Thomas Wallace Knox.

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

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Those on foot go from one station to the next for a day's march. They
travel two days and rest one, and unless for special reasons, are not
required to break the Sabbath. Medical officers are stationed in the
principal towns, to look after the sanitary condition of the
emigrants. The object being to people the country, the government
takes every reasonable care that the exiles do not suffer in health
while on the road. Of course those that ride do not require as much
rest as the pedestrians. They usually stop at night at the ostrogs,
and travel about twelve or fourteen hours a day. Distinguished
offenders, such as the higher class of revolutionists, officers
convicted of plotting against the state or robbing the Treasury, are
generally rushed forward night and day. To keep him secure from
escape, an exile of this class is sometimes chained to a soldier who
rides at his side.

One night, between Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, I was awakened by an
unusual motion of the sleigh. We were at the roadside passing a column
of men who marched slowly in our direction. As I lifted our curtain
and saw the undulating line of dark forms moving silently in the dim
starlight, and brought into relief against the snow hills, the scene
appeared something more than terrestrial. I thought of the array of
spectres that beleaguered the walls of Prague, if we may trust the
Bohemian legend, and of the shadowy battalions described by the old
poets of Norseland, in the days when fairies dwelt in fountains, and
each valley was the abode of a good or evil spirit. But my fancies
were cut short by my companion briefly informing me that we were
passing a convoy of prisoners recently ordered from Irkutsk to
Yeneseisk. It was the largest convoy I saw during my journey, and
included, as I thought, not less than two hundred men.

In the afternoon of the first day from Krasnoyarsk we reached Achinsk,
a town of two or three thousand inhabitants, on the bank of the Chulim
river. We were told the road was so bad as to require four horses to
each sleigh to the next station. We consented to pay for a horse
additional to the three demanded by our padaroshnia, and were carried
along at very good speed. Part of the way was upon the ice, which had
formed during a wind, that left disagreeable ridges. We picked out the
best places, and had not our horses slipped occasionally, the icy road
would not have been unpleasant. On the bare ground which we traversed
in occasional patches after leaving the river, the horses behaved
admirably and made little discrimination between sand and snow.
Whenever they lagged the yemshick lashed them into activity.

I observed in Siberia that whip cracking is not fashionable. The long,
slender, snapping whips of Western Europe and America are unknown. The
Siberian uses a short stock with a lash of hemp, leather, or other
flexible substance, but never dreams of a snapper at its end. Its only
use is for whipping purposes, and a practiced yemshick can do much
with it in a short time.

The Russian drivers talk a great deal to their horses, and the speech
they use depends much upon the character and performance of the
animals. If the horse travels well he may be called the dove or
brother of his driver, and assured that there is abundance of
excellent hay awaiting him at home. Sometimes a neat hint is given
that he is drawing a nice gentleman who will be liberal and enable the
horse to have an extra feed. Sometimes the man rattles off his words
as if the brute understood everything said to him. An obstinate or
lazy horse is called a variety of names the reverse of endearing. I
have heard him addressed as '_sabaka_,' (dog); and on frequent
occasions his maternity was ascribed to the canine race in epithets
quite disrespectful. Horses came in for an amount of profanity about
like that showered upon army mules in America. It used to look a
little out of place to see a yemshick who had shouted _chort!_ and
other unrefined expressions to his team, devoutly crossing himself
before a holy picture as soon as his beasts were unharnessed.

A few versts from Achinsk we crossed the boundary between Eastern and
Western Siberia. The Chulim is navigable up to Achinsk, and during the
past two years steamers have been running between this town and Tomsk.
The basin of the Ob contains nearly as many navigable streams as that
of the Mississippi, and were it not for the severity of the climate,
the long winter, and the northerly course of the great river, this
valley might easily develop much wealth. But nature is unfavorable,
and man is powerless to change her laws.

On changing at the station we again took four horses to each sleigh,
and were glad we did so. The ground was more bare as we proceeded, and
obliged us to leave the high road altogether and seek a track wherever
it could be found. While we were dashing through a mass of rocks and
stumps one of our horses fell dead, and brought us to a sudden halt.
In his fall he became entangled with the others, and it required some
minutes to set matters right. The yemshick felt for the pulse of the
beast until fully satisfied that no pulse existed. Happily we were not
far from a station, so that the reduction of our team was of no
serious consequence. In this region I observed cribs like roofless log
houses placed near the roadside at intervals of a few hundred yards.
They were intended to hold materials for repairing the road.

On the upper waters of the Chulim there is a cascade of considerable
beauty, according to the statement of some who never saw it. A few
years ago a Siberian gold miner discovered a cataract on the river
Hook, in the Irkutsk government, that he thought equal to Niagara, and
engaged an artist to make a drawing of the curiosity. On reaching the
spot, the latter individual found the cascade a very small affair.
Throughout Russia, Niagara is considered one of the great wonders of
the world, and nothing could have been more pleasing to the Siberians
than to find its rival in their own country.

When I first began traveling in Siberia a gentleman one day expressed
the hope of seeing America before long, but added, "much pleasure of
my visit will be lacking now that you have lost Niagara." I could not
understand him, and asked an explanation.

"Why," said he, "since Niagara has been worn away to a continuous
rapid it must have lost all its grandeur and sublimity. I shall go
there, but I cannot enjoy it as I should have enjoyed the great

I explained that Niagara was as perfect as ever, and had no indication
of wearing itself away. It appeared that some Russian newspaper,
misled, I presume, by the fall of Table Rock, announced that the whole
precipice had broken down and left a long rapid in place of the
cataract. Several times during my journey I was called upon to correct
this impression.

At the third station beyond Achinsk we found a neat and well kept room
for travelers. We concluded to dine there, and were waited upon by a
comely young woman whose _coiffure_ showed that she was unmarried. She
brought us the samovar, cooked our pilmania, and boiled a dizaine of
eggs. Among the Russians articles which we count by the dozen are
enumerated by tens. "_Skolka stoit, yieetsa_?" (How much do eggs
cost), was generally answered, "_Petnatzet capecka, decetu_" (fifteen
copecks for ten.) Only among the Western nations one finds the dozen
in use.

While we were at dinner the cold sensibly increased, and on exposing
my thermometer I found it marking -18° Fahrenheit. Schmidt wrapped
himself in all his furs, and I followed his example. Thus enveloped we
filled the entire breadth of our sleigh and could not turn over with
facility. A sharp wind was blowing dead ahead, and we closed the front
of the vehicle to exclude it. The snow whirled in little eddies and
made its way through the crevices at the junction of our sleigh-boot
with the hood. I wrapped a blanket in front of my face for special
protection, and soon managed to fall asleep. The sleigh poising on a
runner and out-rigger, caused the doctor to roll against me during the
first hour of my slumber, and made me dream that I was run over by a
locomotive. When I waked I found my breath had congealed and frozen
my beard to the blanket. It required careful manipulation to separate
the two without injury to either.

When we stopped to change horses after this experience, the stars were
sparkling with a brilliancy peculiar to the Northern sky. The clear
starlight, unaided by the moon, enabled us to see with great
distinctness. I could discover the outline of the forest away beyond
the village, and trace the road to the edge of a valley where it
disappeared. Every individual star appeared endeavoring to outshine
his rivals, and cast his rays to the greatest distance. Vesta, Sirius,
and many others burned with a brightness that recalled my first view
of the Drummond light, and seemed to dazzle my eyes when I fixed my
gaze upon them.

The road during the night was rough but respectable, and we managed to
enjoy a fair amount of slumber in our contracted _chambre a deux_.
Before daylight we reached a station where a traveling bishop had just
secured two sets of horses. Though outside the jurisdiction of General
Korsackoff, I exhibited my special passport knowing it could not, at
all events, do any harm. Out of courtesy the smotretal offered to
supply us as soon as the bishop departed. The reverend worthy was
dilatory in starting, and as we were likely to be delayed an hour or
two, we economized the time by taking tea. I found opportunity for a
short nap after our tea-drinking was over, and only awoke when the
smotretal announced, "_loshadi gotovey"_

In the forenoon we entered upon the steppe where trees were few and
greatly scattered. Frequently the vision over this Siberian prairie
was uninterrupted for several miles. There was a thin covering of snow
on the open ground, and the dead grass peered above the surface with a
suggestion of summer fertility.

Shortly after noon I looked through the eddies of snow that whirled in
the frosty air, and distinguished the outline of a church. Another and
another followed, and very soon the roofs and walls of the more
prominent buildings in Tomsk were visible. As we entered the eastern
gate of the city, and passed a capacious powder-magazine, our
yemshick tied up his bell-tongues in obedience to the municipal law.
Our arrival inside the city limits was marked by the most respectful

We named a certain hotel but the yemshick coolly took us to another
which he assured us was "_acleechny_" (excellent). As the exterior and
the appearance of the servants promised fairly, we made no objection,
and allowed our baggage unloaded. The last I saw of our yemshick he
was receiving a subsidy from the landlord in consideration of having
taken us thither. The doctor said the establishment was better than
the one he first proposed to patronize, so that we had no serious
complaint against the management of the affair. Hotel keepers in
Siberia are obliged to pay a commission to whoever brings them
patrons, a practice not unknown, I believe, in American cities.

We engaged two rooms, one large, and the other of medium size. The
larger apartment contained two sofas, ten or twelve chairs, three
tables, a boy, a bedstead, and a chamber-maid. The boy and the maid
disappeared with a quart or so of dirt they had swept from the floor.
We ordered dinner, and took our ease in our inn. Our baggage piled in
one corner of the room would have made a creditable stock for an
operator in the "Elbow Market" at Moscow. We thawed our beards,
washed, changed our clothing, and pretended we felt none the worse for
our jolting over the rough road from Krasnoyarsk.

The hotel, though Asiatic, was kept on the European plan. The landlord
demanded our passports before we removed our outer garments, and
apologized by saying the regulations were very strict. The documents
went at once to the police, and returned in the morning with the visa
of the chief. Throughout Russia a hotel proprietor generally keeps the
passports of his patrons until their bills are paid, but this landlord
trusted in our honor, and returned the papers at once. The visa
certified there were no charges against us, pecuniary or otherwise,
and allowed us to remain or depart at our pleasure. It is a Russian
custom for the police to be informed of claims against persons
suspected of intent to run away. The individual cannot obtain
authority to depart until his accounts are settled. Formerly the law
required every person, native and foreign, about to leave Russia, to
advertise his intention through a newspaper. This formula is now
dispensed with, but the intending traveler must produce a receipt in
full from his hotel keeper.

At the hotel we found a gentleman from Eastern Siberia on his way to
St. Petersburg. He left Irkutsk two days behind me, passed us in
Krasnoyarsk, and came to grief in a partial overturn five miles from
Tomsk. He was waiting to have his broken vehicle thoroughly repaired
before venturing on the steppe. He had a single vashok in which he
stowed himself, wife, three children, and a governess. How the whole
party could be packed into the carriage I was at a loss to imagine.
Its limits must have been suggestive of the close quarters of a can of

We used our furs for bed clothing and slept on the sofas, less
comfortably I must confess than in the sleigh. The close atmosphere of
a Russian house is not as agreeable to my lungs as the open air, and
after a long journey one's first night in a warm room is not
refreshing. There was no public table at the hotel; meals were served
in our room, and each item was charged separately at prices about like
those of Irkutsk.

In the morning we put on our best clothes, and visited the
gubernatorial mansion. The governor was at St. Petersburg, and we were
received by the Vice-Governor, an amiable gentleman of about fifty
years, who reminded me of General S.R. Curtis. Before our interview we
waited ten or fifteen minutes at one end of a large hall. The
Vice-Governor was at the other end listening to a woman whose
streaming eyes and choked utterance showed that her story was one of
grief. The kind hearted man appeared endeavoring to soothe her. I
could not help hearing the conversation though ignorant of its
purport, and, as the scene closed, I thought I had not known before
the extent of pathos in the Russian language.

We had a pleasant interview with the vice-governor who gave us
passports to Barnaool, on learning that we wished to visit that place.
Among those who called during our stay was the golovah of Tomsk, a man
whose physical proportions resembled those of the renowned Wouter Van
Twiller, as described by Washington Irving. Every golovah I met in
Siberia was of aldermanic proportions, and I wondered whether physical
developments had any influence in selections for this office. Just
before leaving the governor's residence, we were introduced to Mr.
Naschinsky, of Barnaool, to whom I had a letter of introduction from
his cousin, Paul Anossoff. As he was to start for home that evening,
we arranged to accompany him. Our visit ended, we drove through the
principal streets, and saw the chief features of the town.

Tomsk takes its name from the river Tom, on whose banks it is built.
It stands on the edge of the great Baraba steppe, and has about twenty
thousand inhabitants of the usual varied character of a Russian
population. I saw many fine houses, and was told that in society and
wealth the city was little inferior to Irkutsk. Here, as at other
places, large fortunes have been made in gold mining. Several heavy
capitalists were mentioned as owners of concessions in the mining
districts. Many of their laborers passed the winter at Tomsk in the
delights of urban life. The city is of considerable importance as it
controls much of the commerce of Siberia. The site is picturesque,
being partly on the low ground next the river, and partly on the hills
above it. In contemplating the location, I was reminded of Quebec. I
found much activity in the streets and market places, and good
assortments of merchandise in the shops.

Near our hotel, over a wide ravine, was a bridge, constantly traversed
by vehicles and pedestrians, and lighted at night by a double row of
lamps. Some long buildings near the river, and just outside the
principal market had a likeness to American railway stations, and the
quantities of goods piled on their verandas aided the illusion. About
noon the market-place was densely crowded, and there appeared a brisk
traffic in progress. There was a liberal array of articles to eat,
wear, or use, with a very fair quantity for which no use could be

In summer there is a waterway from Tomsk to Tumen, a thousand miles to
the westward, and a large amount of freight to and from Siberia passes
over it. Steamers descend the Tom to the Ob, which they follow to the
Irtish. They then ascend the Irtish, the Tobol, and the Tura to Tumen,
the head of navigation. The government proposes a railway between Perm
and Tumen to unite the great water courses of Europe and Siberia. A
railway from Tomsk to Irkutsk is among the things hoped for by the
Siberians, and will be accomplished at some future day. The arguments
urged against its construction are the length of the route, the
sparseness of population, and the cheap rates at which freight is now
transported. Probably Siberia would be no exception to the rule that
railways create business, and sustain it, but I presume it will be
many years before the locomotive has a permanent way through the

Some years ago it was proposed to open a complete water route between
Tumen and Kiachta. The most eastern point that a steamer could attain
in the valley of the Ob is on the river Ket. A canal about thirty
miles long would connect the Ket with the Yenesei, whence it was
proposed to follow the Angara, Lake Baikal, and the Selenga to Oust
Kiachta. But the swiftness of the Angara, and its numerous rapids,
seventy-eight in all, stood in the way of the project. At present no
steamers can ascend the Angara, and barges can only descend when the
water is high. To make the channel safely navigable would require a
heavy outlay of money for blasting rocks, and digging canals. I could
not ascertain that there was any probability of the scheme being

In 1866 twelve steamers were running between Tumen and Tomsk. These
boats draw about two feet of water, and tow one or more barges in
which freight is piled. No merchandise is carried on the boats.
Twelve days are consumed in the voyage with barges; without them it
can be made in a week. All the steamers yet constructed are for towing
purposes, the passenger traffic not being worth attention. The golovah
of Tomsk is a heavy owner in these steamboats, and he proposed
increasing their number and enlarging his business. A line of smaller
boats has been started to connect Tomsk with Achinsk. The introduction
of steam on the Siberian rivers has given an impetus to commerce, and
revealed the value of certain interests of the country. An active
competition in the same direction would prove highly beneficial, and
bye and bye they will have the railway.

During my ride about the streets the isvoshchik pointed out a large
building, and explained that it was the seminary or high school of
Tomsk. I was told that the city, like Irkutsk, had a female school or
"Institute," and an establishment for educating the children of the
priests. The schools in the cities and large towns of Siberia have a
good reputation, and receive much praise from those who patronize
them. The Institute at Irkutsk is especially renowned, and had during
the winter of 1866 something more than a hundred boarding pupils. The
gymnasium or school for boys was equally flourishing, and under the
direct control of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Eastern
Siberia. The branches of education comprise the ordinary studies of
schools everywhere - arithmetic, grammar, and geography, with reading
and writing. When these elementary studies are mastered the higher
mathematics, languages, music, and painting follow. In the primary
course the prayers of the church and the manner of crossing one's self
are considered essential.

Most of those who can afford It employ private teachers for their
children, and educate them at home. The large schools in the towns are
patronized by the upper and middle classes, and sometimes pupils come
from long distances. There are schools for the peasant children, but
not sufficiently numerous to make education general. It is a
lamentable fact that the peasants as a class do not appreciate the
importance of knowledge. Hitherto all these peasant schools have been
controlled by the church, the subordinate priests being appointed to
their management.

Quite recently the Emperor has ordered a system of public instruction
throughout the empire. Schools are to be established, houses built,
and teachers paid by the government. Education is to be taken entirely
from, the hands of the priests, and entrusted to the best qualified
instructors without regard to race or religion. The common school
house in the land of the czars! Universal education among the subjects
of the Autocrat! Well may the other monarchies of Europe fear the
growing power and intelligence of Russia. May God bless Alexander, and
preserve him many years to the people whose prosperity he holds so
dearly at heart.

[Illustration: TAIL PIECE]


When we left Tomsk in the evening, the snow was falling rapidly, and
threatened to obliterate the track along the frozen surface of the
river. There were no post horses at the station, and we were obliged
to charter private teams at double the usual rates. The governor
warned us that we might have trouble in securing horses, and requested
us to refer to him if the smotretal did not honor our pada ashnia. We
did not wish to trespass further on his kindness, and concluded to
submit to the extortion and say nothing. The station keeper owned the
horses we hired, and we learned he was accustomed to declare his
regular troikas "out" on all possible occasions. Of course, a traveler
anxious to proceed, would not hesitate long at paying two or three
roubles extra.

We dashed over the rough ice of the Tom for a few versts and then
found a road on solid earth. We intended to visit Barnaool, and for
this purpose left the great road at the third station, and turned
southward. The falling snow beat so rapidly into our sleigh that we
closed the vehicle and ignored the outer world. Mr. Naschinsky started
with us from Tomsk, but after a few stations he left us and hurried
away at courier speed toward Barnaool. He proved an _avant courier_
for us, and warned the station masters of our approach, so that we
found horses ready.

On this side road the contract requires but three troikas at a
station. Three sleighs together were an unusual number, so that the
smotretals generally obtained one or both our teams from the village.
On the last half of the route the yemshicks did not take us to the
stations but to the houses of their friends where we promptly obtained
horses at the regular rates. The peasants between Tomsk and Barnaool
own many horses, and are pleased at the opportunity to earn a little
cash with them.

Snow, darkness, and slumber prevented our seeing much of the road
during the night. In the morning, I found we were traveling through an
undulating and generally wooded country, occasionally crossing rivers
and small lakes on the ice. The track was a wonderful improvement over
that between Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. The stations or peasant houses
where we changed horses, were not as good as those on the great road.
The rooms were frequently small and heated to an uncomfortable degree.
In one house, notwithstanding the great heat, several children were
seated on the top of the stove, and apparently enjoying themselves.
The yemshicks and attendants were less numerous than on the great
road, but we could find no fault with their service. On one course of
twenty versts our sleigh was driven by a boy of thirteen, though
seemingly not more than ten. He handled the whip and reins with the
skill of a veteran, and earned an extra gratuity from his passengers.

The road was marked by upright poles ten or twelve feet high at
distances of one or two hundred feet. There were distance posts with
the usual black and white alternations, but the figures were generally

Online LibraryThomas Wallace KnoxOverland through Asia; Pictures of Siberian, Chinese, and Tartar Life → online text (page 37 of 45)