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Title: From Pekin to Calais by Land
Author: De Windt, Harry
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  FROM PEKIN TO CALAIS BY LAND.

  LONDON
  PRINTED BY GILBERT AND RIVINGTON, LIMITED,
  ST. JOHN’S HOUSE, CLERKENWELL ROAD.

  [Illustration: OUR CARAVAN (GOBI DESERT).——DAWN.]

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————


  FROM PEKIN TO CALAIS BY LAND



  BY
  H. DE WINDT.



  WITH ILLUSTRATIONS AND MAP.



  “Plus Je vis l’étranger, plus J’aimai ma patrie.”——_De Belloy._



  LONDON—CHAPMAN AND HALL,
  LIMITED.
  1889.
  [All rights reserved.]

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  TO

  THE RAJA OF SARAWAK, G.C.M.G.,

  IN REMEMBRANCE OF MANY

  PLEASANT HOURS OF TRAVEL SPENT IN HIS

  DOMINIONS IN THE ISLAND OF BORNEO.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  PREFACE.

  ———————

THERE are two Englishmen at present living in Shanghai who have
travelled overland from Europe to China. I was told, when there, that
these gentlemen are continually receiving letters from England asking
for information relative to the journey from Petersburg to Pekin and
_vice versâ_, and in the Gobi Desert and Siberia.

It is mainly owing to this circumstance that I publish these pages, for
I fear the general reader will find little to interest him in this
record of our monotonous pilgrimage through Europe and Asia. I feel that
an apology is needed for its publication, and need hardly say that it
does not aspire to the title of a book of travel, being merely a record
of my impressions in the less civilized parts of China, and in that
weird and melancholy country, more perhaps from associations than
aspect, Siberia.

The voyage is, though somewhat original, sadly devoid of interest. Urga
and Irkoutsk are, no doubt, well worth seeing, but a passing glimpse of
these unique cities far from repays the discomfort, not to say hardship,
which must be undergone on the caravan route.

I can only trust this book may deter others from following my example,
and shall then have some satisfaction in knowing that its pages have not
been written in vain.

M. Victor Meignan concludes his amusing work “De Paris à Pekin par
terre,” thus:——

“N’allez pas là! C’est la morale de ce livre!”

Let the reader benefit by our experience.

                                                              H. DE W.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CONTENTS.

  ———————

  CHAPTER I.
                            PAGE
  GRAVESEND TO PEKIN           1

  CHAPTER II.
  PEKIN                       60

  CHAPTER III.
  PEKIN TO KALGAN            115

  CHAPTER IV.
  KALGAN, OR CHANG-CHIA-KOW  147

  CHAPTER V.
  THE DESERT OF GOBI         187

  CHAPTER VI.
  OURGA TO KIAKHTA           268

  CHAPTER VII.
  KIAKHTA TO IRKOUTSK        322

  CHAPTER VIII.
  IRKOUTSK                   385

  CHAPTER IX.
  IRKOUTSK (continued)       422

  CHAPTER X.
  IRKOUTSK TO TOMSK          471

  CHAPTER XI.
  TOMSK                      573

  CHAPTER XII.
  PERM TO CALAIS             626

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.


  A Caravan                               Frontispiece
  A Street in Tartar City——Pekin                   110
  A Mule Litter                                    140
  Da-Hun-Go                                        184
  Ourouni                                          214
  My Camel Cart                                    222
  An awkward Moment                                252
  A Street Prayer-wheel at Ourga                   288
  Our Tarantass with “Troika”                      352
  A Village Ostrog——Convicts on the March          409
  A Siberian Criminal Convict                      448
  A Night in a Post-house                          478
  The Post-house at Rasgonnaia                     493
  A Siberian Village Street                        496
  A Prison Barge on the Obi River                  614

  MAP.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  FROM PEKIN TO CALAIS BY LAND.



  CHAPTER I.

  GRAVESEND TO PEKIN.


“FROM China to France overland! Why, surely it’s impossible. I thought
one could only get to China by sea!”

Such was the remark made by a young lady whom I had the honour of taking
down to dinner a few days previous to embarking upon the voyage of which
I am about to narrate my experiences. Although I trust there are not
many educated persons who, like my fair friend, are unaware that Pekin
and Paris are actually undivided by sea, I imagine there are but few
who, if put down at Calais, and told to find their way overland to
Pekin, would know how to set about it, fewer still who have any
practical knowledge of that vast but comparatively unknown country
separating the Chinese Empire from Russia proper, Siberia.

It had been a long-projected voyage. Lancaster, (a fellow-traveller in
many lands,) and I had talked it over for at least two years before: in
the early spring of 1887, we finally decided to put our project into
execution, and start for the great unknown.

Unlike most voyages which in these days of travel are an accomplished
fact as soon as decided upon, this one was fraught with innumerable
delays and annoyances. Our difficulties commenced at the very outset,
for nowhere in London, or indeed anywhere else, could I glean the
smallest information respecting the journey; the only book I succeeded
in finding on the subject being one written by John Bell, the English
traveller, in 1788, but, as may be imagined, the information contained
therein was somewhat obsolete.

Nothing more modern, however, could I procure. Jules Verne’s amusing and
clever book, “Michel Strogoff,” deals largely with Irkoutsk, Lake
Baikal, and other regions we were about to traverse, but I hardly felt
justified in taking that versatile author as a travelling-guide. That we
landed at Tientsin——China——and saw the sea again at Calais——France——was
all we definitely knew; of the time it took to do, or how the journey
was to be accomplished, we were quite in the dark.

About a week before our departure, however, I had the good fortune to
meet a gentleman connected with the Russian Embassy in London, and to
him I confided our difficulties. M. de ———— was indeed a friend in need,
for in less than twenty-four hours our difficulties had vanished like
snow in the sunshine. Not only was the route from Pekin to Moscow
clearly laid down for us, but we were provided, in addition, with a
letter of introduction from M. de Staal, the Russian Ambassador in
London, to the Russian Minister at Pekin. Had it not been for this, I
doubt whether we should ever have got further than the celestial city.

The route (we now found) was as follows: From Shanghai to Pekin by
steamer and house-boat, from Pekin to Kalgan (or the Great Wall of
China) by mule litter, and thence across the Great Gobi Desert to
Kiakhta, the Russo-Chinese frontier, by camel caravan. From Kiakhta to
Tomsk, _viâ_ Lake Baikal, Irkoutsk, and Krasnoiarsk by tarantass or
Russian post carriage, and thence by steam communication on the Obi and
Irtish rivers to Tobolsk and Tiumen. From the latter place our journey
was easy enough. Four days’ sail and seven of steam would bring us to
Moscow, practically the end of our voyage. As to the time the journey
would take, no one, even at the Russian Embassy, seemed to know. So much
in this journey depends (as we afterwards found) upon the weather, the
facility of obtaining camels at the Great Wall, and last, but not least,
the state of the roads in Siberia. We were starting at a good time,
however, and with luck might expect to reach Moscow in the early autumn.
If detained in Siberia by floods or other casualties, we might not
arrive in Europe till the new year. This was all we could ascertain, and
with this somewhat scanty information were forced to be content.

The outfit question did not trouble us much. A Terai hat, two or three
tweed suits, and an unlimited supply of cigars and tobacco met our
requirements. Everything we took went comfortably into two small-sized
leather portmanteaus. A rifle, fowling-piece and brace of
double-barrelled pistols (not revolvers) were also taken, and this
completed our wardrobe and armoury. I often wonder what the West End
outfitters would do were it not for the yearly increasing number of
Globe-Trotters. Be it understood I mean Globe-Trotters, not travellers,
for there is a vast difference between the two. I have often been amused
at the utterly useless articles forced upon the unhappy G. T. by the
Bond Street or Piccadilly haberdasher, who probably knows rather less of
the country his customer is about to visit than the Khan of Khiva does
of Pall Mall. The Globe-Trotter _pur et simple_ is seldom (so far as I
have seen) of high intellectual attainments, but one I met a few years
ago, while on a voyage to Sydney, eclipsed everything. He had provided
himself with enough thick clothes and furs to fit out an expedition to
the North Pole. On asking him the reason, he replied, “Oh! we shall get
to Sydney at Christmas, you know, and it will be so awfully cold after
the tropics!”

Our final preparations completed, we took passage for Shanghai, and the
rainy, gusty morning of the 7th of April, 1887, saw us steaming down
channel with half a gale of wind in our teeth, looking our last on the
white cliffs of England, while to our left was just visible the
low-lying coast of France, the goal we hoped to reach in safety, before
the following winter, and from which we were separated by the length of
Europe and Asia.

I will not inflict a description of the voyage out upon the reader. It
would be superfluous in these days of travel, when a man secures his
berth for Sydney or Yokohama with much the same indifference as twenty
years ago he took a ticket for Rome or Vienna. The life on board a P.
and O. ship is familiar to most of us. Suffice it to say that our
fellow-passengers were of the usual kind: the Colonial bishop, who
buried himself in a deep theological work before we had cleared Land’s
End, only to emerge from it at Colombo; the Hong Kong merchant and his
family living on the usual terms of armed neutrality with the Indian
Civil Service official and his wife, an Indian Major-General, a
sprinkling of bank clerks and coffee-planters, two or three soldiers
rejoining their regiments, and a pretty grass widow, returning to her
husband, an Indian Judge. These, with half a dozen more or less
uninteresting young ladies “going out to be married,” completed our
party. The ages of the latter seemed to increase in proportion to the
distance they were going. The one whose fortunate fiancé resided at Hong
Kong must have been fifty at the very least. I had almost forgotten a
nearly perfect specimen of the Globe-Trotter, who joined us, resplendent
in purple and fine linen, at Suez; a young gentleman somewhat inclined
to take more wine than was good for him, and who was going abroad for
the good of his health——presumably also for that of his friends and
relations at home.

There is a very false impression existing among those who have never
travelled in one, as to the delights of a voyage in a P. and O., and the
endless gaiety and amusement on board these floating hotels. I have made
at least a dozen voyages by this particular line, and must confess that
the gaiety and amusement, if it ever existed, has escaped my
observation. Perhaps I have been unfortunate, but I must own that I have
invariably found the life on board these ships deplorably dull. The mere
fact of being cabined, cribbed, confined, with three score of one’s
fellow-creatures, the majority of whom have not a thought or feeling in
common, is surely sufficient to account for a lack of enjoyment. At the
same time, to the casual onlooker, who is wise enough to keep out of
them, the petty rows and scandals on board ship are amusing enough. How
Major-General Jones has had the audacity to take the seat next the
captain at dinner, instead of Commissioner Brown, who, as everybody
ought to know, if they don’t, always takes precedence of him at
Brandypore; and how Mrs. Commissioner Brown has felt compelled to cut
Mrs. Major-General Jones in consequence. How the wife of Surgeon
Squills, of the Bengal Staff Corps, has forbidden her daughter to speak
to the third mate, and that matron’s subsequent mortification on
discovering that the tabooed officer is the second son of an Earl. How,
in our case, one of the future blushing brides (the Hong Kong one) only
wished that poor dear Judge could see how his wife went on, although to
unbiassed eyes, that cheery little lady’s sole crime consisted in being
more than pretty, and absurdly good-natured. How the Globe-trotter
overcome by (let us say) the heat in the Red Sea offered to fight the
captain for a dozen of champagne on his own quarter-deck,——all this
could I descant upon at length, but fear lest I weary the reader,
forgetting that a good joke at sea is but a sorry jest ashore.

Light and favourable winds favoured us to Malta, that shadeless,
bustling rock so happily christened by Byron “The little Military
Hot-House.” A few hours here allowed of a stroll ashore and a visit to
the mess of that cheeriest and best of regiments, the “Black Watch.”
Then, after dinner at the club, and a chat over old Cairo-days, off
again in the moonlight to the _Bombay_, and, three days later, Port
Said. Here an unexpected delay awaited us. The P. and O. S.S. _Rome_ had
gone ashore (the commencement of a series of disasters for the Company:)
which meant a detention of five days, at least, at the glary, unsavoury
canal port.

Small-pox was raging in this den of publicans and sinners, and several
cases having occurred on the homeward-bound P. and O. ships, we were
requested by the captain not to land, if we could possibly help it,
during our stay. A prospect of five days cooped up in an atmosphere of
coal-dust and sand, to say nothing of the noisome odours off the shore,
was anything but inviting, and eight o’clock the next evening saw us
sitting down to dinner in the cool, comfortable dining-room of
Shepherd’s Hotel, Cairo.

There is a charm about Cairo peculiar to itself. Nowhere else do we find
that strange mixture of western civilization and eastern barbarism that
exists in the Egyptian capital, which seems, by the way, to be yearly
increasing in popularity as a winter resort. Everything in the place is
original and therefore charming, and, although surrounded with every
European luxury and comfort, so utterly unlike Europe.

A telegram was received during our stay here, announcing the total loss
of the P. and O. _Tasmania_, and the drowning, among others, of her
captain, poor Perrins, than whom no more popular commander or smarter
sailor ever lived. We were continually seeing or hearing of wrecks on
our voyage out. Besides passing three lately sunken vessels in the Red
Sea, we got news at Colombo of the largest ship in the Nord-Deutscher
Lloyd line having gone down off Cape Guardafui; at Shanghai of the
sinking of the M.M. Steamer _Menzaleh_ between that port and Japan.

We had a favourable passage through that exaggerated bugbear the Red
Sea, which, by the way, I have found cooler three times out of four than
the Indian Ocean. Aden was not touched at, and a quick run of nine days
brought us to Colombo, where we bade adieu to the _Bombay_, which was
proceeding to Calcutta, and embarked on board the _Piacenza_, a vessel
considerably smaller but as comfortable in every respect as the
leviathan we had left.

Twenty-four hours here gave us time for a run out to Mount Lavinia,
where we received a hearty welcome from the jovial German Herr
(surrounded, as usual, by a menagerie of domestic pets) who manages that
picturesque seaside hostelry. A comfortable dinner in the breezy _salle
à manger_ in full view of the cool blue sea and yellow sands, coffee and
a quiet cigar in the verandah, were a pleasant change from the stuffy
saloon of the _Bombay_. Then back again to Colombo in the moonlight,
along the palm-fringed road, heavy with the scent of jungle flowers,
refreshed inwardly and outwardly, and ready for the long weary days of
sea to Shanghai.

We had the _Piacenza_ pretty well to ourselves. There were but twenty
first-class passengers in all, among them two pretty girls fresh from
Devonshire, with the good looks, and clear, fresh complexions that
county alone seems able to produce. It seemed a sin so to take them to a
clime notorious for stealing the roses from the youngest and fairest
faces. In the second class were some ten or twelve Protestant female
missionaries bound for North China, whose religious zeal was
unparalleled. They were for ever hunting up lost sheep among the
passengers, hot as it was. I do not fancy, however, that their efforts
were very successful. Only one of them made converts. She was eighteen,
and very good-looking.

The remainder of our voyage was uneventful and tedious enough. Hot,
sleepy little Penang; Singapore a vision of green hills and red dust, a
sickly odour of pepper, cocoa, nut-oil, and drains. Hong Kong, for all
the world like some Spanish or Italian town with its white terraces, and
coloured venetians, nestling in masses of dark green foliage at the foot
of the bare rugged peak; all these were passed without incident worthy
of mention excepting the meeting of the fifty-year-old bride with her
fiancé at the latter port, which was affecting in the extreme. It was a
relief to find that, at any rate, the bridegroom was something near her
own age. Five days later, on the 21st of May, six weeks to a day since
leaving Gravesend, we dropped our anchor in the broad, muddy waters of
the Yangzekiang, whence a small tug conveyed us in six hours up the
narrower and still muddier Woosung river to Shanghai.

Shanghai cannot be called a picturesque place. Vast alluvial plains of
rice and cotton surround it on every side, while the view from the bund
or esplanade fronting the river, is not unlike the Thames at Blackwall,
with its flat banks, forests of masts, and grey stone wharves and
warehouses. The town itself consists of three distinct settlements,
English, French, and American, divided one from another by small
tributaries of the Woosung river. These settlements, quite distinct from
the native Chinese city, were formed by their respective governments in
1846, and occupy a space of ground rather more than a mile square.
Shanghai, in 1883, contained a population of four hundred thousand, of
whom two thousand were foreign residents, and an idea of its commercial
importance may be gained by the fact that its trade in silk, tea, and
opium now equals thirty to forty million sterling value of imports and
exports.

Were I ever condemned to live in the far East (which Heaven forbid), I
should certainly choose Shanghai for a residence, for besides its other
advantages, there is a marked absence among its European inhabitants of
the ill-nature and scandal that makes anything but a very short stay in
other colonial settlements almost intolerable to those whose occupation
does not compel them to reside there. Whether it is the effect of the
climate on the liver, I know not, but for envy, hatred, and malice
commend me to the European communities of China and the Straits
Settlements.

There is a capital club (one of the best if not _the_ very best in the
East) at Shanghai, of which (thanks to the kindness of Mr. C————, to
whom we had an introduction) we were made honorary members, no mean
advantage, for the Shanghai hotels are by no means models of comfort or
cleanliness. We intended making a stay of at least ten days before going
on to Tientsin, the port of Pekin, for many things had to be thought of
and procured for the long journey across the Desert of Gobi, which we
now ascertained, for the first time, is nearly a thousand miles across.

There seems to be no lack of amusement at Shanghai, and the merchants
and other Europeans located there appear to have what Americans would
call a “real good time of it” all the year round——so far as regards
gaiety and sport. For those who care for it there is any amount of
shooting. In winter there is no lack of duck, teal, snipe, and other
wild fowl. Indeed from here all the way up to Pekin the country teems
with game, big and small, the former including wild boar and deer, while
further north in Manchuria are found lion, tiger, and bear. Nor is
shooting the only sport, for there is a capital race-course, polo and
cricket ground. I attended a match on the latter, in which was playing,
in Chinese dress and a pigtail (!) a lately celebrated English
cricketer, well known at Lord’s and the Oval, who had adopted the native
costume in accordance with the rules of the Mission of which he is now a
member. The loose clumsy dress did not seem to interfere with his play
much, for he was quite in his old form, and made over a hundred runs
first innings.

But the Race week is the real Shanghai carnival. At this festive season
offices and warehouses are closed, and everything given up for the
business of the meeting. Nearly all the horses engaged are Mongolian
ponies, and half the fun of the thing is getting a “hot one” down from
its native plains and keeping it dark till the day of its engagement.
The figures paid for these little animals are something fabulous. People
at home have no idea of how our countrymen live in China. “Light come,
light go,” seems to be the motto of the cheery, hospitable Shanghai
merchants, who, although they make such enormous fortunes, never seem,
to the casual visitor, to have anything to do but entertain the stranger
who has the good luck to find himself within their gates. It will be
long before I forget the kindness they showed us, although (before we
met Mr. C.) we did not know a soul in the place.

It was curious sometimes to cross the iron bridge separating them and
take a ramble from the English into the French town. It was like
crossing the English Channel——indeed, I doubt if Dover and Calais
present a more striking contrast than do the settlements of their
respective nations at Shanghai. One left the broad regular roads,
asphalte pavements and severe, business-like architecture that the
mercantile Briton takes with him wherever he goes, to emerge the other
side of the narrow stream on a boulevard, that first thought of every
colonizing Frenchman——lined with cafés, gaily striped awnings, and
little zinc tables, at which Auguste and Alphonse sat sipping their
absinthe or “Mazagran,” waited upon by bustling, white-aproned garçons.
The sleepy looking Douanier, with baggy trousers and képi, the
grass-grown cobbled streets, the dark blue enamelled plates at the
street-corners, with Rue de la Republique, Rue de Paris, &c., thereon in
large white letters, the general air of stagnation and idleness among
the population, seemed to carry one in a moment over leagues and leagues
of land and sea to some quiet provincial town in far-away France. It
needed not the tricolor floating from the mainmast of the ironclad
anchored mid-stream, off the Consulate, to tell us that we were no
longer on English ground.

The Shanghai bund and esplanade on a fine afternoon was amusing enough,
and we whiled away many a pleasant half-hour watching the motley crowd
that assemble there for a ride or drive in the cool of the evening. Here
might be seen every grade of colonial society, from the solemn and
portly merchant and his family rolling solemnly along in an
English-built landau, to the San Francisco _demi-mondaine_, all powder
and patches, dashing about in a Victoria drawn by a pair of pulling,
tearing Mongolian ponies. Europeans in buggies and on horseback,
Japanese in rikshaws, Chinese in wheelbarrows (the reader may smile, but
this is a public conveyance in Shanghai), crowds of every conceivable
nation and colour strolling under the trees by the water’s edge, the
esplanade at Shanghai on a fine evening is a sight to see and remember.

At night electric lights every twenty yards or so convert the bund into
a perfect fairyland. The inauguration of the Jablokoff system, however,
was attended with a slight _contretemps_. Crowds of natives and
Europeans turned out the first night to see the effect, but for a good
hour none was apparent. The place was wrapped in total darkness, and the
expectant crowd beginning to show signs of impatience, it was found that
the engineer had fixed the lights _above_ the trees, whence the dense
foliage very naturally obscured it, instead of under. This trifling
mistake was, however, soon rectified, and the brilliant illumination so
took the fancy of the natives that all the principal Chinese
thoroughfares are now lit by it.

The native city of Shanghai, is walled and separated from the French and
English settlements by a deep, muddy moat. Some clumsy iron cannon, said
to be the oldest in existence, are mounted upon its dilapidated
grass-grown battlements. This was our first experience of a celestial
city, and we did not, after visiting it, look forward with unalloyed
pleasure to the two hundred odd miles of country we were about to
traverse between Pekin and the Great Wall of China. But I did not then
know that Shanghai is renowned as being the dirtiest city in the Chinese
Empire, and certainly we never afterwards came across one to equal it in
this respect. Pekin itself was a paradise in comparison.

The streets of Shanghai proper are none of them more than ten feet in
breadth. Some are even considerably narrower, and the tottering,
tumble-down dwellings, the majority built of wood, bend forward on
either side until they nearly touch overhead. The thoroughfares are thus
always, even on the brightest day, in a state of semi-darkness. The
pavements, rough and uneven, are formed of huge stone slabs, some of
them, judging by the characters inscribed thereon, many hundreds of
years old. Worn away by time and use, many are broken away in parts,
revealing underneath the sewage and filth of years, which, slowly
rotting away, infects the whole city with a hot, sickly odour of
putrefaction. It was a hot, muggy day when we visited it, and the stench
from these places was something beyond description. I was not surprised
to hear that cholera and typhus number their victims by thousands at
times, and that an epidemic (of some sort or another) always exists.

Yet it seemed a busy, bustling place, and we could scarcely make our way
along the sloppy streets for the continuous stream of traffic. It was
exactly like a human bee-hive, and we should very soon have lost
ourselves without a guide in the crooked, tortuous streets that ran in
all directions like a maze, without any regard to regularity or order.
We came suddenly in the very heart of the city, upon an oasis in this
desert of filth and squalor, a space about a quarter of a mile square. A
large circular lake overhung with weeping willows occupied the centre.
Great white and yellow lilies lay here and there on the surface of the
smooth clear water, in which one could see the gold fish swimming lazily
to and fro about the thick green weeds and stems, ten or fifteen feet
deep. About fifty yards from the shore, and connected with it by a light
bamboo bridge, stood a large pagoda gorgeous in vermilion and gold, with
countless little gilt bells hung around the roof, which, with every
breath of air gave out a sweet, musical jangle. Seated in this were a
crowd of men and women, talking, laughing, and drinking tea. All were
dressed in the richest silks, the men in dark blue or plum colour, the
women in lighter shades of green, heliotrope, or orange, their necks and
arms loaded with heavy gold ornaments, their quaint, impassive,
doll-like faces thickly smeared with paint. On the banks around the lake
were booths for the sale of sweetmeats, fans, silks, cigarettes, and
jewellery, while jugglers and acrobats plied their trade among the busy
crowd, or at the little tables set out by the waterside and occupied by
noisy chattering tea-drinkers. I stood for some time watching the
curious scene, which was for all the world like a bit broken out of a
willow-pattern plate. It seemed so odd to walk suddenly out of the
filthy, sewage-laden streets into this hidden corner of cleanliness and
picturesque revelry. But China is full of such contradictions. I
afterwards discovered that we had strayed into a tea-garden (there are a
dozen such in the city) and that the pretty pagoda was used as a kind of
private box for the better classes, just as our own smart people at home
occasionally patronize the Alhambra and other music-halls to gaze at a
respectful distance on the manners and customs of the “Oi Polloi.”

The Chinese, I found, are great believers in the art of fortune-telling.
We passed on our way homewards many of the shops, or rather boxes, in
which the professors of the art received their subjects. They seemed to
have many methods, but the favourite one consists in dipping the thumb
into a piece of hot, soft, black wax, and then impressing it firmly upon
a piece of parchment or white wood. The lines thus obtained are supposed
to predict the future. The professors seemed to be doing a roaring
trade. Their fees were not extortionate; a couple of cash (about ½_d._)
each consultation.

The most important thing we now had to consider was the purchase of
stores for our journey over the “Great Hungry Desert,” as Gobi is called
by the Chinese. It was by no means easy to decide how much or how little
to take, for no one in Shanghai seemed to know whether in the eight
hundred odd miles lying between the Great Wall of China and Ourga food
of any sort or kind was procurable. However, hearing that everything in
the way of provisions was outrageously dear at Tientsin, and
unprocurable at Pekin, we decided to lay in our stock at Shanghai, and
curiously enough furnished ourselves with exactly the right amount, for
our stores failed the very day before we reached Kiakhta. The claret,
whisky, and soda-water gave out some time before, but we had plenty of
lime-juice, which made the brackish desert water drinkable.

Were I to do this journey again, I should certainly send everything of
this kind straight out from England, for the camp furniture, saddlery,
and stores we bought at Shanghai were, besides being outrageously dear,
of very inferior quality. On opening the cases in the desert, we found
at least a quarter of the provisions uneatable. The American firm who
furnished us must make a good thing of it if they do business with all
their customers on the same terms.

The operation of packing was by no means easy. As the reader is perhaps
aware, the weight on a camel’s back must be quite equally distributed on
either side, otherwise (in Mongolia at least) the animal lies down and
utterly declines to move a step. Eight strong wooden chests, with
padlocks, met all our requirements, and having made our adieus to our
hospitable friends, we embarked, the 31st of May, on the
coasting-steamer _Tungchow_ for the port of Pekin, Tientsin.

We were presented before leaving Shanghai with a so-called itinerary on
the journey we were taking, written by an Englishman resident in China,
who had travelled the caravan route from Pekin to Europe in 1872. Things
must have changed considerably, both in Mongolia and Siberia, since
those days, for almost all the book contained, including distances, was
so inaccurate and misleading that we discarded its use long before we
reached Kiakhta.

The “_Tungchow_” was more like a yacht than a cargo boat, and the run up
coast was delightful; with bright sunshine and light cool breezes,
exactly like Mediterranean weather in early spring, though the nights
were very cold, and one was glad of an overcoat. We passed daily numbers
of fishing junks, their dark brown mat-sails and bright red and yellow
banners standing out in picturesque contrast to the clear blue sea,
which often for miles round us was dotted with net corks and men in
small canoes. A gale springs up in a few minutes in these latitudes, and
during the typhoon season many of these poor fishermen, unable to get
back to the junks, are blown out to sea and drowned, their companions on
the huge, swirling craft, being, of course, unable to render them any
assistance. The captain of the _Tungchow_ told us that many lives are
lost annually in this manner.

We reached Chefoo late at night, and were therefore unable to land, as
we were off again at daybreak. This is the Brighton of Shanghai and
Pekin. There is capital bathing here, and many good hotels, which are
crowded to overflowing in the summer months by Europeans escaping from
the damp, steamy heat of Shanghai, and the no less disagreeable odours,
and “dust fogs” (I can call them nothing else) of the capital.

The coast lying between Chefoo and the mouth of the Peiho river is
strikingly like parts of Devonshire. But for the absence of houses and
bathing machines, one might have been off Torquay or Dawlish.
Precipitous red cliffs, with smooth green sward growing to their very
edges, met by broad smooth yellow sands, while here and there great
masses of rock run out for a considerable distance into the clear blue
water. Further inland neatly trimmed hedges, clumps of fir-trees, and
snug-looking farm-houses surrounded with orchards and gardens, recalled
visions of clotted cream, and pretty peasant girls in that loveliest of
all English counties, the true garden of England: Devonshire.

At daybreak on the 3rd of June we passed the celebrated Taku forts and
entered the Peiho river. It was a bright lovely morning, and as a bend
of the river hid it from our sight, and we looked at the blue sunlit
ocean for the last time, it was not without some misgivings at the long
land journey before us. The thought that when next we saw the sea, it
would be at Calais, made us realize, perhaps more than we had as yet
done, the difficulty and length of the voyage we had undertaken across
the breadth of Europe and Asia.

Unlike most rivers, the Peiho seems to widen as you ascend it, being
considerably narrower at the mouth than at Tientsin, thirty miles
inland. The town of Taku, a wretched-looking place, built for the most
part of mud houses, is by water inaccessible for five months of the
year, on account of the ice in the Peiho and Gulf of Pechili. It is a
curious fact that although Taku is so cold in winter, it never snows,
and there is usually a bright, cloudless sky and cutting north-easter
blowing. Wretched as is its appearance, Taku looks a busy place, and
contains a Chinese naval dockyard. The Taku forts commanding the
entrance to the river have been greatly strengthened during the last ten
years, the work being carried on under the personal supervision of
German officers.

We were rather puzzled, on first entering the Peiho, at what appeared in
the distance like a number of large merry-go-rounds scattered over the
flat swampy plain surrounding the town, and revolving without cessation.
It was only by the aid of glasses that we made them out to be salt-mills
worked by huge mat sails. The sea-water is pumped into the vats by the
aid of this irrigation and allowed to evaporate in the sun. The salt
which remains is then piled into large stacks and covered with thick
matting. The effect at a distance of these dozens of huge mills
revolving on the bare desolate plain with not a living object near them,
was curious in the extreme. The river scenery from Taku to Tangchow very
much resembles that of the Nile, the houses of dried mud, with their
flat roofs and terraces, the absence of trees except occasional palms,
remind one not a little of an Egyptian landscape, while the uniform dark
blue garb of the peasantry, of exactly the same shade as that worn by
the Fellaheen, heightens, at a distance, the illusion.

Although only thirty miles distant as the crow flies, Tientsin is quite
eighty by river from Taku, for the Peiho is, towards the mouth, the most
tortuous river in the world. It is not unusual to steam steadily on for
an hour, and find yourself, at the expiration of that time only a few
hundred yards from where you started. The effect produced by the
shipping ascending and descending the river is very odd, the intricate
bends of the river giving the steamers the appearance of moving about on
dry land. The marshes I have mentioned do not extend for more than about
ten miles inland. They are then succeeded by rich fertile plains of rice
and cotton irrigated in the Egyptian manner by means of “shadoofs” from
the waters of the Peiho. The country seemed pretty thickly populated.
Some of the mud villages by the water side must have contained quite a
thousand inhabitants, but in China, where the population is so enormous,
this is looked upon as a small hamlet!

There is a large coal-wharf a short distance from Taku, where the coal
from the Kai Ping mine, fifty miles distant, is brought by means of a
small railway and barges. The coal, though rather dusty, is excellent
for steamer purposes, and the private company working it make a very
fair percentage. It has always seemed curious to me that coal is not
more extensively worked in the Chinese Empire, when there are more than
four hundred thousand square miles of it! There are, however, but very
few mines in existence.

Tientsin, which has a population of about nine hundred and fifty
thousand stands at the junction of the Grand Canal with the Peiho river.
It is not a prepossessing place at first sight, nor did its dusty,
bustling quays, warehouses, and noisy, perspiring coolies, make us at
all anxious to prolong our stay longer than was absolutely necessary.
The trade of Tientsin is not great when compared with the other treaty
ports. Nearly all the tea exported thence goes to Russia and
Siberia——occasionally by way of Pekin——but in most cases _viâ_ Kalgan
and district across the Gobi Desert to Kiakhta, without touching at the
capital. The Russian merchants are therefore nearly as numerous as the
English at Tientsin.

The settlement boasted of but two hotels, and these of a very fifth-rate
description. Small-pox having broken out in one, our choice was limited,
for we did not care to run the risk of being laid up for three or four
weeks in the native hospital at Pekin. Bidding adieu to our genial
skipper, who cheerfully expressed a hope that he might see us again one
day, though he very much doubted our ever leaving Siberia, we made our
way, accompanied by a yelling crowd of half-naked coolies bearing our
luggage, to the American Hotel, an uninviting, dilapidated-looking
hostelry enough. In the verandah, reclining on many chairs, and at
intervals refreshing himself from a huge beaker of brandy and soda, was
an individual pointed out to us as the proprietor (a fat, sleepy-looking
Yankee), whose welcome was hardly encouraging.

“Can we have rooms here?”

“Sure I don’t know, you’d better ask.”

“But you’re the manager, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes, I’m the manager.”

A pause, during which our friend takes a long pull at the brandy, and,
emerging considerably refreshed, composes himself calmly to slumber.

“Who are we to ask?”

“Who are you to ask?” half opening his eyes; “Oh! I don’t know, you will
see some of the China boys about. How should I know who you’re to ask?”
is his parting shot as we leave him and cross the dirty sanded
billiard-room, hung with tawdry prints, and redolent of stale tobacco
and spirits, that precedes the entrance to the “bar.”

Here we glean from a dishevelled, greasy German in shirt-sleeves, who
looks as if he slept among the sawdust and empty whisky bottles that
litter the floor, that no rooms are to be had that night, or for the
next week to come, for love or money. A huge travelling circus belonging
to an Italian, one Chiarini, has taken every available room in the
place. “Then could we have the billiard-table?” “No, we could not
possibly have the billiard-table, for the ‘gentlemen’ connected with the
circus always played till three or four in the morning. Still, we could
have it then, if we liked, on payment of a small remuneration to him
(the occupant of the bar), but we must keep it dark from the boss.”

Our experience of the “boss” did not quite justify our taking this
course, and we left the hotel, sadly and slowly followed by our string
of sympathizing coolies, utterly at a loss to know what to do till the
bright thought struck Lancaster of at once hiring the house-boat which
was to take us to Tungchow (the landing-place for Pekin), and living on
board her till we left for the capital. We managed this, not without
some difficulty, for we had to get the boat through our friend the
sleepy Yankee. He woke up a little, however, at the prospect of
swindling two helpless and friendless fellow-creatures, and by sundown
we had everything on board, and the boat snugly moored off the hotel
wharf. We were alongside a large open drain, with a most abominable
stench, and there was always the possibility of being run down in the
night by a passing ship, but one could not afford to be particular. The
sight, however, of a large passenger steamer bound for Japan which
passed close to us towards sundown was depressing in the extreme, the
cleanliness and luxury on board contrasting so painfully with our own
surroundings. For a few moments we almost regretted (by no means for the
last time) that we had ever undertaken this voyage, the discomforts and
difficulties of which now seemed to increase with every day.

Early next day we presented our letters to Mr. S., the Russian tea
merchant, who was to provide us with letters of credit for his agents at
Irkoutsk and Tomsk in Eastern and Western Siberia. Mr. S. did not give
us a very favourable account of the journey before us. Like almost every
other Russian we met, first question was “Mais que Diable allez-vous
faire en Sibérie?” We got into the way at last of never arguing this
question. In the first place it was useless, and only caused waste of
time; in the second we had literally no reason to give, except perhaps
the one so dear to most Englishmen: “The country had been crossed by so
few travellers before!”

Among other pleasant and encouraging items of news, we now heard that we
should probably meet with serious delay, not only at Kalgan, the
Mongolian frontier, but also at Pekin. “You had better not think,” said
Mr. S., “of making any definite plans till you arrive at Kalgan. This is
the worst time of year you could have chosen. It is not the caravan
season; the camels are all out on the plains. It may be two or three
months before you are able to cross the Gobi, and then you will get into
Siberia at the very worst time of year, when the roads are next to
impassable from rains and floods. Any day you may be detained by a
broken bridge or a landslip, and have to wait in some dreary, wretched
village in the wilds of Siberia, till the snow sets, and enables you to
finish your journey in sleighs. You cannot, I feel sure, have rightly
estimated the difficulties before you. Why go to Siberia at all, when
that earthly paradise Japan is so near?” &c., &c.

We at last succeeded in making Mr. S. understand that we were determined
to get as far as Pekin at any rate; and, our interview over, had nothing
but the purchase of some provisions for our river journey (our Shanghai
store was not opened till we reached the desert) to detain us in
Tientsin. Nor were we sorry to get away, for the dust and filth of this
city were almost unbearable. We had not then experienced the odours of
Pekin, which would accustom one to cheerfully live in a main drain.

Our second night here was not so pleasantly passed as the first. A
shower of rain at sunset brought out legions of mosquitoes, from which,
not having brought curtains, we suffered a good deal of annoyance, and
the intolerable stench of the drain near which we lay was so increased
by the rain that we had to smoke incessantly till past 3 a.m., almost
regretting we had not accepted the barkeeper’s offer of the
billiard-table for a bed. Even the “circus gentlemen” would have been
preferable to the sewer. We got to sleep about 4 a.m., only to be awoke
at daybreak by a crashing sound and to find the water rushing into the
boat, with an unpleasant conviction that our craft was heeling over at a
very uncomfortable angle. We had become entangled in the hawser of a
large ocean-steamer, which, had it not been let go in the nick of time,
would have upset us altogether. We escaped with a ducking, however, and
soon got the boat righted and baled out again.

The distance from Tientsin to Pekin is rather under eighty miles
overland, that by river one hundred and forty, viz. one hundred and
twenty miles to Tungchow, and twenty miles thence by road to the
capital. Although it takes two days longer (sometimes three), we chose
the water route in preference to the other. We should, we thought, have
quite enough land-travelling during the next five months; besides which,
the Chinese inns between Tientsin and the capital are even filthier than
those between Pekin and the Great Wall——which is saying a good deal.

It was about ten o’clock, on a bright, clear morning, that we hoisted
the huge mat-sail, and, with a favourable breeze, soon left the bustling
city and its high cathedral towers (where the Catholic nuns were so
brutally murdered in 1870) low on the horizon.

The traffic on the Peiho river for some miles above Tientsin is
enormous. We must have counted at least four hundred boats and barges in
the space of an hour the afternoon of the day we left, while the whole
way to Tungchow the river was alive with boats of every description
whenever we passed a village, from huge junks to tiny sampans. At times,
near Tientsin, one could have crossed the river, or walked three hundred
or four hundred yards up it, dry shod on the boats.

A Chinese house-boat, though comfortable enough for all practical
purposes, must not be confounded with the luxurious, flower-bedecked
craft that line the banks of the Thames in summer time. The Chinese
house-boat resembles the English only in name, for there was no attempt
at decoration, and very little at cleanliness. About forty-five feet
long, it was decked completely over, except in the centre, where a sort
of well covered with planks, with space enough for two to lie or sit in,
formed the cabin.

Our crew, five in number, slept in a kind of hutch under the deck
forward. How they all managed to stow themselves there at once was a
mystery to me, for they were great, tall, hulking fellows. We sailed, as
a rule, our broad mat-sail sending the old tub along at an incredible
speed with the lightest breeze. When the wind dropped, the men rowed
incessantly, day and night, till it rose again. The amount of work they
got through was simply marvellous. Nothing seemed to tire them; morning,
noon, and night they plied the heavy, awkward sweeps without cessation,
except to eat a dish of rice and fish and take a drink of cold tea once
every twelve hours. Cheery, good-tempered fellows they were too,
considering the small wages they got. The fare, including everything,
was only $13, and our Yankee friend must have got at least two-thirds of
this sum as his own share of the transaction.

The first two days of our river journey were enjoyable enough, save for
such small annoyances as rats and cockroaches, which latter took
forcible possession of our cabin at night-time. But the delightful
weather and novel scenery amply atoned for such small discomforts as
these. The Peiho is a thick, muddy stream. Its banks are continually
slipping down and being dammed up by the natives, which accounts in a
great measure for the dirty pea-soup colour of the water. These
landslips are not of weekly or even daily occurrence. They occur
incessantly, and it was curious to watch, as we ascended the river, the
continual dropping away of the land on either side, while, here and
there, gangs of men repaired the damage by means of cemented bamboos.
The riverside villages were like human beehives, so crowded and dense
did the population of them appear, even at midday, when so many of the
inhabitants must have been out at work in the fields. One could not help
wondering how even such an enormous country as China can support such a
dense population, numbering, by the last census, some 400,000,000. And
yet, from the time we left the coast till we reached the Mongolian
border, there was always vegetation of some kind or other to be seen,
and vast fertile plains of corn, barley, and millet stretched away on
every side to the horizon. Everything in North China is on such a large
scale that for a few days one scarcely realized how enormous the
population and fertilization of this huge empire really are, how great
its resources and demands.

Our days on the Peiho were amusing enough. There was always something to
look at on the bank, and a capital towing-path to walk on when one’s
legs got tired and cramped in the boat, so that we had nothing to
complain of in the way of variety, and the first two days, bright and
sunny, wore away as idly and pleasantly as summer days up the Thames or
Wye in England. It was pleasant to sit out in the evening in the cool,
clear moonlight, on the little deck, the silence unbroken save by the
regular plash of the oars, or twang of Chinese fiddle or guitar, as we
passed some lonely, riverside cottage, the arms of the solitary,
half-naked musician gleaming white in the moonlight, as he rose and
waved a good-night to our crew. When we passed a village after dark it
was like some weird transformation scene, for up to midnight these
waterside settlements appeared, from the river at least, to be given up
to revelry. We never, however, ventured into one, preferring to gaze
from a respectful distance upon the flaring torches throwing counter
effects of light and shade over the quaint, picturesque houses and
pagodas, the hurrying crowds on the banks; while the clashing of gongs
and cymbals from the joss-house or theatre heightened the effect of the
strange scene. Then on again along the silent moonlit stream, with its
low sedgy banks; nothing to mar the flat, monotonous outline of the
moonlit landscape, but, here and there, a huge square mound of earth,
the tomb of some departed mandarin or village magnate.

But the morning of the third day looked dull and overcast, and by ten
o’clock the rain was pouring down in torrents. There was no keeping dry,
for the ramshackle roof leaked like a sieve, and the floor of our cabin
was in a very few minutes almost ankle-deep in water. About midday a
terrific thunderstorm broke over us. The lightning was so vivid that
although every nook and cranny of our dilapidated hutch was tightly
closed, and the place in semi-darkness, it almost blinded one. I have
never, even in the tropics, heard the thunder so loud and continuous.
One peal lasted quite a minute without cessation.

I have seldom passed a more miserable day than that one moored by the
muddy banks of the Peiho, for progress was impossible. Cooking or
lighting a fire, too, was out of the question. Everything, including
matches and fuel, was sopping through and through. Looking out of our
wooden prison, nothing met the eye but grey, driving mist, and steady,
unceasing rain, falling with a persistence and violence that lashed the
brown muddy waters around us into a sheet of grey foam. The men forward
were battened down, and seemed unconcerned enough, as snatches of song
rising from below and occasional whiffs of smoke emerging through the
chinks in the deck testified. We almost envied them their warmth,
shivering as we were like half-drowned rats. About five o’clock a break
in the grey, misty sky appeared, and half an hour later the sun was
shining in a sky of cloudless blue, while we rapidly cut our way through
the water before a light but piercingly cold breeze, so sudden and
complete are the changes of weather in these latitudes.

Early the next day a chain of precipitous mountains broke the horizon.
Beyond them lay our destination, Pekin. We were, however, still two days
off, for the river here shallows considerably, and we frequently stuck
hard and fast during the day. At these times the whole crew would divest
themselves of their clothes, and, fastening a couple of stout ropes to
the bows of the boat, tow us off again into deep water. Landing here was
impossible, for one could not get within ten yards or so of the bank.
Some of the larger junks were being towed by as many as thirty or forty
men. On the deck of one a huge deal case bearing the name of Maple and
Co., London, in large black letters, looked strangely out of keeping
with the uncivilized surroundings.

It was only the fifth morning after leaving Tientsin that we hove in
sight of Tungchow, a “village” of something over one hundred thousand
inhabitants. This was our first experience of a real Chinese town, far
from European influence; and we were rather agreeably disappointed, for
at a distance, it looked clean and inviting. A closer acquaintance,
alas! somewhat modified first impressions.

Moored alongside the flat muddy banks were a perfect colony of junks,
two thousand or three thousand in number; an interval of flat boggy
ground cut up by innumerable cesspools, open drains and dust-heaps
divided these from the town wall, which, standing back about a couple of
hundred yards from the water’s edge, hid the town from view, except
where, at intervals, a tower or pagoda overtopped the loopholed brick
battlements. Although the sun had but just risen, the banks were crowded
with people, and the keepers of hundreds of stalls and booths were
already doing a brisk trade in the sale of cloths, pigtails, tea,
sweetmeats, and fans to the junk population, while here and there a
barber plied his trade, which in North China is anything but an
appetizing one to look upon. Dirty as the place and people were, the
bright, cloudless sky and sunshine lent a gaiety to the scene, which for
colour and animation I have seldom seen equalled in the most picturesque
Turkish cities or bazaars of the far East.

We were ready to start at midday, and had all the baggage safely stowed
away in Pekin carts, a more dirty or uncomfortable vehicle than which
does not exist. As it is of the same construction, although smaller than
the carts in which we crossed the desert, I will leave the description
of these “torture-boxes” to a future chapter. Seeing with the naked eye
whole regiments of vermin crawling over the one destined for our
reception, we preferred to ride ahead, on donkeys, under the guidance of
a small boy, whose powers of conversation were limitless, and who talked
incessantly the whole way, frequently interlarding his conversation with
the words “Yang Qweitze” (Foreign Devil), the uncomplimentary title
bestowed on every European, of whatever nationality, in the less
civilized parts of China. Nor was the filthy state of the carts our only
reason for riding. We had serious misgivings as to whether the clumsy,
heavily-laden conveyances would reach Pekin before nightfall, in which
case we should have had to pass the night in the open outside the walls.
The gates of the city are shut at sundown, and no human power (short of
the emperor’s special command) will open them till sunrise the following
day.

It took us nearly an hour to get clear of Tungchow and into the open
country. The town is (for China) fairly clean, though the streets are
narrow, tortuous and ill paved, and in some places there were holes two
or three feet deep in the centre of the roadway.

The natives in this part of China present a striking contrast to their
countrymen at Shanghai and further south; whereas the latter are for the
most part puny, pasty-faced creatures, these were fine, strapping,
broad-shouldered men, with healthy, ruddy faces. The women too were
better-looking, though doll-like and thickly painted, with the baggy,
shapeless figures, deformed feet, and stoop peculiar to their race. Many
of the shops were devoted to the sale of Manchester goods and cheap
cutlery, which find great favour among the people in this part of China.
Here and there a large tea-house, gorgeously decorated, was filled with
customers taking their morning draught of the cup that cheers. The tea
drunk by the Chinese is as different to our idea of that beverage as it
can well be, and is, to a European palate, utterly flavourless. “Chacun
à son goût.” Many Russians say that real, unadulterated tea never finds
its way to England, nor would the English drink it if it did.

It took us quite an hour to get clear of Tungchow, for the streets were
crowded to overflowing. Although so few Europeans are seen here, the
people took very little notice of us, excepting the juvenile population,
ragged little wretches, a crowd of whom pestered us for cash, which,
when refused, drew down upon us yells of derision and curses on the
“Yang Qweitze” in general.

The road from Tungchow to Pekin lies through a fertile, well-wooded
country, and is for the first three or four miles raised some ten feet
from the ground on either side, and paved with huge stone slabs,
apparently of great antiquity. Although now in a very dilapidated
condition, this must in former times have been a splendid thoroughfare.
It reminded one of one of the old Roman roads, some of the slabs being
quite ten feet long by five feet broad and two thick. The going was very
bad in places where these stones had fallen away. Turning away to admire
the scenery, I was somewhat suddenly recalled to the situation by
finding that my donkey had slipped into one of these chasms about four
feet deep. We got out, however, with nothing worse than a few bruises.
This road is said at one time to have extended as far as Pekin, but,
with characteristic carelessness, the Chinese have allowed it to become
so dilapidated, that after two miles or so it ceases altogether, and our
way lay along narrow, raised paths, running through millet and barley
fields. Eight li from Tungchow, we passed the picturesque bridge of
“Palikao,” from which the French general takes his name. Hard by a
little tea-house clustering in the shade of willow-trees afforded us
grateful shelter for half an hour, and we dismounted and took a few cups
of the cool refreshing drink, for the road was dusty, and the sun very
powerful.

As we sat on mats, enjoying the cool breeze from the river, half a dozen
soldiers rode by with a prisoner, whom they were taking to Tungchow, to
undergo sentence of death by the “Ling Chi.” The poor wretch looked
ghastly pale, and well he might, for this is perhaps the most barbarous
and revolting of all Chinese punishments. The word “Ling Chi” means
literally to be cut in ten thousand pieces. As the reader may care to
know how the operation is performed, I will give a brief account of an
execution of this kind which took place at Canton only last year.

“As soon as the signal was given the victim was stripped of his
clothing——the process of binding and gagging being made unnecessarily
long. By the time it was over the poor wretch was almost fainting with
terror. Previous to the commencement of the operation a draught of arrak
was given him, and then commenced the work of butchery.

“Two deep cuts over each eye commenced the operation. Gashes which
turned great pieces of flesh over, and left the bone exposed. Then a cut
down each cheek, and a deeper one across each shoulder, nearly but not
quite severing the arm from its socket. A circular cut to the bone in
each upper arm and fore-arm followed, and then, stepping back to get
more scope, the executioner hacked off the right hand with one blow. A
large piece of flesh was then cut or rather dug out of each thigh, and
from over each knee, and the flesh torn off both kneecaps. The calves of
the legs were then cut off.

“Up till now a straight heavy sword had been the weapon used. The human
devil who acted as executioner wielding it with as much ease and
dexterity as if he had been carving a fowl. The sword was now put aside,
and a thin-bladed knife, about a foot long, driven in to the hilt, under
the right breast-bone, the executioner working it slowly round and round
while his assistant fanned the victim with a large palm-leaf fan for the
double purpose of keeping the flies off, and hiding the contortions of
the poor wretch’s face, who was not yet dead, as evinced by the
twitching of the fingers of his remaining hand. Ten or twelve seconds
more of this diabolical torture, and the victim was cut down from the
cross, to fall, inert and helpless, on his knees and face. He was then
decapitated and the sentence completed.”

These barbarous and disgusting proceedings seem the more awful when we
consider that the poor wretch whose execution I have described was not
the actual author of the crime for which he suffered. He was what is
known in China as a “substitute.” There are many in this strange land,
who for a small sum of money will cheerfully die for the pleasure of two
or three days spent in dissipation and riot. The murderer himself was
probably looking on with the crowd, unmoved at what should by rights
have been his own execution.

There are other Chinese punishments quite as revolting as the Ling Chi,
which do not, however, necessarily end in death. A very common one (to
be seen almost daily in the streets of Pekin) is the “Cangue,” two large
pieces of wood, each with a semicircular hole in the middle, which are
worn round the neck. The hands are placed at right angles through other
holes in the board, which weighs from sixty to two hundred pounds
according to circumstances. This is worn from three days to two, or even
three, months according to the nature of the crime. The “Cage” is
another very common punishment, and is used for minor offences. The
wretched occupant of this can neither sit, stand, nor lie down.
Prisoners are kept in this position for a period varying from a week to
a month. In the latter case they are usually rendered cripples for life.
Another favourite punishment (often used to punish adultery) is pulling
out the hand and toe nails, teeth, eye-lashes, and nostrils; but perhaps
the most painful of any is the “Wire Shirt,” a thin wire garment made to
fit the body so tightly that small pieces of skin are pressed through
every aperture. A sharp razor is then passed over these outside, so that
when the shirt is removed the victim from head to waist is one piece of
raw quivering flesh.

Many others could I cite, but enough of this unsavoury subject. China is
full of contradictions, and none are more striking than the cruelty and
kindness of its population, for there exists no kinder-hearted or more
liberal being than the Chinaman. There are, of course, exceptions; the
rebel Yeh, for instance, who was degraded by the Emperor for treachery
in 1857, when brought to Calcutta, where he died, confessed to having
executed more than 70,000 souls while he was in office.

We rode slowly on the whole afternoon through fields of grain, pretty
villages asleep in the sun, with no sign of life in them but beggars and
dogs lying huddled in the dusty road, under the shade of wall or shed,
sleeping away the hot, silent hours in indolent content. It seemed at
times as if we should never reach Pekin, though the mountains beyond it
looked provokingly close in the bright clear atmosphere. The heat was
intense, but a cool breeze now and then sprung up, and made it not
unpleasant travelling as we rode through some of the prettiest scenery
it has ever been my lot to look upon. The golden fields of oats and
barley, the pretty villages dotted here and there over the plain, the
ruddy, healthy-looking peasantry at work gathering in the harvest, and,
here and there, the country-seat of some wealthy Mandarin, with its
broad avenues, willow-fringed lake, and deer park, wore a happy,
civilized look strangely at variance with one’s preconceived notions of
the remoter parts of the Celestial Empire. Had it not been for the
quaint pagodas and temples resplendent in crimson and gold carvings that
we passed every mile or so, one might have fancied oneself in some
picturesque corner of far away England.

One circumstance alone considerably marred our enjoyment of the lovely
scenery——to wit, the streams of beggars who towards evening came out by
hundreds from the holes and corners in which they had been lying during
the heat of the day. A more importunate or determined set of wretches I
never saw. Ranging from the ages of five to fifty, half naked and
covered with sores, the wretches refused to be driven off, and insisted
on accompanying us in unpleasant proximity——some of them for miles. Now
and anon one would run forward, and kneeling, beat his head upon the
ground——an operation called in China the “Koo-Too.” Passing through one
of the villages, I fairly lost my temper, and turning round, shook my
stick at the yelling, dancing ruffians, who, much to the amusement of
the villagers, almost barred our progress. The effect was magical. In a
second their demeanour changed, and what had been a crowd of cringing,
supplicating wretches turned to a hooting, menacing crowd. Things looked
awkward at first, and I thought, for a few moments, we were in for an
ugly row. Mud and stones were showered on us freely, and one gaunt
leprous-looking individual, half naked, ran up on his crutches and
seized my donkey’s bridle. Seeing from the indifferent and half-amused
expression on the bystanders’ faces that we should get no help from
_them_, I thought discretion the better part of valour, and scattered a
handful of cash among our persecutors, which had the effect of slowly
dispersing them. This _contretemps_, trivial as it was, showed the
danger of ever for a moment annoying the people in the country we were
about to travel through. Though good-tempered and hospitable, the
Northern Chinaman has but a very poor idea of a European, English or
otherwise. Indeed, I doubt if the majority of the peasantry had ever
heard of England.

The approach to Pekin from Tungchow is anything but imposing, and we
were rather disappointed at our first sight of the celestial city. The
country for a mile or so before reaching the gates is so densely wooded
that we did not know we had reached the capital till we found ourselves
actually under its massive crenellated walls. The latter are surmounted
by lofty square towers which, with their bright apple-green porcelain
roofs and gaudy façades relieve to a certain extent the barren
appearance of the sandy waste that surrounds Pekin. Not a roof or tower
of the city is visible from here, nothing but the high rugged walls
which, notwithstanding their great age, are in good repair. There was
nothing to tell one that on the other side of these there lay a place
almost as large as Paris in area and population. Nothing but the hoarse,
subdued murmur, confused and indistinct, that hangs over every great
city.

A few hundred yards brought us to the gate of the Tartar city, and, ye
gods! what a city! Upon first entering, it seemed as if a dense fog had
suddenly descended upon one, but a look back at the bright sunshine
outside the gates soon dispelled the illusion, and explained the
mystery: it was nothing but dust, the black, fine, and searching dust,
for which Pekin is famous. Everything was coated with it. One breathed
it in with every inhalation, till eyes, mouth, and nose were choked up,
and breathing became almost an impossibility. No one seemed to mind it
much, though our donkeys laboured through it nearly knee-deep.

We rode for some distance along the filthy, dusty streets. There is no
rule of the road in Pekin, and it took one all one’s time to steer
safely through the carts, sedans, mule litters, and camel caravans which
thronged the streets. At length we turned into the principal
thoroughfare, a broad unpaved street, raised in the centre, on either
side of which one saw a long vista of low roofed houses, scrubby trees,
and gaudy shop-signs, lost in the distance in a cloud of dust. We were
in Pekin at last.

In Pekin, but apparently a long way yet from our destination, the Hôtel
de Pékin; and judging from our small guide’s very erratic movements, we
were not likely for some time to reach that friendly hostelry, which is
kept by an enterprising Frenchman, M. ————. The disagreeable suspicion
that our guide had lost his way became a certainty, when turning down a
narrow by-lane, he brought us up all standing at the door of a filthy
tea-house. It was not a pleasant predicament. Imagine a Central African
suddenly turned loose in the streets of London, and you have our
position——with this difference, that the African would have had the pull
over us in the shape of a friendly policeman to take him to the station.
Here, in this city of nearly two million inhabitants, it seemed unlikely
enough that we should come across any of the English-speaking
inhabitants, who number fifty to sixty at the most.

Threats of punishment and vengeance on the small boy were useless. He
simply seated himself, and calling for a cup of tea, informed us we must
find our way ourselves, he did not know it——at least that is what we
inferred from his gestures, which were disrespectful in the extreme.
With a lively recollection of our escape of the afternoon, we did not
care to risk another disturbance, so, resigning ourselves to
circumstances, dismounted and called for tea.

It was not a pleasant half-hour, for we were surrounded in less than
five minutes by a crowd of the most insolent, dirtiest ruffians
imaginable. We had evidently been brought to one of the very lowest
quarters of the town, and were not sorry to have left our watches in the
carts. With the exception of our revolvers and a few cash they would not
have been much the richer for robbing us. I should be sorry to have much
to do with the inhabitants of the Chinese capital. There is no more
obliging and hospitable being than the Chinese peasant, no more
insolent, arrogant thief than the lower order of Pekinese. The victory
of the imperial troops over the French in Tonquin is, in a great
measure, responsible for the insolence displayed by the inhabitants of
Pekin towards Europeans. Insults are perpetrated almost daily, and in
the open streets, for which there is no redress, and it is only
necessary to go for a very short walk in the streets of the capital to
see that the lesson taught the Celestials by the allied troops in 1860
has long since been forgotten.

We should probably have had to pass the night in this unsavoury den, had
not a European passed and by the greatest luck caught sight of us
through the narrow gateway. Our deliverer, Mr. P., an American
missionary, himself escorted us through a labyrinth of crowded streets
and squares to Legation Street. We should certainly never have found our
way otherwise, for there were no outward and visible signs even here of
European inhabitants, till just before reaching the hotel, we passed the
French Embassy, and saw, through an open gateway, a spacious shady
garden with smooth-shaven lawns, cedars, and fountains, while over the
doorway, in large gold letters on a vermilion ground, were the words
“Légation de France.” A couple of hundred yards further on we pulled up
at the door of our caravanserai. Thanking and taking leave of our
friend, we entered the building, and were not sorry to find ourselves in
the cool, grey-tiled, flower-bordered courtyard of the hotel; where a
whisky and soda with plenty of ice washed the dust out of our throats
and refreshed us not a little after our long and somewhat eventful ride.

The baggage arrived an hour after, and after a bath and change we felt
well disposed to do justice to the excellent dinner provided for us by
M. ————, the repast being graced by the presence of his wife, pretty
Madame ————, and her sister. Sitting out after dinner in the little
moonlit courtyard redolent of heliotrope and mignonette, one might have
fancied oneself hundreds of miles from the dusty, ill-smelling city, and
its barbaric population. The smells did not, thank goodness, penetrate
here; and for the first time since leaving Tientsin, we thoroughly
enjoyed an after-dinner cigar, not a little relieved that the
starting-point, at any rate, of our long land journey had been safely
reached.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER II.

  PEKIN.


IT was only in the year 1421 that Pekin became the capital of the
Chinese Empire. It was up to that period merely the chief town of
Northern China, as its name “Pe,” north, “Ching,” city, denotes; but
when Nankin, the ancient capital, was abandoned, the seat of government
was transferred to its present situation. A worse site for a capital,
both commercially and socially, can scarcely be imagined, for although
connected by canal with the Peiho river, and thus in summer with the
rest of the civilized world, the ice in winter entirely suspends water
communication. It is, therefore, for five months of the year,
practically a prison for the fifty or sixty Europeans located within its
grass-grown walls, for few are rash enough to attempt a journey overland
to Chefoo or Shanghai.

There is little or no foreign trade with Pekin, and with one exception
no European merchants live there. The embassies of various nations,
English and American missions, and professors connected with the college
form the majority of the European population. A good deal of difference
of opinion exists as to the native population of the capital. Some say
it is a million and a half, others not more than nine hundred thousand.
In the opinion of Professor P————, who has resided for over twenty years
in the place, and is well up in Chinese matters, it is considerably over
a million, of whom two-thirds inhabit the Tartar city. The remainder are
Chinese, who yearly increase, while their Tartar neighbours are
diminishing in number.

In shape Pekin may be roughly described as a square within an oblong,
the former standing for the Tartar city, the latter for the Chinese. The
outer walls, which are about sixty feet high and of immense thickness,
stand about a hundred and fifty yards from the city itself, the space
between being occupied by barren sandy waste, along which in the season
hundreds of caravans may be seen daily wending their way to or from the
Mongolian Desert and Manchuria. Inside this, again, are two smaller
walls, also, however, of considerable height, enclosing the imperial and
forbidden cities, that enclosing the latter being surmounted with bright
yellow tiles, the imperial colour, which none but the Emperor or Queen
Regent are permitted to make use of. A Roman Catholic church was built
not far from the walls of the Imperial Palace two or three years since,
and, in ignorance presumably, the European architect was commencing to
roof it over with tiles of the sacred colour, when luckily warned of the
risk he was running by one of the European residents; not, however,
before it had come to the Emperor’s ears, and since then the poor
priests connected with the building are given no peace. The two high
western towers which flank the building are visited night and day by a
mandarin, to see that no steps have been built up them by the foreign
devils, whence they may survey the palaces and gardens of the imperial
city. Latterly, to make assurance doubly sure, the walls of the latter
have been raised to the height of the church towers at the point where
the latter face them.

There are nine gates in all in the outer wall, situated in various parts
of the city, and called after the points of the compass at which they
stand; viz., the North Gate, South Gate, North-west Gate, and so on.
These are closed at seven in summer, and six in winter, and woe to the
luckless wretch who is locked out, for the guard dare not open under
pain of death till sunrise the following morning, be it in the height of
summer or the thermometer below zero. The inhabitants cannot complain of
due notice not being given. For full half an hour before closing time
there is at every guard-house or gate a beating of gongs and clashing of
cymbals that would awaken the dead. Then at the hour to a second the
guard give one long unearthly yell, and the ponderous iron-bound gates
are thrown together with a crash till six or seven the next morning.

All the walls are built facing the four points of the compass, and the
principal thoroughfares and streets run parallel to them.
Notwithstanding this apparent regularity and simplicity of construction,
the Chinese capital is the easiest place in the world to lose yourself
in, as we frequently found; so much so, that after the first time we
always employed a guide when we took our walks abroad.

Our first impressions of Pekin were not favourable, for a dustier,
noisier, dirtier place it has never been my lot to visit. Upon entering
the Hat Ta Men Gate the city presents more the appearance of a huge fair
than anything else, for the crowded streets are lined with canvas booths
and tents as well as houses. The roads are very broad, some so much so
as to dwarf the low rickety dwellings, gaudy with gold and crimson signs
and waving banners, into insignificance. The streets are unpaved and
raised in the centre to a height of three or four feet for carriage
traffic, the space on either side being reserved for foot-passengers,
though there did not seem to be any marked distinction, the carts using
both ways as they liked.

In dry weather the streets of Pekin are over ankle-deep in dust, in wet
weather are simply a morass. Being worn away in places into holes of two
or three feet deep, the effects of the clouds of dust or showers of
water that every cart-wheel throws up and around may be imagined. At
intervals of about fifty yards along the footway are holes eight or nine
feet deep. These are receptacles for every species of filth; in fact,
serve the purpose of stationary sewers (for Pekin is not drained), and
are only cleaned out when quite full (about once a week). In very dry
weather, when water is scarce, the dust is laid with the liquid filth
they contain, an operation hardly tending to cool or purify the
atmosphere!

If we, in England, must eat, according to the proverb, a peck of dirt
before we die, I feel convinced that the inhabitants of Pekin swallow at
least a hundredweight before their last hour. The dust of Pekin is, next
to its smells, undoubtedly its greatest curse. There is no escaping from
the fine, brown powder that chokes up eyes, nose and mouth, and finds
its way into everything——your food, your clothes, your very boots. There
is a saying among the Chinese, that it will worm its way into a
watch-glass. Not only is it productive of considerable physical
discomfort and annoyance, but it gives a depressing, gloomy look to
everything, which on a really dusty day makes it impossible to discern
objects one hundred yards off. The sun may be shining brightly outside
the city walls, when within all is dark and murky as a thick November
fog in London could make it. Indeed it is far worse than the latter,
which you can, at any rate, shut out to a certain extent with closely
drawn curtains and brightly-lit rooms.

Pekin is by no means an unhealthy city, notwithstanding the disgusting
and uncleanly habits of its population, and its low situation (only one
hundred and twenty feet above sea level). Strange to say, the good
health of its inhabitants is attributed in a great measure to the dust,
which acts as a deodorizer and disinfectant to the heaps of filth and
garbage one encounters at every turn bleaching and rotting in the
sunshine. The climate is, on the whole, good, the only really unhealthy
months being those of July, August and September, when the rainfall is
excessive. The extremes of temperature, however, are somewhat trying to
Europeans of weak constitution. For instance, in July the thermometer is
often up to over 100° in the shade, while in winter it frequently falls
to below zero. When an epidemic does occur, it is severe, for the
Chinese are much prone to fright and panic during these visitations.
Cholera broke out only four or five years since, and carried off an
average of twelve hundred daily. The two greatest scourges are small-pox
and diphtheria, and an enormous number of deaths occur annually from the
latter disease in early spring. Typhoid fever and ophthalmia (from the
dust) are also prevalent at times, but small-pox is the commonest
disease among the Chinese themselves, who look upon it very much as we
do upon measles, although it is none the less fatal for all that. As a
prevention, the native doctors inoculate by blowing a quantity of the
virus of the actual disease up the nostrils. I was made unpleasantly
aware of this fact by one of the hotel servants, who spoke a few words
of English. Noticing that one of his nostrils was stopped up with a
dirty piece of cotton wool, I inquired if he had hurt his nose. “Oh,
no,” was the reply, “smol-pok!” This habit has, no doubt, a great deal
to do with the spread of the disease, which is always more or less
prevalent in Pekin; and I was not sorry we had taken the precaution of
being vaccinated in Shanghai.

All susceptibility and refinement must be cast aside when walking in the
streets of Pekin. I could not attempt to describe one quarter of the
disgusting sights and outrages on decency that continually met the eye
in this unfragrant city, even in broad daylight. I was not surprised to
hear that no European resident ever dreams of walking about the streets
of the capital if he can possibly avoid it. No lady could possibly do
so. As any one who has ever visited it must know, there exists no
dirtier city in the world than Pekin, no filthier individual, both
morally and physically, than the Pekinite. Cleanliness and decency are
words unknown in his vocabulary. As for washing, he never dreams of it.
In winter he puts on five or six layers of clothes, taking them off by
degrees as the weather gets warmer, until he is reduced to the white
linen shirt and trousers that he wore the preceding summer. With the
approach of the cold weather he gradually resumes his winter garb.

Being provided with letters of introduction to the British and Russian
ministers, we made our way to the former legation the morning after our
arrival. With the exception of Belgium, whose minister had been recalled
about two months before we arrived, nearly every nation in the world has
its representative at Pekin. The English Embassy is a perfect palace and
stands apart from the other legations on the banks of the Grand Imperial
Canal, a stream once fringed by handsome stone banks or quays, which,
like everything else in Pekin, have long fallen into ruin and decay. The
half-dry canal now presents more the appearance of a dirty ditch of
stagnant water than what it once was, an important waterway.

It was quite a relief to get out of the dusty, ill-smelling street, as
passing a smart, white-clad English sentry, we entered the cool, shady
grounds of the Embassy. The building was formerly the palace of the Duke
Liang (a relation of the former Emperor), but was ceded to the British
after the campaign of 1860. Probably in no other part of the world does
the English Government possess a representative building so thoroughly
typical of the country it is in. The pavilions of Chinese architecture,
intricate carvings of roof and cornice, vermilion and gold pillars that
form the entrance contrasted strangely with the interior where the cool,
dimly-lit rooms, fresh with the scent of flowers and replete with every
European luxury and comfort, bore witness to the good taste and
refinement of the charming “Ambassadrice,” who, fresh from Paris, and
clad in one of Worth’s _chefs-d’œuvre_, looked strangely out of place in
dirty, dusty, semi-savage Pekin!

“You will never,” said Sir John W————, “get through to Kiakhta without
an interpreter. I could not allow you to attempt it, so I fear you must
make up your minds to remain in Pekin for at least a week. By that time
I shall have got you your Chinese passports, and I hope an interpreter
to accompany you as far as the Russian frontier. I must tell you that it
is not easy, for the Chinese have an unaccountable aversion to crossing
the desert of Gobi.”

Our next visit was to the Russian minister, M. Coumany, to whom we had
letters of introduction from M. de Staal, the Russian minister in
London. He was (as are most Russians) kindness itself, but met us with
the invariable question, “Why Siberia?” The picture M. Coumany drew of
the overland journey was certainly not pleasant or encouraging. “Here
are letters,” said he, “for the commissioner of Kiakhta and governors of
Tomsk and Nijni Novgorod. General Ignatieff of Irkoutsk is now away on
leave. But let me ask you to think twice before attempting this voyage.
You will experience nothing but annoyance and privation, the whole way
to Nijni Novgorod. You will find the monotony and fatigue almost
unbearable,——and with Japan so close!” he added, using the well-known
formula.

But we managed to convince our host, before leaving, that nothing would
deter us from at least making the attempt to reach Moscow by land. “Like
all Englishmen,” he said, smiling, “you are obstinate; and as you are
determined to go, let me give you a word of advice: Get off as soon as
you can, and out of Asia by October at latest. Siberia in autumn is a
hell upon earth.”

We returned to our hotel somewhat discouraged, for we had hoped that
three or four days at the most would suffice for our preparations.
However, there was no help for it, so to lose no time we set about
getting mules and litters for the four days’ journey to the Great Wall,
the first stage of our voyage, and trusted to Providence that “the Boy”
(as every Chinese servant from eighteen to eighty is called in China)
would arrive in a week or ten days at the latest.

There is much to do and see in Pekin, but the heat, dust and smells
detract considerably from the pleasures of a walk through the city.
Moreover, the Chinese, since their Tonquinese victories have become so
arrogant and insolent that many of the most interesting temples are now
closed to Europeans. Our favourite walk was on the summit of the outer
wall, where one could enjoy the cool evening breeze out of the dust and
stenches for a while. The Tartar or outer wall is a wonderful piece of
masonry about sixty feet high by as many broad, and, considering the
hundreds of years it has braved wind and weather, in a wonderful state
of repair. It is moss-grown on the summit, and the wild tangled herbage
grows knee deep. Were it not for the conservatism, to use no stronger
term, of the Chinese Government it would make a splendid drive or ride,
for it extends unbroken and in an excellent state of repair for upwards
of twenty-two miles. To show the jealousy of this strange race, a
European minister at Pekin once remarked to a mandarin what a pleasant
drive it would make, adding that it was really the only place in Pekin
where he could ever walk with any pleasure. “Oh! you walk there, do
you?” was the reply, and the very next afternoon, on arriving for his
daily constitutional, he found the gate closed, and an order posted
forbidding all Europeans to ascend the wall. This order was, however,
cancelled a year after, fortunately for us, and we enjoyed our evening
strolls undisturbed, for we seldom saw a soul besides ourselves. It was
pleasant enough here in the cool of the evening, out of the dust which
on still days hung over the great city like a huge funeral pall. When
clear the view was lovely, the rugged, precipitous chain of hills in the
background, the densely packed, dwarfish-looking dwellings, and rays of
the setting sun flashing brightly on the green porcelain roofs and lofty
pagodas of the temples, and bright yellow tiles of the Imperial Palace,
composed a picture as unique as, on bright, clear evenings, it was
beautiful. As a rule, however, the dust obscured everything.

There is an observatory on this wall which was erected as far back as
A.D. 1279. In 1674 a Jesuit priest (one Father Verbest) superintended
its restoration, and from that day to this it has remained intact. On a
kind of platform above the level of the wall, and reached by an iron
staircase, are a quantity of bronze instruments——sextants, globes,
quadrants, &c, mounted on massively wrought stands representing strange
birds and beasts. Of enormous size, and some from twelve to fourteen
feet high and of immense weight, they looked a little distance off as if
a single man could lift them, so beautiful and delicate is their
moulding and workmanship, and though of great value, were left untouched
when the allies entered Pekin in 1860, probably by direction of the
commanders-in-chief. It seemed strange that although they have stood in
the open for so many hundred years, uncared for and uncleaned, they bore
not the slightest traces of decay from time or weather——one especially,
a huge globe of the heavens in bronze with the constellations thereon in
gold and silver, looked as if it had been placed there but yesterday.

From the summit of the observatory one may look down into the Board of
Examinations, a walled space of some eighty acres, with rows of
queer-looking little boxes or cells for students. Competitive
examinations for Government appointments are held here every three
years, and so severe are the subjects that many of the candidates go
mad. During the examinations, which last three days, no one is allowed
to enter or leave the building. On one occasion two students died, but
the doors were not opened. Their bodies were hoisted over the wall, and
carried to the burial-ground by the friends awaiting them outside.

We occasionally returned from these expeditions along the pieces of
waste land, sandy and sterile, which bound the city walls, and
frequently came upon groups or squads of Manchu soldiery at target
practice with the bow and arrow. The men are fine strapping fellows and
well set up, but their weapons wretched, clumsy things, carrying barely
thirty yards. The greater portion of the Chinese army consists of these
Manchu Tartars. A force of eighty thousand quartered in Manchuria under
the command of Germans, forms the backbone of the Chinese army, and
consists of cavalry, artillery, and infantry, the latter armed with the
new Berdan rifle. Nearly the whole of the remainder of the Imperial army
use the old bow and arrow of their ancestors, and I do not think I
exaggerate when I say that there is not a rifle among the soldiery in
Pekin.

The Chinese are, indeed, a strange and unaccountable race. It is hard to
credit that a nation possessing ironclads and the latest improvements in
light and heavy guns at the mouth of the Peiho river still clothes its
soldiers at the capital in tiger-skins, and instructs them in the art of
making faces to frighten the enemy.[1] Clever and civilized as he is in
many things, the Chinaman’s forte clearly does not lie in firearms. A
German officer of one of the Imperial gunboats told me that a
consignment of three hundred Martini-Henry rifles was one day received
on board his ship, with one hundred rounds of ammunition to each. A
short time after, returning from a week’s leave, he found that by order
of the Chinese commander they had all been thrown overboard. The
ammunition was exhausted, argued the latter, what was the use of keeping
the rifles!

We made but two excursions into the city itself the whole time we
remained in Pekin, and after the first time on foot. I only rode in a
Pekin cab once. They are not pretty conveyances to look at, being a sort
of box, four feet long by three feet broad, fastened to two long poles
or beams, and supported by a pair of clumsy ponderous wooden wheels in
iron tires. The roof is of thick dark blue cloth, with two little
gauze-covered windows on either side. Most of them are drawn by mules,
an animal which is looked upon in Pekin as of far greater value than a
horse or pony, and fetches far higher prices. T do not think I have ever
seen finer mules, even in Spain, than in North China.

To describe the celestial capital is not difficult. One street is so
exactly like another, that when you have seen a bit of the place you
have seen the whole of it. The principal street of the Tartar city may
be described in very few words. A broad straggling thoroughfare, knee
deep in dust, with low, tumble-down houses on either side, hidden at
intervals by dirty canvas booths, wherein fortune-tellers, sellers of
sweetmeats, keepers of gambling-hells, and jugglers ply their trade.
Deep open cesspools at every fifty yards; crowds of dirty, half-naked
men and painted women; mandarins and palanquins preceded by gaudily-clad
soldiers on horseback and followed by a yelling rabble of men and boys,
armed with flags, spears, and sticks, on foot; Tartar ladies in mule
litters, hung with bells and bright cloths; dark, savage-looking
Mongolians from the desert, leading caravans of camels; Chinamen in
grey, green, or heliotrope silk, Chinamen in rags, and Chinamen in
nothing at all; water-carriers, soldiers, porters, sellers of fruit and
ice, the latter coated with dust, like everything else, and looking
singularly uninviting; Chow-chow and sweetmeat sellers; camels, mules,
ponies, oxen carts thronging the ruined roadway; a deafening noise of
bells, cymbals, shouting and cursing; indecency and filth everywhere,
with a dusty, gloomy glare over everything, even on the brightest day,
while the air everywhere around is poisoned with the hot, sickly smell
peculiar to Pekin. Such was the impression one usually retained of a
walk through the capital on a summer’s day. We saw many curious sights,
but most were of such a nature that I cannot describe them. A Chinese
funeral we passed one day is perhaps worth mention. An enormous
procession, nearly a mile long, bore witness to the fact that the
deceased was a man of some rank. A number of relations clad in white
(Chinese mourning), preceded the catafalque, strewing flowers and
burning incense before it. Every hundred yards or so a halt was made,
and a huge white sheet spread upon the ground on which the mourners lay
flat on their breasts and stomachs, repeatedly beating their heads
against the ground. Immediately in front of the coffin was the
deceased’s property, his horse, hat, pipe, &c, and sedan. The latter
startled one somewhat, for seated in it was a figure which, on closer
inspection, we discovered to be a waxen effigy of the dead man himself,
clad in the clothes he had worn just before death. The huge oaken coffin
was so heavy that it took sixty or seventy men to carry it. At the end
of the procession of relatives and friends came the rabble and
“followers” of the deceased. The Chinese custom is to set the coffin
down on reaching the burial-ground with a light layer of earth over it
till the wood begins to rot. It is then covered thickly with earth, but
not buried. The dead in China are never put underground.

The quieter and less frequented streets of the city were not so bad;
narrow, unpaved byways fringed on either side with high white walls of
brick and plaster, enclosing the houses of well-to-do merchants, or the
better class of tradesmen; quaint little dwellings, curiously carved and
gorgeous with blue, vermilion, and gold façades, having neat
flower-gardens in front, and willow-fringed ponds. One occasionally
caught a glimpse, through an open porch, of the proprietor, his day’s
work over, clad in a light and airy costume consisting of a pair of
drawers, lazily watching the gold fish in the clear lily-covered water,
or studying his _Pekin Gazette_, the oldest daily paper, by the way, in
existence. Occasionally Madame was visible sharing the joys of her lord
and master’s leisure-hours, but not often; for when you visit a Chinaman
he seldom presents you to his wife, although the latter is not kept at
all secluded or under lock and key. A Chinese woman has as much liberty
as an English one, maritally speaking, though, as I have said, one does
not often meet them. Most are said to make very good wives; unlike most
eastern and other nations, they have not the love of intrigue so
inherent as a rule in the female sex. A Chinaman may have, if he will,
one hundred concubines, but only one wife, who is the ruler and head of
his household.

One is much struck with the good looks of the Pekin women when compared
with those of Southern China. Those most frequently met with are
Tartars, who do not, as a rule, contract and deform their feet. It is
only in the Chinese city that one meets poor creatures rolling about the
streets with their arms extended, like ships in distress. In some parts
of China a bride’s value is reckoned by the smallness of her foot. The
operation of contracting it, which is performed in early youth, is not
painful. Four of the toes are bent under the sole of the foot, to which
they are firmly pressed, and to which they grow together, the great toe
being left in its natural state. The fore part of the foot is then
compressed with strong bandages so that it shoots upwards and appears
like a large lump at the instep, where it forms as it were part of the
leg. The lower part of the foot is sometimes not more than four inches
long by one inch broad! This practice is, however, said to be dying out,
even among the Chinese.

The ornament of which the Celestial is so proud, his pigtail, was in
reality introduced into China by the Tartars, who as Mahometans tried to
force the Koran on to the whole of China at the commencement of their
Dynasty. To this the Chinese would not submit, but an edict was
promulgated by the first Tartar ruler that every subject should shave
his head in Mahometan fashion, leaving only the small tuft of hair by
which the Faithful are supposed to be drawn up to Heaven when they die.
The Chinese, artistic in all they do, converted the ridiculous and
shaggy tuft of hair into a thick tail, the careful plaiting of which is
now the Chinaman’s greatest delight and pride. It is, moreover, a very
suitable head-dress for Pekin. We found brushing the head even twice a
day quite useless, for the hair was thick with dust ten minutes after
the operation.

The coinage current in Pekin is to a stranger more than confusing,
consisting as it does of “cash” and bar silver. With the former, small
coins of which about fifty go to a halfpenny, one has little to do. A
hole is stamped through the middle for greater convenience, and one
frequently sees in Pekin two or three necklaces of these worthless, but
weighty, pieces slung round a man’s neck, who is struggling along under
the value of perhaps eightpence or ninepence, English money. The silver
is in bars, and cut off as wanted. The _tael_ is not a coin, but a
weight of silver made up in paper packets of one, three, or four taels.
A mint has, I believe, been opened in Pekin since our visit, and a
proper coinage will be issued in a few months——no small advantage to
future visitors, for the difficulty of obtaining “change” at present is
somewhat great.

It is curious how little attention a European attracts when walking in
the streets of Pekin. Although there are many probably in that great
city who have never seen a white face, they evinced but little curiosity
when we visited the gambling-hells, opium-shops, and other dens of a
like description, and we passed through them unmolested, if not
unobserved. Here and there in the lower quarters of the capital,
however, the natives evidently preferred our room to our company. The
words “Yang Qweitze” fell with uncomfortable frequency upon the ear, and
on one occasion a shower of stones and mud hastened our retreat from a
house in the slums which our guide had imprudently allowed us to enter
and take stock of. As a general rule, however, the natives were civil
and obliging enough, and in the more aristocratic eating and tea-houses
we were frequently invited to partake of a cup of tea free gratis by the
proprietor.

The “Jeunesse Dorée” of Pekin are gay dogs. Theatres, restaurants, and
tea-houses abound, and the more populous quarters of the city are alive
with revelry, not to say riot, till four or five o’clock a.m. A good
deal more champagne and other alcoholic liquors are consumed than the
cup that is popularly supposed to cheer without inebriating.
Intoxication is a vice to which the Chinese masher (if I may so call
him) is particularly prone, although a very wrong impression exists in
Europe as to the disgusting animal food Chinamen are said to be in the
habit of eating. Cats, dogs, and even rats are, by many in England,
supposed to be devoured promiscuously, but this is not the case. Dogs
and rats are eaten, no doubt; in fact I have myself seen the dishes in
question, and very good they looked! But it must be remembered that the
rats are fed solely on farinaceous food, and carefully brought up by
hand. They are in reality far cleaner than our domesticated English pig.
The “chow” dog is a race of itself, and the only one ever eaten by the
better classes. The lower orders of course have to put up with what they
can get. A good dog or rat is as expensive a luxury in Pekin as venison
or turtle at home!

Strong drink leads to high play, and gambling in various forms is much
in vogue among the gilded youth of Pekin. Cards are the general mode,
but a sport at which enormous sums are won and lost is cricket-fighting.
The greatest care is lavished on these little animals, and large sums of
money paid for them. The trainers are brought up to the profession, and,
strange as it may seem, a good cricket in Pekin is almost as valuable to
his owner as a useful racehorse in England. The insects are fought in
little boxes like miniature rat pits. There is sometimes intense
excitement for weeks before an event in which two well-known crickets
are to compete. Game-cocks, pigeons, and even quail are also fought, but
the most popular sport is undoubtedly cricket-fighting. It is probably
also the most ancient of them all.

We strolled into a doctor’s shop one evening in the slums——a dirty,
gloomy little den——its grimy walls covered with phials of strange shapes
and cruel-looking instruments, while suspended from the ceiling hung a
number of dried reptiles and animals which looked weird and uncanny in
the dim, uncertain light. In a dark recess, and almost invisible in the
gloom, sat the doctor, a large book before him, his wizened old face
just visible in the rays of a flickering oil wick at his side. It
reminded one of the first act in “Faust,” and one instinctively looked
around for Mephistopheles. Though our guide informed us that this was
one of the most successful physicians in Pekin, his practice did not
seem extensive. I procured with difficulty the following Chinese
prescription, though for what ailment it is intended I am ignorant:——

Decoction of centipedes, one frog and three cockroaches, ten grains
calomel, three grains morphia, fifteen grains quinine!

Alas! for the poor patient who had to swallow it. Surely the deadliest
disease would be preferable to a mixture of cockroach and calomel!

Most of our waste time in Pekin (and we had plenty) was spent in the
numerous porcelain shops with which the city abounds. It was curious to
walk out of the squalid, filthy streets, knee-deep in dust and reeking
with sewage, into the cool, luxurious rooms with their tesselated
pavements, fountains, and flowers, and hundreds of pounds’ worth of
beautiful wares laid out invitingly before one in _cloisonné_, jade, and
porcelain. We found it hopeless as a rule, to think of getting anything
at a reasonable price. Japan itself can produce nothing so beautiful and
graceful as true Pekin work, though, like everything else, it is
imitated, and there has been, of late years, a quantity of worthless
trash in the market. Like most eastern nations, the dealers “see a
European coming” and raise their prices accordingly. Unfortunately also,
unlike other eastern nations, they steadily refuse to lower them,
bargain he never so wisely. It made one’s mouth water to look round the
shelves of one of these shops, groaning with thousands of pounds’ worth
of treasure in porcelain and jade, and to think of the looting of the
Summer Palace in 1860.

I had always imagined the latter to be a building of Chinese
architecture, a great rambling place all domes, towers, and pagodas, but
found it more like a very perfect imitation, in miniature, of the
Tuileries. The morning of our visit one might have been standing on the
banks of the Seine and looking on the charred and blackened ruins of
Napoleon’s beautiful palace after the fatal September, 1870, had not the
red and yellow temples dotted at intervals round the sunlit plains, and
Chinese character of the landscape recalled us to a sense of the
situation, and reminded us of the distance we were from Fair France!
Anything less Chinese than the architecture of the Summer Palace I never
saw. It is in pure French style and was designed by Jesuits at a time
when they were more popular in China than at present. Standing in the
midst of such picturesque scenery, surrounded by such beautiful gardens,
park, woodland, and lakes, it seems a sin to have ever destroyed a
building which, with its characteristic indolence, the Imperial
Government has never attempted to restore. There it stands just as the
allies left it in 1860, even to the very names scrawled by Tommy Atkins
and the French “Piou-Pious” on its smoke-blackened walls and terraces,
and embellished here and there with verses, the work of some French or
English canteen poet, containing language more forcible than polite as
to the ways and customs of John Chinaman. To say nothing of the enormous
value of the _objets-d’art_ and furniture, over 32,000_l._ in solid
ingots of gold were found at the looting of the Palace, and a quantity
of valuable china and porcelain _cloisonné_ wantonly destroyed and left
on the spot by the troops. The Emperor in those days was a liberal and
merry monarch. The Summer Palace was before the war more like a
miniature Compiègne than anything else, with its theatricals,
hunting-parties, concerts, and revelry of other and less sober kinds, in
which the Emperor himself used freely to join; a very different
existence to that led by his harassed and melancholy descendant of the
present day.

The now reigning sovereign, “Kwang-Su,” is eighteen years of age, and by
the time these pages are in print will have taken unto himself a wife,
or rather one will have been taken for him by his aunt the Queen Regent
who, though her nephew has come to years of discretion, has even now a
good deal more to do with the management of affairs than the Emperor.
She is an arbitrary, ambitious woman, and, rumour has it, knows
considerably more about the death of the late Emperor than she cares to
own. “Kwang-Su,” cannot, like the Pope, be said to lead a happy life. As
a matter of fact, it is literally not his own. Everything must be done
by rule and under supervision of the court officials, even to eating and
sleeping. The poor boy gets little of the latter luxury, as frequent
cabinet councils are held at four in the morning, the Chinese ministers
averring that the head is clearer at that hour of the day than at any
other. I hardly think this plan would always succeed in Europe.

One can scarcely wonder that “Kwang-Su” is ill-tempered, morose, and
subject to fits of passion, during which he defies his aunt, destroys
everything within his reach, and declares he will not be Emperor, but
will escape and go and work in the fields, anything rather than be shut
up like a dog in the Forbidden City. And truly it must be a wretched
existence. Every day is planned out beforehand. Not a detail is omitted,
even to the very clothes he wears. It must be more than annoying to be
given, say a mutton chop, when one particularly wants a beefsteak,
champagne when you know it disagrees with you, and you much prefer
claret, or a thin suit of clothes when you feel cold and require a thick
one. The Emperor’s studies take up about nine hours of the day. His
great joke when we were at Pekin, was to beg his tutors, the constant
relays of whom annoyed him to desperation, to let him look at their
watches. No sooner were they handed to him, than they were violently
dashed on the ground and stamped upon. By this means, Kwang-Su argued,
they would not know what time to come another day. Since his Majesty’s
new “game,” however, most of the professors sent to Shanghai for
Waterbury watches. Gold and silver ones became expensive.

Riding or walking, hunting in the green fields and shady forests, or
fishing in the blue willow-fringed lakes of the Forbidden City, although
as far removed from the turmoil and foul smells of Pekin as the desert
of Gobi itself, the Emperor is never alone. There is always a retinue
following him to tell him what to do and when to do it: to remind him,
for instance, when at four o’clock he is enjoying his favourite pastime
of fishing, and has forgotten for a brief period the caring cares of
monarchy, that at 4.15 he must abandon the pursuit for a deer-hunt, or a
walk (always accompanied by a suite), in a specified part of the grounds
of the city. The latter must be a curious place, for the eye of the
white barbarian is never allowed to look within its walls, save when, at
very rare intervals, the European ministers are admitted to audience in
a particular part of the palace.

It was in 1873 that the Great Audience question was finally settled to
the satisfaction of all the European powers, and their representatives
presented to the Emperor “Tung Che” in the European manner. It had been
argued ever since the mission of Lord Amherst in 1814, and
unsuccessfully. On that occasion the envoy returned without seeing the
Emperor, the latter insisting that he could only do so on condition that
he prostrated himself, but this, as the king of England’s
representative, Lord Amherst declined to do, and returned to England.

Even at the present time audiences are extremely rare, and only occur,
if at all, on the most important occasions. Even the Duke of Edinburgh,
when he visited Pekin in 1869, was refused one. The Chinese ministers
themselves are not allowed to approach the imperial presence nearer than
a distance of about sixty or seventy yards. The Emperor sits at the end
of a long, narrow, funnel-like passage, while his ministers prostrate
themselves in a small apartment at the end of it. The Empress Regent is
still more unapproachable, for when she holds a reception, it is from
behind a large screen. On one occasion she became so excited during an
argument, that her head appeared over the top, and the ministers were
able to gaze (if for an instant only) on the sacred features. The
Emperor is the sole male inmate of the Forbidden City, a gigantic harem,
beside which even the seraglios of Stamboul pale into insignificance,
for the moon’s cousin is surrounded within his golden tiled walls by a
population of no less than three thousand women and eunuchs.

Kwang-Su has very little notion of what his capital is like. When he is
taken for a drive, it means weeks of careful preparation, the sums of
money devoted to patching up the streets through which he passes are
fabulous. Were one half of the millions which are supposed to be
expended on the keeping in order of the city honestly laid out, Pekin
would be a very different place to what it is. But so long as the
filching and robbery carried on by the mandarins and others in office
continue, the Chinese capital must always remain the dirty dust-heap it
now is. A case in point came under my notice while in Pekin, and is one
illustration of the enormous sums that yearly find their way into the
pockets of the mandarins. A drain had to be built from the French
Embassy to the Imperial canal, a distance of about three hundred yards.
For this the Government was charged twenty-three thousand taels, the
European contractor being paid three thousand five hundred taels. The
mandarins pocketed the balance!

When Kwang Su takes an airing all European residents are warned by their
ministers to remain within doors, or at any rate away from that part of
the city through which the Emperor is to pass, and the most stringent
precautions are taken that no man, European or native, may look upon the
features of the sovereign. The doors and windows of the houses are
closed, and rich silks and tapestries hung from their walls, the streets
are carefully swept and watered, every hole carefully filled up, every
scrap of litter or offal carried away far from where, at a stated hour,
and punctual to the moment, the royal train rolls slowly along through
the empty, deserted streets. The Emperor must, therefore, have very
different ideas of Pekin from the ordinary run of mankind. Save for the
dust, which is of course unavoidable, it must seem a fair place enough
to Kwang-Su. Could he but see it as we did, I doubt if he would ever
again wish to leave the palaces and gardens, the deer-parks and lakes of
his beautiful prison.

The preliminaries for Kwang-Su’s nuptials were being carried out when we
were at Pekin. They are curious enough. The bridegroom is, or ought to
be, the chief party concerned in the choosing of a wife; not so the
wretched Kwang-Su. The sharer of his joys and sorrows is chosen by the
Empress Regent out of some three hundred or four hundred girls
(daughters of mandarins and others of high position), sent up to Pekin
from all parts of China for the purpose. Nor is the Emperor allowed to
see his _fiancée’s_ face even for a moment till the evening of the
wedding day. Though the Emperor is allowed but one actual wife, he can
make his choice and select as few or many concubines as he pleases, four
hundred or five hundred of the latter being sent to the capital on the
occasion of an Imperial marriage. The majority of them are women of low
birth, though some of the higher officials who wish to curry favour at
court also occasionally send their daughters.

It seems scarcely probable that China will become civilized for many,
many years to come, as long as the Emperor and his ministers continue to
set their faces against improvement of any kind, especially if it be
what they regard as an innovation of the “foreign devils.” For instance:
a company was formed a few years since to construct a railway from
Tientsin to the capital——a line which would have enormously improved and
benefited the trade of the latter, but the Government would not hear of
its construction. Permission was, however, granted to carry a line from
Shanghai to Woosung on the Yantzekiang river in 1877, an enterprise
which under European management, succeeded admirably till when one fine
day, not a year after its completion, an order came down from Pekin for
its immediate removal——and this command the unfortunate share-holders
were of course compelled to comply with.

The Emperor’s father was lately induced to make a trip to Tientsin at
the invitation of the European merchants living there. It was hoped that
seeing something of the outside world might open his eyes to the foolish
and lamentable practices of the Imperial Court. Every honour was shown
him——a salute fired from the French and English gunboats. Balls,
parties, receptions, dinners were given——everything in short, that money
could buy was procured to _fête_ him, and it was confidently hoped, so
agreeable and pleasant did he make himself, that his week’s visit would
send him back to Pekin a wiser man——also that some of this wisdom would
be imparted to his son the Emperor. But it was all in vain. All he did
on his return to the capital was to set to work and write a number of
satirical poems in Chinese, descriptive of his trip, and anything but
complimentary to his hosts, the White Barbarians. These poems were
published, and had an enormous sale in Pekin.

The long sunny days dragged wearily by. A week, a fortnight elapsed, and
still no boy. Our passports for China and Mongolia were in order, mules
and litters procured for the journey to the Great Wall——everything in
readiness for a start, which, however, Sir John W. would not hear of our
making without an interpreter. It was tedious work waiting. We seldom
left the hotel after the first week, except to dine at the Embassy, or
spend the afternoon in its cool, shady grounds, where one could while
away the weary hours with books and papers from the well-stocked
library. We did not often dine out, but when we did, preferred ploughing
through the dust or mire, on foot, to going in a Pekin cab, a
circumstance our neighbours at dinner ought to have been grateful for,
for these vehicles are crawling with vermin. It was necessary to take
lamps on these occasions, for the less frequented streets of the city
are unlit, and to be well armed with thick sticks for protection against
the dogs, whose name is legion, and who prowl about the city at night in
large numbers in search of food. Although of great size, they are mangy,
wretched-looking creatures. In gangs they are dangerous, and frequently
attack solitary and unarmed wayfarers; but, like the Turks at
Constantinople, the Pekinese do not harm them, for they are capital
scavengers, though the din they make at night is very trying to a
nervous constitution, and sleep in Pekin for the first two or three
nights is an impossibility.

I have said much against Pekin in this chapter, enough, perhaps, to
deter the reader from ever wishing to pay it a visit. I must at the same
time give it its due, for it is undoubtedly exempt from many of the
pests and annoyances of other Eastern cities. There are no mosquitoes to
speak of, nor sandflies, nor does that most irritating plague of all,
the common fly, torment you day and night as it does in other hot
climates. Indeed, it is not, on the whole, such a bad residence for
Europeans as many places I could name in India and other parts of the
East. The life is, of course, frightfully monotonous during the summer
months, when those connected with the Legations who can spare the time
betake themselves to the hills, some fifteen miles distant, where some
old temples have been fitted up to form rough though comfortable summer
retreats for those who are compelled to inhabit the dusty, stench-ridden
capital in the hot season.

The European population of Pekin is, as I have said, a very small one,
probably not more than sixty or seventy in all. It consists exclusively
of the various Legations, Missionary Houses and College. There is but
one mercantile establishment: the agency of the Hong Kong and Shanghai
Bank.

In winter there are many worse places in the world than this. It is only
then, indeed, that the European community ever make any effort to rouse
themselves. Sleighing and skating-parties, lawn tennis, by day——and
theatricals, dances, and dinner-parties by night, are the order of the
day.

Pekin is fairly healthy, even in summer, for Europeans, except for those
inclined to be nervous. In such cases the extremely rarified atmosphere
often precludes sleep and induces insomnia and other nervous diseases.
The sun, too, is more dangerous here than in any place (including
Borneo) that I have ever visited in the East. It knocks you over in a
second, and deaths from sunstroke, even among the natives, are frequent.

Living in Pekin though dear is excellent, and our host gave us little
dinners that would not have disgraced a Paris restaurant. Although not
manufactured, that greatest luxury of the East, ice, is cheap and
abundant. It is cut (out of the canals) in winter in huge blocks and
stored in early spring in large caves just outside the city walls. Fresh
fruit is also stored and preserved in the same manner, and I have eaten
a bunch of grapes in the month of July that had been stored the previous
October as fresh as if they had just been cut from the vine.

We resolved, after a weary fortnight of waiting, to take matters more
philosophically. It was useless chafing and worrying, either the boy
would come or he wouldn’t. “Tout vient à point à celui qui ‘sait’
attendre,” was a proverb we were always quoting with an assumed calmness
we were far from feeling. It was no great hardship waiting with such
comfortable quarters, we argued, but the _time_, that seemed to crawl
unless our thoughts turned to Siberia, when it flew with the speed of
lightning, was what daily and nightly harassed and worried us. Our host
and his pretty wife, however, did all they could to make us comfortable,
and thoroughly succeeded. Sitting out after dinner with a cigar in the
cool moonlit courtyard, redolent of verbena and mignonette, staring up
at the patch of starry heaven overhead, and listening to the distant and
soothing tinkle of madame’s piano, things would have seemed pleasant
enough had we not known that every day, every hour was of the utmost
importance. The Russian minister’s words, too, would keep cropping up,
spoiling one’s digestion and upsetting patience and equanimity: “Get off
as soon as you can; Siberia in early autumn is a hell upon earth.” Alas!
we now began to realize that another month of delay would land us there
at this very season.

We spent Jubilee Day at Pekin. A full-dress reception was held at the
British Embassy in the afternoon, while at night the gardens were
illuminated with hundreds of coloured lamps, the two entrance pavilions
turned into reception-rooms, and a ball given to the European community.
It was hard to realize that one was really in this hidden corner of the
earth. With so many smart gowns and pretty faces around, one might have
been in a London or Paris ball-room, and though the number was very
limited, the evening was none the less agreeable for that, for Pekin
has, or had at the time of our visit, more than its fair share of female
beauty when compared with Shanghai or Hong Kong.

The dancing wound up with a display of fireworks (Pekin made) in the
grounds, and though of native manufacture the most loyal English subject
could not have found fault with the excellent portrait of her Majesty
(in fireworks) that drew forth enthusiastic applause from the crowd of
natives at the gates and wound up the proceedings. Though day was
dawning, dancing was still in full swing when we left the Embassy and
took leave of our kind host and charming hostess, without whose kindly
aid and hospitality we should indeed have felt lost those long weary
days of delay and _ennui_ in the dusty capital.

Though advised not to attempt it, we resolved to ride as much as
possible across the Gobi Desert. We had not yet seen a camel cart, but
had heard quite enough of its miseries to determine us never to occupy
it longer at a time than was absolutely necessary. So having taken the
trouble to bring saddles out with us, we resolved to chance the loss of
the ponies, and managed to get two strong wiry-looking Mongolian ones,
about fourteen hands high, for 8_l_. English apiece. We tried many
before pitching on the right sort. Lancaster’s first attempt at a
purchase was not a lucky one. The brute lay on its side the moment he
mounted, and resolutely refused to move, much to the delight of the
crowd who had assembled to see what the “Yang Qweitze” were about.
However, after many and varied experiences he managed to pick up a
smart-looking bay pony only four years old. Mine was considerably older,
but they were both sturdy, plucky little beasts; looked up to any amount
of fatigue——and as we afterwards found by no means belied their
appearance.

Our host rushed in one bright sunny morning with a beaming countenance,
before we were out of bed. “Courage, messieurs, your boy has arrived,”
at the same time handing me a blue envelope containing a note from the
Embassy. “Boy will arrive to-day from Tientsin.” This was welcome news
indeed, and I turned round for another snooze with a blessed feeling of
relief and gratitude. All would now be well. To-morrow morning would see
us _en route_ for the Great Wall. We had saved, by the skin of our
teeth, detention in Siberia. With any luck November would see us in
Moscow.

At 5.30 “the boy” arrived; a tall, forbidding-looking Chinaman, with a
sullen, hang-dog expression that inspired but little confidence. I saw
in five minutes the kind of gentleman we had to deal with. Sulky,
obstinate, and as sly as a fox, with a shifty, restless eye that could
not look you in the face for two seconds together.

“Well, so you’ve come at last! What has kept you so long at Tientsin?”

“Jubilee!”

The bare idea of this human scarecrow assisting at a festival of any
sort was too funny. But I knew the man lied.

“Will you come with us to Kiakhta?”

“All depend what get. No can go for less than $300. If no take me,
master get no one. All afraid go desert. Afraid Mongol man.”

The insolent, swaggering tone of the man annoyed, nearly as much as the
exorbitant price he asked surprised, me. I knew it was out of all
reason. But the wretch was well aware of our helpless position, and all
my hopes of a speedy start for the desert sank below zero. To give the
price he named would have been not only absurd but fatal. We should have
been mercilessly swindled at every village we came to, if not attacked
by robbers, when the news of our liberality and wealth became known, as
things do in China in an incredibly short space of time. We had besides
this reason, a far better one; we could not afford it.

“It is for you to accept an offer, not for you to make one,” I replied,
placing $6 on the table. “Now listen. Here are $6 for your fare back to
Tientsin if you do not come to my terms; and you must decide _at once_.
I will give you exactly $120, and not one cash more, to accompany us to
Kiakhta and find your own way back. Accept or refuse; and if the latter,
make yourself scarce, for I shall not change my mind.”

My sulky friend’s only reply was to carelessly take up the money, pocket
it, and without another word calmly leave the room. I watched him slink
slowly down the little courtyard and out of the gate, half hoping he
would think better of it; but no! He never even once looked behind him,
and as I watched his tall, gaunt form vanish slowly in the dusk, I felt
that now, indeed, our last hope was gone, and retiring to my room, threw
myself on the bed in despair, and wondered what on earth we were going
to do next.

To reach Siberia by way of the Gobi Desert was obviously impossible,
for, judging by past experience, we could not reasonably expect to find
another English-speaking boy, under another month or so. It would then
be too late to attempt the journey _viâ_ Mongolia, that is, without
risking imprisonment of a couple of months in some lonely Siberian
village——hardly a pleasant prospect, judging from all we had heard of
that melancholy country.

There was now but one course to pursue——to return to Tientsin, and
embark thence on the first vessel for Nicolaiefsk at the mouth of the
Amour River, thus altogether avoiding the Mongolian desert, and gaining
Irkoutsk by way of Khabarofka, Stratensk, and Chita, instead of Urga and
Kiakhta.

It was a great disappointment. We had looked forward to the desert
journey far more than to any other part of the voyage. There would have
been some novelty and excitement in crossing the wild desolate plains
lying between the Great Wall of China and Siberia, but none whatever in
the cut-and-dried route from Nicolaiefsk, from which port a comfortable
and well-found steamer takes the traveller a distance of about fifteen
hundred miles up the Amour river to Stratensk. From here he proceeds by
tarantass or sleigh (according to season) to Verchui Udinsk and across
Lake Baikal (by steamer if in summer) to Irkoutsk, which city is distant
about one thousand odd versts from Stratensk. There is but one main
post-road across Siberia from Irkoutsk to Tomsk. But the come down from
a journey in a camel caravan across the great Gobi Desert to an ordinary
steamer and posting carriage along a dull, uninteresting river and
monotonous road with a post-house every twenty versts,[2] was a severe
blow to one’s feelings and anticipations.

Dinner that night was a sad meal; even the champagne, which our host
insisted upon producing, failed to enliven it. Our party was increased
by three Russians from Shanghai, who were on their way to Manchuria for
a month’s shooting. One of them had done the Amour journey, and devoutly
hoped he might never have to do it again. For monotony and lack of
interest that great river was (according to his account) unrivalled. But
we had made up our minds, and it must be done. Fortunately enough, a
vessel would be leaving Tientsin for Nicolaiefsk in four or five days’
time, which would give us plenty of time to retrace our steps to
Tientsin and embark. To bemoan one’s fate under such circumstances is
worse than useless, and we retired to rest resigned, if not cheerful.
The Gobi was impossible, “_Vogue pour ‘l’amour’!_”

But the proverb that it is ever “darkest before dawn,” was exemplified
next morning when, about ten o’clock, and on the eve of departure for
Tientsin, the welcome news was brought us that a boy had been found! and
by whom but our good angel, M. Tallien, who, moved to compassion by our
woe-begone faces the previous evening, had himself searched Pekin high
and low, and run the article to earth within the very walls of the
Russian Embassy. No ordinary “boy” was this either, but an excellent
cook, speaking English, Russian, and Mongolian fluently, and who, best
of all, was willing to go to Kiakhta and find his own way back again for
$100 all found. I could have fallen into Tallien’s arms and embraced
him. Perhaps, being a Frenchman, he would have taken such a proceeding
as a matter of course.

Our new acquisition, Jee Boo by name, a nice, quiet-looking fellow of
about 30, had been cook and servant to Prince ————, one of the Russian
_attachés_, for some time. Under ordinary circumstances we should
perhaps have asked for his character, but dreading another delay we
determined to chance it, take him as he was, and ask no questions. We
were armed and he was not, which is always satisfactory in case of a
disagreement. He was, at any rate, a very different stamp of man to our
Tientsin friend, who, it now appeared, had taken the trouble to find him
out and advise him to have nothing to do with us, for if he did he would
never get paid. We should be sure to repudiate our debt on arrival at
Kiakhta and leave him stranded in a foreign land without friends or
money. That was why he had himself refused to entertain our offer, &c.,
&c.

We soon convinced Jee Boo, however, of the honesty of our intentions by
making M. Tallien his banker for the amount of $80, the remaining $20 to
be paid him on arrival at Kiakhta, with an additional $20 if he behaved
himself. Having thus arranged things to everybody’s satisfaction, we
gave Jee Boo leave to absent himself for the day, and (not without
misgivings of another disappointment) made preparations for a start at
six the following morning.

The same afternoon, while we were busily engaged fixing our heavy
baggage to the mule packs, two of the most extraordinary beings I ever
beheld rode up to the hotel gate. Both might have been any age from
nineteen to ninety, and were dressed in suits of loud tartan check (not
unlike that worn by Jack Spraggon in that best of sporting novels “Soapy
Sponge”), enormous pith sun-hats with long, flowing puggarees and green
spectacles. We put them down at a glance for what they unmistakably
were, “globe-trotters,” sent out by their mammas (or mamma, for they
were like as two peas), to see the world and improve their mind (if they
had any). How they had drifted to Pekin, goodness only knows. It is not
a city much affected by the genus. The comforts are not up to their
standard.

They had ridden from Tungchow under a burning sun and at full gallop,
and their weedy, miserable-looking ponies looked ready to drop. The
latter evidently only yearned (like the Irishman’s horse), for a wall to
lean up against and think, and looked almost as disconsolate as their
riders, which is saying a good deal.

They stood for some time without making a remark. Then, dismounting
slowly and cautiously, one of them approached Tallien, who was assisting
us with the packs, and in a mild and quavering voice inquired if he was
manager of the hotel; and on receiving a reply in the affirmative, if he
and his friend could have a bedroom, and whether there were any objects
of interest to be seen in the neighbourhood?

“The Great Wall of China, messieurs,” replied Tallien; “but you’ll find
it rather a long ride in one day.”

[Illustration: A STREET IN TARTAR CITY——PEKIN.]

“Oh, never mind! we must go and see it. Can you get us a guide at once?
We have to be in Tientsin again the day after to-morrow, to sail for
Japan.”

It was only with the greatest difficulty that they were persuaded to
defer their visit to “the Great Wall” till next day.

At dinner that evening, they were great on the subject of their travels;
had been, they informed us, to Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Cairo, Suez,
Aden, Colombo, Singapore, and Shanghai, giving us their impressions and
ideas of each port, and the customs of its inhabitants, in a manner
which, in more ways than one, was highly entertaining. They were now
going to see the “Great Wall of China,” because their mamma had written
to say that the _Times_ said there was none, and she was sure there was,
because her grandfather (who was a sailor) had told her so, and he had
seen it. Then they were going to Japan, San Francisco, Salt Lake City,
and New York, then to Liverpool and then London; “and I don’t think,”
said the elder of the two sadly and wearily, “we shall ever care to go
abroad again!”

Judging from the ideas this youth formed of the countries he visited,
one could not help thinking he would not lose very much by this
determination.

They were up and away next morning long before we were stirring, on the
same wretched animals that had brought them from Tungchow, and with a
guide of their own finding, a rascally Pekinese, who probably made a
good thing out of them. Where the scamp took them remains a mystery. I
have since heard, they returned the next day quite proud of their
achievement, remarking at dinner that evening, that the “Wall was a fine
sight.” The fact that it is a long five-days’ journey from the capital
never occurred to them, and they left Pekin quite satisfied, having
probably been shown the ramparts of some suburban town or village. I
have often wondered since if they wrote to that long-suffering paper the
_Times_.

It was past seven o’clock, and the sun was high in the heavens before we
had completed our preparations, saddled the ponies, and packed the
luggage and provisions into the litters. Our party consisted of but
three mule-litters, and our two ponies. The heavy baggage had preceded
us the day before, and we did not expect to come up with it till we
reached Kalgan, the last Chinese city on the borders of Mongolia. Two
Chinese muleteers accompanied us, also Jee Boo, who bustled about and
made himself generally useful in a way that augured well for the future.

A final _café au lait_ and “chasse” with our host, who was almost as
keen about the expedition as we were (indeed, where should we have been,
had it not been for his timely aid?), and we were ready to start. Early
as it was, madame and her sister were at the gate to bid us farewell and
wish us a prosperous journey. One could not help thinking, as one looked
at their pretty French faces and neatly clad figures, how long it might
be ere one would look upon their like again!

A few moments more and we had taken leave of our friends, and were
riding down the narrow dusty street for the last time, half sorry (so
perverse is man) to leave the place we had been for three long weeks
moving heaven and earth to get away from. The feeling of regret did not
last long, however, and before we had crossed the stone bridge over the
Imperial canal no one would have recognized in us the despairing
wretches of two days ago. We left Pekin a quarter of an hour later by
the Anting Gate, and for the following three hours skirted closely along
the sandy plains that bound the city walls. Here we passed some three or
four hundred camels, a caravan inward bound from the desert, going at a
pace of about a mile and a half an hour. The Tartars in charge were all
asleep, but the camels seemed to know their way; indeed the track here
is pretty clearly laid down, being in the direct route to and from
Kalgan. An hour later we had entered a fertile plain of millet, corn,
and rye, interspersed with huge fields of pasture, and bounded on the
horizon by a rugged, precipitous chain of hills, partly covered with
forest, from which brightly coloured temples and pagodas stood out here
and there in bright relief, glittering in the sunshine. All was life and
animation; our very ponies seemed to rise in spirits, and plunged and
danced about under the influence of the keen air and bright sunshine, to
say nothing of the unusually large feeds of corn they had been given of
late.

An hour later we stopped to look back across the emerald green plain to
where, on the horizon, a thin brown line, faint and indistinct, broke
the bright blue sky-line. We were looking our last on the walls of
Pekin: the long land journey across Europe and Asia had commenced in
real earnest.

—————

Footnote 1:

  A fact.

Footnote 2:

  A verst is about three-quarters of a mile.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER III.

  PEKIN TO KALGAN.


WE had decided, upon leaving Pekin, to spend the greater part of the day
in the sedans. The very name of this vehicle has a luxurious sound, and
we looked forward to pleasant hours of travel at any rate as far as the
Great Wall of China. But man is doomed to disappointment. For fatigue
and discomfort, amounting at times to sheer physical pain, commend me to
a Chinese mule litter, which is simply a kind of box or covered chair,
hung on two long and slender poles. To it are harnessed, before and
behind, two mules gaily caparisoned with feathers, highly-coloured
trappings and bells. The latter, which keep up a loud and incessant
jingle, are supposed to relieve the monotony of the journey. To the
Chinese mind, perhaps, they do. The motion, to those not subject to
sea-sickness, is not disagreeable, nor would it be tiring, had not the
occupant to keep constantly in the same position, as in a canoe or
outrigger, for the slightest movement to the right or left overturns the
whole concern. Also, should the leading mule fall, a not unfrequent
occurrence, the passenger is almost certain to get a nasty fall; should
the hind one make a false step, he finds himself helpless, with his feet
in the air and at the mercy of the leader’s heels, for the front and
sides of the litter are open. With these trifling exceptions, the mule
litters have no discomforts, always excepting the vermin that infest
them.

We halted about two o’clock in the afternoon, at a wayside inn, on the
banks of a clear pebbly stream. In front of the inn, under the shade of
some willow-trees, were some twenty or thirty men and women, seated at
marble tables, drinking tea and a kind of white compound, in which
floated huge lumps of ice, out of pretty transparent porcelain cups.
Curiosity prompted me to taste the latter, which I found simply
delicious, and not unlike French “orgeat” or barley water. A troop of
cavalry passed while we were discussing our frugal meal, a little way
apart from the noisy, chattering crowd, who, after the usual inspection
of our clothes and arms, left us in peace. On the arrival of the
soldiers, tall, swarthy fellows, clad in dark blue uniform, flat round
hats, with streaming peacock feathers, and armed with rusty old
flintlocks, we prepared to start without delay. We had been warned at
Pekin and Shanghai against the Chinese military, had been told that they
invariably insulted and sometimes outraged Europeans, when out of the
protection of their legations. If so, these were a decided exception to
the rule, for not only would they not hear of our proceeding on our
journey till we had “chin-chind” with their officer, a cheery,
nice-looking lad of eighteen or twenty, but as we left, all shook hands,
Chinese fashion (clasping the hands and lifting them up and down in
front of the breast), and gave us rendezvous at Kalgan, whither they, as
well as we, were bound.

We were away again before four o’clock, by which time the heat had
lessened and the fierce heat of the sun somewhat decreased in power. A
ride of half an hour in the litters had convinced us that anything, even
walking, was preferable to those cranky conveyances; though, thanks to
our sturdy little steeds, we were never driven to take to Shank’s mare.
One of the pleasantest recollections I have retained of that weary
journey is that of the little beast who carried me so pluckily across a
third of Asia! I verily believe, had it been a question of stamina and
endurance, and not of time, I could have ridden him to Moscow in eight
months, or even less. Good as “Karra”[3] was in other ways, he was not
what is called a pleasant hack, having, like most Mongolian ponies, but
two paces: a walk and a canter, or rather gallop, for the instant he
broke into a canter he would take the bit in his teeth and bolt. It was
sheer fun, however, for unlike most of his breed, he had not an atom of
vice in his composition.

I have seldom seen lovelier scenery than we rode through that day. The
dark wooded mountains in the distance standing out in striking contrast
to the green plains of maize and barley, the clear sparkling streams,
spanned by picturesque bridges glittering with enamel and porcelain. The
park-like domain of some mandarin, fringed with belts of dark forest,
and relieved by patches of light green sward, on which the deer and
cattle were browsing, composed a very different picture to that with
which we had always associated these so-called uncivilized regions. The
country in North China is densely populated. The whole way from Pekin to
Kalgan one was never out of sight of human beings. We must have ridden
through at least twenty villages the first day——villages only in
name——for each must have contained quite four or five thousand souls,
though deserted when we passed through them, for the men and women were
out at work in the fields and the narrow streets given up to dogs and
naked children rolling about together promiscuously in the dusty
roadway. It was only towards sunset that we passed through avenues of
happy, contented-looking peasants, sitting at their doorways discussing
tea and iced drinks, and dreaming the hours away till bedtime, after the
heat and labour of the day. The agricultural labourer in China is better
off than his European brother.

The natives evinced but little surprise at our appearance the first day.
All seemed good tempered, friendly fellows, but (at the same time) not
at all the kind of people to stand any nonsense. They were the
finest-built men, physically speaking, I have ever seen, excepting
perhaps in parts of European Russia.

Towards the latter part of our first day’s journey, a great portion of
the road or pathway was paved with enormous blocks of granite in much
the same way as that on the outskirts of Tungchow, and described in a
former chapter. Here, however, it was in better repair——and presumably
not so old——for the road in parts was as smooth and unbroken as
asphalte. Bell, the traveller (1720), narrates that some eight hundred
years since, a terrible earthquake occurred here and laid waste the
whole of the country lying between Pekin and the Great Wall of China,
occasioning great loss of life. It seems curious that no shocks of
earthquake have ever been felt since in these latitudes, though they are
of frequent occurrence in other parts of the Chinese Empire, as many as
seven shocks having occurred at Shanghai alone in 1847.

It was past seven o’clock and nearly dark when we reached “Koo-ash,” our
first resting-place, a pretty Alpine-looking village nestling under a
chain of hills, about four hundred feet high, bare of trees and
vegetation, and composed of huge granite boulders. The heat of the day
and fatigue of a ten hours’ ride made the shelter of even a Chinese inn
acceptable, though the stench of the place was awful, and the flies
positively maddening. (The latter, though of the common household kind,
were the largest I have ever seen.) Floor and walls were black with
them, and one crushed them as one turned on the stone slab that did duty
for a bed. It may be as well to give the reader a brief description of
the hostelry in which we took our first night’s rest——for one native inn
is precisely like another throughout the Chinese Empire. The inn at
“Koo-ash” was, luckily for us, the best that exists on the road to the
Great Wall. Had it been as bad as the one we reached the next night at
“Kwi La Shaï,” I verily believe we should have turned tail, and returned
to Pekin without setting eyes upon that euphoniously named city. Coming,
so to speak, into shallow water before we tried deep, saved us from
ignominious defeat.

A Chinese inn, then, is usually constructed of dried mud, whitewashed,
and built round three sides of an open courtyard, as a rule knee deep in
filth and garbage, in which pigs, sheep, cows, and poultry roam about at
leisure. An open cesspool usually occupies the centre. The buildings on
the right and left are the kitchen, innkeeper’s room, cart-shed,
stables, &c., that at the farthest end, and facing you on entry, is that
set apart for the guests. It is usually a bare dirty room, about
eighteen feet by eighteen, a third of which is separated by a bamboo
screen or partition, four or five feet high, for more favoured guests
who wish to be separated from the common herd. Sometimes the screen is
dispensed with, and the partition made by a chalk mark on the floor!
This cheerless apartment is devoid of furniture save for a “K’ang” or
stove bed, a broad ledge of brick covered with matting. In winter a fire
is lit under the “K’ang,” which is built to accommodate ten to twelve
sleepers. The flooring of the room is of uncarpeted brick, and there is
no furniture of any kind. At Koo-ash, however, there were two inlaid
chairs of the most delicate and beautiful workmanship I have ever seen.
They would have fetched 50_l._ or 60_l._ in England. Most of these
gruesome apartments swarm with rats, a circumstance that annoyed me more
than all other discomforts put together, for I have always had a
loathing for this animal. But I had not then been to Siberia.

We had our own food, of course. No European stomach could stand the
_cuisine_ in these parts. Tea was the only thing drinkable——sweet, washy
stuff, as unlike our idea of that beverage as can well be, and drunk out
of tiny cups holding about a couple of tablespoonsful. Our greatest
difficulty was to obtain permission to use the kitchen in these
caravanserai to cook ourselves a tin of soup or preserved meat. It was
somewhat disheartening to have to put up with a biscuit smeared over
with a spoonful of jam after a hard day’s work in the blazing sun——but
this was often the case. There is no race in the world so obstinate as
the northern Celestial; and in these parts, unlike in the south, even
filthy lucre will not tempt them.

Still we had nothing to complain of on this score at Koo-ash. The
proprietor, a big, burly Chinaman, clad in a pair of short white drawers
(and nothing else), superintended our culinary arrangements himself, and
turned us out a smoking dish of Irish stew in no time, served upon
plates that would not have disgraced a dinner-table in the height of the
London season. I tried to buy one of them, of transparent, violet
porcelain of the most delicate tint imaginable. But mine host would not
part with it on any consideration. It was an heirloom. “Drop it on the
floor and break it,” whispered Jee Boo. “He will sell it you then, and
you can get it mended in England.” I admired the astuteness of the
Pekinite, but did not feel justified in risking the experiment. To say
nothing of my scruples, we were no longer within reach of English
protection!

A couple of glasses of whisky and water revived the inner man, and we
clambered into the “K’ang,” where, in spite of the hardness of this
novel kind of bed, we were soon in oblivion and back again in our dreams
to less desolate regions. I was somewhat startled in the middle of the
night by a dark, cold mass being thrust into my face until by the dim
light of the moon struggling in through the paper window, I realized
what the intruder was——a calf from the cattle-shed next door, who was
making a nocturnal expedition in search of food. I lay awake the
remainder of that night, for the enemy were upon me, and had evidently
been for some hours, judging from the intense irritation and itching of
my face and hands. Had it not been for them, however, I should have been
equally wakeful; for the cheering spectacle of a couple of large rats
disporting themselves on the further corner of the “K’ang” successfully
murdered sleep till the morning.

Splendid weather favoured our journey. Though the heat at mid-day was
intense, and the fierce sun compelled us to seek shelter in the litters,
the mornings and evenings were cool and delicious. We left Koo-ash the
following day at five a.m. Our bill for the night was certainly not
ruinous eighty cash, or something under 7_d._, for the whole party.

The road ceases after leaving Koo-ash, and our way the second day lay
through a succession of small paths or raised footways running in all
directions through rice and cotton-fields. How the muleteers kept on the
right track is a mystery to me, for there was apparently nothing to
guide them. The paths or boundaries of the fields seemed to have been
constructed with a view to leading wayfarers astray, like the maze at
Hampton Court. There seemed to be no lack of water, the plains being cut
up into squares of various sizes, and the water brought by means of
small canals or ditches from the nearest stream or river. The method of
pumping is the same as in Egypt: a couple of buckets worked by a swing
beam handled by one or two men. A sheet of water some inches deep, is by
this means kept over the surface of the rice-fields, which are so
numerous in parts as to give the country the appearance of being in a
state of inundation.

We reached the city of Nankow at mid-day, but did not halt there,
preferring to go straight through and take our mid-day meal (if a piece
of chocolate and a biscuit can so be called), in the open country. A
large wall runs through Nankow, often regarded by tourists as the Great
Wall of China. Many Europeans are brought here from Pekin, and return
thoroughly satisfied in their own minds, that they have seen the Great
Wall, when, in fact, they have done nothing of the kind. The wall at
Nankow is simply an offshoot of the real thing, and runs at right angles
to it; moreover, the former is not so high, and its stones are cemented,
which those of the Great Wall are not. I trust I am not a kill-joy to
those who, reading these pages, have seen the Nankow wall, but as a
matter of fact, the two are as different, both in construction and
appearance, as black to white.

We were forced to take refuge in our litters traversing the city (which
is one of some fifty thousand inhabitants), for the unwonted sight of
Europeans in their midst, appeared to give the Nankowites great umbrage
for some reason or other. Indeed, this was the sole instance of our
being treated with anything but courtesy and good temper. The streets
were so crowded as to make our progress extremely difficult, for it was
market-day, and half the roadway was taken up with canvas booths and
stalls for the sale of silks, tea, crockery, and hardware, or fish,
vegetables, and fruit, while every fifty yards or so, the fumes from
“Kabob” stalls poisoned the air with a sickly, greasy odour. We were not
sorry to get within sight of the outer gate. Near here was an open-air
theatre in full swing, adding its quota of drums, clashing cymbals, and
squeaky reed-pipes, to the general din. Some two or three hundred
struggling men and women occupied the partition in front of the stage,
meant to hold about half the number. No attempt had been made to shelter
the audience from the blazing sun, and the smell that arose from this
human cattle-pen, beggars description. Some six or seven performers in
grotesque garments and hideous masks, were twisting their bodies about,
singing through their noses, and endeavouring by their united efforts to
drown the instruments at the back of the stage, in which they were only
partly successful. The play, Jee Boo informed us, had been going on for
a week, and was only half over. We stopped for a few minutes to watch
the performance, the audience being too much engrossed with it to pay
any attention to us. Most of the action seemed to consist exclusively of
fighting and love-making. The scenes dealing with the latter, were
certainly more realistic than refined. There was no scenery, and
apparently no dressing-rooms. One of the performers, after being slain
by his adversary, got up again in a few seconds, and retiring to the
back of the stage, changed all his clothes in full view of the audience,
an operation that necessitated his appearing in a state of complete
nudity, after which he calmly returned to the front to represent another
part. There is apparently no Chinese Lord Chamberlain.

It took us nearly two hours to get clear of the city. Shortly
afterwards, we entered the Nankow Pass, one of the most beautiful bits
of scenery we passed through. The going was terribly rough, so much so
that we had to dismount and lead the ponies, while the mule-litters
plunged and rolled about among the boulders like ships in a storm. The
road is simply formed by a kind of water-bed, about 150 yards across,
which is in summer rendered almost impassable by the huge rocks and
boulders that bar the way at every step. In winter it becomes a raging
torrent, sweeping all before it, and after heavy rains does considerable
damage to life and property. The pass (which is a gradual ascent the
whole way, and about thirteen miles long) compares very favourably with
some of the grandest scenery in Switzerland or the Tyrol. Rugged,
precipitous rocks overhang the defile on either side, great crags of
granite that look as if a touch would send them crashing into the valley
a hundred feet below. Although not a leaf or tree is visible, the
different shades of colour taken by the rocks are even more beautiful
than any vegetation could make them. As we neared the end of the pass,
little bits of verdure became visible: oases of rich grass and
cultivated flower-gardens banked round with bamboos, looking almost as
if they were hanging perpendicularly on the steep grey walls; while tiny
streamlets seemed to spring up from under our very feet to lose
themselves a few yards lower down among the crevices formed by the huge
rocks and boulders. After two hours’ hard work, we emerged on a vast
plain again, a plain of waving corn and barley, relieved here and there
by brown villages and gaily coloured temples, while a glance behind
showed us the city of Nankow spread out like a map at our feet, the rice
and cotton plains we had passed through, and the distant village of
“Koo-ash,” its temples and pagodas sparkling like diamonds on the far
horizon.

A strange apparition appeared as we ate our solitary meal by the
roadway. A tall gaunt European, bestriding an attenuated-looking mule,
an individual who by his dress might have been anybody. A rough grey
coat with yellow facings, a red handkerchief tied round the head, a pair
of short thin cotton drawers reaching to the knee, and bare legs and
feet, is hardly the costume with which we are wont to associate a
courier of the Czar! but such the stranger proved to be. He eyed our
whisky bottle wistfully as he passed us, and reined up the melancholy
mule with a jerk. “Kouda?” (“whither?”) he asked. “Moscow,” we replied,
at the same time filling him a bumper of Glenlivat, a proceeding that
seemed to interest him much more than our probable destination.
“Franzouski?” (French). “Niete: Anglis-ki.” “Ah,” he replied, with a
shrug of the shoulders, and, tossing off the tumbler of raw whisky
without a wink, rode off again, with the remark, “Ya Pekin” (I am for
Pekin), but not a word of thanks. This was our first experience of the
Russian Cossack, and I was afterwards glad to find this rude boor an
exception even to the lowest orders of that cheery, hospitable
race,——better fellows than whom it would, as a rule, be hard to meet.

The country towards evening became flatter; the rice and cotton having
given way to a bare sandy plain, stretching away on either side as far
as the eye could reach without a break. The glare of the sun became very
painful after the first hour or two, and we suffered a good deal that
day from our eyes, a complaint that seems very prevalent among the
inhabitants of the villages in this sterile region. The people, too,
seemed very different in appearance and manner to those we had left in
the plains below Nankow. Instead of the cheery “good-day” and smile with
which many of the latter had greeted us, we were now looked upon only
with a sullen stare: a kind of ocular “What do you want here?” This was
all, however, for after Nankow we experienced no incivility whatsoever
up to the Great Wall.

This was perhaps the hardest day’s work we experienced throughout the
whole voyage. Leaving Koo-ash at 5 a.m., we travelled incessantly, save
for a halt of twenty minutes at mid-day, till eight at night. Over
fourteen hours’ hard work on a stick of chocolate and a glass of whisky
and water is not calculated to raise one’s spirits under ordinary
circumstances; but had we known what was before us we should have been
even more depressed than we were, when, towards seven o’clock the towers
and battlements of Kwi-La-Shaï appeared on the horizon, and we knew that
our day’s journey was nearly over.

The sun was setting as, crossing the river that flows past the walls of
Kwi-La-Shaï, we drew up at the eastern gate of the city and awaited the
permission of the guard to enter. But for fatigue and stiffness, I would
willingly have remained outside the walls till the sun had disappeared.
I have seldom seen a lovelier picture. It was like a scene from
fairyland. The broad, swift stream at our feet had caught the reflection
of the western sky, which, one glow of rose colour, brought out the
frowning walls and battlements of the city black and distinct as a
pen-and-ink drawing. The whole vault of heaven was one flush of
ever-changing hue, varying almost imperceptibly from the faintest shades
of pink and gold in the west to where in the east stars were already
glimmering in the steel-blue horizon. The black, frowning walls, the
desolate landscape around us, the confused and indistinct murmur of the
huge population of which one could see nothing, made one almost wonder
whether one was not dreaming and would not presently awake in a
comfortable bed resolving never again to commit the imprudence of a late
supper. It was not without a weird feeling that we rode into the city
and heard the heavy iron gates close with a crash behind us. One felt so
utterly at the mercy of the inhabitants of these remote cities, who, as
they have so often shown, are angels one minute and devils the next.

The streets were, as usual, crowded, for the night was hot, and the
population had apparently turned out _en masse_ to take the air, and
what air! Like many other beautiful things in this world, Kwi-La-Shaï is
best seen at a distance, for we found it on closer acquaintance worse
even than Pekin in point of stenches and filth. It is called in China a
“village,” which means that it is rather larger both as regards size and
population than Birmingham. Though the streets were unlit, we managed to
get to the inn by the aid of a guide, and once there, found no lack of
light——indeed the courtyard was one blaze of Chinese lanterns——nor of
society either, for there must have been at least fifty men crowded into
the small guest-room, to say nothing of camels, oxen, ponies, and carts,
that crowded the muddy courtyard.

We rode into the yard and waited while Jee Boo went to interview the
proprietor of this den, which for squalor and filth I have never seen
equalled in the worst slums of London or Paris. We soon saw by the light
of the lanterns that our fellow-lodgers were not Chinamen. Their quaint
barbaric dress, to say nothing of swarthy flat faces and beady black
eyes, at once proclaimed them Mongols. Twenty or thirty of them were
round us, in less than five minutes after our arrival, squatting on
their hams in the mud and passing their opinions on our appearance. Many
of them, Jee Boo said, had never seen a European before. They annoyed us
not a little, too, by continually feeling our clothes, boots, and even
faces, with their hot grimy hands, a proceeding that, tired and hungry
as we were, with no prospect of rest or food, did not tend to improve
the temper. A pair of velvet cord breeches that Lancaster wore came in
for the greater share of their attention, which I was (selfishly, I own)
not sorry for.

Two half-naked men, who had been attending to a couple of large
cauldrons in a kind of outhouse, now summoned our inquisitive friends,
much to our relief. We saw them enter the shed, where each man having
produced a wooden platter they set to and left us in peace, at any rate,
for a time.

Jee Boo returned soon after.

“Big caravan from Mongolia. No can have room,” was his first remark.
“Money no good,” he added, on my suggesting a few dollars as bribery;
anything for a fairly clean place to lay our weary bones. What was to be
done? We could not sleep in the courtyard, that was very certain, when a
bright thought suddenly struck me——the litters.

Alas! they, too, were gone, and the muleteers with them, in quest of
lodgings elsewhere. They had fortunately omitted to take our box of
provisions with them. Jee Boo had meanwhile disappeared, but soon after
returned with the information that on payment of $8 we could have the
room of the chief of the caravan. “A very good place,” urged our
interpreter, who, was evidently standing in with the Mongol. However, we
should have been only too glad to pay double the price for a dog-kennel
that night. Anything to lie down upon, and get away from the attentions
of the Mongols, who had by this time finished their meal, and were again
issuing from the kitchen, lighting their pipes, and preparing for
another examination of the “White Devils.”

It was only after a good deal of demur that the good gentleman I have
mentioned turned out of his lair——a place about nine feet square, with a
raised wooden platform upon which he had been reclining, and upon which
he was thoughtful enough to leave us several souvenirs which I need not
mention. To say the place was dirty conveys but a very poor impression
of the filth that lay thickly on the walls, and the nameless
abominations that strewed the sleeping-place——half a dozen rough boards
about a foot from the floor. There were luckily two large holes in the
rafters which would give us, at any rate, some ventilation, for the
glazed paper window was not made to open. Cooking was, of course, out of
the question, but we managed to boil some water in the spirit-lamp, and
get a basin of Liebig. Our Valentine meat-juice had, unluckily, gone on
with the other stores. It would have been priceless that night, and
never again will I embark on a journey of this kind without it.

We had reckoned without our host when we thought that bolting and
barring the door would ensure us privacy. First a finger, then a thumb,
then a whole hand was pushed through the paper window, notwithstanding
all our protestations. We did not like to use threats, or show firearms,
for an Englishman more or less would have been of little moment to the
good people of Kwi-La-Shaï. So we had to sit and suffer in silence,
until one of our tormentors, more pushing than the rest, who had climbed
upon the roof to obtain a bird’s-eye view, came crashing through the
rickety rafters on to our heads. We certainly _did_ bundle him out with
scant ceremony, and banging the door after him, blew out the light and
composed, or tried to compose ourselves, to slumber.

But no sooner was the light out than we were attacked by vermin in
myriads. A quarter of an hour of it nearly drove us mad, and we resolved
to strike a light, rising only to find that we had no matches, and that
all in the yard was now dark and silent as the grave. So, resigned to
our fates, we lay still, and, like the shipwrecked mariner, prayed for
dawn! Tired and worn out as we were, five minutes’ sleep was out of the
question. We had good cause to remember Kwi-La-Shaï; indeed, it was a
good three weeks before we were entirely free from the animal nocturnal
visitors of that unsavoury city.

The caravan had already started on its way to Pekin when we set off at
six the next morning. Our mule-driver and Jee Boo had evidently made a
night of it on the proceeds of their bargain, for the former only
arrived on the scene five minutes before the hour fixed for departure,
and our interpreter turned up hopelessly fuddled just as we were getting
the mules in and ponies saddled. We were amply avenged, though, for the
day was the hottest we had yet experienced, and Jee Boo suffered the
tortures of _mal de mer_ in a litter the greater part of it!

The road now lay through deep sand, in which, however, the caravan track
was distinctly discernible. A boisterous and hot wind made it very
unpleasant travelling, and we were not sorry to reach the village of
Tchuan-Ha-Ho at midday, where we insisted on a halt of five hours at
least, for the purpose of indulging in a “square meal,” as Americans
say, and a rest, of which we were much in need. Just before reaching the
town, we passed a string of over two hundred camels laden with Siberian
furs for Pekin. Also a drove of some three hundred or four hundred
Mongolian ponies. Some of the latter, though small, were remarkably
well-shaped and good-looking.

Tchuan-Ha-Ho is the only place I retain a pleasing recollection of,
lying between Pekin and the Great Wall of China. The inn was fairly
clean, and the proprietor not only suggested, but cooked us a dish of
excellent poached eggs. Rarely have I enjoyed a meal as I did that. One
must have fasted for nearly thirty-six hours as we had, to really
appreciate food. It is worth all the tonics in the world. We felt much
tempted to stay here the night, but our mule-drivers were inexorable.
They had contracted to get us to Kalgan by a certain date, and at
Kalgan, on that date, dead or alive, we must be!

The sandy desert ceased after leaving Tchuan-Ha-Ho, and we again entered
a fertile country, set apart apparently for the exclusive cultivation of
the poppy. White, red, and blue——poppies were everywhere——the plain
presenting a succession of waves of colour as far as the eye could
reach. Beyond this lay Ching-Ming-Ying, lying under a perpendicular rock
about 800 feet high. This village, which contains seven thousand
inhabitants, is strongly walled and fortified. The rock or mountain is
on three sides sheer precipice. Notwithstanding this, there are some
twenty or thirty houses on the extreme summit, built so near the edge
that their sides actually form part of the precipice. Seventy or eighty
human beings live on this eminence, though the path up is dangerous to
any but experienced mountaineers, and the area of the summit but three
hundred yards square. This was undoubtedly one of the most interesting
and curious sights of the whole voyage, for there are men and women over
forty years of age living upon this mountain that have never descended
to the plains below. Supplies and stores are taken up by men kept
specially for the purpose.

[Illustration: A MULE LITTER.]

Coal is worked out of the base of the Ching-Ming Ying mountain by the
Chinese Government, to whom the mines belong. It seemed to be put out in
a very desultory sort of way. Some thirty men only were engaged in the
mines, though with their usual contradictory spirit the Government had
provided the manager or overseer with a palatial residence at the foot
of the mountain, embowered in bright flower-gardens and willow-trees.

The weather, which had up till now been bright and clear, now grew
overcast, and, shortly after leaving Ching-Ming-Ying the rain came down
in torrents, rendering travelling very unpleasant, not to say dangerous.
Our way now lay along a road hewn out of the solid rock, by the banks of
a foaming torrent some hundred yards broad, which we followed the course
of till we reached our destination for the night——Tsiang-Shui-Poo. Here
we rode along now a foot or so above the water’s edge, anon at least
fifty feet above the water, in places where a false step or slip would
have sent one flying into the torrent below, for there was no
guard-rail, and the path, broken and rugged, was at times scarcely three
feet wide. I thought discretion the better part of valour after a time,
and led Karra till we got on to _terra firma_ again in the shape of a
broad stretch of sand, which brought us to the village of
Tsiang-Shui-Poo, wet through, and without any means of changing, but at
the same time relieved that the next day with any luck would see us at
Kalgan.

The village of Tsiang-Shui-Poo was _really_ a village, for it boasted of
some hundred inhabitants and thirty or forty houses. The inn (an open
shed in which cattle and men slept promiscuously) was at any rate clean,
and we managed to get a good sleep on a wisp of straw free from the
stench of sewage that had annoyed us so much everywhere else. Some of
the inhabitants came to look at us as we discussed the evening meal. The
men were cheery, good-looking fellows, and the women far prettier than
any I had yet seen, for their faces were devoid of paint——and they had
almost European complexions. Tsiang-Shui-Poo was to us an Elysium——a
haven of rest——which reminded one for all the world of the lovely
Kentish village of Farningham, which is no doubt known to many of my
readers. There was the trout stream at the bottom of the garden, the
clover meadows with their fresh, sweet scent, the corn ripening for the
sickle on the hill behind the inn——although, to be sure, two stunted
willows had to do duty for the famous chestnut-tree in front of that
cosy old inn, the “Red Lion;” and, I fancy, even the genial host of that
celebrated hostelry would have lost his temper at the fare set before
him by Boniface of the “Cattle-Shed Hotel” at Tsiang-Shui-Poo!

By next morning the rain had entirely disappeared, and with a blue sky
and cool breeze we left Tsiang-Shui-Poo, invigorated in mind and body by
a good long sleep. I cannot pronounce, much less write, the name of the
village we halted at at mid-day. It was evident we were nearing Kalgan,
for we passed at least a dozen large caravans during the morning, to say
nothing of carts, litters, and stray horsemen. The poppy-fields were now
superseded by rice-plains, irrigated as before by “shaloofs,” and
interspersed with enclosures of corn and maize.

We lunched in a fairly clean room of the inn at the town with the
unpronounceable name. Many Russians appeared to have visited it, for
their names (in Russian characters) were scrawled all over the place. In
one corner, in small capitals, we read:——“Bordeaux à Pekin par terre.
Sep. 4th, 1870.” Shortly before five o’clock a low chain of hills
appeared on the horizon. Had it not been specially pointed out to me, I
should never have noticed the thin serpentine thread winding its course
along their summit——an irregular white line lost to sight at times, in
places where it was broken into by forest or undergrowth: a very
different edifice from one’s preconceived ideas of the Great Wall of
China.

We entered Kalgan at half past six o’clock. It will give the reader some
idea of the size of the place when I say that it took us nearly two
hours to ride from the southern gate to the suburb of Yambooshan, where
the Russian tea-merchants lived, to whom we were provided with a letter
of introduction. The population of Kalgan is estimated at over one
hundred and fifty thousand.

Our mule-drivers suggested an immediate adjournment to the inn, for the
Russians, they said, lived outside the gates of Kalgan, at Yambooshan.
The gate was shut at seven, after which hour, no one, European or
otherwise, was permitted to enter or leave the city; but we stuck to our
determination of seeing M. Batouyeff before nightfall. Riding out of the
southern gate, we emerged on to a dry river-bed, on either banks of
which stood several substantial and well-built houses of Chinese
architecture. At the head of the valley stood apart from the others a
single dwelling _à l’Européenne_——a pretty two-storied house with
verandah and gaily coloured Venetians, standing in a spacious garden,
down the centre path of which, as soon as we came in sight, two
white-clad Europeans hurried to meet us.

One of these proved to be M. Ivanoff——partner of M. Batouyeff, who was,
he explained, at that time away at Chefoo for a couple of months,
enjoying the sea breezes after a residence of five years here without a
break. Luckily for us M. Ivanoff spoke English fluently, having spent
several years at Tientsin. He laughed outright when we asked him to
direct us to the inn. “Ah, gentlemen, I hope you have not such a poor
opinion of Russian hospitality as that,” said our friend, as he led the
way up the neat gravel walk, lined with rose and geranium beds, to the
house——where we found two large airy bedrooms, a sitting-room, and, best
of all, a large bath-room placed at our disposal. “I do not live here
myself, but my clerk will do anything for you. You have but to call
‘Michailof.’ He lives next door. Dinner will be served at eight o’clock.
Gentlemen, I wish you good evening, and will do myself the pleasure of
calling upon you again to-morrow.”

Here was luxury indeed. The sight of the bed was almost too much for me.
I felt inclined to forego dinner altogether, jump in, and revel in its
clean, soft sheets and white dainty curtains! A delicious warm bath, a
change of clothes, and we found ourselves seated at an open window,
looking down upon the moon-bathed valley of Yambooshan, enjoying an
excellent dinner _à la russe_, washed down by a still more excellent
bottle of Chateau Lafitte. “Here’s to the Russians,” said Lancaster, as
we tossed off for the first time a glass of that insidious though
delicious liqueur “Vodka.” “How the English do misunderstand them,” I
echoed: a sentiment I had occasion to repeat more than once during our
weary pilgrimage through the Asiatic realms of the White Czar.

—————

Footnote 3:

  Mongol for black.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER IV.

  KALGAN, OR CHANG-CHIA-KOW.


WE had intended making a stay of four or five days, at the most, at
Kalgan. This, we thought, would give us ample time to get carts, camels,
and men for the crossing of the Great Gobi Desert; for, we had been led
to believe, when at Tientsin, that there would not be the slightest
necessity for remaining more than a day or so at the frontier city,
unless we particularly wished to do so. But, alas! as at Pekin, fresh
difficulties cropped up hourly; and when we broached to M. Ivanoff our
intention of leaving for Ourga in three or four days’ time, he simply
laughed in our faces.

“You must recollect you are not in Europe,” said the hospitable Russian,
“and also that Mongols are worse even than Chinamen in the matter of
delay. Moreover, I shall have to get your carts built, a question of ten
days at the very least. The camels, too, are all out on the plains. No,
gentlemen; I fear you must make up your minds to at least a fortnight’s
imprisonment in Kalgan!”

There was nothing for it under the circumstances but to smile and look
pleasant, thanking Providence, meanwhile, for giving us such comfortable
quarters, and not cooping us up in a Chinese inn. Considering
everything, we had by no means a bad time of it with the Russian
tea-merchants at Kalgan.

They certainly had a very fair idea of making themselves comfortable.
The house of our host was especially so, and by no means the kind of
dwelling one would expect to find in this out-of-the-way corner of the
earth. We had pictured to ourselves a rough wooden shanty——we found a
well-built stone house with cool, lofty bedrooms, a pretty drawing-room,
with grand piano and bright chintzes, singing-birds, and flowers; and
French windows opening on to the creeper-covered verandah, whence one
looked on to the beautiful valley of Kalgan. At one’s feet a shady
garden wherein roses, Eucharis lilies, jasmine, mignonette, and other
flowers grew in wild profusion, though untended and uncared for; while
in the far distance the Great Wall of China, now towering on a summit,
now lost in a valley, wound like a huge serpent, its course of two
thousand miles. Nor were the more substantial things of life uncared
for, for our host had an excellent cook, and in this land of milk and
honey there was no lack of material for his culinary efforts. The Kalgan
mutton is excellent, and potatoes, cauliflowers, cabbages, peas,
lettuce, even asparagus, thrive there, all imported from Russia, to say
nothing of Chinese vegetables with unpronounceable names, and still more
curious taste. Our host’s cook was an artist; his claret undeniable; his
cigars good. We had certainly tumbled upon our legs at Kalgan.

The city of Chang-Chia-Kow, or Kalgan, is built on the banks of a broad,
swift-flowing river. Running at right angles to this, between two
precipitous mountains, is the narrower gorge of Yambooshan, the houses
thereof standing outside the gates of the city, and built close into the
side of the hills, portions of which in some cases had been blasted away
to admit them. There is a reason for this. The dry, shingly road, which
in summer serves as highway to thousands of caravans, becomes in winter
a roaring torrent, which sweeps down the valley with terrific force to
join the larger stream, at times occasioning great loss of life. At the
time of our visit, the river-bed was absolutely dry, though the
preceding winter had been a severe one, and much damage had been done in
the spring.

We spent a good deal of our time watching the caravans as they jingled
and rattled along the stony river-bed to or from Pekin. Many were laden
with wood cut into logs and brought from the mountains near Ourga,
across the desert, for wood is scarce in Northern China, and I do not
think we passed more than a dozen trees in all the whole way from the
capital to the Great Wall. Between Yambooshan and the city of Kalgan is
the “Gap,” where the road narrows to a width of about nine feet. It is
from this the city takes its name, the word “Kalga” signifying in the
Mongolian tongue a gap or gate. It has been estimated that three hundred
and fifty thousand chests of tea pass through here annually, for every
caravan is bound to pass Kalgan on its way east or west. There is no
other road. Thus about forty million chests of tea pass through annually
to Mongolia and Siberia, and Ivanoff (who has much experience in these
matters) was of opinion that when the projected line from Irkoutsk to
Tomsk is completed, there will be a further increase of a hundred and
fifty thousand chests, making in all the enormous total of five hundred
thousand chests annually. No railway can ever be made across Gobi. The
means of transit must always remain what it has ever been, i.e. by the
“Ship of the Desert.”

The best tea never leaves China, and nearly all the next best in quality
goes to Russia. Few people in England know what good tea really is. An
immense trade in Asiatic Russia is done in what is known as brick tea,
an article I shall describe later on, and which is drunk chiefly by the
Mongols and lower classes in Siberia. This is pressed into oblong cakes,
about two pounds in weight, and is made of tea dust, stalks, and refuse,
mixed with bullocks’ blood, to give it a flavour. I never tasted a viler
concoction in my life.

“You English boil your tea,” Ivanoff would say, when on his favourite
topic. “How can you expect to get it good;” and there is no doubt much
in this. I got into a habit in Siberia and Russia of drinking tea at all
hours of the day and night, and learnt to make it _à la Russe_——two
teaspoonfuls to each cup; then pour boiling water into the pot, so as
just to cover the leaves, and at once pour it out again, afterwards
adding the requisite amount of liquid. Let it stand for two or three
minutes at most, and drink. The Russians never drink their tea twice
over, as we do, but change the leaves and the pot every fresh brew. This
makes a good deal more difference than some may think. I have heard
English people deny that overland tea is any better than that sent by
sea, but I do not think there can be any real doubt about it. As a
matter of fact, genuine overland tea very rarely finds its way to
England.

The city of Kalgan proper, reminds one more of an Egyptian or Arab town
than a Chinese one. The dwellings are of baked mud, unwhitewashed, and
flat roofed. Some are ornamented with arabesques, and gaily-striped
awnings, many of their façades being half hidden with clustering vines.
The “Yamen,” or court-house, is the only building of pure Chinese
architecture in the whole place, and one felt, when taking a stroll
through its busy streets and covered bazaars, as if one had been
suddenly transplanted from the heart of the Chinese Empire to some town
in Central Asia. There is more colour, too, than in most Chinese towns,
the eternal dark blue or white dress of the natives being relieved by
the gaudy dresses and barbaric trappings of the Mongolian Tartar. The
very smell of the place, too, was different to those we had passed
through, the half fishy, half spicy odour with which every traveller in
Northern China is familiar, being superseded by the sickly smell of
argol-smoke, old rags, and general filth that clings to the Mongol
wherever he goes. They were not reassuring to look at, these Mongols. It
was not altogether pleasant to think that a fortnight more would see us
consigned to the tender mercies of this wild, nomad race, two solitary
Europeans, alone and unprotected in the great desert of Gobi. At first
sight the Mongol Tartar decidedly inspired us with respect, not to say
mistrust.

There are few noisier and busier places than Kalgan. The row in the
middle of the day was deafening, and the clouds of black dust, raised by
the perpetual traffic, unbearable. It was amusing sometimes to walk in
the busiest part of the day, to the market-place, in the middle of the
city, where the great horse, or rather pony mart is situated. There must
have been some three or four hundred ponies the morning we were there,
being trotted and galloped up and down for sale——for export to Pekin and
other parts of China. It was exciting, not to say dangerous, work,
apparently, for the wild desert horsemen tore hither and thither,
utterly regardless of where they went, or whom they knocked down or
collided with. I saw half a dozen falls in less than half an hour; but
the riders did not seem to mind, nor did it occasion any chaff or
merriment among the crowd of bystanders, as would have been the case in
England. The riders merely got up, and with a shake of the shoulders
waited till the yelling, chattering crowd had caught and restored the
runaway! Though the ground was rough and flint-strewn, no one seemed to
mind a fall. Round the square were a number of tea-houses and sheds for
the sale of “Airak” (native brandy), where the wily Pekin Chinaman might
be seen hobnobbing with the swarthy Tartar over a “deal.” I fancy the
latter usually got the worst of the bargain. The ponies were beautifully
shaped, wiry little animals, about thirteen to fourteen hands. I saw
one, a chestnut, sold for eight dollars, which would have fetched thirty
or forty guineas in England. At mid-day it became almost impossible to
make one’s way through the crowds of people that thronged the narrow
streets, and crowded the canvas booths for the sale of iced drinks, tea,
tobacco, and other refreshments erected along the foot-paths. At such
moments, on a fine day, the bright sunshine, gaudy dresses of the
Mongols, white and blue of the Chinese, thronging the streets of the
huge walled city, with its amphitheatre of rugged, precipitous hills,
made a picture as unique as it was interesting. The whole place looked
like a gigantic fair. Street tumblers, jugglers, and fortune-tellers
plied a brisk trade in the middle of the roadway, heedless of yelling,
wild-looking Mongols galloping madly about on ponies, while the
shopkeepers at the top of their voices cried out from their doors the
excellence of their wares, each trying to outyell his neighbour. Add to
this the clashing of cymbals and beating of gongs from a theatre hard
by, and you have a faint idea of a street in Kalgan at midday.

Here, as in Pekin, the dust acts as a disinfectant, and Kalgan is by no
means an unhealthy place, though the heat in summer is as severe as in
winter the cold is intense. I know no place so inspiriting on a fine
day, so depressing on a dull one, as Kalgan. In the former case all was
animation, life, and colour. The sky of Mediterranean blue, and the
verdant, smiling hills and gaily-coloured verandahs and dresses of the
natives, coupled with the keen, inspiriting air, enlivened the spirits
like a glass of champagne; but on a dull or rainy day everything around
looked dark and depressing. A kind of fog hung over everything, over the
mountain tops wreathed in dank, white mist, the grey, lowering sky, and
brown, mud-coloured dwellings, while the white wooden crosses in the
Russian cemetery, just to the right of our house, stood out with
uncomfortable prominence. It was on days like this that one realized how
far one was from England, how many thousand leagues of unknown country
lay between us and home.

Dull days were in the minority, however, and our time passed pleasantly
enough, if somewhat uneventfully, at Kalgan. There were but eleven
European residents in all, five of them belonging to the two Russian tea
firms, the remainder to an American Mission established here ten years
ago. “We are like the rival editors in Peek-Veek,” said Ivanoff one day,
alluding to himself and his _confrère_ in the tea-trade. “We do not
speak; and have not for some years.” I was not a little surprised to
find our host so well up in English literature, till I heard that
Dickens, as well as many other standard authors, has been largely
translated into Russian, and has an enormous sale at Irkoutsk (our
friend’s native place), and other parts of Siberia.

We called on the mission one day, whose headquarters are in a
substantially stone-built house standing in beautiful gardens on the
outskirts of the city. One might almost have imagined oneself in some
country parsonage in England, drinking tea in a cool, pretty
drawing-room, while a fresh, sweet smell stole in through the French
windows from the hay and clover fields. Four were lady missionaries, two
of whom were certificated doctors, who had, Ivanoff told us, done
wonders in the epidemic of typhus, that had visited Kalgan two years
previously, and by their untiring efforts and wonderful cures had made
many converts. We were welcomed, on entering the house, by a pretty
little Chinese lady, unaccountably so, as we thought, for one of her
race. The mystery was explained when she invited us to be seated, in our
own language, and further told us that although she had adopted Chinese
costume, she was an American. Mrs. S———— had only been married three
months, and had come straight from New York to Kalgan, to share her
husband’s fortunes in the wilds, for she was about to leave for a
mission four hundred miles from Kalgan, situated in one of the most
dangerous districts of the Chinese empire. Her husband came in shortly
after, also in Chinese costume, with the addition of a pigtail! It is a
rule that every one connected with this society shall wear native dress;
and when at their posts in Central China the missionaries are expected
to eat like the natives. I could not help pitying the pretty,
delicate-looking little woman when I thought of the trials and dangers
she was embarking on. She seemed quite undismayed, however, and laughed
and prattled away about the career she had chosen like a child——indeed
she was little more than one in years.

Another missionary, Mr. C————, had arrived that morning from his post
five hundred miles off, a hazardous and fatiguing journey, which he had
made in under six weeks, bringing his little son, under two years old,
with him, notwithstanding that some of the journey over the passes had
to be done on foot. The natives of the regions through which he had
passed, had, he told us, insisted upon it, that the little fellow was an
old man, for he had very light, almost white hair. Most of them were
“Tow-ists.” The founder of this sect is believed by its followers to
have been born at the age of eighty-three, with grey hair. Hence their
refusal to be persuaded, notwithstanding Mr. C————’s most earnest
assurance that his son was not an old man! “Kalgan,” said Mr. C————,
“is, in the eyes of Mahometans, the Bokhara of China, and there are
large colleges here, where the teachers of the Mahometan faith are
educated. Although the three great Chinese religions are Confucianism,
Buddhism, and Tow-ism, there are many more Mahometans existing in China
than is generally supposed; their faith in the Celestial Empire is
governed by a consistory of as many as seventy persons.”

We stayed to dinner, and bade adieu to our hosts at sundown, having to
be outside the city gates before seven o’clock. Mr. T————, the head of
the mission, expressed a hope, before we left, that we should not follow
the example of the last travellers (a German and a Frenchman), who had
attempted the transit of Gobi, armed with a perfect arsenal of firearms
and escorted by a large caravan. Ten days from the start they were back
again in Kalgan, having fallen out on the way. That was their excuse;
but I doubt, from subsequent experience, if the dreary monotony of the
desert had not more to do with it, for they were good friends enough,
when, after two days’ rest at the mission, they set off for Japan.

Arrived at the Great Gate of the city, on our homeward way, we found
ourselves, together with some dozen other unfortunate beings, locked
out, or rather in, for the night. All our efforts to induce the
gatekeeper to let us out were fruitless, for he simply responded to our
frantic signs and gestures with a grin and shrug of the shoulders, and
crawled back into his foul-smelling den, to discuss the mess of pigs’
entrails, slugs, or some Chinese delicacy of a like description, which
constituted his evening meal. The position was awkward. To climb the
walls was out of the question. Their height precluded that, for the city
walls of Kalgan are at this point actually part of the Great Wall of
China itself. The only way out of the dilemma was to drop a distance of
thirty feet or so on to some rocks at a point about three hundred to
four hundred yards from the gate, but we preferred even a night in a
tea-house, to a sojourn of a month or two at Kalgan, tied down with a
broken leg. There was nothing for it but to sit down patiently and trust
to Ivanoff’s coming to release us, though that seemed unlikely enough,
seeing that he lived some distance from Batouyeff’s house, and never
visited it after nightfall. Matters were not improved by a thin
drizzling rain which began to fall after we had waited nearly an hour,
and drove us to seek refuge in a crowded tea-house close by the gates,
the resort of the gay dogs of Kalgan who are locked out of their homes
for the night. The stench and smoke, though, soon drove us out again, to
say nothing of the aggressive curiosity of the inmates, the greater part
of whom were Mongols. Nine o’clock, ten, eleven o’clock passed, and yet
no Ivanoff, or signs of a rescue from our awkward situation. We should
long before have tried an expedient that seldom fails in any country,
never in China, but alas! we had no cash. At one o’clock, a.m., we gave
it up as a bad job, and had resolved to get what sleep we could on the
ground, wet and miry as it was, when, in searching for a light, I came
upon a hard round substance in my waistcoat pocket, and found a dollar
that had reposed there ever since the day I last wore the garment, six
weeks ago, in Shanghai. Armed with this, I entered the old janitor’s
den. He was still awake, smoking and crooning over the dying embers of
an argol fire. The effect was instantaneous. In less than five minutes
the mercenary old wretch had summoned help from the tea-shop, which was
still blazing with light, and crowded with people. After much difficulty
and labour, unbolting and unbarring, the heavy gates, guided by the
efforts of six men, swung slowly back upon their hinges and let us out,
stiff, cramped, and in a fiendish temper, but free, and followed by the
ragged rabble who had been our fellow-captives, and who luckily for us
led us direct for Batouyeff’s house, for we should never have found our
way alone. An excellent supper soon made amends for our discomfort. All
had retired to rest, thinking we had slept at the Mission-house.

An extraordinary being called upon us next morning, and one looked upon
as a character by the European population of Kalgan. The visiting-card
which announced him told us but little; a piece of flimsy red paper
about eight inches long by five broad covered with Chinese characters;
and we wondered what the caller could possibly want, not without grave
doubts that an order might have come from Pekin to stop us. Our visitor
was then shown in, a short, intelligent-looking man of about fifty, who,
to our astonishment, spoke English perfectly. We had a long chat (and
many successive ones) with Captain Lew Buah (for such was the stranger’s
name), of the Chinese Navy, who entertained the usual liking of his
profession for cold brandy and water, and delighted in nothing more than
in coming to spend the afternoon to fight his battles over again, rather
to the detriment of our small stock of spirits. He had been exiled to
Kalgan, he told us, for five years, in consequence of being the only man
who had saved his ship from the French at Foochow. Ten other Chinese
men-of-war were sunk on this occasion, but Lew Buah, seeing defence was
useless, had run his steamer, a gunboat of three hundred tons, up a
small creek of the river, and so saved her from the enemy. For this he
was, unjustly enough, condemned to death, a sentence afterwards commuted
to five years’ exile on the Mongolian border. If the captain’s yarn was
true, he was certainly to be pitied, for his other exploits (which I
have since ascertained were not exaggerated) make him out anything but a
coward.

One of them was amusing enough. Having run the blockade of Formosa three
times, he was on the fourth occasion, when carrying a cargo of soldiers,
captured by a French man-of-war, the commander of which had for some
time been trying in vain to catch him. Luckily for our friend, however,
the soldiers were sent from Manchuria unarmed and disguised as peasants,
and neither the captain nor officers of the Frenchman knew him by sight.
He was, however, taken on board at once, and examined by a Chinese
interpreter in presence of the French commander. Oddly enough the former
was an old friend of Lew Buah’s, and intimated by a wink as soon as his
countryman came on board that all would be right. Nothing suspicious was
found on board Lew Buah’s ship, and he was allowed to depart in peace,
the French captain observing as he left, “If you see that d————d
scoundrel Lew Buah, tell him from me I’ll hang him to my main yard-arm
whenever he crosses my path.” The telling of this yarn was the old
gentleman’s greatest delight, and he would return with fresh vigour to
the brandy bottle after telling us how he had done the foreign devil in
the eye. The old fellow’s life had been a somewhat chequered one. It
commenced at Canton where his father had been a street fruit-hawker,
carrying his wares in two baskets slung across his shoulders by a
bamboo; in one basket was the fruit, balanced by little Lew Buah in the
other! An English lady who happened to meet the strange couple, took a
violent fancy to the fat, chubby-cheeked baby, and having no children of
her own, prevailed upon his father, nothing loth, to sell her his son
for the modest price of ten dollars. He thus, at the early age of two
years, fairly lit on his legs, and, after a residence of fifteen years
with his benefactress, returned to China and obtained a commission in
the Imperial Navy, in which, up to the time of the unfortunate
_contretemps_ at Foochow he had greatly distinguished himself. Though
the captain spoke English fluently, some of his expressions were at
times very original. We asked him one day if there was any sport to be
got round Kalgan, upon which he informed us that the hills around
abounded with “Scotch woodcock.” Still, for a Chinaman, the old fellow
had charming manners, and was a thorough gentleman in thought and
feeling.

As I have said, a bitter feud existed between Ivanoff and his confrère;
but the postmaster, M. Kolestnikoff, and our host were firm friends.
Both, too, were ardent sportsmen, and invited us one morning to join
them in a day’s shooting in the hills and ravines round Kalgan.
Ivanoff’s costume was somewhat singular, consisting of a suit of
spotless white canvas, silk socks and dancing-pumps, while round his
neck was slung an enormous field-glass. Politeness forbade my making
inquiries till we got to the shooting-ground. I imagined, at least, that
we were going deerstalking, judging from the caution our Russian friends
displayed in climbing about the crags and peaks. It was terribly hard
climbing, and our hands were torn and bleeding when we reached the
summit of the mountain, about a mile from the house, where the day’s
sport was to commence. Here I was somewhat surprised to see Ivanoff lay
down his gun, and, gravely unslinging his huge pair of glasses, intently
scan the rocks of a mountain separated from us by a narrow ravine.
Evidently they are after deer, I thought, thankful that I had brought
some bullet cartridges with me, when suddenly our host dropped the
glasses and seized my arm. Following the direction in which he was
pointing, I made out, with some difficulty, what looked like a covey of
partridges sunning themselves on the plain eighty or a hundred feet
below us. “Will you shoot first?” said Ivanoff, cocking a huge
muzzle-loader almost the size of a duck gun. “But are we not going to
walk them up?” asked Lancaster, who, like myself, was somewhat
bewildered at their strange proceedings. “Walk them up?” inquired the
Russian, with a puzzled look, “walk them up? what do you mean? No, no,
shoot from here, I will show you,” and lying flat on his stomach, he
took deliberate aim at the unconscious victims. Bang went the old
field-piece with a report that woke a thousand echoes from the hills
around, and must have been heard distinctly at Kalgan, over a mile off.
When the thick white smoke had cleared away, there was but one little
brown body lying extended on the ground, a sight which was received with
rapturous applause by the postmaster, who was watching the proceedings
from a rock higher up. We shot, or rather climbed and fell about, till
mid-day, but saw no more birds. If the sport was not first-class, the
excitement was intense. In some of the places we literally had to hold
on by our eyelids, and squeeze past sheer falls of two hundred or three
hundred feet, on to the sharp, rugged rocks below. Ivanoff afterwards
told us that a brace is accounted a good bag at Kalgan, which seems
curious when the desert hard by teems with game of all kinds. Perhaps,
though, the method practised by our Kalgan friends had something to do
with the small bags.

We could have had plenty of fun with the pigeons, which flew about in
huge flocks in the mountain-paths about Kalgan; but as we were the
guests of a Russian we did not like to shoot them.[4] We saw many
hundreds of specimens of a peculiar kind of beetle in the lower and
swampy grounds, an animal rather larger than a mouse, with a long
whip-tail, and short broad black body, covered with bright red bands. I
was unable to discover its name. They do no harm to the crops, Ivanoff
said, living chiefly on smaller insects, and are largely eaten by the
natives, who consider them a great delicacy.

We crossed the Great Wall of China on our way home, or rather a portion
of it that had broken away and left a mass of shapeless stone and
rubble. Its height is wonderfully deceptive. Seen from the valley it
looked five or six feet high at the very most, but on taking the trouble
to measure its dimensions we found it to be twenty-three feet in height,
about twelve feet wide at the base, and seven at the top. It has a
tumble-down, dilapidated appearance, for, saving the square battlemented
towers that are built in it at every four hundred yards or so, it is
uncemented, and composed of huge loose stones gradually decreasing in
size as they near the coping. Though the stones have rolled away in
places and left great gaps in the structure, one only realizes on
approaching it close——at Kalgan no easy matter——what a herculean work
the building of this barrier two thousand miles long must have been. The
stones of which it is composed are so time-worn and moss-covered that it
is almost impossible to say to what species they belong; they seemed
mostly of one kind, and extremely heavy. I managed to secure three small
ones for paper weights, while Ivanoff and Kolestnikoff “kept cave,” the
Mongols and Chinese being very jealous of any interference with their
property or institutions. At the same time no one ever dreams of
repairing the gaps, though it would be easy enough. As the reader is
probably aware, the Great Wall of China was built about 300 B.C. by the
Chinese, as a defence against the Tartar hordes who were then ravaging
the countries bordering on their frontier.

We had now been at Kalgan nearly ten days, and our carts were
approaching completion, but there were as yet no signs of the camels.
Two suspicious-looking gentlemen (a Mongol and a Chinese) called on us
one evening with a plausible tale of being able to bring us eight camels
on the morrow, and, that we might be delayed no longer, themselves
undertook to guide us across the desert to Ourga. Ivanoff was then away
for two days, and on my replying that I could give no definite answer
without consulting him, the faces of our visitors lengthened
considerably. Their intention was probably to rob and desert us, for on
seeing that we were determined to await our host’s return before closing
with them, they vanished to return no more. A more villainous-looking
couple I have seldom seen, and, if appearance goes for anything, there
is no doubt they meant mischief.

Comfortable as were our quarters and host, we were getting a little
tired of Kalgan, for besides strolling about the streets and loafing
about on the caravan track, there was absolutely nothing to do. Our
chief occupation of a morning was to ramble round the city, whiling away
an hour or two at the Chinese theatre, booths or shops. In the afternoon
it was amusing to watch the long strings of wood-carts come jingling and
rattling along the stony river-bed from Mongolia, and lazy,
sleepy-looking camel caravans crawling along under their burdens of furs
and other products of Siberia. Some were a hundred and fifty to two
hundred strong, and one wondered why, when there were so many of them
about, they could not afford to let us have half a dozen or so to fit
out our modest expedition across the Great Hungry Desert, as it is
called by the Chinese. We had learnt by now, however, that suggestions
do not hurry this journey, but retard it, however feasible the project,
so wisely held our peace.

Towards evening we usually found our way to the summit of a rocky
mountain about a couple of miles from Kalgan, and watched the sunset,
which was, as a rule, of exceptional beauty. Though the ascent was steep
and arduous, one was well repaid by the view when it was over. The
ravine leading to it was a kind of crack or fissure, evidently of
volcanic origin, and pitch dark on the brightest day, save for a patch
of bright blue sky seen through the narrow aperture overhead. Emerging
from this, one came to a steep, almost perpendicular grass slope,
crowned at its summit by a huge limestone rock literally riddled with
caves, and occupied by thousands of huge black and white birds sitting
motionless at their outlets, winking and blinking at the setting sun,
and looking as if no human being had broken in upon their solitude for
centuries. They displayed not the slightest alarm at our approach, but
gathered in groups and cawed and screamed as if in anger at our
intrusion. Not a dwelling was to be seen, not a sound heard to break the
silence but the occasional rustle of wings, the croak of some huge bird,
or the distant crash of some boulder or stone as it dislodged itself to
fall heavily into the dark valley below. One could see from here the
limitless chains of mountains that surround Kalgan, the great wall
stretching away east and west to the horizon, and beyond it, a long,
level sea-like expanse, the green and fertile plains of China. Nearer
still, nestling in the valley, lay Kalgan, with its white houses and
flower-gardens, its coloured awnings and terraces, extending for a mile
and more along the banks of the broad blue river, and half-way up the
steep, rugged mountain behind the city. It was hard to realize at such
times that one was so far from the civilized world. It needed but a
slight effort to imagine oneself in Europe again, hidden away in some
secluded mountain village in the Alps or Pyrenees. Pleasant too was it
to sit out in the veranda of an evening, with a cool breeze blowing in
fresh and strong from the desert, watching the moon slowly rise over the
great black mountain at the foot of the pass, throwing the weirdest
effects of light and shade over the dark valley and frowning crenellated
walls of the sleeping city, for all was quiet as a rule by ten o’clock,
and not a sound to be heard but the cry of the watch, or at hourly
intervals, the beating of a gong at the Great Gate. We almost regretted,
at such times, that our days in China were drawing to a close. One feels
a pang of regret on leaving even the most disagreeable countries, and we
had assuredly nothing to complain of in this so-called barbarous land,
where, save on one occasion, we had met with nothing but civility and
kindness. Anticipation is usually either better or worse than
realization, and we looked forward with no little anxiety to the journey
across the desert of Gobi——with no signs of vegetation, no settled
habitations or fellow-beings to break the monotony or disturb the
solitude of the long and weary thirty-five days’ journey that lay
between us and the Russian frontier.

Though the days were hot at Kalgan, the nights were cool and pleasant.
Our rest was somewhat disturbed, though, by Ivanoff’s clerks, who shared
the apartment next ours, and gave us a nightly concert that began about
half past ten, and lasted till an indefinite hour in the morning. Their
instrument was a kind of half banjo, half concertina, very popular in
Siberia, which has a melancholy, though not unpleasing, sound. Both men
were Siberians, one a native of Irkoutsk, and the other of Kiakhta, and,
like all their countrymen, had a rooted antipathy to going to bed. I do
not believe they ever slept at all, for I once woke about 4 a.m., and
one of them, even at that hour, was reading out loud to the other.
Neither could speak a word of English, or, indeed, any language but
Russian and Mongolian. They came rushing into our room one night to say
there was a large wolf in the yard at the back of the house. We loaded a
rifle and hurried out, but only just in time to see the beast vanish
over the wall in the moonlight. The outskirts of Kalgan are infested
with these brutes at night, and even in the daytime children have been
carried off; but we never saw another till we got into Siberia.

The camels arrived on the tenth day, four days sooner than we expected
them, and we set about making our preparations for a start without
further delay. The caravan was, according to Ivanoff’s arrangement, to
consist of sixteen camels, three carts, and three ponies, under the
escort of three Mongol guides. We found it quite hopeless to attempt to
pronounce their names, so christened them, for purposes of
identification, Moses, Aaron, and Sylvia, the latter from his striking,
though somewhat grotesque, likeness to a burlesque actress of that name
who graces the boards of the Gaiety Theatre in London. Though Sylvia was
a pleasant-looking, good-tempered boy of about twenty, his companions
were positively repulsive. I have seldom seen a more villainous-looking
cutthroat individual than Aaron, but luckily his looks belied him. Each
wore the Mongol costume, a loose, long gown, thickly coated all down the
front with mutton fat, grease, and other abominations, for a Mongol’s
coat is his dinner-napkin. All were armed with short, ugly-looking
knives, while Moses, in his capacity of leader, carried a rusty
horse-pistol which looked as if it had been made about the same date as
the Great Wall, and which would probably have done him far more injury
than his opponent, had it gone off.

The transit of the Desert of Gobi is accomplished by the regular heavy
Russian post (established 1860) in something under twenty-five days from
Kiakhta, but we expected to take considerably longer. The post caravans
are under the direction of experienced Mongol mail-men and Cossacks, who
know the road to an inch, although there is, of course, no beaten track
to guide them. Our guides were of a somewhat primitive order, and as we
afterwards discovered, often considerably out both as to time and
distance. Some Chinese tea-merchants strolled into the yard the day
before we left, while we were getting the packing-cases settled evenly
on the camels’ backs. They evidently did not think much of our caravan,
and more than one of them, Jee Boo told me, openly expressed an opinion
that we should never get across with such weak camels and inexperienced
men. Truly we could not have chosen a worse time to start so far as the
strength of the camels was concerned. As to the men, I felt we must take
our chance, but I was somewhat uneasy, and did not enjoy the excellent
dinner (our last civilized meal for some time) that Ivanoff provided for
us so much as I should have done under ordinary circumstances. It was
too late now, however, to make any alterations, and we retired to rest
earlier than usual, so as to make an early start in the morning for
Da-Hun-Go, the last settlement or hamlet on the Chinese side before the
desert city of Ourga (600 miles distant) is reached. Ivanoff was to
accompany us as far as our first halting-place, about twenty miles
distant. The carts had already started when, at 10.30 (on the morning of
the 8th of July), we set out for Da-Hun-Go. Just as we were about to
mount, a white-clad figure appeared, surmounted by an enormous straw
hat, which when removed disclosed the perspiring and beaming features of
our old naval friend, Captain Lew Buah. This necessitated a further
adjournment to the house, where the captain drank success to our
expedition in Vodka, and made an appointment to dine with us in London
in two years’ time. I sincerely hope the old fellow has since obtained
his pardon, and returned to his vocation, for which, as far as regards
pluck, he was certainly well fitted.

It was a bright and lovely morning. The first hour or two of our journey
lay through the dry river-bed——or caravan road——on which we passed many
strings of bullock-carts, but few camels. About nine miles from Kalgan,
and half-way to Da-Hun-Go, we passed “Tutinza,” a Mongol word signifying
“Cave Town.” Tutinza, which contained about eight hundred inhabitants,
could not have been better named, as the houses are literally built into
the sides of the hill, and are roofless, although they belonged to
well-to-do Chinamen, and were well and even luxuriously furnished
inside; while here and there among them were pretty flower-gardens and
clustering vines. Seen from a distance, the appearance of the blue and
white clad figures moving about among the pathways intersecting the
caves was very curious. It looked like a huge ant-hill. Nearly opposite
the village is “The Target of Tamerlan,” a mountain about three or four
hundred feet high, the summit of which is perforated by a clean-cut
circular aperture about thirty feet in diameter, plainly visible from
the road below. A freak of nature, no doubt; but the Mongols say that
this hole was made by an arrow shot by the Tartar hero. Jee Boo
derisively remarked to Moses that Tamerlan must have had a very large
bow, which only elicited a grunt in reply, and made our leader look, if
possible, more ill-tempered and villainous than ever.

The long rest at Kalgan had put our ponies in rare trim, and when we had
left the rocky valley and got on to the grass plains that bound the
valley of Da-Hun-Go, they tore away with us at a pace that it took
Ivanoff, who was riding an antiquated steed purchased from a Cossack
courier, all his time to keep up with us. Before reaching the plains, we
ascended for the last time the ridge of mountainous rocks separating
China from the plains of Mongolia. There is a gradual rise of about
fifteen hundred feet from Kalgan to Da-Hun-Go, from which point the
desert extends, flat and unbroken, with the exception of gentle
undulations, and a few ridges of rock, to the borders of Siberia. So
steep was the ascent that we had to get off and lead our ponies, and
though only three hundred feet high, it took the carts nearly two hours
to accomplish it. Half-way up we met a caravan of bullock-carts, each
with three or four men hanging on behind with ropes to act as breaks.
Even with these precautions two or three lay smashed to pieces on the
roadside. It is a curious fact, seeing the rough work they go through,
that these vehicles are built entirely of wood, and have not a scrap of
iron or other metal in their construction. About four o’clock we came to
a dilapidated, crumbling wall about fifteen feet in height, a branch of
the Great Wall of China, which, running at right angles to it for about
thirty miles, forms the boundary between Inner Mongolia and China. A
kind of gap or gate fifteen to twenty feet broad, marked the caravan
road. Passing through this, we turned and looked our last on the Chinese
Empire, and by five o’clock had reached our camping-ground, a green
stretch of meadow-land, watered by a clear running stream, on the
borders of which cattle, sheep, and ponies were grazing.

Half a dozen brick and wooden houses composed the village of Da-Hun-Go.
While the tents were being struck, we strolled out with our guns, but
though we saw plenty of game, duck, snipe, and a species of moor-hen in
plenty, we could get nowhere near them. We would willingly have stayed
here a day, but that the Mongols when once off are as hard to stop as a
switchback railway until they have reached their destination, long or
short as the journey may be. On our return we found the fires lit and a
comfortable meal prepared for us by Jee Boo. Ivanoff stayed the night,
and slept in the tent, but we preferred doubling up in our carts, the
night being so cold, that one was glad of a thick sheepskin even in the
close, stuffy vehicles. We slept soundly, lulled by the murmur of the
brook, and were rather loth to move, when Jee Boo brought us the
matutinal cup of cocoa and a biscuit. But the camels were already
packed, and although it was then only six, the indefatigable Ivanoff had
been up an hour superintending everything and giving final instructions
for our comfort and safety to the Mongols, an utterly useless
proceeding, I afterwards thought, when I got to know this unique race
better, for whatever is said to them, except for their own benefit,
invariably goes in at one ear and out of the other.

We left Da-Hun-Go at seven o’clock, taking leave of our kindly host with
much the same feeling that a man experiences when embarking for the
first time on a long sea voyage, with the difference that we had but a
very faint notion of when we should reach port, and but a very vague
idea of the hardships and fatigue to be undergone before we regained
comparative civilization at Kiakhta. At length all was ready. The tent
and water-barrels packed, carts harnessed, and ponies saddled. Moses,
mounting a wiry little beast about twelve hands high, led the way, while
Aaron took the lead on the foremost camel, Sylvia bringing up the rear
and bunting up the stragglers, who were continually breaking loose from
the line as they stooped to gather the sweet fresh pasture through which
we travelled. A final squeeze of the hand to Ivanoff, a crack of Moses’
heavy whip, and the caravan slowly moved away to the deep boom-booming
of the camel bells, a music which, though it sounded musical and
pleasing enough at first, we were heartily, hopelessly sick and tired of
long before reaching Ourga. As we turned a corner of the road and took a
last look at the vanishing figure of our friend and host, it was with a
feeling of loneliness and depression, hardly wonderful, perhaps, when we
realized that for nearly one thousand miles in distance and more than a
month in time we should see no other Europeans, and very few natives.
Nor was it reassuring to think that we were for the next month entirely
at the mercy of the three ragged, villainous-looking individuals who
constituted our escort, and who might, if they so pleased, murder, rob,
or desert us with impunity, so far as any fear of punishment was
concerned. Siberia, to say nothing of Russia and France, seemed very far
away on that bright July morning as we slowly started off, on the first
important stage of the long land journey from Pekin to Calais.

We were nearly four hours getting out of the valley of Da-Hun-Go, one of
the prettiest bits of scenery we passed during the whole of our voyage.
The ravine itself is a little over a mile broad, with low undulating
green hills on either side. Flocks of sheep dotted their sides, and an
occasional red and gold Buddhist temple flashed in the sun on their
summits and broke the sky-line. Through the centre of the valley ran a
tumbling, foaming brook alive with trout, its banks fringed with
sweet-smelling flowers, and about fifty yards from its brink the brown,
well-trodden caravan road which from here to the borders of the desert
proper is well defined. One might have been in one of the loveliest
parts of England. Wild hyacinths, cowslips, wild dog-roses, periwinkles,
and daisies grew on all sides in the long, sweet grass through which our
ponies almost laboured knee-deep, while in the distance the low sweet
notes of a cuckoo heightened the illusion, and recalled lovely bits of
scenery in Devonshire or Wales.

[Illustration: DA-HUN-GO.]

We halted for an hour, about two o’clock, for a tin of preserved meat
and glass of cold whisky and water. Moses intimated to us through Jee
Boo his intention of pushing on and gaining the desert before nightfall,
so there was no help for it. I did not wish to begin the journey with a
disturbance, and made no demur, and three o’clock saw us again on the
march, passing through plains of wheat and barley, and enormous fields
or enclosures of mustard and poppies. We saw no habitations, and
wondered a good deal where the tillers of all this ground reside. The
road got worse towards evening, and the heavy, clumsy carts stuck fast
several times in the deep, rotten holes with which it was honeycombed. A
little before six o’clock we got into a more desolate-looking country,
although it was better travelling, which was perhaps lucky, as the stiff
work in the marshes had almost done up our camels. I had yet to learn
that the more beat these animals look, the fitter they are.

We now passed through a sterile, burnt-up-looking country, thickly
covered with clumps of thick, wiry grass, over which the camel carts
plunged and rolled in a very painful manner. I retired to my cart about
five o’clock for a rest, and, tired out with my long ride in the sun,
fell asleep. The sun was low in the heavens when I awoke and looked out
of the little window. All traces of vegetation had vanished, while
straight in front of us rose a low range of yellow sand-hills, through
which stunted wisps of light green grass struggled at intervals. On the
near side of these were a couple of circular tents, some dogs, and
ponies standing hard by; on the far side of the sand-hills the sea, or
what appeared so exactly like it, that I had to rub my eyes to make sure
I was not dreaming. There it was; the great grey waste looking exactly
as it does when lit up at sunset, by the rays of the setting sun after a
hot summer’s day in England. The low yellow sand-hills, too, heightened
the illusion, and stood out clear and distinct against the grey expanse
and level, unbroken horizon. At this moment my ruminations were rudely
broken in upon by Moses. Appearing suddenly at the side of my cart, he
thrust his flat, ill-favoured face in at the window, and extending a
long, skinny forefinger, pointed to the darkening waste. “Shamo,”[5] he
muttered in a hoarse, guttural voice. Then I knew we had reached the
confines of the “Great Hungry Desert.”

—————

Footnote 4:

  The pigeon in Russia, and especially Siberia, is looked upon as a
  sacred bird.

Footnote 5:

  Mongol name for Gobi Desert.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER V.

  THE DESERT OF GOBI.


THE population of Mongolia, an elevated plateau lying about four
thousand feet above sea-level, is roughly estimated at between three and
four millions, but the difficulties of obtaining anything like an
accurate census of the tribes inhabiting this vast tableland are
obvious. Of this number, over thirty thousand inhabit Urga, the capital
and residence of the “Kootookta,” or living God of the Mongol religion,
“Buddhism.” The power of this human deity is purely nominal. He is
allowed to reign on sufferance by the Emperor of China, who governs,
more or less nominally, the whole of Mongolia, from the Siberian
frontier to the mountains of Tibet. The Mongol Tartars pay tax, though
somewhat irregularly, to the Pekin Government, the native khans or
princes being responsible for the revenues of their several “khanates”
or districts.

The name “Gobi” is given by the Mongols to any district more or less
destitute of water, but the desert, where we crossed it, presents but
few of the characteristics with which we usually associate the name. It
may better be described as a vast plain or steppe, extending from the
northern side of the Great Wall of China to the Russian frontier-town of
Kiakhta, a distance of over eight hundred miles. With the exception,
however, of about fifty miles of sandy waste midway across, the
north-western portion is seldom entirely devoid of vegetation of some
sort or another, be it rich, luxuriant pasture, or dry withered scrub.
Perhaps the most curious thing about this so-called desert is, that
although grass is so plentiful, and in many places wild flowers grow in
profusion, water is very scarce. In the summer months frequent and heavy
rain storms do much to lessen this evil, but the Tartars suffer terribly
at times from the drought, which sometimes lasts a year or more.
Notwithstanding, the climate is healthy, and serious epidemics, such as
cholera or typhus, unknown.

There are three caravan routes from the Great Wall to Urga. Along each
of these wells have been dug eight to ten feet deep, and at intervals of
twenty to thirty miles; but we found the water in most of them thick and
brackish, in many undrinkable, and had every reason to be sorry, long
before we reached Urga, that we had not laid in a larger stock of
soda-water at Shanghai.

Our guides were not cheerful companions. Moses seldom spoke, Aaron
never. Sylvia, however, was the life and soul of the caravan. His
spirits never flagged for an instant, and whenever he could talk to no
one else, he would hold long conversations in a loud tone with the camel
he bestrode, occasionally bursting into song. The Mongols do not squeak
when they sing, as the Chinese do, but their voices are as harsh and
inharmonious as their songs, which are generally in the minor key, and
very doleful and depressing.

I will not weary the reader with a daily description of the scenery
passed between Kalgan and Urga. It may be described in very few words:
Fourteen days of undulating grass plain, monotonous and unbroken, save
by an occasional “Yourt”[6] or encampment, four days of deep, sandy
desert interspersed with two ridges of rock, one hundred and fifty to
two hundred feet high, so steep as to be almost impracticable for the
carts. Five more days of green plain with intervals of gravel, thickly
covered with the brightly coloured transparent stones, for which Gobi is
famous. Such is a brief but sufficient description of the twenty-three
days we occupied in reaching Urga. But for the tract of sandy desert
half-way, nothing meets the eye, day after day, week after week, but one
long dreary succession of waves of plain, which reminded me of nothing
so much as the ocean. Not a solitary object, animate or inanimate, broke
the dull, desolate landscape save when at rare intervals we sighted a
Tartar tent, gleaming white in the sunshine, and looking in the far
distance like some white sea-bird asleep on the billows of this huge sea
of verdure. Beyond the capital, however, the country becomes more
accentuated, and there are woods, mountains, and rivers, to gladden the
eye after the long, monotonous desert journey, of which we were heartily
sick long before we reached the sacred city of the Kootookta.

I fondly imagined I had reached the acme of discomfort and misery in a
mule-litter, but the latter is a bed of roses compared to the boxes of
human suffering in which we crossed Mongolia. Imagine a kind of oblong
vehicle, eight feet long by three wide, and four feet high, the body of
the cart of rough unpainted wood, the roof or covering of canvas,
thickly smeared with Chinese varnish, which in wet, or very hot weather,
exuded the most intolerable smell. Two doors with small square holes
therein, let in the air and light (also occasionally the rain), while a
mattress and a couple of large feather pillows acted as a buffer,
without which one’s body and head would in a very short time have been
one mass of bruises. To say that these somewhat primitive vehicles shake
would be incorrect. They leap and bound even on a fairly good road,
beating and pounding the wretched inmate into a jelly; over stony ground
it is next to impossible to remain in them for any length of time
without a splitting headache, and a feeling as if every individual bone
in one’s body had been torn from its socket and put back again. I do not
wish my bitterest enemy a worse fate than a night of rough caravan work
in Mongolia. We often walked till one in the morning, in preference to
the intolerable shaking, which affected the nerves and mind almost as
much as it injured the body.

With the exception of a forty-eight hours’ rest at Urga, the day’s work
never varied, from the time we left Kalgan till we rode through the
Russian outposts at Kiakhta. At daybreak (between five and six a.m.)
Sylvia would gallop off on a pony and bring in the camels which, turned
loose at the halt, had strayed away in search of pasture till, at
sunrise, some of them were mere specks on the horizon. Breakfast (a cup
of cocoa and a biscuit) over, the caravan was usually well under weigh
by half-past six. The pace was not exhilarating, it seldom attained the
rate of three miles an hour, never exceeded it. We then travelled on,
riding or walking, till two o’clock p.m., when tents were pitched, and,
if near a well, the water-barrels filled. The midday meal consisted of a
tin of preserved meat and rice, or, if in a game district, a duck or
sand-grouse sometimes enlivened this somewhat sad meal. At five o’clock
we were on the move again till one or two in the morning, only halting
about nine o’clock for a quarter of an hour, to unsaddle the ponies and
swallow a cup of Valentine’s meat juice. I do not know what we should
have done without this preparation. On a journey of this kind, where the
fatigue is so great and cooking impossible, it is simply invaluable.

We thus got about four hours’ actual rest in the twenty-four, for in the
carts, while in motion, sleep was out of the question. I have often
since wondered how the ponies stood it. Camels are, of course, used to
such long exhausting journeys, though, strangely enough, the loss of a
camel was our only casualty.

We got on fairly well for two or three days, but after the first week
experienced a sense of oppression and weariness very hard to shake off,
and the dull, dead monotony of the eternal green steppes began to tell
upon the mind and spirits. We met but once a day as a rule, and even
then, like the parrot, spoke little and thought much; indeed we had
nothing to talk about, for with the exception of an occasional yourt
there was not one solitary object to distract the mind for a moment, or
interrupt the depressing aspect of the waves of plain that extend
between Kalgan and Urga. We even welcomed the region of sand in
mid-desert. It was a change, at any rate, and there were rocks to look
at, though, on the other hand, the work was harder and the distance
accomplished each day considerably less.

Perhaps the most striking peculiarity about Gobi is the dead silence
that reigns over its vast surface. At night the bright, unwavering
lights of the Great Bear, and soft glimmer of Cassiopeia and the
Pleiades stood out with a distinctness rarely seen in other latitudes. I
often lay awake and watched them, too tired to sleep, till the
lightening horizon heralded the dawn of another dreary, uneventful day,
and warned one that another hour at most would see us off again on our
weary journey. I had never, till I spent a night out on the waste,
thoroughly realized the words of the poet:——

              And round me all in utter darkness lies,
            No sound, no form, no message, and no sign,
              Only the silence of the far-off skies
            And stars that thro’ the darkness calmly shine.

It was not till the morning of the fifth day out from Saram Bolousar
that we sighted a yourt on the horizon and encamped within a mile of it
at dinner-time. There were but half-a-dozen tents in all, containing the
filthiest and most repulsive beings I have ever beheld.

The majority were, unfortunately for us, not the least troubled with
shyness, and took forcible possession of our tent and carts,
notwithstanding the indignant protestations of Jee Boo. Remonstrance was
useless. It would have been contrary to the rules of desert etiquette to
turn them out, and might have got us into trouble. It was a hot day, and
so closely were they packed about the tent-doorway that not a breath of
air could reach us, yet we suffered in silence, though the smell from
the greasy rags in which the poor wretches were clothed was well-nigh
unbearable. We must have seen from first to last about a hundred
natives, but I was sadly disappointed, I must own, in the Mongolian
Tartar. I had pictured him a wild, fierce-looking fellow, bristling with
knives and firearms, and leading a wild, romantic existence, of which
privation and danger formed a daily part. I found him a mild,
stupid-looking individual, lazy, good-tempered, dirty——not to say
filthy——in appearance and habits, and addicted to petty theft when there
was no fear of being found out.

The men are of middle size, muscular and stoutly built, with thick lips
and small beady black eyes. Naturally fair, the combined effects of sun,
argol smoke, and last, but not least, dirt give to most of them the hue
of a negro. Their women are plain and, as a rule, virtuous. Infidelity
is rare in Mongolia, and when it does occur the injured husband is
easily consoled by payment of a few sheep or a camel or two. The
Mongolian woman’s lot is not a happy one. Unlike their Kirghiz brothers,
the Mongolian Tartars have no respect whatever for their wives, of which
they are allowed any number, though the first married takes precedence
over the others. They are treated more as slaves than companions, and do
all the real hard work of the yourt, from catching the camels to
disembowelling a sheep! The men, as a rule, live longer than the women.
The latter suffer more from disease, although, with the exception of a
kind of influenza prevalent in summer, epidemics are unknown in
Mongolia.

The Mongol Tartar is essentially a nomad, and seldom stationary for more
than a year at a time, but for ever on the move, roving hither and
thither over the great plain in search of pasture and water for his
flocks and herds. His “yourt” or tent is admirably adapted to his wild,
erratic life, being so constructed that it can be taken down and packed
on a camel’s back in less than an hour. The “yourts” are circular in
shape, and simply consist of two layers of thick felt stretched over a
wooden framework secured by stout leather thongs. They are about five
feet high, and eighteen feet in diameter. A hole cut in the centre of
the conical roof lets out the smoke of a fire, which day and night is
kept alight for cooking purposes. The Mongol has no fixed time for his
meals. He eats when he feels hungry, and as often in the middle of the
night as the day. In winter the roof aperture is closed, and the smoke
allowed to escape as best it may through the chinks and crannies in the
felt. The fuel used is not wood (for no wood grows in Gobi), but “argol”
or dried camels’ dung, the smoke of which is much more dense and
pungent, and most of the Mongols suffer from sore eyes in consequence.
The furniture of a yourt is simple enough; half-a-dozen sheepskin rugs,
a flat iron pan to cook in, a large box containing the goods and
chattels of the family, surmounted by an image of Buddha and two or
three prayer-wheels; there is little or no room for more. Some of the
yourts are better furnished than others, those for example belonging to
the khans or princes. The latter are resplendent inside and out with
gold, silver, and costly silks; but these are rarely met with by the
casual traveller.

With the exception of gluttony the Mongol has few vices. Drunkenness is
rare. It is only when the mares are milked and “airak” brewed that they
exceed in this respect; but when they do, it is with a will, a whole
yourt being given up to drunkenness and debauch for two or three days
together. “Airak” is the only intoxicant known to the Mongols, if we
except the strong fiery whisky sometimes imported among them by Chinese
traders. Dirt is their other failing. I can safely say I have never
seen, or even read of a race so loathsome in their appearance and habits
as the Mongols. Men and women alike seem to revel in it, and most of
them present more the appearance of perambulating bundles of filthy rags
than human beings. It was not till we reached Urga, and met some of the
better class, that we were able to distinguish what the Mongol costume
really is, viz. a kind of loose dressing-gown reaching just below the
knee, secured by an ornamented silver belt, a pair of baggy breeches
stuffed into a pair of Chinese half-boots with felt soles, the whole
surmounted by a broad-brimmed black felt hat, not unlike a sailor’s hat
in shape, with long silk streamers. In winter the poor Mongol is
smothered in sheepskins, the rich in furs from Siberia. At a distance
the women are indistinguishable from the men, the only perceptible
difference being that the former wear no belt (the Mongol name for woman
signifies literally the “unbelted one”), while all wear a head-dress, a
kind of tiara of Chinese manufacture, made of silver and red and blue
stones, which look like, but are not, turquoises and coral. A Mongol
lady never does her hair more than once every two months or so. It is
kept in position by a kind of thick glue, and dressed so as to stand out
two or three inches on either side of the head at right angles. The
result of this practice in dwellings so infested with vermin as the
Mongol yourts may be left to the imagination.

The wealth of a Mongol Tartar consists exclusively of camels, sheep, and
ponies, for there is no industry, no manufacture of any kind in
Mongolia. The ponies are wonderfully well suited to endure the long,
distressing voyages their owners are continually making. Though small
and slightly built, the amount of fatigue these little beasts will
undergo is something incredible. Nothing seems to tire them, and our
own, “Chow” and “Karra,” arrived at Kiakhta as fit and sound as when we
left the Great Wall, although they had but five hours’ rest out of the
twenty-four for over a month, and for nearly a quarter of that time were
on a short allowance of water. The worth of a pony in Gobi varies from
8_l._ to 10_l._, or its equivalent in brick tea, for money is unknown in
Mongolia, and the currency at present consists solely of this somewhat
cumbersome article. We passed two or three droves of 400 or 500 ponies
each on our way across, which were being sent to Kalgan for export to
Pekin, Shanghai, and other parts of China. Accompanying one of these was
a “Mongolized” German, Herr R————, who twenty years ago settled in
Mongolia and has made a large fortune buying and exporting ponies. We
should never have known him for a European, dressed as he was _à la
Tartare_, and the “_Guten Tag_,” with which he greeted us, sounded
strangely out of place.

The Mongols never shoe their ponies, nor do they groom them. The mane
and tail is allowed to grow so long as to almost trail on the ground,
the Tartars saying that the length of these appendages keeps them warm
in winter, and wards off flies in the hot season; also, in case of a
broken bridle or stirrup-leather, there is always the horsehair handy to
mend it with!

The ways of these little beasts are at first somewhat confusing to a
stranger. It took me some time to get used to “Karra’s” favourite
tricks, such as stopping to scratch his ear with his hind-leg, sitting
down like a dog, and occasionally rolling without a moment’s warning,
when we came to a more than ordinarily tempting bit of grass. He was
certainly the cleverest pony I have ever seen out of a circus, and as
sweet-tempered as he was mischievous. I shall never forget when, the
first day after antelope, I attempted to guide him through the rat-holes
and mole-hills that thickly cover the central parts of the desert. We
had not gone ten lengths before, getting his head well down, he set to
kicking and bucking with such a will, that I expected every instant to
see the girths snap and the saddle sent flying! Moses, galloping
alongside, motioned me to drop the reins on his neck. The effect was
instantaneous, for he immediately became as quiet as a lamb, and bounded
away again with a snort and shake of his game little head, as much as to
say, “The idea of this idiot trying to teach _me_ my way over the
desert!” “Karra” never once gave me a fall, nor made a mistake, although
this novel mode of riding at full gallop over rough ground, with one’s
hands in one’s pockets, required some nerve at first.

We were later than usual in getting away the evening of our halt in the
Tartar encampment, for a sheep was given us by our unwelcome guests in
exchange for a couple of soda-water bottles. These are especially prized
by the Mongols, probably on account of their, to them, strange shape.
The task of slaying the animal was relegated to Sylvia, who proceeded to
his work in true Tartar fashion. First making a huge gash in its side
with his large clasp-knife, he thrust in his hand, and seizing the heart
stopped its movements. The animal was then skinned, and the entrails,
after being washed, carefully put aside; nothing was wasted. We reserved
the legs for ourselves, and Moses and Co. proceeded to devour the rest.
From the time it was killed to when they were licking the last remnants
from the bones took them just two hours; they ate it half raw. The sheep
on Gobi are small and pure white, with long pendent black ears, and an
enormous tail weighing eight to ten pounds. This lump of fat is
considered a delicacy, and always given to the favoured guest in a
“yourt.” The mutton was excellent, not unlike Southdown.

We got but little rest that night. Our guests had left us a souvenir in
the shape of certain nameless animals that stuck to us faithfully the
remainder of our journey to Kiakhta. We had hitherto congratulated
ourselves on there being no mosquitoes, but soon realized that a whole
army of the latter would have been preferable to the noisome insects
that, two or three days afterwards, swarmed in the carts, and gave us no
peace, night or day. Their smell was worse than their bite, and I think
this was, perhaps, the greatest discomfort we had to put up with on the
desert journey, always excepting the fatigue and semi-starvation.

We passed and saw nothing for the following three days, although it was
interesting to note the curious waves of vegetation and animal life that
we crossed at intervals. For a couple of miles the ground would be a
perfect network of rat-holes, to give place, in turn, to a district
covered with bright black and yellow lizards. Then thousands of beetles
covered the plain——large, long-legged things, with bodies as big as a
cockroach, and striped with red and black bars; then rats again, and so
on, but the rats were in the majority. In many places the plain was
alive with them; you trod on them as you walked. The Gobi rat is
peculiar to Mongolia. He is a soft, pretty little animal, with a
feathery tail, and has none of the disgusting attributes of the common
Norwegian or English rat.

It was the same with the vegetation. Each flower or herb seemed to have
its own district, though one kind of weed was noticeable everywhere, in
the barren as in the most fertile parts. Not being a naturalist, I
cannot give its name, but in appearance it is exactly like the weed that
grows in such luxuriance at the bottom of our fresh-water ponds and
canals in England, where it is called “Babington’s curse,” from the fact
that it was originally imported by a person of that name in America.
When crushed it emits a sweet scent like thyme, and on clear, cool
nights the scent was almost overpowering when the carts and camels had
passed over it.

Another flower very common in Gobi is the white convolvulus, which grows
almost everywhere like the herb mentioned above. Among the rarer sort
were a pretty lilac-coloured daisy with a yellow centre, the common
dandelion, and in some parts the English daisy. Rarest of any was a pink
flower growing on a prickly bush about a foot high, exactly like a
miniature hawthorn-tree in full bloom. It had a sweet but rather sickly
perfume.

The seventh day out we met the heavy Russian mail——five camels in charge
of two Cossacks and a Tartar. The latter were cheery, good-tempered
fellows, and seemed to be taking it easy, each astride a camel, with red
flannel shirts, bare legs and feet, and nothing to show they were
Russian soldiers but the flat, white, peakless cap with which
Vereschagin’s pictures have made us familiar. We gave them a drink
apiece, and sent them on their way rejoicing, but with an expression of
wonder on their jolly, sunburnt faces——wonder, not unmingled with pity,
for the poor, mad Englishmen who were doing this journey for pleasure!

We entered at sunset a part of the desert literally covered with
enormous mole-hills, some as much as two or three feet in height. Being
pitch-dark, we had a rough time of it in the carts, for the feeble
glimmer of the paper-lantern attached to each only sufficed to make
darkness visible, and it was almost impossible to steer clear of the
huge mounds. After several narrow escapes of an upset, we got out and
walked, about ten o’clock, and had an uncomfortable night of it, for
about 10.30 a fine, drizzling rain commenced to fall, which lasted till
we encamped at midnight. Walking was little better, and resulted in some
terrible croppers, for we could not see an inch before us. A good stiff
glass of whisky and water and a rest of six hours soon put things right,
though we felt a good deal beat the next morning, when at 6.30 we were
roused by the inexorable Sylvia.

We encamped the next day near a yourt of considerable size. Moses having
informed us that the chief or head-man was a Lama of some importance, we
sent up to his tent, a gaudy-looking edifice, surmounted by half a dozen
red and yellow prayer-flags, to ask if we might call and pay our
respects, a request that was immediately granted. This was the largest
yourt we saw, and was composed of over twenty tents.

We rode off after dinner, accompanied by Jee Boo, who, on the way,
instructed us how to behave, for the forms and ceremonies that have to
be gone through when visiting a Tartar domicile are, to a stranger,
somewhat confusing. For instance, a Mongolian never dreams of walking up
to a strange yourt. Not only is it contrary to custom, but dangerous, on
account of the huge dogs kept about every tent for the protection of the
women and children when the men are from home. A Russian Cossack,
ignorant of this, went up to a yourt on foot a few years since, and was
torn in pieces by the savage brutes, which are, in size and appearance,
very much like an English mastiff.

Arrived within earshot of the yourt, we reined up, Jee Boo shouting out
loudly, “Nohai Harai,” or “Tie up the dogs.” Several women then emerged
from the lama’s tent, and secured the brutes, after which we rode up,
and handing our ponies over to the care of a rather pretty, dark-eyed
Tartar girl, entered the tent in somewhat undignified fashion on all
fours. The door was too low to admit us in any other fashion. Our
sticks, revolvers, and knives were laid on the ground outside. It would
be as great a breach of good manners to enter a Mongol tent armed or
with a stick in your hand as a drawing-room with your hat on, the idea
being, that while under his roof, your host is responsible for your
safety. You do not require to defend yourself. There were, save the
lama, no men about, and we afterwards heard they were away on a hunting
expedition in quest of antelope. It was some time before we could make
out the lama, for the sunshine outside was dazzling, and the interior of
the tent in almost total darkness. The great man, who was lying on a
kind of divan, and surrounded by four or five women, did not rise when
we entered, but lazily extended a moist and dirty hand as a sign that we
might shake hands with him, which having done, we seated ourselves on
his right and left. He was a fat, pasty-faced individual, clad in a long
gown of faded yellow silk, the front of which was stiff with the grease
and dirt of years. His bullet head was, after the manner of lamas,
shaved; and round his neck was hung a huge brass ornament, of rough
workmanship.

Having motioned us to a seat, the lama made a long speech, of which we
could understand nothing, nor could, I believe, Jee Boo, although he
told us it was replete with good wishes and compliments. The Mongol
language is a difficult one, and even our interpreter, who had studied
it for years, could only speak it in a very rudimentary way. One
peculiarity of the Mongol tongue is that, unless you say a word
_exactly_ as it is pronounced, you might as well address them in
Sanskrit or double-Dutch. As an instance of this, an American missionary
at Kalgan was good enough to teach me a word of the greatest importance
in the desert: “Tie up your dogs.” He pronounced it “No high, Harū”
(sic), but when I tried this, it failed signally, and the Mongols could
make nothing of it for a long time. At last a light dawned on them.
“Nohoi Haré, oh, we understand that!” I could not help thinking, after
this, that the Gospel must have rather a poor chance in Mongolia!

The interior of the tent was comfortable enough, though the argol smoke
got into one’s eyes and made them smart for days after. The floor was
strewn with thick, soft Chinese rugs and tapestries, apparently of great
value, while round the sides of the tent were hung large pieces of
bright silk, covered with Chinese and Tibetan characters——probably
prayers. Directly in front of the entrance was a kind of altar, painted
red, upon which reposed a huge gilt image of Buddha surrounded by
half-a-dozen prayer-wheels, to which whenever they passed them, the
inmates of the yourt gave a vigorous turn. The amount of prayers they
must have got through, even during our short visit, was something
marvellous, for the wheels were incessantly on the go, from the time we
entered the tent till we left it. In the centre, and directly opposite
the entrance, a huge copper cauldron, three parts full of a dirty,
yellow-coloured liquid, simmered on a brazier of argol, the only fuel
used in this part of Mongolia, where no wood grows.

Having smelt and returned the inevitable snuff-bottle, we murmured
“mendu” “good-day,” and relapsed into silence, waiting for the Lama to
recommence the conversation. The snuff-bottle is an infallible sign of a
Mongol’s wealth and position. No conversation is ever carried on without
a preliminary sniff, which is more a matter of form than anything else,
as they often contain nothing. From the head Lama to the poorest Mongol
no Tartar is ever without one. Most are of Pekin manufacture, ranging in
value from a few cash to two hundred taels or more, the best ones being
of gold or jade encrusted with precious stones, the commoner sort of
glass or china. Attached to the stopper is a small bone or ivory spoon
with which the snuff (when there is any) is ladled into the nostrils.

A good ten minutes elapsed before the Lama showed any desire to enter
into conversation, and we were about to take our departure when the
pretty Tartar girl came bustling into the tent and brought us some tea
(or a concoction of that name) out of the copper cauldron. Seeing that
we looked at the greasy-looking stuff rather askance, the Mongol gave a
sort of grunt and held his thumb up, an operation that was repeated by
the women around him. This I learnt from Jee Boo means “good,” holding
it down in the manner of the Romans when they desired the death of a
gladiator “bad.” So we were forced to drink it, though with reluctance,
especially as I had noticed that the Mongols, as a rule, follow Jack
Sprat’s example and lick the platter clean! The shallow wooden cups, out
of which we drank, were literally encrusted with dirt, but it would
never have done to refuse, so we gulped the nauseous mixture of brick
tea, millet, and mutton-fat down. Never shall I forget it. That was the
only cup of real Mongol tea I ever tasted, but it was some days before I
got the flavour out of my mouth. The Lama seemed to enjoy it, though,
and put away quite a dozen cups during the interview.

The beverage had one good effect; it loosened his tongue, and the
following somewhat erratic dialogue, through the medium of Jee Boo, now
took place between us:——

Lama: “Who and what are you, and where do you come from?”

Jee Boo: “They are English, and come from a great country far away
beyond the seas.”

Lama: “_What_ are you?”

Jee Boo: “English!”

Lama: “You mean they are Russian (Rooski).”

Jee Boo: “No; English (roaring).”

Lama: “What nonsense; they are white! and all white men are Russians, so
they must be.” Silence; then, after a pause:——“_What_ do you say you
are?”

Jee Boo: “English. A country (he adds parenthetically) ruled over by a
woman.”

“Indeed!” replies the Lama, opening his little pig’s-eyes in
astonishment; then thoughtfully, and after a very long pause, “How many
sheep has she got?”

This involved a mental and mathematical calculation rather beyond me, so
I merely replied that her Majesty’s wealth was so great, it could not be
gauged by the domestic animal in question. My response was only met with
a quiet smile of incredulity, and a remark that elicited loud laughter
from the women. We inferred, as Jee Boo did not join in the merriment,
and would not tell us what it meant, that it was not complimentary.

Seeing the lama smoking, I lit a cigarette, and was about to replace the
case in my pocket when our merry old host took it from my hand, and
after carefully examining it, transferred it calmly but firmly into his
own breeches’ pocket. Presuming he would return it when we left, I
thought no more of the matter, but at the close of our visit found he
had every intention of keeping it as, he explained to Jee Boo, a
_souvenir_ of me. In vain I expostulated. “You can’t possibly ask for it
back,” said Jee Boo, “it is the custom.” The case was but a cheap
leather one. Had it been of value, I should have rebelled, even though
in mid desert. At any rate, I determined in future to make afternoon
calls in Gobi with empty pockets. The name of this place, as far as I
could gather, was “Ourouni.” It is very hard in the desert to get at the
right name of even a permanent yourt. The Mongols have a superstition
that if they tell a stranger the name of their habitation, it will bring
bad luck to the place. I have frequently asked three or four of the
inmates of a yourt its name, and been answered a different one by each.
I gave it up at last as a bad job. The only yourt I was sure of
throughout the journey was Toogoorook, and that was on our maps.

[Illustration: OUROUNI.]

The sun was low in the heavens when we bid adieu to the Lama and took
our departure. We were rather surprised to find on arriving in camp, the
baggage on the ground, the ponies still unsaddled, the camels scattered
about the plain in all directions, and Moses and Aaron clearly under the
influence of “arak.” As for Sylvia, he had taken up a position behind
one of the carts _tête-à-tête_ with the pretty Tartar, who was plaiting
his pigtail, and carrying on in a way that would somewhat have
disconcerted her spouse had he suddenly arrived on the scene. Benedick
would probably, however, not have minded much, for, as I have said, the
Mongols are not jealous of their women. They greatly differ in this
respect from the Kirghiz tartars, who will not allow a stranger even to
look upon their wives. Their respective religions, Mahometanism and
Buddhism, of course, account for this. The Kirghiz woman is always more
or less under supervision, the Mongol may do as she pleases, go where
she likes, and alone. Nevertheless, there is but little immorality among
the latter. As much cannot be said for the followers of the Prophet
further west.

Our faithful little henchman’s face expanded into a broad grin as soon
as he saw us. He was no bad judge of female beauty. The face and figure
of the object of his affections would not have disgraced a European
ball-room; while a fascinating half-savage half _naïve_ manner enhanced
her attractions not a little. It was only with great difficulty and by
threats of complaining to the Lama that we separated the love-sick
camel-driver from his lady-love. But, even then, she would not forsake
him. Jumping on a pony as soon as we started, she rode alongside the
caravan till the moon had fairly risen, and we were some miles from her
home. It was not till nearly ten o’clock that she left us, after a
tender parting with Sylvia (during which the caravan was left to its own
devices), to gallop home alone in the moonlight to her yourt and lawful
master.

Moses’ pony showed such evident signs of breaking down that he exchanged
it for a new one to-day. We witnessed the operation of selecting the
animal from a drove of one hundred or so that were feeding within a
quarter of a mile or so of the yourt. Armed with a long slender pole
with a noose at the end, one of the men rode out and, after a smart
gallop, succeeded in lassoing a wiry-looking little chestnut and
bringing it back to camp, when it was at once saddled. It was scarcely
three years old, and had never been backed, yet in less than half an
hour from when Moses mounted it was walking alongside the caravan as
quietly and demurely as its predecessor. The facility and rapidity with
which the Mongols break in their horses is something marvellous.

The Mongols, men, women, and children, are passionately fond of riding,
and almost their sole pastime is horse, or rather pony racing, which the
women, who sit cross-legged, join in as well as the men. That they are
splendid riders is hardly to be wondered at, for they are in the saddle
from morning till night. A Mongol never dreams of walking, even when
going the shortest distances, as from one tent to another in camp. To
their animals they are kindness itself, and I never once saw them strike
a pony. Their seat is peculiar and ugly. Most of them ride crouching,
like monkeys, leaning well over their pony’s withers, and riding
entirely with the left hand, while the right arm is waved wildly about
at full extent when they wish to increase their speed. As a rule,
though, they are very merciful in this respect, and let their ponies
take it easy, the ordinary pace being a sort of amble. We fortunately
took the precaution of bringing our own saddles, for those used by the
Mongols are made entirely of wood, and are hard, uncomfortable things,
in shape something like a Turkish demi-pique, but about half the size.
The bit used is something like our English ring-snaffle, the reins being
made of thin leather thongs.

The following day was without incident except that, about sunset, we
passed a series of cairns stretching away at intervals of about four
hundred or five hundred yards to the horizon on either side of us. These
are about fifteen feet in height, and formed of stones of various sizes,
bleached camel-bones, feathers, and bits of rug, while at the top of
each a dilapidated prayer-flag fluttered. We took them (as we afterwards
discovered, rightly) for the boundary between Inner and Outer Mongolia.
Although they are not marked on any Russian or English map, Ivanoff had
told us to look out for them, as we should then be getting about
half-way to Ourga. As we passed them, Moses and Co. each cast a stone
upon them as an offering to their divinity. No Mongol ever dreams of
omitting to do this. Nothing else occurred to break the monotony of the
day’s march, but an occasional shot at a duck or sand-grouse, for we
were now approaching the game country. There was little cover at first,
but the next and three following days the desert was covered for miles
around with thick, prickly bushes somewhat resembling furze, and here it
fairly swarmed with sand-grouse, a pretty fawn-coloured bird with a
black ring round the neck, and hairy legs. Most were plump, and in
excellent condition, and we found them excellent eating. We must have
seen thousands, and managed to bag nine brace in a couple of hours with
no difficulty, merely walking a few yards away on either side of the
carts, for they were not at all wild. We saw no other game except the
largest hare I have ever seen, which I shot. Her size was explained when
on preparing her for the pot, we found she was about to present the hare
population of Gobi with an addition of five! The game was a welcome
change to the tinned meats we had had to subsist on since leaving
Kalgan, especially as the smart Yankee storekeeper, from whom we had
procured our stores at Shanghai, had managed to palm off a number of old
and useless tins, some dating as far back as the year 1862, which were
carefully packed away under the others, so that we did not open them
till in mid desert. I can only trust, for his sake, that the wishes we
expressed regarding his future state may never be realized.

With the exception of a kind of small antelope there is no big game in
Mongolia proper, although hard by, in Manchuria, there are tiger and
lion in plenty. The Gobi antelope is called by the Mongols literally,
“Gooroosh,” by the Chinese “Wang Yang,” or yellow sheep. It is of a
light fawn colour with white legs. We saw several herds of some hundreds
each, but were only once able to get within shot, for owing to the flat
nature of the ground they nearly always saw or heard us long before we
could get near them. The only occasion on which we did so, was by the
aid of a ridge of rocks. Our ponies, too, were not up to much galloping,
although Karra was always ready, and keen as mustard for a hunt. But the
Mongols declined to stay for us a moment, and the operation of keeping
one eye on the game, and the other on the caravan was somewhat
fatiguing. With a properly organized expedition a sportsman could, have
any amount of fun in the Gobi, though I doubt if even the good sport
would repay him the expense and discomfort.

On the morning of the 21st, patches of bright golden sand broke the
green horizon, and on the evening of the same day we passed our first
night _en plein desert_. The next morning showed us nothing but sand,
drift upon drift, as far as the eye could see, in an unbroken horizon,
save where to the north-west, in the middle distance, a ridge of abrupt,
precipitous rocks glowed pink in the rays of the rising sun. By midday
we encamped at their base after a hard morning’s work, for the sand was
axle-deep, and the camels, at times, were unable to move the carts
alone. We did but little more than a mile an hour all day. Although the
ridge of rocks was little over two hundred feet high, the ascent and
descent occupied nearly four hours. There was no path or track of any
kind, and the ridge as rough and uneven as a heap of stones. Every
moment I thought the carts would go to pieces. As for the ponies, taking
off their bridles and saddles, we left them to their own devices. Chow
was rather awkward, and got two or three nasty falls, but Karra
scrambled about like a wild cat, and was not in the least put out. Five
o’clock saw us encamped on the deep sandy plain the other side, where
there should have been a well, but it was, alas! quite dry, and we had
to put ourselves and the ponies on short allowance. All were thoroughly
done up, when at eight o’clock p.m., the inexorable Moses made a fresh
start. We then found that one of the camels was dead lame. The usual
Mongol remedy of patching up the sole with small tin tacks and a piece
of leather, much as a boot is cobbled, was found ineffectual, so his
pack was removed, and he was untied and left to get on with the caravan
as best he could. The poor brute’s struggles to keep up with us were
painful to witness, for a camel will go on till he drops and dies,
sooner than be left alone in the desert. I would have put a bullet
through him, but that the Mongols are intensely superstitious, and have
a belief that killing one of these animals brings bad luck on a caravan.
The poor brute was still with us when we encamped, but died about half
an hour after we started in the morning. Looking back a few moments
after, I saw his carcase black with crows and carrion, though a moment
before there was not a bird to be seen in the sky.

[Illustration: MY CAMEL CART.]

The Mongolian camel is peculiar to the country. It is two humped and
very much smaller than camels found in other parts of the world. The
average load of a caravan camel is 4 cwt., or four chests of tea of 1
cwt. each. It was often a source of wonder to me how these animals can
exist as they do without water——indeed, they were supposed never to want
it, and it was given them only when very plentiful. They ate the whole
day, however, while on the plains, and the amount of food they got
through _en route_ was surprising. Curiously enough they seemed to
prefer dry scrub to good sweet grass. In winter a long, shaggy coat
protects the Mongolian camel from the keen, icy blasts that sweep over
the Gobi, but in summer this is shed, with the exception of a few coarse
tufts on the head, neck, and legs. Our camels appeared to suffer
terribly from the heat, and perspired profusely on hot days. On these
occasions we found it impossible to remain in the carts. Indeed, at all
times the stench was so bad that we had to lie with our heads at an
angle that no amount of pillows would rectify. Any one with apoplectic
tendencies would stand a poor chance crossing Gobi. The Mongolian camel
is led in the ordinary way, i.e. by a thin plug of wood sharp at one
end, and thrust through the nostril, and fastened to a string, which in
turn is fastened to the camel or cart in front. The operation of
drilling the hole through a young camel’s nose is painful in the
extreme. I witnessed it once, and not being aware that nature has
provided these beasts with a kind of reservoir of green, mucous
substance, presumably for purposes of self-defence, stood close to it
during the operation, and received a quantity of the stuff full in my
face, much to Sylvia’s delight, who ducked just in time to avoid it.
Beyond this, save on one occasion, I never saw a Mongolian camel show
signs of temper. They are gentle, stupid creatures for the most part.

We suffered a good deal from heat and thirst our second day in the sandy
desert. The work too was harder——so hard that at times we had to hitch
an extra camel on to each cart, and even then could hardly get them
through the deep, clinging sand. About 11 a.m., we overtook five
Mongols, wild rugged-looking fellows, on their way to Ourga. Moses
discovered, after a few minutes’ conversation, that it was thanks to
them and their ponies that the well of yesterday was dry. They had a
sheepskin half full of water with them, but resolutely refused to spare
us a drop. I do not think I ever realized what the word thirst really
meant till that moment, for it was now a case of share and share alike,
our supply of claret and soda-water having become exhausted three days
before this. Each of these men had a bundle of heavy wooden rods
fastened to his saddle-bow, and trailing on the ground, thus scoring a
deep trail or wake in the sand behind him. It is only by these means
that in this part of the desert the Mongol is able to find his way from
yourt to yourt, for there are no landmarks to steer by. They had no tent
or travelling conveniences whatever, save a large brass pan for cooking
purposes, and a supply of argol in a canvas sack, though what they could
find to cook was a mystery to me. They accompanied us for a time, but,
seeing that we had no bottles or anything else to give them, soon left
us and struck off in a south-westerly direction, directly contrary to
the place they told us they were bound for, Ourga. I did not inquire
why, knowing that the ways of the Mongol are inscrutable, and not to be
judged as are those of the ordinary run of mankind!

So the day wore heavily away, and we plodded on, nearly up to our knees
in sand by the side of the caravan till four o’clock, when Sylvia
sighted a large herd of gooroosh in the distance, but the glimpse we
caught of them was only momentary, and the hurrying, indistinct brown
mass had in a very few seconds disappeared below the horizon.

About half an hour later a loud scream attracted my attention, and,
turning, I found Jee Boo flat on the ground in a dead faint, the effect,
as I rightly guessed, of the sun. Moses even then was very loth to stop,
and it was only by a judicious exposure of my revolver, of which Mongols
have a wholesome dread, that I succeeded in halting the caravan.
Pitching the tent, I soon had the wretched Chinaman inside, and made as
comfortable as circumstances would permit. I found him quite
unconscious, while the eyelid when opened disclosed a broad expanse of
white, which was far from reassuring. Apart from the mere fact of losing
the poor fellow, I could not help wondering what would become of us, in
the event of his death, for we knew but half a dozen words of Mongol,
and without an interpreter were helpless as the babes in the wood! The
atmosphere of the tent soon became so stifling that I had to leave it
for a few minutes, feeling quite sick and faint. We all know the value
of water in such cases, but of this we could ill spare a drop, having
but about half a gallon left. The next well, it was true, was but seven
miles distant, but who could tell that it, like its predecessor, might
not be dry and empty? Altogether the situation was about as awkward as
it could well be, and I cursed (not for the first time) the unlucky fate
that had ever brought me to the desert of Gobi! But something had to be
done and quickly, so for the first time I opened our small
medicine-chest, the furnishing of which I had carelessly taken but
little trouble about. Of course, as usual, everything not required was
handy. Rolls of diachylon plaster, Cockle’s pills, chlorodyne, menthol,
Dover’s and seidlitz powders, came tumbling out in glorious confusion;
but we fumbled about in despair for a remedy, while Jee Boo’s heavy,
stertorous breathing warned us that not a moment was to be lost. I was
determined that if he did die, I should not be the only one responsible
for his demise, and insisted upon Lancaster’s giving his opinion as to
treatment! If poor Jee Boo had known the state of doubt his medical
advisers were in, I think he would have suffered even more than he did!
But the course of treatment was at last decided upon, though we differed
materially for some time, Lancaster insisting upon it that we should
open a vein. As (when I pressed him) he seemed uncertain what vein, I
felt in the interest of Jee Boo’s possible widow and orphans that this
was unjust. Even my small experience in surgery told me that there are
some veins the opening of which will kill the strongest man in under
five minutes. So this course was (by Lancaster) reluctantly abandoned,
and a huge dose of sal volatile and water administered. I shall never
forget that moment or my state of mind during the working of the
medicine. However (and no one was more surprised than myself) it had the
desired effect, and at the end of about ten minutes we had the
satisfaction of seeing our patient slowly open his eyes. In half an hour
he was quite conscious again. I can scarcely recommend this treatment to
my readers as an infallible one for sunstroke. Indeed, I have since been
told by a physician, that had not my patient been a Chinaman, it would
have killed him right off!

We were not sorry to get out of the tent, for the temperature therein
registered over 100°. As the flimsy structure was only intended to hold
three at the most, and as every one assisted at our medical
consultation, this was hardly surprising. When we emerged again into the
open air the changed appearance of the sky and desert somewhat puzzled,
not to say alarmed, us. The heat was still oppressive, but whereas half
an hour previously the sky had been bright and cloudless, it was now
darkened, while the sun like a huge ball of fire glowed, red and angry,
in the misty heavens, which had changed within the last ten or fifteen
minutes from a deep intense blue to a uniform leaden colour. Nor was the
appearance of the desert the same, the glassy yellow expanse of sand had
disappeared. Beyond a distance of thirty or forty yards one saw nothing
but a moving yellow mass swaying to and fro, and producing the effect,
against the dark masses of cloud, of a huge field of ripe corn waving
wildly about in a heavy gale of wind.

The _coup-d’œil_ would have been peculiar and interesting anywhere else.
In the desert it was weird and alarming, so much so that I returned to
the tent, and, calling Moses out, drew his attention to it, and not a
moment too soon. In less time than it takes to write, Sylvia was
scouring the plain in search of the camels, which had fortunately not
strayed far out of reach, while Aaron busied himself in firmly hammering
in the tent-pegs, which had only been lightly fixed during our temporary
halt. In less than ten minutes the camels were in and tethered in a line
next the carts, to which the ponies were firmly fastened. Moses then led
or rather pushed us into our carts, and slammed the door in our faces.
Looking out of the window a moment after I saw the Mongols disappear one
by one into the tent; Sylvia, who entered last, firmly fastening the
aperture behind him. During these mysterious preparations it had become
darker and darker, while the wind, which had suddenly risen, was driving
thick woolly masses of white cloud across the black lowering sky. We
were not long in suspense. A few seconds only elapsed when a perfect
tornado burst upon us. I managed with some difficulty to open my door on
the lee side and look out, but could see nothing but one whirling mass
of sand or vapour, I could not tell which, in appearance very much like
a thick London fog. Nor could we hear anything but the whirling of the
wind, the wild, unearthly cries of the camels, whose shadowy forms I
could just distinguish huddled together a few yards from me, and the
neighing of Chow and Karra, the latter of whom had, with his usual
sagacity and fore-thought, broken his bridle and crawled under my cart.
Then for the first time the truth dawned upon me——we were in a
sandstorm.

It was not an agreeable sensation, for I was in a pleasing state of
uncertainty as to how it would all end. One might as well have tried,
during the storm, to attract the attention of the man in the moon as to
make oneself heard. Luckily it did not last long. In five minutes it was
over, and the sky blue and clear again. The sight on looking out of the
carts again was a queer one. The camels’ heads were invisible, each
being burrowed under the body of his neighbour. As for the tent, it had
disappeared, and it was only after a time that I made out a heap of sand
with a moving mass underneath to show where it had been. It had blown
down early in the proceedings, and Moses and Co., to say nothing of the
wretched Jee Boo, narrowly escaped suffocation. In half an hour
everything had resumed its wonted appearance, and the air was as cool
and pleasant as before it had been sultry and oppressive. The inside of
our carts, though, were an inch deep in sand, and our nostrils, hair and
eyes full of it. Save for a hot, feverish feeling that banished sleep,
and gave one an uncomfortable feeling in the head like influenza, we
felt no ill effects, and were not altogether sorry when it was over that
we had experienced the strange phenomenon. Sandstorms are rare in Gobi,
but when they do occur are dangerous to solitary travellers. Many
mysterious disappearances in this part of the desert are put down to
them; for the sand-drifts obliterating the marks of the Mongol’s guiding
rods, he is unable to retrace his steps to the yourt he started from.

We reached the wells at about 4 a.m. next morning, and were relieved to
find them nearly full, and the water drinkable. The rain came down in
torrents shortly afterwards. We would have given a good deal for a
shower the day before, but could now have gladly dispensed with it, for
the carts leaked badly, and we were wet through before the weather
cleared at daybreak. We got a couple of hours’ rest though, and by ten
o’clock were away again, refreshed if not rested. It is astonishing what
little amount of sleep a man can do with when put to it.

The morning of this (the 23rd of August) was bright and clear, and the
rain and cool air seemed to have given a new lease of life to man and
beast. Jee Boo, though complaining of slight headache, had otherwise
quite recovered from his attack, so that with the bright sunshine and
crisp, clear air, our spirits rose, and all went merry as the
traditional marriage-bell. Towards midday we had a somewhat exciting
chase after an antelope, and one that might have resulted somewhat
disagreeably. The ever-watchful Jee Boo having sighted a herd near a
ridge of rocks some three miles distant, we saddled the ponies, and,
with our rifles, galloped towards them under the guidance of the little
Tartar, taking care to keep the ridge between us. When within about
three hundred yards of the spot, we dismounted, Lancaster, accompanied
by Sylvia, making for the right of the rocks (which were about a mile in
length and two hundred feet in height) while I took the left hand.
Though less precipitous than the ridge we had crossed two days before,
the ascent was too steep to be pleasant, especially when laden with a
rifle in one hand, and having to lead a wilful and obstinate pony with
the other.

We reached the summit in safety after a stiff climb. To any pony but
Karra the ascent would have been impossible. Securing his bridle to a
sharp edge of rock, I lay flat upon the ground, and crawled to the edge
of the precipice, but there was nothing to be seen but bare sandy plain.
Having watched for about five minutes, I was about to rise and take up a
fresh position, when the crack of Lancaster’s rifle rang out some
distance to the right. In another moment the whole herd, some sixty or
seventy in number, came bounding by just underneath me. Picking out a
fine buck, I took steady aim, fired, and had the satisfaction of seeing
him drop on his forelegs. I thought for a second he was badly hit, but
he only reeled to and fro once or twice, then with an effort regained
his feet, and galloped on after the others, who were already almost out
of sight. Seeing that he got over the ground but slowly and with
difficulty, I determined to give chase, and, loosing Karra, we made our
way helter-skelter down the cliff-side. Though the climb had taken us
quite half an hour, the descent did not take more than three minutes.
Some of the ledges were quite four feet high, with a landing on smooth
slippery rock, but little Karra never once made a mistake. Arrived at
the bottom of the cliff, I jumped on his back, and away we went full
gallop after the wounded antelope, now just disappearing out of sight
over a high ridge of sand a good distance off. My pony was even keener
than I, and I never knew till that day what a little wonder he was.
Fifteen days had we been in the desert, travelling day and night, and
two days of that on short allowance of water and food, and yet here he
was galloping as strong as a steam engine, and pulling and tearing at
his bridle as if he had been in the stable for a month. What would he
not have been worth in England! But quickly as we covered the distance
to the ridge which had hidden the antelope from view, we were too late.
No trace could we discover of him. The desert was here covered with
innumerable sand-hills and depressions, and it is more than likely that
he succeeded in hiding himself in one of these. We hunted about for some
time, but without success. I dared not stop too long, for fear of losing
the caravan, which I knew had not stopped during our absence. So,
somewhat disappointed, I dismounted, and led Karra slowly back to the
rocks where, as I thought, Lancaster and Sylvia were awaiting me. No
trace of the caravan was now visible.

I took my time returning to the ridge, imagining that by this time my
companions had seen me, and would not move till I came up to them. It
seemed strange too that they should have abandoned their position, for
on coming up to the right side of the rocks I found them gone. When, on
riding the whole length of the ridge, shouting as I went, I saw no signs
of them, the disagreeable truth flashed across me that they had departed
altogether——a surmise which proved correct. In vain I searched every
cleft and ravine, thinking they might have penetrated thither in search
of wounded game; in vain I yelled myself hoarse, and blew the whistle
which we always carried in view of this contingency, till I was black in
the face; not a sound came in answer, but the echoes, which the
innumerable creeks and gullies which riddled the place flung back to me.
In one of the ravines, curiously enough, I came upon a tree, the first
and only one we saw in the desert, or indeed since leaving Tsin W’hui
Poo; it was but ten or twelve feet high, a kind of wild olive with
gnarled trunk and scanty foliage. At any other time I should have
stopped to examine it more closely, but that my mind was then running on
matters very far removed from natural history. Every moment the
awkwardness of my position grew more apparent. A thousand doubts and
fears crowded on my mind, which the surroundings of the lone,
desolate-looking place did not tend to reassure. At one moment I was for
remaining where I was, but the next brought the reflection that
Lancaster, having seen me riding for dear life in a S.W. direction,
would probably direct the Mongols in that quarter, and never dream of
returning to this bleak barren rock. One thing was certain, if the
caravan did not rescue me, no one would, for this part of Gobi is as
uninhabited and desolate as the interior of the Sahara itself.

Of a sudden the thought struck me to climb to the summit of the rocks,
and as a last resource to scan the horizon from that altitude with the
glasses I had fortunately brought with me. Securing Karra to the old
tree, I again ascended to the top, this time not without some hard
knocks and scratches, while the perspiration poured off me in my anxiety
to lose no time. I was never without a compass in the desert, and had
luckily taken the bearings of the rocks before we set out that morning.
Allowing for time and distance, I found the caravan should now be N.N.W.
from where I stood, and turning my glasses to the spot, discovered it to
my great relief, on the very edge of the horizon, and hardly visible,
even through the powerful glasses. To the naked eye it was invisible.
First taking care to get my bearings right, I scrambled down, and,
loosing Karra, galloped after it _ventre à terre_. In twenty minutes it
was well in sight, and we were safe.

It was all owing to Sylvia, who had persuaded Lancaster to return,
saying that I should without doubt join the caravan farther on. A Mongol
failing is to think that strangers know their way about the desert as
well as they do themselves. Lancaster had had no better luck than
myself, so our day’s sport was hardly a success. We were a good deal
disappointed, though not so much as our men, who had been looking
forward to a meal of fresh roast meat, the gooroosh being excellent
eating.

Towards evening of the same day we traversed a tract of sand about a
mile across, so deep that we had to hitch three camels on to each cart.
Even then they could hardly get the heavy, clumsy vehicles through it,
and we had to literally put our shoulders to the wheel. The sand was
nearly up to our knees, and so fine that it actually worked its way into
our boots through the sole and the leather. Just beyond this the sand is
succeeded by hard gravelly soil of a deep red colour, covered so thickly
in parts with transparent stones and crystals, that the ground looked
here and there like inlaid mosaic. Quantities of these stones are sent
to Pekin, to be converted into buttons, snuff-bottle-stoppers, &c. They
are also much sought after by the ladies of Ourga for head ornaments.
Most of the pebbles were a species of yellow or red agate, and I picked
up a couple of very pretty violet ones——presumably amethysts.

There is not a blade of grass or vegetation in this part of the desert,
nor are there any rocks or hills to break the dead-level of the plain,
as flat and smooth as a billiard-table or well-kept garden-walk, for
miles and miles. It therefore struck us as curious to come, while
walking a few yards in front of the caravan, upon the letters “A. L.”
formed in capitals three feet long, by a kind of creeper which had
firmly taken root in the hard, gravelly soil. Had the letters been
irregularly or fantastically formed, they might have suggested a freak
of nature, but they were clear, distinct, and as well formed as any on
this page. How they came there must remain a mystery. They could not
have been the work of Russians (for their L is totally different to that
of other European languages) much less that of a Mongol or Chinaman. I
must own that I am superstitious, and hoped that the mysterious
characters might bode no evil to one of my greatest friends bearing the
same initials in England.

Just after sunset three mounted Mongols rode out of the dusk, and,
galloping furiously past the caravan, disappeared in the direction we
were going. They seemed to have started out of the ground, so suddenly
did they make their appearance. An event of this sort always creates
excitement in the desert, for as a general rule every one stops and
exchanges words when meeting a caravan on the lonely highway. For this
reason perhaps our Mongols did not like the look of the strangers, and
Jee Boo, at the request of Moses, begged us to load our revolvers. We
did so, but saw nothing more of the mysterious horsemen, who Sylvia
positively assured us were robbers, who would have attacked us had they
not found us too strong for them, and on the defensive.

We passed a couple of yourts shortly afterwards, smoke-blackened,
shapeless dwellings, about half the size of an ordinary Mongol tent,
with a small hole for a door, out of which a man and a woman crawled and
offered us argol for sale. More revolting specimens of the human race I
have never seen. We saw no sheep or ponies about; indeed there was
nothing to feed them upon. Hard by lay a dead camel, the stench from
which nearly knocked us down fifty yards off, and on which the poor
wretches had been subsisting for several days. Other food they had none,
though there was a well brimful of clear cold water a quarter of a mile
farther on, at which we filled the barrels, and, for the first time for
ten days, washed our hands and faces.

We managed to get some sleep in the carts, for the first and only time
that night, for the ground was as smooth as a billiard-table, and there
were no stones or boulders to disturb our slumbers. Nor did I wake till
past one o’clock, when the caravan halted.

Looking out of the cart window, I at first imagined that we had arrived
at Ourga, for we were encamped, apparently, under the walls of a city.
At the same time it struck me as strange, that a silence so dead should
reign over such a large place. The illusion was complete, and I was
never more astonished to find that what I had taken for walls, towers
and roofs of houses, were in reality nothing more than a group of
enormous blocks of granite. Some must have measured quite fifty feet
high by twenty broad, the space of ground they occupied being
considerably over a square mile. Had I thought for a moment, I must have
known that stone buildings in Mongolia are extremely rare, almost
unknown. A Mongol Tartar has the greatest objection to living in a
permanent dwelling of any sort or kind, and even Ourga, the capital, is
composed almost exclusively of tents. Notwithstanding, one could
scarcely realize that it was an optical delusion, that the mimic domes
and minarets standing out clear and distinct, as a pen-and-ink sketch
against the starlit sky, were but masses of unhewn stone, and the work
of nature, not of man.

Our Mongols were asleep, and Lancaster; but late as it was, and at the
sacrifice of my remaining rest, I could not resist the temptation of
exploring the place, first taking the precaution of arming myself. It
looked just the kind of spot that robbers or marauders, had there been
any about, would have selected for an encampment.

I found the interior as curious as the outside, for the rocks were
placed as regularly, and the ways as well defined, as the streets and
squares of a modern city. The deathlike stillness, and queer fantastic
shadows, thrown by the bright moon-rays, gave one an uncanny feeling,
and I took care to keep the caravan fires in sight. Although outside the
desert was hard and gravelly, the sand here was knee-deep. Suddenly
while walking down one of the smaller paths my foot struck sharply
against a small square stone sunk deeply into the sand. On examining
this more closely, I found that on it was rudely carved a Russian
character and a cross. It was evidently a grave. Having no desire to
prolong my investigations after this, I was about to rise and return to
the caravan, when an indefinable impression stole over me that
something, and something human and living, was near me. The feeling may
have been produced by liver, perhaps by instinct. At any rate, it was
correct, for on turning I found myself next to one of the most repulsive
and hideous creatures I have ever beheld. It was impossible to tell in
the dim light whether it was a man or a woman, for its body was covered
with shapeless rags, its head with a mass of grey tangled hair that hid
the features. I have seldom felt more uncomfortable, and would at that
moment gladly have given five pounds to be back safe and snug in my
cart. At any rate, I thought, the sooner out of this the better, so
seizing my opportunity, I dodged past the figure, and walked quickly
away in the direction of the camp fires. Guessing my intention, it
pursued me for a few yards, struggling with difficulty through the deep
sand, but I soon distanced it, and only breathed freely again when I had
got out of the place, and was once more in the open.

The caravan was in a state of commotion when I returned, for I had been
away quite an hour, and having told no one of my intention, they were,
on waking, at a loss to know where I had got to. When I related my
adventures to Moses, his face was a picture. “Moo chim” (bad men), he
kept repeating, which meant that the place, according to Mongols, is
haunted, and that no one who can avoid it ever penetrates into its
silent, mysterious depths by day or night. Whether the creature I saw
was a ghost, I know not. If so, it was a very dirty one. It would have
needed the pencil of a Doré, the pen of a Rider Haggard, to describe the
place, which was certainly the most marvellous freak of nature I have
ever come across.

I made inquiries at Kiakhta, but could never find out anything to
explain, geologically, the presence of these stones, and their peculiar
position. All the Russian merchants could tell me was that a Cossack in
charge of the mail had been buried there seven years ago, and that the
place ever since was said by the Mongols to be infested with evil
spirits. It seems strange that no efforts have ever been made by the
professors belonging to the College of Kiakhta to unravel the mystery,
but the latter appeared to give more of their leisure hours to cards,
vodka, and flirtation with their neighbours’ wives than to scientific
research.

The morning of the next day (July 25th) was cold and cloudy. We crossed,
an hour after starting, a large salt-marsh, with tufts of half-withered
grass growing here and there. The ponies fared badly, but the camels
managed all right, as I verily believe they would do in a crater. Though
this marsh is deep in rainy weather, and very difficult to get over,
there had, luckily, been no rain for some time, and we crossed it
without difficulty, the ground being hard, and covered with evaporated
salt, giving the desert the appearance of a huge snow-field. Beyond
this, vegetation again ceased, and we entered on a tract of gravelly
country. Some low green hills now appeared on the horizon——the plains
and rich pastures of Toogoorook, at which yourt the hardest part of our
desert journey would be virtually over.

We encamped midday at the foot of a steep and barren rock, about one
thousand feet high, on the banks of a large lake of dirty, brackish
water, as wild and desolate a spot as can well be imagined. Huge
vultures and other carrion birds flew hither and thither about the rocks
and ravines, while the dismal and incessant croaking of the frogs among
the withered sedges that fringed the black, melancholy-looking water
made the place anything but a cheerful spot for an encampment. The
further end of the lake swarmed with wild fowl, and we succeeded, after
dinner, in bagging a couple of sheldrake, though they were so shy, it
was only with great difficulty we could get near them. We also shot an
enormous vulture, seven feet broad from one wing-tip to the other; but
he smelt so, we had to have him carried some distance away from the
caravan. This was explained by the partially devoured remains of a camel
we afterwards passed a few hundred yards from camp. The brink of the
lake was strewn with the bleached bones of these animals, which did not
contribute to make the _coup-d’œil_ more cheerful.

Towards evening we sighted a large herd of antelope on the horizon, but
they saw us, and were off long before we could give chase.

About five o’clock it came on to rain and blow as it only can in Gobi. I
do not think I ever spent a more wretched night. The storm became so bad
that the camels would not face it, and we had to stop and pitch tents at
ten o’clock, three hours before the usual time. Several attempts were
made to light a fire, but without success, for the wind not only blew it
out, but the wretched, flimsy tent down on top of it, Mongols and all.
We consoled ourselves as best we could with a nip of whisky (of which we
had one bottle left), and turned into our carts to make the best of it.
But even our sheepskins were next to useless in the keen wind that
whistled through the rents and chinks of the canvas cart roofs as if
they had been sieves. About midnight the rain came down again in sheets,
and in less than half an hour was streaming in upon us, like a
shower-bath. We were wet through in less than ten minutes, and then
abandoned the idea of rest or sleep altogether.

If the night had been miserable, the morning was far worse. We were
perfectly willing to start; anything was preferable to sitting in our
carts, listening to the ceaseless pattering of the rain and looking out
of the narrow window at the misty, dreary landscape; but the Mongols
were obdurate. Nothing upsets them like rain or getting wet, presumably
because they never wash, and Moses steadfastly refused to move till the
weather cleared, which it showed no signs whatever of doing. Our men had
managed to rig the tent up again, and all three lay inside, packed like
sardines, with every aperture tightly closed. I tried to read, but soon
had to give it up, my head shook so with the cold. Worse still, we had
exhausted our last scrap of tobacco, and could not bring ourselves to
venture on the hay-like filth that Sylvia offered us. Still, it showed
the little Tartar’s unselfishness, for he had but a pipeful left to last
him on to Ourga, and there is no race in the world so devoted to the
fragrant weed.

About two o’clock it mended a little, and the sun, which had all the
morning been invisible, began to struggle through the grey, watery
clouds. So sudden are the changes of temperature and weather in the
desert that by 3 p.m. the sky was blue and cloudless, and the sun too
hot to be pleasant. We were not sorry to get out again, and dry
ourselves in the warm rays which took the stiffness out of our cramped
and aching limbs. We suffered but little from vermin, which up till now
had been one of our greatest annoyances, after this. “It’s an ill wind
that blows nobody good;” and perhaps they were all drowned!

Starting at 7 p.m., we travelled all night, and by morning every trace
of sand and gravel had disappeared, and we were in the grass plains
again——where our ponies fairly revelled in the fresh, rich pasture.
Sylvia was despatched to a yourt some five miles distant to buy a camel
in place of the one we had lost, and as he was not expected back till
six o’clock, we enjoyed a good sleep all the afternoon, not before we
wanted it. We had had none for two nights.

The camel arrived in due course. He was a snow-white one, of mild and
benign appearance. Lancaster took a great fancy to him, and insisted in
having him harnessed to his cart. I noticed a look in the beast’s eye,
whenever he was pushed about or touched more roughly than usual, that
boded no good. However, we were assured that he was all that could be
desired, and took Sylvia’s word for it. We started again that evening,
with our new purchase in Lancaster’s cart. Although the night was fine
and starlit, with a lovely moon, I turned into my cart early, for the
plain was as smooth and unbroken as a lawn-tennis ground, and I did not
despair of getting a really good night’s rest, and probably should have
had one, but for an unforeseen accident that, ridiculous and laughable
as it now seems, might have had a very serious, if not fatal result. I
was rudely awoke about 2 a.m. by Jee Boo, who bursting open my door,
entreated me to come out at once. One is easily unnerved in the desert,
and apt to fancy things, so much so that for a moment I thought a mutiny
had broken out among the Mongols, and, seizing my revolver and pouch,
jumped out on to the moonlit plain. The sight that greeted my eyes
caused me at first to burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, in
which, however, the Mongols, who were helplessly assembled round my
cart, did not join. Like them, I also soon realized how seriously the
affair might end. Lancaster’s camel had _run away_, and was scouring the
plain in a way that plainly showed if we ever intended seeing him again
we had better catch him at once. The ponies were all unsaddled, but
Sylvia and I jumped upon ours barebacked, and galloped away as hard as
we could lay legs to the ground after the refractory beast, whose white
body, followed by the cart swaying madly to and fro, was rapidly
disappearing in the dim, shadowy distance. It had happened in a second.
Sylvia, having left his cart for a moment, which was leading, the
cunning brute had taken advantage of his absence to break with one jerk
the string that fastened his cart to the next camel. When our driver
returned, he found the caravan halted and his new purchase making tracks
across the plain in, strange to say, the direction of the yourt we had
bought him from.

The best description I have ever read of a camel’s pace when at full
speed is given by the late Colonel Burnaby, in “A Ride to Khiva,” where
he says: “A camel’s gait is a peculiar one. They go something like a pig
with the fore, and like a cow with the hind, legs.” This does not sound
like speed, but the pace at which these brutes get over the ground is
something more than remarkable, and it took us all our time, to get up
to Lancaster’s cart, who was, to use a sporting expression, “going
strong!” The frantic bounds the cart was taking beggars description. I
thought every second it would overturn, for the brute whirled it about
as if it had been a match-box. I could see Lancaster in the moonlight at
the open door, evidently meditating a jump, so shouted to him to remain
where he was. The ground was rough and stony, and to fall might have
meant a broken limb, which would have placed us in an awkward
predicament. It was some time before we managed to stop the runaway by
each getting one side of, and riding into, him. I never could have
believed a camel had such a turn of speed. Sylvia caught the nose
string, and we secured him at last, and got him back to the caravan
without further mishap. He was relegated to the water-barrels in future.
It was thought the weight might steady him, and it did, for we were
troubled with no more of his pranks.

The plains next day were more thickly inhabited and the pasture more
luxuriant than in any part of the desert yet traversed. We passed
several yourts, from which the inhabitants rode out to meet us with
presents of milk and a kind of cheese made of mare’s milk. They seemed
cleaner and better-mannered than the Mongols the other side, and did not
(for a wonder) ask us for anything. Their yourts, too, were cleaner,
their sheep and ponies better looking than others we had seen.

[Illustration: AN AWKWARD MOMENT.]

This portion of the Gobi swarms with a curious animal, of which I ignore
the name. It is in colour like a hare, in size something between that
animal and a rabbit, with short thin legs, and stiff wiry hair like that
of a badger. The ground was in many places literally honeycombed with
their burrows, which are enormous for so small an animal. Many of the
holes would for a short distance admit a good-sized man. They are neatly
and beautifully constructed, the earth being carried and thrown away
some distance off, though _how_ has not been ascertained. We must have
seen thousands, but could never get near enough to shoot one, and so
examine it closely. Unlike the smaller species of rat on the other side,
they are, shy and wary, and bolt into their holes on the slightest
noise. It is said that Mongols eat them, but I am rather doubtful as to
the truth of this assertion. Few would have the patience or take the
trouble to catch them.

We sighted, on the 28th of August, a huge encampment of some fifty
tents, on the horizon, evidently the yourt of some chief or Lama of
importance, _en voyage_. On passing it at the nearest point (some two
miles distant), Lancaster and I were riding off to inspect it more
closely, but were recalled by the frantic gesticulations of Moses, who
begged us on no account to go. His reason I never could ascertain, but
he led us to understand, through Jee Boo, that we might meet with an
unpleasant reception, by which I conclude some religious ceremony was
being performed. We could distinguish through the glasses, crowds of
people moving about the encampment, on foot and on horseback, and these
with the white tents gay with gaudy prayer-flags, against the bright
green sward, gave it more the appearance of a huge fair than a desert
camp. The plains for miles around were dotted with flocks and herds, but
none of the people, though they saw us distinctly, rode out to the
caravan.

The country on the 28th became more accentuated and undulating. We
passed to-day two large lakes (fresh) teeming with wild fowl, duck, and
wild geese, of which latter we bagged a brace, and ate for dinner,
washed down by a bottle of champagne specially kept for the day when the
neck of our desert journey should be broken. The plain to-day was full
of huge edible mushrooms as large as soup plates. We gathered a
quantity, and had some for dinner, although as we ate them solely on Jee
Boo’s assurance that they were not poisonous, we were somewhat uneasy
for a couple of hours after. We encamped to-day in a kind of oasis, of
wild, sweet-smelling flowers, pink heather and long grass through which
ran a delightfully clear cold stream of water over a gravelly bed. It
was like nectar, after the filth we had been drinking, and yet so
improvident are the Mongols, that had we not insisted upon it, they
would have left without filling the barrels. It was lucky we did so, for
the two succeeding wells were stagnant and brackish, and one, having the
remains of a dead sheep in it, undrinkable. The next day at mid-day we
camped in sight of the high and partly wooded hills that surround Ourga.

A Lama, _en route_ to the capital, now joined us. This is an invariable
custom in the desert, a Tartar never travelling alone if he can possibly
help it, perhaps more for the sake of companionship than from fear of
robbers or marauders, who are said to infest the more lonely parts of
Gobi. He (the Lama) was a fat, good-tempered old fellow, his enormously
fat carcase clad from head to foot in bright yellow silk. The grey pony
he rode was so tiny that looked at from behind its body was invisible.
One saw nothing but a huge balloon-like mass of yellow silk, supported
by four thin, very shaky-looking white legs. I noticed, throughout
Mongolia, that the fattest men invariably rode the smallest ponies,
perhaps on the same principle that in Europe the largest instrument in a
German band is almost invariably played by a diminutive child of tender
years.

We visited a yourt after dinner by the invitation of our newly made fat
friend. The tent was cleaner, both inside and out, than the ones we had
passed here on the Chinese side, indeed all the yourts had a prosperous,
well-to-do look about them, very different to the smoke-blackened,
dirty-looking dwellings on the southern side of the sandy desert. This
was probably due to their being in the close vicinity of the capital,
and also in a great measure to the fuel used being wood instead of the
sickly-smelling, stifling “Argol.”

The reader may or may not believe in Palmistry, but it can scarcely fail
to interest him to hear that this ancient science is as well known among
the Mongols as the gipsies, and has been for hundreds of years. I found
this out quite by accident, on examining the hand of a young girl who
brought us milk and cheese, and otherwise did the honours of the yourt.
To my surprise she at once guessed my intention, and insisted on my
reading it all through, and explaining the lines to her. Nor did my work
end here, a dozen greasy palms being eagerly thrust forward as soon as I
had completed “Tsaira’s.”

The latter, a bright-looking girl of about sixteen, was evidently the
belle of these parts, and not unjustly so, for her dark eyes, comely
features, and pearly teeth were a pleasing contrast to the ordinary
stolid, flat-faced females of the desert. She was the first (and last)
really pretty Mongolian woman we saw, and unlike most of her sex (in the
desert) not the least shy. The operation of shaving (which I now went
through preparatory to meeting the Russian Consul at Ourga) astonished
her a good deal, but the sight of a looking-glass much more so. She had
never heard of such a thing, or seen her own pretty face, except dimly
reflected in water or tea. It was the only one we possessed, or I could
not have had the heart to refuse it her, for she was not backward in
asking. However, a few sticks of chocolate consoled her, though she
tried very hard for a ring I wore. It was only by impressing on her that
it was given me by a “Boosooge”[7] almost as pretty as herself, who
would never forgive me, if I returned without it, that she allowed me to
depart in peace, which we did at sunset, all the inhabitants of the
yourt turning out to bid us good-bye, and load us with parting gifts of
milk and cheese.

The next day (30th August) we entered a green and fertile valley, about
three miles broad, with lofty, partially wooded hills on either side.
The plain was in parts thickly inhabited, and we continually passed
Mongols, both men and women, and during the day three large caravans,
two of bullock-carts one hundred to one hundred and fifty strong, laden
with wood and hides for China, to return with tea. The third was
composed exclusively of camels, sixty in number. About twenty men
accompanied it. On one of the leading camels was a poor Mongol,
evidently in a dying condition. Our own men were far behind, and the
ones we questioned by signs, only laughed and walked on when we pointed
to the poor wretch, lying on his back with the fierce sun beating down
on his ghastly, upturned face. About a quarter of a mile behind the
caravan came the Chinaman in charge, gorgeous in yellow and lavender
silk, and bristling with arms. I felt very much inclined to kick him out
of his cart, and put the dying Mongol there instead. Although white men
of any kind are so rare here, they never deigned to look at us, nor
reply to our question, addressed in Chinese, as to how many days they
had left Ourga. By getting them into conversation, we might, we thought,
have accompanied them as far as the caravan, and by Jee Boo’s help got
something done for the poor Tartar, but it was no use. I could not get
the latter out of my head the whole day, and shuddered when I thought of
how his sufferings might end. The Mongols never bury their dead, at any
time, and often on a voyage leave their sick to themselves, very much as
they do a camel, alone in mid-desert.

The queer custom prevalent among the Mongol Tartars of leaving their
dead on the surface of the ground was brought to my notice in a forcible
though somewhat unpleasant manner the next day, a couple of hours before
we reached the river Tola, which lies about two miles from Ourga. Upon
this occasion our baggage-camels had, contrary to custom, started first.
The caravan road here is clearly defined, so we started off alone and on
foot in advance of our party, and had barely gone three hundred yards
when an object lying in the middle of the road arrested my attention, a
small, oblong parcel about two feet long, done up in Chinese paper, and
secured with twine. “Something Moses has dropped,” I remarked casually;
and the contents feeling soft and shapeless, I put it down to some of
his wearing apparel, and returned to the caravan to give it to Sylvia,
who had just started and was, as usual, softly crooning to himself in a
semi-state of slumber on the leading camel. But catching sight of what I
held, he nearly fell off with fright, and shrieking “Moo-moo” with all
his might, pulled his camel away from me with such force that the cart
nearly turned over. “Moo-moo,” he repeated, hurriedly dismounting, and
leaving the caravan to itself, put a respectful distance between us. His
face was a picture of alarm and dismay, and as pale as a ghost. I was
not altogether easy myself, thinking the packet might be infected with
some virulent disease, so I yielded to the little Tartar’s vehement
gestures, threw it on the ground and walked on, followed slowly by
Sylvia muttering to himself and smoking furiously, a sure sign that a
Mongol’s equanimity has been seriously upset.

It was not till we reached the others at mid-day that I found out what
the mysterious packet contained, and that what I had innocently been
carrying about was a _dead baby_! Sylvia had by this time recovered
himself, and affected to laugh at the occurrence, though, at the time, I
have never seen a human being in a state of more abject terror. The
Russian Consul, when I told him of the occurrence, remarked that all
Mongols have an almost ridiculous fear of death and everything connected
with it. This seemed the more curious as every step you take in their
capital reminds you of it. Ourga might justly be called “a dead city,”
so grim and weird are the customs of its strange, uncanny population.

We sighted the Tola at about nine o’clock on the morning of the 31st of
August, and must have passed at least a dozen caravans of fifty or sixty
camels each, before we reached its banks, from the time we started,
about six a.m. The reports we got as to the state of the river were not
encouraging. Heavy rains had made the ford impassable, and all traffic
was now being carried on by means of the ferry, some five miles lower
down the stream. It was not reassuring either to hear that this
ramshackle contrivance had broken down twice within the last twenty-four
hours, precipitating three bullock-carts and two men (one of whom was
drowned) into the water. However, we made up our minds for the worst,
and, hoping for the best, gave ourselves up to enjoyment of the really
beautiful scenery we were passing through.

One might have been in the most picturesque parts of Switzerland or the
Tyrol. A broad, gravelly road runs from here right into Ourga, and along
this a continual stream of caravans, inward and outward bound, was
hurrying. The whole plain was alive with movement, and the bright
sunshine, gay dresses of Mongol horsemen, and tinkling of caravan bells,
gave an air of gaiety to the scene, welcome enough after twenty-three
days of uninterrupted, monotonous desert. On our right hand a clear,
brawling stream swirled along, an outlet of the swollen, tumultuous
Tola, to lose itself in the large fresh-water lake we passed yesterday.
On our left a range of low, green hills, wooded at the summit, their
green hill-sides, dotted with countless sheep and ponies at pasture,
stretched away to where the Tola, a thin thread of silver, wound its
course through this lovely valley, literally a “land of milk and honey!”
We arrived at the riverside about one o’clock. The foaming, turgid
river, the banks lined on either side, as far as eye could see, with
bullock-carts and camels, the row and hubbub, where each man (and there
must have been some hundreds) tried to shout louder than his neighbour;
it was a strange, picturesque sight.

A smart dapper-looking Cossack, in grey coat with yellow facings, and
white, peakless cap, had charge of the ferry, a clumsy-looking
arrangement enough, worked by a dilapidated-looking rope stretched
across the stream, here about three hundred yards wide, and secured to
two small trees on either side of the river. It did not need much
calculation to see where the ferry would go in the event of this
breaking, for about two hundred yards down stream was a chain of rocks,
against which the torrent foamed and dashed in a manner anything but
cheering to non-swimmers like Lancaster and myself. The result of an
accident had been pretty well shown, for this was the third boat used
during the last twenty-four hours, the others having been engulfed, with
the loss, however, of only one human life.

The Cossack was politeness itself, and I luckily knew a little Russian.
“Are you the Englishmen expected from Pekin?” “Yes.” How they knew of
our advent at Ourga was, and has ever since been, inexplicable to me.
“M. Shishmaroff has been expecting you. Please take a seat, and I will
send you and the ponies over, the carts can follow.” And offering us a
cigarette, our friend hurried off to see our steeds safely embarked.
Though only a private soldier, the man’s manner was as courteous and
polite as could be. It was, however, only a forerunner of what we were
to experience, for seldom have I experienced in any country so much
genuine kindness and hospitality from the lower orders as in Asiatic
Russia.

Our friend the Cossack returned in under half an hour. “Your boat is
ready, Gospodin, and you can get in, but please sit tight. I will cross
with you. In case of accident,” he added coolly, as he politely handed
us in, “jump out and hold on to the rope. The Mongols will pull you
ashore.”

It was not a pleasant sensation, crossing that stream, in fact I do not
know that I have ever passed a much more _mauvais quart-d’heure_. The
clumsy craft, although containing only the Cossack, our two selves and
the ponies, lurched over midway across, so suddenly and at such an angle
that the water came pouring in over the side. This frightened the
ponies, who set to plunging and kicking with such a will that I thought
every instant their heels would go through the side of the rotten old
tub. We were then, luckily, considerably more than half-way over, each
holding on like grim death to the rope, for to let go would have meant a
certain upset. Never have I heard such a babel. The Mongols on the bank
(in whose minds the death of their drowned companion was still fresh)
raised a yell that would have awoke the dead, and must have disturbed
the Kootooktas mid-day siesta three miles off. It was only by dint of
sheer hard work, that we succeeded in pulling ourselves across, our
fingers nearly cut to the bone by the fraying of the rope. I have seldom
felt more relieved than when we stood once more high and dry on terra
firma. The thought of how our carts were to be got over did not concern
us in the least. We were only too glad to have escaped with our lives,
for an upset, even to a good swimmer, would have meant certain death.

It was nearly three o’clock by the time we were across, and as the carts
were not to be brought over till the ferry was repaired, a work of three
or four hours, we resolved to ride on alone. The way was simple enough,
for a broad gravel path or road runs right into the city. Having got
minute directions from the Cossack how to find the Consul’s house, we
set off at a gallop across the plain to Ourga.

So ended our journey over the desert proper. What we had always imagined
would be the hardest part of our journey was now over. We had never
thought of Siberia. That seemed feasible enough. Our bugbear, before
starting, had been Gobi, the terrible Chinese desert, against which we
had been so often warned before leaving England. “You will never get
across,” said one. “The Tartars will murder you for a certainty,” said
another. Even in Pekin itself we heard blood-curdling stories of the
wild tribes said to inhabit the lonely waste lying between the Great
Wall of China and Russian frontier. As a matter of fact, few Europeans,
even those living in China itself, know anything whatever of Mongolia.
Danger there may be, but we never experienced it, nor do the three or
four Englishmen who preceded us make mention of ever having been
attacked. I would, personally, very much sooner spend the night unarmed
and alone in the (so-called) most dangerous parts of Gobi, than walk
through the lonelier suburbs of London or Paris, after dark on a
winter’s evening.

We skirted for a time the precipitous mountain that lines the left bank
of the Tola. Presently we came to an abrupt turn in the road; a glorious
panorama of plain and wood, mountain and river, lay at our feet, and a
couple of miles away a compact mass of red and white dwellings, golden
domes, and snowy tents, surmounted and surrounded by thousands of
brightly coloured-prayer flags, which flashed and waved in the sun with
every breath of the pure morning air. We had reached the sacred city of
Ourga.

—————

Footnote 6:

  A Mongol tent or encampment.

Footnote 7:

  Woman.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER VI.

  OURGA TO KIAKHTA.


OURGA can scarcely be called a city in the true acceptance of the term.
Its Mongol name, “Ta Huren,” or “The Great Encampment,” better describes
the huge cluster of tents that compose the Mongolian capital, dwellings
precisely similar in shape and size to those in the desert, save that
here they are surrounded by rough wooden palisades, eight to ten feet in
height, as a protection against the thieves and marauders who in the
caravan season nightly infest the streets.

The population of Ourga, which is estimated at about 40,000, fluctuates
a good deal. This is owing in a great measure to the nomad disposition
of the inhabitants, who are here to-day and gone to-morrow, taking not
only their goods and chattels, but also their house with them. With the
exception of the Kootookta’s palace, an imposing edifice of Tibetan
architecture, all white, gold and vermilion, like an ornament off the
top of a twelfth-cake, there are but three brick houses in the place,
residences of Russian tea-merchants, of whom, when we passed, there were
seven residing in Ourga. These, with the half-dozen Europeans stationed
at the Consulate, mid-way between Ourga and Maimachin, formed the entire
European population of the capital of Mongolia.

Notwithstanding, Ourga is of no little importance as a trading centre,
for it is the only stage in the tea-carrying trade between China and
Russia, while it exports large quantities of hides, timber, and clothing
throughout Mongolia. Ourga is the Mecca of the Mongol, and the distances
travelled by the faithful for the privilege of gazing upon the features
of their living god, the Kootookta, are sometimes incredible.
Pilgrimages are made from Manchuria, nine hundred miles away, and a man
arrived, while we were there, from the borders of Tibet, having
accomplished the distance across the desert, a great part of it sandy
waste, alone and on foot. The journey from Ourga to Lassa (Tibet) is
made in great state by the Grand Lama of Mongolia on the death or
transmigration of a Kootookta, to procure another from the “Dalai Lama”
of Tibet. There are but two living deities in Mongol Buddhism. The Dalai
Lama of Lassa, and Kootookta of Ourga. It is for this that the Mongolian
capital is looked upon as the second sacred city of the world, Lassa,
the capital of Tibet, being the first.

The present Kootookta is about eighteen years of age, lives, like the
Emperor of China, a life of the strictest privacy, and is only exhibited
to the faithful by the Lamas or priests in charge on very rare
occasions. Though worshipped as a god, he is allowed no voice in the
government of the country, which is entrusted to two viceroys, a Mongol
prince and a Manchu Tartar from the court of Pekin. The latter keeps an
eye on the sacred youth, and sees that he does not meddle with state
affairs. Presumably also (as no Kootookta has ever been known to live
over the age of twenty) attends to other little matters when the proper
time comes.

We had left the caravan at nine o’clock. It was past ten when, passing
the Chinese town of Maimachin, the green roof and gilt balls and crosses
of the Russian Consulate came in sight, a handsome stone building, in a
spacious garden, just outside the tented city. The day was bright and
beautiful; as we galloped through the crisp clear air, our ponies’ feet
rattling along the sound and springy turf, our spirits rose at the
thought that our desert journey was really over, that the neck of the
voyage was (as we thought) broken. Ignorance, in this case, was indeed
bliss!

At a short distance, Ourga presents the appearance of some huge fair.
The white tents, blue and gold temples, and gaudy prayer-flags, gave us
at first sight a pleasing impression of the place, which was, however,
speedily dispelled on closer acquaintance with its dismal-looking
streets, deserted save by beggars and dogs, and the hideous customs
practised day and night by its strange population.

We soon reached the gates of the Russian Consulate, and I pulled the
heavy, clanging courtyard bell with a sense of relief, thinking that a
few minutes more would see us consoled for the discomforts of our thirty
days’ journey with a brandy-and-soda, or its Russian substitute in the
cool, shady reception-room, a glimpse of which we had caught while
riding past the front of the house. A stalwart Cossack answered our
summons. He was a rough, surly fellow. My knowledge of the Russian
language is limited, but I knew enough to understand that M. Shishmaroff
was away——that no one knew when he would return——and that he should have
the letter (which in despair I was holding out) when he did. With this
information, given with scant courtesy, the military janitor calmly
proceeded to shut the door in our faces. Luckily for us, however, the
arrival of a third party on the scene completely changed the aspect and
position of affairs, the new comer being no less than our sulky friend’s
wife, a burly, rosy-cheeked female of some forty summers, whose face it
did one good to see after the bilious, yellow-cheeked dames of China and
the Gobi. There was no mistaking this one——Russia——and Northern Russia
too, was written in every line of it. She was indeed a friend in need.
It was fortunate for us that the altercation at the gate had become loud
enough to attract her attention, causing her to desist from the
occupation she was engaged in, of washing her last-born at the pump, and
hasten down to the gate to see what was the matter. Whether our personal
appearance or the prospect of sundry kopeks did it, I know not, let us
hope the former. The fact remains that in less time than it takes me to
write it, she had hurled her lord and master on one side, flung wide
open the gates, and led our ponies in. She then signed to us to
dismount, and, taking us each by the hand, led us into a cottage
situated in the centre of the courtyard, and about fifty yards distant
from the Consulate.

The lady evidently, to use a vulgar term, wore the breeches, for the
partner of her joys and sorrows offered no resistance whatever when she
ordered him, after unsaddling and watering our ponies, to set off at
once with my card and the letter of introduction to where M. Shishmaroff
was staying on a shooting excursion some thirty versts off. The poor
wretch went like a lamb, and I must own it was with some satisfaction
that we saw our quondam enemy ride through the green gates and into the
blazing sun while we sat in the cool red-tiled cottage, comfortably
discussing a dish of ham and eggs and home-made bread, washed down by
copious libations of quass, and topped up by a bowl of rich thick cream,
which the good soul insisted on our drinking, whether we liked it or
not. Think of this, O dyspeptics, and ponder when I add that we felt no
ill effects. Such are the practical results of a month in the Gobi
desert on the human frame and digestion.

The long sunny day wore slowly away. As we knew some hours must elapse
before the sergeant could possibly return, Lancaster and I extended
ourselves on many chairs, and with a box of excellent cigarettes (the
sergeant’s) between us, settled down to a thoroughly lazy afternoon. The
sensation of absolute quiet and rest was little short of delicious after
the wear and tear we had been leading for nearly a month——days of dirt
and discomfort, nights of sleeplessness and misery. It was worth all the
hardship we had undergone to experience the sense of relief and rest
that long, still summer’s day in the Russian Consulate at Ourga. It was
hard to realize that one was still in the Chinese Empire. The clean
cottage, with its cool red-brick floor, bright copper saucepans, chintz
window-curtains, and flower-bedecked window-sills of to-day were such a
contrast to the grimy smoke-discoloured yourts, stuffy, vermin-infested
camel-carts of yesterday. I caught myself more than once wondering if
the past voyage was not all a dream, from which I had awoke in some
solitary wayside cottage in far-away England. The illusion was but
slowly dispelled when waking from a somewhat heavy nap (for which the
mixture of quass and cream was no doubt answerable), I found the
goodwife bustling about among her pots and pans, two curly-haired,
rosy-cheeked brats clinging to her skirts, and the kettle singing
merrily on the hob.

The sergeant returned about six o’clock with a note from M. Shishmaroff,
written in French, and begging us make ourselves at home in the
Consulate till his arrival on the morrow, an invitation we were not slow
to avail ourselves of. The caravan had by this time arrived, and we were
able, after a delicious bathe, to get a complete change of clothes, a
luxury we had not enjoyed for more than three weeks. We were one mass of
bug and flea-bites from head to foot, but a little ammonia soon set this
right. The portmanteaus, too, were swarming with camel-ticks, and the
next morning was mainly devoted to fumigating and trying to get rid of
these pests——no easy matter.

Though luxuriously furnished and fitted up with every modern appliance
and comfort, the house of the Russian Consul at Ourga is a plain-looking
stone building, with wings on either side, the one serving as a chapel,
the other as quarters for the half-dozen Cossacks forming the Guard. The
windows of the drawing-rooms looked on to a garden, spacious and well
laid out. Roses, geraniums, heliotrope, mignonette, and other flowers
grew in profusion along the borders of the neat gravel-paths, and round
the little green wooden kiosk, where after dinner Lancaster and I drank
our coffee and smoked cigarettes as we watched the sun set behind the
sacred hills, and the white city grow grey in the dusk. A more
picturesquely situated one can scarcely be imagined than Ourga, in the
midst of a fertile green plain watered by the blue waters of the Tola,
and surrounded by an amphitheatre of undulating wooded hills,
conspicuous among them being the “Sacred Mountain,” with its dark
fir-trees and little temples, where the buddhist hermits, tired of the
pomps and vanities of the world, retire to spend their last days
mortifying the flesh and turning prayer-wheels.

We went out before it grew quite dark, and had a look at the ponies.
Both were enjoying the sweet fresh grass, and seemed as contented with
their comfortable quarters outside as their masters were in. Little
Karra, as soon as he saw us, gave a shrill neigh of welcome, and bucked
away from us in a manner that speedily set my mind at rest on his
account; while the gluttonous Chow never desisted for a second from the
occupation that he was best fitted for, that of filling his inside. We
passed the European cemetery on the way back, eight or ten roughly made
graves, mere mounds of earth, with huge stones heaped on them to keep
away the dogs. The crevices between were riddled with holes where rats
had tried to get at the bodies. Only one grave boasted the smallest
attempt at adornment, a white wooden cross with black letters, bearing
the name and age of a young Russian girl who had died in Ourga a few
weeks back. I could not help wondering if the poor child ever realized,
during lifetime, that this lonely, neglected spot would ever be her last
resting-place. The graves looked weird and uncanny in the dusk, and one
was glad to leave the place and return to the Consulate; where, as we
entered, we heard in the courtyard, the sharp, shrill words of command
in Russian, as our friend the sergeant set the watch for the night. Even
in the cosy, well-lit drawing-room it was hard to shake off the
uncomfortable feeling of depression and undefined apprehension that
never quite left one in Ourga. Whether it be the climate or surroundings
of the place, I know not; but every European traveller who has visited
the Mongolian capital mentions having experienced the same sensation.

M. Shishmaroff arrived next day, a spare, wizened little man about sixty
years of age, clean-shaved, with long, wiry grey hair, and a complexion
the colour of a walnut. Colonel Petroff, the commander of the Guard, a
red-faced, burly Cossack officer, accompanied him. They had been away
for a three days’ fishing expedition, and their baskets were laden with
fine trout and “Tai-Ming” from the Tola. The latter is a species of
large pike, but, unlike it, is caught only in running streams. It is
delicious eating. Curiously enough, though this fish is caught
throughout Siberia to the very foot of the Oural mountains on the
Asiatic side, it is never found in European Russia.

Both our hosts gave us a true Russian welcome; and though the colonel
spoke but few words of French, we mutually managed to supply by signs
what we lacked in language. The Consul himself spoke French fluently.
Although he had held the post he now occupied for more than twenty
years, much of his early life had been spent in Central Asia, in the
service of the Russian Government. “But I never wish to leave Ourga,” he
said, when I one day casually remarked that the life must be rather a
dull one for a man of his talents and culture. “I am passionately fond
of my books. I enjoy the finest climate in the world. I am madly fond of
fishing, and get as much as I want of the finest sport in the world in
the Tola hard by. Above all, I am my own master, and as you English say,
‘Monarch of all I survey.’ What can a man wish for more?” And I could
not but admit there was some truth in his reasoning.

The Cossack colonel was a character. I verily believe he slept in his
uniform, spurs and all. His duties appeared light enough. It is not a
great tax on a man’s energy to command and drill six men, yet was he by
no means content with his lot. Often (after dinner) when the good old
Consul had exhausted his Central Asian anecdotes, and retired to his
books and fishing flies, our military friend would fling open his tunic,
and, throwing himself at full length on an easy chair, bewail his fate,
and curse the ill-luck that had ever brought him to Ourga. “What a
place! What pigs, these Mongols!” he would cry in execrable French, at
the same time pouring down draughts of fiery Vodka that would have made
any one but a Russian purple in the face. “Ah! mes amis! you are
fortunate, you go to Kiakhta! Beautiful Kiakhta! What fun! What gaiety!
What women! Ah! mon dieu! Would that I could accompany you!”
Occasionally, very late in the evening, he would pull out of his tunic
and kiss with much effusion a tawdrily-coloured miniature of a lady with
a countenance as of the rising sun, and what looked like two large black
holes for eyes. “I shall marry her some day,” he would say, gazing
pensively at the portrait, while his eyes filled with tears——and Vodka.
“Some day, my little Olga, you will be mine.” I never interrupted our
military friend’s rhapsodies, or inquired as to her stature, but,
judging from length of face and size of feature, Olga must have been
misshapen if she stood anything under six foot high in her stockings.

We rode through Ourga next day, and found it a dull, unpicturesque city.
There are no shops or stalls in the streets, none of the colour and
movement that make most Oriental places so picturesque. A more
melancholy, depressing place I have seldom seen; one sees nothing on all
sides but palisades about nine feet high, rough pine-tree stems, stuck
into the ground close together, and thickly plastered together with
clay. The dwellings of the inhabitants are almost entirely hidden by
these rough wooden walls. The thousands of brilliantly coloured
prayer-flags, covered with Mongolian and Tibetan characters, give a
spurious look of gaiety to the place, which is soon dispelled upon
looking around again at the silent, desolate-looking streets. The
latter, though unpaved, were clean and regularly laid out, debouching
frequently into open spaces of waste land, or squares. Erected in most
of the latter were a number of open sheds, with what looked like huge
wooden barrels inside them, but which we afterwards discovered were
prayer-wheels, hollow cylinders filled with prayers and petitions to
Buddha. We must have seen over a thousand of these scattered about
Ourga, for public use. They varied considerably in size, from those ten
to twelve feet high, great ponderous things that took three or four men
to turn them, to others not longer than a man’s hand, affixed to the
street corners. These wheels are never at rest, men and women pause, as
they hurry along the streets, to give a turn to each as they pass them,
and as one encounters one every twenty yards or so, the amount of
prayers turned out during the day in Ourga must be something enormous.
Prayer in Mongolia is all done by motive power, and we noticed
water-wheels and windmills thickly covered with sacred characters. None
of the people dreamt of passing one in the street without giving it a
turn. Some seemed to make up praying parties; for we once saw two women
and three men, grinding away at a big wheel near the Kootookta’s palace,
for at least half an hour without cessation. Some of the more devout
turned miniature wheels in the left hand, while they pushed round the
bigger ones with the right.

Thoughts of death and of a future state are the chief topics of
conversation in this weird city, and religious ceremonies and duties
form the chief occupation of the inhabitants, who go about their
business, in solemn silence and with long faces that contrast strangely
with the gaudy dresses and ornaments in which they are clad. A Mongol
may be as cheerful and boisterous as he pleases in the desert, but once
in the capital he must put on his best clothes, and observe a reserved,
silent manner in accordance with the solemn surroundings. Many of the
women were beautifully dressed and covered with handsome gold and silver
ornaments. They had in Ourga a curious way of dressing the hair, that we
had not seen in the desert. A head-dress of solid silver, studded with
coral and turquoise, fits flat, and closely to the head. From under this
their hair was brought out at right angles to the head in a solid band
about six or seven inches broad: This was kept stiff by a plentiful
application of mutton fat and other substances, and kept out by three
broad wooden bands. At the shoulders it was gathered up and allowed to
fall down in front of each shoulder in a single plait. Their painted
faces, flat noses, and beady black eyes, in conjunction with this
strange head-dress, gave them a most grotesque appearance, and utterly
spoilt any pretension to good looks they may have had, although with the
exception of Tsaira, I did not see a single good-looking woman or girl
throughout Mongolia. Ourga is said, notwithstanding, to be the most
immoral city, of its size, in the world.

Perhaps one of the most curious characteristics of Ourga is the silence
that reigns. There is here none of the hum or bustle usually found in a
place where some thousands of human beings are gathered together. No
sound, even at mid-day, breaks the solemn stillness but the eternal
creak of prayer-wheels and tolling of deep-toned gongs, save when a
discordant blast of horns announces the celebration of some ceremony at
the Kootookta’s Palace, or a tea-caravan jingles and rattles noisily
through the quiet streets and squares on its way to Siberia or China.

The chief products of Ourga appeared to be beggars and dogs. The latter
are exceptionally large and ferocious, so much so that Europeans always
ride when obliged to go into Ourga. On foot one stands a very fair
chance of being torn to pieces by the huge, savage brutes, who do not,
however, harm or take any notice of the natives. The beggars fairly
swarm——loathsome, abject wretches, many of them covered with sores, and
quite naked. Wet or dry, hot or cold, they live in the open, subsisting
on alms, or whatever offal they can pick up. We saw two or three lying
dead by the roadway. No one seemed to take any notice of the corpses
save dogs and vultures. Thousands of the latter perpetually hover over
Ourga, the largest I have ever seen, and as bold as brass. It is a
common thing to see people returning from market have their provisions
snatched out of their hands and carried off by the huge birds. I could
not believe this, till I saw it myself. No one harms them. The first
precept of Buddhism is “Thou shaft not kill,” and although this rule is
sometimes broken in the desert, an infringement of it in the city of the
Kootookta would meet with summary punishment.

The palace of the Kootookta and Lamasery or Buddhist monastery are the
only buildings of any size or importance in Ourga. We managed to get
permission, through M. Shishmaroff, from the Grand Lama of Mongolia to
visit the temple attached to the palace. We were very curious to see the
Kootookta himself, but one might as well have tried to gain admission to
the presence of the Emperor of China. He was moreover absent on a
pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, some hundred miles off, during our
stay.

The temple itself is a whitewashed, wooden building, with a pink and
blue striped dome, surmounted by a huge gilt ball. There are no windows.
It was some time on entering before we could make out the huge figure of
Buddha; for two guttering oil wicks only just made darkness visible. The
idol, which is of gilt bronze, and represented seated, is one of the
largest in the world. I could not ascertain its exact height, but we
measured one of the hands, and found it six feet long, while the rest of
the body is in the most perfect proportion. Surrounding it were five
life-sized wooden figures in Mongol dress, which startled one not a
little at first, they looked so like human beings in the dim light,
their faces and hands being made of wax and painted flesh colour. Ranged
round the walls from floor to roof were a thousand small gilt idols,
each in its own glass-covered niche, while from the dome hung some
twenty or thirty large silk prayer-flags beautifully worked with Tibetan
and Mongolian characters in gold. Some were fairly rotting with age. At
the right of the figure stood the Kootookta’s throne, a tawdry-looking
light green erection thickly covered with ill-painted flowers and
landscapes, like a shooting-gallery at a fair, which detracted not a
little from the beauty of the place. We could not see the face of this
huge figure, which was lost in the darkness high up in the dome, but M.
Shishmaroff told us it is of great beauty. Where this huge figure was
cast or how it ever got to Ourga, does not transpire. It is of enormous
antiquity, and was placed there long before the “White Barbarian” ever
set foot in these regions.

Two yellow-clad Lamas, with shaven heads and bare feet, came in as we
were leaving, to trim the lamps and collect the alms and offerings that
had been left at the feet of Buddha during the day. They seemed rude,
ill-conditioned fellows enough, and by no means pleased to see us, nor
did the rouble which Petroff gave them elicit anything but a sulky grunt
of thanks. “Canaille va!” said the Cossack, with a fierce twist of his
moustache, as we emerged into the open air, “we shall teach you a lesson
some day,” a remark that set me thinking. There is probably no race so
jealous of its religion and customs and so intolerant of a stranger’s
interference as the Mongols. It was with the utmost difficulty that I
managed to procure a small prayer-wheel about five inches long (although
there were probably thousands of such in Ourga), and then only through
the mediation of the Consul, to whom it was given, not sold to, by the
owner. Though there are five or six of these miniature wheels in every
tent, one never sees them exposed for sale, all being made in the Lama
monasteries. It was getting dusk as we mounted our ponies to return to
the Consulate. This seemed to be the favourite hour for prayer in Ourga,
for the thirty or more large prayer-wheels in front of the temple were
all in full swing, three or four men and women to each. The creaking and
grinding of the spindles was deafening, while the two sloping wooden
platforms in front of the palace, used for the purpose of public
worship, were covered with prostrate forms at evening prayer.

[Illustration: A STREET PRAYER-WHEEL AT OURGA.]

The palace, an imposing brick building of Tibetan architecture, stands
hard by the temple, with which it is connected by a covered way built to
screen the Kootookta from the vulgar gaze, when he goes to his devotions
or a council of Lamas. The residence of the human god is handsome,
though somewhat gaudy, its white façades being picked out with blue,
crimson, and gold. The approach is through two archways of Chinese
architecture, at thirty yards’ interval, richly carved and coloured
light green and vermilion. It is only in winter that the Kootookta lives
in the capital. In early spring he is taken in state by the Lamas to his
summer palace, about five miles away, on the banks of the clear,
swift-running Tola and under the very shadow of the sacred mountain.
Here the time is spent in prayer and meditation till the return of
autumn.

We rode past some tents pitched on the open space in front of the
palace, an encampment of pilgrims which had arrived in Ourga the week
before from Manchuria. One tent, that of their chief, was of green silk,
and richly ornamented with gold hangings inside and out. They seemed
cheery, good-tempered fellows, and gave us a pleasant “good night” as we
passed them, seated outside their tents discussing the evening meal
round their camp fires. Half a dozen camels and a couple of ponies
formed their caravan. They had taken more than three months to do the
journey, and were setting out again to return home the following day.

The day had been close, and a shower of rain towards sundown had made
the atmosphere steamy and depressing, as we rode slowly home through the
twilight to the Consulate. It was Petroff who first called my attention
to a faint sickly odour I had noticed on and off all the afternoon
during our peregrinations, a hot pungent smell as of decaying matter,
which I had detected in my bedroom at the Consulate the day before, and
which seemed to pursue one everywhere in and about Ourga. “You had
better light a cigarette,” said the colonel, offering me his case. “It
is always worse on these damp evenings.”

“Do you mean to say the Consul has not told you of our Golgotha,” he
continued, as soon as we were fairly alight, in reply to my innocent
query of how “it” was occasioned. “Why, it is the sight of the place.
There is just time before dinner; we will ride home that way.”

I was no longer surprised after my visit to “Golgotha,” as Colonel
Petroff facetiously termed the place where hundreds of corpses lay
rotting above ground, that the city of Ourga did not smell as sweet as
one could wish. My only surprise is, after visiting the spot in
question, that plague is not always raging in a city where the
inhabitants never dream of burying their dead, but carry them to a spot
not three hundred yards from the gates, and there let them slowly
decompose in the open air.

It would be impossible to imagine a more horrible spectacle than met our
eyes on arriving at Golgotha, an open space or cleft between two low
green hillocks just outside Ourga, a valley literally crammed with
corpses in every stage of decomposition, from the bleached bones of
skeletons that had lain there for years, to the disfigured, shapeless
masses of flesh that had been living beings but a few days or hours ago.
The moon shed a pale, unearthly light over the grinning skulls and grey,
upturned faces of the dead, some of whom lay stark and stiff just as
they had been left by their friends, others with their blue shrouds
ragged and torn, with disfigured faces and twisted limbs, lying in the
horribly grotesque positions in which the dogs or wolves had dragged
them. Near us was the body of a woman that had lain there but a few
hours, Petroff said, judging from the clean and untorn appearance of her
shroud. A little further off a number of huge dogs were fighting and
snarling over the remains of a child. Overhead great carrion birds were
flapping their huge black wings, occasionally swooping down, with a
hoarse croak, to bury beak and talon in some newly arrived corpse. The
very ground we trod was composed of human bones which crunched under our
ponies’ feet as we rode a short distance up the narrow, ghastly defile.
The stench was awful. I can never think of the place even now without a
shudder, and devoutly wish I had never seen it.

A Mongol when ill has but a poor chance of recovery in Ourga. He had far
better be alone and deserted in the plains than handed over to the
tender mercies of the Death Lamas. There is a house or shed in Ourga
near the Lamasery specially set apart for the dying, for it is
considered the worst possible luck for a Mongol to die in his own tent.
The dwelling, should this occur, is looked upon as accursed for
evermore, and its inmates shunned like lepers by their neighbours. Thus
it frequently happens that a poor wretch is bundled off without ceremony
to the “dying shed” long before there is any need for it. As the “Death
Lamas,” who receive him, do everything for the cure of his soul and
nothing for the good of his body, the invalid has a bad time of it. It
is not considered the proper thing to leave the “Death Chamber” alive,
and few do so, however slight their ailment when they are once admitted.
We tried hard, but were not allowed to enter the sacred precincts, nor
is any one who is not of the Buddhist faith and _in extremis_. The
outside world is therefore ignorant of the rites and ceremonies
practised therein by the Lamas, but the tortures suffered by the unhappy
patients is pretty apparent to any passer-by, judging from the groaning
and moaning that we heard issuing from this gruesome dwelling. When
dead, everything the patient possesses becomes the property of the Lamas
who have attended him. He is stripped naked, wrapped in a coarse blue
cotton shroud, and given up to his friends, who bear him away to
Golgotha, and there leave him to the mercy of the elements, dogs, and
vultures. Instances have been known of men and women recovering and
returning from the ghastly spot to their homes. The Mongol is, at any
rate, free from an evil which always more or less threatens us of
superior civilization——that of being buried alive.

I had not much appetite for dinner that evening, a meal we always
partook of strictly _à la Russe_, which means, literally speaking, any
amount of rich, greasy food, but no drink to wash it down with. However
thirsty one might be, wine, beer, and water were tabooed from the dinner
and breakfast table. Each guest had his small liqueur-glass, but no
tumblers, or wine-glasses. In front of the Consul stood a miniature
battery of Vodka, Kümmel, and brandy bottles, and on these he rang the
changes, replenishing our glasses with the contents of one or the other
till the close of the meal, when the hissing Samovar was brought in and
tea brewed. Our mouths by this time resembled a burning fiery furnace,
and one was glad of a draught of the cup that cheers, hot and
unrefreshing as it was. Sometimes “Koumiss,” or fermented mares’ milk,
was handed round, a drink of which the colonel and Consul partook
largely, but the violent attack of indigestion that half a glass brought
on deterred me from ever drinking the vile stuff, which tastes exactly
like butter-milk gone bad twice. It was not till bedtime that we were
really able to slake our thirst with a cool draught of our own whisky
and water from the bedroom decanter. This strange custom seemed to
prevail throughout Siberia. Thirst is a sensation apparently unknown to
Russians, and I never saw either the Consul or Petroff drink wine except
when once, after a more than usually late night, the latter opened a
bottle of champagne the following morning in our honour, and to drink to
his speedy union with the fair Olga.

We visited Maimachin the following day. Kiakhta and other frontier-towns
all have their Maimachins, a name derived from two Chinese words
signifying “Maima,” trade, and “Ching,” town, for it is here that the
Mongols purchase their stores, clothing, and provisions. Although
distant only a mile from the capital, there are probably no two places
in the world so utterly different in appearance and character as these.
Of the ten thousand inhabitants, eight thousand at least are Chinese,
merchants of various kinds, and _all men_. There is not a Chinese female
of any sort or kind in the place, for the latter are forbidden by the
laws of their country to accompany their husbands or male relatives into
Mongolia, or indeed to go anywhere north of the Great Wall of China. The
consequence of this is that many of the Maimachinites have intermarried
with Mongol women, a circumstance that debars them from ever again
entering the Chinese empire without special permission from the Court of
Pekin.

Maimachin is a neatly-built town enclosed in a brick-battlemented wall
about fifteen feet in height. The streets were, like those of all
Chinese cities, abominably dirty, but it presented for all that a very
favourable contrast to sad, sombre Ourga. The houses are of brick for
the most part, well-built, substantial dwellings with gardens and
courtyards, while on the outskirts of the city trees (planted by the
ever-industrious Chinaman) and carefully tended market and flower
gardens relieve the monotony of the dead green plain. A Chinaman much
resembles a Frenchman in one respect; put him into a swamp in
Mid-Africa, and he will make his immediate surroundings ornamental, or
at any rate as pretty as circumstances will allow.

The Temple of Confucius at Maimachin was a pleasant contrast to the
gaunt, whitewashed structure of Buddha at Ourga. Though much smaller in
dimensions, it was a model of symmetry and beauty, and embellished with
carvings and sculpture which it seemed a sin to have covered with the
eternal gold and vermilion so dear to every celestial’s heart. In front
was a little courtyard overhung with weeping willows and paved with
smooth grey tiles, round the edge of which ran broad beds of roses and
mignonette, while in the centre a fountain plashed lazily into a basin
of cool green water, covered with clusters of great white water lilies.
Hung around the roof of the temple were hundreds of small gilt bells
with sails attached to their clappers, which at the slightest breath of
air produced a sweet musical sound. It was a relief to sit in this
pretty cool retreat and forget for a while the dirty, dismal city with
its leprous population and unburied dead not two thousand yards off!

Moses and Co. had only contracted to bring us as far as Ourga, so we now
set about getting fresh camels for the journey to Kiakhta, a distance of
over two hundred miles. We were not anxious to prolong our stay in
Ourga. One walk through the city had more than satisfied our curiosity,
and the unsavoury whiffs that came in at our open windows whenever the
wind was blowing in from the direction of Golgotha, only made us the
more anxious to hasten our departure, notwithstanding the kind and
pressing invitation of our good-natured friend and guide, Petroff, to
stay a few days longer and have some trout-fishing, a sport I have never
been particularly fond of, though I believe it is to be had in
perfection in the waters of the Tola, judging from the large basketsful
M. Shishmaroff brought in almost daily.

We procured camels with less difficulty than I had anticipated, though
not without a good deal of haggling and discussion as to price with the
greasy old Mongol whose property they were. The old robber insisted on
payment beforehand, and insisted on its being made in _brick tea_, which
gave us an enormous amount of trouble and annoyance. We managed it at
last, with the aid of M. Shoolingin, a Russian tea-merchant, but the
calculation entailed a consumption of tea, Vodka, and cigarettes that
gave us a headache for two days afterwards! It took us nearly three
hours to convert our Kalgan bills into the requisite amount of the
awkward countersome material that passes current for coin in Ourga and
throughout Mongolia. The tea is of the coarsest kind. After being
submitted to a pressing and drying process, it is cut up into bricks of
25 cents, 50 cents, and $1 value. The latter are nearly two feet long.
The cost of the camels for our journey to Kiakhta was $35, so the old
Mongol had to call in two others to help him carry away his spoil, under
which he staggered away with a grin and a leer that made us doubt
whether he had not swindled us, which we afterwards discovered he had to
the amount of some $15. Bank-notes have lately been introduced by the
Russian tea-firms in Ourga, representing so many bricks of tea each.
These would do away with much of the difficulty attending the carting
about of the present heavy, clumsy currency, but the natives will have
nothing to do with them.

We left Ourga at 5 a.m. on the morning of the 3rd of August. Our caravan
was now considerably reduced in size, for it needed but four camels
(besides the two for the carts) to carry our few remaining stores. Early
as it was, the Consul and Petroff were at the gate to bid us good-bye.
The poor colonel looked very sad and down in the mouth. He was thinking,
no doubt, of Olga, for whom he gave me innumerable tender messages. As
they were confided verbally, and in Russian, it is perhaps as well that
I never made the acquaintance of the belle of “Beautiful Kiakhta.” She
would have been somewhat confused at my interpretation of her fiancé’s
messages, and might have taken his declarations of undying love and
devotion for my own. As the caravan moved slowly out of the gate on the
second stage of our weary journey, the guard gave us three hearty
cheers, and we drank a final Vodka with Petroff, arranging to meet, if
all went well, the following year in Petersburg, a place the gay,
light-hearted soldier seemed far more suited to than the dreary
desert-city in which we left him. Pleasing indeed was this our first
experience of Russian friendship and hospitality, nor had we ever cause
to alter our opinion. With all our vaunted hospitality, I doubt if even
the English are not behind the Russians in these two qualities, which I
have never seen so general as in Russia and Siberia.

A caravan of three hundred ox-carts laden with timber and furs passed
the gates as we were leaving, going in the contrary direction to
ourselves. They were bound for Dolonnor in Manchuria, a town, Petroff
told us, they would be entering about the same date as we should be
nearing the English Channel at Calais.

Our way lay straight through Ourga. I could not help wondering, as we
passed Golgotha for the last time, and noticed the thick white steam
rising from it, that the place is not one continual hotbed of cholera
and typhus. Yet it is not so. The clear, dry, rarified atmosphere and
hot sunshine in summer and severe frost and cold in winter do much to
mitigate the unhealthy vapours and stench that constantly hang over the
city. Ourga is as a matter of fact extremely healthy, and cholera is,
and always has been, unknown in the capital of Mongolia.

Both our camel-drivers being Lamas, they asked permission to halt for a
few minutes as we passed the Temple Gates, while a couple of
rascally-looking priests came out and blessed the caravan, an operation
which was witnessed with great interest by the bystanders, who abandoned
their occupation of wheel-turning and came up and leisurely examined the
inside of our carts, our clothes, boots, rifles, &c., with apparent
interest. The ceremony of blessing us consisted in throwing a couple of
gourds of arrack and some grains of millet over the leading and last
camel, a proceeding that is supposed to ensure a rapid and prosperous
journey. It was rather a failure in our case, for it took us exactly a
week to get to Kiakhta, a voyage usually accomplished with ease in three
days by the Russians at Ourga.

Three separate ranges of mountains lay between us and Kiakhta, one, the
“Bain Gol” pass, so steep as to necessitate the using of bullocks to
drag the huge unwieldy carts across, for the Mongolian camel has the
greatest objection to pulling weights up-hill, be it ever so slight a
gradient. Two broad and swift rivers, the “Kharra” and “Irul,” have also
to be crossed, the former forded, the latter by ferry. Shishmaroff
specially cautioned us not to attempt the passage of the Irul after
dark, for the stream is dangerous owing to sunken rocks, and the ferry
old and unsecure.

The going was very hard the first two days and the shaking in the carts
far worse than anything we had yet experienced. To compensate us for the
discomfort and fatigue, however, we passed through some of the loveliest
mountain scenery I have ever seen. Game was abundant the whole way,
hundreds of partridges (the sand-grouse is not met with here) and hares,
with an occasional shot at a golden pheasant with which the dense
forests abounded. We passed the second day a small pond or lake, alive
with duck and sheldrake. Stopping the caravan for a few moments, we
bagged a couple, and on the way back two couple of snipe from the marsh
surrounding the water. Though we had to wade waist deep for nearly a
quarter of a mile, it was worth the trouble. There must have been at
least thirty duck on the pond, which was barely twenty yards wide.

We had now nothing to complain of with regard to excess of energy and
activity on the part of our drivers. Our difficulty with the new Mongols
was not to get them to stop, but to go on. The leader, a fat, stumpy old
fellow, with eyes like an owl, slept calmly and peacefully on his
camel’s back throughout the day, only to awake at the midnight halt from
which hour, till we started again at six, he would devote himself to
gorging, smoking innumerable pipes, and saying, or rather singing, his
prayers, an operation that kept us awake the greater part of the night.
I verily believe we went quite double the distance we should have done,
owing to this old wretch’s sleepiness and idiotcy. Something was always
going wrong. Water running short, packs falling off, the caravan filing
quietly away in a direction totally different to that it should have
taken, while the old fellow partook of nature’s sweet restorer,
blissfully unconscious of our cries and threats. No amount of shouting
would wake him——indeed, nothing short of pulling him off his camel. At
such times he would look at one with an injured stare, shake himself
into his seat, and go off again, only to fall asleep a few hundred yards
further on, when the operation of pulling off had to be repeated. The
second driver was, luckily, a bright, intelligent boy of about twenty,
who saved things from going utterly to the bad. Had it not been for him,
we should even now be vainly endeavouring to reach the Russo-Chinese
frontier.

I do not think we got more than twelve hours’ sleep in all during the
journey from Ourga to Kiakhta, and this was the greatest discomfort with
which one had to contend. Even when, after an uninterrupted spell of
hard work for twelve hours, the caravan halted at midnight till
daybreak, sleep was often impossible from the very knowledge that in
five hours’ at most one would have to be on the tramp again. Besides the
hammering in of tent-pegs, chopping of firewood, and last, but not
least, the semi-musical prayers of our somnolent driver often lasted
till four or half past, and put sleep out of the question. A Mongol is
never so wakeful and active as at night, and if he is musically
inclined, always indulges this propensity in the darkness, when all
right-minded people are courting the drowsy god. Expostulating was
useless, as any one who has ever been brought in contact with this
strange race will understand.

We were now a good deal bothered by mosquitoes and sandflies, an
annoyance from which we had been free throughout Northern China, and the
desert proper. Now, however, these pests attacked us night and day in
myriads, and we suffered a good deal from their bites, which were
unusually severe and poisonous.

Our younger camel-driver carried a very original prayer-wheel, a sort of
miniature windmill let into the butt-end of his thick, heavy whip. When
set going and held against the wind, this ingenious contrivance would
spin away without cessation for hours together. He was a devout youth,
and it was a long time before I could induce him to part with it, but
love of filthy lucre finally overcame religious scruples, and I managed
to buy it of him on arrival at Kiakhta for a couple of roubles, under
the strictest injunctions not to tell the “Old Sheep,” as he
irreverently termed the sleepy Lama.

We reached the banks of the Kharra at nine o’clock on the morning of the
6th of August. This river is a tributary of the Khon River, which has
its source near the Kara Korum Mountains in central Mongolia, and after
winding its course of nearly 700 miles, flows into the great inland sea
of Lake Baikal, after watering the towns of Kiakhta and Selenginsk,
where, however, it is not navigable. There was no ferry, but we managed
to ford it pretty easily. The weather had been dry, and the stream,
which in time of flood is rapid and very dangerous, was never above our
girths the whole way across. The water was beautifully clear, with a
shingly bed, and we took the opportunity of filling the water-casks, not
without a good deal of opposition from the Mongols, notwithstanding that
the water had been filthy ever since leaving Ourga. This extraordinary
people seem to prefer drinking out of a stagnant pool or well, in which
a dead sheep or camel has been soaking for days, to filling the casks
out of a pure running stream. On the banks of the river were three
dirty, dilapidated yourts, empty, the first signs of a habitation we had
seen since leaving Ourga.

Lovely weather had favoured us till now; bright hot sunshine tempered
with a cool fresh breeze. But it was too good to last. About four
o’clock to-day, the bright blue sky became overcast, and half an hour
later, down came the rain, and continued steadily, and without
cessation, till 2 a.m. The roofs of our carts, warped and cracked by the
heat of the sun, leaked like sieves. But the weather, rough as it was,
did not in the least affect my driver’s somnolent propensities. I was
awoke that night, about eleven, out of a fitful doze, by a crash, to
find that we were crossing a steep, precipitous range of hills, and that
my cart was balancing itself on one wheel, on the edge of a precipice,
the bottom of which was invisible. I could pretty well gauge the height,
though, by the sound of a torrent dashing and foaming over some rocks at
least a hundred feet below. I was only just in time to catch hold of his
nose-string, and wrench the camel back into safety. In another moment
the whole caravan would have toppled over. It was the old story. The
Lama had been asleep. This last straw was too much, and in a fit of
ungovernable temper, I pulled the old wretch off his camel, and sent him
sprawling on his back on the stony pathway. But he took it perfectly
coolly, merely picking himself up without a word, and with the usual
stolid stare of mingled surprise and annoyance, calmly proceeded to
clamber up again. Five minutes more and he was as sound asleep as ever.
What could one do with such a creature, but give it up in despair! I
took the precaution, however, though it still poured with rain, of
walking till daylight.

A bright sunny morning made up for the discomforts of the night, and we
were able, while fires were being lit and tea prepared, to dry our
clothes and mattresses in the sun, which as early as eight o’clock was
too warm to be pleasant. The scenery throughout the day resembled one
enormous deer-park. Grassy slopes, as smooth as a billiard-table, and
every now and again large clumps of fir-trees, which grew so regularly,
they looked as if art and not nature had placed them there; while on the
horizon, green, undulating hills, covered with forests of dark
pine-trees, cut the bright blue sky-line. The track occasionally led
past clear broad sheets of water teeming with fish, occasionally through
belts of copse-wood, of silver birch and hazel, the ground one blaze of
hyacinths, wild roses, and pinks growing in the thick rich grass, with
clear, narrow brooklets running here and there through the thick
undergrowth. We saw a brace of pheasants in one of these woods, but too
far off to get a shot. About mid-day we halted for dinner under a clump
of fir-trees. The cattle grazing in the sunshine, the quiet stillness of
the place, broken only by the droning of insects, and voices of children
playing near some distant yourt, was intensely refreshing after our
night of misery. What would not these hundreds of miles of splendid
pasture be worth at home? No wonder the Mongols are a contented race
with such land as this, and no rent to pay!

Four o’clock the following morning saw us at the foot of the mountain,
to cross which we were to abandon the camels and take to oxen. Sylvia
was despatched in quest of the latter, but did not return with them till
nearly three o’clock the following afternoon. We thus had a delay of
nearly twenty-four hours, but were not altogether sorry, for the shaking
and jolting of the past two days made one glad of a rest. We encamped
close to a limestone mountain, about five hundred feet high, from the
summit of which a huge piece of rock, quite a hundred feet in height,
had become detached, and crumbling away as clean as if cut with a knife,
had fallen on to the caravan-track immediately below. It was six o’clock
by the time we had got the bullocks in and commenced the ascent of the
pass, which, gradual at first, became very difficult long before we
reached the summit. One bullock was harnessed to the shafts, the other
to the axle of the wheel, but so severe was the strain the ropes
continually broke on the way up. The cart and pack camels were in
readiness to take us on when we reached the other side. Though a
distance of only five miles from where we encamped, they took nearly
eight hours to do the journey.

The way lay at first through a narrow ravine thickly grown with pine and
silver birch. Through the centre ran a clear running brook, plashing
over limestone rocks and boulders, and almost hidden by ferns and wild
flowers. Above us towered the almost perpendicular wall of rock that
must be conquered before nightfall, if we wished to avoid camping out
all night on some rocky ledge——not a pleasing prospect——for it was
already bitterly cold out of the rays of the sun. I noticed here,
growing in great luxuriance, a bright _yellow_ poppy——a colour in which
I had always imagined that flower was unknown. This part of the mountain
also swarmed with enormous hares. We must have seen some thirty or
forty, and could easily have bagged half a dozen, but Moses would not
hear of it, or of our delaying the caravan for a moment to get out our
guns. As the ascent was getting harder every moment, we did not argue
the matter.

I think that was quite the worst bit of mountain work we did the whole
journey. Every moment I thought the bullocks would give in, or the carts
go to pieces. The boulders they had to get over, holes and watercourses
to get out of, would have seemed incredible to any one unacquainted with
Mongolian travel. On foot it was bad enough, and we were glad we had
sent on the ponies, for it would have been impossible to climb and lead
them as well. Every ten minutes or so a halt was made for a quarter of
an hour. Thus we toiled on, till half-past eight o’clock, when we found
ourselves on the summit, after four hours of as hard, physical work as I
ever experienced.

The moon had now risen, which made the view from the summit very
picturesque. Round us on every side stretched away chains of lofty
mountains, their limestone peaks gleaming white in the moonlight, while
a grey, flaky mist half hid the deep gorges of pine and fir-trees at our
feet. A bright light shining out of the darkness in the distance showed
where our camels awaited us on the plain——twelve hundred feet below. We
rested for an hour, to give the bullocks breathing-time, and then
commenced the descent. It was a weird scene. A Chinese lantern just
sufficed to make darkness visible, and show that we had halted by the
side of a huge cairn, about twenty feet high, formed of stones, bits of
stick, mutton bones, and strewn here and there with bits of red, yellow,
and white cloth covered with Tibetan and Mongol characters. As we left
the spot, our Mongols, unable to find a stone, each picked up a branch
of fir, and placed it reverently on the heap. These are looked on as
offerings to the “God of travellers,” who protects the faithful from
peril while on a journey. We reached the camels again at ten o’clock.
One tael did not seem exorbitant for the hiring of six bullocks, and the
services of three extra Mongols, for that was the sum Jee Boo told me he
paid them, and they seemed quite satisfied. Probably the greater part of
that found its way into our trusty interpreter’s pockets.

Our road was now clear to Kiakhta, and there were no further
difficulties to be got over, excepting the Irul river——a broad, swift
stream, the crossing of which is dangerous at certain seasons. Jee Boo,
ever a Job’s comforter, told us that the natives reported heavy rains,
and if such was the case, we should certainly have a tough job of it.
But he had so often cried “Wolf,” we paid no heed to his statement.

We travelled on all night, halting at nine the next morning for tea and
biscuits. Part of the work was very fatiguing, as we had to cross
several miles of country thickly covered with huge mole-hills, over
which the carts jolted terribly, for there was no beaten track. The
shaking at last became so unbearable that we left the carts at 4 a.m.,
tired as we were, and walked till the morning halt. We passed, just
after sunrise, a large wooden building, a monastery of Tibetan
architecture, its white façades gaudy with blue and red stripes and a
gilt cupola. As we passed, two or three Lamas came out and blessed the
caravan in the usual manner, an operation which necessitated a stoppage
of half an hour.

Nearly the whole of this day’s work was through deep, drifting sand——in
many places over the axles. At mid-day there was not a blade of grass or
vegetation to be seen. This part of the country was, in fact, far more
like one’s idea of what a desert should be than anything we had come
through in Gobi. In the midst of this sandy waste (about fifteen miles
in length), we came to a green valley or oasis, fresh and beautiful. The
descent to it (for it lay in a hollow whence not a particle of sand was
visible) was about fifty feet deep. Grass grew luxuriantly here, and a
clear brook of running water springing from Heaven knows where, ran the
whole length of the defile into a small lake or pond at the end——a dark,
shady pool fringed with willows, and covered with white, broad-leaved
water-lilies. Wild flowers of all kinds covered the roadway, among them
the forget-me-not and marguerites of a delicate mauve colour. Although
the sun had been hot and scorching out on the sand, the air struck like
a cold bath the moment we entered this fertile valley, but so damp was
the atmosphere, that our clothes were wringing wet when we emerged at
the other end. The mosquitoes and sandflies, too, were the largest and
most venomous I have ever seen or felt, and our faces and hands so
inflamed that we had to stop the caravan and bathe them with ammonia,
which, however, did little good, for we got no sleep for twenty-four
hours after. The bites took days to heal. Game of all sorts, duck, teal,
and widgeon appeared to abound in this “sleepy hollow,” and we managed
to bag a duck, which made a welcome addition to the usual menu of
preserved meat and sardines.

The morning of the 8th August broke dull and lowering, and about mid-day
a thin rain commenced falling, which by degrees increased to a steady
downpour at 4 a.m. We were to reach the Irul river at about sunset, and,
if possible, cross before dark, but felt, if Jee Boo’s prediction were
true, that we should indeed have our work cut out. The woolly, grey
clouds and leaden sky gave but little promise of a break in the weather.
Our only prayer was that the wind might not rise, but in this we were
also disappointed, for by the time we had reached the banks of the
river, or rather the margin, for it had overflowed for a considerable
distance, the sky was as black as ink, the rain coming down in sheets,
and the wind blowing in violent gusts that threatened every moment to
blow the carts clean over. To think of crossing that night would have
been madness. To say nothing of the fact that another caravan was
waiting to be ferried over before us, the ferryman would not answer for
the strength of the rope holding out against the current and gale
combined. Still, if the Gospodins liked, and did not mind risking it,
the head man (who was a Bouriatte, and spoke Russian well,) would do
what he could to get them over. The Gospodins, however, strongly
objected to risking it, and determined to make themselves as comfortable
as circumstances and the last half-bottle of whisky would permit, till
morning.

I thoroughly enjoyed that night’s rest. Whether it was the consciousness
that we had a really quiet night before us (I had given orders not to be
“called” till nine), or the hot whisky and water, I know not, but I had
not enjoyed such a night’s rest since leaving Pekin. I only woke once
during the night, woke to hear the rain still pattering on the roof, and
to find myself lying in the usual pool of water, while the wind still
howled mournfully round the carts. The sight of the river dashing by in
a sheet of white foam was not reassuring, but did not interfere with my
slumbers, for rolling myself in sheepskins, I slept away peacefully till
past nine o’clock the next morning, when Jee Boo opened the door to let
in a bright flood of sunshine and the welcome news that the rain had
ceased.

The stream was still swollen from the incessant rain; but the caravan
that had encamped next us had crossed at daylight in safety, with the
exception of the loss of one bullock. Our camels were taken to a ford
about a mile up stream, and we preferred accompanying them to trusting
ourselves to the rickety old boat and frayed, rotten-looking rope, for
the new one had not yet arrived. The ferry itself did not look capable
of carrying half a dozen men, much less a heavy, clumsy camel-cart.
Arrived at the ford, however, the spectacle of the leading camel
suddenly disappearing from view in a deep hole made us change our minds
and return to the boat. The first cart had just been got in, and we
leapt on board just as they were shoving off into the stream.

Little more than half way across, a huge snag or tree-trunk got
entangled with the rope and impeded our passage. I thought it quite time
to say my prayers, for, had the cart tilted over, we must have followed
it. It was a trying moment. The deafening roar of the torrent, pale,
scared faces of the Mongols, as they rushed to and fro screaming and
yelling to each other, but doing nothing to lessen the strain on the
rope, which, stretched to its utmost, threatened to snap every moment.
At last one of the men, wiser and pluckier than the rest, rushed to the
bows, and with a superhuman effort dislodged the heavy mass, and sent it
tumbling away down-stream, and we forged slowly ahead again, with a sigh
of relief, for I fully expected our last hour had come.

We walked up to the ford again while the other carts were being got
over. About fifty or sixty bullocks belonging to a tea-caravan were
being driven across by men and women who were pelting them with stones
until they leapt into the torrent, to emerge half dead and prostrate
from fright and exhaustion about two hundred yards lower down. Many of
the caravan people were women, some young and good-looking, though their
costumes were more scanty than elegant. One, a pretty, bright-eyed girl
of about sixteen, took a violent fancy to my brown boots, and it was
only with the greatest difficulty I could prevent her from cutting them
off my feet. The caravan, laden with furs from Irkoutsk, was bound for
Pekin, and would probably be returning four months later with tea to
Kiakhta.

We left the Irul at mid-day. Travelling was now easier, and the jolting
scarcely perceptible on the hard, gravelly track that leads from the
banks of this river right into the town of Kiakhta. Although the country
is uncultivated, the scenery we passed through would have compared
favourably with the lovelier parts of Switzerland and the Tyrol. Green
fertile plains surrounded by chains of undulating fir-clad hills,
occasional belts of forest with flowers and ferns in profusion, bubbling
waterfalls splashing down the hill sides, through the moss-grown,
ivy-clad boulders, then through vast plains of pasture again——such was
the scenery we passed through the day before reaching Kiakhta. There
grew, also, throughout this region (I saw it nowhere else) a
long-stalked, star-shaped, violet flower, with a strong scent of
heliotrope. The air was full of the scent for miles around, and one
could see great violet patches of it on the green plain, stretching away
at intervals to the horizon on every side. I doubt if there is a country
in the world where wild flowers grow so luxuriantly as in parts of
Mongolia.

The succeeding day (August 10th) we got into a sandy region again, with
intervals of grass plain. Some of the drifts being of great depth, the
camels had a bad time of it, and suffered severely from the heat. Poor
little Karra could scarcely stagger along, and had Kiakhta been a couple
of days further, I doubt if he would ever have reached Siberia.
Lancaster’s cart seemed under a curse; for to-day, the driver being, as
usual, asleep, the near wheel ran up a high sand-hillock and upset the
whole machine, Lancaster being asleep inside at the time. It was luckily
deep sand, or it must have been a nasty fall. It was fortunate, too, our
journey was over, for the camel, falling under the shaft, had split it
clean in two. I firmly believe the Mongol would have been sent to his
fathers, had a revolver been handy, and I had the greatest difficulty in
preventing my friend from going for him with the broken shaft.

About four o’clock a glittering speck on the horizon attracted our
attention, which an hour later proved to be the spire of Kiakhta
Cathedral. By six o’clock we were full in sight of the town of
Maimachin, the Chinese settlement, its pagodas and quaint architecture
standing out in striking contrast to the Russian cathedral, with its
golden dome, the European stone-built houses, and regular streets and
squares of Kiakhta. Skirting the wooden walls surrounding Maimachin, we
find ourselves on a broad, level piece of ground about six hundred yards
broad, with, on the right hand, a guard-house and high wooden gates,
surmounted by the Imperial Eagle, while to our left the Chinese flag,
hoisted on to a long red pole, floats in front of the governor of
Maimachin’s residence. We are standing on neutral ground, and in another
minute have passed the Cossack, who from the depths of a black and white
sentry-box, eyes the caravan with a stolid, indifferent expression, but,
curious to relate, does not ask for our passports. The first stage of
our journey is over. We are in the Russian Empire.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER VII.

  KIAKHTA TO IRKOUTSK.


A SQUARE, whitewashed room, its walls and uncarpeted floor reeking with
filth, and devoid of all furniture save a table and two hard,
straight-backed chairs, and an overpowering smell of sewage from a
cesspool beneath the open window, through which a crowd of shock-headed
Siberian boys watch our every movement. An old man, in greasy rags and
redolent of garlic, who resolutely refuses to allow us to enter even
this fetid den unless the lodging-money is prepaid. No bed, no food, no
drink, no washing appliances——such were the comforts awaiting us at the
“Hotel Glembodski,” Kiakhta, the only inn in the place.

It was disappointing, to say the least of it. We had passed well-built,
luxurious-looking houses on our way through the town, and expected to
find, at any rate, the bare necessaries of life. Nay, more; when we saw
the almost palatial houses of the tea-merchants surrounded by gardens
and conservatories, neat, well-kept public gardens, smart carriages of
every description, and men and women dressed in the latest European
fashion, visions entered the mind of a really well-cooked dinner, washed
down with iced champagne; but, alas! not for long. Ice there was,
certainly, but we drank it in “quass;” while for food we had to fall
back on our own stale provisions.

“Can we have anything to eat?” was our first question, when, having
failed in getting any water to wash in, we made up our minds to “pig it”
that night, and present our credentials to the governor of Kiakhta in
the morning. But there was no food in the house, the old man said, and
all the shops were shut. To-morrow they would be open at six, and we
could breakfast early, he added, by way of consolation.

A pleasant welcome after a journey of eight hundred miles, I thought
that night as I lay down in my sheepskins on the grimy floor, wondering
whether it would be as bad as this throughout Siberia. The stench, rats,
and vermin, kept us awake more than half the night. I would have given a
good deal to be back in mid-desert. There, at least, one had fresh air.

We were besieged next morning before eight o’clock by half a dozen
Chinamen from Maimachin, who calmly walked in without knocking, and
seating themselves on the ground, commenced to jabber away in
Russian——not a word of which I could understand. I called for Jee Boo,
and found they were tea-merchants, and had come to buy our samples. It
was a long time before they could be persuaded that we had none to sell,
never dreaming that any one could be mad enough to cross the Gobi Desert
for pleasure!

It poured with rain all next day. Our ill-luck did not desert us, for on
calling at the governor’s house in the morning, we were told he was
away, and would probably not return for a fortnight at least, by which
time we hoped to be many miles from Kiakhta. M. Gribooshin, a
tea-merchant, on whom I had a letter of credit, was also away shooting
in Mongolia; but his clerk provided us with the necessary funds, and we
left his luxurious mansion with a sigh of regret to return wet and
dispirited to our squalid room at the inn, and settle our plans for
getting out of the dismal, inhospitable place as quickly as possible.

I have seldom passed a more miserable day. No fire (for it was cold and
damp), no books, no food excepting some greasy soup, the ingredients of
which I shudder to think of; and when night came on, no light but that
from a flickering oil wick which just sufficed to make our wretched
surroundings visible. I managed to glean from our host that he was a
Polish exile, and had been sent here after the insurrection of 1864. If
all his countrymen have the same notions of comfort, I thought,
banishment to Siberia can affect them but little.

The town of Kiakhta is divided into two parts, Kiakhta, the town proper,
where the governor or frontier commissioner lives, and where are
situated most of the tea-warehouses and offices, and Troitzkosavsk, a
suburb about half a mile distant, almost entirely composed of private
houses belonging to the merchants. The population of Kiakhta, with
Troitzkosavsk, is a little under six thousand, but this does not include
the Chinese settlement of Maimachin, containing four thousand souls, all
of whom are men. There is not a woman or child in the place, the Chinese
law forbidding wives to accompany their husbands beyond the Great Wall
of China. We visited Maimachin, and found it far cleaner than most
Chinese towns. There were but eight streets, all wide and well-drained.
The houses are of wood and brick, and some of them gorgeously decorated
with vermilion and gold. Many of the population spoke Russian, and all
the wealthier merchants. I visited the house of one while he was
employed in “tasting tea,” by driving a hollow piece of metal into the
chest like a cheese scoop, and drawing out a small sample.

Our hotel was situate in the main street of Troitzkosavsk, which is a
sad, dreary-looking place. Most of the houses are of unpainted wood,
which give it a sombre look; though the college, church, and principal
merchants’ houses are built of whitewashed brick, with bright green
roofs, and detract somewhat from the depressing aspect around. Kiakhta
is a terrible place for bells. They were eternally going, morning, noon,
and night——not a lively, cheery peal, but a slow, solemn tolling, like a
continual passing-bell. But for this Troitzkosavsk is the sleepiest and
most dead-alive town imaginable. Except, towards evening, when the
population turn out _en masse_ for a breath of fresh air, there is
seldom a sound to break the dead silence that reigns in the unpaved,
dusty street that constitutes its main thoroughfare, from morning till
night.

Kiakhta is not unhealthy. It is not subject to the violent and sudden
changes of temperature found further south in Mongolia. It seldom rains,
and never snows. Travellers in winter have to drive out a distance of
eight or ten miles before they can get into the sleigh which is to bear
them to Irkoutsk, Tomsk, Yakoutzk, and other parts of Siberia. The
coldest and hottest weather experienced in Kiakhta summer and winter are
95° and 33° below zero respectively, figures that may sound startling to
the reader, but nothing compared to Yakoutzk, where in mid-winter it
sometimes exceeds 58° below zero. The earth at the latter place is said
to be always frozen below the surface to a depth of over thirty feet,
summer and winter.

Five o’clock in the afternoon is the busiest part of the day in the
frontier-city. Then it is that the whole population turns out, the
wealthier part for its evening drive, the poorer to listen to the
military band which plays every day throughout the summer in the public
gardens. Had it not been for the motley crowd of Russians, Chinese,
Mongolians, Bouriattes, and other queer races in their bright, gaudy
costumes, one might have been in the gardens of some garrison-town in
France or Germany, so civilized were all but the human surroundings. It
was amusing to watch the female _élite_ of Kiakhta, the wives and
daughters of wealthy tea-merchants, dressed in the latest Paris
fashions, flirting, talking scandal, and ruining their neighbours’
reputations, just like their more civilized sisters ten thousand miles
away in London or Paris. Equally interesting was it to stroll about
among the crowd of Cossack officers, resplendent in white and gold,
Mongol Tartars, in rags and silk, Siberian peasants in Russian dress,
Chinese soldiers from Maimachin, Russian soldiers from Kiakhta,
nursemaids with children and perambulators, and men in frock-coats and
tall hats. The gardens at Kiakhta were a sight worth seeing. It was hard
to realize that the desert of Gobi is but a stone’s throw from this
scene of almost European civilization.

We took an affectionate farewell of Jee Boo two days after our arrival.
The carts were returning to Kalgan, and as Chinamen have an innate
horror of crossing the desert with strange Mongols, he had determined to
go with them, though we offered him a good round sum if he would wait
and see us out of Kiakhta, for I knew but a few words of Russian,
certainly not enough to complete the purchase of our tarantass or
travelling-carriage satisfactorily. He was obdurate, however, also the
Mongols, so we had to make the best of it, trusting to find some one who
could speak a few words of English, though that seemed improbable enough
in Kiakhta.

But we found a friend in need, and when we least expected it. The town
of Troitzkosavsk boasts a college, established and maintained by a
private individual——an enormously wealthy gold-miner. One must have
lived in a place where not a soul understands your native language to
appreciate our delight when we met Professor R————, a German by birth,
but professor of English at the college, who had, by the way, only just
arrived here, and who greeted us in our own tongue, one morning with a
familiar “Good morning, gentlemen. I think I am addressing the two
travellers from Pekin.” Never did the English tongue sound so sweet to
my ears, for we were now out of our dilemma, and accepting the
professor’s invitation, followed him home to his rooms for breakfast.

The world is small indeed, for Professor R———— and we had many mutual
friends, whose names sounded odd in the mouth of a stranger at what
might well be called the uttermost ends of the earth. Our new
acquaintance had had a strange career before drifting to this remote
part of Asia. By birth a German, and a gentleman’s son, he had left home
when a lad, and enlisted in the 22nd Regiment, where he was promoted to
the rank of sergeant. Leaving the service in 1870, he was appointed
teacher of the German language at Southsea Naval College, a post he
afterwards left to assist Mr. F————, of Storrington, Sussex, a
well-known private tutor. Professor R———— had left Storrington to take
up an appointment as professor of German at the Royal Naval College,
Petersburg, from whence he had been promoted to Senior Professor of
English at the College of Kiakhta. A born linguist, Herr R———— was
proficient in English, French, Russian, Italian, and last, but not
least, Mongolian. The latter, however, he had only taken up for a few
months, and was compelled to admit that the mastering of it was hardly
worth the candle.

“We will go for a walk after breakfast,” said our host. “But I must
first introduce you to the lions of Kiakhta, after which we will see
about the tarantass.” Breakfast over, we set out with our friend for a
ramble round the place.

The professor was, like all Germans, no friend of Russia. “What are they
but pigs, these Siberians?” said he, as we walked down to Kiakhta. “The
men are all thieves, do nothing all day but smoke, drink, and play
cards. As for the women, you can easily imagine what becomes of them
under such circumstances. There is no rational amusement of any kind
here, no sport among the men, no music or dancing among the women,
nothing but vodka, vodka, vodka, cards, cards, cards, all day long. “Ah!
_mon cher, n’en parlons plus. Ce sont des canailles!_” I then thought
our friend was a little hard upon the good people of Kiakhta, but had
good cause, afterwards, to alter my opinion.

The cathedral, which was entirely built by tea-merchants, is a beautiful
building of Byzantine architecture. The cost is said to have been
150,000_l._ sterling, and after seeing the gorgeous decorations of the
interior, one had no difficulty in believing this. The altar alone, of
solid gold, silver, and platinum, cost 30,000_l._, while the principal
doors of the building are of solid silver, and weigh 200 lbs. A huge
candlestick and chandelier studded with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds,
and several beautifully executed oil paintings from Europe, together
with some Ikons or sacred pictures, thickly encrusted with precious
stones, completed the decoration of the interior of the building, which
though, like most Russian churches, of a florid style, was exceedingly
beautiful. A peal of eight bells, made in Moscow, and of great weight,
must have added not a little to the general cost, for they had to be
dragged two thousand miles through the deep, muddy roads of Siberia.
There are two smaller churches in Kiakhta besides a large cemetery,
lying between that town and Troitzkosavsk.

“They are perfect Rothschilds in their way,” said the professor, as
walking home I noticed what palatial buildings some of the tea-merchants
and gold-miners had erected, “but with no more manners than their own
bullocks——in fact they are a class of themselves, and Siberia is the
very best place for them. No one would stand them in Europe.”

There are, the professor told us, about fifteen of these men living in
Kiakhta, one of them worth at least a million sterling. Walking back to
Troitzkosavsk that day, we passed a huge building on the roadside,
erected by M. Nempshinof——the millionaire in question——for a mausoleum
for himself, at a cost of 40,000_l._ sterling. But all this is done more
for vanity than anything else. Their donations to the poor, their gifts
to the church, their building of churches, is not charity so much as a
desire to show that they can spend more money than their neighbour. In
Kiakhta, Herr R———— told us, their daily life consists in rising about
mid-day, winter and summer, going down, if in the tea-season, to inspect
the tea-bags and chests which sometimes burst or break in transit across
Gobi, after which they visit each other’s houses and settle down to
cards and champagne (at Rs. 13 [1_l._ 10_s._] a bottle), with short
intervals for refreshment, till four or five the next morning, when,
helplessly drunk, they reel home to bed, or rather to a chair or sofa,
for there are no beds in Kiakhta, even in the best regulated families.
The favourite game in Kiakhta is nap, at which these men gamble for
tremendously high sums, sometimes playing 1000_l._ a trick. Intellectual
amusements they have none, indeed the majority cannot even read! But I
shall have more to say of these strange creatures anon, and must now
give the reader a full and graphic account of an evening party _à la
Sibérienne_!

“M. Wormoff, my colleague, has deputed me to invite you to dine this
evening,” said the professor, as we were about to bid him good evening.
“Will you come? Do not let me persuade you against your will, but I
think you will be amused at our, or let me rather say their, manners and
customs.”

We gladly accepted, and presented ourselves at M. Wormoff’s residence at
nine o’clock, the hour mentioned. Rather late, we thought, but no doubt
the Siberian custom, though having tasted no food since breakfast,
Glembodski having (as usual) nothing in the house, we would willingly
have dined an hour or two earlier.

The guests were already assembled when we arrived, including our German
friend, who introduced us to all present; Professor Wormoff, his newly
married wife, a pretty little woman from Tomsk, Captain Cherkoff, of the
Cossacks, who evidently thought Madame Wormoff a pleasant addition to
Kiakhta society, a Russian professor of music, of mathematics, and
chemistry (the last a German), the post-master, and ourselves. Of these
Cherkoff and the chemist spoke French, the others not a word of anything
but Russian.

Wormoff had a charming house, and evidences of his wife’s good taste
could be everywhere seen in the drawing-room, into which we were shown.
Introductions over, everybody sat solemnly down without a word, and
Madame Wormoff left the room. I confess I hoped she had gone to see
about dinner, but half-past eight, nine, half-past nine came, and no
signs of moving. About this time Cherkoff offered me a cigarette, which,
more to stave off the pangs of hunger than anything else, I accepted and
lit. There was a magnificent grand piano (by Erard) in the room, upon
which I was asked to perform, and played, with as much spirit as I could
muster, the Russian Hymn and other patriotic tunes, but they fell flat,
and no wonder. Everybody appeared to me to be getting gradually paler
and paler with hunger, nor could I, with any propriety, get anywhere
near R————, who was sitting next our host, to ask him if we were ever
going to have anything to eat.

At last, about 11.30, the door opened, and a servant entered, bearing a
tray with two large bottles of vodka. This, I thought, looked like a
preliminary to food, at any rate the spirit kept faintness off! A
quarter of an hour later Madame Wormoff returned to announce that dinner
(dinner at 11.30!!) was ready, and we adjourned gravely to an upstairs
apartment, where the repast awaited us. In a corner of the room stood a
small table set out with smoked herrings, salmon, cheese, caviar, and
flanked by half a dozen huge bottles of vodka, cognac, curaçao, kümmel,
and other liqueurs. Here every one took a morsel of cheese or fish in
his fingers, and gravely drank our health one by one, turning their
glass up, if we did not drain ours to the dregs, to show that it was
empty. By the time supper was served my head began to swim, for I had
had to imbibe in this way, and on an empty stomach, seven or eight
glasses of vodka, a liquid to which I was totally unaccustomed, and
which is, I need not say, extremely potent.

One diminutive chicken and half a dozen small cutlets do not go far
among half a dozen hungry men, but that was literally the only food
there was. There was plenty to drink; but what drink! Brandy, vodka, and
white port (English made). Beer, claret, or sherry, there were none, or
even water, for after devouring salt fish like so many Esquimaux, one
would gladly have put up with the latter, had there been any.

Madame Wormoff retired to rest shortly after midnight. Strangely enough,
we missed our friend the Cossack at the very same moment. Such a
proceeding would have seemed somewhat strange anywhere else, especially
as the gallant Captain returned in half an hour, after a prolonged
tête-à-tête with Madame, and joined us again. But nobody, even Wormoff,
seemed in the least surprised.

The lady’s departure was the signal for real hard drinking to commence,
though, indeed, our companions had lost no time before she left. In vain
I protested that I never drank port, that strong liquor disagreed with
me; my hosts either would not or could not understand, and insisted on
my drinking with them separately and in turn. “Do not refuse, or they
will pick a quarrel with you,” whispered R————; and not wishing to be
mixed up in a mêlée with these giants, not one of whom was under six
feet high, I made a virtue of necessity. It reminded me of the scene
between the celebrated Mr. Jorrocks and his huntsman, who, when they had
exhausted all other toasts, drank the healths of all the hounds
separately. When our friends had exhausted the Czar, the army, the navy,
the Queen of England, and all reigning potentates, including the Emperor
of China, they fell back on themselves. I must have drunk at least three
bottles of port that night, to say nothing of vodka, and by the time we
left the table to adjourn to the piano and wind up the evening, or
rather morning with song, my throat was like a lime-kiln, and my head
spinning like a teetotum.

All at the table were the worse for liquor; but the scholastic
representatives of mathematics and chemistry were, to say the least of
it, very drunk indeed. I was the innocent cause of a severe and
sanguinary combat between them. Earlier in the evening, our conversation
having turned upon duelling, I had related to the Cossack captain, much
to his amusement, the story of the three-cornered duel in “Mr.
Midshipman Easy,” which is probably familiar to the reader. The
mathematical professor insisted on the joke being translated to him by
the professor of chemistry, which, with no little difficulty, the latter
did, but it instantly led to a wrangle. No three men, said the
mathematician, could fire at each other. The thing was absurd, unfair,
preposterous; one of them must be at a disadvantage. The discussion
became so heated at last that Wormoff had to put a stop to it, thinking
every instant the pair would come to blows, and peace was, for a time,
restored.

We then adjourned to the drawing-room, where all sang and shouted at the
top of their voices, regardless of time or tune, till past 4 a.m. If
poor Madame Wormoff slept anywhere near, she must have had a bad time of
it. Suddenly, while at the piano, a low, choking sound attracted my
attention, and I looked underneath to find Russia (represented by the
mathematician), lying on the top of Germany (represented by the
chemist), and slowly but surely throttling her. The thing had been done
so gently that neither Lancaster nor myself had noticed it. The others
had returned to the dining-room and vodka. Quickly summoning Wormoff, we
managed to get them apart, but not without difficulty. The Russian had
decidedly the best of the combat, for the chemist was half dead, his
face purple, and eyes protruding. It took at least half a bottle of
vodka to bring him round again, and enable him to inform us that the
_casus belli_ was still the triangular duel! The Cossack was all for
blood, and wanted them to fight it out with pistols in the morning.
Nothing, he said, would settle the question but practical demonstration,
and he would be charmed to make a third, but this was fortunately
averted.

It was broad daylight when we separated, English bottled stout being
handed round as a finale to the entertainment. It costs about a guinea a
bottle in Kiakhta, and we drank it out of small wine-glasses. Then every
one kissed every one else (this we found one of the most trying ordeals
in Siberia), and we separated, having accepted an invitation to dine
next evening with the post-master, but dearly hoping by that time to
have left Kiakhta, little knowing that he alone had the power to grant
us a Podarojna and horses to take us to Irkoutsk. Cherkoff insisted on
seeing us home to the door of the hotel, where, after affectionately
kissing me on the forehead, he left us, and tacked up the street, his
sword rattling between his legs, to morning parade at 5.30. So ended our
first evening party in Siberia!

We bought a tarantass next morning, and were lucky enough to get a very
good one, though it had just done a long journey, and necessitated a
delay of a couple of days to have the wheels, axles, &c., thoroughly
overhauled before setting out on the two thousand miles of rough and
trying road that lay between us and Tomsk. There was little trouble
about stores. A small box of tea, a bag containing sugar, two or three
loaves of white bread, and half a dozen lemons are all the Siberian
travels with, and we resolved to do the same, indeed there would have
been no room for more, for the tarantass was already full to overflowing
with our portmanteaus and gun-cases. It may here be as well to give the
reader a brief description of the vehicle, which in summer replaces the
sleigh in Siberia, and which is admirably adapted for long journeys and
rough roads.

A tarantass resembles a large cradle on four wheels. The body of our
vehicle was about seven feet in length by five feet broad, and the
bottom being concave, gave us plenty of room wherein to pack our
portmanteaus and other luggage impedimenta. There are neither seats or
springs, the occupants lying at full length on a mattress placed over
the luggage or bottom of the carriage. A hood, capable of being folded
back, covers the occupant partially, and from this hood to the driver’s
seat in front can be spread an apron to serve as a further protection.
The body of the tarantass rests on poles, and these rest in turn on the
axletrees and wheels. The poles are generally springy, and much longer
than the body of the vehicle, the fore and hind wheels are placed as far
apart as the length of the poles will allow, and the body is placed
mid-way between the wheels, so the want of proper springs is partially
compensated for, inasmuch as the occupant does not feel the force of the
jolting as he would do if he were seated directly over the wheels. Such
is a brief description of the vehicle in which we travelled a distance
of considerably over a thousand miles, from Kiakhta to Tomsk. The price
we paid for ours was 280 roubles, which, considering all things and the
distance we were from civilization, was not out of the way.

The next thing was to get rid of our ponies, Chow and Kharra. I knew the
kind of life they would lead had we sold them to our Kiakhta friends, so
we gave them away to a party of Mongols setting out for the desert. Poor
little Kharra! He has, at any rate, a better time of it on his native
breezy steppes, than in the streets of hot, dusty Pekin. Nearly the
whole day was spent in preparations for departure; packing the
tarantass, obtaining our Podarojna, and so forth. For the latter we had
to apply to our friend of the evening before, the post-master, who was
most reluctant to give us the document, and begged us to make a longer
stay in Kiakhta. Seeing we were determined, however, he gave it us at
last, reminding us that dinner would be on the table at _ten o’clock_
sharp that evening.

The market at Troitzkosavsk is an interesting sight. It is a square open
building, the shops around belonging partly to Chinese and partly to
Europeans, and the medley of eastern and western population was most
curious. The Russian shops were principally for the sale of stores,
tobacco, provisions of all kinds, and ironmongery, but those of the
Chinese devoted exclusively to tea and silks, in both of which there is
an enormous trade in Kiakhta. Adjoining this was the fish-market, where
sturdy Siberian fishwives appeared to be doing a roaring trade in salted
salmon, trout, “Omul,” carp, and other fish from Lake Baikal. Fresh fish
is seldom obtainable at Kiakhta, the Little Bura river which flows
through being nothing more than a dry ditch in summer, and frozen over
in winter. Having occasion to send a telegram, I went to the office on
my way home, and was surprised at the absurdly low tariff, one rouble,
or rather under one and eightpence for ten words to Petersburg, and all
other parts of the Russian empire from the Baltic to the Sea of Okhotzk.

We were to start for Lake Baikal at nine next morning——at least horses
had been promised us for that hour, yet when we arrived at the
postmaster’s with R————, it was getting on for 10.30, there were no
signs of dinner. The party was in point of fact nothing more nor less
than a repetition of the night before, with the addition of about a
dozen male and half a dozen female guests. We saw, with a shudder, that
the postmaster had resolved to make a night of it, and our hopes of
getting away anything like early on the morrow vanished into thin air.

The company was rather more orderly, however, at first, and we had, for
a wonder, something to eat. Among the ladies was a young “Bouriatte”
lady, who had just returned from a finishing school in Irkoutsk. The
Bouriattes are an aboriginal tribe inhabiting the country north and east
of Irkoutsk, and were but a short time since very little removed from
the Mongols in point of civilization. This young lady had the queer
physiognomy peculiar to her race, the flat nose, high cheek bones, thick
lips, and narrow, twinkling eyes, which made a strange contrast to a
European gown of the latest fashion that she wore. Still more curious
was it when she sat down at the grand piano and gave us Mendelssohn’s
“Lieder,” and one of Liszt’s “Rhapsodies” with an execution and feeling
that I have seldom heard surpassed by an amateur. Classical music was
evidently not appreciated in Kiakhta, and the bright jingling music of
the “Cloches de Corneville” and “Le petit Duc” were much more
enthusiastically received when Madame B————, a pretty little woman, the
wife of the military doctor, sat down to the instrument and rattled them
off.

Our friend, Captain Cherkoff, came in rather late, having been out with
his men at target practice by moonlight——the order for this practice had
only just been promulgated from Petersburg, and it really seems a very
sensible proceeding. Three times a week, wet or dry, the troops were
exercised at this manœuvre from ten o’clock till midnight.

The first part of the evening was pleasant enough, though the manners of
some of the guests were, to say the least of it, curious. Many had never
been fifty miles from Kiakhta in their lives, so were to be pardoned,
though it did not make their behaviour any the less unpleasant to their
neighbours. The women, poor things, noticed this, and kept apologizing
for the behaviour of their male relatives. We took leave of them at
about two o’clock, on the plea that we should have to be leaving early.
I noticed at the time a covert smile pass over the face of the
postmaster, but attributed no importance to it, and sought my hard couch
with a feeling of relief that to-morrow would see us fairly off for
Irkoutsk.

The horses were to be in by nine, we were told, but we waited till
eleven o’clock, without a sign of their arrival. Losing all patience, I
walked up to the post-master’s, and found him still sleeping off the
effects of the night’s debauch on two chairs. I knew that the slightest
show of temper would only have made matters worse, so waking him as
gently as I could, asked politely why the horses had not arrived. For
some minutes his fuddled brains could not grasp my meaning, till a
sudden light burst on him: “Ah, to be sure, the horses. Alas! my friend,
there are none for you: besides, you cannot go to-day. After you had
left, our mutual friend Cherkoff commissioned me to ask you to breakfast
with him at the barracks, and I took upon myself to accept for you, and
gave your ‘Troika’ to some one else. There is no hurry. You shall go
to-night. In the meantime I will dress, and we will go up to the
barracks together. It is already past twelve.”

I could have shaken the little wretch with vexation. While he was
dressing, however (an operation that consisted of putting on his boots
and coat), I came to the conclusion that it was better to appear
pleased, a Russian post-master being as omnipotent in his small way as
the veriest African tyrant. I was beginning to think that Siberian
travel is not unlike African. The difficulty is not so much getting _to_
a place as getting away from it!

The barracks contained two or three hundred men, a company of Cossacks
under the command of Cherkoff, who, like all captains of the Russian
army, had obtained his brevet colonelcy on crossing the Ourals into
Siberia. The garrison of Kiakhta is over eight hundred strong, but this
is mostly made up of militia. Several of the men were standing about the
barrack-yard as we entered, broad, swarthy, sunburnt fellows in white
linen uniforms, who looked fit to go through anything, but had not a
trace of smartness about them.

On arrival at the barracks we were ushered into a large, bare,
whitewashed room crowded with people, who had apparently just risen from
a table covered with the usual salt fish and other thirst-producing
comestibles. One could hardly see across the room for cigarette-smoke.
Nor did it take us long to discover that most of the party, some twenty
in number, had already breakfasted not wisely but too well. All our old
friends were there. The ladies (in low dresses) had wisely retired into
an inner apartment, where they sat alone. “You are late,” said Professor
R————, “but will not miss anything, unless you care for salt fish. This
is a true Siberian breakfast,” he added, with a smile at our
astonishment.

Never shall I forget that afternoon. The place reeked with the fumes of
tobacco and spirits, mingled with a sickening smell of fish. Though
barely three o’clock in the afternoon, half the men were intoxicated,
alternately singing, fighting, and drinking. Cherkoff, I am bound to
say, looked ashamed of his guests, as well he might. The bright sun
streaming in on their drink-heated faces and disordered dress was not a
pretty spectacle. Little Madame B————, a native of Moscow, confided to
me, with tears in her eyes, what a dog’s life it was for a woman. I
sincerely pitied her. It seemed hard that one of her refined taste and
ideas should be condemned to live in such a human Zoological Garden.

The tarantass arrived about four o’clock, much to our relief, and we
commenced to take leave of our hosts. I say commenced, for the operation
lasted quite three-quarters of an hour, we having to drink a glass of
vodka separately with each man.

This ordeal over, we descended on either side of Cherkoff, the entire
party following, to the barrack-square, where the whole company of
Cossacks was drawn up in line. Upon our appearance all struck up a hymn
which, upon any other occasion, I could have listened to with pleasure,
but which, now that I felt it made another hour of delay, bored me
beyond measure. The song finished, a sergeant approached us, bearing in
each hand a huge tumbler of vodka. “One of you must drink it off,”
whispered our guide, philosopher, and friend, Herr R————. “This is
considered a great honour.” Handing me one glass, the captain took
another, and facing me in front of his men, cried out, “À la Reine
d’Angleterre!” to which I replied, “À l’Empereur de Russie!” tossing off
at the same time the whole of the vodka at a gulp. It was like liquid
fire! but I was not allowed much time for thought, for in a second, at a
sign from Cherkoff, the Cossacks had seized Lancaster and myself, and
sent us whirling ten feet into the air, catching us again in their hands
and arms as we alighted. Once, twice, three times I was sent up; and
then, giddy and out of breath, we returned to the balcony. By this time,
what with the shouting, the tossing, and the vodka, I hardly knew
whether I was on my head or my heels! A dance among the men followed
this performance, a dance favourite with the Cossacks, accompanied on a
kind of tom-tom, with much shouting and clapping of hands. Having
watched this for a few moments we first quietly took leave of R., then
bidding good-bye to Cherkoff (whom we left dancing with his men), we
jumped into the carriage while the remainder of the guests were looking
the other way. But they were too quick for us, for just as we were
moving off, two of them caught sight of the tarantass, and, dashing
through the crowd, leapt in, to accompany us, Siberian fashion, to the
outskirts of the town. One of them had concealed a bottle of vodka,
which he produced when we reached the town-gates, and insisted on our
drinking with him and his friend. But we were firm, and they very drunk,
so we soon managed to give them the slip. They were sitting in the road,
the last we saw of them, embracing each other, the empty vodka bottle
beside them.

[Illustration: OUR TARANTASS WITH “TROIKA.”]

It was growing dusk as we left Kiakhta; but the cool night-air, rapid
motion, and exhilarating jingle of the bells as the three sturdy little
horses tore along the hard, level road, soon cleared the cobwebs from
our brain, and made one forget the scenes of debauch of the past three
days. The entertainments we had attended left the same impression on my
mind as a head-feast I once witnessed in Central Borneo——a kind of
wonder that human beings, however uncivilized, could become so animal,
not to say bestial, in their minds and habits. I have not exaggerated
the state of things at Kiakhta, though must, in justice, add that it was
the most dissolute and drunken place we came across. Some excuse, too,
must be made for people living in a land with such squalid, depressing
surroundings, and having absolutely no intellectual pursuits.

There are two roads from Kiakhta to Lake Baikal; one the old post-road,
the other a private one, made and used by the tea-merchants, or by those
having their permission. The latter is a hundred and eighty versts
shorter than the old government post-road. By the intervention of Herr
R., we were permitted to use the private road, and luckily, for we had
but three days before us to catch the steamboat at Moushafskaya, on the
eastern shore of the lake. We reached the first stage, twenty versts
from Kiakhta, just before midnight. Here we first began to taste the
delights of Siberian posting, for there were no horses, nor would there
be till next morning. The post-house was, however, brand new, and as
clean as a new pin inside and out; and we were not sorry for the rest
afforded by the delay. Had all the post-houses in Siberia been as clean
and comfortable as those in the Trans-Baikal, we should have had little
to complain of. But the Russian government has a very different way of
doing things to its wealthy and luxurious purveyors of tea.

We were away again shortly after seven o’clock, but began the day badly.
Of our “Troika,”[8] two were bolters and one a jibber; and a slight
difference of opinion at the start ended by the bolting of the two
outside horses, who dragged the jibber along with them by main force.
They tore along at a mad gallop for a couple of hundred yards, the heavy
tarantass swaying to and fro, till a friendly sand-bank brought us up
all standing, the off-wheel buried in the earth, the near one whirling
round in the air. As for the yemstchik, he had disappeared, and
presently emerged like a water-god, dripping with water, and covered
with duck-weed, for he had been shot into a pond the other side of the
bank. We got righted with the aid of some peasants, and by dint of
lashing, yelling, and cursing, got the unruly team off again at a
gallop; and though for a mile or so we were as often off the road as on
it, we met with no further misadventure, for a time, at least. “Pour une
personne qui n’aime pas les émotions,” as the French say, posting in
Siberia is rather a strain on the nerves. The yemstchik has no idea of
danger, will drive at full gallop down a hill like the side of a house,
though it may be half a mile long, and there is nothing to stop you at
the bottom but a river or precipice without a guard-rail, or standing up
on the box and lashing the horses into a furious gallop in places where
a broken rein or the falling of one horse would send the whole concern
to kingdom come——yourself included. And yet it is surprising how few
serious accidents do occur on the great post-road. Yemstchiks seem, like
drunken men, to be under the special care of Providence.

We reached the Selenga river about mid-day, a deep, swift stream about
half a mile broad, and crossed by a ferry. This was our first experience
of a Siberian ferry, but we were not allowed to examine it long, for
turning on to the wooden landing-stage, our yemstchik shaved the side so
close that the bank gave way, and the off-side of the tarantass fell
bodily over almost into the stream. Luckily, one of the posts of the
bridge caught the axle of the wheel, and we jumped out quick as
lightning, only to see that our vehicle was hanging, saved only by a
thread from utter destruction. Had not the post been of the strongest
pine, it must have given way. The yemstchik stood by whimpering,
evidently expecting what he would have had if his passengers had been
Russians, a sound thrashing, and I felt sorely inclined to give it him,
except that it would have lost time, and every moment the strain on our
sole hope, the wooden post, was getting more severe. It took us some
time to get the horses out, for they were plunging and kicking so that I
expected every moment to see them dislodge the heavy, cumbersome
carriage, and send it plunging into the river. There was but one thing
to do, cut the traces, and as soon as this was done Lancaster and I set
to work and got all the luggage out to lighten it as much as possible.
The yemstchik, delighted to find his skin whole, worked away like a
Trojan, and with the aid of some men from the ferry, we managed to get
two or three planks from the stage. These we placed under the carriage,
and I breathed again. Our tarantass was saved. But though all actual
danger of losing it was over, it was by no means an easy task to hoist
it on _terra firma_. There were but two peasants in charge of the
ferry——a very old man and a very small boy, and our united efforts never
made it budge an inch. There was nothing left but to send for help to a
village about three miles off, and patiently sit down and wait with the
pleasing conviction that we had for a certainty lost the steamer at
Shamoufskaya.

It was not till nearly four o’clock that the men arrived, and past five
before we had got the things in again, rigged up some traces, a simple
job enough in Siberia, where they are made of rope, and got our carriage
safely hoisted on to the ferry. We then crossed safely, and proceeded on
our journey.

The ferry across the Selenga is constructed on the same plan as over
every other Siberian river we crossed. A large barge is moored
mid-stream about two hundred yards above the ferry. To this is attached
a stout chain, connected by means of a number of smaller boats, to the
bows of the ferry. On being cast off from the shore, the mere force of
the stream is sufficient to propel the ferry from bank to bank. This
seemed a simple and effectual plan, particularly in Siberia, where the
rivers are mostly of great size and swiftness.

The scenery from here to Monshafskaya was lovely, and perhaps the more
civilized nature of the landscape made one appreciate it more from just
leaving the bare, monotonous steppes of Mongolia. It seemed almost as if
one were home again, to see the large enclosed meadows, the ruddy
peasantry in the hay-fields, and the pretty, rustic-looking villages,
with their gabled cottages, and picturesque church towers. The bright
warm sun lent an air of gaiety to the scene, and everything looked happy
and contented, from the rosy-cheeked peasant girls with their hay-rakes
and milk-pails, to the fat sleepy cattle browsing in the fields.

There were no horses to be had till midnight at the next stopping-place,
so we made ourselves comfortable and got the post-master’s wife to give
us some supper, a delicious meal of black bread, eggs, and thick clotted
cream, with some berries of her own preserving. All was excellent but
the black bread, a substance not unlike suet mixed with soot and
treacle. The postmistress herself brought us supper, but her lord and
master was terribly jealous, and never let her out of his sight for a
moment, a circumstance that seemed to afford her the greatest amusement.
She was a true Russian from Nijni Novgorod, she told us, and not a
Siberian. Her name was Olga, and she’d just had a baby, and would, I
believe, have told us the whole particulars of its birth, had not
Benedick, who scowled in a corner the whole time, sent her off to bed.
We carried on the conversation by means of a dialogue book, and she
laughed till she cried at my attempts at Russian. The walls of the
post-house were covered with pictures cut from illustrated papers. Among
others one of Mrs. Langtry out of the _Graphic_. “Krasivia Dama
Ingliska,”[9] said pretty Olga, as she pointed it out. I have often
wondered how it ever drifted to this outlandish place, and if Mrs
Langtry is aware that her fair fame has spread as far as the
Russo-Chinese frontier.

The country became more mountainous after this and less cultivated,
though one passed every now and again fertile valleys well stocked with
rye, corn, and barley, and prosperous-looking, fair-sized villages
nestling in the hills. The roads were excellent, far better than any
others we met with throughout Siberia. Their comparative newness, and
the small amount of traffic that goes this way compared to the other, no
doubt accounts for this. We were fairly lucky too in obtaining horses,
and were only detained twice, once on the occasion I have mentioned, and
the other the night before we reached Monshafskaya on the Baikal at
Abukansk. As, however, we made the acquaintance of a charming
fellow-traveller on the second occasion, who was in the same plight as
ourselves, we did not mind the delay. Had it not been for this chance
friend, we should have been quite ten days reaching Irkoutsk instead of
five. M. Radovitch was a Russian in Government employ, on his way to
Irkoutsk. He had already been at Abukansk some hours when we got there,
and when we entered the post-house addressed us in excellent French,
much to our delight. We spent quite a pleasant evening, for the
post-house was clean and comfortable, and next morning at 4 a.m., the
horses being ready, started off together for Monshafskaya, Radovitch in
a téléga or public travelling-carriage, a vehicle built on the same
lines as a tarantass, but having the great disadvantage, that the
traveller must change into another at every station.

The approach to Lake Baikal lies through a valley or gorge with steep
rocky mountains, pine-clad almost to their summits, on either side. So
narrow is the road in parts that there is barely room for two vehicles
abreast, while a precipitous torrent about fifty feet below dashes along
amid huge rocks and boulders to fall into the lake just below
Monshafskaya. A great part of the road is cut out of the solid rock and
must have cost a fabulous sum to make. We arrived at this, the most
difficult and dangerous part of the road, just before sunset. It was
rather nervous work, for there was no guard-rail or attempt at
protection, and the slightest shy or false step of the horses, who were
not of the steadiest, would have precipitated one on to the rocks below.
Presently we left the ravine to ascend a steep hill, so steep indeed
that four horses could hardly get us along. Luckily it was barely a
quarter of a mile to the summit. Resting here awhile for our tired
horses to regain breath, we heard a sound as of waves beating on a rocky
shore. Walking on a few yards, we came to the edge of a cliff. The thick
undergrowth and dense forest had up till now hidden it from view, for
suddenly there at our feet, the snow-clad summits of its coasts glowing
in the sunset, a sea of sapphire flecked with white waves, lay
fathomless Lake Baikal.

We skirted the lake for some time, now on a level with the shingly
beach, now hundreds of feet above it, before we got to Monshafskaya, at
dusk. The steamer, to our great relief, was a day late, and would not be
leaving for Listvenitz (the port for Irkoutsk) till the following day at
noon. The rest-house was crowded with travellers, one a special
Government courier from Nicolaiefsk, whom Radovitch knew and introduced
us to: a pleasant, chatty fellow, who had once held a commission in a
crack cavalry regiment, but having lived not wisely but too well, had
sold out and joined the Courier Service. On the occasion of the late
Czar’s assassination he was sent (in winter) from Irkoutsk to
Nicolaiefsk (on the sea of Okhotzk) and performed the journey in twelve
days, an unprecedented feat, though on arrival at Nicolaiefsk he was
lifted out of his sleigh more dead than alive, and did not recover for
some months.

Monshafskaya is but a small village consisting of the rest-house, half a
dozen cottages, and the “Ostrog” or prison. A sentry, with loaded rifle,
stood at the gate, and eyed us rather suspiciously when we approached to
look closer at the faces that, pressed against the iron bars of the
small square windows, were watching our every movement. Most of them
were, Radovitch told us, on their way to the gold-mines of Nertchinsk,
and were of the lowest order of criminals, the sweepings of Moscow and
St. Petersburg. More villainous faces I have seldom seen. The four large
windows of the cells reserved for political prisoners showed us but one,
a young and good-looking man, who when we looked at him, instantly
averted his gaze. “He is for Karra,” said the sentry, with a leer, to
Radovitch. “Won’t he enjoy himself?” None but Black Nihilists, of which
he was one, and murderers are sent to this hell upon earth, which is,
except Sakhalien, the most dreaded prison in Siberia. The unhappy
wretches exiled to Siberia for political offences, are undoubtedly far
worse off than the criminals sent there for theft or murder. Pens, ink,
and paper, to say nothing of books, are rigorously forbidden, and this
is the cruellest punishment for men of intellect who, taken from a life
of mental activity in civilized Europe, are thrust perhaps for life into
a prison with absolutely nothing, not even physical work to divert their
thoughts from their shame and misery. As for the criminal classes, they
care little so long as they get their vodka smuggled in, in the entrails
of a pig or sheep, or can bribe or cajole their guards out of a screw of
tobacco. Siberia may truly be called the criminal’s heaven and the
Nihilist’s hell. Once past the Oural mountains, every liberty, every
indulgence, is accorded to the former to induce them to colonize and
become respectable citizens; for the latter there is nothing but insult,
harsh treatment, and injustice.

Monshafskaya is surrounded by dense pine forest, through which runs the
great post-road fringed by high banks, on which were hedges of hops and
wild raspberries in full bearing. The fruit was quite equal in flavour
to the real thing, though much smaller. The soil round here seemed
wonderfully adapted for fruit-growing. Raspberries, currants,
strawberries, and gooseberries grew luxuriantly in all the cottage
gardens, and the natives preserve them largely for sale at Irkoutsk and
other towns of Eastern Siberia. The place has rather a depressing
appearance, nevertheless, the houses of unpainted wood giving a sombre
look at first sight, for the only spot of colour against the dark forest
was the rest-house, with its white walls and bright green roof. Turning
seaward, or rather lakeward, however, the view was very different. It
was a clear, though rather cold day, with a strong north-wester blowing,
just sufficiently strong to cover the bright blue waters with curling
white waves, and show one that if the wind rose any higher things might
be unpleasant before we reached Listvenitz, for Radovitch gave us
lamentable accounts of the steamer. It was just like being at the
seaside in England. One almost fancied one smelt the ozone, while the
sound of the waves, beating on the beach, heightened the illusion. The
opposite coast was quite invisible, clear day though it was, while to
the left and right of us extended broad stretches of shingly beach
alternating with patches of bright golden sand standing out bright and
distinct against the dark green pines growing down to the water’s edge.
To complete the resemblance, a wooden jetty, with a lighthouse at the
end, ran out for a distance of fifty yards into the lake, forming a
small harbour in which lay moored a number of small fishing-boats and
two large black hulks, prison barges, waiting to be towed back to
Listvenitz for a fresh convoy. Such was the scene from our rest-house on
the hill. Has the reader ever seen the village of Clovelly, in
Devonshire? If so, let him substitute pines for oak and beech-trees,
unpaved paths for cobbled streets, wooden huts for stone houses, and he
has seen Monshafskaya as I saw it that bright August morning, when for
the first time I looked on the waters of the Holy Sea of Siberia, for by
this name alone is Lake Baikal known by the natives inhabiting its
shores. To call it a lake to a Siberian is an insult. He will invariably
correct you with the rebuke, “I suppose you mean our Sea.” Among the
peasantry it is believed to bring dire misfortune on any one daring to
call it by any other name. Lake Baikal was first discovered by one
Ivanoff, who, travelling downwards from Yakoutsk, was prospecting for
silver. Like Magellan, “He was the first that ever burst into that
silent sea,” about the year 1600. The first caravan crossed the lake
from China to Europe A.D. 1670.

Lake Baikal is three hundred and fifty miles long by about forty at the
lowest point, and is the largest fresh-water lake in Asia, or indeed the
whole world, America excepted. The most peculiar characteristic about
Baikal is its enormous depth. Soundings have been taken in parts of four
thousand feet in the centre, in other parts lines of five thousand and
six thousand feet have been used, but no bottom found, and some of the
smaller rivers running into the lake, streams of fifty or sixty yards
broad, have been found to be over one hundred and fifty fathoms deep.
There are many rivers running into the Baikal, but only one that runs
out, the “Angara,” which, eventually joining the Yenisei river, flows
into the gulf of that name in the Arctic Ocean, thus traversing nearly
half the breadth of Asia. The current of this immense body of water is
so impetuous that although the distance is only thirty miles, vessels
sometimes take four and even five days to do the distance from Irkoutsk
to Lake Baikal, which is sixty feet higher above sea-level than the
capital of Eastern Siberia, the lake being twelve hundred feet above the
level of the sea. Baikal is occasionally visited by terrible hurricanes.
On such occasions the loss of life is great, for the ramshackle boats in
which the natives fish soon go to pieces in a sea. The Garra or mountain
wind is the one most dreaded by the natives, and when this is blowing
even the steamers do not put out. Lake Baikal that derives its name of
Holy Sea, from the fact our Saviour, when visiting this part of Asia, is
supposed to have mounted to the summit of Olkon, an island about sixty
miles long by fifteen broad, in the middle of the lake, and surveyed the
surrounding countries. Having blessed the land on the north and west, He
turned to the south-west, and, stretching out His hands, cried, “_Beyond
this shall be desolation_.” On this account, say the natives, the
“Dauria” region is so sterile that not a grain of corn will grow there.

I think I am right in saying that Baikal is the only fresh-water lake in
the world wherein seals are found. About two thousand are killed
annually, and sent to Irkoutsk for sale. Bell, the English traveller,
1788 (the first Englishman, by the way, who ever got as far east as
this), mentions this circumstance, and says, “Bay-Kall (sic), is
furnished with excellent fish, particularly sturgeon. It also produces
great numbers of seals, whose skins are preferred in quality to those
caught in salt water. I am of opinion that both the seals in Bay Kall
came originally from the Northern Ocean, as the communication between
them is open, though the distance be very great.” The above, though
written in 1788, is perhaps the most likely explanation of the matter.

Atkinson, the English traveller, is the only European who has ever
thoroughly explored Baikal. He made, forty years since, a most
interesting journey from its northern to its southern extremity in an
open boat, a hazardous experiment, for Baikal is a miniature
Mediterranean in the way of sudden and violent squalls. Atkinson found
the shores surrounding the lake at the southern end to be chiefly
granite cliffs capped by dense forests. Proceeding due north, the
granite changes to an imperfect conglomeration of stone, the beach being
composed of mixed _débris_. The northern shore is the steepest, and its
precipices nine hundred to twelve hundred feet high, with soundings of
one hundred and fifty fathoms a boat’s length from their base. “The
whole country round,” says the same traveller, “shows unmistakable signs
of volcanic eruption, and in the ravines are lava strata of great
magnitude. This is probably the outcome of an extinct crater to the
north of the Baikal chain in whose neighbourhood hot mineral springs are
plentiful.”

M. Menshikoff, an Irkoutsk tea-merchant, was the first to introduce
steamers on Lake Baikal. The passage, as it was made forty years ago, in
open boats, was very dangerous, and travellers were frequently obliged
to remain for days exposed to great hardships, without being able to
approach the land. The cost of the steamer was of course enormous, the
engines having to come over four thousand miles from St. Petersburg. But
the difficulty was at length surmounted, and rather more than twenty
years ago bi-weekly steam communication between the eastern and western
shores of the lake was established, which has been kept up ever since.
There were, at the time of our visit, two steamers on the lake, and
another building at Listvenitz. The navigation of the Baikal is
suspended about the end of October, sometimes earlier, according to the
severity of the season. Although there has been a road within late years
round the southern side of the lake, it is rarely used, and the usual
mode of crossing in winter is by sleigh. The ice is over seven feet
thick, so there is no danger of immersion, although I must confess I
should not care to do the journey myself. In mid-winter, when the ice is
in good condition, the distance of thirty miles across is frequently
done in two to three hours, but in the spring, huge cracks appear in the
track, which impede the horses a good deal. There were also formerly
rest-stations at intervals of every seven or eight miles, but on one
occasion, the ice melting suddenly, one of them was found missing, since
which the traveller embarks upon the frozen waters with no prospect of
rest or refreshment till he gets to the other side.

The steamer hove in sight about mid-day with a large convict barge in
tow. By two o’clock she was alongside the jetty, and we walked down to
see the prisoners land. Thirty or forty Cossacks, with loaded rifles,
stood in a double row at the gangway, and as soon as the huge, unwieldy
barge was safely moored, some three hundred convicts stepped on to the
landing-stage. All wore the prison dress, a long loose grey cloak
covering a coarse drab suit, and many wore leg-irons. There were no
political prisoners or women among this batch, though pretty nearly
every race of Asiatic or European Russia was represented. Swarthy
Caucasians, Kirghiz Tartars, Jews from Odessa, thieves from Moscow and
St. Petersburg, every race and age, from beardless boys to decrepit old
men, were represented. One got callous to it after a time, but my first
meeting with a gang of prisoners _en route_ to the mines was one I shall
never forget. One poor old fellow especially excited sympathy: a man of
sixty or seventy years old, with a refined, aristocratic face, who had
evidently seen better days, and who could scarcely stagger along under
his heavy chains. It would have been ridiculous, had it not been
pitiable, to see the little luxuries the old fellow had provided himself
with: a little brass teapot, a bag of tea slung round his neck, a loaf
of white bread in his arms, and a huge umbrella! At length the hulk was
empty, the officer gave the word, “Quick march,” and the long grey
procession filed off up the hill and into the drab-coloured prison,
which the gang we had seen in the morning had just vacated for their
use. The incident cast quite a gloom over our spirits, and I remembered
for many days the sad, wistful look the poor old fellow gave, as he
entered the prison-gate, at the bright blue waters of the lake, beyond
which lay the home he would never see again——for his crime was
forgery——his sentence, life at the gold-mines of Nertchinsk.

It was nearly six o’clock before we got away, for there were three
tarantasses besides our own to be hoisted on board. The fare across was
not ruinous, eight roubles first, and five roubles second class, the
freight of the tarantass being twelve roubles. I was rather relieved at
this, for funds were running, uncomfortably short, and I did not relish
the idea of being stranded on the road. Counting our combined purses, we
found the amount was under forty roubles, and we were still more than
thirty miles from Irkoutsk, and a night’s lodging to pay. Our course was
an oblique one across the lake about W.S.W. to Listvenitz, near the
mouth of the river Angara. Some distance from the shore the water became
marvellously transparent. From the bows, before the ripple had disturbed
the surface, one could distinguish large fish swimming about at least
thirty feet down, so clear was the water. The steamer, though crowded
with people, was clean and well appointed. There was no food on board,
though a huge samovar, flanked by glasses, hissed in the cabin, for the
use of those who wished to make tea.

It became very cold after sundown, and we retired to the tarantass
forward, where, the head being to the wind, we kept pretty warm. In the
hold were twenty convicts returning to their homes after a captivity of
twenty years at Nertchinsk and Chita. One of them, who looked at least
fifty, was, he told Radovitch, only thirty-three, and had been in the
mines ever since he was sixteen. All were still in prison dress, and
seemed rather ashamed of mixing with the other passengers. When it
became dark, however, they lost their shyness, and, seated in a ring on
deck, sang several prison songs——melancholy, dirge-like airs in the
minor key. One appeared to be a great favourite, for passengers and
sailors alike joined in the chorus. It was, Radovitch told us, composed
originally by a prisoner, the refrain being, “Whither leads the dark
road of Siberia?” and was so weird and beautiful, that it rang in my
ears for days afterwards.

The passengers on board were of a mixed kind, but civil and
good-humoured. It was rather trying, till one got used to it, being
stared at in our tarantasses like wild beasts in a show, but one got
used to it in time. After all it was only natural, for few of our
fellow-passengers had ever seen an Englishman before. There were many
Jews among them: fat, greasy fellows, with large gold thumb-rings, and
flowing hair, and some of the loveliest children I ever beheld. One, a
little girl of about fourteen, with very light flaxen hair, the lightest
of blue eyes, and thick, black lashes, was a perfect picture.

We arrived at Listvenitz about 1 a.m., having taken about eight hours to
do the passage, a little more than the distance from Dover to Calais! On
landing we were ushered into the Custom-House, a long, bare room, where
our luggage was minutely examined, two Cossacks being on guard the while
to see that no one escaped inspection. It was not the brief examination
we are accustomed to in Europe. A Customs’ officer, gorgeous in green
and gold, stood in the centre of the room, and called out our names one
by one, each having to bring up his luggage as best he could, for there
were no porters. As there were over one hundred passengers, this
performance lasted some hours, no one being allowed to leave till every
box in the place had been opened and carefully searched. By the time we
got to the rest-house it was nearly three o’clock in the morning. It was
a dirty, ill-smelling place, and we were devoured by vermin, but managed
to get something to eat before we turned in, the only food we had tasted
the whole day being a couple of eggs and some black bread at mid-day.

But another difficulty now arose. The duty that we had paid on tobacco,
&c, had dwindled our little store down to ten roubles and a few kopeks.
The bare posting-fare to Irkoutsk was, we ascertained, six roubles, and
there would be our night’s lodging to pay, which would come to five
roubles more at the very least. Money was awaiting us at Irkoutsk, but
how to get at it? There was but one way out of the dilemma; one of us
must remain at Listvenitz while the other posted on to Irkoutsk and
procured the needful. Radovitch entering while we were discussing the
subject, overheard part of our conversation. “You are short of money?”
said the friendly Russian; “why did you not ask me before?” at the same
time producing a fifty rouble note. “Here, take this; you can pay me
back at Irkoutsk, or where you like. I am off now. We shall meet again
to-morrow. I suppose you will go to the Moskovskaya,” and he had gone,
and we heard him jingle away in his tarantass before we could stammer
out a word of thanks.

A message came shortly after from the Chief of Police, to say that he
would call at eleven o’clock, and that we must not leave Listvenitz till
our tarantass had been searched. This was vexing, as, the Customs’
examination over, we had replaced all our luggage, and any one who has
ever packed one of these vehicles knows what a weary, heart-breaking job
it is. However, it was no use grumbling, and we set to work and laid the
things open on the ground, pending the great man’s arrival.

He turned up about mid-day, a tall, strapping fellow, with long
Dundreary whiskers, accompanied by his interpreter, a Polish exile. The
examination took over an hour, for he looked at everything, more, I soon
saw, from curiosity than anything else. My journal especially attracted
his attention.

“Read some of it out,” he said to his attendant, settling himself
comfortably on the steps of the rest-house and lighting a cigarette. I
was somewhat nervous at this, having expressed my views as to Russian
habits and customs rather freely since leaving Kiakhta. The Pole opened
the book at the very place I wished him to avoid, but, to my surprise,
he turned hastily over to the next page, winking covertly at me as he
did so, and I breathed again. On being told there was nothing offensive
in the MS., his chief became quite jocose and friendly, insisted on our
drinking with him, pumping me the while as much as he was able on the
subject of India. What area was it? what population? were there many
railways? Did we allow Russians to enter? &c. “Tell him,” he said as he
rose to go, and I had answered as best I could his somewhat vague
questions, “that we shall take it from them some day,” with which polite
remark he bade us good day, swaggered away down the street, and we saw
him no more.

Listvenitz is built in a sort of lagoon, or landlocked harbour. It is
used by the people of Irkoutsk as a watering-place in summer, and there
were many pretty villas and lodging-houses built about on the beach,
which is of hard sand, and affords capital bathing, though it shelves in
a few feet to a depth of twenty or thirty fathoms. We were to have
horses at six that evening, and took a stroll after the mid-day meal to
a low hill about a mile distant, whence there was a picturesque view of
the little cluster of pretty villas nestling in woods and gardens. It
was a lovely day, with a blue, cloudless sky; and the civilized
surroundings, picturesque peasantry, and great sheet of water sparkling
in the sunshine, reminded one not a little of Swiss or Italian lake
scenery.

The Polish interpreter called on us in the afternoon, bringing with him
a book of photographs, the portraits of brethren who were suffering in
the cause of freedom. His story was, if true, a remarkable one. Sent to
Vologda in European Russia in 1867 for a trifling offence, he managed to
escape to Odessa, and thence to New York, returning to Paris in 1870 to
take a prominent part in the Commune. He again managed to escape when
the Imperial troops entered Paris, and luckily, for himself, for if
caught he would assuredly have been shot. After a short residence in
Geneva, he was sent by his society on a secret mission to St.
Petersburg; but this time his luck deserted him, and he was captured and
sent to Siberia, first to the mines of Kara, then to Listvenitz for
life. Among the photographs was one of a young and pretty girl about
eighteen or twenty years old. “That,” said the Pole with pride, “is Vera
Figner, who shot dead the Police Commissary of Odessa. She is my
sister-in-law,” he added. “This is my wife, who was concerned in
Alexander’s assassination. Would you like to know her? My house is but a
stone’s throw from here.” But we politely refused the invitation, and,
to our great relief, he shortly afterwards left us, with the remark,
“Well, good-bye, gentlemen, you have been a ray of sunshine in my life.
It is dark enough, God knows, but I do not despair. I hope to do some
_good work_ yet!” He was a mean-looking, insignificant little fellow,
but we heard afterwards at Irkoutsk that he was one of the most
dangerous characters in Siberia. His greatest punishment was, he told
us, being shunned by everybody in the place (for he was the only exile
there) and being deprived of books and papers. Murderer and Nihilist
though he was, one could not help pitying him.

Our horses arrived about seven o’clock, and after a final examination of
the tarantass, we rattled away from Listvenitz, hoping to reach Irkoutsk
by midnight. The country west of Baikal is densely wooded, but not
mountainous. There is a good deal of cultivated ground between the mouth
(or rather source) of the Angara and the city, and the country is fairly
populated. The road, too, was in better order than any we had yet
experienced, and we dashed along merrily to the end of the second stage,
Patrone, where our high spirits underwent a slight check. We could have
no horses till 5 a.m. It was now ten o’clock, and though only eighteen
versts from Irkoutsk, we were compelled to sleep, or rather wait in the
filthy post-house till morning. It is curious that we invariably found,
throughout our journey, the nearer the town the dirtier the post-house.
The one or two first stages from Irkoutsk, on the other side, were
simply uninhabitable.

The road follows the banks of the Angara all the way to Irkoutsk. The
river, rather more than a mile wide at the mouth, rolls down a
tremendous volume of water, a steep incline at the inlet, and forms a
huge rapid nearly three miles long. Half-way across is the “Shaman
Kamen,” or Spirit Stone, a bare rock nearly hidden in the seething mass
of foam and breakers. There is a legend among the peasantry, that were
this island washed away, Lake Baikal would overflow, destroy the
capital, and turn the whole Angara Valley into one huge sea. The
“Chamans,” a sect now nearly died out, believe that the souls of the
departed are transported to the “Shaman Kamen,” and are compelled to
cling for a night to the steep, slippery rock; a very difficult
proceeding. If they succeed in remaining till the following morning,
they are saved, and received into eternal bliss; if not, they are
engulfed for ever. Seen from above the rapids, the seething mass of
white foam, the precipitous, rugged cliffs on either side, thickly clad
with pine and cedars, and the blue waters of the lake stretching away to
the foot of the Amar Daban, with its snowy summit on the Trans-Baikal
shore, combine, on a clear evening, to make this one of the most weird
and beautiful panoramas imaginable.

We called for the samovar, and beguiled the weary hours with “chi” till
past midnight. The post-house swarmed with vermin, and we here made the
acquaintance, for the first time, of a small white bug, peculiar to
Siberia. Its bite is very poisonous, and sets up a state of intolerable
irritation and inflammation, for it burrows under the skin. Nothing but
copious applications of ammonia gave relief, and our clothes and bodies
swarmed with these when we reached Irkoutsk a few hours later. I give
these details, which may seem repulsive to the reader, to show exactly
the amount of discomfort one has to go through in the shape of minor
annoyances as well as greater ones on the great Post-Road.

About daybreak the jingle of collar-bells announced the arrival of the
horses. The landscape now became less wooded, the broad blue river
running through fields of rye and barley, while the banks on either side
of the road were covered with lilies of the valley and violets, which
deliciously perfumed the clear morning air. Presently we left the river,
to emerge on a sandy plain. Here our driver alighted, and removed the
yoke-bells, a law prevailing in Siberia which forbids their being used
in cities. A few minutes more and we were well in sight of the white
buildings, golden domes, and green roofs, of the capital of Eastern
Siberia, Irkoutsk.

—————

Footnote 8:

  Russian for a team of three horses.

Footnote 9:

  A pretty English lady.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER VIII.

  IRKOUTSK.


THERE is probably no country in the world of which the generality of
English people are so ignorant as Siberia. The very word conveys to the
mind visions of frozen steppes and lonely pine forests, with nothing to
break the monotony of the white and dreary landscape but an occasional
gang of prisoners or pack of wolves. Many asked, on my return to
England, if I had not suffered terribly from the cold, and seemed quite
surprised to hear that the Siberian climate is, in summer, often too
warm to be pleasant, that the country itself is in many parts one of the
most fertile and beautiful in the world.

The city of Irkoutsk, which has a population of over 50,000, was founded
in the year 1680, and is situated on a peninsula formed by the
confluence of two rivers, the Angara, which, rising in Lake Baikal,
joins the river Yenisei just below Yeniseisk, and falls with it into the
frozen ocean, and the small and less important Irkout River. In spring,
when the Angara is swollen by the breaking of the ice in Lake Baikal,
inundations at Irkoutsk are frequent, and cause great destruction to
life and property.

The great province or Government of Irkoutsk is bounded on the east by
the Pacific Ocean, on the north by the Frozen Ocean, on the west by the
province of Tomsk (Western Siberia), and on the south by the vast chain
of mountains known as the Altai range, which divide Siberia from the
Chinese possessions in Mongolia. The Government is divided into four
districts, viz. Irkoutsk proper, Nertchinsk, Yakoutsk and Okhotsk. A
great proportion of the inhabitants of this enormous area are Toungouses
and Yakouts, wandering semi-savage tribes who live by hunting and
fishing, and of which the Toungouses are the most numerous. The
residence of the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia, who at the time of
our visit was General Ignatieff, a brother of the famous diplomat, is at
Irkoutsk.

The climate is, on the whole, good. Irkoutsk is not nearly so cold in
winter as many other Siberian towns. In summer the temperature is
pleasant and equable, the unhealthiest time of year being the autumn,
when dense fogs are productive of much rheumatism and lung disease, but
as a rule the public health is excellent, for the city is beautifully
drained. It would be strange were it otherwise, with the broad,
resistless flood of the Angara for ever foaming by. Epidemics are rare,
with the exception of small pox, a disease frequently brought to
Irkoutsk and other towns of Eastern Siberia by tea-caravans from China.
Cholera is unknown.

My ideas of Siberia were, before I left England, extremely vague. It is
a country in which, before I undertook this voyage, I had taken but
little or no interest. There are but few works written bearing upon the
region we passed through. The only ones I had ever read on the subject
were “Michel Strogoff” and “Called Back”! The reader will judge for
himself how faithfully these authors have portrayed Irkoutsk, the scene
of the “Courier of the Czar’s” triumph, and the meeting between “Dr.
Ceneri,” and “Gilbert Vaughan!”

It was a bright sunny morning, when, about 8 a.m. on the 12th of August,
we dashed into the city, and, after a longish drive through its broad
and deserted streets, drew up with a flourish at the door of the
“Moskovskaya Podovorié,” the principal hotel. Let not the reader imagine
a dilapidated wooden hut, such as I myself had conjured up visions of,
but a handsome, four-storied stone building, with gorgeously furnished
apartments, a lift, electric bells, and “_Table-d’hôte_ à 6 heures”! As
we ascend the broad, well-carpeted stairs, with a polite and
white-waistcoated manager leading the way, while a gold-lace-capped
porter follows with our luggage, it is hard to realize that we are still
on the borders of China, and over four thousand miles from a railway.

Irkoutsk presents, at first sight, an untidy, unfinished appearance.
Like most Siberian towns, its buildings are a strange mixture of squalor
and grandeur. The majority are of brick, for since the great fire of
1879 a law has been passed forbidding the construction of any more
wooden dwellings. The consequence is that the greater part of the city
presents a patchwork appearance, the lofty mansion of a millionaire
gold-miner, with its conservatories and gardens, often standing next
door to the dilapidated wooden hovel of some peasant with half its roof
off, which has been partially saved from the flames. One’s first feeling
on walking through the streets is one of intense depression, for a more
melancholy-looking city does not exist. The streets, though wide and
regular, give one the idea of being continually up for repair. One looks
instinctively for the “No Thoroughfare” board. Although so much care is
lavished on the architecture and decoration of buildings, the streets
are apparently left to look after themselves. Unpaved and uneven, one
comes across holes that would play sad havoc with a springed carriage,
which article, however, does not exist here, at least among the public
vehicles. The pavements, which are of rough pine with light wooden
guard-rails, are barely three feet wide.

The “Grande Rue” is the principal street; a thoroughfare nearly a mile
long, which would not disgrace a European city, so far as buildings are
concerned. It is the only street whence the old wooden dwellings have
entirely disappeared, to give place to fine, well-built houses and
Government offices. The principal shops are situated here, but, though
one may buy almost anything in this far-away corner of the globe, from
an English steam plough to a Parisian bonnet, there is no outward or
visible sign in any of the windows of the goods sold within. Merely a
roughly painted board over the doorway indicating the name and business
of the proprietor, and a notice to the effect that from twelve o’clock
mid-day till three p.m. he is not at home. To the nakedness of the
shop-windows, perhaps, among other reasons, may be attributed the dismal
appearance the place presents. Perhaps, too, the black roads, total
absence of trees or gardens, or indeed of colour of any kind, has much
to do with the sense of depression that fastens on one after ever so
short a residence in any Siberian town. I cannot say exactly why, but
one’s only thought, after a couple of days was invariably, “When shall I
get away?” and this though the sun was shining brightly at the time, and
the day in any ordinary country would have been one to raise and enliven
the spirits. Here the sunshine only served to reveal more plainly the
dirty, unwashed appearance which everything, including the natives,
presented.

You can seldom tell a Siberian (so-called) gentleman apart from the
lower orders, though the income of the wealthier gold-miners would
enable them to live in luxury in London or Paris. It should, one would
think, also provide them with an occasional collar and a clean shirt
once a week, but it doesn’t. Wealth in Siberia apparently makes no
difference to the garb of an individual. All, high or low, wear the same
suit of rusty black; all have the same dirty, unkempt look. A pair of
high boots, with square toes and very high heels, and small,
narrow-peaked caps, complete the costume. All look as if they slept in
their clothes, which, by the way, they probably do, for sheets are
unknown in Siberia (except at the Moskovskaya Podovorié), and in many
houses, beds also. I heard, when at Tomsk, of a gold-miner, worth some
thousands sterling a year, who always slept on two chairs, but at the
same time imported his horses and carriage, grapes and hothouse pines
from St. Petersburg, and had had a grand piano sent out to him from
Paris. The women in Irkoutsk dressed well as a rule, and some, but not
many, were good-looking. A Siberian lady seldom wears a hat in summer,
but a black or white silk handkerchief twisted round the head. Nor is
this head-dress with a pretty face beneath it, by any means unbecoming.

We were not sorry to turn in to bed and enjoy a good ten hours’ rest
after the fatiguing journey from Kiakhta, and slept none the less
soundly for the knowledge that when we woke what the Americans call a
good square feed would be awaiting us, a luxury we had not enjoyed since
leaving Pekin. The hasty snatches of food we got at Kiakhta were too
frequently interrupted by pugilistic encounters and toasts in “Vodka” to
be dignified by the name of meals!

A slight disappointment awaited us, though, on waking, at the scanty
washing appliances this gorgeous hostelry provided. Baths there were of
course none. We did not expect it, but we had at any rate looked forward
to a wash-hand basin. But, the only appliance furnished was a small tin
vessel holding about a pint of water, and nailed up against the bedroom
wall. On turning a small tap, a thin trickling stream of water ran out,
so that by holding your hands under it for half a minute or so, you
could just manage to wet them all over, and with this, we had to manage.
One had at any rate the advantage of privacy, and could wash (so to
speak) in one’s own bedroom. It was better than at Tomsk, where the
hotel only boasted one of these tin abominations, and it was fixed up in
the passage, _pro bono publico_.

We strolled out in the evening to the public gardens, gardens in name
only, for the stunted shrubs are not worthy of the name of trees, and
there were no flowers and very little grass. The lovely night, had
brought out all the _élite_ of Irkoutsk, to listen to the band of a
Cossack regiment, which performed in a brilliantly lighted kiosk in the
centre of the square. But our light tweed suits and high brown boots
attracted so much attention and created such consternation among the
rook-like garments of the inhabitants, that we nearly beat a hasty
retreat. The temptation of good music and a cigar in the moonlight,
however, was too much for us, and we remained undeterred by the
searching and not altogether complimentary glances of those around us,
who seemed to look upon the appearance of any stranger in their midst as
an unwarrantable intrusion and insult. I am bound to say that for
downright rudeness and vulgarity, the Siberian male, _pur et simple_, is
unequalled. It seems the more strange that their countrymen west of the
Ourals are undoubtedly, next the French, the most courteous and polite
nation in the world.

There are three distinct classes of society in Irkoutsk: the Government
officials, millionaire gold-miners, and tradespeople. It is probably the
only city in the world where the latter are in reality the most
aristocratic portion of the community, for the simple reason that they
are most of them political exiles who, in Russia or Poland, were of good
birth and position till they lost name and individuality in a prison
number. The Government officials and military stationed in Irkoutsk form
a clique of their own, from which they rigidly exclude the gold-mining
millionaire, a class of men the like of which I have never met, thank
Heaven, out of Siberia.

Most of the latter commence life as common miners, and gradually rise,
more by luck than anything else, to a position of affluence; indeed many
of them make colossal fortunes. In summer they live at the mines,
working like the very labourers nature intended them to be; but the
early part of November sees them back in Irkoutsk or Tomsk, as the case
may be. Then commences a life of unbridled debauchery and dissipation,
which only ends with the return of the spring.

Vanity and snobbishness are the chief failings of these men, who will
not notice you, though you may have dined with them the preceding
evening, if you happen to be walking, not driving, in the street, or
wearing astrakhan instead of beaver. I asked one why he did not go to
St. Petersburg or Paris and enjoy his enormous income instead of burying
himself in the wilds of Asia. The reply was characteristic: “Here in
Irkoutsk I am a great man, what should I be in Paris or St. Petersburg?”
I knew, but did not tell him.

The find of gold is yearly increasing in Siberia. It is found in large
quantities at Nertchinsk and Kara in the Trans-Baikal districts, but the
most productive mines are those lying around Yeneseisk, Kansk, and the
sources of the great Lena River, Yuz and Abakansk in Southern Siberia.
Any one (being a Russian subject) may work the gold, but all that is
found must be sold to Government only, a private individual discovered
with nuggets or gold dust in his possession is severely punished, be he
owner or the lowest workman in the mine. At first sight the rent of a
mine in Siberia seems absurdly low. For instance the Yuz Gold-field in
Southern Siberia, a tract of land five versts long by four broad, is
leased to the workers at 300 roubles[10] per annum. On the other hand,
the royalty is high, and the cost of labour enormous. The commonest
miner earns his 1800 to 2000 roubles during the season, which lasts from
April to the middle or end of October, according to the severity or
mildness of the weather.

But the outlay is well worth it. Two mine-owners round Krasnoiarsk made,
in less than ten years, over two million pounds sterling, and there is
now in Irkoutsk a M. Trapeznikoff who is worth his four millions at the
very least. The latter, a bachelor under fifty years of age, hardly ever
leaves his palace at Irkoutsk, except for a few weeks in the summer to
visit the mines. He is, unlike the majority of his _confrères_, an
educated man and a gentleman. Here is a chance for mothers with
marriageable daughters. The journey to Irkoutsk will be easily made in
another year or so by railway from Tomsk.

It seems a pity that millions of money should be thrown away on such
savages. Though there is plenty of sport in the immediate neighbourhood,
good deer and bear shooting, and excellent salmon fishing in the Angara,
they never dream of taking out a gun or rod. The millionaires of
Irkoutsk have, with few exceptions, but little idea of real comfort. You
call upon one of these Siberian Vanderbilts at 11 a.m., and he will
produce champagne, and be offended if you refuse to drink with him. Dine
with him, and though you may be raging with thirst, you will only get
Kümmel, Chartreuse, or sticky messes of a like nature, to wash down your
dinner, though it be prepared by a “Chef” from Paris, in receipt of a
higher salary than many an English rector. Stay the night with your
host, and you will be shown to a bedroom gorgeously furnished, and a
_chef-d’œuvre_ of the upholsterer’s art, replete with every luxury that
money can buy, with one exception: you will search in vain for a bed,
and must turn in, as you are, clothes and all, on the sofa. Look under
the thick Turkey carpets, and you will find the flooring an inch thick
with dust, and, behind the curtains, the plate-glass windows coated with
dirt; comfort and cleanliness everywhere given up to ostentation and
swagger. In one house that I dined at, an enormous gold nugget was
placed on the table, and used as an ash-tray, our host announcing in a
loud voice that its use in this capacity lost him annually 300_l._
sterling in interest! We had a couple of introductions to these
merchant-princes, but only handed one, fearing that on a second occasion
our temper might get the better of our good manners. On our entry into
the drawing-room, only the hostess and her daughters favoured us by
shaking our hands. The men stood round, made remarks to each other on
our personal appearance, and every now and then burst into fits of
half-suppressed laughter. I am bound to admit the women looked ashamed
of their male relations, as well they might. Be it understood I am now
talking of a particular class, for among the Siberian peasantry rudeness
is very rare, and we met with nothing but hospitality and kindness. I
have already described the manner in which the merchants of Eastern
Siberia spend their evenings. There is no difference, except that in
some houses the givers of the entertainment do precede their orgies with
a hurried meal, eaten standing. The sooner over the better, so that the
real business of the evening, drinking, may commence. I only twice
assisted at these evening parties in Siberia, once at Kiakhta, and once
at Irkoutsk. As I have said, each left the same impression on my mind as
a head-feast I once witnessed anions a race of savages in Central
Borneo, who after a victory, deliberately got drunk for three days on
end. But the “untutored savage” was far less idiotic and revolting on
these occasions than the Siberian “Gentleman,” could such an anomaly as
the latter exist.

The ladies of Irkoutsk are for the most part lazy, indolent creatures,
with no ideas beyond immoral intrigues, dress (on which they spend
thousands), and Zola’s novels, which, translated into Russian, have an
enormous sale in the towns of Siberia. The greater part of the day is
spent in sleeping and smoking cigarettes, for in winter they seldom
retire to rest till five or six in the morning. Though most of their
houses boast a grand piano, the instrument is solely kept for ornament,
and seldom opened. Two schools for girls have, however, lately been
established, and many of them now speak French and German, and are well
educated in other ways, but morality at Irkoutsk is at a very low ebb.
One can scarcely wonder at it, considering the frivolous, excitable
lives of the women, and drunkenness and sensuality of the men.

Strange as it may seem, we found the society of the tradespeople in
Irkoutsk far more congenial to our taste than that of their so-called
superiors. Many of the former are exiles sent to Siberia after the
Polish insurrection of 1862, and permitted after their five years of
imprisonment at Nertchinsk or Kara to settle and obtain employment in
the capital. I met one (a photographer) who had had hotels at Paris and
Warsaw and his villa on the Riviera in happier times, a charming old man
with an only daughter, a pretty girl of sixteen, who, he used to say
with tears in his eyes, would probably never see dear Poland. His wife
had died on the road in giving birth to the child, who, in sad memory of
those dark days, the old man had named “Kara.”

We had many a laugh together over the vulgar eccentricities of his rich
customers. “They are terrible, are they not?” he would say with a shrug
of his shoulders, “_mais que voulez-vous?_ What can this cursed country
produce but men like that, convicts, bears, and wolves!”

I never could discover who my old friend was, for, like most of his
countrymen, he abandoned his name or title the day he crossed the Ourals
into Asia. Nor would he ever volunteer any information respecting his
past life; but he seemed, on the whole, fairly contented with his lot.
Sixteen years of exile had reconciled him more or less to the loss of
the home he would never see again.

A common expression among exiles, even of a higher class, when they want
to fix the date of any past event is, “It was six months after I left
prison.” “It was a year before I got my discharge,” &c. They do not seem
the least ashamed of their incarceration; on the contrary, are rather
proud of it. The barman of the Moskovskaya Podovorié, who presided over
a glittering array of champagne and liqueur bottles, smoked ham,
caviare, pickled salmon, and other delicacies, in the café just below
our window, had served five years in the Nertchinsk mine. This same
café, by the way, was rather a nuisance, for it formed the favourite
trysting-place of the _Jeunesse Dorée_ of Irkoutsk at the closing of the
theatres, and they sometimes kept it up till four in the morning.
Another custom in Siberian towns extremely irritating to those of a
wakeful disposition, is the incessant beating together, by the watchman,
of two pieces of metal, which produces a sharp, ringing sound. This
noise, which goes on in every street without intermission from sunset to
sunrise, is made to warn thieves and malefactors that the police are on
the alert, a watchman to every street. I could never understand why such
pains should be taken to herald their approach, and fancy some of our
English burglars would give a good yearly subscription to have the same
practice instituted.

One was constantly being assailed in Irkoutsk by mysterious individuals
with documents which they wished delivered to their friends in Europe. I
was asked to do this by at least a dozen suspicious-looking characters,
who forced their way into our room at the hotel without knocking, and
often declined to leave. The mention of the word “Police,” though
usually had the desired effect. One of these letters was, I remember,
addressed to a house in Greek Street, Soho. I passed the latter only the
other day, and was sincerely glad that I had not undertaken the
commission. Judging from the look of the place, one would have stood a
good chance, even in the day-time, of being robbed and murdered, to say
nothing of the danger of being caught by the Siberian police with a
compromising paper in one’s possession.

The exiles do not have such a bad time of it as we, in England, are
generally led to believe. Their term of imprisonment over, they are free
to come and go as they please, and enjoy absolute freedom so long as
they behave themselves, and do not give vent to their opinions too
freely. I met many, of good birth and position, but from none did I hear
the harrowing tales of persecution and cruelty that in England seem
inseparable from the very name of Siberia. Cruelty may, and no doubt
does, exist in the convict settlements of Kara and Nertchinsk in the
Trans-Baikal districts, where the worst characters are sent,——Black
nihilists, for instance, or those who have attempted the life of the
Czar. The latter do not, like minor political offenders, get their
ticket-of-leave, but remain in the mines for life. There is a prevailing
impression at home that “in the mines” means literally what the words
convey, that prisoners are sent down a pit to work all day and a greater
part of the night, never again to see daylight till they have become
reduced to a dying state by the poisonous exhalations of quicksilver. As
a matter of fact, _there is not a quicksilver mine in the whole of
Siberia_, those at Kara and Nertchinsk being of gold and silver.
Quicksilver may exist in small quantities, but is not, and never has
been, worked.

In former days exiles made the journey from European Russia to Irkoutsk,
or whatever district they were sentenced to, on foot, but nearly half
the journey to Kara (the most remote penal settlement excepting Yakoutzk
and Sakhalien) is now done by steamboat and railway. Prisoners are sent
from all parts of Russia to Moscow, where they are divided into gangs of
three or four hundred. From Moscow they travel by rail to Nijni
Novgorod, and thence to Perm in a prison ship or barge. From Perm the
railway conveys them to Tiumen, whence another prison barge carries them
down the Obi River, distributing _en route_ all those destined for
places in Western Siberia, until at Tomsk the remainder are disembarked,
and the long tramp across Asia commences. No travelling is done in
winter. The transportation season commences on the 15th of April and
ends on the 7th of October. As for the march itself, it is a very
different thing to what I pictured it before I saw with my own eyes how
well Russian prisoners are treated. I shall perhaps hardly be believed
when I say that crimes are sometimes committed by the lower orders in
European Russia on purpose to be sent to Siberia. The criminals know
that their term of imprisonment over, they will (if well behaved) have a
grant of land and a house given them, and begin life afresh in a new
country.

We passed many hundreds of prisoners on the post-road between Irkoutsk
and Tomsk, but in no single instance did I see a case of cruelty such as
that mentioned by the author of “The Russians of To-day.” Were the
voyage to Siberia anything like the following description, it would
indeed be a “Via Dolorosa.” He says:——

“The convicts are forwarded to Siberia in convoys which start at the
commencement of spring, just after the snows have melted and left the
ground dry. They perform the whole journey on foot, escorted by mounted
Cossacks, who are armed with pistols, lances and long whips, and behind
them jolt a long string of springless tumbrils to carry those who fall
lame or ill on the way. The start is always made in the night, and care
is taken that the convoys shall only pass through the towns on their
road after dark. Each man is dressed in a grey kaftan, having a brass
numbered plate fastened to the breast, knee-boots and a sheep’s-skin
bonnet. He carries a rug strapped to his back, a mess-tin and a wooden
spoon at his girdle. The women have black cloaks with hoods, and march
in gangs by themselves with an escort of soldiers like the men, and two
or three female warders, who travel in carts.”

In another part of the book:——“Nihilist conspirators, patriotic Poles,
and young student girls are all mixed up, and tramp together with the
criminals.”

This is indeed a sensational picture, but I cannot think the author has
ever visited the scene he so graphically describes. As for “care being
taken that convoys shall only pass through towns on their road after
dark,” the largest gang of prisoners I ever saw was in the streets of
Irkoutsk at three o’clock in the afternoon. The Cossacks who accompany
the prisoners are not mounted at all, nor are they armed with lances or
whips, but simply loaded rifles.

Whenever we passed a gang, once a day on an average, the prisoners
seemed to be the last thing the Cossacks were thinking of, as, at
intervals of about twenty yards, the latter lounged slowly along,
picking berries and smoking cigarettes, while the convicts in the
roadway chatted, laughed and joked among themselves (and sometimes with
their guards) in a very different frame of mind from that described by
the author I have mentioned. The women, it is true, marched with the
men, but the bare idea of “nihilist conspirators” being “mixed up and
tramping together” with the criminals is as absurd as it is incorrect.
Political prisoners are allowed in Siberia to “mix up” with no one, but
sent alone in charge of two gendarmes to whatever town or village they
are destined. Not only are they kept apart in the prisons, where
separate cells are provided for them, but also on the road. Nor are they
sent with gangs of criminals, or in the prison barges, but taken by
passenger-steamer to Tomsk, and thence in a four-wheeled cart or téléga,
to their destination. Should it be indispensable to send them with a
gang, they travel in carts at an interval of one or two miles from the
main body. The gendarmes never let them out of sight, and allow them to
speak to no one, though they may retain and wear their own clothes till
they arrive at the mines, if condemned there. Many are simply sent to
reside at some town or village till their term of punishment is over.

[Illustration: A VILLAGE OSTROG.——CONVICTS ON THE MARCH.]

Convicts were formerly sent to Saghalien by road, _viâ_ Irkoutsk and the
Amur, but are now transported direct from Odessa. I was told at Moscow,
that a few years hence all criminals and political offenders will be
sent to Saghalien by sea direct, and banishment to Siberia become a
thing of the past. For the truth of this assertion, however, I cannot
vouch.

The usual marching is two days’ work to one day’s rest, travelling, on
an average, about eighteen to twenty miles a day. There are about four
hundred prisons in all in Siberia, in fact every village we passed on
the road from Irkoutsk to Tomsk had its “ostrog.” All, from the shores
of the sea of Okhotzk to the Oural mountains, are built exactly alike of
wood painted a light yellow, the roof being of a dull brick-red colour.
In each prison are four or more cells for the politicals. The criminals,
men and women, are herded together in one large room, round the sides of
which are inclined wooden planks to sleep or lounge upon. The town
prisons are built of stone, and are, of course, very much larger. The
Alexandreffski prison, for instance, about thirty miles from Irkoutsk,
contains over twelve hundred convicts.

The number of exiles sent to Siberia during the past few years has been
on an average 15,000 to 18,000 per annum, including women and children.
As a rule, the lesser criminals are sent to settlements in Western
Siberia, nihilists and murderers to Kara and Saghalien, some of the
former even as far as Yakoutsk, which is said to be the hottest place in
summer, and coldest in winter, in the world. From Kara there is no
escape. Few ever try to get away, for the uninhabited regions on the
north, and desert of Gobi on the south, effectually cut off all chances
of escape, while east and west a prisoner stands the chance of being
shot down by the Bouriattes and other wandering tribes, a reward of
three roubles a head, living or dead, being offered by Government for
runaways. On the whole, there is no doubt that the Russian Government
treats its prisoners far better than we in England are inclined to give
it credit for. Even nihilists are fairly well treated, though, of
course, the majority of them are educated men, and feel their
degradation far more keenly than the hardened, low-born criminals.

As for the latter, they have no complaint whatever to make as to food
and clothing; each man has two pounds of black bread, three-quarters of
a pound of meat, and a small allowance of quass daily. This, it must be
remembered, is what Government actually allows him. He may make what he
can on the road in addition to this, by soliciting alms from travellers
and caravans. The prison-gates present a curious sight of an evening,
half an hour before the arrival of a convoy. It is a miniature market,
where huge baskets of berries, jam, kalachi or rolls, quass, new milk,
are spread out in tempting array on snow-white tablecloths, for the
benefit of the fortunate ones who have succeeded in obtaining a few
kopeks from compassionate travellers.

Imagine a convict travelling from Portland to Dartmoor being allowed to
beg at the railway stations! Every village prison, too, has its
recreation-ground, where there are trapezes, parallel bars, and other
gymnastic appliances, for the amusement of prisoners during the long
winter months.

On arrival at the mines, a prisoner’s food is increased to four pounds
of black bread, one pound of meat, a quarter of a pound of buckwheat,
and tea instead of quass. Convicts at the mines do not as a rule
complain of overwork, but of not having enough to do!

The summer costume is a linen shirt, pair of trousers, coat of coarse
grey camel’s-hair, and flat peakless cap. Yellow cloth diamonds on the
back of the coat indicate, by their number, the length of the wearer’s
sentence. On his release from the mines, a plot of land and a house is
given to every convict of good character. Many thus live with their
wives and families, in as great a state of freedom as any ordinary
English labourer, excepting that they are bound to do a certain amount
of work per day (for which they are paid), and to be indoors by a
certain hour at night.

The punishments inflicted are far less severe than they used to be. The
“knout” has been abolished for some years, and also in a great measure
has flogging, which is still practised occasionally, but with rods. It
is only at Kara and Sakhalien that the “plète,” an instrument nearly as
severe as the knout, is ever used. The former——a lash of twisted hide
about two feet long, terminating in thin lashes a foot long with small
leaden balls at the end——is a terrible instrument, and one which, if
severely wielded, often results in the death of a prisoner. From
twenty-five to fifty strokes are usually given, but if the prisoner have
friends, they usually bribe the executioner to make the first blow a
severe one. A skilful flogger, and one who wishes to make the convict
suffer, draws no blood, for this has the effect of relieving pain.
Commencing very gently, he gradually increases the force of the blows
till the whole of the back is covered with long swollen weals. In this
case mortification often sets in, and the victim dies. The plète is only
used at Kara, Nicolaiefsk, and Sakhalien, and then only very rarely, and
on the most desperate criminals.

We found living in Irkoutsk fairly cheap, with the exception of wine and
beer. Light claret (called Lafitte) is sold at nine roubles a bottle,
while English beer was still dearer. Champagne is drunk in enormous
quantities by Siberians, but it is sweet, mawkish stuff. It was half as
cheap again as the claret, and bore the most extraordinary brand I have
ever seen——the English and American flags crossed over a horse and
jockey! However, it suited the consumers, who, like Russians, dislike
dry champagne. Poultry, fish, and eggs are absurdly cheap. Two hundred
of the latter can be bought for one rouble. The Siberian has tastes
somewhat akin to the Chinese in the matter of eggs. I was frequently
asked at post-houses whether I would like mine old, straw flavoured, or
fresh!

There was no lack of amusement in the evening. Two theatres (French and
Russian), a circus, and several open-air concerts were always open to
us. I witnessed one evening a performance of the “Cloches de
Corneville,” most creditable both as regards artistes and orchestra.
Opera bouffe at Irkoutsk! Had I been told a year before that it existed
there, I should have set down my informant as a lunatic. The streets
were far from safe at night, and two men were stabbed during the short
time we were there. Being unlit, they present great facilities for the
exercise of their profession to the gentlemen who take up their
residence in the lower quarters of the town after a sojourn at Kara or
Nertchinsk. No one in Irkoutsk ever walks abroad after dark unarmed.

There was little to do in the daytime but flatten one’s nose against the
hotel windows and look out on to the dreary market-place opposite,
watching the busy crowds of buyers and sellers. It was the only
market-place in Siberia where I ever saw flowers exposed for sale, but
they were faded, scentless things. It always struck me as curious that,
although wild flowers are so plentiful in Siberia, it is hopeless to try
and grow roses or garden flowers. The market was the only place in
Irkoutsk which showed any signs of life or animation. Even at mid-day
the place looked as if everybody was either dead or asleep. The only
signs of life visible were when a squad of soldiers, returning from
drill, marched past with a cracked trumpet at their head, or a
tea-caravan rattled and jingled across the square. Our sole amusement
consisted in watching the cab-stand opposite the hotel, and speculating
as to whether the dozen drivers asleep on their boxes would ever get a
fare. We were there a week, and indoors the greater part of the
day,——and when indoors looking out of window, for we had no books to
read,——but never saw one hired.

The “droshki” or cab of Irkoutsk cannot be called a comfortable vehicle.
It is springless, and only built to hold one person besides the driver.
In shape it is not unlike a bath-chair without the hood. There is no
guard-rail to hold on by, or anything to prevent one being hurled out as
it bumps and bounds along the rough, uneven streets. As the drivers
always went at full gallop, it was sometimes no easy matter to keep
one’s seat.

On a fine day one saw many smart turn-outs at Irkoutsk, though the
carriages with springs, were, I was told, in a constant state of repair.
The chief object of the drivers seemed to be to tear along the streets
as fast as they could without breaking down. Many of the horses had the
near forelegs fastened to the hind for this purpose, a method peculiar,
I imagine, to Siberia.

There was but one pleasant walk in Irkoutsk, a kind of boulevard
situated on the banks of the Angara. It was a relief to find one’s way
down here on a sunny afternoon. The sight of a bit of green foliage was
refreshing, though the trees were withered, scrubby-looking things at
best. There was, at any rate, a certain amount of life and animation in
the broad and rapid river, alive with merchandise craft plying to and
from Lake Baikal, and ferry-boats carrying passengers to public
tea-gardens on the opposite bank. On fine afternoons the boulevard was
the favourite haunt of nurses and children, and as a natural consequence
soldiers, and reminded one (with a stretch of the imagination) of bits
of the Champs Elysées or Tuileries Gardens in far-away Paris, an
illusion very soon dispelled on looking back at the black roads and
dismal-looking unfinished city. From here we walked homewards, as a
rule, past the Porte de Moscou, a whitewashed brick buildings on the
banks of the Angara, containing two small rooms with barred windows on
either side. This arch was built in 1817, and was destined by the
Russians to become the permanent prison of Napoleon I. when they should
take him prisoner! Although he was in those days such an enemy of their
country, Russians, and especially Siberians, now have the greatest
respect for the memory of “Le Petit Caporal.” It may indeed be called
adoration, for there is a sect at present existing in Siberia, which
actually worships the spirit of the Great Emperor. They are called
“Napoleonists,” and look upon the Czar and Greek Church with contempt,
worshipping only the bust of their divinity, which is done with closed
doors, and in strict secrecy. The supporters of this strange doctrine
maintain that the Emperor still lives, that he escaped from St. Helena
after his death, and crossed the seas in spirit to the shores of Lake
Baikal, where he resumed his mortality, and now lives in the flesh. In
time Napoleon will again raise a huge army, put the Czar and his
Government to flight, and himself reign over Russia, after which the
world is to be subjected to the Muscovite yoke!

The “Skopti,” or “White Doves,” is the secret sect said to be the most
powerful in Irkoutsk. These look upon Peter III., of Russia, as their
divinity, and believe him to be still living, touch no meat, wine, or
spirits, but subsist entirely on milk and bread. All are eunuchs, and
though they possess no temples or churches, are easily known by their
pale faces and effeminate ways. Their object is to lead a life of
absolute purity, and they worship a living virgin and Christ appointed
by the elders.

The “Skopti” is perhaps the richest sect that exists in Russia, and many
of the wealthiest men in Siberia belong to it. The creed is that as soon
as 400,000 converts shall have been gathered into His fold, God will
come to reign over them alone. All other religions and faiths shall be
destroyed.

There exist also in Siberia the “Flagellants,” and “Molokani,” or
milk-drinkers, but both are inferior in number to the “Skopti.” The
Molokani came originally from the south of Russia. They believe in
Christ, but do not acknowledge His divinity. The Emperor Nicholas so
persecuted this sect, that he drove 20,000 of them out of Russia and
into the Caucasus. From here many crossed the Black Sea into Turkey,
where the Sultan gave them a village, and where they flourish up to the
present day undisturbed by Turkish rule.

The “Klysti” or Flagellants date from the 13th century. These originally
sprang from one Philipitch, a peasant who, deserting from the Russian
army, declared himself to be the Supreme Being, and travelled over the
country far and wide, preaching and making converts. Philipitch’s creed
was simple enough, certainly, and suited to the understanding of the
meanest capacity. It had but three commandments: (1) Drink no wine; (2)
Remain where you are and what you are; (3) Never marry. During the
performance of their rites the Klysti beat and flog each other
unmercifully; but I do not fancy that many Flagellants now exist either
in Russia or Siberia. It is certainly not a romantic or fascinating
faith.

The time at Irkoutsk hung so heavily on our hands after the first three
days, that we resolved to cut down the fortnight’s rest we had
originally intended taking to one of a week. There was literally nothing
of interest to see or do after the first twenty-four hours, and we had
no incentive to prolong our stay. One fine morning, however, an
apparition made its appearance on the balcony, where we were wont to
smoke our morning cigar, that of a young and extremely pretty woman,
distinctly not an Irkoutskian, but who looked, with her neat figure and
tailor-made gown, as if she had just walked out of Bond Street. The
meeting with a countrywoman, as we imagined her to be, lightened
considerably the prospect of the four long weary days that must elapse
before we pushed on to Tomsk. Madame R., however, was not an
Englishwoman, as we had surmised, but a Dane, who had pluckily braved
the danger and discomfort of the roads to accompany her husband (a
telegraphic engineer) to Eastern Siberia. Our introduction to the lady
was followed by one to Mr. R., and the cheery _déjeûner à quatre_ that
followed it, soon made us forget Irkoutsk and its depressing monotony;
indeed to Mr. and Madame R. are due all the pleasing recollections I
have retained of that gloomy city.

—————

Footnote 10:

  The word “Rouble” is derived from the Russian word _Roupit_ “to cut,”
  so called because up to four hundred years ago the Russians used bar
  silver as coinage.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER IX.

  IRKOUTSK (continued).


THE shock-headed youth who fulfilled the duties of chambermaid awoke me
one morning at the Moskovskaya with the news that that day (the 19th of
August) was to witness in Siberia a total eclipse of the sun. I did not
learn till afterwards that scientific men had been sent from London,
Paris, Berlin, and Petersburg, to Krasnoiarsk, a town about six hundred
versts west of Irkoutsk, to witness and report on the eclipse, but the
expedition was a failure, the weather at these places being dull and
overcast. At Irkoutsk, however, a bright sun and cloudless sky ushered
in the eventful morning. The eclipse was to take place at 11.30, but for
quite half an hour previously a perceptible change took place in the
temperature, which, though it had been close and sultry up till eleven
o’clock, now became quite cool, while the light breeze that had been
blowing dropped as if by magic. About eleven the bright sunshine became
obscured by a mist something like the lurid glare that precedes a
thunderstorm on a summer’s day in England. Up till now nothing was
observable on the sun’s surface as it shone out, like a ball of fire,
from the woolly sky, but at 11.20 one could discern, by the aid of an
opera-glass, a thin black line creeping from right to left over the
great fiery disc, increasing in size to a semicircular blotch, till, at
a quarter to twelve, the sun presented the appearance of an apple with a
large piece bitten out. Ten minutes more, and nothing was visible but a
thin streak of brilliant light surrounding a circular patch of black,
while darkness crept over the city, and the stars, one by one, appeared
in the heavens.

One could see, in the square below the hotel, a crowd of eager, upturned
faces, many of whom had never even heard that the eclipse was expected,
and were much disconcerted in consequence. Droshki drivers pulled up
their horses and stared open-mouthed; market-women left their stalls, to
kneel and cross themselves; every one’s face wore an anxious, concerned
look, which added not a little to the weirdness of the scene. The effect
produced on the animal creation was extraordinary. Horses neighed, dogs
howled, while birds in great flocks flew silently across the starlit
sky, apparently bewildered and alarmed at the sudden fall of night.
About ten minutes past twelve the black veil over the sun diminished in
size, and the darkness commenced to clear away, as, almost
imperceptibly, the light of day once more crept slowly over the earth,
while one by one the stars faded in the brightening heavens. The air,
too, grew gradually warmer, till, at half-past twelve not a trace of the
phenomenon was visible, except in the dense, excited crowds discussing
it in the market-place. The fall of the temperature during the eclipse
was twelve degrees.

Rain fell in torrents, shortly after. This did not, however, prevent us
from walking out with R. to the drill-plain, and witnessing a review of
the troops. Walking in Irkoutsk on a rainy day is, to say the least of
it, unpleasant. The streets are undrained. Great pools of water lie in
the roadway, rendering it almost impassable, while the thick dust
converts the streets into morasses of deep black mud. We had to wade
knee-deep more than once before reaching the parade-ground. The garrison
of Irkoutsk is composed mainly of Cossacks, in number about 10,000. They
were not taking to look at, their dingy drab uniforms and dirty white
linen caps rendering them far from smart in appearance, though in drill
and steadiness they were perfect. All were armed with the “Berdan”
rifle.

I strolled into a barber’s on the way home, to have my hair cut, a
somewhat necessary operation, for it had remained untouched since
Shanghai, and was falling about my shoulders in uncomfortable
luxuriance. The art of hair-cutting is evidently learnt early at
Irkoutsk. On inquiring of a small boy of about eight years old, whether
any one was in, he dragged me to a chair, and arming himself with a huge
pair of shears, commenced, although he had to mount on a stool to do so,
to operate upon me himself. I expected every moment to find myself minus
an ear, and was relieved when he had finished, and not a little
surprised to find that he had done it extremely well. I felt constrained
to buy a bottle of Atkinson’s White Rose in consequence, as an
encouragement to the youthful disciple of Figaro.

The museum at Irkoutsk is well worth a visit, and is a handsome stone
building, erected at considerable cost by one of the millionaires. We
spent a long morning there, inspecting the trophies collected from all
parts of Siberia by M. Bogdanovitch, a Russianized Frenchman, who spends
most of his spare time among the Yakoutz, Tungouses, and other
aboriginal Siberian tribes. A word here may not be amiss as to the
natives of the vast country through which we are about to take the
reader, for the term “Siberian” is a very vague one, comprising as it
does the skin-clad aborigines of the shores of the Frozen Ocean to the
semi-Chinese “Bouriat,” the wild and primitive Kamchatdale to the
civilized citizens of Tobolsk or Irkoutsk.

We will work from east to west, and commence with the Kamchatdale. I
imagine there are few places in the world so little known as this
desolate peninsula, which most people look upon as the uttermost end of
the earth when they say, to convey an idea of unlimited distance, “Oh!
so-and-so’s gone to Kamchatka or some other outlandish place.” I have
met one of the few Englishmen who have ever visited this dreary
peninsula, and can give the reader the benefit of his experience and
observations.

The peninsula of Kamchatka is about eight hundred miles long, by one
hundred and thirty miles wide, and is situated in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Flat and marshy at Cape Lopatka, its southern extremity, the country to
the northward becomes mountainous, rocky, and barren, stunted birch and
willow trees forming, in most parts, the sole vegetation, save in the
valley watered by the Kamchatka River. Here the soil is good and grass
abundant, the latter sometimes growing six feet high. Poplar, willow,
and cedar of large size are met with, while cabbages, potatoes, and
carrots also grow in this oasis, which is situated in the centre of the
peninsula. The wild raspberry, currant, and cranberry also abound, and
in the springtime many wild and beautiful flowers. But the greater part
of Kamchatka is rocky and sterile. A chain of mountains to the east of
the peninsula has many volcanoes. The highest and most active, Mount
Kluchevski, a peak of greater altitude than Mont Blanc, is near the
coast, and visible for many miles out at sea, the base of the mountain
having a circumference of over one hundred and fifty miles. Kamchatka is
subject to severe shocks of earthquake, as many as ten (on an average)
occurring annually at Petropaulosk, the chief town or settlement. The
climate of Kamchatka, though severe, is not so trying to a European
constitution as that of the mainland of Eastern Siberia. Frost sets in
about the end of October, but up to January the temperature rarely falls
to more than 10° below freezing point (Fahr.). February to March are the
most trying times, when “Poorgas,” or snowstorms, accompanied by
tempestuous winds, sweep over the bleak, rocky coast and valleys,
occasioning great loss of life and sometimes burying whole villages
under the snow.

The population of Kamchatka is roughly estimated at four thousand souls,
about five hundred of whom reside at the capital, Petropaulosk, on the
eastern coast, which is said to possess the finest harbour in the world,
and where the allied French and English fleets were repulsed by the
Russians during the Crimean war. The aboriginal tribes, however, are
seldom met with in or near the capital, where society consists almost
entirely of Government officers and Cossacks, stationed here to preserve
law and order among these remote subjects of the Czar, who, however,
give them little or no trouble. The chief complaint among military men
at this dreary outpost is that they have nothing to do in the way of
fighting to keep their hands in.

The aboriginal inhabitants of Kamchatka are divided into three distinct
races: the Koriaks, in the north, the Kamchatdales, in the south, and
the Kuriles, a tribe inhabiting the islands of that name, which, lying
to the southward of Kamchatka, were lately ceded by Russia to Japan in
exchange for the island of Sakhalien. Of these three the Kamchatdales
are the most civilized and friendly, probably on account of their more
frequent intercourse with Europeans from Petropaulosk and other
settlements. They are of a copper colour, with narrow black eyes, thick
lips, and flat noses, and long, streaming hair, which they take great
delight in plastering over with seal oil, blubber, and other fishy
abominations.

A Kamchatdale may be smelt a mile off, their bodies exuding a strong
smell of fish, on which they subsist, eaten raw; but they are friendly,
hospitable fellows, and, unlike the fierce and savage Koriaks, always
glad to welcome or help a stranger. Up till some years since many of the
Kamchatdales were Chamans, but this religion has died out a good deal
since the advent of Russian traders, who have replaced it by introducing
vodka and debauchery. The Kamchatdales have, curiously enough, a
practice identical with one among the Dyaks of Borneo: that of kindling
a light by rapidly turning in the hands a dry stick in a hole made in a
plank of wood, and using a piece of dry grass as fuel. They are also,
like the Dyaks, capital dancers and mimics, imitating in their dances
the movements of animals and birds with surprising grace and accuracy.

The Koriaks, on the other hand, are said to be the most treacherous and
degraded race in Siberia. Many are nomad, and have no fixed abode, the
stationary ones being much finer in physique and less wild than their
wandering brothers. Strangely enough, however, they allow the latter to
treat them as slaves, and obey them without a murmur. While the nomads
are savage, cruel, and treacherous, the settled Koriak is a contented,
cheerful being, always glad to see strangers, and, though not so
civilized, as hospitable in his way as the Kamchatdale. The settled
Koriaks, like the latter, gain their livelihood by fishing, while the
nomad’s life is occupied with hunting and his flocks of reindeer. The
dwelling of the settled Koriak is comfortable enough, and is built of
wood in the shape of an =X=, fifteen to twenty feet high. The entry is
by clambering up a pole on the outside and dropping through a hole in
the top (in the centre of the =X=), which serves for door, window, and
chimney, there being no other egress. The tents of the nomad Koriaks are
of reindeer skin, and much smaller, but in neither can a European stay
more than a few moments, the smoke and stench being intolerable to any
but a Koriak’s eyes and stomach. Drunkenness among the Koriaks is rarer
than among the Kamchatdales, for the good reason that they cannot get
drink. A mushroom or fungus, however, found in the north-east portion of
their territory, makes an admirable substitute. Happily, it is rare, for
a mouthful of it produces intoxication for three or four days. Although
the wandering Koriaks treat their animals with kindness, their cruelty
to women is proverbial. Unlike the Kamchatdales and their nearer
neighbours, they are extremely jealous, and very often kill their wives
on a mere suspicion of infidelity, the more often that they have a right
to slay them if really guilty. No Koriak’s wife is ever permitted by her
lord to beautify herself, or even wash, for fear of attracting the
notice of others. To make assurance doubly sure these northern Othellos,
from time to time, compel their wretched women to cover their entire
bodies with a thick coating of rancid oil, which effectually keeps even
the most amorous lover at a safe distance. When the Koriaks, male or
female, become old and unfit for work, they are killed by their family,
being allowed the privilege of choosing whether they shall be stoned to
death, or have their throats cut. Part of a Koriak youth’s education is
learning to give the _coup de grâce_ as painlessly as possible.

The Kuriles, as I have said, inhabit the small islands of that name
south of Cape Lopatka. They are essentially fishermen, their clothes,
tents, and even boots being made of fish-skin. I saw, in the museum at
Irkoutsk, a long cloak made by them of this material as light and thin
as goldbeater’s-skin, and absolutely waterproof. The framework of their
canoes is of wood, with this fabric four or five thicknesses tightly
stretched across it, and these apparently fragile craft will live in the
roughest sea, the crew looking, a short distance off, as if they were
sitting on the water, so low is the gunwale. The Kuriles have become
more civilized since the ceding of their islands to Japan, though they
still preserve queer customs with regard to their women. When a Kurile
has proved his wife faithless, he does not, like the Koriak, visit it on
her, but on the seducer, whom he is bound to challenge to mortal combat.
The weapons are thick cudgels, the challenger first receiving three
blows on the head or bare back from his opponent. It is then the turn of
the latter, and so they go on till one of the combatants dies of his
injuries, the duels sometimes lasting an hour. When a Kurile woman gives
birth to twins, one is slain by the father as a sacrifice to the
spirits.

There is plenty of wild fowl in Kamchatka, and the country abounds with
geese, duck, and snipe at the proper seasons. It is probably the only
country in the world where the real wild dog exists. These are found on
the mountains, are of a buff or grey colour, the size of a huge mastiff,
and very fierce, so much so that natives have been killed when
attempting to capture them for purposes of sleighing. They are fed (in
their civilized state) on fish, and, the rivers of Kamchatka teeming
with salmon, do not have any difficulty in procuring a meal whenever
they want it, merely walking into the stream, and seizing their prey
with their teeth.

To the north of Kamchatka is the Chukchee coast, which extends from
Chanskaia Bay round Behring’s Peninsula to the river Anadyr. This region
is inhabited by the Chukchee tribe——a race of men very similar to the
wandering Koriaks——who live a nomadic life in tents made of reindeer
skins, for here the reindeer roam about in thousands. This part of
Siberia also swarms with lemmings, a species of large rat. At times
these loathsome creatures migrate in myriads, and woe to the luckless
traveller that meets a swarm, for nothing will turn them aside. Rivers
and lakes are crossed, even arms of the sea, and should they meet a
native in the open country, they will not deviate an inch from their
line, swarming up his legs and body one side to clamber down his back on
the other. If not attacked, they are harmless enough, though it must be
a severe strain on the patience to have to wait till an army of the
brutes has passed over one, an operation which sometimes lasts a couple
of hours! The white Polar bear is also found in the Chukchee country.
The language of the Kamchatdales, Koriaks, and Chukchees is a harsh,
guttural one, and almost synonymous.

We now come to the Yakouts, or aborigines of Yakoutsk——the largest
province in Siberia, which extends from south of the town of Yakoutsk to
the mouth of the Lena River in the Frozen Ocean, and is nearly the size
of the whole of Europe——Russia excepted. The total population of this
huge province is under two hundred and thirty thousand, consisting of
Russians, Tungouses, Yukagirs, and Yakouts.

Perhaps with the exception of Yakoutsk and Sakhalien, the town or
village of Okhotsk, situated on the sea of that name, is the most
utterly desolate place in the whole of Siberia. Its population in 1810
numbered only one hundred and fifty, and these existed solely by trading
in furs and fish with the nearest settlements. Okhotsk may literally be
called the end of the world. Not a tree or blade of grass is visible
within miles of the wretched huts and two or three wooden
officials’-houses that constitute the colony. The summer at Okhotsk
consists of three months of damp and chilly weather, which is succeeded
by nine months of cold as raw as it is intense. The food of the
inhabitants is fish, nothing but fish, of which they certainly have a
large and varied choice, for there are at least fourteen varieties of
salmon found here. From the absence of fresh vegetables, however, scurvy
rages in winter. To the south of Okhotzk lies the island of Sakhalien.
The climate is even worse here than at Okhotzk. In July, the hottest
month of the year, the thermometer seldom if ever rises above 60° F.,
while in January it never exceeds 14° F. Scarcely two days together ever
pass without rain, followed by dense fogs. The sun is seldom seen, and
never felt. It will be a bad day for prisoners when exile to Siberia is
abolished, and all convicts are sent direct to Sakhalien by sea.

The town of Yakoutsk has a population of under five thousand, many of
whom are political exiles, and, saving Kara and Sakhalien, there are few
places more dreaded by prisoners throughout Siberia than this desolate
city, which is over five thousand miles from Petersburg! It has, too,
the unenviable notoriety of being the hottest place in summer, and the
coldest in winter in the world, while in the former season people have
been known to die from the effects of mosquito bites, from dense swarms
of which the inhabitants are never free in summer for a moment, night or
day. Most of the buildings in Yakoutsk are of wood, though there is a
handsome stone cathedral, and the Governor’s house is of the same
material. The town presents a queer patchwork appearance, the more
solidly built mission-houses being mixed up pell-mell with the winter
dwellings of the Yakouts, who mix freely with the European population.
It is rare to meet a Yakout out of his own province, though I came
across two or three as far south as Ziminskaia, near Irkoutsk. They are
smallish men, of light copper colour, with black, close-cropped hair,
and are a genial, hospitable race. Although robust and capable of going
through great fatigue and privation, the majority are timid, not to say
cowardly, in disposition, though as hunters they are unsurpassed, and
from Yakoutsk are exported the most valuable furs in Siberia. A great
number of the latter are sent to China, but the majority find their way
to Moscow and Petersburg.

Life must be dreary indeed to the wretched exiles sent to Yakoutsk,
where in winter there is only daylight for four hours out of the
twenty-four! The winter dwellings of the Yakouts are made of logs
protected by banks of earth, which reach to the windows——which latter
are made of blocks of solid ice; and an idea of the temperature may be
formed by the fact that, notwithstanding the heat inside the building,
these seldom melt till the return of spring. Human beings, cows, calves,
and even reindeer, all live together inside these tents for the sake of
warmth. In summer the tents are of birch bark and reindeer skin, of the
same shape, but naturally much cooler than the winter quarters.

The Yakouts, unlike most of the aboriginal Siberian tribes, are cleanly
enough in their habits. They may be said to live literally on reindeer,
for the latter is their beast of burthen, and provides them with food,
covering, and drink. A species of fermented liquor which they concoct
from its milk is even more intoxicating than the “airak” of the Mongols.
Reindeer flesh is, however, only eaten among them on great occasions, or
when an animal dies from natural causes, the staple food being a sort of
cake made of fir-tree bark powdered very fine, and reindeer milk. I saw
one at the Irkoutsk museum, which, though four or five years old, still
reeked of turpentine, and must, when fresh from the oven, have been
somewhat trying even to the gastric juices of a Yakout.

Though a Yakout has few vices but gluttony, he is, like all Siberian
races, a sad drunkard when he gets the chance. They are, however, as a
rule, a clever, intelligent race. A Russian we met at Tomsk, had spent
many years among them in exile. Being in want of a fork, he commissioned
some Yakouts to make him one of wood, at the same time giving them a
silver one as a model. What was his surprise when, a fortnight later,
they brought him a perfect copy of his own model made of iron, with one
exception; the handle of the model was of ebony. To get over this
difficulty, they held the handle of the iron fork in wood-smoke till it
had attained a dirty grey colour!

With the exception of small-pox, epidemics are rare in Yakoutsk, though
the former disease sometimes lays whole settlements waste. It is a
common thing for Russian fur-traders to come upon a Yakout village
deserted by every living being but dogs and reindeer, while the corpses
of those who have succumbed to this loathsome disease lie rotting above
ground. When a Yakout is attacked, his companions desert him, leaving a
cup of water and a bundle of firewood within his reach; and this,
curiously enough, is the practice of many of the inland tribes in
Borneo. Indeed, in appearance and customs the Yakout strikingly
resembles the Dyak.

The Chaman religion, though dying out among the more civilized
Bouriattes, is still practised to a large extent among the Yakouts. But
very few Europeans have ever beheld the strange, weird ceremonies
performed by these Chamans, who worship a deity supposed to inhabit the
sun. Their rites are held in secret either in the depths of the forest,
or the solitude of the “Toundras,” vast desert marshes; for none but the
true Christian religion is recognized by the Czar’s government. A
Russian fur-trader who witnessed, in hiding, one of their ceremonies a
few years ago, thus describes the scene:——

“The officiating priest appears as soon as a select body of worshippers
is ready, and enters a circle of flaming logs which has been kindled in
readiness. He is clad entirely in white. Round his neck is slung a large
circular brass plate, signifying the sun, while from his shoulders,
sides, and thighs hang innumerable bells and the stuffed bodies of
stoats, weasels, seals, and other wild animals. Fitting closely to him
is a kind of light framework typifying the human body (I saw one of
these at Irkoutsk), a perfect iron skeleton, showing the ribs,
breast-bone, thighs, legs, &c. Sacrifices of reindeer and calves’ flesh,
fish, airak, sable furs, &c, are then cast into the flames while he
turns slowly round and round inside the ring of fire, till, like a Cairo
dervish, he has worked himself into a kind of mad frenzy. He then falls
helpless in a fit of exhaustion, brought on by excitement and exertion.”
This ends the ceremony, which no one has ever succeeded in getting at
the meaning of.

The “Tungouses” inhabiting the region to the north and east of Yakoutsk,
are perhaps the wildest, as they are the filthiest, of any Siberian
tribe. They are comparatively few (at most some four thousand), and are
yearly diminishing in number. They profess no religion, are nomads, and
gain a living by fishing and selling furs to Russian traders, who, by
the aid of vodka and debauchery, are slowly but surely decimating them.
The dwellings of the Tungouses are the same summer and winter, and are
made of reindeer skins stretched tightly over a light wooden framework.
It is somewhat curious to note that the tents of all these tribes are of
different shapes, that of the Yakouts being square, the Bouriattes
round, and the Koriaks and Kamchatdales triangular, and the Tungouses
conical. The latter, though the dirtiest, are the most picturesquely
dressed of any: some of their costumes of fur and birdskins being
especially graceful and handsome.

The Yurakis, Samoyedes, and Ostiaks are so analogous to the two
last-mentioned races as to need no description, though the latter are
the race of which, on the Great Obi River, we saw the most. I have
touched upon the least civilized races of Siberia, and will now conclude
with a few remarks on the link between the civilized Siberian and the
aborigines of this great country——the Bouriattes.

The Bouriattes may be said to form the greater part of the population of
Irkoutsk, and are treated almost as equals by the Russian Siberian (the
offspring of the convict population), who are gradually colonizing this
part of Asia. Though as wild and uncivilized as the Yakouts one hundred
years ago, the Bouriatte is now Russianized, has given up his old
religion of “Chamanism,” dresses in European costume, and performs the
duties of yemstchik, post-house clerk, policeman, and other Government
officials so efficiently, that he is preferred by some, in these menial
capacities, to the European Russian. The Bouriattes originally came from
the region north of the Trans-Baikal region, known as Trans-Baikalia, on
the eastern shores of Lake Baikal. They are now, however, to be found in
almost any part of Siberia on the great post-road from Irkoutsk to
Tomsk. Many, too, have amassed large fortunes as gold-diggers. This race
differs but little in physiognomy from the Mongol Tartar. They are
thrifty, industrious people, and ordinarily of an honest, hospitable
disposition, though civilization has already begun to do its work, and
they are becoming somewhat unscrupulous in their love of filthy lucre.

The Bouriattes number some two hundred and seventy thousand, and are the
most populous aboriginal tribe that exists in Eastern Siberia. Their
language is a kind of patois, composed of Mongol and Chinese, in which,
oddly enough, a few Turkish words occasionally crop up. How the latter
language ever drifted here is a mystery, but some of the words are
precisely similar in meaning and expression. Like their neighbours, the
Mongols, the Bouriattes are Buddhists, although some very few have
remained Chamans (their old and primitive religion), and fewer still are
Christians. European missionaries find the conversion of Chaman
Bouriattes tolerably easy, that of Buddhists impossible. About every
fourth Bouriatte becomes a Lama, and takes vows of celibacy. One of the
Buddhist laws precludes a Lama from killing anything, be it only a flea;
and I have seen the poor fellows writhing under the torture inflicted by
vermin, but suffering in silence, till some friend in need has come up
and annihilated their tormentors.

Such is a brief sketch of the aboriginal tribes of Siberia, a people I
have passed over lightly, as we saw little or nothing of them during our
transit through Siberia, and I wish to present that country to the
reader exactly as I saw it. Siberia is now almost as much the “land of
the stranger” as Australia, and it is more than probable that less than
a century hence, the aboriginal tribes of Eastern Siberia will, with the
exception of the Russianized Bouriatte, have disappeared altogether from
the face of the earth.

We now set about making preparations for the journey to Tomsk. Our
tarantass was again overhauled, a very necessary proceeding after our
rough journey through Trans-Baikalia, or what we then thought rough. It
was a mere trifle to what was in store for us. Embarking on a journey in
Siberia means a preparation of at least three days. One cannot, as in
England, pack up a portmanteau and be off at a few hours’ notice. There
is firstly the permission of the police required to enable one to leave
a town or city at all, secondly that most important item in Siberian
travel, horses, and thirdly a document authorizing the holder to procure
them. This is called the “Podarojna,” and is of two kinds.

The “Kasiomné” or Imperial Podarojna is used only by Government
officials of all classes, who, though they pay nothing for horses, are
always served first at a post-station, even though the luckless holder
of a privatne or second-class podarojna, may have been waiting for his
two or three days. We found this to our cost on several occasions,
notably on one, where, though our horses were already harnessed, and we
were about to start, a Government engineer dashed up, and producing his
kasiomné, had them taken away from us and proceeded calmly on his way,
leaving us to curse him and our fate, and wait another twenty-four
hours. In urgent cases, such as an imperial messenger with despatches
from Moscow or Petersburg, the kasiomné is written in red ink, and
marked “Courier,” when, though there may be no horses available in the
station, the inhabitants of the village are bound to provide them.

The ordinary podarojna is called the “Privatne,” and costs twenty-five
roubles. This entitles the holder to horses at any station where they
may be available, but they must always be taken out and handed over to
the fortunate possessor of a first-class podarojna, should the latter
make his appearance before the tarantass has actually started. To
obviate this difficulty a private company has lately been started at all
the stations on the Great Post-Road, to provide the holders of
second-class podarojnas with horses. They charge exorbitant fares,
however, and we always preferred to wait even two or three days for the
regular Government horses. In some cases we found that the Government
post-master and manager of the private company were in league to rob
travellers.

Provisions also had to be thought of, and those of the most portable
kind——sardines, Liebig’s Extract, a small chest of tea, sugar, and half
a dozen pots of jam constituted our commissariat department, together
with two bottles of cognac, and half a dozen flasks of vodka, for with
the exception of milk, black bread, and eggs, nothing is to be got as a
rule at the post-stations. We invariably found a menu with prices
affixed on the walls of every waiting-room, even in the smallest
villages, but on inquiry, the tempting list of cutlets, beefsteak, &c.,
&c., usually dwindled down to the homely but unappetizing egg and black
bread! Indeed, with the exception of Krasnoiarsk, Nijni-Udinsk, and
Kansk, this constituted our sole fare from Irkoutsk to Tomsk, with one
exception, where, delayed for a couple of days at Sonkovskaya, we were
regaled with a basin of broth at the village ostrog, or prison. I think
that plate of soup did more towards dispelling any wild notions I may
have had anent the ill-treatment of Siberian exiles than pages of
writing! Many a time, when delayed on the road, have I smelt the savoury
fumes from the ostrog cook-house with envy, as I slunk back disgusted to
my stale egg and black bread at the post-house. Sad though their lot
undoubtedly is, the Siberian convicts are not only well clad, but
considerably better fed than our own criminals in England. Be it
understood that I speak of criminals, and not political prisoners or
nihilists, to whom, notwithstanding all that ardent Russophiles may say,
Siberia is a veritable hell upon earth. The Russian “criminal” is exiled
to colonize, the Russian “nihilist” (in most cases) to die.

Personally, I would very much sooner undergo a term of imprisonment for
a criminal offence in Siberia than in England. The work in summer is
undoubtedly harder, but during the winter months, when mining is
suspended, convicts at Irkoutsk are employed for the most part in
cigarette-making, or work of a similar light nature, while they are
treated with more laxity, and enjoy far more liberty, than in our
convict-prisons at home. Smoking is not forbidden, card-playing and
other games allowed, and free conversation, for in Siberia solitary
confinement among criminals is unknown, while, as a rule, their friends,
if they have any in the neighbourhood, are permitted to see them once a
month, and on these occasions are allowed to bring the prisoner tobacco,
food, and any other luxuries, excepting alcoholic liquors. Even in this
respect, however, the rules are by no means stringent.

[Illustration: A SIBERIAN CRIMINAL CONVICT.]

I am now writing of what came under my own personal observation at
Irkoutsk and Tomsk, for save on one or two occasions we were never
allowed to enter a village ostrog, nor at any time to exchange words
with political prisoners while in confinement. As, however, a
considerable portion of the population at Irkoutsk consisted of
political exiles living under police surveillance, I was able to gather
some interesting details from this class relative to their life while in
prison and at the mines, which soon convinced me that even a murderer is
better off in Siberia than the writer of a so-called offensive political
article, in a Petersburg or Moscow journal, or the enthusiastic student
who has too openly expressed his views on the great social question.
Where the criminal is allowed to mix freely with his fellows and receive
his friends, the “political” is kept in solitary confinement, forbidden
not only to address his warders, but also, which is a far greater
punishment, deprived of the use of books, pens, ink, and paper. Smoking
is also in his case strictly tabooed, and any food but that specially
laid down by prison rules. And if the men are harshly treated, let the
reader imagine the torture it must mean to women of refinement and
education who have been accustomed to the comforts of civilized life, to
be suddenly thrust into the midst, if not the company, of a gang of
murderers, thieves, and vagabonds. I met, while at Irkoutsk, one of the
female political exiles whose portrait appears in these pages (but whose
name I suppress for obvious reasons), and heard from her own lips the
outrages and indignities which she had been subjected to by her guards
on the long ten months’ march from Tomsk to Nertchinsk. Her life, she
said, had indeed been a hell. It was only on arrival at the mines that
she got comparative rest, for though the work was harder, it was
preferable to the society of the brutes who had persecuted her during
the long, lazy summer marches. She is now at Irkoutsk for life, and with
the exception of daily reporting herself at the police registry, is a
free woman, so long as she keeps to a radius of ten miles of that city.
But although barely five and twenty, the march and two years at the
mines have turned her once auburn hair snow white.

There are, no doubt, those who richly merit their fate. Vera Anitchkoff,
for instance, who will never leave the mines again. The prisoner
depicted in prison dress is Count ————, a Polish nobleman, who not ten
years ago had a hotel in Paris, a villa at Cannes, and who, stoic and
brave fellow as he is, remarked that he would not mind so much had they
not given him “_cette coiffure ridicule_!” The French journalist, M.D.,
was one of the most prominent members of the Paris commune, and is
certainly well out of the way, for a more desperate and dangerous
character never harangued a mob from the barricades. There are at least
a dozen communists in various parts of Siberia, who, escaping from
France in 1870, have made their way to Petersburg and other Russian
cities, only to get into fresh trouble and receive their quietus in the
gold-mines of Trans-Baikal and forests of Sakhalin. We, however, saw but
two, M.D. and our friend the Pole, on the shores of Baikal. The other
two portraits represented are criminal types, one that of a man, a
native of Nijni Novgorod, who had murdered his mother and two sisters.
On being asked why he had committed the murders, he replied, “Oh, I was
sick of my family, and wanted to go to Siberia. There is money to be
made there, and I could not afford to go at my own expense!” And such
men as this are to be the pioneers and colonizers of Asiatic Russia! for
no criminal, however bad, ever goes to Siberia without a notion that one
day, sooner or later, he will obtain his ticket of leave, and with it a
house, a piece of ground, and a sum of money to start him in life. No
wonder that most of the gangs we met on the road were composed of
cheery, happy-go-lucky fellows, chaffing their guards, singing, smoking,
and laughing, a striking contrast to the dozen or so of wretched men and
women in plain clothes jolting along the rough road in tumbrils behind
them, some of the women pale, delicate-looking creatures with a baby at
the breast, who looked as if death, and not the gloomy prison-gates of
Irkoutsk or Kara, would end their journey.

It is not, I imagine, generally known that a political exile is divorced
from wife or husband the day that the Ourals are crossed from Europe
into Asia. This is voluntary on the part of the man or woman; but, as
may be imagined, the law is frequently abused. “My wife is guilty of
conspiring against the Government,” says the henpecked husband, or, “My
husband has compromising papers in his possession: search the house,”
says the wife, who is jealous or has transferred her affections, and the
thing is done. There is no delay in such cases. A couple of hours
settles the matter one way or another. The accused is not tried
publicly, nor is he allowed to plead or call witnesses for the defence.
This is called in Russia, “Exile by administrative process.” Within a
week of the denunciation the victim is over the border, the marriage
dissolved. Such cases are, however, rare. Russian ladies, to their
honour be it said, accompany as a rule their husbands into exile, little
knowing, however, the hardships and dangers before them; little dreaming
of the insults which, though free, they will have to put up with _en
route_, under the very eyes of the husband powerless to help them. As
for the unmarried women (politicals) that are sent to the mines alone,
their end is pretty much the same as a rule. Their two or five years of
prison over, they are allowed to settle down in Tomsk or Irkoutsk. If
possessed of private means (as many are), they are allowed to enjoy
their income. Is it not for the benefit of Siberia? Many take to trade,
become dressmakers, confectioners, milliners, &c, &c.; but the majority,
if young and pretty, take up a more lucrative though less respectable
profession. Some of the latter class almost vie with the
“Demi-Mondaines” of Paris or Vienna in their extravagance and the
splendour of their houses, carriages, and diamonds. Every liberty is
allowed them, save, as I have said, the trifling inconvenience of the
registry of their names every morning at eleven at the police office,
and the somewhat uncomfortable feeling of not being able to drive or
ride more than ten miles out of Irkoutsk, or whatever town they may be
located in. I dined on one occasion with one of these ladies, and one
could scarcely realize that the clever and pretty hostess who
entertained us, dressed in the height of Parisian fashion, and who,
after dinner, charmed us with her rendering of Beethoven and
Mendelssohn, had, but six short months before, been sifting gold and
washing prisoners’ clothes at the gold-mines of Nertchinsk!

One hears little of Nihilism in Irkoutsk. It is a sealed subject, and,
except on rare occasions, never broached. Here, as throughout Siberia,
however, we took care not to mix in any political discussions, a piece
of advice I would tender to any one intending to make this journey.
Russians, and especially Siberians, are quick to take offence, and on
one occasion we were nearly being embroiled, though quite innocently, in
a serious “Fracas.”

It was in a café on the outskirts of the town. In every public room, be
it post-house, hotel, restaurant, or government office, there is a
portrait of His Majesty the Czar, flanked in a corner by the “Ikona,” or
Sacred Image. Ignorant of the custom of the country, Lancaster and I one
evening entered one of these places without removing our hats. The room
was crowded, for it was a public holiday, and all were more or less
under the influence of copious libations of vodka and other drinks they
had imbibed during the day. Seating ourselves at a small table in their
midst, I was not a little surprised to feel, the moment after, a violent
blow at the back of my head, and at the same moment to see my hat
whizzing through the air to the other side of the “Salle.” We were both
armed, but luckily for ourselves had the presence of mind to keep our
revolvers in our pockets. Had they been produced, I doubt if either of
us would have left the place alive. Fortunately the owner of the café
spoke French, and apologizing for the conduct of his guests, explained
that the sole cause of their annoyance was that we had omitted to doff
our hats to the Czar’s picture. The affair was soon settled, for the
gentleman who had assaulted us came up and profusely apologized for his
conduct in not knowing that we were unacquainted with the customs of the
country! There must have been fifty or sixty Siberians (all more or less
drunk) in the place. Had there been a third that number, or even half, I
should have felt sorely tempted to go for the swaggering bully, who was
meek enough when, peace being restored, we showed him our newest patent
in American “six-shooters.”

The Irkoutsk police is utterly inadequate to the size of the city. Any
one creating a disturbance at night is not, as in London and other
European cities, incarcerated for the night and brought before the
magistrate in the morning. That worthy, in Irkoutsk, sits up all night,
and disposes of cases summarily by fine or imprisonment as may be
necessary. A somewhat amusing incident happened while we were there,
showing the manner in which these gentlemen administer justice. Half a
dozen young men, who had dined not wisely but too well, were returning
homewards, when they encountered a decrepit old man, whom, by way of a
joke, they fell upon, and nearly beat to death. The police patrol
happening to pass at the moment, two of these spirited youths were taken
into custody, the remainder managed to escape. On arrival at the police
station, one of the offenders discovered an old acquaintance in the
inspector, who, however, declined to allow the bond of friendship to
interfere with his stern sense of duty. “I must fine you Rs. 50 each,”
said the Siberian Nupkins, “but as we are old friends, you shall pay it
to me, and we will drink it in champagne. How we shall get the laugh
over those idiots who ran away!” History does not state whether the old
man died. He was still in hospital when we left. Such is magisterial
justice in Siberia!

The morality of Irkoutsk is, as I have said, at an exceedingly low ebb.
Our Danish friend Madame R., was on her arrival called upon by a young
and handsome woman, beautifully dressed, with whom in less than a week
she had struck up a violent friendship, for both had tastes in common,
and were fond of music and art. A few days afterwards, Madame R., to her
great delight, found another friend, the Baroness Podorski, who had
spent many months at Copenhagen. But it was somewhat disappointing, said
Madame R., to find soon after, that the baroness had done five years at
the mines for murdering her niece, a rich heiress, by slow poison at
Moscow, and was now living on the proceeds as a queen of society at
Irkoutsk. Calling to see her other friend one afternoon, Madame R. found
her gone. “It is sad,” said her host, “but we have quarrelled, and she
has gone to live with B————, of the Cossacks. You know we were not
married.” The state of things in the country is little better. When a
peasant is about to be married, he lives in a state of single
blessedness with his fiancée for six months. If at the end of that
period she is found to be _enceinte_, the wedding takes place, if not,
they separate and form new liaisons. But this custom exists only in
Siberia, and even there is gradually dying out in the more civilized
districts.

One morning, about five days before our departure, we were seated at
breakfast, when a stout and portly old gentleman was shown in. The
stranger must have weighed at least sixteen stone, and was broad in
proportion. After a deal of palaver, we elicited that this good
gentleman desired to become our fellow-traveller as far as Tomsk,
proposed in other words to use our tarantass, eat our provisions, and do
the journey for exactly a third the amount it would otherwise have cost
him. In vain we pointed out that our vehicle was already full, that
there was no room for a third. “No matter,” he said, smiling blandly, “I
will lie between you.” The prospect of arriving at Tomsk as flat as a
pancake, to say nothing of being asphyxiated by the fumes of garlic and
tobacco, were too much, and we therefore intimated to our visitor
politely but firmly that we declined his company. He, however, as firmly
declined to take a refusal or leave our room till about 5 p.m., having
sat in a chair and watched our every movement for three mortal hours
without uttering a syllable. We had at last to ring the bell and insist
on his being shown out. “Then you will not take me?” he said with a
sigh. “Ah! you are wrong. Read that. I will call again to-morrow,” and
leaving a slip of paper on the table, he slowly left the room.

Translation from the _Irkoutsk Gazette_ of July 7th, 1887:——

“The roads between Tomsk and Irkoutsk are infested with runaway
convicts, so that travelling in this region, especially at night, is
extremely dangerous. Lately, a whole family was murdered at the distance
of a few versts from Irkoutsk, and we hear of such cases frequently
enough.”

So ran the paper. I did not at first pay much heed to what I imagined
was a scheme of our fat friend to make us take him as an additional
protection. It was not pleasant news, though; so I took it to R————,
who, good Russian scholar, would be able to enlighten us as to whether
it ever _had_ appeared in the Irkoutsk paper. The file was soon found,
and somewhat to my disappointment, the paragraph in black and white,
with an additional piece of advice from the Police Department not to
travel on the Great Post-Road, except in urgent cases, at night.

Our fat friend called again next day, but we were obdurate. “Ah! you
will be sorry for it, my friends,” he said. “This,” producing a horse
pistol, apparently some centuries old, “this would have been no mean
help in a skirmish. News has come to-day by telegraph that a party of
merchants have been attacked by escaped convicts near Krasnoiarsk, two
killed and the others severely maltreated and robbed. Well, good-day,
and may you reach Tomsk alive.”

We found on inquiry that the roads, so far as robbers were concerned,
were in a highly dangerous state. Nor was this the only difficulty with
which we had to contend. Heavy rains had flooded the country and made it
almost impassable between Nijni Udinsk, and Kansk, a couple of hundred
versts from Irkoutsk. Of this we had practical proof, for the last mail
from Petersburg had been delayed five days. We hoped, all being well, to
make Moscow by the 1st of October; but in no country, as far as travel
is concerned, is the old proverb so clearly demonstrated of “Homme
propose, et Dieu dispose,” as in Siberia. If by any chance we were
detained in Eastern Siberia till after the 1st of October, we should
have to wait at Tomsk for the snow to set, and sleigh on to Nijni
Novgorod, not a pleasant prospect. We had seen quite enough of a
Siberian city to know that a residence therein of a week or ten days is
more than enough. Irkoutsk, the R.’s said, was far pleasanter in every
way than Tomsk, a circumstance that made us all the more dread an
enforced residence of two, or perhaps three, months in the latter city,
in the worst season of the year——autumn.

We were luckily well armed, and took pains to show it to the servants of
the hotel, for in nine cases out of ten the latter and the yemstchiks
(or drivers) are in league with the thieves, who rarely attack in the
day-time, which was a comfort. Still the prospect of a journey of over a
thousand miles through a country infested with bandits and vagabonds did
not sound cheering, especially as, in the case of the murdered family,
the robbers were armed with revolvers. On the latter occasion, when a
man, his wife, and two children had been killed, the yemstchik alone had
escaped, which fact, significant as it seemed, did not induce the
authorities to detain or even examine him. The murders had taken place
at Tiretskaya, a lonely village about sixty versts from Irkoutsk. We
were furnished before starting with a small printed guide at the
Irkoutsk station, whereon were marked, by black stars, the stages most
infested by foot-pads. Beyond Nijni Udinsk, or about a hundred and
twenty versts from Irkoutsk, the roads were practically safe.

We now had but two things to purchase, literature and furs. We commenced
by ransacking the book-shops, but, alas! found nothing but the works of
Jules Verne, with an occasional book of Zola’s. English books there were
absolutely none, but of German works, ancient and modern, there was no
lack. The latter, however, were no use to us, and we were forced to be
content with a copy of Jules Verne’s “Voyage dans la Lune,” “Michel
Strogoff,” by the same author, and Zola’s “Assommoir.” I verily believe
I could say any of the three off by heart, for we got no other books
till we reached Nijni Novgorod. I do not know what I should have done
without Reiff’s Russian Grammar and Dictionary, with the help of which I
managed to scrape up a little Russian, which on more than one occasion
stood me in good stead. Contrary to general belief, a superficial
knowledge of this language is very soon learnt. In less than a month I
was able to converse fairly well, and ask for what I wanted, though I
cannot vouch for my grammar.

Furs were the next consideration, and I was surprised to find how dear
they were; but the fact that all, even the commonest, have to be sent to
Moscow to be cured and made up, explained this. A pelisse of the
cheapest kind, reindeer skin outside and sea-bear in, cost me nearly
22_l._, and then R———— told me that I had not paid too dear. The same
skins unmade would have cost about 12_l._ My friend the Polish barman
attempted to dissuade me from buying one at all, saying we should find
fur clothes useless, the weather would be so hot, but I was very glad of
my “dacha” and seal cap on more than one occasion before we got to
Tomsk. The most costly fur procurable in Siberia is the silver fox, or
rather the paws of that animal. No _comme-il-faut_ person ever thinks of
wearing any other part, for the whole skin is only worth one-tenth part
of one of the tiny, velvety paws. The next in value is the beaver, then
the sable, the marten, and astrakan, the last being bear, elk, and
reindeer, which latter are, however, only worn by the lower orders.

A great Russian speculator, M. Siberakoff, arrived at the Moskovskaya
the evening before we left. I heard with regret that he had left early
next morning for Nicolaiefsk, for I was most anxious to see the
individual who may be called the Rothschild and Lesseps of Siberia. No
enterprise of any magnitude is ever attempted without first consulting
and, if possible, obtaining M. Siberakoff’s name on the board of
directors, and his last venture may indeed be called a leviathan
one——establishing a waterway between Petersburg and Irkoutsk. How many
million roubles this will cost I should be afraid to say, but it is a
private speculation, and undertaken solely at M. Siberakoff’s cost. The
idea was first started by the difficulty and annoyance created by
constantly changing goods, tea, silk, &c, from boats on to caravan carts
on the Great Post-Road. A waterway, thought Siberakoff, would obviate
all this. There was but one way of doing it: to join the Obi river with
the Gulf of Archangel, one great drawback to this being that Burroughes
Straits, in the Frozen Ocean, through which vessels would have to pass,
is hardly ever free from ice. To obviate this difficulty, Siberakoff cut
a canal from the River Petchora to Obdorsk, on the Obi river. The
magnitude of the undertaking may be estimated when I say that this had
to be cut through the Oural Mountains. From Obdorsk Siberakoff’s boats
will descend the Obi river as far as Piatko, where they will enter the
Chulim river, a small tributary of the Obi. From here another canal has
been cut into the Yenisei river. From this point they will go north
again till the junction of the Angara and Yenisei is reached, and thence
they will descend the former stream to Irkoutsk. The work is now nearly
completed, and we saw at Tiumen two of the small steamers destined for
the towing of barges. There will thus be (in summer) an unbroken
waterway between the Baltic and Lake Baikal.

It is certainly hard on the promoter of this scheme, that since all this
has been carried out, surveys for a railway between Tomsk and Irkoutsk
have been made by the Russian Government, indeed the work has already
been commenced, and will be completed, it is confidently expected, by
the end of 1889. It will then be possible to go from Petersburg to Pekin
overland in under two months, though the Great Gobi Desert must always
remain a stumbling-block to entirely connecting the capitals of Russia
and China by railway. This part of the journey will always have to be
made, as at present, with camels or horses, for the very good reason
that two most important things——fuel and water——are lacking throughout
Mongolia. The canal, however, will probably be carried on as far as
Khabarofka, and the voyage thence to Pekin be made by aid of steamers
now running on the River Amoor as far as Nicolaiefsk, and thence by
ocean steamer to Tientsin. The question of a railway from Irkoutsk to
Tomsk has often been mooted within the past ten years, but never till
the present time with any practical result. Six years since, an American
firm offered to build one the whole distance, from Wladivostok, on the
Sea of Japan, to Tomsk, in Central Siberia. Their conditions were a
lease of 99 years, and a free grant from Government of fifty versts on
each side of the rail the whole distance. As the line would have passed
through districts teeming with gold and platinum, the offer was
declined. The line will now be a purely Government affair, is being
constructed almost entirely by soldiers, and engineered by the same
officials who lately superintended the construction of the Trans-Caspian
Railway.

At length, on the 23rd of August, our final preparations were completed,
and we now only needed the permission of the Inspector of police to
embark upon our journey. In this we were singularly lucky, receiving it
two days after application, though not before a police agent had called
and thoroughly searched our boxes and effects. “You are taking no
letters, I trust,” said the official suspiciously. “I presume you know
the penalty of being found in the Czar’s dominions with compromising
papers, no matter what your nationality.” I assured him that no being
existed more loyal than myself to his Imperial master, mentally thanking
Providence at the same time that I had not acceded to the prayer of my
dirty friend with the letter for Greek Street, Soho.

Our good friends the R————s insisted on entertaining us to a dinner in
honour of our departure the night before we left, a banquet in which the
chef of the “Moskovskaya” excelled himself, and to which we did ample
justice. Poor little Madame R———— alone cast a gloom over the
entertainment by her sad face, and indeed considering she was doomed to
two years’ exile in Irkoutsk, it was not to be wondered at. After dinner
we adjourned to the opera, where the poor little woman forgot her
troubles in the pretty, sparkling music of “La Grande Duchesse” and the
antics of a wonderfully well acted Fritz. It was difficult to imagine
oneself in this far-away corner of the earth. The large, brightly-lit
theatre, gold and crimson boxes, and stalls, crowded with well-dressed
men and women, were different, indeed, from one’s preconceived notions
of the capital of Eastern Siberia, as gleaned from “Called Back,” and
works of a similar nature. R———— insisted on our supping after the play,
and it was daylight ere we sought our couch, the last soft bed we were
destined to enjoy for many days to come.

We found a telegram that evening on our return to the hotel, announcing
the murder of Stanley, the African explorer, and the whole of the
expedition under his command. The report seemed to cause as much
excitement in Irkoutsk as if war had broken out between England and
Russia, though what possible interest the Eastern Siberian could have in
Central Africa puzzled me. The telegram coming from Petersburg (and not
from England), I strongly doubted the news being correct, though it
caused me some uneasiness, a great friend forming part of the
expedition.[11]

Considering the remote position of Irkoutsk and difficulty of obtaining
European stores, &c., we were agreeably surprised at the moderate
charges made by our host of the “Moskovskaya.” Our bill, including
everything, was only 11_l._ a head, and we by no means stinted
ourselves.

All was ready by eleven o’clock the next morning (24th August). A little
crowd had assembled in the market-place to witness the strange sight of
a couple of Englishmen about to cross Siberia! Madame R———— witnessed
the start from the balcony, and her neat little grey-clad figure and
pretty face is the last fair vision of the city that I can recall, as
having seated ourselves in the tarantass, the yemtschik cracked his
whip, the game little horses dashed into their collars, and we rattled
away with a loud jangle of bells, past the sunny deserted streets and
into the open country. Half an hour later and Irkoutsk, a glittering
speck on the dark green horizon, was barely discernible.

—————

Footnote 11:

  Mr. J. Jameson, an experienced traveller and naturalist, whose sad
  death from fever, since these pages were written, has added another
  honoured name to the list of those who have fallen in the cause of
  science and civilization in Central Africa.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER X.

  IRKOUTSK TO TOMSK.


LET the reader picture the neighbourhood of Aldershot with its
undulating pine-clad hills suddenly transplanted into the depths of the
black country lying around Newcastle-on-Tyne. For stone buildings let
him substitute filthy, tumble-down houses of unpainted wood, almost
undistinguishable at a distance from the dark, greasy soil around them.
People these villages with dirty, wild-looking men clad in sheepskins
and gaudy-coloured rags, and still dirtier, half-naked women. Conceive a
sickly smell (peculiar to Asiatic Russia) of old skins, wood, smoke,
turpentine, and sewage, and a Siberian landscape is before you. In fine
weather a fine grey dust that creeps into your hair, chokes up eyes and
nostrils, and renders life almost unbearable; on a wet day thick,
greasy, black mud that is everywhere. In the post-house, in the
tarantass, there was no keeping it out. I do not know which was
worse——the dust or the mud——perhaps the latter, for it smelt abominably,
and stained like ink.

We had looked forward to fine scenery in Siberia, lofty, picturesque
ranges, wooded valleys, and glorious panoramas of forest and plain, but
were grievously disappointed, for the scenery between Irkoutsk and Tomsk
is, with one or two exceptions, intolerably monotonous and depressing.
My recollections of that weary journey are neither pleasant nor
interesting. Eastern Siberia, as I remember it, is simply one long and
varying succession of three colours: Dark green, brown, and
yellow——pines, mud, and occasional cornfields. Of the fifty odd villages
lying between the capitals of Eastern and Western Siberia, not more than
a dozen contained over 400 inhabitants. Save in these villages we saw no
signs of life but occasional gangs of prisoners, or a stray tarantass or
téléga. The poet’s lines——

          “Miles, on miles, on miles, of desolation,
           Leagues, on leagues, on leagues, without a change,”

fitly describe the country through which we travelled for three weeks
after leaving Irkoutsk.

A description of one Siberian village will suffice for all. The houses,
for the most part of rough unpainted wood, have an untidy, unfinished
appearance, the majority of them being dangerously out of the
perpendicular. The effect produced by their appearance was exactly like
that of ships rolling and tumbling about in a high sea, some with their
sterns high up out of the water, others with their bows buried in the
waves. This phenomenon is caused by the depression of the ground in
spring, when the snow melts, and when their foundations being very
insecure, the houses fall about in all directions. I saw one at
Kloutchefskaya, near Kansk, that had sunk to such a degree that the
inmates had to enter it on all fours. The entire absence of colour in
these villages was fearfully depressing. I do not think I saw a single
flower-garden throughout the whole journey. In some of the larger
villages faint attempts at decoration were made by cutting down a
fir-tree and sticking it (rootless) into the ground on either side of
the road; but as this had been done in early summer, the dark green of
the firs had usually faded, scorched by the sun into a dirty drab,
making the surroundings, if possible, more desolate and cheerless than
before. In every Siberian village, however small, are three Government
buildings; the church, prison, and post-house; also, situated at one
extremity of the place a huge wooden barn, in which a quantity of grain
is stored annually by the villagers as a precaution against famine.

We found the post-houses (which are situated at intervals of every
twenty or twenty-five versts) vary considerably in comfort and
cleanliness, the best being about on a par with a decently kept
labourer’s cottage in England. All are built on the same model, and of
wood, two black and white pillars at the door, and the Imperial arms
over the gateway alone distinguishing this building from the other rough
wooden huts. Two rooms, or partitions, each about twenty feet by
eighteen feet, are set apart for the use of travellers, a huge brick
stove in the wall heating them equally. The floor was invariably
carpetless, while the sole furniture consisted of a small table and two
hard wooden chairs, sometimes, but not often, an equally hard wooden
sofa; and for ornament a few woodcuts from the newspapers, or cheap
tawdrily coloured portraits of the Czar and Czarina were pinned on the
greasy, whitewashed walls. In one corner on a shelf is kept the “Black
Book,” a volume in which travellers are invited to write any complaints,
immediately over this a gaudy brass “Ikon,” or picture of the Holy
Virgin or Saviour, which no Russian’s room, from Czar to peasant, is
ever without. There were usually two windows——double ones——kept
hermetically sealed even on the hottest day. Washing appliances were, of
course, nil. I should hardly like to own how often I washed my face and
hands between Irkoutsk and Tomsk! Ablutions were almost entirely
dispensed with except for a handkerchief dipped into a tea-glass from
the “Samovar,” and passed over the face and hands. With this “lick and a
promise,” one had to be satisfied. The post-houses differed a good deal
in comfort and accommodation, some being as clean and well found as
those east of Lake Baikal, others little better than human pigstyes.
Curiously enough, the dirtiest were invariably situated near the large
towns, and while we met with nothing but civility and kindness from
officials in the wilder districts, those within forty versts or so of
Tomsk and Irkoutsk were as arrogant and extortionate as only a Siberian
post-master can be.

The Great Post-Road from Irkoutsk to Tomsk, would scarcely be called a
road in any other country. In wet weather it becomes a morass, in dry
seasons the thick grey dust is up to the axles, while in early autumn
the centre track is often so cut up by caravans as to make wheel traffic
quite impossible. The yemstchiks then diverge to the right or left,
where, though the going is not so heavy, the numerous tree-stumps,
watercourses, felled logs, &c., render it anything but safe. I often
wondered our tarantass did not come to pieces altogether long before
reaching Tomsk. No European carriage would have stood the work
twenty-four hours. A triple telegraph wire runs the entire length of the
road, and is carried on eastwards from Irkoutsk to Wladivostok, a town
of about 2000 inhabitants, and the headquarters of the Russian Naval
Squadron in Siberian waters. There is no telegraph direct to Pekin. I
was surprised, at times, to miss the wires altogether for twenty or
thirty versts but found, on inquiry, that they are sometimes laid under
ground on account of the violent storms that sweep across the steppes,
chiefly near Krasnoiarsk and Marinsk. Telegraphing in the Russian Empire
is cheap enough in all conscience. A message may be sent from Petersburg
to Wladivostok for fifteen kopeks, or about 2½_d._ a word; from the
capital to all parts of European Russia, for a third of that sum.

We dashed along gaily the first two stages out of Irkoutsk, passing, a
few versts out, the monastery of St. Innocent, a huge stone building
erected at the cost of many million roubles by the gold-merchants of the
capital. This saint is supposed to protect travellers, and none of the
wealthier mine-owners ever dream of taking a journey without first
making a substantial offering at his shrine. Such voyages are
necessarily frequent enough, and the sum total at the end of the year is
considerable. It was almost like a glimpse of Italy or Southern France
to peep in through the open gateway, the priests in their brown and
white robes, strolling bareheaded about the sunny, vine-clad gardens,
and shady cloisters. The tower at the eastern side of the building, is
lofty, and of graceful architecture, but the fine effect is entirely
spoilt by a large sham clock, just beneath the steeple, its painted
hands pointing eternally to half-past twelve. The Siberians apparently
have a mania for these, for I afterwards noticed them on many public and
Government buildings at Tomsk, Krasnoiarsk, and Tobolsk.

We reached Bokovskaya, the first post-station out of Irkoutsk, a little
after two o’clock, and were lucky enough to obtain horses at once, a
circumstance that did not then strike one as out of the way, but we had
as yet but little experience of Siberian post-masters and their ways. It
was getting dusk as we reached the little village of Tielminskaya, where
our first check occurred. Though we had covered but little ground,
bright sunshine, a comfortable tarantass, and good horses, made our
first day’s posting so pleasant that we began to think the discomforts
of Siberian travel had been exaggerated by our Danish friends. To be
sure we had only come thirty versts, and over one thousand five hundred
lay between us and the good city of Tomsk!

[Illustration: A NIGHT IN A POST HOUSE.——TILMSKAYA.]

The waiting-room at Tielminskaya had just been vacated by a Siberian
family _en route_ for Irkoutsk. Its appearance was, to say the least of
it, uninviting, and did not give one a very high opinion of the
cleanliness of the Siberian _en voyage_. No horses were obtainable till
four o’clock next morning, so we spread our furs and rugs on the floor,
resolving to sleep in the waiting-room, filthy as it was. One might, to
use a slang expression, have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Though it
had been oppressively warm all day, every window was tightly closed,
while a huge fire roared in the brick stove. The dirty, worm-eaten
floor, strewn as it was with mud, straw, scraps of paper, fish-bones,
egg-shells, and other abominations, was anything but appetizing to look
at, to say nothing of the stench of stale cigarette smoke, furs, and
salt fish, but we managed to make a good meal notwithstanding, and
thoroughly enjoyed the fresh-laid eggs, clotted cream, and preserved
berries that the post-master’s wife provided. We little knew then that a
time was coming when even eggs and milk would be unobtainable luxuries.

A “Pope” (as priests of the Greek Church are called) made his appearance
about ten o’clock, just as we were thinking of turning in——a noisy,
bustling fellow, who put further rest out of the question; for he was of
a communicative turn of mind, and would talk, whether one answered him
or not, so I made the best of a bad job, and got out my dictionary, with
a view to picking up a little Russian. The conversation was somewhat
laboured, and consisted chiefly of pantomime. Lancaster did not join in,
but slumbered away peacefully in a corner. I verily believe he would
have slept through an earthquake.

A word constantly made use of by my clerical friend was _Katorgi_. I do
not know whether the reader has ever attempted to look out a Russian
word, having but a slight knowledge of the language. If so, it will not
surprise him that it took me a considerable time to discover that the
word, in English, means “Convicts.” By dint of hard work I managed at
the end of an hour to glean that, firstly, the road between Koutoulik
and Nijni Udinsk was infested with robbers; secondly, that on no account
must we travel at night through these districts; and, thirdly, that a
whole family on their way to Irkoutsk from Krasnoiarsk had been murdered
by thieves (escaped convicts) but a week previously.

This was scarcely encouraging our first day out. Referring to the
Posting-book, I found that Koutoulik lay fifty versts further on, which
would probably land us there about 2 p.m. the following day, always
supposing there was no delay at Maltinskaya or Polovilnaya, the
intervening stations. We were well armed, as I took care to show the
clerical stranger, who, for all I knew, might himself be in league with
the thieves. Siberia makes one very suspicious. At any rate we resolved
to travel as little as possible by night, and when doing so to keep a
good look-out, sleeping only one at a time while on the road.

It was past 2 a.m. before the loquacious “Pope” allowed me to snatch a
few hours’ rest. The wind had now risen, and the rain, which had
threatened at intervals through the day, was pouring down in torrents,
and rattling against the window-panes with a force that boded ill for
our next day’s journey. Given fine weather and average luck in obtaining
horses, I had not the slightest doubt of being able to reach Tomsk in
time for the last steamer to Tiumen, but a week of steady rain would
upset all our plans, and probably result in our being kept prisoners at
Tomsk through the mists and fogs of early autumn, until the roads set
for sleighing. To post through Siberia in October is next to impossible.

We had already been two hours on the road when day broke. By eight
o’clock the thick woolly clouds had rolled away, and the sun burst forth
clear and cloudless, which soon dried our wet, shivering frames, for the
tarantass hood leaked badly, and we had been lying in a pool of water
all the morning. About mid-day we sighted the Angara for the last time.
The river here presents the appearance of a vast lake (so broad is the
distance from shore to shore), its blue waters fringed with massive
rocks and boulders of grey granite, while further inland a fertile plain
of hay and corn fields stretched away to where on the horizon a low dark
green line marked the recommencement of forest. Men, women, and
children, were working in the fields, and it seemed strange to a
European eye to see the peasantry gathering the harvest and making hay
at the same time. This part of the country teems with game, wild fowl,
and a very large species of hare.

Being detained for five hours at Polovilnaya, we did not reach Koutoulik
until nine o’clock p.m. The post-house being fairly comfortable, we
resolved to sleep here, and make a start at daybreak next day. We had
the place to ourselves till about 11 p.m., when a loud cracking of whips
and jingling of collar-bells announced a fresh arrival, and one of no
little importance, to judge by the bustle and confusion displayed by the
yemstchiks.

“The gospodin will perhaps kindly vacate the bed,” whispered the old
post-master. “It is an officer of high degree and his lady.” The “bed”
being composed of hard planks and about two feet broad, I took the floor
without demur; for there was little difference; and a few moments after
the new arrivals entered the waiting-room, one a tall, handsome man in
uniform, his companion a pretty little woman of the true Russian type,
with violet eyes and finely cut features.

“You are English, the post-master informs me,” said our new acquaintance
in French. “Will you do my wife and myself the pleasure of supping with
us? I conclude, you, like ourselves, are detained here till to-morrow
morning.”

I have seldom enjoyed a meal more than that supper in the wilds of
Siberia, for, apart from the fact that we had tasted no solid food for
two days, our new friends were capital company. Madame had left school
in Paris only seven short months before, to marry the gay Cossack, whose
military duties called him to the dreary convict settlement of
Nertchinsk, in Trans-Baikal. “Un drôle de voyage de noces, n’est-ce pas,
messieurs,” said he, laughing heartily, while his poor little wife, who
looked tired to death, tried hard to screw up a smile at the joke. A
good supper and two or three glasses of Kümmel, however, worked wonders,
and a merrier party could scarcely be found than we were that night. It
was such a relief to meet a fellow-creature with whom one could converse
without racking the brain over Reiff’s dictionary and dialogue-book, and
we chatted away far into the early hours. While the Cossack enlarged
upon Petersburg and its delights to Lancaster, little Madame V. and
myself had a long talk over the delights of Paris, the opera, the
“Bois,” Sara Bernhardt, and a thousand other subjects connected with the
beautiful city so far away. She was a bright, plucky little thing,
though worn to a shadow, and haggard from constant travel and fatigue. I
could not help wondering now long that pretty face and expression would
last in dreary, desolate Nertchinsk.

Madame having retired to rest (tucking up on the hard, cushionless sofa
in the most matter-of-fact way), Colonel V. did not attempt to conceal
his satisfaction at having come unscathed through the Katorgi infested
district. “There have been two more murders since the ones you speak
of,” he said in a low tone, on our telling him of my conversation with
the priest at Tielminskaya. “One that of a Jew pedlar from Kansk, the
other, T., the contractor at Krasnoiarsk, who was found dead in his
tarantass two days ago, near Touloung, his throat cut from ear to ear. I
saw the body myself, and it was not a pleasant sight, I assure you. His
yemstchik and the horses have since disappeared, which proves to me that
the drivers have a good deal to do with it. No, well armed though you
be, take my advice and travel only by day, till you have left the town
of Nijni Udinsk far behind you.”[12]

“Their mode of attack is simple,” said V., in answer to my inquiry, and
pouring himself out a huge tumbler of vodka (his fifth). “Travellers are
never molested in the day-time. It is only at night that these
blackguards (of whom there are sixty or seventy) attack wayfarers. The
most dangerous hours are between 3 and 6 a.m., when travellers who have
been on the _qui-vive_ all night, somewhat relax their vigilance. A
couple of the thieves are told off to cut the traces, two more to seize
and bind the yemstchik (accomplice or not), and three or four others at
the same moment to climb over the back of the tarantass, and falling
suddenly in front of the hood, despatch the passengers with a blow from
a heavy bludgeon. According to report, they have no firearms. Most of
the victims are first stunned, and then their throats are cut. In no
case of late has a traveller’s life been spared.” But, as V. remarked,
it was a significant fact, that not a single yemstchik had lost his
life, while no less than twelve travellers had been brutally murdered.

The sun was high in the heavens when we rose the next morning, V.’s
entertaining conversation having kept us up till past five o’clock. Yet
we woke to find them both gone, for they had left, the post-master
informed us, a little after seven o’clock. For staying powers in the
sitting-up line, commend me to a Russian Cossack. It is my firm belief
that many never sleep at all. Perhaps vodka is the secret.

We were anxious, if possible, to reach Tiretskaya, fifty versts distant,
before sundown, and make the latter our sleeping-place. It would not be
a difficult task, the post-master said. There was but one relay at
Zalarinsk, twenty versts off, and unless we fell in with the mail from
Petersburg, then about due, we were sure to be able to get horses
without delay. The troika was therefore put in at once, and we were
hastily swallowing a couple of glasses of tea, preparatory to a fast of
twelve hours, when a shouting and cracking of whips was heard in the
village street, and in another minute in galloped the mail, four
mud-splashed carts, followed by a tarantass, in which, armed to the
teeth and resplendent in green and gold, reclined the courier in charge.

“Lochade scorei” (horses quickly), shouted the latter, as he leapt from
the tarantass, and brushed past us into the waiting-room, where a few
moments after, we saw him pouring down tumbler after tumbler of scalding
tea. To appeal to his finer feelings was, we knew, useless. Sadly we
watched, as our troika was ruthlessly taken out and harnessed to a
mail-cart, to the evident satisfaction and amusement of the courier,
who, having finished his tea, was smoking a cigarette and watching our
discomfiture with no little amusement. “Sibiri, gospodin!” he said, as
he climbed into his tarantass, and the cortège dashed off again on its
way to China. It was indeed Siberia! and we realized to the full that
patience is a virtue, when the post-master told us that under no
circumstances could we hope to get horses till five o’clock that
evening.

The long sunny day wore slowly away. There was absolutely nothing to do,
or look at, and time hung fearfully heavy on our hands. Towards mid-day
we strolled up to the prison, situate as usual about a hundred yards
outside the village.

The village prisons, or temporary resting-places for prisoners on the
road to the mines, are square or rather oblong wooden buildings, three
sides of which form quarters for the convicts and their guards, while
the remaining wing, a little detached from the main building, is used
for washing and cooking purposes. The open courtyard in the centre of
the building is used for exercise. It is rough and unpaved, and in wet
weather often knee-deep in mud and slush. This yard is entered by a pair
of high gates, the only entrance to the building, the whole being
surrounded by a high palisade, at every corner of which is posted, night
and day, a sentry with a loaded rifle. This vigilance, however, is only
maintained during the summer months. From April to October it is a very
different matter; and as the sentries often sleep upon their posts, and
the bars and gratings of the windows are so rickety and insecure that a
child could dislodge them, escape becomes comparatively easy. An escape
or attempted escape does not increase the length of a prisoner’s
sentence. There is a chance of a sound flogging with rods if the runaway
is brought back, but that is all. Without the connivance of their
guards, I doubt if prisoners would ever attempt to break out at all, and
were the prison officials more careful, not to say conscientious, in the
discharge of their duties, the Siberian roads would be comparatively
safe, instead of being, as they now are, infested with thieves and
desperadoes of the worst description. There is another and still more
powerful reason, which was explained to us by our travelling
acquaintance V., and one that clearly demonstrates that the highest as
well as the lowest officials connected with Siberian prisons are very
far from being _sans reproche_. The practice I am about to describe,
however, takes place only in the remoter districts of Eastern Siberia,
whence no whisper of the scandal is ever likely to reach the ears of the
Petersburg authorities.

It is marvellously simple. Lieutenant A., of the Imperial Guard, having
lived not wisely but too well in the Russian capital, is compelled to
exchange, and finds himself transferred in five or six short mouths from
the gaiety and gilded salons of Petersburg to some desolate convict
settlement in the Trans-Baikal, his only society the Cossacks under his
command; his sole occupation, maintaining order among the two or three
hundred convicts in his charge. The next station, thirty versts off, is
under the command of his friend and brother officer in misfortune,
Lieutenant B., who to lighten the long, wintry evenings, makes
periodical visits to A. Heavy drinking, high play, and other little
amusements, which I need not mention, but which will continue so long as
female prisoners exist in Siberia, are the result of these meetings;
very frequently, also, one of the guardsmen loses considerably more than
he is able to pay. A Russian would sooner die than owe a debt of honour,
but the pockets of both these dashing guardsmen are probably sadly
deficient of that necessary commodity, “ready money.” There is but one
way out of the difficulty. Early in spring, a batch of fifty or sixty
convicts are liberated (upon the understanding that they return before
the end of September) to get their living as best they can upon the
roads. Some have been known to reach Tomsk from Nertchinsk on these
summer excursions. Nor do they ever fail to return, for none but a
lunatic would ever think twice of escaping outright from Siberia. During
the absence of the gang, M. le Lieutenant draws the money for their
rations, &c. from Petersburg, and discharges his just debts. “Cela n’est
pas plus difficile que cela!”

Though I visited three “ostrogs,” it was only with considerable
difficulty and a lavish expenditure of roubles that I succeeded in doing
so. It seems strange that the Russian Government should show such a
strong dislike to strangers visiting their convict establishments, for I
must confess to being most agreeably disappointed by what I saw.
Notwithstanding all the blood-curdling and revolting accounts so vividly
set forth by the authors of “Called Back,” “The Russians of To-day,” and
similar works, I found the prisons of Siberia clean and comfortable,
though perhaps not so sweet-smelling as our convict establishments at
Chatham or Dartmoor. It would be hard to keep them so, considering that
every twenty-four hours brings in a fresh batch of prisoners, each in
wet weather, with a pound or so of black, stinking mud on his feet. At
one village only (Rasgonnaia) along the whole post-road from Irkoutsk to
Tomsk was the ostrog (a very old one) almost uninhabitable. It swarmed
with rats, the post-master told us, and convicts, in winter, were
sometimes severely bitten; while they were forced to sleep in the
daytime, rest at night being rendered impossible by the swarms of
vermin. Let me in justice add that this was the only really bad ostrog I
heard of or saw during the whole journey, and the authorities were on
the point of pulling it down and building a new one. We hear a deal in
England of wretched hovels, where convicts are housed together like
sheep in a pen, human pigstyes reeking with filth of every description,
where not a day passes but a prisoner is carried off by typhus or some
other malignant fever. As a matter of fact I have seldom seen neater
buildings. But for the black and white sentry boxes, the barred windows,
and imperial eagle over the gate, one would never take them for prisons
at all, and they were often, with their bright yellow walls, red roof,
and neatly kept gardens, the only cheerful-looking building in the
squalid villages through which we passed. The ostrog at Koutoulik was
empty, but a gang was expected that afternoon, a Cossack told us.
Preparations for their arrival were already being made in the shape of
cakes, cream, eggs, apples, sweetmeats, and cigarettes spread out on
snowy linen cloths for the delectation of lucky convicts who had made a
few kopeks on the road.

[Illustration: THE POST-HOUSE AT RASGONNAIA.]

We strolled back to the post-house after our inspection, and called in
sheer desperation for the Samovar. There was literally nothing else to
do. Seven long hours must be got through before we could hope to get
horses and proceed on our journey. It is this eternal delay, this
irksome waiting that makes Siberian travel so monotonous and
dispiriting. The fatigue and privation were trifling compared to the
long weary days of boredom and inaction. We got into a habit at last of
calling mechanically for tea at every station. Fifteen or twenty glasses
were, after the first week, our daily allowance, and I verily believe I
drank tea enough during the two months I was in Siberia to keep a dozen
old maids going for a year.

Koutoulik consists of some eighteen or twenty houses and presented a
depressing appearance enough even that bright sunny afternoon, for the
village was deserted by all save women, children, dogs, and pigs, the
men being busy in the fields getting in the harvest. Under the guidance
of the post-master, a Pole who spoke a few words of French, I visited
one of the cottages. Most of the women were dirty, bedraggled creatures,
but some of the younger girls were good-looking, and the children many
of them beautiful, with fair flaxen hair and light blue eyes that made
one wonder how such thoroughly northern types of beauty could have been
born and reared so far east. The mistress of the cottage we entered (a
young and rather pretty woman) apologized for her costume, which
consisted simply and solely of a thin and almost transparent muslin
nightgown reaching a little below the knee; the only garment worn
indoors by peasant women in the brief but tropical Siberian summer. We
begged her not to apologize, assuring her that the costume, though
scanty, suited her remarkably well.

The interior of the cottage was, though primitive, scrupulously clean.
In one corner hung the sacred “Ikon,” or image of the Holy Virgin, a
huge brick stove immediately facing it. Half a dozen wooden chairs and a
rough pine table comprised the furniture, the flooring of the room was
at an angle of about forty-five degrees, which made sitting down a
somewhat dangerous experiment. From the centre of the roof hung a
Siberian cradle, a kind of linen bag secured by a long rope to a hook in
the ceiling, to which our hostess gave a swing every twenty minutes or
so, the length of the cord keeping it (and her last born) in motion for
quite that length of time.

While we were smoking a cigarette and regaling ourselves with a glass of
iced “Quass,”[13] the pretty housewife, who soon lost her shyness,
produced a Russian guitar, and sang to us (in a sweet, clear voice) two
or three national airs. One, a Volga boat-song, seems an especial
favourite, for we heard it continually the whole way from Kiakhta to
Nijni Novgorod, sung by peasants, prisoners, and yemstchiks alike. The
Siberian peasantry appear to have a good ear for music, but their airs
are nearly all in minor, and intensely depressing, after a time, to a
European ear.

The Siberian peasant cannot be called overtaxed, all that the imperial
Government exacts being a poll-tax of seventeen roubles. Those living on
the Great Post-Road are exempt from this even, if they breed and provide
horses for the postal service, of course receiving a remuneration for
the same. The men are cheery, good-tempered fellows enough, with, as a
rule, but one vice, drunkenness; when they do take too much, it is done
in a good-tempered way, and they become more urbane and benevolent than
when sober. I have never once seen a Siberian quarrelsome in his cups,
though I met many the worse for vodka in every town we passed through.
As regards the women, they are clean, thrifty, and very religious, but
at the same time rather lax in their morals, a mixture of qualities not
peculiar, I imagine, to Siberia.

[Illustration: A SIBERIAN VILLAGE STREET.]

It was nearly seven o’clock before we left Koutoulik, so we had to
abandon all hopes of getting further than Zalarinsk (the next station,
twenty-eight versts distant) that night. We looked to our pistols before
starting, and took care to let the yemstchik see we were armed, for it
was a desolate, cutthroat-looking road, and the forest so thick, one
could hardly see a foot either side of the tarantass, but we kept a
bright look-out, with revolvers at half-cock, and had we been attacked,
our assailants would have met with a warm reception. About ten o’clock
some twinkling lights ahead heralded the approach of Zalarinsk, and by
half-past ten we were safe for the night.

The succeeding two days were, as regards weather, perfect, a blue
cloudless sky and bright sun, which at mid-day was sometimes too hot to
be pleasant; on more than one occasion the thermometer rose to over 90°
Fahr., although the instant the sun set it sometimes dropped to only a
few degrees above Zero, so rapid are the changes of temperature. On the
26th of August the country became more cultivated, and the thick forest
gave place to large clearings of corn, maize, and mustard. This was on
the eastern side of Tiretskaya. The latter village passed, the landscape
again changed, and we returned to dull, monotonous pine forests, varied
by occasional silver-birch-trees or bushes with bright red and white
berries. Siberia is noted for the latter. There are no less than twenty
different kinds, and in parts of the country they form, with black
bread, the staple food of the inhabitants in summer-time. We found most
of them insipid, flavourless things, with the exception of the
“Brousniki,” a kind of bilberry, which eaten with cream and sugar was
delicious. The “Brousniki” is also very efficacious as a febrifuge.

Two large caravans were passed between Zalarinsk and Tiretskaya; one
laden with calico, ironmongery, and Manchester goods——the other with
tea——the former eastward, the latter westward bound. Each consisted of
over two hundred carts, in charge of about eight or ten men, who, till
our driver had roused the foremost with a cut of his whip, were fast
asleep when we came up to them, the horses rolling about the road from
side to side, and threatening every moment to dash the clumsy heavy
carts into our tarantass. The tea-caravans travel day and night, only
halting five hours out of the twenty-four, from 1 p.m. till 3 p.m., and
midnight till three o’clock in the morning. Yet the horses looked sleek
and fat, and not in the least out of condition, the reason, perhaps,
being that they never exceed a speed of three miles an hour.

We rarely passed more than two or three conveyances in a day, and this
is what makes posting in Siberia so irksome and monotonous. Between the
villages there is absolutely nothing to look at but the dreary
sand-coloured road——the endless vista of dark green forest. A cottage is
never found alone in Siberia or outside a village _enceinte_. Except in
the villages, usually twenty to thirty versts apart, one sees no
dwelling of any sort or kind. The monotony, after a week or so, becomes
absolutely maddening. What must it be to the wretched exiles who
sometimes take two years to reach their destination!

We reached Tiretskaya at sunset. A large river just beyond this station
was swollen by the rains to a considerable, not to say dangerous,
extent. Only that evening the ferry had been carried away and washed
down-stream, the Petersburg mail having to wait out in the open, on the
river-bank, till it was repaired. This was not pleasant news, but we
derived some consolation from the fact that the weather was fine and the
glass rising. We had the waiting-room to ourselves till midnight, when a
téléga clattered into the yard, and out clambered an enormously fat man
and a small, wizened woman, who informed us, before they had been in the
room five minutes, that they were newly married, and had come straight
through from Irkoutsk. Divested of their furs, I discovered that the man
was clad in a bran-new suit of shining broadcloth, the woman in what had
evidently been her bridal array, a white muslin dress, covered with
sprays of orange blossom, but terribly soiled and creased by travel and
the amorous advances of her bridegroom, to say nothing of the mud and
dirty straw of the téléga. When the partner of his joys and sorrows had
retired to rest (on two chairs), the unhappy bridegroom became
confidential, and confided to me, in a low tone, that he would much
rather have remained quietly in Irkoutsk, that he did not like this sort
of thing at all, and was only doing it to amuse his bride! I could not
help, like Mr. Pickwick, envying the facility with which the lady was
amused. “I shall take her as far as Nijni Udinsk, if her strength holds
out,” he said resignedly, “if not, we shall return to Irkoutsk.” What a
honeymoon! Next morning, when I woke, they were gone.

I shall never forget my first night in a Siberian post-house. Unless the
traveller falls asleep at once, it is long odds against his getting any
rest at all, for tarantasses and télégas are arriving and leaving at all
hours of the night. There is (by order) a lamp kept burning till
morning, and the jingle of bells, shouting of yemstchiks and stamping of
heavy feet on the carpetless floor, that goes on at intervals through
the night, would waken the dead. There is another powerful antidote to
sleep in every Siberian post, be it ever so clean——vermin——to say
nothing of cockroaches and rats, who subsist on the scraps of food
dropped on the floor by travellers, and who run about the floor and over
one’s face and body with supreme indifference during the quieter moments
of the night. Till I went to Siberia, I had the most unutterable
loathing for rats; but now, like the Yankee and the snake, I almost feel
lonely without them.

About 2 a.m. the cocks commenced crowing, and were promptly answered by
the dogs of the village. Long before daylight the inhabitants of the
post-house were astir and bustling about, cleaning up, lighting fires,
chopping wood, &c. I usually rose about 4 a.m., and, lighting a
cigarette, amused myself by studying the strange types of humanity
around me till the samovar made its appearance. They were a strange,
motley crew, as a rule. Men and women lying about pell-mell, and
looking, in the weird half-light between night and day, like a lot of
corpses in a _fosse commune_. One could always tell at a glance, the new
hands at the game; the Russian official’s wife travelling the post-road
for the first time in smart, tailor-made gown, beaver toque, and costly
furs, or the Siberian with her awkward, ill-cut dress in the fashion of
thirty years ago. It was second nature to the latter to remain unwashed
for a couple of weeks, and sleep on the filthy floor, with, perhaps, a
greasy, ragged Jew pedler for a neighbour, but one could not help
pitying the better class,[14] travelling from St. Petersburg or Moscow
to rejoin their husbands in Eastern Siberia or the Amour district,
sitting, if they could get them, on the hard, stiff-backed, wooden
chairs all through the night, and almost falling off them at times from
sheer weariness. The prettiest looked hideous in the early morning
hours, with tangled hair, disordered dress, and pale, pasty faces, while
their diamond rings only served to show off the blackness of their hands
and nails, which they had probably been unable to wash for days. Few
women look well, even in England, at six in the morning after a ball.
Imagine their appearance after a dozen nights and days of Siberian
travel. Many of the post-houses are worse than that I have described,
but few are better. I have seen sights in these waiting-rooms that will
not bear description. They are better left to the reader’s imagination;
for in matters of decency the Siberian, _pur et simple_, is inferior to
the Chinese.

I date the commencement of our mishaps and difficulties from the morning
of the 27th of August, when I awoke in the dirty, little waiting-room of
Tiretskaya post-house to find the rain pouring down in torrents, the sky
one mass of grey, woolly clouds. It had evidently been raining some
hours, for the road in front of the post-house was one pool of water,
almost half-way up to the axle of our tarantass, on the roof of which
the rain was pelting down unmercifully. Instinct told me that the water
inside was quite an inch deep by this time. Mentally thanking Providence
that we had taken out the mattress, I rolled myself in my furs and went
to sleep again. It was hopeless to think of starting with a dangerous
river to cross and the next post twenty-five versts distant.

The weather cleared a little towards mid-day, and we resolved, though it
was still raining hard, to make a start, and, if possible, reach
Listvinskaya, seventy odd versts distant, that evening. The tarantass
had to be baled out before we got in. A tarantass for Irkoutsk arrived
as we were putting to, and reported the ferry in working order, though
the river was rapid and swollen to a dangerous extent. We thanked our
informants and set off. The latter were travelling _en famille_,
Monsieur and madame, four children and a nurse, all packed into the same
tarantass. I envied them, for they had, at any rate, the advantage of
warmth, the weather having suddenly become raw and cold, with, every now
and then, blinding showers of sleet.

Although the river Oka is situated only a mile or so from the village of
Tiretskaya, it took us nearly an hour to reach the ferry. Parts of the
road were entirely submerged, and our yemstchik had to find his way by
guesswork. As we knew there was a broad, deep ditch on either side of
the road, the work was, to say the least of it, exciting. It was
impossible to go out of a walk, and even then it was as much as our five
game little horses could do to drag the heavy, clumsy carriage along. We
stuck fast twice, and all hands had to get out “to shove her off,”
knee-deep in icy cold water. We were wet through by the time the ferry
was reached, and shivering with cold, a somewhat unpleasant condition in
which to embark on a stage of twenty-five versts, which it would in all
probability take us several hours to accomplish, supposing we ever
succeeded in reaching Ziminskaia at all. There were, the ferryman said,
four bridges to cross before we reached it, and one or two, at least,
would probably have been washed away by now, for the floods were worse
there.

The appearance of the river Oka was highly picturesque, but not
reassuring. A broad, swiftly flowing stream at any time, continuous
rains had widened its waters to double the ordinary width, the torrent
now being quite a mile across. The rotten and insecure ferry looked as
if a touch from one of the snags or tree-trunks which were whirling
madly along the surface of the stream would send it to the bottom in a
second, and the ferryman was for some time inexorable, but the
temptation of a 10r. note was too much for him, and with much muttering
about “it would be our own fault if we were drowned,” we got the
tarantass and horses aboard, and shoved off for the opposite shore.
Scarcely were the chains let go when a loud shout from the bank
attracted my attention. The crowd were shouting and gesticulating,
running backwards and forwards on the bank like madmen, and pointing to
a splashing, indistinct mass in the water which I presently made out to
be a man and a horse. The latter had been brought down to water, but the
bank, rotten with perpetual rain, gave way, precipitating the animal and
its rider into deep water. I have seldom experienced a moment of more
intense excitement. It quite took our thoughts away from our own
danger——for all this time we were forging slowly ahead. The ferryman
dare not stop, nor could we have rendered the poor fellow any help, for
the current was rapidly carrying him further and further into the centre
of the river. He was evidently a good swimmer, but could, we saw, do
nothing against the terrific force of the current. Three times we saw
him rise to the surface, when his screams were pitiful to hear, but the
third time he was silent, and throwing up both arms, sank for the last
time, in full view of us all. He was only twenty——the ferryman told
us——a tall, good-looking fellow, who had stood by and given a hand to
get our tarantass on board but three or four minutes before he met with
his sad fate.

Crossing the river without mishap, we found the road on the other side
in better order than the one we had left. At any rate it was not
flooded, the yemstchiks could see where they were going, and there was
not so much danger of being stranded ten miles from anywhere with a
broken wheel or axle. Ziminskaia was reached at 3 p.m., and with a fresh
relay of seven horses in (for which we had not to wait more than ten
minutes), we continued our journey, hoping to reach Listvinskaya, fifty
versts further on, some time that night, or the next morning.

Listvinskaya was reached at 11 p.m. The post-house was full of soldiers,
who had been out all day in the rain, searching for prisoners, with no
result, and no wonder. It was, indeed, a case of looking for a needle in
a bundle of hay, to expect to find fugitives in these thick,
impenetrable forests. We were not sorry when they had finished their
vodka and departed, leaving us at 2 a.m. to snatch a few hours’ sleep,
before again taking the road. The rain had now ceased, and the night was
bright and starlit.

Our anticipations of a fine day were not disappointed, for we were awoke
by the bright sun streaming into our faces, and the voice of our host
inquiring how much longer we were going to sleep. And sure enough, worn
out with fatigue and the anxieties of the previous day, we had slumbered
on undisturbed by the noise of arrivals and departures, till past
mid-day, or at least so the station clock said. But one was never quite
sure about the time in Siberia. Every post-master has a time of his own.
It seemed strange at first to leave, say, Tirestskaya station at nine in
the morning, and arrive at Ziminskaia, twenty versts off, at half-past
eight! But we soon got used to it, and after the first week never
troubled our heads about the hour. It was but a minor detail.

We made good way that and the following day, and on the evening of the
29th of August reached the village of Touloung. But alas! good luck as
regards weather was not destined to last. Just before sunset, the sky
became overcast, and two hours before reaching our destination for the
night the rain was falling in torrents. The hood was, as usual, worse
than useless, and in a few minutes we were wet through to the skin.
There were fortunately no more rivers between us and Nijni Udinsk, which
town, all being well, we hoped to reach on the morrow.

Had we known that night that we were destined to be imprisoned in the
filthy room in which we slept for two days, I doubt if we should have
retired to rest in such good spirits. We had come to the end of our
provisions, and should now have to subsist entirely on the meagre fare
provided by the post-houses. I could stand everything well enough but
the bread. Oh! that Siberian bread. My stomach recoils at the mere
recollection of the sour, greasy substance, as black as ink, as heavy as
lead, and in consistency so soft and damp, that one could pull it out
like a piece of unbaked dough.

Swallowing a glass of tea, we rolled up in our furs, wet through as we
were. Such a proceeding in England would probably have resulted in an
attack of rheumatic fever, but a special providence seems to watch over
one’s health in Siberia, and we never had a day’s sickness, hard though
the work, and short the supply of food and (with the exception of tea)
drink. We did not get much sleep that night, but lay awake, listening to
the howling of the wind and pattering of the rain on the window-panes.
About two in the morning I dropped into an uneasy dose, from which I
awoke about an hour after, to find the old post-master replenishing the
stove. “A terrible night, gospodin,” he muttered, tossing a huge pine
log into the flame. “One almost pities the Katorgi, with no roof over
their heads. Poor devils, they must be like drowned rats!” Too tired to
answer, I was about to turn on my side, when a loud knock startled me
into a sitting position, and brought the old man shuffling back from the
kitchen in double quick time. It was no tarantass or téléga. There had
been no bells or sound of wheels. Whoever the nightly visitor was, he
had come on foot. The old man displayed no desire to open the door, and
showed signs of such uneasiness, that then, for the first time, flashed
across me the words of our Cossack friend at Koutoulik, “Keep a good
look-out about Touloung. They are worse there than anywhere.”

A second knock, louder than the first, cut short my reflections, and
induced me to make signs to the Pole that my revolver was loaded, and
that Lancaster (who was still slumbering peacefully) had a similar
weapon. Apparently reassured, he then went to the door, unbolted it, and
let in the mysterious visitor.

A tall, spare man with reddish grey beard and moustache, apparently
about sixty years of age, pushed rudely past the Pole and entered the
room; and divesting himself of a huge bearskin pelisse, sank into a
chair with a sigh of satisfaction. “Enfin!” he muttered in French,
adding in Russian sharply, “I thought you were going to keep me out
there all night. Why did you not open sooner? Come! quick, the samovar,
and some eggs and bread. Don’t stand staring there like a fool.”

That the stranger had no earthly right to order provisions in a
Government post-house, without a podarojna, I was well aware. This fact,
however, did not seem to occur to the post-master, who slunk away
without a word of remonstrance to get the refreshments. In the meantime,
being unobserved, I had a good opportunity of taking stock of the new
arrival from behind my dacha.

It was not a pleasing or reassuring countenance. One thing especially
struck me as curious; he had not removed his cap on entering the room,
and had, apparently, no intention of doing so. It is, as I have said, an
unwritten law, that on entering an apartment in Russia the head shall be
uncovered, more out of respect to the sacred Ikon, which always stands
in one corner, than out of politeness to the occupants of the
compartment. I had never yet seen the rule departed from, and felt sure
that the man had some hidden motive in remaining covered. His dress was
unique if not becoming: a pair of grey tweed trousers, surmounted by a
Siberian peasant’s caftan, secured by a broad red sash round the waist,
and a pair of high-heeled, buttoned boots. Save for a thick wooden
cudgel, which lay on the table beside him, the stranger was apparently
unarmed. Who could the man be? and where in Heaven’s name had he dropped
from this wild stormy night, or rather morning? for I noticed with
satisfaction that day was beginning to dawn.

Who he was, must remain a mystery. He left about 5 a.m., as suddenly as
he had come, and the old post-master was either too frightened or too
lazy to send up to the prison for a couple of Cossacks. One circumstance
convinced me that my suspicions were well founded. Having made a hearty
meal of tea, black bread, and sardines, he pushed his chair back, and
resting both feet on the stove, lit a cigarette. While so doing his cap
slipped off, and I distinctly saw that _one half of his head was partly
shaved_, the distinguishing mark of the Siberian convict. That he was a
“Katorgi” I do not for a moment doubt. He never once caught sight of me,
lying as I was in the shadow of the table; but Lancaster, who slept
calmly through the whole business, lay close to him, and my only wonder
is that he did not take a fancy to the gold watch-chain lying so
temptingly across my friend’s chest. He left the post-house very quietly
without paying for his food, nor did the old post-master make any
further remarks anent his strange visitor. It might have got him into
trouble with the authorities.

The poor wretch had probably been starving for the past two or three
days, afraid to show his face in the village near which so many brutal
murders had been committed. Judging there would be few travellers abroad
a night like this, he had made for the post-house, and seeing, as he
thought, its only inmate the old Pole, had summoned up courage to enter.
It seemed odd that with the dirty and ragged dress he wore, a large
diamond ring, sparkled on the first finger of his left hand. We
afterwards heard that the contractor had been robbed of one of unusual
size and brilliancy.

Any hopes we had of pushing on to Nijni Udinsk the next day were soon
dispelled, for at about ten o’clock the Imperial post clattered in, and
every available horse was harnessed to the mail-carts. We were not
altogether sorry, for the rain was coming down as hard as ever. Even the
dirty, dreary post-house was preferable to a long drive of eighty odd
versts, wet to the skin and chilled to the bone, with a filthy
post-house and no food at the end of the journey.

What a day that was! I have experienced many miserable hours in the
course of my travels but never a day so wretched, and unspeakably
depressing as that 30th of August in Touloung post-house. Save the mail,
nothing passed the whole livelong day, not even a téléga. Having read
all that the rain had left us of our books, we simply sat down and
looked at each other in sheer despair. The situation would have been
laughable had it not seemed, at the time, so serious.

The main street of an Eastern Siberian village is not an inspiriting
sight, even on a fine and sunny day. I have never looked upon a more
dismal spectacle than met the eye from the post-house windows at
Touloung. There were four, two looking on to the village street, the
others on to a lonely barren stretch of common, at the end of which,
through the grey mist, loomed the red roof of the ostrog. It was hard to
say which depressed one most, the dirty village street, knee-deep in mud
and filth, the dirty dilapidated houses; the only signs of life half a
dozen mangy-looking ducks splashing and wallowing in the rain, and a
couple of shivering post-horses crouching under shelter of our
tarantass;——or the lonely, drab-coloured road, winding away like a great
snake over the common, past the prison, and into a green mass of forest
just beyond; the tall gaunt telegraph poles and black and white verst
posts almost undistinguishable in the dense grey mist, dispelled, ever
and anon, by driving showers of rain and sleet. The interior was no
better than the look-out. Our amusement became at length reduced to
killing the flies, which swarmed in thousands on the dirty walls, and
drinking tea, that never-failing solace of the Siberian traveller. There
was no food in the house to speak of. The unwelcome visitor of last
night had exhausted our old friend’s stock, and reduced the contents of
his larder to some salted “omuli” and a couple of loaves (or rather
“lumps”) of black bread. This constituted our evening meal. A buxom
female, who appeared as if by magic from the innermost recesses of the
kitchen, waited on us. We would willingly have dispensed with her
services, for she was not only disgustingly dirty, but was afflicted, in
addition, with a loathsome skin disease. Nor was it reassuring when our
host explained the cause. “Poor girl,” he said pensively, “she has
suffered much the last three weeks. You would hardly think, to see her
bustling about so cheerfully, that she only rose for the first time
to-day from a bad attack of small-pox, caught from one of those beastly
tea-caravans from China. Curse them! they spread it all over the
country.” Under any other circumstances I should have felt uneasy, but
we were becoming so desperate that had violent symptoms developed
themselves, I believe we should have taken it quite as a matter of
course. For this very reason, perhaps, neither of us caught it, for the
fair “Liouba” had undoubtedly arrived at the most infectious stage of
the disease.

Towards sunset the rain abated a little. About seven o’clock, some women
emerged from the houses opposite, each carrying a basin and slice of
black bread, which, having placed under shelter of the eaves, they left
and returned within doors. A Siberian woman’s out-door costume on a
rainy day is even more peculiar than that in which she receives her
guests in summer, for, from the waist downwards, with the exception of a
pair of high boots reaching to the knee, there is no attempt at clothing
of any description, the linen skirt being fastened apparently round the
neck. The appearance of these worthy dames all at once at the gates of
their courtyards was curious in the extreme, nor did they appear the
least disconcerted when they caught sight of our faces at the window. On
inquiry, it is the custom, throughout Siberia, for the peasants of every
village and town to place outside each house refreshment of some sort
(which usually takes the shape of bread and milk) for the use of any
convict that may make his escape. The rule is an old one, nor has it
ever been interfered with by the Imperial Government. It is also
understood that the bowl and plate holding the provisions shall not be
tampered with or taken away, china utensils being rather valuable in
Eastern Siberia. Whenever this code of honour has been infringed the
next convict who escapes is bound, should he come across him, to kill
the thief. A sentence of this kind was carried out near Tomsk while we
were staying there. Both convicts had made their escape from the ostrog
at Kolinskaya, about ninety versts from Tomsk, the first escaping about
three weeks before the second. As usual, both made what they could upon
the road, till the latter accidentally heard of the theft committed by
the former, and never rested till he had hunted him down, and after a
severe struggle beaten him to death with a bludgeon. His body was found
in the forest some days later.

But if the day at Touloung had been depressing, the night was infinitely
more so. The remains of our scanty meal having been carried away by the
small-pox patient, the post-master appeared with two guttering tallow
dips, which just sufficed to make darkness visible, and, bidding us good
night, retired to the depths of his ill-smelling den, whence, a few
moments after, there issued sounds of music in the shape of a groaning,
wheezing concertina. We were given the benefit of this inspiriting music
from a little past eight o’clock till far into the night. I used to
think the Russian National Anthem a fine and stirring composition, but
can, even now, scarcely hear it without a shudder. It was the only tune
he knew. It was past 1 a.m. when I got to sleep. The howling of the
wind, and rattling of the rain and sleet against the window-panes, made
one feel thankful one was under shelter, even in such a den as this. A
huge grey rat, sitting near on the floor, his eyes gleaming in the
semi-darkness, appeared to share my opinion. Two months before, I could
not have slept a wink with the knowledge that such an animal was in the
room, but I now composed myself to slumber quite unconcernedly, although
with the firm conviction that when asleep, he, and probably many others,
would be scrambling over my body and face. An excellent school is
Siberia for the fastidious, and I know many a youthful London “masher”
who would derive incalculable benefit (both physical and and mental)
from a short residence at Touloung.

Awakening at five o’clock, I sprang eagerly to the window, to see how
the weather was. Alas! it was pouring harder than ever. Still the same
sodden grey sky of yesterday, with sooty-coloured clouds driving over
it, still the same desolate landscape, dripping houses, and distant
forest shrouded in white mist. Another day at Touloung! Cursing Siberia
and everything connected with it, I wrapped myself in my pelisse, and
lay down again on the filthy worm-eaten floor, nor did I wake again till
past ten o’clock, to find a new arrival seated, in front of the hissing
samovar, and the rain coming down harder than ever.

The new comer was a Jew, and a very dirty one into the bargain, though
evidently a man of means, as his private tarantass and fat podgy hands,
covered with enormous diamond rings, testified. Like most of his race,
he was as curious as a monkey, and no sooner had I opened my eyes than I
was assailed with the usual bevy of questions. “What was my
nationality?” “Where had I come from?” “Where was I going?” “What was my
income?” and finally, “What had brought me to Siberia?” My answer,
“Pleasure,” was invariably met with shouts of laughter on these
occasions. Nor, now that I have crossed that dreary country, can I blame
my fellow-travellers for what at the time I looked upon as a somewhat
rude and unnecessary display of mirth. The Jew spoke a little French,
and was a welcome addition to our melancholy party, for besides being a
cheery, talkative fellow, full of fun and anecdote, he had a large stock
of provisions. We were, almost starving, and accepted with alacrity his
invitation to join him in a tin of preserved mutton, washed down by a
couple of glasses of vodka. I do not know when I ever enjoyed a meal
more. We had not tasted solid food for nearly three days, and the pangs
of hunger were beginning to make themselves felt in a most painful and
unmistakable manner. We more than once experienced, seriously speaking,
the pains of starvation in Siberia: that terrible gnawing sensation at
the pit of the stomach which is so hard to describe, but which for sheer
mental and physical suffering is unequalled.

Our Hebrew friend was, it transpired, a bagman “travelling” in
gunpowder, and a native of Irkoutsk. He was now on his way to Tashkent,
in Central Asia, having come the whole distance from Nicolaievsk, on the
Sea of Okhotsk, without a break, save a rest of a couple of days in his
native city. Such a voyage as ours paled before the prodigious length of
this journey, which must be at least four thousand miles from end to
end. The Jew had already done it four times, once in winter, an
experiment, he added, he would not care to repeat. “In summer,” said our
talkative friend, “it is charming. Like what you English would call one
great _Picque-Nicque_.” How I envied the little man his cheerful
disposition!

He made a start by five o’clock, when the weather cleared a little, and
by nine o’clock the sky was cloudless and covered with bright stars.
Dreading a rainy morrow, we almost decided to have the horses put in and
push on at once. The next station could not, at any rate, be worse than
Touloung, and might be better; but the post-master begged us not to
attempt it. The floods were out in places, and he had but a young and
inexperienced yemstchik to give us, who would probably lose his head,
should anything go wrong. We were not sorry next day that we had taken
the old man’s advice. Morning broke bright and clear, though the roofs
of the houses were still wet and gleaming in the sunshine, as with six
horses in, we slowly made our way up the miry street, and said good-bye,
with a sigh of relief, to the grimy post-house in which we had passed so
many dreary, comfortless hours.

A newly steam-ploughed field in the boggiest parts of Cambridgeshire
after a week’s steady and incessant rain, but faintly describes the
condition in which we found the road. In many places it was entirely
submerged, and we had to trust to Providence and the yemstchik’s
knowledge of the road for safety. At one place the water was well over
the hind wheels. We were not sorry to emerge on dry land again, for we
had to cross a broken-down bridge during this aquatic interlude, when a
false move to the right or left would have precipitated us into a ditch
about ten feet deep and broad in proportion. For the first eighteen
versts it was quite impossible to attempt a faster pace than a walk, and
several times we stuck altogether. It was anxious work, for a loosened
bolt or screw, a broken axle, may, in Siberia, detain one for a week or
more. We had not much confidence in our yemstchik, who could not at the
most have been more than twelve or thirteen years old, and should have
fared badly had we adhered to our original intention and started
over-night, for the horses did exactly as they liked. What the little
imp lacked in strength, however, he made up in assurance, and waved his
whip about, alternately cursing and praising his team after the most
approved style. We had a narrow escape of an upset once when the horses,
taking fright at a dead horse on the side of the road, made a bolt for
it into the forest. Luckily a large hole into which the tarantass dived,
brought us up all standing, and saved us from further mishap. During
this performance two of the traces broke, and we were detained over an
hour repairing them. Three télégas and a tarantass having passed us
meanwhile, we were detained at the next station (Kourjinskaya) for
twenty-four hours.

The utterly inadequate number of horses kept at each station may be said
to have been one of our chief drawbacks. Whenever, on the road, one has
the misfortune to meet the post, it is impossible, although the mail
consists, as a rule, of four or six tarantasses, at the most, to procure
horses, and a long weary wait is the result. Sometimes, when we had the
post-house to ourselves, it was bearable enough, but on most occasions
our sufferings were shared by a number of other travellers. Sitting or
standing in a bare, whitewashed room for half a dozen hours together, is
not conducive to good temper or conversation, and on these occasions the
waiting-room reminded me of nothing so much as a cage of wild beasts,
each eyeing the other with envy, hatred, and malice, the women
especially looking as if they would like to tear each other’s eyes out.
The peculiarities of men too came out at such times, some taking the
matter coolly and philosophically, alternately drinking tea and smoking
cigarettes, till their horses were ready; others pacing restlessly up
and down the room, cursing the post-master, yemstchiks, and everybody
connected with the establishment; others, again, subsiding into a state
of dull apathy, and staring straight before them for hours together. I
often thought at such times of men I know in England, to whom a wait of
a couple of hours in a snug waiting-room, surrounded by papers and
books, food and drink, is an excuse for a good British grumble. I
thought of what they would say to a detention of three days, or so, in
one of these post-houses, with nothing but tea for nourishment, nothing
to look at but four dirty whitewashed walls, nothing to do but to pace
up and down for hours together, to try and keep the circulation going in
one’s tired, hungry frame, a thousand-mile journey before them, and
probably a dozen such delays ere they reached their final destination!

I will not weary the reader with an account of every stage. Suffice it
to say that we reached Nijni Udinsk, after some delay and trouble, on
the 31st of August; and with the exception of the desert, I do not think
I have ever made a rougher or more uncomfortable journey than that from
Touloung to this town. The last stage was a terrible one, and I thought
more than once we should have to abandon all hope of reaching Nijni
Udinsk that night at any rate. About half-way the horses, of which we
had seven in, shied while crossing a rickety wooden bridge, both near
wheels went over the edge, and for a few moments things looked ugly.
Though the team plunged a good deal, however, no harm was done, and by
the aid of two young fir-trees that our yemstchiks cut down, we got the
clumsy vehicle hoisted on to _terra firma_ again. Although well broken
into jolting and shaking by camel-cart experiences, I do not think I
ever made a more fatiguing journey. Our bodies and bones ached for days
after.

We were detained some time at the ferry over the River Uda, on which
river the town of Nijni Udinsk is situated, for a caravan of over 200
carts was being taken across, and it was quite an hour before we managed
to persuade the ferryman to take us on board. In the meantime we amused
ourselves watching the busy scene and the frantic efforts made by men
and horses to drag the heavy tea-carts up the steep river-bank. Not a
hundred yards off, a young and pretty woman was bathing in the stream,
stark naked, a proceeding which seemed to amuse not a little the ragged,
wild-looking fellows in charge of the caravan. Some, bolder than the
rest, ventured to embark in an interchange of chaff with the fair
bather, who, far from being dismayed, only laughed and showed her white
teeth derisively, giving her assailants back as good as they gave.
Siberian women are certainly not troubled with shyness.

It was dusk when we reached the post-house, a large brick building, with
a good garden and shady courtyard. The waiting-room was taken possession
of by five Japanese youths, who, after a course of study at St.
Petersburg, were returning to Japan _viâ_ Wladivostok and the Amour. But
the innkeeper’s wife (a pretty flaxen-haired Swede), would not hear of
our sharing the big room with the Japs, but laid us a table in her own
private sitting-room, where, at the open window, looking on to the
garden, redolent of sweetbriar and honeysuckle, we enjoyed the first
comfortable meal we had made for nearly a fortnight. Our little hostess
prepared it with her own hands, and took quite a motherly interest in
us, a kindness we could not but repay by visiting and admiring her
firstborn (a little chubby-cheeked girl of a few weeks old), the
miniature of her mother, that lay asleep in a swinging cradle suspended
from the ceiling of her neat, chintz-curtained bedroom. That all
post-houses were like this, I thought, as I turned in on a comfortable
(and stuffed) sofa. A slight touch of frost in the air made a couple of
blankets, that our little friend insisted on giving us, very acceptable,
and a last look at the night having shown us a bright moon and cloudless
sky, we slept soundly without any fear of rain on the morrow.

Had we consulted our own wishes, we should have stayed at least a couple
of days at this friendly oasis, but time would not allow us more than a
few hours’ rest, and bidding farewell to our kind little hostess, we had
left Nijni Udinsk far behind us ere the sun had fairly risen. The town,
is neatly and regularly built, and contains about four thousand
inhabitants. Though the pavements are of wood, many of the houses are of
whitewashed brick, which, with their bright green roofs and shutters,
somewhat relieve the melancholy effect which in every Siberian town is
produced by the sombre colour of the roads, and unpainted wooden houses.
There were but one or two shops, however, for the sale of stores of all
kinds; and the streets, though broad and regular, were unlighted.

All went “merry as a marriage bell” for two days after leaving Nijni
Udinsk, the weather, though cold and frosty at nights, remaining bright
and fine. The aspect of the country, too, was more picturesque and
cheerful than any we had passed through since leaving the Trans-Baikal.
The roads were smoother and wider. By the side, wild roses, convolvuli,
bluebells, and wild hyacinth grew luxuriantly——while a kind of high,
red-leafed fern, common in this district, gave a pleasant and bright
relieving spot of colour to the dull, monotonous pine and larch.

As a set-off to these advantages, however, we suffered terribly from
mosquitoes, which swarmed by day, but which, as soon as the sun had set,
were driven in by the cold. So bad were they, that the peasants we
passed on the road or in the cornfields wore black gauze veils, fastened
like a mask over their faces, and we had cause to regret not having
provided ourselves with these safeguards, for, for the few days they
lasted, these plagues gave one no rest for an instant, and one’s blood
was in a constant state of fever, from the irritation set up by the
poisonous bites. Fortunately they did not trouble us long, and once past
Atchinsk disappeared altogether.

Scarcely a day now passed that we did not meet prisoners, in gangs of
two to three hundred each, on their way to Irkoutsk, Chita, and other
parts of Eastern Siberia. The appearance of our tarantass was invariably
the signal for stragglers to fall in, and as we passed through the
crowd, the poor wretches pressed in eagerly on either side and begged
for kopeks, cigarettes, and food, though, as regarded the latter
necessary, we were usually as badly off as they themselves. We noticed
that the further west we got, many more of the men wore chains, probably
on account of the facilities for escape being easier. Also that, while
the ostrogs east of Tomsk are insecure, dilapidated buildings, those to
the west are nearly all new and substantial-looking, surrounded by a
double guard of Cossacks, and protected in many cases by a brick wall
surmounted with high chevaux de frise.

I remember meeting a gang, two days after leaving Nijni Udinsk. It was a
wild, desolate bit of road, and though a bright, sunny day, in
semi-darkness, for the forest trees, through which we were passing,
almost met over our heads. Suddenly, a turn of the road brought us full
in view of one of the dismal grey processions with which we had now
grown familiar, and as it was a large gang, we ordered the yemstchik to
draw up for a few moments while they filed by. Poor wretches! There was
but little talking or laughing that day. The heat and thirst had taken
all desire for conversation out of them, for it had been a long stage,
of nearly thirty versts, from the last ostrog, and they had still seven
more to do before resting for the night. Mosquitoes fairly swarmed in
this defile, and the Cossacks on guard wore black gauze masks. I
noticed, with satisfaction, that one of the brave fellows had taken off
his to give to one of the women, who was struggling along with
difficulty, two children clinging to her skirts. Seeing we had pulled
up, they halted, as if by common consent, as they passed us, and led by
one of the men, with a sweet tenor voice, struck up the sad, pathetic
air, “Kouda Doroga Sibiri,” we had heard on Lake Baikal. It was an
impressive scene, the guard carelessly resting on their rifles, the men
with their sunburnt, weary faces, the women in long robes of white,
their children clinging to them, and joining with tiny treble in the
tune they knew so well. All sang in parts, and correctly, and with over
two hundred voices, joining in the sweet melancholy air, the effect may
be imagined.

About a mile further on we passed four télégas, containing political
prisoners. On either side of each cart marched a Cossack with fixed
bayonet and loaded rifle. The men, three in number, were in ordinary
walking dress, which showed plainly the order to which they had belonged
in happier days. It was easy to distinguish the _homme du peuple_ in
shabby, greasy garments taken from the scum of Petersburg or Odessa,
from the slight, well-built man in the next téléga, in neat tweed suit,
holding a cigarette in his small white hand, evidently a gentleman, who
perhaps, but a few short months before had been surrounded with every
comfort and luxury. The woman in the last téléga was neatly clad in a
black silk gown, beginning to show slight symptoms of wear, and a red
worsted “Tam O’Shanter” hat, a head-dress very popular among lady
political exiles in Siberia. Though not pretty, she had a bright, clever
face, and returned our bow with a pleasant smile and nod. We afterwards
heard that this was Madame B————, who, for an alleged conspiracy against
the Government at Odessa, was on her way to the mines of Kara, in the
Trans-Baikal provinces, for life.

A large and luxurious tarantass brought up the rear of this weird
procession. In the vehicle were a Cossack officer, and, seated by his
side, a remarkably pretty and well-dressed woman. We had a good look at
her, our yemstchiks stopping by mutual consent to have a chat and give
the horses breathing-time. She did not look particularly enamoured of
her companion, a coarse, red-faced man with bristly grey moustache,
bloodshot eyes, and spectacles. Hers was a true Russian face——small
regular features, deep blue (almost violet) eyes, and that sweet sad
expression rarely seen out of the Czar’s dominions. In reply to my
question, as soon as we had resumed our journey, if he knew who the
lovely vision was, our yemstchik replied with a wink: “A prisoner’s
wife.” The wink spoke volumes, and fully explained the poor woman’s
aversion to her travelling companion.

She was, we afterwards heard, the wife of Count L., the young and
good-looking prisoner we had met in the téléga. It must have been
somewhat tantalizing to travel on day after day, week after week, within
sight of his wife, and yet not be allowed to open his lips; more
maddening still to see the advances made by the untutored boor who a
very short time before would have deemed it an honour to be allowed even
to address her. This is perhaps one of the hardest evils that political
exiles have to endure. The wife of a prisoner may by Russian law
accompany her husband to his destination at the expense of the
Government, on condition that she travels with the prisoners, lives on
prison food, sleeps in the ostrogs, and submits to prison discipline.
There is but one distinction made between the wife of the political
prisoner and the criminal convict, this being that the former is not
compelled to walk, but may, if she prefers, travel in a “téléga,” a
vehicle so rough and uncomfortable that walking is infinitely
preferable. But should a married woman be young and pretty, heaven help
her, especially if, as is frequently the case, the Cossack lieutenant in
charge of the party is susceptible to the charms of female beauty. No
sooner has the barge arrived at Tomsk than her persecutions commence,
nor do they end, as a rule, until the unhappy woman has ceased to resist
the advances of her brutal admirer. The commander of a prison-gang is as
great a despot in his way as the Czar of all the Russias, for there is
no one to check or gainsay him, the whole way from Tomsk to the shores
of Okhotsk, and who would take the word of a convict (and especially a
political one) against that of an officer of the Czar? In most cases the
unfortunate husband is the unconscious means by which the wife is
brought to her ruin. Threats of punishment, deprivation of food, and
even flogging are made by the human devil in charge, till at length,
worn out with repeated insults and ill-treatment, the poor wife too
often yields, and is promoted to a place in his tarantass, whence she is
forced to submit daily to the silent reproaches of the husband for whose
good, in nine cases out of ten, she has fallen.

I heard in Tomsk many sad and heart-breaking narratives, but none
perhaps so touching as the case of a young Scotchwoman, Mrs. B., whose
husband had in 1879 practised as a physician for some years in the
district of Chernigoff, European Russia. Although a liberal, Dr. B. had
religiously abstained from openly expressing his views, or meddling in
any way with politics, in fact had lived as a peaceful and industrious
citizen in every way. In the spring of 1880, however, two young women
from St. Petersburg arrived at his house with letters of introduction.
They had been studying medicine at the hospitals in the capital, and
finished the course of lectures, but wishing to continue their studies,
called upon the doctor upon their return to their native town, to ask
whether he would receive them as pupils, a proposal to which he at once
assented. The girls were then introduced to his wife, who took a fancy
to them, and a day seldom passed that one or both did not visit the
house.

One morning, about a month after their arrival, the doctor was visited
by the police superintendent, who informed him that his young friends
were political suspects, and, from information received from Petersburg,
were living on forged passports. But the next piece of news fairly
staggered him: the women were to be sent at once by administrative
process to the village of Verkhoyansk, in the province of Yakoutsk,
where in a week’s time he, the doctor was, condemned to follow them for
an indefinite number of years!

As is usual in such cases, a guard was put over the house, and Dr. B.
forbidden to leave it. To make matters worse, his wife, a young and
beautiful woman of twenty-two, was _enceinte_. But there was no help for
it. The day of his departure arrived, when poor B. excused himself on
the plea of going for a few days to Petersburg on business. It was only
two months later, when her child was born, that Mrs. B. learnt the
truth, and within a week had made up her mind to follow her husband, and
start on a journey of six thousand miles before she had really recovered
from her confinement, under circumstances before which many a strong man
would have quailed. Not possessing the necessary means for travelling by
steamer and tarantass, Mrs. B. joined a party of exiles at Tomsk, and
set out for her long, weary journey. She would, in the ordinary course
of affairs, reach her destination in sixteen months, always supposing
she was not taken ill on the road. For weeks, months, did her almost
superhuman courage and determination sustain her, and enable her to bear
the long, weary marches under a burning sun, the insufficient food, the
fetid atmosphere of ostrogs, and, worse still, the insults of her male
companions. For four months she struggled on, but the tax had been too
great on the nervous system, and on arrival at Krasnoiarsk, her mind
showed symptoms of wandering. Still the thought that every day, every
hour, was bringing her nearer her husband’s arms, gave her courage and
additional energy, and put her in better spirits, which, alas! were soon
destined to have a terrible fall. It was within three or four stages of
Irkoutsk that she heard her death-warrant. “At Irkoutsk,” said the poor
woman one fine sunny evening when, the day’s march over, she was sitting
out in the prison-yard with her fellow-prisoners, “At Irkoutsk I shall
only be one hundred and eighty miles from my husband. Only fancy, in
another month I may be at Verkholensk, and with him again.” “Is that the
Englishman who was banished from Chernigoff,” asked a “political,” a
stranger, who had just come in from Krasnoiarsk, “if so, you will have
to go a good deal further than Verkholensk to find him. Do not you know
that they have sent him to Verkhoyansk, a Yakout settlement three
thousand miles from Irkoutsk, within the Arctic circle?”

Within the Arctic circle! Poor soul! little as she knew Siberia, she
knew what that meant; knew that to reach her husband’s place of
banishment she must travel weeks and months alone, in dog or reindeer
sledges, through the arctic desolation and fever-stricken “Toundras” of
North-Eastern Asia. Next morning, however, she resumed her march
mechanically, ate and drank nothing, spoke to no one, but seemed dazed
and bewildered by the blow. The very evening of the day the gang reached
Irkoutsk (the city which throughout the weary pilgrimage had been her
haven of hope and rest), she went raving mad, and died in the criminal
asylum three days afterwards. Has any writer of fiction ever imagined a
more tragic or heart-rending story than this?

We reached Biriousinsk, a town of five thousand inhabitants, about
mid-day on the 3rd of September. Gold has lately been discovered near
here in large quantities. This event caused some surprise amongst the
gold-workers of Tomsk and Irkoutsk, for until just lately this district
had been looked upon as almost barren of mineral productions, the
richest gold-fields being situated to the north of the province of
Yeneseisk, Nertchirsk, in the Trans-Baikal, and Yuz, near the Altai
chain, on the borders of China. The whole of Siberia, however, may be
said to teem with the precious mineral, and, as a Russian once remarked
to me, “Where it has not been found, it has not been looked for!”
Silver, copper, and iron, are also found in large quantities in certain
districts of Russian Asia, as many as 40,000 lbs. of the first-named
metal being annually sent from the district of Barnaul, in South-Western
Siberia, to Petersburg. On arrival, the silver is refined, and about
three per cent. of gold extracted from it.

The Government gold and silver mines are worked by convicts, who receive
no pay for their labour. The private mines are mostly of gold, and are
leased by Government to private individuals on certain conditions. The
applicant must, however, be a Russian subject. No foreigner, although
naturalized, is permitted to rent ground for gold-digging purposes. The
land, once allotted, is the property of the lessor, until it has been
completely worked out, or has been abandoned. It then reverts to the
Crown, or if not worked by the lessor at least one out of every three
years, the claim is forfeited to Government, who may let it out to
another applicant. All gold must be delivered to the imperial mint at a
fixed price, which leaves a good profit to the Government. Many private
mines employ as many as two and even three thousand men. The Siberian
peasant seldom goes to work at the diggings; he can earn far more by
agriculture at home, for Siberia is as rich a country above-ground as
below. The workmen employed by the mine owners are generally discharged
convicts, who have been sent to Siberia for theft and other minor
offences. Bad characters of all sorts——drunkards, vagabonds, the scum of
Irkoutsk and Tomsk——are the kind of men who find refuge in the private
gold-mines, which, as may be imagined, are perfect pandemoniums when
compared with the strict and well-regulated government establishments.
The usual pay of a miner is four roubles (about 8_s._) a month. On
making the contract, however, he is paid a sum of money varying from six
to ten English pounds sterling. With this he proceeds solemnly and
deliberately to get drunk, nor does he desist till every penny of the
“Hand-money,” as it is called, is exhausted. When sufficiently sober, he
is sent off with a couple of hundred companions to the diggings. The
working season lasts about a hundred and twenty days, and terminates, at
latest, by the 15th of September. Work commences at 3 a.m. all weathers,
and is seldom finished till eight or nine o’clock at night. The workmen
are, therefore, as may be imagined, well fed. Each man gets from 1½ to 2
lbs. of fresh beef per diem, salt, buckwheat, and as much black bread as
he can eat. His lodgings, too, are in most cases good, and well
ventilated, and every gold-mine owner is bound by Government to keep up
a fully-equipped hospital, with a resident surgeon and staff of
assistants on the premises. Besides the fixed rations of food, a large
stock of “vodka” is also kept for the men, who get a tumbler-full of the
spirit once or twice a week, by way of warding off ague, and other
malarial attacks. A pound of brick tea is also allowed each man per
month. When the season is over, the majority of the gangs find their way
to one of the large towns with the balance of their wages, and spend
their money in drink and debauchery, till the return of the summer, and
this accounts largely for the frequency of crime in Tomsk and Irkoutsk.
The idea of saving money or in any way bettering his condition rarely
enters the head of a Siberian gold-digger.

We were not detained long at Biriousinsk, and after a substantial
breakfast of tea and boiled eggs, took the road again, and by seven
o’clock that evening had rolled off nearly fifty versts. At Ilinskaya,
however, we were brought to a sudden check. Our off wheel had caught
fire, and it was only on discovering this that we remembered that in our
eagerness to push on, we had for the last half-dozen stages neglected to
oil the axles, an operation that should be performed at the very least
every other stage.

We made up our minds therefore to stop the night, and push on to Kansk
early the next morning, for clouds gathering to windward looked anything
but reassuring. About midnight I was awoke from a delicious dream of
home and its comforts, to find a huge, shapeless fur-clad figure
standing over me, and in a loud and imperious voice, commanding me to
rise and get horses. “Yeshchi lochade,”[15] it yelled, as I with
difficulty made out that my nocturnal visitor was a woman. Vainly I
endeavoured to make her understand that I was not the post-master, but
all to no purpose. The more I reasoned, the more she stormed, till even
Lancaster turned uneasily in his slumbers. “Get me horses,” shrieked the
gorgon, “get me horses at once, or,” and here she pointed dramatically
to the complaint-book. At last, losing all patience, she knelt down, and
seizing my shoulders, shook me with masculine force. Thinking the joke
had gone a little too far, I was about to summon the post-master, when
that worthy appeared. Then with true Siberian politeness, and without a
word of apology, the gorgon turned upon him, a small meek man, who was
utterly powerless to compete with this dread vision of the night. Her
system seemed to pay, for in less than half an hour the horses were in
and we heard her jingle out of the yard, leaving us to our slumbers in
peace.

The rain came on a few versts from Ilinskaya with every appearance of
settling in for a steady downpour. The landscape to-day was less wooded
and more cultivated than any we had passed since leaving Irkoutsk. A
couple of post tarantasses passed us a few versts from Kansk, returning
to Ilinskaya. Their drivers were fast asleep inside, coiled up out of
the rain. Our yemstchik did not attempt to wake them. Although we were
on the summit of a steep hill, he gave the horses a cut over the
quarters and sent them careering away down the decline full gallop. I
did not see what happened. This is thought a good joke in Siberia.

Perhaps the most trying time to a beginner on wheels in Siberia is
getting on board the river ferries, when each yemstchik vies with the
other who shall gallop the quickest on board and pull up the shortest
without going over the other side. As the ferries were invariably
approached by a steep road cut down the river-bank, there was no lack of
excitement on these occasions. I remember once, just before reaching
Krasnoiarsk, our driver, who was somewhat intoxicated, overshot the
mark, one of his horses tumbling over the side, and only being got back
with great difficulty. Rarely a day passed, that one of our outside
horses did not fall, once or twice at least, but no yemstchik ever pulls
up for anything under a broken rein or wheel.

The post-horses are game, wiry little beasts, ranging from 14 hands 2
in. to 15 hands. Though rough and ungroomed, they are well fed, and they
need be, for a rest of only six hours is allowed between the stages. In
busy times, such as, for instance, the great fair of Nijni Novgorod,
when traders flock to the World’s Fair from all parts of Asia, many of
the poor beasts die from sheer fatigue. The usual number used in a
tarantass or téléga is three, or a “troika,” harnessed abreast. In bad
weather, when the roads are deep, four or five are used. We have had as
many as seven in, and even with that number failed to progress quicker
than at a walk! The harness and reins are of the most primitive
description, and made of rope, while the shaft horse wears the high yoke
collar, with bells attached, which seems such a useless appendage
(except for the look of the thing) in Russian harness.

For cleverness I have never seen the equal of these game, wiry little
animals. I recollect on one occasion (when crossing the Yenisei River)
the guard-rail running round the ferry boat was quite five feet high. On
disembarking, there was a scramble, for the outlet was too narrow to
admit of five horses (the number we had in). Our outside horse was
consequently jammed up against the rail. With a run it would have been
an extraordinary jump to get over, nothing short of a miracle under
present circumstances, for the other horses were plunging madly in their
endeavours to get once more on to terra firma. But the little beast
remained quite cool. Not in the least put out by the row and confusion,
he simply reared up, rested his fore-feet on the top of the rail, and
sliding over on his stomach, fell heavily in a heap on the other side.
In another second he had picked himself up, and we were off again.

I was much struck by the scarcity of bay horses. All are chestnut, grey,
or dun, the latter colour predominating. I did not see more than half a
dozen bay horses the whole way from Irkoutsk to Tomsk, though from first
to last we must have used quite four hundred, and seen four or five
times that number.

The yemstchik or driver is a stupid, good-natured creature, addicted to
vodka when he can get it. As the drink-money is only fifteen kopeks a
stage (and many travellers do not give that), they have not much
opportunity of gratifying this penchant, for tobacco runs away with most
of their money. I can safely say I do not think I ever saw a yemstchik
without a pipe in his mouth. Though kind to a fault to his own horses,
he does not show much pity for animal life in the villages. Calves,
pigs, poultry, ducks, each had their turn, and we rarely passed through
a village without running over and killing something; the bigger the
beast, the more pleased the driver. On such occasions, he would turn
round and look at us with a smile of satisfaction, regardless of the
threats and curses of the infuriated owner as he bore the maimed or
defunct one into his cottage. This is another “joke” much in vogue with
yemstchiks! Yet, notwithstanding all we were told, we found the Siberian
yemstchik a good fellow enough, and, considering the hard work and
privation he goes through, far more sober than many men in the same
position in more civilized countries. Indeed he need be, for a single
accident on the road ensures instant dismissal, be it the fault of the
driver or not.

We spent the night at Kansk. A mysterious and speedily dressed
individual here begged to be allowed to share our tarantass and expenses
as far as Krasnoiarsk, but we declined with thanks. He was a
cutthroat-looking villain, and probably up to mischief, for he seemed
much less keen about accompanying us on seeing we were well armed.
Though we were now past the so-called “robber district,” we did not
relax our vigilance when travelling by night, till we reached Tomsk.

Kansk is a neat, well-built town of ten thousand inhabitants. In
appearance it is an Irkoutsk in miniature, though there is more attempt
at ornamentation here, some of the streets being planted with trees on
either side like boulevards. The post-house, too, was comfortable, and
there was a sofa therein stuffed with horsehair, an unwonted luxury in
Siberia. The night’s rest we looked forward to was, however, somewhat
marred by a party going on in the next apartment, and given in honour of
his birthday by the post-master; a party which, commencing at 9 p.m.,
did not break up till nearly eight the next morning, when it was time to
think of getting up and being off again. The guests were all more or
less intoxicated by midnight, and kept on coming in in relays to look at
us, as we lay feigning sleep, throughout the night. They did not break
up till about 4 a.m., after obliging us with “Volga,” the boat-song I
have mentioned, at the top of their voices, and all in different keys.
It was past ten o’clock next morning before the fumes of the vodka had
sufficiently evaporated to enable the fuddled post-master to produce a
troika. We were not sorry to make a late start, however, for the morning
was bitterly cold, and the roads coated with ice, unmistakable sign of
the approach of winter, and which made us doubly anxious to push on
without delay to Tomsk.

The aspect of the country between Kansk and Atchinsk was, if not so
picturesque, much more civilized than any we had as yet passed, the
dense, thick forest being superseded by large tracts of cultivated land
and fields of corn and mustard. It had frequently been a source of
wonder to me that the timber of Siberia is not more largely worked; but
I ascertained at Tomsk that this is forbidden by the Imperial
Government. Every peasant is at liberty to cut down for his own private
use as many pine or fir trees as he likes, but the export or selling of
them is strictly forbidden. This seems strange, for a brisk trade might
be driven with Mongolia, where wood is invaluable, to say nothing of
North China, where it is also so scarce. We passed thousands of trees
killed by fires having been lighted at their foot, their trunks charred
and blackened to a height of several feet, where peasants had encamped
in the woods. In dry weather these occasionally set fire to neighbouring
trees, and large tracts of country are devastated by the flames.

We rattled off the two hundred odd versts separating Kansk from
Krasnoiarsk with but little delay, being only detained twice on the
road, once at Ribinskaya, where, meeting the post, we were delayed for
nine hours, and at Balanskaya, our axle having caught fire and worn down
to a dangerous extent, without our being aware of the mischief. Had we
known the trouble in store for us owing to this apparently trifling
incident, we should not have felt so light-hearted as when, having
repaired the mischief, we set off again, after a delay of seven hours,
on our journey.

At four o’clock, on the afternoon of the 7th September, we caught sight
of the blue waters of the Yenisei, winding through a fertile landscape
of plain and forest, and beyond it the red cliffs of Krasnoiarsk
standing out sharp and clear against the sky-line. We reached the ferry
about nine o’clock that evening. The town was brightly illuminated in
honour of General Ignatieff, Governor of Eastern Siberia, who was
passing through from Petersburg _en route_ to Irkoutsk; and I have
seldom seen a prettier spectacle than the illuminations presented, the
lights reflected in the dark, swift waters of the Yenisei, as we crossed
it. Darkness lent enchantment to the view, however, for as we drove
through the slushy, ill lit streets to the filthy hotel, we were almost
sorry we had not remained over-night at Botolskaya, and gone right
through the following day.

A good scrub in a bucket of water, however, worked wonders, and though
the apartment given us was dirty and entirely devoid of furniture, we
did ample justice to the supper of cold steret soup, beefsteak, and
caviare, and bottle of claret that our host (the dirtiest man, without
exception, that I have ever seen) set before us. The luxury of a change
of clothes after wearing the same for a fortnight must be experienced to
be appreciated. Our bodies were literally covered with bites, and the
sensation of a rest for a while from the intolerable itching and
irritation of the past ten days, was worth the discomfort and annoyance
one had gone through, though it was not till we were well over the
Urals, and after repeated applications of carbolic acid soap, that we
entirely got rid of that most pertinacious and venomous of insects, the
white Siberian bug.

A visitor was announced while we were at supper. This, I may mention, is
one of the chief drawbacks of Siberian travel. No matter how late the
hour, or how tired he may be, every traveller is bound, by the custom of
the country, to receive any one who chooses to call upon him, often
enough from idle curiosity. I was told in Moscow, that such persons are
often spies, employed by Government. If so, the individual who now made
his appearance had a peculiar way of pursuing his calling.

M. Dombrowski was, according to his own account, a Pole, who had been
banished to Tomsk for a short period, on account of an article written
in a Warsaw paper. He was a tall, pale young man, with washed-out
features, clad in a long black cloak about three sizes too large for
him, which he wrapped loosely about him in the fashion of a Roman toga.
His official cap, with green band and button, proclaimed him a servant
of the Russian Government; as we afterwards discovered, a clerk in the
court-house at Tomsk.

We were both tired to death, and I felt strongly inclined to get up and
kick the stranger down-stairs, when, having taken off his cap, he took
his seat at the table without invitation, produced a dialogue-book, and
calmly helped himself to a glass of claret. But the cool impudence of
the man was amusing, too, so we made the best of it, and ordered up
another bottle of wine, and a cutlet for the poor devil, who looked half
starved, and as if he had lived on wood shavings for a month or two. The
kindness was misplaced, for he utterly declined to leave till about 6
a.m., when we were compelled to eject him by main force, not a very
difficult operation after the repeated libations of kümmel and vodka of
which he had partaken at our expense. Under their influence the wretch
confessed that he had never really had an idea of accompanying us to
Tomsk; but the news had spread in less than half an hour, that two
Englishmen had arrived in Krasnoiarsk, and always having had an intense
admiration for the English nation, our friend had determined on making
our acquaintance. We had the satisfaction of paying him out and making
him feel thoroughly uncomfortable once during the evening, when
Lancaster, in answer to his toast of “England,” responded by drinking to
the health of “Poland!” “For God’s sake not too loud, gospodin,” said
our unwelcome guest. “If those words were heard by the keeper of this
hotel, they would give me another year in Siberia. There is no Poland
now.”

On leaving the hotel, our strange and now somewhat drunken acquaintance
presented us with his card, and by the aid of a dialogue-book, essayed
to convey how much he had enjoyed his evening, and morning, for the sun
was now high over the house-tops. His card (a half-sheet of note-paper),
bore the following inscription scrawled upon it with a lead pencil:——

  “Monsieur le Gentilhomme,”
    “(Noble) Dombrowski,
      “Eau (sic) Palas de Justice,”
        “Eau” Tomsk——
      “La Siberie de Russie.”

I did not think it necessary to inquire whether it was customary for
Polish noblemen to wear no shirt, eat meat with their fingers,
expectorate freely during dinner, and perform various other little feats
too numerous to mention. These harmless eccentricities may have been
born of exile. The “Grentilhomme Noble” gave one, at any rate, a
favourable idea of the capacity of his race for drinking, his share
being five bottles of claret, a bottle of kümmel, and two of vodka. Bore
as he was, I could not help pitying the poor wretch, who was sent to
Tomsk nominally for six months, but had already been there nearly two
years. His salary was, he told us, 20_l._ English per annum, and on this
he had to live and clothe himself. “The criminals are better off than
we, gospodin,” he said, as he took leave of us. “Let them know in
England how we are treated in this cursed country. How a murderer who
kills his whole family, has a far easier time of it than the unhappy man
or woman who ventures to stand up for the people.”

Krasnoiarsk, which stands on a plain fringed by the precipitous cliffs
of red earth, from which the town takes its name, is neither picturesque
nor interesting. Wooden hovels here, stone palaces there, wooden
pavements, oil lamps, open drains by the roadway, deep mud in rainy
weather, blinding dust in dry; dirty, greasy men, frowsy, ill-dressed
women, Cossack soldiers, and occasional gangs of prisoners; such is the
visible population. For one thing only is Krasnoiarsk famous: its fire
brigade. There are at least thirty watch-towers in the town, and the
stations are models of smartness and cleanliness. Though so frequent at
Irkoutsk, Tomsk, and the other smaller towns, a bad fire here is rare.

We paid a visit while at Krasnoiarsk to the Whiteley of Siberia——one,
Gadolovitch, in whose establishments at Irkoutsk, Tomsk, Atchisk,
Krasnoiarsk, and Tobolsk, almost anything may be purchased, from a
Waterbury watch to a ship’s anchor, and, curiously enough, at reasonable
prices. I bought a box of revolver cartridges at Krasnoiarsk cheaper
than I should have paid for them in London or Paris.

The morning of the 9th of September saw us once more _en route_. The
road, after leaving the town, skirts for some distance the banks of the
Yenisei river, that huge volume of water which, rising on the borders of
China, traverses half Asia to discharge itself into the Gulf of Yenisei
in the Arctic Ocean, its entire length being computed to be something
over three thousand miles. It is, of course, unnavigable throughout the
winter, though that intrepid explorer, Captain Wiggins, has
satisfactorily demonstrated that, during the summer months, water
communication between England and Central Siberia is by no means
impossible.

Our axle now gave us a good deal of anxiety, for before we were many
miles out the tarantass was leaning over at a most uncomfortable angle.
The road, too, was worse than it had been since leaving Lake Baikal, and
every roll the carriage made gave us the greatest anxiety, for there was
no blacksmith procurable nearer than Atchinsk, nearly two hundred versts
off. It put us out of our suspense at Kosoulskaya by snapping in two
altogether, although we were going at a most gingerly pace,
precipitating the yemstchik into the road, where, had it not been for
the hood of the tarantass, Lancaster and I should have followed him.

Here was a pretty predicament. Luckily the horses were quiet, and stood
still while we scrambled out to ascertain the extent of the damage.
Luckier still, we were only four versts from the post-house——the last
before Atchinsk. Lopping off a couple of stout fir boughs, our yemstchik
prized the carriage up straight, and, mounting one of the horses,
galloped off to Chernoyéchinsk in quest of another axle and pair of
wheels, by the aid of which we might, at any rate, reach Atchinsk.

Luckily the day was fine, and though the mosquitoes were troublesome, we
had plenty of cigarettes and half a dozen bottles of claret, which we
had purchased at Krasnoiarsk, to while away the weary hours. Being a
lonely part of the road, we loaded the revolvers, and kept them ready in
case of need. Nothing passed us, however, the whole, long, weary day,
from eight in the morning, when the accident occurred, till 5 p.m., but
a couple of hay-carts and a gang of three hundred prisoners, most of
them in chains, followed by six télégas with political prisoners, four
women and two men, the latter on foot. Two of the women were young and
pretty, and laughed heartily, as they passed, at our woe-begone
condition, and, indeed, we must have looked somewhat ridiculous, seated
in the middle of the road in our tarantass, with the hind-wheels and
axle gone, propped up on a couple of fir-trees, solemnly discussing a
bottle of claret! A casual observer might have taken the political
exiles for a pleasure-party, to judge from the shouts of merry laughter
that rang through the forest long before they came in sight. The smart,
tweed gowns and Tam-o’-Shanter hats (this seems to be the uniform of
Nihilist ladies) looked strangely out of keeping with the rough wooden
télégas and dirty straw on which they were seated. And yet the youngest
and prettiest girl of them all was, we afterwards heard, on her way to
Irkoutsk for life. She could not have been more than eighteen, and was
as neatly turned out, with _gants de Suéde_ and neat grey dress, as if
she had come from a walk in the Bois de Boulogne or Hyde Park, instead
of a long twenty-days’ march from Tomsk. The men, too, were well dressed
and respectable looking, though their high spirits were evidently
assumed for the occasion, while those of the women were perfectly
natural.

The yemstchik returned about four o’clock, accompanied by two villagers
carrying an iron axle. It was a clumsy affair enough, having been taken
off one of the Post télégas; but as it was only a temporary affair, this
did not much signify. We arrived at Taoutinsk, the next station to
Atchinsk, at ten o’clock that night without further mishap. At times,
though, the tarantass wobbled about terribly, and we constantly expected
to find ourselves in the old position——feet upwards. The yemstchik who
drove us the last stage could not possibly have been more than twelve
years old. The stage was only sixteen versts, luckily, and I luckily
kept an eye on the proceedings of our youthful jehu; for about half way,
being about to descend a long and very steep hill, he got down from his
box, and gravely proceeded to put the skid _behind_ the front wheel
instead of before the hind one!

Atchinsk is, if not the largest, decidedly the most taking town we saw
in Siberia. It has a population of about ten thousand, and is built on
the summits of five or six low hills. The grassy hollows between these
are used as common land, where cattle, pigs, and geese roam about at
will. The cheerful aspect of the place, when compared with other
Siberian towns, is partly due to the fact that the soil is of a much
lighter colour, and nearly all the wooden buildings are painted white or
grey, picked out with bright colours. The immediate neighbourhood of
Atchinsk, too, is free of forest. The town stands in the middle of a
large grass plain watered by the Chulim river——a plain composed of large
enclosed grass meadows, where, as we drove by that bright sunshiny
morning, cattle and sheep were browsing, knee deep in rich, luxuriant
pasture, and wild flowers. Atchinsk is the one bright spot of that weary
journey——an oasis of flowers and sunshine in the dark, dreary desert of
gloom and monotony lying between Tomsk and Irkoutsk. The post-house was
clean and roomy, the waiting-room boasting a carpet, plenty of chairs,
and a sofa, while the snowy, whitewashed walls hung with bright
engravings, and the windows filled with flowers, gave a cheerful look to
the place that up till now I had thought impossible to find in a
Siberian dwelling. We were glad of a rest of twenty-four hours here (the
time necessary for the completion of our repairs), and after an
excellent breakfast of caviare, fried eggs, and beefsteak, sallied out
refreshed in body and mind to find a blacksmith.

The town was _en fête_ for some reason or other. Bells were ringing, the
houses decorated with flags and evergreens, and people all turned out in
their Sunday best. It was not reassuring, on reaching the principal
square, to find that all the shops were shut, save the public houses,
where crowds of natives were refreshing themselves with vodka and other
spirituous liquors, preparatory to the mid-day meal. Some were drinking
at the bar, others seated at the little tables by the doorway, others
rolling about in the bright sunshine outside, but all, men and women,
were even at this early hour——11.30 a.m.——more or less drunk.

The blacksmiths’ quarter was, I found, at the other end of the town, and
we had to walk nearly a mile before reaching the forge. Like many
oriental towns, each trade in Atchinsk has its own street, and we found
a regular colony of smithies, but all, alas! closed, and their owners
either inside their houses sleeping off the effects of the previous
day’s debauch (the _fête_ lasted two days), or laying in a fresh stock
of vodka and brandy in the town. We knocked at and entered at least a
dozen houses before we found a man sober enough to undertake our job.
Nor would he till we had promised to pay him a ridiculously large sum in
proportion to the work, and to keep him well provided with liquor till
it was finished. We regarded the wheel with some uneasiness for two or
three days after, but our friend, drunk as he was, had made a good job
of it, and we arrived at Tomsk without further mishap.

Leaving Atchinsk on the morning of the 11th of September, we passed the
same day between Bogotolsk and Bolshoi-Kosoul, the two high brick
pillars that mark the boundary of Eastern and Western Siberia. We had
now entered the Government of Tomsk.

The tedium of the journey now palled on one terribly. No one can
thoroughly understand the meaning of the word “monotony,” who has not
visited Siberia, and travelled for hour after hour, day after day, week
after week, along its dark, pine-girt roads. Along the whole of the
post-road from Irkoutsk, distances are marked by wooden posts, painted
black and white, placed at every verst, while at every post-station a
large board indicates the distance from the chief towns. My heart sank
whenever I looked at these and saw the word Petersburg, with the
appalling number of oughts under it. The few versts from station to
station were bad enough, but when it came to the six thousand odd
separating us from Petersburg, one almost gave up all hope of ever
seeing Europe again. However bright the sunshine or blue the sky, a
sense of depression and loneliness hung over one, impossible to shake
off. I have never, even in the depths of a Bornean forest, felt so
utterly lonely and cut off from the rest of the civilized world as when
crossing Siberia. It is rightly named by Russians, the land of exile and
sorrow; and the dreariest days I have ever experienced were those spent
in traversing the wild tract of forest and steppe between Irkoutsk and
Tomsk. One chafed and fretted at first at the daily difficulties, the
hours of delay passed in waiting for relays that never arrived——hours
that seemed endless by day, but became maddening by night. After a time,
however, one saw the folly of attempting to fight against fate, and fell
into a state of reckless apathy, a condition of mind I should recommend
any traveller adopting who intends crossing Siberia, I will not say with
comfort, but without being positively driven out of his mind. Towards
the end of our journey, nothing put us out. I verily believe if the
tarantass had stood on its head, or rather hood, we should have taken it
quite as a matter of course, and remained quietly seated till it righted
itself! Everything after the first week became mechanical. Drinking tea
at the stations, going to sleep at a moment’s notice, if there were no
horses, harnessing them at once if there were, and returning to the
depths of our gloomy vehicle, there to lie hour after hour, day after
day, with nothing to look at but the black road and eternal
pine-forests, nothing to think of save fair civilized Europe, so far
away, but to which one felt with a kind of gloomy satisfaction, every
jingle of the collar-bells was bringing us nearer. Even the scenery does
not atone for all these drawbacks. The Siberian forests are not grand,
but the trees have a dwarfish look produced by the immense plains. Not a
bird, not a sound, is heard in these vast solitudes, and when the horses
stop and the bells are silent, the stillness becomes almost oppressive.

Two stations after Atchinsk, the weather changed, and the second day out
the rain was pouring down in sheets, with the usual result, that of
wetting us through and through after the first hour. The post-houses
about here were the filthiest we had as yet come across, and saving
stale eggs and sour milk, there was absolutely nothing to eat. Yet with
all these _contretemps_, we could not grumble, for rain as it might, we
were now safe as regards the steamer, which would soon, we thought with
relief, be bearing us out of this cursed country for good and all!

There were no delays to speak of till reaching Haldiéva. But arriving
here at four o’clock on the afternoon of the 14th September, we found
all the horses engaged. We were now but some thirty versts from Tomsk,
so could afford to wait, and change our soaking garments for dry ones.
For two days and a night we had been wet through, and were chilled to
the bone.

A roaring fire and three or four glasses of vodka soon put things in a
rosier light, and we retired to rest with an assurance from the
post-master that at 4 a.m. at latest the horses would be forthcoming,
and visions of civilization and a luxurious _déjeûner à la fourchette_
at Tomsk next day, mingled with our dreams, till at about 3 a.m. the
sound of wheels and trampling of hoofs brought us back to reality.
Looking out into the yard, I descried a confused mass of télégas and
tarantasses. By-and-by a torch flashed on the gold-laced cap of a
courier standing up in a tarantass and superintending the proceedings.
It was the mail! “No horses till five to-morrow afternoon, monsieur,”
said the old post-master, as he and the courier, a smart stalwart young
fellow, armed with a long cavalry sabre and brace of revolvers, sat down
to a glass of tea and cigarette while the relays were put in. A quarter
of an hour more, and they were away again, leaving us to grumble and
curse our ill-luck, as the sound of their collar-bells died away on the
clear, frosty air. We did not get away from Haldiéva till past 5 p.m.
the following day. The clear amber light of the setting sun was flooding
the dark green forest of fir-trees when we reached Semiloujnaya, the
last station before Tomsk. The journey from Haldiéva had been a hard
one, for the country was flooded, and the water in parts well over the
axles. The last stage was a long one, twenty-nine versts, but we refused
to accede to the post-master’s pressing invitation to stay the night,
and proceed next morning. We had good cause to regret our obstinacy ere
morning. By six o’clock the relay was in, and a few minutes after we
rattled out of the village, as with a loud clashing of bells the wiry
little horses tore away on our last stage in Siberia, flinging the mud
and stones high in air behind them, as if in derision at the desolate
and depressing country we were now (thank Heaven!) fast leaving behind
us.

The sky was still grey and lowering, and the wind keen. We had now left
the forest altogether, and were traversing the vast plains that encircle
the capital of Western Siberia for some thirty miles on every side.
There is practically no road here, the yemstchiks taking their own line,
and steering for the city in their own fashion; evidently, however, our
wretched driver had but a poor eye for locality, for after floundering
helplessly about for three or four hours, he calmly pulled up in the
middle of a huge lake of water, the overflow from a stream hard by, and
confessed that he had lost his way. I looked at my watch; the hands
pointed to a quarter before midnight; we had already been six hours on
the way, and the horses were dead beat.

I resisted the temptation to pull the idiot off his perch and give him a
sound ducking. He richly deserved it, but it would have done but little
good in hastening our arrival. So we set about making casts, to use a
hunting expression, and after four hours of the coldest and most
disagreeable work that has ever fallen to my lot, a thin bright streak
appeared on the horizon. We led the horses all this time, be it
mentioned, and were as often as not up to our waists in the pools of icy
cold water that covered the marshy plain. But the longest lane must have
a turning, and by three o’clock we were rolling wearily through the
silent and deserted streets of Tomsk.

“Nothing but distance now separates us from England,” I thought as we
entered the portals of the comfortable Hôtel d’Europe, “and what is
distance when steam is at hand to overcome it!” We turned into a real
bed two hours later (with sheets and pillow-cases), and felt, after an
excellent supper, contented, not to say triumphant. Trouble, privation,
filthy post-houses, “katorgi,” were now things of the past, but as I
sank into the deep and dreamless sleep that a man can only know who has
passed twenty-two days out in the open, half starved, and wet through
the greater part of the time, the thought uppermost in my mind was: “Not
for a king’s ransom would I do this journey again.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

_List of Post Stations (with Distances, Telegraph Stations, and Rivers),
   between Irkoutsk and Tomsk, Siberia._

  (G.) Good Post-house, (B.) Bad Post-house, (F.) Uninhabitable.

                                                                  VERSTS

 _Irkoutsk._ (Telegraph Station. Ferry over River Angara.)
   Good hotel.

 Bokofskaya (G.)                                                  13
 Soukovskaya. (G.)                                                21
 Tilminskaya. (B.)                                                27
 Maltinskaya. (G.)                                                21
 Polovilnaya. (G.)                                                29
 Cheremoffskaya. (G.)                                             18
 Koutoulik. (B.)                                                  28
 Zalarinsk. (B.)                                                  30
 Tiretskaya. _River Oka dangerous. Cross by day._ (B.)            22
 Ziminskaia. (G.)                                                 25
 Kinultinskaya. Telegraph Station. (G.)                           30
 Listvinskaya. (G.)                                               20
 Kouitoungskaya. (B.)                                             18
 Tilinskaya. (F.)                                                 23
 Cheragilskaya. (B.)                                              18
 Touloung. (B.)                                                   26
 Kourjinskaya. (B.)                                               25
 Shabartinskaya. (G.)                                             21
 Houdalanskaya. (G.)                                              21
 Kirgitoulskaya. (F.)                                             26
 _Nijni Udinsk._ Telegraph Station. (G.)                          21
 Oukovskaya. (F.)                                                 28
 Kamoushetzkaya. (G.)                                             17½
 Zamzovskaya. (G.)                                                24
 Alzaminskaya. (G.)                                               25
 Rasgonnaia. (B.)                                                 19½
 Bayeronovskaya. (G.)                                             25
 Biriousinsk. (G.)                                                21
 Polovina. (G.)                                                   23
 Kloutchínskaya. (B.)                                             19
 Tinskaya. (G.)                                                   28
 Nijni-Gatchefskaya. (G.)                                         25
 Ilianskaya. (B.)                                                 26
 _Kansk._ Telegraph Station and River. (G.)                       27
 Bolshoirinskaya. (B.)                                            25
 Klontchefskaya. (B.)                                             22
 Borodinskaya. (B.)                                               16
 Ribinskaya. (G.)                                                 16
 Ouyarskaya. (B.)                                                 20
 Balaiskaya. (B.)                                                 24
 Tertege. (G.)                                                    17
 Kokinskaya. (G.)                                                 14
 Botoiskaya. (B.)                                                 25
 _Krasnoiarsk._ Telegraph Station. Ferry over Yenisei River, and  29
   Fair Inn.
 Zaldievka. (B.)                                                  21
 Sokofskaya. (G.)                                                 18
 Malokemchougsk. (B.)                                             18
 Ivrulskaya. (B.)                                                 21½
 Bolshitiemshimsk. (Ferry). (G.)                                  16
 Kasoulskaya. (G.)                                                16
 Chernoyéchinsk. (G.)                                             22
 Taoutinsk. (B.)                                                  16
 _Atchinsk._ Telegraph Station and Ferry. (G.)                    16
 Bieloyarski. (G.)                                                13
 Krasnoiejinska. (G.)                                             17
 Bogotolsk. (G.)                                                  30
 Bolshoi-Kosoul. (B.)                                             16
 Itatskaya. (B.)                                                  18
 Pomejoutotchnaya. (F.)                                           17
 Tiajniskaya. (G.)                                                16
 Souslofkaya. (G.)                                                28
 _Marinsk._ Telegraph Station and Ferry. (G.)                     24
 Podielnichnaya (G.)                                              23
 Birikoulskaya. (B.)                                              28
 Potchitansk. (F.)                                                27
 Kolinskaya. (G.)                                                 23
 Ichimskaya. (F.)                                                 22
 Trountaiva. (F.)                                                 22
 Haldiéva. (B.)                                                   22
 Semiloujnaya. (B.)                                               14
 _Tomsk._ Telegraph Station. Good Inn.                            29

Price of posting: Horses three kopeks, a verst each from _Irkoutsk_ to
_Bogotolsk_. From Bogotolsk to Tomsk, 1½ kopeks a verst.

—————

Footnote 12:

  Extract from the _Volga Messenger_, of October 16th, 1887:——

  “The entire tract of country between Tomsk and Irkoutsk is infested
  with runaway convicts, so that travelling in this region, especially
  on dark autumn nights, is extremely dangerous. Lately a whole family
  was murdered at the distance of a few versts from Irkoutsk, and we
  hear of such cases frequently enough. So bad is the state of the roads
  in this respect, that the Government is about to put a stop to it by
  abolishing exile to Siberia, and a proposal to this effect is now
  under the consideration of the Imperial Council.”

Footnote 13:

  A kind of spruce beer.

Footnote 14:

  Such a one is the young and beautiful Countess Ignatieff, wife of the
  Governor of Irkoutsk, who, it would seem, is as much at home in the
  frozen forests of Eastern Siberia as in the salons of Paris or
  Petersburg. One of her latest exploits was to accompany the general to
  Yakoutsk——a voyage of three months from Irkoutsk——the greater part of
  which had to be accomplished in small birch-bark canoes.

Footnote 15:

  Are there any horses?

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER XI.

  TOMSK.


THE city of Tomsk, which is situated on the river Tom, a branch of the
Obi, contains over 40,000 inhabitants. Though scarcely as large as
Irkoutsk, it is a more imposing place at first sight. The streets are
broad and, though unpaved, in good order, notwithstanding the incessant
stream of caravan traffic that pours through them in the tea season. The
public buildings are fine, even handsome (of two, three, and four
stories high), without the draggled, unfinished appearance of those at
Irkoutsk and Krasnoiarsk, and there are shop-windows to enliven the
appearance of the principal thoroughfares.

The steamer was not to leave for two days, a time we devoted to
unpacking and overhauling our clothes. We found them in a sorry plight,
while the leather portmanteaus were swollen like drowned dogs after the
pitiless storms of rain. We also took the opportunity of writing home to
announce our safe arrival so far. Posting letters in Siberia is somewhat
wearisome. It took us nearly half an hour to despatch them, and then
only by the aid of a Polish interpreter called in by the landlord of the
Hotel. I signed my name at least six times before the necessary
formalities were completed. Then, would I have them sent with one stamp
or two? If the latter and the letter were lost, I might claim ten
roubles from the Government, said the hotel-keeper, “Which you probably
wouldn’t get,” added the Pole; so I trusted to Providence and sent them
with one. All were opened several times by the authorities, one reaching
London with no less than five different seals upon it.

Tomsk is built in two parts. The lower portion of the town, consisting
nearly exclusively of merchants’ offices, shops, and warehouses, while
on the heights overlooking them are the Governor’s palace, Government
offices, and private residences of the better class of merchants. But
although, as I have said, Tomsk is less depressing than other Siberian
cities, the absence of trees or gardens gives the place the usual bare,
cheerless appearance. The surrounding country is flat and marshy, and a
fruitful cause of malaria and fever during spring and autumn. The summer
is the busy season, when the tea from China and Trans-Baikalian
merchandise is unloaded from the small carts which have brought it from
Irkoutsk, Kiakhta, Stratensk, &c., and shipped on the steamers running
by the Tom and Obi rivers to Tiumen. Just outside the town is a huge
plain cut up in all directions by caravan roads, and at the extremity of
which are the wharves where steamers lie to receive their cargoes. A
dreary, desolate place it looked, the dull, wintry day we saw it, but in
summer the whole place is alive with caravan carts, while in dry weather
an eternal dust-cloud hangs like a pall over the huge plain. The railway
which is now being projected between Tomsk and Irkoutsk, will do away
with all this. This line completed, the tea will be sent to Wladivostok
from China by sea, thence to Stratensk by the Amour river, and on by
rail from Irkoutsk to Tomsk and European Russia.

The Hôtel d’Europe afforded us very fair accommodation (for Siberia).
The cooking was excellent, and we managed to make ourselves comfortable
enough. Tomsk is famed for two delicacies, sterlet and caviare. I have
seldom tasted anything to equal the former in flavour, and the caviare,
fresh from the fish and eaten a couple of hours after it had been taken,
was food for the gods, and as unlike the potted abomination sold in
England as can well be imagined. In all other respects, however, the
hotel was sadly deficient. Our room swarmed with vermin, and there was
not a bath to be had in the place for love or money; the only washing
appliance in the hotel being a small tin vessel nailed up against the
wall of the corridor, and holding about a pint, a small tap turning on a
tiny, trickling stream of water, which ran over one’s hands and on to
the floor. I asked our host why he did not provide wash-hand basins for
his customers. “They are so dirty,” was the reply, “half the time you
are washing your hands in dirty water. By our plan it runs over you
fresh and clean!”

We attended a performance at the Opera House of “Barbe Bleu,” but it was
poorly performed, and the artists very inferior to those of Irkoutsk.
The streets of Tomsk are, unlike those of Irkoutsk, fairly safe after
dark, for they are well lit by gas and patrolled throughout the night by
a strong force of police. Although invited to a public ball the third
evening of our stay, we were unable to put in an appearance, having so
many arrangements to make, and the steamer leaving at 4 a.m. the
following day. With previous experiences of the manners and customs of
Siberians after 12 a.m., we determined not to risk losing it. They must
be amusing sights, these Siberian dances. It is not customary to walk
about a ball-room, even in the intervals of dancing. Each guest moves
about with a sort of dancing step, _à la Polonaise_. Judging from their
evening parties, a Siberian ball-room must become a very fair imitation
of a beer garden towards the small hours of the morning, and we were
perhaps fortunate in having stayed away.

One is struck at Tomsk by the number of well-turned-out carriages and
horses in the streets though the “droshki” or public vehicles are rough,
uncomfortable things, in shape something like an Irish jaunting car,
with a seat about half a yard broad, to hold two persons sitting back to
back. They are not built high from the ground, luckily, for the
yemstchiks are perfectly indifferent as to whether their passengers fall
out or not, and whirl round corners in the most reckless way. Although
the male population are of the same sulky, hangdog-looking appearance as
we saw at Irkoutsk, the women were distinctly pretty, and the majority
extremely well dressed. But few affected the Siberian costume, the long
cloak and white head-handkerchief, so much in vogue in Eastern Siberia,
but the smart gowns and neat figures encountered in the streets
pleasantly recalled one to the fact that we were once more nearing
civilization. I saw women in the Grande Rue of Tomsk, who would have
been considered pretty and well dressed in Bond Street, but these were
only amongst the upper classes. The peasantry, male and female, are,
with few exceptions, hideous.

It says little, however, for the intelligence or civilization of the
population of both Tomsk and Irkoutsk, that we were unable to procure a
single French or German book at either city. We had not had a single
book of any kind to read since leaving Pekin, and were naturally anxious
to get something to lighten the tedious and weary hours that lay between
us and Tiumen, but, search as we might, could discover no French or
German, to say nothing of English, work of any kind. A university has
since been founded at Tomsk, and matters may have improved in this
respect, but it seemed strange that in a population of nearly fifty
thousand souls (many of whom spoke German) there should have been
nothing but Russian works obtainable. Although art of all kinds is at a
low ebb in most of the Siberian towns, there is one thing in which they
certainly do excel——in photography. For clearness and finish some of
their productions are equal to those of the best photographers in London
or Paris, notably those of Bogdanovitch in Irkoutsk. I was told by the
latter that the best are taken in winter time, when the clear, rarefied
atmosphere and dazzling sunshine offer excellent opportunities for
obtaining good negatives.

We were somewhat staggered by the hotel bill presented us by the host of
the Hôtel d’Europe, the total amounting to two hundred and seventy
roubles (or nearly 30_l._) for barely four days’ bed and board. In vain
I protested against the enormity of the items (not one of which, by the
way, could I read), in vain threatened sooner than be thus swindled, to
stop in Tomsk and bring the matter before a court of justice. But the
old Jew was inexorable, and only smiled blandly and rubbed his hands,
murmuring now and then, “The gospodin must not lose his temper.” He
laughed outright at my threat of bringing the matter into court, his
amusement being accounted for by the interpreter, who told us that he,
being the chief magistrate, would himself have tried the case. To make
matters worse, we had that morning sold the old rascal our tarantass for
sixty roubles (about one-third of its real value), on the express
understanding that he would charge as little as possible for
accommodation.

We set out at 4 a.m. on the morning of the 19th of September for the
steamer. Our way was fraught with considerable difficulty, for it was as
dark as pitch out on the plain, which was covered in places with deep
holes and pitfalls. Though only four versts, it took two hours to do the
distance, and we were right glad when, a little before daybreak, the
green and red lights of the _Kazanetse_ shone out bright and clear,
while at the same time her steam whistle sounded for departure,
recalling us to the fact that we were now no longer at the mercy of
drunken drivers and broken-down axles, but well within reach of Europe
by means of that blessed invention, steam!

The _Kazanetse_ would have been a fairly comfortable boat anywhere. To
us, fresh from the discomforts of the road, she seemed positively
luxurious. The fleet to which she belonged is one of fourteen vessels,
each ranging from one hundred and fifty to two hundred tons, and owned
by two private individuals, Messrs. Kourbatoff and Ignatoff, who have
the contract for carrying mails and prisoners. These vessels are built
at Tiumen, and on the same model, the first-class accommodation forward,
the roof of the saloon forming an upper deck, while abaft the funnel the
decks are roofed over with iron for deck passengers, of whom, on the
_Kazanetse_, there were some three hundred returning to various parts of
the Obi district before the closing of that river for navigation. The
merchandise is towed in lighters of two and three hundred tons, though
drawing but two or three feet of water, for in parts even this huge
stream becomes dangerously shallow in the summer months. The steamers
burn wood, carried on the deck of the lighters, the consumption per diem
being sometimes as much as eighty tons!

It was with a sense of relief that we woke next day to hear the
paddle-wheels dashing through the water, and the little steamer shaking
with the speed at which she was being driven through the grey misty
morning. As usual, washing appliances were _nil_, but after a steaming
glass of tea and two or three “Kalatchi”[16] and preserves, we found no
difficulty in dispensing with such minor details, and felt as we had not
once felt since leaving Irkoutsk; thoroughly comfortable. A coal-barge
would have been a relief after the incessant shaking and bumping of
those fifteen hundred miles. I thought with a shudder how, had we been
delayed a week later, we should in a few more days have been ploughing
through the deep muddy roads and flooded plains to Tiumen, a distance of
quite one thousand versts. Though that by river is nearly four thousand,
we would have chosen it, had it been double or treble the distance, in
preference to the leaky, bone-shaking tarantass, a vehicle the very name
of which I shall ever recall with a shudder!

But though one felt thoroughly at rest, the unvarying monotony on board
the _Kazanetse_ was trying enough, and the winding stream, flat, muddy
banks, and slow-going steamer grew intensely depressing after the first
two days. The Obi river is neither grand nor picturesque. It is at all
seasons a cheerless, dispiriting landscape that meets the eye from Tomsk
to Soorgoot, but in late autumn its banks must present the appearance of
a howling wilderness. There are few rivers in the world with as many
tributaries, or of the same enormous length, as the Obi. The basin of
the river contains more than a million and a quarter of square miles, an
area nearly two thousand miles in length, and, at the widest part,
twelve hundred in breadth. From near the Chinese border, where it has
its source, to the Gulf of Obi in the Frozen Ocean, it has over seventy
tributaries, not including the Tom and Irtish Rivers, the source of the
latter being Lake Zaizan, near the Koochoom Mountains in Chinese
Tartary. An idea may thus be gained of what a stupendous volume of water
this is. A few days above Tomsk, it presents more the appearance of a
succession of large lakes than a river——lakes fringed with low banks of
stunted fir and beech-trees, varied by occasional stretches of sandy
waste. Early autumn is, perhaps, the best time to see the Obi, for at
this season the varied hues of decaying vegetation give a more or less
varied look to the dull landscape of dirty green and drab that stretches
away, without hut or habitation to mar its solitude, from its shores to
those of the Arctic Ocean. The end of October, sees the Obi covered with
ice, and no longer navigable. For a great part of the year, however, the
water flows on under the ice, which, even as far south as Tiumen, is
from three to four feet thick. Navigation is sometimes entirely
suspended in twenty-four hours, so suddenly does winter come on. It must
not, however, be imagined that the frozen rivers of Siberia present the
smooth, unbroken surface of glassy ice which one sees depicted in
English pictures, presumably by artists who have never been nearer
Siberia than Moscow or Petersburg. The Obi, with its impetuous torrent,
is, perhaps, the most uneven and rugged of any; but even on the Yenisei,
which is less rapid, it is common enough in winter to see hillocks and
miniature cliffs twenty to thirty feet in height, thrown up by the
current upon its frozen surface. The effect, with a blue sky and
brilliant sunshine, is, I was told, very beautiful; but on dull, days
(which, happily for Siberians, are rare), the sight of a frozen,
deserted river must be melancholy in the extreme.

We passed but two towns worthy of the name between Tomsk and
Tiumen——Soorgoot and Tobolsk. The villages touched at were simply a
collection of half a dozen log huts, the dwellings of the employés of
the steamboat company, and depôts for the firewood used by their
vessels. Of the nomadic tribes inhabiting the banks of the Obi, we saw
but little, most of them having already struck their birch-bark tents,
and migrated north to their winter-quarters and reindeer. Occasionally,
however, we passed an Ostiak encampment, with its half-dozen
grimy-looking, triangular tents, savage dogs, and fleet of canoes. The
Ostiaks inhabit the vast tract of country lying between the Obi and the
shores of the Frozen Ocean. Like the Yakoutz, their neighbours, the
Ostiaks subsist entirely upon what they kill. Fish in summer, and game
in winter. Like the Yakoutz also, scurvy and a still more loathsome
disease, introduced by Russian traders, is slowly but surely stamping
them out. They are a good-tempered, hospitable people, fond of trade,
but averse to anything like hard work. In summer, when, between the
months of June and August, night is unknown in these regions, their
chief occupation is fishing, the produce of their nets being salted and
sent on to Tobolsk for export to Tiumen, Ekaterinburg, Perm, and
European Russia. The Ostiaks number about thirteen thousand in all, and
are miserable creatures to look at, with a yellowish complexion, flat
faces, and coarse, dark hair. They are, especially skilful in the use of
the bow. In shooting squirrels, for instance, they use a blunt arrow,
and are careful to hit the animal only on the head, so as not to injure
the fur.

During summer, the Ostiaks live entirely upon fish, during the winter
months their sole diet is reindeer milk. The costume is not an
ungraceful one, and is made of reindeer skin trimmed with bright red or
blue cloth and coloured beads, some of the richer ones being hung round
with small silver coins, Russian twenty-kopek pieces, &c. It is never
safe to approach their encampments alone. I did so once, and had cause
to repent it, being attacked by half a dozen huge dogs, who would have
made short work of me, had not an old Ostiak woman emerged from a tent
upon hearing the disturbance, and beaten them off. The Ostiak breed of
dog is not unlike the Mongolian. They are sharp-looking, sagacious
creatures of a black and white colour, and are by nature the cleanest
that exist, going daily of their own accord to the river and bathing
throughout the summer months. In winter they roll themselves in the
snow. I thought of buying and bringing one home, but that it would have
been a nuisance and expense through Europe.

We anchored one evening off an Ostiak encampment and paid its inmates a
visit. It was a curious, weird scene, the broad, sullen-looking river,
the crimson sunset through the dark-green fir-trees, the two or three
flimsy, tumble-down tents with columns of thin grey smoke rising into
the still evening air, while a number of silent, skin-clad forms flitted
noiselessly about, getting in the nets and canoes for the night, on the
low sandy spit that ran for some yards into the river. Not a sound broke
the stillness, for we were quite half a mile from the steamer, and save
for the wash and ripple of the stream, the occasional bay of a dog, or
cracking of sticks as one of the women gathered fuel for the night, all
was silent as the grave. I have never seen a picture of more utter
desolation. We intended to enter one of their dwellings, but beat a
hasty retreat on coming within ten or fifteen yards of them. The stench
was overpowering, and I am not exaggerating when I say that one may
smell an Ostiak quite a quarter of a mile off with the wind in the right
quarter! It is a smell peculiar to their race, so sickening and
overpowering, that I cannot describe it. Russians ascribe it to their
invincible repugnance to salt. None will touch it, although it has
several times, and at great expense, been distributed amongst them by
the Government; and this is no doubt the cause of the majority of the
loathsome diseases from which they suffer. Some of the men were
pleasant-looking fellows, and their women would have been pretty had
they possessed any teeth, which, after the age of fourteen or fifteen,
usually loosen and drop out from the same cause. Unlike their neighbours
the Samoyédes, the Ostiaks are kind to their women. In no race in the
world is woman so badly treated as among the former. To be enceinte,
even legally, is considered degrading, and the unfortunate mothers are
beaten and worried incessantly during the time of pregnancy, and until
their child is born. During this period, too, they are tortured until
they confess with whom they have been unfaithful, very often naming an
utterly innocent person to escape further torment. When they have done
so, there is no great result; the husband simply claiming a small sum of
money (or its equivalent in fur or brandy) as damages! I was much struck
with the likeness between the Ostiaks, as regards their appearance and
habits, and the Dyaks of Central Borneo, although of course the latter
are a much finer race, both as regards physique and intellect. The
dug-out canoes used on the Obi are the same identically in shape and
construction, while on the handles of the paddles I found much the same
patterns of carving that I had come across among some of the inland
tribes in Borneo. This is indeed a case of “extremes meeting.”

The shores of the Obi river teem with game and wild fowl. I must have
seen quite a million duck during the journey from Tomsk to Tobolsk,
while in the season wild geese, teal, widgeon, and snipe abound; and I
was somewhat surprised to see quantities of sea-gull at this distance
from the ocean. There is no lack, either, of bear and wolf in these
regions, and smaller ground game, and for one who cared for sport, I can
imagine no better hunting-ground. But he would be a bold man who would
pitch his tent among this unsavoury race for two or three months. To say
nothing of their filthy habits, the tents are seldom free from
small-pox.

There were but six first-class passengers besides ourselves on the
_Kazanetse_. M. Sourikoff, a painter of some renown in Russia, his
pretty wife, and two little girls, Olga and Hélène, models in miniature
of their mother, who were returning from Tomsk to Moscow, after a
somewhat extended tour in Siberia, in search of peasant types for a new
historical picture, since completed with great success by M. Sourikoff.
It was pleasant, indeed, to make the acquaintance of these charming
people, who were true Russians (_not_ Siberians), and the long dull
evenings passed quickly enough. Although M. Sourikoff spoke but a few
words of French, madame was half a Parisienne, and returned every year,
for a few weeks to the lovely city she had forsaken for the fogs and
mists of Petersburg. We thus had many subjects in common, and this was
undoubtedly the pleasantest part of our journey.

There is no fixed time for meals on board these boats. You order your
food when and where you like, so passengers are but little thrown
together, and as the two remaining ones never appeared to take
nourishment at all, or join the Sourikoffs and ourselves at dinner or
breakfast, we did not make their acquaintance. They were a queer couple
too, one an old gentleman of semi-military appearance, who paced up and
down deck all day, wet or dry, smothered up in furs, and seemed to
subsist solely on suction. I never saw him eat, but he consumed at least
twenty bottles of beer a day, to say nothing of nips of vodka and
glasses of tea between whiles. His official cap and numerous decorations
gave him the appearance of a general at least. We put him down as
returning from an important Siberian military command, and were somewhat
surprised to hear at Tiumen that he was a simple government inspector of
mines in Siberia, and a civilian. Where he got the medals remains a
mystery. Our other fellow-passenger was a lady who might have been any
age from twenty to fifty, and whose movements and manner were so
singular and weird that Madame Sourikoff christened her “The Sphinx.”
She usually spent the whole day locked up in her cabin. It was only at
night that she emerged, muffled up in furs, and thick veils, to pace the
solitary deck till long after midnight. Only once did I catch a glimpse
of her face, a pale and determined, though sad one, framed with jet
black hair cut short and square over the temples. When alone one
moonlight night, smoking a cigar on deck, I ventured to address the
mysterious stranger in French, a language she understood perfectly. Her
history was sad enough. She had left her home near Nijni Novgorod “under
suspicion” two years ago, a girl of eighteen, to return an old woman.
Most of her term of exile had been passed at Krasnoiarsk. It was only at
Tomsk that she had learnt the death of her mother, and that her fiancé,
who had vowed to wait for her return, had married another. “I have
nothing to live for now, monsieur,” sobbed the poor woman, “for my
step-father was the means of my being sent to that hell upon earth. Let
me only ask you to keep my secret, and tell no one on board I have
spoken to you. I do not wish for society————I cannot stand it.” Poor
soul! I have often since wondered what became of her; whether she
returned to a fairly contented, though broken life, or, as is more often
the case, lived but to welcome the day when death should end her
troubles, and let her forget that she had ever been sent to accursed
Siberia.

The cuisine on board the _Kazanetse_ was excellent, a pleasant change
from the eternal _menus_ of the past six weeks, “Yaitse,” “Chi,” and
“Moloko.”[17] The “Rabchick” formed part of our daily bill of fare. This
is a bird peculiar to Russia and Siberia, something similar to a
partridge, and excellent eating. When struggling with the bill of fare,
I often thought of a poor Frenchman who left Moscow for Irkoutsk two
years since——completely ignorant of the Russian language——and who was
told by a friend whenever he felt hungry merely to mention the word
“Teliatina,” and they would bring him anything worth eating. Things went
well till he reached Tobolsk, when it suddenly dawned upon the poor
wretch that all the animal food he had eaten since leaving the Holy City
had been composed solely of _veal_! By the time our friend reached Tomsk
he was fairly rabid. Veal is an excellent thing in its way, but
“toujours veau,” like “toujours perdrix,” is apt to pall upon the palate
after a few weeks! It was only at Tomsk that he came across a
French-speaking Cossack officer who was able to change his bill of fare,
and history relates that the victim was so overcome with emotion and
gratitude that he fell upon his deliverer’s neck and wept for joy!

One is out of it on board a Siberian river-steamer if one does not eat
nuts, for every one devours day and night, hour after hour, a small kind
of cob-nut, very common in Siberia, which to my taste was extremely
insipid and flavourless. But we were told by the Sourikoffs it was the
proper thing to do, so purchased a pound or so at the first
stopping-place, and followed the example of our fellow-passengers. Every
one devoured them, from the captain downwards. Even the melancholy exile
had her bag of “brousniki,” as they are called, and the beer-drinking
inspector furtively produced them every now and then from the depths of
his fur-lined “dacha.” When the Siberian is unable to obtain these, he
chews a kind of elastic composition made of turpentine, not unpleasant
to the taste. The Russians call this “Conversation Sibérienne,” hardly a
compliment to the conversational powers of the inhabitants of Asiatic
Russia.

From the day we left Samarof, our northernmost point, the weather became
cold and raw, so much so that furs were a daily as well as nightly
necessity. Cold and blinding showers of hail and sleet kept us prisoners
in the little stuffy saloon of the steamer, and we passed the days sadly
enough, staring out of the misty windows at the flat, muddy banks,
watching the grey, woolly clouds as they swept across the
desolate-looking plains. We had now entered the river Irtish, where
navigation is extremely dangerous at this time of the year on account of
the dense fogs that prevail between Soorgoot and Tobolsk. Collisions are
of frequent occurrence, and it is not to be wondered at. There is no
rule of the road as at sea or on most European rivers. Upon meeting a
vessel a red or white flag was waved from the bridge to intimate that we
should pass to the right or left of it. At night the signal was given by
a small hand-lamp. On foggy days and dark misty nights the danger of
this system may be imagined, and we got but little sleep at nights for
fear of a smash, to say nothing of a deafening fog-horn kept going
almost without cessation from sunset till dawn. We only anchored once,
however, when the fog became so bad you could literally not see your
hand before you. It lasted seven hours, as uncomfortable ones as I ever
wish to spend, for eyes, nose, and mouth were choked with the fumes
which penetrated even into the saloon. The scenery for a couple of days
after leaving Soorgoot was still more desolate and monotonous. The
forests of birch and beech disappeared altogether, and were replaced by
vast plains of sand, varied by an occasional salt-marsh, the only signs
of vegetation being the stunted willows and scrub that fringed the banks
of the dirty, muddy-coloured river. Not a living thing is seen in these
regions, save at long intervals, perhaps, the encampment of some Ostiak,
the tiny tents only accentuating the huge landscape of desolation
surrounding it. It gives me the blues even now to recall the shores of
the Obi and Irtish on a dull day.

We reached Tobolsk at 5 p.m. on the 25th of September. The night before,
just as we were sinking into a sweet sleep, we were all roughly tumbled
out of our berths and ordered on deck. “It’s come at last,” said
Lancaster, who, like myself, had made up his mind that an accident had
happened, for there was a tremendous turmoil and scurrying about on
deck, and, looking out of the little port-hole, I made out the red and
green lights of a large steamer close alongside. Sourikoff was already
on deck. Poor Madame S. and little Olga and Hélene were sitting on a
pile of luggage, their teeth chattering and faces blue with the cold.
“Is it not disgraceful?” said the poor little lady, “we have to change
steamers.” The winter-quarters of the _Kazanetze_ were, it appeared, at
Tomsk; those of the _Reutern_, the steamer we had just met, at Tobolsk.
The latter, having been delayed by the fogs for nearly four days, would
not have time to return to her winter port before the closing of the
navigation. “The intention was,” said the captain, “to change us at
Soorgoot, but these cursed fogs have thrown out all the company’s
arrangements.”

We certainly got the worst of the bargain. The _Reutern_ was of
precisely the same dimensions as the _Kazanetze_, and whereas we had but
eight first-class passengers all told, she carried sixty or seventy
natives of Tomsk, and other riverside towns, who were hurrying back to
their homes before the freezing of the Obi. The saloon of the _Reutern_
was, as may be imagined, in a truly disgusting state. The tables covered
with grease and cigarette ash, the floor strewn with chicken bones, egg
shells, pieces of bread, squashed berries, &c., and although it was past
midnight, a great many of the passengers must have been indulging in a
meal at the time the _Kazanetse_ hove in sight, for the smell of grease
and cooking was intolerable, the windows of the saloon having evidently
been closed ever since the _Reutern_ had left Tobolsk. The Siberians
have queer notions of eating, and their meals correspond very much with
their unfinished mode of life. While on their travels they feed anyhow,
no matter how great the facility for obtaining food at proper hours. You
will see them, men, women, and children alike, subsist throughout the
day solely on tea, bread, or sweet biscuits and berries, and then, as if
struck by a sudden happy thought, rouse themselves about midnight, and
sit down to a heavy meal of two or three courses, washed down by copious
draughts of scalding tea, and preceded by three or four large glasses of
vodka. Cigarettes are incessantly smoked during meals. Cigars are
unobtainable in Siberia. I tried one at Tomsk, but felt the effects for
days afterwards. Russian cigarettes are, in my opinion, better than the
Egyptian. They are more aromatic, and certainly less injurious. Those
made by Laferme under the name of “Petits canons,” are the best, and are
to be bought almost everywhere throughout the Russian Empire, from
Kiakhta to Petersburg, Archangel to Merv. They are a beautifully made
cigarette, and the price (one rouble a hundred) is reasonable enough.

The approach to Tobolsk is picturesque. One felt, on looking at the
villages in the suburbs, with their green church spires and neat
whitewashed houses, large fields, and grazing-grounds, enclosed by neat
wooden railings, that one was indeed approaching civilization. For some
two miles before reaching the town itself, the river is lined by rocky,
precipitous cliffs topped with dense forests of pine. Here and there
huge landslips had taken place. In one instance nearly a quarter of a
mile square had sunk bodily into the river, trees and all, looking at
the point where it had broken away as clean cut as if it had been done
with a knife. The Irtish River is very subject to these convulsions of
nature. Its banks in 1753 fell a depth of nearly seventy feet.

Tobolsk is distinctly the prettiest town in Siberia, though perhaps the
fact of our being so pleased with it was not altogether unassociated
with the thought that it was the last Siberian city (except Tiumen) that
we should visit. On first appearance one is reminded not a little of
Gibraltar; one portion of the town being built on a steep cliff, the
other on the marshy plain, watered by the winding yellow Irtish, and its
smaller tributary, the Tobol river. We were to start again at midnight,
so lost no time in landing and making an excursion round the city.

It will give the reader some idea of the size of Siberia, when I say
that the district or government of Tobolsk alone is nearly eight times
as large as Great Britain and Ireland. The population of this vast
province are for the most part Russians, Tartars, Ostiaks, and
Samoyedes, the two latter aboriginal tribes. The city of Tobolsk was for
a long time the capital of the whole of Eastern and Western Siberia, and
is rich in historical associations. It belonged up to 1581 to the
Tartars, and was then known under the name of Isker, the governor or
ruler of the province being a Tartar chief of the name of Kootchoom.

It may be said that Siberia was practically unknown to the inhabitants
of European Russia up to the middle of the sixteenth century, for
although, previously to this, an expedition had penetrated as far as the
Lower Obi, yet its effects were not permanent. Later on, Ivan
Vassilovitch II. sent a body of troops across the Ourals, laid some of
the Tartar tribes under tribute, and assumed the title of “Lord of
Siberia.” Kootchoom Khan, however, a descendant of Chenghiz Khan,
punished these tribes for their cowardice, regained their fealty, and
thus put an end to further encroachments from Russia. A second invasion,
however, ended more favourably for Russian interests, and in a totally
unexpected manner. Ivan II. had extended his conquests to the Caspian
Sea, and opened up trade with Persia. The merchants and caravans were,
however, frequently pillaged by hordes of banditti called Don Cossacks,
whom the Czar was finally compelled to attack, killing many, and making
prisoners of many more. Some escaped; among the latter being some five
hundred freebooters, under the command of a chief named Yermak
Timoffeef, who, making their way to Orel, heard of an inviting field of
adventure lying east of the Oural mountains. It is not generally known
that the enormous country known as Asiatic Russia was conquered and
annexed by five hundred men. Yermak, himself an outlaw, conquered, after
a desperate battle, the Tartar hordes of Kootchoom Khan, then prince of
the Tobolsk province, and became in twenty-four hours transformed from a
lawless robber into a prince. But he had the good sense,
notwithstanding, to see that he could not hope to hold his enormous
empire without assistance. He sent, therefore, fifty of his Cossacks to
the Czar of Russia, their chief being ordered to represent to that
monarch the progress which the Russian troops under the command of
Yermak had made in Siberia, where an extensive empire had been conquered
in the name of the Czar. The latter, delighted beyond measure at this
fresh acquisition of territory, gave the rebel Yermak free pardon, and
at once sent him money and assistance. Reinforced by five hundred
Cossacks, Yermak renewed his efforts, formed fresh expeditions, and was
enabled to subdue and conquer fresh districts, which had been fomented
and incited to rebellion by the conquered Kootchoom Khan. In one of the
smaller engagements, Yermak perished, not, it is said, by the sword of
the enemy, but, having to cut his way to the water’s edge, he essayed to
jump into a boat, and stepping short, fell into the water, when the
weight of his armour drowned him.

The stream of conquest flowed apace after the death of Yermak, whose
name will live for ever in Russia as one of the greatest benefactors of
that country. Tomsk was founded in 1604, and from thence new expeditions
were formed by the Cossacks, with the result that Yeneseisk was founded
in 1619, and a few years afterwards the city of Krasnoiarsk. Crossing
the Yenisei river, the invading army advanced to the shores of Lake
Baikal, and in 1620 attacked, and conquered, the populous nation of the
Bouriattes. Then, making for the north, they founded Yakoutsk in 1632,
and subjugated, though not without difficulty, the powerful Yakout
tribe. Having accomplished this, the troops crossed the Aldan mountains,
and in 1639 reached the sea of Okhotsk. Thus in less than seventy years
was added to the Russian Empire a territory as large as the whole of
Europe, whose ancient capital was Tobolsk——thus was an empire comprising
nearly the half of Asia conquered and annexed by a simple Cossack and
five hundred men. Ought not this to warn us that Russian enterprise is
not a thing to be thought lightly of; that in most cases what a Russian,
be he noble or moujik, has said “I will do,” he does, be it at the cost
of his life.

In the public gardens of Tobolsk is a monument of grey granite, about
fifty feet in height, which was erected in 1839. On the base is
inscribed, in gold letters, the words, “To Yermak! Conqueror of
Siberia.”

It was getting dusk when we landed, and, hiring droshkis, we set out
with the Sourikoffs for a drive through the town. The Tobolsk droshki is
a terrible vehicle, a miniature jaunting car built to hold two, and
drawn by a horse three or four times too large for it. There is nothing
to hold on by, not even a guard-rail, and as the streets of Tobolsk are
anything but smooth, and our yemstchik drove at full gallop, it became a
matter of considerable difficulty to stick to the ship, especially as my
companion was a somewhat stout man, and took up more than two-thirds of
the seat. I was not sorry when, the drive over, we arrived at the summit
of the hill whereon stands the governor’s and archbishop’s palaces, and
cathedral, the latter a fine building in the Byzantine style.

The city of Tobolsk has a population of about 30,000,[18] and covers an
area four versts long by about three broad. Although many stone
buildings are springing up in various parts of the city, most of those
in the lower town or mercantile parts are of wood. Many of the streets,
though narrow and irregular, are paved completely with wooden planks
laid crosswise, so that the town presents a tidier and less unfinished
appearance than either Tomsk or Irkoutsk. I narrowly escaped being
roughly handled when walking in the streets of the lower town, when, all
unconsciously, I threw away the lighted end of a cigarette, a proceeding
which instantly surrounded me with half a dozen infuriated inhabitants.
It took Sourikoff all his time to appease them, and assure them that I
was ignorant of the ways of the place, and a stranger to Siberian
customs and manners, though, as I assured him, I had frequently done the
same thing in other towns, and no notice had been taken. As, however,
Tobolsk has been totally destroyed by fire no less than thirteen times,
one can scarcely wonder at the anxiety shown by the inhabitants.

The shops were good. Though it was past nine o’clock when we returned to
the lower town from visiting the public gardens and Yermak’s monument,
most of them were open, and the streets well lit and crowded with
people. Perhaps one of the most curious sights in Tobolsk is the
“Kamaoulie Koloko,” or, translated literally, “Bell with the ear torn
off.” Though so late, we managed to get a sight of this, which is kept
in a kind of shed close to the archbishop’s palace, and of which a brief
account may not be without interest to the reader.

Russia, during part of the fourteenth century, was governed by the Czar
Boris Godorinoff, who by the way had no right whatsoever to the crown.
The line which had then reigned for nearly one hundred and fifty years,
a long time in those days, was represented by one Prince Dimitri, a boy
of twelve years old, but on the death of Dimitri’s father in 1593, Boris
raised a revolt, with the result that he was proclaimed Czar, and the
boy Dimitri deposed from his rightful position. The seat of government
was then at Boglitch, near the site whereon now stands the city of Nijni
Novgorod, and to this place Dimitri was sent, so as to be under the
immediate supervision of the peasant king. The latter, seeing an evident
movement in favour of Dimitri, feared that if allowed to live, the
youthful pretender might one day prove troublesome, and determined to
have him assassinated. While crossing the market-place, therefore, the
boy was seized by some soldiers and stabbed in broad daylight, while the
Czar contemplated the scene from the windows of the palace, to see the
effect it might have on the population, who, however, evinced not the
slightest disposition to protect the young prince or avenge his murder.
Only one dissentient tongue was heard, and that an iron one. A priest
happening to see the crime from the cathedral belfry, and being a
partisan of the Dimitri line, commenced to toll the great bell for the
repose of the young prince’s soul, a bell which had always been regarded
as sacred, and was only rung on the occasion of the assembling of the
council or the coronation or death of a Czar. Infuriated at the priest’s
interference, Boris gave orders that he should at once be tortured and
executed. Nor was this enough. The bell itself should suffer, and as
soon as the ringer had expiated his offence, and lay a mangled corpse on
the open market-place, the bell was unhung, carried down from the
belfry, and placed beside the body of its ringer. It was then beaten
with clubs and sticks by the entire populace, Boris at their head!

But the quaintest part of the story is to come. Siberian exiles in those
days were as a rule tortured before setting out for their place of
imprisonment. The punishments inflicted were more or less severe,
according to the nature of their crime, but all, without distinction,
had their nostrils torn off with red hot pincers. This was the
distinguishing mark of the exile. The public flogging over, Boris
decided that the offending bell should be placed on a cart and exiled to
Tobolsk, where it has remained ever since. There was one difficulty,
though, the bell had no nostrils. But the czar was a man of infinite
resource, and, not without a certain grim humour, so had one of the
_hangers_ removed instead! The “Kamaoulie Koloko” is nearly all of
silver, and has a deep, beautiful tone. The Tobolskians are exceedingly
proud of their trophy. One sees bells everywhere; as signs over the inn
doors, as toys, work-boxes, handles of walking-sticks, cigarette-cases,
even sleeve-links are made in imitation of the famous “iron exile of
Boglitch.” It is as celebrated in its way as the Tun of Heidelberg or
Lion of Lucerne.

Though a rising place as far as art and commerce is concerned, Tobolsk
is very unhealthy, and is surrounded with vast stagnant marshes,
fruitful sources of malaria and fever. There is no spring, and the
summer is hot, dull, and rainy, the sun at this season of the year being
seldom seen for more than two days together. Scarlet fever and
diphtheria are seldom absent, and in the prison, which is built to
accommodate three thousand, but is often half as full again, there are
occasionally severe epidemics of small-pox and typhus. Cholera is,
however, unknown. The winter is perhaps the healthiest season, but even
then, when in most parts of Siberia the sun is shining in a cloudless
sky, Tobolsk is wreathed in damp mists from the fever swamps surrounding
it. It is hard to imagine a more melancholy and depressing place than it
must be in the summer months, and prisoners say they would rather be
sent to Nertchinsk for ten years, than have to spend two at Tobolsk,
although it is so much nearer home and European Russia. A curious
discovery was made here in 1862 by the superintendent of police. Some
excavations were being made by some workmen in the lower town, when they
came upon a number of large subterranean passages running in all
directions and obstructed every fifty yards or so by massive iron gates.
News of this was at once telegraphed to Petersburg, when, to the
surprise of the inhabitants, a message came back, ordering that the
places excavated should be closed up at once. As the order came direct
from the czar, there was nothing to be said, and the existence of the
tunnels, or how they ever came there, remains a mystery to the present
day. The passages are said to exist only in the lower town. There are
none under the hills where the government buildings are situated, which
inclines some to the belief that they were built by some former czar, to
be used in case of a revolt. Still it must be rather unpleasant for the
good people of Tobolsk to live over a possible dynamite mine!

The voyage from Tobolsk to Tiumen was pleasant enough. Narrowed to a
width of scarcely two hundred yards, the blue river meanders lazily
through green fields, past pretty villages, neatly built and
prosperous-looking, while the ruddy, happy-looking peasantry at work in
the riverside meadows were a contrast to the dirty, sullen-looking
population further east. A few hours before reaching Tiumen, however,
all vegetation disappeared as if by magic, and we entered a sterile,
sandy desert. “What a paradise for sportsmen!” said Sourikoff as we
watched, from the deck of the steamer, the flocks of geese and ducks,
and other wild fowl, wheeling backwards and forwards over the arid
plain. The sky was black with them.

About midday on the 28th of September, a glittering speck appeared on
the horizon, which presently developed into a confused mass of stone and
wooden buildings, spires and golden domes. Two hours later we had moored
alongside the busy quay and crowded wharves of Tiumen, realizing to the
full that our journey was now practically over, for there within one
hundred yards of us was the railway-station and just beyond it the
luxurious-looking Pullman car, which was to bear us to Ekaterinburg and
thence over the Oural Mountains to Perm. The whistling and puffing of
the locomotive made one feel almost at home again. We forgot, in the
excitement of the moment, that we were still in Asia, and many a weary
mile from Old England!

The line from Tiumen to Ekaterinburg has only been built two years, and
belongs to a private company. The cars are all open to each other, on
the American principle, the second class being every bit as good as the
first class on the Midland or Great Northern Railway in England, and the
fares absurdly low. That from Tiumen to Perm, a distance of nearly five
hundred miles, is only twenty-eight roubles, first-class (under 3_l._
sterling), and I can safely say that I have never in any country
travelled so luxuriously. The stations are of stone, that at Tiumen
being built in the centre of a large and beautifully kept garden. It
reminded one of a railway-station in a German Spa, so neat and
beautifully kept were the gravel-paths and flower-beds, the fountains
and iron seats under the lime-trees. As for the refreshment-room, it was
equal to any in France, and far better than any I have ever seen in
England. Marble floors, tables spread with snowy cloths and glittering
with plate and china, neat, white-aproned waiters, and a pretty barmaid
presiding over the huge sideboard, with its tempting array of caviare,
pickled salmon, _pâtés de foie gras_, and forests of champagne and
liqueur bottles, was a strange scene for Asia. It was certainly one of
the most agreeable disappointments of our voyage, and after a capital
dinner _à la carte_, washed down by an excellent bottle of Medoc,
coffee, and kümmel, we came to the conclusion that, however behindhand
they may be in other matters, the Russians certainly do understand the
art of railway travelling. The train was not leaving till 9 p.m., which
gave us time for a stroll round the town. Cab fares in these parts are
not ruinous. The distance from the railway-station to the town (about
three miles) costing us under one shilling English money.

Tiumen is a bare, unfinished-looking place, with a population of thirty
thousand, and is situated on the banks of the river Toura, a smaller
branch of the Irtish. In the centre of the town is a plain, a dusty
waste in summer and muddy swamp in winter, about three miles square.
This is surrounded on three sides by wooden and brick buildings. In the
centre is a cluster of rough wooden sheds and canvas booths, which is
dignified by the name of “Bazaar,” where vodka, provisions of all sorts,
clothes, and agricultural implements are sold. Hard by, a circular
building, built of rough planks, and covered with gaudy posters
representing impossible men performing still more impossible feats, was
pointed out to us with evident pride by an inhabitant, as the circus.
“There would be a performance that night,” said our new acquaintance,
who spoke a few words of French. “Why did we not stay for it and go on
the next day? and he would show us round Tiumen after dark.” But we
declined the offer with thanks. He was a dirty, rough-looking fellow in
Moujik kaftan and high boots, and did not inspire confidence. “Then
perhaps your excellencies would like to visit a prison barge. One
arrived this morning, and is empty,” was the next suggestion.

We accepted this offer, and accompanied our friend, when the mystery was
solved. He was a Polish exile, who, having done his time at Kara, had
been permitted to return to Tiumen, for the remainder of his life. Here
he managed to scrape up a living by doing odd jobs as porter,
droshki-driver, and what not. He had seen better days, he told us, and
knew Paris and London well, having once been employed as waiter in an
Italian restaurant in the latter city, and had he kept away from
Petersburg and politics, would now be living an honest and comfortable
life. How many poor wretches in Siberia could, I wonder, say the same
thing!

[Illustration: A PRISON BARGE ON THE OBI RIVER.]

Most of the convict barges are of the same size, while all are on the
same principle. The one we visited, _The Irtish_, was about two hundred
and fifty feet in length, by forty in width, the upper deck being
supported by two large deck-houses, one of which formed a hospital and
dispensary, the other quarters for the officers of the convoy, and
exiles belonging to the noble or privileged class. No objection was
shown by the sentry to our going on board. Indeed we were not even asked
for our passports.

I was certainly agreeably surprised. The cells were sweet and clean,
though, I must add, they had not been occupied for more than a month,
the vessel having been towed back empty from Tomsk in preparation for
her next cargo in the spring. “You should visit one of these ships on
her arrival at Tomsk,” said our guide, with a sinister smile. “I do not
think then you would be quite so impressed with the cleanliness and
comfort. The voyage is seldom made without at least five per cent. dying
of typhus, and who can wonder? Human beings were never intended to be
herded together like swine.”

The large iron cage on deck amidships, in which the convicts are allowed
to take exercise, certainly did give one rather the idea of a menagerie,
and more fitted for the reception of monkeys than human beings; and
considering that its dimensions were only seventy-five feet long by
forty wide, and that these prison ships carry eight hundred a trip,
certainly seemed rather wanting in its arrangements for fresh air.
Companion-ladders led down from this into the sleeping-quarters, of
which there were three, ranging in length from forty to seventy feet,
with a uniform width of forty feet, and a height of about seven. One of
these cabins is given up for the accommodation of women and children,
the others occupied by the men. Through the centre of each runs
longitudinally two tiers of double sleeping-platforms, upon which the
prisoners lie athwart-ships in four closely packed rows, with their
heads together over the line of the keel. These sleeping-platforms are
made of wooden boards. There are not even wooden pillows, but prisoners
are not debarred from making use of their great-coats for that purpose,
or any linen bags or cloths they may have about them. Indeed, all the
prisoners we met seemed to carry exactly what they liked, from a tin
saucepan to a gingham umbrella.

We got rid of our guide with some difficulty, for he was anxious that we
should visit the prison under his auspices. This we thought wise to
decline, not relishing the idea of being “detained on suspicion,” as we
probably should have been, by the Tiumen authorities, if seen lurking
round the prison gates in the society of a “discharged Katorgi.” A
couple of roubles, however, consoled him, and we left him standing in
the middle of the muddy road, making deep obeisances and calling down
numberless blessings on the heads of the “Ingliski gospodin.” Passing
the same spot two hours later, we found him flat on his back by the
roadside, dead drunk, with two empty vodka bottles beside him!

Tiumen must be a cheap place to live in, judging from the price of
provisions and grain. Beef and mutton are as cheap again as in most
parts of England, while wheat, which is always cheap, became in 1887 a
veritable drug in the market, and was selling at Semipalatinsk, in
Southern Siberia, for eight kopeks a pood. One speculator from that city
went to the expense of exporting a quantity to Vernoe, four hundred
miles off, on the borders of China, but then only managed to get
twenty-five kopeks a pood, the harvests having been equally good. He had
only got rid of about half, when the earthquake occurred, which the
reader may recollect destroyed the whole city, and more than half the
population in September, 1887.

Many people are under the impression that the Oural Mountains are of
great altitude, and the scenery very grand. Though the length of the
chain is something over one thousand seven hundred miles, its highest
peak does not attain to more than six thousand feet, and at the point
where the line crosses them, barely two thousand feet above sea-level.
No part of the Ourals is permanently covered with snow. Hard by the town
of Ekaterinburg, by the side of the Great Post-Road to Siberia, is a
large stone pillar, on one side of which is carved the word “Europe,”
upon the other “Asia,” and this marks the boundary between the two
quarters of the globe. There is probably no spot in the whole breadth
and length of Siberia more full of painful associations than this, for
no less than eighteen hundred thousand exiles have passed it since 1878,
more than half a million men, women, and children since the beginning of
the present century. The base of the pillar is covered with
inscriptions, letters rudely carved by those who have here looked their
last on their native land. It is the custom to make a halt and allow the
exiles to bid good-bye, many of them for ever, to Europe. Travellers no
longer pass the spot, now that the railway has obviated the long, lonely
drive from Perm to Tiumen. The frontier on the line is marked by three
stations, at intervals of ten miles or so, “Asia, Oural, and Europe.” At
ten o’clock on the morning of the 29th of September, we passed _by rail_
from one quarter of the globe into another, and reached at mid-day the
town of Ekaterinburg.

We here bade adieu, with much regret, to the Sourikoffs, who were
proceeding direct to Perm, and took up our quarters at the comfortable
_Amerikanske Gostinza_, or American Hotel, so called, perhaps, because
but two Americans have ever set foot in the place. It was evident that
we had left Asia. The broad, stone-paved streets and boulevards, the
handsome hotels, private houses enclosed in large well-kept gardens, and
last, but not least, the well-dressed men and women in the streets, were
signs that we had done with sombre, sad Siberia for good and all.
Ekaterinburg was the first really civilized place we had seen since
leaving Shanghai, it seemed ages ago, and here for the first time since
leaving Pekin we enjoyed the unwonted luxuries of a real bath, and a
clean bed with sheets and pillow-cases.

The neighbourhood of Ekaterinburg, which has a population of twenty-five
thousand inhabitants, is rich in minerals and precious stones. Among the
former iron preponderates; and there are many Englishmen settled here
working it. It seemed strange to hear one’s own tongue again spoken in
the streets and hotels, and to read in many cases the names of the
latter and of shopkeepers written in French over their doors. The
jewellers were almost as wearying and importunate as the Cinghalese
sapphire-sellers at Colombo. We had scarcely been in our room at the
hotel half an hour before we were assailed by a crowd of clamouring
dealers, who would not be denied; but insisted, though we were
performing our ablutions in a state of nudity, in laying out their wares
on the floor, till the drugget was covered with a glittering mass of
gems, among which were beryls, topaz, aquamarines, and chrysolites.
Amongst them were also one or two Alexandrites, the recently discovered
stone which shows two colours, crimson and green, the former by night,
and the latter by day. It derives its name from the Emperor Alexander,
and has also been found in Ceylon of late years. The stones were of
moderate prices, but our funds were too low to permit of our making any
investments, perhaps luckily for ourselves, for here, as in Colombo,
there are many worthless imitations.

We left Ekaterinburg on the afternoon of the 30th of September for Perm,
whence we were to take the steamer down the Kama and Volga rivers to
Nijni Novgorod. Though the railway between the two cities is worked by a
different company to that we had come by from Tiumen, we found the
comfort in every respect as great as on the other line. Each car had its
lavatory, heating apparatus, and comfortable sleeping fauteuils. At
every third or fourth station we found an excellent buffet, open
throughout the night. At one of them, Nijni Tagilsk, where we stopped to
dine, the dining-room of the station would not have disgraced a
first-class hotel in Paris or London. Down the centre of the brilliantly
lighted room ran a long table, covered with snowy table-cloth, and
glittering with silver plate and glass. The waiters were all in evening
dress, with spotless shirt fronts and white ties, and as they served one
with an excellent dinner of four courses and dessert, it was difficult
indeed to realize that one was yet but a few miles out of Asia. It was
the same everywhere. There are twenty odd stations between Ekaterinburg
and Perm, at every one of which was laid out, no matter what hour of the
day or night, a cold, if not hot, meal, or towards the chilly morning
hours steaming bowls of _café-au-lait_ or tea, with dainty rolls and
tiny glasses of vodka and cognac to cheer the inner man. We passed
Neviansk towards sunset, a picturesque village embowered in pine forest,
and surrounded by three large lakes, about two hours out of
Ekaterinburg. Neviansk is used as a summer resort and watering-place by
the inhabitants of the city, when, during June and July the heat and
dust become unbearable.

On the 1st of October, towards 6 a.m., we woke and looked out of the
frost-dimmed windows, to find ourselves in a new world. Wooden rails and
enclosures had given way to thick-set hedges and small fields, plank
huts to stone houses with corrugated iron roofs, a mineral, in this
district, as cheap as pine or fir. The pine and birch forests had
entirely disappeared. We were now passing large plains of cultivated
land, neat farm buildings surrounded by gardens and orchards, and
occasionally a village or town, approached by a poplar-lined road,
winding through the deserted fields. The landscape between Nijni Tagilsk
and Perm might well be mistaken for that lying between Boulogne and
Amiens on the Chemin de Fer du Nord.

The Oural trains are as punctual as they are comfortable, and we reached
Perm to the minute at the appointed time, 9 a.m. The scene at the
station was all confusion. The boat was only advertised to leave at
noon, and the scurry and excitement to get on board seemed very
unnecessary. We here had to encounter an unexpected difficulty. Men were
rushing about the platform with pink and yellow handbills, each
advertising a steamer bound for Nijni Novgorod, both boats to leave at
the same hour——noon. The question was which to go by, for both,
outwardly, looked exactly the same, though flying different company
flags. There was no one to help us, and my small stock of Russian was
absolutely useless in the uproar. In vain I button-holed policemen,
railway porters, soldiers——in vain gesticulated and shouted, “Loutchshi
parohode?” (Best boat?) It was no use, so we determined to do as we had
always done in the event of uncertainty, toss up. The steamer _Perm_ was
the one our coin settled on, and, fortunately for us, the right one. The
other boat, the _Nijni Novgorod_, was a wretched tub, and arrived at its
destination only five days after us, when we were already comfortably
settled in Moscow.

Perm is not a prepossessing city, though the day we saw it was perhaps
not a favourable one. A dense fog shrouded everything in damp white
mist, through which loomed the dome of the cathedral, and great, gaunt
warehouses lining the banks of the river. A steady drizzle, which had
commenced on our arrival and continued ever since with steady
persistency, extinguished all our hopes of visiting the town, and we
were glad to take refuge out of the cold and fog in the brilliantly
lighted though somewhat stuffy saloon of the steamer, where several of
the passengers (of which there were about a hundred) had already settled
down to a good square meal of stchi (cabbage soup), sterlet, and
beefsteak. A somewhat substantial menu for nine in the morning!

It was a relief to find that, by paying a few roubles extra, we could
secure a cabin to ourselves, and one considerably roomier than those
generally met with in ocean-going ships. At mid-day, punctual to the
minute, the bell was rung, the whistle sounded, and in less than ten
minutes the city of Perm was lost in a shroud of mist, and we were
steadily ploughing our way through the broad yellow stream to the last
stage of our homeward journey, Nijni Novgorod.

—————

Footnote 16:

  A kind of oatmeal cake.

Footnote 17:

  Eggs, tea, milk.

Footnote 18:

  It is curious to note that, in 1761, the Abbé d’Autroche found the
  population of Tobolsk to be 15,000 souls; in 1861, exactly one hundred
  years later, it was only 16,000.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  CHAPTER XII.

  PERM TO CALAIS.


THE _Perm_ was a large and comfortable vessel, replete with every modern
appliance, even to a piano and electric bells, and I doubt whether one
would have found a better cuisine on a Cunarder or White Star Liner.
But, despite her gorgeous fittings, she was filthily dirty, and her
cabins infested with vermin, so much so, that sleep at night was out of
the question. This was probably due to the large number of deck
passengers she carried, among them a large number of Kirghiz Tartars,
fine, well-built fellows, and a striking contrast to their squat, stumpy
brothers in Mongolia. Many wore the native dress: a kind of woollen
night-cap, which can be pulled down over the ears and neck in cold
weather, and loose baggy trousers, stuffed into short butcher-boots. A
loose coat worn over the shirt, open at the neck and wide at the
sleeves, with a belt round the waist, completed the costume. In winter a
short pelisse of sheep’s wool (called Poloushouba), is also worn, the
wool inwards. The Kirghiz Tartars are Mahometans, and their grave,
reserved demeanour was a strange contrast to the buffoonery and
skylarking proclivities of our merry little friends of the Gobi Desert.

The ordinary daily life of the Kirghiz, however, differs but little from
that of the latter. The tents of the former are exactly the same shape,
and of the same material, as those we saw in Mongolia. The Kirghiz, too,
is quite as gluttonous and filthy in his habits as the Mongolian Tartar,
and, unlike most Mahometans, is given to getting drunk on the sly. In
one point only do they differ: the zealous and watchful eye that a
Kirghiz keeps upon his womankind would be ridiculed by the
happy-go-lucky, trusting Mongol, and yet I fancy, with all his care,
that the wife, or wives, of the former are really not a whit more
virtuous than the ladies of Mongolia, for all their yashmaks and assumed
modesty.

We experienced cold and rainy weather all the way to Kazan, which was
reached on the 3rd of October.

The scenery of the Kama and Volga rivers differs little from that of the
Obi, and though the latter would be called a fine river in Europe, it
appeared dwarfed, in our eyes, into insignificance after the huge
lake-like Yenisei and Obi. The navigation of the Volga is in parts
extremely dangerous, but the risk small, for dangerous channels are well
marked with buoys, and after dark by barges, on board of which huge
bonfires are kept blazing all night. On clear nights this had a pretty
effect, and the avenues of fire reflected in the dark water, the green
and red lights of passing steamers, towing huge, shadowy lighters up or
down stream, the dark, starlit sky, and voices of distant boatmen, as
they trolled out some river-song, was impressive and picturesque. But
the nights were getting very cold, and we did not spend much of our time
on deck, preferring even the stuffy saloon, with its smoky atmosphere
and smell of stale food, to the cutting north-easter outside.

We stayed at Kazan six hours. This city, which may be called the true
boundary between European and Asiatic Russia, is about seven versts from
the landing-stage, with which there is communication by tramway. As a
town, Kazan is unique. The ancient Tartar capital, it has outwardly kept
up many of its oriental customs and all its Eastern appearance. The
veiled faces of the women, the fierce, swarthy Tartars in wild, barbaric
costume, bristling with daggers and cartridge-belts, the mosques,
minarets, and oriental-looking houses, mingling in strange incongruity
with the modern stone houses of the Russian population, _à la mode de
Paris_, four stories high, with balconies, _porte cochères_, and carved
façades, made one almost wonder whether the long journey from China had
not turned one’s head and indelibly mixed Europe and Asia in our minds,
even to the objects around us. But the streets of Kazan are,
notwithstanding their varied architecture, regular, well-built, and
gas-lit. There is not much trade, the exports being principally hides,
tallow, and iron. Costly weapons are made by the Tartars, swords,
pistols, and scimitars, with hilts and barrels inlaid with gold and
silver.

The best society in Kazan is equal to that of Moscow or Petersburg, some
Russian families having settled here since the days of the expulsion of
the Tartar dynasty. A charming person, Madame ————, who was proceeding
to Vienna on a visit to her sister, joined us here. She had been married
four years, and had during that time only once left her husband’s
château in the environs of Kazan.

Madame ———— was a native of Moscow, spoke French like a Parisian, and
sang like an angel. From this point to Nijni Novgorod was pleasant
enough, for we managed, by dint of bribery, to get the piano removed
from the crowded saloon to a smaller cabin on the lower deck, and had a
couple of pleasant musical soirées together, the quartette consisting of
our three selves and the captain, who sang Volga boat-songs in a sweet
tenor voice, and was, though Siberian, a charming and well-educated man.
Madame ————, though she had been banished for so long from the civilized
world, was a delightful companion. Her knowledge of England and English
literature was, however, somewhat limited. I asked her, on one occasion,
if she liked English authors as well as French. “No,” she replied, “I
can’t say I do. There is such a sameness about English writing; though
it is true, I have only read two English books.” On asking her which,
she replied, “‘The London Journal’ and ‘Bow Bells’!” No wonder she had
not the highest opinion of British authorship!

I was quite sorry, when we reached Nijni Novgorod, to bid the little
lady adieu. One is not often blessed with such a pleasant travelling
companion in civilized regions, much less in these unfrequented byways
of Europe. Nor did she seem the least dismayed at the long journey
before her alone and unprotected; but Russian women are the best
travellers in the world.

We passed, just before reaching Nijni Novgorod, a large white
paddle-steamer, built on the American principle, bound for Astrakhan, on
the Caspian. She was going full seventeen knots an hour, and churning up
the muddy water in a way that made the _Perm_ roll uncomfortably till
she was far astern of us. We also passed at least fifty barges between
Kazan and Nijni, laden with petroleum, from the Baku oil-wells on the
Caspian.

The Great Fair[19] was just over at Nijni Novgorod, and we had no
difficulty in getting rooms at the Hôtel de la Poste, an excellent inn,
which but ten days before had been crammed from basement to attic with
tourists from Moscow and Petersburg.

The city stands on a high hill, at the confluence of the Volga and Oka
rivers, and in fair time presents a strange and unique spectacle. The
fair is held on the left-hand bank of the Oka river, being connected
with the town by a long floating bridge, but at this season the river
itself is so covered with boats and barges, anchored for the sale of
goods, as to look like dry land.

“The scene from the town heights opposite,” says an eye-witness, “is at
the time of the fair indescribable.” There, embraced within the compass
of a glance, is the great fair of Nijni Novgorod. A huge flat sandy
plain, flanked by two great rivers, is covered over with houses of
different colours, mostly red and yellow, made of brick, wood, and
matting; millions of this world’s richest merchandise, stored or strewn
in every direction; churches, mosques, and theatres, rising in their
midst, three hundred thousand human beings more or less engaged in
buying, selling, trafficking, pushing, jolting, hurrying in every
direction; barges warped along the quays of two rivers, still busily
engaged in unloading their exhaustless cargoes. The river at your base
is the Oka, and running at right angles to it, at the point exactly
opposite to where you are, the still mightier Volga mixes its waters
with it. On reaching the quays below a low wooden bridge, very much like
that which spans the Rhine at Mayence, crosses the Oka at a point about
a verst distant from its embouchure. This is the only means of
communication, except by water, between the town and the fair. Behold
crowds on foot, in carriages, and on horseback; droves of bewildered
cattle driven by bearded, wild-looking men in gaudy coloured barbaric
dress, carts heavily laden with jars, casks, sacks, boxes, and unwieldy
lengths of timber; grave-looking orientals with flowing robes and
Astrakhan hats, alone imperturbable in the midst of the thronging crowd;
the din, the trampling, the confusion, all vastly aggravated by the
mounted Cossacks, who, placed at intervals along the line on their
restive little horses to keep order, add greatly to the general
confusion. Add to all this that after it has been raining all day——and
it often does rain at Nijni Novgorod——the roads are not ankle deep nor
knee deep, but hip and thigh deep in slush and mud, and a picture of
this strange city during fair time is before you.

“I was struck,” says the same writer, “with the number of ‘Traktirs’ or
eating-houses of the poorer sort. It is no light matter to supply the
daily wants of two to three hundred thousand people. Formerly this was
left to private enterprise, but whilst the caterers grew rich, the
people suffered. Not a year passed without an epidemic of some sort
breaking out among the throng which attended the fair. This was owing
partly to the food, which was notoriously bad, and partly to the air,
which in the absence of drainage or any sanitary arrangements was
pestilential. The Russian Government grappled boldly with this double
evil. To meet the danger of unwholesome food, they established in
different parts of the fair cheap eating-houses, where for the sum of
eight kopeks (about twopence three farthings) the poorer classes could
obtain a substantial meal, consisting of ‘Shtchi’ or cabbage soup, black
bread _ad libitum_, and a favourite porridge called ‘Kasche.’ They can
also obtain for three kopeks (about a penny) enough tea to give them
half a dozen cups of that national beverage and three pieces of sugar.
Since these precautions have been taken, no serious epidemic has broken
out at the Nijni ‘Yarmark.’

“Although one can scarcely mention an article great or small, European
or Asiatic, that may not be purchased at Nijni Novgorod during the
months of August and September, the staple commerce is in tea, sugar,
iron, cotton, silk, and furs of all kinds. Most of the tea sold at Nijni
is black tea, yellow and white teas are also sold, but in retail, and an
enormous quantity of brick tea is also annually imported. This is called
‘Kirpitchni’ and is largely drunk by the Kalmuks and Kirghiz. The duty
on Canton tea is heavier than that on Kiakhta or ‘overland’ tea by a
considerable amount. Probably if it were not for the popular prejudice
that sea-transported tea loses its flavour, the amount of overland tea
would be considerably less than it is. With reference to this opinion
the following is the current doctrine held by the most experienced
Russian merchants on the subject. They hold not exactly that the sea
voyage injures the tea, but that the preparation of the tea for the
voyage, viz., the extra drying and exposure to the air which it has to
undergo in order that it may not be deteriorated by the damp atmosphere,
does undoubtedly affect its flavour, so that indirectly it comes to the
same thing. “The tea depôt,” says Mr. ————, “is certainly the most
picturesque part of the fair; it would be still more so if the Chinaman
with his pigtail could be seen. But there are no Chinamen at Nijni; the
tea and the Chinamen part company at Maimachin, near Kiakhta, and from
that point the trade is entirely in the hands of Russians.”

The fur quarter is perhaps the next most interesting part of the fair,
long galleries of booths, where miles of bear skins, wolf skins, fox
skins, beaver skins, and even sheep skins hang up on either side of your
passage. The more valuable skins and furs are carefully packed away in
drawers and not exposed to the vulgar gaze. Among these are the
beautiful blue and silver fox and beaver. The silver fox so called
because its coat is sprinkled with white silvery hairs, is, next the
beaver and sable, the most costly fur that can be bought. A single
perfect belly of the silver fox will fetch (at Nijni) as much as one
hundred roubles. Among the skins sold for warmth and not show, that of
the reindeer is perhaps the most popular. They are brought mostly from
the northern districts of Vologda and Archangel, and are of three
degrees of merit and value. The “Pijick,” or skin of the animal at one
month old, is the best; that of the “Oleni,” above nine months old, is
the least valuable.

Two other fairs are held at Nijni Novgorod, but they are small and
uninteresting. The one held in the month of January, on the ice, at the
mouth of the Oka river, is devoted to the selling and buying of wooden
wares, such as toys and boxes. Great numbers come in on this occasion
from the neighbouring villages, and it is looked upon by the peasants
more as an occasion of feasting and merry-making, than one of business.
In 1864 the ice on which the booths and “Traktirs” were constructed,
gave way, and a number of men, women, and children, and horses were
drowned. The other fair is held on the 6th of July, and is exclusively
for the sale of horses.

In May, the Volga frequently overflows its banks to a depth of several
feet, and covers the site of the fair, in anticipation of which the
lower storeys of the warehouses and buildings are cleared, and to
cleanse them before July is one of the first things to be done by the
owners. This may account for a good deal of the sickness that exists in
a very hot summer or early autumn. The fine for smoking in the streets,
during fair time, is twenty-five roubles. This is rigidly enforced, and
a second offence means imprisonment without the option. The arrangements
for protection against fire are excellent. Not only on land, but on the
river also, powerful fire-engines are stationed, and numerous little
hand-engines are posted at the most inflammatory quarters. In case of
fire, within three minutes of the alarm-bell, a dozen large engines
could be on the spot at any part of the fair, and being surrounded by
the Volga and Oka rivers, there is no lack of water.

The town of Nijni itself is well built, and its broad, steep streets
paved with asphalte in many places. They are lit by gas, and some of the
principal thoroughfares by electric light. Altogether, we were well
pleased with the city, the first we had yet seen without a single wooden
building to mar the beauty of stone buildings, that would not have
disgraced London or Paris, and yet forty years ago there were scarcely a
dozen stone houses in the place!

Leaving Nijni Novgorod on the evening of the 5th October, the following
morning saw us in Moscow, and comfortably installed at that luxurious
but expensive hotel, the “Slavenski Bazar,” an establishment almost
equal in comfort to the Hôtel Bristol in Paris, but about twice as dear
in its charges. The restaurant is, perhaps, one of the finest in the
world. In the centre of the latter is a large round tank covered with
white water-lilies, and fringed by reeds and riverside flowers, in which
swim lazily to and fro huge sturgeon and sterlet, brought daily from the
Volga, and which are chosen and picked out by divers with a small net a
couple of hours before they are eaten, thus ensuring perfect freshness.

The plan or general panorama of Moscow is not unlike that of Paris, the
city having its nucleus in the celebrated “Kremlin,” which I was
somewhat disappointed in, perhaps because it had so often been thrust
down one’s throat as a beautiful sight. The word “Kremlin” is derived
from the Tartar language, in which it means “fortress,” every town of
importance in Russia having its “Kremlin,” great or small. The walls of
the Moscow Kremlin are about seven thousand three hundred feet in
circumference, and enclose the Imperial palace, arsenal, and treasury,
besides three cathedrals, a monastery, a convent, and the tower of Ivan
the Great, which latter is about three hundred feet in height, and
commands, on a clear day, one of the finest views in the world. At the
foot of the tower stands the “Tsar Kolokol,” or “king of bells,” which
weighs nearly two hundred tons, stands twenty-six feet high, and has a
circumference of sixty-eight feet. This bell dates back as far as the
year 1674, when it was suspended from a wooden beam at the foot of the
tower, from which during a fire it fell in 1706. Its fragments lay on
the ground until the reign of the Empress Anne, by whose orders it was
again recast in 1733. By the falling of some heavy rafters during
another fire, in 1737, or, according to some accounts, owing to an
imperfection in the casting caused by jewels and other treasures having
been thrown into the liquid metal by the ladies of Moscow, a piece in
the side was knocked out; and the bell remained buried till the year
1836, when it was placed on its present pedestal by order of Nicholas I.
Moscow is essentially a city of bells and churches. Among the former are
some of the sweetest toned ones I have ever heard. This is due in a
great measure to the large amount of gold and silver used in the alloy.
Morning, noon, and night the bells of Moscow are never silent. Wake up
at four in the morning, and you will hear at least a dozen churches
(there are over four hundred) tolling for some religious service, or the
repose of a soul.

There are three cathedrals within the Kremlin: the Annunciation, where
the Czars are baptized and married; the Assumption, where they are
crowned; and the Archangel Michael, where they are interred. The latter
is, perhaps, though not the richest, the most curious, for it contains,
ranged round the walls, the coffins of all the Czars reigning between
1333 and 1696. Entering suddenly from the sunshine, it was some time
before we discovered that we were surrounded by some forty coffins, each
covered with a dark crimson velvet pall, bearing a gold embroidered
cross. Near the centre altar stood the bier of little Prince Dimitri,
murdered by order of the Czar Boris. Part of the face, which looks of
the consistency of dark leather, is exposed, and this is kissed daily by
many thousands of the faithful. A service was going on, at one of the
smaller chapels, the bright gleam of light around the Ikonostase and
white and gold vestments throwing the rest of the building into deeper
gloom, while the melancholy dirge which the priests were droning out for
the repose of some dead monarch, heightened the effect of the gloomy
scene.

The richest church in Moscow, if not the handsomest, is the Cathedral of
the Assumption, which dates from A.D. 1479. This cathedral was pillaged
by the French in 1812. It still contains, notwithstanding, treasure and
relics of fabulous wealth. Some of the pictures are literally covered
with diamonds and other precious stones; one, a picture of the Holy
Virgin, having attached to it jewels worth thirty million roubles. Among
the relics is one of the nails used at the crucifixion, and a portion of
the garment worn by our Saviour.

The Kremlin may be described as a town within a city, and a very quiet
dull town, for there is but little life or movement in its cobbled
grass-grown streets. To a student of architecture, however, it must be
interesting, for the Byzantine, Gothic, Arab, and even Chinese styles
are there mixed in glorious confusion. The palace, though it contains
magnificent reception-rooms, and millions of roubles have been spent on
its restoration, is an ugly, commonplace building, and detracts a good
deal from the picturesque appearance of the churches and buildings
around it, while the arsenal and treasury are positively hideous. Ranged
along the walls of the former are the cannon taken from the French.
There are eight hundred and seventy-five pieces in all, each bearing a
name upon their breech thus: “Le Valliant,” “La Ravissante,” “L’Eclair,”
&c. It was then, apparently, customary to christen cannon like ships in
the present day.

On leaving or entering the Kremlin by the Spasskoi Gate, every one must
uncover. The Russians are tetchy on this point, and a stranger
infringing the rule would have a bad time of it. The legend runs that
Napoleon I. is the only man that ever dared ride through the gate with
his hat on; but that, even in his case, a gust of wind sent it flying
before he was well through, much to the rage and discomfiture of “Le
Petit Caporal.”

The name of the latter is, strange to say, revered by all, and loved by
some in the Holy City, and it is rare to hear a Russian display
animosity towards France. There is rather a feeling of pity for the
thousands of unhappy soldiers who perished, frozen to death, on the
bleak plains around Moscow, during the retreat from that city, a
disaster that gave rise to the Russian expression, “I feel as cold as a
Frenchman!” The Muscovite excels even the Parisian in politeness. No one
ever dreams of entering a shop or restaurant covered, and the very
beggars in the streets salute each other with the air of nobles. On the
whole I have seldom seen a city I liked more on a short acquaintance
than Moscow, perhaps for the reason that it is utterly unlike any other
I have ever beheld. It is fairly clean, for Russia, but although the two
principal thoroughfares are asphalte-paved, the smaller streets would
disgrace a third-rate country town in England, and are in summer ankle
deep in dust, in winter a sea of mud and mire.

But although this city is, next to Constantinople, the earthly paradise
of the sight-seer, I will not trouble the reader with our peregrinations
round a city which has been so often and so graphically described. It
may be heresy to say so, but I must confess that the sight which
impressed me most was the poorly furnished room, with its camp-bedstead
and two rough wooden chairs, in the hotel, where brave Skobeleff
breathed his last, and under what deplorable circumstances!

We were not anxious to prolong our stay, for winter arrived with
unpleasant suddenness, on the 10th of October. The barometer, which had
at 2 p.m. been up to 70°, had sunk at 7 p.m. to only two degrees above
zero, and by nine o’clock snow was falling in thin white flakes. The
next morning it was nine or ten inches deep, and gangs of men were at
work in the streets flattening it down for sledge traffic.

I look back on Warsaw as the one bright spot in our journey. It will be
long ere I forget the bright sunny morning that we came upon its white
palaces and gardens, its squares and boulevards, after a tedious railway
journey from Moscow. Apart from the cheerful look of the town and
population, one felt one had reached Europe at last. The first thing
that strikes one on arriving at this so-called down-trodden city is the
preponderance of the female element; the second, how unusually
good-looking that element is. I think one sees more pretty women in five
minutes in Warsaw than in half-an-hour in any other European capital,
London thrown in. An ill-dressed Warsaw woman is an anomaly. Even the
lower orders seemed to know how to put their clothes on, for the Polish
woman has a _cachet_ of her own; has the “chic” of a Parisienne, with
the beauty of a Viennese, for nearly all are tall and well-made, with
good figures and graceful carriage. It is apparently the fashion among
the “smart” ladies of Warsaw to let small pieces of metal into the heels
of their boots, which make a clear ringing sound as they walk, and the
effect (on a pretty woman) is not unpleasing.

As Moscow follows Petersburg in fashions and customs, so does Warsaw
Vienna. The Russian tongue in Warsaw is seldom heard. No longer is the
sacred _ikon_ seen in apartments and bedrooms. Tea is drunk in cups,
_not_ glasses; but coffee is the favourite beverage of all classes. We
had evidently done with Russia for good, though the town swarmed with
the Czar’s troops in their ugly pea-soup-coloured coats and white caps.
Here, unlike most Russian and Siberian towns, the soldiers are
encouraged to walk about and show themselves, but I do not think I saw a
dozen uniforms the whole time I was in Moscow.

Reaching Vienna the 17th of October, ten days later sees us rattling
along in the eleven o’clock train from Paris for London, _viâ_ Calais. A
thick haze hangs over the Channel as we approach the coast. The sea is
of a dirty grey, and presents a very different appearance to when we
last saw it, blue and sparkling, in the Gulf of Pechili! It is with a
queer but pleasant feeling of rest and relief that we leave land at last
to step on to the broad white deck of the steamer _Victoria_, at Calais.

“Would you care to do it again?” says a casual acquaintance to whom we
have narrated our adventures, if such they may be called.

“Not for ten thousand pounds,” says Lancaster, emphatically. And yet, as
a ray of sun shines out of the mist, lighting up the white cliffs of
England, bright augur of the comfort and civilization we are nearing, I
cannot help thinking that to experience such a moment as this is well
worth even the discomfort and privations that have attended our long,
weary voyage from _Pekin to Calais by land_.

—————

Footnote 19:

  The transactions at the fair of Nijni Novgorod are said to amount
  yearly to over four millions sterling.



  THE END

  [Illustration: Map]

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————



  INDEX.

  ———————

 Abukansk, 360.
 Airak, 197.
 Alexandrites (precious stones), 620.
 Amherst in China, Lord, 91.
 Amur, steamer on the, 106.
 Angara River, the, its current, 367; its breadth, 481.
 Antelope, the Gobi, 219.
 Army, the Chinese, 75, 117.
 Atchinsk, 561; its cheerful look, 562; the blacksmiths’ quarter, 563.
 Atkinson, the English traveller, 369.
 Axle, a broken, 558.

 “Babington’s Curse,” 204.
 Baikal, Lake, 362; the Holy Sea, 366; hurricanes, 368; steam
   communication, 370.
 Bain-Gol Pass, the, 301.
 Balanskaya; the axle on fire, 551.
 Bandits, Siberian, 459 to 463; 484 to 486.
 Barge, a Prison, 614.
 Batouyeff, M., 145.
 Beetles, edible, 168, 203.
 Beggars, Chinese, 52, 53.
 “Bell with the ear torn off,” the, at Tobolsk, 606.
 Bell of Moscow, the Great, 640.
 Bell, John, the English traveller, 2, 368.
 Berries, Siberian, as food, 497.
 Biriousinsk, discovery of gold near, 540.
 Black Nihilists, 363, 404.
 Bogdanovitch, M., his collection in the Irkoutsk Museum, 426.
 Bogotolsk, the boundary between Eastern and Western Siberia, 564.
 Bokovskaya, post-station, 477.
 Bolshoi-Kosoul, the boundary between Eastern and Western Siberia, 564.
 Boris Godorinoff, the Czar, 606; the iron exile, 608.
 Botolskaya, post-station, 552.
 Boundary between Inner and Outer Mongolia, 217; between Eastern and
   Western Siberia, 564; between Europe and Asia, 618.
 Bouriattes, the, 442; their civilization, religion and language, 443;
   conquered by the Cossacks, 603.
 Bread, Siberian, 509.
 Breakfast in Siberia, a, 349.
 Brick tea, 151, 191, 298, 635; see Tea.
 “Brousniki,” a kind of bilberry, 498, 594.
 Burroughe’s Straits, in the Frozen Ocean, 465.

 “Cage,” the Chinese punishment of the, 49.
 Cairo, 9.
 “Called Back,” Siberia as described in, 387, 491.
 Camel, the Mongolian, 23, 221, 223, 250, 301.
 Canal, a leviathan, 464; M. Siberakoff, 465; the railway as a rival,
   466.
 “Cangue,” the, a Chinese punishment, 49.
 Caviare, fresh, 575.
 Chaman religion, the, 429, 440, 444.
 Champagne in Siberia, sweet, 414.
 Chang-Chia-Kow, see Kalgan.
 Chefoo, a Chinese watering-place, 25.
 Cherkoff, Captain, of the Cossacks, 335.
 Chiarini’s travelling circus at Tientsin, 31.
 China, 1; a tea-garden, 20; fortune-telling, 22; salt-mills, 27;
   coal-mines, 28, 141; life on a house-boat, 31 to 40; population, 38;
   an execution, 47; punishments, 49; beggars, 52; roads, 64, 93, 120;
   examinations, 74; the army, 75, 117; a funeral, 78; the women, 80;
   pigtails, 81; coinage, 82; intoxication, 83; food, 84; gambling, 84;
   cricket fighting, 85; a doctor, 85; a medical prescription, 86;
   porcelain, 86; the Emperor, 88; the Queen Regent, 89; the Great
   Audience Question, 91; the Imperial harem, 92; a railway, 95; the
   Great Wall, 110, 126, 144, 148, 169; a mule litter, 115; an inn, 121;
   a stove-bed, 122; irrigation, 125; an open-air theatre, 127; poppies,
   140; religions, 159; see Pekin, Shanghai.
 Ching-Ming-Ting, 140.
 “Chow” dogs, 84.
 Chukchee tribe, the, 434.
 Chulim River, the, Siberakoff’s waterway, 465.
 Cigarettes, Russian, 598.
 Circus, a travelling, 31.
 Clocks, sham, in Siberia, 477.
 Coal-mines, Chinese, 28, 141.
 Coinage, Chinese, 82.
 Confucius, the temple of, at Maimachin, 296.
 “Conversation Sibérienne,” 594.
 Convicts in Siberia, 363; political prisoners worse off than criminals,
   364, 406, 408, 448, 449, 556; a convict barge, 371, 614 to 616;
   criminals from all parts, 372; a forger, 373; prison songs, 374, 532;
   a remarkable story, 379; a dangerous character, 380; a Polish exile,
   401, 553; fixing dates of past events, 402; letters for Europe, 403;
   the English idea of Siberia, 404, 406; the mines, 404, 405, 412, 454,
   540; a convoy, 406, 408, 411, 452, 532, 559; prisons, 363, 409, 447,
   449, 488, 491, 492; no chance of escape, 410, 489; well treated, 411;
   food, 412, 447; costume, 412; punishment, 413; a dreaded spot, 436,
   609; comparative liberty, 448; female exiles, 450, 452, 453, 532,
   559, 560, 592; pioneers and colonizers, 451; “exile by administrative
   process,” 453; runaway convicts, 459 to 462, 480, 485, 507, 511, 517;
   _Katorgi_, 480; a prisoner’s wife, 534, 536, 539; a sad story, 536 to
   539.
 Cossacks, the, 130, 263, 264, 346, 407, 424, 428, 532.
 Courier, a Russian Government, 130, 362.
 Cricket-match in Shanghai, a, 15.
 Cricket-fighting, 84.
 Custom House, a Siberian, 375.
 Czar, a courier of the, 130.

 Da-Hun-Go, 179.
 Death Lamas, 292.
 De Staal, M., 3.
 Dickens, the works of Charles, 157.
 Dimitri, Prince, 606, 608, 641.
 Dinner party in Siberia, a, 335, 337, 399.
 Doctor, a Chinese, 85.
 Dogs, edible, 84; Mongolian, 206; wild dogs of Kamchatka, 433; Ostiak,
   586.
 Dombrowski, M., a Polish exile, 553.
 “Droshki,” a, 416, 577.

 Eclipse of the sun, an, 422.
 Eggs, stale, 414.
 Ekaterinburg, 619; minerals, 620.
 Evening party in Siberia, an, 335, 399, 549.
 Executions in China, 47; a “substitute,” 49.
 “Exile by administrative process,” 453.
 Exiles, Siberian, see Convicts.

 Feet of Chinese women, the, 80.
 Ferry over the Tola, 263; the Irul, 317; the Selenga, 355; the Oka,
   505; the Uda, 527; driving on board, 545.
 Flogging; the “knout” and “pléte,” 412, 413.
 Fortune-telling in China, 22.
 Fruit-growing soil, a, 364.
 Funeral, a Chinese, 78.
 Fungus, an intoxicating, 431.
 Furs; 463, 636.

 Gadolovitch, M., the Whiteley of Siberia, 557.
 Globe Trotters, 4, 109.
 Gobi Desert, the Great, i. 22; “Shamo,” 186; scarcity of water, 188;
   monotony, 193; sheep, 202; rats, 203; mole-hills, 204; the Russian
   mail, 204; a Lama, 206, 255; the Mongol tongue, 208; the snuff
   bottle, 210; Mongol tea, 211; a _souvenir_, 213; Mongol women, 214,
   257; horsemanship, 216; the boundary, 217; sand grouse, 218;
   antelope, 219; sport, 220; death of a camel, 221; thirst, 224;
   sunstroke, 225; a sandstorm, 229; lost, 235; transparent stones, 238;
   a freak of nature, 241 to 244; a storm, 246; a runaway camel, 250;
   palmistry, 256; beautiful scenery, 262; a land of milk and honey,
   263; we reach Ourga, 267.
 Gold in Siberia, 396; 540.
 Great fair at Nijni Novgorod, the, 632 to 636.
 Great Wall of China, the, 110; offshoot at Nankow, 126; at Kalgan, 144,
   148; its dilapidated appearance, 169.
 Gribooshin, M., tea-merchant, 324.

 Haircutter, a juvenile, 425.
 Haldiéva, post-station, 567.
 Hares, enormous, 310, 482.
 Heart-rending story, a, 536 to 540.
 Honeymoon in Siberia, a, 483, 499.
 Hong Kong, 12.
 Honour amongst escaped convicts, a point of, 518.
 Horsemanship, Mongol, 216.
 Hotel bill, a monstrous, 579.
 House-boat, a Chinese, 31; nearly upset, 35; our crew, 36; rats and
   cockroaches, 37; a thunderstorm, 40.

 Ignatieff, General, Governor of E. Siberia, 386, 552. ———— the
   Countess, 502.
 Ilinskaya, wheel on fire at, 543.
 Inn, a Chinese, 121 to 124.
 Irkoutsk, 385; the Government, 386; the climate, 387; the “Moskovskaya
   Podovorié,” 388, 393; the streets and pavements, 389; the shops, 390;
   costume, 391; the ladies, 392, 400; military band, 393; rudeness and
   vulgarity, 394; the gold-mining millionaires, 395; the tradespeople,
   400; the _Jeunesse Dorée_, 402; the watchmen, 403; evening
   amusements, 414; the market-place, 415; the “droshki,” 416; the
   boulevard, 417; the eclipse of the sun, 422; a barber’s, 425; the
   Museum, 426; a custom of the country, 455; police magistrates, 456;
   morals, 457; the Opera, 468; moderate hotel bill, 469.
 “Iron exile of Boglitch,” the, 608.
 Irtish, the river; dangerous navigation, 595; desolate scenery, 596;
   landslips, 599.
 Irul, the river, 301, 313.
 Ivan II., the conquests of, 600.
 Ivanoff, M., tea-planter, 145.

 “Kalatchi,” oatmeal cakes, 582.
 Kalgan, 144; Russian hospitality, 146; comfort, 148; caravans, 150;
   resembles an Arab town, 152; a street scene, 155; the mission, 157;
   locked in, 161; partridge shooting, 166; wolves, 175.
 “Kamaoulie Koloko,” the, 606.
 Kamchatdales, the, 429 to 431.
 Kamchatka, 426 to 428.
 Kansk, 447, 549.
 Karra, 363, 436.
 “Kasche” porridge, 634.
 _Katorgi_, see Convicts.
 Kazan, 627; boundary between European and Asiatic Russia, 628; its
   Eastern appearance, 629.
 _Kazanetse_, the, 580, 582.
 Kharra, the river, 301, 305.
 Kiakhta, 320; the inn, 322; the town, 325; the bells, 326; the college,
   331; the cathedral, 332; tea-merchants, 333; gambling, 334; a dinner
   party, 336; the market, 344; the barracks, 349; drink, 352.
 Kirghiz Tartars, the, 526.
 “Kirpitchni,” brick-tea, 635.
 Kluchevski, Mount, the highest volcano in Kamchatka, 427.
 “Klysti,” or Flagellants, the, 419.
 “Knout,” abolition of the, 412.
 Kolestnikoff, M., postmaster at Kalgan, 166.
 Koo-ash, the village of, 120 to 125.
 Kootchoom Khan, 600, 601.
 “Koo-Too,” the, 52.
 Kootookta, the, 187, 268, 270, 285, 288.
 Koriaks, the, 429 to 432.
 Koumiss, 294.
 Koutoulik, a pleasant evening at, 482; the ostrog, 493.
 Krasnoiarsk, 447; red cliffs, 556; fire brigade, 557; founded by the
   Cossacks, 603.
 Kremlin of Moscow, the, 639; the cathedrals, 641; architecture, 642;
   cannon, 643.
 Kuriles, the, 432; queer customs, 433.
 Kwang-Su, the Emperor, 88.
 Kwi La Shai, 132.

 Lady Missionaries in China, 157.
 Lama, a, 206 to 209, 255.
 Landslips in Tobolsk, 599.
 Langtry, a portrait of Mrs., in a Siberian post-house, 359.
 Lassa, the capital of Tibet, 270.
 Lemmings, a migration of, 434.
 Lew Buah, Captain, 163; his adventures, 164; we say good-bye, 178.
 “Ling Chi,” death by the, 47.
 List of post-stations between Irkoutsk and Tomsk, 571.
 Listvenitz, a port on Lake Baikal, 362; the Custom House, 375; a
   watering-place, 378.
 Listvinskaya, post-station, 507.

 Malta, 8.
 Manchin Tartars, the, 75.
 “Michel Strogoff,” 2, 387.
 “Midshipman Easy,” the triangular duel, 339.
 Missionaries in China, ladies as, 157.
 Mole hills, 204.
 “Molokani” or milk-drinkers, the sect of the, 419.
 Monastery of St. Innocent, 477.
 Mongols, the, 153; on a journey, 181; population, 187; lazy and filthy,
   194, 198; the women, 195, 214, 283; a yourt, 196; gluttony, 197;
   head-dress, 199; dogs, 206; a Lama, 207, 255; the language, 208;
   interior of a tent, 209; the snuff-bottle, 210; a cup of real Mongol
   tea, 211; a conversation, 212; a superstition, 213; wooden guiding
   rods, 224; revolting specimens, 240; tobacco, 248; cleaner and better
   mannered, 252; a belle, 257; disposal of the dead, 259, 290;
   “Moo-moo,” 260; fear of death, 261; few people know anything of the
   Mongols, 266; in Ourga, 282; grotesque appearance, 283; Golgotha,
   290; our new drivers, 302; wakeful at night, 304; water-supply, 306;
   a contented race, 309.
 Monshafskaya, the village of, 363; wild fruit, 364.
 Moonlight target-practice of the Russian troops, 346.
 Moscow, 638; the “Slavenski Bazar,” 639; the “King of bells,” 640; the
   cathedrals, 641; the Kremlin, 642; politeness, 643; the room where
   Skobeleff died, 644; snow, 645.
 “Moskovskava Podovorie,” the, at Irkoutsk, 388, 468.
 Mosquitoes, 304, 314, 436, 530.
 Mount Lavinia, 11.
 Mule-litter, a Chinese, 115, 190.
 Music, Siberian, 495.
 Musketry by moonlight, 346.

 Nankow, 125, 128.
 “Napoleonists,” the sect of, 418.
 Navigation of the River Irtish, 595.
 Nempshinof’s mausoleum, 333.
 Nertchinsk gold-mines, 363.
 Neviansk, the watering-place of Ekaterinburg, 622.
 Nicolaievsk to Tashkent, a journey from, 521.
 Nihilists, see Convicts.
 Nijni Novgorod, 630; Hôtel de la Poste, 631; the Great Fair, 632;
   eating-houses, 634; overland tea, 635; furs, 636; two smaller fairs,
   637; fire engines, 638.
 Nijni Tagilsk, dining-room at the railway station, 621.
 Nijni Udinsk, 447; the post-house, 527; the town, 529.

 Obdorsk, the canal to, 465.
 Obi river, the, 581 to 594.
 Oka, the river, 504; the ferry, 505.
 Okhotsk, “the end of the world,” 435.
 “Oleni,” the skin of the reindeer above nine months old, 637.
 Ostiaks, the, 442, 585.
 Ostrogs, 363, 409, 447, 488 to 493.
 Oural Mountains, the, 618.
 Ourga, 267; the Mecca of Mongolia, 269; the Russian Consulate, 271; the
   European cemetery, 277; depression, 280; Mongol women, 282; dogs and
   beggars, 284; a Buddhist temple, 285; the huge figure of Buddha, 286;
   Golgotha, 290; the death-chamber, 292; Maimachin, 295; the Temple of
   Confucius, 296.
 Ourouni, 213.
 Outfit, our, 4.

 “Palikao,” the bridge of, 46.
 Palmistry in the Desert, 256.
 Partridge shooting, 167.
 Peiho, the river, 26; landslips, 37; a thunderstorm, 40.
 Pekin, 53; dust, 54, 65; we lose ourselves, 55; insolence of the
   Pekinese, 57, 83; the “Legation de France,” 58; the Hôtel, 58; the
   capital of China, 60; the Roman Catholic Church, 62; the gates, 63;
   the roads, 64, 93; the climate, 66, 99; small-pox, 67; dirt, 68; the
   English Embassy, 69, 96; the Russian Minister, 70; the Tartar wall,
   72; the observatory, 73; the Board of Examinations, 74; Mancha
   soldiery, 75; a native cab, 76, 97; a street scene, 77; a funeral,
   78; the _Pekin Gazette_, 79; the women, 80; the coinage, 82; the
   “Jeunesse Dorée,” 83; cricket-fighting, 84; a doctor’s shop, 85; the
   porcelain shops, 86; the Summer Palace, 87; the dogs, 97; no insect
   pests, 97; the European population, 98; Jubilee Day, 100; a
   disappointment, 104; our departure, 113.
 Penang, 12.
 Perm, 623.
 _Perm_, the, 623, 626.
 Petchora River, the, Siberakoff’s canal, 465.
 Petroff, Colonel, 278, 280.
 Petropaulosk, earthquakes at, 428.
 Philipitch, founder of the Flagellants, 419.
 Photography in Siberia, 579.
 Piatko, at the junction of the Obi and Chulim rivers, 465.
 Pigtails, 81.
 “Pijick,” the skin of the reindeer at one month old, 636.
 Pike, the Siberian, 278.
 “Plète,” punishment by the, 413.
 Podarojna, a, 445.
 Poll-tax, a, 496.
 Polovilnaya, post-station, 482.
 Poloushouba, the, a pelisse of sheep’s wool, 627.
 Ponies, Mongolian, 102, 118, 139, 154, 199, 201, 216, 234.
 “Poorgas,” or Kamchatka snowstorms, 428.
 Poppies, 140.
 Porcelain, Chinese, 86.
 Port Said, 9.
 Posting in Siberia, 353; our “Troika,” 354; a strain on the nerves,
   355; a ferry, 356; inadequate number of horses, 524; the post-horses,
   346.
 Postmaster, a Siberian, 348, 475.
 Prayer-wheels, 209, 281, 287, 385.
 Prescription, a Chinese, 86.
 Prisons, see Ostrogs, Convicts, &c.
 “Privatne,” or ordinary podarojna, the, 446.
 Punishments, Chinese, 49, 50.

 “Quass,” 323, 495.
 Quicksilver in Siberia, mines of, 405.

 “Rabchick,” the, a Russian partridge, 593.
 Radovitch, M., 360, 376.
 Railways in China, 95; in Siberia, 466, 575, 612; in Russia, 621, 623.
 Rasgonnaia, ostrog at, 492.
 Rats, edible, 84; Gobi, 203; Lemmings, 434; Siberia, 501.
 Red Sea, the, 10.
 Reiff’s Russian Grammar, 463.
 Reindeer skins, 636.
 _Reutern_, the, 597.
 Ribinskaya, post-station, 551.
 Route, our, 3; an alternative, 105.
 Russian language, the, 463.
 Russians, the, 145, 146, 294, 300.
 “Russians of To-day,” the, 406, 491.

 Sakhalien, the most dreaded prison in Siberia, 363; convicts sent by
   sea, 409; formerly belonged to Japan, 429; climate, 436.
 Salt, Ostiak hatred of, 588.
 Salt-mills, Chinese, 27.
 Samoyédes, the, 442, 588.
 Sandflies, 304, 314.
 Sand-grouse, 218.
 Sand-storm, a, 229.
 “Scotch woodcock,” 165.
 Seals in Lake Baikal, 368.
 Sects, religious, in Siberia, 418.
 Selenga river, the ferry over the, 355, 357.
 Shanghai, 12; the club, 14; sport, 15; hospitality, 16; the bund, 17,
   18; the electric light, 18; the native city, 19; a tea-garden, 20,
   21; fortune-telling, 22.
 Sheep, Gobi, 202.
 Shishmaroff, M., 264, 275, 278.
 “Shtchi,” or cabbage soup, 624, 634.
 Siberakoff, M., 144; his waterway, 145.
 Siberia, 33, 70, 322; a dinner party, 335; a tarantass, 341; a
   post-master, 348, 475; breakfast in barracks, 349; a farewell, 351;
   posting, 353, 524, 546; a ferry, 355, 505, 527, 545; criminals,
   exiles, &c., 364, 401, 448, 488, 493, 517, 530, 560; discomfort, 383;
   climate, 385; books of travel, 387; wealthy gold-miners, 391 to 397;
   dress, 391; washing appliances, 392, 576; gold, 396, 540; the ladies,
   400; champagne, 414; eggs, 414; religious sects, 418; tribes, 426,
   444; bandits, 459 to 486; scenery, 471; post-houses, 474, 500, 566;
   telegraphs, 476; sham clocks, 477; a supper in the wilds, 483;
   village prisons, 363, 488; eternal delay, 493, 525; monotony, 498,
   525, 564; a cottage, 494; a swinging cradle, 495; music, 495;
   berries, 497; a honeymoon, 499; rats and vermin, 501; lady
   travellers, 502; our troubles commence, 503; timekeeping
   extraordinary, 508; bread, 509; refreshment for escaped convicts,
   517; wild flowers, 529; gold and silver, 540; reckless apathy, 565;
   posting a letter, 574; photography, 579; the steamer on the Obi, 580;
   the eternal _menu_, 593; “Conversation Sibérienne,” 594; meals, 598;
   Ivan II., 600; conquest, 601 to 603.
 Silver Fox, the, 636.
 Singapore, 12.
 Skobeleff’s room, 644.
 Skopti, the, 418.
 Small feet of the Chinese women, 80.
 Small-pox, 67, 439, 516, 609.
 Snuff-bottle, the, 210.
 Soldiers, Chinese, 75, 117.
 Sourikoff, M., the painter, 590, 619.
 Sport; partridges, 165, 167; antelope, 220; wildfowl, 302, 314, 589,
   610.
 Squirrels, 586.
 Staal, M. de, 3.
 Stanley, reported murder of the explorer, 469.
 Sterlet, 575.
 Stone pillar near Ekaterinaberg, the, 618.
 Stove-bed, a Chinese, 122.
 “Substitute,” a, 49.
 Subterranean passages at Tobolsk, 609.
 Summer Palace at Pekin, the, 87.
 Sun, an eclipse of the, 422.
 Sunstroke, a, 225.

 Taku, 26; the forts, 27.
 “Tamerlan, the Target of,” 179.
 Taoutinsk, post-station, 560.
 Tarantass, a, 342, 561.
 Target practice by moonlight, 346.
 _Tasmania_, the wreck of the, 10.
 Tchuan-Ha-Ho, 139.
 Tea, 29, 45, 150, 211, 326, 493, 543, 575, 635.
 Telegrams, low tariff in Siberia for, 345.
 “Teliatina,” 593.
 Theatre, an open-air, 127.
 Thunderstorm on the Peiho river, a, 40.
 Tielminskaya, the waiting-room at, 478.
 Tientsin, 28; trade, 29; the hotel, 30.
 Timoffeef, Yermak, 601 to 604.
 Tiretskaya, post-station, 503.
 Tiumen, 611; the railway station, 612; the town, 613; a convict barge,
   614; a cheap place to live in, 617.
 Tobolsk, 599; the province, 600; monument to Yermak, 603; the city,
   604; precautions against fire, 605; the “Kamaoulie Koloko,” 606 to
   608; very unhealthy, 609; subterranean passages, 609.
 Tola, the river, 263, 278, 297.
 Tomsk, 570, 573; cheerless appearance, 574; the Hôtel d’Europe, 575;
   washing appliances, 576; carriages and horses, 577; smart gowns, 578;
   hotel bill, 579.
 Toogoorook, 214.
 Tornado in the Gobi, 229.
 Touloung, adventures at, 508 to 522.
 “Tow-ists,” the sect of the, 159.
 “Traktirs,” or eating-houses at the Great Fair, 634.
 Trapeznikoff, M., a millionaire of Irkoutsk, 397.
 Triangular duel in “Mr. Midshipman Easy,” 339.
 Troitzkosavsk, a suburb of Kiakhta, 325; see Kiakhta.
 Trout-fishing, 297.
 “Tsar Kolokol,” the King of Bells, 640.
 Tsiang-Shai-Poo, 141; the women, 142; Kentish scenery, 143.
 Tungchow, 42.
 _Tungchow_, the, 24.
 “Tungouses,” the, 441.
 “Tutinza,” the Cave Town, 178.

 Uda, the river, 527.
 Urga, 187; see Ourga.

 Valentine’s meat juice, 192.
 Vegetation of the Gobi, 204.
 Verne, Jules, 2, 463.
 Vultures, enormous, 246, 284.

 Wall of China, the Great, 110, 126, 144, 148, 169.
 Warsaw, 645.
 Washing appliances in Siberian hotels, 392, 576.
 Watches, the Emperor of China and his tutor’s, 90.
 Watchman, a Siberian, 402.
 Waterway, between Petersburg and Irkoutsk, 464.
 Wheat in Tiumen, price of, 617.
 “White Doves,” the sect of the, 419.
 Wiggins, Captain, arctic explorer, 558.
 Wild dogs of Kamchatka, 433.
 Wild flowers, 204, 320, 415, 530.
 Wild fowl, 302, 314, 589, 611.
 “Wire shirt,” the punishment of the, 50.
 Women; Chinese, 80; Mongolian, 195, 214, 283; Koriaks, 431; Kuriles,
   433; Siberian, 496; Kirghiz, 627.
 Wormoff, Professor, 334.

 Yakouts, the, 435 to 438.
 Yakoutsk, 436, 603.
 Yellow tiles, the Imperial, 62.
 Yemstchiks, 354 to 356, 416, 545, 548, 569.
 Yeneseisk, founded by the Cossacks in 1619, 603.
 Yenisei, the river, 552, 527.
 Yermak Timoffeef, 601 to 604.
 “Yourt,” a, 196, 206, 256.
 Yurakis, the, 442.

 Zalarinsk, post-station, 496.
 Ziminskaya, post-station, 507.


  GILBERT AND RIVINGTON, LIMITED, ST. JOHN’S HOUSE,
  CLERKENWELL ROAD, LONDON.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

  Transcriber’s notes

1. Silently corrected typographical and printer's errors; retained
   non-standard spelling. Improperly spelled words in languages other
   than English have been retained.

2. Adjusted two page number references in the List of Illustrations.

3. Italic text in the original is delimited by _underscores_, except
   those that are only decorative.

4. Bold text in the original is delimited by =equal signs=.





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About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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