Thomas Wallace Knox.

Overland through Asia; Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar Life online

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water, I was able to sleep most of the afternoon, so as to keep awake
during the night, when exercise was necessary to warmth. About sunset
a drove of antelopes came near me, and by shooting one I added venison
to my bill of fare. In the night I amused myself with keeping my fire
alive, and listening to the noise of the birds that the unusual sight
threw into a state of alarm. On the following morning, as I lay on my
bed of reeds, a dozen antelopes, attracted by my kerchief fluttering
in the wind, stood watching me, and every few minutes approaching a
few steps. They were within easy shooting distance, but I had no
occasion to kill them. So I lay perfectly still, watching their
motions and admiring their beauty.

"All at once, though I had not moved a muscle, they turned and ran
away. While I was wondering what could have disturbed them I heard the
shout of two Mongol horsemen, who were riding toward me, and leading
my pony they had caught a dozen miles away. A score of men from the
caravan had been in search of me since the morning after my
disappearance, and had ridden many a mile over the desert."

The Mongols are a strong, hardy, and generally good-natured race,
possessing the spirit of perseverance quite as much as the Chinese.
They have the free manners of all nomadic people, and are noted for
unvarying hospitality to visitors. Every stranger is welcome, and has
the best the host can give; the more he swallows of what is offered
him, the better will be pleased the household. As the native habits
are not especially cleanly, a fastidiously inclined guest has a
trying time of it. The staple dish of a Mongol yourt is boiled mutton,
but it is unaccompanied with capers or any other kind of sauce or
seasoning. A sheep goes to pot immediately on being killed, and the
quantity that each man will consume is something surprising. When the
meat is cooked it is lifted out of the hot water and handed, all
dripping and steamy, to the guests. Each man takes a large lump on his
lap, or any convenient support, and then cuts off little chunks which
he tosses into his mouth as if it were a mill-hopper. The best piece
is reserved for the guest of honor, who is expected to divide it with
the rest; after the meat is devoured they drink the broth, and this
concludes the meal. Knives and cups are the only aids to eating, and
as every man carries his own "outfit," the Mongol dinner service is
speedily arranged. The entire work consists in seating the party
around a pot of cooked meat.

[Illustration: MONGOL DINNER TABLE.]

The desert is crossed by various ridges and small mountain chains,
that increase in frequency and make the country more broken as one
approaches the Tolla, the largest stream between Pekin and Kiachta.
The road, after traversing the last of these chains, suddenly reveals
a wide valley which bears evidence of fertility in its dense forests,
and the straggling fields which receive less attention than they

The Tolla has an ugly habit of rising suddenly and falling
deliberately. When at its height, the stream has a current of about
seven miles an hour, and at the fording place the water is over the
back of an ordinary pony. The bottom of the river consists of large
boulders of all sizes from an egg up to a cotton bale, and the footing
for both horses and camels is not specially secure. The camels need a
good deal of persuasion with clubs before they will enter the water;
they have an instinctive dread of that liquid and avoid it whenever
they can. Horses are less timorous, and the best way to get a camel
through the ford is to lead him behind a horse and pound him
vigorously at the same time. When the river is at all dangerous there
is always a swarm of natives around the ford ready to lend a hand if
suitably compensated. They all talk very much and in loud tones; their
voices mingle with the neighing of horses, the screams of camels, the
roaring of the river, and the laughter of the idlers when any mishap
occurs. The confused noises are in harmony with the scene on either
bank, where baggage is piled promiscuously, and the natives are
grouped together in various picturesque attitudes. Men with their
lower garments rolled as high as possible, or altogether discarded,
walk about in perfect nonchalance; their queues hanging down their
backs seem designed as rudders to steer the wearers across the stream.

[Illustration: CROSSING THE TOLLA]

About two miles from the ford of the Tolla there is a Chinese
settlement, which forms a sort of suburb to the Mongol town of Urga.
The Mongols have no great friendship for the Chinese inhabitants, who
are principally engaged in traffic and the various occupations
connected with the transport of goods. Between this suburb and the
main town the Russians have a large house, which is the residence of a
consul and some twenty or thirty retainers. The policy of maintaining
a consulate there can only be explained on the supposition that Russia
expects and intends to appropriate a large slice of Mongolia whenever
opportunity offers. She has long insisted that the chain of mountains
south of Urga was the "natural boundary," and her establishment of an
expensive post at that city enables her to have things ready whenever
a change occurs. In the spirit of annexation and extension of
territory the Russians can fairly claim equal rank with ourselves. I
forget their phrase for "manifest destiny," and possibly they may not
be willing that I should give it.

Urga is not laid out in streets like most of the Chinese towns; its
by-ways and high-ways are narrow and crooked, and form a network very
puzzling to a stranger. The Chinese and Russian settlers live in
houses, and there are temples and other permanent buildings, but the
Mongols live generally in yourts, which they prefer to more extensive
structures. Most of the Mongol traffic is conducted in a large
esplanade, where you can purchase anything the country affords, and at
very fair prices.

The principal feature of Urga is the lamissary or convent where a
great many lamas or holy men reside. I have heard the number estimated
at fifteen thousand, but cannot say if it be more or less. The
religion of the Mongols came originally from Thibet, by direct
authority of the Grand Lama, but a train of circumstances which I have
not space to explain, has made it virtually independent. The Chinese
government maintains shrewd emissaries among these lamas, and thus
manages to control the Mongols and prevent their setting up for
themselves. As a further precaution it has a lamissary at Pekin, where
it keeps two thousand Mongol lamas at its own expense. In this way it
is able to influence the nomads of the desert, and in case of trouble
it would possess a fair number of hostages for an emergency.

About the year 1205 the great battle between Timoujin and the
sovereign then occupying the Mongol throne was fought a short distance
from Urga. The victory was decisive for the former, who thus became
Genghis Khan and commenced that career of conquest which made his name

Great numbers of devotees from all parts of Mongolia visit Urga every
year, the journey there having something of the sacred character which
a Mahommedan attaches to a pilgrimage to Mecca. The people living at
Urga build fences around their dwellings to protect their property
from the thieves who are in large proportion among the pious

From Urga to the Siberian frontier the distance is less than two
hundred miles; the Russian couriers accomplish it in fifty or sixty
hours when not delayed by accidents, but the caravans require from
four to eight days. There is a system of relays arranged by the
Chinese so that one can travel very speedily if he has proper
authority. Couriers have passed from Kiachta to Pekin in ten or
twelve days; but the rough road and abominable carts make them feel at
their journey's end about as if rolled through a patent
clotheswringer. A mail is carried twice a month each way by the
Russians. Several schemes have been proposed for a trans-Mongolian
telegraph, but thus far the Chinese government has refused to permit
its construction.

The desert proper is finished before one reaches the mountains
bordering the Tolla; after crossing that stream and leaving Urga the
road passes through a hilly country, sprinkled, it is true, with a
good many patches of sand, but having plenty of forest and frequently
showing fertile valleys. These valleys are the favorite resorts of the
Mongol shepherds and herdsmen, some of whom count their wealth by many
thousand animals. In general, Mongolia is not agricultural, both from
the character of the country and the disposition of the people. A few
tribes in the west live by tilling the soil in connection with stock
raising, but I do not suppose they take kindly to the former
occupation. The Mongols engaged in the caravan service pass a large
part of their lives on the road, and are merry as larks over their
employment. They seem quite analogous to the teamsters and
miscellaneous "plainsmen" who used to play an important part on our
overland route.

A large proportion of the men engaged in this transit service are
lamas, their sacred character not excusing them, as many suppose, from
all kinds of employment. Many lamas are indolent and manage in some
way to make a living without work, but this is by no means the
universal character of the holy men. About one-fifth of the male
population belong to the religious order, so that there are
comparatively few families which do not have a member or a relative in
the pale of the church. If not domiciled in a convent or blessed by
fortune in some way, the lama turns his hand to labor, though he is
able at the same time to pick up occasional presents for professional
service. Many of them act as teachers or schoolmasters. Theoretically
he cannot marry any more than a Romish priest, but his vows of
celibacy are not always strictly kept. One inconvenience under which
he labors is in never daring to kill anything through fear that what
he slaughters may contain the soul of a relative, and possibly that of
the divine Bhudda. A lama will purchase a sheep on which he expects to
dine, and though fully accessory before and after the fact, he does
not feel authorized to use the knife with his own hand. Even should he
be annoyed by fleas or similar creeping things (if it were a township
or city the lama's body could return a flattering census,) he must
bear the infliction until patience is thoroughly exhausted. At such
times he may call an unsanctified friend and subject himself and
garments to a thorough examination.

[Illustration: THE SCHOOLMASTER.]

Every lama carries with him a quantity of written prayers, which he
reads or recites, and the oftener they are repeated the greater is
their supposed efficacy. Quantity is more important than quality, and
to facilitate matters they frequently have a machine, which consists
of a wheel containing a lot of prayers. Sometimes it is turned by hand
and sometimes attached to a wind-mill; the latter mode being

Abbe Hue and others have remarked a striking similarity between the
Bhuddist and Roman Catholic forms of worship and the origin of the two
religions. Hue infers that Bhuddism was borrowed from Christianity; on
the other hand, many lamas declare that the reverse is the case. The
question has caused a great deal of discussion first and last, but
neither party appears disposed to yield.

The final stretch of road toward the Siberian frontier is across a
sandy plain, six or eight miles wide. On emerging from the hills at
its southern edge the dome of the church in Kiachta appears in sight,
and announces the end of Mongolian travel. No lighthouse is more
welcome to a mariner than is the view of this Russian town to a
traveler who has suffered the hardships of a journey from Pekin.

[Illustration: TAIL PIECE]


The week I remained at Kiachta was a time of festivity from beginning
to end. I endeavored to write up my journal but was able to make
little more than rough notes. The good people would have been
excusable had they not compelled me to drink so much excellent
champagne. The amiable merchants of Kiachta are blessed with such
capacities for food and drink that they do not think a guest satisfied
until he has swallowed enough to float a steamboat.

I found an excellent _compagnon du voyage_, and our departure was
fixed for the evening after the dinner with Mr. Pfaffius. A change
from dinner dress to traveling costume was speedily made, and I was
_gotovey_ when my friend arrived with several officers to see us off.
About eight o'clock we took places in my tarantass, and drove out of
the northern gate of Troitskosavsk.

My traveling companion was Mr. Richard Maack, Superintendent of Public
Instruction in Eastern Siberia. He was just finishing a tour among the
schools in the Trans-Baikal province, and during fourteen years of
Siberian life, he had seen a variety of service. He accompanied
General Mouravieff oil the first expedition down the Amoor, and wrote
a detailed account of his journey. Subsequently he explored the
Ousuree in the interest of the Russian Geographical Society. He said
that his most arduous service was in a winter journey to the valley of
the Lena, and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The temperature
averaged lower than in Dr. Kane's hibernation on the coast of
Greenland, and once remained at -60° for nearly three weeks. Of five
persons comprising the party, Maack is the only survivor. One of his
companions fell dead in General Mouravieff's parlor while giving his
account of the exploration.

We determined to be comfortable on the way to Irkutsk. We put our
baggage in a telyaga with Maack's servant and took the tarantass to
ourselves. The road was the same I traveled from Verkne Udinsk to
Kiachta, crossing the Selenga at Selenginsk. We slept most of the
first night, and timed our arrival at Selenginsk so as to find the
school in session. During a brief halt while the smotretal prepared
our breakfast, Maack visited the school-master at his post of duty.

Over the hills behind a lake about a day's ride from Selenginsk there
is a Bouriat village of a sacred character. It is the seat of a large
temple or lamisary whence all the Bouriats in Siberia receive their
religious teachings. A grand lama specially commissioned by the great
chief of the Bhuddist faith at Thibet, presides over the lamisary. He
is supposed to partake of the immortal essence of Bhudda, and when his
body dies, his spirit enters a younger person who becomes the lama
after passing a certain ordeal.

The village is wholly devoted to religious purposes, and occupied
exclusively by Bouriats. I was anxious to visit it, but circumstances
did not favor my desires.

We made both crossings of the Selenga on the ice without difficulty.
It was only a single day from the time the ferry ceased running until
the ice was safe for teams. We reached Verkne Udinsk late in the
evening, and drove to a house where my companion had friends. The good
lady brought some excellent nalifka of her own preparation, and the
more we praised it the more she urged us to drink. What with tea,
nalifka, and a variety of solid food, we were pretty well filled
during a halt of two hours.

It was toward midnight when we emerged from the house to continue our
journey. Maack found his tarantass at Verkne Udinsk, and as it was
larger and better than mine we assigned the latter to Evan and the
baggage, and took the best to ourselves. Evan was a Yakut whom my
friend brought from the Lena country. He was intelligent and active,
and assisted greatly to soften the asperities of the route. With my
few words of Russian, and his quick comprehension, we understood each
other very well.

During the first few hours from Verkne Udinsk the sky was obscured and
the air warm. My furs were designed for cold weather, and their weight
in the temperature then prevailing threw me into perspiration. In my
dehar I was unpleasantly warm, and without it I shivered. I kept
alternately opening and closing the garment, and obtained very little
sleep up to our arrival at the first station. While we were changing
horses the clouds blew away and the temperature fell several degrees.
Under the influence of the cold I fell into a sound sleep, and did not
heed the rough, grater-like surface of the recently frozen road.

From Verkne Udinsk to Lake Baikal, the road follows the Selenga
valley, which gradually widens as one descends it. The land appears
fertile and well adapted to farming purposes but only a small portion
is under cultivation. The inhabitants are pretty well rewarded for
their labor if I may judge by the appearance of their farms and
villages. Until reaching Ilyensk, I found the cliffs and mountains
extending quite near the river. In some places the road is cut into
the rocks in such a way as to afford excitement to a nervous traveler.

The villages were numerous and had an air of prosperity. Here and
there new houses were going up, and made quite a contrast to the old
and decaying habitations near them. My attention was drawn to the
well-sweeps exactly resembling those in the rural districts of New
England. From the size of the sweeps, I concluded the wells were deep.
The soil in the fields had a loose, friable appearance that reminded
me of the farming lands around Cleveland, Ohio.

One of the villages where we changed horses is called Kabansk from the
Russian word '_Kaban_' (wild boar). This animal abounds in the
vicinity and is occasionally hunted for sport. The chase of the wild
boar is said to be nearly as dangerous as that of the bear, the brute
frequently turning upon his pursuer and making a determined fight. We
passed the Monastery of Troitska founded in 1681 for the conversion of
the Bouriats. It is an imposing edifice built like a Russian church in
the middle of a large area surrounded by a high wall. Though it must
have impressed the natives by its architectural effects it was
powerless to change their faith.

[Illustration: WILD BOAR HUNT.]

As it approaches Lake Baikal the Selenga divides into several
branches, and encloses a large and very fertile delta. The afternoon
following our departure from Verkne Udinsk, we came in sight of the
lake, and looked over the blue surface of the largest body of fresh
water in Northern Asia. The mountains on the western shore appeared
about eight or ten miles away, though they were really more than
thirty. We skirted the shore of the lake, turning our horses' heads to
the southward. The clear water reminded me of Lake Michigan as one
sees it on approaching Chicago by railway from the East. Its waves
broke gently on a pebbly beach, where the cold of commencing winter
had changed much of the spray to ice.

There was no steamer waiting at Posolsky, but we were told that one
was hourly expected. Maack was radiant at finding a letter from his
wife awaiting him at the station. I enquired for letters but did not
obtain any. Unlike my companion. I had no wife at Irkutsk.

[Illustration: A WIFE AT IRKUTSK.]

[Illustration: NO WIFE AT IRKUTSK.]

The steamboat landing is nine versts below the town, and as the post
route ended at Posolsky, we were obliged to engage horses at a high
rate, to take us to the port. The alternate freezing and thawing of
the road - its last act was to freeze - had rendered it something like
the rough way in a Son-of-Malta Lodge. The agent assured us the
steamer would arrive during the night. Was there ever a steamboat
agent who did not promise more than his employers performed?

According to the tourist's phrase the port of Posolsky can be 'done'
in about five minutes. The entire settlement comprised two buildings,
one a hotel, and the other a storehouse and stable. A large quantity
of merchandise was piled in the open air, and awaited removal.

It included tea from Kiachta, and vodki or native whiskey from
Irkutsk. There are several distilleries in the Trans-Baikal province,
but they are unable to meet the demand in the country east of the
lake. From what I saw _in transitu_ the consumption must be enormous.
The government has a tax on vodki equal to about fifty cents a gallon,
which is paid by the manufacturers. The law is very strict, and the
penalties are so great that I was told no one dared attempt an evasion
of the excise duties, except by bribing the collector.

The hotel was full of people waiting for the boat, and the
accommodations were quite limited. We thought the tarantass preferable
to the hotel, and retired early to sleep in our carriage. A teamster
tied his horses to our wheels, and as the brutes fell to kicking
during the night, and attempted to break away, they disturbed our
slumbers. I rose at daybreak and watched the yemshicks making their
toilet. The whole operation was performed by tightening the girdle and
rubbing the half-opened eyes.

Morning brought no boat. There was nothing very interesting after we
had breakfasted, and as we might be detained there a whole week, the
prospect was not charming. We organized a hunting excursion, Maack
with his gun and I with my revolver. I assaulted the magpies which
were numerous and impertinent, and succeeded in frightening them.
Gulls were flying over the lake; Maack desired one for his cabinet at
Irkutsk, but couldn't get him. He brought down an enormous crow, and
an imprudent hawk that pursued a small bird in our vicinity. His last
exploit was in shooting a partridge which alighted, strange to say, on
the roof of the hotel within twenty feet of a noisy crowd of
yemshicks. The bird was of a snowy whiteness, the Siberian partridge
changing from brown to white at the beginning of winter, and from
white to brown again as the snow disappears.

A "soudna" or sailing barge was anchored at the entrance of a little
bay, and was being filled with tea to be transported to Irkutsk. The
soudna is a bluff-bowed, broad sterned craft, a sort of cross between
Noah's Ark and a Chinese junk. It is strong but not elegant, and might
sail backward or sidewise nearly as well as ahead. Its carrying
capacity is great in proportion to its length, as it is very wide and
its sides rise very high above the water. Every soudna I saw had but
one mast which carried a square sail. These vessels can only sail
with the wind, and then not very rapidly. An American pilot boat could
pass a thousand of them without half trying.

About noon we saw a thin wreath of smoke betokening the approach of
the steamer. In joy at this welcome sight we dined and bought tickets
for the passage, ours of the first class being printed in gold, while
Evan's billet for the deck was in Democratic black. It cost fifteen
roubles for the transport of each tarantass, but our baggage was taken
free, and we were not even required to unload it.

[Illustration: A SOUDNA.]

There is no wharf at Posolsky and no harbor, the steamers anchoring in
the open water half a mile from shore. Passengers, mails, and baggage
are taken to the steamer in large row boats, while heavy freight is
carried in soudnas. The boat that took us brought a convoy of exiles
before we embarked. They formed a double line at the edge of the lake
where they were closely watched by their guards. When we reached the
steamer we found another party of prisoners waiting to go on shore.
All were clad in sheepskin pelisses and some carried extra garments.
Several women and children accompanied the party, and I observed two
or three old men who appeared little able to make a long journey. One
sick man too feeble to walk, was supported by his guards and his
fellow prisoners.

Though there was little wind, and that little blew from shore, the
boat danced uneasily on the waves. Our carriages came off on the last
trip of the boat, and were hoisted by means of a running tackle on one
of the steamer's yards.

While our embarkation was progressing a crew of Russians and Bouriats
towed the now laden soudna to a position near our stern. When all was
ready, we took her hawser, hoisted our anchor and steamed away. For
some time I watched the low eastern shore of the lake until it
disappeared in the distance. Posolsky has a monastery built on the
spot where a Russian embassador with his suite was murdered by
Bouriats about the year 1680. The last objects I saw behind me were
the walls, domes, and turrets of this monastery glistening in the
afternoon sunlight. They rose clear and distinct on the horizon, an
outwork of Christianity against the paganism of Eastern Asia.

Online LibraryThomas Wallace KnoxOverland through Asia; Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar Life → online text (page 27 of 45)