A Wayfarer in China/Chapter 12

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A Wayfarer in China by Elizabeth Kimball Kendall
Chapter XII

CHAPTER XII

THE MONGOLIAN GRASSLAND

MY stay in Peking was not all pleasure and sight-seeing, for it was necessary to decide there upon the next steps. Within a few weeks I would have to be on the Siberian railway homeward bound. Should I spend the time left me in seeing Shantung, the Sacred Province, with all it had of interest to offer, or should I make a hurried run through the debatable land of Manchuria? One or the other seemed the natural thing to do, but I had an uneasy feeling that either would mean conventional travel, so far as that is possible in China, railways, and maybe hotels. Then Shantung is now a much-visited country, while Manchuria, dominated by Russia and Japan, was hardly likely to offer "an open door" to anything more than the most cut-and-dried guidebook travel.

But Mongolia seemed to afford a way out of my doubts. Post-roads and trade-routes crossed the country from the Great Wall, sooner or later striking the Siberian railway near Lake Baikal. That would set me forward some five days on the overland journey to Moscow, cutting off just so much of railway travel, and as far as I could learn there were no hotels, not even Chinese inns, in Mongolia, so I would not need to fear being too comfortable. But above all, there was the charm in the very word Mongolia. Out of that great, little known plateau, almost as large as all of China proper, had come in days past horde upon horde of savage warriors, the scourge of God, the terror of the West, carrying north and south, from Peking to Budapest, from the Volga to the Hugli, their victorious banners. What was the land that bred such a race? What of the Mongols nowadays? Even a few weeks would tell me something.

Having made up my mind to go, I set about learning the how and the where, with the usual results; much advice asked and unasked of a very contradictory sort. The American Legation with fine courtesy offered no counsel, but gave every possible help, securing for me the proper visés for my passports, even speeding the wheels of the slow-moving Wai-wu-pu so that I might not be delayed. The matter of getting a servant proved rather difficult. One who was proposed declined to go with a lady, for he "would have to be braver than she"; others were daunted by the sound of Mongolia; but finally, through the kind help of Captain Reeves, the American military attaché, I got hold of my invaluable Wang, interpreter, cook, and general factotum in one, and faithfullest of Chinese. Dr. Morrison, the famous Times correspondent, gave me much-needed encouragement at just the right moment. He had long hoped to do it himself, he said, and of course I could do it; and speaking of his own recent extended trip the length of Mongolia and Chinese Turkestan, he flung out a remark which was very comforting to my soul: Did I not hate to have people tell me that I could not do a thing, that it was too difficult or too dangerous? If they would only stop with giving you the facts as they knew them, and keep their opinions to themselves. Well, I thought, if people dare to tell Dr. Morrison what he can and cannot do, I must not mind if I am treated in the same way.

But I needed to take that comfort to my heart more than once in those days. A request for some bit of information so often met with no facts, but simply the stern remark that it was not a thing for a woman to do. And when I did get precise statements they could not all be facts, they were so very contradictory. I could go from Kalgan to Urga in eighteen days; I must allow twenty-four or thirty; it usually took thirty days to the railway; I must not expect to do it under forty-five. I must buy ponies to cross from Kalgan; camels were the only thing to use; no camels could be had in summer. Beyond Urga I must hire a droshky; the only way to travel was by steamer; I could never stand a cart; I could never sit so many hours in the saddle. There would be no water; I could not drink it if there were. The weather would be intolerably hot; I must expect snowstorms and sandstorms; there would be heavy rains making going impossible. My transport would give out; my men would desert me; brigands would waylay and rob my caravan.

One gentleman to whom I wrote began his reply by saying that he answered my inquiries "with much pleasure"; and then continued, "Frankly, I do not think the trip from Kalgan to Urga should be taken by a lady alone at any time." Then followed ten good reasons why I should not go, and first and foremost that I should have to leave behind me all inns, and would have to camp out.

That settled it. There was nothing I should be so glad to leave behind as inns, and for months I had been longing to sleep in a tent. So I fell to making my preparations with good heart. But the enemy had not reached the end of his resources (the enemy was usually a well-bred, intelligent European or American with charming manners and the kindest intentions.) An English officer just returned from Mongolia assured me I could never get my dog across, the savage Mongol brutes would tear him in pieces; but I knew my dog and he did not, so I put that aside. The last shot was the hardest to meet : "It will not be worth while." Almost I gave in, but I had reached the pig-headed stage, and I could not, though I wanted to. And now the crossing of Mongolia is a thing of the past, and I am not prepared to deny anything that any one asserted about the journey, only somehow I managed to slip through between all the dangers and difficulties. I did the trip from wall to railway, not counting the stops I made for my own pleasure, in twenty-eight days; the weather was generally a joy, and I bade my Mongols good-bye in Urga with real regret. I had no troubles, I met with no accidents, and it was worth while—for once.

It is surprising how well one gets on with makeshifts. As Peking is not a treaty port there are few European shops, and it would seem as unsatisfactory a place for making up a camping-outfit as Hong Kong was satisfactory, but with the help of kind friends I managed to get together something that would pass muster. There were the usual stores, but with much more in the way of tinned meat and smoked fish than I took in West China, for there would be no handy fowls along our road across Mongolia, only now and then a sheep; and, as always, I laid in a fair supply of jam. I understand now why England sent tons of jam to the army in South Africa; the fruitiness of it is most refreshing when fresh fruit and vegetables are short. But of all my supplies, nothing proved so comforting as two bottles of lime juice and a tin of so-called grape nuts. The latter mixed with milk helped out the early starts when the fuel was so damp that a fire was out of the question, while the lime juice made drinkable the roiliest and warmest water. The only time when I felt like losing my temper with good Wang was when he smashed the last bottle. I had to gallop off to keep from saying things. By good luck I succeeded in hiring an old American army saddle, and it proved just what I wanted. There is nothing like that sort of saddle for long tours on horseback, easy for rider and beast.

The question of money required careful planning;it always does in out-of-the-way travel; but finally, through the kindness of the officials of the Russo-Asiatic Bank, everything was arranged. I would use little money in crossing the desert, and of course the less I carried the better, but a good sum must be forthcoming when I reached Urga and the railway, so the bank furnished me with drafts on the native banks and their own branches, and I had no difficulty, while from Peking I carried dollars and taels to meet expenses at the start. I felt like Pilgrim freed from his burden, to be quit of carrying a lot of small change, for a dollar's worth of cash is almost twenty pounds in weight.

Fortunately my arrangements were so complete when I arrived in Kalgan that during my two days' wait for letters I had little to do, for my various activities in Peking, combined with the damp heat, had rather done me up, and I was glad to take my ease while my kind young host of the British American Tobacco Company turned the place upside down in his efforts to provide for the comfort of my journey. My saddle was overhauled, a charming saddle-cloth of Mongolian work was supplied, a great package of cigarettes put up to cheer my men on the road, and for me a box of soda water.

One very important thing had been omitted from my stores. I had neglected to bring onions and potatoes from Peking, most desirable supplies in the country for which I was starting, a land where nothing is grown; and neither potatoes nor onions were to be had in Kalgan. Even my host could not help; he was out of them himself. But when I bewailed the omission to resourceful Wang he looked wise and said quietly, "Madam wants potatoes and onions; she shall have potatoes and onions"; and I had, a good bag of each, and such fine ones that a missionary lady, seeing my supplies, asked if she might inquire of my "boy" where he had got them; never had she seen the like in Kalgan. I hope she found out; I did not. Most likely it was one of those back-stair arrangements common in the East, and I hope no Chinese official or Russian merchant had to go short because of it, but I am sure my need was greater than his. They tell a delightful story in Peking of an occasion when a group of young men attached to a certain legation, as student interpreters, wishing to give a dinner party found themselves short of silver, but the servants rose to the situation, and when the night came the dinner table was resplendent with massive silver decorated with the armorial bearings—of another legation.

Just before I left Kalgan my larder was enriched from another and unexpected source. Thanks to the friendly introduction of an American gentleman in Peking, His Excellency, Hou Wei Têh, the Senior Vice-President of the Wai-wu-pu, most courteously sent instructions to Chinese officials along my route, especially at Kalgan and Urga, to give me every assistance. And soon after my arrival in Kalgan three officials of the Bureau of Foreign Affairs made me a formal call, and the next day they came again, followed by a coolie bearing a basket of stores which proved to be of great value before my journey was over. One feels rather shabby at accepting courtesies for which one can make no return. I did my best by writing appreciative letters to all concerned, beginning with His Excellency, the Senior Vice-President. I hope he got the letter, but the next thing I heard of His Excellency was his sudden appearance over the wall of the American Mission Compound at Peking, fleeing before the mutinous soldiers.

On the morning of July 26, I was rumbling over the broken pavements of Kalgan streets in a Peking cart guided by the trusty Mongol of a friend, and escorted by soldiers sent by the Foreign Office. My kit was packed in around me, or I should certainly have whacked my brains out against the sides of the cover. As it was, my hair came down, my hat rolled from side to side, and it was a miracle that anything stayed in the cart. And I did not long, for as soon as we were outside the walls and making our way along the dry bed of the Sha Shin Ho, I jumped out, and for most of that day I either walked or rode the Mongol's pony. A Peking cart may have other and better uses, but as an instrument of torture it is unrivalled. Just as the thing was in Marco Polo's time, so it is to-day. You crawl in on hands and knees, and then painfully screw yourself round, and so sit cross-legged, or with feet outstretched if there is room, your head only escaping the top as you crane your neck to catch the view or to get a bit of fresh air. The driver sitting on the shafts has much the best of it, and more than once I joined him,—very unsuitable, of course.

The main trails that cross Mongolia from Kalgan to Urga are two. One, the longer and better known, tends a little to the west, and is called by various names, the "Mandarin Road" or "Relay" or "Cart Road." Along its course are markets and Mongol settlements, and there are post or relay stations at regular intervals. Hence it is preferred by the Chinese caravan men as well as by the great, or those in a hurry, who use relays. The other, known as the "Camel Road," turns northward from Kalgan and after a hundred miles takes a northwestward course to Urga. There are no Mongol settlements after you have passed the fringe of villages bordering the Great Wall, and wells are few and far between, but it is one hundred miles shorter than the more western route, and by so much the better for those who go through with the same animals. Much of the way is marked by the telegraph wire that now stretches its many miles across the desert, but it would be rather unwise to trust entirely to this guidance, for at times it leads where only winged things can follow, and above all it never swerves to point out the wells along the way, and missing one you might not reach another for twenty-four hours, or perhaps never. As I was neither hurried nor privileged, I chose this road.

Over one or the other of these trails pass thousands of carts and camel trains each year, carrying north or south tea and cloth and notions and hides and furs, to the value of many millions of taels. But most of Mongolia's exports go on their own feet, ponies or cattle or sheep.

Under the treaties of 1858 and 1860 a post-route between the Russian frontier and Kalgan was established, and in spite of the competing railway through Manchuria, a horse-post still crosses the desert three times a month each way. The Mongols who are employed for the work go through from city to city in seven days, galloping all the way, with frequent changes of horses and, less frequent, of men. And once a month a parcels-post makes its slow way across, guarded by Cossacks.

Just why the Russians persist in this costly and slower method of forwarding mails when the railway would do it in about half the time, I cannot understand. One reason given me was that they might not care to trust their mails to the Japanese, who control the southern section of the Manchurian railway. And in case of trouble between the two powers the Russians might find it convenient to have a connection of their own with China. It seemed to me more like a part of Russia's plan of "peaceful penetration," of extending her influence over Mongolia even to the Great Wall. Kalgan seems already an outpost of Russia, with its groups of Russian merchants, its Russian church, bank, post-office, and consulate, one as much as the other representative of the White Tsar.

Toward the end of the first day from Kalgan we passed under the towers which are all that is left here of the Great Wall, save the pile of stones which marks the line where it stood. Built of mud faced with stone, it has crumbled away, leaving the solid masonry towers standing like giant sentinels to guard the road.

Here I stood face to face with another world. China lay behind me and below, for we had risen some fifteen hundred feet since leaving Kalgan. Before me stretched the great Mongolian plateau. The wind that cooled my face had blown over thousands of miles of prairie and desert. The long lines of stately, shambling camels, the great droves of sheep herded by wild-looking men on sturdy little ponies told of an open country. Each mile led deeper and deeper into the rolling grassland and the barren waste of Gobi, and between me and the next town lay nearly seven hundred miles of treeless plain and barren sand.

For four days we were crossing the grassland, wide stretches of gently undulating country covered with thick rich grass; wave upon wave it rolled like a great ocean up to the ramparts of China. As far as the eye could reach there was nothing but living green untouched by plough or spade, unbroken save where little lines of settlement stretched like clutching fingers into the sea of grass, the menacing advance of the Chinese, the tillers of the soil.

Much of the time I walked; the air of the uplands almost carried me along, and it was joy to feel my feet on real grass once more. Over the open country short cuts were easy to find, and I generally kept in advance of the others. The groups of Mongols hurrying to the town greeted me in friendly fashion; the look of the desert was in their faces, bold, hardy, burnt, and lined by sun and wind and biting cold. Like and yet unlike the Tibetans I had seen in Tachienlu, they were slighter of build and gayer and more open of expression; they attracted me as the others had repelled me. Scrambling over the grassy slopes, I more than once lost my way, but some Mongol always turned up to put me straight.

Our first stops at noon and at night were at wayside inns built much like a Turkish khan on two or three sides of an enclosure of mud and stones, and furnished with a strong gate. At one, the small private room off a large common hall was given to me and to a neat-looking Chinese woman who apparently was travelling alone and on horseback. Two thirds of the room was taken up by a "kang," or plaster furnace, raised some three feet above the floor, and on this our beds were spread. But that was my last sight of a house for many a day; henceforth there was nothing but tents and "yurts."

Our stop the next night was at a small Mongol settlement of several yurts. One of these was vacated for me. Judging from those I stayed in later, it was unusually large and clean.

Here I was in the unchanging East, if it be anywhere to-day. More than six centuries ago an observant Venetian passed this way, and his brief description of a Mongol abode fits as well now as it did then. "Their huts or tents," says Marco Polo, "are formed of rods covered with felt, and being exactly

A Wayfarer in China fp 248.jpg

A POOR MONGOL FAMILY AND YURT

round and neatly put together, they can gather them into one bundle." But since his description is so brief, it may be supplemented by a more modern traveller, genial Abbé Huc, whose visit dates back only sixty-five years:—

"The Mongol tent, for about three feet from the ground, is cylindrical in form. It then becomes conical, like a pointed hat. The woodwork of the tent is composed below of a trellis-work of crossed bars, which fold up and expand at pleasure. Above these, a circle of poles, fixed in the trellis-work, meets at the top, like the sticks of an umbrella. Over the woodwork is stretched, once or twice, a thick covering of coarse linen, and thus the tent is composed. The door, which is always a folding door, is low and narrow. A beam crosses it at the bottom by way of threshold, so that on entering you have at once to raise your feet and lower your head. Besides the door there is another opening at the top of the tent to let out the smoke. This opening can at any time be closed with a piece of felt, fastened above it in the tent, which can be pulled over it by means of a string, the end of which hangs by the door. The interior is divided into two compartments; that on the left, as you enter, is reserved for the men, and thither the visitors proceed. Any man who should enter on the right side would be considered excessively rude. The right compartment is occupied by the women, and there you find the culinary utensils: large earthen vessels of glazed earth, wherein to keep the store of water; trunks of trees, of different sizes, hollowed into the shape of pails, and destined to contain the preparations of milk, in the various forms which they make it undergo. In the centre of the tent is a large trivet, planted in the earth, and always ready to receive the large iron, bell-shaped cauldron that stands by, ready for use."

And that is just what I found, but the tent covering was always of felt, not linen, and there were often two tents, one for the men and one for the women, instead of a tent with two divisions; and alas, more often than not, the hollow tree trunk was replaced by Standard Oil tins. But as the Mongol lived in Marco Polo's time, and Huc's, so he does still, and so he will continue to live until Chinese colonization or Russian rule forces him to give up his nomadic ways and settle down and cultivate the soil.

Around the yurt gathered women and children, dogs and calves. They were friendly, almost too much so, and the women interested me as much as I did them. All alike were clad in long, shapeless woollen garments that might have been any colour, so grimy were they, but the dirt and rags of their dress only set off the more the splendour of their headgear; a broad bandeau, elaborately fashioned of silver and set with bright stones, turquoise, and coral, encircled the head, and from this hung long chains and pendants falling to the shoulders. This is the woman's dowry, with which she never parts, wearing it apparently day and night. The women themselves, in spite of the dirt, were good-looking; fine eyes, rather good though heavy features, a skin darkened by the sun and wind, gave them the look of peasants of southern Europe. In bearing they were much gayer and more unconstrained than the Chinese.

Mongolia, the land of many names, with a great past and perhaps with a future, but to-day merely a pawn in the world's game, is a great plateau rising some four thousand feet above the sea, the eastern extension of the T'ien-Shan, or "Heavenly Mountains." It stretches east and west nearly two thousand miles, but its north and south width is only about nine hundred. In the central part of the plateau is a huge depression which the Mongol calls Gobi, the "Desert," or Shamo, the "Great Sand," and the Chinese, Han-Hai, or "Rainless Sea." To the north the high land rises and breaks into the wooded hills and mountains of the Altai Range, and there are many streams, most of them finding their way sooner or later into the Amur. To the south the land rolls in great grassy waves up to the foot of the mountain barrier along the Chinese frontier, but the forests have all been swept away, and the few streams quickly lose themselves in the ground. Over most of the seven hundred miles between Kalgan and Urga there are no trees save half a dozen scrub elms, and the only rivers are the Sha Ho, or "Rivers of Sand." But the grassland, after the summer rains have set in, is like the rolling prairies of the West, and even in Gobi there are only about fifty miles quite without vegetation. Elsewhere there is a sparse growth of coarse scrub broken by stretches of rock and sand.

In crossing Gobi one sees here and there a marsh or shallow salt lake, telling of a different climate in a bygone time, but to-day the passing caravan depends on wells of varying depth, and found at irregular intervals,—ten, twenty, even fifty miles apart. They date back beyond the tradition of living men, and each has its name and character. In some the water is never-failing, in others it quickly runs dry. Occasionlly it is slightly brackish, but usually it is clear and cold. Without these wells the three hundred miles of Gobi would impose an almost impassable barrier between North and South Mongolia. As it is, the desert takes its toll from the passing caravan; thirst, hunger, heat, and cold count their victims among the animals by thousands, and the way is marked by their bleaching bones.

This great, featureless, windswept plateau keeps but a scanty population of less than three millions. On the northern and southern borders a few among the people have adopted the settled ways of the Chinese; but elsewhere they live as their fathers lived before them, their fields the land where the flocks are grazing, their home the spot where the yurts are temporarily set up. Nomads they are, but within definite limits, moving no long distance nor very often. Over them rule their native princes or khans, subject, up to last year, nominally to China; but Chinese interference has mostly been confined to the exaction of a tribute—and a good part of that stuck to the fingers of the princes through whose hands it passed—and to occasional demand for police or military service. The head of the Chinese administration is or was the Amban at Urga, and his duties seemed to consist in looking after the Chinese traders there and keeping a watchful eye on the Living Buddha, the spiritual and maybe now the political head of Mongolia. But in spite of his many rulers, or perhaps because of them, the Mongol seems to know little of the evils or benefits of government. It is far away, it does little for him, but in turn its demands are small.

The Mongol's wealth consists in his herds; horses, cattle, sheep, camels. In our sense he owns no land, but if he digs a well, which, I believe, he rarely does, he has certain rights over it, and his claims to the water and grass near his yurt should be respected. His friends have to admit that the Mongol is lazy. His chief duty is to keep an eye on his herds, but mostly they take care of themselves. Each drove of horses is in the charge of a stallion which looks sharply after the mares, fighting savagely with any other stallion which attempts to join the herd. I am told that the owner only needs to count his stallions to be sure that all the mares have come home. There is almost nothing of Mongolian manufacture,—just rugs and felt and saddles; and most of the work is done by the women. Nor does the Mongol till the soil; nothing is found growing near his yurt. Unlike the rice-eating people just across the Great Wall, his diet is almost wholly meat, and milk in some form or other,—cheese, curds, koumiss. The tea which he drinks in enormous quantities, so that even my "boy" opened his eyes, is brought by the Chinese traders.

The Mongol has great endurance; days in the saddle are nothing to him, and he sleeps as soundly on his camel as on the ground. Nor does he seem to mind heat or cold. I have seen them wearing sheepskin coats in the blazing summer sun, and at night the men on the march would throw themselves down without a rug or mat under the open sky, and the nights were often cold. If he must, the Mongol can go a long time without eating, but when the chance comes he is a great glutton, bolting enormous quantities of half-cooked meat. Drunkenness, I am told, is a Mongol failing. By preference he gets drunk on whiskey; failing that, on a sort of arrack of soured mare's milk. On the other hand, the opium habit does not seem to have crossed the frontier. Very rarely is a Mongol addicted to that. But they all smoke tobacco,—men, women, and children,—just as they all ride. To appreciate the Mongol you must see him on horseback,—and indeed you rarely see him otherwise, for he does not put foot to ground if he can help it. The Mongol without his pony is only half a Mongol, but with his pony he is as good as two men. It is a fine sight to see him tearing over the plain, loose bridle, easy seat, much like the Western cowboy, but with less sprawl.

The Mongol of to-day is the degenerate son of the conquering warriors of a thousand years ago. Once his name carried terror to the shores of the Midland Sea. Now those who do not like him can say with some truth that he lives the life of an animal, mating rather than marrying, his warlike spirit gone, his home a lair, his chief pleasures gorging and getting drunk; but those who do like him—and they are the ones who know him best—declare he is a good fellow, gay, good-tempered, independent, hospitable.