A Journey from St Petersburg to Pekin, 1719-22
(from the edition of 1763)
<November> The 29th, we travelled through woods, consisting chiefly of tall oaks, fir, and birch.
This part of the country is very fruitful, producing plenty of cattle, corn, and honey. The hives are
not made like those in England: the inhabitants take the trunk of a lime-tree, aspin, or any soft
wood, of about five or six feet long; having scooped it hollow, they make a large aperture in one
side, about a foot in length and four inches broad; they then fix cross rods within the trunk, for the
bees to build upon, and, having done this, close up the place carefully with a board, leaving small
notches for the bees to go in and out. These hives are planted in proper places, at the side of a
wood, and tied to a tree with strong wythes, to prevent their being destroyed by the bears who are
great devourers of honey. The wax and honey exported yearly from Cazan make a very
considerable article of trade. I have seen above an hundred hives near one village; and was
informed, that they have a method of extracting the honey and wax without killing the bees,
which would certainly be worth knowing; but I was told it so indistinctly, that I could not
understand it, and had no opportunity of seeing it practised.
. . . Solikamsky is famous for having many salt-pits in its neighbourhood, the property of my worthy friend Baron Stroganof, by virtue of a grant from his majesty. The Baron has brought these works to such perfection, that he is able to serve all Russia with salt; and could besides furnish a considerable quantity for exportation, were there any demand. The salt is of a brownish colour, and very good of the kind.
The common method of procuring this salt is as follows: They dig Pits in the earth till they come to the salt-rock, which seems to ly in these parts at a certain distance from the surface, as coals do in other places of the world. When the pit is finished, it is naturally, and of course, filled with water; which standing for a convenient time, till it is sufficiently impregnated with the salt, is then drawn out with pumps and other engines, and put into large iron caldrons, where it is boiled to a proper consistence; when, the water being evaporated, the salt is left upon the bottom.
I was informed of another curious and extraordinary process, by which they draw salt-water from a fresh-water river, which I cannot omit taking notice of. In the rivers near this place there is a mixture of salt-water arising from the springs, which either have their source in the salt-rocks, or run through them: it is the business of the inhabitants to discover the places where these springs empty themselves into the rivers, which they do by diving, or some other manner; having done this, they make a large frame of strong thick balks or beams joined very close, about fifteen or twenty feet square, and of depth enough to reach the bottom of the river, while part of it remains above the surface; when the ice is very strong they sink this machine into the river, over the place where the salt spring issues, and drive strong piles of wood all around, to hinder its being forced from this position by the current, or by floating ice in the end of winter. During the winter they draw out all the water, mud and sand, contained within the machine, and sink it still deeper until it hath penetrated the bottom of the channel of the river, and prevented all further communication between it and the salt spring: the frame is now filled only with the salt-water, issuing from the spring, from whence it is drawn, and the salt extracted as formerly described.
However tedious and expensive this process may seem, these people perform it with great readiness and ease; and, what is still more extraordinary, without regular instruction in any art subservient to that purpose, but by the mere force of natural genius. The Baron has a great number of hands constantly employed in this service. And the woods for fewel are inexhaustible.
When the salt is made, it is laid up in granaries, till the season of transporting it to Mosco, St Petersburg and other places: the barques, for this purpose, called by the Russians Lodia, are of a construction somewhat uncommon. I have seen some of them longer and broader than any first rate man of war in England, and not one iron-nail in the whole fabrick. All of them are flat-bottomed, having one tall tree for a mast, and a sail of light canvass in proportion. To manage this mighty machine, six or eight hundred men are necessary; the rudder is nearly as long as the barque; and so unwieldy, that sometimes it requires forty or fifty men to steer it. They load these ships very deep, and let them float down the Kama into the Volga; where, if the wind is not favourable, they are obliged to draw them, against the stream, to the place of their destination.
I cannot leave Solikamsky without mentioning the rich iron-mines in the country adjacent, at Katherina-Burg, and other places of that district, which produce iron, equal perhaps in quality to the best in the world. These works have of late been brought to great perfection, by the skill and indefatigable industry of Mr Demidof, a native of Russia, enabled and encouraged to carry them on by a beneficial grant from his majesty; who is always ready to assist and protect those, who, by their ingenuity, form projects to the advantage of his country.
These works, I am informed, are still capable of great improvement. The ore is very good, and rises in many places to the very surface of the earth, and may be dug at a small expence. As for wood to smelt it, no place in the world can have greater advantage. Besides, all the machines may be driven by water; and there is an easy communication by the rivers, to St Petersburg for exportation, and to many other parts of Russia, for inland consumption.
In these mines are often found magnets of various sizes. I have seen some of them very large, and of high virtue.
There are several other iron-works in Russia; for instance, at Tula, Olonitz, and other places; but the metal is of an inferior quality to that of Siberia. Besides these of iron, there are also rich mines of excellent copper at this place, which, being lately discovered, are capable of great improvement. The copper-ore also rises to the very surface.
In the neighbourhood of Solikamsky is found the fossil called asbestos; of which is made a kind of cloth like linen, that may be put into the fire and taken out again unconsumed. This cloth was known among the ancients, and used by them on several occasions. At present, it goes by the name of the incombustible linen.
The asbestos, like many both curious and useful discoveries, was found out by mere accident in
these parts. I shall briefly relate in what manner: A certain huntsman being about to load his
fowling-piece, and wanting wadding, observed a great stone in the woods, which seemed to have
some flakes upon it like loose threeds; he soon found that by rubbing it turned into a soft downy
substance fit for his use: he therefore filled his pocket with it; but having fired his piece, was
surprised to see that the gun-powder had no effect upon the wadding: this raised his curiosity so
far, that he kindled a fire on purpose, into which he put the asbestos; but still took it out intire,
and of the same use as formerly: this experiment so frightened the poor sportsman, that he
imagined the devil had taken possession of the fossil. On returning home, he narrated what had
happened to the priest of the parish; who, amazed at the relation, repeated it so frequently, that, at
last, he told it to a person who was acquainted with that quality peculiar to the asbestos; and, on
examination, found the flakes to be that fossil.
. . . <Concerning a war between the Emperor of China and the Kontaysha, ruler of a tribe of Tartar nomads of eastern Russian.> . . . Notwithstanding their superiority in numbers, the Kontaysha defeated the Chinese in several actions. The Emperor at last thought it best to accommodate the difference, and a peace was concluded to the satisfaction of both parties.
It must be observed, that the Chinese, being obliged to undertake a long and difficult march, through a desert and barren country, lying westward of the long wall; being also encumbered with artillery, and heavy carriages containing provisions for the whole army during their march; had their force greatly diminished before they reached the enemy. The Kontaysha, on the other hand, having intelligence of the great army coming against him, waited patiently on his own frontiers, till the enemy was within a few days march of his camp, when he sent out detachments of light horse to set fire to the grass, and lay waste the country. He also distracted them, day and night, with repeated alarms, which, together with want of provisions, obliged them to retire with considerable loss.
This method of carrying on war, by wasting the country, is very ancient among the Tartars, and
practised by all of them from the Danube eastward. This circumstance renders them a dreadful
enemy to regular troops, who must thereby be deprived of all subsistence, while the Tartars,
having always many spare horses to kill and eat, are at no loss for provisions.
. . . January 8th 1720, we proceeded towards Tara. We passed through many Tartar villages, and
at night lodged in one of their little huts, and warmed ourselves at a good fire on the hearth.
These houses consist generally of one or two rooms, according to the ability of the landlord.
Near to the hearth is fixed an iron-kettle to dress the victuals. In one end of the apartment is
placed a bench, about eighteen inches high, and six feet broad, covered with mats, or skins of wild
beasts, upon which all the family sit by day, and sleep in the night. The walls are built of wood
and moss, consisting of large beams, laid one above another, with a layer of moss between every
two beams. All the roofs are raised. A square-hole is cut for a window, and to supply the want
of glass, a piece of ice is formed to fit the place exactly, which lets in a good light. Two or three
pieces will last the whole winter. These Tartars are very neat and cleanly, both in their persons
and houses. They use no stoves, as the Russians do. Near the house there is commonly a shade
for the cattle.
. . . In the places through which we passed, the ambassador sent for all the hunters and sportsmen, that he might inquire what kinds of game and wild beasts were in their neighbourhood. Hunting is the employment of most of the young fellows in this country; and is very profitable, as they sell the furs to great advantage. We found that this place produced great plenty both of game and wild beasts, but few sables. In the spring, a number of elks and stags come hither, from the south; many of which are killed by the inhabitants, both on account of their flesh and their hides. What of the flesh is not consumed fresh they salt. The hides are very large, and are dressed into excellent buff. The huntsman, having found the track of a stag upon the snow, pursues it upon his snow-shoes, with his bow and arrows, and little dog, till the animal is quite fatigued: for, the snow on the surface, being melted by the heat of the sun, and congealed, at night, by the frost, but not strong enough to bear the weight of such an animal; he sinks deep at every step, and the sharp ice cuts his ancles, and lames him; so that he becomes an easy prey to the hunter.
One of these hunters told me the following story, which was confirmed by several of his
neighbours. That, in the year 1713, in the month of March, being out a hunting, he discovered the
track of a stag, which he pursued; at overtaking the animal, he was somewhat startled, on
observing it had only one horn, stuck in the middle of its forehead. Being near this village he
drove it home, and showed it, to the great admiration of the spectators. He afterwards killed it,
and eat the flesh; and sold the horn to a comb-maker, in the town of Tara, for ten alteens, about
fifteen pence Sterling. I inquired carefully about the shape and size of this unicorn, as I shall call
it, and was told it exactly resembled a stag. The horn was of a brownish colour, about one
archeen, or twenty eight inches long; and twisted, from the root, till within a finger's length of the
top, where it was divided, like a fork, into two points very sharp.
. . . The citadel of Tomsky is situated on an eminence, and contains the commandant's house, publick offices, and barracks for the garrison. The fortifications, like most others in this country, are of wood. The town stands under the hill, along the banks of the river Tomm. The country about this place is pleasant and fruitful. From the top of the hill you have a very extensive view every way, except to the south, where it is interrupted by hills. Beyond these hills there is a large, dry, and open plain, which stretches a great way southward.
About eight or ten days journey from Tomsky, in this plain, are found many tombs, and burying places of ancient heroes; who, in all probability, fell in battle. These tombs are easily distinguished by the mounds of earth and stones raised upon them. When, or by whom, these battles were fought, so far to the northward, is uncertain. I was informed by the Tartars in the Baraba, that Tamerlane, or Timyrack-Sack, as they call him, had many engagements in that country with the Kalmucks; whom he in vain endeavoured to conquer. Many persons go from Tomsky, and other parts, every summer, to these graves; which they dig up, and find, among the ashes of the dead, considerable quantities of gold, silver, brass, and some precious stones; but particularly hilts of swords and armour. They find also ornaments of saddles and bridles, and other trappings for horses; and even the bones of horses, and sometimes those of elephants. Whence it appears, that when any general or person of distinction was interred, all his arms, his favourite horse and servant, were buried with him in the same grave; this custom prevails to this day among the Kalmucks and other Tartars, and seems to be of great antiquity. It appears from the number of graves, that many thousands must have fallen on these plains; for the people have continued to dig for such treasure many years, and still find it unexhausted. They are, sometimes indeed, interrupted, and robbed of all their booty, by parties of the Kalmucks, who abhor the disturbing the ashes of the dead.
I have seen several pieces of armour, and other curiosities, that were dug out of these tombs; particularly an armed man on horse-back, cast in brass, of no mean design nor workmanship; also figures of deer, cast in pure gold, which were split through the middle, and had some holes in them, as intended for ornaments to a quiver, or the furniture of a horse.
While we were at Tomsky, one of these grave-diggers told me, that once they lighted on an arched vault; where they found the remains of a man, with his bow, arrows, lance, and other arms, lying together on a silver table. On touching the body it fell to dust. The value of the table and arms was very considerable.
The country about the source of the river Tomm, near which these tombs are, is very fruitful and pleasant. At the source of the Tomm the Russians have a small town called Kuznetsky. This river is formed by the Kondoma, and many lesser rivers; all which run to the north.
In the hills above Kuznctsky, there had lately been discovered rich mines of copper, and some of silver; which, since I was in this country have been greatly improved.
On the hills, and in the woods near this place, are many sorts of wild beasts; particularly the urus, or uhr-ox, one of the fiercest animals the world produces, and exceeding, in size and strength, all the horned species. Their force and agility is such, that no wolf, bear, nor tiger, dare to engage with them. These animals are found in the woods of Poland, and some other parts of Europe. As they are well known I need not describe them.
In the same woods is found another species of oxen, called bubul by the Tartars; it is not so big as the urus; its body and limbs are very handsome; it has a high shoulder and a flowing tail, with long hair growing from the rump to the extremity, like that of a horse. <This is a yak.> Those I saw were tame, and as tractable as other cattle. Here are also wild asses. I have seen many of their skins. They have, in all respects, the head, tail, and hoofs, of an ordinary ass; but their hair is waved, white and brown, like that of a tiger.
There is, besides, a number of wild horses, of a chesnut colour; which cannot be tamed, though
they are catched when foals. These horses differ nothing from the common kind in shape, but are
the most watchful creatures alive. One of them waits always on the heights, to give warning to
the rest; and, upon the least approach of danger, runs to the herd, making all the noise it can;
upon which all of them fly away, like so many deer. The stallion drives up the rear, neighing,
biting and kicking those who do not run fast enough. Notwithstanding this wonderful sagacity,
these animals are often surprized by the Kalmucks; who ride in among them, well mounted on
swift horses, and kill them with broad lances. Their flesh they esteem excellent food; and use their
skins to sleep upon, instead of couches. These are the animals peculiar to this part of the
country; and, besides these, there are many more, common to this place with the rest of Siberia.
. . . Our horses having swum the river, we went into one of the Buratsky tents, till they were dried. The hospitable landlady immediately set her kettle on the fire, to make us some tea; the extraordinary cookery of which I cannot omit describing. After placing a large iron-kettle over the fire, she took care to wipe it very clean with a horse's tail, that hung in a corner of the tent for that purpose; then the water was put into it, and, soon after, some coarse bohea tea, which is got from China, and a little salt. When near boiling, she took a large brass-ladle and tossed the tea, till the liquor turned very brown. It was now taken off the fire, and, after subsiding a little, was poured clear into another vessel. The kettle being wiped clean with the horse's tail, as before, was again set upon the fire. The mistress now prepared a paste, of meal and fresh butter, that hung in a skin near the horse's tail, which was put into the tea-kettle and fried. Upon this paste the tea was again poured; to which was added some good thick cream, taken out of a clean sheep's skin, which hung upon a peg among the other things. The ladle was again employed, for the space of six minutes, when the tea, being removed from the fire, was allowed to stand a while in order to cool. The landlady now took some wooden cups, which held about half a pint each, and served her tea to all the company. The principal advantage of this tea is, that it both satisfies hunger and quenches thirst. I thought it not disagreeable; but should have liked it much better had it been prepared in a manner a little more cleanly. Our bountiful hostess, however, gave us a hearty welcome; and, as these people know not the use of money, there was nothing to pay for our entertainment. We only made her a present of a little tobacco to smoke, of which these people are very fond. I have given this receipt with a view that some European ladies may improve upon it.
* Bell is no doubt joking. But this brew, described by many travellers since his day, might have
appealed to the Scottish lady, his contemporary, whose recipe was to put a pound of tea in the
pot with nearly a gallon of 'burn' water, seasoning the mixture with butter, pepper and salt - and
keeping the leaves to use again. This recipe, and other Scottish reactions to the still newfangled
tea, is given in Marjorie Plant's The Domestic Life of Scotland in the 18th Century.
. . . The 29th of May, we mounted early and, by means of our cossacks, hunted and ranged the woods, as we went along, in the manner of this country, called oblave in the Russian language. Their method is to form a semicircle of horsemen, armed with bows and arrows, in order to inclose the game. Within the semicircle a few young men are placed, who give notice when the game is sprung; these only are permitted to pursue, the others being confined to keep their ranks. Our cossacks, killed three deer and several hares. And if killing with their arrows, harmless animals can be called diversion, this may properly be reckoned one of the finest. After this fashion they hunt bears, wolves, foxes, and wild boars.
About noon we came to a village on the Selinga, where we halted a few hours, and then crossed
the river in boats; which was near a mile broad at this place. Our cossacks, however, sought no
boats, except one to transport their arms, cloaths, and saddles; which being done, all of them
mounted their horses, and plunged into the river without the least concern. As soon as the horses
were set a swimming, for ease to them the men dismounted, and, laying hold of the mane with one
hand, guided them gently by the bridle with the other. This is the common method in this country
of transporting men and horses; which I look upon to be both safe and easy, provided the horse is
managed with a gentle hand, without checking him with sudden jerks of the bridle.
. . . <Near Selinginsky, on the Russian-China border> The grass is rank and thick, and, as the
season is very dry, would, with little labour, make excellent hay. This grass is often set on fire,
by the Mongalls, in the spring, during high winds. At such times it burns, most furiously, running
like wild-fire, and spreading its flames to the distance of perhaps ten or twenty miles, till its
progress is interrupted by some river or barren hill. The impetuosity of these flames, their smoke
and crackling noise, cannot easily be conceived by those who have not seen them. When any
person finds himself to, the leeward of them, the only method, by which he can save himself from
their fury, is to kindle immediately the grass where he stands, and follow his own fire. For this
purpose, every person is provided with flints, steel, and tinder. The reason why the Mongalls set
fire to the grass is to procure early pasture for their cattle. The ashes, left upon the ground, sink
into the earth at the melting of the snow, and prove an excellent manure; so that the grass, in the
spring, rises on the lands, which have been prepared in this manner, as thick as a field of wheat.
Caravans, travellers with merchandise, but especially armies, never encamp upon this rank grass.
And there are several instances of considerable bodies of men being put in confusion, and even
defeated, by the enemy's setting fire to the grass.
. . . Next day, having got fresh horses, we proceeded on our journey. Nothing of moment occurred till the third of April, when we arrived, before noon, on the banks of the river Tola. It was now nineteen days since we left our baggage, during which time we rode very hard, changing horses generally three or four times a-day, and this was the first running water we had seen. I cannot help taking notice of the pleasure that appeared in every face at the sight of this stream; and I need not mention how cheerfully we regaled ourselves on this occasion. For my own part, I thought the most delicious wines of Ispahan and Thiras, not worthy to be compared to this simple element; so little prized by those who enjoy it in plenty. Our bread was all spent some days before; however, we had still some mutton, with which we had been supplied, from time to time, during our journey. All this time we observed no road; but kept mostly about one, or sometimes two days journey to the northward of our former route. The greatest danger, attending this way of travelling, arose from the arrows which the Mongalls had set in strong bent bows, covered with sand, for killing antelopes. One of our horses happened to tread on one of these bows; the arrow immediately flew out, and, most fortunately, hit the stirrup iron; otherwise the horse or rider would have been killed upon the spot. We had, indeed, guides to conduct us, from place to place, but they were unacquainted with any snares laid beyond their own bounds.
This day, about noon, some Mongalls unluckily set fire to the long grass before us, which, by means of a strong wind, soon spread to a great distance. We immediately retired to the top of a neighbouring hill; (for now the grounds begin to rise, and the soil is much better near the river;) and, setting fire to the grass around us, travelled near a mile in a dismal cloud of smoke. Some of our people who were behind us, and unprovided with flints, were put to hard shifts, having their hair and cloaths all singed. We forded the Tola in pretty deep water, and continued our journey through pleasant valleys, between gently rising hills, some of whose tops were adorned with woods, which looked as if planted by art . . .
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