public buildings and an ugly triumphal arch marking the visit of the Tsar a few years ago. Civilization has some compensations, but half-civilization is not attractive; and it was a happy moment when I found myself with Jack in my own little compartment on the Moscow Express, westward and homeward bound.