ON the morning of the 9th of July, 1900, the train on which I had traveled from Moscow came in sight of Irkutsk. I was greatly delighted with this capital of Eastern Siberia.
The city, as seen from the train which was nearing it swiftly, was extremely imposing, not only because of its size, and its many large churches, but also because the train approaches Irkutsk in such a direction that the front, and one side of the city, are presented together, as was the case with Grecian temples, the approaches to which were arranged toward the angle between the façade and one side of the structure.
Right in front of the city is the Angara, a deep, very clear and swift river which flows out of Lake Baikal, known as I have already stated, as the largest and by far the most beautiful body of fresh water in Asia. The Angara is the one outlet of Lake Baikal, which sends forth its waters through this river to the Yenissei, and thus they are borne on to the Arctic.
As the train nears Irkutsk the side view decreases, and the grade of the road is descending, hence the view becomes narrower and less striking each moment, and when the station is reached we are on the river bank.
Opposite the narrow front of Irkutsk, the façade, so to speak, the view is much reduced, very inferior to that seen from the train a little earlier. But, as a recompense, we have the Angara before us, that beautifully blue and mighty river gliding past irresistibly, smooth and silent.
It is said that the Angara never freezes till Christmas and freezes then in one night to the bottom. The great, blue current of Christmas eve has halted, and on Christmas morning stands motionless. That immense flow is chilled through and through
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to the river-bed to the point just above freezing, and then becomes ice in one night, as if by magic. The magnificent river is dead till its resurrection, when the sun will break its bonds and lead to life again.
There is no city on earth which has such a river in front of it as has Irkutsk--blue, very deep, and moving with a speed that gives the idea of resistless power.
Irkutsk seems new except in some of its churches and government buildings. Its streets are wide and unpaved. Its houses mainly of wood, and in large number unpainted.
The most interesting and remarkable monument of the city is the triumphal arch to commemorate the winning of a way to the great ocean. That is, the acquisition of the Amoor River by Muravieff, who received the title of count for his exploit in giving communication with the Pacific, and was known thereafter as Count Muravieff Amoorski.
We drove through the city and stopped at the hotel Metripole. No one came to take the baggage; the driver got it in as best he could. There was but one vacant room. The furniture was soiled and shabby, the bed hard, the blankets of the coarsest wool. And this was the best hotel in Irkutsk! In the untidy dining-room I discovered that prices were a third more than in St. Petersburg, that city celebrated for exorbitant prices.
In traveling through certain countries and among certain peoples the first requisite is to have letters and proper orders from those high in authority. The Russian Minister of Finance had given me a letter to each governor in Siberia. On delivering my letter to the governor of Irkutsk I was received not merely with much courtesy, but very cordially, and when I explained exactly what I wanted, namely, to study the Mongol language, customs, and religion among the Buriats in regions west and northwest of Lake Baikal, I was assured that every aid which the government could give would be given me. I was furnished with letters to district chiefs, and besides, though I did not know it till later, instructions were forwarded to officials along the road which I was to travel to help me in every way they could.
I considered Irkutsk as the starting-point of my investigations into the Mongol world, so far as the Buriat part of it was concerned.
[paragraph continues] Hence I decided to spend a few days in studying the city and gathering what information I could concerning the people whom I was about to visit.
I had letters from friends in St. Petersburg to residents of Irkutsk, and at the house of one of these gentlemen, Mr. Popoff, editor of The Eastern Review, I spent many pleasant and profitable hours. Years ago Mr. Popoff was exiled to Siberia for political reasons. When free to return to Russia he preferred to remain in Irkutsk. His wife, the daughter of a rich merchant of Kiachta, is a pleasant and cultivated woman, the only person I met in Siberia with whom I could speak English. Mr. Popoff is well acquainted with the country and gave me much valuable information. During my stay in the city I met many people who came to Siberia as exiles, served out their sentence, and are now honored, and, in many cases, wealthy citizens of Irkutsk.
At the house of a friend I met Dmitri Petrovich Pershin, then acting Curator of the Irkutsk Museum who, when I told him that I wished to go among, and become acquainted with, the Buriats, said that he knew just the man who could best aid me, a Buriat, who would be in the city in a few days, and that he would introduce us to each other. I visited the Museum, and Dmitri Petrovich showed me its excellent collection with great care. It is mainly devoted to Siberian and Mongolian exhibits. Later in the season I photographed the Curator in one of the most valued articles of the collection, the ceremonial dress of a Buriat Shaman.
Two days after my visit to the Museum I called upon Dmitri Petrovich and found that Andrei Mihailovitch Mihailoff, the Buriat, had arrived. Pershin introduced us, and, with a good deal of emphasis, told the old man that I wanted to become acquainted with his people, and that he must aid me in every way he could.
Andrei Mihailovitch was friendly and promised co-operation. but it seemed to me that he was guarded. Though outwardly cordial I thought that he made internal reserves, and would try to satisfy the governor, and also me, without giving much real assistance.
I had explained previously to Pershin, and he now told Andrei Mihailovitch, that the authorities in St. Petersburg were anxious
that I should have every aid possible in getting at the language, ancient beliefs, and customs of the Buriats, and hence would view with favor any exhibition of good-will shown me by his people.
A few days after this conversation Dmitri Petrovitch informed me that Andrei Mihailovitch would give me good lodgings at his summer place and bring me in contact with people who could tell much touching Buriat religion and folk-lore.
"It is a splendid beginning," said Pershin, who was very enthusiastic. "This man can make you acquainted with all the Buriats. His word is weighty among them. He still adheres to the ancient religion of his people, and can himself tell you much regarding it."
This is very well," thought I. "We shall see how he does it. I shall hope for the best, but keep my eyes open."
Dmitri Petrovitch assisted me in finding a good carriage for hire during the time of my journey--a couple of months or more, and in providing an outfit.
A suitable carriage is of the utmost importance to any man traveling in Siberia. It must have four qualities: it must be roomy and easy, rainproof, and strong beyond breaking. These Siberian carriages are made on the system of the American buckboard, but instead of planks or boards, as a spring under the body of the vehicle, poles are used. When rightly constructed the carriage is commodious, there is a cover which can be up or down, and leather aprons which can be attached to the sides to keep the sun or rain out. Sleep in it is easy, and no better vehicle in the daytime is needed for traveling in that country. It is not too heavy, but is strong, and easily repaired. It is made ready for the road in the following manner: First cover the bottom inside with a coarse Siberian-made carpet; on that carpet place a firm mattress, which should cover the bottom of the vehicle entirely. Spread on the mattress a thin blanket to protect it. A seat is made with a soft leather trunk, a specialty of Siberia. This trunk should be as long as the inside width of the carriage body. A good supply of pillows for the back and a couple of heavy blankets complete the outfit.
It should be stated that when hired the carriage is perfectly empty. The body is a kind of box somewhat lower on the sides
than in the middle. It has no seat whatever, except that for the driver, which is in front of the body. There is room behind for a trunk to be strapped on; there is also some space with the driver.
Among the papers given me by the governor there was an order for private horses as well as post horses. Where there are no post stations the inhabitants are obliged to furnish beasts at the same rate as the post stations--three copecks (a cent and a half) a mile for each animal.
In due time I had made all preparations, purchased carpet, mattress, and provisions, and was ready to set out for the summer dwelling of Andrei Mihailovitch, which is about four versts nearer Irkutsk than the post station Usturdi, the latter being sixty versts distant.
At seven o'clock in the morning of July 23, after much effort, all things necessary were in the carriage and we were ready to move into the land of the Buriats. It was at least half an hour later than I had intended starting. The delay was caused by the Yamschik who came without the traces for the side horses of the troika, and had to go back for them. I learned then that tarnatasses are with and without traces, and that I ought to have mentioned the traces when ordering the horses.
The chief of the post station in Irkutsk had promised three good beasts, also an excellent driver, and he had kept his word faithfully.
The morning air was fresh, delicious, inspiriting. The horses moved at a gentle trot along the main street, "Great Street," out toward the rising and hilly country which surrounds the Siberian capital. Just beyond the city are broad low pastures where, near the banks of the Angara, immense herds were feeding.
From the rising road there are interesting views, one at least of these is very striking. The country is not grand, but is good looking.
I have commended the driver, whose name was Nikolai, and he deserves good mention. Had he lived in that age he would have been worthy to compete in a chariot race in the Circus Maximus at Rome. When a couple of miles outside Irkutsk he stopped to loosen the bell on the bow of the middle horse in the troika. That moment the driver of a carriage behind
us urged his horses ahead suddenly at the foot of a long hill, and then drove at the pace he liked, which was somewhat slower than that of our carriage, hence annoying. He seemed to take pleasure in tormenting us.
Nikolai waited a few moments till the road widened sufficiently, then he turned and said in a low voice:
"I can go ahead of that scoundrel. Shall I do so?"
"I know you are a better man, but have you better horses?" I asked.
"I know my horses," answered Nikolai, and the next moment he had dashed toward the side of the equipage in advance of us; his horses' heads had reached beyond the hind wheels, when the enemy's horses were lashed, and sped up the hill at a great rate. Nikolai shouted to his horses and urged them forward.
It was the first race I had ever seen of the kind, a race up hill. Both equipages were drawn by three horses abreast, and the beasts gave a splendid example of exertion as they rose in great springs up that hill road.
Nikolai's horses were gaining gradually, but very surely, when the other man, at a point where the road was narrow a second time, guided his horses in such a way as to block the road to our animals. Nikolai was now angry. He made no secret of what he thought of that hostile driver, whose mother's family he declared to be of canine origin, beyond any doubt whatever.
He was resigned for the time since he had to be. He drove on and waited till we reached a wide place in the road and were on the hilltop. His horses then sprang forward fiercely. In one moment our carriage was half its length in advance of the other.
"Scoundrel!" shouted Nikolai, as he turned and looked back. "I'll show thee how to meet decent people!"
The enemy urged on his horses, lashed them, but he could not win now. Nikolai gained on him steadily till the end of the level land was reached, when he was perhaps two lengths ahead. At that point the road descended very gently for a mile or more, and then rose with another hill. No man could
find, or construct a better race course. Nikolai turned for a moment to look at the other man, then with a series of shouts rising higher and higher, and with a deft use of his whip, he impelled those three horses down that road at full speed. The road was perfectly even so the carriage wheels went around like tops swiftly spinning. Down we went at the pace of wild runaways.
At last, and that last came very quickly, I looked around and saw our opponent about half way down the hill, and advancing at the usual pace of good traveling. I called to Nikolai to slacken speed, which he did, and then halted. I discovered at once that the king-bolt of the carriage was almost out; not more than one inch of it was left in the front axle. Had that inch slipped out in the race down the hill, the horses would have rushed away with the two front wheels and axle, what would have happened to us is unknown, nothing pleasant in any case.
A large stone was soon found to drive the king-bolt to its place, but it would not remain there till fastened, very clumsily, with ropes. The beaten man stopped his horses when down the hill, and seemed to be mending his harness. He did not approach us a second time.
At the first post station, which is called Homutooka, a blacksmith was found, who put a firm strip of iron through the lower end of the king-bolt and fixed it securely; for which he charged fifteen copecks (seven cents and a half).
Post stations are very interesting to the traveler and when well kept, which they are sometimes, are enjoyable places. There are usually a number of people waiting for horses to go in one direction or the other; some one is sure to be drinking tea, or lunching. The man in charge is obliged to furnish, at a fixed price, a samovar, that is a "self-boiler," an urn-shaped vessel with a tube running down through its center. At the lower end of this tube is a space with air holes. Charcoal is ignited in this space and the water in the urn is made to boil soon, since it is exposed to all sides of the tube, which is heated very quickly. Charcoal is added whenever the need comes, thus a good samovar gives boiling water for a long time. The excellency of tea in Russia comes in great part from the samovar,
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POST STATION AT ELANTSIN.
Hitching in the horses
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OUR TRAVELING CARRIAGE WHILE MAKING THE BURIAT JOURNEY
My driver forgot to drop his arms. They always hold the reins in this way when driving rapidly
as most people assure me, and I believe. The chief place for making samovars is Túla, a city famed for this work throughout Russia.
We met at this first station an interesting woman, and found that the driver whom we had defeated was bringing her baggage from Irkutsk, where she had passed the preceding night. She was not more than thirty, and had set out on a journey which many an experienced traveler would hesitate to undertake. With five children, the eldest ten and the youngest a baby, and a nurse, she had started for the Yakuts country in the far north, where her husband was a government official. Weeks would pass before she could reach him. First a long journey with horses, then by boat up the Lena River, and again with horses. Not intending to return she was obliged to change carriages at each station, to unpack and pack all of her luggage--a great task. This she looked after, while the nurse was getting food for the children. Though physically frail she was wonderfully courageous, and love for husband and children seemed to give her strength to overcome all the difficulties of the journey.
While the horses were being harnessed and attached to my carriage I had a few moments' conversation with a political exile, a marvelously ragged beggar, who was loitering around the station. He told me that he was the son of a Russian priest, and had been in exile for several years. He was a bright and intelligent young man, but broken in health.
I was tempted to drink tea at Homutooka, but something, I know not what, seemed to urge me on, and as soon as the horses were ready they were put to their paces. I was anxious to see how Andrei Mihailovitch lived among summer pastures. Above all I was anxious to learn how he would welcome me.
The towns we passed through are straggling and dreary. In most cases the houses are surrounded by a high board enclosure, again one end of a house is visible, the fence meeting it on both sides. The blinds and outside casings of the windows are painted white, the body of the house has never been painted and in most cases looks to be a hundred years old. Some houses have sunk till the bottoms of the windows are on the ground. There is a huge gate in the board enclosure. The entrance to
the house is inside the yard. Everywhere in Siberia, no matter how poor or small the house is, the window sills are crowded with plants, usually geraniums, and set into the threshold of the principal door is an iron horseshoe, to bring good luck.
At Jerdovski, the next station, we found a samovar boiling, so tea was drunk before fresh horses were ready. The second driver, taken at Homutooka, was not like Nikolai--he was slow, he needed urging. The third driver was a rare person. He had a harelip and was so deaf that it was difficult to talk with him. He heard only a part of what people said, and only a part of what he said could reach the mind of any man. The good thing about him was this: He was a firm driver, and sent his beasts over the road expeditiously. We were crossing a broad plain, dry and treeless. There was no cultivation whatever, but here and there were herds of cows and horses. In the distance were low hills.
After some time, an hour and a half perhaps, the driver stopped on a sudden, and said that we had just passed one road by which we might reach the house of Andrei Mihailovitch. There was another road farther on. The first led over a place little traveled, but more picturesque and more difficult. The second road was the usual and easier one. For me, who had halted on the highway and was looking eastward toward the lands of Andrei Mihailovitch, it was the left-hand road. How was I, who had gathered lore among so many peoples, to take a left-hand road when going to look for primitive stories among Mongols?
I turned back and took the right-hand road, of course, and did so with good fortune, as we shall find, hurrying on toward the unknown. By that road we came to the rear of Mihailoff's village, instead of the front, which we should have reached by, the other road, and met there more quickly and often frequently one of the great facts of life among Buriats; the chained dogs, which make such an uproar and which are quite unappeasable. No sop to Cerberus is possible among Buriats. If food be thrown to a chained dog at a Buriat house he will gulp down in a flash what is given and then would tear to pieces the stranger who gave it if he could get at him.
The carriage dashed through the village swiftly, dogs barking with fury, at one and another place. Each dog is chained to a fence or to a post driven into the earth very firmly. The beast is held to his place quite unsparingly. Whenever a team or some unknown person comes in sight, the dog rushes forward as if free; he springs furiously, reaches the end of his chain, and is jerked back with a force like that which he himself has expended. Each dog digs out, near his post, a great cavity with a ridge of fine earth all around it. He does this by his springing forward and being brought back, by the chain, toward his starting point. Dogs are always kept out of doors. When winter comes, some shelter is made over their posts, but this shelter is not very pleasant, or much protection from wind and storm. On the whole a stranger may justly infer that a dog's life among Buriats is by no means a sinecure.
After passing the ordeal of dogs we arrived at the front of my host's summer residence, composed of half a dozen houses enclosed by a high wooden wall, or board fence. After some effort the gate was swung open and we entered the enclosure. There was no one inside save the gate-keeper. So far as I could see the place was deserted. The gate-keeper informed me, however, that the master of the house was at home, and he pointed to the nearest building on the right, to which I went straightway. On the ground not far from the door was a man, whom I had not noted earlier. He was lying face downward, and, except by the stir of his sides, which showed breathing, made no motion whatever. He was, as I discovered later, intoxicated. I was astonished at the silence around us, since Andrei Mihailovotch had been informed that I would reach his summer dwelling on that day.
The gate-keeper announced me, and after waiting a few moments I entered. The master of the house was sitting at the edge of the central square space, in the middle of which the fire burns in every old-fashioned Buriat dwelling. On all the four sides of this space people were sitting and drinking arhi or tarasun. (The liquor is made of milk and distilled in each considerable house among Buriats.) They had the tarasun in a pail and passed it around in a large wooden cup or dipper.
[paragraph continues] Some of the women were beyond the stage of being happy or sad. My host, who was very serious, seated me beside himself with honor, offered me tarasun, and soon inquired if I had received the letter despatched by him to the last post station. I replied that I had not. He told me then that his elder son had died suddenly; he had been ill only a few hours; this was the day of his funeral. He added that the house would be in mourning for some time. First, according to Buriat custom, there was a period of nine days during which the family stayed at home strictly, and saw no one outside its own circle. He had informed me in the letter of this sudden calamity, and declared in it that it would be impossible for him to receive me. In other words he had written me to stay away, and had forgotten, in his grief, to help me to another lodging place.
The virtue of my right-hand road was now evident. Had I taken the left-hand way I should have met the messenger, and have been forced to sleep at the next post station, and shift for myself the following day as best I might be able.
When I explained to Mihailoff that I had come in by the right-hand road, he saw at once how I had failed to receive the letter. His man had taken the other, the usual road, and thus missed me. The position was this: I was at a house not open on that day to visitors, but I was there unwittingly, in innocence; nay more, I was there by right, for I had been invited.
After thinking a moment or two my host rose and said, "You must come to my other house." We set out for the other house which stood on the opposite side of the broad enclosure. On the way he said: "First of all you must drink tea with me. I will order a samovar to be made ready."
We entered a neatly furnished house, built and furnished on the Russian plan, a samovar was brought in, and a table was soon covered with various small dainties.
"I wish you to eat some beef of my own rearing," said Mihailoff, who drank vodka freely and cheered up considerably.
In due time chopped steaks were placed on the table. My host drank more vodka, and we attacked the lunch cheerily.
[paragraph continues] The steak finished, we had tea a second time; the beverage was excellent, deserving all the praise which I could give it.
By the time the lunch was over Mihailoff had become much more cordial, and at the end embraced and lifted me off the floor, expressing himself as greatly satisfied with my friendship. Then he said that I could go to his son's house at Usturdi, the next station, and make my headquarters there as long as convenience would lead me to do so. His second son, Vassili, was taking care of the place. Then, as the highest mark of favor, he took me to his yurta and showed me his "Ongons" and "Burkans" (household gods), hung up on a rafter in a dark corner of the room, and said that in his time he had entertained three Russian governors but had not shown them his "sanctuary." He showed it now because he felt such a deep affection for me.
As the hour was inclining rather closely to evening, and the distance to Usturdi was somewhat more than three miles, I thought it well to leave my host to his family at the earliest. So the carriage was summoned and drawn up outside the gate where we were to enter it. The harelipped and deaf driver had received a good share of food and drink since his coming,--especially drink, so that it was still more difficult to understand what he said and be understood by him.
When we were ready to continue our journey and had taken our seats in the carriage, the horses, instead of going forward, turned on their hind legs, stood as erect as if they had been men, then suddenly plunged toward the station from which they had come.
The driver, much roused by milk liquor, became very angry when told to turn and drive three miles farther, to Usturdi. He obeyed but spent his rage on the horses, urging them over the open country at a furious pace. The road was simply a wagon track, a mark along a level field. On they rushed for a time in the fashion of runaways. I shouted at the deaf, hare-lipped driver to slacken the speed of his horses, but without result in the least degree. There was no way to stop the man except to seize and hold him. He was in a state not uncommon with Buriats,--he was exultant, beside himself. His mind was
excited while his body seemed sober. So on went the carriage almost as swiftly as during the race of that morning. Presently we approached a broad, rather shallow river. No decrease of speed was apparent. In we dashed furiously. The water reached to the knees of the horses and the front axle of the carriage. I was alarmed, for I thought there might be stones or deep places to avoid, but the dripping horses and carriage soon rose on the opposite bank, and the wild shouts of the driver urged the beasts forward again over a gray, dry, grassless plain. On and on they sped untiringly. To one who believed in metamorphosis those three beasts might have seemed men who had been changed into horses and who, hunted by the Furies sitting there on the carriage box behind them in the person of that harelipped mad driver, were rushing on with all their might, and in terror, to escape Divine vengeance. No one could tell whether the horses were running away or were driven to the utmost.
At last I saw near the roadside ahead of us the Russian--church outside Usturdi, the station to which we were hastening. Soon after the church was passed we thundered across a massive wooden bridge, and rushed into the main, and almost only street of the village. About two squares from the bridge stood the house in which Andrei Mihailovitch's late son had resided. Vassili, his only surviving son, was there in authority; in care of the place and the business. The father had given me a brief letter to Vassili, to insure a proper reception.
The house was two stories high, the best building in the village. Beyond, and belonging to it, was another house used for storage; behind the two was a deep courtyard entirely hidden by a very high fence and a gate with strong beams above it., A man, who stood near as we drove up, knocked at this gate for us, but we had to wait many minutes for an answer. Vassili, or Vassya, as he was called by every one, was occupied elsewhere, and had had no notice that guests were coming. It was necessary to wait till a servant inside could be found and the master informed that his presence was needed.
After a time Vassili came and opened the gate promptly. On hearing that I had come from his father with a letter he
immediately put the upper part of the house at my disposal. It consisted of three rooms, and a glass enclosed balcony projecting over the street. From this balcony there were excellent views up and down the main road or street, and out over the broad fields, and beyond them to the range of mountains in front of us.
It was about seven o'clock and the samovar was made ready. That was all that we needed, for I had brought plenty of tea from Irkutsk, and a good supply of sukari, or rusks, which with tea are excellent. A couple of hours later we had supper and Vassili conversed with me until eleven o'clock.
This young Buriat proved to be a very interesting person. He was at that time a student at the Irkutsk gymnasium. He had passed six years there, and intended to work still another year. Besides studying he had read a good deal, and knew something of great problems in science and also in history. He could talk about Darwin, and the descent of man, and had some knowledge of chemistry. Above all, and for me that was the main point, he knew considerable about his own people, the Buriats. I congratulated him very heartily on being one of a people who had preserved their primeval religion, and who still held to the customs and beliefs of their remote ancestors. I told him that the Buriats were the only Eastern Mongols who had done this, an act which might be considered an exploit and a service to science.
After supper Vassili asked me about my experiences of that day. I described the first race, and then the terrible driving of the harelipped isvoschik, at the rate of what Hungarians call "horse death speed."
Wearied greatly after that afternoon of racing and movement and many surprises, I was glad to lie down and rest. I slept till some time after dawn. Rising, I went at once to the balcony. The morning was delightful, the air clear and invigorating. In the fields opposite, perhaps a mile away, were herds of cattle and many sheep pasturing with remarkable activity.
During the early forenoon I saw from that balcony, for the first time, a party of mounted Buriats. This party was twenty-five in number. The men had their feet in short stirrups, and
sat leaning forward a little. The movement of Mongol horses is peculiar. Their steps, which seem short, are made quickly and the result is a more rapid advance than any one, not knowing those horses, could imagine.
There are two modes of movement made by man-serving beasts which are highly deceptive to the eye that is unpractised: the stride of a pacing camel, and the trotting step of a Mongol saddle horse. As I was riding once on a donkey through the quarries of Assuan, near the first Cataract of the Nile, several camels appeared on a sudden. I noticed that they were pacing. Being occupied, I dropped them out of sight for the moment, but looked again a little later. They had gone a great distance considering the interval, and though they did not seem to exert themselves much they were moving over that sand field very swiftly. The land now rose before them gently, but rose enough to form a hill which covered the horizon of the plain beyond in such wise as to hide any animal from a man standing where I was. I looked at the moving camels, a little while later they were on the flat, wide hilltop, and soon after their legs seemed to enter the earth. I turned my eyes from them purposely now and waited. I waited some minutes, then looked again. The camels had vanished. On the hill there was nothing save two or three old stone structures, like gravestones in the sand.
That morning the Buriat horses were remarkable for quick stepping, but when near by their speed was not evident. The more they receded the more noticeable it was. I stepped in from the balcony, walked across the front room a few times and went out again; the horses had advanced a long distance, they were far away, growing smaller and smaller very rapidly. I watched and saw them diminish. At last, when very small, they turned to the right and vanished behind a building.. I could not help thinking then and there of two wonderful animals, and the part which they have played in the history of mankind, namely, the Mongol horse and the Arabian camel.
What a mighty factor the Mongol horse has been! That horse which traversed all regions between the Amoor River and Burma, and all lands between the Yellow Sea and the Adriatic. No animal so enduring, no animal so easy to feed, has ever been
in man's service. It found its own living. Mongol movement and conquest would have been impossible without Mongol horses.
It is not without reason that in Mongol mythology the horse in many junctures is more sagacious than the hero who rides him. In the myths of that country, the horse, in addition to his service, often gives wise directions and saving counsels.
Without camels not only would life in the Arabian desert be impossible, but the religion of Mohammed would not have been founded, or if founded could not have been extended.
I turned now to Vassya for information touching those horse-men. Why had so many assembled and whither were they going? He replied that on that day there was to be a wedding, or more correctly the fraction of a wedding, since among Buriats a wedding requires several days for its completion, and sometimes there are even many months between the first and the final ceremony.
"Would you like to go to-day?" asked he. I replied that it would give me much pleasure to see a Buriat wedding, or even a part of it.
Horses were ordered at the post station, and in half an hour we were ready for the journey. It was a little later than ten o'clock. Because of his recent bereavement Vassya himself did not go, but his place was taken by his brother-in-law, Lazareff, who lived in Shavarok, the village where the first instalment of the wedding was given on that bright day in July, 1900.
Lazareff is a cross-eyed widower; a shrewd, self-concentrated man whose mind is turned altogether toward material questions. His wife, Vassya's sister, had been dead only a few months.
Three horses were put to my carriage and we dashed off with all speed. Driving at this season of the year is very agreeable, especially in the morning. The speed of the horses is exhilarating and gives just the movement of air which is pleasant. The excitement and rush please me; there is nothing like it in America.
While on the way to the village of Shavarok, Lazareff explained many matters connected with marriage, and life among
[paragraph continues] Buriats in general. That information, with more won from Vassya, I give later on in this volume.
The village is about four miles from Usturdi, and is very picturesque. Some distance up on a hillside is a level platform of land. On this platform stands Shavarok. Above is another slope extending to the top of the hill unbrokenly. From that point there is an extensive view. I counted fourteen villages.
Every one in Shavarok was rejoicing, the holiday was general. The people had but one object in view: to celebrate a part of the wedding, and spend the day in drinking and feasting. The houses, save that of the bride's father, were deserted. In his house there was a crowd of people. Just opposite the door sat the three matchmakers, old women, who looked as though they would have a good deal to say in affairs generally. An aged man stood in the center of the room. He was speaking, with face turned upward, imploring the gods to send happiness and prosperity to the bride and groom. After a time he threw tarasun up toward the central opening of the roof, spoke on, and then threw tarasun to the gods a second time.
Many people were sitting on the grassy slope above the village. The central space, devoted to hitching-posts for horses, had been turned into a temporary grove. Some dozens of young birch trees had been felled and thrust into the ground to give shade to the horses. The twenty-five which had passed Usturdi in the morning, and many others, were there.
After walking around for a time we went to the hillside and found there a multitude of people, not only from that village, but from many other villages in the region about. They were sitting on the ground in groups, disposed like three sides of a quadrangle, two sides of which lay up and down the hill, the third side connecting the other two at the top. The lower side was open and unoccupied. Through this open space people passed in and out, some bringing refreshments, which consisted mainly of tarasun (milk whiskey) and boiled mutton; others joined the feasters and sitting down on the hillside, talked, laughed, and amused themselves.
Meanwhile men bearing tarasun from group to group poured to each person who wished it. The people seemed to be tasting
delight as they sat there. They were not noisy, or in any wise extravagant, but they talked and laughed as if that beautiful day and the event of it were giving them every good thing which they could wish for.
Gazing around, I saw on the ridge of the hill a flock of sheep followed by a man, who had a long white beard. I went up to look at the flock and found that the shepherd was a Russian. As usual when Russians are working for Buriats, he was an ex-convict, old, but strong. He was alone in the world, following those sheep for sustenance, living among strangers and waiting, there in Siberia, for his life to end.
When I had returned to the feasting people on the slope I was conducted again to the house of the bride's father, where in the upsodded yard we found a large company of young people dancing with might and main, dancing desperately, dancing as if the future happiness, not only of the young couple, but of all the Buriat people, depended on their energy. The air above and around them for some distance was filled with a cloud of dust, which was growing denser and denser. It seemed to me that if their strength should continue and their swiftness increase they would in time become invisible in that wonderful dust cloud.
After I had watched them a few moments Lazareff took me to his yurta, or house, at the opposite end of the village. This village fronted the south, hence the single door of each house in it opened on the south.
Every Buriat house which is built in the old way is eight-sided, the door is in the middle of that side which faces the south directly. This house has a wooden floor, which is raised above the ground somewhat. In the center is a rectangular space where there is no floor, and where the earth appears. In this space the fire is made on the ground, and directly above, in the roof, is an opening, or smoke hole. There are no partitions in the building. The only privacy obtained is by means of curtains. Trunks or boxes are used as wardrobes and storerooms. The central fire is the great point of assembly. Though many Buriats, especially those who are wealthy, build in the Russian style, particularly winter houses, even they find most delight in the
old-fashioned octagonal house, with its central fire, around which they sit on the edge of the raised floor with their feet on the earth space. There they assemble in the evening, or whenever it suits them, gossip, transact business, and talk of whatever interests those present. From time to time a great open vessel, or pail, holding a gallon or more of tarasun is passed from one to another. In this pail is a wooden dipper and each person helps himself to the liquor.
Lazareff's house was thoroughly Buriat in structure and arrangement, but it was remarkably neat, quite a pattern of tidiness. I saw a good many yurtas after that, but none as clean as was Lazareff's. An old Russian woman cared for his little son and had charge of the house. This no doubt explained the unusual neatness of the place. Tea of good quality was brought now and cakes to go with it. While we were drinking tea a sandy-haired Russian, an exile, came in, a pleasant, good-looking man. He said that his home was in the Crimea but for political reasons he had been sent to live among the Buriats. At this time, however, he had only one year longer to remain. His eyes lighted up with happiness when he spoke of his approaching freedom.
In passing from Lazareff's yurta to the carriage there was a chance to finish my survey of the village. The earth was covered with dust which in the middle of the space occupied reached to the ankles as one walked through it. This stratum, thicker in some places, covered everything to the rim of the village, reaching to the outer houses and beyond them, growing thinner toward the open country till at last one could note it no longer. This dust is the dried and pulverized droppings of animals, such as sheep, horses, and horned cattle. In time of thaw and rain the droppings become a soft mud, in dry, warm weather they are turned into dust. When the days are calm the dust keeps its place and people wade through it; when the wind blows, it fills the air in all directions and is carried into each chink, cranny, and little crevice, into the smallest places. People breathe it, swallow it, drink it, eat it, live, move and have their being in it.
We returned now to Usturdi, leaving behind us that village
on the hillside with its pursuits and its passions, which in the main are the same as those of man everywhere, namely: to call human life into existence, and when that new life is here to support it; or in some cases destroy it, in others live on it, in still others toil or even die for it. The motives are the same in all countries, only the details are different.