Selections from THE UPPER AND LOWER AMOOR
By Thomas Witlam Atkinson
Here are some passages from a book first published in 1860; the subject is nomad life in the valley of the Amur river. The book was written by T. W. Atkinson, who had spent several years wandering through the debatable lands between Russia and China, and relates his travels in this region, which was then called the Kirghis Steppe--from the city of Semipalatinsk (or Seven Palaces) which was then a rude frontier town, southward to the steppe around Lake Balkash, and east to Lake Baikal.
A brief history lesson: at this time, Russia was engaged in widening its borders. In the south, Russian armies were campaigning through the Caucasus, Azerbaijan and the oasis kingdoms of Khiva, Merv, Bokhara, Herat, Kokhand, et al. In the east, miners and settlers were colonizing lands long held only by nomads. In the Kirghis Steppe, Cossack pickets and forts were only just being established. The entire area was claimed by the Emperor of Russia, but held by various Kirghis tribes. The lands north of Lake Balkash were the territory of the Kirghis Middle Horde; the lands south of Lake Balkash (which interestingly enough, was also called Lake Tengris) along boundaries long since defined by custom and war, were the territory of the Great Horde.
The Kirghis were classic pastoral nomads. They herded Bactrian camels, horses, cattle, goats and sheep. They kept hawks and eagles for the hunt, and had at least two breeds of dog: Atkinson sketched them, and they have been identified by a modern expert as related to the Laika and the Taigan or Kirghis greyhound. (Thank you, Monsieur Touret!) Though Atkinson does not mention it, other travelers in that time and place say the diet of these nomads was very simple. In the spring and summer, their main food was milk. In the winter, their main food was cheese and dried cream. They had two alcoholic beverages, both made from milk: koumis or fermented mare's-milk, and arrack or distilled milk. They only ate meat when they took it in the hunt, or else if one of their animals died by accident or natural causes; as another Russian traveler commented, when the arrival of a guest in a Kirghis yourt was celebrated by killing a sheep for a feast, this was a feast indeed.
They were nominally Muslim, but shamanistic in practice. They were nominally Russian citizens, but such Russian officials as appeared among them were strange and rare. The women spent their days in toil; the men spent their days riding, hunting, and raiding their neighbors.
Atkinson was interesting in sponsoring English trade with these people. These were the goods he thought they lacked and would be willing to buy: brightly patterned calicoes and woolen goods, paisley shawls, baize and ribbons and fringes and sewing thread; fancy buttons and beads; cheap looking-glasses and watches, and European hardware and steel items--knives, scissors, needles and thimbles, padlocks and axes and stirrup-irons--along with sabres and guns and ammunition, which the Russians refused to sell them. He thought good tea would be welcomed among them, and loaf sugar and rice if such could be provided at low cost; also tobacco, snuff and opium.
Their land had once held many thriving kingdoms; old records speak of it. Everywhere they rode, ruins and tumuli were still to be seen.
Each spring, these Kirghis tribes left their winter pastures in the steppes and migrated slowly to the mountain valleys, where the grazing was good. Once they reached their summer pastures, they stayed there for a month or eight weeks, and then turned around and migrated back. That was their life. They knew nothing more.
P 38: . . . From this spot Syrdak led us towards the south-east, saying it was most likely that we should meet with a tribe in that direction; and a ride of three hours carried us across the broad valley, and to the eastern end of another ride. Here are several ancient tombs, which are held in great veneration by the Kirghis. They say that one of these edifices contains the graves of two mighty Genii, who ruled over the whole region between Nor-Zaisan and the Balkash, to whom all the Sultans of the steppe did homage. They also tell of the terrible battles which were fought between these great spirits, and others who inhabited a part of the Gobi. Some of the fearful ravines in the mountains to the south, are attributed to strokes from their swords, when a path was required to bring up their legions. Extravagant as are such legends, it would not be safe to venture to express to the Kirghis any doubt respecting their authenticity.
Two of these tombs are alike both in form and dimensions. They are circular on the plan, and conical, or more properly an elongated dome, with an aperture on the top. From the ground to the apex of the dome the height is about fifty-five feet; on the south side, and about eight feet from the ground, there is an opening four feet square, and higher up in the dome there is another about two feet square. I succeeded in entering the tomb through the lower aperture, and found the interior diameter twenty-one feet. The walls are four feet thick, and built of stone obtained from rocks near at hand. In the centre of the tomb there are two graves, nine feet long and three feet six inches wide, and on each side of these are three other graves six feet long. The Kirghis say the two large ones contain the Genii, and the smaller ones are the sepulchres of six inferior spirits, their attendants, who were sacrificed when the former were overpowered by the Genii of the Gobi. Around this spot there are several smaller tombs and numerous mounds of earth.
We sat down at the foot of these ancient monuments and partook of some refreshment, while our horses fed on the rough grass at no great distance. The frugal meal being ended, I said, "Amanbul" to my host, who urged us to make a rapid ride, as it was far to the aoul we were seeking. Almost immediately after leaving the tombs we got into a morass, which was probably the bed of a shallow lake from which the water had been evaporated, leaving incrustations of salt on the grass and mud. Not far from this place we reached a part of the steppe covered with efflorescent salt, which is beautiful to look upon, but exceedingly bitter to the taste. Although we proceeded at a rapid pace, we were more than two hours in crossing this crystallised spot. We then entered on a sterile steppe, covered with sand and pebbles, on which only a few stunted thorny bushes were growing, bearing yellow and purple flowers, that greatly resembled the wild rose in form.
We were now on a level plain, but no pastures could be seen in any direction, and the Kirghis urged us on at greater speed. Hour after hour passed, with the same monotony around us, while the sinking sun was watched with anxiety, as his slanting rays were cast along the steppe. At last a wreath of smoke was descried in the distance, to the infinite delight of all. We stood for a few minutes while I scanned the horizon with my glass. To our great disappointment no aoul was visible, nor could the yourt be seen from whence the smoke curled up. We bad been nine hours on horseback, still it was necessary to push the poor animals on. Having gone a few miles the horses scented the pastures, pricked up their ears, and bounded forward with fresh vigour.
As we approached nearer, a belt of green became visible; though neither cattle nor yourts could be seen, smoke there was to a certainty, and no doubt a Kirghis aoul. In somewhat more than an hour we perceived that the green was a belt of reeds, extending for many miles,- still no water could be seen; and on reaching the reeds the smoke seemed to be about a mile from us. We tried to cross the swamp, but found this impossible, as the plants were ten feet high, and so thick that the horses could not force a passage, while at a few paces from the bank the water became deep. Turning to the south, we rode along the edge of this vegetable barrier in the hope of finding a track. We had ridden several miles and left the smoke behind us; still no place was found by which we could cross towards it. Darkness was fast approaching, and there appeared no hope of our finding a path. Our horses were again urged forward to reach the southern end of the reedy border, when, to our great satisfaction, we perceived a Kirghis. Two of my men rode up to him, explained our position, and desired him to guide us to the aoul.
He good-naturedly complied, leading us to the eastward, for more than two miles, and then turned into the reeds along a well-trodden track. In about half an hour we were greeted by the barring of dogs as we rode up to the aoul; night had, however, set in, and nothing could be seen but a few yourts around us. These were located in the pastures of a numerous tribe occupying a region to the west of the Ala-Kool, and the people told me that the aoul of the chief, "Hade-Yol," was at the distance of a five hours' ride to the eastward.
Being aroused at daybreak the following morning by the noise of the cattle, I left the yourt, and saw that we were surrounded by a countless multitude, and that three other aouls were at a short distance. A busy scene in pastoral life was presented to me. The women and children were milking the cows, sheep, and goats. Not far from the yourts three large iron cauldrons were placed over holes dug in the ground; into these the milk from the different animals was poured from the leathern pails, while three boys were keeping up a constant blaze beneath the cauldrons, by adding small bushes to the fire. At each of these seething parts stood a woman, stirring and skimming the bubbling mass. The tattered garments, pointed caps, and haggard looks of these poor creatures, as they flitted to and fro in the steam of their cauldrons, forcibly suggested the Witch scene in Macbeth. The preparation they were engaged upon was "Hyran." After boiling about two hours the fluid becomes thick, when it is cut into squares and subsequently dried in the sun. This forms a considerable portion of the winter food of these people.
In another place the young women were at work making "Voilocks" -felt coverings for the yourts; these are made in pieces twenty-five feet long and seven feet broad, by a simple process. Their workshop was a space forty yards long and fifteen wide, within a reed fence seven feet high. At one end a lumber of old women and girls were beating the wool and camel's hair with rods. When this is rendered sufficiently soft and is properly mixed, it is handed to the younger women at the other end, who are the felt makers. The first article required is a reed mat, which is made as follows:-reeds are obtained seven feet long and three-eighths of an inch in diameter, being carefully selected to this size. Six inches from each end of the reed a small hole is bored, and five others at equal distances between them. Through these holes strings like catgut are passed-the reeds are thus placed close together; when formed to a sufficient length, the ends are secured, and the mat is complete.
It is next spread on the ground, when the young women bring the wool and camel's hair which have undergone the beating process, and begin laying it evenly on the reeds. This is a work of time and labour, but when finished it forms a perfectly even mass about nine inches thick. Four of the workwomen kneel down at one end and begin carefully rolling up the mat, and the woolly substance is pressed together. When this has continued for some time the article is unrolled, sprinkled with water, and again rolled up. The process is continually repeated, till the material becomes almost solid and about half an inch thick: - then the manufacture is complete. These voilocks are waterproof; they are exceedingly warm coverings for their yourts, and wear for years.
While I had been watching the manufacturing operations, the Cossacks had made preparations for our departure. My horse was brought; then, thanking the Kirghis for their hospitality and shelter, we departed with fresh horses, camels, and men. After going, a short distance from the yourts, it became evident that a plain extended to the horizon on every side. Over this vast space a number of aouls were scattered, with large herds of camels, as well as thousands of horses and oxen, all moving towards their pastures. As we rode along we passed through flocks of sheep spread over miles of country; they appeared numberless, and the whole steppe seemed teeming with life.
The tribes had only returned to these pastures a few days before. In some parts there was most luxuriant grass, on which the sheep were browsing, in other places we rode through steppe grass reaching to our saddle flaps. Having travelled southward for about four hours, and constantly through multitudes of cattle, we met a Tatar merchant following his trade among these people. I accepted his invitation to stop and drink tea with him, which was speedily produced, and was excellent in quality. Bread he had none, but dried apricots supplied its place. He told me that five tribes were assembled on this part of the steppe, and all within a two days' ride. They were returning from the mountains, visiting, their pastures on the way, towards their winter quarters on the Balkash. He assured me that these Kirghis had about 2,500 camels, 60,000 horses, more than 100,000 horned cattle, and sheep beyond calculation. One chief had more than 9,000 horses. No doubt this was a fair estimate, as my informant was well aware of the numbers each Sultan and tribe possessed.
P 47: . . . I was led to their lord, who I found standing at the door of his yourt; on riding up, he laid hold of my bridle, offering me his hand to dismount; he then gave me the usual salutation, and ushered me into his dwelling. A fire was burning in the middle of the yourt; large cauldron, on its tripod, standing over it, and two females were stirring the contents with wooden ladles. Soon a large bowl of brick tea was handed to me. As this is a beverage not generally known to the ladies of England, it may be useful to tell them how it is concocted. Brick tea is a solid mass about eleven inches long, six inches wide, and one and a-half inches thick, and is made from the last gatherings and the refuse of the tea crop. Instead of the leaves and stalks being dried, they are made wet, mixed with bullock's blood, and pressed into a mould, when the mass becomes more solid than a brick. When it is used, a man takes an axe and chops off some small pieces; these are bruised between two stones, rubbed in the hands, and then thrown into the cauldron. A bowl of "Smitanka", sour clotted cream, is added, with a little salt and a handful of millet meal; these ingredients are boiled for half an hour, and then served up hot. Before handing it to the guests, small portions are taken out of the cauldron with a spoon, and thrown to the four winds as an offering to the gods. I cannot say that the beverage is either bad or particularly clean, still hunger has often caused me to make a very good meal of it; but I think it is rather tea soup than tea.
P 50: . . . In a little more than an hour the sun rose, as if from the sea, casting his slanting rays into the desert, and lighting up the whole plain. This enabled me to examine my party. They were wild-looking fellows, dressed in varied costumes. Several had horse-skin coats, with flowing manes down the centre of their backs; the skirts tucked into their tchimbar of yellow leather. On their heads they had horse-skin caps, with part of the mane on the top falling back like a helmet, which gave them a most ferocious aspect. Others had sheepskin coats, leather tchimbar, and fox-skin caps, with lappets hanging over their cars. Each man had his battle-axe, and three of them carried long lances, with tufts of black horsehair hanging beneath the spear. Thus armed and costumed, we formed an imposing cavalcade. Among the horses were animals of great beauty. Joul-bar had ordered for me a pair of dark iron-greys, of a race celebrated for speed and endurance. The spare ones were divided among nine Kirghis; leaving the Cossacks, three Kirghis, and myself, free for defence, if necessary. Although the chief and the tribe thought it probable that we might meet with some of the roving gentlemen of the steppe, neither the Cossacks nor myself entertained any apprehension. We were well mounted, and our rifles could give a good account of our assailants should we be attacked. For the first hour we rode slowly over rich pastures, that were soon to be cropped bare by the vast herds feeding upon them. After this, our horses were put into a quicker pace, and we shortly began to leave the grassy steppe behind.
P 55: . . . When I awoke the next morning, the chief, with several men and women, were sitting in the yourt. I threw off my covering, sprang to my feet, and my toilet was finished. The traveller who visits these Asiatics will be disappointed should he expect better accommodations. His lavatory must be the nearest piece of water, and the broad steppe, with its blue canopy, his dressing-room. Nor will he lack spectators of either sex--all will be interested in (to them) the novel and extraordinary scene. Cleanliness is not a Kirghis virtue; they are economical in soap, and the washing of either person or clothing, apparently forms no part of their domestic duties.
The summer costume of both men and women consists of two, sometimes of three, silk or cotton Kalats (long dressing gowns). These are made double, so that when one side is dirty, the garment is turned, and a new side appears. In time this also becomes more foul than its precursor, and then in it goes and forth comes the other: so alternate changes take place, till the garment falls off, a compound of rags and filth, when a new one goes through the same process. The summer costume of the children, up to eight years of age, is still more economical. The juveniles take a roll on the bank of a muddy pool, the scorching sun quickly bakes the coating they thus obtain, and their dress is complete. When this is worn off or looks shabby, either by sleeping in their furs or by their gambols on the grass, they add a new one of the same material. In winter, men, women, and children of all ages, wear fur coats, making it exceedingly difficult to distinguish the sexes.
The Kirghis who had accompanied me intended remaining here another night, and would start on their return before dawn on the following morning: they expected to reach their aoul in 18 or 20 hours. Their horses will then have gone over not less than 240 to 250 miles. Our average rate of travelling, had been 6 to 7 miles per hour. On inquiring from my host, he informed me that the country onward was rich in pastures, and that tribes and numerous aouls would be found on my route.
Before two o'clock we were all in our saddles. At a little distance from the aoul we found great flocks of sheep, and then came upon the camels, cows, and oxen. Further on we passed through herds of horses; these were feeding six or seven miles away, attended by mounted herdsmen. The people were rich in flocks and cattle, and my guide told me, that their pastures extended a two hours' ride beyond where the horses were feeding. We were now riding over a rich carpet of grass, intermingled with flowers. What a change from the arid and desolate scene of yesterday! Herds of antelopes were feeding, to which the dogs gave chase: we had several splendid runs, but their fleetness soon placed them out of danger. They stood in groups, gazing at us with their large black eves, within rifle range, but I would not shoot at them or permit the Cossacks to do so. They were very small and beautifully shaped, with exceedingly slender legs, and bounded over the steppe, apparently scarcely touching the grass. Sometimes they were seen in herds of more than a hundred.
The country was undulating, and several small lakes could be discerned in the distance. Far away to the west, a belt of dark green was observed, which the men said was Kamisch (reeds) on the shores of a large lake; but the water could not be seen from our position.
P 58: . . . As we rode up, he came forward, took the reins of my bridle, giving me his hand to alight, saluted me, and then led the way into his dwelling. A Bokharian carpet and some tiger-skins were spread, on which a seat was offered me, and the Sultan sat down opposite. Tea and dried fruits were immediately placed before us, of which my host urged me to partake, setting me a good example. . . . The yourt was a spacious one, nearly forty feet in diameter, and thirteen feet high; a boy was feeding a blazing fire in the centre, and a great number of boxes and bales were close behind me, containing the old man's treasure. On some packages to my left were the Sultan's saddle and richly-decorated horse trappings, ornamented with iron inlaid with silver. Near these was the chair of state, which is carried on a camel before Batyr when on the march; at the four corners it is decorated with peacock feathers, signifying his descent from "Timour Khan," (Tamerlane). A fine hawk was perched on one side of the yourt; on the opposite site, a large "Bearcoot" (black eagle), was chained to a stump, shackled but not hooded. Both these birds are used in hunting by the Kirghis; the hawk for pheasants and other feathered game, and the bearcoot for foxes, deer, and wolves.
Later in the evening an aged woman and three young ones, with four children, came in; they were the Sultan's family, and had been at their evening occupation; the Sultana and the young ladies milking the cows, sheep and goats; the younger children assisting. Night and morning this is the customary duty of the wives and daughters of these princes of the steppe; who are as proud of their descent from the great conqueror, as any English noble of his Norman origin. The maiden feels no degradation in milking her kine nor in saddling her horse, and when mounted, with hawk on wrist, manages her steed like an Amazon.
P 80: . . . Carpets were now spread in front of the yourt for the director and his staff; and as the whole party seated themselves, the Sultan ordered the wrestlers to come forth. Several men threw off their fur coats, when they appeared au naturel, except a small piece of calico tied round their loins. They stepped forward on to a clear space in front of their prince, who seemed to eye their brawny forms and muscular limbs with great satisfaction. Having exhibited themselves, they retired, and the Sultan gave the signal to begin. A couple were presently engaged grappling each other's naked and greasy limbs: both competitors displayed skill and dexterity. This was a severe trial, and continued a long time before one of them was thrown. Immediately this occurred, other wrestlers entered the arena and some terrible falls were given.
These contests, when between different tribes, are conducted in a most savage manner. The men engage in them with a full determination to conquer or die on the turf. Usually the Sultan stops the conflict between men of his own tribe, when he sees them become angry, before the last terrible throw, which almost invariably proves fatal. I regret to say that these Asiatics are somewhat like the ancient Romans in the arena, generally expressing their disapprobation if the last savage act is not fully accomplished. The inhuman customs of a barbaric age are found among the people of these regions, and he who can count the greatest number of opponents sacrificed to his prowess, receives the highest honour during his life; after his death tradition makes him a hero.
The athletic sports being ended, the races began; but these are not like either the Derby or St. Leger. At Doncaster and Epsom the courses are short-rarely long enough to test the endurance of a horse; great speed for a short distance being the grand object in England. Among the Kirghis it is quite different; the horse that possesses the most enduring physical power is most valued. The course they were going to run over would try their mettle to the utmost, as it was fifty versts, or about thirty-three miles, in length. This distance was chosen to show the director the value of the different studs owned by the Sultan and the chiefs. Forty horses were brought up to the starting point, all mounted by young Kirghis, and each rider feeling confident in the quality of his steed. It might have been called a steeple-chase, as the course was over the country to a place twenty-five versts distant; then each rider had to pass round a yourt marked by a flag, and return to the Sultan's aoul. Members of the tribe were stationed at different points, carrying spears and small flags to mark the route.
After some little trouble the horses were marshalled nearly in line, when the signal was given and away they went, with a great number of horsemen following in their rear. For the first ten versts the speed was not fast, an they kept well together. After this jockeying was resorted to, each trying to keep the lead without distressing his horse, as the return would try his metal sufficiently. Before they reached the turning point it became evident that the race would be well contested, and it was expected that it would be run in considerably less than two hours. When the horses reached within about a mile of the yourt a terrible struggle began, to obtain a place in the inner circle, - nearly all of them came up in a compact mass. But in rounding the yourt several shot ahead, getting nearly 200 yards in advance before the last had passed the spear. This was one of the favorite horses; his rider had been jockeyed out of his place, and when he saw the whole group before him lie urged his steed onward at a tremendous pace, soon passing several of his opponents, and gradually drawing near the leading group.
The speed was carefully maintained when they had passed about one third of the distance homeward, yet no one of the competitors was left far behind. A number of well mounted Kirghis were waiting about ten versts from the aoul, where the real contest and excitement commenced. Several horses began to lose ground, and were rapidly being left behind. Still there were upwards of twenty close together, more than half that number galloping neck and neck. The clattering of the hoofs on the turf, and the wild shout of the men cheering on the riders; the spectators dressed in their varied and brilliant costumes, mounted on fiery steeds, rushing onward at full gallop, and heralding their favorites on to victory, presented a scene in Asiatic life which finds no parallel in Europe.
The Sultan and those around him were in a state of great excitement when they saw the advancing throng, now within a verst, and the shouts of the people came floating tumultuously on the air, becoming gradually louder as they approached. Horse and rider were distinctly visible, each straining every nerve to reach the goal. Nearer and nearer the foaming steeds rushed on, eight of them so close abreast that it was impossible to say which was in advance. Onward they fly, and when within a few strides of the spear three horses bound forward from the group and pass it at the same moment, amidst the loud hurrahs of the Kirghis. The distance had been run in one hour and forty-two minutes. Such is the horse-racing among the Kirghis: but sometimes they make the course sixty versts, or forty miles.
P 85: . . . the next point of interest to me was the region of the Kara-tau, which bounds the Kirghis Steppe to the south. Here were the pastures of the Great Horde; and in one of the valleys Russia was just commencing a fort. A ride of ten days after leaving Ayagus brought me to the river Bean, the boundary between the pastures of the Great and Middle Hordes. The country I passed over varied greatly in its aspects ; and steppes were frequently crossed, on which the grass was withered by the sun; and the only patches of green were the salsola bordering the numerous salt lakes. On approaching the mountains the country becomes more fertile, and affords good pasture for vast herds of cattle, - indeed, wherever there is moisture grass is abundant.
The ancient inhabitants of this region rendered it extremely productive. The numerous canals which still exist show their engineering skill, and the extent of the irrigation it produced. In some of the channels the water yet runs, and, where it overflows, the sterile soil is covered with a luxuriant carpet of vegetation, adorned with flowers of singular beauty. There is abundant proof that it has once been densely inhabited, and it is probably destined to be a great theatre when occupied by Russia. The vast number of tumuli scattered over the plain, the extensive earthworks, which have been either cities or strongholds, afford convincing evidence that a great people were once located here.
One of these ancient works on the Lepsou, its outlets from the Kara-tau, is a parallelogram, about 700 yards in length and 300 in breadth. The earth walls are now about twelve feet high and have been considerably higher; their thickness is about sixteen feet at the bottom, and nine feet at the top. This enclosure was entered by four gates, one being in the centre of each side; but the eastern end has been partly destroyed by the river, which is gradually cutting down the bank. Half a mile to the north and south are numerous mounds; and at about a mile from the western end there is a large tumulus, about 150 feet in diameter, and 50 feet high. The people who produced them were a very different race to the present occupiers of the country, and had made an extraordinary advance in agriculture and mining. In one of the small mountain ridges on my route, I found a fine specimen of malachite, and came upon the remains of ancient mines,-most probably worked at a period long before those of Siberia were discovered by the Chutes, who left many of their flint instruments in the depths of the Altai.
As we approached the Kara-tau from the northeast, the mountains were seen rising abruptly from the plain, - some to the height of near 7,000 feet. Their dark purple colour has obtained for them the name of "Black Mountains." On our ride towards this rocky barrier, I got an occasional glimpse, through the great rents in the chain, of the snowy crests beyond. These appeared so near, that I was almost deceived into the belief that an hour's ride would take me to them; and each new opening only made me the more anxious to cross into the valley. After a long day on horseback, we were glad to rest in the aoul of some herdsmen belonging to a chief, who gave us a welcome reception.
P 97: . . . The fort was placed on a rising ground about 400 yards to the east of the river Kopal, and about eight miles north from the mouth of the gorge in which Abakamoff had his battery. A vast number of tumuli are scattered over the plain, and some are of large dimensions; proving that the region has once been densely populated, or else it has been a vast cemetery, in which apparently a nation has been interred. The spot had a most desolate aspect; not a single tree was visible, and scarcely a bush could be found, except on the banks of the river, and even there they were few.
P 117: . . . About three miles further up the valley we came upon a spot where an avalanche had swept over these terraces, forming a great gap, by tearing up the rocks and hurling them into a vast heap. This mass spread over more than a mile in length, and the rocks were piled up 900 to 1,000 feet, appearing as if half a mountain had been thrown from above. A little beyond this place, the cliffs on the north jut out nearly to the centre of the valley, terminating in high crags, which in some parts overhang their base considerably. As I passed round these, a most savage scene presented itself to me. The forest oil the south side had been torn up by a terrible storm,--naked trunks with their branches wrenched off reared their shattered forms, and thousands of trees were lying strewn about in every direction. Here was seen the effect of a hurricane that had uprooted huge trees like stubble. Far beyond this scene of devastation rose the snowy chain of the Ac-tau, its vast peaks towering into the deep blue vault in sublime grandeur.
Having travelled onward several miles, I arrived at a part of the valley where the Kora makes a bend toward the cliffs on the north, leaving, a space of about 200 yards in width, between the base of the rocks and the river. As I approached this spot, I was almost induced to believe that the works of the Giants were before me, for five enormous stones. were standing isolated and on end, the first sight of which gave me the idea that their disposition was not accidental, and that a master mind had superintended the erection,--the group being in perfect keeping with the scene around. One of these blocks would have made a tower large enough for a church, its height being 76 feet above the ground, and it measured 24 feet on one side and 19 feet on the other. It stood 73 paces from the base of the cliffs, and was about 8 feet out of the perpendicular, inclining towards the river. The remaining four blocks varied from 45 to 50 feet in height, one being 15 feet square and the rest somewhat less. Two of these stood upright, the others were leaning in different directions, one of them so far that it had nearly lost its equilibrium.
A sixth mass of still larger dimensions was lying half buried in the ground; on this, some young pieta trees had taken root and were growing luxuriantly. About two hundred yards to the eastward, three other blocks were lying, and beneath one was a cavity many a family in Kopal would have considered a splendid dwelling. Not far from these stood a pile of stones undoubtedly the work of man, as a great quantity of quartz blocks had been used, with other materials, in its construction. It was circular, 42 feet in diameter and 28 feet high, shaped like a dome: a circle of quartz blocks had been formed on the ground, enclosing a space ten feet wide all round the tomb. Finding such a tumulus in this valley surprised me greatly; it could not have been the grave of a chief of the present race, but was as ancient as those I had found on the steppe.
My Kirghis companions looked on this place with feelings of dread, and on the tomb with veneration. Each left a strip of his garment on the grave as an offering to the soul of the departed. Their proceedings excited my curiosity; and from one of them "Tursun," who believes himself a descendant of Genghiz, I obtained the following tradition. The word Kora implies sealed or locked.
"The valley of the Kora was once inhabited by several powerful Genii, who bad a continual feud with others of their race, in the different regions of the Tarbagatai, the Barluck, and the Gobi. They frequently ravaged the nations or tribes subject to their brethren of the north, and always retreated to the Kora in security. Many towering crags commanded the region, enabling the guards to perceive their advancing enemies afar off; and the vigilant sentinels stationed on these watch-towers rendered the position impregnable. The approaching legions were lured into the rugged mountain passes, and there either overpowered or destroyed by huge blocks burled from the crags above. At length their audacity and cruelty became so great that a combination was formed to wreak, a fearful vengeance upon them; and Shaitan was invoked to aid in their destruction.
"As usual, the advancing bodies were quickly discovered, and measures taken to destroy them in the pass. Shortly two other vast legions were seen marching towards different gorges; and now all the forces of the beleaguered Genii were brought up to annihilate these hosts. The battle was terrific; and the mountains resounded with the din of war; while the crashing of the avalanches hurled into the gorges shook the mighty peaks above. Victory seemed secure to the Genii; when, at the very moment of their success, an appalling sound was heard in the upper regions, causing the mountains to tremble. Suddenly a cloud of smoke and flame burst forth reaching to mid-heaven; red lightning darted from the vapour, and the thunder found an echo in every peak and valley. Amidst this tremendous uproar, "hell's artillery" belched forth red-hot rocks, causing fearful destruction to the legions of the Kora. In these appalling sounds the Genii recognised the power of Darkness; and, becoming panic-struck, they were drivel-i back into the valley, whither no one bad yet dared to follow. The conquering legions now poured on, with Shaitan leading the van, when, on the brink of the precipices, vast rocks were hurled down, crushing and entombing the Genii beneath." After this terrible event the Kora was sealed for ages, but the tradition was handed down from sire to son.
At length a daring chief determined to visit the valley and take up his abode there, in spite of the remonstrance of his family and friends. Attended by a number of his followers, he crossed the mountains, descended to the Kora, and encamped on the enchanted ground. The yourts were pitched, the animals slain for the festival, and his followers seated themselves around him, exulting in the prowess of their Sultan who had ventured to lead them to this mysterious spot. When in the height of their revels, a loud crash of thunder rolled through the valley, and echoed among the crams. Suddenly, and before the sounds had died away, a Genii appeared, terrible in his rage. His threatening aspect and flashing sword filled them with horror. Addressing the Sultan in a voice that made every heart quail, he said, 'Monster! thou hast dared to bring thy slaves hither and pollute this sacred spot, and for this thou shalt die.'
"Quick as the flash of the lightning the blade swept round his head, severing, the huge rock in twain, and in a moment all were entombed beneath the ponderous mass. A few of the people saw the fearful tragedy from a distance, and fled, conveying the information to the Sultan's family and to the tribe. The women became inconsolable, and mourned for years. At last a spirit called the 'white lady' took pity upon them, and through her intercession the tribe were permitted to raise the tumulus near the fatal spot. After which the valley was again closed, and no Kirghis has ever ventured to feed his flocks there."
P. 145: . . . We had ridden far amid many remarkable rocky scenes, in a limestone region, and in some parts through wooded glades, but not a single maral or argali had been seen. At length we saw several bearcoots soaring aloft, -when Sergae assured me that both hunters and game were not far off .
I have mentioned in my former work that the bearcoot is trained for hunting by the Kirghis. But I have said nothing of his prowess in his wild state, when he sports on his own account, and sometimes plunders other ravagers of their prey. The following, incident will illustrate his power and courage, besides showing that lie would prove a formidable opponent to any unarmed man, if hunger prompted him to dispute possession of his game.
Three of these dark monarchs of the sky were seen soaring, high above the crags to the south, which were too abrupt to ride over. We therefore piqueted our horses to feed, and began to ascend the mountain slope. In about an hour and a half we reached the summit, and descended into a small wooded valley, when we observed the bearcoots wheeling round towards the upper end, in which direction we hastened. Having gone at a quick walk for about three miles, we reached a rocky glen that led us into a valley of the Bean, known to be a favourite resort of the animals we were seeking. A small torrent ran foaming through its centre, and mountains rose on each side far above the snowline. In singular contrast with the rich foliage and luxuriant herbage in the valley, the lower slopes facing the south were almost destitute of verdure, while those facing the north were clothed with a dense forest.
We had scarcely entered this sylvan spot when a singular spectacle was presented to our view. A large maral <ie, a maral stag> had been hunted down by three wolves, who had just seized him , and the ravenous brutes were tearing the noble animal to pieces while yet breathing. We instantly prepared to inflict punishment on two of the beasts, and crept quietly along under cover to get within range. We succeeded, and were levelling our rifles, when Sergae called my attention to two large bearcoots, poising aloft and preparing for a swoop. He whispered, " Don't fire, and we shall see some grand sport."
Presently one of the eagles shot down like an arrow, and was almost instantly followed by the other. When within about forty yards of the group, the wolves caught sight of them, and instantly stood on the defensive, showing their long, yellow fangs, and uttering a savage howl. In a few seconds the first bearcoot struck his prey; one talon was fixed on his back, the other on the upper part of the neck, completely securing the head, while he tore out the wolf's liver with his beak. The other bearcoot had seized another wolf, and shortly both were as lifeless as the animal they had hunted.
The third brute snarled when his comrades set up their wailing howls, and started for the cover: he was soon within range when a puff of white smoke rose from Sergae's rifle, and the wolf rolled over, dead. The report startled the bearcoots, but we remained concealed, and they commenced their repast on the stag. Their attack had been made with so much gallantry, that neither the old hunter nor myself could raise a rifle against them, or disturb their banquet. When satisfied, the soared up to some lofty crag, and Sergae took off the skins of the poachers, which he intended keeping, as trophies bravely won by the eagles.
P 150: . . . In the region of the Karkarella, as in many other parts of the steppe, there are numerous tumuli; some are of great size, and probably contain the ashes of men who have been mighty in battle. About 10 miles from one of the piquets are the remains of an ancient edifice, which is held sacred by the tribes. It is named the temple of the "White Lady;" and it is said that no animal ever entered its sacred precinct and lived. No Kirghis ever approaches this spot except barefooted; and the pollution of this ground, they believe, would be followed by instant death. This bad often been a subject of conversation between the Cossacks and Kirghis; and many traditions bad been related telling of the wonderful power of the white apparition.
Some of the Cossacks believed these wild stories; but one dare-devil swore he would test the prowess of the "Bielaya chortofka" (white she-devil), pollute her temple, and defy her. More than two months had elapsed without any reference to the White Lady , when one morning the Cossack started on a hunting expedition alone. Three days passed over, and nothing was heard of him. This caused some apprehension; and it was feared that he had been captured by the Kirghis. One of the men suggested that he had probably gone to visit the White Lady; and a party was instantly dispatched to the temple in search of him. As they approached the spot nothing, was seen but the tumuli and the ruined walls ; but on nearing these a horrible spectacle was presented to them. The hands and arms of their comrade were placed on a stone, and near them his loaded rifle. On another stone, at a short distance, they found his head ; and then they discovered that his mangled remains were placed in a circle around the temple.
This affair still remains a mystery ; all the Kirghis declare that it was the vengeance of the White Lady.
P 184: . . . After taking leave of all our Cossack friends according to the usual custom,
which is always done at their own dwellings before commencing a journey, we mounted our
horses and departed. A ride of little more than duration carried us beyond the region of
tombs, and on to a part of the steppe composed of bare granite on which there was scarcely
a blade of grass. In some parts huge masses were thrown up, with broad veins of rose
quartz protruding, that extended in parallel lines in a southeasterly direction for ten miles.
Beyond was a grassy plain running up to the foot of the north side of Byan-ja-rouk, and in
the distance were several groups of ancient tombs, the burial-place of a race of whom the
Kirghis have no tradition.
P 184: . . . After taking leave of all our Cossack friends according to the usual custom, which is always done at their own dwellings before commencing a journey, we mounted our horses and departed. A ride of little more than duration carried us beyond the region of tombs, and on to a part of the steppe composed of bare granite on which there was scarcely a blade of grass. In some parts huge masses were thrown up, with broad veins of rose quartz protruding, that extended in parallel lines in a southeasterly direction for ten miles. Beyond was a grassy plain running up to the foot of the north side of Byan-ja-rouk, and in the distance were several groups of ancient tombs, the burial-place of a race of whom the Kirghis have no tradition.
Not far from one of these smoke was rising, which indicated the place for our encampment, and a sharp gallop over about eight miles of rich greensward brought us to it. A party of Cossacks and artillerymen had been sent on before with yourts, and such eatables as could be procured, each family having contributed a portion from its little store to make our parting feast.
We were now at the "Arasan," or hot mineral spring, having a temperature of 29' + Reaumur both in winter and summer. At a very distant period this has been a place of some importance,-judging from the extent of the foundations of several buildings, and the heaps of ruins around. The Kirghis have a tradition that one of these has been a Kalmuck temple; they also look upon the place as holy.
A large bath has been formed with rough stone walls, 23 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 4 feet 6 inches deep, and the spring is very strong, giving a column of water three inches in diameter. It has been resorted to for many centuries by Kalmucks, Tartars, Chinese, and Kirghis. Formerly the place swarmed with serpents of a harmless species, and the bathers considered it a good omen when any of them twined round their arms and neck; nor would they on account have them disturbed.
The water was clear, and the steam curling up from it induced the officers and myself to bathe. While enjoying the luxury my attention was directed to a serpent that was twisting his slimy body among the stones not far from my back. He was much too near to be agreeable, and I instantly give him a wide berth, to the great amusement of my friends. About fifty yards from the bath, a cold spring gushes forth in a circular basin, -now partly filled up with stones, whence carbonic acid gas bubbles up in great quantities. Good soda-water of natural manufacture could be obtained here in an inexhaustible supply.
P 187: . . . A ride of half an hour brought us into the rugged ravine, with its dark purple slaty walls rising in some places a thousand feet above us; in other parts it opened into an amphitheatre, in the shelving sides of which ten times the multitude ever assembled by Caesar in the Colosseum could have found places. A small stream ran through the centre of this area, leaping and foaming over fallen rocks: its banks were fringed with many flowering shrubs, while luxuriant grass, with beds of sweet-scented yellow poppies, were spread over the surface.
We were three hours riding from this place to the top of the pass, whence we had a view over the steppe, that stretched out like a sea beneath us, till earth and sky seemed to be united in purple vapour. Here we expected to see the tribes on their march, but were disappointed. In one direction smoke was seen, although at a great distance. We were -now about -five thousand feet above the steppe, and to the east the mountains rose abruptly two thousand feet higher. On some beetling crags, far above us was standing a group of argali (wild sheep), apparently watching our movements with intense interest. It was impossible to approach them within rifle range, and shortly they scampered off to a higher summit, whence they continued gazing until we were lost in the windings of the pass.
The descent was very tedious, and occupied us four hours. After leaving the gorge and reaching the crest of a low hill, we beheld a few miles to the east a Kirghis encampment. On reaching it, we ascertained that this was an advance party on their way to the Ala-tan, and that they had only just arrived. Their yourts, fifteen in number , were being pitched on the bank of a small stream; as usual, the women were performing this laborious work, while the chief and some of the elders of the tribe were lounging on carpets, drinking koumis. A place was made for me in the little circle and a bowl of the beverage handed to me, which, after tasting, I passed to one of my men, who proved himself a true descendant of the race by draining it to the bottom.
Large herds of camels, horses, and oxen were seen grazing at a short distance, and immense flocks of sheep were feeding around us. I ascertained from the chief that he intended remaining on this spot for two or three days, and that we should find some of the tribes a two days' journey beyond the river Ac-sou. While two yourts were being put up for our party, I strolled through the aoul and watched the women at their labours. Poor creatures, they were miserable indeed, notwithstanding that they were surrounded by vast flocks and herds. Their forms were emaciated, and their faces careworn; even the young seemed marked with age, and all were covered with dirt. Water never comes near their skins, except from a shower in the mountains; and their clothing bespoke extreme wretchedness.
Some had sheepskin coats, others of printed calico from Kokhan, yellowish leather tchimbar (wide trousers), madder-coloured boots, short in the foot, with high heels, which rendered their gait ungainly. Their head-dresses were of calico, formed like a hood, and hanging over their shoulders, which gave them the appearance of nuns; but there was nothing prepossessing either in their looks or costume. When the yourts were finished, the voilocks spread, and their small stock of moveables arranged, they turned to their other domestic duties, milking their cows, sheep, and goats. The lambs and kids were strung together in long lines, waiting their turn; the moment the women had finished milking, children, from four to ten years old, slipped the cords from their necks, when the young animals bounded off to their dams, butting and springing over each other's backs.
A short distance from these the men were milking the mares and camels; and one of the former was kicking and plunging, evidently determined not to submit. As a Kirghis is not to be defeated by his horse, when koumis is wanted, in a short time she was secured with thongs, and notwithstanding her efforts to bite, and her attempts to lie down, was compelled to contribute to the general stock. The foals were tied up in long lines of fifty or sixty each, and are only allowed to suck morning and evening after the milking.
This tribe had been more than two months on their march from the shores of the Balkash, - the winter resort for all the Kirghis of this region. Theirs is a life of constant migration between the higher valleys of the Ala-tau and the steppes around the Balkash. Here, during the winter season, their flocks and herds obtain food from the tops of the rough grass which protrudes through the snow. As these people make no hay for their cattle, the want of it often subjects them to great disasters, and the past winter had been a most fatal one. Early in October, 1849, there was a fall of snow, which rendered it difficult for the cattle to find the short grass on the steppe. Before the end of the month there was a bouran and a snowstorm that continued nine days, covering the whole country four to five feet deep. This prevented some of the tribes reaching the shores of the Balkash, and vast numbers of their sheep died; the Kirghis in this region lost no less than 70,000 sheep. The camels, horses, and oxen succeeded in procuring a scanty subsistence; but before the spring, vast numbers of these died also. One chief, at whose aoul I remained, had had 700 horses, 80 camels, and a great number of oxen destroyed.
Independently of such calamities, the Kirghis are subject to great personal risk and danger on these vast Asiatic plains, where the wind blows with a fury unknown in Europe. In January, 1850, the thermometer fell to 20 degrees Reaum. below the freezing point, and then came terrible bourans <blizzards>. I have known one to continue for eleven days with such fury that the yourts were blown down, and the voilock coverings rent asunder and carried away by the storm. I have also seen the household goods strewn over the snowy waste, when all had to scramble to procure the smallest covering as a protection against the cutting blast. These disasters not unfrequently happen in the night, when, in the confusion, the fur wrappers are blown from the young children; and they, miserable little creatures, are hurled into the snow, and perish. But it is not children alone who fall victims to the fury of these storms,-if men or women wander from the aoul, they can seldom return, and thus they are often frozen to death within fifty paces of their friends. Such are the fearful calamities that visit these vast steppes.
The tribe with whom I was stopping bad suffered, and were mourning the loss of some of their friends. At the door of one of the yourts, a small white flag was flutterng, from a spear, indicating that a young female had been lost; and plaintive music and deep sobs were heard issuing from the yourt, as the sun was setting. In some of the narrow rocky valleys of the Ala-tau I have often heard a dozen, or even more, voices singing in chorus these funeral strains. As the sounds swelled and echoed from crag to crag, it had a pleasing, but at the same time a most melancholy effect,-it was truly funereal.
During the evening I made many inquiries of my host about the passes in the Kara-tau, and expressed a wish to ascend by the gorge of the Ac-sou. This, he said, was utterly impossible, as the river ran between perpendicular precipices, without a ledge on which man could set his foot. Nor would it, he added, be practicable to ford the river within a two hours' ride from the point where it issues from the mountain. The first ten or fifteen miles after it enters the plain it is one continued cataract, the water tumbling over large rocks, forming a succession of falls, and making a roar that is heard at a long distance: over it he said, -neither man nor horse could cross.
The chief and his friends were trying to make themselves happy; and if koumis and arrak could do it , they had abundant materials at hand. The bowls were often emptied, and they were becoming noisy and quarrelsome, -of course under these circumstances, no further information could be obtained. Having no desire that either myself or my men should take a part in a Kirghis brawl, 1 deemed it prudent to retire to our yourt.
At day break the following morning we left the aoul, long before the chief and his boosing companions had opened their eyes. Notwithstanding what bad been said as to the impossibility of ascending the gorge of the Ac-sou, I ordered our march alone the foot of the mountains. After riding about two hours we came upon a great number of ancient tombs; many only small mounds of earth, varying from fifteen to twenty feet in diameter and ten feet high; these were scattered far over the plain. About a mile further I found others of much larger dimensions; one, 120 feet in diameter and 37 feet high; with a shallow ditch, 12 feet wide and 4 feet deep, running round its base. One hundred feet from the edge of the ditch was a circle of stones, two feet high, and ten feet from this there was another of the same height. Directly facing the east was an entrance twelve feet wide, having an avenue of the same width, formed of similar stones, extending eastwards 100 yards.
Having ridden my horse to the summit of the tumulus, I saw three others to the north, of apparently similar dimensions. One of them was about a mile distant, another about two miles, and the third still further, in a northwesterly direction. To the south I observed a still larger tumulus not far away. The whole intervening space was covered with smaller tombs, extending over an area nearly four miles in length by one mile in breadth-verily a vast city of the dead.
P 198: . . . To add to the wildness of the view, three large eagles were soaring, far above our heads, and several were perched upon the crags.
The Kirghis imagined from this that some of their countrymen were encamped in the pass, and, riding forward, found unmistakable evidence that horses and other animals had recently passed on the other side of the stream. Presently three Kirghis appeared, who, after a ride of little more thin an hour, brought us to a wide part of the pass, where they had pitched their yourts on some grassy slopes, at a point from which the gorge branches off in two directions. They were taking advantage of the luxuriant grass growing on this spot, intending to remain two or three days. The aoul belonged to a rich chief, Kal-matai, and some of his children, with one of his wives, were here, with their numerous attendants herdsmen. In four days the chief was expected to join them with his other herds, by which time this part of his tribe would have selected the pastures, and established themselves in the upper valleys of the Ala-tati. All the camels, horses, and other animals, had been assembled close around the yourts, as the space on which these had been pitched was limited. It was quite dusk when the Kirghis escorted me to a yourt, where two of the sons of the chief received me, and gave me the usual welcome.
Various were the sounds that greeted my ears on waking in the morning the sharp cry of the camels, and the bellowing of the bulls, echoing among the rocks, increased the confusion. As day dawned I turned out, and stood at the door of the yourt, gazing in wonder at the scene before me. The spot on which I stood was a green grassy mound in the middle of the gorge, and three yourts were placed upon it. A little below, on the bank of a small torrent, there were seven other yourts, while, immediately opposite, and at about 300 yards from me, rose a mighty mass of dark basaltic rocks, to a much greater elevation than the distance from me to them. They were pillared and split into most curious forms; some of them like watch-towers guarding the pass.
These basaltic masses divided the gorge, which branched off to the south and east. Looking up the southern branch, the eye rested on the snowy crests near the source of the Ac-sou, and up the other were seen the dazzling peaks in which the Bascan has its source. Nearer, some shrubs and flowers were banging from the clefts, showing that spring was adorning these rugged forms with all her beauty. The whole space around the base of these precipices was filled with living animals: prominent among them I discovered the curved necks and shaggy heads of the camels, above the horses and oxen. Vast flocks of sheep and goats were climbing almost inaccessible cliffs in search of pasture. It was interesting to watch the latter spring from ledge to ledge, where there appeared scarcely space on which to stand while the sheep stood gazing at them, unable to follow their agile leaders, and partake of the rich grass on which they fed. Shortly the whole aoul went forth, and engaged in various pastoral occupations.
My hostess was a woman about forty-five, with strong Kalmuck features, showing that she had descended from that race, and most probably had been stolen from them when young. She wore a black kanfa kalat (Chinese satin), a scarlet and green shawl round her waist, and a fox-skin cap; yellow leather tchimbar embroidered round the bottom, and the usual high-heeled boots. Had she been washed, she would have produced a great effect in any town in Europe. Notwithstanding her finery she was occupied with her domestic duties, preparing cheese from a mixture of sheep and cow's milk. It is formed into squares like our cream cheese, and then dried in the sun on a rush mat. I have eaten it, and when fresh the flavour is not bad. There is one great drawback to the enjoyment of Kirghis cookery; their culinary utensils are dirty, even their leathern pails used for milking, and all other vessels in which the milk stands, are never washed. They are lined with a thick coating of coagulated milk; and he must be a bold man who would trust his nose a second time within their rims.
Two of the sons of my hostess were fine young men, one twenty and the other twenty-five years old. I ascertained from them that by ascending the eastern branch of the pass I could reach the Bascan; and wishing to visit the glaciers above the source of that river, I ordered our march in that direction, and they gave me a man who knew the route. There are several points in the gorge where basaltic rocks form grand features: shortly after passing, these the cliffs are less abrupt, with pieta trees growing on every ledge. As we advanced the pass became wider, well wooded, and terminated in a fine valley, whence I had a magnificent view of the snowy chain.
From this place the guide led the way to the northeast, up the mountain slope. As we ascended I perceived that the country to the south presented a very wild aspect; nevertheless there are numerous valleys in this region which afford good pastures for two months. At this season thousands of horses and oxen are seen grazing, and hundreds of thousands of sheep are feeding, on the hill-sides. The tribes begin to retire from the higher region about the middle of August, stopping at every pasture on their return till all the grass is eaten by the herds. On nearing the summit I observed that purple slate rocks cropped out, and in some parts they rose into lofty crags.
After some difficulty we reached the crest, whence the course of the Bascan could be traced among the mountains; then continued our ride south-east towards another ridge that was easily crossed, and we descended into a small valley with a stream running through its centre. The guide led the way down the bank of the stream to a point
P 240: . . . (after long travel through mountains and a stony wasteland) A light was at last observed at a great distance to the eastward. At once the men were called in, we turned our horses, and rode towards it at a brisk pace. More than an hour had elapsed when the fire we had descried gradually decreased, and finally went out. I now ordered a volley to be fired from our rifles, and the vociferous barking, of dogs at no great distance to our left, proved that the experiment had not been unsuccessful.
Presently we reached a Kirghis encampment, where, as before, we caused a great commotion; but the usual explanation was quickly followed by the customary welcome. In a few minutes I found myself standing close to several sleeping children and near two young maidens, who were just unrolling themselves out of their voilocks. It is unpleasant to enter a Kirghis abode that has been closed several hours. The strong scent of the koumis bag, mingled with various other odours from biped and quadruped, makes the intruder start back with horror, as plane and other deadly maladies are instantly suggested. One of my Cossacks threw open the top of the yourt, and the fire carried off the noxious effluvia, otherwise it would have been impossible to endure them.
The great cauldron was quickly placed on its iron tripod, when a goodly portion of brick tea, clotted cream, and the other ingredients were thrown into it. Looking at the size of the vessel, I thought there was sufficient to feast a multitude. The people now crowded round to gaze at the stranger who bad so unceremoniously entered their abodes. A Cossack was standing near the fire preparing my little samovar, while the inmates watched him with intense interest. During these operations I had time to examine the dwelling, with my host and his family, and a strong flickering light from the fire enabled me to scan each individual.
The chief's name was Kairan: he was a man about fifty years of age, had a dark swarthy or dirty complexion, with broad and heavy features, a wide mouth, small and deeply-set black eyes, a well-formed nose, and a large forehead. His head was silvered, and he wore a closely-fitting blue kanfa cap, embroidered with silver and coloured silks. His neck was as thick and as sturdy as one of his bulls; he was broad-shouldered and strongly built : taking him altogether, he was a powerful man. His dress was a Kokhan cotton kalat striped with yellow, red, and green, reaching down to his feet, and was tied round his waist with a red and green shawl.
His two wives had on sheepskin coats, in which they slept, and high pointed cotton caps. I cannot say that their night gear was particularly clean or interesting, still it may have a charm for a Kirghis. The heads of four children were peeping from their fur coverings, and one, a girl about six years old, crept out, showing that they were not troubled with night-gowns. Near to the children there was a pen in which three young kids slept, and on the opposite side of the yourt four young lambs bad a similar berth. These were the inmates of a dwelling twenty-five feet in diameter; besides which, the space was still farther curtailed by a pile of boxes, carpets, and other chattels.
Having, seated myself on a carpet spread in front of the boxes, the Cossacks placed my tea apparatus before me, and possessing four glasses, I was enabled to serve my host and his wives with the beverage. Several of the chief's followers were sitting in the yourt, intently watching my proceedings. When I handed tea to the women they evidently thought me a barbarian, as no man with any breeding among their tribes would serve a female until every man and boy had been satisfied. Before Kairan went to sleep he informed me that many tribes were on their march towards the mountains, and that great numbers were encamped to the westward. After receiving this news I turned down without ceremony on the place where I had been sitting; a Cossack spread a carpet over me, and then rolled himself up in another. A Kirghis put out the fire, and let down the top of the yourt, shutting us up in utter darkness; but a long ride over these dreary plains is an excellent promoter of sleep. My Cossack was soon snoring, and in a few minutes I was lost to either sound or scent.
P. 244: . . . In the morning I beheld a scene that can only be witnessed in these pastoral regions. The aoul consisted of thirteen yourts, in which there were twenty-nine men, thirty-four women, and twenty-six children. They had encamped here only two days before, and the remainder of the tribe were far to the northward. The yourts were put up in a temporary manner, and the voilocks were hanging in picturesque folds. Near us there were several other aouls. At a short distance in front of the yourt, Kairan was seated on the ground, with several chiefs around him, in deep consultation. Not far from them the women were at their morning's occupation, milking their cows, sheep, and goats, and the men were preparing to drive the herds to their pastures. When the latter began to move off, the plain around seemed one mass of living animals; while Kirghis, dressed in their gay costumes, and mounted on spirited horses, were galloping to and fro, separating their different charges. More than 35,000 animals were in motion.
Having ascended one of the numerous tumuli, that afforded a clear view over the vast steppe, I observed long lines of dark objects extending far into the distance. These were horses, oxen, and camels, belonging to other tribes, now on their march towards the pass. In every direction great herds of cattle could be seen - some so far away that they appeared like specks on these interminable plains. To the South, the snowy peaks of the Ac-tau were glittering in the sun, while the lower ranges of the Ala-tau were lit up, showing their varied colours in all their splendour. My attention was riveted to the scene, as it forcibly suggested the exodus from Egypt.
While thus employed, Kairan and the chiefs broke up their council, ascended the tumulus, and told me that three Kirghis bad returned from the mountains, whither they had been to examine the upper passes; a necessary precaution to ascertain if the herds could cross the high ridge, and descend into the valleys beyond. They had reported favourably, and the intelligence had already been sent on into the steppe to the other Kirghis, by whom it would be communicated from one tribe to another, and set the whole on the march.
After quitting my host, and riding about an hour, I came upon an aoul, belonging to another chief, "Urtigun," whom I found standing at the door of his yourt. He was a tall, well-built man, about forty years old, with the audacity of a captain of freebooters; indeed, he would not have disgraced the illustrious robber chief whose region I had just left, by claiming descent from him. It was obvious that we were to each other objects of interest, while to his followers, who had crowded into the yourt, I appeared a great curiosity. He inquired whence I came, and where I was going; and to satisfy his curiosity, my maps were opened, when I showed him his own region, and then mine. I also pointed out Bokharia, Tashkent, and Kokhan, towns known to him, and to which he had, most probably, sent captives. This information interested him greatly, and he desired to see Pekin and Kulja on the map.
I spent more than an hour with this chief, and then departed with the usual salutations. When outside the yourt, I observed a fine bearcoot chained to his perch, and several splendid dogs ranging about; they were of a particularly fine race, somewhat like the Irish wolf-hound, were powerful animals, and exceedingly fleet.
P 253: . . . When the first pale yellowish streaks were seen reaching over the steppe, and
extending in narrow lines along the horizon, each few minutes added light and depth to
their colour till they changed through all the shades of orange to a deep crimson, far more
brilliant than the ruby. Still the plain was a dark purple grey, and all objects upon it were
indistinct and almost lost in gloom. As one group of cattle after another rose out of the
dusky vapour that shrouded the earth, they appeared magnified, which caused the head
and neck of the camels to assume the proportions of some mighty antediluvian monster
stalking over the plain, while the huge forms of the other creatures aided in the illusion.
Gradually the whole scene changed, and the commotion in the aoul began; the bulls were
up and bellowing, as if calling and marshalling their herds together for the march. Turning
in another direction, the horses were seen with their heads thrown aloft and snorting;
others were plunging and kicking furiously, while the sheep and goats, with their kids and
lambs, seemed just rising into existence. A little later, as the sun rose, the plain was seen
covered far and wide with myriads of living animals.
P 253: . . . When the first pale yellowish streaks were seen reaching over the steppe, and extending in narrow lines along the horizon, each few minutes added light and depth to their colour till they changed through all the shades of orange to a deep crimson, far more brilliant than the ruby. Still the plain was a dark purple grey, and all objects upon it were indistinct and almost lost in gloom. As one group of cattle after another rose out of the dusky vapour that shrouded the earth, they appeared magnified, which caused the head and neck of the camels to assume the proportions of some mighty antediluvian monster stalking over the plain, while the huge forms of the other creatures aided in the illusion. Gradually the whole scene changed, and the commotion in the aoul began; the bulls were up and bellowing, as if calling and marshalling their herds together for the march. Turning in another direction, the horses were seen with their heads thrown aloft and snorting; others were plunging and kicking furiously, while the sheep and goats, with their kids and lambs, seemed just rising into existence. A little later, as the sun rose, the plain was seen covered far and wide with myriads of living animals.
Soon after daylight long lines of camels and horses were seen wending their way in a south-westerly direction, followed by herds of oxen. The sheep and goats were innumerable; they stretched over miles of country, and were following slowly in the rear. With each herd and flock there were a number of Kirghis mounted on good horses; these, galloping to and fro, added greatly to the general effect.
At the aoul women in their best attire were taking down the yourts and securing them on camels. Their household goods were being packed up by the girls and boys, after which they were loaded on camels, bulls, and cows. These children of the steppe are not long in making their preparations to depart in search of new homes. In less than three hours all were ready, when we sprung into our saddles and rode away.
The camels formed a most curious portion of the spectacle, with the willow framework of the yourts hanging from their saddles, giving them the appearance of huge animals with wings just expanding for a flight. Others were loaded with the voilock coverings, placed across their backs, piled up high, and crowned with the circular top of the yourt. The poor creatures had burthens far larger than themselves, under which they evidently walked with difficulty. Then followed a string of bulls with bales of Bokharian carpets slung over their saddles, and boxes and other household utensils placed above. Then a refractory bull was seen similarly loaded, with the large iron cauldron on the top. The furious beast went rushing on; presently the straps gave way, and the cauldron went rolling down the declivity. Seeing this he became frantic, leaping and plunging, and at each bound a part of his load was left behind. As the bales rolled over lie charged at them vigorously, and soon got rid of all his encumbrances. He now rushed at every horseman who happened to be in his course, and several had narrow escapes; at last he took refuge among the herd. The koumis bag with its contents, so precious to a Kirghis, was secured on a grave and careful bull, who moved alone, with stately dignity.
After these a number of cows joined in the procession, having two leathern bags secured on their backs, with a young child sitting in each, watching the crowd of animals as they bounded past. Mingled with this throng were women dressed in their rich Chinese silk costumes, some crimson, others yellow, red, and green, and the elder females in black velvet karats. A few of the young girls had foxskin caps, and others silk caps, richly embroidered in various colours. The matrons wore white calico head gear, embroidered with red, hanging down over their shoulders like floods. Many were mounted on wild steeds, which they sat and managed with extraordinary ease and skill. Girls and boys were riding various animals according to their ages; some of the elder ones horses, others young bulls, and some were even mounted on calves, having voilock boots secured to the saddles, into which the young urchins inserted their legs, guiding the beast by a thong secured to his nose. This was a cavalcade to be seen only in these regions.
A ride over the plain of somewhat more than two hours brought us to the foot of the mountains; we crossed a low hill, and beheld the entrance to the pass, which appeared filled with a mass of animals moving slowly onward. Turning towards the north, vast herds of cattle were seen extending as far as my vision could reach, marching from various points in the steppe towards their pastures in the mountains; and through this pass the enormous multitude must ascend. Having stood a short time watching the living tide roll on, I rode into the valley, and joined the moving mass.
The mouth of the pass was about 300 yards wide, between grassy slopes, up which it was impossible for either man or animal to climb. The whole width, and as far as I could see, was filled with camels, horses, and oxen; Kirghis were riding among them, shouting, and using their whips on any refractory brute that came within their reach. At length we plunged into a herd of horses, with camels in front, and bulls and oxen in our rear. We presently passed the grassy slopes to where the gorge narrowed to about 100 yards in width, with precipices rising up on each side to the height of 600 or 700 feet. From this mob of quadrupeds there was no escape on either side, and to turn back was utterly impossible, as we were now wedged in among wild horses. These brutes showed every disposition to kick, but fortunately for us, without the po-Nver, the space for each animal being too limited. This did not, however, prevent them using their teeth, and it required great vigilance and constant use of the whip to pass unscathed.
As we rode on the scene became fearfully grand. The precipices increased in height at every hundred yards we advanced. In one place there were overhanging crags 900 feet above us, split and rent into fragments, ready apparently to topple over at the slightest impulse, -while higher in the pass the scenery became more savage. Then we had the shouting of men, the cry of the camels, the shrieks and snorting of the horses when bitten by their neighbours, with the bellowing of the bulls and oxen in our rear -a wonderfully savage chorus, heightened by the echoes resounding from crag to crag, accompanied by a constant drone in the distant bleating of an immense multitude of sheep.
The bottom of the gorge ascended rapidly, which enabled me to look back, when I saw, about fifty paces in our rear, a phalanx of bulls, which no man would dare to face-even the Kirghis kept clear of these. They came steadily on, but the horses near them plunged and reared when the sharp horns gored their haunches. Another danger presently beset us. The Kirghis said that a little further on, the bed of the gorge was strewn with fallen rocks and small stones, and that riding over these would require great care, for if one of our steeds fell, it would be fatal to both horse and rider. Shortly we came to a recess in the precipice, and here two children mounted on young bulls had taken refuge: having escaped from the crowd of animals, they had clambered up among the rocks, and the four were looking down at the passing mass in perfect calm. Poor creatures, it was impossible to reach them or afford them the least aid; the only thing that could be done was to urge them to remain still where they were.
The rough ground that had been mentioned by the Kirghis, was now distinctly seen by the motion of the animals before us. Hitherto the stream of heads and backs had raii smoothly on; now, however it became a rapid, where beads and tails were tossed aloft in quick succession. We were approaching some jutting masses that formed a bend in the gorge. On reaching these, a terrific scene burst upon us. The pass was narrowed by huae blocks fallen from above, one of which was thirty-five to forty feet high, and somewhat more in width, standing about twenty paces from the foot of the rocks, and about 200 yards from us. The prospect was fearful, for as we rode on, the horses were being wedged more closely together between the frowning cliffs. All looked with anxiety at the pent-up tide of animals struggling onward, till they burst over the rocky barrier.
Each few minutes brought us nearer the danger: not a word was spoken, -but every eye was fixed on the horses bounding over the rocks. Several fell, uttering a shriek, and were seen no more. Instinct seemed to warn the animals of their impending danger; they were, however, forced along those behind, nor was it possible for us to see the ground over which we were riding. At length we came among the crowd of leaping horses; our own made three or four bounds, and the dreaded spot was passed. The gorge opened out wider; still it was filled with camels and horses, moving slowly onward. To stop and look back was impossible, as the living stream came rushing on. Although accidents are often fatal to the people on this spot, and many animals belonging to each tribe are killed on their journey to and from the mountains, such is the apathy of these Asiatics that they never think of removing a single stone. After the herds have passed, whatever remains of camel, horse, or other animals is gathered up, and feasted on by the people.
We had been more than four hours ascending this mountain gorge when we reached a part less abrupt. Here we got out of the throng, and, guided by a Kirghis, began to ascend a narrow ravine that brought us to the foot of some high crags. These compelled us to dismount, and ascend on foot, leading our horses with difficulty through a great rent in the rocks. Everything below was hidden from our view, still the sounds were heard as they rolled tip to our position. In about an hour we emerged from the chasm, nearly at the top of the precipice. A Kirghis led the way to some elevated rocks, from which we had a view into the gorge, where we saw the vast herds still struggling along. My guide said it would take them three hours to reach the head of the pass. Having looked down upon this singular scene for a short time, I mounted my horse, and shortly reached the plateau. From this point a ride of about three miles brought me to the top of the gore, and here I found a stream of camels and horses pouring towards the high plain. We had reached a point just beneath the snow-line, about 7,000 feet above the sea, and presently it began to rain, while the higher ridges became shrouded in vapour. At a short distance from the head of the pass some Kirghis had pitched their yourts. Here we sought shelter from the pelting storm, and dined, remaining a couple of hours, in the vain hope that the shower would cease. During this time the stream of countless animals still passed on, attended by the wet and shivering herdsmen, bent on reaching a sheltered valley, in which to pass the night. Finding that waiting was useless, I proceeded in search of another aoul, where we could find pastures for our horses and obtain shelter for the night.
P 278: . . . (whirlwinds in the Kara-Koom desert) To the south of the river Bel-goosh, a sterile region commences, that stretches out more than 120 miles to the edge of the " Black Desert." Then the Kara-Koom, on which not a single well of water exists, has to be encountered; it is eighty miles across, and its sombre colour presents a most dreary aspect.
The woodcut represents a phenomenon I have often witnessed on these sandy plains of Central Asia, which accounts in some measure for the innumerable sandy mounds that are found in some regions. When seen at a distance for the first time, it made a strong impression on my mind; about twenty pillars were in view wheeling round and licking up the sand. As the passed along a cloud of dust was raised on the ground, apparently eight or ten yards in diameter. This gradually assumed the form of a column, that continued to increase in height and diameter as it moved over the plain, appearing like a mighty serpent rearing his head aloft, and twisting his lithe body into contortions in his efforts to ascend.
The pillars were of various sizes, some 20 and 30 feet high, others 50, 60, and 100 feet, and some ascended to near 200 feet. As the whirlwinds began gathering up the dust, one might have fancied that antediluvian monsters were rising into life and activity. The smaller ones seemed to trip it lightly over the plain, bending their bodies in graceful curves as they passed each other; while those of larger dimensions revolved with gravity, swelling out their trunks as they moved onward, till the sandy fabric suddenly dissolved, forming, a great mound, and creating a cloud of dust that was swept over the desert.
Having passed the Kara-Koom, there is another hundred miles of sterile region, where grass is rarely found, and seldom fresh water. Salt lakes are numerous, and appear beautiful with their fringes of salsola, but these afford neither food nor drink for man or beast. About forty miles from the Syr-Daria, bushes are found scattered over the steppe, and among them both grass and water. As the traveller proceeds, the country becomes more fertile, till he arrives on the banks of the river, where the route crosses it about seventy miles below Ac-Mastchet. Hence it continues onward over the desert of Kara-Koom, crosses the branches of Kouven-Daria, passes near the ruins of Koven-Kala, and joins the route from Orenburg in the desert of Kizil-Koom.
P 283: . . . (mirages) Hence to the Tchui it is a painful journey: mirage and sand-storms frequently await the traveller; the former tantalizes his thirst, and the latter may form his grave. Many of my readers know nothing practically of the mirage, and thus they can neither appreciate the beauty of this deception, nor estimate the disappointment it creates. I fear my pencil fails in rendering its mystical effect, and my pen cannot give an adequate idea of its tantalizing power on the thirsty traveller. It has, however, often fallen to my lot to witness it, when an apparent lake stretched out before me, tempting both man and animal to rush on and slake their burning thirst. Even after years of experience I have been deceived by this phenomenon, so real has it appeared, and many of its peculiar and magical effects have been preserved. Sometimes vast cities seemed rising on the plains, in which a multitude of towers, spires, domes, and columns were grouped together with a picturesque effect that neither poet nor painter could depict. And these were reflected in the deceptive fluid with all the distinctness of a mirror; at times a slight breeze seemed to ruffle the placid surface, destroying the forms for a few minutes, and then they reappeared.
Sometimes I have been almost induced to believe that vast tropical forests were before me,
where palms of gigantic size, with their graceful foliage, overtopped every other tree, and
that beyond were mountain crests, giving a reality to the scene that caused me for the
moment to doubt its being a phantom. At last I have passed over the spot where the lake,
the mighty city, and the vast forest had appeared, and found nothing but small bushes and
tufts of grass growing on the steppe.
P 295: . . . (sand-storms) From experience I know something of the difficulties and dangers to which these people were exposed on their march. The elements often prove disastrous and fatal in their consequences, both in winter and in summer. The bourans at the former season bury the people in snow and ice, and in the latter the sand storms smother them. These are not unfrequent on the deserts of Asia over which the Kalmucks marched, and where the caravans still pursue their way. The illustration here given is but a feeble representation of a sand storm and its terrible effect. I have seen one extending over four miles in width, and if travellers or a caravan are caught in them, the consequences are often fatal to man and beast.
Their approach is seen at a long distance, and when they are of moderate breadth it is not difficult to escape; but should they extend over many miles in width, there is real danger. At a distance a dense black cloud appears rolling over the desert, rising 700 or 800 feet above the ground, and sweeping on with fearful velocity. This causes the people to watch its advance with considerable anxiety, as it is impossible to say which way to turn for security. Instinct tells the animals that danger is approaching when they too become uneasy, and attempt to escape. Horses and all other animals, when free, rush off at the top of their speed. It is a most exciting scene when these storms reach the pastures: a herd of several thousand horses, with camels and oxen, are seen rushing madly on before the tempest, and the herdsmen are trying to lead them out of its course. On these occasions many fall from exhaustion, and perish as the storm rolls over them.
P. 325 . . . (wild horses of southern Russia) a hunting expedition after wild horses, which at this season are found in great herds near the foot of the mountains beyond that river.
This animal is not like the wild horse of South America, which undoubtedly sprung from those taken into the country by the Spaniards. He is of a distinct race from the Asiatic horse, very small (not so large as an ass), beautiful in form, having a small head and short ears, and varying in colour from black, bay, grey, and white, the latter being the most rare. He is called "muss" by the Kirghis. His sense of smell is very acute, which renders him most difficult to approach. He is exceedingly fleet, and few horses can run him down.
I will describe the mode of hunting him:-A great number of Kirghis assemble, and when the scouts have found the herd, the horsemen form an extended line at a considerable distance towards the steppe. When so much has been accomplished they gradually ride up, forcing the herd towards a pass in the mountains. As they approach near to the ravine the hunters draw closer, forming a crescent, and proceed with extreme caution till the stallions enter the pass. While this has been going on, another party of hunters have made their way into the pass, taking their stand in the narrowest part, and waiting till the herd appears. Having signalled to the hunters on the plain that the pass is secured, the whole body close up and the poor animals are in a trap. They are now driven onward till stopped by the hunters above, when the work of slaughter begins, and vast numbers of these beautiful creatures are killed by their battle-axes. The Kirghis consider their flesh the greatest delicacy the steppe affords.
P 339: . . . (mineral wealth in the mountains) By descending here many dangers would be encountered, but there was no alternative; and they turned to the north-west. Here they had to pick their way among the ruins of mountain summits that time is constantly cutting down and disentombing their long buried mineral treasures. In some parts of the chain large veins of lapis-lazuli are found, as well as splendid nephrite of a dark green colour, with large blotches of orange marked with dark veins, surpassing in beauty any specimens I have ever seen from China. Silver and lead are also here; and the Kirghis say that splendid stones which sparkle like flame have been found in the region,-probably rubies.
P 389 . . . (At Lake Baikal) On this coast there are several hot mineral springs, that of Tourkinsk is the most accessible,
and has become the Buxton of Oriental Siberia. Many families from Irkoutsk spend part of
their summer here, and people go more than a thousand miles to take a dip in its waters.
Between this place and Oust Bargouzin there are other springs, in which the gushing fluid
scalds the hand if placed in it. About forty miles beyond there is proof that volcanic agency
has once been active, for here is an extinct crater, from out of which vast quantities of lava
have poured. In the vicinity of Bargouzin, naphtha and bitumen are constantly rising in
the Baikal, and earthquakes are not uncommon.
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Last Updated on February 11, 2001 by Sylvia