Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
MONGOLS AT HOME
Until we left Urga the second time Mongolia, to us, had meant only the Gobi Desert and the boundless, rolling plains. When we set our faces northward we found it was also a land of mountains and rivers, of somber forests and gorgeous flowers.
A new forest always thrills me mightily. Be it of stately northern pines, or a jungle tangle in the tropics, it is so filled with glamour and mystery that I enter it with a delightful feeling of expectation. There is so much that is concealed from view, it is so pregnant with the possibility of surprises, that I am as excited as a child on Christmas morning.
The forests of Mongolia were by no means disappointing. We entered them just north of Urga where the Siberian life zone touches the plains of the central Asian region and the beginnings of a new fauna are sharply delineated by the limit of the trees. We had learned that the Terelche River would offer a fruitful collecting ground. It was only forty miles from Urga and the first day's trip was a delight. We traveled northward up a branch valley enclosed by forested hills and carpeted with flowers. Never had we seen such flowers! Acre after acre of bluebells, forget-me-nots, daisies, buttercups, and cowslips converted the entire valley into a vast "old-fashioned garden," radiantly beautiful. Our camp that night was at the base of a mountain called the Da Wat which shut us off from the Terelche River.
On the second morning, instead of golden sunshine, we awoke to a cloud-hung sky and floods of rain. It was one of those days when everything goes wrong; when with all your heart you wish to swear but instead you must smile and smile and keep on smiling. No one wished to break camp in the icy deluge but there were three marshes between us and the Terelche River which were bad enough in dry weather. A few hours of rain would make them impassable, perhaps for weeks.
My wife and I look back upon that day and the next as one of our few, real hardships. After eight hours of killing work, wet to the skin and almost frozen, we crossed the first dangerous swamp and reached the summit of the mountain. Then the cart, with our most valuable possessions, plunged off the road on a sharp descent and crashed into the forest below. Chen and I escaped death by a miracle and the other Chinese taxidermist, who was safe and sound, promptly had hysterics. It was discouraging, to say the least. We camped in the gathering darkness on a forty-five-degree slope in mud twelve inches deep. Next day we gathered up our scattered belongings, repaired the cart, and reached the river.
I had a letter from Duke Loobitsan Yangsen to a famous old hunter, Tserin Dorchy by name, who lives in the Terelche region. He had been gone for six days on a shooting trip when we came into the beautiful valley where his yurts were pitched, but his wife welcomed us with true Mongolian hospitality and a great dish of cheese. Our own camp we made just within the forest, a mile away.
For a week we hunted and trapped in the vicinity, awaiting Tserin Dorchy's return. Our arrival created a deal of interest among the half dozen families in the neighborhood and, after each had paid a formal call, they apparently agreed that we were worthy of being accepted into their community. We were nomads for the time, just as they are for life. We had pitched our tents in the forest, as they had erected their yurts in the meadow beside the river. When the biting winds of winter swept the valley a few months later they would move, with all their sheep and goats, to the shelter of the hills and we would seek new hunting grounds.
Before many days we learned all the valley gossip. Moreover, we furnished some ourselves for one of the Chinese taxidermists became enamored of a Mongol maiden. There were two of them, to be exact, and they both "vamped" him persistently. The toilettes with which they sought to allure him were marvels of brilliance, and one of them actually scrubbed her little face and hands with a cake of my yellow, scented soap.
Our servant's affections finally centered upon the younger girl and I smiled paternally upon the wild-wood romance. Every night, with a sheepish grin, Chen would ask to borrow a pony. The responsibilities of chaperones sat lightly on our shoulders, but sometimes my wife and I would wander out to the edge of the forest and watch him to the bottom of the hill. Usually his love was waiting and they would ride off together in the moonlight — where, we never asked!
But we could not blame the boy — those Mongolian nights were made for lovers. The marvel of them we hold among our dearest memories. Wherever we may be, the fragrance of pine trees or the sodden smell of a marsh carries us back in thought to the beautiful valley and fills our hearts again with the glory of its clear, white nights.
No matter what the day brought forth, we looked forward to the evening hunt as best of all. As we trotted our ponies homeward through the fresh, damp air we could watch the shadows deepen in the somber masses of the forest, and on the hilltops see the ragged silhouettes of sentinel pines against the rose glow of the sky. Ribbons of mist, weaving in and out above the stream, clothed the alders in ghostly silver and rested in billowy masses upon the marshes. Ere the moon had risen, the stars blazed out like tiny lanterns in the sky. Over all the valley there was peace unutterable.
We were soon admitted to a delightful comradeship with the Mongols of our valley. We shared their joys and sorrows and nursed their minor ills. First to seek our aid was the wife of the absent hunter, Tserin Dorchy. She rode up one day with a two-year-old baby on her arm. The little fellow was badly infected with eczema, and for three weeks one of the lamas in the tiny temple near their yurt had been mumbling prayers and incantations in his behalf, without avail. Fortunately, I had a supply of zinc ointment and before the month was ended the baby was almost well. Then came the lama with his bill "for services rendered," and Tserin Dorchy contributed one hundred dollars to his priestly pocket. A young Mongol with a dislocated shoulder was my next patient, and when I had made him whole, the lama again claimed the credit and collected fifty dollars as the honorarium for his prayers. And so it continued throughout the summer; I made the cures, and the priest got the fees.
Although the Mongols all admitted the efficacy of my foreign medicines, nevertheless they could not bring themselves to dispense with the lama and his prayers. Superstition was too strong and fear that the priest would send an army of evil spirits flocking to their yurts if they offended him brought the money, albeit reluctantly, from their pockets. Although the lama never proposed a partnership arrangement, as I thought he might have done, he spent much time about our camp and often brought us bowls of curded milk and cheese. He was a wandering priest and not a permanent resident of the valley, but he evidently decided not to wander any farther until we, too, should leave, for he was with us until the very end.
A short time after we had made our camp near the Terelche River a messenger arrived from Urga with a huge package of mail. In it was a copy of Harper's Magazine containing an account of a flying visit which I had made to Urga in September, 1918.1
There were half a dozen Mongols near our tent, among whom was Madame Tserin Dorchy. I explained the pictures to the hunter's wife in my best Chinese while Yvette "stood by" with her camera and watched results. Although the woman had visited Urga several times she had never seen a photograph or a magazine and for ten minutes there was no reaction. Then she recognized a Mongol headdress similar to her own. With a gasp of astonishment she pointed it out to the others and burst into a perfect torrent of guttural expletives. A picture of the great temple at Urga, where she once had gone to worship, brought forth another volume of Mongolian adjectives and her friends literally fought for places in the front row.
News travels quickly in Mongolia and during the next week men and women rode in from yurts forty or fifty miles away to see that magazine. I will venture to say that no American publication ever received more appreciation or had a more picturesque audience than did that copy of Harper's.
The absent Tserin Dorchy returned one day when I was riding down the valley with his wife. We saw two strange figures on horseback emerging from the forest, each with a Russian rifle on his back. Their saddles were strung about with half-dried skins — four roebuck, a musk deer, a moose, and a pair of elk antlers in the "velvet."
With a joyful shout Madame Tserin Dorchy rode toward her husband. He was an oldish man, of fifty-five years perhaps, with a face as dried and weather-beaten as the leather beneath his saddle. He may have been glad to see her but his only sign of greeting was a "sai" and a nod to include us both. Her pleasure was undisguised, however, and as we rode down the valley she chattered volubly between the business of driving in half a dozen horses and a herd of sheep. The monosyllabic replies of the hunter were delivered in a voice which seemed to come from a long way off or from out of the earth beneath his pony's feet. I was interested to see what greeting there would be upon his arrival at the yurt. His two daughters and his infant son were waiting at the door but he had not even a word for them and only a pat upon the head for the baby.
Our Base Camp at the Edge of the Forest
The Mongol Village of the Terelche Valley
All Mongols are independent but Tserin Dorchy was an extreme in every way. He ruled the half dozen families in the valley like an autocrat. What he commanded was done without a question. I was anxious to get away and announced that we would start the day after his arrival. "No," said he, "we will go two days from now." Argument was of no avail. So far as he was concerned, the matter was closed. When it came to arranging wages he stated his terms, which were exorbitant. I could accept them or not as I pleased; he would not reduce his demands by a single copper.
As a matter of fact, offers of money make little impression upon the ordinary Mongols. They produce well-nigh everything they need for they dress in sheepskins during the winter and eat little else than mutton. When they want cloth, tea, or ammunition, they simply sell a sheep or a pony or barter with the Chinese merchants.
We found that the personal equation enters very largely into any dealings with a Mongol. If he likes you, remuneration is an incident. If he is not interested, money does not tempt him His independence is a product of the wild, free life upon the plains. He relies entirely upon himself for he has learned that in the struggle for existence, it is he himself that counts. Of the Chinaman, the opposite is true. His life is one of the community and he depends upon his family and his village. He is gregarious above all else and he hates to live alone. In this dependence upon his fellow men he knows that money counts — and there is very little that a Chinaman will not do for money.
On one of his trips across Mongolia, Mr. Coltman's car became badly mired within a stone's throw of a Mongol yurt. Two or three oxen were grazing in front of the house and Coltman asked the native to pull his car out of the mud. The Mongol, who was comfortably smoking his pipe in the sun, was not at all interested in the matter, but finally remarked casually that he would do it for eight dollars. There was no argument. Eight dollars was what he said, and eight dollars it would have to be or he would not move. The entire operation of dragging the car to firm ground consumed just four minutes. But this instance was an exception for usually a Mongol is the very essence of good nature and is ready to assist whenever a traveler is in difficulty.
Tserin Dorchy's independence kept us in a constant state of irritation for it was manifested in a dozen different ways. We would gladly have dispensed with his services but his word was law in the community and, if he had issued a "bull" against us, we could not have obtained another man. For all his age, he was an excellent hunter and we came to be good friends.
The old man's independence once led him into serious trouble. He had often looked at the Bogdo-ol with longing eyes and had made short excursions, without his gun, into its sacred forests. On one of these trips he saw a magnificent elk with antlers such as he had never dreamed were carried by any living animal. He could not forget that deer. Its memory was a thorn that pricked him wherever else he hunted. Finally he determined to have it, even if Mongolian law and the Lama Church had proclaimed it sacred.
Toward the end of July, when he deemed the antlers just ripe for plucking, he slipped into the forest during the night and climbed the mountain. After two days he killed the elk. But the lamas who patrol "God's Mountain" had heard the shot and drove him into a great rock-strewn gorge where they lost his trail. Believing that he was still within hearing distance, they shouted to one another that it was useless to hunt longer and that they had best return. Then they concealed themselves and awaited results. An hour later Tserin Dorchy crawled out from under a bowlder directly into their hands.
He had been well-nigh killed before the lamas brought him down to Urga and was still unconscious when they dumped him unceremoniously into one of the prison coffins. He was sentenced to remain a year; but the old man would not have lived a month if Duke Loobitsan Yangsen, with whom he had often hunted, had not obtained his release. His independent spirit is by no means chastened, however, and I feel sure that he will shoot another deer on the Bogdo-ol before he dies!
Three days after his return home, my wife and I left with him and three other Mongols on our first real hunt. Our equipment consisted only of sleeping bags and such food as could be carried on our horses; it was a time when living "close to nature" was really necessary. Eight miles away we stopped at the entrance to a tiny valley. By arranging a bit of canvas over the low branches of a larch tree we prepared a shelter for ourselves and another for the hunters.
In fifteen minutes camp was ready and a fire blazing. When a huge iron basin of water had begun to warm one of the Mongols threw in a handful of brick tea, which resembled nothing so much as powdered tobacco. After the black fluid had boiled vigorously for ten minutes each one filled his wooden eating bowl, put in a great chunk of rancid butter, and then a quantity of finely-ground meal. This is what the Tibetans call tsamba, and the buttered tea was prepared exactly as we had seen the Tibetans make it. The tsamba, however, was only to enable them to "carry on" until we killed some game; for meat is the Mongols' "staff of life," and they care little for anything except animal food.
The evening hunt yielded no results. Two of the Mongols had missed a bear, I had seen a roebuck, and the old man had lost a wounded musk deer on the mountain ridge above the camp. But the game was there and we knew where to find it on the morrow. In the gray light of early morning Tserin Dorchy and I rode up the valley through the dew-soaked grass. Once the old man stopped to examine the rootings of a ga-hai (wild boar), then he continued steadily along the stream bed. In the half-gloom of the forest the bushes and trees seemed flat and colorless but suddenly the sun burned through an horizon cloud, flooding the woods with golden light. The whole forest seemed instantly to awaken. It was as though we had come into a dimly lighted room and touched an electric switch. The trees and bushes assumed a dozen subtle shades of green, and the flowers blazed like jewels in the gorgeous woodland carpet.
I should have liked to spend the morning in the forest but we knew the deer were feeding in the open. On foot we climbed upward through knee-high grass to the summit of a hill. There seemed nothing living in the meadow but as we walked along the ridge a pair of grouse shot into the air followed by half a dozen chicks which buzzed away like brown bullets to the shelter of the trees. We crossed a flat depression and rested for a moment on a rounded hilltop. Below us a new valley sloped downward, bathed in sunshine. Tserin Dorchy wandered slowly to the right while I studied the edge of a marsh with my glasses.
Suddenly I heard the muffled beat of hoofs. Jerking the glasses from my eyes I saw a huge roebuck, crowned with a splendid pair of antlers, bound into view not thirty feet away. For the fraction of a second he stopped, with his head thrown back, then dashed along the hillside. That instant of hesitation gave me just time to seize my rifle, catch a glimpse of the yellow-red body through the rear sight, and fire as he disappeared. Leaping to my feet, I saw four slender legs waving in the air. The bullet had struck him in the shoulder and he was down for good.
My heart pounded with exultation as I lifted his magnificent head. He was the finest buck I had ever seen and I gloated over his body as a miser handles his gold. And gold, shining in the sunlight, was never more beautiful than his spotless summer coat.
Right where he lay upon the hillside, amid a veritable garden of bluebells, daisies, and yellow roses, was the setting for the group we wished to prepare in the American Museum of Natural History. He would be its central figure for his peer could not be found in all Mongolia.
As I stood there in the brilliant sunlight, mentally planning the group, I thought how fortunate I was to have been born a naturalist. A sportsman shoots a deer and takes its head; later, it hangs above his fireplace or in the trophy room. If he be one of imagination, in years to come it will bring back to him the feel of the morning air, the fragrance of the pine trees, and the wild thrill of exultation as the buck went down. But it is a memory picture only and limited to himself. The mounted head can never bring to others the smallest part of the joy he felt and the scene he saw.
The naturalist shares his pleasure and, after all, it is largely that which counts. When the group is constructed in the Museum under his direction he can see reproduced with fidelity and in minutest detail this hidden corner of the world. He can share with thousands of city dwellers the joy of his hunt and teach them something of the animals he loves and the lands they call their own.
To his scientific training he owes another source of pleasure. Every animal is a step in the solution of some one of nature's problems. Perhaps it is a new discovery, a species unknown to science. Asia is full of such surprises — I have already found many. Be the specimen large or small, if it has fallen to your trap or rifle, there is the thrill of knowing that you have traced one more small line on the white portion of nature's map.
While I was gazing at the fallen buck Tserin Dorchy stood like a statue on the hilltop, scanning the forest and valley with the hope that my shot had disturbed another animal. In a few moments he came down to me. The old man had lost some of his accustomed calm and, with thumb upraised, murmured, "Sai, sai." Then he gave, in vivid pantomime, a recital of how he suddenly surprised the buck feeding just below the hill crest and how he had seen me jerk the glasses from my eyes and shoot.
Sitting down beside the deer we went through the ceremony of a smoke. Then Tserin Dorchy eviscerated the animal, being careful to preserve the heart, liver, stomach, and intestines. Like all other Orientals with whom I have hunted, the Mongols boiled and ate the viscera as soon as we reached camp and seemed to consider them an especial delicacy.
Some weeks later we killed two elk and Tserin Dorchy inflated and dried the intestines. These were to be used as containers for butter and mutton fat. After tanning the stomach he manufactured from it a bag to contain milk or other liquids. His wife showed me some really beautiful leather which she had made from roebuck skins. Tanning hides and making felt were the only strictly Mongolian industries which we observed in the region visited by our expedition. The Mongols do a certain amount of logging and charcoal burning and in the autumn they cut hay; but with these exceptions we never saw them do any work which could not be done from horseback.
Our first hunting trip lasted ten days and in the following months there were many others. We became typical nomads, spending a day or two in some secluded valley only to move again to other hunting grounds. For the time we were Mongols in all essentials. The primitive instincts, which lie just below the surface in us all, responded to the subtle lure of nature and without an effort we slipped into the care-free life of these children of the woods and plains.
We slept at night under starlit skies in the clean, fresh forest; the first gray light of dawn found us stealing through the dew-soaked grass on the trail of elk, moose, boar or deer; and when the sun was high, like animals, we spent the hours in sleep until the lengthening shadows sent us out again for the evening hunt. In those days New York seemed to be on another planet and very, very far away. Happiness and a great peace was ours, such as those who dwell in cities can never know.
In the midst of our second hunt the Mongols suddenly announced that they must return to the Terelche Valley. We did not want to go, but Tserin Dorchy was obdurate. With the limited Chinese at our command we could not learn the reason, and at the base camp Lu, "the interpreter," was wholly incoherent. "To-morrow, plenty Mongol come," he said. "Riding pony, all same Peking. Two men catch hold, both fall down." My wife was perfectly sure that he had lost his mind, but by a flash of intuition I got his meaning. If was to be a field meet. "Riding pony, all same Peking" meant races, and "two men catch hold, both fall down" could be nothing else than wrestling. I was very proud of myself, and Lu was immensely relieved.
Athletic contests are an integral part of the life of every Mongol community, as I knew, and the members of our valley family were to hold their annual games. At Urga, in June, the great meet which the Living God blesses with his presence is an amazing spectacle, reminiscent of the pageants of the ancient emperors. All the elite of Mongolia gather on the banks of the Tola River, dressed in their most splendid robes, and the archery, wrestling, and horse racing are famous throughout the East.
This love of sport is one of the most attractive characteristics of the Mongols. It is a common ground on which a foreigner immediately has a point of contact. The Chinese, on the contrary, despise all forms of physical exercise. They consider it "bad form," and they do not understand any sport which calls for violent exertion. They prefer to take a quiet walk, carrying their pet bird in a cage for an airing; to play a game of cards; or, if they must travel, to loll back in a sedan chair, with the curtains drawn and every breath of air excluded.
The Terelche Valley meet was held on a flat strip of ground just below our camp. As my wife and I rode out of the forest, a dozen Mongols swept by, gorgeous in flaming red and streaming peacock plumes. They waved a challenge to us, and we joined them in a wild race to a flag in the center of the field. On the side of the hill sat a row of lamas in dazzling yellow gowns; opposite them were the judges, among whom I recognized Tserin Dorchy, though he was so bedecked, behatted and beribboned that I could hardly realize that it was the same old fellow with whom we had lived in camp. (I presume if he saw me in the clothes of civilization he would be equally surprised.)
In front of the judges, who represented the most respected laity of the community, were bowls of cheese cut into tiny cubes. The spectators consisted of two groups of women, who sat some distance apart in compact masses, the "horns" of their headdresses almost interlocked. Their costumes were marvels of brilliance. They looked like a flock of gorgeous butterflies, which had alighted for a moment on the grass.
The first race consisted of about a dozen ponies, ridden by fourteen-year-old boys and girls. They swept up the valley from the starting point in full run, hair streaming, and uttering wailing yells. The winner was led by two old Mongols to the row of lamas, before whom he prostrated himself twice, and received a handful of cheese. This he scattered broadcast, as he was conducted ceremoniously to the judges, from whom he returned with palms brimming with bits of cheese.
Finally, all the contestants in the races, and half a dozen of the Mongols on horseback, lined up in front of the priests, each one singing a barbaric chant. Then they circled about the lamas, beating their horses until they were in a full run. After the race came wrestling matches. The contestants sparred for holds and when finally clinched, each with a grip on the other's waistband, endeavored to obtain a fall by suddenly heaving. When the last wrestling match was finished, a tall Mongol raised the yellow banner, and followed by every man and boy on horseback, circled about the seated lamas. Faster and faster they rode, yelling like demons, and then strung off across the valley to the nearest yurt.
Although the sports in themselves were not remarkable, the scene was picturesque in the extreme. Opposite to the grassy hill the forest-clad mountains rose, tier upon tier, in dark green masses. The brilliant yellow lamas faced by the Mongols in their blazing robes and pointed yellow hats, the women, flashing with "jewels" and silver, the half-wild chant, and the rush of horses, gave a barbaric touch which thrilled and fascinated us. We could picture this same scene seven hundred years ago, for it is an ancient custom which has come down from the days of Kublai Khan. It was as though the veil of centuries had been lifted for a moment to allow us to carry away, in motion pictures, this drama of Mongolian life.
1 Harper's Magazine, June, 1919, pp. 1-16.